In the two centuries or so preceding the outbreak of the Protestant Revolt, the intellectual and religious life of northern Europe presents a complex mixture of trends and currents. Among the influences at work were the Italian Renaissance, the breakdown of medieval institutions and the rise of national states and a capitalistic economy, theological and philosophical speculation that helped to undermine some of the traditional certainties, and the beginning of the process of exploration and discovery which was to open the whole world to European scrutiny and domination. This chapter will deal with some of the reform endeavors and some of the humanistic activities in the period preceding the Reformation.


It was in the flourishing commercial and industrial towns of the Low Countries that there developed, in the late Middle Ages, the movement known as the Modern Devotion, or Devotio Moderna. Its origins are bound up with the career of Gerard Groote (1340-84) of Deventer. The son of a prominent merchant, he lived in a worldly manner until, in 1374, he had a conversion experience, which caused him to adopt an ascetic way of life. From 1379 he became a preacher of repentance, criticizing the clergy so severely that some of them caused him to be officially silenced. He appealed to the pope, who granted him permission to preach, but he died before this permission could reach him. Groote believed in a combination of religion and learning. He wanted people to be able to read the Bible, and began to translate parts of it into the vernacular. He sought and advocated a more personal religious experience based on the imitation of Christ. He was a mystic to whom the visible church mattered less than a close union with God. Love, faith, and humility were all-important, far above outward works. It was the devil who told men that good works would bring salvation and persuaded them to do such works. This foreshadows Luther's teaching of justification by faith and the uselessness of good works for salvation.

From the work of Groote arose two types of communities that spread far and wide. The Brethren of the Common Life were groups composed chiefly of laymen, though it was considered desirable that each house should contain some members of the clergy. From the original house at Deventer, other houses were established in the Low Countries, Germany, and even Poland. The Brethren devoted themselves to religious exercises, the search for personal perfection, work, and service to others. They have been described as practical mystics; their striving for personal union with God was accompanied by efforts to reform the church through educating young people and instructing the laity in the essentials of the Christian faith. Much of their best work was done through the schools. In some cases they founded schools of their own, and elsewhere they became teachers and headmasters of existing institutions. Some future intellectual and religious leaders were affected by the Brethren of the Common Life, including Erasmus and Luther.

The other type of community that derived from Groote's work was monastic in a more traditional sense. The monasteries founded by his followers were grouped in the Congregation of Windesheim, and the Congregation became a center for monastic reform. The new house was joined by established ones; so that by about 1500, it encompassed ninety-seven monasteries. As part of the Devotio Moderna it shared the ideals of the Brethren of the Common Life, with emphasis on a deep and personal religious experience and faith, combined with learning, especially in the fields of Biblical and patristic study. There were also feminine counterparts of the communities already mentioned. Corresponding to the Brethren of the Common Life were the Sisters of the Common Life, and there was also a body of nuns who became the center of a movement of reform.

The most famous literary product of the Devotio Moderna is The Imitation of Christ. Though its authorship has been much disputed, it seems to embody material coming out of the circle of the first Brethren of the Common Life, and it undoubtedly represents the ideas and ideals of the movement. It advocates the abandonment of one's self with its will, passions, and vices. Outward religious observances are minimized. Learning is a danger. Solitude, contemplation, and the love of God are all-important.

Alongside the Devotio Moderna, which was orthodox in its theological views, there was a long tradition of religious radicalism in the Low Countries; the most outstanding characteristic was a willingness to question the accepted doctrine of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Some had gone so far as to reject it entirely, while others had tended to spiritualize it, emphasizing an inward communion rather than an outward ceremony. This spiritualizing tendency profoundly affected Erasmus, in whom also many of the ideas of the Devotio Moderna and The Imitation of Christ were represented and through whom they reached a wide public.


