Need help: Religion in Europe 1400-1600 (History of Music)

My daughter (age 11) has been asked to give a short presentation on religion and how it affected the Renaissance during the 1400-1600 time period. This is actually for music class. From the short notes the teacher has given out there seems a strong anti-Catholic bias. I would like to give a balanced view of this timeframe rather than the typical “Europe threw off the feudal yoke of the Catholic church and finally blossomed”. Now this is for a younger audience so I don’t need masses of detail but could anyone suggest some resources or want to attempt to give us some pointers? She attends a school in Europe that is not Catholic (secular).

Any ideas and how this links to the history of music would also be helpful, the list of composers the teacher has mentioned is Thomas Tallis, Josquin Des Prez, Claudio Monteverdi, William Byrd, Palestrina, Orlando De Lassus, Giovanni Gabrieli plus Dunstable, Dufay, Ockeghem, Gesualdo, Gibbons.

I know that Monteverdi was a priest and I love his beautiful music.

Many thanks.


Maybe I asked too much as I see lots of people read my first post on the other thread but noone posted. So instead can you summarize the religious changes in Europe during this period with a balanced view?

Thanks again!

Many of the texts that inspired much of what we call the Renaissance from ancient Rome and Greece had been preserved in monasteries for centuries, so how were they suddenly “discovered” or rediscovered? Was it the more people had access to education and that therefore ideas spread through more of society? Was it the printing press that caused the ideas to be spread in translations that more people had access to? What was the starting point of these ideas spreading?

Some manuscripts were made available in the West after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but I’m not sure how huge an influence that was. Greek certainly became much more important–medieval scholarship was conducted almost entirely in Latin and few Western intellectuals knew Greek (more of them knew Hebrew, surprisingly).

Part of it was simply a shift in emphasis. Medieval scholasticism focused on ideas. Texts were important as the authoritative sources for ideas. It needs to be borne in mind that the “renaissance” of the 12th century was far more dramatic as a cultural rediscovery than the later “Renaissance” to which we usually apply the name. A lot of what generally educated people think they know about the Renaissance is propaganda. But yes, some new texts were discovered, and more to the point people became more interested in them as literary texts with a historical context and unique authorial point of view. People started asking more of what we would consider “historical” questions: is this manuscript authentic? What agenda did the author have? What debates of his own day was he addressing?

This was a big influence on the Reformation. The Protestant case was persuasive because they made a coherent argument about Paul’s goals and intentions in writing his major letters. Traditional exegetical methodology, which mined Scriptural texts for doctrinal propositions, had trouble coming up with an effective response. Ironically, the “New Perspective” in modern times has undercut this key element in the original Protestant appeal by suggesting that in fact the Reformation scholars were still reading Paul with highly anachronistic lenses and missed much of what he was really trying to say.


Thank you Edwin - this is what I am concerned with, Propaganda. When I was at a secular school as a child and teenager (and I was an atheist) we were feed these concepts of the corrupt Catholic church that we all needed to be freed from if we wanted to think freely.

Can you give me examples of the propaganda and the arguments that balance it?

Also what was happening in the 12th century that made it more revolutionary in the history of ideas than the later period? That’s when many of the ancient universities were founded isn’t it?

Well, the propaganda is, “people in the Middle Ages only thought about theology, and then the Renaissance happened. Suddenly people developed an interest in the ancient pagan world, which was an exuberant, this-worldly, life-affirming culture, and so they started becoming that way too. They asserted their individuality and thought for themselves, and this led to the Reformation.”

A bit of a caricature of what people say, perhaps, but you get something like this in a lot of textbooks and popular, generalist books.

The scholar who did most to lay the groundwork for the older view of the Renaissance (i.e., the most sophisticated version of the above narrative) was Jacob Burckhardt. To give him credit, Burckhardt recognized the “dark side” of the Renaissance. He saw the Renaissance as a time of rampant individualism in which people asserted their own wills and their power to shape the world around them, and thus gave birth to the modern world. Nietzsche was influenced by Burckhardt, though Nietzsche, unlike Burckhardt, admired the ruthless Renaissance “heroes” Burckhardt described.

The more recent counter-narrative, admittedly less exciting for anyone not a hardcore geek, is most associated with the work of Paul Oskar Kristeller. There may be a connection between the fact that Kristeller was a refugee from Nazism, given how easily the Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance could be twisted to support fascism. Kristeller argued that the key feature of Renaissance humanism wasn’t a radically new view of life of the human condition but a different approach to education. The differences between humanism and scholasticism were primarily disciplinary, like the differences between an English department and a philosophy department. Naturally there tended to be different ways of looking at life in the two disciplines, and there were often clashes between them, but fundamentally Renaissance humanism was a new understanding of two of the traditional disciplines of the trivium: grammar and rhetoric. Not only were these disciplines understood in new ways, but they were given much more importance. That’s where genuine differences in philosophy appear. Humanists were not interested in abstract argument so much as in shaping human behavior through language. But that implied a view of the human person in which emotions and will mattered more than they had in most medieval traditions. (Obviously there are more affinities here with the nominalist and Scotist traditions than with Thomism, and it’s no accident that these more volitional forms of scholasticism tended to dominate in the Renaissance.)

