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& Reformation

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


The Renaissance began in the cities of Northern Italy, leading to a flowering of art, sculpture and painting. It also swept into Northern Europe but there the more austere circumstances caused it to focus on religion and literature. The invention of the printing press would also enable new religious ideas to sweep across Europe.


The Renaissance was essentially an urban phenomenon beginning in northern Italy because cities like Florence were less affected by the ravages of the 14th century. The emphasis here was on a return to the past, evidence of which was all around them, and it was focussed chiefly in sculpture, architecture, painting and writing.

As the Renaissance spread to northern Europe, subtle changes occurred, with an emphasis on scientific intellectualism and religious humanism. It was dominated by the universities where the development of science was most pronounced. The renewal was also largely centred on religion, which is why the Reformation would happen in the north rather than in Italy.


The word Renaissance means "rebirth", specifically of ancient classical art, a revival of the Greco-Roman culture. The "rebirth" suited the Italians because all around them were reminders of their ancient Roman heritage: monuments, statues and literature from the heyday of the Roman Empire.

They therefore abandoned the architectural and intellectual styles of the Middle Ages, returning to their own indigenous art and philosophy for inspiration. In that way they saw the period which separated them from their ancient Roman heritage as a "Dark" or "Middle Age". It was they, therefore, who coined the term "Middle Ages".

The Italian Renaissance concerned itself primarily with art, architecture, literature and manners — what they called "high culture" which was restricted to the wealthy sector of the population and was therefore a form of elitism. It was never more than a minority movement of artists and scholars whose views were circulated by means of the latest invention: the printing press.

The Renaissance started in northern Italy because the city-states which had developed there during the Middle Ages were already well established and wealthy, and could afford to lavish money on art, literature and the general well-being of an affluent bourgeoisie. Germany, on the other hand, had been badly hit by the economic catastrophe of the 14th century and would therefore take longer to be influenced by new ideas.

The Avignon Papacy of the late 14th century further aided the Italians because they were able to make use of the papal absence in France to throw off the shackles of religion and luxuriate in the wealth which commerce had brought, with its accompanying hedonism. They turned away from the traditional values of humility, poverty and self-denial to honour the more worldly forms of life.

The Italian Renaissance gave birth to what is known as "humanism", i.e. a stress on the human person rather than on religion, man being the measure of all things. It revered the intelligent, noble and talented man, although it tended to ignore the status of women who were regarded as somewhat inferior to men.

Their young men were now trained in civilized manners for everyday social living. The etiquette of the aristocracy was studied. Up till then, people behaved as their fancy took them: spitting and belching in public, blowing their noses anywhere and shouting abuse at one another (like modern sportsmen). Now the people were taught how to behave, and books of etiquette began to appear on the bookshelf.

Many of the Italian writers returned to classical Latin as opposed to the kitchen Latin of the Church and the universities. There were others, however, who chose to write in the vernacular of their particular area. Of prime importance were those works written in Florence (e.g. Dante), so that the vernacular of Florence became the foundation of modern Italian.

The most famous literary piece on Renaissance politics came from the pen of Niccolo Machiavelli. His work The Prince was a handbook on statecraft in which the author tended to admire the idea that the end justifies the means. He postulates that successful rulers would keep promises or break them at will, as opposed to such earlier writers as Thomas Aquinas who spoke of divine and natural law.


The Northern Renaissance tended to be a blend of the old and the new. The religious element remained strong and there was a concentration of academic institutions, with 14 new universities springing up in Germany between 1386 and 1506 whereas there were no new universities in Italy during that period.

The emphasis in Germany was on scientific intellectualism although England and France concentrated on humanistic literature. The Northern Humanists were likewise inspired by a return to classical tradition, with its concentration on the reading of Latin and Greek but there was nevertheless a distinct difference of emphasis in their work.

Indeed, they tended to be more austere and used their classical knowledge for a deeper examination of religion and a greater understanding of the Bible. In short, Northern Humanism tended to be more practical and less artistic, more religious and less worldly, although the Renaissance in England was largely limited to humanistic literature.

The beginnings of the literary renaissance were already seen during the High Middle Ages, with the vernacular writings of Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) who set the precedent for the future development of the English language in much the same way that Dante's Florenzian dialect became the foundation for modern Italian. The period after Chaucer, however, did not favour artistic sentiment because of the outbreak of the 100 Years War between England and France.

This war was followed by the War of the Roses which made life and property insecure, and militated against creative expression. It was only when peace was restored under the reign of Henry VII, and commerce and industry again began to flourish, that wealth and leisure afforded the opportunity for men to pursue intellectual studies. As a result, the Elizabethan period signifies the best of the Renaissance in England.


