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
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
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
Thou art more lovely and more
Rough winds do shake the darling buds
And summer's lease hath all too short a
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
“O what a world of profit and
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet
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
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
Main Idea. What factors contributed to the spread of humanist ideas
Main Idea. How was northern Renaissance art similar to and different
from the art of the Italian Renaissance?
The Arts. How did writers and artists in northern Europe use
literature and art to make social and religious commentaries?
Writing to Explain. Explain
why a person could argue that the Renaissance in England was more
"democratic" than in other places.
Analyzing. Look at the painting below. How is it a good example of
Renaissance art in general and of northern Renaissance art in