Chapter 2 Reading Notes- Renaissance and Reformation

Chapter 2 Reading Notes- Renaissance and Reformation

Chapter 2 Reading Notes- Renaissance and Reformation

The major trend in European History at the end of the Medieval period was the general movement toward secularization- where religion became less important in culture and society. Religion began to lose its control over all aspects of European life and people were more willing to pursue non-religious thoughts and goals. This movement was of primal importance because it was the secular institutions developed by Europeans (e.g. economics, military, science and technology) that were most likely to be accepted throughout the world by non-Europeans. If our goal is to study how Europe influenced the rest of the world, it would be disastrous to underestimate the importance of this secular movement.

Disasters of the 14th Century

The first challenges to Church authority came not from specific people but from a series of unfortunate events that befell the people of Europe in the 14th century. One of those disasters was continued invasion by groups from the east. For example, the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe and ruled what would later become Russia for 200 years. Another group that was previously mentioned in Chapter 1 was the Ottoman Turks. They took Serbia in 1389 and started influencing southeastern Europe, particularly the Balkans. Again, the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople in 1453 and remained in power until the end of WWI.

The other prominent disaster of the 14th century was the Black Death or Black Plague that killed almost half the population of Europe at the time. Coupled with a series of famines at the end of this century, the Black Death appeared to be an inescapable menace for those of all levels of society. It is believed the plague was carried by rats that had stowed away on ships landing in Mediterranean ports coming from the Middle East. Since sanitation measures were severely lacking in the late Medieval period, fleas would bite the rats and then bite humans. Humans would thus become ill, and since Europeans had no immunities to the plague, would transfer it to others rapidly. In 1300, there were approximately 70 million people living in Europe. By 1400, that number had dropped to 45 million, and the population did not return to its pre-plague levels until about 1550.

The Black Death had many consequences. The population decrease meant that there was no one to cultivate the land leading to even more famine and more susceptibility to disease. Whole villages disappeared either because people died or fled. The lower population did, however, improve the economic situation of some in the lower class. Since there were fewer people to work, wage went up. Landowners and guild masters tried to control prices and wages, but these actions led to peasant rebellions. The most famous of these rebellions were the Jacqueries in France in 1358 and the Wat Tyler Rebellion in England in 1381. The rebellions were met with severe repression and had few long-lasting consequences. One result of the Plague, in general, was to create a new class of land-owning peasants that were able to convince lords to give them land at fixed rents which meant that, over time, the peasants became relatively more wealthy because of inflation. Peasants were able to secure this deal because the lords had to offer them something good to keep working the land as there were fewer people to hire. This was much more typical in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe where serfdom remained prominent.

Finally, the Plague also helped kings to secure more power in a roundabout way. Kings at this time still had to bargain with parliaments and their feudal lords, but as the Plague killed so many parliamentary representatives, it became easier for the king to exert his influence. The Plague also caused some of these feudal lords to go to war with one another to determine which family would gain the throne thus eventually reducing the amount of contenders overall. Two examples would be the Hundred Years’ War (between the feudal lords of England and France) and the War of the Roses (between the houses of Lancaster and York in England, both of which used a rose as the symbol for their family). These wars weakened the feudal lords thereby making the king more powerful.

Troubles of the Church

The 14th Century also called into question some of the practices of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. People became dissatisfied because the Church could not always explain why so many were dying. In addition, the Church lost credibility to Europeans as a result of abuses of power. The most prominent of these issues were simony (the selling of church offices), nepotism (church leaders giving their children high positions in the Church or local government, especially problematic since the Church leaders were supposed to be celibate), and indulgences (having people pay money to receive grace or a reduced sentence in purgatory).

Along with these issues came the problem of authority. Kings wanted more control over the Church in their given area while the pope felt he had ultimate authority over religious matters in any country. An example of this would be when Francis I of France wanted to tax the clergy in France. Pope Boniface VIII sent out a papal bull called Unam Sanctum in 1302 that basically stated that the pope was the supreme authority on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice; what the pope says goes. Unfortunately, Pope Boniface VIII was kidnapped by the French and died shortly thereafter, so he did not exactly get his way. The next pope that was elected was French, and he moved the capital of the Roman Catholic Church from Rome to Avignon, France. The papacy stayed in Avignon for about 70 years while under the careful influence of the French king. In this way, the French king was able to work out a deal with the pope that allowed the French to appoint their own religious leaders as long as those bishops and abbots paid their money not to the French king but to the pope. No other country in Europe ever had this special privilege. While in Avignon, the papacy lost prestige as many countries felt the pope was merely a puppet of the French king. This led to the title of Babylonian Captivity for this time period drawing on the Biblical example of when the Hebrews were taken captive into Babylon for about 70 years and then allowed to return to Jerusalem.

