The Renaissance was a time of great change and progress in Europe. Arts, sciences and literature flourished. Classical studies made a revival and Humanism, the belief that human abilities could be used to better society was embraced. This period of flourishing began in Italy in the 14th century and eventually spread throughout Europe.

However, the renaissance was not evenly distributed throughout the continent. The southern countries saw a much earlier and more pronounced renaissance than the northern countries. So why was the renaissance delayed in northern Europe? In this article, we will explore some of the possible reasons for this delay.

Why Was The Renaissance Delayed in Northern Europe?

There are two types of delays that slowed the spread and adoption of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The first was systemic, in the sense that it was across Europe and affected all Northern countries equally. The other was local and varied from country to country. We’ll review both these types of delays.

So, why was the Renaissance delayed in Northern Europe? Here are some of the possible reasons:

  1. The Black Death
  2. Insufficient migration of artists from the South to the North
  3. Political instability in some parts of Northern Europe
  4. The disposition of monarchs towards the Renaissance (& the Reformation)
  5. The Reformation (which sometimes slowed down the spread of the Renaissance)

Let’s now look closely at each of these possible reasons for the delay in the spread of the Renaissance to Northern Europe.

#1. The Black Death

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It was a disease that is estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people, or about 30-60% of Europe’s population. This drastic decrease in population had major implications for Northern Europe and its ability to adopt the Renaissance ideals quickly since there were simply fewer people to do so.

Why was the renaissance delayed in northern europe - Black Death
The Triumph of Death – Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Source)

In the first half of the 1300s, the Renaissance had already started in Florence. Philosopher, writer, poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, was already theorizing how to merge humanism with Christianity. The artist Giotto was commissioned (in 1334) to design the bell tower of Florence’s Duomo. The early Renaissance was underway.

But the arrival of the Black Death coincided with the start of the Renaissance and basically blocked its spread to the North. Its peak lasted roughly between 1346 and 1353 and by the time it subsided, the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy but lagging in Northern Europe.

So, the Black Death is one of the main reasons why the Renaissance was delayed in Northern Europe.

#2. Insufficient migration of artists from the South to the North

During the Renaissance, ideas spread across Europe in different ways. One of these was through Renaissance artists migrating from one kingdom to another. We know for certain that artists in Italy often worked for rules in different city-states. The political stability in Northern Italy made this possible. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the Renaissance flourished in Northern Italy.

Often rulers supported the movement of artists as a part of their diplomatic efforts. For example, Leonardo da Vinci went to Milan as an ambassador of Lorenzo de’ Medici and during his stay in Milan, he painted two of his most famous works of art – the Virgin on the Rocks and the Last Supper.

However, such migration of artists from Italy, the heart of the Renaissance, to Northern Europe was rare in the early days of the Renaissance. On the contrary, northern artists would often travel south where they had more opportunities.

Such migration became more common later in the Renaissance. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci in the last years of his life moved to France in the employ of French kind Francois I. Migration of artists also came through marriages. When Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France, she brought with her a team of artists and scholars from Florence.

But insufficient migration of artists in the early part of the Renaissance delayed the Renaissance in northern Europe.

#3. Political instability in some parts of Northern Europe

Northern Europe in the 1300s did not always enjoy the political stability that the city-states of Italy did. The Hundred Year’s War between England and France was in full swing. The dynastic struggles of the House of Burgundy and the House of Valois were also disrupting the political stability of Northern Europe.

Likewise, in England, the Wars of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York made England an unstable place during the 1400s. This political instability meant that North European rulers had other priorities than focusing on Renaissance ideals. This is one of the reasons why the Renaissance was late in being adopted in England.

Political stability is almost a prerequisite for cultural development and the political instability in part of Northern Europe slowed the spread and embrace or the Renaissance in this region.

#4. The disposition of monarchs toward the Renaissance

The adoption of the Renaissance in any part of Europe was only possible through the patronage of the ruling monarch. In Italy, many of the city-states had rulers who were patrons of Renaissance ideals and values. In fact, the launch of the Renaissance in Florence is in large part attributed to the patronage of the ruling Medici family.

But in North Europe, some of the rulers were not as disposed to embrace Renaissance. Take the example of Henry VIII. Today, Henry VIII is lionized for his stance against the Catholic Church and eventual break from it. But it wasn’t always like this.

Henry was raised a devout Catholic and wasn’t immediately a supporter of the reformist movements spreading through continental Europe. Only after the Pope refused his request to divorce Catherine of Aragon, did Henry join the Protestant Reformation in 1533.

#5. The Reformation (which sometimes slowed the spread of the Renaissance)

One of the main reasons why the Renaissance was a turning point in history, was the Protestant Reformation. While the Renaissance in Italy started with humanism in art, architecture and science, in the north it started with religion. Northern Renaissance Humanists wanted to change religion. People like Martin Luther and John Calvin wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

Eventually, this led to a schism in Church and to Wars of Religion. The Reformation caused bloodshed in the north and disrupted civil society in countries like Germany and France. This slowed down the spread of Renaissance culture in the north.

So, the irony here is that the Reformation, which was one of the greatest impacts of the Renaissance on the Catholic Church, ended up slowing the spread of the Renaissance in Northern Europe.

The Bottom Line

So, why was the Renaissance delayed in northern Europe? We saw likely 5 reasons for this. The Black Death decimated Europe’s population, the migration of artists and scholars to Italy slowed down and political instability in some parts of northern Europe prevented the Renaissance from taking root.

Some northern monarchs weren’t disposed to embrace the Renaissance at first and when they embraced it, they often supported the Protestant Reformation. This led to the Wars of Religion further slowing the spread of the Renaissance northwards.