05.03.04, Campbell, Dictionary of the Renaissance

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Susan R. Boettcher

The Medieval Review baj9928.0503.004


Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xlviii, 863. ISBN: 0-19-860175-1.

Reviewed by:
Susan R. Boettcher
University of Texas at Austin

This compendium attempts "a cultural history of a long Renaissance, and one with permeable boundaries" (vii). It includes over 4,000 entries that start the Renaissance approximately with the Council of Constance and end it with the Defenestration of Prague, with slight divergence into the 1300s for Italy and into the 1600s to provide closure for the Spanish Siglo de oro. Campbell's Renaissance (unusually for a work of this sort, over 90% of the entries were written by a single author) is formal and chronological rather than definitional, a strategy that allows the author to include a good number of entries regarding persons, places and things not necessarily associated with the Renaissance in many people's minds. It provides near exhaustive coverage of art, architecture, sculpture, the handicrafts and literature, drama and lyric in particular. According to the author, England is covered less fully due to the wide availability of other good reference works on this area, and Spain is covered particularly closely since non-readers of Spanish would experience difficulty in finding useful reference information. The entries dealing with Renaissance gardens are a particular joy to read and a uniquely useful tool for the reader; scholars without need of a separate music reference tool like Grove's Dictionary will also find the musical entries concise and enlightening. The work targets three audiences: academics who need a ready reference to fields bordering on their specialties, students seeking an introductory reference work, and educated general readers. As a reviewer I belong to the first group and can venture some guesses about the needs of the second.

My own experience in writing encyclopedia articles suggests that Campbell set himself a difficult task. Readers may be inclined to find even the best compositions adequate rather than inspiring because the genre demands such brevity. Much of my spot-checking of specific entries provoked reactions that should, as a consequence, be seen as quibbles. Gordon concludes that Garcilaso de la Vega's eclogues are his finest poems (315) while I, and readers less oriented toward his reception of the classics than to his execution of tropes of courtly love, are most enchanted by his sonnets; "O dulces prendas" (Soneto X) in particular has stuck in my memory. The judgment that some of Cranach the Elder's nudes are "mildly erotic" (201) is highly idiosyncratic, and Campbell tactfully suppresses the widespread judgment that "Lucas Maler" never learned how to paint hands effectively. The entry on Philip Melanchthon (522-3) focuses on the Reformer's theology and neglects the important influence of the praeceptor Germaniae on humanist education in the early modern German university. No separate entry on history or historiography fills this gap, although there are many on individual historians. In the German case these are focused on well-known names and early humanists like Krantz and Aventinus; there are no entries for other humanist historians like Martian Crusius, Lorenz Fries, or the Swiss Aegidius Tschüdi. This trend extends in general to German humanism, which primarily considers early humanists who were involved in theological controversy: thus we have Peutinger but not Peucer, Major but not Stigel (setting aside his tenure as holder of the chair in Terence in Wittenberg, he is not even mentioned in the separate entry on Jena, which does mention the university where he was the doyen of the arts faculty). The entry on Luther (481-483) primarily traces the events of his life rather than assessing more than in passing the central historiographical question of his relationship to vital elements of the Renaissance such as the turn to classical languages and their influence on his Bible translation. The entry on Machiavelli occludes the reading of Il principe as a satire, a controversial interpretation that has nonetheless become standard fare in Renaissance courses in the United States. I would have written these entries differently. The volume includes, however, at least a few actual errors: the entry on Luther, for instance, confuses Friedrich III ("the Wise"; d. 1525) with Johann Friedrich of Saxony, who did die in 1554 but whose death bore no causal relationship to the Wittenberg Reformer's decision to marry in 1525 (482). Actually, Luther predeceased Johann Friedrich in 1546. Campbell gives Friedrich III's place of death as Langau; German reference works give it as Lochau. Matthias Flacius Illyricus indeed learned his Hebrew from Johann Forster, but it is inappropriate to term Forster a "radical Lutheran" (s.v. Flacius Illyricus," 284), even in the 1520s and 1530s. What influence Forster's attitudes toward Reformation had on his Hebrew instruction, about which little is known, is an unanswerable question. By the 1540s at any rate he was a firm Philippist.

