Humanity Bloomed During the Renaissance

The movement started when old documents were found and reintroduced

Birth of Venus

Sandro Botticelli/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Renaissance, a movement that stressed the ideas of the classical world, ended the medieval era and heralded the start of Europe's modern age. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, art and science flourished as empires expanded and cultures mixed as never before. Although historians still debate some causes of the Renaissance, they agree on a few basic points.

A Hunger for Discovery

The courts and monasteries of Europe had long been repositories of manuscripts and texts, but a change in how scholars viewed them sparked a massive reappraisal of classical works in the Renaissance. Fourteenth-century writer Petrarch typified this, writing about his lust for discovering texts that had previously been ignored.

As literacy spread and a middle class emerged, seeking out, reading, and spreading classical texts became commonplace. New libraries developed to facilitate access to old books. Ideas once forgotten were now reawakened, as was interest in their authors.

Reintroduction of Classical Works

During the Dark Ages, many classical European texts were lost or destroyed. Those that survived were hidden in churches and monasteries of the Byzantine Empire or in capitals of the Middle East. During the Renaissance, many of these texts were slowly reintroduced into Europe by merchants and scholars.

In 1396 an official academic post for teaching Greek was created in Florence. The man hired, Manuel Chrysoloras, brought with him a copy of Ptolemy’s "Geography" from the East. A huge number of Greek texts and scholars arrived in Europe with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Printing Press

The invention of the printing press in 1440 was the game-changer. Finally, books could be mass produced for far less money and time than by the old handwritten methods. Ideas could be spread through libraries, booksellers, and schools in a way that wasn't possible before. The printed page was more legible than the elaborate script of books written longhand. Printing became a viable industry, creating new jobs and innovations. The spread of books also encouraged the study of literature itself, allowing new ideas to spread as cities and nations began establishing universities and other schools.

Humanism Emerges

Renaissance humanism was a new manner of thinking and approaching the world. It has been called the earliest expression of the Renaissance and is described as both a product and a cause of the movement. Humanist thinkers challenged the mindset of the previously dominant school of scholarly thought, Scholasticism, as well as the Catholic Church, allowing the new thinking to develop.

Art and Politics

The new artists needed wealthy patrons to support them, and Renaissance Italy was especially fertile ground. Political changes in the ruling class shortly before this period had led to the rulers of most major city-states being “new men” without much political history. They attempted to legitimize themselves with conspicuous investment in and public flaunting of art and architecture.

As the Renaissance spread, church and European rulers used their wealth to adopt the new styles to keep pace. The demand from the elites wasn’t just artistic; they also relied upon ideas developed for their political models. "The Prince," Machiavelli’s guide for rulers, is a work of Renaissance political theory.

The developing bureaucracies of Italy and the rest of Europe generated new demand for highly educated humanists to fill the ranks of governments and bureaucracies. A new political and economic class emerged. 

Death and Life

In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death swept Europe, killing perhaps a third of the population. While devastating, the plague left survivors better off financially and socially, with the same wealth spread among fewer people. This was especially true in Italy, where social mobility was much greater.

This new wealth often was spent lavishly on arts, culture, and artisanal goods. The merchant classes of regional powers such as Italy saw a great increase in wealth from their roles in trade. This growing mercantile class sparked a financial industry to manage their wealth, generating additional economic and social growth.

War and Peace

Periods of peace and war have been credited with allowing the Renaissance to spread. The end of the Hundred Years War between England and France in 1453 allowed Renaissance ideas to penetrate these nations as resources once consumed by war were funneled into the arts and sciences.

By contrast, the Great Italian Wars of the early 16th century allowed Renaissance ideas to spread to France as its armies invaded Italy repeatedly over 50 years.