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What factors led to shifts in Boccaccio's Italy?

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Boccaccio lived in a time of tremendous technological, economic, and social change. Italy in the fourteenth century was coming to the end of the Middle Ages and was on the brink of the Renaissance. The main changes can be grouped into these three areas—religious/societal, environmental, and technological.

Regarding religion and society, not only did the Great Schism divide the church, but there was a great deal of internal conflict as well (which would eventually give rise to other denominations). Due to the conflict, many in Christendom were oppressed by the religious clergy. The reunification of the church would eventually give Catholicism more power than any single government, but during Boccaccio's time, there was a lot of dissension and in-fighting.

Environmental changes during this period included the Little Ice Age, which killed off significant crops and led to a great number of deaths, and the Black Plague that immediately followed it. This led to the death of nearly 1/3 of all European citizens. Because the Black Plague was "non-discriminating"—meaning it killed rich and poor alike—it had a number of meaningful social implications. While the elites of society became more oppressive, the poor began feel like they deserved equal rights—since something like the Black Plague had equal power over the wealthy and the poor (unlike a famine or flood, which would harm the poor far more than the wealthy).

Finally, technological advancements made rapid changes in the late Middle Ages. New printing technologies were in development, and other foreign technologies (like gunpowder) were being imported—disrupting the technology of the day.

All of these changes led to a completely different Italy throughout Boccaccio's lifetime.

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Giovanni Boccaccio lived during the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, which was a period of significant change in Italy, as well as in the rest of Europe. Disease and changes to the European weather patterns led to changes in population location and mass. New social classes emerged as the merchant class rose in power and the economics of Europe began changing from agriculture to trade. And the rediscovery of classical learning and art led to new ideas and the growth of urban universities. As a result of these forces, 14th century Italy shifted from an agricultural society to an increasingly urbane and learned society.

The beginning of the 14th Century marked the end of the Medieval Warm Period (a period of higher than normal temperature and rainfall) and the beginning of the Little Ice Age (a period of colder than normal temperatures). The changing temperature and weather patterns caused failures of crops and movement of people to areas where crops grew more readily. It also led more people to move to urban centers as they were not able to sustain themselves through farming.

Another factor that caused population location and mass to shift was the bubonic plague. As people fled the plague, or tried to avoid it altogether, they moved to new locales. Despite the higher death tolls in cities, many people fled to urban centers as those were the only places where they could find a means to survive. The plague also dramatically reduced the population of many areas, which led to changes in population dynamics, including allowing people to change profession and even climb social classes.

These environmental factors coincided with a growing change from a feudal-agriculture economic system to a merchant-trade economic system. As trade became more prevalent, merchants began to rise both in political power and social standing. This changed the political and social dynamics of the ruling class. It also led to the population of trading centers swelling as more people became involved in trade rather than agriculture.

Along with increased trade of goods came an increased trade in ideas. European scholars began rediscovering the works of classical authors and philosophers while European artists rediscovered classical art. This trend was strongest first in Italy, where many of the sources of classical ideas and art could be found and studied. Italian scholars started relocating to universities, which were usually found in the urban areas.

Thus, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Italy became a very different place during the course of his lifetime. Weather pattern instability and disease caused changes in the size and location of population centers. The rise of merchants as a political and economic force resulted in new social classes and changing lifestyles, as well as the growth of urban centers for trading. And the rediscovery of the works of classical scholars and artists brought new learning and ideas to Italy, as well as resulting in an increasing number  of universities in the urban areas.

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