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One of the common reasons given for the Renaissance and the subsequent scientific revolution is the rediscovery of classical works by scholars in Europe and the social change that the study of those works brought.

However the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world at that time also had access to the Ancient Greek and Roman works. In fact, there were several Islamic scientists during the early Middle ages who made important discoveries.

What are the major reasons then that the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe but not in the other two regions.

In fact, why didn't such a change happen in the Ancient World itself? Was it the establishment of universities that happened in large part in Europe that was responsible for this change?

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Not good enough for a true answer, but wanted to bring it up: I can imagine the Christianization (and thus, pacification) of the Vikings certainly helped relieve some tension. Their lack of complexity in their military tactics / tech allowed European military technology to stay pretty stagnant for a while. – oldrobotsneverrust Dec 21 '11 at 21:09
In europe, those with 2 meters spears got stab by those with 3 meter spears. In china, those with cannons got slaughtered by horse riders. In china, leadership means more. In europe technology means more. – Jim Thio Dec 24 '12 at 12:23
The question is fine, but note my strong protest against "Western Europe". There was the same scientific revolution in Eastern Europe as well. – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 24 '13 at 17:35
After digging a bit deeper, I agree. I've modified the question – Opt Mar 26 '13 at 5:14
@JimThio - that's very inaccurate. Given the reloading speed of cannons at the time, they couldn't possibly fight against cavalry without their own cavalry and infantry screening them. This had nothing to do with either leaderhip, OR China specifically. – DVK Mar 26 '13 at 14:13

11 Answers 11

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Another simple but important reason besides economic changes starting at this time is the spread of printing technique. A scientific community really only works when scholars can cite each other and share their ideas in a cheap and fast way, thats why internet boosted scientific progress in our time. If you study the link, the Gutenberg printing technique had a advance of around 100 years in western europe compared to rest of the world. A lot of european philosophers at this time like Locke and Kant are still read today, the printing technique in conjunction with a dense and localized scientific community was a huge advance, which could only be catched up slowly.

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+1. Look up any list of big European Renaissance events, and you will find that most of the big ones were not actually completely new, but happened to occur again right after the printing press became popular (mid 1400's). Re"discovery" of the New World? 1492. Martin Luther's complaints about the Catholic Church? 1517. Neither had never been done before. It was just that combined with a printing press, now when it happened every person in Europe heard about it. – T.E.D. Apr 23 '12 at 19:51
Chinese also had printing press. – Jim Thio Dec 24 '12 at 12:24
@JimThio: But it was much slower: "European printing presses of around 1600 were capable of producing 3,600 impressions per workday. By comparison, movable type printing in the Far East, which did not know presses and was solely done by manually rubbing the back of the paper to the page, did not exceed an output of forty pages per day." – Martin Schröder Dec 9 '13 at 22:21
Ah.... My ancestors are beaten fair and square :) – Jim Thio Dec 10 '13 at 7:33

I'm afraid any answer to this question must begin by considering what is understood to be the 'Renaissance' and the 'Scientific Revolution'. And that consideration, in turn, inevitably reveals a number of historiographical difficulties.

The first of these is that neither of these were 'events', at least, not in the sense of a war or an assassination. They have been used to signify shifts in intellectual pre-occupation. In the case of the Renaissance (which arguably occurred from the fourteenth to the early seventeenth centuries, and was NOT exclusive to Italy as some on this forum have suggested), scholars were increasingly concerned to formulate an authoritative corpus of works from classical authors, and to produce a more sophisticated appreciation for Greek and Roman customs and language. In the case of the Scientific Revolution (which is generally associated with the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) the drive was rather different. Rather than seeking to recover or reconstruct knowledge from the past, intellectuals turned their attention to the formulation of NEW, observable, and experimentally driven analyses of the natural world. It was, on this telling, the transition from Renaissance to Scientific Revolution (and eventually to Englightenment) that proved so foundational to our present, modern world.

Both of the claims I have described above are no longer uncritically accepted by any historian. They continue to be used as conceptual placeholders, but the Renaissance was not a straightforward reconstitution of ancient knowledge, and the scientific revolution was neither revolutionary nor was it scientific.

