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How Northern Humanism Differed From Italian Humanism

David Trenholm
December 4th, 2006
HIST 2103 X1
Dr. Gerry Gerrits
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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

1
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.
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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
4
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.
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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

9
Dr. Gerry Gerrits. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006.
10
Gerrits, “Northern Humanism”.
11
Gerrits, “Northern Humanism”.
12
Dr. Gerry Gerrits. “Northern Humanism.” HIST 2103 X1, Acadia University, November 20th, 2006.
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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,

13
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.
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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

18
Jensen, 366.
19
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.
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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,

23
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.
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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.

David Trenholm
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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.

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