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Social and Economic Changes During the Renaissance

 

Cities grew and prospered during the Renaissance and rulers learned to tax the people. Trade grew between cities/states and other countries. As trade in goods increased, trade in ideas grew also. The contact between cultures was in some part due to the Crusades during the 11th century. Commerce and trade soon moved inland along the major routes of trade.

The Renaissance is generally accepted to have started in Italy. Many believe that this was due to its almost perfect location between Western Europe and the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Italian cities became important as trade centers and as commercial centers. This wealth helped sustain the political and social changes that were occurring at the time.

Rivers were the easiest way to move goods so towns along the rivers grew as important trade centers also. The Danube, Rhone and Rhine rivers all became important trade routes and the towns along their banks grew. The importance of the economic and political relationship between the landowners and their tenants diminished as trade in other areas grew.

Florence became a wealthy city in spite of its inland location away from the major trade routes. Family fortunes were made in Florence in banking and industry. Florence became the banking center of Italy during the 14th century. During the 15th century, the Medici bank began opening branches in major cities in Europe. In addition to loaning money, they operated mines, mills and other commercial activities. The Medici bank, owned by Cosimo de Medici (also known as Cosimo the Elder) accumulated huge profits and used those profits to finance cultural activities as well as political activities.

Italy’s economic power was challenged during the late 14th century as other country rulers began consolidating their power. The rulers of England, France and Spain put policies in place that were favorable to their own middle class tradesman and weakened the influence of the Italian middlemen in trade.

Italy’s influence was further diminished by Portugal’s development of a direct sea route to Asia at the end of the 15th century. Until that time Italy was the primary route between the Far East and Western Europe.

Journeys like Italian-Spanish Christopher Columbus voyage to the Caribbean Sea and Vasco da Gamma’s voyage to India intensified national rivalries.

As the Atlantic powers of Portugal, Spain and France increased their colonial territory, their wealth increased too. Italy’s importance continued to diminish as the world’s trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic oceans. As other countries wealth grew it gave them the resources needed to continue their cultural development.

 

Renaissance Politics


After the collapse of the Roman Empire around 500ad the only unifying force remaining was the Roman Catholic Church. Outside invasions declined and the rulers began to consolidate their power and concentrate on self preservation. It was easier to accumulate wealth and industry continued to grow. Cities grew rapidly ad the population shifted from agricultural life to city life, where jobs were more plentiful. This increase the number of people being taxed and meant more wealth to fund expansion abroad.

Development varied depending on the region. In Italy, as towns grew, Italians demanded self rule and many times the cities developed into strong city-states. North of the Alps, national monarchs established their power over the nobility. Both of these trends had their roots in the Medieval Era but neither trend came to dominate.

The two things that were most important during the Medieval Era were the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Empire ended around 500ad and the power of the Catholic Church began to diminish too. During the Medieval Era, the Holy Roman emperor was the political head and the pope of the Catholic Church was the spiritual head. Christian society was held to have two aspects, the church and the state. These two aspects of Christian society were sometimes referred to as Christendom.

Even with the strong ties between the popes and secular rulers, there were also conflicts. The church claimed responsibility of the souls of the people (including the emperor) so as a result the church claimed supremacy over the state as well as the administration of the Catholic Church. This was in conflict with the secular rulers who sought to protect and even expand their power within their country or territory.

The conflict between the emperor and the pope almost came to the demise of both. In 1197, Pope Innocent III claimed that the pope had the right to play a roll in the selection of the new Holy Roman emperor after the death of Henry VI. Henry’s son promised many concessions to the pope in exchange for the pope’s support of his claim to the throne. These promised concessions greatly diminished the power of the emperor. When Henry’s son was named Frederick II, King of Germany and Holy Roman emperor, he failed to actually meet all of the promised concessions. After his death in 1250, the throne was vacant for over twenty years.

The promised concessions weakened the emperor’s power but the papacy was also weakened and discredited by its attempts at political power rather than concentrating on spiritual matters. Between 1309 and 1377 the popes were forced to live in Avignon, in the South of France under the domination of several French monarchs. This time is sometimes referred to as the Babylonian Captivity or papal exile. This gave the appearance that the pope was simply a pawn of the emperor.

This was followed by the “Great Schism” when the pope was finally allowed to return to Rome. The Great Schism lasted from 1378 until 1417. The power struggle during this time was between three people vying to be pope. In 1417, when the Council of Constance elected Martin V, who did not support a strong political influence for the church, it signaled the end of the pope’s political authority outside of the church.

