Sample History Essays on Renaissance and reformation


            Renaissance and reformation are two significant occasions in the history of Europe. Renaissance was a period when new ideas emerged and spread across Europe, while reformation was a period when new religious ideologies inspired by the protestant movement emerged. This paper is going to argue that the connection between the Italian Renaissance and reformation was a weak one. The paper is going to accomplish this by first discussing the Renaissance era and its ideologies. The paper will then analyze the writing of Martin Luther in order to draw a conclusion of the connection between the Italian Renaissance and the reformation.


Most historians concur that ideas that were embraced during the Renaissance originated towards the end of the 13th century in Florence, especially with the writings of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The artistic works of Giotto Bondone also played a key role in the emergence of the Italian Renaissance. Some historians have argued that Renaissance started in 1404 with rival between art geniuses such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti who competed to be awarded a contract to build doors for a Florentine cathedral. Others argue that Renaissance emerged in Italy because of a more generalized competition amongst great artists like Masaccio, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi. Historians have also provided varied views on why Renaissance started in Italy at the time it did.[1]

One of the reasons that brought about the Renaissance was the economic freedom that was being experienced in Europe and Italy. The population of Europe had decreased because of the Black Death. After the Black Death, the economies of several European countries grew and Italy was the greatest beneficiary of this economic growth. There were great merchants in Venice and Milan and influential bankers who worked for the pope. Medieval guilds in Europe grew into industries and played a significant role in economic growth. In these developments, Italy arose as the region that was most liberated economically and this explains why the first intellectual dependence in the Renaissance era was witnessed in Italy.[2]

In the Renaissance era, feudalism was being abandoned by many European countries and Italy was the first to do away with the system. Feudalism was considered a backward system as European societies were urbanizing. Commercial nobility became the dominant social status replacing land nobility. However, very few men in Italy possessed the qualifications to be considered nobles. This led to the formation of a disenfranchised class called the Popolo, who started to conquer Italian city-states through military force. The Popolo was unable to hold onto power and was replaced by oligarchs or despots. Italy experienced political turmoil during Renaissance, and this inspired Niccolo Machiavelli to write “The Prince,” a book on political power.[3]

In the 15th century, Italy started to model itself alongside Greek city-states, and five dominant cities emerged; and these included the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal state, Florence, Milan, and Venice. These city-states were independent, and a prince who surrounded himself with artisans and wealthy merchants ruled them. Princes who ruled the Italian city-states employed authoritarian rule. They heavily taxed their subjects, and the programs they perused were designed to mirror their glory. The papal state under the rule of Pope Alexander VI while Florence was ruled by the Medici family. The pope ruled as a dictator and his son Cesare Borgia assisted him. The ruthless leadership by Borgia is another factor that inspired Machiavelli to write the Prince, and Borgia was considered the perfect Machiavellian leader.[4]

The five Italian city-states competed with one another in aspects that included warfare and artistic endeavors. This is considered the first example of the balance of power in world politics because the city-states checked each other but also cooperated to avert prospective threats. However, the competition among city-states caused instability, and this made Milan call for French assistance in order to avoid conquest. Personalities like Girolamo Savanarola, a sizzling preacher condemned the competition among city-states, corruption in the office of the pope, artistic representation, and the leadership of the de Medici family.[5]

In the Renaissance, there were many intellectual achievements in Italy. The intellectual endeavors shed light on European societies after many years of Germanic invasion in the dark ages. The practices in medieval Europe were being abandoned and Italy emerged as an intellectual leader. The works of Dante and Chaucer made people develop the notion that they could achieve great things, and the ability of man did not come from God alone, but also from talent. This notion is what led to the emergence of the philosophy of humanism. During the Renaissance, scholars, artists, writers, and thinkers embarked on an effort to rediscover the Greco-Roman classics and avoided being identified with the Middle Ages.[6]

