Renaissance/Enlightenment (1600’s-1800’s)


Katherine Floyd; Joseph Johnson; JackMaddox; Mitchell Cook; Katherine Coode; Robert McDowell; Tiara Evans; and Mae Furman


The Renaissance and Reformation time period brought about unprecedented societal change across numerous aspects of science, technology, religion, and politics. Europe endured transcendent times and rapidly broke away from the old mold of society that had been practiced for centuries prior. Through the efforts of numerous innovative individuals, society  had entered a new era of modern technology and practices that would serve as the blueprint to the highly advanced society we live in today. The Renaissance and Reformation represent one of the most pivotal periods in human history which brought society out of the dark and into the light.


Like any type of science, Astronomy has become more accepted over time despite the beliefs shaped by the church. Astronomy is the science of space, celestial objects and the physical universe. The invention of the telescope helped to improve the scientific community during the Renaissance. Without this technological advancement, the science of Astronomy would not be reliable in advancing our knowledge of Earth and space.

Hans Lippershey was the first person to patent the invention of the telescope. Because of this, he was also credited as the inventor of the first refractive telescope in 1608 (Cox, 2017). Lippershey was born in Wesel, Germany in 1570. His idea for the telescope was narrated through two very different stories. The first story states that he discovered how two lenses appeared to make a distant object seem close after observing children playing with the lenses. The second story was not as respectable. This story accused Lippershey of stealing the idea from another person. During his time applying for the telescope patent other inventors came forward to also apply. This confusion led the States General to assume that Lippershey wasn’t the original or only inventor of the telescope and expressed that no patent should be given. Even though he did not get the patent, he was given money to sell the instrument to the government and make it into a binocular instrument (Tikkanen, 2010). The telescope quickly became a way for scientists during the Renaissance to discover different aspects of space.

The news about the telescope soon made its way around the world to different scientists who then made their own telescopes. One of these scientists include Galileo Galilei (Tikkanen, 2010). During this time in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution was just beginning. This revolution was considered the birth of modern science.  With the help of the telescope, three very respectable scientists discovered systems and created laws that scientists still use today. Nicolaus Copernicus was the first scientist of this time period to prove that the Earth was not at the center of the universe as previously believed. He placed the sun as the center of the universe and also postulated that the “Earth’s motions included rotation, revolution and the tilting of the axis” (The Renaissance and the scientific revolution: the age of growth, 2012). Copernicus, however, still had the Earth and the other planets moving around the sun in circles. Galileo studied the work of Copernicus and continued to build off of his work. During his research, Galileo discovered four of Jupiter’s moons and a sunspot. He also wrote about the roughness of the moon and the differences between stars and planets. During the same time, a scientist named Johannes Kepler created the laws of planetary motion. One of these laws describes the movement of the planets around the sun as an ellipse motion. Kepler was also one of the first scientists to incorporate physics and astronomy together (The Renaissance and the scientific revolution: the age of growth, 2012). These discoveries made it possible for modern astronomers and physicists to continue to uncover the mysteries of space.

Without the invention of the telescope, the discoveries that have been made about space thus far, would not exist. Technology constantly changes how the fields of science operate. The technological advancements of the telescope in the 20th century allowed for scientists to see further into space than previously thought possible. The earlier telescopes started off as monocular and were held towards the sky in both hands. Some of the monocular telescopes were big enough to be stationary on the ground. Following this, the telescope became binocular. By this time, the telescope was still being redesigned and getting stronger through higher magnifications.  More recently, the telescope is no longer in a room being pointed upwards towards the sky; the telescope is being launched into space. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space in 1990. This telescope took about 20 years to build and has a crucial job. The Hubble was needed to “explore the solar system, measure the age and size of the universe, search for our cosmic roots, chart the evolution of the universe and unlock the mysteries of galaxies, stars, planets and life itself” (Canright, 2009). Today, there is another telescope that is being prepped for space. This telescope was named The Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST). This infrared telescope will exceed the expectations of the Hubble. The NGST will be able to detect radiation from faint sources and maintain its job in temperatures 447 degrees below zero. This allows for the telescope to be able to study the Big Bang, formation of solar systems and the evolution of our solar system (Garner, 2018). This telescope is needed to understand how galaxies were created billions of years ago. The advancements of the telescope continue to create new pathways in the science of Astronomy.

