Chapter 14 Beginnings of Revolutionary European Civilization, 1300-1650

Section 3 The Northern Renaissance

The new ideas of the humanists in Italy began to spread north to other parts of Europe at the end of the 1400s. As northern writers and artists studied the humanities, they took the Renaissance in a new direction. Northern European writers applied humanist principles to Christianity, calling for reform of the church.  Artists used Italian techniques to render more realistic interpretations of human figures.

The Spread of the Renaissance

Around 1500,[lxviii][lxviii] humanist ideas began to spread across the Alps from Italy to the countries of northern Europe. Diplomacy played a role in this expansion. As rulers sought to escape from constant warfare, states across Europe began to establish resident ambassadors in other royal courts to increase international communication. These ambassadors provided an important link through which new humanist ideas could be shared. But two other factors—the growth of education and new printing methods—played even greater roles.

Education. In the 1400s scholars from other parts of Europe came to Italy to study with Italian humanists. Students from northern Europe had been coming to Italy for centuries to study law and medicine at the highly respected Italian universities. By the end of the 1400s, however, they were also studying the rediscovered learning of the ancient world. When these students returned to their homes, they brought their new humanist ideas with them. As the Commercial Revolution in Europe created new wealth, and more people could afford higher education, many new universities were established in France, the Netherlands, and Germany.

            Women as well as men were part of the new spirit of humanist education that swept across Europe. Noble families encouraged daughters as well as sons to study the classics, learn languages, and engage in religious and philosophical discussions. One woman described her opportunity to study the humanities as “one of the greatest benefits that God ever gave me.” Noblewomen were often influential in spreading humanism. For example, Queen Marguerite of Navarre[lxix][lxix] patronized humanists and encouraged the study of Petrarch in France.

Printing. The growing emphasis on education and the spread of humanist ideas were greatly aided by new printing technology. Around 1450[lxx][lxx] a German printer named Johannes Gutenberg[lxxi][lxxi] began to use movable metal type to print books. Centuries earlier, Chinese artisans had learned to use wooden blocks smeared with ink to make many copies of an image or words on paper. Muslim traders had picked up the technique, and by 1400[lxxii][lxxii] Spanish Muslims had introduced printed works to Europe.[lxxiii][lxxiii] But Gutenberg's new technique allowed multiple copies of books to be produced more quickly and cheaply. As the technique spread across Europe, new ideas reached a growing audience.

Christian Humanism

As the Renaissance moved north, its character began to change. Northern humanists, for example, were often more interested in applying humanist principles and the lessons of the classics to religion than to secular topics. This form of humanism came to be known as Christian humanism. Desiderius Erasmus[lxxiv][lxxiv] was the most influential northern humanist. In 1509[lxxv][lxxv] he published The Praise of Folly, in which he called for reform of the church. He was especially critical of ignorance and vice on the part of the clergy. About monks he wrote:

“Among them are some who make a great thing out of their squalor and beggary, who stand at the door bawling out their demands for bread— . . . depriving other beggars of no small share of their income. And in this manner these most [dis]agreeable fellows, with their filth, ignorance, coarseness, impudence, [are supposed to] recreate for us, as they say, an image of the apostles.”

Erasmus wanted to eliminate what he considered meaningless rituals such as fasting and worshipping holy relics, as well as ignorance among the clergy. He emphasized instead personal devotion to God and the moral lessons of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

            Another influential humanist was Erasmus’s close friend Sir Thomas More[lxxvi][lxxvi] of England. In his most famous work, Utopia, published in 1516,[lxxvii][lxxvii] More wrote about an ideal society, where citizens could live together in harmony. In this society all citizens were equal and everyone worked to support the group. Utopia reflected More's belief in the humanist idea that people were capable of managing their own affairs—they did not need the authority of the church to tell them what to do.

The Renaissance in England

The writings of More and Erasmus were enormously popular in England. But the Renaissance in England did not reach its height until the late 1500s,[lxxviii][lxxviii] when it was already dying out in Italy and other parts of Europe. By this time, however, England was a land eager to receive Renaissance ideas. The English nobility was more educated than it had ever been, and printing had been introduced in England by the end of the 1400s.[lxxix][lxxix] When the well-educated Queen Elizabeth I[lxxx][lxxx] ascended the throne in 1558,[lxxxi][lxxxi] she encouraged the patronage of court poets, playwrights, and actors. In part because of her patronage of the arts, the Renaissance in England has often been called the Elizabethan Age.

