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The Medieval Era And The Renaissance Period History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Medieval Era and the Renaissance period are two of the most well-known time periods of European history. Despite being intertwined in history, the Medieval and Renaissance periods contain vast differences in European culture from one another. These eras are usually either seen as great educational and societal strides made in history, or as periods that simply stunted Europe from reaching its full potential sooner. The Europeans were looking for a system that would work for their growing and changing nation. The combination of the Medieval Era and Renaissance period culminated in a Continent that was educated, experienced, and prepared for the future of the modern ages.

There are three major sections in the timeline encompassing the history of Europe. These time periods are referred to as Antiquity, the Medieval era, and the Renaissance period. The Medieval era began in the dying years of Antiquity and preceded the Renaissance period. The Medieval era, which is often called the Middle Ages, is further divided into these three subcategories: the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. This entire time period lasted from the late fifth century to the middle of the fifteenth century. The Early Middle Ages took place from about A.D. 470 to 1000, the High from 1000 to 1300, and the Late began in 1300 and lasted for approximately the next 150 years (K., Nimisha). The changes that accompanied the Renaissance period began to sprout in the early fourteenth century in Italy and started to catch on throughout the entire continent in 1350. The Renaissance period is most widely believed to have ended around 1620 (Alchin, L.).

In the beginning of the Middle Ages, the remnants of the Roman Empire held on to governmental control in the eastern European civilizations, but were lost in the west. Prior to the start of the Medieval Era, great military progress was made in the eastern half of Europe; this was in large part due to the military campaign of Constantine the Great in the early fourth century. As the eastern half of the continent was progressively gaining strength and unity, the western half began a slow and steady decline. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Western Roman Empire was repeatedly assaulted by barbarian forces and other warrior tribes which surrounded the weakening nation. These invasive forces caused great divides throughout the land of Western Europe; as tribes would conquer certain areas, they would assume rule over the Europeans. These tribes brought new government and economic policies and drastically affected the Western European culture. At the end of the fifth century, Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of Western Europe, was dethroned and the civilized Western Roman Empire came to an end. The Eastern Roman Empire remained strong and continued to claim the western territory as its own, but had scarce control of the occurrences in the land. Under the new barbaric rule, the west departed from its traditional Latin language system and into derivation of Latin used by the controlling tribes.

The Medieval Age was a simple time period; this was in large part due to the great influence and involvement of the church on nearly every aspect of society. The religion of Europe in the Middle Ages was completely controlled by the Catholic Church. The religious hierarchy sought to have their entire continent unified in the Catholic religion. As a result, religious leaders began to be integrated into the government and received great power throughout Europe. The more power these religious officials were given, the more likely it appeared that a unified Catholic Europe might not be an unreachable goal.

The fusion of church and government began primarily in Eastern Europe as the western half was controlled by non-Christian tribes. Eventually in the Middle Ages, the Christian religion gained influence on the western societies as well. At first, the two religious powered governments were able to coexist, but in time small differences between the two cultures caused religious controversy as well. The difference in language- the east using Greek and the west using Latin- as well as rising theological and doctrinal differences soon divided the one unified religion into two separate churches: the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church. The split was so dreadful that both of the churches actually excommunicated one another. Western Europe also saw an influx of monasteries and monks in the Early Middle Ages. In a society which largely disregarded writing, reading, and many educational facets, the monk worked to keep the literature and learning of an area alive. Monks would write literature, religious as well as secular, and were often willing to teach people in surrounding areas how to read and write. Because monks were some of the only Medieval authors, literature was produced in small quantities and often reserved for only the wealthy and powerful (Langley, Andrew pg. 38-39).

Medieval life was dominated by what is known as feudalism. Feudalism was a class system which divided the population of Europe into three major classes. The first and least respected of these classes was the peasantry; the majority of Europe fell into this class. Peasants usually lived on manors, plots of land owned by nobility. The nobles in charge of the manors would bring in peasants for the labor and upkeep of the land. These peasants were treated more like slaves than employees and were often forced to pay rent or provide foods for their noble masters. The second level of the feudal system was that of the clergymen. The clergy was the class that communicated with God. Clergymen were either monks living in isolated monasteries or parish priests living among the people. The third and most powerful of the three classes was the nobility. The nobility was comprised of any kind of knight and his family. The nobles held great power in the Middle Ages, largely due to their economic and governmental immunities, such as exemptions from taxation. The nobles were in control of the manors and reaped all of the rewards provided by their peasant workers. Later in the Middle Ages, nobles also gained control of castles, which were often used as another means of escaping governmental policy (Brocard, Philippe pg. 10-21).

The Medieval Era was a time period riddled with disease; this was caused by a widespread lack of sanitation throughout Europe which went unnoticed until it was too late. In the late Middle Ages the Black Death struck Europe with a devastating force. The Black Death likely began in Asia and traveled to Europe through fleas that lived on rats, which were the primary carriers, which came through trade routes and on ships that sailed throughout European waters. The most common symptoms of the Black Death were the appearance of swollen boils in the groin and armpits. Most victims with these symptoms would die within seven days of infection. There were worse effects of the disease, such as respiratory failure that would cause the infected person to have extreme breathing difficulties and cough up blood from their lungs. Most people with these symptoms would die within two days of infection. The Black Death along with most other diseases of the Middle Ages was largely incurable due to the lack of antibiotics and basic medicines. The Black Death is estimated to have killed close to half of Europe’s total population. (

Women living in the Middle Ages saw relative equality and were often necessities in society. Women were given the chance to become part of churches in positions such as nuns or Abbesses, which were in charge of monasteries. These opportunities provided women with the ability to learn how to read and write, and elevated their value far beyond marriage and child-bearing. Women were also provided with a fairly large selection of job opportunities. Women in the Middle Ages usually worked with their husband in his business, but other jobs such as midwifing and beer brewing were occupations primarily held by women. Prostitution also became fairly common in urban areas of Europe. Marriages were often arranged based on economic reasons and divorce did not exist in society. In Medieval society, it was often seen as a man’s job to attract and please a woman into marriage (

The art in the Middle Ages was extremely driven by religion. Most paintings were depictions of saints or some sort of religious affairs. Painters used a one dimensional style and added little emotion in their works. The use of gold to illuminate figures in paintings or to outline books became very popular in the Middle Ages. Gothic and Byzantine style was the driving style in Medieval architecture. One of the most well-known examples of the Byzantine style of architecture is the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral constructed by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. This massive church was built in Constantinople and remained the largest building of its kind for centuries to come. The Hagia Sophia is characterized by large granite columns, illustrious marble pillars and constructs, beautiful religious mosaics, and most notably its massive dome. The original dome was too heavy for the poorly made walls of the cathedral and eventually collapsed. A new larger dome was placed on improved walls in the late sixth century by Isidore the Younger ( One of the best examples of Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. This church is characterized by large arched supports known as flying buttresses. The Building had two towers and one spire which was 300 feet tall. The thin walls of the Gothic style became hazardous and the architects had to add in further means of exterior support. This was one of the first buildings to include support statues made in the likeness of gargoyles and chimeras. The interior was furnished with grand organs and large bells (K., Nimisha).

In the same manner as Medieval art, Medieval literature had great focus on the incorporation of religion. The primary source of literary works in the Middle Ages was educated monks from European monasteries. These monks would hand-copy literature; most monks wrote in Latin but some used Greek as well. Due to the lack of production and the educated tone of the works, literary works of the Middle Ages were reserved for wealthy nobility; the peasantry simply passed stories down through the generations by word of mouth. Medieval literature placed great emphasis on the combination of reality and fantasy. Most stories included human characters with personalities or traits resembling those of a distinct god or saint. Codes of honor and romance took great precedence in literature of the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer who lived in the fourteenth century is often considered to be one of the best and most influential writers of the Medieval Era. In his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, he critiqued the social class system that had overtaken Europe in the Middle Ages. He did not elevate any one class over another in his story and showed that corruption and sin was present in all classes, even the clergy and nobility (K., Nimisha).

The Renaissance period first began in the fourteenth century in Northern Italy and made its way throughout the rest of Europe in the fifteenth century. The Italians desired a culture that emulated that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They longed for a society that was educated and innovative. The Italians had seen the Middle Ages as a relatively dull period and the new ideals that began to rise gave new hope for a changing nation. The Italians called this new era that was beginning in their country “rinascita”, which translates to “rebirth” (K., Nimisha). These new ideals can be accredited to a few great Italian minds, such as the painter Giotto and the writer and humanist Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch was one of the first humanists and vernacular writers of the Renaissance period. He criticized the zeitgeists of the Medieval Era and pushed for the ancient ways of Greece and Rome to be the new ideals of all of Europe. Petrarch believed that God desired for mankind to use its talents and abilities to serve and honor God. Additionally, he strongly believed in active study of ancient literature, as the ancient times were filled with eras of enlightenment. Donald R. Kelley said this about Petrarch’s beliefs and his legacy: “To Petrarch and his followers, nothing that was human (and little that was divine) was foreign. Curiosity, nostalgia, and an attitude of tolerance would lead to a deeper understanding of the past and a willingness to extend such understanding beyond the boundaries of Christendom. What resulted was a transformation not only of knowledge but also of values and assumptions about the human condition.” (Thompson, Stephen, ed. Pg. 14-16). Petrarch’s views and beliefs caught on with many Italians and in time with many people throughout all of Europe; however, this man died before the end of the fourteenth century and never got to see the completion of the intellectual nation that he had envisioned (Thompson, Stephen, ed. Pg. 14-16).

