Early Modern Europe

During the late Middle Ages, Western European life was built on the feudal and manorial system. Kings, nobles, knights, and peasants (serfs) were the different classes, with the king as nominally the powerful and the serfs as the weakest. Towns were rare, as sections of land called manors were ruled by nobles.

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Nobles provided serfs with housing, farmland, and protection and in return, the serfs would take care of the manor’s land and animals (Beck, et al). Food relied heavily on agriculture and animals were raised on the common pasture. Any other essentials such as clothing, leather goods, and lumber had to be produced by the manor’s self-sufficient community due to the lack of trade (Beck, et al). Most were illiterate and only the wealthy could read and write. The Church was the center of village social life and a place of worship; its ability to Christianize so much of Europe gave them, and especially the Pope, great power over the people. The pope claimed papal supremacy over all secular rulers (Ellis). The Church created the canon law and if disobeyed, the most severe penalty was excommunication and people could not receive sacraments or burials. When the Middle Ages came to an end, a new era was born and the Western world soon became modern, with the plethora of cultural, religious, technological, and political changes.

The Renaissance was a movement that revived the art and learning that was missing during the Middle Ages. Humanism and secularism were the main ideas and values that shaped the culture. Humanism focused on human potential and achievements, instead of just religion. It also stressed the importance of subjects such as history, grammar, logic, philosophy, and poetry. Everything was more secular, or non-religious, and this helped many “develop a new outlook on life and art” (Beck, et al). “Renaissance writers, artists, and scientists shifted their focus from celebrating God to celebrating academic, artistic, and political achievements that were of this world and not the next” (Renaissance Characteristics). Francesco Petrarch was a writer and poet who was often credited with being the father of Renaissance humanism because he was one of the first to write to self-express and portray individuality of their subjects (Beck, et al). In addition, Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, William Shakespeare, and Baldassare Castiglione wrote in vernacular (everyday language) to promote literacy. Individualism was heavily promoted and for this reason, Renaissance writers like Castiglione gave a vision of what the perfect man would be like. In his book, The Courtier, these people were called the Renaissance Men and they topped every area of study, and could “dance, sing, play music, write poetry… be a skilled rider, wrestler, and swordsman” (Beck, et al). A Renaissance man was also expected to create art and be charming, witty, gentle, modest, and reserved. A person who was an example of this was Leonardo Da Vinci, who was a painter, scientist, engineer, and a mathematician. A Renaissance woman would know the classics, inspire/sponsor artists, and collect art. Humanism was incorporated in many pieces of works such as Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, a drawing illustrating the symmetry and beauty of the human form; Raphael’s School of Athens, a painting that celebrated education and many important figures in philosophy; Donatello’s Gattamelata, a statue of a war hero; and Michelangelo’s David, a sculpture that painted the idealistic human form and celebrates a hero (Renaissance Spread). Realism was also the norm since many looked down upon the flat, 2-dimensional, dull art from the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, shading, depth, and perspective was used to make art look more realistic, 3-dimensional, and show the beauty of humans. This is shown especially with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who studied human anatomy to improve their realism.

During the Middle Ages, Europe was ruled completely by monarchy. This changed during the Renaissance when the merchant class started to control the government. Starting in Italy, many city-states became wealthy from trade with Asia and thus, merchants prospered. The merchant middle class supported the arts and education and rediscover Greek/Roman classics. One of the most well-known were the Medici family in Florence. Lorenzo de Medici ruled as dictator of Florence but under the appearance of elected government. In 1494, civil war broke out in Florence as a rebellion against the Medici family. Niccolò Machiavelli was a chief advisor who organized the defense of Florence against the returning Medicis (Video: Medicis…). Machiavelli is credited as the inventor of political science because he separated ethics from politics and used psychology, rationality, and practicality. Most rulers were told to be moral and just to keep the people happy. In his book The Prince, he wrote about how a prince should rule. He wrote this book when he was exiled from Florence due to being accused of plotting against the Medicis. The concepts in his book mainly surround the idea of being cruel and strike fear into people, which forces them to stay loyal and obedient.

Although the Renaissance had many secular aspects, many people were still Christian and the Catholic Church remained powerful. The Church beautified their churches with paintings, statues, and designs. For example, in 1418, Brunelleschi created a dome without support on the outside to finish the top of the Florence Cathedral (Renaissance Characteristics). The Church commissioned other artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci. Some of these artists created some of the most famous religious works during the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo’s David, Last Judgement, Pieta, Sistine Chapel Ceiling; Da Vinci’s Last Supper; and Donatello’s David. There were also a number of Madonna and Child artworks by artists such as Michelangelo, Masaccio, Piero, Bellini, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian.

