European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350–1550



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CHAPTER 13

European Society in the Age of the Renaissance, 1350–1550

0Instructional Objectives


After reading and studying this chapter, students should be able to identify the key economic and political developments that provided the setting for the Renaissance. They should be able to discuss the key ideas of the Renaissance and note differences between the experience of the Renaissance for men and women and for southern and northern Europeans. They should also be able to describe the basic structure of Renaissance society. Finally, students should be able to elaborate on the evolution of medieval kingdoms into early modern nation-states.

0Chapter Outline0


I0. Economic and Political Developments0

A0. Commercial Developments0

10. Venice, Genoa, and Milan grew rich on commerce between 1050 and 1300.

20. Florence, where the Renaissance originated, was an important banking center by the fourteenth century.

B0. Communes and Republics0

10. In northern Italy the larger cities won independence from local nobles and became self-governing communes of free men in the twelfth century.

20. Local nobles moved into the cities and married into wealthy merchant families.

30. This new class set up property requirements for citizenship.

40. The excluded, the popolo, rebelled and in some cities set up republics.

50. By 1300 the republics had collapsed, and despots or oligarchies governed most Italian cities.

C0. The Balance of Power Among the Italian City-States0

10. In the fifteenth century, five powers dominated the Italian peninsula: Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States, and the kingdom of Naples.

20. City patriotism and constant competition for power among cities prevented political centralization on the Italian peninsula.

30. As cities strove to maintain the balance of power among themselves, they invented the apparatus of modern diplomacy.

40. In 1494, the city of Milan invited intervention by the French King Charles VIII.

50. Italy became a battleground as France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor vied for dominance.

60. In 1527 the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome.

II. Intellectual Change0

A0. Humanism0

10. The revival of antiquity took the form of interest in archaeology, recovery of ancient manuscripts, and study of the Latin classics.

20. The study of the classics became known as the “new learning,” or humanism.

30. Humanists studied the Latin classics to learn what they reveal about human nature.

40. Humanism emphasized human beings, their achievements, interests, and capabilities.

50. Interest in human achievements led humanists to emphasize the importance of the individual and individualism.

60. Humanists derided what they viewed as the debased Latin of the medieval churchmen.

B0. Education

10. Humanists placed heavy emphasis on education and moral behavior.

20. Humanists opened schools and academies throughout Italy.

30. They were ambivalent about education for women.

40. Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier had a broad influence.

C0. Political Thought

10. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince addressed the subject of political power.

20. Starting with assumptions about human nature, Machiavelli outlined a vision of power that rested on a realistic understanding of the political environment.

D0. Secular Spirit0

10. The secular way of thinking focuses on the world as experienced rather than on the spiritual and/or eternal.

20. Renaissance thinkers came to see life as an opportunity rather than a painful pilgrimage toward God.

30. Lorenzo Valla argued that sense pleasures were the highest good.

40. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about an acquisitive, sensual, worldly society.

50. Renaissance popes expended much money on new buildings, a new cathedral (St. Peter’s), and on patronizing artists and men of letters.

E0. Christian Humanism

10. Christian humanists in northern Europe interpreted Italian ideas in the context of their own traditions.

20. Christian humanists were interested in an ethical way of life.

30. Utopia by Thomas More (1478–1535) described an ideal socialistic community.

40. Erasmus (1466–1536) was the leading Christian humanist of his era.

50. Two fundamental themes run through Erasmus’s work.

a0) Commitment to education is the key to moral and intellectual improvement

b0) Adherence to “the philosophy of Christ”

F0. The Printed Word

10. The advent of movable metal type had a huge impact on the spread of new ideas.

20. Printing with movable metal type developed in Germany in the middle of the fifteenth century.

30. Increased urban literacy, the development of primary schools, and the opening of new universities expanded the market for printed materials.

40. Within fifty years of the publication of Gutenberg’s Bible of 1456, movable type and brought about radical changes.

III0. Art and the Artist0

A0. Art and Power0

10. In the early Renaissance, corporate groups such as guilds sponsored religious art.

20. 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.

B0. Subjects and Style

10. Classical themes, individual portraits, and realistic style characterized Renaissance art.

20. Renaissance artists invented perspective and portrayed the human body in a more natural and scientific manner than previous artists did.

30. Art produced in northern Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries tended to be more religious in orientation than that produced in Italy.