In order to solve this problem and hopefully return peace to Latin Christendom, two different popes were elected in 1378- one in Avignon and one in Rome. Each expected the other to step down, but neither did. This event was called the Great Schism of the West. It caused many Europeans to doubt the authority of the Catholic Church. Some even called for reform that would allow lay persons more activity in the church. For example, John Wycliffe of England translated the Bible into English in 1380. He believed that everyone should be able to read and interpret scripture for himself. His followers were called Lollards. John Huss of Bohemia had a similar idea and supported the ideas of Wycliffe. Huss gained a substantial following among the lower class.

These reform movements did not get very far due resistance from the Church. In 1409, a Church council was held in Pisa where a 3rd pope was elected. Unfortunately, the other two popes still refused to step down which made the Schism now three-fold. Finally, in 1415, at the Council of Constance, a 4th pope, Martin V, was elected by one of the largest gatherings of Church officials in European history. The other three popes were eventually persuaded to withdraw and the Great Schism ended. The Council of Constance also addressed the reformers Wycliffe and Huss by declaring them both heretics. Huss was burned at the stake but Wycliffe was already dead, so his body was exhumed and his remains were destroyed. Aside from the reaction to the reformers, the Council of Constance did little to address the main issues most people had with the Church. The next several popes after Martin V were known as being increasingly secular and concerned with worldly affairs which put further church reform on hold indefinitely.

Italian Renaissance

At the end of the Medieval Era, the European world started transitioning into a time of great change, a time of “rebirth” of learning called the Renaissance. Along the change was slow and gradual, most historians consider the beginning of the Renaissance to be in the 15th century. The “rebirth” of learning focused mostly on studying ancient Greek and Roman texts in order to progress beyond life in the Middle Ages. The philosophy of humanism became the idea of the time. Humanism is concerned with what humans ought to be and ought to do. Humanism glorifies human traits. Art and beauty were preeminent during the Renaissance.

The place in Europe most open to these changes was Italy because there was no central government in Italy; it varied by locale. Some cities were ruled by hereditary dukes or princes, some by oligarchies, and others were republican in nature. Most historians consider the Renaissance to have started in the Italian city-state of Florence. Florence was originally a republic, but eventually a powerful banking family known as the de Medici overthrew the government and became hereditary dukes. Many of the early names of the Renaissance came from Florence including the writers Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio as well as the painters Michelangelo and DaVinci. The de Medici family helped influence Renaissance artists by becoming patrons of the arts in order to glorify their family. A patron is someone who supports an artist. Lorenzo de Medici was perhaps the most well-known patron of the family spending inordinate amounts of money on artwork and sculpture around Florence that would leave a legacy for his family. The de Medicis were certainly not the only patrons of Renaissance artists. Kings from around Europe also commissioned artwork, and the Roman Catholic Church also supported many artists in order to beautify their churches and hopefully encourage more religious fervor.

Art in all forms changed stylistically during the Renaissance. Architecture took on a more Greco-Roman style with columns and arches becoming more popular (in opposition to the sharp lines of Gothic architecture popular during the Middle Ages). Sculpture similarly used ideas and subjects from ancient Greece, Rome, and even Biblical figures. Great leaders were immortalized in free-standing statues, often portrayed on horseback. Painting improved greatly during the Renaissance due to mathematical developments in perspective. Paintings told stories and were more realistic than their Medieval counterparts. Often Renaissance paintings conveyed religious themes or portrayed wealthy people, but there was still some Greek and Roman influence. Some of the most well-known painters in Italy were Bellini, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Renaissance artists tended to have many areas of expertise, though, so they often painted in addition to sculpting or architectural work.

