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Renaissance: The Transformation of the West

Join a master historian for a revealing, comprehensive look at how the European Renaissance revolutionized politics, society, and faith.
Renaissance: The Transformation of the West is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 77.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive, well researched I got this course because I wanted to learn more about the Renaissance, and I did -- and then some, because the course deals with the “Long Renaissance” that includes the early 17th century which is considered by some to be the beginning of the Enlightenment. Professor McNabb is very articulate, and seems to do a fair amount of rephrasing and summing up. Her knowledge of the Renaissance is extensive and her incorporation of primary sources is impressive. Because the meaning ascribed to events matters (and is a big part of what history is about), it seems history could always use less explaining/describing and more telling what happened by using first person accounts of people who lived contemporaneously with events. Interpretation, however, is always valuable and sometimes necessary when one considers the limited range of voices that tend to be heard, heeded, and preserved over time, so I appreciated Professor McNabb’s effort to describe the lives of typical people. About ten or even twenty minutes into almost every lecture there was a kind of digression to define the scope, which consisted of much commenting on what would and wouldn’t be covered in the lecture: it was a good way to manage expectations, but the timing seemed to interrupt the momentum a bit, as it seemed like the kind of introductory statements usually found at the beginning of material. I encountered about 25 typographical errors in the guidebook, but they were of a minor nature that did not obscure the meaning of the sentence, such as transposed letters, duplicate words, or omitted small words such as articles.
Date published: 2024-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Truly a Great Course I couldn’t help myself but to write you a personal email to let you know how much I I enjoyed the course and presentation! The course is so comprehensive and informative. But what makes it more interesting is the delivery and presentation! I am so impressed how Professor McNabb can present so much content and information so smoothly and engage the listener!
Date published: 2024-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Most Enlightning I have watched dozens of courses and Professor McNabb's is among the very best. She delivers each lecture with erudition, insight. and steady articulation. I found her wealth of knowledge of the Renaissance prodigious and engrossing.
Date published: 2024-02-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Awful I have listened to over 50 Great Courses over the years. I am a professor myself at a rather well-known university in a STEM field, and I have used the Great Courses to fill the gaps in my education in the humanities. This is, by far, the WORST course I listed. It took me some real effort to finish it. Forget about all the fashionable mumbo jumbo of "problematizing" this or that. There were several topics where you could tell the instructor knew next to nothing (e.g., the military revolution). What got to me was her pronunciation of Latin and other European languages. Hearing her pronouncing "Juan of Austria," "Don Quijote," "Cogito," "Ceuta," and many, many other words was like having a root canal. There is an older course on the same topic in the Great Courses series. It is a bit old-fashioned and not perfect. But, do yourself a favor and pick that one.
Date published: 2024-02-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Can't stand to watch I was expecting great things from this course but found it too boring to watch. It seems to be much more the theory of the history of the Renaissance rather than actual Renaissance history. The Italian Renaissance by Bartlett is so much better. I am planning on sending this back for a refund.
Date published: 2024-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course! Prof. McNabb does a very thorough and interesting deep dive into all things Renaissance in this 48-lecture course. Each lecture is carefully crafted (no winging it here), and the professor covers a tremendous amount of material in each lecture (many of which extend to 33 or 34 minutes). There a lot of names, dates, and places in this course, but they are related with context and in connection with broader themes that really make the course stand out. I watched the video version, but I think the audio version would work just fine if you don't feel the need to see text on the screen or pictures of the figures discussed in the lectures. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2023-12-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Educational Interesting topic presented in an engaging way. Very much recommended!
Date published: 2023-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful coverage of the Renaissance! My wife and I have viewed dozens of programs from the Great Courses. This is one of the best. Apart from Grant Voth's "History of World Literature", Professor McNabb's presentation is unsurpassed. Excellent course for people who have some knowledge of European history but lack advanced degrees.
Date published: 2023-04-04
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In the 48 lectures of Renaissance: The Transformation of the West, award-winning Professor Jennifer McNabb guides you through centuries of exhilarating change in Europe, focusing on often-unexplored or overlooked areas, including the role of women in the Renaissance, the lives of the poor and elite, Renaissance home and family life, and the connections between the Renaissance and the Reformation.


