We use the word Renaissance to indicate the term of years between the Middle Ages and modern times. No exact dates are possible. Roughly, it began in Italy towards the end of the fourteenth century, with the revival of learning there, and gradually spread to the rest of Europe.
The word Renaissance is also used to mean, not merely the term of years between mediæval and modern times, but the new manner in which men began at this period to look at life, in the way of moral conduct and of learning. It was in one aspect a revolt of man against the accepted order of things, an awakening in man of the desire to think his own thoughts and to live his own life. It was a many-sided and complicated movement, touching and transforming all life. It was an advance; but in order to make this advance men retired backward to the learning of the ancients.
During the years when nations had been forming, when the business of life was war, learning had been neglected. Greek was a forgotten language in Western Europe. Plato was unknown, Homer and Aristotle known only in Latin translations. The books of these and other great writers might indeed be found in libraries. But they lay there unopened, for no one could read them, and there were neither dictionaries nor grammars from which the language might be learned. Only in Constantinople, the eastern outpost of Christian Europe, did the old learning survive.
Italy and the Humanists
As the Turks encroached upon the Grecian Empire many Greeks sought new homes in Italy. There they were warmly welcomed by the young writers of the day, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio. Petrarch, indeed, could never learn Greek at all, Boccaccio never learned it thoroughly, yet they were the forerunners of the Renaissance. They set Italy on the right road, and awoke a desire in the heart of the Italians for the beauties of the old Greek learning and culture.
This return to Greek and Greek art was a revolt against priestly authority and a return to nature. The whole treasure, therefore, of Greek and Latin literature which was now discovered, came to be called the Humanities—litteræ humaniores. The men who advanced the movement came to be called the Humanists, and Petrarch, it has been said, was the first of the Humanists.
Italy had shown itself ready to imbibe Greek learning and Greek art. So it was naturally to Italy that most of the learned fled for refuge, when in 1453 Constantinople was taken by the Turks. These refugees brought with them their books and pictures as well as their love of art and learning. They found, as it were, the soil ready for them, and there the new-old learning took fresh root and blossomed.
Soon the fame of this learning spread abroad. It was not unhelped by war. For invading armies came. Italy was crushed between the upper and nether millstones of warring princes. Yet because of her art and learning she was not wholly crushed. Through them she conquered the conquerors, and scholars came from every part of Europe to sit at the feet of her learned doctors. Returning home they carried to the universities of France, Germany, and England perfect literary models, and opened treasures of long-forgotten knowledge to them.
From Italy, too, there spread a new love of art. Francis I carried back to France with him pictures by great artists such as Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. He induced Leonardo and other great artists to come to France, there to build for him splendid castles and churches. Taught by his example great architects soon arose in Spain and the Netherlands. To all the nations of Europe indeed there came a new conception of building. As art and learning began to fill a part of life which had hitherto been given only to war, the gloomy feudal castles began to disappear and noble pleasure houses took their place.
In this connection the discovery of gunpowder changed the world enormously. There has been much discussion as to who first discovered it in Europe. But whether it was a German monk, Berthold Schwartz, or Roger Bacon, in any case it began to be used in the middle of the fourteenth century. Its use changed the art of war, and struck a fatal blow at feudalism and chivalry. Henceforth the knight on horseback was of little use in the field. His prowess with lance and sword availed him little, when death could be dealt from a distance, leaving him never a chance of a hand-to-hand fight with his equals. The cloth-yard arrows of the English archer had wounded him sorely, the leaden bullet of the low-born arquebusier was his death-blow.
As the knowledge of the power of gunpowder increased, the stone-battlemented castles of the nobles were rendered useless as places of refuge. For walls strong enough to resist the heaviest of battering-rams crumbled before cannon-balls. And the consciousness that these formidable piles were useless helped the spread of gracious architecture.
Gunpowder was a great reformer and leveller, but printing was a greater, and it did more than anything else to encourage the spread of learning. The art had been known to the Chinese long before it was invented in Europe, and, as with gunpowder, there is doubt as to the first European discoverer. It may have been Janszoon Coster of Haarlem who first discovered it, or it may have been Johan Gutenberg of Mainz. But whoever discovered it, it came into use about the middle of the fifteenth century.
The art very quickly spread through Italy, France, and the Netherlands, and thence was brought by Caxton to England. By the end of the century printing-presses were busy in every country in Europe.
Nothing changed the world so much as this invention. Without it the new learning might have remained the privilege of the few. Without it man's dawning sense of individuality might never have come to the full light of day. As it was, printing made a gift of learning to the many. At the very outset, too, its influence was increased by the discovery of new, cheap ways of making paper. So with a quickness never surpassed, books, from being the luxury of the few, became the everyday necessity of all.
The New World
In the fifteenth century, in these and many other ways, the old world changed rapidly. Then, as if that were not enough, men discovered a new world. Christopher Columbus showed the way across the Atlantic. Vasco da Gama doubled the Cape of Good Hope. Magellan's expedition sailed round the world. In the wake of Columbus many other great sailors followed, until it was at length established beyond a doubt that his first voyage had led him not to India, as he believed, but to the shores of a mighty, and till then undreamed of, continent.
All these voyages made plain several matters. They made plain the fact that the world was round, that it was inhabited on the other side, that it was much larger than had been supposed. Now the first two facts revealed were "heresy." The Church had taught that the world was flat or concave. To believe in the Antipodes and to believe that the Antipodes were inhabited was pronounced sinful. For had not the Apostles been commanded to go forth to preach the Gospel to the whole world? They never went to the Antipodes. Therefore, there was no such place.
But the daring sailors who sailed forth now almost daily, had proved beyond all possible contradiction that the world was round, and that the Antipodes were inhabited. This was a shock not only to men's preconceived ideas of the world's geography but to their faith. The Church was proved wrong in one dogma, might it not, they asked themselves, be wrong in others? Thus the discovery of the New World encouraged men to think for themselves, and decide for themselves in matters of religion.
The discovery of the New World opened a crack for doubt. It also, as it were, changed the axis of the old world. Henceforth the Mediterranean was no longer the centre of trade and commerce. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries almost the entire trade and commerce of Europe had been in the hands of the Italians. They were very often all called Lombards (hence Lombard Street in London). They were not only the merchants but the bankers, manufacturers, and carriers for Europe. Upon this trade cities such as Venice grew great and splendid.
With the discovery of America this was changed. Trade drifted away from Italy and the Mediterranean ports to those countries opening upon the Atlantic. Many Italian ports were utterly ruined, many others fell from splendour to insignificance, merely because their geographical position as regards the New World, and the new ways to the old world, was disadvantageous.
The New World became the heritage of the people who united a good geographical position with grit, daring, and love of adventure. Spain, Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands all shared the good geographical position, and all started fair in the race. But in the end Britain out-distanced all rivals. Germany, because of geographical position and want of political unity, took no part in it whatever, and has never since been able to make up for lost opportunities in the beginning. Italy, tied to the wheels of German ambition, shared her misfortune.