5.3 Renassaince Accomplishments

Knowledge of the ancient world transformed Europe in the 14th century; it continues to shape Western civilization today. For example, the first experiment with democracy began with ancient Greece. The idea of human rights reflects certain Roman virtues tied to personal liberty and freedom from interference from the state (government). Both Greece and Rome were literate societies (quite unlike medieval Europe where most people could not read). Humanism was, and remains, an optimistic philosophy of living where humankind is celebrated and not considered evil or fallen. The United Nations, established in 1945, reflects humanism's optimism: it is an international organization dedicated to protecting freedom, human rights and all that is good in humankind. The greatest contribution the Greeks gave us is rationalism. The Greeks didn't explain storms or disasters by appealing to either mystery or the will of the gods. Instead, Greek rationalists explained what they saw by appealing to the idea of natural processes. The Greeks were the first genuinely scientific civilization.

During the Middle Ages (see example painting at bottom left) artists were concerned with symbolism not reality. They didn't worry about presenting figures or buildings realistically on canvas. Instead, they painted a person big not because they were large themselves but because they were important. They painted people small who were insignificant. Again, medieval painters were symbolists. They focused primarily upon biblical themes and glorifying God.

On the other hand, Renaissance artists (see painting at bottom right) focused on representing the world realistically. If you were a pope they didn't paint you the size of King Kong. Popes and poor people were painted the same size. This is because Renaissance painters developed and followed the rules of perspective. Renaissance sculptors and painters focused upon human beauty, goodness and stories drawn from Roman and Greek mythology.

Renaissance painters like El Greco portrayed the human form with ever increasing accuracy. This was possible because of improvements in our understanding of human anatomy. These improvements were made possible due to the work of such thinkers as Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564 AD), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519 AD) and Michelangelo (1475-1564 AD).

renaissance and medieval art


Writers like Desiderius Erasmus placed a lot of value on Classical literature. During the Middle Ages, literature tended to focus on metaphysics and praising God; however, during the Renaissance literature shifted away from religious themes focusing more on humanist ones. For example, humanist texts described humankind's potential for good and capacity for creativity. Renaissance thought reflected goodness as opposed to the medieval tendency to stress sinfulnes.

The influence of humanism wasn't restricted to just intellectuals. The Renaissance period is associated with an explosion in public literacy levels (ever greater numbers of people could read). This is because in the 1440s Johannes Gutenberg's printing press made it possible to mass produce books. Since books were mass produced they became more affordable. Information, therefore, previously unavailable to the general public became widely available. The increase in public literacy meant more people held increasingly sophisticated views of the world. This sophistication made social, religious, and cultural change not only possible but inevitable. Knowledge, after all, is power.

The defining feature of the Renaissance was the philosophy of humanism. Humanism, quite unlike Catholicism, didn't promote the idea people were by nature sinful. Instead, humanism encouraged people to live virtuously, to pursue knowledge, and subject belief to filter of reason. With that said, humanists were not atheists; they were Christian scholars who wanted to break the hold the Catholic Church had on free-thinking. Marguerite de Navarre is an example of someone who was both a devout believer and a humanist.

Humanism as a philosophy was distinct from was distinct from scholasticism (the most important school of thought during the medieval period). Scholastics were defenders of official Church teachings and authority. They defended a view of reality as it ought to be. Humanists, on the other hand, wanted to discover and describe reality as it actually was, e.g. see Copernicus and heliocentrism. Two thinkers of the medieval period—William of Ockham and Anselm of Canterbury—illustrate how the conclusions reached by scholastics and humanists were mutually exclusive.


Humanism became the basis of education in Italy eventually spreading to the rest of Europe. Humanists believed human beings could improve themselves through education. This belief in education's power to help people become better was the basis of the Enlightenment. We will look at the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) during unit seven.

Schools were created to promote human improvement.The foundation of a humanist education was the study of the liberal arts. Students studied philosophy, history, rhetoric (debate), writing, mathematics, music and astronomy. Some schools also incorporated archery, dancing, hunting and swimming. The overall objective of a humanist education was to prepare a student for life by helping them develop a "sound mind" (or the ability to think and talk intelligently about a multitude of subjects). A second objective of humanist education was to assist people develop in to individuals capable of helping their communities.

Humanist schools combined the study of Christianity and Classical literature to produce a model of education throughout all of Europe. Children who attended humanist schools tended to be from upper-class families; however, the education of poorer students was often paid for by patrons (wealthy supporters), city councils or the school's themselves.


Improvements in science and engineering were made during the Renaissance. New and exciting discoveries were made, mainly in the areas of anatomy, astronomy and physics. Breakthroughs in engineering paved the way for many of the world's most significant inventions such as telescopes, clocks and eye glasses. We will learn more about the achievements of scientists during the Scientific Revolution.

The Renaissance transformed the way people looked at themselves and the world. Gone were the days when people looked to superstition and mystery to explain the world; arrived were the days where people sought rational explanations for why things were the way they were. Remarkably, people started seeing it was genuinely possible to live a fulfilling life outside of the Church (or religion). Some people embraced the idea of living a life of the mind; also, people started to view humanity no longer as fallen or sinful but as something worthy of study, love, beauty and respect.