Humanism in Europe

Humanism in Europe

Humanism originated in 14th-century Europe as a movement to recover the culture of the ancient Greek and Roman pagans. The term derived from the identification of ancient pagan texts as “human” rather than divine like the Bible or the writings of the fathers of the Christian Church. With a few exceptions, humanists were not anti-Christian, but attempted to get behind centuries of church interpretation to understand ancient pagan texts on their own terms.

Humanists preferred studying original texts rather than commentaries, and reading whole texts rather than isolating particular sentences or passages, as had frequently been the practice during the Middle Ages. Many violently rejected much of medieval Latin culture and scorned Arab writers such as Avicenna who were greatly respected in the university world.

Humanists searched out surviving manuscripts of the classics from monastery, cathedral, and other libraries, sometimes discovering works that had been lost for centuries. They sought to restore the classical texts to what their authors had originally written, and pioneered scholarly methods of textual analysis and manuscript comparison. They also made the classics public, eventually through print.

The birthplace of the humanist movement was Italy, and the earliest prominent humanist was an Italian, Francesco Petrarch. Italy possessed the strongest connections to pre-Christian culture in its buildings, art, and manuscripts, and the most developed civic life. Humanism was not initially connected with the universities and often flourished in towns without universities such as Florence.

The first few generations of humanists were definitely not university scholars and attacked the Scholastic Latin inherited from the Middle Ages and used in the universities as nonclassical and barbaric. Humanists supported writing a Latin based on ancient authors, particularly Cicero.

Some university professors denounced humanists as neopagan or heretical, although some university scholars and humanists got along well. Rather than being university scholars connected to an institution, early humanists formed an international body, or “republic of letters,” linked by a common Latinity and later by Greek.

Transformation of Humanism

Humanism was transformed by two 15th century events, the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the European invention of printing. The decline of Byzantium, which had been apparent for decades before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, led Greek scholars to make their way west to enjoy greater security. These scholars took Greek manuscripts with them, as well as knowledge of the classical Greek language.

Humanists now had direct access to ancient Greek writings, rather than medieval Latin translations and adaptations (and even these were often adapted from Arabic versions, rather than the original Greek). Greek and Greek authors began to supplement and to some degree even displace Latin ones in humanist study.

Humanism and religion

The revival of Greek studies led to new interest in the works of Plato, which had been largely lost in the Latin Middle Ages. Humanists influenced by Plato sometimes broke with the political involvement of early humanists to exalt the contemplative life removed from civic affairs.

The revival of Plato, usually seen through the lens of mystical Neoplatonism, was often accompanied by an interest in ancient magic, such as the writings of “Hermes Trismegistus.” Magic was seen as a secret discipline known only to the elite.

Although only a small proportion of early printed texts were humanist, printing had a great impact on the movement and enabled it to institutionalize itself in a way that previous classical revivals during the Middle Ages had not.

Printing standardized the classical Greek and Latin texts, and for the first time it was possible for humanists to be sure that they were all working with the same text and the same pagination, as opposed to manuscripts, all of which are different.

Early printing was not error-free by any means, but to some extent it was possible to correct for this by issuing lists of errata. Manuscripts also physically decayed. Printed books did, too, but fact that printing produces thousands of copies for the same outlay as a scribe producing one or two meant that much less information was lost.

Print enabled learning to survive a series of disasters, ranging from the sack of Constantinople to the destruction of the library of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, the sack of Rome in 1527, and the ravaging of the English monastery libraries during the Reformation.

Members of Humanism

Many humanists were members of the clergy (including some popes), but humanism also provided a way for European men to be professional intellectuals without having to be in the church. Humanists could support themselves by founding schools to teach ancient languages and writing.

Humanists developed the idea that learning was necessary to the fullest development of the person. Particularly in its earlier phases humanism emphasized rhetoric, the study of persuasive speech, a discipline with a large classical literature but one that had been largely overlooked in the medieval university in favor of logic.

As did teaching, rhetoric opened career possibilities to humanists, who found employment in courts writing and giving formal Latin orations praising the prince or writing formal Latin letters as diplomatic communications.

The early humanists had often presented their skills as useful in the urban republics of northern Italy, but by 1450 humanists mainly adapted to the Italian princely order. (Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the most radical humanists, wrote both The Prince, a manual for autocrats, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, an analysis of republics.)

