CAUSES OF THE RENAISSANCE
The Renaissance was an important event in European history that stretched from the 14th century to the 17th century. It was preceded by the Middle Ages in Europe and eventually led to the major events of the Age of Enlightenment. In historical terms the Renaissance is important because it led to a major shift in European thought and worldview. While the Renaissance is considered to have begun in the city-states of the Italian peninsula in the 14th century, the main ideas of the movement eventually spread to all of Europe by the 16th century. The most significant changes that emerged as a result of the Renaissance can be seen in European architecture, art, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, politics, religion and science. Historians have identified several causes for the emergence of the Renaissance following the Middle Ages, such as: increased interaction between different cultures, the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts, the emergence of humanism, different artistic and technological innovations, and the impacts of conflict and death.
The first main cause of the Renaissance was the increased interaction between different cultures and societies in the time before and during the start of the Renaissance. This is important because at the time Europe was in the midst of the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages (or Medieval Period) had several key features such as: feudalism and devout religious faith in the form of Christianity. These features (along with others) combined to form a society that was very rigid socially, religiously, and politically. This means that European society at the time was not necessarily open to change. However, the essence of the Renaissance was that Europe experienced a shift in worldview and perspective. This shift was caused by new ideas, views and beliefs that Europe was exposed to in the centuries before the start of the Renaissance, which began in the 14th century. First, vast trade networks across Europe, Asia and Africa led to increased interaction between different societies which caused not only an exchange of goods, but also an exchange of people, beliefs, ideas and values. The largest and most well known of these trade networks was the Silk Road. It is perhaps one of the earliest and largest trade networks in human history, and played a vital role to many different civilizations throughout Eurasia from approximately 120 BCE to 1450 CE. At its height, the Silk Road stretched from Japan and China in the east to the Mediterranean area including Italy in the west, which was a span of over 4000 miles. Along the way it travelled through many different regions including: India, Persia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. There were many different civilizations that participated in the Silk Road over the centuries of its existence. Obviously, Chinese and Mongol traders played an important role in the Silk Road, as many of their goods were highly desired in faraway markets, such as Europe. Therefore, European traders often travelled to areas in the Middle East to secure rare and desirable products, from the far East. For their part, the traders of the Middle Eastern civilization were essentially the middle men who traded goods from both sides. While the Silk Road is generally remembered for the food and goods that were traded along the route, it is important to understand that the Silk Road also involved the exchange of ideas. As mentioned earlier, the Middle Eastern civilizations became major centers of learning and knowledge during this timeframe. For example, mathematicians from the Middle East used knowledge from eastern areas such as India to refine and improve mathematics, including methods that are still used today. Furthermore, religious and philosophical beliefs from the time period spread easily along the routes and had a profound impact on later events such as the Renaissance. For instance, after the Islamic faith originated in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century it quickly spread throughout the Middle East, Africa and even into parts of Europe, as traders brought their faith with them on the Silk Road. This influx of new ideas inspired people in Europe including artists, writers, philosophers and more.
The second main interaction that occurred before that start of the Renaissance was the crusades. They were a series of religious wars carried out by Christian crusaders from Europe during the timeframe of the Middle Ages. Beginning in 1095 CE, the crusades saw European knights and noblemen travel to the Middle East in an attempt to capture the Holy Land away from Muslim people that had controlled the region for the previous centuries. In reality, there were many different crusades. Historians disagree on the exact number but in general, there were seven main crusades and many other smaller ones which occurred over a period of two centuries. The crusades were a major event in the Middle Ages and had a profound impact on the world at the time. For example, one of the first major impacts of the crusades was that it increased interaction between different societies and groups of people. For instance, the crusades caused the religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to clash. In this conflict, people of all faiths traveled vast distances to fight over the city of Jerusalem, which each faith considered important to its religious heritage. This clash of religious ideals caused a sharing of ideas between the different religious groups and helped the principles of each religious faith to spread into new areas. Arguably, the clash between these three religions and this area of the world continues still today. Beyond religion, the interaction between different groups of people led to a spread of scientific and philosophical knowledge. The existence of the Silk Road had already caused a massive spread of ideas and knowledge across Eurasia, but the crusades continued and expanded the trend. At the outbreak of the crusades in the 11th century, the Middle East was a major center of learning and knowledge. Due to its geographical location, the major Middle Eastern civilizations were at the crossroads of the Silk Road and therefore benefited greatly from having access to both European and Asian knowledge. As such, when European crusaders came into contact with Middle Eastern peoples they were exposed to new ideas and inventions which eventually made their way back into European society. For example, the Europeans learned new understandings about mathematics from Middle Eastern mathematicians who were by far the most advanced at that time. Also related to knowledge, the different societies involved in the crusades were exposed to each other’s culture. This meant that each side learned new understandings about food, cultural practices and celebrations.
