"Renaissance" literally means "rebirth." It refers especially to the rebirth of learning that began in Italy in the fourteenth century, spread to the north, including England, by the sixteenth century, and ended in the north in the mid-seventeenth century (earlier in Italy). During this period, there was an enormous renewal of interest in and study of classical antiquity. Yet the Renaissance was more than a "rebirth." It was also an age of new discoveries, both geographical (exploration of the New World) and intellectual. Both kinds of discovery resulted in changes of tremendous import for Western civilization. In science, for example, Copernicus (1473-1543) attempted to prove that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the planetary system, thus radically altering the cosmic world view that had dominated antiquity and the Middle Ages. In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged and ultimately caused the division of one of the major institutions that had united Europe throughout the Middle Ages--the Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers often thought of themselves as ushering in the modern age, as distinct from the ancient and medieval eras. Study of the Renaissance might well center on five interrelated issues. First, although Renaissance thinkers often tried to associate themselves with classical antiquity and to dissociate themselves from the Middle Ages, important continuities with their recent past, such as belief in the Great Chain of Being, were still much in evidence. Second, during this period, certain significant political changes were taking place. Third, some of the noblest ideals of the period were best expressed by the movement known as Humanism. Fourth, and connected to Humanist ideals, was the literary doctrine of "imitation," important for its ideas about how literary works should be created. Finally, what later probably became an even more far-reaching influence, both on literary creation and on modern life in general, was the religious movement known as the Reformation. Renaissance thinkers strongly associated themselves with the values of classical antiquity, particularly as expressed in the newly rediscovered classics of literature, history, and moral philosophy. Conversely, they tended to dissociate themselves from works written in the Middle Ages, a historical period they looked upon rather negatively. According to them, the Middle Ages were set in the "middle" of two much more valuable historical periods, antiquity and their own. Nevertheless, as modern scholars have noted, extremely important continuities with the previous age still existed.
Among the literary ramifications of the Reformation, two stand out. First, the Protestant rejection of the authority of Church representatives resulted in placing that authority entirely on the Bible, at least in theory. Consequently, Protestants stressed the need for all believers to read the Bible for themselves. To help make that possible, they were active in translating the Bible into the vernacular languages so that all laymen could read it. This practice was opposed by the Catholic Church, which insisted on preserving the Bible in Latin. At the same time, Protestants also stressed the need to understand the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) so that it could be properly translated. In their interest in such learning, particularly of ancient languages, Protestants were similar to Humanists. This emphasis on the Bible had a significant impact on literature because the Bible became a renewed source of literary inspiration, both in literary form and subject matter; it also became a rich source of symbols. The other way the Reformation impacted on literature was perhaps more subtle, and the effects did not appear till much later in literary history. Certainly the emphasis on inner feeling found later in the Romantic Movement received at least some of its inspiration...
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