A mystic is a person who seeks the experience of direct union with the Deity, an experience so sublime that it is beyond and above both reason and discourse in other words, ineffable. It can be found in many religions besides Christianity and in all periods of church history. In western Europe in the late Middle Ages, it reached a great flowering. Though mysticism has always had a place in Christianity, the medieval church was on guard against the dangers inherent in it. One of these dangers was that the mystic, in seeking a direct unmediated experience of the Divine, would neglect the prescribed ecclesiastical channels: the priesthood and the sacraments. Another danger was that the mystic, convinced that God had taken complete possession of him, would indulge in excesses of behavior and then attribute them to the Almighty. Though these fears were not without foundation, most mystics were quite orthodox. In fourteenth-century Germany, the Dominican order became the source of a powerful mystical current. One difference between the mysticism of this period and earlier manifestations of it was the appeal that it now had to the laity.

As the story of the Devotio Moderna has shown, there was now a body of laymen in the towns who sought a deeper religious experience than the institutional forms the church was providing. The great mystics of the fourteenth century, though themselves clergymen, made a conscious effort to reach a broader audience, especially through vernacular sermons and writings. The first of the great German mystics was Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327), a member of a noble family. A Dominican, he held positions of administrative responsibility in the order and was also a teacher and preacher. He preached to nuns and laymen and became the most popular preacher in Germany. A man of learning, he wrote Latin works for scholars, but produced sermons and devotional tracts in German that had a more popular appeal. He was one of the first great masters of German prose. In attempting to express his mystical concept of God, Eckhart had recourse to extreme and paradoxical statements. For example, nothing is so dissimilar as God and His creatures, yet nothing is so similar. To define God or to attribute specific qualities to Him is to limit Him; therefore, Eckhart said, God is nothing and God is darkness.

His most famous doctrine is that of the spark of the soul or that part, according to him, through which the union with God takes place. The inner experience of the soul is what matters for Eckhart; and he internalizes, as it were, basic Christian teachings. It is in the soul that Christ is born, suffers, is crucified, dies, and is buried; it is in the soul that he rises from the dead. Eckhart does not say much about the historical Jesus. During his last years his views got him into trouble, but he died before the final verdict was rendered by a papal bull of 1329. It condemned a number of his propositions as heretical, dangerous, or suspect, but declared that before his death Eckhart had recanted and submitted to the pope.

His influence lived on through his German writings and through his followers Johann Tauler and Heinrich Suso, both Dominicans. Tauler (c.1300-61) came from a rich family of Strasbourg and spent most of his life there. His writings, chiefly sermons, are in German and testify to his unhappiness with the state of contemporary morals, including the morals of monks and nuns. Warned by the condemnation of Eckhart, he watched his language and used a more acceptable terminology than his master. For instance, though he also said that God must be born in the soul, he was careful to distinguish the soul from God. After his death, his memory lived on; one of his readers was Martin Luther.

Suso (1295-1366) is especially interesting. His early exposure to the ideals and attitudes of chivalry never ceased to affect him. He also had a strongly poetic and lyrical temperament and a love of nature. He was personally acquainted with Eckhart, whom he revered and defended, even though his defense got him into trouble. In addition to his preaching, largely to nuns, his writings were numerous and influential. In them he depicts his journey out of darkness into the ecstasy of union with God, which is beyond words and in which there is no past, present, or future. He preached a state called in German Gelassenheit, a state of passiveness and self-renunciation through which alone the greatest spiritual heights can be reached. In summary, mysticism is a significant factor in the background of the Reformation. Its presence attests to the yearning for a more satisfying personal religious experience. Its wide appeal to the layman is an indication of that active lay piety whose demands would have to be met, whether by the old church or in some other way not yet foreseen.


