The Other Renaissance

The renaissance of Bruges in Flanders was felt in France, the German states, England, and even in Italy.
Martin Luther
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It is generally accepted that the European Renaissance began in Italy. However, as this developed south of the Alps a historical transformation of similar magnitude began taking place in northern Europe. This ‘Other Renaissance’ was initially centred on the city of Bruges in Flanders (modern Belgium), but its influence was soon being felt in France, the German states, England, and even in Italy itself.

This other renaissance was certainly influenced by the developments in Italy which I describe in my book The Florentines. In a way, my new work is intended as a complement to that earlier work. However, this other renaissance was far more than just a development wholly influenced by what was taking place in Italy. It also involved a number of purely independent features, characteristic of the locations in which it flourished, from Paris to the German states.

The northern Renaissance, like the southern Renaissance, largely took place during the period between the end of the Medieval age (circa mid-14th century) and the advent of the Age of Enlightenment (circa end of 17th century).

Arguably, three of the most important events which took place during this period are linked with the ‘other renaissance’:

1) The development by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 of the moveable type printing press (which unknown to him had in fact been invented in China some centuries previously). This enabled the rapid and widespread dissemination of knowledge in the form of  books, rather than painstakingly copied manuscripts.

2) The religious revolution  instigated by Martin Luther when he nailed his 93 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in 1517.  This brought about the Reformation, ending the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church in western Christendom. Worshippers could pray directly to God, without the intercession of a priest. This Protestantism largely took hold in the north of the continent. Europe was split into two opposing power groups.

3) The proposal published in 1543 by Copernicus that the earth was part of a heliocentric system. In this solar system our world was no longer the centre of the universe, but did in fact orbit the sun, as did the other planets such as Venus, Mars and Mercury. Accompanied by the discovery of new worlds beyond Europe, this would have a subtle but profound effect on western psychology and self-understanding.

All three of these events took place in the Other Renaissance of northern Europe.

It will also follow a similar plan to The Florentines. Chapters will be devoted to  a developing sequence of major figures. They will also show how these figures were influenced, and how they carried forward the new way of thinking, Renaissance art and literature, as well as the development of science.

Oil painting was in fact first developed in northern Europe, where its early and most skilled practitioners were the Flemish Van Eyck brothers. The Bruges Altarpiece and the Arnolfini Wedding are the Van Eyck masterpieces, arguably the finest early oil paintings in all Europe. The succession of northern European Renaissance artists would include the likes of Holbein and Dürer. In literature, many see the French writer Rabelais as the inheritor of Boccaccio’s influence. The political philosophy of Machiavelli would have a profound influence on the thought of the English rule by Thomas More and Henry VIII.  England would flourish during the Elizabethan age seeing dramatists such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as poets of the calibre of Marvell. Across the Channel in France Montaigne’s essays would introduce an entirely new examination of the human condition. But perhaps the supreme thinker of this age, both north and south of the Alps, was the Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus. The later northern European Renaissance would influence the first philosophers of the Age of Reason: Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz.

As with the Italian Renaissance, this northern development would require its financial benefactors. In Italy, the likes of the Medici bankers, rulers of city states and the popes had largely filled this role. In northern Europe innovative commercial developments would bring great riches to such cities as Amsterdam. Here the Dutch East India Company undertook joint-stock ventures to bring spices from Asia. In London, the East India Company would undertake even more ambitious ventures in India. Investors in these companies became rich, forming a new middle class which aided the northern renaissance by purchasing paintings, books and other works of art. By contrast, the southern Renaissance was largely funded by aristocrats. This contrast is reflected in all aspects of the northern Renaissance, which developed its own tendency towards bourgeois democratic ideals. Despite this, the northern Renaissance did in fact produce its own version of the Florentine Medici family. This was the German Fugger family, which originated in Augsburg in southern Germany. Mining, banking and general trade from Hungary to Spain would eventually make the Fuggers the richest non-aristocratic family in Europe, even taking over some of the Medici trade as the Medici bank went into decline. Such was their fortune that they were soon influencing who who was voted Holy Roman Emperor.

In parallel with the great scientific advances made in Italy by Galileo, scientists in northern Europe made many epoch-changing advances. The English physician  William Harvey (who had been educated in Italy) discovered the circulation of the blood, which would revolutionise medical practice. A further great advance in this field was made by the Flemish physician Vesalius, who produced the first modern work on human anatomy. In Scotland, John Napier of Merchiston made considerable advances in mathematics. He invented logarithms, was a pioneer in the use of decimal points and constructed a calculating device known as ‘Napier’s bones’. This trio of British scientists is completed by the flamboyant and controversial Sir Francis Bacon who achieved political success as Chancellor of England, fell from grace, and was the first to articulate the new scientific method.

The north European Renaissance would finally evolve into the Age of Reason and the consequent Enlightenment. Arguably, this ‘other renaissance’, and the figures it produced, would play a role at least as significant as the Italian Renaissance in bringing our modern world  into being. This fact is largely overlooked. My book is an attempt to right this wrong.

Paul Strathern is a writer and academic, and author of numerous books including The Florentines and his latest, The Other Renaissance: From Copernicus to Shakespeare.