Renaissance Humanism (3399 words)

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Renaissance humanism was a cultural movement and educational program which characterized European society from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, a period that witnessed the “rebirth” of society in the city-states of Italy and signified the end of the “dark ages” in Europe. While the origins of humanism lay in fourteenth-century Italy, its influence was spread by itinerant scholars throughout the whole of fifteenth century Europe.

Studia humanitatis (i.e “human studies”) involved the study of grammar, poetics, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy, with an emphasis on formal training in oratory, scientia recte loquendi, and textual exegesis, poetarum enaratio. The teacher, professor, or student who was part of this movement and educational program was often referred to as a humanista. At the core of humanistic pedagogy were the excavation, reading, and translation of classical texts in Greek and Latin. Humanists may therefore be understood as studying literature and promoting, by modern standards, a liberal education in the classics. Through this educational program, humanism was supposed to train the ideal citizen, one educated enough in speaking and writing to play a vital role in local governance and civil society (Kristeller).

Before the advent of humanism, European education and culture were dominated by the Catholic Church, with monks, nuns and clerics controlling learning and the dissemination of knowledge in a movement known as scholasticism. Humanism grew out of medieval scholasticism and was not simply a replacement for it. The tradition in medieval rhetoric of composing speeches, letters, and documents and the study of classical Latin poetry and literature were already in place before the advent of humanism, and these medieval practices made the spread of Renaissance humanism all the more possible. When humanism began to spread, with its focus on the improvement of mankind and civil society, many of its early practitioners latched on to the earlier foundation of medieval scholasticism, even though later scholars would eventually define themselves and their activities in opposition to the clerical bias of the earlier movement (G.R. Elton).

Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459), one of the first Florentine humanists, assisted the spread of humanism when he wrote a lengthy treatise on the dignity of man, De dignitate et excellentia hominis libri IV (“On the Dignity and Excellence of Man in Four Books”) in 1452-3. Writing in response to the De miseria humane conditionis (“On the Misery of the Human Condition”) by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216), Manetti denied that man was miserable and degenerate. Instead, taking a progressive view of history, Manetti claimed that humankind would continue to improve if it looked to the ancient models of society for guidance. Human nature was not, as Pope Innocent and the medieval clergy claimed, on the descent; rather, human nature was on the rise, capable of significant improvement through classical education.

Attaching the improvement of humankind to the study of classical antiquity, humanists employed themselves as copyists and editors of the Latin classics, disseminating the works of Virgil and Cicero especially, an endeavor that would not have been successful without the advent of the printing press and the production of inexpensive paper for pamphlets and books. In 1445, the German goldsmith and printer Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) invented the printing press which first changed the lives of people in Europe, then most of the world. The demand for books fueled a call for education based in the vernacular translations of Greek and Roman texts. Cicero was, by far, the most widely copied, and then printed, author from classical antiquity, with his dialogues, orations and letters being among the most studied, translated, and cited works. Thus, the development of humanism came to be rooted in the imitation of Ciceronian Latin and translations into the vernacular.

Although the literary works of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) may be interpreted as predating humanism, these works may also be understood as embryonic and emblematic of the practices, ideas, and controversies which eventually came to be known as Renaissance humanism, articulating a liberal education in classical, religious, and vernacular literatures. Writing in the vernacular, Dante’s magnum opus, the Commedia (c. 1308-1321), resurrected the pagan Virgil to walk as guide and friend to the wandering pilgrim and author along his spiritual journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. According to M.L. McLaughlin, “In a sense Dante ‘discovered’ the Aeneid, in that he was the first to make Virgil talk again to his age after centuries of silence” (McLaughlin 224). Dante inserts pagan characters such as Virgil into the Commedia as he writes his vernacular poem in the context of historical and contemporary politics: “Thou art my master and my author,” Dante confesses to Virgil, “Thou art he from whom alone I took the style whose beauty has brought me honour” (Inferno, I.85-87). Dante not only imitated the ancients to approach their style, but he modeled his writings on theirs so as to surpass the pagan classics with his new, Christian epic. Instead of slavishly modeling his writings on Virgil, Dante is explicit that he must leave Virgil behind in his pilgrimage if he is to complete the Christian epic and reach Paradise. Dante’s decision to leave Virgil behind in Purgatory with other pagan authors complements his decision to write in vernacular verse, a decision that made him a controversial figure on a number of fronts and determined how his writings were first received by his contemporaries, especially by Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) (McLaughlin).

While Dante’s literary efforts in the vernacular predate and anticipate humanism, they also pave the way for Petrarch’s re-evaluation of the classics and of the ancient world. The rebirth of classical studies and the revival of Greek and Roman texts, also known by critics as a return to paganism, were central to the activities of Renaissance humanists, Petrarch foremost among them. Petrarch has frequently been called “the first great humanist” because his example encouraged others to return to classical texts and to take up a pen and pursue reading, writing, translation, and oratory (Kristeller 125). In his pursuit of humanistic endeavors, Petrarch was one of the first scholars to use the term “the dark ages” and to emphasize the importance of literacy and scholarship to the improvement of mankind. Living before the advent of printing, in an age where most people were not literate, and literary activities could be considered a burden by those who possessed them, Petrarch often found himself writing for his own edification and that of others. De Nolhac explains, “Petrarch dreams and composes as a poet even when he considers himself destined to restore and reproduce in his books the knowledge of the ancients” (Qtd. in Bernardo 125).

