A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Renaissance

The Renaissance, the Reformation and Congregational Singing

The term Renaissance, describing the period of European history from the early 14th to the late 16th century, is derived from the French word for "rebirth," and originally referred to the revival of the values and artistic styles of classical antiquity during that period, especially in Italy. It was only later that the word Renaissance acquired a broader meaning. Voltaire in the 18th century classified the Renaissance in Italy as one of the great ages of human cultural achievement. In the 19th century, Jules Michelet and Jakob Burckhardt popularized the idea of the Renaissance as a distinct historical period heralding the modern age, characterized by the rise of the individual, scientific inquiry and geographical exploration, and the growth of secular values. [1]

Erasmus.JPG (95582 bytes)Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536)

During the 15th century, students from many European nations had come to Italy to study the classics, philosophy, and the remains of antiquity, eventually spreading the Renaissance north of the Alps. Italian literature and art, even Italian clothing and furniture designs were imitated in France, Spain, England, the Netherlands, and Germany, but as Renaissance values came to the north, they were transformed. Northern humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536) of the Netherlands [2] and John Colet (c.1467-1519) of England planted the first seeds of the Reformation when they endeavored to discover the original intent and meaning of the New Testament by applying to it the critical historical methods developed in Italy.

Humanism, an educational and philosophical outlook that emphasizes the personal worth of the individual and the central importance of human values as opposed to religious belief, developed in Europe during the Renaissance, influenced by the study of ancient Greek literature and Latin literature and philosophy. Humanism thus began as an educational program called the humanities, which inculcated those ancient secular values which were consistent with Christian teachings. The Renaissance humanists were often devout Christians, but they promoted secular values and a respect and love for classical antiquity.

In contrast to such rigid late Gothic techniques as isorhythm, Renaissance music (c.1450-1600) is characterized by imitative polyphonic [3] styles of seamless textures, rhythmically flowing lines, equality among voice parts, and a growing emphasis on sonorous harmonies. The two major genres of sacred polyphony, the motet and settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, were brought to their highest levels of mastery by Josquin des Prez and Palestrina. The principal formal procedures of Mass settings were cantus firmus and parody techniques, the latter incorporating melodies or complete polyphonic sections of motets or secular works. Following the Reformation, Martin Luther and his followers assembled collections of chorales (Protestant hymns), derived mostly from secular songs and Catholic hymns and designed for congregational singing.

The humanistic spirit of the Renaissance is reflected in the rise of distinct secular styles and forms. Polyphonic secular songs, including the French chanson, the Italian frottola, the German polyphonic lied, the Spanish villancico, and the Italian and English madrigal, were lighter in texture (with a solo singer on each part) as well as spirit.

Johann_Gutenberg.JPG (121211 bytes) Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468)

An important factor in both the Renaissance and the Reformation came in the mid-15th Century from Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468), a German goldsmith who is credited with the invention and development in Europe of printing from movable type. His invention fulfilled the needs of the age for more and cheaper reading matter and foreshadowed the modern printing industry. Only one major work can confidently be attributed to Gutenberg's own workshop. This is the Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, from the number of lines to each page), which was set and printed about 1455. The 42-line Bible, of which fewer than 50 copies are extant, comprised 1,284 pages, each with two columns of text containing 42 lines to a column. Each page held about 2,500 individual pieces of lead type, set by hand. The German Gothic type-style was modeled on manuscripts of the period. Six presses worked on the Bible simultaneously, printing 20 to 40 pages of type a day. The Psalter, generally regarded as Europe's second printed book, is sometimes attributed to Gutenberg because it includes his innovation of polychrome initial letters using multiple inking on a single metal block. [4]

The Reformation

The Reformation of the 16th century was a movement within Western Christendom to purge the church of medieval abuses and to restore the doctrines and practices that the reformers believed conformed with the Bible and the New Testament model of the church. This led to a breach between the Roman Catholic church and the reformers whose beliefs and practices came to be called Protestantism.

The causal factors involved in the Reformation were complex and interdependent. Precursors of the Reformation proper included the movements founded by John Wycliffe (b. c. 1328-1384) (the Lollards) and John Huss (b. c. 1372-1415) (the Hussites) during the 14th and 15th centuries. [5] These reform groups, however, were localized in England and Bohemia and were largely suppressed. Changes in the intellectual and political climate were among the factors that made the reform movement of the 16th century much more successful.