Jennifer McNabb

In my years as a scholar of Europe, I’ve peeled back layers of legend in search of the complex reality of life.


University of Northern Iowa
Jennifer McNabb is a Professor of History and the head of the Department of History at the University of Northern Iowa. She received her PhD in History from the University of Colorado Boulder. She has published and spoken widely on the history of sex and marriage, and her articles have appeared in The Sixteenth Century Journal and Women’s History. She won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for curriculum development and served as president of the Rocky Mountain Medieval & Renaissance Association.

By This Professor

Renaissance: The Transformation of the West
Sex in the Middle Ages
Renaissance: The Transformation of the West


The Spirit of Renaissance

01: The Spirit of Renaissance

How did the Renaissance—as it occurred in Italy and in other parts of Europe—pioneer a new way of thinking about history itself? Who, exactly, was the typical “Renaissance Man”? Get answers to these and other questions about the Renaissance’s powerful fusion of classical and medieval worldviews.

33 min
Rebirth: Classical Values Made New

02: Rebirth: Classical Values Made New

Here, consider how the key contexts and values of the European Renaissance set the stage for a new era of questions. The two chief examples you’ll use to chart the origins of the European Renaissance are the Black Death and the letters of Petrarch.

27 min
The Medieval Roots of Italian Renaissance

03: The Medieval Roots of Italian Renaissance

Discover why the Renaissance first bloomed in, of all places, Italy. First, look at the politics and economics of medieval Italian states. Then, explore how the legacies of antiquity gained traction throughout the peninsula. Finally, consider the influence of trade revivals, a dynamic social order, and the profits from holy wars.

32 min
The Rise of the Humanists

04: The Rise of the Humanists

Focus on one of the most-challenging foundational concepts of the Renaissance: humanism. Professor McNabb outlines how and why education underwent its extreme makeover, explores the fields that dominated this new way of learning, and introduces you to humanist schools and schoolmasters.

33 min
Renaissance Florence: Age of Gold

05: Renaissance Florence: Age of Gold

Florence, defined by hierarchy and inequality, has become synonymous with the Italian Renaissance. How did this happen? Here, you will explore the complex political journey of this “most noble” of cities from model republic to six decades of domination by the iconic Medici family, and back again.

31 min
Renaissance Venice: More Serene Republic

06: Renaissance Venice: More Serene Republic

Dive into the byzantine history and legacy of Venice during the period of the Renaissance, when the city managed to prosper even without that most valuable of commodities: land. Learn how Venice was shaped by its merchant elite, how it joined the ranks of Italian city-states, and how Venice experienced humanism.

30 min
Renaissance Rome and the Papal States

07: Renaissance Rome and the Papal States

Investigate how the new learning in Rome challenged the wisdom of centuries of spiritual authority as the capital of Christianity. While exploring Rome’s papal history, encounter the noble family who considered it their birthright to wield control over the city: the infamous Borgias (including Cesare and Pope Alexander VI).

32 min
Renaissance Italy’s Princes and Rivals

08: Renaissance Italy’s Princes and Rivals

In this lecture, turn to the other great power players in Renaissance Italy, including the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily and the duchy of Milan. Then, examine the eclipse of the age of the republics by the age of the tyrants: elite families who used cunning to obtain—and maintain—positions of authority.

33 min
Renaissance Man as Political Animal

09: Renaissance Man as Political Animal

Renaissance Man can perhaps best be understood as an educational and political ideal, someone as schooled in warfare as he was in classical antiquity. Here, meet three men whose lives and works exemplify different iterations of the Renaissance Man in action: Niccolò Machiavelli, Baldassare Castiglione, and Leon Battista Alberti.

31 min
Women and the Italian Renaissance Court

10: Women and the Italian Renaissance Court

Step inside 15th- and 16th-century Italian courts to investigate how a number of smart, powerful, and cunning women helped steer the course of the Renaissance. Among the women you’ll meet are Isabella d’Este, noted for her trendsetting sense of style and substance, and the Italian poet, Veronica Franco.

