Renaissance I

The six centuries between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Crusades may be seen as the time when the "barbarian" states were catching up.

We may mark the start of the civilizing process in Western Europe with king Henry I of England (reigned 1100-1135) who defined homicide to be an offense against the state rather than an offense against only the victims and their relatives [PNKR, p. 74]. Another important civilizing event also happened in England when the king of England signed the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that limited his own powers.

The first painter to break from the formal Byzantine style and start the artistic Renaissance is Giotto (1266-1337) not much later than the civilizing acts of the kings of England. What other historical events happened in those centuries? One that comes foremost to mind are is the sequence of the nine (or ten) Crusades that took place between 1095 and 1272.

Gibbon [EG, Chapter LXI, vol. 6, pp. 205-208] provides an interesting evaluation of the crusades. He points out that the Latins were inferior to both the Greeks and the Arabs in "knowledge, industry, and art" but they had the advantage of an inquiring spirit and were able to learn from the East. However, such improvements could have been achieved better by trade than by war that resulted in large loss of lives. He goes on to say that the major effect of the crusades was "not so much in producing a benefit as in removing an evil." The crusades weakened the oppressive European feudal structure. He writes "The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ...". He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil." [ibid, p. 208].

Gibbon's interpretation provides food for thought and we can search for parallels. One that comes to mind is the extinction of the dinosaurs by the impact of a meteorite and the subsequent growth of the mammals. In the post-crusade period the weakening of the warrior knights created new powers in Italy that were searching for models to govern themselves and they looked to ancient Rome ([MORR], p. 418). That started the Renaissance. Northern Italy was broken up. The Pope liked the many small states; they could not threaten his rule. Suddenly people were free (because of the demise of the crusading knights). The new spirit, of course, spread throughout north-western Europe.

“The odd thing about the Renaissance was that this apparently reactionary struggle to re-create antiquity in fact produced a wildly untraditional culture of invention and open-ended inquiry.” (ibid)
I am not sure about that observation. The return to the antiquity was an excuse. People wanted to act outside the church dogma and the “return to the classics” was a polite way of expressing it.

Big Events of the 1000-1400 period

  • 722-1252 Reconquista: Expulsion of Moorish power from Spain. (Granada held till 1492 but it was a small kingdom at the South of Spain.)
  • 1391 Closure of Synagogues and pogrom in Seville.
  • 1095-1291 Crusades
  • 1200-1300 First Mongol Invasion (Genghis Khan). Affected only the Middle East.
  • 1309-1376 Avignon Papacy (conflict between French kings and the Pope)
  • 1340-1360 Black Death Epidemic.
  • 1360-1410 Second Mongol Invasion (Tamerlane)
  • 1300-1500 Little Ice Age ([GGS] p. 424)

Notable People of the Period in Europe

  • Giotto (1266 –1337) started the revolution in art, painting in a natural way rather than the stylized Byzantine.
  • Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Florence –Start of Renaissance? Wrote Divine Comedy between 1308 and his death in 1321.
  • Petrarch [Francesco Petrarca] (1304-1374) Florence. Coined term “Dark Ages.” Discovered and translated Livy’s “History of Rome.”

Outside Europe

Maimonides (1135-1204) Jewish scholar and physician. Active in Egypt.

The World was preparing for big things

Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” depicts the scene in those years. The central character is Poggio Bracciolini (early 1400’s), a scribe, who used to be secretary of several popes. He devoted his free time to search for ancient manuscripts. People were slowly breaking from Church control. “Curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin” ([GRBL] p. 16) Also “debate on books was forbidden” ([GRBL p. 27).

Most of the old Greek and Latin works have been lost (though destruction by Christians). Very few have survived and starting on the 12th century people went looking for them. The term “Italian Renaissance” usually refers to the 14th to 17th centuries (1300-1699). Greenblatt focuses on the poem “De Rerum Natura” (The Nature of the Universe) by the Roman poet Lucretius (lived around 100-50 BCE) recovered by Poggio around 1417.