If Hans Lippershey had not patented the telescope in the early 1600s it is possible we would not know as much about the universe or the solar system as we do today. Scientists like Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler would not have shaped the Scientific Revolution, nor would more advanced telescopes be invented. Technology goes hand in hand with science in terms of improving the knowledge of society. The telescope and Astronomy have improved our knowledge of Earth and space; and as technology continues to advance, so will our perception of science.


The work of Nicolaus Copernicus during the Renaissance period expanded society’s knowledge of astronomy through the heliocentric model. Nicolaus Copernicus was an influential astronomer that played a major role in the Scientific Revolution through the 17th and 18th centuries. The heliocentric model was a theory created by Copernicus that stated that the Earth, the planets, and the stars all revolved around the Sun. Copernicus’s model completely changed the way that society thought about the universe.

Before the heliocentric model, society believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Society believed in the Ptolemaic system, a geocentric model created by Claudius Ptolemaeus, that stated that the Earth is stationary and located at the center of the universe. Copernicus found flaws in the Ptolemaic system that encouraged him to find another possible model that explained our solar system. Although geocentricism was the accepted model in society, Copernicus challenged this idea with the heliocentric model. Copernicus formulated the heliocentric model throughout his life and wrote his ideas in three main writings known as Commentariolus, On the Revolutions, and Narratio prima. All three of these writings contained Copernicus’s ideas on the universe and his thoughts behind the heliocentric model, but the book On the Revolutions became the most widespread across Europe. These works were published after Copernicus’s death, because he did not release his beliefs or the heliocentric model until the day that he died (Rabin, 2019).

Although the heliocentric model is widely accepted in society today, the idea of a sun-centered universe was rejected by society initially. Because Copernicus did not release his ideas until the day of his death, the heliocentric model was not recognized until Galileo Galilei brought it to the public. Galileo was an Italian astronomer that believed in the work of Copernicus and agreed with the heliocentric model. After the heliocentric model was made public, many scientists discredited the work of Copernicus and did not allow for his work to be published. Scientist Giovanni Tolsani made the statements “almost all the hypotheses of this author Copernicus contain something false” and “he seems unfamiliar with Holy Scripture since he contradicts some of its principles” about Copernicus’s work. During this time period, there was an ongoing battle between church and religion because many scientific findings contradicted writings in the bible. The Catholic Church believed that the Earth did not move and that other planets revolved around it because of the scripture Psalm 93:1, “The world will surely stand in place, never to be moved”. At the time, Christians thought that anyone who believed in the heliocentric model was wrong because the heliocentric model stated that the earth was in motion around the sun. The Catholic Church made efforts to silence the ideas of Copernicus because they believed they opposed the “Words of the Lord”. The Catholic Church ordered Galileo not to voice his opinions about the heliocentric model, but eventually he defended the ideas to the public. When Galileo publicly defended the heliocentric model, the Catholic Church forced him to spend the rest of his life under house arrest (Bufka, 2009).

The heliocentric model changed the way that society and scientists thought about the universe. This was the first time in history that the biblical notion that the Earth was at the center of the universe was questioned. This scientific theory caused Christians to question the bible and the “Word of the Lord”. The heliocentric model became widely accepted over the geocentric model when scientists began to study more about it. Johannes Kepler was a German astronomer that believed in the heliocentric model, but studied it further to improve its concept. Kepler was an assistant to the astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who made many astronomical observations throughout his life. When Brahe passed away, Kepler used a combination of his own observations and the observations of Brahe to define the laws of planetary orbits. Brahe’s laws of planetary motion continued on to be the basis of many laws made by scientists, including Isaac Newton’s law of motion (Riebeek, 2009). Scientists also made revisions to Copernicus’s model by proving that the Sun is actually the center of our galaxy, not the entire universe. Scientists also discovered that there are multiple galaxies in our universe. Overall, the heliocentric model changed the way that society perceived our solar system and universe. The heliocentric model opened up many windows for scientists to further study our solar system and expand the field of astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory, the heliocentric model, expanded society’s knowledge of astronomy. The heliocentric model caused society to rethink biblical notions and look further into scientific facts about the universe. Scientists also used the ideas of Copernicus to further study the solar system and create future scientific laws. Overall, the heliocentric theory not only changed the way that society viewed the universe, but also provided a stepping stone for scientists to further explore the field of astronomy.


