Haskins Medal Citation, 2014
Committee Members: Dyan Elliott (chair); Robert E. Bjork; Kathryn Ann Smith
Ronald G. Witt’s The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy constitutes a tour de force of close analysis and majestic synthesis. Ranging from the Carolingian period to the end of the thirteenth century, the work demonstrates why Northern Italy was uniquely situated to give rise to lay humanism. At the center of the analysis is the distinction between a “traditional” book culture that initially developed in the monasteries and cathedral schools and a documentary culture rooted in notarial skills. The documentary culture of Italy, transformed by the impetus of Roman law, will come to be dominated by the laity, who will, in turn, become transformed by the study of grammar and the love of the classics. But so crude a summary does not begin to do justice to Witt’s admirably nuanced arguments, his insightful consideration of intellectual development in relation to political, economic, and religious conditions of Italian society, and his masterful reconstruction of history’s many unintended effects. These strengths allow him to illuminate many crucial developments such as the association between religious reform and the rise of a “legal-rhetorical” secularism, which produced the ars dictaminis, but hobbled unrelated intellectual endeavors; the relationships between Italian culture and France’s twelfth-century Renaissance, or between the cathedral school and the university; and the late emergence of an Italian vernacular.
The Two Latin Cultures is a prequel to Witt’s masterpiece, “In the Footsteps of the Ancients”: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Like this earlier volume, The Two Latin Cultures is a foundational text: a major work of intellectual history that is destined to shape the terms of discussion for many years to come.