The poem presents the work of Epicurus to a Roman audience (cited approvingly by Cicero). Epicurus (circa 300 BCE) was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Lucretius poem is the most comprehensive presentation of Epicurean philosophy. The following is a summary of that philosophy ([GRBL], pp. 185-202).

  • Everything is made of invisible particles, atoms.
  • The elementary particles of matter (atoms) are eternal.
  • Atoms are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
  • All atoms are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve (clinamen in Latin). Atoms normally move in straight lines but at unpredictable times and places deflect slightly from their course and that sets off a chain of collisions that create the world.
  • The swerve is the source of free will.
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • Death is nothing to us. (Corollary of previous)
  • All religions are superstitious delusions.
  • Religions are invariably cruel.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. (But beware of craving pointless luxuries.)
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Although [GRBL] seems to overplay the effect of the Epicurean philosophy to the development of the Renaissance, it was certainly a factor.

1481 First Auto da Fe in Seville – Birth of the Inquisition.


The Chinese were first to explore other continents

In 1405 a huge fleet under the eunuch admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) sailed all the way to Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Africa). The fleet consisted of over 300 vessels (some as large as 2000 tons and 250 feet long) and over 27,000 men. The goal was to extract tribute from the locals ([MORR], p. 407 and later). There were seven such Treasures Fleets, the last one in 1433. They visited Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mogadishu, and Mecca!

The Chinese government decided that such displays of power were not cost effective (the collected tribute was much less than the cost of the fleet) and soon after the last trip the government banned ship building and the records of Zheng’s voyages were destroyed in 1477.

Why did not the Chinese sail across the Pacific to reach the American continent? They had no motive and the Pacific is much wider than the Atlantic. The distance between Shanghai and San Francisco is almost twice the distance between Lisbon and New York. (No islands in the Pacific north of Hawaii at 28o latitude and south of the Aleutians at 51o latitude.)

European Exploration

Europeans started exploring the Atlantic in the 1400’s. Why? They were forced because their access to the riches of the east (India, China) was blocked by the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire had become a big power by 1400 and only Tamerlane’s invasion delayed their capture of Constantinople.
They also knew that the earth was round and, in principle, they could reach the Far East by sailing west. Some highlights:

  • 1420 Portuguese start exploration of the Atlantic, discover Madeira Islands.
  • 1431 Discovery of the Azores Islands (they may have been found earlier).
  • 1453 Fall of Constantinople to Ottomans creating problems for the European spice trade. (There was a Genoese trading colony in Constantinople)
  • 1492 Columbus expedition
  • 1498 Vasco Da Gama (Portuguese) to India

In 1519 Herman Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire (Mexico) with an army of about 600 men. In 1532 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire (Peru) with an army of fewer than 200 men. Horses and firearms were factor, but most decisive was the spread of epidemics from the Spaniards to the Incas [GGS]. (Unplanned biological warfare). The Spaniards also fought a lot with each other since the “Indians” were such an easy prey. I can think of another factor. The rulers of the Aztec and Inca empires weere cruel so their subjects may have been motivated to defend them against a foreign invader.

In 1510, the Portuguese admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque attacked the state of Goa (middle of the Indian west coast) and took possession from Ismail Adil Shah and his Ottoman allies (?). It is estimated that 6,000 of the 9,000 Muslim defenders of the city died, either in the battle in the streets or while trying to escape. The Portuguese stayed there until 1961.

Portuguese aftermath: Today Goa is India's richest state with a GDP per capita two and a half times that of the country as a whole. It was ranked the best placed state by the Eleventh Finance Commission for its infrastructure and ranked on top for the best quality of life in India by the National Commission on Population based on 12 Indicators.

In 1535, Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in Macau's harbors and to carry out trading activities. Eventually, they built rudimentary stone houses and in 1557 the Portuguese established a permanent settlement in Macau, paying an annual rent of 500 taels (20 kilograms / 44 pounds) of silver. They continued to pay an annual tribute to China up to 1863 in order to stay in Macau. In 1986 Macau was made a special administrative region (SAR) of China (same status as Hong Kong).

