Precursors of the Renaissance

This image is a medieval book illustration portraying Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio reading together. They were both major actors in developing the form of Italian humanism which underpinned the Renaissance
Source: British Library via Europeana

This article is the third in a series by EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on

Source collection: Precursors of the Renaissance

The Historiana source collection Precursors of the Renaissance consists of a selection of sources that challenge the existing narrative of the European Renaissance that started in the 14th or 15th century in Italy, and was seen as a clear cut break with the medieval times that came before.

The sources in the collection are a mix of explanatory sources that give information on different perspectives on the Renaissance, sources that give examples of scientific progress from the medieval period in Europe, sources that show elements of what is seen as ‘Renaissance’ in the Islamic world that predate the 14th century and sources on so called polymaths that predate Leonardo Da Vinci as (probably) the world’s most famous polymath.

Part of these sources provide evidence of not a break between Antiquity, medieval times and the Renaissance in Europe, but a certain continuity, arguing that the Renaissance did not appear out of thin air, but is to be perceived as an ‘evolution’ instead of a ‘revolution’.

Another part of the sources show that although Europe might have been going through some ‘dark ages’, especially concerning arts and sciences, this certainly was not the case for the entire world, as can be derived from the sources on the Islamic World.

As a whole the source collection Precursors of the Renaissance lends itself to tackle the historical concept of continuity and change, in this case in the context of the European Renaissance.


The aims of this learning activity for the students are:

  • The student places the European Renaissance in a context of processes in both medieval Europe, as well as the Islamic world.
  • The student describes processes in medieval Europe and explains why they can be seen as precursors to the Renaissance.
  • The student describes processes in the Islamic Golden Age and explains why the can be seen as precursors to the Renaissance.
  • The student discusses what makes someone a polymath and explains why certain historical figures can (or cannot) be seen as polymaths.
  • The student discusses to what extent the European Renaissance can be seen as an evolution when seen in a wider historical context.

E-Learning Activity builder

This e-Learning Activity makes use of both the sorting tool and prioritizing tool from the Historiana e-Learning Activity builder.

The first sub-activity that uses the sorting tool has a background of multiple different timelines. This allows students to first categorise the sources and then place them in chronological order. The timelines run parallel, so they can be used to observe parallel developments or, for example, to switch between scales (think Braudel’s longue durée versus processes and events). In this specific sub-activity students are asked to place historical figures in chronological order, within certain historical developments.

The second sub-activity that uses the sorting tool only has a single timeline on the background. Compared to the previous sub-activity the idea is simple: put the sources in chronological order along the timeline.

The third sub-activity uses the prioritizing tool, with which the students can resize the provided sources. Each source represents an historical figure from the period before the Renaissance. Each of these figures can be seen as a ‘polymath’ (the ‘uomo universale’ from the Renaissance), although not to the same extent. Using the resizing function of the tool students make the sources either larger or smaller, indicating how much a polymath a person was according to them.

Learning Activity

The main aim of this learning activity flows directly from the source collection it uses: challenging the image of the Renaissance as a revolution by looking at historical evidence from the previous centuries and from outside of Europe.

The learning activity is divided in three more or less equal sub-activities and one concluding part.

The first sub-activity has students look at processes, events and people that could be argued to be precursors of the Renaissance in the time between Antiquity and the period that is generally seen as the European Renaissance. After putting the sources in chronological order students are asked to look for and describe continuity and change.

The second sub-activity focuses on sources that are connected to the Islamic World, especially the period that is called the Islamic Golden Age. Students are asked to put the sources in chronological order and to describe how this Golden Age outside of Europe influenced the Renaissance. It is likely the students will get to see this period in the Islamic World as a ‘bridge’ between European Antiquity and the European Renaissance, enabling a continuity in development of arts and sciences, although not entirely in Western Europe.

The third sub-activity focuses on so-called polymaths, the ‘uomo universales’ that are strongly linked with the European Renaissance. Sources that represent prospective polymaths from both medieval Europe and the Islamic Golden Age are provided and students are asked to study these, deciding to what extent the people presented can be seen as polymaths. They are first asked to give their own definition of a polymath and use the criteria they formulate there to weigh the sources. Afterwards they are asked if they consider polymaths to be purely connected with the Renaissance or if they can be seen as a wider phenomenon.

After the three sub-activities students discuss the main question (To what extent can the European Renaissance be considered an evolution instead of a revolution?) with a partner and to summarise their findings, including the evidence they have found throughout the learning activity to support their claim.


The e-learning activity Precursors of the Renaissance makes use of the Historiana source collection of the same name. It makes use of both the sorting tool and the prioritizing tool of the E-Learning Activity builder. Its main aim is to have students discuss if the European Renaissance can be perceived as an evolution instead of the ‘generally accepted view’ of it being a revolution. Students work through several sub-activities on both precursors of the Renaissance in medieval Europe and the Islamic Golden Age, as well as polymaths to gain insight in the main question. Throughout the learning activity they collect evidence they can use to support the claim they choose make at the end: Renaissance: revolution or evolution?


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union .

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