Renaissance and Reformation

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How did the Northern Renaissance lead to the Protestant Reformation?

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The Renaissance, in both northern and southern Europe, was a time of renewed critical thinking. Throughout the previous Medieval period, philosophical thought was tied intrinsically to the teachings of the Catholic Church. This served to reaffirm the authority of the Vatican throughout the Middle Ages. However, as an interest in...

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The Renaissance, in both northern and southern Europe, was a time of renewed critical thinking. Throughout the previous Medieval period, philosophical thought was tied intrinsically to the teachings of the Catholic Church. This served to reaffirm the authority of the Vatican throughout the Middle Ages. However, as an interest in humanism and classical thought came to rise during the Renaissance, a new emphasis was placed on the potential of the individual. It encouraged freedom of thought that was often at odds with the established orthodoxy of the Church. This secular way of thinking went a long way to eroding confidence in and the power of the Church.

Once ideas critical to the Catholic establishment began to take hold, they spread easier than ideas had ever spread before. This is largely thanks to the invention of the printing press. For instance, the writings of reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin spread around northern Europe because hundreds of copies of their writings could be printed at a moment's notice thanks to this machine.

Examining Huldrych Zwingli presents us with a great example of how these changes that occurred as part of the northern Renaissance led to the spread of the Reformation. In the early 1500s, Zwingli was a Catholic priest in Zurich. He had for some time been influenced by the humanist writings of Erasmus, which were popular during this period. They urged him to question the long-entrenched teachings of the Church. It wasn't long before the writings of Martin Luther reached him from Germany. In 1523, these writings convinced Zwingli to talk the local authorities in Zurich into starting their own church, independent of the Vatican. These ideas soon spread around Switzerland.

As you can see, if it were not for the philosophical ideas and technological advances of the Renaissance, the Reformation may not have spread very far throughout the region.

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The main thing from the Renaissance which fueled the Protestant Reformation was the Gutenberg Bible. Printed in the language of the masses, this Bible was meant to be read by individuals who would then make their own decisions about God and therefore did not need the Papacy to make decisions about Church doctrine. This was dangerous to the Church as it undermined its authority. With the rise of literacy thanks to this Bible, people created new churches with emphasis on an individual's understanding of Scripture. Individual reading of the Bible also led people to complain more forcefully about abuses of church power.

The printing of this Bible also helped to legitimize European languages as Latin began to fall out of popularity and languages such as Early German began to flourish. Rulers could capitalize on the rise of nationalism in order to stand up to the Vatican and declare their secular rule over the pope's wishes. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, many German principalities were already growing tired of the Vatican's rule and they were starting to push their limits.

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By the time of the Northern Renaissance, the system of feudalism was weakening in Northern Europe. The Roman Catholic church had been a vital part of feudalism, as it supported lords in return for their financial support. As feudalism weakened, so did the Catholic Church.

In addition, the Renaissance involved ideas of humanism, centered on the concerns of humans, and away from religion. These ideas, which surfaced in art, also weakened the hold of the Roman Catholic church on society and led people to question authority, part of what caused the Protestant Reformation. In addition, new forms of technology such as the printing press led to the dissemination of ideas, planting the seeds of revolt and questioning in people's minds. New forms of technology and the belief in humanism also resulted in the growth of scientific inquiry, which also weakened people's faith in traditional religion. As people discovered the way the natural world worked, they began to question traditional forms of religion and were interested in new forms of religion. 

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There are at least two ways in which the Northern Renaissance led to the Reformation.

First of all, the Renaissance spread ideas of humanism.  These ideas, put forward by such people as Erasmus, held that people were capable of a great deal of understanding and intelligence.  They were, for example, capable of understanding a great deal about God and religion.  This sort of idea led to a questioning of the Catholic Church since the Church taught that people had to simply do as they were told by those (the clergy) who were actually capable of understanding God.  Humanism, then, set the stage for the Protestant idea that people could interact with and understand God by themselves.

Second, the technological advances of the Renaissance helped lead to the invention of the printing press.  This invention allowed works of humanism and, very importantly, Bibles in the vernacular, to become relatively widely available.  When this happened, people were able to read and think more about religion and God.  This, too, turned them towards Protestant ideas.

In these ways, both the ideas and the technology of the Renaissance helped lead to the Reformation.

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