The Renaissance Writers Who Shaped the Modern World

Portrait of Francesco Petrarca
Portrait of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1379) From De Viris Illustribus. Artist: Altichiero, (Altichiero da Zevio) (1330-1390). Getty Images

Contrary to popular misconception, the Middle Ages were not a “dark age” in our collective history. Not only is that term a Western-centric view of the world (while Europe and the former territories of the Western Roman Empire did indeed suffer lengthy periods of social decline and disorder, many other areas of the world flourished during the same period, and the continuation of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, was at its most stable and influential during the so-called Dark Ages), it’s also inaccurate. The popular image of ignorant peasants and sequestered monks living in ignorance and superstition while the world fell into darkness is largely fiction.

What marked the Middle Ages in Europe more than anything else was the dominance of the Catholic Church and political instability (at least compared to the centuries of stable Roman dominance). The Church, viewing Greek and traditional Roman philosophy and literature as Pagan and a threat, discouraged their study and teaching, and the disintegration of a unified political world into many small kingdoms and duchies. One result of these factors was a shift from a human-centered intellectual focus to one that celebrated the things that held society together — shared religious and cultural beliefs.

The Renaissance was a period beginning in the later 14th century and lasting until the 17th century. Far from a sudden lurch back towards scientific and artistic achievement, it was really a rediscovery of the human-centric philosophies and art of the ancient world, coupled with cultural forces driving Europe towards social and intellectual revolutions that celebrated the human body and reveled in near-nostalgia for Roman and Greek works that suddenly seemed modern and revolutionary again. Far from a miraculous shared inspiration, the Renaissance was sparked in large part by the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. The massive influx of people fleeing from the East into Italy — most notably Florence, where political and cultural realities made for a welcoming environment — brought these ideas back into prominence. At almost the same time, the Black Death decimated populations across Europe and forced the survivors to contemplate not the afterlife but their actual physical existence, shifting intellectual focus to earthbound concerns.

It’s important to note that as in many historical periods, the people living during the Renaissance had little idea they were alive during such a famous period of time. Outside of the arts, the Renaissance saw the decline of the political power of the Papacy and the increased contact between European powers and other cultures through trade and exploration. The world became fundamentally more stable, which in turn allowed people to worry about things beyond basic survival — things like art and literature. In fact, some of the writers who emerged during the Renaissance remain the most influential writers of all time and were responsible for literary techniques, thoughts, and philosophies that are still borrowed and explored today. Reading the works of these 10 Renaissance writers will not only give you a good idea of what characterized Renaissance thought and philosophy, it will also give you a solid grasp of modern writing in general ​because these writers are where our modern sense of literature began.

01
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William Shakespeare

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

One does not discuss literature — in any sense — without mentioning Shakespeare. His influence simply cannot be overstated. He created many words still in common English usage today (including bedazzled, which might be his greatest achievement), he coined many of the phrases and idioms we still use today (every time you try to break the ice, say a short prayer to Bill), and he codified certain stories and plot devices that have become the invisible vocabulary of every story composed. Heck, they still adapt his plays into films and other media on a yearly basis. There is literally no other writer who has had a bigger influence on the English language, with the possible exception of ...

02
of 11

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer’s influence can be summarized in one sentence: Without him, Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare. Not only did Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales" mark the first time English was used for a serious work of literary ambition (English being considered a "common" language for the uneducated at the time when the royal family of England still considered themselves in many ways French and in fact French was the official language of the court), but Chaucer’s technique of using five stresses in a line was a direct ancestor of the iambic pentameter used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

03
of 11

Nicholas Machiavelli

The Prince, by Nicholas Machiavelli
The Prince, by Nicholas Machiavelli.

There are only a handful of writers whose names have adjectives (see Shakespearean), and Machiavelli is one of them thanks to his most famous work, "The Prince."

Machiavelli’s focus on terrestrial instead of heavenly power is indicative of the general shift going on in his lifetime as the Renaissance gained steam. His concept that there was a division between public and private morality, and his endorsement of violence, murder, and political trickery to gain and maintain power is where we get the term Machiavellian when describing brilliant if evil politicians or schemers.

Some have tried to recast "The Prince" as a work of satire or even a sort of revolutionary handbook (arguing that the intended audience was actually the oppressed masses in an effort to show them how to overthrow their rulers), but it almost doesn’t matter; Machiavelli’s influence is inarguable.

04
of 11

Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes.

The things you consider to be novels are a relatively new invention, and Miguel de Cervantes’ "Don Quixote" is generally considered to be one of the first examples — if not the first.

Published in 1605, it’s a late-Renaissance work that is also credited with shaping much of what is now the modern Spanish language; in that sense, Cervantes must be regarded as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of cultural influence.

Cervantes played with language, using puns and contradictions for humorous effect, and the image of the loyal Sancho miserably following his deluded master as he literally tilts at windmills has endured through the centuries. Novels ranging from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to Rushdie’s "The Moor’s Last Sigh" are explicitly influenced by "Don Quixote," establishing its ongoing literary influence.

05
of 11

Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri.

Even if you know nothing else about Dante or the Renaissance, you have heard of Dante’s greatest work, "The Divine Comedy," which still gets name-checked by a variety of modern-day works such as Dan Brown’s "Inferno"; in fact, any time you refer to a “circle of hell” you are referencing Dante’s vision of Satan’s kingdom.