The Renaissance was a period of time that included a multitude of new technologies and inventions that helped to progress society forward. These advances were as little as a new way to paint, advancements in medicine, or scientific findings. Isaac Newton was at the front of scientific advancement during the renaissance, and it was through his research that we have theories on gravity, calculus, and how light works. Isaac Newton’s publication Opticks (1730)  was his research about how light reacts with prisms and mirrors; this revolutionary research into light helped to advance telescopes and society and gave scientists the ability to study space.

During the Renaissance, telescopes were a critical invention that allowed people to gaze into space and study what was out there. The problem though with these telescopes is that they began to grow in size rapidly. This was due to light interfering with the image shown within the telescope. The properties of light before the renaissance were pure, it was bright, and if you try to look at it, you cannot see anything but brightness. Telescopes were hard to use because they grew to such enormous size, they began from being 6 to 8 feet in length in the early 1600’s to as much as 200 feet by the late 1600’s (Van Helden, 1974). This is important to note because it became increasingly hard for people to be able to create a telescope that allowed them to study space. The late 1600’s is when Isaac Newton began to become fascinated with how light worked and wanted to be able to solve the problem people had with light and telescopes. This was when he began to do research on light and its properties. The research, called “Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light,” (1730) was about how light reacted to prisms, mirrors, the colors of light after being reflected and refracted, and how different angles changed how the light was viewed. The research he did on light was revolutionary; he was able to prove that light was not just white but that when viewed by bending it or at different angles, it is made up of various colors. He also found that when light is refracted or displaced that the image does not have lesser quality.


“Sometimes I placed a third Prism after the second, and sometimes also a fourth after the third, by all which the Image might be often refracted sideways: but the Rays which were more refracted than the rest in the first Prism were also more refracted in all the rest, and that without any Dilatation of the Image sideways: and therefore those Rays for their constancy of a greater Refraction are deservedly reputed more refrangible” (Newton, 1730, p. 38).


His findings of prisms were that while the colors of light became refracted, the image itself did not deteriorate, but the light was displaced, so the image looked wrong. It was here that he began to realize that the way telescopes have been constructed with the use of concave lenses and prisms were the reason why telescopes began to become bigger. The light from the stars and planets were being refracted in the atmosphere and then being further refracted by the telescopes, so the image that people finally saw seemed to be wrong. This was when Isaac Newton brought up the idea that telescopes did not need to be longer to fix this issue. The research of light done by Isaac Newton helped him to invent his reflecting telescope. It was through this research that Isaac Newton learned how light worked and how telescopes used incorrect lenses. These lenses would distort the light being seen and interrupt the image people were trying to see. Isaac Newton published in his research a way to combat this problem:


“Long Telescopes may cause Objects to appear brighter and larger than short ones can do, but they cannot be so formed as to take away that confusion of the Rays which arises from the Tremors of the Atmosphere. The only Remedy is a most serene and quiet Air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of the highest Mountains above the grosser Clouds” (Newton, 1730, p. 111).


"Newton's Telescope Replica"
“Newton’s Telescope Replica” by Andrew Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

He found that by using mirrors instead of prisms, it would create a smaller telescope and one that gave a clearer image. Reflecting telescopes allowed scientists to view into space with smaller devices that were more compact and did not have issues with light interfering with what they wanted to see. Isaac Newton’s telescope revolutionized how scientists studied space, and it allowed them to do it with a more efficient, less costly, and easier to use the device.

Isaac Newton’s publication Opticks  (1730) was his research about how light reacts with prisms and mirrors and allowed him to invent the reflecting telescope that fixed the problem of light blocking the view into space and gave scientists the ability to study space. The knowledge Isaac Newton learned from his research was vital in him inventing his telescope, he was able to not only enhance the astronomy field with his invention, but his findings helped to further science. The enhancements he provided to astronomy by creating a telescope that is smaller than refracting telescopes allowed scientists to study space more effectively and efficiently. Isaac Newton’s research into light and how it reacted was revolutionary for its time during the Renaissance and has allowed for future generations to learn from it and advance the field of astronomy to the level where it is today.


There were several impactful scientific discoveries and technological advancements made during the Renaissance period, especially discoveries in basic science. The field of anatomy, in particular, had great advancements due to the lessened legal and cultural restrictions on dissecting cadavers, allowing them to build on the findings of the Ancient Greeks. Additionally, documentation in the field both in the form of texts and drawings, helped to spread and preserve the anatomical discoveries of the time. During the Renaissance period, significant breakthroughs were made in the field of anatomy by Leonardo da Vinci, William Harvey, and Andreas Vesailus that laid the groundwork for modern medicine and kept science relevant during a time of arts and culture.

