Technological Diffusion during the European Renaissance

1 January 2017

The innovations discussed here represent revolutions in warfare, society, and art that saw a rapid diffusion through the societies of Europe during the renaissance for varying reasons. Whether for survival, economic gain, or aesthetic pleasure they were eventually embraced throughout Europe laying down some of the bedrock that modern western society would be built on. The spread of firearms throughout renaissance Europe had a profound effect on warfare.

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The invention of the printing press in Europe would cause innumerable changes to society boosting literacy rates and helping supporting the intellectual renewal of Europe. Oil painting techniques became widely adopted forming the bases of Venetian style painting while also allowing paintings to survive to the present day because of increased durability. Our first example of technological diffusion is the firearm whose vital component, gunpowder, made its way to Europe sometime during the thirteenth century possibly via Moorish Spain (LaRocca, Para 1).

The Chinese also appear to be the first to develop gunpowder weapons with the earliest known reference originating in china during the twelfth century. The exact channels that brought this technology from the Fareast are disputed but what seems obvious is that unlike in China all of the European rulers in the late 15th and early 16th century realized the usefulness of the new weapons (Sandberg, Para 4). Gunpowder weapons first proved their unquestionable worth to European rulers in the mid fourteenth century as the cannons that helped the armies of Mehmet II destroy the previously impregnable walls of Constantinople in 1453.

In that same year cannons combined with earthen defenses helped the French to crush an English attempt to retake Gascony at the Battle of Castillon (Blair, Martell and Roumas, 47). The history of the diffusion of firearm technology throughout Europe during the renaissance gives us an example of technology that was spread by necessity. Cannons allowed the armies of Mehmet II to breach the walls of Constantinople and bring an end to the 1,500 year old Roman Empire.

While at the same time the defensive capabilities of gun powdered weapons was proved to the English at Castillon during a disastrous loss to the French that ended the Hundreds Years’ War. The most dramatic example of this process I have found was during the siege of Pavia in 1525 when the French-Swiss forces were defeated so decisively by harquebusiers protected by pike men that the French troops exchanged the crossbows for firearms after the battle (Brooks 64). For European states it was a necessity to adopt firearms or face their own decline and destruction in the face of a technologically superior rival.

The renaissance also saw the invention and spread of the printing press which has been hailed as one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. Although earlier printing processes have been known in Asia Schlager and Lauer make the point, “[that] …it was the mechanical apparatus developed by Johannes Gutenberg (1398? -1468) that ushered in a new age of communications and comprehension with far-reaching implications that continue to shape our world and perception” (Para 1).

The diffusion of the printing press was extremely fast with a printing press appearing in every major European center within fifty years of its invention in Germany sometime during the 1430’s even being brought to the New World by the Spanish in 1539 (Schlager & Lauer Para 9). However, unlike the gunpowder weapons the spread of the printing press was not mandated for the immediate survival of European powers. Instead the spread of Gutenberg’s printing press was primarily a money making venture that met the need for a new demand during the renaissance for works of literature.

In fact the increasing affordability and accessibility of books created a new market among people who traditionally did not have access to them. The renaissance period also saw the proliferation of oil painting which was popularized in Flanders by Jan Van Eyck in the early fifteenth century. The technique that was developed by Van Eyck which involved heavy layering of paint for dark colors and a lighter layering of paint for lighter colors allowing the white ground to show through.

Eyck’s’ Technique was then transferred to Italy by Antonello da Messina who brought it to Venice in 1475 probably after learning it from a student of Van Eyck (Hall Para 8). There were also very practical benefits of using oil as a binding agent because it offered greater flexibility, richness of color, and adherence to support. Quite possibly for all these reasons oil painting was successfully transferred all over Italy by painters competing for the patronage of wealthy Italian urbanites. By the 1490’s it was the preferred medium in Italy; the epicenter of the European renaissance.

The period of European history known as the renaissance saw the rise of widespread invention and innovation fueled by political upheaval, rediscovered knowledge, and new found wealth among urban elites that funded so many artistic ventures. Firearm technology transferred from China was rapidly adopted by European powers and after being perfected proved an invaluable tool of war that no European power could do without. The Gutenberg printing press would quickly spread from Germany all over Europe to support the intellectual renewal while simultaneously creating an emergent market for literature among the lower classes Europe.

The oil painting technique developed by Flemish artist Van Eyck was carried to Italy where it soon became the preferred medium and technique. In an age such as the European renaissance that is defined by innovation and invention we can clearly see the process of technological diffusion at work.

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