Chapter 1 - Section 12

The Beginning of Modern Western Civilization: Early Modern Europe

The Renaissance from the 14th to the 17th Centuries

     The Early Modern period in European history begins with the Renaissance. The Renaissance, meaning rebirth, refers to the period of rejuvenation where art, learning, politics, militarism and religion took on distinctly modern appearances. The Renaissance also marks an evolutionary growth period from the Middle Ages to the modern Western world. It spans roughly 300 years from the middle of the 14th century to the end of the religious wars in 1648. The Renaissance begins the history of Modern Western Civilization. Its heritage is an important element of our modern cultural identity and that of all nations influenced by Western ways of life.

         Although, the period was naturally evolved from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance was distinctive and unique for many reasons. The people who lived at the time were very aware that they were in a new era markedly different from feudalism. It was the Renaissance humanists that labeled the Middle Ages as such. This naming was done to distinguish themselves from the ancient world and the Medieval ways of life. They were very much aware of this new culture that was emerging from the feudal period. The Renaissance possessed its own set of beliefs, values, and way of life. It was characterized by the elements presented below. The student may notice how much of these characteristics are still embedded in the Western tradition.

     Cultural elements of the Renaissance included the following features:

  • The learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans was revived and eagerly studied. Most of this learning was lost or ignored during the Middle Ages.
  • Renaissance values cherished free inquiry, experimentation and the use of human reason. Matters of faith, authority and traditions were extensively questioned and openly challenged. The concept of a scientific method was rapidly gaining acceptance.
  • Along with changed values came changed lifestyles. A humanistic focus upon the value of the individual gradually replaced the Medieval emphasis on the collective. Secular concerns, materialism and development of individual talents became worthy objectives for the Renaissance people.
  • Unrestricted ambition for ever more power, glory and wealth became features of Renaissance life. The emphasis was upon what an individual could achieve in this world and not with a preoccupation with life in the next.
  • Renaissance discoveries led to the tremendous overseas expansion and the European colonization of foreign lands in Africa, the New World and Asia.
  • The authority of the Medieval Catholic Church greatly declined. Its power and hold over the people diminished under the skeptical influence of a secular outlook. The Church itself lost much of its religious spirit as its leaders became absorbed with the preoccupations of Renaissance worldliness.
  • Use of Latin was replaced by vernacular, national languages spoken by the people such as French, German, Italian, Spanish and English.

     The new civilization of the Renaissance is justly famous for its outstanding achievements in the arts, architecture, literature, science, politics and technological advances. Even in the area of militarism and warfare, the Renaissance introduced many changes that resulted in European conquests around the world. The Renaissance had a profound influence on the modern world.

     Renaissance individuals excelled in many areas. A brief mention of these famous people will serve to recall their great achievements.

     Representing the humanistic spirit are writers and philosophers such as:

  • Petrarch (1304-1374): He is often called the father of humanism. He wrote beautiful poems about love and nature expressing the style of ancient writers.
  • Erasmus (c. 1466-1536): He wrote to encourage the Church to reform itself. He attacked the abuses of the clergy, upper class and social injustice. His famous book is a satire entitled Praise of Folly.
  • Sir Thomas More (1478-1535): He wrote about an ideal society free from war, prejudice, poverty and injustice. His book was Utopia, a name that has come to mean any ideal place.

     Using the vernacular in literature, these writers today still reveal their Renaissance greatness.

  • Dante (1265-1321): Dante’s Divine Comedy remains among the list of truly great literary masterpieces. He was the first to write in modern Italian. He used the Tuscan dialect which is the official Italian of modern Italy.
  • Boccaccio (c. 1313-1375): He survived the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, of 1347-1350. He wrote an anthology of short stories set in an Italian villa where a group of young people took refuge from the disease. The book, The Decameron relates the stories the group supposedly told each other during their stay at the villa.
  • Chaucer (c.1340-1400): Influenced by Dante and Boccaccio, he wrote The Canterbury Tales about English pilgrims on their way to the shrine in Canterbury.
  • Machiavelli (1469-1527): His famous book, The Prince, still read by statesmen and stateswomen today was written to provide instruction to powerful rulers on how to be successful. Machiavelli was a Florentine who tried to give advice to the rulers of his day. He is remembered for his political ideas on power and leadership. The concept “the end justifies the means” is attributed to him.
  • Shakespeare (1564-1616): He lived in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He is often considered the greatest playwright of all times. His string of famous plays depicts historical events, human nature and the high dramas of tragedy and comedy. Titles such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth are simply a small sample of his genius.

     Other famous Renaissance writers are Cervantes of Spain, Moliere, Rabelais and Montaigne in France and Milton in England. Modern Western literary traditions certainly began in the Renaissance.

     It need hardly be stated that Renaissance art and the other fine arts achieved a state of excellence rarely matched in history. In virtually every European country, outstanding artists created works of art, sculpture, and architecture that enriched Western Civilization and are proudly held as among the finest achievements in European history. One can recall the Renaissance geniuses like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian in Italy, as examples. El Greco and Velasquez upheld the artistic traditions of the Renaissance in Spain while Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and Durer represent some of the greatest northern European artists of the Renaissance.

     The Early Modern European period of the Renaissance witnessed the introduction and development of the Scientific Method of observation, experimentation and problem solving. With the general application of critical thinking, questioning authority and emphasis on the use of man’s reasoning abilities, modern science emerged from the generally regarded Medieval past of superstition, religion and magic. As a result, the Renaissance scientific discoveries and the individuals responsible for them would provide a hall of fame list rivaling those of the artists, architects and sculptures. A few examples are given here to indicate science aspects of Renaissance achievements to the modern world.

     Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton in the areas of mathematics, astronomy and physics made significant revelations about the natural world, planetary movements, gravity and laws of physics. Concepts in geometry, calculus and optics added to the new learning. Vesalius, Harvey and Leeuwenhoek made important discoveries respectively, related to anatomy, circulation of the blood and the discovery of microbes and use of the microscope. Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, wrote about the new scientific methods and the application of observation and experimentation to enhance human learning. These discoveries and many other advances are often collectively termed the Scientific Revolution. They certainly established the modern notions of science and scientific progress in the service of humanity.

     Renaissance ideas, discoveries, inventions and other forms of learning and progress were quickly and relatively inexpensively spread throughout Europe by the singular invention of the printing press which used moveable type. Johann Gutenberg about 1450, in Germany is credited with this extraordinary breakthrough. Printed materials, especially the Bible, were now made available and affordable to all people. Thus the ideas of the Renaissance writers and humanists were spread everywhere and poised serious challenges to the traditional authority of rulers and the Catholic Church.

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