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How Northern Humanism Differed From Italian Humanism
David Trenholm December 4th, 2006 HIST 2103 X1 Dr. Gerry Gerrits
Trenholm 2 The era of history known as the Renaissance contributed largely to the evolution of mankind in a variety of venues: art, architecture, literature and philosophy, to name a few. One aspect of the Renaissance that had a significant impact on many spheres of change was the concept and practice of humanism, a movement of intellectual thought and philosophy that spawned out of the city of Florence in the late fourteenth century.1 Due to stronger literacy in northern Italy, as well as a larger and wealthier bourgeoisie, Italian humanists were far more widespread and common than their counterparts across the Alps in the north. Northern humanists were few, and were often isolated. Apart from size and scale, both types of humanism differed significantly in practice and in theory— but that is not to say they did not have great similarities; indeed, they both shared a strong Classical background. Italian humanism was largely secular with a focus on humanity that tended to exclude the larger religious realities of the era, while northern humanism tended to incorporate broader themes of Christianity and religion—a intellectual movement with strong “religious overtones”2. It is hardly a surprise, then, when many northern humanists are often dubbed, “Christian humanists”. These Christian humanists were very interested in reforming educational institutions of their region—such as universities and grammar schools—and in an effort to encourage classical themes in the teaching of Christianity they had introduced the study of Greek and Hebrew.3 Christian Humanists were also interested in church reform, combining classical studies with patristic studies in an effort to improve and reform the church. It is no wonder, then, that Martin Luther shook the face of Christendom with the great division of the church that
Kenneth R. Bartlett and Margaret McGlynn, Humanism and the Northern Renaissance. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000) xvii. 2 De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. (Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1992) 366. 3 Jensen, 366.
Trenholm 3 had occurred during the Reformation. The Italian humanism of the Renaissance in northern Italy was quite different than the later and less developed northern humanism as seen across the Alps, and indeed it was even quite different from region to region in the north. Unlike the wealthy and strong “bourgeoisie” of northern Italy, the strong upper class that fostered and encouraged the growth of the Renaissance and the ideals of humanism, the northern Renaissance greatly lacked such a class.4 With a smaller wealthy class, there were fewer patrons to support northern humanists, unlike those of the Italian Renaissance. Lewis W. Spitz writes in his Luther and German Humanism that, “Most of the leading Italian humanists were financially well off, either members of wealthy families or through their positions as notaries and chancellors…” and goes on to add that, “Their social function was related to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the city-states, a class from which many leading humanists came.”5 Renaissance humanists of Germany, though they did receive patronage, were not as wealthy and could not afford a lifestyle that did not include work, “Most, even those who accorded themselves the lofty title of ‘poet’, had to work for a living.”6 Many humanists had distinguished careers as universities professors, doctors, lawyers or clergymen.7 Northern European cities were smaller than the great city-states of Italy, such as Florence, Venice and Milan. This resulted in a smaller, more isolated group of northern humanists.8 Due to these smaller groups of humanists, the expansion of northern humanism was informal and slow, and when compared to the lively and active humanists of northern Italy, they had made less of an impact on the international stage. The
Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, eds., The Renaissance in national context. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 103. 5 Lewis W. Spitz, Luther and German Humanism. (Aldershot: VARIORUM, 1996) 4. 6 Porter and Teich, 104. 7 Porter and Teich, 104. 8 Dr. Gerry Gerrits. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006.