40. Rome and Venice rose to artistic prominence in the sixteenth century.

C0. Patronage and Creativity0

10. Medieval masons were viewed as mechanical workers/artisans. Renaissance artists were seen as intellectual workers.

20. The princes and merchants who patronized artists paid them well.

30. Artists themselves gloried in their achievements. During the Renaissance, the concept of artist as genius was born.

40. 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.

IV0. Social Hierarchies0

A0. Race


10. Renaissance ideas about “race” were closely linked with those about ethnicity and “blood.”

20. The contemporary meaning of “race” originated in the eighteenth century.

30. Renaissance people did make distinctions based on skin color.

40. Beginning in the fifteenth century, sizable numbers of black slaves entered Europe.

50. African slaves served in a variety of positions.

60. Fifteenth-century Europeans knew little about Africans and their cultures.

B0. Class

10. The contemporary notion of class was developed in the nineteenth century.

20. The medieval system of social differentiation was based on theoretical function.

30. During the Renaissance the inherited hierarchy of social orders was interwoven with a more fluid hierarchy based on wealth.

40. Social status was also linked with considerations of honor.

50. Cities had the most complex and dynamic social hierarchies.

C0. Gender

10. Gender is a concept that grew out of the women’s movement that began in the 1970s.

20. The Renaissance witnessed a debate about the character and nature of women.

30. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the debate about women also became one about female rulers.

40. Ideas about men and women’s roles shaped the actions and options of Renaissance people.

50. Maintenance of proper gender relationships served as a symbol for the maintenance of a well-functioning society.

V0. Politics and the State in the Renaissance (ca 1450–1521)0

A. France0

10. 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.

20. 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.

30. The marriage of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany added Brittany to the French state.

40. The Concordat of Bologna gave French kings effective control over church officials within the kingdom.

B0. England

10. In England, Edward IV (r. 1461–1483) ended the War of the Roses between rival baronial houses.

20. Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) ruled largely without Parliament, using as his advisers men with lower-level gentry origins.

30. Under Henry, the center of royal authority was the royal council.

40. Henry’s Court of the Star Chamber tried cases involving aristocrats and did so with methods contradicting common law, such as torture.

50. The Tudors won the support of the influential upper middle class.

C0. Spain

10. 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.

20. 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.

30. To persecute converts, Inquisitors and others formulated a racial theorythat conversos were suspect not because of their beliefs, but because of who they were racially.

40. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain.

0Lecture Suggestions0


10. “Was the Renaissance So Light and Were the Middle Ages So Dark?” Although the view that the Middle Ages was a period of Gothic gloom between the lights of antiquity and the Italian Renaissance has been modified somewhat, the attitude that the Italian Renaissance was a burst of light out of the medieval darkness persists. Why is that so? Who began this tradition? What contrary views have been put forward? Sources: J. Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1951); J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1954).

20. “Games Children Played in the Renaissance.” What was a child’s life like during the Renaissance? Was it very much different from that of a medieval child? How can we know what games and activities children engaged in at this time? Source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Children’s Games (1560). If slides depicting Renaissance games are available, discuss the kinds of games that Renaissance children played.

30. “Getting an Education in the Renaissance.” What were the Renaissance ideas about education and schooling? Were they superior to medieval educational ideas? Were women afforded educational opportunities? Is the idea that literacy increased significantly in the Renaissance accurate? Sources: P. F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600 (1989); J. H. Moran, The Growth of English Schooling, 1340–1548; Learning, Literacy, and Laicization in Pre-Reformation York Diocese (1985); J. Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in R. Bridenthal and C. Koonz, eds., Becoming Visible: Women in European History (1977), 137–161.

0Using Primary Sources


Have students read pertinent selections of Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. Have them list the qualities described in the book for the ideal “Renaissance Man.” Then, ask them to write a short paper on how the term “Renaissance Man” is interpreted today.

00classroom 0Activities 0


I0. Classroom Discussion Suggestions

A0. Discuss the impact of the reconquista in Spain.

B0. What was the impact of the Spanish Inquisition?

C0. How was Machiavelli’s The Prince a product of its time?

D0. Was there a noticeable change in the way whites viewed blacks in the Renaissance compared with the Middle Ages?

E0. According to Castiglione, how was a person to become educated?

