Chapter 1: Renaissance & Reformation: “Not Bragging or Anything, but We’re Kind of a Big Deal”
1.1: The Italian Renaissance
Once Upon a Time in the West
As mentioned in the Prologue, the “Dark Ages” is a label for historians. The people living during these times had no idea that they were living in the “Dark Ages.” In fact, the term was first used afterwards, during the Renaissance. Why?
Because humans during the Renaissance thought they were special. “Renaissance men” believed that they struck upon ideas and culture that had been ignored for a thousand years. Renaissance people not only labeled the Dark Ages, they also labeled their own time. They called their time period the Renaissance because of this sense of “glorious revival” of this ignored culture. Perhaps the Renaissance’s biggest triumph is that this sense of historical eras carries over into our classrooms today.
This sense that your own generation is better than those that came before it is nothing new (consider your own generation). What was so key about the Renaissance focus, though, was in emphasizing that human beings during any age, even during the Dark Ages, could have been just as great, if people truly realized their potential as human beings.
The focus on human beings, on people living here on the planet during the present time, was indeed both new and old. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the most constant and largest social, cultural, and political force in Europe. Throughout the “Dark Ages,” the focus was not on the present, but on the eternal future. During these times, your sole goal (and “soul goal”) was not towards improving your existence here. Instead, the goal was centered on your final destination, on securing a place for your soul in the good side of afterlife (Heaven). Life was viewed as a test, a “dress rehearsal” for the “big show” to come. In order to pass this test, it was not necessary to be educated, to be rich, or to be satisfied with yourself or your place in society. Instead, suffering through hardship, poverty, and disease with grace would be rewarded hereafter.
This focus did not vanish during the time of the Renaissance. However, the major Renaissance philosophy of humanism taught that, in addition to securing a good place in the afterlife, we should also work towards securing the best possible place for ourselves here. In addition to the spiritual, the secular was emphasized. The last time in the West that the secular world was embraced and celebrated this much was during the classical era: the times of ancient Greece and Rome. Therefore, the Renaissance men saw themselves as “re-birthing” classical cultures.
It All Started in Italy… Why Italy?
- “Ancient Rome?… Wait a sec, we’re in Rome right now, man!”
Italy was not only the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, but also was the heart of the Roman Empire. During the Renaissance and beyond, you didn’t need to be a scholar to see classical culture everywhere—the remains and ruins of the Roman Empire served to give Italy a sense of pride and additional reason to look into the classical past before Christianity. (“Italy” was a region composed of many different countries at this point, each ruled over by a different leader—Italy would not exist as one country until the 1800s.)
During the “Dark Ages,” the majority of this classical past was viewed as “sinful” just for this reason: the Greeks and Romans believed in multiple gods, having lived before Christ and the dominance of the Church. The original texts of classical authors were not sought after, and the copies translated into Latin sometimes were grossly inaccurate. (One of the biggest exceptions to this view was the ancient philosopher and scientist Aristotle, whose views had been “Christianized” by St. Thomas Aquinas, among others.)
- Plagues, Crusades, and Other Disasters
So, Middle Ages-era Christians were not interested in the original sources of classical peoples. However, Middle Ages Muslims and Jews living around the Mediterranean were interested. These texts were translated much more faithfully to the originals—but they were translated into Arabic or Hebrew first. As the Muslim world and the Christian world were very segregated, something big was needed to bring these peoples and their cultures together.
That event was the Crusades: a series of holy wars declared by a series of Middle Ages popes against “the infidel” (“the unfaithful”) in The Holy Land (present-day Israel). Along the way, Christians persecuted communities of Jews in Europe. Though the Crusades met with varying degrees of success, these “holy wars” had a very secular effect. They exposed European Christians to new trade routes, new trade goods (especially silks and spices), and most importantly new ideas. Actually, new old ideas. Middle Ages scholars saw for the first time how poor some of their Latin versions of classical texts were. They started to re-investigate classical authors and classical culture. Especially after the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) killed off a third of Europe’s population in the late Middle Ages, Europeans wanted to celebrate life, and saw that classical Greeks and Romans did the same. The rebirth was born.
Medieval Spain: the Light in the Dark Ages
Spain was not under the authority of the Church during the Dark Ages. Instead, Spain was invaded by the “Moors,” Muslim groups from North Africa who made Spain a Muslim territory starting in 711. (The Muslims would have invaded France as well, if not for the armies of Charles “the Hammer.”) The Muslims were certainly more tolerant than Christians during this era: Muslim Spain was the only place in Europe where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived side-by-side. As a result, Spain became a cultural/educational center, devoted to music, art, poetry, science, and philosophy while the rest of Europe was mainly illiterate. However, the Muslim dominance was eventually lessened as Christian warriors from the north of Spain began the “Reconquista,” the 700-year-plus “reconquest” of Spain from Muslim control. The last Muslims would be defeated in 1492.