Petrarch studied the works of Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca to model his own writings and way of life. The relationship between humanistic authors such as Petrarch and their classical authors may thus be seen most clearly in the dialogic and conversational exchanges Petrarch develops when reading Cicero’s letters, and in which he seems to bring the deceased classical author back to life, making him a contemporary and friend as well as guide:

Your letters I sought for long and diligently; and finally, where I least expected it, I found them. At once I read them, over and over, with the utmost eagerness. As I read I seemed to hear your bodily voice, O Marcus Tullius, saying many things, uttering many lamentations, ranging through many phrases of thought and feeling. I long had known how excellent a guide you have proved for others; at last I was to learn what sort of guidance you gave yourself. (222)

Studying Cicero’s letters for “guidance”, Petrarch imagines hearing the ancient author’s “bodily voice” echoing forth, with the classical author almost becoming present through his writings. In this spectral reading practice, the humanist establishes an experiential, personal relationship of presence with the ancient author and his text. In addition to publishing his letters to his long-dead friend, Cicero, Petrarch also published letters he had written to Virgil and Seneca, organizing them into Epistolae familiares and Sentiles (1351-1353).

Part of Petrarch’s personal journey of self-development and salvation was his affirmation, borrowed from Augustine, of the opposition between the City of God and the City of Man. Informed by the teachings of Augustine, Petrarch found that humankind’s nobility of mind, its constant striving to reach the City of God, is in a constant battle with earthly things in the City of Man. Petrarch’s importance to the history of ideas and literature is, in part, grounded in his struggle to believe that one could be immersed in the secular life and still be a good Christian, and he looked to the ancients, both pagan and Christian, from Cicero to David and Augustine, to guide him in this quest. “I seem to be able to love,” Petrarch wrote, “both (classical and Christian models) at once, one in the manner of style, and preferring not to ignore the other in matters of wisdom” (Qtd. in Bernardo 123). As Petrarch strove to be an exemplary Christian humanist, he became a poet and scholar renowned for his faithfulness to the ancients, with his sonnets becoming popularly known as Petrarchan, his poetry later imitated by Boccaccio and Shakespeare.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1314-1375), who was a close personal friend and disciple of Petrarch, amassed in his lifetime a library of classical and vernacular texts, as he strove to become a model of ancient propriety and humanistic learning. Although he began writing in the vernacular as Dante did before him, eventually he elected to follow the guidance of Petrarch, preferring the practice of composing in Latin and Greek. Taking aim at those who criticized the scholarly activities of the humanists, he defended the writers of “poesia”, the creations of poets working in Latin. According to Jacob Burckhardt, Boccaccio became a spokesperson for the humanist movement and those who felt themselves under attack by clerics, theologians, lawyers, friars, and other “ignoramuses”. As Burckhardt explains:

This it is whose enemies he so vigorously combats—the frivolous ignoramuses who have no soul for anything but debauchery; the sophisticated theologian, to whom Helicon, the Castalian fountain, and the grove of Apollo were foolishness; the greedy lawyers, to whom poetry was a superfluity, since no money was to be made by it; finally the mendicant friars, described periphrastically, but clearly enough who made free with their charges of paganism and immorality. (150)

Describing those for whom a true understanding and appreciation of Latin poetry are remote, Burckhardt defines the Latin poetry of humanists such as Boccaccio as facilitating a kind of elitism, as “that calculated obscurity which is intended to repel dull minds” (151).

Similar to Petrarch who looked to the ancients for guidance, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) turned to Cicero, as he would to a fellow scholar, for models of humanity and community. Respected for his intellectual independence and moralistic political theory, Machiavelli seems to occupy a position of extreme secularism when he is penning his advice manual for princes, The Prince (1532). Elsewhere, in a private letter to Francesco Vettori of Rome, Machiavelli praises the power of the pen to place him “into ancient courts of ancient men”:

When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study, and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to task them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death, I become completely part of them. (69)

Machiavelli’s humanistic practice of discoursing with the long-deceased ancients through the craft of reading and writing is a transcendent experience where the “boredom”, “affliction”, and “poverty” of everyday life do not touch him. In his dream of inclusion as a civil servant, he is “welcomed” into the “ancient courts of ancient men”, able to dine with them at their table, and “become completely part of them”. Although in exile, Machiavelli, by virtue of his ability to read and write history, feels the momentary bliss of being “born” of his own right into the company of those who wear “regal and curial robes”. That humanism was increasingly a secular philosophy suited for the rise of the early modern individual, with its focus increasingly on the material existence of this world and civil society, rather than the rewards due the good Christian soldier in the afterlife, there can be no doubt. However, in general, at a foundational level, Renaissance humanists such as Machiavelli believed that modeling the classics and coming to know the ancients as contemporaries were fundamentally the best way to become effective writers and orators who were successful in civil society as opposed to religious life.

