The myth of the renaissance | Varsity Education

The myth of the renaissance

The ‘Renaissance’ is a period of European history which is usually defined as stretching between the 14th and 17th centuries. Meaning ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance was marked by an artistic revolution in Europe, along with religious upheaval and an upsurge in interest in classical Greek and Roman art, literature, science and architecture. This makes it of interest to students from many disciplines. The Renaissance is typically seen as the time when Europe rediscovered its classical heritage and cast off the repressive religiosity of the Middle Ages, laying the foundation for the later scientific revolution and our modern world.

However, many modern scholars have challenged the idea that the Renaissance was really a revolutionary moment at all, or one for which Europe was itself responsible. Indeed, some have instead seen the Renaissance merely as a continuation of the Late Middle Ages but, effectively, worse: the ravages of the black death were followed by political and religious strife, from which Europe was only saved by the plunder of the Americas and the re-establishment of trade with the East during the voyages of discovery.

Venice, Italy

The heirs of Rome


While the Renaissance is typically credited to a rediscovery in the West of ancient Greek and Roman writings, accompanied by a new spirit of intellectualism, the term ‘rebirth’ implies this sprang from nowhere. In fact, works of Greek science, philosophy and mathematics had been trickling into Europe for centuries, translated usually not from Greek, but from Arabic.

The Western Roman Empire had already fallen to Germanic tribes when the Arabs conquered most of the Eastern Empire in the 5th-8th centuries. Because of their respect for education, Greek learning was preserved, cultivated and built upon in the newly born Islamic world as Western Europe descended into ignorance. While the west declined and stagnated, civilisation thrived in the Middle East and North Africa. Without this, Europe’s later intellectual revival would scarcely have been possible.

This knowledge was reintroduced to Europe by the Muslim invasions of Spain and Sicily, where it would eventually be acquired by scholars from visiting European monks, translating ancient texts and more recent Arabic science, by great scholars like al-Khwarizmi, who invented algebra, and polymath Ibn Sina, known in the west as Avicenna, into Latin. In 1202, the Florentine mathematician Fibonacci introduced Europe to the Arabic-Hindu numeral system which we rely upon today. Up until dawn of the 15th century, almost all the major developments in science, mathematics, philosophy and medicine in preceding centuries were first written in Arabic, Chinese, or Sanskrit.

The Grand Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba, Spain.

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Silk Road


Another key component in Europe’s revival was the influence of the Silk Road, a series of land routes between China in the East and Europe in the West, passing through Central Asia, Iran and Iraq to the emporiums of Cairo and Constantinople. There, goods flowed further west in the holds of Venetian merchant vessels, making Venice the richest and most advanced city in Western Europe. The Silk Road fed Europe’s elite many of the luxuries upon which high culture thrived: textiles, fine carpets from Persia, spices, porcelain, and important inventions like gunpowder and paper, without which Johannes Gutenberg would never have been able to invent the printing press in 1440.

This overland route was again made possible in the 13th century after the Mongol Empire politically and economically united vast stretches of Asia, from China right up to the borders of Syria and Byzantium, from whence trade could easily flow further west. This stability allowed a boom in trade between East and West, enriching Italian, and particularly Venetian, merchants. However, the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire, culminating in the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in China in 1368, disrupted this trade. As far as Europe was concerned, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was almost a knock-out blow. Venice found itself at least partially locked out of its old markets as it warred against the advancing Ottoman armies.

The backwaters of Kerala, southern India, to the south of Kozhikode

It was this development which set Europeans on the path to the Age of Discovery. When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, he did so seeking a westward route to India, hoping to bypass the hostile Middle East and establish trade directly with the wealthy cities of Asia. The Portuguese would take a different approach, actually reaching India for real in 1498 after sailing around Africa, landing in the city of Kozhikode in modern-day Kerala. It was trade in the Indian Ocean and the plundering of the Americas which enriched Europe and allowed it to become wealthy and prosperous. This allowed universities to flourish, and, combined with the development of the printing press decades earlier, enabled literacy and education to spread far beyond the Church and nobility where it had previously been confined to the new middle classes of merchants and tradesmen.

Re-evaluating history


Without contact with the more developed civilisations to the East of Europe, the continent’s rise could never have been possible. It’s certainly true that the Renaissance saw astonishing developments in art, and led us to the age of Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton, but much of this depended on the knowledge preserved and expanded by the Arabs, and imparted by civilisations further afield in India and China.

It’s much too simplistic to give Europe all the credit for the achievements of the Renaissance, and, arguably, it really represents a time when Europe looked backwards instead of forward, nostalgic for a time of former greatness as plague, war, religious intolerance and the march of the Ottoman armies cast dark shadows on the lives of its people. Having traditionally focused on Europe to the exclusion of all else, historians in various fields are now coming to understand that the world was much more interconnected and interdependent than we once recognised, and that Europe was in fact peripheral to the most important theatres of world history for many centuries.

Click on the links below to learn more about:

The Silk Road

The history of science

The Age of Discovery


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