Humanism Outside Italy

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Humanism Outside Italy


In the fifteenth century humanism spread beyond the boundaries of Italy, first to Spain and Portugal and somewhat later to Northern Europe. In the Iberian Peninsula humanists often wrote in Spanish and Portuguese, adapting the literary style of Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other Italian humanists to their own local languages. Northern European humanists continued to rely on Latin, although there were notable exceptions of humanists who dedicated themselves to using and expanding their local languages. Outside Italy, humanists promoted notions about their movement similar to those already expressed in Florence and other Italian cities. They celebrated their movement as the birth of a new "Golden Age" in which religion and learning would be invigorated by the examples of Antiquity and a renewal in moral philosophy. In Northern Europe and Spain, humanism became associated with plans for Christian reform and placed less emphasis on the rhetoric of Cicero and other ancient writers. For this reason humanism outside Italy has sometimes been called "Christian humanism." The philosophers and writers of this movement advocated a renewal of Christianity that would be illuminated by the new knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and envisioned a reform of the church that would rely on the knowledge of Antiquity and the study of the scriptures in their original languages. They emphasized the importance of moral philosophy rather than scholastic logic, and were often just as critical of the scholastics as their Italian predecessors had been. But as in Italy, the gulf that separated humanism from scholasticism was not so deep as many humanists claimed. Some humanists, for instance, studied both scholasticism and the newer forms of learning, but their anti-scholastic rhetoric made many universities initially resistant to the humanists. By 1500, though, humanists had gained a foothold in many institutions of learning north of the Alps and in Spain and Portugal.

Germany and the Netherlands.

In both Germany and the Netherlands, the humanist movement exhibited signs that were similar to the Renaissance elsewhere in Northern Europe. Like its Italian version, humanism here owed a great debt to the classics of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Rediscovering and studying classical texts became a burning desire of humanists in Germany and the Netherlands; these scholars argued that literary study was more conducive to human virtue than the arid logical considerations of scholasticism. For these reasons, the humanists initially encountered opposition as they tried to assume positions in Dutch and German schools and universities. Eventually, these barriers were overcome, and by 1500, the humanists had gained a foothold. In the educational institutions in which they taught, the humanists argued for a reformed curriculum based upon the study of the classical languages. But as the movement developed in Germany and the Netherlands, they also advocated religious reform and an ideal of learned Christian piety. In Germany, the first great scholar of humanism was Rudolph Agricola (1444–1485). Like many later German and Dutch humanists, Agricola had been schooled by the Brethren of the Common Life, the lay monastic movement that had developed in the Netherlands and Germany from the Modern Devotion movement. When he was 25, Agricola traveled to Italy, studying the Classics at Ferrara and Pavia. After ten years he returned to Germany, where he spent the remainder of his life encouraging the development of humanistic studies from his post at the University of Heidelberg. Agricola's religious ideas were conservative and traditional, but he laid great emphasis on the study of the scriptures, something that later Dutch and German humanists embraced enthusiastically. Although he died relatively young, he had by the time of his death developed a group of disciples that included Conrad Celtis and Jakob Wimpheling, two scholars who expanded the cause of humanism in Germany. Their efforts saw humanism embraced in the imperial court, as the emperor Maximilian I appointed a number of classical scholars to serve as secretaries, historians, and astrologers in his government. One of the greatest of these was Johannes Reuchlin, who accepted several imperial appointments during the 1490s and 1500s. Reuchlin was one of the most widely traveled scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He studied at the universities of Orlèans, Basel, Paris, Tübingen, and in Rome and Florence, before devoting himself to the study of the Hebrew language and Jewish literature. He authored the first grammar of Hebrew intended for Christian students of the language, and he published several monumental studies of the Jewish Cabala. Because of these involvements, Reuchlin was eventually drawn into a controversy over the study of Jewish books (see Religion: Reuchlin Affair). Many of the imperial humanists that Germany produced in these years were advocates of German nationalism. In their historical works these court humanists tried to address a sense of cultural inferiority. They attempted to show in their works that Germans had not been barbarians (an interpretation of German history that Italian humanists had kept alive through their knowledge of Tacitus and other ancient Latin writers). The Dutch humanists did not share this focus on national identity. But like their German counterparts, they took an interest in the study of traditional mystical texts and in the newer metaphysical ideas of Renaissance Platonism.



