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World History Makeover: The European Renaissance1

Deborah Smith Johnston, Ph.D.

     The Renaissance has long been a standard of Western Civ and European History courses; what is its place in a world history classroom?  Back in December 2003, a posting to the AP World History listserv asked why the AP World History course description had failed to mention the Renaissance.2  The first response argued that the Renaissance and Reformation were but "small blips on the world history stage: they get as much mention, as say Mahayana or Zen Buddhism might."3  Not surprisingly, that set off a heated but very productive exchange. 1
     The term "Renaissance" dates back to the 16th century Italian artist Giorgio Vasari, who used it to describe what he took to be the restoration of classical artistic tradition. Only in the 19th century did historians, most notably Jacob Burkhardt, begin applying the term to 14th-16th century European history.4  By the 1920s, Burkhardt's "Renaissance" was standard in Western Civilization histories and texts. 2
     The period's association with northern Italian elite culture, particularly in the fine arts, has persisted through the present.  This portrait has become more complex as scholars have investigated the period's commercialization, urbanization, and political centralization, stressing innovations in banking, technology, and consumption.  Social history—family structure, gender roles, and labor—have also altered the older narrative.  In addition, recent research has refined the standard accounts of European humanism, associating it with growing literacy and the arrival of exiled Byzantine scholars with their stores of Greco-Roman knowledge following the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks.5 3
     So: how much attention and time does the Renaissance deserve in a world history course? Responding to doubts about the period's continued relevance, Bill Everdell argued that the Renaissance remains important to world as well as European history.  It marks the beginning of commercial capitalism in the west (note that many world historians argue that capitalism has earlier roots outside the west).  Its experiments in republicanism ­and the debates those institutions sparked—have had deep and lasting influence.  Students who study the Renaissance can compare European political fragmentation to Ming and Qing Chinese centralization; this contrast, some historians argue, accounts for the very different trajectories of European and Chinese history since the 14th century.  Finally, through a careful study of the Renaissance, students in world history courses can compare European, Islamic, and Chinese interpretations of science.6


Placing the Renaissance in a global context


     Perhaps the best argument for continuing to emphasize the Renaissance in world history is that it was a consequence of developments throughout Afro-Eurasia, not just Europe. As Ane Lintvedt commented, the Rennaissance reconnected "Western Europeans with the intellectual and material 'merchandise' of the Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Indians, etc."7  Bram Hubbell agreed, writing that:

the Renaissance would never have happened had it not been for the long term prosperity of the rest of the Old World and Venice and Genoa's ability to tap into the prosperous trade of the rest of the Old World. The Renaissance, if it is to be discussed, needs to be recognized as resulting from the contributions of other societies.8

     Many teachers wrote that they continue to emphasize Renaissance developments in the arts, focusing not only on the style of European workshops, but on the wealth which supported those workshops.  Renewed European participation in the global economy, first through Genoa and Venice and then across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, generated the patronage upon which European artists depended. Another provocative connection is to the Bubonic plague.  Charles Van Doren speculates that the dead left behind so much clothing that, transformed into (rag) paper, it cut costs of book production and, combined with the printing press (invented in China, Korea, and Germany) contributed to the rise of a literate middle class.9 6
     A teacher who wants to get these ideas across quickly and visually could ask that students "chart" the Renaissance on a world map, graphically identifying those movements of ideas and people across Afro-Eurasia which made it possible. 7
     Teachers who globalize the Renaissance frequently begin in Islamic West Asia and North Africa.  Arabic texts and translations from the Greek accompanied the 13th and 14th century silk and spice trades, laying a foundation for European intellectual development. Extensive libraries in Cordoba, Baghdad, Timbuktu and other Islamic cities attracted Christian as well as Islamic scholars.  Students might compare Islamic scholars (hakeems) such as al-Razi and Ibn Rushd to Western "Renaissance men" such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.10


Comparative Renaissances?


     Europe's was not the only renaissance.  To make that point, I ask students to identify cultural revivals elsewhere in the world.  They particularly identify two other examples:  the cultural flowering of Korea's Chosun Dynasty and the negritude movements of the 20th century Afro-Atlantic, among them the Harlem Renaissance. I ask students to consider whether Chosun cultural and scientific achievements marked a "rebirth" of Koryo traditions, or represented something altogether new.  Did these renaissances actually revive old traditions?  Did Chosun cultural and scientific achievement mark a rebirth of Koryo traditions?  For the negritude movements, I ask students to consider whether 20th century African and Afro-Atlantic political and cultural developments revived an older African identity, or whether they created something entirely new. I also ask what kinds of effects these renaissances might have had on the identities of Koreans, Africans, or African-Americans.

     During the listserv discussion, some participants joined Jim Diskant, who argued that certain developments during the Renaissance actually worsened conditions for women and for the poor.  This is another debate students can engage, not only for Europe, but for other regions they have identified as experiencing a "renaissance." 10
     Asking students to define a renaissance, to apply the definition worldwide, and to make comparisons brings them to the heart of the process of world history.  If nothing else, studying the European Renaissance in a global context drives students to wrestle with definitions, causation, and global connections.


Recommended Resources

Council on Islamic Education, The Emergence of the Renaissance Cultural Interactions between Europeans and Muslims.  Available from the CIE website,

Roupp, Heidi. Lesson on "Was there a Korean Renaissance?"  To be placed on the World History Network soon.

College Board, AP World Listserv.  To view the AP listserv discussion from December, search the archives at:


Biographical Note: Deborah Johnston teaches world history at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts.


1 Thanks to Jim Diskant, Ane Lindvedt, and Erin Barrett, as well as the AP list serv, for inspiration and feedback.

2 To register for the AP World History Electronic Discussion group, go to, register, login, click on "AP Community" and then "Electronic Discussion Groups."

3 Ane Lindvedt, AP list serv discussion December 16, 2003.

4 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (New York: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1927), 5-6, excerpted in "Giorgio Vasari and the Concept of a 'Renaissance'" at; also Jacob Burkhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: Penguin, 1990, originally published 1860). 

5 Some of these generalizations were kindly contributed by Ane Lintvedt who has more experience than I in teaching European history. 

6 Bill Everdell, St. Ann's chool, Brooklyn, NY.  Comment on the AP listserv December 20, 2003.

7 Ane Lindvedt, April 25, 2004.

8 Bram Hubbell, Friends Seminary, NY.  Comment on the AP listserv December 17, 2003.

9 This is referenced more fully in Charles Van Doren, History of Knowledge (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991).

10 For more on the Islamic roots of the Renaissance, see the Council on Islamic Education curriculum at



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