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In the traditional view, the Renaissance is understood as an historical age that was preceded by the Middle Ages and followed by the Reformation. According to the usual description, the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, spreading through the rest of Europe, represented a reconnection of the west with classical antiquity, the absorption of knowledge, particularly mathematics, from Arabic, the return of experimentalism, the focus on the importance of living well in the present (e.g. humanism), an explosion of the dissemination of knowledge brought on by printing and the creation of new techniques in art, poetry and architecture which led to a radical change in the style, and substance of the arts and letters. This period, in this view, represents Europe emerging from a long period as a backwater, and the rise of commerce and exploration. The Italian Renaissance is often labeled as the beginning of the "modern" epoch.

The Renaissance period began with the end of the Hundred Years' War and the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The Hundred Years' War is the name modern historians have given to what was actually a series of related conflicts, fought over a 116-year period, between England and France, and later Burgundy; beginning in 1337, and ending in 1453. Europe enjoyed a short respite from political turmoil, but England quickly became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses in 1455. The Wars of the Roses is the name given to the intermittent civil war fought over the throne of England between adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Both houses were branches of the Plantagenet royal house, tracing their descent from King Edward III. The Wars were fought largely by the landed aristocracy and armies of feudal retainers. The Wars of the Roses, with their heavy casualties among the nobility, ushered in a period of great social upheaval in feudal England and ironically lead to the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty. The period saw the decline of English influence on the Continent, a weakening of the feudal power of the nobles and by default, a strengthening of the merchant classes, and the growth of a strong, centralized monarchy under the Tudors.

Meanwhile, the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1479 brought the unification of Spain under a powerful monarchy. In order to dominate the nobility and complete conquest of the Moslem Moors in the Southern part of the nation, King Ferdinand strengthened his alliance with the Catholic Church. Spanish nationalism and Catholicism became intimately interwoven, and the result was the Spanish crusade for Sangre Limpia ("pure blood", or white Christian blood). The monarchy, under the leadership of Tomas de Torquemada, launched the Holy Inquisition in 1481 as an effort to ban all religions other than Roman Catholicism and secure political control. Torquemada, known as the "Grand Inquisitor" primarily targeted Jews and Conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity), condemning many to torture and ritual burning at the stake. The Spanish Inquisition peaked with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Elsewhere, the Americas experienced the rise and fall of the Inca and Aztec civilizations. In 1521, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain. Under the Ming Dynasty, China enjoyed the restoration of the Great Wall and a proliferation of the arts, while Ivan IV became the first czar of a united Russia in 1547. The Dutch, Portugese and British forces battled with native kingdoms to colonize a significant portion of Africa and to organize a trans-Atlantic slave trade.