The Renaissance was a time of great change in Europe. It was marked by incredible achievements in the arts, sciences, literature, culture, and commerce. It also saw sea changes in religion and politics including, following the Protestant Reformation, a split in Christianity.

So was the Renaissance a revolution? Or was it just a revolutionary time? Or was it simply, as its name implies, a rebirth?

While many might consider this an academic discussion (does it really matter what we call it?), for students of history like ourselves, it is still a discussion worth having.

Our opinion is that the Renaissance was not a revolution. It was a rebirth. And so, in that sense, it is appropriately named – “re” + “naissance” (“re” + “birth” in French).

Why do we feel this way? Let’s find out.

What Is A Revolution?

Before we start our discussion about whether the Renaissance was a revolution or not, let us first define what a revolution is.

To put it simply, a Revolution is a complete overhaul of existing power structures and values in society. It is important to remember that the word Revolution comes from the verb “to revolt”. So essentially, a revolution is a large-scale, organized overthrow (peaceful or not) of the existing order.

A successful revolution can result in the emergence of new social systems and leaders. Examples of revolutions include the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1789, and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

What Is A Rebirth?

A rebirth, on the other hand, is usually described as a renewal, revival, or revitalization of something that was once thought to be lost. It can refer to the revival of classical art and culture in Europe during the Renaissance or a person’s spiritual journey after experiencing tragedy.

During a rebirth, existing traditions and values are not completely done away with but new ideas and beliefs are still incorporated. This keeps a certain level of continuity with the past but also allows for significant change.

A rebirth is less a complete rejection of the immediate past (though that happens to some degree) and more a restoration of something older, larger, and more enduring. If bell bottoms were to make a comeback, we would call it a rebirth of the ’70s. In formal fashion, we already see a return of tight suits and thin ties. This is a rebirth of the ’50s.

Was the Renaissance a Revolution?

In our opinion, the Renaissance was not a revolution. It was a rebirth. It was a rebirth of a bygone era, a “Golden age” of classical civilization. European culture was being revived and reinterpreted for a new generation.

Below are 5 reasons why we believe that the Renaissance was not a revolution but a rebirth.

  1. The Renaissance was a revival of classical antiquity
  2. The Renaissance did not involve the dramatic overthrow of existing power structures
  3. The Renaissance was about reforming existing society (including the Church) and not completely replacing it
  4. The Renaissance did not cause a dramatic shift in economic power
  5. The Renaissance did not result in a major shift in the social hierarchy

Let’s look closely at each of these reasons why we feel the Renaissance was not a revolution.

#1. The Renaissance was a revival of classical antiquity

The Renaissance, first and foremost, was about a revival of classical antiquity. This was the most profound and important aspect of the Renaissance. Artists, scientists, and thinkers sought to rediscover and recover the knowledge and values of Ancient Greece and Rome. This was an idea that was already present in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire (476-1453 CE) but stayed dormant for a thousand years while Europe muddled its way through the Middle Ages.

The underlying philosophy of the Renaissance was Humanism. Humanism was based on the idea that humans should use their own skills and knowledge to strive for progress and betterment. This was a major shift in thinking away from the idea that humans were merely servants of God.

So even though Renaissance Humanism was a substantial change from the Middle Ages, it was not a revolution. Humanism simply harkened back to a time when humans were thought to be capable of creating and refining their own lives. People of the Middle Ages had the same desire but did not have the means or the circumstances to bring it about.

#2. The Renaissance did not involve the dramatic overthrow of existing power structures

A distinct characteristic of revolution is the overthrow of existing power structures. Just look at all the revolutions in recent history. The American Revolution involved the overthrow of British rule in the American colonies. The French Revolution was about overthrowing the monarchy and aristocracy of France. Even the Bolshevik Revolution was about overthrowing the Tsarist government in Russia.

The Renaissance was not about overthrowing any existing power structure. It was simply about rediscovering and reimagining the past. If anything, the Renaissance was supported by the Church and the nobility who sought to use Humanism as a way of asserting their power.

Kings and queens commissioned works of paintings, sculptures, palaces and chateaus. Likewise, the Church was a major patron of the Renaissance arts. Many works were commissioned for religious purposes and even many of the Humanist ideas were ultimately used to support existing Church ideologies.

So not only did the Renaissance not overthrow existing power structures, the existing spiritual and political powers used the Renaissance to further their power.

#3. The Renaissance was about reforming existing society (including the Church)

The Renaissance was all about change. But change from within and not without. In short, it was about reform.

For instance, Renaissance artists studied anatomy. Why? Not because they wanted to get rid of something but rather because they want to reform art so that it was more lifelike and realistic.

Likewise, Renaissance Humanism promoted secularism. This did not mean that Humanists wanted to rid Europe of religion. It only meant that they wanted to see religion play a lesser role in their lives and their politics.

The same was the case with the Church. At first, reformists like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli wanted to change the Church from the inside. Only when that failed did the full Protestant Reformation and the schism in the Church take place.

#4. The Renaissance did not cause a dramatic shift in economic power

Most revolutions result in a dramatic shift in economic power. For instance, during the French revolution, the aristocracy was overthrown and the power of the peasantry was increased. The aristocracy lost their palaces and riches and these were given to the “people” in form of the state.

Likewise, during the Bolshevik Revolution, private property was abolished and economic power was placed in the hands of the state.

While the Renaissance saw a boon to the merchant class, it did not come at the expense of the existing wealthy. The merchant class grew wealthy and powerful largely as a result of the rise in trade and commerce during this time period. It was an economic revolution, but not a redistribution of wealth.

#5. The Renaissance did not result in a major shift in the social hierarchy

Just as the Renaissance did not cause a major shift in the economic power structures, it was not responsible for any major changes in the social hierarchy. The nobles still held most of their wealth and power, the peasants in the Renaissance was still subject to feudalism.

In fact, one could argue that the Church was strengthened by the Renaissance thanks to the patronage of kings, queens and Popes. It’s true that new families (like the Medicis) entered the ranks of the nobility but this was not at the expense of the older nobility.

So the Renaissance did not shift the social hierarchy in Europe, something that is often the signature of revolutions.

The Bottom Line

So, was the Renaissance a revolution? Our answer is: No. But the Renaissance was definitely a rebirth of classical antiquity.

We know that this article will not resolve the debate on whether or not the Renaissance was a revolution. Maybe, we’ve just had so many violent revolutions in our recent history, that perhaps a part of us does not wish to burden this amazing period in history with the title of “revolution”.

But one thing is certain, the Renaissance was a time of great creativity and a time that has forever shaped our world. So was the Renaissance a revolution? Maybe not, but it was certainly revolutionary!