The Middle Ages, which lasted from the fall of Rome in the late fifth century until the fourteenth century, are (somewhat exaggeratedly and incorrectly) often referred to as the "Dark Ages," due to the relative lack of intellectual and economic progress made during this long period. The Middle Ages were presided over by the Catholic Church, which preached the denial of worldly pleasures and the subjugation of self-expression. During the Middle Ages, European society was defined by the system of feudalism, under which societal classes were hierarchically divided based on their position in the prevailing agrarian economy. This system produced a large number of scattered, self-sufficient feudal units throughout Europe, made up of a lord and his subservient vassals. These feudal lords were constantly in battle during the early middle ages, their armies of peasants facing off to win land for their lords.
However, during the later Middle Ages, this situation changed greatly. The power of the Church declined as monarchies rose up to consolidate feudal manors into powerful city-states and nation-states that often opposed the Church in matters of tax collection and legal jurisdiction. Along with the rise of monarchies came the rise of the money economy. As monarchs brought peace to feudal society, feudal lords concentrated less upon defending their lands and more upon accruing large quantities of cash, with which they improved their style of living and dabbled in the growing market economy. The practice of serfdom declined and former serfs soon became tenant farmers and even landowners rather than subservient slave-like laborers. As the trade of agricultural and manufactured goods grew in importance, cities also became more important. Strategically located and wealthy cities became populous and modern, and some cities even boasted factories.
Largely because of the simultaneous and related decline of the singular importance of traditional values and the rise of the market economy, the cities of Italy gave birth to the Renaissance. The famous Renaissance historian Jacob Burkhardt argues in his essay, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, that the Renaissance was, as an historical event, the transition from medieval times, during which the focus of all life had been religion, to modern times, in which that focus expanded to include learning, rationality, and realism. Whereas in the Middle Ages, religious salvation had occupied the position of utmost importance, during the Renaissance, humanism, stressing the need for individuals to reach their potential in this world, rose up to accompany and rival the goal of salvation. During the Renaissance, changes also occurred in the political and economic structure of Italy that foreshadowed larger transformations for all of Europe. The Renaissance saw the rise of strong central governments and an increasingly urban economy, based on commerce rather than agriculture.
The results of the Italian Renaissance were far reaching both in temporal and geographical terms. Though the spirit of the Renaissance in Italy was crushed in the mid-sixteenth century, the ideas and ideals of Renaissance thinkers maintained their vibrancy, traveling over the alps to northern Europe where, following Italy's lead, learning, writing, and the arts experienced a great revival in support and importance. The works of art and literature produced in Italy between 1350 and 1550 had a profound impact on the development of Europe during the next centuries, and continue to be considered some of the greatest contributions to society ever produced. The sheer volume of work produced ensures the period a prominent place in history books and museums, but the volume is far surpassed by the talent and splendor with which the artists and writers, funded by generous leaders, created their masterpieces.
Perhaps the greatest immediate impact of the Renaissance was the Reformation, which began in 1517. Although the arguments of the Protestant reformers had been elucidated centuries before, the Reformation could not have happened had the Italian Renaissance not created the climate of passion and intellectualism throughout Europe necessary to allow the challenging of age old values. The Renaissance had seen the behavior of popes come to increasingly parallel the behavior of princes, as they attempted to compete with the gilded city-states around them. The papacy had fallen into corruption on more than one occasion, and the sale of indulgences, essentially pardons for sins, in order to finance the construction of a new St. Peter's basilica, pushed the reformers over the edge and into protest. The Church suffered similarly at the hands of the humanist attack, which through the study of ancient history and documents, had proven many claims made by the Church to be false. The result was a movement that shook the foundations of all of Europe and created a split in Christianity that remains a potent source of conflict even today.
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