The Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century is commonly perceived as a period of significant and rapid cultural, artistic, and social progress in comparison to the preceding Middle Ages. It is a complex concept, with the period involving the development of artistic and scholarly pursuits throughout Europe, which has led to the label that the Renaissance represents a sharp break from the culture of Medieval Europe. However, despite significant progress in the arts, culture, and technologies of the period, the Renaissance largely built upon and improved various elements of progress that had been achieved during the Middle Ages. The Renaissance was a continuation of high medieval culture and achievements that were collectively emphasized bringing about a period of artistic and scholarly enlightenment of a new age.
The Middle Ages is typically defined as a period in European history stretching from 500 to approximately 1400 CE. It is currently to be understood as a dynamic period in history during which Europe emerged a distinct cultural entity. Early Middle Ages saw a significant reorganization of existing structures as remnants of the Roman Empire where built upon by the Germanic peoples who established kingdoms on the continent and the population of Europe was gradually Christianized. Despite common perception that the Middle Ages were a time of metaphorical darkness due to ignorance, social oppression and lack of development, the central and high Middle Ages saw dramatic economic and territorial expansion along with demographic growth, emergence of national identity and the rise of various social, cultural, and scholar institutions. Europe experienced significant disaster from war and famine towards the late Middle Ages in the 14th century, but its intellectual, cultural, and political structures remained, until the period of economic revival known as the Renaissance allowed multiple areas of society of flourish (Weinstein et al., 2020).
The Renaissance is the label for a dynamic and multifaceted period between the universalism of the Holy Roman Empire ending in the 14th century and the sweeping transformations of the 17th century. The period is difficult to track as it originated in different countries at various times but is largely believed to begin in Italy with the artistic revivals in Florence and spread north through continental Europe. While commonly seen as a fervent period of European rebirth and rediscovery of Ancient Greek and Roman values for Europe in terms of arts and sciences, historians are generally cautious of labeling it as this march of progress. While the period did produce significant artistic and scholarly work, it was a period that bridged the gap between the Middle Ages and modern-day civilization (Weinstein et al., 2020).
One area where the Renaissance is believed to be a significant jump compared to the Middle Ages was art. Renaissance pieces were significantly influenced by classical art, with many artists turning to sculpture once again, with a significant amount of art focused on the humanist philosophy of human beauty and nature. More complex techniques began to emerge with perspective and shadows, making the paintings more realistic and three-dimensional. However, art from both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was highly religious, influenced by Christianity. While Renaissance painting had more detail and depth, the art pieces often shared similar color tones. Middle Age art is considered to be lacking details in the human figure and face, which is potentially due to artists simply lacking the understanding of how to accurately represent a human body, as it was considered sinful by the church. Nevertheless, the thematic similarities between the pieces of art are evident, with religious undertones and similarly grandiose scenes.
One example of Middle Age art is frescos, particularly the famous The Effects of Good Government fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1338. In comparison, there is The School of Athens by Rafael in 1511. The Renaissance painting is clearer, there are evident details visible in the architecture and human, with evident use of depth that Lorenzetti could not match. However, the style is highly similar, with similar positioning and strokes. The Middle Ages provided multiple examples of art ranging from sculpture to architecture, the gothic period of which saw a significant cultural rise in the high Middle Ages. Both periods also created religious panels for churches that closely resemble each other in style. Undoubtedly, the Renaissance introduced new techniques and styles which made the art more realistic, but it was not a drastic jump, but rather a gradual progression from the styles of the Medieval times. Potentially, the Renaissance could be considered a cultural rebirth due to the significant influx of great artists that arose during this time, but this was able to happen due to the funding by patrons, a practice derived from the Middle Ages, and similarly, many patrons were from the church funding the creation of religious art. Therefore, culturally, the Renaissance built upon the artistic foundations and practices that were developed throughout the Middle Ages and significantly improved on various elements to modernize it.
The Renaissance is also believed to be a revival of the scholarly movement, with the assumption that the Middle Ages were essentially the Dark Ages of ignorance and lack of scientific or intellectual progress. However, that is not the case. Similar to the arts, education and scholarly studies did receive more attention and funding during the Renaissance but these elements were existent in the Middle Ages as well. In fact, the worlds first universities such as the University of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford were all founded in the 11-12th centuries. Universities served as a group of scholars who had united to teach. The Renaissance saw the establishment of more permanent structures due to the idea of the Renaissance man, the idea that humans should embrace all knowledge. Similarly, the belief that the Renaissance saw the revival of humanism and ancient classics in scholarship was once again building upon studies of the Middle Ages, where Aristotle’s work was popular among scholars in Wester Europe. Middle Age scholars designed a method of learning and debate called Scholasticism based on ancient Greek systems which was partially adopted during the Renaissance but also dismissed by some due to its theological nature (Christianson, 2016).
