Wars and epidemics were rampant in 14th-century Europe. Many became so disappointed with the Church’s ineffective response to the Black Plague that they became hedonists. However, the conflicts that ravaged Europe also brought about a renewal of interest in classical Greek and Roman thought. Modern historians call this period in Europe’s history the Renaissance. It lasted from AD 1300 up to 1600. It was a period of innovation in technology, arts, and literature. The accomplishments of the Renaissance thinkers would later add impetus to the Reformation (1517-1648) that was led by Martin Luther and other early Protestant leaders. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.
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The End of the Medieval Period
Chaos and death reigned in 14th-century Europe. The rise of the Ottoman Turks ended the domination of the Greeks in Asia Minor. The clash between religion and politics, meanwhile, produced the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism. Early reformers, such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus (to some extent), emerged from the conflicts, such as the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt. There was also no shortage of catastrophes in 14th-century Europe. These included the Great Famine (1315-1317) and the deadliest of all, the Black Death. By the time the Black Death had slowed down in 1353, Europe had lost almost a third of its people. But while these conflicts and calamities were happening, the seeds of rebirth and reform were also taking root.
The Renaissance was a period in European history that spanned from early 1300 AD up to 1600 AD. Renaissance is a French word which means “rebirth.” It was a period of the Europeans’ revival of interest in classical Roman and Greek literature and art. The changes started in chaotic Northern Italy, and it gradually spread to other parts of Europe. This revival was possible due to the following factors:
* One contributing factor to the Renaissance was the profitable trade between the Northern and Central Italian cities and the East. Because of the trade, the Italian city-states became prosperous in spite of the turbulence of the Late Medieval Period. Florence and Milan became important financial centers. The rival maritime republics of Genoa and Venice emerged as two of the most prosperous.
The Venetians were natural sailors and traders who saw entrepreneurial opportunities everywhere. They conquered and ruled a part of the Byzantine Empire with the help of the Crusaders in 1204. Their reign lasted until 1261, but the Venetians were able to establish trading posts on the coast of the Black Sea and other ports in the East. After the collapse of the Latin and Byzantine Empire, the practical Venetians continued to trade with the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians imported Turkish grains, spices, cotton, and alum that they used for dyeing textiles. The Ottomans, meanwhile, bought Venetian luxury goods, paper, textiles, and soap.
Genoa was Venice’s main rival during the Late Medieval Period. The Genoese, like the Venetians, were skilled sailors and merchants. Genoa’s main products included wine, timber for ships, olive oil, and luxury goods. They sold these products for profit in Sicily, Spain, North Africa, and Egypt. In turn, the Genoese imported spices, cotton, and gold from their trading partners.
The maritime republics became wealthy because of trade with the East. Neighboring Italian cities such as Florence, Mantua, Pisa, and Milan also became wealthy commercial centers as years passed. Wealth was not something that only the pope, the monarchs, and the landowning nobles had. The trade allowed the merchant class to rise and become equal to the nobles in wealth.
* Because of their wealth, the merchant and banking families could now sponsor artists and writers. This was a second factor that contributed to the Renaissance. Prominent merchant class families, such as the House of Este of Ferrara, the Medicis of Florence, and the Gonzagas of Mantua, supported painters and sculptors. Some of the greatest Italian sculptors and painters who rose during the Renaissance period included:
Gentile and his brother Giovanni Bellini
Leonardo Da Vinci
During the Medieval Period, religious education was considered more important than science or the arts. Most of the classical Roman and Greek literature were buried into obscurity during the Medieval Period. The Renaissance period, however, revived the people’s interest in classical Roman and Greek literature, philosophy, and history. This revival which would later give birth to the term “humanism.”
* However, this shift from religious education to humanism would have been impossible if not for the efforts of the scholars who sought Greek and Roman classics even in Europe’s most far-flung libraries. These determined scholars were part of the third major contributing factor to the Renaissance. The destruction of the Byzantine Empire was, in a way, a blessing for Western Europe. Greek monks who fled Constantinople in and after 1453 brought classical Greek texts to Western Europe.
The Italians Poggio Bracciolini, Giovanni Boccaccio, Coluccio Salutati, and Francesco Petrarch were the masters of the Renaissance. The Christian humanist of the Renaissance period, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, later influenced Reformation figures such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, Sir Thomas More, and Martin Luther.
The Renaissance in Italy reached Northern Europe in 1450. The Hundred Years’ War was near its end, while Europe’s population had recovered from the Black Death. Back in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg of Germany had invented a form of movable type printing press. Before the invention of the movable type, manuscripts were copied onto a parchment by hand. The task was tedious, and it made the books more expensive. Monasteries and noblemen were the only ones who could afford books before the invention of the movable type.
The movable type printing press, however, made the books more affordable. Ordinary Europeans who were literate and have enough money now have access to books. One of the first works published by Gutenberg was the Vulgate Bible. It was completed around 1454 or 1455, and the printing of the Bible would play a large part in the upheavals of the Reformation Period.
For centuries, Latin was the official language used by the church and the nobility for communication. The common people who lived during the Medieval Period did not understand this language. During the Renaissance, writers started to write in their own languages. They also wrote in a way that could easily be understood by their own people. Information became widely available and literacy rose among Europe’s upper class.
Bartlett, Kenneth R. A Short History of the Italian Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Fleet, Kate. European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State: The Merchants of Genoa and Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Gagarin, Michael, and Elaine Fantham, eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Vol. I. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.