Charles H. Haskins

From Academic Kids

Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937) was an American historian of the Middle Ages, and advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson. He is considered to be Americas first medieval historian.

Charles H. Haskins
Charles H. Haskins


Haskins was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He was a prodigy, fluent in both Latin and Greek while still a young boy. He received a PhD in American history from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 20 and taught there until 1902. He then decided to branch out into medieval history and went to France to study. He then returned to the US and taught at Harvard University from 1912 to 1931.

Haskins became involved with politics and was a close advisor of US President Woodrow Wilson, whom he had met at Johns Hopkins. When Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 where the Treaty of Versailles was worked out, he brought only three advisors, including one medieval historian Charles Haskins, serving as chief of the Western European division of the American commission.

Haskins was primarily a historian of institutions like medieval universities and governments. His works reflect an optimistic and mostly 20th century liberal view that progressive government, when staffed with the best and brightest a culture has, is the best course for society to take. His histories of the institutions of medieval Europe stress the efficiency and successes of the bureaucratic institutions, which contained implicit analogy to modern nation states.

Haskins most famous pupil is medieval historian Joseph Strayer who went on to teach a large percentage of American medievalists many still teaching today.

The Haskins Society, named in his honor, publishes an annual Journal. Its Volume 11 (1998) reconsidered aspects of Haskins' major work seventy years after its publication.

His son, George Haskins, is a professor of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Renaissance of the Twelfth Century

Haskins' most famous work is The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (published 1927). The word "Renaissance," even to historians of the early 20th century, signified the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century as 19th century Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt had defined it. Haskins opened a broader view when he asserted

The continuity of history rejects violent contrasts between successive periods, and modern research shows the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed. The Italian Renaissance was preceded by similair, if less wide-reaching, movements.

Haskins' fresh assessment of a renaissance that ushered in the High Middle Ages starting about 1070, was initially resisted by some scholars. His approach was broader than a mere literary revival. He found that the 12th century in Europe

was in many respects an age of fresh and vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art and the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin poetry and Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, and of much of Greek philosophy; and the origin of the first European universities. The twelfth century left its signature on higher education, on the scholastic philosophy, on European systems of law, on architecture and sculpture, on the liturgical drama, on Latin and vernacular poetry... We shall confine ourselves to the Latin side of this renaissance, the revival of learning in the broadest sense— the Latin classics and their influence, the new jurisprudence and the more varied historiography, the new knowledge of the Greeks and Arabs and its effects upon western science and philosophy, he stated in his preface.

Haskins focused on high culture to prove it was indeed a period of dynamic growth. He looked at the history of art and science, the universities, philosophy, architecture and literature and provided a celebratory view of the period. More recent views of the renewal have expanded the focus. (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century.) Once the ice had been broken, other scholars concentrated on an earlier, more constrained revival of learning in some circles under the patronage of Charlemagne and began talking and thinking of a "Carolingian Renaissance" of the 9th century. By 1960, Erwin Panofsky, could write of Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art.

Less wide-ranging were Haskins' earlier studies of the Normans, Norman Institutions, (1918) which still forms the basis of our understanding of how medieval Normandy functioned, and the more popular book The Normans in European History (1915).

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