With regards to what could be called the Renaissance, there certainly was a drive to get away from the prior reliance on Latin translations of Arabic translations of original texts, and the integration of texts that were demonstrably the work of scholars in the 10 century ce (like Pseudo-Aristotle) rather than 5th century bc. But this process was not one devoid of seemingly 'scientific' endeavors, a point to which I will return in a moment. The central drive to do this sort of work stemmed ultimately from Catholic and later Protestant anxieties over intellectual authority. The drive from within the Church itself, and then the influence of wealthy patrons across Europe, to formulate a definitive and orthodox understanding of the past was ultimately the mechanism by which scholars eventually (after more than two centuries of tearing out their hair) were forced to conclude that they could not in fact write history in any definitive sense, try though they might.

The point about evaluating and understanding ancient authorities through seemingly scientific experiments is something that is very familiar to academic historians of science. This is why the Renaissance and so-called Scientific Revolution are in fact two terms for the same process—of generating new information and new knowledge in order to recover ancient wisdom. Or, at the very least, to sort out the wheat of the ancients from the chaff of modern innovation.

The 'real' historical picture of this development is not at all clear for a very simple reason. To adequately understand how intellectual change in any form occurred over time, historians should be looking at each individual scholar—their particular institutional and political circumstances, their own private musings about what they were up to, and the way they justified their enterprise publicly. No historical category—certainly not the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution—survives a rigorous consideration of the past at such a granular level. But that's why asking how the Renaissance gave way to the Scientific Revolution is approaching an important historical process from the wrong standpoint.

The point about this dynamic of increasing intellectual activity, is that people were desperately trying to bring together a range of discourses that we now see as different, if not totally antithetical. And our perception is the inheritance of their failure to make science, history, and indeed the humanities, work for religious ends. That is the legacy—and we would be well advised to understand it on its own terms before we start trying to do the same thing while expecting a different result.

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this is a fantastic answer sir, kudos. – ihtkwot Feb 29 '12 at 22:45
Very good, quality answer. I hope you'll visit us often and continue to provide such excellent input! – Steven Drennon Apr 27 '12 at 14:11

There are many reasons, and I'm going to present the materialistic one championed by the Marxists (collective thud as the audience of History.SE falls off their chairs and faints).

One of the requirements for having scientific progress is economic - you need enough surplus to enable the resources devoted to scholarship. This was enabled at the beginning of the Renaissance by a combination of:

  • Black death killing off enough of population that the rest started making higher wages.

    As a side effect, Black Death is claimed to have had an effect in somewhat weakening the power of the Church (which wasn't exactly of much help against the plague and thus lost influence).

  • General migration to capitalist system from feudalism. This was both a cause (greater surplus) and - in a runaway feedback loop - beneficiary (scientific/technology improvements helping with the migration).

  • Economic benefits from expansion to new world.

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Also see my second answer for why Renaissance didn't happen in Islamic world – DVK Jan 6 '12 at 13:29
Yes, you had me off my chair. But only when I read who was the author. – astabada Jan 10 '13 at 13:19
@DVK: I've got to disagree. Early renaissance started before Black Death and well before capitalism. – Michael Oct 24 '13 at 17:35
How come DVK answer twice? – Jim Thio Dec 10 '13 at 7:35
DVK, your answer does not have much to do with Marxism. Marxists explain history through class conflict - by considering the social conflicts which condition the committing of social labor to the transformation of nature. Pure economism does not equate Marxism. – Andrei Albu Nov 3 '14 at 16:39

I'm going to add another answer specifically to address a separate part of your question: why didn't the same thing happen in Islamic world?

The answer is plausibly Al-Ghazali.

Quoting from Wikipedia:

Others have cited his movement from science to faith as a detriment to Islamic scientific progress (source: Sawwaf, A. (1962) al-Ghazali: Etude sur la réforme Ghazalienne dans l’histoire de son développement /Fribourg/)

Among other things, he

  • rejected non-Islamic philosophers such as Aristotle

  • saw it fit to discard their teachings on the basis of their "unbelief"

  • played a very major role in integrating Sufism (Mythical spirituality) with Shariah.

  • Most importantly:

    His 11th century book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God.

    The Incoherence also marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falasifa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Avicenna and Al-Farabi) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Ghazali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as non-believers and labeled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.