One of the epoch-making events of the fifteenth century was the perfecting of a mechanical method of producing books more rapidly, in larger quantities, and in more uniform copies than had previously been possible. The invention was demanded by the times. Literacy was increasing, and with it there came a growing demand for books, which could not be met by the scribes whose profession was to transcribe books by hand. A cheap material on which to print had already become available when paper, originally imported from the East, began to be produced in Europe as early as the twelfth century. Printing had been invented in China much earlier, but the European discovery of the process may have taken place without knowledge of what had been done by the Chinese. A type of printing that was already known in Europe involved the use of wooden blocks. Block books, made up of sheets which consisted chiefly of pictures with only a small amount of text, had a special appeal to the many who were totally or nearly illiterate.

The beginnings of printing with movable type are obscure, partly because the process was at first a closely guarded trade secret. Very little is actually known about the man who is considered the inventor of the process, Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg, who came from Mainz, worked on his invention in Strasbourg, and returned to Mainz between 1444 and 1448 to set up his press. What Gutenberg developed was a method of casting type which made it possible to produce individual metal letters that could be turned out in unlimited quantities and could be used over and over again in the printing process. He also created a new type of ink, which would adhere to the metal. For a press, he simply adapted the type of winepress that had been familiar in the Rhineland since its introduction by the Romans.

It is impossible to date accurately the first products of Gutenberg's press. He was not a success as a businessman and did not profit from his invention. His press passed to others who operated it successfully, but who were unable to keep the process secret and maintain the monopoly. In fact, knowledge of the new process spread with extraordinary rapidity, carried at first no doubt by workmen who had been trained by Gutenberg and his successors. The earliest printers in most places were Germans, and they turned up all over Europe. Some were itinerants, men in very modest circumstances who moved about in search of opportunity.

The first great product of the press was Gutenberg's forty-two-line Bible, which was completed by 1456, at a time when Gutenberg was probably no longer connected with the enterprise. By about 1460, two other presses had produced Bibles, and the monopoly was effectively destroyed. By 1480, printing had been carried on in over 110 European towns, and in 1500 there were 236 places where presses were in operation. Books printed before 1500 are referred to as incunabula (from the Latin word for cradle), and it has been estimated that there were altogether twenty million copies of such books. Europe at the time had perhaps seventy million people. By the end of the sixteenth century, when Europe may have had a population of about a hundred million, the number of printed books was somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 to 200 million copies. Though the new invention may have helped to stimulate the growth of literacy and increase the size of the reading public, it does not seem to have changed people's reading habits. As before, religious books formed the largest category. The earliest best seller was The Imitation of Christ, of which the fifteenth century saw ninety-nine editions in various languages. Erasmus owed much of his influence to the press and was for a while the best-selling author in Europe until supplanted by Luther. Luther's tracts were printed in large quantities and eagerly bought, but his Bible translations had the largest sale. During his lifetime, 430 editions of his Bible or parts of it were printed. Printing was a factor of incalculable importance in the success of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and other leaders were gifted and prolific writers, and the press provided unprecedented facilities for spreading their gospel.

Printing performed great services for learning. It made most unlikely the loss or disappearance of any more classical works and facilitated progress in the establishing of correct texts. Scholars could now more readily become acquainted with another's work and build on it. The first printed edition (editio princeps) of a classical author appeared in 1465, and by 1517, the year of Luther's Ninety-five Theses, the great bulk of the Latin classics had been printed. By the end of the sixteenth century the same was true of ancient Greek literature.

The greatest of the early printers was Aldo Manuzio (Latinized as Aldus Manutius). About 1490, when he was around forty years old, he set up his press at Venice. His great purpose was to supply Greek texts in accurate form for students. Between 1494 and his death in 1515, he published something like thirty first-editions of Greek authors, including Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Another great contribution of Aldus was the series of pocket editions of the Latin, Greek, and Italian classics, which he began to bring out in 1501. They became famous, spread widely over Europe, and did much to popularize the classics. For the Latin works he invented a type based on the handwriting used in the papal chancery; this type, known as italic, had a great influence on the development of typography. It was the ancestor of the types that still go by that name.

