Feudalism had dominated Europe for a thousand years, but was on the decline at the beginning of the Renaissance. The reasons for this decline include the post-plague environment, the increasing use of money rather than land as a medium of exchange, the growing number of serfs living as freemen, the formation of nation-states with monarchies interested in reducing the power of feudal lords, the increasing uselessness of feudal armies in the face of new military technology (such as gunpowder), and a general increase in agricultural productivity due to improving farming technology and methods. As in Italy, the decline of feudalism opened the way for the cultural, social, and economic changes associated with the Renaissance in Europe.
Reproduction of Johann Gutenberg
-era Press on display at the Printing History Museum in Lyon, France.
Finally, the Renaissance in Europe would also be kindled by a weakening of the Roman Catholic Church. The slow demise of feudalism also weakened a long-established policy in which church officials helped keep the population of the manor under control in return for tribute. Consequently, the early 15th century saw the rise of many secular institutions and beliefs. Among the most significant of these, humanism, would lay the philosophical grounds for much of Renaissance art, music, and science. Desiderius Erasmus, for example, was important in spreading humanist ideas in the north, and was a central figure at the intersection of classical humanism and mounting religious questions. Forms of artistic expression which a century ago would have been banned by the church were now tolerated or even encouraged in certain circles.
The velocity of transmission of the Renaissance throughout Europe can also be ascribed to the invention of the printing press. Its power to disseminate information enhanced scientific research, spread political ideas and generally impacted the course of the Renaissance in northern Europe. As in Italy, the printing press increased the availability of books written in both vernacular languages and the publication of new and ancient classical texts in Greek and Latin. Furthermore, the Bible became widely available in translation, a factor often attributed to the spread of the Protestant Reformation.