Why do the French get to name the cool stuff, like “The Renaissance”? After all, the most important Germanic
king and first
Holy Roman Emperor everyone calls “Charlemagne” (pronounced “shar-le-main”), even though he was really Karl der Grosse
. We call a big, awesome home a mansion
(Old French for “house”), not a Haus
(German for “house”). Then there’s the Renaissance, which means “rebirth” in French but was mainly an Italian thing. This explosion of rediscovered classical learning and new ideas began in Italy
around 1350. Maybe the Italian Rinascimento
would be too hard to pronounce! Whatever the case, we use the French word Renaissance
to describe the process of how Italians first and then other Europeans started thinking, wow, there are some cool old ideas from
Greece and Rome and the Muslim world that we could use right about now. The Renaissance wrapped up around 1600, at which point leading thinkers started getting more scientific. We’ll look at that in the next chapter.
This book is about the impact of ideas, especially the ones that came out of the Enlightenment—big ideas like democracy, capitalism, communism, nationalism, and
feminism; ideas that gave Europeans the ability to rework society and take over the world. The Renaissance created the basic framework of thinking that would help generate those world-changing concepts. Renaissance thinkers, to put it simply, decided that humans matter and that the human experience should decide the value of art, science, religion, politics, whatever. They weren’t necessarily inventing new ideas—hence the term “rebirth”—like the champs after them did. But Renaissance thinkers’ focus
on humans and their push for education created the space for the big thinking that followed. These Renaissance types also ramped up the tension between religious and secular or non-religious world views. They didn’t mean to, since they were all solid, God-fearing Christians. But people after them would wonder, hmm, if we should focus on improving human lives, where does God fit into that? We’ll get to that later.
Building the argument
So, my Introduction laid out the basic argument of this book. Historians write arguments, not just a bunch of names and dates and stuff. The basic story in this book looks like this:
Renaissance Humanism →
Scientific Revolution →
Enlightenment Ideas →
French Revolution →
All Hell Breaking Loose →
This book will trace the history of big ideas in the modern world—
freedom, democracy, human rights, how Sweden produced
ABBA, totalitarianism—that sort of
thing. I’m trying to get you to realize that these big ideas have dramatically impacted
the daily lives of average people in Europe and in the world. Your life too. We’ll talk a lot about intellectuals because they’re the ones coming up with this stuff, but also pay close attention to what those ideas do for regular people. Big ideas are sort of like politics or The Beatles. You can ignore them or pretend you don’t care about them, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with their influence on your life. It is therefore worth understanding these concepts and where they came from. One of the main places they came from was from Italy, from the Renaissance.
Renaissance thinkers took humans seriously. And that shift from only focusing on God toward humanism
is going to have a huge impact on how people look at the world. That’s the main point of this chapter. The next chapter will deal with the way that
focus on humans helped produce the Scientific Revolution. Then after that we’ll see how humanism and science produced the Enlightenment.
use these “Building the argument” sections to show you the development of this book’s argument. I hope that doing so will help you understand this book better and will teach you how to write your own arguments. I mean, you do that all the time anyway. If you can figure out how to do it with the old stuff covered in this book, you will (a) understand better where you come from and (b) know how to rock arguments in all areas of your life. Basically, you’ll be unstoppable. People will love and fear you. But first let’s talk about music.
The Renaissance in a song
One of the best ways to understand the issues and conflicts
in the Renaissance is to listen to choir music. Now, unless you’re majorly into singing with a choir, you probably don’t listen to a lot of choral music. But check it out for a few minutes. Go find Robert
Ramsey’s (1590s–1644) song “How the mighty are fallen.” It’s pretty awesome, haunting stuff. It was church music, used in worship. This music reveals important points about the Renaissance.
First, the words from the Bible (
2 Samuel 1:25–27) are in English.
During the Renaissance, some writers moved away from writing in
Latin and toward what they called “vulgar” languages. No, they didn’t swear and tell dirty jokes (well, some). “Vulgar” means common, or of the people. Ramsey and others were using words that average people could understand. Latin had been the
language of the Church since about the fourth century. It was handy to have one language that people working for the Church all over Europe could understand.1
Since the Catholic Church pretty much had a monopoly on learning in Europe, Latin was also the language of writers and intellectuals. But our man Bobby Ramsey had other ideas. Of course, he wasn’t the first to start writing in vulgar languages.
Dante did it in Italy;
Shakespeare, in England;
Rabelais, in France. Like other writers in the Renaissance, Ramsey wanted people actually to understand what he was saying.
Next, this kind of music uses multiple overlapping parts—in this case three female and three male—to create tension. Every so often all these separate lines come together to form a really satisfying chord, usually a major triad, something that Western music has programmed us to believe is positive and strong and just feels good. In the first minute-and-a-half of this piece, all these competing melodies are echoing everywhere (remember we’re in a big church). But then, boom, that chord forms, and all is right with the world. You really hear it in the last thirty second of the song. Even non-choir nerds may get some chills when Ramsey pulls it all together at the end and says, “and the weapons of war are destroyed”! (There are worse ways to end a song.) The tension and release that Ramsey uses here reflect the debates among thinkers at this time about the world, people, and God. But they all came together in sweet, sweet harmony around a common belief in God. That tune will change
as we get further into this book, both literally and figuratively. But for now, common faith brought even competing ideas together in the Renaissance.
There were no atheists in the Renaissance
Right. So, pretty much everyone in Europe
during the Renaissance believed in Christianity. Now, this book is going to detail conflicts between religion and science, or at least between religious thought and secular thought. And (spoiler alert) religion is going to lose. We live in a scientific world. And no matter how you feel about faith, your everyday life is all about the science. The basic conflict about whether we understand the world through human or divine experience began in the Renaissance. But it was kind of an accident.
Catholic Church was the most important institution in Europe at the time of the Renaissance. By 1350, the Church dictated pretty much all learning, morals, and much of human behavior. Rome had been the center of the Church, and the Pope (Archbishop of Rome) was the head of the Church and also a powerful secular ruler by this time.2
There were still some lingering “pagan” ideas and “superstitions” in Europe (like knocking on wood). But by the 1300s, the Church had either rooted out most of these older beliefs or incorporated them into its larger belief system. The best example of the Church folding pagan ideas into its program was Christmas, which fit with older celebrations of the winter solstice, even though Jesus was probably born in March. Until well into the 1500s, there were no major challenges in Europe to the Catholic Church’s claim to universal spiritual authority. Jews were a tiny, scattered minority, and Muslims represented a military, not a spiritual threat. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches were distinct institutions that mainly believed the same thing as the Catholics.
The Church thus shaped everyone’s belief system by defining the basic outlines of how the world worked:
the world and sent his son Jesus to save it spiritually.
•The Catholic Church was the manifestation of Christian beliefs.
•The Bible was God’s word on how the world worked and how people should live.
•Average people connected with God through representatives of the Church.
The Church shaped daily life by controlling the most important rituals and events everyone experienced: birth and baptism (into the Church), marriage, and death. And
in a world without clocks, church bells rang throughout the day to mark when to get up, when to work, when to go to church, holidays, danger, etc. The Church thus counselled, cared for, and regulated the everyday lives of Europeans at all levels of society, from the wealthiest and most powerful to the poorest and most marginalized.
Not that all was well with the Catholic Church by 1350. From 1309 to 1377, the French kings basically kidnapped the Pope and moved the seat of the Church to
Avignon, in southe...