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Renaissance Europe and Iberia

Notes on Renaissance Europe and Iberia

Renaissance means rebirth. It was a term given to the intellectual activity of 15th century (and later) by contemporaries. It was based on rediscovery of the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Renaissance men found the works of the ancients--Cicero, Plato, and the like--exciting because they seemed to confirm Renaissance tendencies. They were illuminating They were secular--as Renaissance men were becoming-- rational, scientific, experimental, instead of being based on religion with its emphasis on revealed authority and emotions.

To Renaissance men, the ancients were people who thought and acted with reason and beauty. Thus the Renaissance men thought of the period from the fall of Rome to their own time as the Dark Ages (their term) or the Middle Ages (middle between the ancients and their own time). The Renaissance, in general, rejected the feudal, collectivist past and focused, instead, on individualism, inquiry, and diversity. The highest goal, the highest calling, was not to be a monk, thus serving the Christian God, but to be a man of virtú a man capable of doing everything well. This spirit of change was directly related to the spirit of inquiry and discovery. It was the time of the founding of new universities, including in Spain.

The Renaissance perhaps was the most important and certainly most secular in Italy but the Northern Renaissance, primarily in the area now thought of as Germanic (but Lain-speaking at the time), was important. In the north, the Renaissance was more religious. The Christian Humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam was the most important. Emphasis on faith with the use of reason to understand faith. Reformed Christianity more saintly, more pious. This influence was felt in Spain, especially via Jiménez de Cisneros.

The period of the Renaissance was also the time of the rise of national monarchy, which eventually led to the modern state. Hard for us to realize that for most of Western history, individualism was seen as bad, as anti-Christian, as a threat to society. Prior to the modern age, loyalties were to a collective, a group such as the family, class, the church, the village, to the feudal system. Territory was ruled by a feudal lord whose duty it was to protect and, thus, govern his vassals. He maintained his own courts, army, etc. He was able to demand material support from those under him. By the time of the Renaissance, he was also lord of the manor the great estate. He was virtually sovereign in his own territory, limited by his will, wealth, and willingness to obey the contractual requirements of his oath to his lord, if he had one.

The king, generally, had been only one of many lords, often weaker than some of his vassals. The goal of kings over the centuries was to rule as well as reign. To do so, a king had to build an army capable of vanquishing his foes, a task which required money. Since taxes were fixed by tradition and thus unchangeable or levied only with the consent of the important people in the society through a consultative or legislative body (Cortés, Parliament, Estates-General, as example) which was dominated by rivals to the monarchy, the nobility), kings had great difficulty in finding new sources of income. If they could find enough money, they could assert their authority over the subjects, over the kingdom, thus welding it into a single unit.

They also had to gain power over the other powerful institutions of medieval society. The most powerful was the Church. It permeated every aspect of medieval life. Its teachings were the standards people followed or, at least, paid lip service.

Since the Papacy needed and wanted support in the Pope's political rivalries, and, after the beginning of the Protestant revolt in 1517, religious rivalries, it was willing to yield control to monarchs for a price. This was gradually done.

Thus, the gain control of his kingdom, the monarch had to control the Church and tame the nobility the elite of society.

Because of the economic rival of Europe (perhaps as early as the 11th century), there was the rise of a new class in society. Unlike the peasant who earned her/his livelihood from laboring on the land or the upper class (nobility and clergy) who received its wealth from rents, taxes, and such, this new group earned its keep by trade or by making and selling things. They tended to live in towns because (1) title to land was unavailable (2) protection (it was dangerous out there!), and (3) convenience (being near markets and money lenders, for example) . They resented the nobility's predatory habits and constant warfare. They needed peace, uniform laws over large areas, a common currency, and freedom from arbitrarily imposed taxes or financial levies. The king could provide these if he had money and this rising middle class had money. Thus, two needs were met. Town-dwelling merchants and artisans paid taxes to the crown in order to subjugate the nobility.

On this basis, the new monarchs slowly crushed their opposition and began to govern large areas, unifying the people in the area through an allegiance to a common crown. Monarchical control of the courts, monarchical control of armies. Monarchical control of the Church. Nobleman retained some power, however, until the late 18th century. In Central and Eastern Europe, the nobility retained power longer.


The Iberian peninsula contains the present-day nations of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra. The region has been a melting pot of many people for centuries. Celts, black Africans, Romans, Moors, Goths, Arabs, and many others came and interbred. It was a Roman province. The Arab conquest began in 711 as they crossed to attack the Visigoths. The Arabs Conquered much of Spain.

It was a long reconquest. The Reconquista in Spanish history was very important in shaping Spanish attitudes. Most of the Reconquista had been done by the mid-13th century. Slowly continued to take back the land. Fall of Granada in 1492 not terribly important in the scheme of things. Had psychological repercussions because it meant that Spain was whole again.

Spain and Portugal, especially the latter, were centers of great learning during the middle ages while the rest of Europe was relatively unprogressive. Islam made Spain a great cultural center. Moslems were tolerant of people of the book, that is, Jews and Christians. Because the Moslems (Moors) were not Christian, the Spanish people would never accept them. Fought to convert them or drive them out.

Question is often raised as to whether Spain, because of his history, was different from the rest of Europe, whether it is more oriental, fatalistic, etc. National character studies are very difficult to make and fraught with danger.

Spanish and Portuguese were European. Much more like other European monarchies than not. There was little, if anything, that they did that would have been done differently by others. Spain was characteristic of Renaissance Europe, even in its religious fervor.

Copyright, 2001, 2002 Donald J. Mabry