Christian Humanism

views updated

Christian Humanism



Printing Press. Italian humanists were slow to take their understanding of the liberal arts beyond the Alps. An occasional northerner could be found in Italy studying humanism in the early fifteenth century, and an occasional Italian steeped in humanism traveled northward. Only after 1450 were enough of both groups present in the rest of Europe to speak about the Northern Renaissance. After 1450 there were several developments that helped form Northern humanism. One was the printing press, traditionally attributed to Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz and invented around 1450, although several printers helped perfect movable type. By 1470 printing had reached Italy. When Aldus Manutius founded his press in 1490, Venice became an important center of printing. Manutius developed the style of typeface that became known as italics and specialized in printing humanist and classical literature. His humanist books were compact and cheap but well made. The printing press was a major factor in making the Renaissance permanent since it was impossible to again lose copies of classical works. It also helped to spread humanism across the Alps, since booksellers carried copies northward where they found a good market. Northern printers also began printing humanist texts, often pirating them from Italian publishers. By 1500, printed copies of humanist and classical texts had made their way across northern Europe, and books replaced teaching as the key to the spread of humanism.

Court Trophies. When popes became patrons of humanists, monarchs and great nobles also began to hire Italian humanists as ornaments for their courts. King Matthias Corvinus gained the throne of Hungary in 1458 and used his ties to Venice to become the first northern king to create a “renaissance court.” Italian artists and humanists flourished there, but the most outstanding aspect of his patronage was the Corvinian Library with its 2,500 volumes mostly of classical literature. Unfortunately, nothing of this outpost of humanism in Eastern Europe survived the catastrophic Ottoman invasion of 1526. To the north in Poland, an early center for humanism appeared in Cracow, at both the university and the royal court of King Casimir IV. The courts of Western Europe were slower to become humanist centers. War distracted the Spanish and English monarchs from humanism until about 1500. In France, the powerful hold that the theology faculty of the University of Paris had on French intellectual life delayed the flourishing of Renaissance culture until after Charles VIII returned in 1495 from the First French Invasion of Italy.

Brothers of Common Life. A third source for Northern humanism was the schools of the Brothers of the Common Life. Few Brothers were humanists, but they were sympathetic to the idea of educating young men with the best texts available. Humanists began to appear as teachers in their schools in Germany and the Netherlands. Germany had many autonomous cities, called Free Imperial Cities, that were similar in government to the Italian city-states, in which humanistic studies flourished. The first important German humanist was known as Agricola. He went to Italy in 1469 and studied there for ten years. His classical Latin was so good that he was asked to give lectures in the language at the University of Pavia, a rare honor for a northerner in Italy at that time. When Agricola returned to Germany, he concentrated on teaching classical Latin. Conrad Celtis, a son of peasants, learned classical Latin from Agricola, but his program went beyond appreciating classical Latin for its own sake. He was a German patriot and saw to the printing of the Roman historian Tacitus's Germania (98 C.E.). Celtis disliked Italy and spent only a short time there. He criticized the Germans for being dominated by the Italians.

Reuchlin. Johannes Reuchlin became the most-famous German humanist because of his dispute with Johannes Pfefferkorn. Reuchlin was a true Renaissance man. He earned a law degree, served as a diplomat in Italy, wrote poetry and comedies and was fluent in classical Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His interest in Hebrew sparked the “Reuchlin Controversy.” In 1506 he wrote a Hebrew grammar and dictionary, the first done by a Christian. Four years later he came under attack for his interest in Hebrew and Judaism from Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert to Christianity, who was eager to erase all memory of his former religion. Reuchlin defended the right of Christians to study Hebrew texts, and the controversy spread. It was taken to the University of Paris in 1514, where the theologians rejected Reuchlin's position, deeply angering the humanists, who had taken up his cause. Among the humanist works supporting Reuchlin was the notorious Letters of Obscure Men (1515–1517), written by Ulrich von Hutten and Crotus Rubeanus. The work was a biting satire against the clergy and scholastic theologians. Eventually the issue went to Pope Leo X, who decided against Reuchlin in 1520. By then, the Lutheran movement had overshadowed the Reuchlin controversy, and it quietly disappeared.

Desire for Reform. The Reuchlin affair brought out several key elements that made Northern humanism a distinctive school of thought from the Italian. Reuchlin's interest in Hebrew was part of the movement of returning to the original sources of Christianity. Church reform was another essential element of Northern humanism. The Northern humanists applied the techniques of text criticism developed by the Italians for the study of the largely pagan Latin and Greek classics to what they called the Christian classics—the earliest manuscripts of the Bible and the works of the Church fathers. The goal of this work was to clear out the accumulated weight of the centuries of misinterpretation of Christian doctrine by the medieval theologians. For Christian humanists “returning to the sources” meant returning to the pure doctrine of the earliest Church. They felt themselves qualified to discuss theology because they often knew Greek and in some cases Hebrew, while both languages were almost unheard of among scholastic theologians. The theologians began to conclude that humanism was not merely an inappropriate emphasis on ancient languages but also a threat to their fiercely defended monopoly on the right to interpret doctrine. They reacted by denouncing the most outspoken humanists as heretics. The humanists responded with biting satire and parody against the theologians and the Catholic clergy in general. The abuse of office rampant in the clergy distressed many humanists, some of whom were clerics themselves. Church reform was important to them, and since the humanists were first of all experts in the use of rhetoric, they used their talents as writers to push their program. Beyond reforming a corrupt clergy of its abuses, Christian humanists also were interested in eliminating the mechanical formalism found in Catholic worship. The humanist interest in the classics joined with the currents of mysticism found in the North and the attitude of the Brothers of the Common Life to seek to develop a more personal approach to religious life. Despite the seriousness of the goal, satire was often the means the humanists used to gain attention for the need for reform. The first major satire came from the pen of Sebastian Brant, a talented Latinist and legal scholar who was the secretary for the city of Strasbourg. He wrote The Ship of Fools in 1494 as a sweeping satire on all of European society. It took the form of a description of a boat, filled with insane people, floating down the Rhine River. The Rhineland cities allegedly had rid themselves of their insane by putting them on such boats. Brant satirized everyone, but the clergy were the special targets of his wit.


Ulrich von Hutten, a German knight and humanist, was one of the most articulate spokesmen for a kind of German cultural nationalism. He resented Rome's claims of cultural and political superiority and championed ecclesiastical reform. In this 1520 letter to Elector Frederick of Saxony, Hutten accuses the Roman Curia of corruption and calls for reform.

We see that there is no gold and almost no silver in our German land. What little may perhaps be left is drawn away daily by the new schemes invented by the council of the most holy members of the Roman Curia. What is thus squeezed out of us is put to the most shameful uses. Would you know, dear Germans, what employment I myself have seen that they make at Rome of our money? It does not lie idle! Leo X gives a part to nephews and relatives (these are so numerous that there is a proverb at Rome, “As thick as Leo's relation.”), A portion is consumed by so many most reverend cardinals (of which the holy father created no less than one and thirty in a single day), as well as to support innumerable referendaries, auditors, prothonotaries, abbre-viators, apostolic secretaries, chamberlains and a variety of officials forming the elite of the great head Church. These in turn draw after them at untold expense, copyists, beadles, messengers, servants, scullions, mule drivers, grooms, and an innumerable army of prostitutes and the most degraded followers. They maintain dogs, horses, monkeys, long-tailed apes and many more such creatures for their pleasure. They construct houses all of marble. They have precious stones, are clothed in purple and fine linen and dine sumptuously, frivolously indulging themselves in every species of luxury. In short, a vast number of the worst of men are supported in Rome in idle indulgence by means of our money.... Does not your Grace perceive how many bold robbers, how many cunning hypocrites commit repeatedly the greatest crimes under the monk's cowl, and how many crafty hawks feign the simplicity of doves, and how many ravening wolves simulate the innocence of lambs? And although there be a few truly pious among them, even they cling to superstition and pervert the law of life which Christ laid down for us.

