The Other Renaissance: From Copernicus to Shakespeare by Paul Strathern - review by Lucy Wooding

Lucy Wooding

Northern Lights

The Other Renaissance: From Copernicus to Shakespeare


Atlantic Books 400pp £25

If history has a cast of thousands, then striking up an acquaintance with a few of the more colourful characters is often the best way to begin an exploration of past centuries. Paul Strathern’s book about the Renaissance in northern Europe is essentially a string of biographical sketches introducing us to a series of idiosyncratic artists, thinkers, writers and power brokers. From Paracelsus, with his shocking theories about putrefaction, to Rabelais and his ground-breaking approach to literature, and Kepler, with his new-found vision of the cosmos, this is a sprightly tour of a gallery of fascinating individuals. As well as the key players, many other supporting actors appear, from Lucas Cranach to Leonardo da Vinci. The overall picture is quite crowded, and the narrative occasionally rather breathless, but the work is definitely entertaining. Artists like Jan van Eyck sit alongside scientists like Tycho Brahe, and medicine and astrology are interwoven with religion, art and politics to give a rich and varied depiction of the extraordinary culture of northern Europe in the early modern period. Strathern has a good eye for striking details and arresting anecdotes, from Paracelsus lecturing with a plateful of excrement to the discovery of how rainbows generate their colours.

The lively cast of characters explored in this book comprises, however, almost all men. Only one of the nineteen chapters is about a woman, namely Catherine de Medici, although another on Elizabethan England does at least gesture in the direction of Elizabeth I. In the timeline of events

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