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Italy Part One

Italy Part Two

"The Northern Renaissance,"
Book: Chapter 12: Man Is The Measure
Author: Wallbank;Taylor;Bailkey;Jewsbury;Lewis;Hackett
Date: 1992

 

 

     The Italian Renaissance had placed human beings once more in the center

of life's stage and infused thought and art with humanistic values. In time

the stimulating ideas current in Italy spread to other areas and combined with

indigenous developments to produce a French Renaissance, an English

Renaissance, and so on.

 

     Throughout the fifteenth century the matriculation records of Italian

universities listed hundreds of northern European students. While their chief

interest was the study of law and medicine, many were influenced by the

intellectual climate of Italy with its new enthusiasm for the classics. When

these students returned home, they often carried manuscripts - and later

printed editions - of classical and humanist writers. By this time,

scholasticism had declined into sterile repetition and logical subleties, and

literate laymen and pious clerics in the North were ready to welcome the new

outlook of humanism.

 

The Influence Of Printing

 

     Very important in the diffusion of the Renaissance and later in the

success of the Reformation was the invention of printing in Europe. The

essential elements - paper and block printing - had been known in China since

the eighth century. During the twelfth century the Spanish Muslims introduced

papermaking to Europe; in the thirteenth century Europeans were in close

contact with China (see ch. 8) and block printing became known in the West.

The crucial step was taken in the 1440s at Mainz, Germany, where Johann

Gutenberg and other printers invented movable type by cutting up old printing

blocks to form individual letters. Gutenberg used movable type to print papal

documents and the first printed version of the Bible (1454).

 

     Soon all the major countries of Europe possessed the means for printing

books. In 1465 two Germans brought printing to Italy, and within four years

the works of eight classical authors (including Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Pliny,

and Caesar) had been printed there. In all of Europe during the remainder of

the century an estimated 40,000 titles were published. It is said that the

prices of books sank to one eighth of their former cost thus placing books

within the reach of many people who formerly had been unable to buy them. In

addition, pamphlets and controversial tracts soon were widely circulated, and

new ideas reached a thousand times more people in a relatively short span of

time. In the quickening of Europe's intellectual life, it is difficult to

overestimate the effects of the printing press. Without printing it is

doubtful that a German writer at the end of the fifteenth century could have

made the exaggerated boast that "once upon a time Germany was poor in wisdom,

power, and wealth; now it is not only equal to others in glorious work, but

surpasses loquacious Greece, [and] proud Italy."

 

Erasmus And Northern Humanism

 

     The intellectual life of the first half of the sixteenth century was

dominated by the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536). Although

born in Rotterdam, he passed most of his long life elsewhere - in Germany,

France, England, Italy, and especially Switzerland. The most influential and

cosmopolitan of the northern humanists, he corresponded with nearly every

prominent writer and thinker in Europe and knew personally popes, emperors,

and kings. He was the scholar of Europe, and his writings were read

eagerly everywhere.

 

     Perhaps the most famous and influential work by Erasmus was The Praise

of Folly, a satire written in 1511 at the house of the English humanist Sir

Thomas More. Folly, the term used in the Middle Ages as a synonym for human

nature, is described by Erasmus as the source not only of much harmless

enjoyment in life but also of many things that are wrong and need correcting.

A historian has described the work in these words:

 

          At first the book makes kindly and approving fun of the

          ways of action and the foibles and weaknesses of mankind.

          It is not mordant, only amused. But gradually from fools

          innocent and natural and undebased, it passes to those whose

          illusions are vicious in their setting and results. ^11

 

[Footnote 11: H. O. Taylor, Thought and Expression in the Sixteenth Century

(New York: Macmillan, 1920), vol. 1, p. 175.]

 

Among such are merchants ("they lie, swear, cheat, and practice all the

intrigues of dishonesty"), lawyers ("they of all men have the greatest conceit

of their own abilities"), scholastic philosophers ("that talk as much by rote

as a parrot"), and scientists ("who esteem themselves the only favorites of

wisdom, and look upon the rest of mankind as the dirt and rubbish of the

creation"). Most roughly handled are churchmen, in particular monks, who are

"impudent pretenders to the profession of piety," and popes, cardinals, and

bishops, "who in pomp and splendor have almost equalled if not outdone secular

princes." While his satire is indeed harsh, Erasmus was himself balanced,

moderate, and intolerant only of bigotry, ignorance, greed, and violence.

