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Introduction The Renaissance C. F. Main O England! model to thy inward greatness, Like little body with a mighty heart... —William Shakespeare What do you think people living a hundred years from now will call the age we live in today? Will they say we lived in the Space Age, the Age of Computers, the Age of Anxiety, the Age of Violence? We might be given a label we can’t even imagine. Just as we don’t know what people of the future will think of us, the people of Europe living in the 1400s, 1500s, and 1600s didn’t know that they were living in the Renaissance. Historical periods—the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Romantic period—are historians’ inventions, useful labels for complex phenomena. The Middle Ages in England did not end on a certain night in 1485, when King Richard III’s naked body, trussed up like a turkey, was thrown in an unmarked grave. And the English Renaissance did not begin the moment a Tudor nobleman was crowned King Henry VII. The changes in people’s values, beliefs, and behavior that marked the emerging Renaissance occurred gradually. Much that could be called “medieval” lingered on long after the period known as the Middle Ages was past. Historical periods cannot be rigidly separated from one another, but they can be distinguished. Beginning in the late 1400s, the English Renaissance marked changes in people’s values, beliefs, and behavior. Rediscovering Ancient Greece and Rome The termrenaissanceitself is a French word meaning “rebirth.” It refers particularly to renewed interest in classical learning, which means the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. In the long period of the Middle Ages, most European scholars had forgotten the Greek language, and they used a form of Latin that was very different from the Latin of ancient Rome. Very few ordinary people could read. Those who could read were encouraged to concentrate on texts promoting Church doctrine. But in the Renaissance, people discovered the marvels hidden away in old Greek and Latin classics—books that had been tucked away on the cobwebbed shelves of monasteries for hundreds of years. Now people learned to read Greek once more and reformed the Latin that they read, wrote, and spoke. Some people became more curious about themselves and their world than people in general had been in the Middle Ages, so that gradually there was a renewal of the human spirit—of curiosity and creativity. New energyseemed to be available for creating beautiful things and thinking new, even daring, thoughts. Today we still use the term “Renaissance person” for an energetic and productive human being who is interested in science, literature, history, art, and other subjects. (In America, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration ofIndependence, is referred to as a “Renaissance man.”) Fifteenth-century scholars rediscovered the writings of ancient Greece and Rome. At this same time, people became more curious about themselves and their world.