II0. Doing History0

A0. What did Renaissance artists think of their world and themselves? Did they seem to think that they were living in a new golden age? Encourage students to read selections from the following sources and to write a short biographical sketch of one of the artists. Sources: B. Burroughs, ed., Visari’s Lives of the Artists (1946); Memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini: A Florentine Artist; Written by Himself (1927); G. Bull, trans., Aretino: Selected Letters (Penguin edition, 1976).

B0. Was there a dramatic increase in literacy among all social classes during the Renaissance? Was it possible that there had been preconditions for increased literacy in medieval Europe before Gutenberg’s movable type? After a class discussion of this topic, students should be asked to read passages from the following sources and consider the arguments of both. They might then be asked to write a short paper on literacy in early modern European society and its impact. Sources: M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (1979); E. L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (1979).

C0. How did views of human sexuality change in the Renaissance? Were there problems associated with sexual deviancy in this period? Students should be encouraged to read some of the following selections as the basis for a discussion on Renaissance sexuality. Sources: G. Ruggiero, “Sexual Criminality in Early Renaissance Venice, 1338–1358,” Journal of Social History 8 (Spring 1975): 18–31; G. Ruggiero, Violence in Early Renaissance Venice (1980); R. C. Trexler, “Infanticide in Florence: New Sources and First Results,” History of Childhood Quarterly 1:1 (Summer 1973); J. C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1985).

III0. Cooperative Learning Activities0

A0. This activity is based on a cooperative learning idea by Cohen, Lotan, and Whitcomb, “Complex Instruction in the Untracked Social Studies Classroom”; see Stahl, Cooperative Learning in the Social Studies Classroom in Suggested Reading under “Using Cooperative Learning in the Western Civilization Class.” The authors call their method “Complex Instruction.” In this method, the instructor creates activity cards for teams of students. The teams get their assignment cards and complete the assignments (much of the assignment is completed in class). The cards include chunks of material related to a larger subjectin this case, the Italian Renaissance. One card might include the problem of primary sources: “How Do Historians Know about the Italian Renaissance?” The team with this card provides the historiographical and primary source foundation for the chapter or unit on the Italian Renaissance. Another card contains questions on representative works of art. Another one includes questions on significant lives of the period. Still another asks students to answer questions on specific political, economic, and social problems of the period under investigation. As the authors of this idea state, “it’s the process of talking and working that produces the learning gains.”


B0. What is/was a Renaissance?

To further clarify the term renaissance, organize students into teams and have each team explore a specific historical/artistic/literary renaissance: 1) Carolingian, 2) Twelfth Century, 3) Italian, 4) Northern European, 5) Weimar, 6) Harlem. How has the term renaissance been used by historians, art historians, journalists, and others? How has the term been misapplied or even abused? Teams should present their reports on the various renaissances. Then, students should write papers analyzing the term.


0Map Activity0


10. Consulting the map in the text, label the following on an outline map of Italy.

a0. Duchy of Savoy

b0. Duchy of Milan

c0. Republic of Genoa

d0. Duchy of Modena

e0. Republic of Florence

f0. Republic of Siena

g0. Papal States

h0. Kingdom of Naples

i0. Corsica

j0. Sardinia

k0. Kingdom of Sicily

20. Using Map 13.1 (The Italian City-States, ca 1494) and Map 13.3 (Spain in 1492) as references, answer the following questions.

a0. What were the most important obstacles to Italian unification on the one hand, and Spanish unification on the other?

b0. What efforts were made to create strong, centralized monarchies in the two regions? Why were Spanish efforts more successful?

