Books

How the ‘Other Renaissance’ shaped the modern world

There was an Other Renaissance that deserves recognition for its scientific, technological and artistic advances, argues Paul Strathern

the other renaissance illustration

Illustration by Jonas Kalmbach

When we think of the Renaissance we usually think of Italy, where it began. But there was an ‘Other Renaissance’ which took place in northern Europe. This is often overlooked, even though it would have a similar widespread effect. And arguably, three of the most important events which took place during this era are linked with the Other Renaissance.

Firstly, the development by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 of the moveable type printing press (which unbeknown to him had 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.

The second northern development changed the face of Europe forever. This was the religious revolution instigated by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 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 split into two opposing power groups.

The third major development instigated by the northern Renaissance was the proposal, published in 1543 by Copernicus, that the earth was part of a heliocentric system. In this solar system our planet was no longer the centre of the universe, but was in orbit of the sun, as were the other planets such as Venus, Mars and Mercury. Accompanied by the discovery of new worlds beyond Europe, Copernicus’s heliocentric idea would have a subtle but profound effect on Western psychology and self-understanding.

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In parallel with these developments came new European discoveries about our own world. Not long after Columbus reached the New World, Cabot sailed from England to North America. And following the Portuguese discovery of a sea route around Africa, the Dutch established themselves in Indonesia, the English in India. Just as the world could no longer regard itself as the centre of the universe, so Europe recognised that it was no longer the centre of the world.

Oil painting was first developed in northern Europe, where its most skilled early practitioners were the Flemish van Eyck brothers. The Ghent Altarpiece and The Arnolfini Portrait 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 heir to Boccaccio. Meanwhile, the chateaux of the Loire Valley remain unmatched in their unique architectural aesthetic.

The political philosophy of Machiavelli, the quintessential Italian, would have a profound influence on the thought of the English ruler Henry VIII and his devious chancellor Thomas More (who features in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy). But the consequences of this rule would develop in a way quite unforeseen in Italy, with Henry VIII establishing the Church of England and breaking with Rome.

England would flourish during the Elizabethan age with dramatists such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as poets of the caliber 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.

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As with the Italian Renaissance, this northern development would require financial benefactors. In Italy, 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.

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 blood circulation, 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, Edinburgh, 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.

All these northern European figures 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 The Other Renaissance is an attempt to right this wrong.

Paul Strathern is a writer and academic

the other renaissance book cover

The Other Renaissance: From Copernicus to Shakespeare by Paul Strathern is out now (Atlantic Books, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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