Another key component of the Renaissance was writing. During the Middle Ages, writers had focused on religious themes (like how to get to heaven or how to be more devout) and only wrote in Latin. During the Renaissance, writers analyzed human thought processes or analyzed Greek and Roman texts. They also started writing the common language- called vernacular- which allowed more people to read their works. One of the first examples of this was the author Dante Alighieri who wrote The Divine Comedy in Italian. It was one of the first European books to be written in a language other than Italian. Another writer was Petrarch. He was called the first man of letters because he became the model for studying Greek and Roman texts and writing about his reflections about his own thoughts. Not all writing was personal reflection, though; much of it was scholarly as well. For example, the Renaissance man Lorenzo Valla was famous for using textual criticism to analyze when documents were written. The premise behind this idea is that languages change over time, so the Latin used by Europeans in the 4th century would be different than the Latin used by Europeans in the 8th century or even 14th century.Using this method, Valla proved that the document entitled the Donation of Constantine which supposedly gave the pope land in Rome from the Roman Emperor Constantine was a fraud. Valla showed that the language was not consistent with how Europeans wrote in the 4th century and therefore could not have been written by the Emperor Constantine.

Other prominent writers focused on every day issues such as Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier. This book explained what was expected of polite people during the Renaissance. He focused on how men should act toward one another in order to have a civilized society. Another famous Renaissance writer focused on the political issues of his day. In his book The PrinceNiccolo Machiavelli wrote the first secular treatise on politics. Previous political instructions had focused on how leaders should behave toward their subjects and other leaders if they were to be considered good Christians. Machiavelli instead focused on what effective leaders actually did to keep power. His philosophy has been described as “the ends justify the means” meaning that his book was not about what was right or wrong but rather about what worked. Machiavelli was likely influenced by a sincere patriotism toward Italy as a whole. Since Italy was not unified like the stronger countries in Europe (France, Spain, England) he was trying to explain how his country could become stronger and remain politically powerful. This lack of unification often led to power struggles among competing cities. Italian mercenaries, called condottieri, were hired by various Italian states to either attack their neighbors or defend from such attacks. These soldiers were even used at times by the pope. The turbulent political situation in Italy accounts for at least some of Machiavelli’s ideas but also contributed to the open atmosphere in which artists and writers were free to express new ideas without fear of government censorship.

Education continued to improve during the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, universities had started to form where people would go to learn how to be a doctor or a theologian or a teacher at that university or another one. These universities became even more popular during the Renaissance and new universities were established in Spain, France, Scotland, Scandinavia, and especially Germany. Secondary schools for males also became more common during the Renaissance. Though not like our high schools today, these secondary schools did educate males in the basic skills considered necessary for life including learning to read Latin as well as how to act in social situations (think Book of the Courtier). Women were mostly denied educational privileges, but a very few wealthy women were taught to read and write in their homes. Education for females focused on how to raise a family and run a household. This was likely due to the family structure at the time. Men often did not marry until they were in their 30s because they had to first earn a living and establish a household. Women married in their mid- to late-teens in order to bear as many children as possible because so many did not survive until adulthood. Due to high mortality rates, children were often raised by their widowed mothers because their fathers were so much older than their mothers and therefore died when the children were still young.

Northern Renaissance

The Renaissance outside of Italy took on a different feel. Although still considered a rebirth with a focus on Greek and Roman texts, the Renaissance in northern European countries tended to be more conservative. The Renaissance spread to the north quite gradually, usually through artists and writers that studied in Italy and then brought the ideas of the Renaissance to their home countries. There was more blending in the north of Medieval tradition and new thought processes. Similarly, the cultured of Italy were said to believe in a “pagan” humanism that focused much more on secular pleasures whereas outside of Italy, the humanists were called Christian humanist because the Church still played a significant role in the works produced.

The Renaissance in the north was most prosperous in the Germanic states that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps this was because the Holy Roman Empire most resembled Italy in that it was economically very prosperous but politically disparate. The cities of Germany thrived during the 14th century, and the Holy Roman Empire gave rise to some of the first banking families. The Fuggers were especially well known for lending out money especially very large sums to the rich and famous, something virtually unheard of in the Middle Ages. Several important families, including some monarchies took out loans from the Fugger family. Another thing that sparked the prosperity of the Germanic states was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg circa 1450. The printing press allowed books, flyers, and pamphlets to be printed easily and rapidly thereby influencing the rate at which information could be spread.