The Renaissance is a period of time and history which had its origins in the 1300s in Italy and would gradually spread across Christendom and beyond. It started with scholars like Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante, who came across some old pre-church Latin writings and thought to themselves that it was really great stuff. They then started writing more things in homage to the ancients, sparking off an entire movement. As more people took an interest in those ancients, they started to uncover things, and make art and other objects in emulation of them. It's also around the time that people began to think about history. This is where we get terms like "Dark Ages", "Middle Ages", and "Antiquity", applied to the nascent concept of periodizing history before what they would regard as the Renaissance.
The word roughly means "rebirth" in English, more specifically it refers to the revitalization of Civilization after the Medieval Period. Various Italian City States gradually grew in wealth and prominence through maritime trade as well as connections with Byzantium and the Middle East and banking. The merchant princes of Italy would invest that wealth to make more money, but also into grand architecture, the arts, literature, engineering and academics ranging from studies of the Classical Period to natural philosophy. Things which were seen as noble pursuits in their own right but they were also as signs of wealth and prestige and ways of currying favor with other influential figures ("The Cardinal would be glad to back your bid after your magnificent assistance on the new Cathedral"). Eventually, ideas from Italy would begin to spread out and took root elsewhere in Europe. Cities once again began to grow across Europe.
This was fine and dandy in of itself, but in coincided with other big changes. Kings began to consolidate power for themselves with a mind of keeping the squabbling vassals in line. Guns were making an increasing impact on the battlefield. In Spain, the Spanish managed to drive the Muslims out of Iberia in the Reconquista and emerged as a new powerful European state. Not too long after that, thanks to improvements in ship design and navigation methods, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India and later an Italian guy named Columbus set out sailing west across the Atlantic to prove
to the ignorant masses that world was round that you could get to India by circumnavigation without starving to death first and ended up finding the Caribbean, thus beginning the colonization of the New World began by the Spanish and Portuguese at first, followed by the French, Dutch and English later. Add to that some religious upheaval which shook the foundations of Christendom in the form of the likes of Hussites and eventually the start of the Protestant Reformation and you got a turbulent period of upheaval, to say the least, ultimately culminating in the Thirty Years War, which was the first time people not directly victimized started realizing that maybe this war thing isn't all that good (it took a thorough ass fucking of the continent and the lesson didn't stick).
The broad strokes of the Renaissance wars were that the Protestants and Catholics hated each other, each side bringing in more and more forces until the entire continent was ablaze. This is also the period where modern day political thought was put in shape with Machiavelli's magnum opus "The Prince", bringing concepts such as pragmatism and balance of power to the forefront. An ostensibly religious war would lead to hilarious abominations like Catholic France (de facto run by Cardinal Richelieu at the time, no less) allying with Protestant Swedes (That Exterminatused large portions of Germany) against Catholic Habsburgs as alliances shifted.
Physically and politically at the center of all this, the Holy Roman Empire was a shitstorm for most of this era and had mostly themselves to blame. They kept trying to rule the French but the French had their one really competent king who refused to die. Meanwhile the Pope was having problems with the English, who also had their one really competent king who didn't like the Pope telling him he couldn't have a divorce. The Spanish colonized everything, found a literal mountain made of silver and built the biggest overseas Empire ever seen only to lose it all to dynastic struggle and inflation. The Venetians were making shit tons of money dominating the Mediterranean, the Swiss were killing people for money, and the Italians were killing each other over who was the more Catholic. And with few exceptions, almost every one of them be at one point fighting against, and at another point allied with, every other one. It was that crazy.
The Christian denomination of Protestantism also emerged during this time. Depending who you ask, Martin Luther was either an enlightened reformer or whiny rules lawyer. He started out as a Catholic monk but got fed up with the degree of brazen corruption the Pope was endorsing and the clergy's deviation from the tenets of Christianity. Luthor wasn't the first Catholic to call out the corruption, but he was the most noticeable and proactive. So after nailing a list with 95 criticisms to a cathedral door, Luther decided to start his own practice of Christianity... without blackjack or hookers. This went about as well as you'd expect (he was declared a heretic and hunted as a renegade), but what the Pope and Hapsburgs hadn't counted on was how incredibly unpopular they'd made themselves over the years. You may have heard of the Borgia family and how they got away with some pretty brazen acts while they controlled the papacy, including bribery, incest, and murder; the truth is, the papacy had been in severe trouble for many centuries, including a period when there were three people claimed to be pope at the same time. Lutheranism and its more radical strains like Calvinism ripped through the Dutch, German, and Austrian parts of the Holy Roman Empire, making it essentially ungovernable as a single whole - not that the Holy Roman Empire was ever whole to begin with, even before Spain came into the picture. Protestantism also started making inroads into other countries. Radical Zwinglians and Calvinists set up in Geneva and Zurich, establishing theocratic regimes where all forms of fun (dancing, excessive eating, drinking) were strictly verboten. It swept into France, where it intersected with power struggles among the nobility for the throne to nastily split the majority Catholic kingdom.
