Changing Cultural Traditions
A New Concept of Human Beings
There was a slackening of the control of religion over human life. It was no longer considered wrong to pursue material wealth, power and glory. Some scholars criticized the Christian injunction against pleasure. The humanist culture also harped on developing good manners; in terms of polite language, proper dress, social skills, etc. Thus, this idea was opposite to the three orders of feudal society.
The Aspirations of Women
Women were excluded from the ideals of individuality and citizenship. Men from aristocratic families dominated public life and were the decision makers in their families. It was the son who was groomed and educated to take over the family business from his father. Sometimes, the younger sons were sent to join the Church. Dowries were invested in family businesses but women generally had no say in matters of business. If someone was unable arrange adequate dowry, his sent his daughter to convents to live the life of a nun.
But the position of women in the families of merchants was somewhat different. Women often assisted their husbands in shops. When the male members were away on work, wives looked after the businesses. In case of early death of a merchant, the widow took responsibility to perform a larger role in public life. A few women were intellectually very creative and sensitive about the importance of a humanist education.
Debates within Christianity
In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, many scholars in universities in north Europe were attracted to humanist ideas. Unlike professional scholars in Italy, humanism attracted many members of the Church. They were against unnecessary rituals and called the Christians to practice religion in the way laid down in the ancient texts of their religion. Some humanists felt that the Church had become an institution of greed. Printed translations of Bible in local languages opened the eyes of the people. In almost every part of Europe, peasants began to rebel against the taxes imposed by the Church. Princes found the interference by church quite irritating.
Martin Luther (1483-1546): He was German monk who launched a campaign against the Catholic Church in 1517. He argued that there was no need of priests to establish a contact with God. This movement was called the Protestant Movement. It led to the churches in Germany and Switzerland breaking their connection with the Pope and the Catholic Church. Martin Luther had greater popular appeal in towns, while the Catholic Church managed to retain influence in rural areas.
Other German reformers were even more radical. They blended the idea of salvation with the end of all forms of social oppression. This appealed to peasants oppressed by feudalism. Luther did not support radicalism. On his advice, the German rulers suppressed the peasants’ rebellion in 1525. But radicalism survived and merged with the resistance of Protestants in France. Eventually, the Catholic Church allowed Protestants to worship as they chose. This happened not only in France but also in many other parts of Europe. The rulers in England ended the connection with the Pope. From then onwards, the king/queen became the head of the Church. The Catholic Church also began to reform itself. In Spain and Italy, churchmen emphasized the need for a simple life and service to the poor.
The Copernican Revolution
The Christians had believed that the earth was a sinful place and the heavy burden of sin made it immobile. The earth stood at the centre of the universe, and celestial planets moved around it.
The turning point in European science came with the work of Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus asserted that the earth and other planets moved around the sun. Copernicus was afraid of the possible reaction by traditionalist clergymen. So, he did not want his manuscript (De revolutionibus or The Rotation) to be printed. It took more than fifty years for people to accept Copernican thesis. Kepler (1571-1630) came with Cosmographical Mystery which demonstrated that the planets move around the sun not in circles but in ellipses. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) confirmed the notion of the dynamic world in his work The Motion. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation marked the climax of revolution in science.
Was there a European ‘Renaissance’ in the Fourteenth Century?
It becomes over-simplification when we say the Renaissance was a period of dynamism and artistic creativity, the Middle Ages was a period of gloom. It is also an exaggeration to say that Renaissance implies creating a pre-Christian worldview for the Christians. Culture of rest of the Europe was also in continuous churning during this phase. There were many scientific advancements taking place in the Arabian world, in South Asia and in China. The European culture was also shaped by influences from these regions because new ideals always travel through trade routes.
An important changed which was marked in this period was the beginning of separation of the ‘private’ and ‘public’ life. The individual was no longer just a member of one of the ‘three orders’. An artist was no longer just a member of a guild, rather an artist was known for himself. Another development was that the different regions of Europe started to have their separate sense of identity. Now, Europe was dissolving into states, each united by a common language.