The Reniassance Essay, Research Paper
“Renaissance,” French for “rebirth,” perfectly describes the intellectual and economic changes that occurred in Europe from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. During the era known by this name, Europe grew out of the economic standstill of the Middle Ages and experienced a time of financial growth. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the Renaissance was an age in which artistic, social, scientific, and political thought turned in new directions.
In the feudal structure of the Middle Ages, the nobles who lived in the country provided the king with protection in exchange for land. Peasants worked the land for the nobles, for which they received protection and their own small area of land. These rural peasants worked from sunup to sundown, but even the nobles had few creature comforts. In feudal cities, where there was a small middle-class population, life was a little easier and individuals had the freedom to go after whatever trade or industry they liked. In the late Middle Ages people left the country for towns and cities so they could get in on more profitable jobs.
The Plague Begins
Life in the city was soon to change drastically. During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance (1350-1450) the bubonic plague, also called the “Black Death,” took the lives of one-third of the population of Europe. The plague, which was almost always fatal, spread most rapidly in cities, where people were in close contact with each other. The only way to avoid the disease was to leave the city for the country. This solution was, unfortunately, available only to those wealthy enough to make the trip.
The population decrease caused by the plague led to an economic depression. Merchants and tradespeople had fewer people to whom they could sell their wares. As occurrences of the plague decreased in the late fifteenth century, populations grew, creating a new demand for goods and services. A new middle class began to emerge as bankers, merchants, and tradespeople once again had a market for their goods and services.
The New Middle Class
As the fortunes of merchants, bankers, and tradespeople improved, they had more than enough money to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. They began to desire larger, more luxurious homes, and fine art for them. These desires of the middle class helped the economy.
The middle-class population also had leisure time to spend on education and entertainment. In fact, education was a must for many middle-class professions. Bankers and accountants needed to understand math. Those trading with other countries needed a knowledge of foreign currencies and languages. Reading was essential for anyone who needed to understand a contract. In their leisure time, middle-class men and women enjoyed such pastimes as reading for pleasure, learning to play musical instruments, and studying a variety of topics unrelated to their businesses. This was a new idea for most since earlier it was harder for them to enjoy much more than what they had to do to survive.
The Resurgence of the City
Many Italian coastal cities became centers for trade and commerce. One of the cities that showed these new trends was Florence. Tools developed in the Middle Ages for exploration continued to be used during the Renaissance.
The economy of the Renaissance continued to improve and there were ever-increasing demands for imported goods and new places to export local products. Explorations led to trade for gold and ivory and, soon after, slaves.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1445, he forever changed the lives of people in Europe and, eventually, all over the world. Previously, bookmaking meant copying all the words and illustrations by hand. Often the copying had been done onto parchment, animal skin that had been scraped until it was clean, smooth, and thin. The labor that went into creating them made each book very expensive. Because Gutenberg’s press could produce books quickly and with almost little effort, bookmaking became much less expensive, allowing more people to buy reading material.
The Demand for Books Grows
In the Middle Ages, books had been costly and education rare; only the clergy had been regular readers and owners of books. Most books had been written in Latin, considered the language of scholarship. In the Renaissance, the educated middle classes, who could now afford books, demanded works in their own languages. Furthermore, readers wanted a greater variety of books. Almanacs, travel books, chivalry romances, and poetry were all published at this time. As the demand for books grew, the book trade began to flourish throughout Europe, and industries related to it, such as paper making, thrived as well. The result of all of this was a more literate mass and a stronger economy.
Books also helped to spread awareness of a new philosophy that emerged when Renaissance scholars known as humanists returned to the works of ancient writers. Previously, during the Middle Ages, scholars had been guided by the teachings of the church, and people had concerned themselves with actions leading to heavenly rewards. The writings of ancient, pagan Greece and Rome, called the “classics,” had been greatly ignored. To study the classics, humanists learned to read Greek and ancient Latin, and they sought out manuscripts that had laid undisturbed for nearly 2,000 years.
The humanists rediscovered writings on scientific matters, government, rhetoric, philosophy, and art. They were influenced by the knowledge of these ancient civilizations and by the emphasis placed on man, his intellect, and his life on Earth.
The Humanist Philosophy
The new interest in secular life led to beliefs about education and society that came from Greece and Rome. The secular, humanist idea held that the church should not rule civic matters, but should guide only spiritual matters. The church looked down on the keeping of wealth and worldly goods, supported a strong but limited education, and believed that moral and ethical behavior was dictated by scripture. Humanists, however, believed that wealth enabled them to do fine, noble deeds, that good citizens needed a good, well-rounded education (such as that advocated by the Greeks and Romans), and that moral and ethical issues were related more to secular society than to spiritual concerns.
The rebirth of classical studies contributed to the development of all forms of art during the Renaissance. Literature was probably the first to show signs of classical influence.
During the Renaissance, a churchman named Martin Luther changed Christianity. On October 31, 1517, he went to his church in the town of Wittenburg, Germany, and posted a list of things that worried him about the church. His list included the church’s practice of selling indulgences, a means by which people could pay the church to reduce the amount of time their souls must spend in purgatory instead of atoning for their sins via contrition. Luther also requested that, when appropriate, Mass be said in the native language instead of in Latin so that the church’s teachings would be more accessible to the people. This request for reform created the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Many other Christians agreed that the church needed to change, and several new Christian religions were established during this time. The old church became known as Roman Catholic, and new Christian sects were known by their leaders–among them Lutherans (Luther) and Calvinists (John Calvin).
The Renaissance was a rebirth that occurred throughout most of Europe. However, the changes that we associate with the Renaissance first occurred in the Italian City of Florence and continued to stand out there than anywhere else. The city’s economy and its writers, painters, architects, and philosophers all made Florence a model of Renaissance culture. Fifteenth-century Florence was an exciting place to be. In 1425 the city had a population of 60,000 and was a self-governed, independent city-state.
“Rebirth” perfectly describes the intellectual and economic changes that occurred in Europe from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. The Renaissance was an age in which artistic, social, scientific, and political thought turned in new directions, that helped shape our world as we know it today.