The chief centers of printing became established in towns that had an economic or political importance, as centers of international trade or as capital cities. In addition to Venice, some of the outstanding ones were Paris, and for a while Lyons, in France; Basel and Zurich in Switzerland; Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Strasbourg in Germany and the empire; and Antwerp in the Low Countries. In Spain, printing came first to Valencia, but later Madrid and Alcalá became more important. The first book printed in Lisbon was produced by a Hebrew printer in 1489; a few years later German printers came to Lisbon at the queen's invitation. The first book printed in English came out in Bruges in 1474. It was printed by William Caxton, who in 1476 set up a press in Westminster, the first in England. After his death his press was moved to London, which for a long time was the only important printing center in the country.

Hebrew printing began in Italy, where the most important press to publish Hebrew books was that of the Soncino family. Hebrew books were also published in Spain until the Jews were either converted or expelled in 1492. After that, Portugal became more important in the printing of Hebrew books. Of the rather small number of books known to have been printed in Portugal in the fifteenth century, over half are in Hebrew.

The effects of the invention of printing are, of course, impossible to measure. Suffice it to say that without it all the subsequent history of the world would have been radically, perhaps unrecognizably, different.


Humanism north of the Alps was heavily indebted to the humanism of Italy, but may be distinguished from it by a greater emphasis on the application of its distinctive knowledge and techniques to social reform. The reform program of northern humanism was a broad one; it aimed at a regeneration of moral and spiritual life, of political and ecclesiastical institutions, and of education. It might be more accurate to say that the reform of education was the key to all the other parts of the humanistic program. The new education would be based on the classics of Greece and Rome and of early Christianity and would aim to make better Christians and more productive members of society. These aims coincided closely with those of the Devotio Moderna, and indeed many of the northern humanists had been educated under the influence of that movement. All this had been anticipated by the Italian humanists. Such differences as existed resulted from differing national character, tradition, and needs. Similarly, northern humanism was not monolithic, and the following discussion will take account of national variations.


German humanism had a strongly nationalistic character. The Germans were understandably stung by the Italian contempt for them as "barbarians," and it was, therefore, a great source of pride to them when the Germania of Tacitus was discovered and printed. The first edition appeared in Venice about 1470, and the first German edition in Nuremberg in 1473. It seemed to present the Germans with a picture of their ancestors as strong, unspoiled, upright, and untainted by Roman corruption.

It was still Roman corruption that the German humanists tended to regard as the enemy, but now it was no longer the corruption of imperial Rome but of papal Rome. Ulrich von Hutten, a fiery patriot and humanist, wrote a dialogue, Arminius, celebrating the German leader whose troops had administered a great defeat to the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. For Hutten, Arminius was a fighter for German freedom, and his descendants ought to follow his example in shaking off the Roman yoke. Arminius became a national hero, whose name was later Germanized to Hermann.

Patriotism was a great stimulus to historical study. Some fragments attributed to a Chaldean historian, actually a fabrication published in 1498, gave the Germans a distinguished ancestry going back to Noah, and made one of Noah's sons, in effect, the first German emperor. This "information," together with Tacitus' Germania, became the basis for an elaborate picture of the early history of the Germans. Historians of some of the German cities attributed the founding of these cities to Trojans fleeing the fall of their homeland, as Aeneas had founded Rome. At the same time, there was a serious search for authentic sources of German history. German humanists, in their patriotic fervor, were proud to assert that Charlemagne was a German, not a Frenchman. This discovery soothed their anti-French feeling as well as embellishing their devotion to the Fatherland.

Jacob Wimpheling of Strasbourg, a leader of the Alsatian humanists, made this claim in his Germania of 1501, proudly boasting that no Frenchman had ever been head of the Roman Empire. There were some protests against his interpretation of German history, and the resultant controversy was the background of his Epitome of 1505, one of the earliest histories of Germany. He praises, among other things German, the great achievements of the cannon and the printing press.

Wimpheling illustrates the character of Alsatian humanism: patriotic, pious, and conservative. Though he remained an orthodox Catholic until his death in 1528, he was an outspoken critic of the abuses in the church. He wrote on education, hoping to bring about a reform that would discard medieval methods and prepare students to read the classics and the writings of Christian authors. He also wrote a Latin comedy, the first by a German humanist, and a poem on the death of Pope Sixtus IV that was so critical he did not dare publish it. The German humanists, earnest in their endeavors to reach as many of their contemporaries as possible, wrote more often in the vernacular than their Italian predecessors and contemporaries. The more popular character of German humanism is illustrated in the work of Sebastian Brant, another of the Alsatian humanists. Though he was a prolific writer of Latin prose and poetry, he is known chiefly for his German poem, The Ship of Fools. First published in Basel in 1494, it became very famous and was translated into Latin and several vernacular languages. It is a specimen of fool-literature, which was a very popular genre in the Middle Ages. In this tradition, men and women are looked upon as being primarily fools; and their vices, sins, and mistakes are regarded as so many types of folly. Brant has a separate section on each of a number of types of fools and folly: greed, following the latest fashions, neglect of the training of children, not following good advice, gluttony, talking too much, adultery, dancing, astrology, and so on and on. Brant was not a precursor of the Reformation, but a devout and conservative Catholic whose prescription for the ills of the day was a revival of traditional institutions and practices and whose religious ideal was that of the Middle Ages. Yet, he was also a lover of the classics.

In the reign of Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) the influence of Italian humanism appeared at the imperial court in the person of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future pope Pius II. This brilliant and versatile scholar arrived at the court in 1442 and was employed in the imperial and Austrian chancelleries. Eager to make converts among the Germans to the cause of humanistic letters, he found that the classes on whom he had counted the most were the least receptive to the message. The emperor, unlike some of his predecessors, had no interest in humanistic studies. The princes and nobles, unlike their Italian counterparts, were not men of refined tastes and enlightened patronage. The scholars at the University of Vienna, still absorbed in scholastic concerns, were an object of his ridicule. It was among his own colleagues secretaries, advocates, and the like that he aroused real enthusiasm. Later these men scattered all over Germany, spreading the ideas and outlook that they had gained from him. When he left Germany in 1455, he had sown the seed. His followers, like himself, met with strong opposition; and German humanism, faced with conservative attacks, assumed a polemical tone and became a fighting faith.

Some of the universities became battlegrounds. Here the humanists, who in many cases had recently returned from Italy, offered lectures on the classical authors. These men, called poets and orators, frequently became the focus of controversy. Generally they did not remain long at any one institution, but moved from one university to another. A number of German cities contained important humanistic circles. Strasbourg has already been mentioned. Another was Nuremberg, where one of the leading promoters of humanism was Willibald Pirckheimer. Far from being a poor wandering scholar or university teacher, he was a wealthy member of the upper class. He spent several years in Italy, where he mastered Greek. Though he was active in public life in Nuremberg, his heart was in his studies. It is not altogether accurate to describe him as part of a humanistic circle, since he was a difficult man who did not always get along well with others and mostly went his own way. He had a broad range of intellectual interests. As a patriot, he was much interested in German history. He was also interested in geography and wrote the first historical geography of Germany, besides translating Ptolemy's Geography into Latin. With the aim of promoting virtuous living, he translated numerous ethical and religious works from Greek into Latin and from Greek and Latin into German. These works included writings by Plato, Aristotle, some of the church fathers, and other Christian writers. Like many German humanists, he was strongly opposed to scholasticism, and spoke harshly of scholastic theologians. He emphasized the importance of the Bible for theological study and welcomed the appearance of Luther, who in 1518 was a guest in his house. The bull excommunicating Luther included an excommunication of Pirckheimer. Though he managed to be received back into the church, his sympathies remained with Luther. However, he was conservative socially and was repelled by the rapidity of the institutional changes brought by the Reformation and the popular disorders to which it gave rise. As time passed, he tended more and more toward the traditional position, but to the very end he died in 1530 he was unable to reach a final decision for or against the Reformation. His attitude toward Luther fluctuated, and he even became involved in controversy with him. He died unhappy with both sides, never having understood the real religious basis of the Reformation.

Some years earlier he had taken the side of Johann Reuchlin in the great controversy that, on the eve of the Reformation, divided German intellectuals into two camps. Reuchlin was the pride and joy of the German humanists; his profession was the law, but he was also devoted to humanistic studies. His greatest claim to distinction was that he had mastered not only Latin and Greek but even Hebrew. His attitude toward the Jews, as expressed in a book he wrote in 1505, was that their sufferings came from their rejection of Christ and that efforts should be made to convert them, using mild and gentle methods. Two years later there began to appear writings by a converted Jew named Johannes Pfefferkorn, which advocated much harsher methods of dealing with his former co-religionists: Usury should be forbidden, Jews must be compelled to hear Christian sermons, and their books must be taken from them. He also advocated driving them out.

As Pfefferkorn's writings continued to appear, they became increasingly hostile to the Jews, and he concentrated on a campaign to force them to give up their books that is, the books that were specifically Jewish and that presumably strengthened their faith. It soon became clear that he was closely allied to the Dominicans of Cologne. The Dominicans claimed the right to censor heresy in Germany. In 1509, Pfefferkorn got from the emperor Maximilian I a mandate ordering the Jews to give up their books. When the archbishop of Mainz protested, the emperor relented and asked that the opinions of learned men and universities be solicited on the question. Reuchlin, as one of those whose opinions were requested, objected to the harsh measures being taken and repeated his plea for gentle methods of conversion, urging also the appointments of professors of Hebrew in the universities. The matter of the books was dropped, but the issue entered a new phase of wider significance. Reuchlin had attacked Pfefferkorn personally, and the latter answered in kind. Then the Cologne theologians attacked Reuchlin, and the conflict began to involve scholars and universities all over Germany and beyond. The case came before Pope Leo X, who appointed a commission of twenty-two to examine the case. All but one decided in favor of Ruechlin. In 1520 the pope decided against the majority and ordered Reuchlin to pay the costs of the trial, which he apparently never did.

The real significance of this controversy was that it polarized opinion in Germany, ranging conservatives on the side of the Cologne theologians, while humanists, seeing themselves as the bearers of a more enlightened intellectual and religious outlook, rallied to the side of Reuchlin. Many of the latter wrote to Reuchlin to express their support, and in 1514 he published a collection of their letters under the title Clarorum virorum epistolae (Letters of Eminent Men).

In the following year there appeared an anonymous volume entitled Epistolae obscurorum virorum (Letters of Obscure Men), followed by enlarged editions in 1516 and 1517. The authors were actually two humanists, supporters of Reuchlin, Crotus Rubeanus and Ulrich von Hutten. The product of their labors was one of the most famous satires in European literature. The "letters" were mostly from fictitious persons with outlandish names, addressed to a real person, Ortwin Gratius, one of the Cologne theologians. In admiring tones and excruciatingly bad Latin, the obscure men write to Gratius, exposing themselves as ignorant, stupid, bigoted, immoral, backward, and crude, and Gratius and his fellows are made to seem to be the same sort of persons. They are all opposed to classical study and to true Biblical religion. To these louts, religion is a matter of scholastic methods and terminology, verbal quibbles, and meaningless ceremonial practices, and their lives were anything but Christian. In this way the enemies of Reuchlin were made to seem hypocrites and ignoramuses, while his defenders were pictured as the representatives of light and progress.

