Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

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From the mid-fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced many vital changes, many of which were interconnected, and most of which were built upon technical, social, and political developments from the late Middle Ages. The most notable of these was the development of printing, which in turn influenced a number of other events. In Germany, Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press in 1450, which combined a number of existing technologies, quickly caught on in other European countries. With the renewed interest in classical literature and the increasing contributions to Renaissance literature, book production rose steadily. Johnson notes, “By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million.” As vernacular languages gained in popularity, the number of printed books increased even more.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people were flocking to universities, which had been created in the late Middle Ages to educate members of the clergy. However, as literacy increased and people renewed their interest in classical education, universities began to offer more secular curricula like law. Many Renaissance writers were trained at these universities.

The Renaissance was also a time of mobility, both within Europe and abroad. As the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church waned in power, Italy’s city-states and Europe’s monarchies increased in importance. With this development, Rome was no longer the intellectual or cultural center of Europe, and Renaissance scholars began to travel elsewhere, spreading their ideals in the process. The most notable of these traveling scholars was Erasmus, whose visits to England in the late fifteenth century introduced him to several other influential humanists and helped him to develop the ideas that would make him famous. As Johnson notes, Erasmus came in 1498 to study at Oxford University in England because “it was no longer necessary to go as far as Italy.”

Meanwhile, explorations outside Europe were on the rise, and a whole new world was being discovered. The successful navigation around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in the 1450s was one such voyage, while Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 was another. The resulting expansion of the world in the eyes of Europeans influenced Renaissance writers like Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel incorporates fantastical islands that can be reached by ocean travel, and features very odd beings: “We got sight of a triangular island. . . . The people there. . . . all of them, men, women, and children, have their noses shaped like an ace of clubs.”

In England, the Renaissance spirit of criticism increasingly focused on the Catholic Church. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his famous ninety-five theses to the door of his church; these, with the aid of the printing press, were also widely distributed. One of the theses demonstrates the main point of his argument: “Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that by the indulgences of the pope a man is freed and saved from all punishment.” Although Luther, like the humanists who inspired him, had hoped his theses would inspire a reformation of the Church while keeping it whole, most historians agree that his symbolic act launched the Protestant Reformation. From this point on, parishioners gathered in two factions, Catholics and Protestants. In 1529, the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII’s divorce from his second wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to bear the king a male heir. Two years later, Henry retaliated by declaring himself the supreme head of the Church of England.

The Protestant Reformation inspired the Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation, in which the Church changed its tactics and started to embrace some of the humanist aspects it had originally fought so hard against. During these two major movements, both Catholic and Protestant printers used their trade as a weapon, creating propaganda literature they distributed to people in hopes of keeping or gaining their faith.

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