humanism-art - 7/25/94
"Humanism: An Introduction" by Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
Humanism, the basis for the Renaissance.
NOTE: See also the files: religion-msg, Islam-msg, chivalry-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanšs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
This one was written for an Italian Ren handbook last year.
Humanism: An Introduction
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
The intellectual and social movement which historians call humanism
is what lies at the base of the period we call the Renaissance.
Humanism and its ideals came to pervade the art, literature, learning,
law, and civic life, first in Italy, then in all of Europe. But what
is humanism? Scholars are still debating this issue, but there is a
consensus on a basic definition: Simply put, humanism is a rediscovery
and re-evaluation of the aspects of classical civilization (ancient
Greece and Rome) and the application of these aspects to intellectual
and social culture. It is also in many ways a reaction against
scholasticism, the dominant intellectual school of the Middle Ages.
Scholasticism, while a vital and dynamic method in its early days in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had, in the eyes of its
detractors, by the fourteenth century become little more than
organized quibbling over minor points of philosophy and theology. You
may recall the famous question over how many angels could dance on the
head of a pin; such questions were actually fairly regularly debated
by the later scholasticists.
In contrast, the early humanists espoused a return to study of the
original texts, rather than a reliance on the glosses and commentaries
produced by the scholasticists. This break was by no means
clear--many of the later humanists continued to admire and make use of
the works of scholastic scholars, while forging ahead with their own
examination of the sources.
Why Italy? I noted a moment ago that humanism's roots were in a
rediscovery of classical antiquity. For the early pioneers of
humanism, this meant the Latin language. Italy, unlike so much of
Europe, had never completely lost Latin literacy. Latin was still
taught in the schools and universities, most significantly to laymen
in training to become notaries. Thus, Latin literacy was not confined
mainly to churchmen as it was elsewhere in Europe. In the schools,
potential notaries learned the specialized legal language of law,
known as the _ars dictaminis _ . This was indirectly based on the
rhetorical works of Cicero, though it had become rather rigid and
rule-bound over the years. However, it meant that potential notaries
were exposed to certain of Cicero's works. Gradually, people began
to reexamine these works.
Who was the first humanist? Most scholars would say that Petrarch, an
Italian poet and writer of the Trecento (1300's), would best fit this
label. His influence continued to be felt throughout the entire
humanistic movement, and his successors called him their spiritual
father. Petrarch was a great admirer of Cicero, and rediscovered and
translated much of his correspondence. He strove to learn from Cicero
and use his style in his own Latin writing. Petrarch also wrote in
the vernacular-- a style which would finally gain acceptance among
scholars in the Renaissance. We also remember him as the first man
since antiquity to be awarded a laurel crown for his poetry. But
Petrarch himself was a bit of an enigma; a man with one foot in the
future and one in the past. It had always been believed that Cicero
had throughout his career been highly involved in politics;
Petrarch's examination of Cicero's writings had found a different
man-- one who increasingly turned to solitude and retirement in later
life. This fit the "medieval" model of the scholar-- a monkish figure
who retired from the world with his books-- rather than Petrarch's
earlier belief in an active use of scholarship in civic life.
Petrarch gradually retired from life as well, and in fact became more
and more "medieval" in his outlook--though he never abandoned his
reliance on classical sources as a model for writing, he turned more
and more to traditional forms of scholarship, such as biblical
commentary, in later life.
It would be this earlier picture, however, which would provide the
model for a new civic spirit in Italy, particularly in Florence. It
is quite significant that Petrarch was a Florentine, though in
actuality he spent most of his life elsewhere. Florence was one of
two Italian republics (Venice was the other) and felt threatened by
neighboring Italian states run by despots with designs on Florentine
territory. Inspired by Petrarch, the intellectuals of Florence
carried on his work and expanded it. Florence's past was to be
extolled in literature, art, and architecture, and the link with the
Roman Republic was to be emphasized in all things. Petrarch's
successors were not only scholars, but leading men of their community
who felt it their duty as Florentine citizens to serve their Republic
as the Roman citizens had served Rome. Unfortunately, Florence, too,
fell under despotic rule, but not before several generations of
Florentines had produced a wide variety of works which extolled the
city. Humanism had its religious aspects as well. Though new
appreciation was gained for the "pagan" classics of antiquity,
humanists were quick to apply their methods to biblical scholarship.
One of the ways in which the spirit of humanism was expressed was in a
rise in appreciation for the artifacts of the past. Indeed, the early
humanists were the ones who invented the terms "Middle Ages" and
"Renaissance." Before this time, history was seen as a continuum. No
distinction was drawn between the civilization of Greece and Rome and
that of the medieval period. The idea of a "fall of the Roman Empire"
had no meaning. To a twelfth century person, Charlemagne was as much
a Roman and a Roman Empire as Augustus had been, and there was no line
drawn between classical and medieval Latin. The humanists were the
first to draw the distinction, seeing classical antiquity as something
which was long past, but to be admired and revived--hence the term
"Renaissance". Artifacts were visible symbols of this past, and were
thus to be cherished and collected. Not only were coins and artworks
unearthed and collected, but attempts were made to map out and draw
many of the Roman ruins one could see in Italy before they
disappeared. (The ruins were a popular source of building materials;
the Papacy was particularly fond of the
Colosseum for this purpose). A few sites were eventually saved from
destruction in this way.
Likewise, we may also note an increased interest in manuscripts,
particularly those recording the works of the writers of antiquity.
Many of the humanists undertook large journeys, wandering from
monastery to monastery and finding works forgotten for centuries. New
editions and translations of these works were produced and
disseminated. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an influx of
expatriate Greek scholars to Italy, and from that point on, studies of
ancient Greek gained tremendous ground. Likewise, the humanists also
became interested in Hebrew as they attempted to produce an accurate
translation of the Bible. What made these editions special was the
introduction of what wee would today call "critical" scholarship.
Manuscripts were compared and words analyzed in an attempt to produce
the most accurate edition possible.
All of this was aided by the invention of the printing press, which
meant that for the first time, men and women of moderate means could
acquire their own books and that both the classics and new works could
circulate widely. Venice by the late fifteenth century was known as
the printing capital of Europe. Publishers there not only printed the
books, but they actively sponsored new editions and continuing scholarship.
It took longer, however, for the new scholarship to spread beyond a
certain intellectual elite. Even a century after Petrarch, the
universities--even in Italy--were still dominated by thinkers of the
older schools. However, patronage by Italian princes and popes
insured that the new thinking eventually came to dominate the
universities. Humanism eventually spread outwards from Italy.
Germany in particular was greatly affected by the new methods,
particularly in the area of Biblical scholarship. (It was this sort of
thinking that led Martin Luther to question the traditions of the
Catholic Church). Eventually, the printing houses of Germany rivaled
those of Italy.
England was perhaps the last to be touched, for it was not until the
latter half of the reign of Henry VIII that Oxford and Cambridge
became dominated by humanist scholarship.
For Further Reading:
Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. (rev. ed. 1966)
Bishop, Morris. Petrarch and His World. (Bloomington, IN, 1963)
Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought (1948)
Gerulaitis, Leonardus V. Printing and Publishing in Fifteenth-century
Venice. (London, 1976)
Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy . (Baltimore, 1989)
Hay, Denys. Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. (1966)
King, Margaret L. Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance.
(Princeton, NJ. 1986)
Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic,
and Humanist Strains (New York, 1961).
Weiss, Roberto. The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity.
Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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