An analysis of the Renaissance would not be complete without a discussion of the printing press, for without such an instrument the development of writing would have been of little significance. Indeed, during the early Renaissance years, learning was confined to a few thinkers but, as the improved art of printing led to the distribution of books among both laity and clergy, so new ideas took hold.

Before the invention of moveable type, books were printed by two methods, namely a labourious copying of manuscripts by hand or by using wooden blocks to print. Hand-copying was time-consuming although many scholars did reproduce books fairly rapidly, but parchment or vellum was used and that proved expensive.

During the 14th century block printing was introduced from China, where a picture or text could be cut into wood and then impressed onto papyrus or paper by means of ink rolled onto the block. The technique was limited, however, because changes in the text could only be made by carving new blocks. It was when moveable print was introduced during the mid-15th century that it revolutionised book production.

By the end of the 15th century almost every large German city now had its own printing press, producing books mostly of a theological character. From there it spread to Italy, France and England. It is estimated that by 1500 no fewer than 10,000 separate editions had already been printed and this certainly became a potent factor in the progress of civilization. It also took northern Europe a step beyond the Renaissance and into the Reformation.


The Renaissance was definitely a first step towards a revolution in religion. There is no doubt that the political circumstances at the beginning of the 16th Century had much to do with the fact that the Reformation succeeded at all, also explaining why it failed in other places.

Although it is true that the Catholic Church was in desperate need of reform, it was not entirely necessary for the reform to cause a split in the Church. The split in Germany was possibly due largely to the political situation where the various princes had been fighting the Emperor for many centuries. Once Luther had made his break, however, it was seen that reform was possible.

Yet the reformists did not have a smooth passage. There was civil war in Germany, repression in Switzerland, social turmoil in France, persecution in England and the Inquisition in Spain and Italy. The Reformation therefore proved to be a blood-thirsty period and the reform of Christianity was accompanied by anything but brotherly love and a spirit of forgiveness.

The story of Luther's reformation is well known and can, no doubt, be narrated by most school learners. On 31 August 1517, an Augustinian monk and professor of Scripture at the University of Wittenberg by name of Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. He was simply following the standard academic practice amongst professors of the time when they wished to debate an academic question.

Luther was therefore merely challenging other theologians to defend the Catholic Church's teaching on a number of matters, especially the question of indulgences but soon he found himself brought before a tribunal of the Church to justify his own position. He was eventually excommunicated and so the Reformation was born.

Nevertheless, a number of important questions present themselves and they need answering if we are to understand the breakup of the unity of the Christian Church. First, why did Luther challenge the Catholic Church as he did? Second, why did he go so far as to break with the Church? Did he actually intend to bring about a religious revolution and effectively destroy the power of the Catholic Church?

Why did Luther succeed when greater men before him had failed, men such as John Huss and John Wycliffe? Why did the Reformation then suddenly splinter off into so many pressure groups which were prepared to kill each other in the name of religion? Finally, why was the Catholic Church and its ally, the Holy Roman Empire, unable to hold back the floodgate of the Reformation?

To answer these questions, one has to spend some time in analysing the political, social and economic conditions of the time. Indeed, it would seem that the so-called reformers were simply men of their time, aided by the political, social and economic circumstances in which they found themselves. Had it been any other time, it is probable that the Reformation would either not have attempted a revolution at all or would have failed to bring one about.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. Why would the Italian Renaissance have focussed on art while the Northern Renaissance focussed on religion?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. Why would the invention of the printing press be so important?
  4. [Need help?]

  5. Why do you think would the Reformation have started in Germany?
  6. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

Bronnie laughed again. "But Luther's theses must have been just a sheet or two of parchment, right?" she asked. "But why nail them to the church door?"

"That's the way they announced debates," Uncle Bertie explained. "There were no newspapers. The printing press had only just been invented. If someone wished to declare an academic debate, he nailed his argument in a public place for everyone to read."

"So there was nothing extraordinary about what Luther had done," said the priest. "And the Church was also willing to debate. But it was a time of clever words, where intellectuals won arguments by backing the opposition into a corner . . . making him admit to rank foolishness."

"Making him say things he didn't really mean," Uncle Bertie added. "And Luther was somewhat hotheaded and said things he shouldn't have said, thus giving the Church the opportunity to accuse him of heresy."

"And the punishment for heresy was being burned alive at the stake," said the priest. "Holy Mother Church had already done that to John Hus but Luther wasn't going to be caught . . . so, when he was called to Rome, he refused to go."

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: The Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!