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Hmm...I've some difficulty attributing such a major difference to just one person. I'm sure Western Europe had its own share of influential people who held similar views to Al-Ghazali. What makes Al-Ghazali so special that he was able to exert such a defining influence on the Arab world? It's also possible that the reasons for the Renaissance not happening in the Arab world were entirely different and people just used Al-Ghazali ex post to create a narrative that made him the main reason. – Opt Jan 7 '12 at 6:08
@Sid - see the Wiki article on him. He really WAS that influential. I think one quote I once saw said he was the second main influence on Islam after Mohammed. As far as Europe, Thomas Aquinas played a very similar role, but his influence was somewhat different, and less impactful as well. As far as what specifically the reasons for that specific impact he had, that'd take a book for proper explanation, but the bolded part in my last quote should be a very good summary. – DVK Jan 7 '12 at 6:11
I believe the geopolitics (e.g., the rise of the Ottomans, and their attempts at deemphasizing education to keep the populace under control) were probably of much greater importance, relative to any developments within the scientific community itself. – aeismail Jan 15 '12 at 15:50
It would take a while for me to dig up more definitive resources, but one empirical piece of evidence to consider is the paucity of established universities in the Middle East before 1900, in an era where they were being established relatively rapidly in the Western World. (This was even true in Turkey, where the first university was only established in the late 1800's.) – aeismail Jan 16 '12 at 10:23
Not minusing, but I'm kinda with Sid on this one. How about the population differential (just to pick something not already in an answer)? Europe had way more people than the Middle East during the Renaisance. Why is this one person more important of an effect than simply having less collective brainpower and muscle? Or if you're right, couldn't we go deeper? Was there something different that made this region listen to this one dude, whereas Europe didn't listen to its similar people? – T.E.D. Apr 23 '12 at 19:58

Partly it's because you are reading the history books of those countries and a certain amount is spin.

Islamic countries were the principle source of science between the Romans/Greeks and the 16C - inconvenient if you are a christian country and especially if you are a university that is essentially a religious institution. So you claim that these Arabs only had astronomy, algebra, alchemy (all arabic words) because they had copies of ancient Greek texts - who even if they weren't christians were at least honorary europeans.

The early renaissance in europe (12-13C Italy and Spain) were little more than copies of Arabic art and science. The later 16C scientific renaissance was largely due to people finally deciding that not everything could be determined by a closer reading of Aristotle and giving up on classic texts.

How much this was a weakening of the church's power and how much was the reformation promoting independent thinking is another question but ironically a political/religous shift in Islamic countries at around the same time went in the opposite direction - which is ultimately why your car has a German name not an Arabic one.

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Astronomy is an Arab word? Alchemy was a science? – Eugene Seidel Jul 5 '13 at 20:34
Alchemy was definitely a science, characterized by experiments and observations. It was not successful in the original objective (just as many of today's scientific endeavours aren't), but led to the discovery of elements, chemical reactions, and even to the refinement of the scientific method itself. But, yea, astronomy is latin/greek. – Kevin Keane Jun 6 '15 at 21:10
@KevinKeane : What do you mean with the claim that Alchemists discovered chemical elements? They generally thought in terms of the four elements. – Christian Jun 25 at 12:34
No, I didn't say that they discovered elements, but rather that the work of alchemists led to the discovery of elements. That said, the first element was discovered by an alchemist, Henning Brand, in 1649. Brand had been looking for the philosopher's stone but found Phosphorus instead. Of course, some elements (such as copper or iron) had been known earlier, but weren't really recognized as elements. – Kevin Keane Jun 27 at 8:55

The Renaissance happened in the Byzantine empire as well, but it was interrupted by the fall of Constantinople.

Anyway, Italy remained the most developed and scientifically advanced country throughout the Middle Ages. That is, it was the most scientifically advanced from the times of the Roman empire. It is completely incorrect to claim that the Muslim world was ever more advanced than Italy was.

For example, the best body armor, the best weapons, the best optics, the best ships, and the best paints were always made in Italy. Most of the books were issued in Italy as well. Germany was always at second place, which became attractive to scholars after Charles the Great.

Thus the renaissance quite naturally started in Italy because it was the most advanced country at the time.

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To observers in the 20th or 21st century, technological progress is just a fact of life - why wouldn't you have it? But it is not inevitable. For one thing, change is often a risk to the people in power. Why should a ruler embrace a new technology, such as gunpowder or printing, if it holds the potential to unseat him? If other powers have already done so, a reluctant despot may have no choice or risk being overthrown by outside forces, of course.

For the previous 5,000 years of recorded history however, change came slowly, and occasionally went backward. The main inflection points were the scientific revolution/renaissance in Europe in the 16th century and the industrial revolution starting in the late 18th century. So why these places and times?

