Because Christianity played such a major role in the social and intellectual life of the Renaissance, almost all the literature produced in Europe at that time had some religious content. However, many types of works were specifically Christian in nature. Religious writers produced poetry, stories, essays, and dialogues, written both in Latin and in vernacular* languages. All these works fell under the broad heading of devotional literature, which aimed to help the reader lead a more holy life.
Devotional writing changed in several ways during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For example, by the middle of the 1300s, the growing use of the vernacular in writing had helped to create new forms of religious literature. At the same time, a large new audience for books emerged among laypeople*. During the Renaissance, other factors such as the development of printing and the intellectual movement known as humanism* produced further changes in religious literature. However, people continued to read older religious texts, including works written by church fathers (individuals who shaped Christianity in its early centuries). Also, new religious works continued to focus on themes that had been traditional throughout the Middle Ages.
Major Themes. The most popular devotional texts of this period advised readers about following the example of Jesus Christ. This theme appeared in such works as Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony and Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. These works taught that believers could recreate Christ's sufferings in their own minds and bodies, an idea that became a focus of spiritual exercises for Catholics and some Protestants in the late Renaissance. For Catholics, literature of this type focused largely on the physical details of Christ's suffering.
Another major figure in devotional literature was the Virgin Mary. Catholic authors of this period wrote about the Virgin in epics*, lyric poetry, sermons, and meditations. These works discussed Mary's various roles as a wife and mother, a worker of miracles, and a person who pleads on behalf of sinners. Devotion to other members of Christ's Holy Family, such as his cousin John the Baptist, became popular at this time as well. A cult also developed around Joseph, Mary's husband, which presented Christ's earthly father as a model for Christian fathers.
Some devotional literature focused on the ideal of isolation, which provided a contrast to a Renaissance culture centered on the life of the city and the court. Many texts described the experiences of the Desert Fathers, who fled Roman persecution in the 200s and 300s. These holy men settled in Egypt, where they lived as hermits. The image of a person alone in the desert provided a popular model for many Christians. During the 1500s, however, this ideal faded as both Catholics and Protestants stressed the importance of public as well as private devotion.
Another form of religious literature, the confessional, evolved out of the handbooks used by medieval* priests to guide them in the care of souls. With the development of printing, these works became available to laypeople as well. Confessionals might take such forms as biographies, catalogues of virtues, or dialogues. For example, a text might be presented as a conversation between the body and the soul, Jesus and a sinner, or man and the devil.
A final theme that played a large role in religious literature was affectivity. This term, based on the word affectus meaning love or emotion, referred to a spirituality based on experience and emotion rather than on reason. Literature of this type became very popular during the Catholic Reformation* of the mid-1500s. Authors attempted to appeal directly to the reader's senses, to inspire sighs, groans, and tears. Many authors of affective works were women, such as the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila.
Literature of Prayer. For those who could read, literature played a central role in the Renaissance practice of prayer. During the Renaissance, Christians read religious works both publicly and privately. Some Renaissance religious scholars viewed the act of reading alone as the first step on a path leading to a greater spiritual awareness. From reading, they claimed, the soul moved to meditation, prayer, and finally contemplation, a state of mystical* awareness of God. Public reading, by contrast, was done out loud, in a group, often as part of a church service or other ritual.
Prayer, like reading, might be either spoken or silent. Although vocal prayer played an important role in certain religious rituals, devotional literature more often focused on mental prayer. The Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross described praying in silence as a conversation between the soul and God. Various texts of the late Renaissance urged readers to pray passively before the mystery of God's presence. During the Renaissance, various disagreements about the nature of prayer arose between Protestants and Catholics, as well as within each group. However, both Protestant and Catholic literature about prayer—like devotional literature in general—took up the most basic theme of modern literature: the self.
- * vernacular
native language or dialect of a region or country
- * laypeople
those who are not members of the clergy
- * humanism
Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * epic
long poem about the adventures of a hero
- * medieval
referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe
- * Catholic Reformation
reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church that focused on spiritual renewal, correcting abuses, and strengthening religious orders; it began in the late Middle Ages and continued throughout the Renaissance
- * mystical
based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine