Renaissance Humanism

Triumphus Mortis, or the Allegory of Death, a scythe-wielding skeleton embodying Death rides atop a chariot driven by two oxen and tramples over humankind, scene inspired by The triumphs of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), engraving by Georg Pencz (ca 1500-1550), from Inventaire des gravures des ecoles du Nord, Tome II, 1440-1550.
Triumphus Mortis, or the Allegory of Death, a scythe-wielding skeleton embodying Death rides atop a chariot driven by two oxen and tramples over humankind, scene inspired by The triumphs of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), engraving by Georg Pencz (ca 1500-1550), from Inventaire des gravures des ecoles du Nord, Tome II, 1440-1550. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Renaissance Humanism – named to differentiate it from the Humanism we have today – was an intellectual movement which originated in the thirteenth century, and came to dominate European thought during the Renaissance, in which it played a considerable role in creating. At the core of Renaissance Humanism was using the study of classical texts to alter contemporary thinking, breaking with the medieval mindsets and creating something new.

What is Renaissance Humanism?

One mode of thinking came to typify Renaissance ideas: Humanism. The term derived from the program of studies called the ‘studia humanitatis’, but the idea of calling this ‘Humanism’ only really arose in the nineteenth century. However, there is a question over what exactly Renaissance Humanism was. Burckhardt’s seminal and still discussed Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy of 1860 solidified the definition of humanism into the study of classical – Greek and Roman – texts in order to affect how you viewed your world, taking from the ancient world to reform the ‘modern’ and giving a worldlier, human outlook which focused on the ability of humans to act and not blindly follow a religious plan. The perceived will of God was thus less important than during the medieval period: instead, the humanists believed God had given humanity options and potential, and humanist thinkers had to act to succeed and make the most of this: it was a duty to do your best.

The preceding definition is still largely useful, but historians are increasingly concerned that ‘Renaissance Humanism’ has been used as a tag to push together a large range of thought and writing into one term which doesn’t adequately explain the subtlety or variation.

Origins of Humanism

Renaissance Humanism began in the later thirteenth century, when Europeans with a hunger for studying classical texts coincided with a desire to imitate those classical authors in style.

They weren’t to be direct copies, but drew on old models, picked up vocabulary, styles, intentions and form. Both halves needed each other: you had to understand the texts to take part in the fashion, and doing so drew you back to Greece and Rome. But what developed in Renaissance Humanism was not a set of second generation mimics: Renaissance Humanism began to use their knowledge, love, maybe even obsession of the past to change how they and others saw and thought about their own era. It was not pastiche, but a new consciousness, including new historical perspective which gave a historically based alternative to ‘medieval’ ways of thinking. What happened was Humanism began to affect culture and society and powered, in a large part, what we now call the Renaissance.

More on the Renaissance

The humanists operating before Petrarch are called ‘Proto-Humanists’ and were mainly in Italy. They included Lovato Dei Lovati (1240 - 1309), a Paduan judge who may have been the first to mix reading Latin poetry with writing modern classical poetry to major effect. Others tried, but Lovato achieved and knew far more, recovering among other things Seneca’s tragedies: a hunger for funding old texts and bringing them back to the world was a characteristic of the humanists.

This searching was also vital, because much of the material was scattered and forgotten, and needed recovering. But Lovato had limits, and his prose style stayed medieval. His pupil, Mussato, connected his studies of the past to contemporary issues and wrote in the classical style to comment on politics. He was the first to deliberately write ancient prose in centuries and was attacked for liking ‘pagans’.


Petrarch (1304 - 1374) has been called the Father of Italian Humanism, and while modern historiography plays down the role of individuals, his contribution was large. He was a firm believer that classical writings were not just relevant to his own age but saw in them moral guidance which could reform humanity: a key principle of Renaissance Humanism. Eloquence, which moved the soul, was the equal of cold logic.

