The sixteenth century is widely considered to be one of the pivotal centuries in human history, a time when the overall organization and structure of human society went through a fundamental change. It was the high point of a larger historical period known as the Renaissance, which lasted from the late fourteenth through the sixteenth century. It was called the Renaissance because Europe saw a rebirth of learning, arts, and culture that had not been seen since the splendor of the Greek and Roman empires of a thousand years past. This rebirth was encouraged by the rise of universities, the creation of the first printing press in 1455, which allowed book publication to flourish, and widespread support for the arts by wealthy patrons. But more than a rebirth occurred in Europe in the sixteenth century. Expanding trade created wealth and new industries, helping to fuel the growth of the middle class; religious controversy sparked war and contributed to the growing strength and independence of nations throughout Europe; and the invention of new technologies revolutionized agriculture and industry, allowing for greater population growth. This key century is often thought to have begun the modern period of history, which continues to this day.
Perhaps the most significant political trend of the century was the consolidation of power in the hands of monarchs ruling large kingdoms, or nations. During the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) many minor kings, dukes, and other nobles had governed small regions. They engaged in frequent, disruptive wars with each other. By the sixteenth century, however, nobles in the regions that became England, France, and Spain had come up with a system that promoted greater stability. They gave their support—in the form of taxes and soldiers—to a single powerful monarch. The unifying presence of a stable monarch ruling over a large area reduced the threat of frequent warfare and allowed trade to expand in the areas under the monarch's rule. The economies of France, England, and Spain improved as a result, helped along by the opening of trade routes in the New World in the Western Hemisphere. The monarch's power rested on the confidence that was entrusted in him or her by the country's many nobles, so it was not always stable.
Not all of the areas of Europe were so unified and organized. In what is now Italy, city-states were the primary form of organization, and they were controlled by wealthy families who were some of the leading figures of the Renaissance, such as the Medici family. These city-states thrived on banking and trade. In present-day Germany a variety of states were loosely organized under the authority of the pope. Both of these regions would not organize into unified nations until the nineteenth century.
One of the forces that had united Europe throughout the Middle Ages was the religious unity provided by the Roman Catholic Church. That unity crumbled in the fifteenth and especially the sixteenth century, and this collapse actually contributed to the strength of the monarchies. The most powerful force behind the decline of the Catholic Church was a historical event called the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began in 1517 when German priest Martin Luther (1483–1546) posted a series of protests about church abuses on the door of a local Catholic church. Soon many others joined Luther in his break from Catholicism. By the end of the century these protesting groups, called Protestants, had created distinct religions of their own. These new religions, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Puritanism, became especially influential in northern Europe.
With Protestants set against Catholics, and with Catholics in different parts of Europe arguing over divisions of power, religion became a source of real conflict throughout Europe. Powerful monarchs, such as Henry VIII of England (1491–1547), decided that they, not the pope, should be the head of the church in their nation. In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England. The overall decline in authority of the Catholic Church led to an increase in the authority of the ruling monarchies.
There were many, many more important events and trends that shaped the sixteenth century, not least the further opening of the New World to trade and exploration, but the rise of powerful nations with strong and complex economies had the greatest impact on the course of human costume.
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