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It seems to be a commonplace that our modern ‘sense of history’ is largely a creation of Renaissance humanism, but the precise debts of modern historical thought to humanist scholarship are still insufficiently understood. The purpose of this paper is to indicate a little more concretely the historical attitudes and ideas which informed one of the major scholarly enterprises of the Renaissance, that is, legal humanism, and so to throw further light upon the significance of humanist philology for historical thought. It is natural to begin the discussion with Lorenzo Valla, arch-grammarian and one of the founding fathers of legal humanism, since, in addition to his work on Roman law, he contributed perhaps more than any other humanist to the alliance of philology and history, and in the process provided perhaps the first philosophic justification of historical scholarship.
Christophe Milieu's De Scribenda Vniversitatis rervm historia libri qvinqve (Basel, 1551) interprets the "universe of things" (universitas return) within an evolutionary and historical framework consisting of five connected and progressive "grades" (gradus) of existence accessible to human understanding: nature (natura), the world of God's creation and man's animal aspect; prudence (prudentia), including the arts of survival; government (principatus), the stage of civil society and political history; wisdom (sapientia), equivalent to civilization and including the higher sciences and philosophy; and literature (litetatura), in which knowledge of the preceding phases of "progress" (progressio) is expressed in writing. Milieu's "narrative" constitutes a pioneering and comprehensive history of western culture.