| Chapter 13: European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350-1550
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> Chapter 13
Chapter 13: European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350-1550

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Chapter Outline

  • Economic and Political Developments
  • Commercial Developments
  • Venice, Genoa, and Milan grew rich on commerce between 1050 and 1300.
  • Florence, where the Renaissance originated, was an important banking center by the fourteenth century.
  • Communes and Republics
  • In northern Italy the larger cities won independence from local nobles and became self-governing communes of free men in the twelfth century.
  • Local nobles moved into the cities and married into wealthy merchant families.
  • This new class set up property requirements for citizenship.
  • The excluded, the popolo, rebelled and in some cities set up republics.
  • By 1300 the republics had collapsed, and despots or oligarchies governed most Italian cities.
  • The Balance of Power Among the Italian City-States
  • In the fifteenth century, five powers dominated the Italian peninsula: Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States, and the kingdom of Naples.
  • City patriotism and constant competition for power among cities prevented political centralization on the Italian peninsula.
  • As cities strove to maintain the balance of power among themselves, they invented the apparatus of modern diplomacy.
  • In 1494, the city of Milan invited intervention by the French King Charles VIII.
  • Italy became a battleground as France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor vied for dominance.
  • In 1527 the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome.
  • Intellectual Change
  • Humanism
  • The revival of antiquity took the form of interest in archaeology, recovery of ancient manuscripts, and study of the Latin classics.
  • The study of the classics became known as the “new learning,” or humanism.
  • Humanists studied the Latin classics to learn what they reveal about human nature.
  • Humanism emphasized human beings, their achievements, interests, and capabilities.
  • Interest in human achievements led humanists to emphasize the importance of the individual and individualism.
  • Humanists derided what they viewed as the debased Latin of the medieval churchmen.
  • Education
  • Humanists placed heavy emphasis on education and moral behavior.
  • Humanists opened schools and academies throughout Italy.
  • They were ambivalent about education for women.
  • Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier had a broad influence.
  • Political Thought
  • Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince addressed the subject of political power.
  • Starting with assumptions about human nature, Machiavelli outlined a vision of power that rested on a realistic understanding of the political environment.
  • Secular Spirit
  • The secular way of thinking focuses on the world as experienced rather than on the spiritual and/or eternal.
  • Renaissance thinkers came to see life as an opportunity rather than a painful pilgrimage toward God.
  • Lorenzo Valla argued that sense pleasures were the highest good.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about an acquisitive, sensual, worldly society.
  • Renaissance popes expended much money on new buildings, a new cathedral (St. Peter’s), and on patronizing artists and men of letters.
  • Christian Humanism
  • Christian humanists in northern Europe interpreted Italian ideas in the context of their own traditions.
  • Christian humanists were interested in an ethical way of life.
  • Utopia by Thomas More (1478–1535) described an ideal socialistic community.
  • Erasmus (1466–1536) was the leading Christian humanist of his era.
  • Two fundamental themes run through Erasmus’s work.
  • Commitment to education is the key to moral and intellectual improvement
  • Adherence to “the philosophy of Christ”
  • The Printed Word
  • The advent of movable metal type had a huge impact on the spread of new ideas.
  • Printing with movable metal type developed in Germany in the middle of the fifteenth century.
  • Increased urban literacy, the development of primary schools, and the opening of new universities expanded the market for printed materials.
  • Within fifty years of the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible of 1456, movable type and brought about radical changes.
  • Art and the Artist
  • Art and Power
  • In the early Renaissance, corporate groups such as guilds sponsored religious art.
  • By the late fifteenth century, individual princes, merchants, and bankers sponsored art to glorify themselves and their families. Their urban palaces were full of expensive furnishings as well as art.
  • Subjects and Style
  • Classical themes, individual portraits, and realistic style characterized Renaissance art.
  • Renaissance artists invented perspective and portrayed the human body in a more natural and scientific manner than previous artists did.
  • Art produced in northern Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tended to be more religious in orientation than that produced in Italy.
  • Rome and Venice rose to artistic prominence in the sixteenth century.
  • Patronage and Creativity
  • Medieval masons were viewed as mechanical workers/artisans. Renaissance artists were seen as intellectual workers.
  • The princes and merchants who patronized artists paid them well.
  • Artists themselves gloried in their achievements. During the Renaissance, the concept of artist as genius was born.
  • Renaissance culture was only the culture of a very wealthy mercantile elite; it did not affect the lives of the urban middle classes or the poor.
  • Social Hierarchies
  • Race
  • Renaissance ideas about “race” were closely linked with those about ethnicity and “blood.”
  • The contemporary meaning of “race” originated in the eighteenth century.
  • Renaissance people did make distinctions based on skin color.
  • Beginning in the fifteenth century, sizable numbers of black slaves entered Europe.
  • African slaves served in a variety of positions.
  • Fifteenth-century Europeans knew little about Africans and their cultures.
  • Class
  • The contemporary notion of class was developed in the nineteenth century.
  • The medieval system of social differentiation was based on theoretical function.
  • During the Renaissance the inherited hierarchy of social orders was interwoven with a more fluid hierarchy based on wealth.
  • Social status was also linked with considerations of honor.
  • Cities had the most complex and dynamic social hierarchies.
  • Gender
  • Gender is a concept that grew out of the women’s movement that began in the 1970s.
  • The Renaissance witnessed a debate about the character and nature of women.
  • Beginning in the sixteenth century, the debate about women also became one about female rulers.
  • Ideas about men and women’s roles shaped the actions and options of Renaissance people.
  • Maintenance of proper gender relationships served as a symbol for the maintenance of a well-functioning society.
  • Politics and the State in the Renaissance (ca 1450–1521)
  • France
  • In France, Charles VII (r. 1422–1461) created the first permanent royal army, set up new taxes on salt and land, and allowed increased influence in his bureaucracy from middle-class men. He also asserted his right to appoint bishops in the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges.
  • Charles’s son Louis XI (r. 1461–1483) fostered industry from artisans, taxed it, and used the funds to build up his army. He brought much new territory under direct Crown rule.
  • The marriage of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany added Brittany to the French state.
  • The Concordat of Bologna gave French kings effective control over church officials within the kingdom.
  • England
  • In England, Edward IV (r. 1461–1483) ended the War of the Roses between rival baronial houses.
  • Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) ruled largely without Parliament, using as his advisers men with lower-level gentry origins.
  • Under Henry, the center of royal authority was the royal council.
  • Henry’s Court of the Star Chamber tried cases involving aristocrats and did so with methods contradicting common law, such as torture.
  • The Tudors won the support of the influential upper middle class.
  • Spain
  • Although Spain remained a confederation of kingdoms until 1700, the wedding of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon did lead to some centralization. Ferdinand and Isabella stopped violence among the nobles, recruited “middle-class” advisers onto their royal council, and secured the right to appoint bishops in Spain and in the Spanish empire in America.
  • Popular anti-Semitism increased in fourteenth-century Spain. In 1478, Ferdinand and Isabella invited the Inquisition into Spain to search out and punish Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly continued Jewish religious practices.
  • To persecute converts, Inquisitors and others formulated a racial theory¾that conversos were suspect not because of their beliefs, but because of who they were racially.
  • In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain.


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