My criticism of these entries points out the obvious problem in any review of such a work: only a comparative polymath can assess such a work creditably and ordinary mortals are left to evaluate such works on the basis of the fields they know best. It is hard to catch Campbell out in an omission of an important biography or guideword, at least among the traditional areas of concern in Renaissance studies. (I did miss an entry for Adam Riese among the mathematicians.) The coverage is less convincing in the less traditional areas. John à Lasco is included, but not his uncle, John the Elder, one of the primary patrons of the Polish Renaissance, and with few exceptions, poets and humanists central to the Polish Renaissance are referred to at most in the entry on Polish language and literature rather than receiving independent coverage. In particular, the entries on economics are too focused on nouns rather than on themes (such as the controversial crisis of the Renaissance economy). Still, there are no entries for wool, transhumance, double-entry bookkeeping, portolan, or spices--all ones that students might be expected to think of looking up. For the purposes of student use, I also missed a series of entries dealing at least briefly with the major interpreters of the Renaissance from Burckhardt to Kristeller.

None of these assessments amount to very serious criticism in such a capacious work. As a reader I was more concerned about the volume's bibliographical references, which should direct scholars and students who want to "read more about it." My reading suggested that in this regard, the volume suffered from being written by one author. No one individual can possibly keep up with the secondary literature in all of these areas. Numerous entries I examined omitted mention of essential, well-known works in the field. Hence the entry on Johannes Buxdorf fails to mention Stephen Burnett's canonical biography of the Hebraist, published in 1996; the entry on Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca ignores Sabine MacCormack's seminal mid-1980s work on the reception of Renaissance classicism in native histories of conquest, and similarly, the article on Bartolomé de las Casas omits mention of the influence classical accounts enjoyed on the tropes of torture the author employed in his Brevíssima relación. (Since the latter is discussed in the introduction to the Penguin edition, it may be common knowledge). The article on Flacius neglects the last quarter-century of multiple, important publications by Oliver Olson, for all his inclination to confessional rhetoric nonetheless a serious scholar. The entry on Johannes a Lasco neglects not only the flood of recent literature on the Polish itinerant, which began in 2000 with a volume of conference papers edited by Christoph Strohm, but sends the reader to Pascal's 1894 biography rather than the frequently republished, widely available, and more reliable work of Oskar Bartel, published in Polish in 1955 but translated into German in 1981. (All of these have been definitively corrected by Henning P. Jürgens in his 2002 biography, probably published too late to be considered here). The entry on the monograph IHS (398) ignores Susan Wabuda's discussion of its use in England. The article on Cochläus omits mention of the convenient English translation recently provided by Ralph Keen. The contrast of such entries with outdated bibliography with those on Italy (for example, s.v. "confraternities," 187, a particularly good article that cites Nicholas Terpstra, an undoubted authority on the topic), is striking.

Aside from its bibliographical references, then, this volume is a testament to the possibilities of individual erudition in an age when academics are becoming more, rather than less, specialized in their areas of knowledge. The entries hang together well in style, length and analysis. Campbell's assistants (J.V. Field, Catherine Packham, and Eleanor Graff-Baker), who wrote the remainder of the entries, are unfortunately mentioned only in the acknowledgements. The major competitor for this title is probably the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (ed. Paul F. Grendler; New York: Scribner's, 2000), which costs $650.00 and was written by hundreds of specialists. Campbell's volume is available at one-quarter the price and takes up less space, so it might serve as a desk reference. American academic libraries that own Grendler, however, will not need this volume. Those unable to afford Grendler would probably do well to acquire it, although most high school and public librarians in the United States will find the style and content too advanced for their patrons, for whom Grendler also remains the appropriate resource.

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Author Biography

Susan R. Boettcher

University of Texas at Austin