 

     The Praise of Folly points up a significant difference between the

northern humanists and their Italian predecessors. Most Italian humanists -

the civic humanists - spoke to and for the upper-class elements in their

city-states. They urged political leaders to become more statesmanlike,

businessmen to become more generous with their wealth, and all to become more

moral. They did not dissent or speak out in opposition; in urging the elite

groups to assume their responsibilities, they were actually trying to defend,

not condemn, them. Italian humanism "centered on the liberality or parsimony

of princes, on the moral worth of riches, and on the question of how to define

true nobility.' " ^12 The northern humanists, on the other hand, like Erasmus

in The Praise of Folly, spoke out against a broad range of political, social,

economic, and religious evils. They faced reality and became ardent reformers

of society's ills.

 

[Footnote 12: Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination, p. 208.]

 

     The northern humanists also went further than the Italians in broadening

their interest in ancient literature to include early Christian writings - the

Scriptures and the works of the church Fathers. This led them to prepare new

and more accurate editions of the Scriptures (Erasmus' Greek edition of the

New Testament became famous and was used by Luther) and to compare unfavorably

the complexities of the church in their own day with the simplicity of early

Christianity. Since they held that the essence of religion was morality and

rational piety - what Erasmus called the "philosophy of Christ" - rather than

ceremony and dogma, it is not surprising that the church became a major target

of their reforming zeal.

 

Sir Thomas More's Utopia

 

     The most significant figure in English humanism was Sir Thomas More

(1478-1535), the friend of Erasmus. More is best known for his Utopia,

the first important description of an ideal state since Plato's

Republic. In this extraordinarily realistic work, More criticized his

age by using as his spokesman a fictitious sailor who contrasts the ideal life

he has seen in Utopia (The Land of Nowhere) with the harsh conditions of life

in England. More's denunciations centered on the new acquisitive capitalism,

which he blamed for the widespread insecurity and misery of the lower classes.

More felt that governments

 

     are a conspiracy of the rich, who, in pretence of managing the public,

     only pursue their private ends, ... first, that they may, without

     danger, preserve all that they have so ill acquired, and then, that

     they may engage the poor to toil and labor for them at as low rates

     as possible, and oppress them as much as they please. ^13

 

[Footnote 13: From the 1684 translation by Gilbert Burnet, in Introduction to

Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book (New York: Columbia

University Press, 1946), vol. 1, p. 461.]

 

     In Utopia, by contrast, no one is in want because the economy is planned

and cooperative and because property is held in common. Utopia is the only

true commonwealth, concludes More's imaginary sailor:

 

     In all other places, it is visible that while people talk of a

     commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth: but there, where

     no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the

     public ... . [I]n Utopia, where every man has a right to every thing,

     they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full,

     no private man can want any thing; for among them there is no unequal

     distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity; and though

     no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man

     so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties;

     neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless

     complaints of his wife? ^14

 

[Footnote 14: Introduction to Contemporary Civilization, p. 460.]

 

     More was the first of the modern English socialists, but his philosophy

should not be considered a forerunner of the socialism of our day. His

economic outlook was a legacy from the Middle Ages, and his preference for

medieval collectivism over modern economic individualism was of a piece with

his preference for a church headed - medieval style - by popes rather than by

kings, a view that prompted Henry VIII, who had appropriated the pope's

position as head of the church in England, to execute him for treason.

 

Rabelais' Gargantua And Pantagruel

 

     One of the best known of the French humanists was Francois Rabelais

(1494-1553). A brilliant, if coarse, lover of all life from the sewers to the

heavens, Rabelais is best remembered for his Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Centering on figures from French folklore this work relates the adventures of

Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, genial giants of tremendous stature and

appetite, to whom were ascribed many marvelous feats.

 

     With much burlesque humor - hence the term "Rabelaisian" - Rabelais

satirized his society while putting forth his humanist views on educational

reform and inherent human goodness. He made vitriolic attacks on the abuses of

the church and the shortcomings of scholastics and monks, but he had no

patience with overzealous Protestants either. What Rabelais could not stomach

was hypocrisy and repression and for those guilty of these tendencies he

reserved his choicest invective. He bid his readers to flee from that

 

     rabble of squint-minded fellows, dissembling and counterfeit

     saints, demure lookers, hypocrites, pretended zealots, tough

     friars, buskin-monks, and other such sects of men, who disguise

     themselves like masquers to deceive the world .... Fly from

     these men, abhor and hate them as much as I do, and upon my faith

     you will find yourself the better for it. And if you desire ...

     to live in peace, joy, health, making yourselves always merry,

     never trust those men that always peep out through a little hole. ^15

 

[Footnote 15: Quoted in H. O. Taylor, Thought and Expression in the Sixteenth

Century, pp. 328-329.]

