In order to understand the origins of the Renaissance period, it is necessary to understand Italy at the end of the medieval period and the Italian city states that gave birth to the Renaissance age. The Renaissance was born in Italy and later spread quickly to the rest of Europe, and there were many causes for its origins. While much of life at the turn of the medieval period was rural and suburban, the Italian city states had perfected the idea of urban life, with more people living and working in the cities that made up the Italian city states than in the surrounding rural areas. The Italian economy focused primarily on trade and commercialism, and life within the cities of Italy embraced and enhanced both an independent attitude and a commercialized way of life. In doing so, they moved away from the typical path of medieval life, embracing the new while distancing themselves from the old and outdated. Since the Renaissance focused on a renewal of classical learning and ideals, Italy was primed for the birth of the Renaissance age due to its proximity to its ancient Roman past as well as sitting on the border of the Eastern and Western world, with long-established trade routes between the two. By existing literally upon the ruins of the great and revered Roman empire, Italians within the Renaissance were more easily able to embrace their ancient past and explore the wonders of both Greek and Roman history. In this way, it created an environment where uncovering and studying the past was far more feasible in Italy than it was throughout much of Europe.
Understanding the origins and the location of the early Renaissance movement makes it necessary to define the Renaissance and understand its ideals and objectives. Primarily, the Renaissance focused on a renewed and passionate interest in the classical period, and the Italian Peninsula offered a unique opportunity to do just that – both with the ancient Greek and ancient Roman worlds. Beginning at the dawn of the 15th century as the Medieval period drew to a close, it had spread like a wildfire across the rest of Europe by the end of the 16th. The Renaissance was interested in far more than just classical learning, however, and it also focused on classical culture and renewed the ancient Roman ideals of independence and an inquisitive spirit. In addition, classical art was renewed as well as a focus on classical learning.
Learning became easier throughout the Renaissance period as more and more literature moved from Latin to the vernacular languages with a focus on romance and chivalry. Epic stories were created and developed, carried by troubadours and minstrels and enhanced by works still known in the modern age such as the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, legends of the British King Arthur and the quests for the Holy Grail. Although penned in the late medieval age, Dante’s Divine Comedy was a precursor to Renaissance literature, and the 14th century masterpiece was greatly ahead of its time.
Trade and commerce increased as Italian community life gradually became more urban. This transition towards urban life and city identity also increased the ideals of secularized life in direct contrast to the focus on the spiritual and heavenly realms of utmost importance in Medieval life and culture. The birth of Humanism (although it was not known by that name during the Renaissance period) also marked a shift in concepts between the Renaissance and the Medieval period and enhanced the secular movement throughout Europe during the Renaissance period.
Born in Italy at the beginning of the 15th century, the Renaissance spread from the Italian city states to the rest of Europe in just 200 years. Known for its brilliant advances in art, architecture, literature in the vernacular and advances in the understanding of the classical period, it created the first step towards the early modern world, and often marks the turning point between old and new.
There are lots of things about the Renaissance that marked a distinct difference between it and the medieval period. In European history, the Renaissance marked the boundary in which the Medieval age gradually moved to the modern (or at least early modern) age. While changes in society, religion, economics and daily life didn’t occur magically overnight, they were big, sweeping changes in retrospect that helped define, distinguish and identify aspects of modern culture still observed today.
Although family life, life within a community or city, or life within the organization of the church were still pivotal aspects of daily life in the Renaissance, many historians argue that the Renaissance allowed the focus to turn – at least in part – to the individual as well. While modern medicine in the 21st century would recoil in horror at advancements in medicine in the Renaissance, the study of the human body was revitalized and expanded upon from the classics, and herbs, blood-letting, prayer, ritual and treatment for illness were practiced. Although class distinctions were still prevalent between the nobility/aristocracy, the clergy, the merchants and the peasants, it is clear from existing sumptuary laws requiring that people dress according to their class and restricting certain fabrics, materials or colors to be worn by common people. While the nature of childhood, child-rearing and affection are being debated, it is clear that the transition from childhood into a productive member of society began a lot earlier in the Renaissance than it does today, with children being taught skills and tasks as young as 4 or 5. Maturity and sexuality were regulated, with potentially harsh punishments doled out for acting outside of those restrictions – including execution for those convicted of homosexuality
Although capitalism, greater freedoms and shifts in technology all helped separate Renaissance life from medieval life, one of the greatest distinguishing features is how thought changed. In the Medieval world, focused was placed more on the life after, with art, education and ritual focused on religion and devotion to God. In the Renaissance, however, greater focus was made on life on earth. It celebrated humanity was worthy and that life was worth enjoying and that knowledge on earth did not endanger the salvation of the soul. Humanism, revived from Greek and Roman classics took root, beginning in Italy, and quickly spread to Northern Europe. Returning to Philosophy, allowing for knowledge and greater education a renewal of art and invention all helped set the Renaissance apart and set the stage for the modern world that we know today.
William Gilbert, “The Italian City-States of the Renaissance,” Carrie, accessed February 12, 2016, http://vlib.iue.it/carrie/texts/carrie_books/gilbert/03.html
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pg. 52.
Ibid, pg. 57.
Ibid, pg. 59.
Ibid, pg. 67.
Philip Van Ness Myers, Medieval and Modern History (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1905) pg. 251-274, accessed February 12, 2016, http://www.shsu.edu/~his_ncp/Renn.html.