0Audiovisual Bibliography0


10. Leonardo: To Know How to See. (55 min. Color. National Gallery of Art.)

20. Michelangelo: The Last Giant. (67 min. Color. NBC News-CRM McGraw-Hill.)

30. Boccacio: Tales from the Decameron. (71 min. Color. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.)

40. Chambord and the Renaissance. (26 min. Color. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.)

50. François I. (22 min. Color. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.)

60. The Age of the Medici. (52 min. Color. Films, Inc.)

70. Venice: Economic Power in the Middle Ages. (Videodisc. Color. 19 min. Britannica Videos.)

80. The Struggle for the Mediterranean in the Sixteenth Century. (Videodisc. Color. 33 min. Britannica Videos.)

90. The Return of Martin Guerre. (111 min. Color. Films, Ltd.)

100. Best of the Renaissance (Audio CD, 1999)

110. Fifteenth-Century Italian Painting (cgfa.sunsite.dk/italian.htm#it14)

120. Leonardo da Vinci: Scientist, Inventor, Artist (www.mos.org/leonardo)

130. Michelangelo Buonarroti (www.michelangelo.com/buonarroti.html)

0internet resources0


10. Renaissance Florence (www.learner.org/exhibits/renaissance/florence.html)

20. Francesco Petrarch and Laura De Noves (petrarch.petersadlon.com)

30. Renaissance Humanism (www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/REN/HUMANISM.HTM)

40. Renaissance: Printing and Thinking (www.learner.org/exhibits/renaissance/printing_sub.html)

50. The End of Europe’s Middle Ages (www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/endmiddle)

60. Thomas More (www.luminarium.org/renlit/tmore.htm)

70. Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince (www.the-prince-by-machiavelli.com)

00001suggested reading


A comprehensive treatment of the period is J. Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1994), a magisterial achievement. Hale’s title is a nod toward the book that has shaped all thinking about the Renaissance since its initial publication in 1860, J. Burckhardt, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. P. Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy (1987), includes useful essays on Italian cultural history in a European framework. For the development of cities, see L. Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (1980), and for the Renaissance court, see the splendid work of G. Lubkin, A Renaissance Court: Milan Under Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1994).

For Renaissance humanism, D. R. Kelley, Renaissance Humanism (1991) and C. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (1995) provide thorough introductions. J. F. D’Amico, Renaissance Humanism in Papal Rome: Humanists and Churchmen on the Eve of the Reformation (1983) and C. Trinkaus, “In Our Image and Likeness”: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (1995) offer more specialized studies. On humanist education, see A. Grafton and L. Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Europe (1986) and P. F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600 (1989). On female humanists, see M. L. King, Women of the Renaissance (1992).

J. R. Hale, Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy (1966), is a sound short biography, but advanced students may want to consult the intellectual biography S. de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell (1989), which is based on Machiavelli’s literary as well as political writing. The leading northern humanist is sensitively treated in J. McConica, Erasmus (1991). Advanced students interested in his program for the reform of Christian society should see J. D. Tracy, Erasmus of the Low Countries (1996). For More, see P. Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More (1998).

The definitive study of the impact of printing is L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (1979). J. Man, Gutenberg Revolution: The Story of a Genius and an Invention that Changed the World (2002) presents a rather idealized view of Gutenberg, but has good discussions of his milieu and excellent illustrations.

Renaissance art has understandably inspired vast research. G. Holmes, ed., Art and Politics in Renaissance Italy (1993), treats the art of Florence and Rome against a political background, while R. Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600 (1993), looks at patronage. For Florence, see R. W. B. Lewis, The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings (1995) and M. Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (1988). For artist families, see P. Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (1986). Leonardo’s scientific and naturalistic ideas and drawings are available in I. A. Richter, ed., The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1985). For Vasari’s aims and methods of interpretation, see P. L. Rubin, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History (1995). For Venice, see the highly readable and beautifully illustrated G. Wills, Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire (2001), which tells the story of the republic through an appreciation of its art and architecture. P. Humfrey, Painting in Renaissance Venice (1995), is a useful survey for the beginning student, while the best introduction to the art of northern Europe is C. Harbison, The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context (1995).

For changing notions of social status, see L. Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (1998), which also discusses artistic patronage and consumer goods. For the experience of Africans and changing ideas of race, see the general survey, I. Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996) as well as more specialized studies such as A. C. de C. M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441–1555 (1982) and T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, eds., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (2005). Joan Kelly’s essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” originally appeared in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. R. Bridenthal and C. Koonz (1977), pp. 137–161. For more recent surveys of gender, see M. E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 2d ed. (2000) and C. Klapisch-Zuper, ed., A History of Women, vol. 3 (1994). A work that brings together race, class, and gender is K. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (1996).



T. Ertman, The Birth of Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (1997) is a good introduction to the creation of nation-states. S. Clark, State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power (1995) discusses the relationship between centralizing states and the nobility. R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I (1994), is the standard study of that important French ruler. For England, see J. Guy, Tudor England (1988). For Spain, J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (1963), remains the standard work, but see also B. F. Reilly, The Medieval Spains (1993). J. S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (1992) and B. Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (1995) both discuss issues relating to the expulsion of the Jews.

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