Medieval Europe – The “Dark Ages”

Much of the wisdom of the ancient world was lost or destroyed in this period, in which intellectual life was dominated by religion and theology. It is often called the “Dark Ages” for this reason.

There was little freedom for most people, and religious dissent, or heresy, was harshly punished. However, from the ninth century onwards important European cultural figures such as Petrarch laid the foundation for the Renaissance.

Renaissance and Reformation

Exploration and discovery

The Renaissance was an important period of intellectual and artistic development, when thinkers began to return to the ancients for ideas and also to look to the East – it was an era of exploration and discovery. Arab scholarship was brought to Europe and this influence had a stimulating effect, especially on mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The Church was often hostile to new scientific ideas, which it saw as threatening. The Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543), suggested that a better explanation of the apparent movements of the planets and stars in the solar system than the traditional one (that everything revolved around the Earth) would be that everything revolved around the sun. This was opposed by the Church, as were those who publicly accepted or developed his ideas, such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo. In England, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) developed a theory of scientific method which was to be very influential, recommending thorough collection of data before drawing conclusions.

The Arts

The visual arts were characterised by a growing realism – the use of perspective and drawing from nature – and art gradually became less narrowly religious, more diverse, in its subject matter. Famous Italian artists of the period include Uccello, who was an early user of perspective in his paintings, and Leonardo da Vinci whose breadth of interest and knowledge typified “Renaissance man”. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) was another “Renaissance man” of wide-ranging abilities, with an interest in non-religious ethics and a view of citizenship and the architecture of cities that seems very secular and modern – the city existed to provide the best possible setting for citizens, and the architect existed “to serve successfully and with dignity the needs of man.”

In England, playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe (who was rumoured to be an atheist) and William Shakespeare were developing a new kind of theatre, more secular, more realistic, more interested in human psychology and emotions. The invention of the printing press meant that ideas could be widely disseminated more easily. Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn her living by writing, wrote critically about religion and slavery.

Renaissance humanists

Renaissance scholars like Erasmus who studied the classics and mankind were called “humanists” (retrospectively, which was the word’s first use). The word originally had little to do with a person’s belief system, though the Renaissance humanists were more interested in the human than the divine, and were remarkable for extending their studies well beyond the narrow confines of the theology that had dominated Medieval scholarship. By extension it became associated with studies of the arts, languages, philosophy – subjects still often called the humanities.


The Reformation was a period of criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, and of schism and dissent. Many new Christian sects began at this time. The significance for humanists is in the new willingness to question the authority of the Pope and to examine the newly translated Bible and re-interpret it. This questioning attitude and personal interpretation, seen in religious radicals such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64), also paved the way for free-thinkers in later centuries. It also paved the way for the kind of break with the Roman Catholic Church made by Henry VIII of England, essentially for secular and political reasons, which began the process of separation between religious and state matters which continues to this day.

For teachers

Humanist Perspectives 1 and Humanist Perspectives 2 (BHA) contain more concise versions of humanist history, together with pupil pages on a range of issues designed for easy photocopying and much useful information for teachers.