33 min
Painting in the Early Italian Renaissance

11: Painting in the Early Italian Renaissance

Using the careers and works of artists like Masaccio, Giotto, and Botticelli, discover how early Renaissance painting innovated and celebrated the experience of being human. In addition, you’ll examine the business side of art, including matters of patronage that were central to artists during the Italian Renaissance.

33 min
 Painting in the High Italian Renaissance

12: Painting in the High Italian Renaissance

Turn now to the High Italian Renaissance era of painting, credited with a veritable artistic revolution in the art form. During this time, artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo were celebrities who rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful. Not to be overlooked: the role of women painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi.

33 min
Italian Sculpture, Architecture, and Music

13: Italian Sculpture, Architecture, and Music

Learn how Renaissance architects and city planners—including Donato Bramante, Sebastian Serlio, and Andrea Palladio—imbued sculpture and architecture with tremendous ideological and practical power. Then, discover how Renaissance musicians helped move music out of the religious sphere and into the princely courts.

33 min
Letters in the Italian Renaissance

14: Letters in the Italian Renaissance

In this lecture, examine the lives and careers of a trio of fascinating Renaissance authors who used their words to help write the Renaissance into the pages of history. Professor McNabb covers the merchant, Francesco Datini; the artist-biographer, Giorgio Vasari; and the Florentine historian, Francesco Guicciardini.

32 min
Renaissance Statecraft: A New Path

15: Renaissance Statecraft: A New Path

Venture to the other side of the Alps for a closer look at what’s known as the “Northern Renaissance.” You’ll chart the political evolution of the region from barbarism to feudalism to feudal monarchy, explore why feudal monarchies trended toward weakness, and get a brief overview of power struggles among northern kings.

35 min
European Renaissance Monarchies

16: European Renaissance Monarchies

Turn the lens on the monarchical rivalries of the Northern Renaissance, which changed the course of Western politics as much as the rivalries in Italy. Focus on the rule of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the rise of the Tudors in England, and the waxing power of France.

33 min
The Birth of the Christian Renaissance

17: The Birth of the Christian Renaissance

Consider the development of humanist thought in the north, which commingled with the idea of a Christian rebirth and a reordering of society’s morals that planted the seeds for the Reformation. Among the inquisitive and critical Christian humanists you’ll encounter are Erasmus and Thomas More.

34 min
Northern Renaissance Art and Music

18: Northern Renaissance Art and Music

Using works by Matthias Grünewald, Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, and others, explore how northern artists breathed artistic life into themes of faith, duty, and fidelity. Then, visit the court of the dukes of Burgundy for a look at the music of Guillaume Dufay.

33 min
Northern Renaissance Literature and Drama

19: Northern Renaissance Literature and Drama

Meet the Northern Renaissance authors and playwrights who offered entertainments and edification in the page and on the stage—authors who would become some of the greatest writers in Western history. These geniuses include François Rabelais; Miguel de Cervantes; William Langland; Geoffrey Chaucer; and, of course, William Shakespeare.

35 min
Did Women Have a Renaissance?

20: Did Women Have a Renaissance?

Examine the “woman question”: the contemporary debate about Renaissance women’s abilities and deficiencies. The question, as you’ll learn, was really about access to education. Along the way, you’ll consider whether we can say women had a renaissance of their own—and why that issue still matters today.

33 min
Renaissance Life: The Rural Experience

21: Renaissance Life: The Rural Experience

In the first of several sketches on the conditions of Renaissance life, explore the geographical setting where the vast majority of the European population lived at the time: the countryside. You’ll look at festivals and feast days, types of settlements, the competition for land, and the peasant rebellions that followed.

35 min
Renaissance Life: The Urban Experience

22: Renaissance Life: The Urban Experience

How exactly do we define “urban” during the Renaissance? How did three, early modern institutions—craft guilds, confraternities, and public drinking establishments—help to define the urban experience? Find out in Professor McNabb’s fascinating lecture on the urban experiences of rich and poor alike.

35 min
Renaissance Life: Crime, Deviance, and Honor

23: Renaissance Life: Crime, Deviance, and Honor

Continue exploring daily life during the Renaissance by turning to issues of personal crisis—and their consequences. In studying crime, deviance, and Renaissance attitudes toward honor and shame, you’ll discover how early modern communities and authorities sought to order the world and project their morality.