This might have been crushed had it not been for one nation. England was ruled by Henry VIII, who was a devout Catholic but wanted his marriage annulled (his only living children were daughters and his wife was too old to produce more children) and there was a major roadblock to getting it: he'd gotten the Pope's personal dispensation to marry his sister-in-law after his brother had died and asking for a reversal meant sending a message to the Pope, who was at the time a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, his wife's nephew. It wasn't looking like a good idea to send a "Hey, your uncle wants to divorce your aunt because they have no sons, pass this on to your prisoner" message, so Henry got the Archbishop of Canterbury to step in and give him the annulment, which meant breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and forming his own religion. The average English noble and peasant alike were remarkably on-board with this, as the whole "England vs the Continent" mentality was already firmly entrenched from about four centuries of previous wars. However, many Protestants felt that the Church of England was still too much like Catholicism; these Puritans (and the much less violent Quakers) would cause problems for the British Crown later on. But either way, with England the continental Protestants received a potent ally in opposition to Catholicism as the English sided with the Dutch against the Holy Romans, except when they sided with the Holy Romans against the French.
Things came to a head with the Thirty Years War, the first major conflict between the nations of Europe following the widespread adoption of gunpowder. It began with German princes holding more power than the Holy Roman Emperor and Bohemian (Bohemia now being called the Czech Republic) Protestants not wanting to be ruled by an anti-Protestant Emperor and revolted when the incumbent Ferdinand II destroyed a Protestant church and his officials started killing Protestant protestors. While nominally the war was over Protestantism vs Catholicism, politicking played an important role in the ever-shifting alliances of the nations involved. For example, despite being devoutly Catholic themselves, France was more concerned with keeping the Hapsburgs at bay, and supplied aid to the Protestants in the North (while harshly suppressing their own Protestants as a threat to the French Crown). Eventually, the Catholics gave up on retaking their lost territories and agreed to the Peace of Westphalia, which is regarded today as the foundation for National Sovereignty. This also tends to mark the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the "Early Modern" period, or the "Age of Enlightenment."
Meanwhile in the East
In the Middle East, we've got the final death of Eastern Rome and the meteoric rise of the Ottoman Empire. Undoubtedly the most iconic empire of the period, which established the first modern professional army with the Janissary corps and thoroughly butt-fucked the Balkans for centuries to come. For a time they were the terror of Europe, a bushy-bearded, turban-wearing Muslim foe against whom Christendom would need to unite in order to survive, while on the high seas, their allies on the Barbary Coast terrorized coastal towns from Italy to Iceland. In that era, their only true rivals were the pesky Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire. A major feather in the Ottoman Empire's cap was invading, besieging and taking over the city of Constantinople from the Roman Empire, which was later renamed Istanbul. The Sultans of Turkey ruled luxuriously from the grand palace in Istanbul, surrounded by their massive harems of concubines and armies of viziers. However, by the tail end of this period, the Ottomans era of rapid expansion would come to an end as the Ottoman state transitioned into a more sedentary imperial polity.
In East Asia, the Ming Dynasty has reached the apogee of its power, having sent massive fleets of ships to the west between 1405 and 1433 in a show of power that ultimately came to nothing. It would soon fall into decline as economic problems, troubles at the Mongolian border, the Japanese invasion of Korea, and natural disasters sap the imperial court's ability to keep things together. The breakdown of order near the end of the sixteenth century led to a growing power vacuum that would be exploited by a confederation of Jurchens under the banner of the Aisin Gioro clan, soon to be known as the Manchu. After spending decades building up their strength, the newly-proclaimed Qing Dynasty get their opportunity when a massive peasant revolt captures Beijing, leading to the suicide of the last Ming Emperor in 1644. With the help of a turncoat Ming general, the Qing sweep into power and fully consolidate themselves as the imperial sovereign of what we now know as China. Not wanting to associate with those they still considered barbarian, the Joseon Dynasty of Korea shut its doors for the next couple hundred of years.
Further east, the Renaissance contains the part of Japanese history most people care about: the Sengoku Jidai. This is the part where they cut each other to pieces with swords and shoot holes in each other with guns (as opposed to the other parts where they cut each other to pieces with swords, or the one part where they do both to others). Japan comes into contact with the wider world outside of Asia, as the Portuguese landed on their shores, bringing Jesus and guns. The late Sengoku would be strongly influenced by the latter, as Japanese warlords seeking an advantage over their rivals adopted firearms into their armies, which contributed to the rise of massed armies of ashigaru conscripts under Oda Nobunaga. After he is killed, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi starts putting things in order and rather ambitiously launches a invasion of the Korean mainland; this failed, which in turn ruined his son's chances to succeed him. When he died in 1598, there was a power struggle that sees Tokugawa Ieyasu come on top, leading into the Bakumatsu period.
