Chaos and Recovery in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

During the 14th and 15th centuries, Europe experienced a number of crises.

From the Black Death to the Hundred Years War, Western Europe was a dangerous place. One particular manifestation of this chaotic time were peasant uprisings throughout Europe, including England and France. Frenchman Jean Froissart chronicled these uprisings:

The English Peasant Revolt
The “Jacquerie”

By the end of the 14th century, a recovery of sorts would begin in Europe. In the Italian city-state of Florence, writers and artists would look back to the classical ages of Greece and Rome for inspiration and a way out of what they saw as a the “dark ages” that had existed since the decline of Rome. During this “renaissance” thinkers would emphasize the positive role of humanity in addition to the role of the church. They emphasized, among other things, an education that was practical and broad rather than focused solely on theology or on a specific field of study like law or medicine.

Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch) lived from 1304-1374 in Florence and Venice. In this Letter to Posterity (at Hanover College, with footnotes), he explains his education and character. It is an excellent example of Renaissance Humanism–a philosophical and literary tradition which placed humanity (God’s greatest creation) in an elevated position of respect.

Over a century later in 1486, Italian Giovanni Pico della Mirandola would write his Oration on the Dignity of Man, in which he further discussed this humanist tradition.

Questions for consideration:

  1. Compare and contrast the English revolt with the Jacquerie in France? What similarities and differences exist? Does the author (Froissart) characterize the peasants from each kingdom in different ways?
  2. How does Petrarch describe himself and his upbringing?
  3. What references does Petrarch make to the Church? How does he characterize it, if at all?
  4. With regard to the Oration on the Dignity of Man, according to the author, what is humanity’s “place” in the universe? Choose a specific example from the text which illustrates this.
  5. What are specific religious, philosophical, or cultural areas which the author addresses?
  6. One of the hallmarks of the Italian Renaissance was an increased interest in and admiration for the “classical” world. What examples of that do you see here?