 

Von Hutten: German Humanist And Patriot

 

     One of the outstanding German humanists was Ulrich von Hutten

(1488-1523). In him was blended a zeal for religious reform and German

nationalist feelings. This member of an aristocratic family, who wanted to

unite Germany under the emperor, led a tumultuous life as a wandering Greek

scholar and satirist. He supported Luther as a rallying point for German unity

against the papacy, to which he attributed most of his country's ills. Von

Hutten reflected the tensions and aspirations of the German people in the

early years of the Protestant revolt against the papacy (see ch. 13).

 

Montaigne's Essays

 

     The last notable northern humanist was the French skeptic Michel de

Montaigne (1533-1592). At the age of thirty-eight he gave up the practice of

law and retired to his country estate and well-stocked library, where he

studied and wrote. Montaigne developed a new literary form and gave it its

name - the essay. In ninety-four essays he set forth his personal views on

many subjects: leisure, friendship, education, philosophy, religion, old age,

death, and so forth. He did not pretend to have the final answer to the

subjects he discussed. Instead, he advocated open-mindedness and toleration -

rare qualities in the sixteenth century, when France was racked by religious

and civil strife.

 

     Montaigne condemned the pedantry and formalism into which humanism and

humanistic education had largely degenerated by the end of the sixteenth

century. "To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given

our memory to keep," he wrote, and added that

 

          Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they

          were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to

          repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct

          this practice .... I want him to listen to his pupil speaking in

          his turn. ^16

 

[Footnote 16: Montaigne, "Of the Education of Children," in The Complete Works

of Montaigne, trans. D. M. Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,

1957), p. 112.]

 

     Montaigne's final essay, entitled "Of Experience," which developed the

thought that "when reason fails us we resort to experience," is an

acknowledgment of the bankruptcy of humanism and a foreshadowing of the coming

triumph of science.

 

Cervantes' Don Quixote

 

     In the national literatures that matured during the Northern Renaissance,

the transition from feudal knight to Renaissance courtier finds its greatest

literary expression in a masterpiece of Spanish satire, Don Quixote de la

Mancha, the work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). By Cervantes' day

knighthood had become an anachronism, though its accompanying code of chivalry

still retained its appeal. It remained for a rationalist like Cervantes to

show up the inadequacies of chivalric idealism in a world that had acquired

new, and intensely practical, aims. He did so by creating a pathetic but

infinitely appealing character to serve as the personification of an outmoded

way of life.

 

     Don Quixote, "the knight of the woeful countenance," mounted on his

"lean, lank, meagre, drooping, sharp-backed, and raw-boned" steed Rozinante,

sets out in the Spanish countryside to right wrongs and uphold his lady's and

his own honor. In his misadventures he is accompanied by his squire, the much

less gallant but infinitely more realistic Sancho Panza, whose peasant adages

and hard-grained common sense serve as a contrast to the unpractical nature of

his master's chivalric code. Tilting at windmills, mistaking serving wenches

for highborn ladies and inns for castles, and lamenting the invention of

gunpowder as depriving ardent knights of a chance to win immortality, Don

Quixote is, on the surface at least, a ridiculous old man whose nostalgia for

the "good old days" is a constant source of grief to him. Thus the story

represents a superb satire directed against the outworn ideology of the Middle

Ages; in particular, it laughed the ideal of chivalric romance into the world

of make-believe.

 

     And yet Don Quixote is still more. Cervantes instilled in his main

character a pathos born in large measure of the author's own career of

frustrated hopes and ambitions. As a result, Don Quixote becomes more than a

romantic lunatic; he serves to embody that set of ideals each of us would like

to see realized but that we must compromise in a world that has other

interests to serve.

 

Secular Drama Appears

 

     Like Greek drama, medieval drama developed out of religious ceremonies. A

complete divorce of the church and stage did not occur until the middle of the

fifteenth century when the Renaissance era of drama began in Italian cities

with the performance of ancient Roman comedies. In the following century

appeared the commedia dell' arte, reflections of everyday life in vulgar

and slapstick fashion, usually improvised by the players from a plot outline.

 

     As secular dramas grew in popularity, theaters were built as permanent

settings for their presentations. Great ingenuity was shown in the design of

elaborate, realistic stage scenery as well as in lighting and sound effects.

Theaters embodying these innovations only gradually appeared outside Italy.

Not until 1576 was the first public theater erected in London; three years

later, a similar theater was constructed in Madrid.

