The Renaissance was a period of rebirth and transition in Europe. It began in Italy around the thirteenth century and spread gradually to the north and west across Europe for the next two centuries. It was a time of vast growth in learning and culture.
Through contacts with the Arab world, the Western world was rediscovering many long-lost classical writings of the Greeks and Romans.
Islamic scholars had preserved many of the ancient writing, and European scholars retranslated them from the Arabic and shared them across Europe. The classical writings become very popular, and many of their teachings were imitated by the Europeans.
The universities, which were first established during the late Middle Ages, were growing into a potent intellectual force. Major centres of learning were located in Paris, Bologna, Salerno, Oxford, and Cambridge.
Universities also were developing in other areas of Europe, especially in Germany, as the orientation toward church-controlled education lessened and secular education grew. Along with the growth of the universities came the growth of humanism, which emphasized the development of man’s humanness or humanity?
The humanist scholars studied the classics closely because the ancient writings expressed humanistic ideas about education. This study of ancient writing, which the Church considered clearly pagan, created many scholarly problems in reconciling the humanities, or humanistic studies, to religion, which was still a dominant force in European life.
Europe also was making the transition to “modern times.” The political institutions were making a gradual transition from feudalism to the more powerful monarchies, and a belief in the Monarch’s divine right to rule was growing.
Europe was changing from a system of many small personal alliances to one in which the nation was the dominant unit. The governments were gradually being centralized, and the people were beginning to think of themselves as English or French or German, rather than as Londoners or Parisians or Hessians.
The birth of nationalism wholly changed the complexion of European affairs. Towns were becoming the new centre of life as the economy began to edge away from its old feudalistic, agrarian orientation.
The invention of gunpowder changed the face of feudalistic military tactics. It helped to blow Europe into modern times, for with it a small force of men was vastly superior to a much larger force of bowmen.
The discovery of knowledge was enhanced by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. The availability of books enabled knowledge and information to spread rapidly across Europe and provided a great impetus to education, for the need to be literate had increased immensely.
The Renaissance was a period of discovery of the outside world as well, for people began to question the old teachings about the nature of the world and what lay beyond Europe and northern Africa.
They undertook voyages west across the Atlantic Ocean and south and east around Africa to India and beyond. The circumnavigation of the world showed how limited human knowledge had been.
The education of the period began to develop along the lines of the Greek ideal; it stressed a classical education combined with physical education. A major early leader was Vittorino da Feltre, who founded a school for the children of nobility that imitated the Athenian model of classical studies taught according to the model set by Quintilian.
The subjects included Greek and Latin Literature, swimming, fencing, riding, and dancing. Education was primarily for the men, though women were treated as relative equals in Italy.
The Renaissance ideals were the “universal man,” who had many talents and interests in the arts and literature, polities, games and sports, and the social graces.
He was supposed to be interested and moderately skilled in almost every aspect of contemporary life. The goal of Renaissance educators was to develop an “all-around” person with a balanced education.
Education was beginning to be considered valuable for its own sake, regardless of how immediately practical it was. The barriers between separate areas of learning were beginning to break down, for the Renaissance ideal stressed training across any narrow divisions between areas of learning.
The ideal was similar to the current concept of interdisciplinary studies in which the student tries to avoid the hazards of overspecialization that might result in an educational imbalance. After the Renaissance this trend reversed and moved back toward specialization.
The humanistic impulse was strongly tied to the Reformation, the Protestant struggle against the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. The humanists’ retranslations of the Scriptures indicated numerous areas of disagreement with the Church’s teaching.
Many of the humanists were very antagonistic toward the Church, and some, who were convinced that the Church had strayed from the early Christian teachings, began to break away and form new churches.
Because they “protested” the actions of the Catholic Church, these humanists were called Protestants. Martin Luther, founder of today’s Lutheran Church, was a major leader in this movement in Germany.
The Protestants were often more supportive of physical activities than the Catholic Church. The Protestants believed the activities would help prevent corruption of the body in word and deed and were therefore of moral value.
The Protestant belief that everyone had the right to read and interpret the scriptures for himself or herself, which required some degree of literacy, enhanced education for the general public. Most education under the Catholic Church in the past had been the education of its leaders and scholars.
The idea that each person should have any say in his or her beliefs and actions was a new concept for the time; the Church had previously told people what to believe and what to do. The Protestants were interested in education for both sexes, but women were not considered equal.
Their status had been raised some in the Catholic Church by the emphasis on the Virgin Mary, but the emphasis was on the woman in the home setting, rather than as an equal and a partner to man.
As the struggles over religion spread across Europe, they were used by some rulers as one more way to consolidate their powers. An example was Henry VIII, who made himself head of the Anglican Church, the English national church that replaced the Catholic Church.
As the nations gradually became “modern states,” similar to the nations today, the stage was being set across Europe for the gradual move into the “modern era.”