Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Renaissance: Not The Rebirth Of Knowledge You Thought It Was

The renaissance, the name itself makes you picture a period of art and scientific discovery. People like Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Donatello, Michelangelo and others flow into your mind; are you wrong.

The renaissance is a period in European history going from the 14th to 17th century. It was indeed a rebirth of knowledge, where the reemergence of science, math and medicine regained what it had lost after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was also something else, a dark time for humanity too.

More than anything else (rediscover of science, math etc.) the renaissance was a change in politics; from feudalism to a beginning of a capitalist society. Simply put, the state now ruled in the economic realm as it did in the diplomatic realm. With this meant there was more creation of wealth, and with wealth comes greed.

The gaining of power and wealth during this period led to emergence of families like the Borgia’s and Medici’s.  These families rose with the help of money, to influence European politics and religion.  Each family was responsible for simony, or selling high ranking positions in the church.  Each one supported and establishing several Popes who looked favorably on the family’s businesses. The Medici family established a bank, and implemented taxes, these two factors alone gave them much political power.

The Borgia family is synomanous with corruption.  They engaged in murder, adultery, blackmail and incest. If you watch “Game of Thrones”, you basically understand the motivation and actions of this family.  You cannot minimize the influence of this family during the renaissance.  The family itself included people who rose to the top of the Catholic Church: Alfons de Borja, who ruled as Pope Callixtus III during 1455–1458, and his nephew and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492–1503.

Let us not forget the rise of Machiavellian politics. This of course is based on the writer Niccolò Machiavelli, born in 1469, who wrote Il Principe (The Prince).  The Prince describes how a ruler should behave, basically it means a leader should consider himself above morality, and a focus on self-interest and personal gain. The noble whose purpose was to ensure the well-being of his people, was not gone.  This attitude is also included in the extreme of “individual” philosophy that emerged at that time; where your own concerns and needs outweighed those of the group or society.

The renaissance was a transitional period, as with any type of transition there is a push back from the existing establishment.  This occurred during the renaissance, particularly with the Catholic Church.

I have mentioned many times in previous posts about witch trials.  At first, they were created as a response to natural disasters occurring outside people’s control, such as the plague. However, with the spread of the Protestant Reformation, they soon were used as a political tool. As with any movement, politically or socially, change there will always be a push back to it to maintain the current status.

During the renaissance, people who opposed the Catholic Church, or its teachings, soon learned they were now accused of witchcraft or heresy (not much difference). This would make sense, if the church was the only voice of God, then any who contradicted its teachings or philosophy, then must be influenced by the devil. The trials increased after Pope Innocent VIII issued the “Summis Desirderanted Affectbus”.  This meant the church officially recognized the existence of witches, and gave authority to have then tried and punished. During the period of the renaissance it is estimated up t0 60,000 people were burned, or hung as witches.

Compare the above to the attitude of Pope Alexder IV in 1258 A.D., in which he declared witchcraft was not to be investigated by the church because witches did not exist.

This change in the attitude of the Church, was more political than a believe in the black arts.  Cathars (those that believed there were two God’s, one from the old, and another in the new testament), were gaining popularity in France. As mentioned above, the church was also trying to subdue the wave of protestant reformation in Europe. The Catholic Church needed to slow the tide of these opposition religions, and using the accusation of Witchcraft was the perfect tool.

Another infamous example would be the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 1578) in France. This was a series of assignations, and organized mob violence which was directed at the Huguenots (French Calvinist) by the established Catholic leaders. An estimated 30,000 might have been killed during this time.

It was also during this time, the church had to suppress the political influence of the Knights Templar.

Chapel of the New Temple in London; location for Templar initiation ceremonies.

Remove any conception you may have of the Templars (Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) from reading fiction by Dan Brown or others.  The Templars were created as a fighting force to protect travelers to and from the holy lands, they later became a financial entity (and this was their downfall). It was during this time that they became beloved by most of the people in Europe, things changed fast.

If you remember in a previous post, I had mentioned that knights were out for money when they waged war.  It was costly for a knight (think of armor, horses, a squire etc), so they needed to be compensated for their time and skills in combat. Pillaging cities, or stealing money from the local population was always a favorite way for the knights to obtain finances.

In 1139, Pope Innocent II, issued the “Omne Datum Optimum:” ( Basicaly translated into “Every Perfect Gift”), which declared to the Templars:

“As for the things that you will receive from the spoils, you can confidently put them to your own use, and we prohibit that you be coerced against your will to give anyone a portion of these.”

This was basically Carte Blanche to do anything they wanted to in terms of obtaining, and spending the spoils of war.  As with the old saying about absolute power, it also applies to giving someone free reign in obtaining wealth.

The Templars went on a spree of obtaining gold and artifacts.  This included excavating religious sites, and selling what they found as souvenirs.  In a short period of time, the Templars had massed a large amount of wealth, but as with anyone who gains riches, they wanted more.

The Templars, began setting up their own churches and villages. They soon established a country onto themselves, removing themselves from the rules and obligations of sovereigns around Europe.

If being independent wasn’t enough to make the royalty in Europe angry, their loaning of money soon did.  The Templars established banks, where they would deal with the rich and powerful.  The problem dealing with the rich and powerful, is eventually you must get your money back from them. 

On Friday, the 13th  October 1307 (many believe that this is why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky), Prince Phillip IV of France moved against the Templars.  Prince Phillip was (as were many of the royalty of Europe) deeply in debt to the Templars.

The majority of the Templars were captured, tortured to make confessions and burned at the stake. The remainders were imprisoned, or renounced the Templar order. In 1332, Pope Clement V disbanded the organization; the Knights Templar were basically wiped from the face of the earth.

Now, you have a glimpse that the Renaissance was not the enlightened period we were once taught, it was also not a horrible time to live either. Many advances in education, science, medicine occurred during this time.  We must always examine both the good and bad at a specific time in history.


Next Time:  Back to a Medieval Faire
W.A.Rusho is an author, historian and professional wrestler. You can contact him by email, or via his website.

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  1. William- always nice to go back in time! You have such an in depth knowledge of history. Have you considered teaching whether professionally or as hobby?

    1. This post is how I teach. Better to be a teacher of people who are looking for this knowledge (those who come to my site), then to be paid to teach someone who is just there and does not care about the knowledge.

  2. History is interesting in many ways not least because it's not possible to know what exactly happened. We only have the information that has been preserved. That's why when writing essays and papers about history at university, at least in Europe, the anglo saxon model is not used but the continental model. The simple reason for that is that it's impossible to prove what actually happened when, say, Alexander the great was born because we can only rely on information that still exists . So what happened during the renaissance? Nobody knows for sure.

    1. That is so true, history is writer by those who are still around after it happens.

  3. Thx for this interesting post on the Renaissance, William. This period and its design elements have always fascinated me.

  4. Enjoyable history read, William. I had a fantastic professor for Renaissance history who made this nasty/wonderful time period come alive for the students. You've done a great job of that, too!

    (PS. Have sent you a couple of emails--are they getting through?)

    1. Thanks for commenting, The emails go through, I didn't. Just couldn't assess them for couple days.

  5. Every period in history can be boiled down to power struggles. It's endlessly fascinating, and a topic I have broad background strokes in, so posts such as your are always great at filling the gaps in ::)