The cultural Renaissance that occurred during the preceding century and a half was a necessary preliminary, because it raised the level of education, reemphasized the ancient classics, contributed to thought and learning, and offered humanism and rhetoric as an alternative to scholasticism. Especially through its emphasis on the biblical languages and close attention to the literary texts, the Renaissance made possible the biblical exegesis that led to Martin Luther's doctrinal reinterpretation. Moreover, Christian humanists like Desiderius Erasmus criticized ecclesiastical abuses and promoted the study of both the Bible and the church fathers. The invention of printing with movable type by Johann Gutenberg in 1455 was a critical tool in the spread of learning and Reformation ideas.

Martin_Luther.JPG (83326 bytes)Martin Luther (1483-1546)

The Reformation is usually dated from Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and university professor at Wittenberg, Germany, posted 95 theses inviting debate over the legitimacy of the sale of indulgences. The papacy viewed this as a gesture of rebellion and proceeded to take steps against Luther as a heretic. 

The German humanists supported Luther's cause during the early years. The reformer's three famous treatises of 1520, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian, also won him powerful popular support. He was excommunicated in 1521, but in April of that year at the Diet at Worms he stood before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the German princes and refused to recant unless proven wrong by the Bible or by clear reason. He believed that salvation was a free gift to persons through the forgiveness of sins by God's grace alone and received by them through faith in Christ.

Luther was protected by Frederick III, elector of Saxony, and other German princes -- partly out of intellectual and religious conviction, partly out of the desire to seize church property, and partly to assert independence of imperial control. In 1530 many princes and cities signed the Augsburg Confession presented at the Diet of Augsburg as an expression of the evangelical faith. After years of conflict the settlement reached in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) provided that each German prince would determine the religious affiliation (Roman Catholic or Lutheran) of the territory he ruled. Lutheranism also became the established religion of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Apart from the role of the princes, however, the Reformation spread rapidly as a popular movement. It penetrated Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Transylvania.

Zwingli.JPG (73486 bytes) Ulrich Zwingli (1481-1531)

The Reformation in Switzerland initially developed in Zurich under the leadership of the priest Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli had been influenced by Erasmus and by Christian humanism. He arrived at an evangelical understanding of Christianity from his study of the Bible and from contacts with Lutherans. On Jan. 1, 1519, he began a 6-year series of sermons on the New Testament that moved the city council and the people of Zurich toward reform. The favorable response to The Sixty-Seven Articles, which he prepared for public disputation with a papal representative in 1523, proved the popularity of his program. He called for the abolition of the Mass (and its replacement by a symbolic Lord's Supper), independence from episcopal control, and a reform of the city-state in which both priests and Christian magistrates would conform to the will of God. His influence spread to other Swiss cantons such as Basel, Saint Gall, and Bern.

John_Calvin.JPG (90293 bytes)

John_Knox.JPG (92149 bytes)

John Calvin (1509-1564) 

John Knox (c. 1514-1572)

Through Lutheran tracts and merchant missionaries, the evangelical movement spread to France, where it won many converts, among whom was John Calvin. In 1536, Calvin went to Geneva, where a reformation led by Guillaume Farel was well under way. Calvin was persuaded to stay in Geneva and helped organize the second major surge of Protestantism. In his Ordinances of 1541, he gave a new organization to the church consisting of pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. His Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) had great influence in France, Scotland (where John Knox carried the Calvinist reformation), and among the Puritans in England. Geneva became the center of a great missionary enterprise that reached into France, where the Huguenots became so powerful that a synod met in Paris in 1559 to organize a nationwide church of some 2,000 reformed congregations. As a result of the French Wars of Religion, the Huguenot party was checked and the French monarchy kept the kingdom Catholic. The modern Presbyterian Church traces its origins to Calvin and Knox.

Henry_VIII.JPG (133054 bytes) Henry VIII, King of England (1491-1547)

Although England had a religious reform movement influenced by Lutheran ideas, the English Reformation occurred as a direct result of King Henry VIII's efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The formal break with the papacy was masterminded by Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540), the king's chief minister from 1531 to 1540. [6] Under Cromwell's direction Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals (to Rome; 1533), followed by the Act of Supremacy (1534) fully defining the royal headship over the church. As archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer annulled Henry's marriage to Catherine, allowing the king to marry Anne Boleyn. Although Henry himself wished to make no doctrinal changes, Cromwell and Cranmer authorized the translation of the Bible into English, and Cranmer was largely responsible for the Book of Common Prayer, adopted under Henry's successor, Edward VI.

The gains that Protestantism made under Edward (r. 1547-53) were lost under his Catholic sister Mary I (r. 1553-58). The last three years of Mary's reign were marred by the execution of about 300 Protestants, who were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Hundreds of other Protestants spent the later years of her reign in exile on the Continent..

