(EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

EUROPE, 1201 to 1500 CE (7 of 7)

previous | next

Europe's Renaissance Begins

From the mid-1300s and into the 1400s a few scholars in one of the most urbanized areas of Europe, in Italy, were searching through libraries and recovering works in Latin by ancient writers such as Cicero, Livy and Seneca. People there saw daily the remains of ancient Roman structures around them and they were looking to understand what the ancients thought. They lived in republics where merchants and trade dominated, free of monarchical oppressions, and it was here that a cultural movement called the Renaissance began that included sculptors, Florentine painters and in the late 1400s the political philosophy of Machiavelli (1469-1527).

With the conquest of Constantinople by Islamic Turks in 1453, a wave of Christian scholars fled to Italy, and they brought with them manuscripts concerning ancient Greece, many of which had fallen into obscurity in the West. A new attention to the Greek and Arabic works followed, on the natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics. This gave rise to those called humanists, people who pursued literary knowledge and linguistics acquired from the ancient Greeks. They are said to have criticized the "barbarous Latin" being used in Europe's universities, and some would see the importation of the Greek classics from the Mid-East as saving Europe from barbarity. The humanists focused on humanity's doings, without denying the supreme being that was traditional in the culture of Christians, including Platonism.

Associated with a new attitude toward humanity was a work published in 1468 called the "Manifesto of the Renaissance." It was titled Oration on the Dignity of Man and written by a 23-year-old Italian, Pico della Mirandola, from the town of Mirandola in north-central Italy. He was to be described as having studied everything there was at that time. He wrote that exercising one's brain added to one's dignity and that if one fails to exercise his intelligence he vegetates.

Individual accomplishments were on the rise in Italy. In Florence was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). He was an inventor, engineer, anatomist, botanist, geologist, musician, painter and sculptor. He appreciated the freedom to formulate ideas and freedom in general: he would buy caged birds and release them.

There were others like da Vinci who were curious, interested in science and expressing themselves artistically. Outside of Italy at the University of Paris, a Roman Catholic institution, was Erasmus (1466-1536). He was from Rotterdam, a major commercial center and become a celebrated Biblical scholar. In 1509 he wrote In Praise of Human Folly and become known as the "Prince of Humanists." He believed that a common person might be able to understand Christianity as well as a priest, and he advocated tolerating diversity in ideas. He saw what he called absurd superstitions among Christians. And regarding heretics he wrote, "It is better to cure a sick man than to kill him." note34

England's Thomas More, born in 1478, ten years before Erasmus, was another who has been classified as a social philosopher, a humanist and part of Europe's Renaissance. In 1504 he was elected to Parliament. In 1516 his Utopia was published, a book that advocated communal ownership of land, education for both males and females, and almost complete religious toleration.

Going into the new century, an interest in mechanics similar to da Vinci's produced the pocket watch, a wheel-locked musket and the first flush toilets. And there was the Biblical hero David, sculpted by a 28-year-old Florentine, Michelangelo. A part of his humanism was idealizing the human body as well as the human spirit, done better with David unclothed.


Byzantium: the Decline and Fall, by John Julius Norwich, 1995

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara Tuchman, 1987

The Age of Adversity: the Fourteenth Century, by Robert E Lerner, 1968

A History of Christianity in the World, by Clyde L Manshreek, Second Edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1985

Chapters is Social History, by Henry S Spaulding, 1925

Nicolo's Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli, by Maurizio Viroli, 2002

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Western Europe in the Middle Ages, by Joseph R. Strayer, 1955

Western Tradition, by Eugen Weber, programs 19-25, 1989

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Chapter 1, Paul Kennedy, 1987

Ideas and Men: the Story of Western Thought, by Crane Brinton, 1963

Western Civilization: A History of European Society, by Steven Hause and William Maltby, 2004

Wisdom of the West, by Bertrand Russell, 1959

More Reading on Robin Hood and His Time

A History of Western Society, Fourth Edition, by McKay, Hill and Buckler, p 378

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.