Now, if all these who devastate Germany and continue to devour everything might once be driven out, and an end made of their unbridled plundering, swindling and deception, with which the Romans has overwhelmed us, we should again have gold and silver in sufficient quantities and should be able to keep it.

Source: Merrick Whitcomb, A Literary Sourcebook of the German Renaissance, volume 2 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1899), pp. 6,19–20.

Erasmus. The same characterization was true of Erasmus who had the sharpest wit of the Northern humanists and the best sense of how to use it effectively. He used it against what he regarded as the unchristian papacy under Julius II, the Warrior Pope, who had personally commanded the papal army in its successful assault of Bologna, which had revolted against papal rule. Erasmus always denied writing Julius Excluded from Heaven (1513), but the evidence for his authorship of this biting satire against Julius is strong. In Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus's satire

was gentler but more broadly aimed. He depicts Folly as a cheerful goddess who praises her followers in European society. No part of society escapes his scathing wit, but the sharpest barbs are aimed at the churchmen: popes and prelates whose concerns are war, politics, and aggrandizement; monks and nuns who believe that they can compensate for a life of sensuality by empty prayers; priests who try to make up for their violations of their vow of chastity by saying an endless number of masses; theologians who are vainly proud of the trivia they call knowledge.

Travels. Erasmus spent his life traveling across Western Europe except for Spain and Portugal. To a large extent he traced out the course of Northern humanism, although it should not be concluded that he was responsible for its development in the North. Alexander Hegius, Erasmus' tutor in Latin at a school of the Brothers of the Common Life in the Netherlands, learned classical Latin from Agricola. Hegius also introduced Erasmus to Greek. Erasmus went to Paris to study theology but soon abandoned it to take part in the growing circle of humanists in Paris. Robert Gaguin, who helped Erasmus improve his classical Latin, was the first noteworthy French humanist. He made several visits to Italy before publishing his first humanist work in 1495, a history of France that incorporated the humanist approach to writing history. Erasmus wrote the dedicatory poem for it. He published his first humanist work, the Adages, in Paris in 1500 and then left France, leaving Jacques Lefevre d'Étaples as the outstanding humanist in the realm.

Lefevre. After becoming a master of arts at Paris, Lefevre visited Italy, where he was inspired to translate several of Aristotle's works directly into Latin from Greek. Upon his return to France, LeFevre turned to the Christian classics. He bypassed the scholastic commentaries and went directly to the sources in order to understand the true meaning of the texts. In 1509 he published an edition of the Psalms in which he placed four early Latin translations in columns alongside his own critical text. Three years later he edited St. Paul's epistles by placing the Latin text from the Vulgate (official version of the Bible approved by the Catholic Church) side by side with his own translation from the Greek, pointing out where he regarded St. Jerome's text was in error. His commentary on St. Paul owed nothing to scholastic theology; it was a simple exposition of the literal meaning of the apostle's words. By 1525 Lefevre was on the edge of involvement in early French Protestantism, only to draw back because of pressure from the monarchy.

