Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the first major Italian writer to embody some of the qualities that were to characterize Renaissance literature. Much of Dante’s writing and outlook bore the stamp of the Middle Ages, and the grand theme of the Divine Comedy was medieval, the chivalric concept of disembodied love inspiring his devotion to Beatrice, whom he seldom saw.
The vernaculars of the western European countries emerged gradually, first as the spoken languages of the people, then as vehicles for popular writing, finally achieving official recognition. Many vernaculars—Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French—developed from Latin; these were the Romance (Roman) languages. Castilian, the core of modern literary Spanish, attained official status in the thirteenth century when the king of Castile ordered that it be used for government records.
The communications revolution brought on by the printing press, the enormous significance of the book as a force for change, the simple fact that printing preceded the Protestant revolt on which the Reformation fed are all aspects of a profound shift in perspective that, perhaps more than any other change, defines the transition between medieval and modern.
Augsburg’s total population at the height of Fugger power probably never exceeded 20,000. One set of estimates for the fourteenth century puts the population of Venice, Florence, and Paris in the vicinity of 100,000 each; that of Genoa, Milan, Barcelona, and London at about 50,000; and that of the biggest Hanseatic and Flemish towns between 20,000 and 40,000. Most Europeans still lived in the countryside.
The expansion of trade and industry promoted the rise of banking. The risks of lending were great, but so, too, were the potential profits. In 1420 the Florentine government vainly tried to put a ceiling of 20 percent on interest rates. Bankers were money changers, for only experts could establish the relative value of the hundreds of coins in circulation.
The expansion of trade stimulated industry. The towns of Flanders had developed the weaving of woolen cloth in the thirteenth century, with many workers and high profits. In the early fourteenth century perhaps two hundred masters controlled the wool guild of Florence, which produced nearly 100,000 pieces of cloth annually and employed 30,000 men.