Humanism, which was the dominant philosophy during Renaissance, was based on the belief that human beings had the ability, and potential for achievements, and great interests and competencies. In renewing interest in the Greco-Roman tradition of the past, Pope Nicholas created a storehouse at the Vatican library that had 9000 documents. Pico Della Mirandola published a book called “Dignity of Man”, which examined classical texts in order to understand human nature. According to Mirandola, man had high dignity because he was created as Adam, in God’s image.[7]

Secularism is also a philosophy embraced during the Renaissance era. Before the Renaissance, people in Europe placed emphasis on the afterlife. However, in the Renaissance era, people started to focus on the present life. This led to the emergence of different commercial endeavors that were not in line with religious doctrine. Artistic representation was another dominant feature during Renaissance in the 1400s, and art was supposed to meet two criteria. First, the art had to meet the extravagant standards of the rich commissioners; and second, art was supposed to address semi-secular issues in order to meet the needs of the people.[8]       Michelangelo emerged as one of the most influential artists of the Renaissance era, and he was a brilliant architect, sculptor, and painter. Some of his renowned works are Madonna, David, paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peters, and the Pieta. Leonardo da Vinci was also a great Renaissance artist; he was a sculptor, painter, mathematician, scientist, engineer, and inventor. Some of his famous works are Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and Anatomy. Another great artist during the Renaissance was Raphael Santi. He is considered the greatest painter of the Renaissance era, and his painting called a School of Athens is the most revered painting in the world.[9]

It is evident that the Renaissance era emerged because of economic freedom and the lack of political unity in Italy. Economic freedom ended feudalism, which was a political system based on land ownership. In the feudal system, those who owned large tracks of land occupied a higher class and were leaders in society. Economic freedom replaced feudalism with merchant nobility whereby those who succeeded in trade occupied the highest class in society and were leaders. The growth in commerce encouraged the emergence of new ideas. Lack of political unity among Italian city-states encouraged the emergence of new ideas because there was no strong unified government that could have suppressed new ideas or jailed and execute people who were spreading these ideas.

The three significant sources chosen for this paper are “Lecture 4: The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation”; “The Society of Europe in an Age of Crisis (Age of the Baroque Lecture)”; and “The structure of Economic Life”.

Analysis of the Writings of Martin Luther

            Martin Luther was a German monk and a theologian who challenged the Catholic Church and the authority of the pope in 1517. His actions started the protestant reformation. Luther’s ideas spread quickly all over Europe because of the printing press. Luther not only questioned the power of the Catholic Church but also asserted the power of individual conscience. In the 15th century, people were greatly opposed to the privileges enjoyed by the clerics. The clergy did not pay taxes and were exempt from many other civil responsibilities that had to be catered for by common people. The church engaged in splendor and luxury in the full view of people and neglected its spiritual functions. Moreover, the church was corrupt, lax, and indifferent to the needs of the people.[10]

The shortcoming of the Catholic Church is what attracted people to the alternative that was being offered by Luther. One of the famous writings by Martin Luther is “On Christian Liberty” written in 1520. This writing is great evidence of the leading doctrine during the reformation era, which was “justification by faith alone”[11]. “On Christian Liberty” is a letter addressed to Pope Leo X. In the letter, Luther concentrates on explaining his paradoxical opening statement, which is “a Christian man is the freest lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone”[12].

In his explanation, Luther first seeks to identify what makes a man a justifiable, real Christian. According to Luther, it is the word of God and the teachings of Jesus that make a man a true Christian. In the letter, Luther also talks about the three main virtues Christian derive from faith. First, faith gives Christians liberty; it makes them free from the law and other factors that may demand that they justify their salvation. Second, faith enables Christians to honor God because it makes them believe in God, and this is an indication that God is righteous. The third virtue of faith is that it joins the souls of Christians to Christ.[13]

