When one thinks of the Renaissance, they tend to think of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel, Shakespeare’s plays, or Leonardo de Vinci and his many works: reasonable since they frequently find their way into modern conversation. While we often discuss the results, we tend to look at it all individually instead of the collective web of growth it truly is. When we do this we miss the purpose of the world they built and participated in, and the influences that moved them. So, what is the Renaissance?
Merriam Webster defines the word ‘renaissance’ as “revival” or “rebirth”, but what created a need for this to occur on a grand enough to define three centuries?
Short answer: the Middle Ages. (Also known as the ‘Dark Ages’ and ‘Medieval Period’)
While the Renaissance’s true origin is debated, most historians will agree on it spanning from the 14th century through the 17th. For retrospect, the Middle Ages began in the 5th century (after the fall of Rome and Greece), and in the words of historian Norman Cantor, “received its mortal wound between 1270 and 1324 and there remained only the long death agony of chaos and malaise during the next 150 years”, reaching an end in the 15th century. Both terms were coined in the 15th century as people became determined to revive the Roman ideals of Enlightenment. There are many ways to describe this act, but my favorite would have to be Peter Burke in his book, ‘The Renaissance’.
“Like all self-images, the scholars and artists of the Renaissance was both revealing and misleading. Like other sons rebelling against their father’s generation, these men owed more than they knew to the ‘Middle Ages’ they so frequently denounced.”
His implication was that they were ungrateful teens who did not respect where the originated from. While I would not argue he is wrong, I would argue it is this is what bridges the connection from their world and ours. Who was not a rebellious teenager with a world full of dreams and parents terrified for their souls?
Europe spent centuries being stagnant. There is plenty of fascinating history to study from the Middle Ages, but their ideas did not shift much until the introduction of Humanism in the 14th century. We will dive more in depth with this later, but for now, know it is the idea that we have things to learn from those who came before us, and that while religion was important, it was important to understand what it means to be human. An Italian scholar sparked it, Petrarch, who spent a considerable amount of time hunting antiquities including Cicero’s lost manuscripts. Men accompanied him like Dante and his infamous ‘Divine Comedy’, and Giovanni Boccaccio with ‘Decameron’. Both observations on humanity that broadened the idea that humans should understand who they are, where they come from, and what it means to be a human.
Then in the 1450s Johannes Gutenberg made his latest invention public, the printing press. It was not the first printing press, for China and the Eastern world are believed to have woodblock presses as early as the 2nd century. This printing press, Gutenberg’s, came into the Western world at precisely the right time to make the Renaissance infectious.
During this period we see an influx of art, poetry, and architecture. Languages are defined, dynasties overthrown, countries form, political names that change the stakes, and new religions form. They feed off one another, build and grow as the countries intermingle and exploration occurs. Rulers like Henry VIII, Isabella I, and Charles V changed the rulers of what it meant to be a King, and we discover they are not infallible with the fall of Mary, Queen of Scots and Charles I of England. A King and a prince enter a tower and are never seen again, and we observe some of the last thrones being won successfully by conquest occur.
This blog will discuss this all, and anything else it finds along the way!
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- Cantor, Medieval History, 2nd ed., (New York,1969), 504
- “Renaissance.” Edited by Arthur Augustyn, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/Renaissance.
- Burke, Peter. “The Myth of the Renaissance.” The Renaissance, MacMillan Press LTD, 1987.
- Cartwright, Mark. “Renaissance Humanism.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 Jan. 2021, http://www.ancient.eu/Renaissance_Humanism/#:~:text=Renaissance%20Humanism%20was%20a%20movement,it%20is%20to%20be%20human.