The Renaissance- A Change Or Continuity

The Renaissance- A change or continuation
Ethan CT Burwell
May 28, 2010

Prior to the 14th century, the basic structure of Western society, in Europe, was dominated by the Medieval feudal system. In the decades leading up to the 1400’s, however, a combination of the events of the Crusades, the Black Plague, and a wavering faith in Church doctrine began to set the stage for a new social revolution that would, in time, give birth to the single greatest social revival in European history, known as the Renaissance. The beginning of the Renaissance marked a departure from the political, intellectual, and social recession that had prevailed in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire and signaled the beginning of a new era.
The beginning of the Renaissance in 1450 marked a realization of significant changes that had taken place in Europe, particularly in Italy. One of the first aspects of life that found its self being reconstructed towards the end of the Medieval Period and leading up to the Renaissance was political organization. Prevailing for nearly nine centuries, Europe had been divide under a system of feudalism. Leading up to the 14th century, however, feudalism began to lose its effectiveness due largely in part to social connections established throughout the Crusades as well as a reduced population as a result of the Black Plague of the mid 1300’s. Revitalized social connections eventually lead to a rediscovery of large scale trade in Europe as goods were exchanged, once again, with lands across the Mediterranean. Through new found commercialism monetary earnings became the new standard of wealth, leaving the old feudal nobility in declining power. As a result of the decline in feudalism rising merchant families were able to emerge as the elite in developing urban centers being fueled through trade and cultural nourishment.
On a social level, the new political structure of the Renaissance brought many significant changes to European culture. Major trade centers began to emerge throughout the well situated Italian peninsula with once feudal kingdoms consolidating into permanent cities. From the onset of the new commercialism, society began to lake on a less war-ready outlook and maintain a more civilized approach as people began settling into urban life. The decline in status and numbers of the feudal nobility along with the rise of wealthy merchant families also gave way for the evolution of a new class of new urban nobility. Rising in dominance in each city state, oligarchies became established as the standard regional authorities. It was this lack of unity between the Italian city-states would eventually fuel a sense of competition, which would in its self fuel the Renaissance.
The Renaissance also saw distinct changes in acceptable social etiquette. The merger of the feudal nobilities with the rising merchant families at the beginning of the Renaissance came about through intermarriages between the two classes. Through this process women largely became instruments used in the social benefit of their families, and therein lost the relative equality that they had known throughout the Middle Ages. As men advanced in commercialism, few acceptable roles were seen for females in the field and as a result their expectations largely became confined to child birth and the maintenance of the home. Although some wealthy families could afford to educate women, however, even then education that women received was mainly intended to serve as a status symbol.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the time period was that, unlike the transition into the Middle Ages, people were consciously aware of the changes taking place around them. The Renaissance brought to light a re-evaluation of the way people viewed the world. It ushered in a revitalized interest in literature which then, in turn, manifested it’s self into new philosophies. People of the time were able to recognize their advancements and actively chose to associate their era with the Greco-Roman era that proceeded the Middle Ages. The sentiment of the time was captured by the poet Francesco Petrarch who “believed that he was living at the start of a new age, a period of light following a long night of gothic gloom.” In a significant shift from the proceeding era, intellects of the Renaissance began realizing their own potential as individuals as the concept of individualism spread. Throughout the Medieval period Christianity scorned narcissism, however the new time period marked the very early beginnings of what would become an increasingly secular era in which the strict religious expectations of the Church would gradually be tempered. Through the thought of individualism people were for the first time in many centuries able to accept self acknowledgment in their personality, uniqueness, genius, and talent; people concluded that there was no limit to human abilities. Leon Battista Alberti summed up individualism in stating that “Men can do all things if they will.”
New outlooks on the world were also portrayed in the art work of the era. During the Renaissance art became the main means of glorifying God. Well to do families spent large amounts of money becoming patrons of the arts. As the time period progressed, however, and wealthy families could afford to become more materialistic, works of art began taking on more secular forms in displaying immortalizing portraits of noble families. Art, too, began to reflect the new ideas of humanism, which, similarly to individualism, reflected the beauty and perfection of the human body and condition. Through humanism art saw a more direct shift from indisputable tributes to biblical preaching to more secular undertones.
The Renaissance marked a realization of significant changes that had taken place in Europe. It brought to light a re-evaluation of the way people viewed the world. New philosophies and perceptions were achieved in nearly all aspects of life including political, social, and intellectual, and it was through these new ideals that European culture was able to advance in ways that it had not known in nearly thirteen hundred years.


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