Religion in the Renaissance was largely affected by the rise of humanistic views also. Many of the great religious leaders of that time, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Erasmus, started to realize that their beliefs did not match those of the Catholic Church. This is, of course, what led Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in 1517. He believed the Catholic Church and the power of the pope was a corrupted system that needed to be corrected. As a result, this act sparked the reformation and led to the rise of protestant churches within Europe (

The rise of humanism in the Renaissance also affected the Europeans views of life. A typical Renaissance man was expected to be well-rounded in many areas, whereas a Medieval man was often only trained in one specific area. Men were often trained in the arts and sciences. The Renaissance was a period in which women’s right began to diminish. Sexual double standards began to arise in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages and only increased over the next few centuries. Some women were still educated and were able to receive minor roles in business and society, but were always considered to be inferior to men. It was also the expectation of the times that women make themselves appealing to the men; it was their duty to look good for men when they were asked to do so. Furthermore, marriages in the Renaissance period were based more on love and romance than economic standings as they were in the Medieval Era. Prostitution began to occur more frequently around Europe. Due to the diminished views of woman and the large prostitution rates, rape was not seen as a serious crime in the Renaissance period (

Renaissance art was an ever evolving field; many new discoveries and ideas regarding art were proposed during this period. Renaissance artists placed increased emphasis on secular themed artwork and art involving the human body (Langley, Andrew pg. 44). The artists of this period were some of the first to use perspective in their paintings, as well as brighter colors and natural sources of light and shadowing. The Renaissance also saw some of the first oil paintings. Renaissance architecture was largely based off of classical forms of art, such as those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Some of the most famous artists of all time came out of the Renaissance period; Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci are just a few of the greatest artists of the era. Michelangelo’s David is an excellent example of the use of perspective, two dimensional effects, and the knowledge of human anatomy that were so common in Renaissance art (K., Nimisha).

Literature in the Renaissance period made great progress in availability and context. Renaissance literature placed greater emphasis on the adventurer of a story as opposed to the adventure itself. The humanist aspects were evident in literature as the feelings and emotions of characters were of utmost importance in the stories. The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1440 eliminated the need for all works of literature to be hand-copied. This, of course, allowed for more works of literature to be spread throughout Europe which were in turn sold at lower prices and available to far more people. As James E. Burke said, “The coming of the printing press must have seemed as if it would turn the world upside down in the way it spread and, above all, democratized knowledge. Provided you could pay and read, what was on the shelves in the new bookshops was yours for the taking. The speed with which printing presses and their operators fanned out across Europe is extraordinary. From the single Mainz press of 1457, it took only twenty-three years to establish presses in 110 towns: 50 in Italy, 30 in Germany, 9 in France, 8 in Spain, 8 in Holland, 4 in England, and so on.” ( The printing Press was able to further unify Europe around the philosophy of the importance of knowledge and education (

The Medieval Era and Renaissance period shared some similarities, but are primarily seen for their vast differences. First off, religion was one of the most important factors to the Europeans in both of these time periods. In the Medieval Ages religion was fought for in the Inquisition and the Crusades; in the Renaissance religion was spread through more peaceful means in the Reformation. Additionally, different art styles and literary techniques between the two periods were clearly evident, as well as the higher availability of literature to people of all social and economic classes in the Renaissance. Moreover, Renaissance literature also covered a large variety of topics such as politics, art, short-stories, and more; whereas Medieval literature was almost completely about religion. Finally, the Renaissance also introduced the ownership of African slaves, while very few blacks even lived in Europe in the Middle Ages (

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance changed Europe forever. From the changes in religious powers and doctrines to the improved lifestyle and education of the population, Europe made great strides in building itself into the powerful nation that is has become in more modern times. These time periods brought their fair share of destruction and devastation, such as the Black Death, the Crusades, and barbaric invasions; however, the ever-strengthening continent was able to recover and regrow into a better place. In conclusion, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance period were vastly different times but resulted in a Europe that would become one of the strongest nations in the world.

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