The struggle for power between the popes and the emperors allowed Italian towns to expand their power and independence. These city-states continued increasing their power and influence and by the 14th century, five states controlled all of Italy. These five states had a lot of differences in their political and military powers. The kingdom of Naples and Sicily (in the South) continued to keep their political and military relationships among the nobility. This type of relationship is known as feudalism. The center of Italy was the Papal States and the pope’s interest was in recapturing the power, control and influence they had lost during the papal exile and the Great Schism.

The Northern region was dominated by Florence in the Toscana region. The constant class conflict of this region during the 14th century eventually led to an “unofficial” dictatorship by the Medici banking family.

The Visconti family led Milan and the empire that extended over large areas in Northern and central Italy. Venice expanded inland to protect their trade routes and maintained their republican form of government.

Of the five territories, there was not one that was strong enough to take control of the others. When the Visconti family of Milan attempted to expand to the South, the other territories actually united against such a move.

These five territories existed under a tentative peace until 1454 when the Peace of Lodi agreement was signed. This agreement is the basis for the international relationships we see today. It used alliances to achieve the balance of power and allowed the territories to act as independent and sovereign nations. They even developed the office of resident ambassador.

 

Monarchies in Northern Europe

Developments very similar to those in Italy were also happening north of the Alps. The leaders in the 15th century of France, England and Spain were all strong. These strong leaders proved better at securing needed resources and developing centralized governments. Even though they were strong and powerful leaders, they were not as powerful as later leaders would be. They were all limited in how much wealth they could accumulate due to limitations on how much tax they could impose on others.

Taxes could be used to protect the peace. Their subjects were weary of war and longed for peace. In France, the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), England had its War of the Roses (1455-1485) and Spain had been battling struggles among its nobles through the first half of the 15th century. Its no wonder the subjects had a strong desire for peace after being in wars for so long.

In the past, the desire of the nobility was to restrict the power of the king. Now, the new monarchs realized they could challenge the power of the nobility. The monarchs realized that the wealth of their city residents was now based on trade and that these people owed no particular allegiance to the land owners or the noble classes.

The monarchs began using non noble subjects to perform the administration of the bureaucracy. These new “professional” bureaucrats were employed to help maintain order and unity within each state, and at the same time, reduce the power of the nobility.

In other regions, rulers consolidated political power and used it in ways very similar to the princes of Italy.

The attraction of Italy’s wealth proved too strong and in 1494 the armies of French king Charles VIII marched into Italy. With this, France and then Spain, also attempted conquest. These battles went on until 1559, when Spain finally gained control of nearly the entire peninsula and ended the independence of the Italian people.

The 60+ years of battle, took its toll on the daily life and wealth of Italy. The new Renaissance culture had required an independent atmosphere in which to grow, but now it floundered without such independence.

Some scholars agree that this marks the end of the Italian Renaissance.

Even though the culture of the Renaissance was dying in Italy, the war had the effect of exposing northern Europeans to the accomplishments and attitudes of the early Italian Renaissance. Italian contributions were significant in the development and expansion of the Renaissance throughout Europe.

 

Removing Religion from Politics


In contrast to the thinking during the Middle Ages, when people had used their own morals to study and “frame” past events and when most of the events depicted were a reflection in their belief of their destiny as being a part of Christendom. In contrast, some of the new humanists stressed the progress in culture and politics as a natural event. These new humanists described the human control over events instead of the divine control of the events. They also would write to support causes that they believed to be just and right.

The thinking that politics should be free from any relationship to religion continued to grow, especially in the Florentine region. One of the best known Florentine writers was Machiavelli, who stressed that the government and the process of running the government should be based on science and not religion, or Christendom, principles.

The degree that this new concept had grown to is emphasized in Machiavelli’s work “Il principe”, written in 1532, wherein he bluntly states that the end justifies the means. This type of thinking spread to the monarchies to the North too.

The French historian, Jean Bodin wrote “Six Livres de la Republique” in which he proposed the theory that the authority of the national ruler should be almost unlimited. This new way of thinking was growing but was not a universally accepted principle.

Not everyone agreed, as can be seen in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516. This work strongly conveys the idealistic and religious attitudes toward politics. Even though the strong secular state was not universally recognized, there is not doubt that the belief that the secular state that recognizes no higher law other than the preservation and continuation of its own welfare originated in the Renaissance.

 

 

 

 
There are five sections about the Renaissance here. Each one, although different, is a basic continuation of the prior section. You can read them separately but I think you will get a better perspective of what the Renaissance was if you read them together. This is the second section, the first section is here
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