In order for the major breakthroughs in anatomy to take place during the Renaissance, scientists needed legal and social access to dissecting cadavers. Human cadavers were first commonly dissected in 300 BC in ancient Greece, but their dissection was halted by the spread of Christianity in Europe during the middle ages. In 1163, Pope Alexander III proclaimed “Ecclesia abhorret a sanguine” meaning “The church abhors blood”. This proclamation was interpreted as a ban on cadaver dissections (need citation). Additionally, in 1299 Pope Boniface VIII issued a more direct decree forbidding the manipulation of corpses (Walsh, 1904). Dissection was revived at the beginning of the 14th century in Italy as the religious restraints relaxed, and the church gave clear permission and boundaries for the dissection of cadavers in order to calm the public opinion on dissection. The dissections were performed mainly to teach medical students the facts already known about anatomy. However, in the 15th century, with the rise in naturalism and the influence of anatomy on artists, scientists became more curious about discovering the details of how the human body worked (Ghosh, 2015). The support of the field by the church and public, along with the growing curiosity, was critical for the advancements made in anatomy during the Renaissance era.

"The Vitruvian Man"
“The Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci is licensed under CC BY 4.0

One of the prominent anatomists of the Renaissance era, Leonardo da Vinci, the famous inventor and artist, had an interesting artistic and mechanical view of human anatomy and played a key role in promoting the study of anatomy. He was particularly interested in how the nervous system and muscles interacted (Keele, 1964). During the time, studying the muscles was a field of interest, as artists wanted to better understand muscles to draw them more accurately. As an artist himself, Leonardo took an interest in this field. From his dissections, he made many artistic drawings, such as “The Vitruvian Man” which helped spread and popularize anatomy. Da Vinci as a prominent figure in many fields and a mentor to many apprentices, played a critical role in advancing anatomy and brought anatomy further into the public view.

William Harvey, an influential English anatomist during the Renaissance era, primarily investigated the circulatory system. He explained how the heart propels blood in a circular course throughout the body. Additionally, he was the first to hypothesize that mammals reproduced by a sperm fertilizing an egg (BBC, 2014). Harvey also directly addressed social structures in his anatomical writings. For example, in his book De Motu Cordis on the heart and the movement of blood around the body, Harvey addresses the power of the king. “The heart of creatures is the foundation of life, the prime of all, the sun of their microcosm, on which all vegetation does depend, from whence all vigor and strength does flow. Likewise, the King [Charles I] is the foundation of his kingdoms, and the sun of his microcosm, the heart of his commonwealth from whence all power and mercy proceeds” (Harvey, 1653). This theory being more Copernican, that the body centers around the heart, reinforced the power and supremacy of the king (Hill, 1964). This is an example of how documented anatomical discoveries sometimes directly influenced politics and society.

Additionally, Andreas Vesailus made significant strides in the field of anatomy by investigating the old knowledge and creating a new foundation. He critically evaluated the anatomical knowledge from the ancient Greek texts, the foundation of anatomy at the time, particularly works of Galen. He determined that Galen likely derived many of his conclusions about human anatomy from dissections of other animals, and thus, had many incorrect assumptions on the anatomy of the human body. Vesailus published the first comprehensive textbook on human anatomy, laying a new foundation for the field of anatomy, and later wrote the Fabrica which was a seven-volume compilation of drawings and more extensive descriptions of the human body (Florkin, 2019). He played a key role in updating anatomy by disputing old, inaccurate assumptions and comprehensively documenting the new findings.

Because of the changing viewpoint of the church on the act of cadaver dissection in the Renaissance era, the gateway was opened for new discoveries in the field of anatomy. Three significant anatomists of the time were Leonardo da Vinci, William Harvey, and Andreas Vesailus. These anatomists made significant contributions because of their direct observations of human bodies, re-evaluation of and building upon knowledge from the ancient Greeks, and sharing their discoveries with one another and the public through accurate documentation both in the form of text and drawings. Without many of these central discoveries in the field of anatomy, the advancements we made in medicine could not have taken place.


