Imagine you were born in the fourteenth century Europe. Like ninety percent of the population, you are most probably a peasant and like most people you cannot read or write and do not have an education. The Church is, above all, the supreme authority, anointed by God. The king has been appointed by God to rule over the people.
There is a distinct and rigid line between the nobility and the commoners, a line which will always be there and can never be crossed. Man knows everything that is to be known, the Holy Scriptures are the last word in every sort of worldly and heavenly knowledge. Earth is flat and is the centre of the universe. All heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth and this fact is settled. It doesn’t need further investigation or debate because the Church says so. If anyone does the treachery of saying otherwise, of course he/she is a heretic and must be burned at stake to purify the Earth of such works of the devil. This, however, is not the case everywhere; in the east, under the new religion Islam, the society is breathing and thriving in the fresh air of open-mindedness, curiosity, experimentation and knowledge.
Back in Europe through the Middle Ages, the Church practiced its enormous influence by playing two cards. The first one was religious supremacy, with almost all of Europe being Christian, the Church was held extremely sacred and Pope the manifestation of God’s will. Even the great monarchs of the time were answerable and partly dependent on the pope for their power. Secondly, the Church was all powerful due to its extensive wealth which was accumulated through a system of taxes and donations, imposed largely on the downtrodden peasant community.
The most dramatic blow to Europe’s medieval social structure and the Church’s power came in the fourteenth century in the form of the Black Death. The plague or the black death swept across Europe killing almost one-third of the population, both the commoners and nobility alike. Fewer clergy men and much reduced labour force on the fields meant an increase in the peasants’ bargaining power, leaving a more volatile and vulnerable society to face the challenges of the Renaissance. At the same time, in Eastern Europe, Italy was becoming more prosperous and wealthier through trade and in some cases, banking.
Italy, back then, consisted of many independent city-states like Venice, Florence, Ferrara, Rome and Milan. Florence, among them, became the birthplace of one of the most significant intellectual movements in history – the Renaissance. Florence boasted the attribute of being one of the few republics in the world at the time, but despite its republic nature, it was, as a matter of fact, ruled by the Medici.
The Medici were a Florentine family who became one of the richest in all of Europe through banking. The vast riches and the deep sense of civic pride and prestige in the people of Florence meant that huge sums could be spent on beautifying their cities through art and architecture.
The Medici were a revolution in another aspect as well; it was for the first time that a commoner merchant family had climbed the social ladder and risen to such power merely through trade and banking. It meant that the long-standing social hierarchy was not a universal truth and in fact could be altered.
To be continued