A Changing Europe
The Renaissance began in Italy in the latter half of the fourteenth century, when a group of scholars called humanists set out to revive the Greek-based culture of ancient Rome (an era known as the classical period). They took the name "humanist" because they focused on the importance of the individual human spirit and concentrated on secular (nonreligious) subjects. They set out to initiate a new age, which they called a renaissance, a term that comes from the French word for "rebirth." The Renaissance took place during the latter part of the Middle Ages (also called the medieval period), the thousand-year era that followed the downfall of the West Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Based in Rome, the West Roman Empire consisted of countries that are now in Western Europe. The Roman Empire had been permanently split into the West and East Empires in A.D. 395. The East Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, was based in Byzantium and consisted of present-day Eastern European countries and Turkey. Historians usually divide the Middle Ages into three phases: Early Middle Ages (c. A. D 400–1100; often called the Dark Ages), High Middle Ages (1100–1300), and Late Middle Ages (1300–c. 1500). The Renaissance covered most of the Late Middle Ages and represented a break with the earlier medieval periods. Historians have not determined an exact date for the end of the Renaissance, though most agree...
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A Divided Italy: Home of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is known today as a single cultural and intellectual movement. It actually began in Italy as the Italian Renaissance, however, and then spread to the rest of Europe, where it was called the northern Renaissance. The Italian Renaissance was started in the mid-1300s by a group of scholars called humanists. Led by the Italian poet Petrarch (pronounced PEE-trark; 1304–1374), they set out to revive the Greek-based culture of ancient Rome (an era known as the classical period). They called themselves "humanists" because they wanted to focus on human achievement, which was exemplified by the arts, science, philosophy, and literature of the classical period (see "Humanism sparks Renaissance" in Chapter 8). The humanists felt that Greek and Roman contributions to European culture had been lost during the "dark ages," the period after the fall of the West Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Not content simply to look back to past accomplishments, the humanists used classical works as models to write philosophy and literature that reflected their own times. Moreover, they expressed a newfound hope in the future. They stressed the value of daily life and contended that the individual is capable of doing great things. The humanists' ideas were controversial, though, because they concentrated on secular (nonreligious) subjects, which previously had not been approved by the powerful Roman Catholic Church (a...
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The Rise of Monarchies: France, England, and Spain
One of the most significant developments in the three centuries leading up to the Renaissance period was the collapse of feudalism. This social and economic system had emerged during the ninth century in the Carolingian Empire (pronounced care-eh-LIN-jee-ehn), which was centered in the region that is now France. (See "Feudalism" in Chapter 1.) Eventually feudalism (a term derived from the medieval Latin word feudum, meaning "fee") spread throughout Europe and served as a unifying institution for all aspects of life. Under feudalism, which was based on an agricultural economy, distinct social classes were dependent on one another through a complex system of pledging loyalty in exchange for goods and services. At the top were kings, who owned the land. Beneath them were lords (noblemen) and clergymen (church officials), who were granted tracts of land called fiefs (pronounced feefs) by the king. Below the lords were vassals (knights), who held smaller amounts of land awarded to them by lords. At the bottom were serfs (peasants), who farmed the fiefs but were not given land of their own. Land occupied by churches, monasteries (houses for men called monks, who dedicated themselves to the religious life), and other religious establishments of the Roman Catholic Church were also considered fiefs.
Feudalism began to decline in the eleventh century with the rise of capitalism, an economy based on...
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Central and Northern Europe
During the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, strong monarchs in France, England, and Spain consolidated their territories into nations. A similar situation slowly developed in the rest of Europe—about two-thirds of the continent—which was divided into hundreds of independent states. The borders of these states shifted constantly because of power struggles among emperors, kings, princes, and religious leaders. In general, this part of Europe consisted of the following main geographic regions: In central Europe were Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Northern Europe was composed of the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) and Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway).
In the 1400s commerce and trade flourished around the coast of the Baltic Sea (called the Baltic region) and in the Rhineland region (areas along the Rhine River and the Danube River in Germany). Throughout northern, central, and eastern Europe, culture was influenced by Italian humanists, members of the intellectual and literary movement that had sparked the Renaissance in Italy (see "Humanists promote change" in Chapter 1, and "Humanism sparks Renaissance" in Chapter 8). The Italians had journeyed north to work as diplomats (official representatives of governments), secretaries, and university lecturers. Inspired by the innovations of the Italian Renaissance, thinkers and artists traveled from other...
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Martin Luther: Founder of Lutheranism
Martin Luther (1483–1546) is one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity (a religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth, also called Jesus Christ). Luther is credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, a movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian faith based in Rome, Italy) that resulted in a worldwide revolution. Before turning to how Luther sparked the Reformation, however, it is necessary to consider the state of the Catholic Church in the early 1500s, when Luther called for reforms. By this time the church had dominated Europe for more than eight hundred years. The pope, the supreme head of the church, was one of the most powerful figures in the world. He was considered Earth's vicar, or representative, of Jesus Christ, as well as the lawgiver and judge for followers of the Catholic faith. The pope and other church officials were involved in virtually every aspect of religious, social, political, and economic life in Europe. Nevertheless, the church itself was highly unstable and corrupt. In fact, it had nearly been torn apart by two bitter conflicts, the Babylonian captivity (1306–76) and the Great Schism (1348–1417), which had taken place in the two centuries prior to Luther's life.
