Renaissance rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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 numerous important manuscripts of classical rhetoric (including Cicero's De Oratore) marked the beginnings of Renaissance rhetoric in Europe. James Murphy notes 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" (Peter Ramus's Attack on Cicero, 1992).

"During the Renaissance," says Heinrich F. Plett, "rhetoric 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" (Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture, 2004).

See the observations below. Also see:

Periods of Western Rhetoric


  • "[D]uring the European Renaissance--a period which, for convenience, I take as stretching from 1400 to 1700--rhetoric attained its greatest preeminence, both in terms of range of influence and in value."
    (Brian Vickers, "On the Practicalities of Renaissance Rhetoric." Rhetoric Revalued, ed. by Brian Vickers. Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1982)
  • "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. Between 1460 and 1620 more than 800 editions of classical rhetoric texts were printed all over Europe. Thousands 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. . . .

    "The classical texts studied and the writing exercises undertaken at the Elizabethan grammar school show considerable continuity with their medieval forbears, and some differences in approach and in the writing textbooks employed. The most important changes brought about during the renaissance were the result of two centuries of development rather than of a sudden break with the past."
    (Peter Mack, A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • The Range of Renaissance Rhetoric
    "[R]hetoric regained an importance in the time span from about the middle of the fourteenth to about the middle of the seventeenth century, which it did not possess before or after. . . . In the eyes of the humanists, rhetoric is equivalent to culture as such, the perennial and substantial essence of man, his greatest ontological privilege. Renaissance rhetoric was, however, 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."
    (Heinrich F. Plett, Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)
  • Women and Renaissance Rhetoric
    "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. . . .

    "For women to have been excluded from the domain of rhetorical theory . . . constituted a serious limitation on their participation in shaping the art. Nevertheless, women were instrumental in moving rhetorical practice in a more conversational and dialogic direction."
    (James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2005)
  • English Rhetorics of the Sixteenth Century
    "By the mid-sixteenth century, practical handbooks of rhetoric began to appear in English. That such works were written is an indication that some English schoolmasters for the first time recognized a need to train students in the composition and appreciation of English. . . . The new English rhetorics were derivative, based on continental sources, and their main interest today is that collectively they show how rhetoric was taught when the great writers of the Elizabethan Age, including Shakespeare, were young students. . . .

    "The first full-scale English rhetoric book was Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique, eight editions of which were published between 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."
    (George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 2nd ed. University of North Carolina Press, 1999)
  • Peter Ramus and the Decline of Renaissance Rhetoric
    "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. . . .

    "Ramist method worked to abbreviate the study of logic as well as that of rhetoric. The law of justice allowed Ramus to remove the subject of sophistry from the study of logic, since the arts of deception had no place in the art of truth. It allowed him to eliminate the Topics as well, which Aristotle had intended to teach the source of arguments on matters of opinion."
    (James Veazie Skalnik, Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance. Truman State University Press, 2002)