The fourteenth century witnessed the beginning of remarkable changes in many aspects of the Italian society. In fifteenth century, it spread to Northern Europe, so all these cultural changes have been put together and named renaissance. These cultural changes led to the religious reforms. The need for reform of the individual Christian and institutional church is central to the Christian faith.
Economic and political origin of the Italian Renaissance
This period witnessed phenomenal commercial and financial development, the growing political power of self-governing cities in northern Italy and great population expansion. In the great commercial revival of the eleventh century, northern Italian cities led the way. By the middle of the twelfth century, Venice, supported by a huge merchant marine had grown enormously rich from overseas trade. Genoa and Milan enjoyed the benefits of a large volume of trade with the Middle East and northern Europe.
The invasion of Italy in 1494 by the French king Charles VIII (r.1483-1498) inaugurated a new period in Italian and European power politics. Italy becomes the focus of international ambition and the battleground o foreign armies. In the sixteenth century, the political and social life of Italy was upset by the relentless competition for dominance between France and the Roman holy empire.
Individualism and Humanism
Renaissance humanists were skeptical of their authority, conscious of their historical distance separating themselves from the ancient and fully aware that classical writers of ten disagreed among themselves. Medieval writers looked to the classics to reveal God. Renaissance humanists studied the classics to understand human nature, though from a strongly Christian perspective while the individualism stressed personality uniqueness and the full development of capabilities and talents.
Secularism is a basic concerned with the material world instead of eternal and spiritual matters. A secular way of thinking tends to find the ultimate explanation of everything and the final end of human beings within the limits of what sense can discover. Renaissance people often held strong and spiritual beliefs, but renaissance society was secular; attention was concerned on the here and now, often on the acquisition of material things.
Renaissance in the North
In the fifteenth century, the Italian renaissance thought and ideals penetrated northern Europe. Students from the Low Countries, flocked Italy, imbibed the new learning and took them back to their respective countries. However, cultural traditions of northern Europe tend to remain more distinctly Christian, than those of Italy. What fundamentally distinguished Italian humanists from northern ones is that the latter had a program for broad social reform based on Christian ideals. Christian humanists in the northern Europe were interested in the development of a more way of ethical life. To achieve it, they believed, the best elements of classical and Christian cultures should be combined.
The protestant reformation
According to the catholic theology, individuals who sin alienate themselves from God and his love. The church has the authority to grant sinners the spiritual benefits of those merits. Initially, an indulgence was a remission of the temporal penalties for sin. Beginning in the twelfth century, the papacy and bishops had given crusaders such indulgences. By the latter middle ages, people widely believed that an indulgence secured total remission of penalties for sin on earth. Archbishop Albert hired Dominican Friar John to sell the indulgence. Traditional Catholic teaching held that salvation was achieved by both faith and good works.
Luther who was severely troubled that ignorant people believed they had no further need for repentance once they had purchased an indulgence, has that salvation comes by faith alone. Christian doctrine had long maintained that authority rests both in the bible and in the traditional teaching of the church while on the other side, Luther maintained that authority rests in the word of God as revealed in the bible alone and as interpreted by the individual’s conscience. Medieval churchmen had tended to identify the church with the clergy; Luther re-emphasized the catholic teaching that the church consists of the entire community of Christian believers.
The Anabaptists, sometimes described as the left wing of the reformation, believed that only adults could make a free choice about the religious faith, baptism, and entry into the Christian community. Thus they considered the practice of baptizing infants and children preposterous and wanted to rebaptize believers who had been baptized as children. They maintained that only a few people would receive the inner light. This position meant that the Christian community and state were not the same. Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state and in religious tolerance. They almost never tried force their values on others. Their views on religious liberty were thought to undermine that concept.
The revolt of Netherlands and Spanish Armada
In the sixteenth century, the political stability of England, the international prestige of Spain and the moral influence of the Roman papacy all become mixed up with religious crisis in Low Countries. By this time, Netherlands was the pivot around which the European money, diplomacy and war revolved. What began as a movement for reformation of Catholic Church developed into a struggle of Dutch independence from Spanish rule.
The habsburg emperor Charles V (1519-1556) had inherited the seven provinces that composed present day Belgium and Holland. The French speaking southern towns produced fine linen and woolen; the wealth of the Dutch speaking northern cities rested on fishing, shipping and international banking while in the cities of both regions of the low countries, trade and commerce and produced a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere. In the Low Countries, as elsewhere, corruption in the Roman church and the critical spirit of the renaissance provoked pressure for reform.
The spread of Calvinism in the Low Countries upset the apple cart. By the 1560’s there was a strong militant minority of Calvinists to whom Calvinists appealed because if its intellectual seriousness, moral gravity and approval of any form of labor well done. Many working class people converted because Calvinists employers would hire only fellow Calvinists. Well organized and with the backing of rich merchants, Calvinism gained a wide following and encouraged opposition to illegal civil authorities.
In August 1556, a year of very high grain prices, fanatical Calvinists, primarily of the poorest class, embarked on a rampage of frightful destruction. As in France, Calvinists destruction in Low Countries was incited by popular preaching, and the attacks were aimed at religious images as symbols of low doctrines, not at people. From Madrid Philip II sent twenty thousand Spanish troops led by the duke of Alva to pacify the Low Countries. Alva interpreted pacification to mean the ruthless extermination of religious and political dissidents. His repressive measures and heavy taxation triggered widespread revolt. For ten years, 1568-1578, civil war raged in the Netherlands between Catholics and Protestants and between the seven provinces and Spain.
Literature, Art and Music
Decades of religious fanaticism brought famine, civil anarchy, and death which led both catholic and Protestants to doubt that any one faith contained absolute truth. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne thought’s marks a sharp break with the past. Faith and religious certainty had characterized the intellectual attitudes of the western society for a millennium. Montaigne’s rejection of any kind of dogmatism, his secularism, and his skepticism thus represent a basic change.
Absolutism and constitutionalism in Europe (ca 1589-1725)
In Europe, the seventeenth century was an age of intense conflict and crisis. This crisis had many causes, but the era almost continuous savage war was the most important factor. War drove the government to build enormous armies and levy ever higher taxes on an already hard pressed, predominantly peasant population. The economy deteriorated so Europe as a whole experienced an unusually cold and wet climate over many years. This brought small harvests, periodic food shortages and even starvation. The combination of war increased taxation and economic suffering caused social unrest and widespread peasant revolts.
McKay, Hill, Buckler, Ebrey, and Beck. A History of World Societies, Publisher Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006
Sherman, Dennis. World Civilization, Publisher, Mc Graw-Hill Humanities, 2002
William H Sherman. Marking readers in Renaissance England, Publisher, University of Pennsylvania