Renaissance II

Effects of the Explorations in Europe

A lot of silver and gold was brought from the “New World” to Spain and Portugal that resulted in significant inflation. Prosperity did not spread to the masses.

New plants: corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts spread not only to Europe but also to China ([MORR] p. 435).

Charles V ruled (1519 – 1556) as Holy Roman Emperor over Spain, The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Croatia, Southern Italy, etc. He fought a lot of wars with France. He also stopped the Ottoman advance to Vienna in 1529. He was succeeded by his younger brother Ferdinand I as Holy Roman Emperor (1556 - 1564) and his son Philip II as King of Spain (1556 –1598).

By the way: It was only in 1648, under the Peace of Westphalia, that European countries recognized Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality, even thought the Swiss confederacy of cantons dates from around 1290.

Charles V and Philip II tried to suppress the Reformation (see below). They taxed their subjects heavily and borrowed heavily from Italian financiers. At Phillip II’s death, the Spanish debt was fifteen times its annual revenue ([MORR], p. 449). The conquest of the New World did not bring long time prosperity to Spain.

Key event is the failure to unify Europe. No single autocrat as in China (ibid).


The same period (15th and early 16th centuries) also saw a flourishing of the arts and literature.

Artists: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 –1519), Michelangelo (1475 –1564), Raphael (1483 – 1520)

Patron of Arts: Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492)

Writers: Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) Florence, Erasmus (1466-1536) Rotterdam in the Netherlands.


Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468). Around 1439 he invented printing with movable type (the Chinese used fixed type) that had enormous impact by making books available to the broad public. It was not until half a millennium later that the World Wide Web had a similar impact on the dissemination of information.

Impact on Religion: Now copies of the Bible were available to many people. This led to the Protestant Reformation starting with Luther (1483-1546). He posted his theses in 1517.

KNOWLEDGE (to 1650)

Astronomy and Physics

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –1543) [Poland, but also studied in Italy] Heliocentric system.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) [Denmark] Collected a lot of astronomical data trying to prove geocentrism. He worked near Prague. His assistant was Kepler.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) [German]. Laws of planetary motions that set the foundations for Newton’s work. (His mother was accused for witchcraft and served several months in jail.) Kepler made horoscopes for the Holy Roman Emperor.

Kepler's laws:

The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.

A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.

The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) [Tuscany]. Not only astronomy but also theoretical mechanics. In 1589 his observations on falling bodies revolutionized the experimental method. In 1610 discovers the moons of Jupiter using the newly invented telescope (1608).

William Gilbert (1544 –1603) described the magnetic properties of the earth.

Francis Bacon (1561 –1626). He famously died by contracting pneumonia while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.

The Life Sciences

The Greeks had pursued Medicine and their last famous physician was Claudius Galen (129-200 CE). His theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for more than 1,300 years. His anatomical reports were based mainly on dissection of monkeys and pigs.

The most famous physician of the Arab Golden Age was ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037), Arab speaking Persian physician and philosopher. His 14-volume The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanoon fi al-Tibb, The Laws of Medicine) was a standard medical text in Europe and the Islamic world until the 18th century.[ His work was based on that of Galen.]

Less well know is the Syrian Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) who discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood. (Galen had it wrong.)

During the Renaissance the Europeans took over where the Greeks and the Arabs had left. The Spaniard Michael Servetus (1509-1553) discovered independently the pulmonary circulation of the blood but he angered the church authorities (both Catholic and Protestant) and was put to death.

William Harvey (1578-1657), an Englishman who studied in Padua is credited with the modern discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood.

Paracelsus (1493-1541), a German who studied in Ferrara is credited with the application of chemistry to physiology and pathology.

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), a Dutchman who studied in Padua supplanted Galen’s anatomical textbook.

[GGS] Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norton, 1997-2005.
[EG] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1788.Note: I use the 1978 reprint of the 1910 Everyman's Library (Dutton: New York) unabridged edition with comments by Oliphant Smeaton.
[GRBL] Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
[MORR] Ian Morris Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010. Subtitled: The Patterns of History and what they Reveal about the Future.
[PNKR] Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature, Viking, 2011.

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