A Guide to Renaissance Humanism

The intellectual movement began in the 13th century

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.
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Renaissance Humanism—named to differentiate it from the Humanism that came later—was an intellectual movement that originated in the 13th century and came to dominate European thought during the Renaissance, 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 mindset and creating something new.

What Is Renaissance Humanism?

One mode of thinking came to typify Renaissance ideas: Humanism. The term derived from a program of studies called the "studia humanitatis," but the idea of calling this "Humanism" really arose in the 19th century. There remains a question over what exactly Renaissance Humanism was. Jacob Burckhardt’s seminal 1860 work, "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy," solidified the definition of humanism into the study of classical—Greek and Roman—texts to affect how you viewed your world, taking from the ancient world to reform the "modern" and giving a worldlier, human outlook focusing on the ability of humans to act and not blindly follow a religious plan. Humanists believed God had given humanity options and potential, and humanist thinkers had to act to make the most of this.

That definition is still useful, but historians increasingly fear that the tag "Renaissance Humanism" pushes a large range of thought and writing into one term that doesn’t adequately explain subtleties or variations.

Origins of Humanism

Renaissance Humanism began in the later 13th century, when Europeans' hunger for studying classical texts coincided with a desire to imitate those authors in style. They weren’t to be direct copies but drew on old models, picking up vocabulary, styles, intentions, and form. Each half needed the 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 wasn't a set of second-generation mimics; Renaissance Humanism began to use knowledge, love, and maybe even obsession with 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 giving a historically based alternative to "medieval" ways of thinking. Humanism began to affect culture and society and powered, in large part, what we now call the Renaissance.

Humanists operating before Petrarch, called "Proto-Humanists," 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 far more, recovering among other things Seneca’s tragedies. A hunger for bringing old texts back to the world was characteristic of Humanists. This searching was vital because much of the material was scattered and forgotten. 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

Francesco 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 firmly believed that classical writings were not just relevant to his own age but saw in them moral guidance that 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. He has been said to have created the "Humanist program," and he argued that each person should study the ancients and create their own style.

Had Petrarch not lived, Humanism would have been seen as threatening Christianity. His actions allowed Humanism to spread more effectively in the late 14th century. Careers needing skills of reading and writing were soon dominated by Humanists. In the 15th 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 15th Century

By 1400 Renaissance Humanism’s ideas had spread to allow speeches and other orations to become classicized: diffusion was needed so more people could understand. Humanism was becoming admired, and the upper classes were sending their sons to study for the kudos and career prospects. By the mid-15th century, Humanism education was normal in upper-class Italy.

Cicero, the great Roman orator, became the core example for the Humanists. His adoption jibed with a turn back to the secular. Petrarch and company had been politically neutral, but now some Humanists argued for republics to be superior to the dominant monarchies. This wasn’t a new development, but 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.

Some groups wanted to adhere strictly to Ciceronian Latin as the model for languages; others wanted to write in a style of Latin they felt more contemporary. What they agreed on was a new form of education, which the rich were adopting. Modern historiography also began to emerge. The power of Humanism, with its textual criticism and study, was shown in 1440 when Lorenzo Valla proved the The Donation of Constantine, ostensibly transferring much of the Roman Empire to the Pope, was a forgery. Valla and others pushed for Biblical Humanism—textual criticism and understanding of the Bible—to bring people closer to the word of God that had been corrupted.

All this 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 widespread that it was dividing into a range of sub-developments. As perfected texts passed to other specialists, such as mathematicians and scientists, the recipients also became Humanist thinkers. As these fields developed they split, and the overall Humanist program of reform fragmented. The ideas ceased to be the preserve of the rich, as printing had brought cheap written materials to a wider market, and now a mass audience was adopting, often unconsciously, humanist thinking.

Humanism had spread across Europe, and while it split in Italy, the stable countries to the north fostered a return of the movement that began to have the same massive effect. Henry VIII encouraged Englishmen trained in Humanism to replace foreigners on his staff; in France Humanism was seen as the best way to study scripture. John Calvin agreed, 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 16th century’s leading Humanist, emerged in the German-speaking lands.

The End of Renaissance Humanism

By the mid-16th 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 rival creeds, becoming semi-independent disciplines governed by the area’s faith.