- For the average peasant in the Renaissance the changes were as a rule not so great and usually weren't even noticeable. As far as they were concerned beautiful paintings, fine statuary and magnificent architecture were all well and good and they'd admire them if they had the opportunity to see them but for all of that the grain still needed to be harvested and the cows still needed to be milked just like in their grandfather's day and as their grandchildren would do after they passed. They were more likely to be conscripted into a new army if war came, but this was hardly a world-shattering event for most people.
- Infantry returned to prominence during this period. New weapons such as arbalest crossbows, matchlock arquebuses, and pikes played a role in this, as did cheap munitions plate, but more importantly, than that armies became more centralized and systematic than the old feudal systems as the beginnings of standing armies began to take shape. The nobility generally resisted this when they could since it meant that the crown could boss them around more, but the general trend was well underway because these forces were just better at fighting wars. Cannons also played a role in the process, as did navies, though artillery would take some time to come into its own.
- Cannons destroyed castles (literally and figuratively). Cities stopped extending their walls and started growing around them because there was no point. The sorts of walls needed to stop cannons meant static defenses after this era would be purpose built fortresses guarding invasion choke points.
- This was a golden age for mercenaries. Raising and maintaining a standing army was time consuming and expensive and as such if a King wanted extra soldiers for a war it was usually cheaper for him to hire out one or more companies of battle hardened troops for a campaign for a standing rate, rations and a cut of the plunder for the conflict.
- Production guilds and workshops begin using early mass production techniques not seen since Rome, supporting larger militaries (with larger price tags). The Venetian Arsenal is said to have been able to build new merchant ships in a day using prefabricated parts.
- The Dutch begin their 500 year war to push back the sea using windmills. This inadvertently leads to the invention of modern banking, insurance, and fractional share investing.
- Feudalism began to decline as the idea of the Nation-State started to take root. Nationalism would become more prominent in the early modern period to coincide with the Enlightenment, but for now, modern countries were starting to take shape, as people began to think of their homelands as distinct cultural-geographic regions instead of the property of ever-changing noble families. At the same time though, this was when the infamous Habsburg family would come to power and control a good chunk of Europe, owning Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, and all territories owned by those states.
- While many classical texts had been lost in the West, many had been preserved in the East, with some advances in the sciences provided by scholars under Muslim rule. These texts returned to Europe due to increased trade with the East, which started with the Crusades. If you wanted to be educated, you had to be well versed in Greek, Latin, and even Arabic. With the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, many Byzantine scholars escaped to Italy (including some members of Palaliologoi, the last imperial dynasty) bringing the knowledge preserved in Byzantine Empire to the west, which played a key role in renaissance.
- The printing press made its debut, ensuring that all those rediscovered classics spread very quickly throughout Europe as the first modern universities took shape.
The appeal of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the closing of the middle ages. A lot of its mechanisms were still in place in various forms, but things were beginning to change. There were knights in Shining Armor and they were still formidable battering rams, but they were facing new competition from pike squares and arquebusiers in a rather distinctive combo. Chivalry was gradually on the wain even as armor plates were forged proofed against shot. All the while there was a lot of shrewd political scheming and intrigues. Why mobilize a thousand levies and a hundred knights to kill someone when a few drops of poison or a well-placed stiletto could accomplish the job cheaper and with far less fuss? The game of dynastic power is still being played, but with a rules update that favors a more subtle style.
At the same time, mechanics and engineers were tinkering and contriving a wide variety of new machinery. If one was to ascribe a heroic ideal to the Renaissance it would be the Renaissance Man, an archetype reflected in the likes of Leonardo DaVinci, a brilliant Engineer, Scientist and Artist all rolled into one. On the battlefield, the men of power were beginning to take notice of these new novelties and so active patronage of inventors was encouraged. At the same time, explorers and conquistadors carve their place in history by finding new lands, settling them and conquering Bronze Age societies. For those who want to see what Da Vinci could’ve accomplished if he was more of a mad scientist (I.e. if his tanks and other war machines were actually built), Clockpunk has you covered.
In general, if you like your medieval fantasy to have a dash of the modern in it, the Renaissance is where you look for ideas. Besides, the stuff associated with this period is frankly pretty. This period is listed as an art history thing more than anything and it did provide plenty of classics. William Shakespeare operated at the tail end of this period as well, though since he was a big classics nerd many of his plays dealt with earlier time periods.
Renaissance-inspired Games, Factions, and Settings
- The Empire
- Virtually any Japan analog as nobody, not even the Japanese, cares about pre-Sengoku Japan (except maybe the Mongol Invasions) as a setting and nobody makes settings modern enough to have a post-sakoku Japan analog. Seriously, when the Meiji Revolution happened it was like one night you go to sleep and it's Japan as its always been for forever, and the next morning you wake up and there are soldiers in the streets with bolt action rifles harassing people for not building gunpla and buying KFC for Christmas.
- Golarion edges closer to renaissance than straight middle ages.
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|