Social Change at the Time of the Renaissance


            The enormous changes in culture brought about by the Italian Renaissance did not affect the vast majority of the populace. The middle classes, and working class, Marx’s famous proletariat, were untouched. The small, highly educated minority of humanists and artists created their works for an exclusive audience: the elite. They cared little for the masses. As a result, the gulf that had long existed between the wealthy and the poor widened. The populace at large, however, did benefit from changes brought about by renaissance thinkers, particularly the humanists.


            The humanists were concerned with the goals of education, primarily training rulers. Education was only for young men, but was designed to train them in the niceties of public life. History was to teach virtue by examples from the past (hear! hear!) Ethics would teach one virtue itself, and rhetoric (public speaking) trained one for eloquence.


            The greatest change at the time was the invention of the Printing Press. It is credited to Johan Gutenberg, but is likely the results of the efforts of three men: Gutenberg, Johann Fust, and Peter Schôffer. All three worked at Mainz, Germany, and experimented with movable type. Individual letters could be easily moved about to create words, or groups of words. Paper (first invented in China) also became popular. It was much more practical and inexpensive than writing on vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep skin.) The first published book printed with movable type was Gutenberg’s Bible in 1456.


            Within fifty years, the effects of the Printing Press were enormous. It is doubtful that Martin Luther would have been as successful were it not for the ability to publish his works for all to read. Others, who went before him, such as John Hus, were not nearly as successful in getting out their message without this means of dissemination. It is inconceivable that renaissance or reformation ideas would have spread so rapidly without the printing press.


            Most early books dealt with religious topics, but with time, books were printed on medicine, travel, and other practical matters. Books were typically read aloud as not everyone could read. Later the printing press was used by governments for purposes of propaganda, to promulgate treaties, and announce important events.


            Pornography also reared its ugly head, although not for the first time. Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) wrote the Sonetti Lussuriosi and later Ragionamenti. They were collections of sonnets criticizing princely court life, humanist education, and false piety on the part of the clergy. In addition to the sonnets, the books contained sixteen engravings of sexual positions.


            Clocks: The English word “clock,” French, cloche, and German Glocke all mean “bells.” Bells had long been used in monasteries to call the times of prayer. They were also used in rural areas to mark dawn, noon, and sunset. For city dwellers, the measurement of time was a matter of greater importance.


            Mechanical clocks, usually on church towers or city hall buildings, were used in Germany by 1330 and in England by 1370. Mechanical clocks allowed Europeans to divide the day into equal hours, so that the working day could be equally divided in both winter and summer. This ultimately gave them an advantage over other civilizations whom they sought to conquer.


            Women:  Women had traditionally been considered the sinful daughters of Eve. The word “evil” is a corruption of that name. Although the renaissance brought many changes, it did not significantly affect the lives of women. They were subordinate to their husbands, could own property and make a Will, but could not sell property without permission. Boys were valued more highly than girls, and poor families often abandoned infant girls or left them in the care of a distant wet nurse. Girls were often considered a liability because a dowry was necessary to marry them off. Some few politicians and wealthy people educated their daughters as well as their sons, but this was the exception rather than the rule.


Although women were idealized by Renaissance authors and artists, especially their chastity, the reality was quite different. Fathers had the final decision as to whether their daughters would marry; a woman’s role was to serve her father or husband, not to make a name for herself in the world. The feelings of women were generally considered unimportant, compared to the feelings of men. Some girls were packed off to a convent where, free from household constraints, they could study.


            There were, of course, exceptions to the rule, as in the case of Christine de Pizan (1365-1429) the first woman to write professional, and the first published feminist. Her father encouraged her education, much to the dismay of her mother, who thought that education would dampen her prospects of marriage. Her most important work was The Book of the City of Ladies in which she imagined a world in which women could do all the jobs necessary to run a city.  In it, she took all the traditional arguments against women (including the Biblical arguments) and declared that “God created the soul and placed wholly similar souls, equally good and noble, in the feminine and masculine bodies.” She later wrote a sequel, The Three Virtues.


In her autobiography, Avison-Christine, Pisan remarks that a man once told her that an educated woman was unattractive, since there were so few of them. She replied that an ignorant man was even less unattractive, as there were so many of them.


Blacks:  Small numbers of black people had lived in Europe since the time of the Roman Empire. Most had come as slaves, along with Slavic slaves from Eastern Europe. By the early fifteenth century, the number of black slaves increased dramatically. As many as 1,000 per year were imported by Portuguese explorers from the coasts of Africa. By the mid sixteenth century, blacks (both free and slave) comprised three per cent of the population of Portugal and ten per cent of the population of the cities of Lisbon and Evora.

Europeans had ambivalent attitudes toward blacks and Africa. Africa was considered a dark, remote continent, whose people were tainted by heresy, primarily Islam. These obvious disabilities made them inferior to Europeans. However, it was also believed that contact with Christian Europe could only improve them.


The belief in the inferiority of Africans was based purely on theology. The Church taught that God was light; blackness was the opposite of light, therefore it represented the hostile forces of Satan and sin. In medieval art (as well as early Renaissance art) the devil was often represented as a black man. But, to complicate the matter further, the color black also symbolized humility and the divestiture of worldly goods. Funeral vestments were normally black, and Christ had said that those who mourned were blessed.


