The Origins of Humanism

Ronald G. Witt

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
The Origins of Humanism

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Italian humanism began in the northern third of the Italian peninsula, which constituted the southern kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire. Except for legal commentaries on Roman and canon law and practical manuals of letter writing, this area of Italy made almost no contribution to European culture before the 13th century. In contrast, a significant change in the culture of the area occurred then. While legal studies and practical rhetoric retained their importance, the composition of Latin and vernacular poetry flourished, the translation of ancient Latin literary and scholarly work became an industry, and natural science and theology emerged as topics of major interest. Whereas in northern Europe intellectual life was dominated by clerics throughout the Middle Ages, from at least the early 12th century, laymen in this area of Italy played a significant role in what scholarly and literary work was produced. At least by the second half of the 13th century, they constituted the majority of grammar teachers and professors at the universities. It is fair to say that the buoyant Italian culture of the 13th century was, with the exception of theology and canon law, largely a lay enterprise. When laymen approached the writings of the ancients, therefore, they came to these works with different questions from those of northern European clerics. The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.

Article.  3289 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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