The Northern Renaissance was the Renaissance that occurred in Europe north of the Alps. Before 1497, Italian Renaissance humanism had little influence outside Italy. From the late 15th century, its ideas spread around Europe. This influenced the German Renaissance, French Renaissance, English Renaissance, Renaissance in the Low Countries, Polish Renaissance and other national and localized movements, each with different characteristics and strengths.
In France, King Francis I imported Italian art, commissioned Venetian artists (including Leonardo da Vinci), and built grand palaces at great expense, starting the French Renaissance. Trade and commerce in cities like Bruges in the 15th century and Antwerp in the 16th increased cultural exchange between Italy and the Low Countries, however in art, and especially architecture, late Gothic influences remained present until the arrival of Baroque even as painters increasingly drew on Italian models.
Universities and the printed book helped spread the spirit of the age through France, the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire, and then to Scandinavia and finally Britain by the late 16th century. Writers and humanists such as Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard and Desiderius Erasmus were greatly influenced by the Italian Renaissance model and were part of the same intellectual movement. During the English Renaissance (which overlapped with the Elizabethan era) writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe composed works of lasting influence. The Renaissance was brought to Poland directly from Italy by artists from Florence and the Low Countries, starting the Polish Renaissance.
In some areas the Northern Renaissance was distinct from the Italian Renaissance in its centralization of political power. While Italy and Germany were dominated by independent city-states, most of Europe began emerging as nation-states or even unions of countries. The Northern Renaissance was also closely linked to the Protestant Reformation with the resulting long series of internal and external conflicts between various Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church having lasting effects.
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.
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.