Renaissance and Middle Ages are two different terms used to describe the events of European history. They have unique characteristics that distinguish them from each other. Chronologically, the Middle Ages preceded the Renaissance.
Renaissance vs Middle Ages
The main difference between Renaissance and Middle Ages is that the former was a cultural movement that facilitated the beginning of the modern era. The latter on the other hand was an era in European history characterised by declines in economic vitality, population and the size and prominence of cities. It is described as the Dark Age of the European history.
The meaning of the term ‘Renaissance’ is ‘rebirth’ or ‘reawakening’. It is quite obvious from the meaning of the term that the period preceding it was characterized by stillness or slumber. This is exactly how the Middle Ages are described by the scholars.
Also known as the Dark Ages, the Medieval Period or the Middle Ages began in the 5th century and lasted till the 16th century. Its beginning was marked by the decline of the Western Roman Empire and its ending merged with the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance.
Renaissance, on the other hand, was a fervent cultural movement that took place between the late 13th and the early 17th century. The epicentre of this movement was Italy from where it spread to the rest of the European countries. It generated a renewed interest in Classical (Greek and Roman) learnings and values.
Comparison Table Between Renaissance and Middle Ages (in Tabular Form)
|Parameter of Comparison||Renaissance||Middle Ages|
|What is it?||A cultural and intellectual movement.||An epoch in European history.|
|Time-span||Late 13th to early 17th century.||5th century to 16th century.|
|Described as||Beginning of the modernity.||Dark ages.|
|Focused on||Man and his inherent capabilities.||Supremacy of the God.|
|Characteristics||Rational thinking and scientific temperament.||Belief in the supernatural and superstitions.|
What is Renaissance?
It was a cultural movement that occurred immediately after the middle ages or at the end of the middle ages. This movement was about the ‘reawakening’ or ‘rebirth’ of the entire Europe so that it can step into what is perceived to be the light of the Modern Era.
The term ‘Renaissance’ has been borrowed from French and it means ‘rebirth’. It was used for the first time in the 18th century, almost four centuries after the Renaissance practically happened. Later, it was publicized by Jules Michelet (1798-1874), a French historian who used the term in his book Histoire de France (History of France) published in 1855.
The movement generated a new interest in the learnings and values of Classical antiquity while the Medieval Period was viewed as an era of darkness and stagnation. It originated in Italy and spread to rest of the Western and Central Europe between the late 13th and the early 17th century. It marked the beginning of modernity in Europe, a process which culminated in the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century.
However, the form and content of the Renaissance was not the same everywhere. On the contrary, it varied from one country to another. Nonetheless, it was a vigorous intellectual movement that did demonstrate some common features. Some of the major characteristics of this movement were as follows:
- Humanism: It started first in Italy and therefore was called as the Italian Humanism. Before the Renaissance, human beings were considered to be the ‘puppets of god’ or the ‘slaves of faith’. But as commercial activities took momentum, there was a shift in the mindset as well. This shift was further accelerated by the Humanists who wanted to create a universal and perfect man with excellent physical and intellectual faculties that would make him capable of dealing with any situation without blindly submitting to the god.
- Individualism: As man became the centre of the universe replacing God, the ideas of self-culture and self-development which contributed to the beginning of an individualistic movement.
- Secularism: As the focus was shifted from otherworldly to this-worldly affairs, some sort of questions had begun to be asked regarding the so-called supremacy of the god and religion in the everyday life of a man.
- Rationalism: The focus on the self and its capabilities gave rise to rational thinking. It was, in fact, man’s reason that led them to start asking questions and facilitated the next characteristic of the Renaissance movement.
- Scientific Temperament: If Renaissance started with humanism, it ended with the emergence of a modern scientific temperament whose foundations were laid down by eminent scholars like Kepler and Galileo. Direct observation and collection of empirical data became important during this phase and some tendencies of controlled experiments also became apparent.
However, all these features of modernity were found in a mixed form in the Renaissance movement as it was only the beginning of a long path to the modern era.
What is Middle Age?
It refers to an era in European history that started with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and blended into the dawn of the Renaissance. It is called the ‘Middle Ages’ because it falls in the middle of the Classical antiquity and the Modern period. Together they form the three major epochs of the European history.
The Middle Ages also known as the medieval period is itself divided into three different phases- early, high and the late middle ages.
Decline in population, economic vitality and the size and prominence of cities which started in the late antiquity continued its torment in the early phase of the Middle Ages. It was a period of uncertainties and invasions as a large number of people, often known as the barbarians migrated to the ruined Western Roman Empire and carved out new kingdoms.
The longest-lasting of these kingdoms were those of the Franks, whose ideas and values laid the foundation for future European states. This phase also saw the rise of Charlemagne-the greatest ruler of the Middle Ages. However, after his empire collapsed, the Western Empire faced a new surge of invasions that restructured the medieval society.
The High Middle Ages started in the 11th century and culminated in the 13th century. This phase of the Middle Ages is called ‘High’ because it experienced a resurrection in economic and cultural prosperity. There was a rise in population, flourishing farms and towns, emergence of the merchant classes and the development of government bureaucracy.
But the man’s everyday life was marked with stillness, rigid social customs, rituals and conventions and an unquestioned obedience to the king (protector of this worldly affairs) on one hand and the Pope (protector of otherworldly affairs) on the other. However, the period reached its peak with the rise of new religious orders, Gothic architecture and new universities with the subsequent expansion of learning.
The Late Middle Ages was characterized by the decline of the medieval civilization. The national governments of the Medieval Period broke down and so did the great papal schism. Medieval theology and philosophy was questioned which was accompanied by population decline and economic breakdown caused due to Black Death and famine.
Main Differences Between Renaissance and Middle Ages
- Chronologically, the Renaissance succeeded in the Middle Ages. While the former took place between the late 13th and early 17th century, the latter stayed from the 5th to 16th century.
- The Middle Ages was an epoch in European history. While the Renaissance was a fervent intellectual and cultural movement.
- The Renaissance is described as the beginning of modernity. While the Middle Ages is described as a dark phase of European history.
- Man was the central focus of the Renaissance movement. Whereas, God was considered as the actual sovereign in the Middle Ages.
- Renaissance paved the way for rational thinking and scientific temperament. While belief in the supernatural and superstitions characterised the Middle Ages.
The timespan of the Middle Ages overlaps with that of the Renaissance which creates a lot of confusion among the readers of history. Some of them consider the Renaissance as a continuation of the Middle Ages. But one needs to understand that history is not simply about chronological events. It is also about the socio-economic, cultural and political features that distinguishes one epoch from another.
To understand the difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, one needs to take into account their distinct socio-economic, political and cultural characteristics. Only then it would become clear that the Renaissance was a transitory phase or a bridge that sort to connect the Middle Ages with the Modern epoch.