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The Protestant Reformation
As Martin Luther's reform movement gained momentum in Germany throughout the sixteenth century, other charges against the Roman Catholic Church sprang up elsewhere in Europe. Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss priest, challenged the church's rule that priests could not marry. He also called for a separation of church and state. The famous French-born reformer John Calvin, who adopted Switzerland as the base of his "New Jerusalem," made the city of Geneva a stronghold of Protestant activity and Calvinism. His basic concept, later known as "predestination," was the belief that a small minority of people were "elected" before birth to become the chosen who would enter heaven (the concept of the place where the righteous go after death). His followers carried his teachings to eager reformers throughout Europe, especially in France, where Calvinists were called Huguenots, and in England, where they inspired Puritanism.
Radical Protestantism became a rallying point for peasants as well as nobles who desired to escape the oppression of the Catholic Church and the monarchs who supported it. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg stated that each of the more than three hundred principalities in Germany would adopt the religion of its local ruler, leaving over half of Germany to the Lutherans. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Scandinavian countries had become predominantly Lutheran. In France nearly a quarter of the...
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The Catholic Reformation
The Catholic Reformation was a reform movement that took place within the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The movement is also known as the Counter Reformation, but many historians prefer not to use this term because it suggests that changes within the church were simply a reaction to Protestantism. In fact, many Catholics were already aware that reform was needed as early as the fifteenth century, one hundred years before the Protestant Reformation. By that time popes, cardinals (church officials ranking directly below the pope), bishops (heads of church districts), and priests had become corrupt and greedy. Neglecting their responsibilities as religious leaders, they pursued their own personal advancement. The church had accumulated more property and wealth than kings and princes. Many Catholics, both inside and outside the church, were troubled by this situation.
During the fourteenth century the church faced a serious crisis that hastened the need for reform. In 1307, following a power struggle among cardinals, the papacy (office of the pope) was moved to Avignon, France, where it remained for seventy years. This period was known as the Babylonian captivity (see "Crisis in the papacy" in Chapter 1). The papacy was briefly returned to Rome in 1378. Then the cardinals had another confrontation that caused a deep split in the church, and soon there were two...
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Renaissance and Reformation: Almanac presents an overview of the most significant revolution in Western history. Beginning with the Italian Renaissance in the mid-1300s and lasting until the end of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in the early 1600s, this revolution essentially turned the European world upside down. By the close of the seventeenth century, unprecedented changes had taken place in politics, religion, science, economics, education, the arts, and society throughout Europe. Scholars and teachers are still intrigued by this historical period, but the twenty-first century student might wonder, "Why should I want to read about the Renaissance and Reformation? How could anything that happened hundreds of years ago possibly be relevant to my life?" The answer to the first question is that it was a fascinating time, filled with dramatic events, interesting people, and great achievements. The answer to the second question is that we can understand more about the world today by studying this era, which historians consider the beginning of the modern age.
The Renaissance produced many innovations that are now ordinary facts of modern life. Among them was the printing press, which facilitated mass communication and became the first step in advanced information technology. Of even greater importance was the scientific revolution led by astronomers who used the newly perfected...
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Italian Renaissance Culture
"Humanism" is the modern term for the intellectual movement that initiated the Italian Renaissance, which later spread to northern Europe. The humanist movement originated in Florence in the mid-1300s and began to affect other countries shortly before 1500. Humanist scholars believed that a body of learning called studia humanitatis (humanistic studies), which was based on the literary masterpieces of ancient Greece and Rome, could bring about a cultural rebirth, or renaissance. Humanistic studies consisted of five academic subjects: grammar (rules for the use of a language), rhetoric (the art of effective speaking and writing), moral philosophy (study of human conduct and values), poetry, and history. The texts included not only classical literature but also the Bible and the works of early Christian thinkers. Many texts had been known throughout the Middle Ages, or medieval period, while others had been recently rediscovered. Humanists believed the study of ancient works would help end the "barbarism," or lack of refinement and culture, of the Middle Ages.
Although humanism began with an emphasis on classical Latin literature, the movement reached its height when scholars mastered Greek language and literature. This part of the ancient heritage had been little known to medieval scholars. Humanists were always eager to discover and share ancient texts, and in the 1450s the new art of...
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Northern Renaissance Culture
During the 1400s commerce and trade flourished in northern Europe, around the coast of the Baltic Sea and in the Rhine River region of Germany. These areas were linked with trade routes to Italy and the region around the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Often accompanying traders, Italian humanist scholars journeyed north to work as diplomats (official representatives of governments), secretaries, and university lecturers. They took with them the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, which was flourishing in city-states such as Florence, Milan, and Venice. The scholars were soon followed by artists and artisans, who received commissions from northern European monarchs and noblemen. Inspired by the innovations of the Italian Renaissance, thinkers and artists from the north then traveled to Italy to study with prominent figures. Soon northern European scholars and artists began making their own cultural contributions, which became known as the northern Renaissance. (For purposes here, northern Europe is defined as Germany, the Low Countries—present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—France, England, and Spain.
