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When did the Renaissance start?

By Master Caleb Reynolds 

This is a very good question because there is no definitive answer.

Johannes Gutenberg

Historians throw out a multitude of dates from 1350 to 1600 with no rhyme or reason. Historians agree that the Renaissance started at the end of the Medieval period but, again, no one can agree on a single date. Some use 1453 since it was the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims. 1400 is thrown around as the start date because that is when Europeans “rediscovered” ancient Greek and Roman texts. (Texts which were translated and copied in the 10th and 11th Centuries) Some use 1456 since it was around the year Gutenberg printed the bible on his movable type. Some use 1485 which was the end of the Plantagenet and the start of the Tudor dynasty. Some use 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Some use 1517 since that was the year Martin Luther said that he had 95 problems but a Pope wasn’t one. Some even use 1604 since that was the first recorded use of the word “medieval” to describe the period between the death of the Roman empire and its “current” rebirth, or Renaissance. There is even a movement to rename parts of the middle ages as “Proto-Renaissance” because some do not feel that Medieval Europeans could possibly have developed humanism or mathematics, that it had to have been developed in a more enlightened time.

Coin with head of Harald Hardrada

The problem is that there is no one singular year that we can say that Europe fundamentally changed like we can with 1066, the agreed upon start of the Middle Ages. In 1066, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, invaded England with an estimated 10,000 Norwegian soldiers, 2,000 Scottish soldiers, and another 1,500 English exiles allied with Tostig Godwinson. Harald and the majority of his troops were killed by Harald Godwinson and his English forces. Of an initial 300 longships, it is written that only enough men survived to fill 20 or 25 ships to return home. This was a staggering loss for Norway and destabilized that part of the world for years as Harald’s 16 year old son, Olaf, was crowned king. A few weeks later, Harald Godwinson and a good chunk of English nobility were killed by Duke William of Normandy, who at the same time he was a vassal of the King of France, became King of England, starting a political crisis that would directly lead to the Hundred Years War. William also started a huge castle building program to secure his hold on England, which also kicked off a massive ship building program to transport stone over the channel. This also sparked innovation in ship design as the traffic of people, building supplies, and goods across the Channel increased by an order of magnitude. Normans were also invading Sicily and Southern Italy, which was to change the religious and political dynamics there for the next 80 years. The Byzantine Empire was being threatened by the migration of Seljuk Turks and would soon call for the first of many Crusades. The Granada Massacre occurred in Spain, which rekindled the Reconquista and became another war zone for Normans to fight in. There were plenty of minor wars in the German states as princes jockeyed for power in a civil war with the Holy Roman Emperor. And we can’t forget the rise of the Benedictine order as a major political powerhouse, partially due to William’s gifting of almost 1/5th of the land of England to the Church as a penance for his invasion, (which might have something to do with William’s claim that the Pope personally blessed his invasion; a claim that there is no evidence of actually happening) which started a monastery building program that would last centuries.

“The Dance of Death” from the Nuremburg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514).

So many important things happened in 1066 that historians can clearly state that the political, military, social, and economic outlook of 1067 and later years were directly affected by major events in 1066. There is no similar year in the late Middle Ages where things changed so completely, other than in 1348, which was the start of the Black Death in Europe. But even with losing 50 to 60% of the population of the continent in a single decade, things carried on as best they could. People died but governments, churches, and guilds didn’t really change. They adapted to the huge loss of life, but they didn’t go away or change quickly or radically. Even the development of the printing press didn’t change Europe overnight, it took decades for printed books to ingrain themselves into society. Some historians make the argument that the Middle Ages ended with the end of feudalism but the problem is that feudalism didn’t end overnight all throughout Europe; the Black Death started the process but it took a half a century before anything major changed in that aspect of the social contract. Feudalism was going strong in Poland and Hungary well into the 16th Century and we can make a convincing argument that feudalism was still in practice in Russia up until the end of the 19th Century.

Since movable type became a commonplace thing throughout all of Europe by 1500, we might as well use that as the date of the start of the Renaissance. The widespread availability of not only the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans but also of contemporary scholars is considered to be the hallmark of the Renaissance, even though the influence of Medieval European and Arabic scholars is ignored. It is estimated that in the 50 years after Gutenberg developed his technology, some 1 million books were printed in Europe in some 280 cities by 1,000 presses. 1500 is a nice round number and easy to remember. And, it is as good a year as any.