Europe at the dawn of the fifteenth century operated much as it had for the previous several hundred years. The majority of the people, known as peasants, worked on small farms and paid some form of tax to a local lord, who provided the land on which they worked and also offered protection. These lords, who might be dukes, barons, or even kings, were the leading figures in the various kingdoms, states, duchys (the territory ruled by a duke), and other small regions by which most of Europe was organized. They were surrounded by advisers and leading merchants, who formed their court, and also by warriors, known as knights, who fought for them. In some parts of Europe, especially in England and France, these lords began to ally themselves behind the power of one king. (Henry VII united England during his reign, from 1485 to 1509, and Francis I later did the same for France during his reign from 1515 to 1547.) These alliances of nobles under one king began the process that eventually organized Europe into the nations we know today. But at the dawn of the fifteenth century this process had just begun, and for the most part the political organization of Europe was characterized by distinct and often warring kingdoms.
Though the many kingdoms of Europe often vied for power with each other, sometimes fighting bloody and destructive wars, they were united in several important ways. First, they all fell under the authority of the Catholic Church, which up until the sixteenth century was the sole religious institution in all of Europe. Europeans were also connected by growing networks of trade and commerce. Roads established during the Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ) linked European kingdoms and helped them move goods from kingdom to kingdom. Finally, they were also linked in their clothing styles. Though there were some important regional variations, for the most part people in England, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain tended to dress similarly.
Beginning in the late fourteenth century and escalating in the fifteenth century, two regions began to lead a rebirth, called the Renaissance, of learning, culture, and commerce. This Renaissance began in Italy, especially around the city of Florence, and in a region known as Burgundy, which included parts of modern-day France and Holland. The Italian states developed banking and trading systems that helped stabilize the economy throughout Europe. The duchy of Burgundy also grew very wealthy. In both areas wealthy nobles and merchants poured money into art, learning, clothing, and decoration such as jewelry. The Renaissance is known for its abundance of fine art and architecture, and for its renewed emphasis on literature and learning. But it also encouraged merchants and traders to expand their businesses. Soon these businesspeople extended their trade further and further. One of the most thriving industries in early Europe was the textile industry, which made rich fabrics available to more people than ever before. Soon the Renaissance spread to the rest of Europe.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, Europe was ready for the Renaissance that had begun in Italy and Burgundy. The end of the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between France and England allowed those two emerging nations to concentrate their energies on internal issues rather than war. After 1469 the kingdom of Spain grew more stable, as did the nearby kingdom of Portugal. Though Germany was divided into a number of smaller states, these too were fairly stable. The increased stability in these nations allowed people to concentrate on developing trade and commerce, which in turn created wealth for a larger number of people. This growing interest in trade also fed directly into the rise of exploration that saw European explorers, especially from Spain, Portugal, and England, discovering new territories and trade routes around the world. All of these trends combined to create the cultural flowering during the late fifteenth century known as the Renaissance.
The fifteenth century was a great era of transition in Europe, and that transition was also seen in the clothing worn by Europeans.
Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Kallen, Stuart A. The 1400s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.
Langley, Andrew. Renaissance. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Thompson, Stephen P., ed. The Renaissance. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2000.