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Recognizing the "Other Renaissance" of Northern Europe

Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432

It is generally accepted that the European Renaissance began in Italy. However, as this developed south of the Alps, a historical transformation of similar magnitude began taking place in northern Europe. This “Other Renaissance” was initially centered on the city of Bruges in Flanders (modern Belgium), but its influence was soon being felt in France, the German states, England, and even in Italy itself.

This Other Renaissance was certainly influenced by the developments in Italy—in particular the Southern Renaissance, which focused on Florence. However, this Other Renaissance was far more than just a development wholly influenced by what was taking place in Italy. It also involved a number of purely independent features, characteristic of the locations in which it flourished, from Paris to the German states.

This northern Renaissance, like the southern Renaissance, largely took place during the period between the end of the Medieval age (circa the mid-14th century) and the advent of the Age of Enlightenment (circa the end of the 17th century). Arguably, three of the most important events of this period are linked with the Other Renaissance. First was the development by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439 of the moveable type printing press (which, unknown to him, had in fact been invented in China some centuries previously). This enabled the rapid and widespread dissemination of knowledge in the form of books, rather than painstakingly copied manuscripts.

The second northern development arguably changed the face of Europe forever. This was the religious revolution instigated by Martin Luther when he nailed his 93 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in 1517.  This brought about the Reformation, ending the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church in western Christendom. Worshippers could pray directly to God, without the intercession of a priest. This Protestantism largely took hold in the north of the continent. Europe was split into two opposing power groups.

The third major development instigated by the northern Renaissance was the proposal, published in 1543 by Copernicus, that the earth was part of a heliocentric system. In this solar system our world was no longer the center of the universe, but did in fact orbit the sun, as did the other planets such as Venus, Mars and Mercury. Accompanied by the discovery of new worlds beyond Europe, Copernicus’s heliocentric idea would have a subtle but profound effect on western psychology and self-understanding.

In parallel with these developments came new European discoveries about our own world. Not long after Columbus reached the New World, Cabot sailed from England to North America. And following the Portuguese discovery of a sea route around Africa, the Dutch established themselves in   Indonesia and the English in India. Just as the world could no longer regard itself as the center of the universe, so Europe recognized that it was no longer the center of the world.

The Italian Renaissance is justly celebrated for its supreme artistic and cultural achievements. Yet these should not be seen as overshadowing the cultural accomplishments of northern Europe. Oil painting was in fact first developed in northern Europe, where its most skilled practitioners early were the Flemish Van Eyck brothers. The Bruges Altarpiece and the Arnolfini Wedding are the Van Eyck masterpieces, arguably the finest early oil paintings in all Europe. The succession of northern European Renaissance artists would include the likes of Holbein and Dürer. In literature, many see the French writer Rabelais as the inheritor of Boccaccio’s influence. Meanwhile, the chateaux of the Loire valley remain unmatched in their unique architectural aesthetic.

The political philosophy of the quintessential Italian Machiavelli would have a profound influence on the thought of the English ruler Henry VIII and his devious chief minister Thomas Cromwell. But the consequences of this rule would develop in a way quite unforeseen in Italy, when Henry VIII established the Church of England and broke with Rome. England would flourish during the Elizabethan age, seeing dramatists such as Shakespeare and Marlowe, as well as poets of the caliber of Marvell. Across the Channel in France Montaigne’s essays would introduce an entirely new examination of the human condition. But perhaps the supreme thinker of this age, both north and south of the Alps, was the Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus. The later northern European Renaissance would influence the first philosophers of the Age of Reason: Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz.

As with the Italian Renaissance, this northern development would require its financial benefactors. In Italy, the likes of the Medici bankers, rulers of city states and the Popes, had largely filled this role. In northern Europe innovative commercial developments would bring great riches to such cities as Amsterdam. Here the Dutch East India Company undertook joint-stock ventures to bring spices from Asia. In London, the East India Company would undertake even more ambitious ventures in India. Investors in these companies became rich, forming a new middle class, which aided the northern renaissance by purchasing paintings, books and other works of art. By contrast, the southern Renaissance was largely funded by aristocrats. This contrast is reflected in many aspects of the northern Renaissance, which developed its own tendency towards bourgeois democratic ideals.

Despite this, the northern Renaissance did in fact produce its own version of the Florentine Medici family. This was the German Fugger family, which originated in Augsburg in southern Germany. Mining, banking and general trade from Hungary to Spain would eventually make the Fuggers the richest non-aristocratic family in Europe, even taking over some of the Medici trade as the Medici bank went into decline. Such was their fortune that they were soon influencing who was voted Holy Roman Emperor.

In parallel with the great scientific advances made in Italy by Galileo, scientists in northern Europe made many epoch-changing advances. The English physician William Harvey (who had been educated in Italy) discovered the circulation of the blood, which would revolutionize medical practice. The Flemish physician Vesalius further advanced this field by producing the first modern work on human anatomy. In Scotland, John Napier of Merchiston made considerable advances in mathematics. He invented logarithms, was a pioneer in the use of decimal points and constructed a calculating device known as “Napier’s bones.” This trio of British scientists is completed by the flamboyant and controversial Sir Francis Bacon, who achieved political success as Chancellor of England, fell from grace, and was the first to articulate the new scientific method.

The northern European Renaissance would finally evolve into the Age of Reason and the consequent Enlightenment. Arguably, this “other renaissance,” and the figures it produced, would play a role at least as significant as the Italian Renaissance in bringing our modern world into being. This fact is largely overlooked. The Other Renaissance is an attempt to right this wrong.