The next main cause of the Renaissance was the rediscovery by European thinkers of ancient Greek and Roman ideas and texts. For example, the term ‘renaissance’ in French means ‘rebirth’. This is in relation to the idea that the intellectual culture of the Renaissance was sparked by the rediscovery of these ancient philosophies and ideas which had largely been ignored in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Many of these ancient texts were preserved by Islamic and Jewish cultures in the Middle East and were not rediscovered by Europeans until the time of the Renaissance. More specifically, famous Italian Renaissance scholar and humanist Petrarch (also known as Francesco Petrarca) is remembered for rediscovering the earlier work of Roman philosopher Cicero. Cicero was born in Italy in 106 BC and died in 43 BC. He is regarded as one of the most masterful writers of his time and the Latin language. Petrarch’s rediscovery in the 14th century of Cicero’s letters is considered to be the spark of the Italian Renaissance and inspired other European scholars to do the same and look to ancient texts. Petrarch considered the ideas present in Cicero’s and other ancient texts as superior to the ideas present in Europe at the time of the Middle Ages. As well, Petrarch is considered to be the founder of the humanist movement during the Renaissance. In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch use ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. This was to be accomplished through the study of the ‘studia humanitatis’, which today is known as the humanities and includes topics such as: grammar, history, poetry, and philosophy. Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch (and others including Erasmus of Rotterdam) promoted the idea that citizens should be educated in these topics in order to allow them to participate in the social and political life of their society. This was a fundamental shift from the feudalistic and religious life that was the reality for most people in the Europe in the Middle Ages. As such, Petrarch’s actions are considered to be important to the emergence and growth of the overall Renaissance.
The next main cause of the Renaissance in Europe was the different innovations of the time, especially in publishing and art. In terms of publishing, the printing press was one of the most significant innovations in all of world history. German blacksmith, goldsmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press in the mid-1400s and it quickly had a profound impact on the events of the Renaissance (as well as later events such as the Enlightenment). Prior to the printing press, books and other literature were created through a varied assortment of methods (woodblock press, etc.) which were all labor intensive and slow. Gutenberg’s invention was the development of a hand mold that allowed for precise movable type. This meant that he perfected the process of making movable type pieces for easily and quickly constructing type-font documents. This sped up the printing process and made it extremely affordable, which allowed for an explosion in the publishing and printing of books. For example, the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be mass produced on the Gutenberg printing press. The invention and use of the printing press in Europe was important for the Renaissance because it allowed new ideas and worldviews to spread across the continent more easily. At its core, the Renaissance was about new ideas (such as humanism) overthrowing old views and customs (such as religious beliefs and practises and feudal traditions). Therefore, the invention of the printing press allowed these new ideas to spread and further enhance the overall Renaissance. Another important point about the printing press was that it challenged long held literacy and educational standards. With the mass production of books and other literature more poor and middle class people in Europe began to read. This allowed normal people to read and understand the new ideas from the scholars, writers and scientists of the Renaissance. Increased literacy challenged the power of the wealthy, nobility and the church, since they were the traditionally the only educated citizens. As well, the invention of the printing press would eventually have a profound impact on religious beliefs across Europe. Since more and more people could read they no longer had to depend on local priests and the Catholic Church for interpretation of the Bible. In fact, many people began to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation and fundamentally altered religious life for people in Europe.
