Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. 21, No 1 (1985)
The importance of historical consciousness in the Renaissance is a fact generally recognized by scholars of the period. From Petrarch on, it is possible to discern a growing awareness of the past “men became more and more conscious that all sorts of things—buildings, clothes, words, laws-changed over time.”As Panofsky puts it, men “were convinced that the period in which they lived was a ‘new age’ as sharply different from the medieval past as the medieval past had been from classical antiquity.” This heightened sense of the past is itself one of the manifestations of a long civilizing process that still remains to be fully investigated. Some of the forces at work in shaping historical consciousness are to be identified in the progressive differentiation of social functions,which in turn favours the gradual spreading of literacy among laity. Already in the 13th and 14th centuries the new demands of the communal civilization had redirected cultural activities toward more marketable professions: alongside theologians, canonists, poets, physicians and scientists, we see more and more jurists (particularly those versed in Roman law) notaries, lay clerks and accountants—all people particularly sought out by the political leading class and by the entrepreneurial and manufacturing classes.
To meet the demand created by this progressive differentiation of social functions, the Florentine society of the time, composed, as it was, mainly of craftsmen and businessmen, sees to it that its children receive their education through commercial practice. On the other hand, travels to distant lands, contacts with different kinds of people, and lastly the mental habit acquired through recording commercial transactions in time will lead those very merchants to put down in writing much more than mere figures. Thus the transition from simple ledgers to “libri segreti,” “ricordanze,” diaries, annals, and chronicles, which record in a neat and orderly fashion events chronologically arranged in a well defined space.