"The Divine Comedy" is a poem that follows Dante himself as he travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. It’s extremely complex in its structure and references, and quite beautiful in its language even in translation. While concerned with many theological and religious themes, it shows its Renaissance trappings in the many ways Dante critiques and comments on contemporary Florentine politics, society, and culture. Understanding all the jokes, insults, and commentary is difficult for the modern reader, but the poem's influence is felt throughout all of modern culture. Besides, how many writers get to be known by solely their first name?

06
of 11

John Donne

Collected Poetry, by John Donne
Collected Poetry, by John Donne.

Donne isn’t a household name outside of English and literature majors, but his influence on literature in the ensuing years is epic. Considered one of the earliest “metaphysical” writers, Donne more or less invented several literary techniques in his complex works, most notably the trick of using two seemingly opposite concepts to construct powerful metaphors. His use of irony and the often cynical and snarky tone of his work surprises many who think of older writing as flowery and pretentious.

Donne’s work also represents the shift in focus from writing that almost exclusively dealt with religious themes to work that was much more personal, a trend begun in the Renaissance that continues today. His abandonment of the stiff, heavily regulated forms of previous literature in favor of more casual rhythms that closely resembled actual speech was revolutionary, and the ripples from his innovations are still lapping against modern lit.

07
of 11

Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spenser
The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spenser.

Spenser isn’t as much of a household name as Shakespeare, but his influence in the realm of poetry is as epic as his best-known work, "The Faerie Queen." That lengthy (and technically unfinished) poem is actually a pretty blatantly sycophantic attempt to flatter then-Queen Elizabeth I; Spenser wanted desperately to be ennobled, a goal he never achieved, and a poem linking Queen Elizabeth with all the virtues in the world seemed like a good way to go. Along the way, Spenser developed a poetic structure still known as the Spenserian Stanza and a style of sonnet known as the Spenserian Sonnet, both of which have been copied by later poets such as Coleridge and Shakespeare.

Whether or not poetry’s your jam, Spenser looms large all over modern literature.

08
of 11

Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Boccaccio lived and worked during the early Renaissance in Florence, producing a huge volume of work that set down some of the basic roots of the newly-humanist focus of the era.

He worked both in “vernacular” Italian (meaning the everyday language people actually used) as well as more formal Latin compositions, and his work directly influenced both Chaucer and Shakespeare, not to mention just about every writer who ever lived.

His most famous work, "The Decameron," is a clear model for "The Canterbury Tales" as it features a frame story of people fleeing to a remote villa to escape the Black Death and entertaining themselves by telling stories. One of Boccaccio’s most influential techniques was to render dialogue in a naturalistic manner instead of the overly formal style of tradition. Every time you read a line of dialogue in a novel that feels real, you can thank Boccaccio in some small way.

09
of 11

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch)

Petrarch's Lyric Poems
Petrarch's Lyric Poems.

One of the earliest Renaissance poets, Petrarch was forced to study law by his father, but abandoned that work as soon as his father died, choosing to pursue Latin studies and writing.

He popularized the poetic form of the sonnet, and was one of the first writers to eschew the formal, structured style of traditional poetry in favor of a more casual, realistic approach to language. Petrarch became extremely popular in England, and thus has an outsize influence on our modern literature; Chaucer incorporated many of Petrarch’s concepts and techniques into his own writing, and Petrarch remained one of the most influential poets in the English language well into the 19th century, ensuring that our modern concept of literature could in large part be attributed to this 14th century writer.

10
of 11

John Milton

Paradise Lost, by John Milton
Paradise Lost, by John Milton.

The fact that even people who regard poetry as something to run away from as quickly as possible are familiar with the title of Milton’s most-famous work, "Paradise Lost," tells you all you need to know about this late-Renaissance genius.

Milton, who made some poor political decisions in his life and who wrote many of his best-known works after going completely blind, composed "Paradise Lost" in blank verse, one of the earliest and most influential uses of the technique. He also told a traditional religious-themed story (the fall of man) in a startlingly personal way, casting the story of Adam and Eve as a realistic domestic story, and giving all the characters — even God and Satan — clear and unique personalities. These innovations may seem obvious today — but that in itself is a testament to Milton’s influence.

11
of 11

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière)

The Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière)
The Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Molière).

Molière was one of the first major comedy writers of the Renaissance. Humorous writing had always existed, of course, but Molière reinvented it as a form of social satire that had an incredible influence on French culture and literature in general. His satirical plays often read as flat or thin on the page, but come alive when performed by skilled actors who can interpret his lines as they were intended. His willingness to satirize political, religious, and cultural icons and power centers was daring and dangerous — only the fact that King Louis XIV favored him explains his survival — set the mark for comedy writing that remains the standard in many ways today.

Everything's Connected

Literature is not a series of isolated islands of achievement; every new book, play, or poem is the culmination of all that has gone before. Influence is handed down from work to work, diluted, alchemically altered, and re-purposed. These eleven Renaissance writers may seem dated and alien to the modern reader — but their influence can be felt in just about everything you read today.
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Somers, Jeffrey. "The Renaissance Writers Who Shaped the Modern World." ThoughtCo, Jan. 4, 2018, thoughtco.com/top-renaissance-writers-4156665. Somers, Jeffrey. (2018, January 4). The Renaissance Writers Who Shaped the Modern World. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-renaissance-writers-4156665 Somers, Jeffrey. "The Renaissance Writers Who Shaped the Modern World." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-renaissance-writers-4156665 (accessed May 24, 2018).