5 B.S. Renaissance Myths You Learned in History Class

#2. Renaissance Rome Was Not a Magnificent Cultural Center

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The Myth:

Renaissance Rome must have been a spectacular sight indeed. If science would only hurry its ass up with that chrono-phonebooth, we'd all travel straight back there to snap ourselves some pics of it in all its artistic glory. Then we'd run them through a shitty filter and fill them with misspelled hashtags, because that's how the future rolls, bitches.

Via Wikimedia

The Reality:

Want to see what Renaissance Rome looked like? Head to modern-day Detroit. While Northern Italian cities flourished thanks to surging wealth and an influx of artisans, Rome was a depopulated, fetid wasteland with a booming outlaw population. When the pope ditched Rome in the 1300s for a way cooler castle in France, things pretty much fell apart. Rome relied on him for everything: his treasury, his guards, his stabilizing influence ... not to mention the pilgrims, tourists, and donations his holiness attracted. Rome needed him back, and bad. But thanks to dogmatic and political schisms, he didn't return until more than a century later, at the dawn of the Renaissance. By then, Rome had let herself go (and she wasn't exactly in cherry condition to begin with).

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On the plus side, house cleaning was pretty straightforward.

At the height of the Renaissance, Rome's population had fallen to its lowest ever: Just 10,000 inhabitants lived in a city that had once been home to as many as a million. The city eventually bounced back, of course, but that wasn't until the tail end of the Renaissance. No, when the pope first returned, he found Rome to be a post-apocalyptic hellhole filled with the townspeople from Beyond Thunderdome. The few non-criminal citizens left grazed their cows in the Forum; the most exciting contest taking place in the Circus Maximus was seeing whose sheep could drop the biggest load. Even the holy city's churches were rotted-out shells of their former medieval glory. Worst of all, Rome's esteemed citywide sewer system had been destroyed by invading tribes during the fall of the Roman Empire and never rebuilt, so large parts of the Eternal City were now literally shit holes.

#1. The Renaissance Was Not the Age of Enlightened Thinkers

Daniel Stockman, via Wikipedia

The Myth:

After the archaic superstition of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was a breath of fresh air -- rational, reasonable air, where before there had been only fire and knives to breathe.

The Reality:

The drunken liberal arts college that was Renaissance-era Europe didn't have much room for fields like scientific inquiry -- there was literally no curriculum for what was then called "natural philosophy." In fact, science historians "consider the Renaissance an actual step backward from the more scientifically curious Middle Ages." That's presumably because everyone was too busy fondling their magic wands to worry about actual science.

Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images
When they weren't busy cupping their balls, that is.

Pretty much every Western occult tradition can trace its origins to the Renaissance, because the literati of the period got way into witchcraft. Think today's Ghost Hunters are annoying? During the Renaissance, they would've been university professors instead of deep-cable buffoons. An entire generation of scholars learned, practiced, and taught astrology, necromancy, goety (invoking spirits), and alchemy.

Cranach/iStock/Getty Images
It was a golden age of decorative skull placement.

Ah, but you can't make a witchcraft-omelet without burning a few eggs: There had been few if any sorcerer slayings in the thousand years prior, but the renaissance brought three waves of intensifying witch hunts that killed thousands across Europe. Suddenly, women who were once praised by their communities as healers found themselves on the receiving end of a purely objective and rational drowning. Historians place the number of prosecuted witches during humanity's "enlightened era" somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Yep, they were "enlightening" something, all right.

You can't really blame the witch hunters, though. After all, they were only following the manual. A witch-hunting guide called the Malleus Maleficarum -- The Witch Hammer -- was at least partially responsible for this uptake in superstitious genocide. See, the printing press was the Internet of the Renaissance, and the presses didn't just print Bibles and educational texts. They printed whatever you put into them. Material was at the whim of public demand. And what sounds like a more entertaining read to you: Nicomachean Ethics or the fucking Witch Hammer?! You can practically hear a guitar solo just reading the title.

Mullica, via Wikimedia
"Art thou ready to ROCK?!"

And that's why the Renaissance's hippest fad was mass, ill-advised murder. Kind of makes you thankful all we got was the Harlem Shake.

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Related Reading: People believe a lot of lies about history. The American Revolution didn't go at all the way you've heard. And while we're at it, the idea that Hunter-Gatherers lived a life of miserable starvation is bullshit too. Not even the Middle Ages are safe from this lie parade!

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