Coming immediately after and overlapping slightly with the Middle Ages was the Renaissance period. Meaning “rebirth” in French, the Renaissance period lived up to its name. From approximately 1300 to 1600, civilization saw a notable increased interest in scholarly pursuits, as well as art, astronomy, discovery and exploration. The Renaissance was, in many ways, a stark contrast to the Middle Ages, which was a relatively stagnant period in human history. And it was the events that took place during the latter part of the Middle Ages – specifically from the 12th to the 15th century – that culminated in the birth of the Renaissance. These events included the dissolution of the feudal system, the declining influence of the Catholic Church, and the development of numerous national languages.
In fact, language played a particularly important role in bringing about an end to the stagnant Middle Ages and paving the way for the Renaissance, but it was definitely helped along by innovation. Most historians would agree that the Renaissance began in earnest in Europe during the 15th century when a political exile from Germany named Johannes Gutenberg invented the moving printing press. This innovation automated the production of books; thereby increasing not only the volume of texts, but also the availability of those books to the readers, both of which sparked a great deal of demand for the books and a groundswell of interest in reading by people throughout Europe. The demand for books also meant an increase in translations of all kinds. Specifically, the establishment of the Platonic Academy in Florence – founded during the mid-1400s by Cosimo de’ Medici and led by Italian scholar/translator Marsilio Ficino – successfully translated into Latin the entirety of Plato’s texts, as well as the Enneads of Plotinus, and various other Neoplatonic works. During this time period, Ficino and other linguists contributed to the translations of religious and philosophical works as well. The 15th century saw another significant linguistic accomplishment with Thomas Mallory’s translation of the tales of King Arthur.
The language arts continued to expand and evolve during the 16th century, when an increasing number of people began to take a much greater interest in literary pursuits. It was in this century when English scholar William Tyndale led the efforts of a group of linguists in producing the Tudor translation of the New Testament. Tyndale managed to translate half of the Old Testament before being sentenced to death for owning the translated scripture without the benefit of having a license to do so, and that work was later completed by one of Tyndale’s assistants. Martin Luther later translated the Bible into German; a text that significantly contributed to the development of the modern German language. Various other translations of the Bible likewise impacted language development throughout Europe. By the end of the 16th century, the Bible was available in Spanish, French, Dutch and Slovene.
The Renaissance was marked by an almost explosive growth and interest in art, literature, philosophy, exploration and discovery. As its name implies, this era is remembered now as a time of social, cultural, economic and political “rebirth” throughout Europe. But the Renaissance brought about significant language development as well. Beginning with the invention of the moving printing press in the 15th century and the consequent demand for all types of literature by the reading public, followed by the Bible translations of the 16th century and the role those texts played in the development of modern language, the Renaissance brought about a true evolution in the language arts. In fact, it was this time of rebirth in so many arenas that set the stage for how linguistic pursuits continued to develop into the modern era.