Trenholm 4 humanist culture of northern Italy, as strong as it was, was simply not seen in the north —“well-organized” and “long-lived” humanist groups in Italian city-centres, such as Florence, were non-existent in northern Europe.9 The spread of humanism also came late to in the north, and was rather slow to catch on when compared with its Italian counterpart. There are a few reasons for this, one being the rising and strengthening middle class. It was not until the late fifteenth century when the middle class of northern Europe was sufficiently strong and wealthy enough to support their own Renaissance, and with it the humanist ideals that would accompany it.10 The Black Death, the terrible plague that had ravaged Europe with a staggering loss of life, had been particularly brutal on the middle class, making it difficult for humanism to take root. Literacy was also on the rise in the fifteenth century, something that was required if humanism could hope to be successful in the north.11 Size, scale and impact, however, were not the only factors that differentiated northern humanism from its more popular and significant counterpart, Italian humanism. The northern humanists communicated their philosophy with clear religious overtones, something that was not widely seen in northern Italy. As mentioned above, the northern and Italian humanisms shared other differences than merely size, scale and significance. The northern humanists, the “Christian humanists”, were very concerned about corruption, and specifically the state of the church. Humanists of the north had a keen interest in the classical studies, and were combining this discipline with traditional patristics in an effort to bring about church reform.12 Northern humanists were largely preoccupied with bringing about a renewal of
Dr. Gerry Gerrits. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006. Gerrits, “Northern Humanism”. 11 Gerrits, “Northern Humanism”. 12 Dr. Gerry Gerrits. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006.
Trenholm 5 traditional Christian morals, and believed that this could be achieved with not only church reform, but also with the introduction of classical learning in schools, Christian humanists believed that the introduction of Greek (and even Hebrew) learning into the schools, the careful examination and correction of Christian sources, and the rational and orderly reformation of the church, using as a guide the Sermon on the Mount, would bring about a renewal of Christian morals and sterility of scholastic thought.13 Northern humanists were simply not as interested in the areas of theology and metaphysics like the Italian humanists, and instead focused more intently on ethics, morals and proper scholastic pursuits.14 Jan Hus, using the suggestion of John Wyclif for a “simpler faith” modelled on, “…an apostolic church in which a vernacular bible, clerical poverty and upright behaviour would be celebrated”15, had created a program for extensive church and social reform. Unfortunately, Hus had met with serious opposition from the church hierarchy, and at the Council of Constance he was tried and subsequently burned at the stake.16 Church reform and division would prove to be a delicate subject, as evidenced by the coming Reformation. The reformation of the church was not the only change the northern humanists were interested in, though. The evolution of education and the expansion of classical studies in universities were also a goal they pursued seriously. In the early sixteenth century grammar schools of significant importance were established in the Low Countries and Germany, wherein young students were schooled in, “Latin grammar, classical studies, as well as practical Bible training, by some of the best teachers in Europe.”17 Another institution, the Collége de Guyenne, located in Bordeaux,
De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. (Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1992) 365. 14 Jensen, 365. 15 Kenneth R. Bartlett and Margaret McGlynn, Humanism and the Northern Renaissance. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000) xi. 16 Bartlett, xi. 17 De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. (Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1992) 366.
Trenholm 6 introduced students to grammar and classical literature.18 Greek was being introduced at an early level and the Bible was used as both, “a literary and theological text” at the Strasbourg Gymnasium.19 The Collége de Guyenne, as well as other educational institutions, were important centres in the north that established a strong presence of humanism. German humanists were working to combine the classical studies with biblical and church texts and introduce them in schools and universities, encouraging the schooling of both Greek and Hebrew.20 The humanists of the northern Renaissance had hoped to foster such social, educational and church reform by following closely the techniques used in the Italian Renaissance, and as such incorporated the study of the classics with their study of the patristics. By fostering and encouraging the study of classical literature, Latin and other Renaissance themes, they had hoped to bring about a social and church reform that would herald a return to traditional Christian morals. The largest, and indeed, the most obvious difference between the Italian Humanists and the northern Humanists was the concept and inclusion of religion along with their philosophy of humanism. The Italian Renaissance was largely secular, and the humanists of northern Italy echoed this sentiment, and indeed, were fairly critical of the church, “Much Italian humanism was severe in its attacks upon church conditions and the scholastic philosophy.”21 The northern, Christian humanists contrasted greatly with the “pagan”, or secular humanists of Italy.22 As stated before, northern humanists are also commonly referred to as “Christian humanists”, a name that references to the significant
Jensen, 366. Jensen, 366. 20 Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, eds., The Renaissance in national context. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 102. 21 Lewis W. Spitz, “The Conflict of Ideals in Mutianus Rufus: A Study in the Religious Philosophy of Northern Humanism. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16, no. 1/2. (1953): 125. 22 Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Erasmus from an Italian Perspective Renaissance Quarterly 23, no. 1. (Spring, 1970): 7.