The lens through which mankind sees the world is the most immediate form of understanding. For centuries, human perception has served as the impetus for art and analysis. The sources from which knowledge is gained are only as valuable as the degree of accuracy to which they are able to represent the content itself. The roots of the Renaissance could arguably be traced back to early 15th century Italy where artists/inventors were developing new ways of seeing and depicting the world (Green, 2012). The most significant in relation to science and technology in society among these artists was Italian fresco painter Raphael, whose use of oblique perspective changed how objects in space were represented to an audience. Typically, artwork is regarded as a means of decoration, but the pieces that have survived the test of time exist still because of the advancement that they have brought to society. They provoke thought – challenging ideas that were causing society to idle – and they shift perspectives to push cultural norms forward. Da Vinci advanced how accurately anatomical figures were drawn and created technical drawings that still inspire creativity and inventiveness today. Michelangelo used the Sistine Chapel fresco as a medium to communicate his perspective on the power of the Catholic Church at the time. These artists are progressive thinkers though in that the task that they accomplished was the creation of a way to more accurately depict perspective in visual matter – the most readily available means of communication. Raphael is credited with the most geometrically correct ‘prospettiva’ piece of this era – the ‘School of Athens’ – which is a well-known fresco he painted on the main wall of Raphaelle Stanze at the Vatican in 1510. This painting was not contested for its powerful geometric accuracy or implementation of vanishing one-point perspective until mid-way through the 17th century. He is one of few artists prior to the 1600’s to even understand how this construction of one-point perspective works (Kubovy, 1993). What is significant about this is the fact that ideas could now be transferred to other individuals with a new degree of understanding. This understanding and the ability to communicate it led to Raphael becoming the Chief Architect of St. Peter’s Basilica following the passing of his close counterpart, Leone Battista Alberti. “The interplay between the power of perspective and the difficulty of its implementation seems to have been one of the motivating forces through the Renaissance and beyond” (Tyler & Kubovy, n.d.).

It is apparent that some forms of technology in society spread because there is a demand for a more accurate way of going about a task but there are sometimes barriers (like geography) that get in the way of that reach (History Crunch Writers, 2018). But recognize that in this case, the thing itself (perspective) is now why the reach is able to span further – because of this progression by Raphael, visual concepts and ideas are communicated more efficiently and on a wider scale. This ultimately led to ideas and concepts of architecture and scientific innovations to be more effectively communicated throughout society and would forever change how perspective would be depicted in two dimensions.


Religion has been a major pillar of society throughout history, and it certainly claimed a dominant role in society during the Renaissance and Reformation eras. The 16th century’s transition from old ways of thinking to new and more free ideologies generated intense religious turmoil. One cataclysmic event on the path to the “new way of thinking” was the Protestant Reformation, sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a German monk and a prolific writer who found himself in disagreement with some teachings of the political and religious powerhouse — the Roman Catholic Church. In Luther’s era, few people dared to take a stand against the church, yet he found the courage to do just that. During Luther’s lifetime, an imperative technology was invented– the printing press. The printing press was a tool that changed all of history by making literature and information more accessible to a wider variety of people, not just the rich who could afford an education. Both the boldness of Martin Luther and the development of the printing press were necessary for the success of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.

In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church held immense religious and political influence in society. Popes were practically kings — they were exceedingly wealthy and held intense political power. Popes had the authority to command armies and make political decisions, such as creating alliances and initiating war (Zucker & Harris, 2013). Because of the stronghold that the Church held on society and the vast territory that it controlled, very few people in history spoke out against the Church or its teachings. The Church also used fear to control society by reminding the people of the Wrath of God. Total subordination to the Church was an accepted way of life and was seen as proof of loyalty and respect. However, in the early 1500s, one German monk decided that he could no longer keep quiet about some Church practices that he disagreed with. Martin Luther of Wittenberg, Germany was a monk and theology professor (Zucker & Harris, 2013).  Luther strongly despised the Catholic Church’s practice of selling “indulgences”, or a piece of paper that acknowledged a donation or charitable work for the forgiveness of sins. “In 1506, the cornerstone for a new basilica of St. Peter was laid and Pope Julius II authorized an indulgence to finance its construction. In exchange for a contribution to the building fund, a papal indulgence might offer huge benefits, such as the forgiveness of future sins and the release of loved ones from purgatory” (Hendrix, 2015). Luther disagreed with the ideas that a believer could purchase their way to heaven or earn their salvation through a certain number of good works. Luther preached that true salvation was granted only by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross and that this was a gift that could not be earned or repaid. In 1517, Luther wrote 95 Theses on suggested revisions to the Church’s malpractices and posted them to the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Within one year of writing The 95 Theses, Luther’s ideas were spreading like wildfire around Germany and all of central Europe due to the invention of a certain technology —  the Gutenberg printing press.


Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door
“Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door” by Ferdinand Willem Pauwels is in the Public Domain

The Gutenberg printing press was invented in the late 1430s by Johannes Gutenberg (Chappell, 2011). The printing press was imperative for progress in society because it made information available to a wider group of people. Prior to the printing press days, only the wealthy had access to a variety of books and information. Furthermore, all of the Church’s documents and teachings were published in Latin, a language that only the Clergy members and wealthy lay people knew.


“The invention of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century (by Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany) together with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular (the common languages of French, Italian, German, English, etc.) meant that it was possible for those who could read to learn directly from Bible without having to rely on a priest or other church officials. Before this time, the Bible was available in Latin, the ancient language of Rome spoken chiefly by the clergy. Before the printing press, books were handmade and extremely expensive. The invention of the printing press and the translation of the bible into the vernacular meant that for the first time in history, the Bible was available to those outside of the Church” (Zucker & Harris, 2013).


As this quote points out, the printing press was important in taking away a small piece of the clergy’s power because now the congregation of believers could interpret the Bible in their own personal way. This began the shift away from complete subordination and reliance on the Church to allow for newer, more individualistic thinking. The printing press technology was also imperative for the spreading of information, for example Martin Luther’s The 95 Theses publication. The 95 Theses was a great business decision for the Gutenberg Press to publish because so many people were intrigued by someone willing to speak out against the Church. “As an entrepreneurial venture, they set the 95 Theses into type, printed them and reproduced them,” says Rassieur. “When they saw how rapidly they were selling, they made copies and copies and copies. It went viral” (Gjelten, 2016). Because of the magnitude of copies produced by the printing press in well-known secular languages, Martin Luther’s ideas and revisions gained widespread support. This was absolutely necessary to make any real changes in the vastly powerful Catholic Church. Without the printing press technology, the Protestant Reformation forces would not have had enough backing and the Catholic Church surely would have quickly squandered the religious revolution.

The innovative printing press technology paired with the courage of Martin Luther proved to be the cataclysmic equation that was necessary to spark the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s. Due to the vast spiritual and political power that the Roman Catholic Church held during that era, very few people were successful in standing up to the Church. Martin Luther did not let this stop him from sharing his 95 Theses of suggested revisions to church practices. The printing press played a key role in the Reformation as well by distributing Luther’s 95 Theses to a vastly expanded audience. Translating works into the vernacular of the lay people and producing massive amounts of copies allowed people of all social standings and education levels to have access to information. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the rapid spread of these ideologies are a prime example of how technology was necessary for the transition from traditional ways of thinking to the exploration of new ideas.


Throughout history, technology and politics have had a unique relationship with each other that has evolved into a modern world where complex governmental systems have been created all across the globe. When analyzing the past, significant inventions have transcended the world of politics and have revolutionized how nations across the world govern their society.  A technological invention that played a pivotal role in the Reformation was the printing press. The invention of the printing press played a significant role in not only the growth of the Protestant Reformation but in the political departure from the intertwined nature of Church and State in 16th century Europe. The printing press was influential in the advent of the world of mass media and took society from having a basic understanding of spreading information to a more advanced way of reaching groups of people. Without the printing press, society’s ability to connect and communicate on a grand scale would have never developed into the highly connected world we have today.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and State in 16th century Europe was one of oppressive behavior by the Church towards the Holy Roman Empire. It is sufficient to say that “the Roman Catholic Church was a major political and even military power in Western Europe” (Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d.). The political set up in Germany, which made up most of the Holy Roman Empire, included various different local leaders that were led by a powerless emperor. Such a governmental situation was an easy target for the Church to expand their influence into the Holy Roman Empire. The Church used numerous tactics to suppress any acts against its authority from the people that made up the Holy Roman Empire. Germans were ruthlessly taxed and implemented fees upon the people within the State, creating much animosity among the people in the Holy Roman Empire against the Church. The advantageous papacy used their acquired leverage to “defend and expand the Church’s influence and wealth” (Constitutional Rights Foundation, n.d.) by continuing to use political weapons and even the threat of excommunication from the Church. It was this time period when the printing press, that was created decades before, changed the political landscape in Europe forever.