Budé. The other leading French humanist, Guillaume Budé, had mostly secular interests. He was the best Greek scholar in France in the early sixteenth century as well as the best legal scholar. Sharply attacking the way law was taught in the universities, Budé published critical editions of codes of Roman law and demanded that law students study them directly instead of reading medieval commentaries. His reputation as a humanist was established by On Coins and Measurements (1515), a study of the Roman system of weights and measurements and coinage. King Francis I, whom the humanists called “the Father of Letters,” appointed Budé royal librarian in 1522. Francis and Budé shared responsibility for founding the College of the Three Languages in 1530, which received royal funds to support the teaching of ancient Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Colet. Erasmus had left France for England in 1500. Among the humanists he met there were John Colet and Sir Thomas More. Colet was in key respects not a humanist. He knew little classical Latin and had less interest in humanist scholarship, but he was committed to the Modern Devotion. He believed that the epistles of Paul had to be read as rhetoric. Colet's influence was extensive: he became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1504 and founded St. Paul's School five years later. Erasmus met him soon after he arrived in England, and Colet persuaded him to become learned in Greek so he could use the original text of the New Testament instead of having to rely on a Latin translation. Erasmus went to Italy in 1506 to improve his Greek but found that there was little the Italian humanists could teach him. He spent a year in Venice with Aldus Manutius publishing a expanded edition of his Adages. This edition had more than three thousand proverbs collected from the Greek and Latin classics with a commentary that allowed Erasmus to criticize those aspects of the Church and society that he felt violated the spirit of Christ.


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is best known for his De hominis dignttate oratio (Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1486). This short work is an excellent summary of neo-Platomc thought during the mid-Renaissance. Mirandola believed that humans have the capacity to determine their own fate. God created everything and gave all a determined place in the cosmos, and then he created humans and gave them the freewill to be godlike or to behave like beasts. The notion that humans are capable of perfecting their existence on earth evolved into a moral obligation to improve oneself and one's society.

At the time of man's birth the Father plants every kind of seed and the germs of every kind of existence; and the ones which each man cultivates are the ones which will grow, and they will bear their fruit in him. If they are vegetative, he will be a plant; if animal, he will be a brute; if they are rational, he will become a celestial creature; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. But if, not content with the lot of any kind of creature, he draws into the center of his own unity, his spirit will become one with God ....

Let a sacred ambition enter into our souls so that we do not satisfy ourselves with mediocre things, and strive with all our strength to reach them. From the moment that we wish it, we can. Let us despise earthly objects, let us disdain celestial ones, and leaving aside whatever is worldly, let us soar to that supramundane court which is close to the high dignity. There, according to the sacred mysteries, the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones have the primacy. Unable to give up, and impatient of second place, let us emulate their dignity and glory and, if we desire it, we shall be in no way inferior to them.

Source: Eugen J. Weber, The Western Tradition (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1972), pp. 297–300.

More. By 1509 Erasmus was back in England, where he lived in Sir Thomas More's house. More was both a talented humanist and a busy civil servant. He knew classical Latin and a little Greek, and he was a successful lawyer who became a high official for Henry VIII. His place in humanism was established through his Utopia, published in 1516. The plot of the book is simple. More is introduced to a sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who has returned after five years on an island called Utopia. Hythloday explains life on Utopia, and he and More engage in a dialogue in which they compare life there with life in Europe. The ideal society that More describes for Utopia is one where there is no sloth, greed, pride, or ambition. Utopia is free of those vices, responsible for most of the evils More sees around him in Europe, because it has a society based on a community of property and goods instead of private property and a money economy. Gold is used only for children's toys and other ignoble things. Everyone works six hours a day regardless of job and receives compensation adequate to their needs. Just laws and fair institutions ensure that all receive what they need to live well without envying what others have. Utopia has been interpreted in many different ways. Some have proclaimed More as the first socialist, while others have seen him as a reactionary man unable to accept the changes in English society that were leading to the development of capitalism.

Gentle Satire. The second view has some merit, since More objected to the hardships on the peasants that capitalistic activities such as enclosing land to use for sheep raising were causing, but the key to understanding the work is the fact that the Utopians are not Christians. Although they are virtuous, moral, and just, they are so without the benefit of the teachings of Christ. The Europeans have the Bible to guide them and should therefore be better than the Utopians, yet they are not better. Utopia is gentle satire, playing up the irony that the pagan Utopians are so superior in virtue to the Christians. Utopia is also noteworthy as the first European work that takes account of the European discovery of the New World. By the time Utopia was published, More had turned to his political career, one that would eventually take him to the highest office of chancellor. In office, More showed little toleration of dissenting religious views, which was Erasmus's hallmark. Heresy was a crime for which More could give no leniency, and he sought the execution of English heretics, only to fall under the ax himself in 1535 for refusing to accept the king's supremacy in the Church of England.