Luther compares faith in Christ to a marriage between a king and a whore, where both parties share on an equal basis what they bring to the marriage. For instance, Christ brings salvation, life, and grace into the union while the human soul brings death, condemnation, and sin. Luther also condemned the papal court for being a tool used to oppress and deceive Christians. Luther states that the court of Rome is more corrupt than Sodom or Babylon, and the worst men were advising the pope.[14]

“Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” is the second writing by Luther, and the “Twelve Article” written by the peasants of Swabia influenced it. The article written by the peasants highlighted their grievances, which were social and economic in nature. The grievances had nothing to do with theological issues. For example, the peasant criticized the seizure of their lands by the nobility and the increase in taxes. The peasant asked Luther to intervene on their behalf because they believed that Luther could indicate that their demands were in line with the teachings of the bible. However, Luther was not interested in causing social rebellion because he was not a revolutionary.[15]

Nevertheless, in his writing titled “An Admonition to Peace”, Luther sided with the peasants and criticized the nobility. The peasant of Swabia rebelled, but Luther did encourage the use of armed force. The peasants utilized the word of God and God’s righteousness in an attempt to have their social and economic problems addressed. However, Luther did not directly support the peasant despite the fact that he spoke about Christian liberty on many occasions. The Christian liberty advanced by Luther was in terms of religious faith as opposed to societal matters. According to Luther, Freedom implied being independent of Rome. In the “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” Luther responded to the rebellion by the peasants.[16]

In his response, Luther condemned the decision by the peasant to rebelled and termed the act ungodly and contrary to the teaching of Jesus. The peasants initially promised not to use violence but went against this promise and looted castles and other premises that did not belong to them. Luther also states that the peasants deserve both physical and spiritual death because of their violent actions. He equates the peasant to common criminals like murderers. Luther was against the idea of peasants disrespecting authority and taking the law into their own hands because it contradicted the teachings of Jesus.[17]




Based on the analysis of events and documents on Renaissance and reformation, it can be concluded that the connection between Renaissance and reformation was a weak one. People in the Renaissance and Reformation eras were looking for freedom. In the Renaissance era, people were looking for freedom of expression in order to express new ideas that contradicted those held in the medieval age. This was evident in the expression of new ideas in the arts, science, and philosophy. During the reformation, the freedom people looked for was breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and papal influence. This is why personalities like Martin Luther and John Calvin criticized the Catholic Church.

However, there were fundamental differences between the Renaissance and the reformation movements that weaken the link between these two eras. In the Renaissance era, people were moving away from religious beliefs and adopting secular ideas. This was evident in the philosophy of humanism that emphasized the talent of man in achieving his potential as opposed to religious explanations of the medieval era. On the contrary, during the reformation, protestants like Luther and Calvin and their followers were embracing religious teachings especially salvation by faith. This was evident in the “justification by faith alone,” the dominant philosophy at the time.





Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Kreis, Steven. Lecture 4: The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation. May 12, 2004. (accessed March 10, 2014).

Kreis, Steven. Luther Against the Peasants (1525). May 12, 2004. (accessed March 10, 2014).

Luther, Martin. Concerning Christian Liberty: Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo X. July 31, 2006. (accessed March 10, 2014).


[1] Andrew Graham-Dixon,  Renaissance ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 10.

[2] Ibid., 11

[3] Ibid., 12

[4] Ibid., 13


[5] Ibid., 14

[6] Ibid., 16

[7] Ibid., 18

[8] Ibid., 19

[9] Ibid., 21


[10] Steven Kreis, Lecture 4: The Impact of Luther and the Radical Reformation, May 12, 2004. (accessed March 10, 2014) 1.

[11] Ibid., 2

[12] Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty: Letter of Martin Luther to Pope Leo, July 31, 2006. (accessed March 10, 2014) para. 1.

[13]Ibid., para. 4

[14] Ibid., para. 5

[15]Ibid., 2

[16] Ibid., 3

[17] Steven Kreis,  Luther Against the Peasants (1525), May 12, 2004. (accessed March 10, 2014) para. 1-5