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Causes of the Renaissance


The Renaissance, a movement which stressed the ideas of the classical world, has been described as ending the medieval era and heralding the start of the modern age. Its causes were many, all deeply interconnected and now historians debate the relative importance of each, as well as when the Renaissance actually began. The mid fourteenth century is a common date for the start, although some commentators go back further. In addition Florence was once identified as the initial home of the Renaissance, but some histories widen this to Italy as a whole. The following are the main factors.

Introduction to the Renaissance

New Secular Hunger for Discovering Texts

The courts and monasteries of Europe had long been repositories of old manuscripts and texts, but a change in how scholars viewed them stimulated the massive reappraisal of classical works in the Renaissance. Fourteenth century writer Petrarch typified this – he may even have triggered it – by writing about his own lust for discovering texts which had previously been ignored and were just gathering dust. Now secular readers developed a taste, even a hunger, for seeking out, reading and spreading old works, chief of all classical writings, on a more widespread level than centuries previous. New libraries developed to facilitate access to old books.

Reintroduction of Classical Works

While there were classical texts in western Europe at the start of the Renaissance, many had been lost and existed only in the east, in both Christian Constantinople and Muslim states. During the Renaissance many key texts were reintroduced into Europe, whether by merchants taking advantage of the new hunger for old texts, or by scholars who had been invited over to teach. For instance, in 1396 a Chair for teaching Greek was created in Florence. The chosen teacher, Chrysoloras, brought with him a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography from the east. In addition, a huge number of Greek texts and scholars arrived in Europe with the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Printing Press

A hunger for forgotten texts may have developed in Europe, but it was the new printing press that allowed these works to be mass produced, feeding a much wider audience than the old hand written methods could ever have hoped to reach. This in turn allowed the Renaissance to develop more fully. In addition, the press removed scribal errors, allowing humanists and scholars to know they were comparing the nuances of the same text, and not someone’s mistake. This allowed for the further evolution of textual criticism which underpinned Renaissance thinking.

More on Gutenberg and the creation of moveable type.

The Political Situation: The Need for Display and Administration

The Renaissance changes in the style of art, as well as the outlook of artists, needed wealthy patrons to support it, and Renaissance Italy was especially fertile ground. Political changes in the ruling class of Italy shortly before this period had led to the rulers of most of the major city states being “new men” without much of a political history. They attempted to legitimise themselves with conspicuous display, with ostentation, including all forms of art and creativity.

This meant that artists keen to use their new found Renaissance ideas were ably supported and able to produce masterpieces. As the Renaissance spread, the Church and other European rulers would use their wealth to adopt the new styles to keep pace. The demand from new (and old) elites wasn’t just artistic, they also relied upon ideas developed from the Renaissance for their political models. Machiavelli’s infamous guide to rulers – The Prince – is a work of Renaissance political theory.

In addition, the newly developing bureaucracies of Italy, and the rest of Europe, caused a demand for Humanists, because their education was both theoretical and, crucially, practical, equipping them to run the new governments and monarchies, funding their development.

New Wealth and the Black Death

In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death swept across Europe, killing perhaps a third of the population. While devastating, some of the survivors found themselves better off financially and socially, with the same wealth spread among fewer people, and better potential for climbing the social ladder. This was especially true in Italy, where social mobility was much greater. While some areas saw struggles between the more competitively positioned workers and their bosses, this ‘new’ wealth was often was spent on display items to reinforce prestige, much like the rulers above them. This also allowed people to patronize Renaissance artists.

In addition, the merchant classes of a region like Italy also saw a great increase in their wealth from their role in trade, from the same trade routes which spread the Black Death so quickly. This trade income was further developed, some might say revolutionized, by Renaissance developments in commerce, giving the merchants further wealth to patronize with.

Development of Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance Humanism was a new manner of thinking and approaching the world, based around a new form of curriculum for those learning. It has been called the earliest expression of the Renaissance, and is described as both a product of the movement and a cause. Humanist thinkers challenged the mindset of both the previously dominant school of scholarly thought, Scholasticism, as well as the church, allowing the new mindsets which underpinned the Renaissance to develop instead.

More on Renaissance Humanism

Peace and War

Perhaps unusually, periods of both peace and war have been credited with allowing the Renaissance to spread and become a European, then global, phenomenon. For instance, the end of the Hundred Years War between England and factions in France has been credited with allowing Renaissance ideas to penetrate these nations, as thoughts and expenses turned away from conflict. In contrast, the involvement of France in wars within Italy has been credited with aiding the spread of the Renaissance to that nation, as armies and commanders encountered Renaissance ideas in Italy and brought them back home.
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