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The Dutch-born Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) was the commanding figure produced by the Renaissance in Northern Europe. Erasmus was a religious thinker of profound depth, a writer of some of the sixteenth century's most brilliant and cultivated prose, and a philosopher of some sophistication. Like Agricola and other German and Dutch humanists, he had been trained in youth in the traditions of the Brethren of the Common Life, and the concept of the imitation of Christ advocated by the Modern Devotion had shaped his early life. To these early interests, Erasmus added training in the methods of both humanism and scholasticism. Erasmus's writings fall into three categories. First, he produced works of critical scholarship, editing important classical works and translations, including his definitive translation of the New Testament. Second, Erasmus published a number of comic and satirical works, including his famous Colloquies. He wrote the Colloquies as a series of conversational dialogues, and teachers used them to train young men in the knowledge of Latin. The works mocked the foibles and superstitions of people, most especially of monks and scholars. Finally, a third category of Erasmus's works aimed for a re-establishment of early Christian teachings in Europe. In this last kind of work, Erasmus frequently outlined his "Philosophy of Christ," a set of teachings he believed were revealed in the gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. Among the several works that Erasmus wrote in this vein, his Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503) was the most influential in attracting disciples to his ideas and plans for Christian reform. The work argued that the kernel of all Christ's teachings consisted in love, charity, and respect exercised toward one's neighbors. "Wish for good, pray for good, act for good to all men" is how he summarized this great rule in the Handbook. Erasmus's beautiful literary style and his engaging summation of the core of Christian teachings attracted numerous admirers throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. To many educated humanists, his works presented a middle path between the extremes of traditional Catholicism and the newer and more radical forms of Protestantism. Vestiges of his reform ideas survived in the works of many humanists, many of whom served in Christian reform efforts throughout Europe. His ideas, for instance, were particularly important in shaping the course of the Reformation's teachings in England, and had admirers at the same time in the Catholic reformers in Spain and Italy. As the sixteenth century progressed, though, and religious positions hardened on both sides of the Protestant and Catholic divides in Europe, Erasmus attracted increasing criticism from many quarters. Catholic traditionalists identified in Erasmus's emphasis on the spiritual nature of Christianity a set of teachings that was subversive to the sacraments and religious discipline. By the end of the century, a number of his works had been placed upon the Index of Prohibited Books, a list of books which Catholics were forbidden to read. For committed Protestants, too, Erasmus's denial of the concept of justification by faith and his loyalty to Rome helped limit his appeal.


Renaissance humanism attracted significant support from English intellectuals at the end of the fifteenth century, despite the conservative character of intellectual life in the country at the time. Many aspects of English learning remained tied to medieval scholasticism, and chivalric ideals still dominated English elite society in the late fifteenth century. Still, during the 1460s and 1470s a group of English scholars traveled to Italy to study with humanists and several were students of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. These included Thomas Linacre, William Sellyng, and William Grocyn. This last figure was particularly important in building a circle of humanist scholars in England. Grocyn served as court physician and a royal tutor during the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII. While he did not write a great deal, like Rudolph Agricola in Germany, he helped to popularize humanistic studies among England's intellectual elite. The first undeniably accomplished English humanist, though, was John Colet (1466–1519), who was a member of the clergy and dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Colet had spent four years in Italy during his youth, much of it in close affiliation with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. When he returned to England, he helped to spread knowledge of Ficino and Renaissance Platonism. Like Erasmus and other Northern Renaissance humanists, he was critical of the corruption of the church and the popular superstitions of the people, and his sermons argued for a reform of ecclesiastical abuses. His great achievement, though, lay in fostering the study of the humanities in England through his foundation of St. Paul's School in London. This cathedral school opened the way for the training of members of the English elite in the classics and it exerted a significant influence on English intellectual life during the following centuries.


Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), an admirer of John Colet, exemplifies a different path taken by some English humanists. He was a layman and a lawyer who occupied the highest political positions in the court ofHenry VIII. More received his Bachelor of Arts at Oxford before studying law at the Inns of Court in London. By 1510, he had become an official in the City of London and he soon rose to serve in Henry VIII's diplomatic service. It was while on a diplomatic mission to Flanders that More wrote part of his famous Utopia, a work that has since his time been the model for many imaginary visions of a perfect society. The Utopia, one of the best examples of sixteenth-century literature, also reflects More's personal philosophy (see Literature: Utopia). He was skeptical of humankind's ability to achieve virtue, and the society he imagined in his work was tightly ordered and highly disciplined so that its people could avoid their natural inclinations toward wrong-doing. More was well read, and an excellent stylist in Latin prose; he was also well connected among humanists in England and in Europe. Among his correspondents, he maintained a close friendship with Erasmus throughout his life, and Erasmus dedicated his Praise of Folly to him. Religiously, though, More was more conservative than the Dutch humanist. He engaged in prayer vigils and practiced ascetic disciplines like the wearing of a hair shirt. While he enthusiastically supported charities, he was also an unswerving opponent of heresy. As a royal official, he supported the persecution of heretics, including those who were drawn to the new Protestant ideas that began to circulate in England in the 1520s. The same sword of royal authority that More wielded to eradicate Protestants in England would eventually be turned against him. Because of his loyalty to the Roman Church, he refused to recognize Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he was condemned and beheaded in 1535.