 

     Imitating the ancient models they admired, French and Italian writers

followed what they believed were the rigid conventions of the classical drama

and, to a large extent, catered to the tastes of the aristocracy. By contrast,

Spanish and English playwrights created a theatrical environment that was at

once more socially democratic, more hospitable to national themes, and less

concerned with classical models.

 

William Shakespeare

 

     The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) climaxed the English

Renaissance and produced such a galaxy of talented writers that one would have

to go back as far as Athens in the fifth century B.C. to find an age as

rich with literary genius. Strongly influenced by the royal court, which

served as the busy center of intellectual and artistic life, these writers

produced works that were highly colored, richly romantic, and often wildly

extravagant in spite of all their poetic allusions to classical times.

 

     The supreme figure in Elizabethan literature and perhaps in all

literature is William Shakespeare (1564-1616). His rich vocabulary and poetic

imagery were matched by his turbulent imagination. He was a superb lyric poet,

and numerous critics have judged him the foremost sonnet writer in the English

language.

 

     Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays - comedies, histories, tragedies,

and romances. His historical plays reflected the patriotic upsurge experienced

by the English after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. For his

comedies tragedies, and romances, Shakespeare was content in a great majority

of cases to borrow plots from earlier works. His forte lay in his creation of

character - perhaps the richest and most diversified collection conceived by

the mind of one man - and in his ability to translate his knowledge of human

nature into dramatic speech and action. Today his comedies are played to

enthusiastic audiences: The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, A Midsummer

Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, are but a few. But it is in his

tragedies that the poet-dramatist runs the gamut of human emotion and

experience. Shakespeare possessed in abundance the Renaissance concern for

human beings and the world around them. Hence his plays deal first and

foremost with the human personality, passions, and problems. In such works as

Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida, the problems

of love and sex are studied from many angles. Jealousy is analyzed in Othello,

ambition in Macbeth and Julius Caesar, family relationships in King Lear, and

a man's struggle with his own soul in Hamlet. Shakespeare's extraordinary

ability to build every concrete fact and action upon a universal truth makes

his observations as applicable today as they were when first presented in the

Globe Theater. Small wonder that next to the Bible, Shakespeare is the most

quoted of all literary sources in the English language.

 

Northern Painting

 

     Before the Italian Renaissance permeated the artistic circles of northern

Europe, the painters of the Low Countries had been making significant advances

on their own. Outstanding was the Flemish Jan van Eyck (1385?-1440), whose

work has been called "the full flowering of the spirit of the late Middle

Ages," for he continued to paint in the realistic manner developed by

medieval miniaturists. Van Eyck also perfected the technique of oil painting,

which enabled him to paint with greater realism and attention to detail. In

his painting of the merchant Arnolfini and his wife, for example, he

painstakingly gives extraordinary reality to every detail, from his own image

reflected in the mirror in the background to individual hairs on the little

dog in the foreground.

 

     The first talented German painter to be influenced deeply by Italian art

was Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) of Nuremberg. Durer made more than one journey

to Italy, where he was impressed both with the painting of the Renaissance

Italians and with the artists' high social statusa contrast with northern

Europe where artists were still treated as craftsmen. His own work is a blend

of the old and the new; thus his engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil,

fuses the realism and symbolism of the Gothic with the nobility of

Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Colleoni. In the long run Durer became

better known for his numerous engravings and woodcuts than for his paintings.

 

     Another famous German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543),

chiefly painted portraits and worked abroad, especially in England. His

memorable portraits blend the realism and concern for detail characteristic of

all northern painting with Italian dignity.

 

     Two northern painters who remained completely isolated from Italian

influences were Hieronymus Bosch (1480-1516) and Pieter Brueghel the Elder

(1525?-1569). Brueghel retained a strong Flemish flavor in his portrayal of

the faces and scenes of his native land. He painted village squares,

landscapes, skating scenes, peasants at work and at leisure just as he saw

them, with a reporter's eye for detail.

 

     Very little is known about the Dutch master Bosch other than that he

belonged to one of the many puritanical religious sects that were becoming

popular. This accounts for his most famous painting, The Garden of Delights, a

triptych whose main panel is filled with innumerable naked men and women

reveling in the sins of the flesh. The smaller left panel, by contrast,

depicts an idyllic Garden of Eden, while the right panel portrays a

nightmarish Hell filled with frenzied sinners undergoing punishment. Bosch was

a stern moralist whose obsession with sin and Hell reflects the fears of his

contemporaries, which contributed to the religious movement to be described in

the next chapter - the Reformation.

 

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