Modern portrayals of Satan often show him with horns and a tail. The horns are goat horns, symbolic of the “scapegoat” used by the Israelites in the wilderness. They were commanded to send a goat out into the wilderness, and cast on it all the sins of the people. “Riding the goat” became a synonym for raising the devil.”


The rarity of black slaves made them highly prized. A black house maid was considered a symbol of wealth. Venetian shippers had imported primarily white slaves; however they turned to black slaves because of the handsome price they brought, even though they did so under threat of excommunication from the Pope.


The Northern Renaissance


Toward the end of the fifteenth century, renaissance thinking crossed the Alps into Northern Europe. This was largely because of the appeal that renaissance thinking had for students in the North. Students from England, France, and northern Germany all flocked to Italy and absorbed the new learning like a sponge.


The Northern Renaissance brought about not only the revival of the study of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, by humanists, but also saw the development of vernacular languages as literary vehicles. Vernacular languages were the spoken languages and dialects of a particular locality and class. Languages varied greatly from locality to locality, and even within locality according to one’s social rank. Literature of earlier times had been written in Latin, the language of the church, and the only “universal” language of the time, or occasionally in French. Writing in the vernacular was a demonstration of national identity. Early examples of this were Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in Italian, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in Middle English.  During the Northern Renaissance, literature in the vernacular reached full flower.


Humanism was also an important factor in Northern Europe However it was more “Christian” than that of Italy. It is important to note that Italian humanists also were devoted Christians, but they devoted more time to classical Greco-Roman themes, which were obviously pagan. The Northern Renaissance, to the contrary, had a distinctly religious flavor.


Northern humanists stressed the use of reason rather than the acceptance of dogma as a way of life. They had a profound belief in the power of human intellect.


Famous Humanists of the Northern Renaissance:


Sir Thomas More: (1478-1535) More was typical of the Northern Humanists who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic church, even as the church was under attack. More was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, and later lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII. A staunch Roman Catholic, he resigned his position when Henry separated the Anglican Church from Rome, and refused as a matter of conscience to swear to the supremacy of the king over the Church of England. He was beheaded for treason in 1535; his last words before the ax fell were, “I die the King’s good and loyal servant; but God’s first.” After his death, he was proclaimed a Saint by the Pope.


More was a prolific writer. Among his other accomplishments was the History of Richard III, which was relied upon by Shakespeare in writing a play by the same name. His most significant work, however, was a fantasy entitled Utopia, literally “nowhere.”  Utopia was a perfect place, somewhere in the New World, (novus mundi) where gold and silver were used only for chamber pots or to buy off enemies and thereby prevent war. More intended to show that the ills of society were caused by greed, stating that “as long as there is any property and while money is the standard of all things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily.” The residents of Utopia worked six hours per day, lived in nice houses with glass windows, fireproof roofs, and gardens. There was no private property and goods in markets were free for the taking. Everyone dressed alike to discourage social distinction (except for priests) and wars of conquest were not allowed except for claiming unused land. Religion was flexible, and everyone received an education in the classics. Everyone pursued education, even adults, in order to develop their rational faculties.


More punned about Utopia, when he called it, “a good place. A good place which is no place.” His argument was that property and covetousness promoted all sorts of vices; that human beings were basically good. This was directly contrary to the thinking of the day that human beings were basically corrupt.


Sir Thomas did not always live up to his own rules. As Lord Chancellor, he vigorously persecuted English Lutherans. An excellent movie that describes his conflict with Henry VIII is A Man for All Seasons.


Erasmus:  (1466-1536): Desiderius Erasmus was the most respected and renowned northern humanist of his day. He was much more widely respected in his own time as a scholar, than was his friend, Thomas More. Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest, and was raised in an orphanage. As a child, he was a prodigious scholar of the classics, a study that continued his entire life. He enjoyed an international reputation during his lifetime, primarily because of his exceptional knowledge of Greek. He commented once that “I brought it about that humanism, which among the Italians…savored of nothing but pure paganism, began nobly to celebrate Christ.


Two themes appear in Erasmus voluminous works:


(1). Education is the means to reform; the key to moral and intellectual improvement. Education should be centered on the Bible and the classics.


(2)   Erasmus was dedicated to “the philosophy of Christ.”  Christianity was not formalism or ceremonies; it was rather what Christ said and did. He considered the Sermon on the Mount to be the essence of the message of Christianity.


Among his most famous works:



Erasmus wrote this work at the home of his good friend, Thomas More. Its Latin title, Encomium Moriae” can also be translated “in praise of More.”



            Erasmus wrote in the preface to his translation:


I utterly dissent from those who are unwilling that the sacred Scriptures should be read by the unlearned, translated into their vulgar tongue, as though Christ had taught such subtleties that can scarcely be understood, even by a few theologians. Christ wished his mysteries to be published as openly as possible. I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospels—should read the epistles of Paul. And I wish these were translated into all languages, so that they might be read and understood not only by Scots and Irishmen but also by Turks and Saracens. Who do we prefer to study the wisdom of Christ in men’s writings rather than in the writing of Christ himself?


Northern Renaissance Art and Architecture: As with its written works, the art and architecture of the Northern Renaissance tended to be distinctly religious.




Architecture of the period also had a religious flavor. Northern architecture was not influenced by the revival of classicism as in Italy, but rather tended toward religious overtones.


The Northern Renaissance also influenced writers in other parts of Europe. Examples: