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Religions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Periods

A literary study by Sam McDonald

22 March 2023; revised Dec 25, 2023 | TMA

Sam McDonald contributes his essay on an examination of religions between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, looking at Christianity, Judaism, and Islam relating to world events and attitudes showcased through literature.

How Religion was Reshaped between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The world of religion in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was one of constant change and development. In Europe, the most prominent religion during these time periods was Christianity, but the beliefs and values of this religion changed considerably over the course of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. What did not change, however, was the inextricable link between Christianity and the overall identities of the people: religion remained a core tenet of their lives. The way that this religion was expressed and practiced, however, was drastically altered through the centuries of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

In the Middle Ages, prior to the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism was the predominant denomination of Christianity, and thus much of the religious culture of medieval Europe was under the control of the Pope and the Vatican. This long possession of power, however, had corrupted many of the high-level administrators by the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This can be seen through the analysis of many sources and events, including Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and the reasons behind Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In terms of the former, Alighieri, a devout Catholic by all accounts, belittles and scorns the Pope and the governance of the Vatican at several points. For example, in Canto 19 of Inferno, Alighieri mentions two Popes by name, Boniface VIII and Nicholas III, and has placed them in the circle of Hell reserved for those who had committed simony (Alighieri, Canto 19, vv. 43-69).

Sandro Botticelli, Dante's "Divine Comedy," Inferno, Canto XIX, Eighth Circle (Malebolge), Third Bolgia [Illustration zu "Die Göttliche Komödie" - Inferno XIX], drawing, ca. 1480-95; Material: silverpoint and pen on sheep parchment, ca. 32.5 x 47.5 cm. The drawing depicts corruption among the clergy and punishment of simonists. Dante and Virgil encounter Pope Nicholas III. Photographer: Philipp Allard; Repository Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Accession Number Cim. 33 Inferno XIX).

Simony, the practice of selling religious services for money, was also the reason behind one of Martin Luther’s most prominent complaints against the Catholic Church, and one of the leading causes for his split from the Church. This split, known as the Protestant Reformation, took place during the Renaissance period and represented the one of the largest developments in the Christian religion to that time.

Portal of the Schlosskirche, Ferdinand von Quast (1850-1934), Located at the Schlosskirche, Wittenberg, Germany. Photo Credit: Alfredo Dagli Orti / Art Resource, NY; Image Reference: ART531783; Image Size: 7360px × 4912px This image depicts the Bronze Gates of the Schlossberg, where Martin Luther originally posted his 95 Theses that started the Reformation, that have since been engraved with said Theses.

During this time, Luther and his followers broke from the Vatican, redesigning the Christian faith to suit their own beliefs through articles such as Luther’s own 95 Theses, which can be seen in the image below. This led to a longstanding enmity between the two Christian factions, where both were attempting to convert the people of Europe. The printing press, however, gave the Protestants a significant advantage, as it was invented in Germany, a predominantly Protestant country. Through the use of this machine, the reformers were able to reach a large amount of the people of Europe, allowing their new denomination to grow and change the face of Christianity. In addition to this, the Reformation also sparked a marked change in the workings of the Catholic Church. According to some scholars, the Catholic Church’s focus on Thomas Aquinas and the subsequent changes to Scholasticism - a focus on old dogmas and writings - came as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation (O’Malley 256).

Through these examples, it becomes clear that the world of Christianity was altered significantly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as centuries of prominence had corrupted many of the leaders of the Vatican and the Catholic Church by the later Middle Ages, leading to a major split between Catholics and those who did not agree with some of the Church’s practices during the Renaissance. However, what did not change was the importance of religion to the everyday lives of European citizens. During the Middle Ages, religion was such a core tenet of the identities of many people that they often placed their standing in the Church or with God as equal to their own family in terms of priority. For example, when examining an old English will from approximately the 9th century, the deceased lists what she would like to be given to the Church before mentioning her family (Whitelock, 1). This showcases how important religion was to the citizens of Europe during the Middle Ages, and this did not change in the Renaissance despite the major, world-altering events occurring in the Christian religion. For example, in the Renaissance-era text The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione makes reference to the idea that there are certain ideals that must be followed due to their being valued in the courts of Christendom (Castiglione 39). Here, it is clear that religion is extremely important in the lives of renaissance courtiers, as they are expected to follow the ideals of Christianity in all aspects of their lives. All of this taken together highlights that, although religion was developing and changing between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, certain aspects, such as its importance in the lives of the people, remained constant.

While Christianity may have been the most prominent religion in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it would be doing a disservice to ignore two of the other prominent faiths, Islam and Judaism, and the ways in which they developed during this time, as doing so would offer additional context for the reshaping of the world in terms of religion. While these faiths did not undergo the same type of radical changes that affected Christianity during this time, their place in Europe did appear to shift significantly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. According to many scholars, while there were certain instances in which Christians respected Muslims and Jews, the predominant attitude towards these peoples during the Middle Ages was one of discrimination, with Muslims often being kept as slaves, and both Jews and Muslims prohibited from interacting with Christians (Green 112). Here, it is clear to see that there was some level of animosity between the three major religions during the medieval period. During the Renaissance, however, there is evidence that these sentiments were beginning to wane. This can be seen through the inclusion of relatable Muslim and Jewish characters in major literary works of the Renaissance such as Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice. In terms of the former, the titular protagonist is a Muslim man, and he is portrayed as a relatively honourable but flawed character in contrast to the antagonists, who are implied to be Christian. On a similar note, the antagonist of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, is Jewish, and is portrayed as a sympathetic but misguided character rather than evil or malevolent. Both characters, however, are implied to have converted to Christianity by the end of the their stories, reaffirming the belief of Christian superiority. But, the idea of Muslims and Jews being inherently evil is no longer present in these works, which instead show that evil qualities can be present in people of all faiths. Both of these examples showcase the idea that the attitudes towards Muslims and Jews were starting to mellow by the time of the Renaissance, but that there were still some discriminatory attitudes, as evidenced by the obvious flaws in these otherwise sympathetic characters.

Through all of this information taken together, it becomes clear that the world changed drastically in the area of religion between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Christianity was split in two, which has persisted to this day, and the attitudes towards Jews and Muslims had begun to change, paving the way for friendlier, less discriminatory relationships between the major faiths of the Renaissance in the ages to come.

Resources for Teachers

· A list of Luther’s 95 Theses :

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Castiglione, Baldassarre. Book of the Courtier (Penguin Classics). Penguin, 2011.

Green, Monica H. “Conversing with the Minority: Relations among Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Women in the High Middle Ages.” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, pp. 105–118.,

O’Malley, John W. “Theology before the Reformation: Renaissance Humanism and Vatican II.” Theological Studies, vol. 80, no. 2, 2019, pp. 256–270.,

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Introduction by Michael A. Cramer, PhD, Canterbury Classics, San Diego, CA, 2014, pp. 898–941.

-------- “The Merchant of Venice.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare; Introduction by Michael A. Cramer, PhD, Canterbury Classics, San Diego, CA, 2014, pp. 426–456.

Whitelock, Dorothy. 1979, Old English will of Wulfwaru (984–1016) from Volume I , c.500 - 1042 , Routledge. Accessed 21 March 2023.

Resources for Teachers:

How to cite this essay:

McDonald, Sam. "How Religion was Reshaped between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance." In Religions in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Periods, a literary study by Sam McDonald, ed. TMA Staff. Teaching the Middle Ages, March 22, 2023; revised December 25, 2023.

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