At the end of the epoch called the Middle Ages, Europe could have succumbed to the Muslims or the Mongols. It did not. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it went through a period of rebirth (Renaissance) and reformation that for better or worse led Europe to dominate the world.
Medieval thought was closed and religious. St Augustine and St Aquinas built huge theories on Greek philosophy that had nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount. The ancient learning was kept alive in Arab universities and Christian monasteries. Some religious leaders began to assert rights of the people. People got more interested in this world than the next. They sought to live in hope rather than fear. Paper had been developed in China and by the Arabs and its arrival in Europe, together with that of printing, led to explosions of knowledge.
Copernicus said that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo proved it. He destroyed doctrine by observation and experiment. The world was no longer the centre of the universe. The Church made Galileo retract. Some say he said e pur si muove. In the seventeenth century, the genius of Newton set out the bases of modern physics.
The artistic and scientific rebirth started in large European towns, principally Florence, Venice and Rome. The Medici were vicious and corrupt, but they were patrons of the arts. Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael revived classical forms and gave the world masterpieces it still marvels at. Their work would be carried on by artists like Titian and Durer and, much later, Turner. The Divine Comedy of Dante and the remarkably bourgeois Canterbury Tales of Chaucer had ensured that great writing would survive. Writers like Montaigne and Rabelais created new forms. Machiavelli wrote of realpolitik. In Don Quixote, Cervantes gave the world its first novel. Many think that it is still the best. No one will ever get near Shakespeare. The break from narrow ways of thinking dominated by the Church led to claims for human rights summed up under the word ‘humanism’.
As well as being intellectually closed, the Church was hopelessly corrupt and unfaithful to the life and teaching of the son of the carpenter. Many popes behaved more like princes than priests. The Renaissance popes were shockingly degenerate. The Church sold religious rites. Five hundred years ago this year (2017) a German priest announced his protest against sales meant to fund a rebuilding of St Peter’s. His protest would split the Church, and his movement would be called the Protestant Church. Their aim was to go back to the bible and let people go to God without the intervention of a priest.
This reform movement in Europe was religious or spiritual. In England it was entirely political. Henry VIII needed a divorce to secure the succession – the first duty of a king. The Pope could not agree – he had a conflict of interest involving the Holy Roman Empire. England therefore broke with Rome. It did so by acts of its parliament, one of which said ‘this realm is an empire.’ This course strengthened the parliament and guaranteed independence to England.
As with most reactions, there was a lot of nastiness. Luther said too much, and he could be quoted to support actions against the Jews and the peasants. The Germans were the wrong people to be told to keep religion out of politics. The cold blooded Swiss Calvin spoke of predestination. At least Luther was human. Churches were defaced by Protestant fanatics. The English locked in the gentry by giving them the confiscated monasteries. But Macaulay said that only the French Revolution could be compared to the Reformation. Each was ‘a revolt of reason against Caste.’
Geographic horizons broadened as much as the artistic and intellectual. Portuguese sailors rounded the horn of Africa, and in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to America. Then Magellan sailed around the world. Spain took the Cross and the sword to the natives in the Americas in search of gold. Cortez found and looted the Aztecs. Pizarro found and looted the Incas. Wherever they went, the Europeans treated the first inhabitants as savages. This did nothing to alleviate the superiority complex they felt over people less advanced or less fortunate than themselves. And as often as not, they thought that their superiority was a gift from God.