Of course, there’s more to the Renaissance than humanism (indeed, Kristeller highlighted that by narrowing the definition of humanism to a specific phenomenon rather than a broad ethos). And not everyone accepts Kristeller’s redefinition. But on the whole contemporary scholars draw much less of a sharp line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages than people did a hundred years ago. James Overfield has shown that in Germany, at least, humanism and scholasticism could co-exist quite easily, and many of the conflicts that appear to be between humanism and scholasticism were really more complicated.

As for the 12th-century “Renaissance,” I was speaking specifically in terms of cultural rebirth and rediscovery of texts. That is to say, insofar as Europe had a cultural “dark ages,” they ended by the 12th century. And while new texts were discovered in the Renaissance (Tacitus, for instance), I don’t think any of them had the huge impact that Aristotle had in the 12th.


On the broader question of religious changes in Europe, are you familiar with the work of John Bossy? His Christianity in the West 1400-1700 is a really interesting and readable overview of broad cultural changes during the period. The more widely known Eamon Duffy was a student of Bossy. Bossy’s views are open to critique, but he’s really influenced me, particularly in the affinities he finds between Protestantism and Catholicism post-Reformation, compared to pre-Reformation Catholicism. Thus, when people on this forum say glibly, “Well of course there were problems in the Middle Ages, but Trent fixed all of that,” I want to say, “No, you have it the wrong way round–the Middle Ages were great and both Protestantism and post-Reformation Catholicism messed things up.” Which no doubt is too simplistic. . . .

Basically Bossy’s argument, boiled down and oversimplified, is that the medieval Church was most concerned with promoting peace and restraining violence by emphasizing the union that all baptized Christians had with each other. Post-Reformation Christianity was much more top-down and was about maintaining peace through imposing social conformity on people who were seen as basically sinful and prone to rebellion. Sin was seen more as rebellion against authority and less as violation of the bonds of love that united you with brothers and sisters. Again, plenty here to criticize and nuance, but once you have this picture in your head you can never quite think about the Reformation (Protestant or Catholic) the same way again.

For instance, I bought a copy of the Catechism of the Council of Trent a few years ago and was struck by how much it sounded like Calvin. Of course much of this was stylistic–the sentence structure of the original Latin is no doubt similar in both texts and this is reflected in the old-fashioned, fairly literal translations. But I think there are basic similarities of approach and theological assumption as well.


Sorry. I didn’t see the original post.

Good overviews of the period that reflect the scholarship I referred to above but are accessible to a younger audience are pretty hard to come by. Perhaps I should try to write one :slight_smile:

But clearly the main relevant point about the background is that Western Christianity was divided during this period, and that both Protestants and Catholics engaged in religious reforms that affected music. The exuberant polyphony that reigned at the beginning of the period was seen by many people on both sides of the religious divide as spiritually dubious, because the music tended to overwhelm the words. So the Genevan Reformed opted for simple psalm tunes without instruments (actually Zurich went a step further and did away with singing altogether); Lutherans combined vigorous congregational singing with a rich tradition of organ and choral music; and the Catholic Church maintained most continuity with the past (obviously) but also sought to simplify vocal lines and produce music that was more austere and more clearly in service of the spiritual message of the words.

Obviously don’t quite this directly, but these would be some of the relevant considerations, I think.

Your daughter is fortunate to be attending a school where the names of Renaissance composers are mentioned! Is it a music school specifically?


Thanks again Edwin for all your great help and fascinating posts. Yes I have read Duffy.

It’s not a music school. I am quite frustrated as in 3 powerpoint slides she is supposed to sum up “Religion in Europe from 1400-1600” as part of a larger presentation. Trying to sum it up seems overwhelming and I don’t see how she’s supposed to understand the material and summarize it. So far for the first slide we are mentioning the Avignon Papacy and Western Schism followed by the Councils of Constance and Basel emphasizing the need for renewal in the church. She is not sure if she should mention some of the people that were precursors to the Reformation such as Wycliffe and Hus. Hus seems important to explain how ticked off a nation (the Czechs) might be if you invite one of their most influential leaders to your meeting (Constance) and then promptly burn him at the stake.

Reform movements and nationalism seem big themes.

Consider using the music poster - See link to

Monk Guido d’Arezzo

as a visual aid.
It shows how a Benedictine Monk is the father of musical notation.



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