- Trade and Trading in City-States
Not only was Italy the center of the Roman Empire and the center of the Crusade-launching Church, it also was the central entry point of Europe’s trade network. Geographic luck has much to do with it: the “boot” of Italy was the easiest way to get goods into the heart of Europe. The Pyrenees Mountains prevented trade with Muslim Spain. Similarly-rugged terrain in Eastern Europe meant that the best way was by the Mediterranean Sea. The area with the most ports on that sea was unsurprisingly a peninsula… the Italian “boot”.
As mentioned before, like Germany and most present-day countries in Europe, Italy was not yet one country. Instead, it was composed of many warring and competitive city-states. All of these city-states had ports and therefore wanted to have the most powerful trade network.
So, we have the “perfect storm”: 1) classical ruins, 2) classical culture coming from the Muslim world, and 3) easy trading access. The combination of these conditions put the Italian city-states at the top of the pack for starting the Renaissance. However, perhaps the most significant development after the Crusades and the plague was in terms of who made bank (and made banks) to start this re-boot of the secular in the “boot” of Italy.
Merchant class patrons: the rise of an educated “middle class”
In many ways, the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world is economic: not only did the West rise during the past 1000 years, but what we call “the middle class” was created and expanded. Among the first big steps to the “middle class” was the merchant class of the Renaissance.
Throughout the Middle Ages, wealth was primarily measured in terms of land, not liquid capital (cash money). The nobility owned land and passed on land to their children. The nobles and the Church reaped wealth (both land and money) from taxation of various sorts.
What about everybody else? As the song goes, “The rich get richer, and the poor get children.” After the plague and the Crusades, however, a new set of merchants (traders) set up shop, literally. With routes opened up by the Crusades, these merchants throughout Italy began trading all the way to the Far East (through a complex system of land trades leading back through the Middle East to the Mediterranean).
The merchants were not born into nobility, for the most part. So, as no other place in Europe had such easy exposure to these Eastern goods, the merchants bought their way into power and leadership. Perhaps no better example of this pattern exists than the d’Medici Family in the city-state of Florence: The banking powerhouse family controlled the “republic” like a dictatorship for many generations.
The d’Medici and other merchant families like them did something new with their wealth, however: they sponsored secular culture. They became patrons of artists who focused more and more on the secular rather than the spiritual (even when painting Biblical figures).
The families also educated themselves and their children. During the Middle Ages, literacy levels might have reached as low as 2% of the population—and guess who that 2% was. A hint: the medieval university system required all students to become ordained in the Church before graduating.
Long-term Legacy: Learn everything and become anything
Through the emphasis on classical-inspired secularism, the “Renaissance man” learned from a variety of subjects at the same time. Traditional “education” for most of the population had consisted of choosing a career (or rather, having a career chosen for you) and training in that career from a very young age. There were very little options, obviously, and few of these careers required literacy or even formal learning.
Humanism’s biggest impact is on you right now: without the Renaissance turning attention back to human achievements here on Planet Earth, education likely would have remained the same. With humanism and its secular focus, the possibilities here for the immediate future (not the eternal future) became opened. The more you learn and the more fields you study means that many more possibilities for success you could pursue. Therefore, an educational system based on the humanities and the sciences simultaneously started to be emphasized—in short, the style of education that you now experience was born in the Renaissance. Not just the priests, but everyone, should know as much as they can in order to become the best version of themselves possible. So… you have the Renaissance to blame for all that homework.
It Wasn’t All All That
Despite the above paragraph, keep in mind that the majority of society in Renaissance Italy was still uneducated, and still lower-class. The humanist education system was not public—it was open for the merchants and the artists, writers, and others who worked for them. Also keep in mind that it was mostly Renaissance men—a Renaissance woman’s primary job was still considered child-bearing and child-raising. (That would remain the case for most women until the 20th century—for that matter, that remains the case for some women today.) If the Renaissance woman could educate herself in subjects, that might make herself more appealing to a potential Renaissance man husband. However, after marriage, “her place” was considered to be the home.
That being written, the Renaissance Men did open the door for greater numbers of people in all levels of society to realize their potential. Let’s see how they did it.
Hildegard of Bingen: The Exception That Proves the Rule
There was one woman in medieval times who stood out as a philosopher, visionary, scientist, scholar, composer, playwright, and inventor of her own alphabet, and that was Hildegard of Bingen (1090-1179). However, the only reason she was able to be a “Renaissance woman” was that she was a nun during the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, Hildegard stands out as a very early advocate of women’s equality and spirituality. Her most famous piece of vocal music depicts all female voices cast as the virtues and there is only one male character: The Devil, who speaks his lines as he is not able to sing like the angels.