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What was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a period in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in which the learning and arts of Europe suddenly blossomed forth with great vigour and paved the way for the old world of the Middle Ages to develop into the one we know today. European society in the Middle Ages was feudal: people were divided into nobles, peasants who worked for them, and churchmen. Most people lived in the country, and were either soldiers or worked on the land. Towns were few and very small. Few people could read, and learning and the arts were left almost entirely to monks and priests.
With the discovery of new trade routes on the seas, and new countries, like America, a new class sprang up of merchants and businessmen. Towns, which were mainly trading centres, became larger, and the people who lived in them were neither soldiers nor farmers, but wealthy and intelligent people, eager for new ideas. Poetry, painting, sculpture, music and architecture all reflected their imagination and experience of life, which were wider than those of mediaeval men.
Instead of being specialists in one thing, people sought to have knowledge of everything, to become 'complete men'. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was not only a great painter, but also a sculptor, a musician, a biologist, an engineer, and an architect.
The word 'renaissance' means 'rebirth'. 'Being born again' describes very well what did happen to the development of human activity.
The Renaissance Period
Before the Renaissance, most people lived on large estates, called manors. There were few towns or cities. All social life centered in the manor, in the nobleman's castle, or in the bishop's palace. Europe was divided into countless small states, each ruled by a prince or a nobleman.
During the Renaissance, this way of living changed completely. Towns and cities grew rapidly as commerce, industry, and trade developed. Wealthy merchants became important. Instead of numerous small states, larger units of government grew up and became nations. People began to use coined money.
People also began to question their old beliefs. They became more interested in the affairs of this world and less concerned about life in the next. This was when the revolt against the practices and ideas of the Roman Catholic Church took place, which resulted in the Reformation and the establishment of the Protestant religion.
The Renaissance didn't begin suddenly, though sometimes the date for its beginning is given as 1453 when Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks, or 1440, when printing was invented. The forces that brought it about had been at work for many years before.
The Renaissance reached its height first in Italy before spreading to the other countries of Europe. In Italy there was gathered a great group of brilliant artists, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Cellini, and others whose work we still admire today.