Simple Christian Truth. The crowning work of Erasmus's six years in England was his Greek edition of the New Testament. Not until 1510 did Erasmus feel secure enough in his Greek to begin working on a critical edition of the Greek text. He used four early manuscripts for establishing what he considered the definitive Greek text. Modern scholars have found some errors in Erasmus's work, but they agree that he did an excellent job. Next to his Greek text Erasmus placed his translation into Latin. He pointed out places where the Church's official Vulgate version did not agree with the Greek text, and his commentary showed how he believed the scholastic theologians had misused the Vulgate's Latin to define doctrine erroneously. His work challenged the reliability of the official biblical text at a time when others were calling into question aspects of late medieval doctrine and practice that conservative Catholics relied on the Vulgate to support. Christian humanists and early Reformers argued that the Church needed to reject what they saw as medieval errors and return to the simplicity and purity of the early Church. In the preface to the Greek edition, Erasmus called on the pious Christian laity to read and discuss the Bible in the vernacular languages. One purpose of his work was to provide the proper basis for accurate translations into the vernaculars so that everyone could read. He proclaimed that even women and Muslims should read the Gospels. He believed theology should not be reserved to the university theologians who lacked the proper training in the ancient languages and who were overly trained in logic to understand the Bible correctly. Scholastic theology, said Erasmus, was best ignored. He wanted it replaced by the philosophy of Christ, the simple Christian truth found in the New Testament.

Polyglot Bible. A similar Spanish project was the Polyglot Bible, which was the first attempt to produce the text of the Bible in all of its original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Jewish scholars participated despite the royal policy of intolerance. The New Testament was published in 1514, and the entire Bible in 1522. The texts of the three languages plus the Latin Vulgate were placed side by side, so that scholars could compare them, but the editors of the Polyglot Bible made no effort at pointing out possible errors in translation, as Erasmus did. It was the great achievement of the Spanish humanism centered in the University of Alcala, founded in 1509 by Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros, Queen Isabella's principal adviser. He believed that knowledge of ancient languages made better Christians of those who knew them. He founded Alcala as a place where innovative teaching of the ancient languages could take place unencumbered by the tradition surrounding the older universities.

Prelude to the Reformation. After leaving England in 1516, Erasmus lived mostly in the Swiss city of Basel. It was a center of humanism with several major presses that printed his works. Swiss humanists were congenial to Erasmus because many of them were pacifists. He denounced rulers for ignoring the desire for peace from their peoples and engaging in war for dynastic ambitions, greed, and vengeance. The Swiss had been involved as mercenaries in Italian wars since 1494. Pope Julius II's use of Swiss mercenaries left a sour taste for many Swiss humanists, helping to give rise to the Swiss Reformation. By 1525 Erasmus had fallen out of the limelight, despite continuing to write major works of scholarship until his death. The coming of the Reformation cost the “Prince of the Humanists” enormously. For Protestants, who expected he would step to the forefront and use his enormous prestige as the leader of the Reformation, his desire to reform the traditional Church without breaking with papal authority led to his reputation as the lost leader of the Reformation. For Catholics he was a traitor who paved the way for the Reformation with his inflammatory satires and criticisms of the clergy and scholastic theologians. For both sides, the saying “Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid!” was true. The history of Northern humanism is usually seen as a prelude to the Reformation, not as a noteworthy intellectual movement in its own right.


Anthony Goodman and Angus McKay, The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe (London & New York: Longman, 1990).

De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution (Lexington, Mass.: D. C Heath, 1981).

Lewis Spitz, The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963).

About this article

Christian Humanism

Updated About content Print Article