Humanism should be a doctor to human morals. Petrarch didn’t apply much of this thinking to government but worked at bringing together the classics and the Christians. The proto-humanists had been largely secular; Petrarch bought religion in, arguing that history can have a positive effect on a Christian soul. Petrarch has been said to have created the ‘Humanist programme’, and he argued that each person should study the ancients and create their own style to reflect themselves. Had Petrarch not lived, Humanism would have been seen as more threatening to Christianity: his actions in bringing the new religion in allowed Humanism to spread greater and more effectively in the late fourteenth century. And spread it did: careers needing skills of reading and writing were soon dominated by Humanists, and many more interested people followed along. In the fifteenth century in Italy Humanism once more became secular and the courts of Germany, France and elsewhere turned away until a later movement brought it back to life. Between 1375 and 1406 Coluccio Salutati was chancellor in Florence, and he made the city the capital of Renaissance Humanism’s development.

The Fifteenth Century

By 1400 Renaissance Humanism’s ideas and studies had spread to allow speeches and other orations to become classicized: diffusion was needed so more people could understand, and so it spread. By this point Humanism was becoming famous, admired, and the upper classes were choosing to send their sons to study for the kudos and career prospects. By the mid-fifteenth century, Humanism education was normal in upper-class Italy.

Now Cicero, the great Roman orator, became the core example for the Humanists. His adoption as the model tied in with a turn back to the secular. Writers like Brum now took another step: Petrarch and company had been politically neutral, but now some Humanists argued for republics to be superior to the dominant monarchies. This wasn’t an entirely new development – similar ideas had been present among Scholastic teaching – but now it came to affect humanism.

Greek also became more common among the humanists, even if it often stayed second to Latin and Rome. However, a huge amount of classical Greek knowledge was now worked in.

There were arguments. Some groups wanted to adhere strictly to the Ciceronian Latin as the model and high water mark for the languages; others wanted to write in a style of Latin they felt more engaging and contemporary. What they did agree on was a new form of education, which the rich were taking up. Modern historiography also began to emerge. The power of Humanism, with its textual criticism and study, was shown in 1440, when Valla proved the Donatio – The Donation of Constantine – was a forgery. Textual criticism was initially slow thanks to the problem of scribal errors and the lack of standard texts, but printing solved this and became central. Valla, also, along with others, pushed for Biblical Humanism: textual criticism and understanding of the Bible, to bring people closer to the ‘word of God’ which had been corrupted.

All the time Humanist commentaries and writings were growing in fame and number. Some Humanists began to turn away from reforming the world and focused instead on a purer understanding of the past. But Humanist thinkers also began to consider humanity more: as creators, world changers who made their own lives, and who should not be trying to imitate Christ but finding themselves.

Renaissance Humanism after 1500

By the 1500s, Humanism was the dominant form of education, so vast and widespread that it was dividing into a whole range of sub-developments. As perfected texts passed to other specialists, such as mathematicians and scientists, so the recipients also became Humanist thinkers. As historians like Witt have pointed out, it becomes hard to tell who is Humanist and who isn’t. But as these fields developed so they split, and the overall Humanist program of reform fragmented and became specialist. The ideas had ceased to be the preserve of the rich, as printing had bought cheap written materials to a far wider market, and now a mass audience was adopting, often unconsciously, humanist thinking.

Humanism had spread across Europe, and while it split in Italy, so the stable countries north of Italy fostered a return of the movement which began to have the same massive effect. Henry VIII encouraged Englishmen trained in Humanism to replace foreigners in his staff; in France Humanism was seen as the best way to study scripture, and one John Calvin agreed with this, starting a humanist school in Geneva. In Spain, Humanists clashed with the Church and Inquisition and merged with surviving scholasticism as a way to survive. Erasmus, the sixteenth century’s leading Humanist, emerged in the German-speaking lands.

The End of Renaissance Humanism

By the mid-sixteenth century, Humanism had lost much of its power. Europe was engaged in a war of words, ideas and sometimes weapons over the nature of Christianity (The Reformation) and Humanist culture was overtaken by the rival creeds, becoming semi-independent disciplines governed by the area’s faith.