Humanists also rediscovered history as a subject worthy of study, which it had not been during the Middle Ages, when it was not a part of the school or university curriculum. Humanists revived the idea that the “great men” of history could serve as models for emulation, and also that history was a useful stockpile of examples for making rhetorical arguments.

There were a few women humanists, who often faced great difficulties entering humanist professions. However, a woman who overcame these difficulties could acquire renown. Humanistic attainments were often considered incompatible with marriage for a woman, and most successful early women humanists were known either as virgins or as prostitutes.

In their writings on the family, male humanists upheld a patriarchal and domestic ideal. A particularly influential male writer on the family was Leon Battista Alberti, whose second book on the subject, entitled On the Ruler of the Family, was devoted to the dominant role of the father in the household.

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, humanism moved from its Italian base to other countries in Europe, a movement often called northern humanism. Italy remained the center of the movement, and nearly all prominent northern humanists visited Italy, but the northern movement was also distinctive.

Northern humanists, led by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, were as a group much more oriented to employing humanism to lead a Christian life and reform Church institutions than were Italian humanists. Erasmus, followed by other northern humanists, pioneered the application of humanist methods of textual scholarship to the Bible and other ancient Christian texts.

Interest in Religious Texts

The interest in religious texts meant that northern humanists were more interested in Hebrew than were most Italian humanists. Humanists even entered the Jewish ghetto to learn Hebrew from rabbis. This led to a controversy involving Johannes Reuchlin, one of Germany’s leading humanists and Christian Hebraists.

The substance of the dispute was whether it was permissible or desirable for a Christian to study Jewish books. A fanatically anti-Jewish Jewish convert to Christianity named Pfefferkorn set forth an anti-Jewish program including an attempt to enforce a mandate from the Holy Roman Empire for the seizure of Jewish books. Some lesser rulers in the Empire were concerned about this and consulted Reuchlin.

Reuchlin advised them that the seizure of Jewish books was a bad idea for several reasons: Jewish books contained much valuable knowledge, by studying their own books Jews might be converted to Christianity, and seizing the Jews’ books would be a violation of their rights as human beings and Imperial subjects.

He also argued that chairs of Hebrew should be established in the universities. This led to attacks from the theological faculties of various German universities, who supported the confiscation measure and accused Reuchlin of being bribed by rich Jews.

Although humanism was not originally the issue, Reuchlin’s eminence in the humanistic community made it so. Younger humanists who admired him claimed that university professors were attacking Reuchlin as a way of attacking humanism in general and issued vicious works of satire, attacking Pfefferkorn and the university professors for their ignorance and bad Latin.

Interest in Hebrew did not mean that all northern humanists were sympathetic to the Jews. Some such as Reuchlin were relatively pro-Jewish in the context of their times, while others like Erasmus were vehemently anti-Jewish.

German humanists in particular often took a nationalist position, encouraged by the rediscovery of a classical Latin text, the Germania of Tacitus, in the 15th century. Tacitus’s portrait of simple, brave Germans became very popular and was presented in opposition to the alleged corruption of Mediterranean lands.

German humanists argued that the pious Germans were being exploited by the Italian-dominated international church. Like other European humanists, German humanists attempted to connect their people’s past with that of the ancients as descendants of the ancient Trojans or other classical groups.

Northern humanism was greatly affected by the Protestant Reformation. Many humanists initially supported Martin Luther as a reformer but began to distance themselves from him as his message grew more radical. It was common for older humanists to remain in the Catholic Church, while younger humanists were more likely to become Protestants.

Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, a martyr for his faith, were among the humanist leaders who remained in the Catholic Church, while Philip Melancthon and John Calvin were prominent among the many Protestant leaders with a humanistic background.

By the late 16th century, humanism in both Italy and elsewhere in Europe had grown more technical and scholarly. There was less emphasis on the ancients as providers of moral examples and more on recovering the details of ancient life.

For example, there were enormous efforts to recover ancient calendars and to catalog ancient coins. Recovery and reading of a broader range of ancient texts meant that humanism affected more fields of learning.

For example, recovery and study of the ancient mathematical texts of Archimedes and Apollonius influenced the development of European mathematics and science. Humanism influenced medicine both positively, through the study of the texts of ancient physicians, most notably Galen and Hippocrates, and negatively, through the rejection of Arab physicians such as Avicenna.

Humanists also influenced the development of law through the study and promotion of Roman law. As it grew more intellectually diverse, humanism also became more closely connected to university life, at first through humanists’ offering popular lectures outside the formal system of instruction and then through the work of younger university masters with an interest in humanism.