32 min
Renaissance Life: Marriage

24: Renaissance Life: Marriage

Marriage during the Renaissance was a major component of the “good life” during the period. It was also a complicated affair shaped by the intersection of private desires with more practical considerations. Delve into the ways Renaissance societies constructed marriage, and how marriage customs differed depending on geographic location.

34 min
Renaissance Life: Home and Hearth

25: Renaissance Life: Home and Hearth

What was domestic life like during the Renaissance? Get a feel for it with this lecture that highlights several topics related to home and hearth. These topics include: food culture (with a focus on baking), the practicalities of dress, the details about childrearing, and the role of servants and retainers.

34 min
Renaissance Faith: Medieval Contexts

26: Renaissance Faith: Medieval Contexts

Examine the two medieval heavyweights whose legendary disputes illustrate some key points about faith and power in the Renaissance world: King Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII. Then, learn how new and revitalized orders—including Ci stercians and Franciscans—attracted adherents in astonishing numbers.

34 min
Renaissance Faith: The Papacy

27: Renaissance Faith: The Papacy

The particular conditions of 15th- and 16th-century Italy allowed the popes to augment their power and fashion themselves as rulers. Here, explore papal programs designed to cement Rome as Christendom’s true capital (after a century of geographic dislocations) and their architects, including Nicholas V, Pius II, and Sixtus IV.

33 min
Renaissance Faith: Religious Uniformity

28: Renaissance Faith: Religious Uniformity

Take a closer look at the ways in which European political authorities dealt with matters of faith in their drive to enhance authority. You’ll learn about English theologian John Wyclif’s challenges to traditional Christian authority, the persecution of European Jews, and the birth of the Inquisition.

34 min
Luther: Breaking the Christian Consensus

29: Luther: Breaking the Christian Consensus

The Renaissance is vital to understanding how Martin Luther took on the church and not only survived but thrived, initiating a protest movement that put an end to more than 1,000 years of Christian consensus. Start considering Martin Luther as a man of a very particular historical moment.

34 min
Radical Reform in Renaissance Europe

30: Radical Reform in Renaissance Europe

Professor McNabb highlights the many fractures that strengthened the shockwaves Martin Luther created in Christianity—some of which he couldn’t foresee or control. Learn the importance of the Anabaptists, the tumult of the German Peasants’ War, and why Martin Luther resists easy demonization or lionization.

33 min
Renaissance and Reformation: Connections

31: Renaissance and Reformation: Connections

Turn your attention to various calls for a reformation of faith identifiably shaped by the new learning of the Renaissance and the ideas of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. Calvin’s ideas traveled on to Scotland, where the Reformation, working in tandem with powerful men, toppled a monarch from the throne.

32 min
English Reformation

32: English Reformation

Embark on an exciting look at the causes, processes, and consequences of the Tudor reformations, featuring some of the most famous personages in English history, including Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and Elizabeth I. What made this path to reform so different from events playing elsewhere on the European continent?

34 min
Catholic Reformations: The Road to Trent

33: Catholic Reformations: The Road to Trent

Why didn’t the Catholic Church defeat the Reformation? Why didn’t it do more to stop Martin Luther? Cultivate a new way of thinking about the papal response to the theological revolution—epitomized by the Council of Trent, which created a Roman Catholic identity.

34 min
Catholic Reformations: Spiritual Revival

34: Catholic Reformations: Spiritual Revival

In the face of the slings and arrows of Protestant reformers, the Catholic Church lauded a number of individuals whose commitment to the “true faith” offered a balance to the Reformation that threatened to bury Catholicism. Learn how men and women became exemplars of piety during the Catholic Reformation.

33 min
Reformation Culture: Continuity and Change

35: Reformation Culture: Continuity and Change

Get a feel for what it was like to be a Protestant or Catholic in Reformation Europe. Your focus here: the culture wars that accompanied this period, including the rise of iconoclasts like Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, the use of vernacular language in religious services, and the dawn of Baroque art.

