The European Renaissance

By the time the Byzantine Empire fell to Muslim Turks in 1453, many Christian scholars had left for Italy. As a consequence, the beginnings of the Renaissance are seen to start in Italy and then spread throughout the rest of Europe. Initially, it was the Italian cities, such as Naples, Genoa, and Venice, which became the first major centres of trade between Europe and the Middle East.

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Ideas, as well as goods were exchanged and the works of Arab scholars, who had preserved the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers, began to spread further a field. While the flow of these `new` ideas was an important catalyst, other more practical factors were just as instrumental in the spread of the renaissance worldview, e.g.

  • The development of financial systems, such as bookkeeping and credit, allowed ordinary merchants to prosper.

  • Subsequently, a number of merchant families, as well as the church, had amassed enough wealth to become patrons.

Therefore, some of the most important patrons of the early Renaissance were from the merchant classes of Florence and Venice, which had grown wealthy from the expansion of merchant trade. This period also marked a growth of bureaucracy, an increase in state authority in the areas of law and taxation, plus the creation of larger regional states. It was also a period of relative peace up until the French invasion of 1494.  As a consequence, Italy fell under foreign domination and the focus of the renaissance was to gradually shift to other parts of Europe. So, by the 15th century, Europe was beginning to experience great change.

Even so, Italy would remain a centre of artistic achievements, which continued to flourish well into the 16th century with the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Michelangelo.  In 1492, Columbus would set sail to America and as literacy spread further, learned men of science were also starting to make major new discoveries. Therefore, it is not so surprising that historians call this period of European history the `Renaissance` or the `rebirth`. Of course, the actual Renaissance itself is not the real focus of our discussion, as we are more interested in the worldviews that are to emerge during this period. However, even with this very brief historical overview, we hopefully get some insight into the 2000-year timeline that separates the Greek philosophers from the Renaissance, which is about to take place in Western Europe.

The Reformation

Within the context of the Renaissance period, some mention of `The Reformation` is also appropriate. The reformation began on October 31, 1517, when German monk Martin Luther nailed a document of protest to the door of the Wittenberg Church. This document contained 95 short articles and became known as the `95 Theses`. This action, and the Church's reaction to it, sparked off the Protestant Reformation.

In about 1533, John Calvin, a French priest, broke away from the Roman Church. His beliefs about Church reform were far more radical than those of Luther. Under Calvin, Church government changed from Episcopal (rule by Bishops) to Presbyterian (rule by Elders) and the liturgy of the Church became simpler.

Although the power of the Church did not disappear, it was to become more fragmented. As such, it allowed some people to start challenging aspects of the original teachings of the Church and, if necessary, find a haven of safety beyond the immediate reach of Rome and the Pope. So, as a consequence, there was increased scope for the worldview of many to begin to change.