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How the Renaissance, Reformation and Nation-States Contributed to the Concept of European Identity?

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How the Renaissance, Reformation and Nation-States Contributed to the Concept of European Identity?

1. Introduction

I would like to study the connection between the material culture that sprang to life after the Reformation in Europe and the urbanization that came with the Industrial Revolution in order to see if or if not it had any effects on constituting the European Identity. Starting first with analyzing the material culture of which the Italian Renaissance movement and then the Reformation planted its seeds, I want to follow the dynamics of social changes that slowly transformed the life in Europe from peasantry with only the Christian identity to nation-state citizenship with a European notion.

In order to understand how the Industrial Revolution that started in the 19th century and spreaded across the continent affected Europe, it is first required to analyze the changes in the mentality of people that lived in Europe and the transformation the societies went through as a result of the Protestant Reformation that took place in the 16th century. Although the Industrial Revolution had basically been a drastic economic upheaval, it cannot be considered without its social causes and social results. How the humanist mindset that came up with the Renaissance had affected the daily lives of people and how this effect helped people to search for improvements in working and production have been widely discussed in several studies. In Medieval times, most of the peoples of Europe had depended on soil. Village life and agriculture were the way of living of most of the population. Trading was limited and under the control of the Church. As the humanist thinking started to settle and man came forward instead of religion, and along with it, came a material culture that cherished wordly work and material goods.

Another invention that marked this era was the printing machine as “the manufacture of paper, the discovery of the arts of printing and engraving, multiplied the possession of the treasures of the intelligence and of artistic genius, and combined to make art and literature democratic.”[1] This development enabled masses of people access to knowledge and this had changed the societies of Europe slowly yet irrevocably from being ignorant and unaware to literate and freethinking while it substantially decreased the power of the Catholic Church.

By the late 18th century, the industrialization process was on the way and the significant increase in production, accelerated trade throughout the continent. Mercantilism was the domineering economic structure in the Middle Ages and it provided great protection to traders and businesses whereas it required strong nation-states.

With this study, I want to figure how the material culture that occured as a result of Protestant Reformation paved the way for the then-modern cities in Europe. It is also a fact that the trend was towards the nation-states in the 19th century and many such states were formed around a national identity. Therefore it is interesting to see if and how a broader sense of European identity had flourished in European people’s minds and in which ways had it been affected by the material culture. European identity is not used in a post-nationalist notion as is understood today but a general understanding and a feeling of belonging in a wider range is meant.

2. State of the Field

The reformation process the Europe has gone through, starting with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517 and going through centuries towards the end of 18th century where it sparked another revolutionary movement, has been widely researched and discussed. This social transformations went hand in hand with economical dynamics, as in almost all sources we can find explanations such as the one below by Lindsay, that depict the average European’s change from rural peasant to urban manufacturers and traders:

Beneath the whole mediæval system lay the idea that the land was the only economic basis of wealth. During the earlier Middle Ages this was largely true everywhere, and was specially so in Germany. Each little district produced almost all that it needed for its own wants; and the economic value of the town consisted in its being a corporation of artisans exchanging the fruits of their industries for the surplus of farm produce which the peasants brought to their market-place. But the increasing trade of the towns, developed at first along the greater rivers, the arteries of the countries, gradually produced another source of wealth; and this commerce made great strides after the Crusades had opened the Eastern markets to European traders. Trade, commerce, and manufactures were the life of the towns, and were rapidly increasing their importance.[2]

This change of lifestyle is generally perceived as one of the most important factors in the making of the new, modern society with its new constitutions:

The economic changes brought about by increased trade and the emergence of

cities created new tensions in medieval society. These tensions permeated the

boundaries of class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. The interaction between rural and

urban classes led to the establishment of new political organizations and laws

designed to balance the needs of competing classes.[3]

Also as a progressive step, the term political internationalism[4] was coined in discussions of what had the 19th century brought into the possible idea of nations of Europe coming together in a union.

In some studies, it can be found that the life in cities and city-states have been told as the form of life that constituted the basis of European life even until today, as Pagden says; “With the rise of Athens after the sixth century, an association in the European political imaginaire began to form between an urban environment and a particular way of life. Man, said Aristotle, was zoon politikon-quite literally an animal “made for life in the polis.”[5]

3. Argument

In this time period from Renaissance and Reformation to Industrial revolution, Europe was united with “a number of basic cultural trends, including new literary styles and the spread of science”[6] but at the same time, nation-states were growing ever stronger. Reformation had changed the way people lived and in the mindsets of both intellectuals and the peoples,

…there has been a transference of enthusiasm of the religious or poetic kind from the sphere of contemplation or aloofness to that of earthly and even material action. Ideals of social reform do not any longer involve a neglect of food and clothing: we are all more and more convinced that it is idle to preach culture to a starving man, or to talk of liberty to one whose whole life is a bestial struggle for bare food and covering.[7]

As Christianity predominated the continent for centuries and provided an identity for every member of a medieval socieity[8] before the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, I will look into the changes that occured in the mindsets of societies once the worldly affairs began distinguishing from religious affairs. Regarding the era between the 16th century to 19th century, I will try to figure out how the Church losing power in monetary matters and merchants gaining ground affected the life in cities and how this economical situation influenced the nation-states.

