The Renaissance Period
The word renaissance means “rebirth.” The 250-year period of European history beginning about 1350 is called the Renaissance because it marked the rebirth of a certain way of thinking—a return to the values of the Classical era. A variety of conditions gave rise to the Renaissance. First, the Black Death decimated Europe, striking down almost half of the population. Second, survivors of the plague began migrating to the cities, causing them to grow and prosper. This prosperity in turn meant that wealthy citizens had disposable income to spend on culture and the arts. Third, the perfection of the printing process brought about the possibility of near-universal literacy and education.
The Renaissance in Italy
The earliest stirrings of the ideas that would make historians label this era “the Renaissance” occurred in the Italian city-states. Several factors were responsible for this. First, Italy was the location of the Roman Empire, whose great artistic and intellectual achievements became so important to the era. It was natural that the Italians would be the first to celebrate the cultural past, which could be seen, touched, and studied literally on their very doorsteps. Second, Italy was enjoying a period of great economic prosperity. This meant that there were enormously wealthy families who had money to spend on major artistic and architectural projects. Third, the Catholic Church, which was headquartered in Rome, had begun to depend financially on wealthy Italians like Cosimo de’ Medici. This financial dependency gave these wealthy businessmen and politicians a certain amount of power over Church policies. Fourth, Italy’s location in the center of the Mediterranean, between the Middle East and the West, had always made it a place of cultural and intellectual exchange.
The Church in the Renaissance
For a thousand years before the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church had held universal, undisputed sway over all aspects of life in Western Europe. This began to change during the Renaissance for a number of reasons.
First, the Church proved powerless in the face of the Black Death. This shook the faith of the ordinary people. Second, secular authorities such as the powerful merchant families of Italy arose; they proved powerful rivals to the Church’s authority. Third, the Church itself encouraged and eased the cultural exchange that led to such developments as the study of Greek and Middle Eastern texts and ideas. Fourth, the Church embraced the Classical revival that played a part in undermining its own authority. Fifth, the availability of printed books in Europe after 1450 meant that more people were reading and learning to think for themselves.
Beginning in 1414, the Church sponsored a series of councils—international gatherings of scholars and church officials. The goal of the councils was to repair a schism in the Church that had led to rival papacies throughout much of the fourteenth century, one in Avignon and one in Rome. Once the Church was reunited under one pope, the next goal was to reunite the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, which had been split since the year 1054. This was the purpose of the Council of Florence, convened in 1438. It was sponsored in part by money from the Medici family.
Scholars and officials from Greece, Ethiopia, Russia, Cairo, and Trebizond came to Florence for the council. It thus became an unprecedented exchange of ideas from the various cultures. Eastern and Western scholars were able to trade books and manuscripts and hold long debates and discussions on questions of science and philosophy. While the Eastern guests admired new Italian works of art and architecture, Western scholars pored over texts by Euclid, Plato, and Aristotle—works to which they had never before had access.
The council not only failed to reunite the Roman and Orthodox Churches, but, ironically, by making the spread and exchange of knowledge possible, it weakened the authority of the Church. As knowledge continued to spread and literacy continued to rise, people questioned the Church more and more. Only another eighty years would go by before Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation that would change everything.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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