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The Renaissance in Italy and Europe: From the Black Death to the Reformations (c.1350-1600)


Module description

The Renaissance has long been regarded as a central feature in the development of western European culture and society. It saw the creation of pictures and sculptures, which have achieved an iconic status, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s statue David. It also led to major literary works, such as Niccolò Macchiavelli’s infamous political treatise, The Prince, and Thomas More’s Utopia. While this course will acknowledge the importance of the artistic achievements of the Renaissance, our main aim is to examine the social, political and religious background which led to this extraordinary movement. Indeed over the past decades there has been a major reassessment of this field as new research has explicated and also complicated our perception of the period. The themes of each term move from ‘Power and Ideas’ to ‘Society and Religion’, and will seek to provide a fairly comprehensive picture of the period. While the main focus will be on Italy, many classes will compare developments in northern Europe, and particularly in England in the same period. We shall also constantly ask questions about the circulation of ideas, art and culture, both from Italy to Europe and from Europe to Italy. And drawing from the most recent scholarship, we will ask how the European Renaissance connected with developments taking place in distant parts of the world, from the conquest of the Americas to the encounter with Asian civilisations. No knowledge of languages other than English is required.

Indicative module syllabus

Power and Ideas

  • Introduction: the Renaissance question
  • The geography of the Renaissance: Italy and Europe
  • The rediscovery of antiquity and the challenge to medieval authorities
  • Civic humanism and political ideas
  • The Renaissance north and south of the Alps: the communication of ideas
  • Learned and popular culture
  • Patronage and power
  • Patronage and the arts
  • Science and nature
  • The renaissance discovery of the new world

Society and Religion

  • The economy
  • Rich and poor
  • Charity, the poor and popular protest
  • The Church in Italy
  • Lay popular religion
  • Family and marriage
  • Gender and society
  • Medicine and society: healing the sick
  • Plague and society
  • The body, prostitution and the Great Pox

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • have a good knowledge of the major themes in the debates about the Renaissance in Italy and Europe
  • be able to compare and contrast several narratives from the Renaissance period with reference to their distinct historical and historiographical contexts
  • be able to handle primary sources with confidence and demonstrate the ability to use them as a means of critiquing current paradigms.