My main idea in this work is to see if there had been a correlation between the post-Reformation material culture, city-states and nation-states. By understanding the nature of or connection between these notions, I will point out their collective contribution to the concept of European identity. As the Renaissance and Reformation took an intellectual swing against the Catholic Church and its strict control and seemingly started a domino effect on the scholastic mindset of the European peoples, I’m going to look into their social reflections.

On the matter of Renaissance, studying humanism is essential. I have found that Lindsay has a substantial work that covers different aspects of humanism such as the German Humanists, Humanist Circles in Cities and Humanism in the Universities[9] in which I expect to find explanations to how people’s collective thoughts changed from metaphysical to humanist. Also, from Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné’s well known book History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, I will extract some illuminating accounts of the events[10] that took place in Martin Luther’s time which will provide me a look from a closer perspective at the Reformation era and the way of thinking in that time.

4. Conclusion

As Marvin stated “The growth of nations was, on the political side, the main achievement of the Middle Ages.”[11] In the Middle Ages, the Church was present and dominant in every aspect of life, however, starting with intellectual movements and followed by scientific advances, people slowly started to break the spritiual bondages and discover individuality with a secular view on life, which consequently built the basis for nationalism. Whether this is an unfractured line of related events that spread over centuries has been discussed in various studies, yet whether there happens to be a link between this series of transformations and the forming of a concept of European identity or not seems to be vague. I would like to see if I can relate these notions and find a significant importance in building the concept of being European.


“The Industrial Revolution”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Retrieved from, 2013, (23 Nov 2013)

HEATON, Herbert, Mehmet Ali Kılıçbay (Trans.), (1995) Economic History of Europe, İmge Kitabevi Yayınları, Ankara, 1936 (Original work published)

“The Dynamic Culture of the Middle Ages”, International World History Project, 1995 – 2006,, (22 Nov 2013)

LINDSAY, Thomas .M., A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1906, The Project Gutenberg EBook, August 29 2012

MARVIN, Francis Sidney (ed.), The Unity of Western Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 1915, The Project Gutenberg EBook, February 12 2005

MERLE D’AUBIGNE, Jean-Henri, History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, William Collins and Co. Printers, Glasgow, 1846, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, November 24 2012

PAGDEN, Anthony (Ed.), The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002

[1] Lindsay, T. M., A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1906, The Project Gutenberg EBook, August 29 2012, p. 46, 22 Nov 2013

[2] Lindsay, T. M., op. cit. , p. 80

[3] “The Dynamic Culture of the Middle Ages”, International World History Project, 1995 – 2006, 22 Nov 2013

[4] Hobson, J. A., The Political Basis of a World State, In F.S. Marvin (ed.) The Unity of Western Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 1915, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, February 12 2005, p. 260

[5] Pagden, A., Europe: Conceptualizing a Continent, In Pagden, Anthony (Ed.), The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 40

[6] The Industrial Revolution (2013) In Encyclopaedia Britannica, Retrieved from, 23 Nov 2013

[7] Burns, D. C., Common Ideals of Social Reform. In F.S. Marvin (ed.) The Unity of Western Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 1915, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, February 12 2005, p. 247

[8] Heaton, H., (1995) Economic History of Europe, ,.ôöøú . F v Ô |'=PZflmnq~“ÈÐèòôèôÜôèôÜ;¯ ¾”¾”¾ˆ|ˆmˆm m ¾^O¯h¿vXh?w±CJOJQJaJh¿vXh{t8C(M. A. Kılıçbay, Trans.) İmge Kitabevi Yayınları, Ankara, 1936 (Original Work Published), p. 174

[9] Lindsay, T. M., op. cit.

[10] Merle d’Aubigné, J. H., History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, William Collins and Co. Printers, Glasgow, 1846, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, November 24 2012

[11] Marvin, F. S., Introductory: The Grounds of Unity, In F.S. Marvin (ed.) The Unity of Western Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 1915, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, February 12 2005, p. 21

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