The first significant English patron of humanism was Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447), who aided the dissemination of classical learning by employing Italian secretaries in his office and collecting a library of classical and humanist manuscripts which eventually became the property of Oxford University. After his death, English humanists such as John Colet (1466-1519), Thomas More (1477-1535) and their circle would begin to travel systematically to Italy on educational pilgrimages. Beginning with Duke Humphrey, patrons of English humanism funded an exchange of scholars, literature, and knowledge between Italy and England. This was how Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the most exemplary scholar of his generation, came to visit England where he would befriend Colet and More.

Born in Rotterdam, Erasmus studied Greek and Latin in Europe and did not meet the English humanists until he was introduced to the future Henry VIII sometime around 1499-1500. He returned to England when Henry VIII ascended the throne, at which time he sought his patronage. Erasmus went so far as to re-christen secular, pagan authors as religious saints, even placing the title of saint before Socrates and Cicero. In so doing, Erasmus also calibrated in self-portraiture the humanistic author as a potential saint (Jardine). Blurring the lines between secular and religious writers, Erasmus claimed that some of the best religious instruction on how to lead a moral life was written by the pagans. In his most creative work, Moraie Encomium, or In Praise of Folly (1511), Erasmus wrote a mock oration by a character named “Folly” who praises herself at the same time that she finds fault with everyone else. At the end, she forgets herself in a silence of self-reverie. Erasmus dedicated this, his most famous work, to More, identifying him as the wisest fool in all of Christendom.

The programmatic, educational thrust of humanism is especially evident in the activities of John Colet (c. 1467-1519). After traveling to Italy where he studied religious authors and strove to improve his preaching, Colet founded in 1510 one of the first English schools established on humanistic principles, St. Paul’s School, London, where he also became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. At Colet’s school, traditional theology and humanistic learning existed side-by-side, often in the same person (Caspari 18). Colet’s statutes for the school prescribed the study of literature in Latin and Greek. His pedagogy emphasized less the pagan classics than the Christian authors of late antiquity along with contemporary humanists such as Erasmus. Colet’s humanistic pedagogical agenda also emerged in his appointment of William Lily (c. 1468-1522) as the first high master of St. Paul’s. Lily, a friend of More, wrote a Latin grammar that became in 1542 the royally authorized standard textbook for use in English schools. Colet also managed to persuade Erasmus to write De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (1512), perhaps the most popular rhetorical handbook of the century.

After Colet, Thomas More (1478-1535) emerged as the most prolific “homegrown” English humanist. Educated in England by humanists who had studied abroad, he attended Oxford University and the Inns of Court. Although More felt, at one time, as if he might have had a religious vocation, even testing his resolve by briefly living the life of a Carthusian monk when he married his wife, he formally chose the life of a public official, a humanist, in service to civil society. Writing in Latin and English, his works were both spiritual and humanistic, the most popular being Utopia (1516). More survived the political crises of Henry VIII’s reign, being knighted in 1521 and rising to the highest office of state, Lord Chancellor, only to be beheaded in 1535 when as a matter of conscience he refused Henry’s demand that he publicly accept the legitimacy of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. More’s principled refusal of the king’s demand is a declaratory moment of humanism: his philosophy was based on the humanist belief in personal integrity, arrived at by learned secular reflection, and that this education could fashion men capable of good governance and civic contributions to the state. Among his most memorable literary contributions to the humanistic movement, besides Utopia, was the History of Richard III (1513), one of the first psychological biographies of its day, a work that influenced Shakespeare’s characterization of the king in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (1602).

Renaissance humanism which focused on the cultivation of the civil servant is often seen in opposition to medieval scholasticism which was rooted in monastic culture. Yet humanism as a movement served contradictory aims, divided between the rhetoric of lofty ideals and nitty-gritty historical practice. Theoretically at least, a humanist educatio would cultivate the disinterested citizen who, schooled in “virtue” and “right living” offered counsel to the Prince; on the other hand, in practice, humanism had often been accused of being a “commodity” which produced “servants of the state”, those valued for their tractability and obedience (Grafton and Jardine 25). Because the practice of humanism produced both the engaged magistrate and respectful servant, historians have disagreed over the degree to which it facilitated consensus and social criticism (Graham, Halpern, Hutson, Kinney). This lack of consensus about the actual implementation of humanism points to the open-endedness of both its rhetoric and practice, and to the degree to which, depending on the social context, humanism could be used to justify a critical stance while simultaneously advocating compliance to traditional ways of thinking and behaving.

Works Cited

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Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: An Essay. New York: The Modern Library, 1954.
Caspari, Fritz. Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954.
Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. John D. Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
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Citation: Sturgeon, Elizabeth M.. "Renaissance Humanism". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 August 2010 [, accessed 05 October 2022.]

13864 Renaissance Humanism 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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