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Beyond the Costumes: History of The Renaissance

The word "renaissance" means "new birth." Near the end of the Middle Ages, a new sense of cultural and intellectual awareness developed in Europe that involved art and literature. Examining the Renaissance period fully should include a look at the culture that arose as people pursued new directions in education and religion. Even the clothing and costumes people wore were distinctive in this era. The plague played a contributing role in the birth of the Renaissance due to the significant disruptions and upheavals caused by what became known as the Black Death. Scholars during this period began exploring past the standard theological confines, which fueled the expansion of culture and the humanities.

The Plague

Expanding trade between the East and the West in the late Middle Ages is a possible cause of the initial spread of the plague. Trade routes traveled by merchants were infested by rodents, which carried parasites. Sometime during the mid-1300s, the plague arrived in Western Europe, where it soon moved into northern Africa and the Middle East. The disease spread quickly, with devastating results. Some historians estimate that as many as 25 million people perished of the Black Death between 1347 and 1352. Some estimates put the death count at 60 percent of the entire population of Europe throughout the 14th century.


With the vastness of devastation from the plague, important religious shifts occurred among the people. Many assumed that God was deaf to their suffering. Relative stability crumbled, and it was replaced with violence, confusion, and hostility. As time went on and recovery began, a new way of thinking became common for plague survivors. They began seeking new ways to enjoy life, and these pursuits centered around their human abilities. Instead of a single focus on church and religion, the people split their focus between worshiping God and an inward faith in the individual. People became excited about exploring their artistic capabilities, and they invested significant time in studying the arts.


New ways of thinking and broadened horizons led to significant cultural growth across Europe. Literature took voice as artists began composing music, poetry, and other works. After its inception in Italy, the Renaissance began spreading across Western Europe. Italians had a strong connection with ancient Rome and ancient Greece, which gave them an ideal position for pursuing new avenues of classical art and literature. Humanists of the era delved into expansive studies of the classical arts as they strove to share appreciation of this beauty with others. Furthering the work began by the classical artists became the trend of the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press was also a significant event during this era because it enabled faster and less expensive production of books. As more people had access to books, literacy rates grew and people's knowledge increased exponentially. This enlightenment served to empower the people, which in turn led to grand developments in architecture, painting, music, and literature.

Styles of Dress

New ways of dressing also accompanied the enlightenment. Costumes became ornate and excessive, involving padding, feathers, heavy fabrics, and headdresses. The people preferred dark colors such as black, gold, and burgundy. Men often wore their hair short, either curled or straight. Women usually styled their hair elaborately.

From Renaissance into Reformation

The ability to read gave people new courage and convictions. Instead of being told what to believe, the people could read their own Bibles and make their own interpretations. These new insights enabled the people to reject the all-powerful Catholic Church and its insidious corruption. Up until this time, the Catholic pope possessed power that even usurped that of the reigning monarchy, but the people would no longer accept this.

Martin Luther was instrumental in the Reformation and subsequent Protestantism movement. Luther's goals included purifying the church of corruption and focusing beliefs on the Bible instead of traditions. Luther used the new printing press to share his convictions, composing the "95 Theses," which was a list of questions meant to spark debate. What likely was created by Luther to open up a dialogue had a very different result within the Catholic Church. The pope rejected Luther's ideas and labeled them heresy. When Luther refused to recant his position, the pope excommunicated him from the Catholic Church. This event was influential in the Reformation.