Trenholm 7 underlying religious tone accompany that intellectual movement. This is not surprising, as the church had significantly more control over institutions of education in the north, such as universities and grammar schools, the former being responsible for the education and training of many clergymen.23 As northern Europe had little in the way of a classical past, the literary culture of the northern renaissance took after religious and medieval writings.24 This undoubtedly set the tone for the northern humanist movement, a far more religious movement. Humanists of the north utilized the classical studying techniques of the Italian Renaissance and applied it to patristic and biblical study, altering the very theme of humanism to their own uses, “The model of ethical behaviour shifted from the justified pagan exemplified by Cicero and Seneca to early doctors of the church such as Jerome or Augustine, and ultimately, the example of Christ himself.”25 Still echoing the same sentiment originally heralded in northern Italy, northern humanism had evolved quite differently and was an entirely different entity altogether. While it is worth noting that some northern humanists had avoided religious talk and maintained a secular or “pagan” doctrine26, the humanists of northern Europe were largely religious and certainly deserving of their title, “Christian Humanists”. Although it took well over a century for the concept of humanism to truly take root over the Alps in northern Europe, it most certainly did—but the northern scholars of the north did not adopt the secular, pagan theme of humanism that Italian humanists largely identified with. Combining the study of the classics with that of the patristics,
Kenneth R. Bartlett and Margaret McGlynn, Humanism and the Northern Renaissance. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000) xx. 24 De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. (Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1992) 365. 25 Bartlett, xx. 26 Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Erasmus from an Italian Perspective Renaissance Quarterly 23, no. 1. (Spring, 1970): 7.
Trenholm 8 northern humanists instead fostered social and church reform, and a rebirth of traditional Christian ethics and morals that were thought lost. The reformation of educational institutions was due in a large part to the actions of the Christian humanists and their encouragement of the study of classical literature, Latin, Greek and even Hebrew. With these tools and method of study, they turned to Biblical texts and patristic sources, applying the techniques of the Italian Renaissance for their own use. Humanism in general, however, was slow to catch on in the north, and it was over a century before it had reached its peak. Variables such as a lower literacy rate, struggling middle class and the Black Death had inhibited the expansion and adoption of humanism. Likewise, the relatively small and isolated “bourgeoisie” of the north meant that patronage of northern humanists was limited and not as widespread as in the Italian Renaissance. As such, the northern Renaissance and the work of the northern humanists did not make as large of an impact as the works of the Italian humanists in Italy. The Renaissance remains an incredible era in the history of mankind, an era that contributed largely to philosophy, literature and art—but its effect on the world was quite different in various regions. Even in the north it was different from region to region. The French, English and German humanists were all quite different than their Italian counterpart, and their study of the Bible and patristic texts had in part changed the history of Europe. It is a wonder if these Christian humanists had any idea that their work would contribute to the Reformation, and that a German monk named Martin Luther would provoke such an alarming division in the church and indeed, Christendom herself.
Bibliography Bartlett, Kenneth R. and McGlynn, Margaret, Humanism and the Northern Renaissance. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2000 Gerrits, Dr. Gerry. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006. Jensen, De Lamar, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation. Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1992. Kristeller, Paul Oskar, “Erasmus from an Italian Perspective Renaissance Quarterly 23, no. 1. (Spring, 1970): 1-14. Porter, Roy and Teich, Mikuláš, eds. The Renaissance in national context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992 Spitz, Lewis W., Luther and German Humanism. Aldershot: VARIORUM, 1996. Spitz, Lewis W., “The Conflict of Ideals in Mutianus Rufus: A Study in the Religious Philosophy of Northern Humanism. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16, no. 1/2. (1953): 121-143.