Life in thirteenth-century Europe was varied and exciting. Monasticism had reached its high point, transforming the sparsely settled regions into productive farms and towns. But as the economies of several regions boomed and towns like Paris grew large, many people found the monastic approach to life and learning insufficient.
In Chapter 3 we noted the beginnings of universities. As these institutions developed, the scholastic approaches to learning (linguistic analysis based on syllogistic logic) ceased to appeal to a wide audience. What emerged was something that has been variously labeled "the new learning," "humanism," and the "Renaissance." Although these are potentially misleading terms, we will use them because they offer a convenient way of referring to certain aspects of this period. Central to the discussion are language and political developments associated with the growth of nationalism.
Historians see the Renaissance in varying ways. Some narrow it to the short period from 1350 to 1500, while others extend it from 1300 to 1700. For our purposes, the Renaissance runs from about 1300 to 1600. Those who follow a strict definition of humanism include the literary, theological, and political writings of the period. But for us, humanism includes the intellectual activity concerned with classical texts and with their application to daily life. 1
If we look at the politics of the early part of the Renaissance period, we see that in much of Europe, the nations that we know today (for example,