Renaissance Rhetoric

Study and Practice of Rhetoric From 1400 to 1650

Edward P.J. Corbett
The late Edward P.J. Corbett regarded Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) as "the most influential rhetorician . . . on the European continent after the Middle Ages" ( Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 1999).

De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The expression Renaissance rhetoric refers to the study and practice of rhetoric from approximately 1400 to 1650. Scholars generally agree that the rediscovery of important manuscripts of classical rhetoric (including works by philosophers Cicero, Plato, and Aristotle) marked the beginnings of Renaissance rhetoric in Europe and that the invention of printing allowed this field of study to spread. James Murphy noted in his 1992 book "Peter Ramus's Attack on Cicero" that "by the year 1500, only four decades after the advent of printing, the entire Ciceronian corpus was already available in print all over Europe."

Definition and Origin

Rhetoric is derived from what Marcus Fabius Quintilian, a first-century Roman educator and rhetorician, called "facilitas," the capacity to produce appropriate and effective language in any situation. Classical rhetoric, an art of persuasive speaking and writing, is thought to have been practiced as early as sixth century BCE in ancient Greece by philosophers Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Socrates, and others. In the 1400s, rhetoric experienced a resurgence and emerged as a broad topic of study.

Scholars like Murphy have noted that the moveable type printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1452 allowed rhetoric as a field of study and practice to be widely disseminated among scholars, the cultural and political elite, and the masses. From there, classical rhetoric expanded to many professions and fields of scholarship.

Heinrich F. Plett explained that the wide distribution of the principles of classical rhetoric really took shape during the 15th century and beyond in his book "Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture." "[R]hetoric was not confined to a single human occupation but in fact comprised a broad range of theoretical and practical activities. ... The fields in which rhetoric played a major part included scholarship, politics, education, philosophy, history, science, ideology, and literature."

Renaissance Rhetoric

Scholars have noted that the Renaissance and rhetoric are closely intertwined. Peter Mack explained the connection in "A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380–1620."

"Rhetoric and the renaissance are inextricably linked. The origins of the Italian revival of classical Latin are to be found among the teachers of rhetoric and letter-writing in northern Italian universities around 1300. In Paul Kristeller's influential definition [in Renaissance Thoughts and Its Sources, 1979], rhetoric is one of the characteristics of renaissance humanism. ... 'Rhetoric appealed to the humanists because it trained pupils to use the full resources of the ancient languages, and because it offered a genuinely classical view of the nature of language and its effective use in the world.'"

Mack further explained that from the mid-1400s to early 1600s "more than 800 editions of classical rhetoric texts were printed all over Europe ... [and] [t]housands of new rhetoric books were written, from Scotland and Spain to Sweden and Poland, mostly in Latin, but also in Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and Welsh."

Social and Geographical Spread

Due in part to the emergence of moveable type, rhetoric spread far beyond the cultural and political elite to the masses. It became a sort of cultural movement that affected academia as a whole.

"Renaissance rhetoric was ... not confined to the cultural elite of the humanists but became a substantial factor of a broad cultural movement which had great impact on the educational system of the humanities and encompassed increasingly more social groups and strata. It was not limited to Italy, from whence it took its origin, but spread to northern, western and eastern Europe and from there to the overseas colonies in North and Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania."

Here, Plett details both rhetoric's geographical spread throughout Europe and its spread to various social groups, which allowed many more people to take part in education as well as social and cultural growth. Those skilled in rhetoric became skilled in many other areas of study as a function of being more effective at communicating and discussing their ideas.

Women and Renaissance Rhetoric

Women also gained influence in, and had greater access to, education because of the emergence of rhetoric during this period.

"Women were more likely to have access to education during the Renaissance than at earlier periods in Western history, and one of the subjects they would have studied was rhetoric. However, women's access to education, and especially the social mobility such education afforded women, should not be overstated."

This excerpt from James A. Herrick's "The History and Theory of Rhetoric" explains that women, who had been excluded from the study of rhetoric in earlier periods, were afforded increased participation and moved "rhetorical practice in a more conversational and dialogic direction."

Sixteenth Century English Rhetoric

England was a bit behind other European countries in the dissemination of rhetoric. According to George Kennedy in "Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition," the first full English-language book on rhetoric was not published until the 1500s when eight editions of Thomas Wilson's "Arte of Rhetorique" were released between the years 1553 and 1585.

"Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique is not a textbook for use in school. He wrote for people like himself: young adults entering public life or the law or the church, for whom he sought to provide a better understanding of rhetoric than they were likely to get from their grammar school studies and at the same time to impart some of the ethical values of classical literature and the moral values of the Christian faith."

The Fall of Rhetoric

Eventually, the popularity of rhetoric declined, as James Veazie Skalnik explained in "Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance."

"The decline of rhetoric as an academic discipline was due at least in part to [the] emasculation of the ancient art [by French logician Peter Ramus, 1515-1572] ... Rhetoric was henceforth to be a handmaiden of logic, which would be the source of discovery and arrangement. The art of rhetoric would simply dress that material in ornate language and teach orators when to raise their voices and extend their arms to the audience. To add insult to injury, rhetoric also lost control of the art of memory."

Ramus helped develop a practice called the "Ramist method," which "worked to abbreviate the study of logic as well as that of rhetoric," Skalnik explained. It is also called Ramism, which Merriam-Webster notes was "based on opposition to Aristotelianism and advocacy of a new logic blended with rhetoric." While Ramism adopted some of the principles of rhetoric, it was not traditionally classical rhetoric and thus is considered the end of the flourishing period of Renaissance rhetoric.


  • Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. Routledge, 2021.
  • Mack, Peter. A History of Renaissance Rhetoric, 1380-1620. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Plett, Heinrich F. Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture. De Gruyter, 2004.
  • Ramus, Petrus, et al. Peter Ramus's Attack on Cicero: Text and Translation of Ramus's Brutinae Quaestiones. Hermagoras Press, 1992.
  • Skalnik, James Veazie. Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance. Truman State University Press, 2002.
  • Wilson, Thomas, and Robert H. Bowers. The Arte of Rhetorique: (1553). Scholars Facs. Repr., 1977.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Renaissance Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Renaissance Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Renaissance Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).