Upon initial inspection, the Renaissance and the Reformation appear to be two entirely separate periods of change that occurred in Western Europe with equally dissimilar causes and purposes. The Renaissance, literally a time of rebirth, marked the decisive break from the Middle Ages and the rediscovery for the appreciation of the arts, literature, and the further development of politics and economy. On the other hand, the Reformation focused mainly on the split of ideals dealing with the church and the methods with which reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others who preached against simony, the selling of indulgences, and essentially dealing with the corrupt ways of the Church. While the two may not bear many outwardly apparent similarities, the Reformation, in fact, depended heavily upon the human developments during the Renaissance.
The single most important document linking the Renaissance and the Reformation is the 95 Theses, written by Martin Luther who posted it on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This piece of writing which mostly addresses the improper abuse of clerical powers and the immoral conduct of selling indulgences, which was initially triggered by mercantilism and the rising importance of money in a growing economical society, was only able to be circulated throughout Germany with the help of the printing press. Although the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg, was not a direct product of the Renaissance, it was the revolutionizing piece of technology which allowed the circulation of numerous printed copies of the Bible throughout Western Europe, served as a crucial tool in developing a well-informed, literate population during the Renaissance in Europe, and, of course, printed over 300,000 copies of Luther’s 95 Theses, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation.
With the aid of the printing press, the people of Western Europe became further educated by having a greater opportunity to come into contact with a Bible. Prior to reading the Bible for themselves, people were only able rely on the words of the papacy, the clergy, and other members of the church, who were, unbeknownst to the common man, in fact corrupt. Through obtaining personal knowledge from reading the Bible (even those who could not read Latin now have access to the Bible translated into vernacular, English, or German), people now felt they had the control to formulate their own decisions and grasped the idea that they will not be controlled by a corrupt church. With this state of mind, secularization, the separation from religious influences, and individualism, the recognition of the self as having moral value, flourished throughout the Renaissance in Europe.
While reading the Bible significantly guided the people of Western Europe in Luther’s general direction of thought even prior to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, another group of people known as the Humanists, who provided their time to truly understand the Classics — the works of Socrates, Plato, and other ancient Greek philosophers – began eradicating the idea of scholasticism, which was, in essence, believing everything as they are told. People began to read, comprehend, and make decisions for themselves without relying strictly on the church. Books such as Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which taught men to be the perfect gentlemen, and women to be the perfect gentlewomen, and Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, which satirizes and mocks the Church of its erroneous ways (Palmer, 72), were published and read. The final result was a greater movement of secularization and individualism which led to a continual separation of the people from the church.
In addition to an increasingly self-determining population, one event which becomes the catalyst to ignite a sense of distrust amongst the common people of Europe towards the church was The Great Schism. The crisis of assigning multiple papacies was not only an indication of the manipulating of the power given to the popes in order to satisfy the Churches self-indulgence, but also caused the devout to question which of the papacies truly holds the keys of Peter, or simply if any church at all would lead them to salvation (Palmer, 53). This dissatisfaction with the church spread through all ranks of society, from the kings to the common people. From these uncertainty sprouted the teachings of John Wyclif and John Huss, who both supported the ideology of salvation by reading the Bible, and not from the teachings of an organized church (Palmer, 54). This led to the eventual denunciation of the Pope, or in this case, Popes, as a religious leader.
With scholars and people in general granted the ability to finally read and scrutinize the Bible for themselves, important theologians such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli, only to name a few, emerged, attempting to correct the erroneous ways of the corrupt church. Luther, who preached not for the sake of creating a new religion but to simply correct the misdoings of the church, translated the Bible into many accessible languages and gathered many followers who agreed wholeheartedly with his ultimate principle of salvation by faith alone, and that only the Bible contains the true words of God.
One final aspect of the Renaissance that affected the course of action of people throughout the Reformation was the development and enforcement of politics. While the ideas of Luther, Calvin, and other theologians caused new churches to rise in towns, they were not able to replace the previously existing church prior to some government intervention. The new church did not have immediate power to dissolve the old church and was obligated to wait on government’s decision before implementing and taking action. Although inconvenient for those eagerly awaiting the further spread of the Protestant Church, the higher power given to the government and the advance of politics developed through the Renaissance provided a greater source of order for the people during the Reformation.
The Renaissance and the Reformation, although largely unlike, greatly complemented each other in various aspects. From the most important advancement of educating the populace in order to instill in them the understanding of individualism and separation from scholasticism, to the initial dissatisfaction towards the church caused by confusions of The Great Schism, to the works of Castiglione and Erasmus, the Renaissance shaped the minds of those previously unaware of the immorality of the Church into the minds of those prepared for a change through the Reformation.