The Renaissance was a period of explosive artistic and scientific growth for Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. Europe was trapped for a thousand years in a social and cultural mire after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Renaissance marked a resurgence of innovation that set the stage for advances made over the following centuries that led us to the modern world we know today. Here are the four most important things to remember about this crucial era in history.

The Black Death helped start the era

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There was no one thing that kick-started the Renaissance. The rediscovery of classic texts from obscure libraries around continental Europe and Asia was a factor, as was the aftermath of the Crusades, which brought back a renewed interest in the antiquities of Ancient Greeks and the great thinkers of that bygone era.

However, many historians theorize that the devastating pandemic known as the Black Death—which reached its peak around 1350—may have helped create an environment in which social change began to flourish. The Black Death killed between 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population, a devastating loss that put the feudal structure on which Europe’s hierarchy depended in a precarious position. The decimated population made the available labor much more valuable. This meant that the average individual had better economic means as well as greater social mobility.

It also may have helped change the way people thought about the philosophy of life. Whereas most philosophical focus prior to the Black Death was centered on the afterlife, survivors of the Black Death were more focused on achieving personal betterment and well-being in this life. This contributed to the advent of humanism that characterized thought in the era.

Florence was the center of the Renaissance

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Italy is heavily associated with the Renaissance. After all, some of the greatest names of the Renaissance come from the Tuscany region, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Sandro Botticelli. Florence, however, is the key city to gaining an understanding of how the Renaissance changed the underlying institutions of Medieval Europe.

Florence, like many of the urban areas of Europe, was devastated by the Black Death. This caused the complete collapse of the feudal structure that had kept the city stagnant for centuries. The power vacuum was filled by the nobility who had power invested in wealth, such as the Medici.

Those nobles saw an opportunity to invest their economic power in enterprises besides military might, such as architecture and art. This investment created a system that valued accomplishments and gave the great thinkers of the city the opportunity to create the works we remember them for today. Similar revolutions took place across Europe, but Florence set the tone for the era.

The printing press was a game-changer

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The printing press was the instrument through which the cultural revolution of the Renaissance spread through the population instead of being contained among the elite. The printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg at the height of the Renaissance in 1440, allowed both religious and classical texts to be disseminated through the population at large. Not only were these works now more plentiful, but they could also be reproduced in languages besides Latin, which allowed common people to understand them.

Ordinary people could now access the texts containing the most important works of literature in human history through open libraries and personal collections, rather than being reliant on the interpretations of the church.

A period of flourishing art & revolutionary science

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The Renaissance would not enjoy such a lofty place in history if it were not accompanied by such staggering achievements in art and science. The Renaissance saw a departure from the un-engaging realism of the Middle Ages and a return to portraying realistic shadows, light, anatomy, and linearity in art as was practiced by the Ancient Greeks.

Much of this artistic achievement was funded by the wealthy Catholic Church, which is why we see such a wide array of religious themes in some of the great art of the era. Some of the great thinkers of the era were polymaths, such as da Vinci, and made contributions to the astronomical, botanical, anatomical, and mechanical discoveries of the Renaissance. The close association of the Church to these individuals led to conflict, such as the persecution of Galileo after his discovery that the Sun was at the center of the solar system, not the Earth.

While there are many other important factors that made the Renaissance so important, these are some of the key changes that occurred during the era.