5.0 Renaissance: Introduction

The Renaissance was a period of intellectual transformation from the 14th to 16th centuries. This intellectual revolution began in the city-states of Northern Italy and was inspired by renewed scholarly interest in the study of Classical art and literature.

The thinking of ancient writers influenced the think of Europeans. Europeans started looking at the world differently; they thought reform was not only possible but even desirable; moreover, questioning tradition weakened the significant influence and power of the Catholic Church. People didn't stop believing in God or valuing the Church. Yet, awareness of how the ancients lived and what the ancients thought made people in the 14th century look at the world differently. This questioning eventually weakened the hold and authority of the Catholic Church. This isn't because people stopped believing in God or valuing the Church. Instead, awareness of how the ancients lived made people want to imitate the ancients. Thus, the Renaissance was a true intellectual revolution.

leoRevolution, or change, is possible only once traditional authority is sufficiently weakened. This weakening came from the influence of universities on the thinking of the public. (The Church was actually responsible for establishing universities.) Educated people in these schools read the ancients and dreamt about reforming their own society. Calls for social reform turned into calls to specifically reform the Church itself. For example, the reformer named Martin Luther was a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Calls to reform the Church eventually led to a split of the Church called the Protestant Reformation. We'll be looking at the Protestant Reformation during the next unit.

Historians look for patterns which set different periods apart from one another. The main thing setting the Renaissance apart from the medieval was the degree of intellectual innovation. During the Middle Ages, scholars looked for ways to make new information agree with Church teaching. These scholars were called scholastics. They weren't so much worried about seeing the world as it is so much as finding ways to glorify the Church and justify their existing beliefs. This is why scholastics are considered conformists: they make their understanding conform (or agree) with existing teaching. Interestingly, the Church did allow some measure of intellectual freedom (it established the university system after all); however, the Church restricted free-thought. This all changed with the Renaissance as scholars started asking "dangerous questions" and reaching equally dangerous conclusions.

Ironically, one such dangerous conclusion came from the Church itself: in the 1500s the calendar (or solar year) was only 360 days. This incorrect calendar made it difficult for the Church to properly time the beginning and end of its important seasonal celebrations like Easter or Christmas. So the Church tasked a Polish mathematician named Nicholas Copernicus to fix the problem. Copernicus solved it by postulating the Earth orbitted the Sun. This challenged the Church's existing teaching that the Earth was completely stationary and the Sun (and planets) orbitted us. The Copernican or "helio-centric" (sun-centered) system fixed the calendar problem but opened the Church up to attack: if the Church was wrong about the Sun orbitting the Earth, could it be wrong in other fundamental ways? The answer of course was a resounding yes.

Again, the Renaissance differed from the medieval period because during the Renaissance intellectual innovation (or new ideas) were valued. For example, medieval doctors argued men had one fewer rib than women because according to the Bible God took a rib and turned it into Eve. Renaissance doctors, however, didn't feel the need to explain human anatomy in this way; instead, Renaissance scholars actually studied human bodies finding that everyone had the same number of ribs despite what the Church taught. Renaissance scholars, again, didn't shy away from innovation or new ideas. They learned to value intellectual freedom and integrity from the ancient Greeks; and they learned to value political liberty from the ancient Romans. Thus, over time the authority of the Catholic Church was successfully challenged giving birth to a new secular age (making possible the current Modern Age).