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The period of European history referred to as the Renaissance was a time of great social and cultural change in Europe. Generally speaking, the Renaissance spanned from the 14th to the 16th centuries, spreading across Europe from its birthplace in Italy. During the Middle Ages, Italy was not the unified country that it is today. The Italian Peninsula was instead made up of a number of independent city-states, most of which were ruled by powerful families.

The period of time during which the European Renaissance fell was between the end of the Middle Ages (or medieval period) and the beginning of the Modern Age. For some historians, the European Renaissance is considered as the dawn of the Early Modern Era.

What does 'renaissance' mean?

The term 'renaissance' is derived from the French word meaning 'rebirth'. It is used to describe this phase of European history because many of the changes experienced between the 14th and 16th centuries were inspired by a revival of the classical art and intellect of Ancient Greece and Rome. Much of the art, architecture, literature, science and philosophy that surfaced during the Renaissance was so reminiscent of this ancient past, that it seemed as though Europe was indeed reborn during the late Middle Ages.

The Renaissance in the broad context of European history

Looking at where the Renaissance falls within the general timeline of European history helps you to understand why it occurred and the important influence it has since had on the course of European history.

In a very general sense, the history of Europe can be divided into three main ages. These ages are known as the Classical Age (also referred to as Ancient Europe), the Middle Ages (also referred to as the medieval period) and the Modern Age.

According to the majority of historians, the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century BC marked the end of the Classical Age and the beginning of the Middle Ages. It is also generally accepted that the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries sparked the dawn of the Modern Age. Many historians believe that the Renaissance and Reformation (refer to Topic 3) represent a transitional phase of European history, between the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Age. See animation one

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance was a time of great social and cultural change in Europe. It was a period characterised by innovation, imagination and creativity. The Renaissance was also a time during which Europe's classical past was revisited and reinvigorated. Much of the inspiration behind cultural movements of the Renaissance came from people's attempts to emulate (imitate and improve) the legacies of classical European societies, such as Ancient Rome and Greece.

The Renaissance also represented a break away from the conformist society and culture of medieval Europe. A conformist society is one in which people strictly follow established rules and practices. Breaking away from this mould, the Renaissance was a time during which new and inventive ideas began to spread and gain influence. Gradually, this decreased the dominance previously held by the Catholic Church.

Where did the Renaissance begin?

The European Renaissance began in Northern Italy in the 14th century. The Tuscan city of Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. Gradually, the movement spread from Italy to other parts of Europe. In Italian, the period is referred to as il Rinascimento, (refer to Chapter 2 for more detail on the origins of the Renaissance).

What changes did the Renaissance bring?

The most notable changes experienced during the Renaissance were in the fields of art and architecture, literature, philosophy and science. In was in these disciplines that new trends and fresh styles emerged, inspired by Europe's ancient history.

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Unlike the artistic styles of the earlier Middle Ages, which placed more importance on symbolism than reality, renaissance art was more life-like and contained perspective. Painters began to depict the human form with increasing accuracy, which was enabled by a better understanding of human anatomy. This anatomical knowledge was gained from advances made in the field of medicine during the Renaissance period. Much of this new knowledge can be attributed to the pioneering Renaissance figure, Leonardo da Vinci.

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The Renaissance was also a time of great literary change. Writers and poets looked back to the poems and texts of Ancient Greece and Rome. Renaissance literature dealt much more with human characteristics and behaviours, shifting away from the religious and metaphysical subjects of earlier Medieval books, poems and plays. With the invention of the printing press in the 1440s, information suddenly became much more accessible to the general public, which had a huge impact on the field of education.


Philosophical trends also changed during the Renaissance. New ways of thinking, sparked by a philosophy known as humanism, altered the way in which people thought about human beings and the universe. During medieval times, the Catholic Church had been the major force influencing people's thoughts and beliefs on these matters. Unlike the Catholic faith, however, humanism did not promote the notion that humans are naturally sinful and it also placed a lot of emphasis on finding reason.

With the spread of humanistic thought, the medieval emphasis on spirituality was gradually replaced by a focus on the more physical characteristics of humans. The field of study now referred to as the humanities (history, social sciences, the arts, literature and languages) is derived from the term humanism. The philosophical changes which occurred during the Renaissance also paved the way for another shift in thinking that was experienced in Europe at the turn of the Modern Age. This later revolution was known as the Enlightenment.


Science and engineering were other fields that experienced major changes during the Renaissance. Many new and exciting discoveries were made, mainly in the areas of anatomy, astronomy and physics. Breakthroughs in engineering also paved the way for many of the world's most significant inventions, such as telescopes, clocks and spectacles. Pioneering Renaissance scientists and inventors included Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci.

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Striving for perfection

In 1507 an Italian writer named Count Baldassare Castiglione published a famous book called 'The Courtier'. In this book, inspired by his observations of peoples' public behaviour, Castiglione outlined the manner in which he believed 'perfect' men and women should behave. With the invention of the printing press half a century earlier, it was not long before 'The Courtier' had been read by many people across Europe.

After reading this influential book, many followers were inspired to become as physically and intellectually perfect as possible. Men such as Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti represented the perfect 'Renaissance man'. Both were multi-talented in a number of fields.

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Why was there a renaissance in Europe?

The Middle Ages of European history was a time characterised by conformism. People who displayed creativity or diverged (moved away) from established methods of thinking and behaving, were often punished or outcast from society.

The early Middle Ages were a time of fear in Europe and many people beleived that mythical creatures existed in an underworld. The world was thought to consist of only three continents, and the Earth, not the Sun, was considered to be the centre of the solar system. Many of these medieval beliefs were proven untrue during the Renaissance.

Until the Renaissance, most Europeans followed the teachings of Catholicism because they had little exposure to any form of education beyond this. Science was not a well-understood concept and very little of what the Church taught people about life was challenged. Those who spoke out against the Church were accused of heresy and labelled a heretic (someone who holds unorthodox beliefs). Heretics were often subject to extremely severe punishments, such as being tortured or burned at the stake in front of the townspeople.

During the Renaissance, however, things started to change. The 14th through to the 16th centuries in Europe were a period of questioning and discovery. People started to think independently and experiment with new ideas and concepts. As more and more advancements were made in the arts and sciences, the Catholic Church began to lose the overwhelming power and influence it had once held over people's beliefs about the world.

Was there more than one renaissance in Europe?

The word 'renaissance' is derived from a French word meaning rebirth. It essentially means to revive, revisit or reinvigorate and could therefore be applied to many societies, to describe different stages of their histories

Many parts of Europe underwent a period of renaissance between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age. When viewed together, these movements form an overall period of renaissance in Europe. The rebirths of different areas were, however, quite distinct from one another. They did not all occur at exactly the same time and in exactly the same manner.

For this reason, some historians speak of a series of renaissances in Europe. This is why you may have heard people use the terms Italian Renaissance, French Renaissance and English Renaissance, instead of speaking of a general European Renaissance.


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