Society and Politics
The Renaissance saw potentially the biggest changes from a societal and political perspectives the feudal system prominent through the Middle Ages began to decline. New political structures formed as the Renaissance aided in the formation of major trade centers, and a new class of urban mobility emerged. However, feudalism had already began to decline towards the end of the Middle Ages due to the social connections and trade routes established during the Crusades. Therefore, it can be argued that the Renaissance simply offered a natural continuation of the general trends which transitioned from feudal lords to oligarchies dominating each city state and becoming standard regional authorities.
Modern nation building and political governance and bureaucracy believed to have stemmed from changes during the Renaissance actually had its origins in Middle Age law. Judicial courts and rule of law drew inspiration from law codes of the Ancient Romans to develop complex legal systems. Civil law was established and began flourishing as early as the 11th century. Common law was also derived in England alongside the famous Magna Carta in the 13th century, one of the earliest ‘constitutions’ and governing documents that later on to serve as the basis to the political and legal foundations of multiple countries. The Renaissance introduced and solidified the foundations of what would become modern urban systems of governance but many of the legal and bureaucratic elements were developed throughout the Middle Ages (Christianson, 2016).
Modern history tends to present the Renaissance as almost a brand, associated with rebirth and newness. It is consistently contrasted with the dark, dangerous, and vilified Middle Ages. In fact, there are multiple elements attributed to the Middle Ages, such as public executions/burnings or the Bubonic Plague actually began after the start of the Renaissance period in 1300s. It is not until the late 15th and early 16th centuries when the Renaissance spread throughout Europe that the Renaissance reach its heights. At this point, the difference in centuries will present some distinct differences between the ages. Nevertheless, the perception of the Renaissance has strongly warped the view of Middle Ages Europe which actually produced significant innovations and forward thinking as discovered in this document (McGarvey, 2019). Ranging from first universities to first legal frameworks, strong developments in arts, sculpture, and architecture could be seen through the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages created key foundations for the emergence of Renaissance era art, scholarship, and technology that would have otherwise taken much longer to develop.
Another argument to consider is that rarely in history does any dramatic change occur suddenly. The Renaissance is a period of time, which took centuries just to reach its peak, at first growing and developing in Italy. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the Renaissance gradually transitioned of the Middle Ages. Thus, many influences and structures that were originated in the Middle Ages had an impact and influence Renaissance thinkers and artists. When historians first began to describe and account the Renaissance period, it became evident that it was incredibly complex to make generalizations. Therefore, the Renaissance was broken down into periods and concepts, such as the rebirth of art, revival of ancient learning, and the reaction against the Middle Ages. However, for all the confusion and contradictions, it is evident that forward-thinking Renaissance leaders sought to synthesize the best features of existing knowledge, philosophies or artistic styles but to fit their perceptions based in simplicity and humanism (Weisinger, 1945).
The Renaissance was an emergent period for European society characterized by significant growth and progress in societal, political, intellectual, and artistic aspects. Often labeled as the “rebirth” of Europe, the Renaissance undoubtedly brough many changes to the status quo of the continent. However, the period was dynamic and transitional, taking existing knowledge, techniques, structures, and other elements and building upon them to create modern approaches as history transitioned into the development of European civilization as it is known today. There were radical and innovative introductions, particularly in parts of art or technology and science, but the common representation of the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance is often incorrect as many of the structures that went on to be attributed to the Renaissance originated centuries earlier at times. The Renaissance built upon the foundations of the Middle Ages to establish a prolific and advanced society that served as a model for modern Europe going forward.
Christianson, K. (2016). The legacy of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance and beyond. Web.
McGarvey, K. (2019). Has the Renaissance warped our view of the Middle Ages? Web.
Weinstein, D., Aubin, H., Barzun, J., Champion, T. C., Herrin, J. E., Frassetto, M., Parker, N. G., Salmon, J. H., Herlihy, D., Mayne, R. J., Stearns, P. N., Peters, E., Treasure, G. R., & Sørensen, M. S. (2020). History of Europe. Web.
Weisinger, H. (1945). The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction against the Middle Ages as a Cause of the Renaissance. Speculum, 20(4) 461-467. Web.