The Church was still powerful during the Renaissance, but it weakened a lot by 1500. Before the Renaissance had even started, many Christians lost faith in the Church because of the Black Plague. When millions died from the disease, Christians blamed it on the Church for not telling God to stop it. When prayers failed to do anything and priests abandoned their duties of baptizing and administering sacraments, the Church lost a lot of its credibility (Beck, et al). Some additional elements that also contributed to the Church’s downfall were the Renaissance stress on secularism and the individual, rulers challenging the Church, and Martin Luther exposing the Church’s corruption and its leaders’ worldly affairs. Many popes fought with Italian princes over lands for political power; they also “fought long wars to protect the Papal States against invasions by secular rulers” and “intrigued against powerful monarchs who tried to seize control of the Church within their lands” (Ellis). Popes also spent a great deal of money on parties, banquets, and hiring painters and sculptors. To pay for these expenses, the Church increased the cost of services like marriages and baptisms. They also sold many indulgences, which was a grant by the Pope to lessen the time a person has to spend in purgatory, a place in between heaven and hell. Indulgences were supposed to be given only for good deeds, but by the late 1400s, they could be acquired by payment (Ellis). The Church was also criticized for power politics, nepotism (favoring family members by giving them jobs), and celibacy. These things, and especially the indulgences, angered a German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther, who eventually lead the Reformation. In 1517, when a priest named Johann Tetzel offered indulgences to any Christian who would donate money to help rebuild the St. Peter Cathedral, it was the final straw for Luther. He wrote up 95 arguments against indulgences which gained him a lot of supporters who followed his teachings (they were later called Protestants, (Ellis). The pope excommunicated him 1521 and summoned him to the Diet of Worms, an assembly of German princes, to give up his arguments. He objected and he argued that Church officials cannot forgive sins since they are humans; the Bible is the only source for religious truth and any other Church officials’ are invalid; and only faith is needed for salvation, instead of good deeds or indulgences (Luther: 95 Theses). The Reformation came about to England when King Henry VIII wanted a divorce but the Pope wouldn’t allow him. In 1534, he had the Parliament issue the Act of Supremacy and he then became the head of a new church named the Anglican Church (Brun, et al). From 1536 to 1541, another church named the Calvinist Church was also established when French lawyer John Calvin organized Protestant churches in Switzerland. His beliefs were similar to Luther’s, but he believed that a person was predestined before they were born by God to go to heaven or hell. A person did not know their fate until they die, but they were encouraged to live a moral, upright life and work hard and pray to show that they were the ones chosen to go to heaven (Brun, et al). Through the course of the Reformation, England, Scotland, and Northern Germany converted to one of these three religions.

The printing press was the tool that helped spread these religious changes around. Since the Bible was available for everyone, no one had to rely on the priest anymore to read and interpret the Bible for them. Because of this, they could find their own meaning and many of them differed from the Church. Those who disagreed with the Church often wrote and published their writings quickly with the help of the printing press (Beck, et al). It catalyzed the Reformation by publicizing the Church’s corruption and when Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Europe, more people became Protestants.

Because the Catholic Church was losing many followers, the Counter-Reformation started in 1545, with the purpose of strengthening the Catholic Church’s political/ religious authority and prevent non-Catholic Churches like the Lutherans and Calvinists. Ignatius Loyola was a Spanish priest and theologian who founded the Society of Jesuits in 1540. Those in it did a lot of missionary work, traveling all over Europe, China, India, Brazil, the Congo region, and Ethiopia to convert non-Catholics or Protestants. Jesuits set up schools, colleges seminaries, and charities for former prostitutes and Jews who converted to Catholicism. The Society of Jesuits won back many Europeans who converted during the Reformation (Counter-Reformation). Pope Leo X called the Council of Trent in 1545 and met with leaders of the Catholic Church to coordinate and plan attacks on the anti-Catholic Church ideas (Counter-Reformation). At the end of the meeting, they also decided that the Church’s interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one and anyone who thinks otherwise is a heretic; both faith and good works are needed for salvation; sale of indulgences is restricted and reformed. They established the Inquisition where anyone who was deemed as a heretic, or someone who had beliefs contrary to the Church. Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, witches, and Protestants were the most frequently targeted. All Catholic countries had to set up courts for them and an Inquisitor would torture/kill the accused. Some kinds of tortures included being burned, limps stretched, and waterboarding.

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