I finished reading this week Lucien Febvre's Life in Renaissance France. I can honestly say that this is one of the best books I've read-regardless of the fiction/non-fiction classification. This is such an eloquent and humanistic approach to the past, riddled with lovely anecdote after lovely anecdote. Let me offer you a few quotes-there are so many here that if I listed them all I'd pretty much copy the entire book and that my friends is called copyright infringement. (Which I'm probably doing anyway, but you MUST read some of these quotes!)
The mind of man had to be washed clean of the accumulated layers of superstition, shaved clear of the beard of fantasy, before he could see; for it is with the brain, not with the eyes, that man sees. (39-40)
They wanted to push back the limits of their ignorance, enlarge the lighted circle of human knowledge and human reason. (40)
Suddenly antiquity was accessible, its concern for man, its cult of the individual, its knowledge of man in action, of man in contemplation, man living freely, letting on idea follow another, thinking clearly and boldly. It was an illumination. (31)
Man has become urban, sedentary, and refined as well. What a large place the word "comfort" has come to occupy in our language, modern comfort in which we take such pride. What implications the word has, of convenience and material ease: a light turned on or off at the flick of a finger, an indoor temperature independent of the seasons, water ready to flow hot or cold, as we wish, anytime, anywhere. All these, and a thousand other marvels as well, fail to astonish us. Yet they affect the physical temper of our bodies, help us to avoid certain diseases and make us prey to others. They influence our work habits, our leisure time, our customs and conventions, and all the ways of thinking and feeling which are the result of these things. Can we really claim then that they are merely exterior, merely accident, not worth nothing or discussing? We are tied to all this technology, it has a hold on us, it makes us serve it, odd, rooted spirits as we are. We are slaves three times over to the insatiable hungers we ourselves have created. In that sense, the men of the sixteenth century were free. (4)
Febvre was taught a different kind of history than the one he taught. What I find so interesting is that even today, much of historical education is wrapped up in progressive tales that serve an agenda. Rarely is history given a human face which is odd considering that history is only the story of the human drama. Yet I think it is too often taught in a series of dates and events that chronologically make sense if nothing else.
I love history-the human side of history. It does me more service as a reader when Febvre says people in the sixteenth century were always cold. His telling is not always progressive, it is not always pretty. When he describes the life of a Renaissance merchant he writes of the near impassible roads and the difficulty of monetary exchange and the weight of a livre. Details, details, details. Yet as a reader I come away with more of an understanding of man in the 16th century than I ever got reading a college text that read progressively and chronologically.
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