Many hundreds of books have been written on the subject. One I found persuasive is The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by Landes. Distilling his hundreds of pages of work into a nutshell: because Europe was made of dozens of independent kingdoms (and some republics), whereas China has generally been unified. Famously, the Ming dynasty destroyed China's oceangoing "treasure ships." One royal decree was all it took to roll back a potentially revolutionary technology. But at roughly the same time in Europe, Christopher Columbus was shot down by the rulers of Portugal, Genoa, Venice, and England before finally the Spanish decided to roll the dice on that madman with bad numbers.

That's one example. Likewise for other uncomfortable ideas and technologies - an inventor had many opportunities to find backers and markets. Kingdoms which ignored them for too long got swept away. This eventually created a culture which embraced novelty and constant change. Combined with recovered classical research, a growing scientific attitude to the pursuit of knowledge, and a need for automation after the depopulating plagues of the late medieval period, the renaissance began.

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Improvements in weapons, such as gunpowder (or tanks) always make any regime stronger. – Anixx Jan 15 at 20:07
@Anixx: very few things are "always." In the case of gunpowder, by giving ordinary schmoes an effective weapon - as opposed to the resource- and training-intensive equipment of a heavy horseman or archer - they threatened the old order of the feudal kingdoms of Europe and Japan. – user4139 Jan 15 at 21:46
are you joking? A rebellion with forks has much more chances against army with swords than a rebellion with muskets against an army with muskets. – Anixx Jan 15 at 22:54
Ah, but standing armies did not exist in this time period. The establisment's power in both cases was heavy cavalry - "knights" and "samurai." A man with a musket is a very real threat to both, a man with a pitchfork not so much. The advent of gunpowder is widely seen as a primary reason feudalism ended in Europe, and Japan had to resort to extreme isolation to avoid the same fate. – user4139 Jan 16 at 3:42

In addition to other comments, note that Renaissance began soon after Constantinople was looted by the West. It's possible that large amount of knowledge, first in the form of looted art and manuscripts and later in the form of scholars fleeing the Turks planted the seeds of Renaissance in Western world. It's quite common for the conquering civilization to absorbed a fair amount of the conquered one.

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Conquerors always loot; the Arab expansion after Muhammad took in a lot of books. Yet different civilizations did different things when acquiring foreign knowledge - the outcome is not preordained. – user4139 Jul 1 '14 at 18:49

To break it down to the most simple form: book printing and the (re-)discovery of classical works (which were stored in large libraries and were being read by the odd monk from time to time). Furthermore, the Church had an iron grip on society for nearly a millenium, surpressing any attempts of enlightenment throughout the ages. It also had become a cumbersome apparatus of power to which naturally in time people will revolt (not only in the case of the Church, but in all cases). When Petrarca was writing his letters to Cicero the elder, he did so at the right time in the right place. Please don't make the assumption that the Renaissance meant a rejection of God; basically Spinoza, Descartes et al were simply trying to proof the existence of God by different means than the Church had done for all this time. Most of them weren't rebels, most of them were just looking for different ways to achieve what the Church wanted to achieve.

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Not a bad answer, but it is essentially identical to the accepted answer, isn't it? – T.E.D. Jun 5 '15 at 14:05
Generally I just look at the question and try to answer it as good as my knowledge takes me without reading the other answers. I know this is not really good, but I just don't have time to read all the answers, so I just chip in my two bits. If this happens to be more or less the same as some other answer, so be it. Sorry about that. – Mare Gaea Jun 5 '15 at 16:04

Why Europe and not Middle East or China? The only good answer I can think of is Mongols. The cultural and technological momentum gained in Middle East and Song China came to a halt and did not recover after the Mongol Invasion.

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Is this an opinion, or a researched theory? is there any evidence to back it up? – Mark C. Wallace Nov 11 '15 at 0:07

I think the premise of the question may be arguable. Scientific progress happened everywhere - it's human nature to inquire and explore. Scientific progress is also a threat to those in power. We have seen this problem in Europe, too (see the Copernicus trial).

So the real question shouldn't be why scientific exploration took place in Europe, but rather why were attempts to choke it off less successful in Europe than in the Islamic world?

I suspect that there were three separate reasons. One is that in Europe, science had reached a critical mass that the Church was unable to stop. A second one was that the church actually was split down the middle on that topic. The church actually was the major sponsor of scientific research, universities etc.

The third reason may simply be the maturity of the religion. Islam is about 700 years younger than Christianity, and historically we have seen it go through similar steps of development. Maybe there is a "natural lifecycle" to religions. Islam in the 16th century may simply have been where Christianity was in the 9th century.

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