The Renaissance begins in Italy in the 14th century. Technically, “the Renaissance” only concerns art. Classical works were rediscovered and studied and a new era of realism in art began. Social and political changes come later and more slowly than the art revolution.
Useless Trivia: In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press. The first book printed on it: the “Gutenberg” Bible. The printing press has the biggest impact on European society since the Plague because it allows the common person to become literate and allows ideas to flow freely. No longer will the Church alone be the guardian of knowledge in Europe.
Age of Discovery
In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella financed explorer Christopher Columbus who wanted to sail due west over the Atlantic Ocean to get to the spices and exotic goods of the Far East. Columbus would ultimately make four trips, discovering Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean Islands. A master sailor, one of his voyages was the fastest to ever cross the Atlantic until the advent of steam power. His navigation skills left a little to be desired, however, because he never realized he wasn’t in Asia. It would be Amerigo Vespucci who would finally figure out that everyone was exploring a New World.
Useless Trivia: No medieval person thought that the world was flat; like the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians before them, they were quite aware that the world was round. The myth that medieval people thought the world was flat appears to come from an 18th century biography of Columbus.
One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Spain
Spain quickly planted its flag in North, Central, and South America, sucking out prodigious amounts of gold that would make Spain fantastically wealthy and a major power in Europe. At home, Isabella and Ferdinand were waging war on the remaining Moors, finally driving the last of them out of Spain, and Spain was united for a time under their joint rule. In 1478, they asked the Pope to begin an Inquisition in Spain to root out lapsed Jewish converts. In 1492, they expelled all the Jews. Many Jews would flee to Portugal, only to be expelled from there a few years later. In 1502, all remaining Muslims were expelled. The Inquisition would later turn on heretics—specifically Protestant heretics—and would keep an iron grip on the Catholic country for centuries to come.
Methinks He Doth Protest Too Much
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses (which he sent to a superior by letter; his nailing them to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral is apocryphal). The letter condemned the Church and the Pope for excessive wealth, the selling of indulgences (“get out of hell free” cards), and general corruption. This was actually not the first time that someone made similar condemnations of the Church, and it was certainly not the first time that someone demanded reformation. However, a combination of the press and a favorable political situation in the German states allows Martin Luther’s demands to evolve into a movement. The protesters become known as “Protestants.”
Useless Trivia: Prior to the Reformation, the largest supporter of the sciences was . . . the Church. The study of genetic traits and even an early attempt at flight (hang-gliding, really) were done by clergymen. Science was seen as proof that the Universe had been made by a rational and orderly Creator. It was only when the Church came under attack and felt its power slipping that it circled the wagons and clamped down on anything that it perceived to be a threat to its authority—including any new sciences.