35 min
Renaissance War and Peace: Diplomacy

36: Renaissance War and Peace: Diplomacy

In the first of several lectures on the interaction among the states of early modern Europe, learn how diplomacy operated in a Europe increasingly characterized by religious dissention and violence. Central to this subject is the important role of permanent ambassadors and other diplomatic figures.

34 min
The French Wars of Religion

37: The French Wars of Religion

Religious violence kept France in its grip for an entire century. Discover how the French Wars of Religion sparked both bloodshed and a new way of thinking about the relationship between individuals and the figures of power to whom they owed allegiance (a favorite topic of Renaissance writers).

35 min
The Dutch Revolt

38: The Dutch Revolt

Witness a number of factors you’ve examined in other lectures collide in a fascinating (if also, destructive and costly) way during the Dutch Revolt. You’ll also see a glimmer of the new demands of early modern warfare and the role of print in presenting a platform for action.

34 min
 The Spanish Armada

39: The Spanish Armada

Get the full story behind the Spanish Armada by paying attention to three key issues: the rivalry of Philip of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, the Spanish Armada’s fateful engagement with the English in the summer of 1588, and the untidy consequences of Spain’s defeat.

31 min
The Thirty Years’ War

40: The Thirty Years’ War

Welcome to ground zero of religious warfare during the Age of Reformation: The Thirty Years’ War, which would engulf most of the European continent. By the end of this lecture, you’ll learn how this struggle drew the map of Europe that would exist until the French Revolution.

33 min
Renaissance at Arms: The Military Revolution

41: Renaissance at Arms: The Military Revolution

What, exactly, constitutes a military revolution? What are the four major changes that happened between 1560 and 1660 that transformed warfare? How did a typical warrior from the 15th century compare to his counterpart 200 years later? How did large gunpowder weaponry influence other military developments?

34 min
Renaissance and the Birth of Modern Science

42: Renaissance and the Birth of Modern Science

Professor McNabb guides you through the intersection of Renaissance values and patronage with the new ways of thinking about the universe brought about by the Scientific Revolution. See how many of the activities and individuals associated with this period exhibit key dynamics of the Renaissance covered in other lectures.

35 min
Renaissance and Magic: Witchcraft

43: Renaissance and Magic: Witchcraft

Between 1450 and 1700, somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed on charges of witchcraft. Why did ideas about demons and witches have such an appeal in early modern Europe? How did these beliefs produce a new type of criminal to be targeted by secular and spiritual authorities?

34 min
Renaissance Encounters with Islam

44: Renaissance Encounters with Islam

From the Reconquista to the collapse of Christian Constantinople to the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, examine the relationship between Christians and Muslims during the early modern period—a relationship of competition and coexistence that shaped the development of the Western tradition.

32 min
Renaissance and Exploration: Motives

45: Renaissance and Exploration: Motives

The Age of Discovery can be thought of, in many ways, as a Renaissance project. Here, you’ll learn many of the values, motivations, and conflicts that fostered preconditions for European exploration, including a curiosity about the natural world, technological innovations, and the underlying quest for glory and riches.

33 min
Renaissance and Exploration: New Horizons

46: Renaissance and Exploration: New Horizons

How did Portugal and Spain set out to build overseas empires? Examine the first round of European expansion in the Americas and the Indian Ocean basin in the broader contexts of the Renaissance. Along the way, follow the journeys and discoveries of explorers like Christopher Columbus and Francisco Pizarro.

33 min
Early Modern Power: The New Global Rivalries

47: Early Modern Power: The New Global Rivalries

Turn now to other European states joining the race for global empire. Consider the developments of three states—the Dutch Republic, Britain, and France—in an age of change, and learn how they helped spell the demise of the Ancien Régime and the birth of the modern world.

34 min
Renaissance Legacy: Burckhardt and Beyond

48: Renaissance Legacy: Burckhardt and Beyond

Return to the critical question that started this entire course: Have we reached the end of the Renaissance? Professor McNabb uses this concluding lecture to reflect on the meaning of the Renaissance for its contemporaries, for subsequent historians like Jacob Burckhardt, and for us in the 21st century.

37 min