Renaissance Humanism

World History Final

Western Europe in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

The terms Renaissance (rinascimento "rebirth") for this movement, and "humanist" (whence modern humanism; also Renaissance humanism to distinguish it from later developments grouped as humanism) are contemporary to that period.

Classical Studies

- "the study of humanity"

- From studia humanitatis

. coined by cicero to describe the education of a cultivated human being.

- Prominent works of Greek, Roman, and Biblical literature

- Emphasis: original languages


Was a distinct movement because it broke from the medieval tradition of having pious religious motivation for creating art or works of literature.

Humanism is the term generally applied to the predominant social philosophy and intellectual and literary currents of the period from 1400 to 1650. The return to favor of the pagan classics stimulated the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression.


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.

The Fifteenth Century

By 1400 Renaissance Humanism’s ideas and studies had spread to allow speeches and other orations to become classified: diffusion was needed so more people could understand, and so it spread. By this point Humanism was becoming famous, admired, an

d 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.

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.

Renaissance Humanism after 1500

should not be trying to imitate Christ but finding themselves.

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.

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.

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