Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Renaissance and Renascence

One of the frustratingly wonderful aspects of the English language is its seemingly infinite capacity to increase its vocabulary by borrowing words from other tongues. English's rapaciousness for new words is in fact so great that it often swallows up cognates, pressing them each into service without regard for their linguistic kinship. A good example of this process can be seen in the words "renaissance" and "renascence." The latter word is nowadays somewhat obscure, having been largely overshadowed by the former, even though both mean "rebirth." In addition, renaissance has come to be strongly associated with the historical cultural movement begun in Italy in the 14th century and spreading throughout Europe over the course of the next few centuries. This association is so strong that many uses of the word "renaissance" seem to be analogies with the historical capital-R renaissance, thereby implying that the word is a proper noun rather than a common one.

I mention this for the obvious reason that the word "renaissance" as used in "old school renaissance" is often as often as controversial as the term "old school." From what I can tell, many gamers, like many people, look to the Renaissance for their primary understanding of the word and not merely to the Renaissance itself but to the 19th century's conception of it as the origin of the "modern" world. The word thus carries with it connotations of "progress" and moving away from the ignorance of "the Dark Ages." If that is one's understanding of a renaissance, then it's perfectly reasonable to wonder why the old school renaissance seems so hidebound and backward-looking rather than enlightened and experimental.

Of course, the reality is that the Renaissance wasn't a single, monolithic event but rather a series of interrelated ones, spread over many countries and times, united primarily by the foundational role played by a re-evaluation of the arts and sciences of classical antiquity. In some places and times, classical learning served as a spur to develop new arts and sciences, while in others it led to a reversal of changes that had been going on since the fall of Rome. If, for example, you've ever wondered by the English word "doubt" has a silent b, blame fastidious lexicographers who wanted to bring the word more in line with its classical Latin roots. For every genuine advance over medieval learning, there were also outright rejections of such advances, preferring instead the purity of an idealized classical past. Sound familiar?

That's why I've never had a problem with applying the word "renaissance" to the current revival of interest in old school RPGs. The historical Renaissance (and its immediate antecedents in the 9th and 12th centuries) wasn't an unadulterated rejection of the past and all its follies, the first step of the March of Progress on a journey culminating in the glorious perfection of Today. Rather, it was a time of great ferment, as men -- once again -- grappled with the knowledge and insights of their ancestors. For some, it's true, what they saw was evidence that they had surpassed previous generations but others saw evidence of the opposite, that they had fallen so far from the heights of their forefathers that only be imitating them might they hope to raise themselves up from the muck.

And of course those are both extreme views. Most people saw things somewhere in between and proceeded accordingly. My point is simply that, far from being inappropriate, I think what's going on now with regard to old school gaming is indeed a renaissance; it's a rediscovery of the past and it's up to each of us to decide what lessons to learn from it. Like the historical Renaissance, there's no one size fits all solution and to expect such is to misunderstand the nature of cultural revivals. The "problem" in the way that the old school renaissance is perceived is, I think, too narrow a notion of what a renaissance is -- or perhaps too strong an association of the word with a particular interpretation of a particular past historical event.

Had the word "renascence" been used by the old school movement instead, we might avoid the connotations of the word "renaissance," but we'd probably spend no less time trying to explain its meaning than we do now, so very little would have been gained. Consequently, I think it's important to point out from time to time that what's going on in the old school movement is perfectly consonant with the notion of a renaissance, which can just as easily entail a rejection of the present for the excellence of the past as it can by being inspired by the past to create a better future. If history is any guide, both approaches are part and parcel with all renaissances, so why should we expect the OSR to be any different?


  1. For an interesting related historical viewpoint, covering a slightly different period, might I suggest a read through Umberto Eco's "Island of the Day Before", covering the cosmology and scientifico-historical sense of the Baroque? It's not as often-covered an era, and one equally rife with innovations and contradictions. And Eco's book is a rousingly good adventure story to boot.

