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The Renaissance

A term used by historians to describe a special period of European history, roughly the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Etymologically the word itself is French for “rebirth,” meaning in general a revival of culture, although most historians today tend to see it more as an age of movements and accelerated transition rather than one of sharp departure from the medieval past.

The Renaissance began in Italy with a renewal of interest in the study of the classics known as “humanism.” Thus, intellectually the Renaissance was a period of intense study of both the form and content of classical texts. Petrarch* (d.1374) is generally thought of as the “first humanist,” followed by a host of other brilliant men of letters: Giovanni Boccaccio (d.1375), Lorenzo Valla* (d.1457), and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola* (d.1494), to name a few. The focus of this classical revival in Italy was more on man and his relation to the present material world than on God and the world to come, as had been true in the medieval past. But above all, the Italian Renaissance was a time of supreme cultural achievement. It was a period studded with geniuses and men of influence: Leon Battista Alberti (d.1472), Leonardo da Vinci* (d.1519), Raphael* (d.1520), Niccolò Machiavelli (d.1527), Michelangelo* (d.1564), and Benvenuto Cellini (d.1571), for example.

As the Renaissance moved north of the Alps in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, it became more religious in tone and emphasis. The majority of northern humanists were more interested in the Christian classics (e.g., the NT and the Fathers) than in pagan texts. They also were concerned with reforming the church according to apostolic principles. Because of their desire to apply humanism to the question of reform, these northern scholars generally are called “Christian humanists.” Among their number were John Colet* (d.1519), Johannes Reuchlin* (d.1522), Thomas More* (d.1535), Jacques Lefèvre d'étaples* (d.1536), and the great Erasmus* (d.1536).

Although the question of the exact relationship between the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation is still debated, it is clear that the former movement affected the course of Christian history in several important ways. First, Renaissance attitudes, values, and practices penetrated the Roman hierarchy in this period. By the time Martin Luther* (d.1546) drafted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, the papal chair had a long history of occupants insensitive to the spiritual needs of the faithful and more interested in real estate than reform, more concerned with politics than piety. Second, the Christian humanists' sharp criticisms of clerical abuse, and their call for reform, added to the growing unrest in Western Christendom. The old saw that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched” contains a great deal of truth. Third, after 1517 many younger humanists turned Protestant, for example, Ulrich Zwingli* (d.1531), Philip Melanchthon* (d.1560), John Calvin* (d.1564), and Theodore Beza* (d.1605).