5.2 An Ongoing Revolution

The Middle Ages is accurately described as a period of conformity. People who conform don't question what they believe; they just do what they're told and follow orders. For people living in a free country like Canada in the 21st century this seems like a bad thing. To be honest it doesn't sound like just accepting what you're told is a fact is such a smart thing to do. Yet, if you place yourself into the position of someone born in France, England, or Germany in the 13th century it might make more sense.

Firstly, everyone was born into the Catholic Church. Everything about life revolved around the Church and God. Since the Church was the only one allowed to interpret scripture, people tended to accept what their priest had to say about life; moreover, the Church asserted then (as it continues to do today) that the only way to be saved was through Jesus Christ and his Church. If you questioned the Church this was tantamount to questioning God. God-loving people simply didn't question the Church. There were people who didn't just accept what they were told. They innovated new ways of looking at the world and questioned traditional teachings. These people, sometimes called heretics by religious authorities, risked imprisonment, torture or even execution.

The Church also appealed to the Gospel of Matthew for its authority. In this gospel, Jesus says he'll build a new "church" (community) under the leadership of St. Peter. Interestingly, actual history didn't turn out this way. If you read Acs of the Apostles, Jesus' brother James is clearly the first leader of the Christian Church. Nonetheless, all popes trace their authority back to St. Peter and the Gospel of Matthew.

Also, the Church claimed to possess the sole right to interpret scipture; individual Christians were not allowed to read and intepret scripture for themselves. Most people couldn't read anyhow; and even if they could they probably didn't read Latin (the language the Bible was written in). Thus, the Church regarded itself as the sole authority on literally everything. Church doctrine, or conforming to Church teaching, formed the basis of essentially all intellectual life during the Middle Ages. For this last reason, more than any other, social progress and change was slow during the Middle Ages. People were so confident the Church was correct and right about everything there was no reason to try and explain the world through any other filter.

The Church's focus was not on progress but upon the preservation of tradition (and getting people to Heaven). So, to put it another way, social progress was frustrated because everyone thought everything was perfectly fine as it was. God was in control. His will was expressed through the Church's teachings. The role of the individual was to obey and patiently await the afterlife.

During the Renaissance, however, things started to change. In the 14th and 15th centuries, people felt increasingly comfortable asking questions and seeking out answers that fell outside of the purview or influence of the Catholic Church. The Church, to its credit, allowed this process to take place mainly because many of the questions being asked came from the clergy themselves. For example, Desiderius Erasmus was a priest who wrote a book called In Praise of Folly. In this book he criticized the ignorance and foolishness he saw in the Church's leaders and priests. Erasmus also completed some controversial work in translating the Bible from Latin into Dutch (so regular people could read scipture themselves).

Eventually secular scholars like Galileo and Sir Francis Bacon (both scientists known as "natural philosophers") experimented with new concepts that challenged traditional approaches. The Church's monopoly on power weakened and Christianity became only one of many paths to truth, happiness and fulfillment.


An artist hears the word "renaissance" and appreciates how the re-discovery of Rome's monuements triggered a revolution in medieval architecture, painting and sculpture.

A writer hears the word "renaissance" and appreciates how the re-discovery of Homer and Virgil could lead to the Protestant Reformation.

Scientists appreciate how this intellectual revolution produced new theories about the world and physical reality; and it was during this time the scientific method was developed (or rather "re-discovered").

Historians see the Renaissance as:

1). The end of feudalism because national authority is centered around a monarch.

2). Limits are placed on Church power.

3). Early signs of democracy are appearing in both the city-states of Italy and the small kingdoms of Germany.

4). Finally, historians appreciate the period for its inventions and the discovery and exploration of the New World. They also appreciate the benefits conferred upon the world by advances in printing, ship building, the compass, telescope, paper and gun powder.