Another dramatic innovation that led to the Renaissance was in the artistic styles and methods used by Renaissance painters. Today, the Renaissance is perhaps best known for the famous artists and their famous works of art. Previous to the Renaissance, in the Middle Ages, art was much more stylized and focused on religious themes. This means that the art in the Middle Ages displayed humans and the world in a more unrealistic but stylized fashion. However, in the Renaissance, European artists were inspired to create paintings and sculptures that focused more on the realities of everyday life and real people. This was likely due to the influence of humanism that helped spark the Renaissance. Also, just as scholars such as Petrarch were inspired by earlier Greek and Roman workers, so too were Renaissance artists. This meant realism and the human form were important and central to the new styles of art. Furthermore, Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo pioneered new skills and techniques, such as linear perspective, that allowed them to portray people and the world in news ways. Linear perspective was the technique of providing realistic depth to an image. It involved creating the illusion of depth by using angled lines and shadowing. Another technique from the Renaissance was sfumato. This was a painting technique whereby the painter would soften the lines and blend the different paints to create blurred areas. This is likely best displayed in da Vinci’s famous ‘Mona Lisa’. The masterful work of art does not focus on religious themes or stylized depictions of the world but rather shows an unknown woman in a realistic fashion. In fact, throughout history the painting has been praised for its use of shading and blending to enhance the photo realistic nature of the art. In addition, Michelangelo’s famous sculpture ‘David’ displayed the human form in a realistic and proportional nature. Therefore, these innovations in art helped spread the Renaissance ideas as more artists across Europe adopted the new techniques and methods. As well, it helped people view human beings and life in a much different way than they had previously in the earlier centuries.
The final cause of the Renaissance was the impact of the Black Death. The Black Death is one of the most important events in Western history and is the most famous pandemic in all of human history. A pandemic is the term used to describe the spread of an infectious disease over a wide area including the entire planet. The Black Death occurred during the 14th century and ravaged human populations throughout Asia and Europe as it spread along trade routes and through trading ports. Throughout history it has also been referred to as the ‘Great Mortality’ and ‘Great Pestilence’. The death toll of the Black Death is a debated topic and different historians have offered different views on the issue. Regardless, the reported death tolls are massive with some suggesting that it resulted in the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people in Europe and Asia. These high numbers suggest that between 30% and 60% of people died due to the infectious disease. Some regions suffered more than others, but in general it is widely accepted that approximately half of Europeans died as a result of the disease. For example, it has been recorded that both Paris, France and London, England saw half of their populations succumb to the pandemic. The Black Death also had devastating results in the Middle East and Asia with equally dramatic death tolls. While the Black Death was a horrific event that caused widespread death there were also several major developments during the time period of the Late Middle Ages and just before the start of the Renaissance. The Black Death is an important cause of the Renaissance because it caused people to question and challenge their own religious beliefs. This was because, at the time, there were no clear reasons for the spread of the disease and people did not understand how to stop it. As a result, many people suggested that it was god’s will and used their religious understanding to explain its spread. As a result, this set the stage for some people to question the authority of the Catholic Church and allowed for new ideas and change to enter into European society. Furthermore, the large death rate of the Black Death caused massive changes in the population and wealth of Europe. Many people migrated out of certain areas when the plague spread and as a result, all of Europe was thrown into an upheaval. This ultimately shifted the balance of power and wealth in European societies and helped bring about the dominance of several city-states in Italy, which is where the Renaissance first began. As a result, the Black Death and its impacts can be viewed as a cause of the overall Renaissance.
In conclusion, historians have identified several causes of the Renaissance in Europe, including: increased interaction between different cultures, the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts, the emergence of humanism, different artistic and technological innovations, and the impacts of conflict and death.