In the 1400’s, a new age of mass media was in its grassroots phase with the innovation of printing techniques that had long before hindered the ability for written text to be copied large scale. The idea and use of early printing was only utilized by a small population of educated and influential people in the Medieval times and the early stages of the Reformation. The standard prior to the invention of the printing press emphasized the use of hand held writing techniques. Specifically, “the scribal culture of the Middle Ages depended on the meticulous copying of manuscripts who spent hours at their tasks” (Odin, 1997). With the printing power in the hands of few, the ability of the public to obtain information, specifically on political matters was essentially non-existent prior to the invention of the printing press. As stated, “access to manuscripts was confined to chiefly the clerics who became custodians of the book culture” (Odin, 1997). In summary, “the scholarly activities were confined to monasteries and reading was usually the occupation of clerics” (Odin, 1997). The few people who possessed these abilities were members of the Church, which is a representation of the political stranglehold the Church had on present day mass media before the printing press. The printing press revolutionized numerous areas of reformation culture, “for the first time it was possible for political, economic, and culture producers to reach people who were dispersed geographically” (Odin, 1997). The immediate ramifications of such an invention allowed masses of people to, for the first time, find like-minded individuals, which evolved into groups willing to stand up for their common interests.

An interesting historical contrast to observe is the difference between the effectiveness of two Reformation figures in John Wycliffe and Martin Luther. When analyzing the paths that both endured in their movements against the oppressive rule of the Catholic Church, both Wycliffe and Luther have very similar stories.  However, there is one distinct reason why Martin Luther was much more successful in hindering the power of the Catholic Church and that was the printing press. Both Wycliffe and Luther used similar models in trying to undermine the political and overall influence of the Catholic Church in Europe. It is safe to say that, “Luther was the father of the Reformation, while many of his ideas came from the earlier clergy, specifically Wycliffe” (Hartman, 2019). Wycliffe and Luther pushed back on the use of indulgences and pioneered the idea of the Bible being translated in not just Latin but in vernacular languages. By scripture only being in Latin, Church figures were mainly the only individuals that were able to read the bible. Both individuals pushed to allow the public to have the ability to not only read the bible, but to understand and rally behind reformation ideas, through access to these documents in multiple languages. The role of the printing press allowed Martin Luther to spread his teachings and reformation principles across Germany in an effort to separate ideologically and politically from the Catholic Church. Simply, the printing press allowed for the Reformation to make a much more significant impact in the time period of Luther than that of Wycliffe. The utilization of mass media was the foundation for the gradual separation of European politics from the oppressive influence of the Catholic Church in the Reformation period.

The invention of the printing press played a significant role in multiple realms of the Protestant Reformation. However, its origination radically changed the political landscape in Europe by creating the gradual separation of Church and State in European politics. The printing press enacted this change through its ability to connect the public like never before seen in history and remains one of the most important inventions for modern day society.


The European Reformation led to an expansion of the religion worldwide. One of the most important new landing areas for the protestants was the New World, also known as North America. These early pilgrims sought new religious freedoms and found that colonizing this New world provided religious freedom and escape from prior persecutions. One of the earliest and most influential settlements to date were the Puritan pilgrims at Plymouth Rock Massachusetts. What is today pictured as the First Thanksgiving gathered the Pilgrims with the  Wampanoag tribe celebrating the large harvest of Autumn 1621. As both sides observed different dining formalities as well as neither speaking each other’s languages this festival would have been more business than pleasure. The natives and pilgrims did initially lead a harmonious life together, however it was not as interactive as is widely believed. The natives primarily kept to themselves, away and into the forest, while the Pilgrims stayed within their means unless venturing outward to hunt. Their interactions were based out of mutual necessity, exchange cultural ideals and technologies. The Pilgrims in this foreign land needed help with farming, hunting, and harvesting in such a new world. The natives needed protection and weapons in dealing with the outnumbering and violent neighboring tribes.

