How the Renaissance and reformation changed europe Essay

How the renaissance and reformation changed europe

            The Renaissance and Reformation both had vast transforming effects on European culture and society between 1375 and 1600.  The former marked the beginnings of modern Western culture and commerce, ending the medieval period and initiating a new era of culture and learning.  The latter, by contrast, stemmed from the former and accelerated some of the Renaissance’s developments, such as learning, but it also divided Europe along religious lines and provided the roots of what developed into capitalism and democracy.

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            The Renaissance started in Italian market towns and ports that became commercially powerful by 1400, and indeed it grew out of increasing commercial activity in the Mediterranean.  Port cities like Venice had long been trading centers and thus absorbed ideas from throughout the region, and the rising merchant class (who were catalysts for this new prosperity) emerged as a new social force.  Secular rather than noble, this class came to dominate many Italian cities and helped empower commoners – a process that would continue.[1]

            In addition, the Renaissance saw learning revive and expand, transforming and energizing European culture.  Humanism, a mostly secular philosophy that promoted a rebirth of classical learning (hence the era’s name), set the stage for a dramatic expansion in learning and literacy, transforming Europe significantly.  Ancient Greek and Roman intellectual models were rediscovered and became the foundation of much of European culture, establishing themselves in Western learning for centuries thereafter.  Also, literacy expanded due in part to the printing press’ invention, transforming Europe’s common people; though many poorer people remained literate, a formerly illiterate mass was increasingly better-educated and more apt to question the world around them – especially papal authority.[2]  The Renaissance also saw drastic changes in the arts, particularly painting, where artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo helped introduce a more human, naturalistic technique, and European art reacted by expanding and becoming more fertile and diverse.  Also, while the Catholic Church still provided considerable patronage for artists, it no longer dominated the arts to the same extent, as secular markets and subject matter became more widely evident.[3]

            In addition, the Renaissance’s rise in commercial activity (much of it by maritime trade) and the gradual emergence of nations helped give rise to exploration, as the search for natural resources helped drive Portugal, Spain, France, and England to all send expeditions to the New World.  The resulting jockeying for economic and geopolitical advantages led to colonization and imperialism, in which Europe’s powers expanded their power considerably.

            The Reformation was also one legacy of the Renaissance, because it carried farther some of the earlier period’s developments.  Obviously, the period transformed Europe’s religious landscape; though anti-papal protests existed before Martin Luther, the movement he inspired in 1517 divided Europe in religious terms, with Protestantism dominating much of northern Europe (thanks to his disciples, among them John Calvin and John Knox) and Catholicism remaining strong in the continent’s southern half.

            Protestantism also changed Europe by emphasizing the laity, which had been increasingly literate thanks to developments begun during the Renaissance.  Lay Christians were increasingly better-educated, read the Bible in growing numbers (in their own languages instead of Latin), and gained a greater sense of their self-worth (perhaps also an outgrowth of the Renaissance).  Though democracy would still be centuries away and Europe remained largely despotic, a literate, increasingly prosperous population became more assertive of its individual rights and found Protestantism more open to their concerns.[4]

            Education improved further during the Reformation, due to both the Renaissance precedent and increasing literacy.  As in the Renaissance, education in this period adhered to the classics, reading the originals rather than scholarly commentaries on them; Kagan writes, “Straightforward historical and textual analysis replaced lectures consisting of scholastic glosses and commentaries.”[5]  Consulting the originals helped produce a greater variety of scholarship and meant that scholars were now less bound to the “authorities” for insights.

            The Reformation also changed women’s situation; though gender equality and equal rights were still centuries from being realized, women became increasingly literate (keeping with Luther’s mandate that Protestants read Scripture and become a “priesthood of believers”), were allowed to marry later (and to partners of their own choosing, rather than arranged marriages), and received somewhat more respect.  This development stemmed directly from the Reformation’s ideology and was thus not a further development of Renaissance ideas.[6]

            As a tandem, the Renaissance and Reformation changed Europe drastically.  Classical learning revived and set a new standard that Europe followed for centuries; commerce expanded and provided some impetus for exploration and colonization of the New World; the Church’s authority, while still prominent, was reduced; and Europe in general became more secularized.  In short, these two eras combined to transform Europe into what gradually became a modern entity, setting the stages for its later cultural, economic, and political dominance.


Kagan, Donald, Steven Ozment, and Frank M - How the Renaissance and reformation changed europe Essay introduction. Turner.  The Western Heritage.  5th edition.  Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2007.

[1] Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2007), 238-39.
[2] Kagan et al, 241.
[3] Kagan et al, 242.
[4] Kagan et al, 274-280.
[5] Kagan, 282.
[6] Kagan et al, 283-285.

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