            For their inspiration, writers of the Elizabethan era looked to Petrarch and other Italian humanists. Like their Italian predecessors, English writers glorified human endeavors and the beauty of human love. From Petrarch the English adapted the type of poetry known as the sonnet. Sonnets, like the following verse by William Shakespeare, possibly the greatest of the Elizabethan writers, often praised the beauty of a woman or the nature of love:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.

And summer's lease hath all too short a date.” 

            Many writers of the English Renaissance combined the glorification of humans with a strong sense of national pride. For many people in England, the Renaissance seemed a time of unlimited possibilities for the nation and the individual. National histories became popular reading for the upper classes. In England as in other countries, authors began to write in their own languages, rather than in Latin, as earlier humanist scholars had done.

            The unique spirit of the Elizabethan Age was captured in drama. Plays had been a popular form of entertainment for many centuries. Religious “morality” plays were performed in or near churches, and servants at the courts of nobles performed comic plays during festivals. By the Elizabethan Age, groups of professional actors roamed the countryside performing for the public. The first public theaters were not built until the end of the 1500s[lxxxii][lxxxii] in London, but by the time of Shakespeare's death in 1616,[lxxxiii][lxxxiii] London was the scene of a thriving theater district, with some theaters able to hold up to 2,000 spectators. The great theaters allowed the ideas of the Renaissance to reach a mass audience, not merely the literate upper classes. Shakespeare, for example, wrote comedies and tragedies that appealed to ordinary people. Through themes as diverse as history, romantic love, murder, magic, and witchcraft, he explored the depths of human nature.

            The main character in The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus,[lxxxiv][lxxxiv] a play written in 1588 by Christopher Marlowe, sums up the spirit of the English Renaissance by saying: 

“O what a world of profit and delight,

Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,

Is promised to the studious artisan!

All things that move between the quiet poles

Shall be at my command.” 

Not only were human beings at the center of the universe, but with creativity they could control their own destinies and the world around them.

Northern Renaissance Art

Like their literary counterparts, the artists of northern Europe were also influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Not only did northern artists travel to Italy to study the techniques of Italian painters, but Italian works of art were commonly bought by the nobility and wealthy merchants of northern Europe.

            Although northern Renaissance artists adopted Italian techniques, their works reflected a more down-to-earth view of humanity. Whereas Italian artists tried to capture the classical beauty of Greek and Roman gods in their paintings, northern artists often tried to depict people as they really were.

            One of the most influential artists of the northern Renaissance was the German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer.[lxxxv][lxxxv] Dürer was the first northern artist to study in Italy. He learned the Italian sense of achieving accurate proportions in the human form. Dürer often chose ordinary subjects for his work. Even in his religious works, he modeled many figures after ordinary Europeans of the 1500s. He also found a mass market for his art through cheap woodcuts and engravings, which his wife sold for him at fairs and markets.

            Hans Holbein the Younger,[lxxxvi][lxxxvi] a contemporary of Dürer, was most famous for his portraits. He painted many of the well-known Europeans of his day, including Erasmus, Thomas More, and King Henry VIII of England.[lxxxvii][lxxxvii] He not only painted his subjects in striking detail but also tried to capture the spirit of their Renaissance outlook. In The French Ambassadors, for example, he posed his two subjects standing by a table filled with books, globes, and astronomical devices.

            In the area of the Netherlands known as Flanders,[lxxxviii][lxxxviii] a group of Renaissance painters developed their own distinct style. Known as the Flemish School, these painters were noted for the exquisite detail of their work and for their landscapes. These landscapes were much darker and colder than those of Italian painters, due to the difference in climate between northern Europe and Italy. Pieter Brueghel,[lxxxix][lxxxix] one of the most famous of the Flemish painters, often depicted scenes of local landscapes, featuring common peasants performing everyday tasks. By showing the peasants, Bruegel hoped to demonstrate the often cruel treatment they received from the upper classes.


Section 3 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

Marguerite of Navarre

Christian humanism


Thomas More

Elizabethan Age

Albrecht Dürer

Hans Holbein

Flemish School

1. Main Idea.  What factors contributed to the spread of humanist ideas across Europe?

2. Main Idea.  How was northern Renaissance art similar to and different from the art of the Italian Renaissance?

3. The Arts.  How did writers and artists in northern Europe use literature and art to make social and religious commentaries?

4. Writing to Explain.  Explain why a person could argue that the Renaissance in England was more "democratic" than in other places.

5. Analyzing.  Look at the painting below. How is it a good example of Renaissance art in general and of northern Renaissance art in particular?