Elizabeth_1.JPG (132358 bytes)Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533-1603)

The religious settlement (1559) under Elizabeth I (1533-1603, r. 1558-1603), however, guaranteed the Anglican establishment. [7] Religion in England had been unsettled since Henry VIII's break with the pope in 1533. Moderate Protestantism had been practiced under Henry, and more radical Protestant programs were implemented under Edward VI; but Mary had restored the Roman Catholic faith and papal jurisdiction to England. Elizabeth herself was a moderate Protestant. Her settlement with the Puritans excluded papal authority, and it brought back the Book of Common Prayer, an English-language liturgy, but it did not recognize the demands of the more extreme Puritans. Pressure for further reform continued throughout Elizabeth's reign, but she resisted. The Puritans were eventually driven underground. "Puritans" had been a name of ridicule first used during the her reign. She was the last of the Tutors, who seemed to have a knack for dealing with religious controversy and the Parliament. She was succeeded by James I, the first of the Stuarts. Things were about to go downhill quickly.

The Radicals

The radicals consisted of a great variety of sectarian groups known as Anabaptists [8] because of their common opposition to infant baptism. The Anabaptist leader Thomas Munzer played a leading role in the Peasants' War (1524-26), which was suppressed with the support of Luther. In Munster, radical Anabaptists established (1533) a short-lived theocracy in which property was held communally. This too was harshly suppressed. The radicals also encompassed evangelical humanists and spiritualists who developed highly individualistic religious philosophies.


1. In the 20th century the term was broadened to include other revivals of classical culture, such as the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century or the Renaissance of the 12th century. Return

2. The Dutch scholar Erasmus, b. c.1466, d. July 12, 1536, was the greatest classicist of the Renaissance in northern Europe. Erasmus lived at a time when the breakup of medieval feudalism and the increasingly obvious abuses and corruptions within the church created widespread anxiety and uncertainty, which in turn engendered fanaticism and violence. Erasmus responded to this crisis in a spirit of Aristotelian moderation. Faced with the disintegration of medieval Europe into disputatious national and religious factions, he sought peace, reconciliation, and unity. His works combined piety and scholarship in an attempt to reconcile faith and reason and bring together Christianity and the culture of ancient times. He was sharply critical of the corruptions of the church and the absurdities of scholasticism, but he did not repudiate the past in a blaze of reforming passion, as Martin Luther had done. Although his work appealed to leaders of the Reformation, Erasmus was drawn into conflict with them; he engaged in a polemical exchange with Luther. His attempt to reform the church through gentle reason and toleration was swept aside by the fanaticism of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Return

3. Polyphony is a term derived from Greek ("many sounds") and is applied to music in which several melodic parts proceed simultaneously, as opposed to homophony--music with one melody and with chords underneath. The term is used in a specific way to refer to music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with a strong contrapuntal interest. Return

4. But see Appendix J. "Has History Been Too Generous to Gutenberg?" Return

5. The Hussites had the distinction of issuing the first Protestant hymn book in the Behemian language. Ken Curtis. ed., Glimpses Issue #25, Sing and Make Melody to God, Christian History Institute, http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/GLIMPSEF/Glimpses/glmps025.shtml Return

6. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector in the 17th Century, was distantly related to Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chamberlain in the 16th Century. Oliver Cromwell’s great-grandfather was a nephew of Thomas Cromwell, was born about 1485, the son of a cloth worker and tavern keeper. In his youth he traveled on the Continent, working as a mercenary soldier and in trade. After his return to England he entered the service of Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, the most important figure in the state as well as in the English church from 1513 to 1529. In 1529, Wolsey fell from power because of his inability to secure Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell then attached himself directly to the royal court. He was chiefly responsible for drafting the legislation that severed England from the Roman Catholic church and made it possible for the archbishop of Canterbury, as primate of the Church of England, to annul Henry's marriage. From 1536 on he supervised the suppression of the monasteries and the confiscation of their wealth. Cromwell negotiated Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves, which took place in January 1540. However, Henry was dissatisfied with Anne's appearance and insisted on a divorce almost immediately. Cromwell's conservative enemies, especially Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, took advantage of this situation to procure Cromwell's downfall. He was arrested in June, charged with treason and heresy, and beheaded in London on July 28, 1540. Return

7. The Church of England gave rise to numerous denominations. Anglicans who emigrated to the United States became known as the Episcopal Church (after the American Revolution) Another early denomination was Puritanism and its offshoot in the United States, Congregationalism. The Congregational Church was the one founded in New England by the Pilgrims and Puritans, and had a strong presence throughout New England (except in Rhode Island). In 1957, it merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. A third off-shoot was the Methodist Church, which got its start with Charles and John Wesley in 1738.Return

8. The modern Baptist Church traces it roots to the Anabaptists of the Reformation. Another early "radical" church was the Mennonites. Return

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Douglas D. Anderson

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