Mention the Renaissance and images of Italian art history are likely conjured up. The Italian Renaissance, however, was grounded in both the urgent needs and practicality of the Franciscan movement as well as the commercial success of mercantile city-states. Intellectually, the classical humanism of Petrarch and his successors contributed to an increase in interest in the ancient world. While the Italian Renaissance emerged as a cultural era from the 1300s through the 1500s, Northern Europe also experience a renaissance. This renaissance occurred slightly later in certain areas, such as France and England, but was just as important in terms of its artistic contributions, financial success, and technological innovation. Vast trading routes existed throughout Northern Europe, managing to thrive even as England and France engaged in a series of conflicts grouped together as the Hundred Years’ War and as Europe went through the ravages of Bubonic Plague. The Northern Renaissance was grounded in the success of a group of trading cities — the Hanseatic League. Political fragmentation fostered competition and technological innovation while the ‘discovery’ of the Americas offered seemingly endless possibilities for political and economic expansion.
The above portrait is typical of mid-Northern Renaissance portraiture popular with the new middling sort (the merchant class) becoming wealthy off of Hanseatic trade. The Hanseatic League itself was formed in 1358, peaked in the fifteenth century, and was in decline by the time of this portrait. The three-quarter turn of the sitter has been central in portraits since the time of Jan van Eyck a century earlier. Giese sits with all his finery, showing off his wealth — items associated with successful merchants and well-off individuals at the time. Before the Northern Renaissance, portraiture was largely reserved for religious and monarchical imagery. Now, successful merchants of humble origins could have their likeness captured for posterity. The world of George Giese is a world near the end of the story here. This article will look at developments which brought such a world into existence. What were the factors which led to the emergence of the Northern Renaissance?
Maritime trade along Baltic sea routes had been going on for centuries previously. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, though de-centralized and full of toll castles, developed the idea of the Free Imperial City — cities with regional autonomy, granted by the emperor, and allowed to develop economically beyond the constraints of the old feudal system. The German city of Lübeck emerged as the most important city among the dozens in the organization. Heinrich the Lion oversaw the development of Lübeck as a prominent cosmopolitan center in the mid-12th century — a role it maintained for centuries to come.
Political fragmentation allowed for certain areas to develop beyond the feudal system which dominated much of Europe at the time. Local civic leaders and regional princes were able to develop their respective areas and create a patchwork which fostered intellectual, economic, and technological innovation in ways that larger kingdoms and empires were unable to. If one looks at the renaissance in England and France, their respective monarchs had to attract foreign talent. Fore England, the court of Henry VIII attracted Hans Holbein and Nicholas Kratzer while Francois I invited Leonardo da Vinci to his court.
While cities along the Baltic were uniting into a vast web of trading networks designed to protect German build interests, another center of the Northern Renaissance was emerging in what is now the Low Countries — the Burgundian Renaissance. England and France remained culturally backward as they fought a series of wars on and off from 1337 through 1453. The Duchy of Burgundy flourished economically and artistically. The Dukes of Burgundy even used the conflict between England and France to enrich themselves. Italian merchants, like Giovanni Arnolfini of Lucca, moved to Bruges to do business. He is the famous male figure in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434).
The Hundred Years’ War did, ultimately contribute to the renaissance in both England and France. Before the war, the King of England was a vassal of the French King (due to political developments after the Norman Conquest of 1066). English monarchs owned, defended, expanded, and lost territories on the continent in conflicts with France. English territorial sovereignty, independent of French domination, was being asserted for the first time since 1066. Ultimately, the development of the nation-states of England and France would emerge out of the struggle — with England pushed off the continent. English territorial sovereignty, parliamentary rise, religious independence, and cultural flowering would all come with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I when the renaissance finally came to England. It was the Hanseatic Leage and its relation to German Free Imperial Cities, however, which ultimately brought about the most significant changes associated with the Northern Renaissance.
Technological innovation in Northern Europe actually exceeded that of Italy during the Renaissance. Johannes Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press (c.1450) proved to be the most important invention between the invention of writing and that of the steam engine. Mass production reached Europe and books could be printed at rates unimaginable even a decade before. With the widespread availability of a uniform version of the printed word, modernity really began. Having a Bible or pamphlet with the same word at the top and the same word at the bottom meant that readers in Bergen, Lucca, and Bruges could all view the same material (probably written in Latin) — a kind of internet of the fifteenth century. Books began to have indexes — rather like modern search engines — where readers could specify what they were looking for. The use of quotation marks began, as scholars sought to verify the accuracy of words attributed to specific writers. The price went down significantly, allowing the book to go from being a luxury object to that which (though not cheap) was available to a much greater number of people.
We can trace the emergence of the renaissance and modernity in Northern Europe with the gradual abandonment of the feudal system. This first occurred in the Hanseatic League and the cities under the control of the Duchy of Burgundy.