Tool Trading

One of the most important interactions came with the natives named Squanto and Samoset. The two natives had fallen victim to previous capture by prior English explorers. This practice of kidnapping natives, teaching them the English, then using them as interpreters was not uncommon. Both became a great asset between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. It is with a translator that the interaction between the two entities began- and one of the most significant cultural exchanges began. Some of the earliest exchanges were rooted in simple merchant trade. Items that each side saw as common tools or decorations were unheard of and rare to the opposite party. The vast animal pelts and various forms of beaded jewelry. The “Indian Fur Trade ” had already been practiced throughout the coast of North America and continued within the Plymouth settlement. Native Americans traded variations of fur pelts in trade for common European tools. These tools varied from farming tools and eating utensils to weapons, primarily guns. Edward Winslow, a pilgrim in the time writes in his journal of the simple merchant trade the pilgrims had with the natives, “…[we] gave him a knife, a bracelet, and a ring; he promised within a night or two to come again, and to bring with him … beavers’ skins” (Heath, 1986). Winslow’s writing as well as fellow pilgrim William Bradford, the first Plymouth Governor, are few of the first hand accounts depicting living alongside the natives (Bradford, 1952). Along with common merchant goods, weapons were given to the natives in exchange for pelts and food. It was with these acquired guns that the Wampanoag were able to defend themselves from the surrounding tribes. This spread of modern weaponry would continue with the Plymouth settlement as well as throughout all of European influenced America, forever changing the native way of warfare as well as hunting.

Sharing Ideas and the First Thanksgiving

Outside of good trading ideas and skills also flowed between the Natives and the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were in a new land with minimal knowledge of farming and hunting, which ultimately would lead to a great famine in the winter. With the help of Squanto and Samoset as well as other Natives, the Pilgrims were able to learn techniques of farming and hunting to become self-sustainable for food. It is with this self sustaining and the teaching from the Natives that the idea of America’s First Thanksgiving is born. The Fall of 1621 saw a gathering of Natives and Pilgrims to share the harvest for the fall. Even though stuffing, turkey, and cranberry sauce may not have been present this large gathering represents a harmonious interaction between the Natives and Europeans. This Thanksgiving was evidence that the two parties could mutually interact and influence each other in positive and progressive ways, expanding both sides in new technological and cultural ways.

"The First Thanksgiving"
“The First Thanksgiving” is in the Public Domain

Often the outlook on many early American settlements is that of violence and harshness between the settlers and natives. In reality the harmony of Plymouth Colony did not last forever. Eventually with the passing of the original Pilgrim leader, the settlers and the Natives would evidently fall into violence. It should however be recognized the impact of the original peaceful interactions between the two. This mutual necessity was dealt with in a way of comradery and peace. Had it not been for these initial interactions the Pilgrims would not have survived the colonization of Plymouth beyond the first few months as well as the Wampanoag being exterminated by rival tribes. The Reformation led to an expansion of European ideas and technologies. With the Pilgrims looking to the New World to escape this religious persecution they found themselves in an unknown territory facing unknown people. This First Thanksgiving was a product of the Pilgrims early peaceful settlement proving the success in cultural exchange amongst the native Wampanoags.


The world of science and technology was the vehicle that society needed in order to transition from a rigid old way of thinking into a limitless new way of thinking. The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation brought unprecedented change to society in the form of new technologies and ideas. These new inventions were the products of the most influential and innovative minds the world has ever seen.  The Renaissance and Reformation will always be remembered as an era that laid the foundation for modern day science, religion, and politics.


Chapter Questions

  1. Short Answer: What role did the church play in the study of anatomy?
  2. Short Answer: What is a common problem that occurs when two cultures initially come in contact with each other? How did the Pilgrims solve this?
  3. Essay Question: Imagine the printing press did not exist. List and discuss at least two specific reasons why this technology was so important to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
  4. True or False: Michelangelo is credited for creating a new method for conveying three-dimensional forms in two dimensions and served as Chief Architect of St. Peter’s Basilica.
  5. True or False: Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Catholic Church because he disagreed with the Church’s tactic of selling Confessions of famous people.
  6. Multiple Choice: Who was the first person to patent the invention of the telescope?
    A.   Galileo Galilei
    B.   Johannes Kepler
    C.   Hans Lippershey
    D.   Leonardo da Vinci


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“Newton’s Telescope Replica” by Andrew Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“The Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci is licensed under CC BY 4.0

” Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door” by Ferdinand Pauwels is in the Public Domain

“The First Thanksgiving” is in the Public Domain


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To the extent possible under law, Katherine Floyd; Joseph Johnson; JackMaddox; Mitchell Cook; Katherine Coode; Robert McDowell; Tiara Evans; and Mae Furman have waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to Science, Technology, & Society: A Student-Led Exploration, except where otherwise noted.

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