In France, humanism developed within the same time frame as it did in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. While the country's intellectual centers, particularly the University of Paris, were resistant to the new studies, humanists had established themselves at Lyon and Paris by the late fifteenth century. Both towns were important printing centers, and they played a key role in spreading the new humanistic knowledge throughout Europe. Robert Gaguin (1433–1501) was the first in a distinguished lineage of French humanists. In his works he tried to harmonize classical philosophy with Christian teaching, a goal that would be pursued by a number of French Renaissance thinkers. Gaguin's influence upon his students at Paris helped to permanently establish the humanities within the university. His influence, though, was soon to be eclipsed by Giullaume Budé (1467–1540) and Jacques Lefèvre D'Etaples (1450–1536), the two most accomplished scholars of the French Renaissance. By training, Budé was a lawyer, and found no university appointment until he established his own college late in life. He was a particularly astute philologist, who translated the Greek works of Plutarch and wrote treatises in Greek even in his youth. Of the many honors that Budé received during his lifetime, one was to prove particularly important for posterity: his appointment as the head of the king's library enabled him to purchase a number of important Greek manuscripts. Jacques Lefèvre D'Etaples, by contrast, took a different turn in his scholarship. Inspired by the example of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lefèvre became convinced of the unity of philosophical truth. As a result he ranged broadly in his studies, dedicating himself to the works of Italian Renaissance Platonists, the medieval scholastics and mystics, the Jewish cabalistic writers, and hermeticism. As he matured, though, he concentrated his efforts on biblical scholarship, and in his studies of the New Testament he developed ideas that were similar to many German Protestants. Lefèvre remained a devout Catholic, but as a consequence, his scriptural studies shaped the ideas of some of France's early Protestant reformers.

Spain and Portugal.

Humanist influences can be seen in both Spain and Portugal from the early fifteenth century as the works of Petrarch and Boccacio became popular in the peninsula. In both countries, as elsewhere in Europe, the demand for properly trained secretaries and diplomats helped to fuel the popularity of humanism. The presence of an increasing number of skilled Latinists within the region in the fifteenth century encouraged the study of classical texts, as well as the importation of works by the Italian humanists and their translation into Spanish and Portuguese. During the reign of the married monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, humanist study within the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon expanded. The project for a new polyglot Bible at Alcala, which became known as the Complutensian Polyglot, brought many humanists to Spain in the early sixteenth century. But it was not until the reign of the Spanish emperor Charles V (r. 1516–1556) that a true Renaissance in Spanish learning occurred. During the early part of Charles' reign Spain's humanists revered the works of Erasmus, including the Handbook of the Militant Christian, which for a time became the country's most widely read devotional book. Its influence persisted even after its placement on the Index in 1559. In Charles' Spain, a number of distinguished humanists were actively engaged in the king's service. These included Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Juan de Valdés, and Antonio de Guevara. The greatest of Spain's humanists, Juan Luis Vives, was also from a family of recent converts to Christianity. Known as conversos, these former Jews or descendants of Jews were particularly receptive to the ideas of Erasmian humanism. Vives studied in Spain until his teenage years, when he moved to the University of Paris. When still young, he distinguished himself through the publication of his The Fable of Man, a work tinged with Renaissance Platonism. As a result of his literary successes, Vives became a professor of literature at the University of Louvain, and eventually served as the royal tutor in the court of Henry VIII. When he failed to endorse Henry's divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he was forced to emigrate, and he settled in Bruges in Flanders where he spent the remainder of his life. Vives' death came before a great change in attitude toward humanism began to sweep across his native Spain. At home, fears of Protestantism gave rise after mid-century to attempts to suppress the Erasmian humanism that had circulated in Spain relatively freely during the first half of the century. Humanists came to be suspected of heresy, and followers of Erasmus, together with Spanish mystics (known as the Alumbrados) became victims of persecution. In Portugal, the rise of counter-reforming sentiments similarly discouraged a nascent humanist culture.


C. G. Nauert, Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

E. Rummel, The Humanist Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press., 1995).

J. S. Ruth, Lisbon in the Renaissance (New York: Italica Press, 1999).

Domingo Ynduráin, Humanismo y renacimiento en España (Madrid, Spain: Cátedra, 1994).

see also Religion: The Spread of Protestantism in Northern Europe

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Humanism Outside Italy

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