  2. I think that 'renaissance' is a perfect word to describe our movement. The Oxford dictionary defines renaissance as: 1. the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models (in the 14th-16th c.).

    Similarly, the OSR is a revival of a style of play under the influence of classical models. I can't think of a better word than renaissance to describe it.

    At the risk of sounding cranky, I couldn't care less if detractors mistakenly associate the word with progress.

    In a similar vein, I published an article in my own blog yesterday about the inappropriate use of evolutionary metaphor to support the mistaken concept of progress (and the de facto superiority) of 4E.

  3. I think my main objection to your overuse of the term is the following.

    1) The R used did not start with the word Renaissance, it is still interpreted today as revival, revolution, rebellion, resurgence, etc.

    2) While you defend its roots, I think the use of the word, especially because of the connotations to history, is slightly pretentious. And because its so tied to the historical period, doesn't it make sense to use a less haughty term? Plus, the use of that term to describe a period didn't happen until after the period was over. I think it is too soon to put such a label on something that just might be a topical fad.

    3) I've seen you overuse the word for other things. You mentioned the term to talk about Traveller and Runequest. Does just having a fan following where people are writing rules count as a "renaissance"? I'm not sure. The word is going to lose its meaning if you whip it out to describe any fan movement in the history of gaming. If you overuse a term, it loses its meaning.

    While writing this, I also noted the etymology of the variant.

    1727, from renascent, from L. renascentem (nom. renascens), prp. of renasci "be born again" (see renaissance). First used as a native alternative to, The Renaissance in 1869 by Matthew Arnold.
    Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

    So unless you are using the non-english root words such as the latin, I think it's safe to say the term Reinansance was used mostly to describe a historical period and any other use of the term came after.

    Or, as Gary Gygax once said.

    "Games can never be high art".

  4. Not really relevant to your point, but only to your subject matter, I've always loved the description of the Renaissance by Zan Frasier; I'm paraphrasing, but it was something akin to "In Italy, the Renaissance was about art. In England, it was about literature."

  5. "In Italy, the Renaissance was about art. In England, it was about literature."

    And at the California Renaissance faires I work at, it's all about the boozin'!

  6. In a similar vein, I published an article in my own blog yesterday about the inappropriate use of evolutionary metaphor to support the mistaken concept of progress (and the de facto superiority) of 4E.

    I should point out that I agree too that Evolution is overused, although unlike you I consider the term neutral enough. If it's a neutral statement, like a simply "here's how the game evolved" over time, that's okay. But there are too many people who think that gaming is a science and that new inventions supplant the old ones like technology.

    Gaming is neither a scientific or engineering endeavor, nor is it a fine art. It is more of a craft and a hobby. I guess that's why I personally object to terms that make it sound more pretentious than it is, even if that is not the intent of the writers.

  7. As some of the previous posterst already pointed out:
    Only in a few years time we will see if the movement was a renaissance or just a fad.
    We will also see if 4th edition really was an evolution or will be a doomed branch of the D&D tree (the RPG equivalent of the Neandertal).

  8. KH:
    "We will also see if 4th edition really was an evolution or will be a doomed branch of the D&D tree (the RPG equivalent of the Neandertal)."

    Obviously it could be both. The Neandertal was the product of evolution, after all - a specialised cold-weather hunter who proved ultimately less 'fit' to his environment than the more generalist Cro Magnons.

    4e certainly seems more specialised in its aim at a particular play experience than (eg) 1e AD&D, which could be pressed into service for a very wide range of RPG play styles.

  9. Did a quick look at some etymology dictionaries. "Renaissance" and "Renascence" both come to us from the latin "renascentem", meaning to be born again. However, "renaissance" comes to us through a more convoluted path, having traveled through French, and then coming into English. In a way, you can say that the word has had a Renaissance of its own, since it's now used in the context of any cultural rebirth, rather than in a spiritual sense!