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A scientific revolution occurred during the Renaissance and Reformation when humanist scholars took a renewed interest in the work of ancient philosophers. Greek texts in particular were given updated translations and interpretations. Scientists then developed new theories that eventually replaced the Greek concepts that had dominated science for almost two thousand years. Science became a separate field from philosophy (a search to define values and reality through reason and thought rather than scientific observation) and technology (the application of practical knowledge, such as engineering), which had been the major areas of thought in ancient times. An even more important development was that science now had a practical function. For instance, scientists were asking how things happened in nature, whereas the ancients were mainly concerned with why things happened. This shift in thinking had a profound impact on all aspects of life, and by the end of the 1600s science had replaced Christianity as the center of European civilization.
Aristotle influences science
The works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) were especially popular among fifteenth-and sixteenth-century scientists. Aristotle was a student of the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 348 B.C.), whose academy he attended for...
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Social status was the basis of life in Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation. Since the early Middle Ages, people had been divided into three groups, called estates. Each of the Three Estates were further subdivided into many other levels. A person's rank on the social scale was determined by birth, gender, sources of wealth, occupation, political position, residency in town or country, and numerous other factors. The system was somewhat flexible, however, and people frequently moved up within their own social class, or even occasionally elevated themselves to a higher estate.
The First Estate was comprised of the Roman Catholic clergy (church officials; also called clergymen). They were placed at the top of the social ladder because their involvement in spiritual matters was considered vital to the welfare of society. The clergy were divided into secular (unordained) and regular (ordained) branches. An ordained clergyman is one whom the church officially authorizes to perform priestly duties. These duties include holding worship services, hearing confession (church members' admissions of sin), and administering the sacraments (holy rituals) of the Catholic religion.
The secular clergy were high officials called prelates....
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Education and Training
In the early fourteenth century, Italian humanist scholars began introducing new ideas about human knowledge and experience. They based their concepts on works written by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who placed value on the individual. The humanists' innovations led to the Renaissance, a cultural and social revolution that had an impact on every aspect of life throughout Europe. A major goal of the humanist movement was to change traditional methods of education developed in the latter half of the Middle Ages (c. 800–1200). At that time elementary schools, called Latin grammar schools, and universities were run by the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope). Christian doctrine (religious beliefs) was the basis of all knowledge and learning. The purpose of education was to train the sons of noblemen—girls were not allowed to attend school—to become church officials. Similarly, the sons of kings and princes were educated to become Christian rulers. Classes in both grammar schools and universities were conducted in Latin, the official language of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire (the central government for most of Europe). Rules were quite rigid and did not permit students to learn about their world or to express their own ideas.
A new approach to education began emerging in 1350, when the Italian humanist Petrarch...
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Women in the Renaissance and Reformation
Several questions arise when describing the condition of European women in the Renaissance: Did their social or economic condition improve? Did they gain greater access to power? Were they able to express themselves in different ways than in the Middle Ages? Finally, was there a Renaissance for women? These questions can be addressed by looking at women's lives in three settings: the family, religion, and elite culture (the lives of female rulers, artists, and thinkers).
Women in the family
Women played several roles in their families, depending on their age and marital status. First a woman was a daughter and then a wife, mother, or widow. In contrast, male roles were generally defined by social position or occupation—merchant, knight, priest, peasant, barrel maker, weaver, and so on. Female roles were more sharply defined in upper-class society than in peasant society. The main reason was economic. Upper-class daughters, wives, and widows had a share in the family estate, so they were regarded mainly as a way to hold onto or expand. Therefore their lives were strictly regulated and controlled. In contrast, peasant women generally had more freedom. Wives, daughters, and even widows were actively involved in helping to support the family by maintaining the household and...
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How does one define daily life in any period of the past? Doing so involves looking at a wide variety of factors. How did people dress, and what did they eat? What did they do for fun? Did the rich and the poor do the same things? To understand daily life, we must look at these issues along with politics, warfare, art, economics, religion, and the effects of illness and disease on families and social groups. In this chapter we will look at the different areas of Renaissance Europe, examine the customs of various peoples during the early and late Renaissance, and examine the social and economic factors that affected people's everyday lives.
A diverse society
Renaissance Europe was not a single, unified society with the same traditions throughout the land. Each region had distinct languages, ethnic makeups, and geographic factors that shaped everyday life. Broadly, Mediterranean societies experienced hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, while the North experienced mild, temperate summers and long, cold winters. The Mediterranean region had arid (dry) or semiarid mountain ranges, while the North was characterized by broad expanses of fertile plains and forest. The Mediterranean Sea connected the South with more ancient cultures and peoples of northern Africa and...
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