Catalysts of the Renaissance

Change doesn't occur naturally to any great measure.
A monarchy will remain a monarchy unless some great event - such as a war or a revolution - or a series of minor events push for a change. During the Middle Ages, change was particularly slow. There were no complex machineries; even short distances were great distances; when the sun set, the world stopped until it rose again. The powers-that-be - the Church and the feudal lords - resisted change, yet change was as inevitable as it was unnatural. The Renaissance wasn't so much a breaking away from the middle Ages as it was the culmination of all the subtle changes. And the Renaissance wasn't an end unto itself as much as it was a bridge between the Medieval and the Modern, or the door to the Age of Enlightenment.

While these changes were irresistible and inevitable, still several occurrences acted as catalysts to hurry things along. These occurrences didn't necessarily decide whether or not there would be a Renaissance but more determined when and how it would take place.

A summary of what we already know:
We know how the Roman Empire dissolved and how western Europe was controlled by mostly uneducated, but Christian, tribal lords whose lands were beset by and eventually freed from the more refined Muslim invaders. Western Europe was a feudal society, more or less a two class system of the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. The Christian Church was the real unifying power and the repository of learning.

We know how the Westerners came into contact with the Easterners through both war and trade and how the Eastern invaders' hordes of knowledge became evident.
We know how the Church was the focus of peoples' lives and controlled their thoughts and actions by perpetuating their ignorance.
And we know how this situation couldn't endure forever, but what we don't yet know is what happened to precipitate the change.

Catalysts of change:
The most significant, change-causing event was the Bubonic Plague. It so reduced the population that laborers became scarce and in demand. So, better conditions and benefits resulted for those who survived the Black Death. Many who died were landowners, their heirs and people with wealth. Land and wealth became redistributed among a dwindled population. Because of the rising labor wages and the greater concentration of wealth, a solid middle class sprung up, a whole different class of consumers who contributed to the economies and spurred imports as well as exports.

Closely tied to this was the demise of Feudalism.
Feudalism was on it's final legs when the Renaissance began, but, since the Renaissance wasn't really viable under the feudal system, it's demise had to be assured. The Renaissance was dependant upon centralized wealth, flourishing cities, sponsors, increased trade, and strong national governments.

Some related links:

Feudalism and the Feudal Relationship
Age of Feudalism
Characteristics of European Feudalism

One of the hallmarks of the Renaissance was the emphasis on humanism , a secular philosophy that honored individuality and human accomplishment. It was closely tied with the classical Greek and Roman cultures and scientific knowledge. As a secular philosophy, humanism defied the Church's death grip on the populations. But this grip had been further loosened by the Plague, which the Church had been helpless to prevent (in fact, closed communities, such as monasteries, were usually hit the hardest). However, humanism didn't regard religion or the Church as important and significant, but only that their roles in the lives of men should be limited to man's spiritual nature.
Humanism also glorified the Universal or Renaissance Man.

Gutenberg One final occurrence that didn't so much enable the Renaissance as it empowered it was the invention of the printing press, or more precisely, of a practical moveable type which made the printing press commercially feasible. Gutenberg's innovation was possibly one of the most influential inventions of the millennium. While he happened upon this around 1480, a time during which the Renaissance was already in full bloom, his invention changed the direction of the Renaissance from an artistic and musical one, to one of ideas. Consider that by 1500 there were over 1,000 printing houses throughout Europe. Where before only the clergy and the very rich could afford books or manuscripts, by 1500, anyone with a bit of extra money could purchase a book. The literacy rate rose tremendously. Books, which had been predominately in Latin and Greek, were now in people's native languages. Although religious texts were, for a time, the mainstay of the printing business, secular texts, in keeping with the growing humanist philosophies, proliferated over time. Books, as they became cheaper and more common, lost their mystical reverence and became tools rather than icons. Doctors, Lawyers, merchants, even chess players found specialized uses for the printing presses. People became better educated, the educated became better informed and the middle class found the playing field a bit more leveled in their favor.
For a more detailed account see the following page.