The Letters of Obscure Men is scurrilous, indecent, unfair, slanderous, and hilarious. Luther did not approve, Erasmus had grave objections, and Reuchlin did not welcome them. Nevertheless, they were popular and effective. The authors had, more clearly than anyone else except Erasmus, drawn the line between the forces that were locked in combat over the culture and religion of Germany. They had made it more difficult than ever to avoid taking sides and had helped to prepare the way for the great upheaval of the Reformation. Only a few months after the final complete edition appeared, Luther drew up his Ninety-five Theses.


In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, England appeared to the Italian humanists to be on the outskirts of civilization. Yet, it had a classical tradition of long standing, going back to Anglo-Saxon times. Throughout the Middle Ages, there continued to be some interest in classical study, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the fourteenth century there was a falling off of interest; in the fifteenth, when humanism was flourishing in Italy, England was troubled by foreign and civil war, which hindered intellectual and scholarly activity. When Poggio, one of the most distinguished Italian humanists, visited England in the years 1418-22 at the invitation of the bishop of Winchester, Henry Beaufort, little interest was shown in him, a sufficient sign of the general English unawareness of intellectual developments in Italy.

The fifteenth century in England was a relatively barren period intellectually, even in the field of scholastic philosophy, where stagnation had set in. Humanism did make some headway, stimulated by Poggio's visit and the presence of papal officials from Italy, but progress was slow. The first important patron of humanism in England was Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, a brother of King Henry V. He employed Italian humanists as secretaries and built up a library of classical and humanistic works and medieval texts; it was the best library in England. He helped the University of Oxford with gifts of money and books and with the endowment of lectureships, and he patronized English scholars. In the fifteenth century, most Englishmen of humanistic tastes made their careers in the service of church or state, some rising to high office. Government documents came to be written in a humanistic Latin style, and the ability to write such a style came to be considered a valuable asset for diplomats. Many Englishmen went to Italy to study; some became interested in humanism, in some cases through contact with the great educators Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino da Verona.

Humanism became firmly established in England only at the end of the fifteenth century, under the leadership of men who were all at one time or another connected with Oxford University and who had traveled in Italy. William Grocyn studied in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent under Poliziano, one of the most distinguished scholars of the day. In Italy he perfected his knowledge of Greek, which he taught at Oxford on his return. In 1496 he moved to London. A discovery made by him illustrates the application of humanistic methods to the study of ancient texts. There was a group of writings that for centuries had been attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, mentioned in the Book of Acts as having been converted by the preaching of St. Paul in Athens. One of these works, On the Celestial Hierarchy, had acquired great prestige, and had become the recognized source for information about angels. While lecturing on the book in St. Paul's Cathedral, Grocyn concluded correctly that Dionysius was not its author.

Thomas Linacre, a friend and Oxford colleague of Grocyn, also helped to implant the new studies firmly in England. He was in Italy from 1485 to 1499 and spent part of this time in Florence; like Grocyn, he studied under Poliziano and learned Greek. At the University of Padua, he took his degree in medicine. Back in England, he moved to London; was tutor to Prince Arthur, heir to the throne; and was later physician to King Henry VIII. He founded the Royal College of Physicians in 1518 and endowed medical lectureships at both Oxford and Cambridge. He translated works of Galen from the Greek and wrote a Latin grammar for Princess Mary, for whom he was tutor. He had an international reputation, and was praised by fellow scholars in many countries, including Erasmus, who was one of his students.

More important than these men was John Colet (1467?-1519), who in 1504 became dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. He had previously been associated with Oxford as student and teacher for twenty-two years. From 1493 to 1496 he studied in Italy and France. His chief interest was theology; when he returned to Oxford in 1496, he began lecturing on St. Paul's letters, though he was not yet a priest and was only a candidate for a theological degree. Furthermore, the normal subject for theological lectures was the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the standard textbook in the field. By lecturing on the Bible instead, Colet was thus breaking new ground and aligning himself with the new learning. By his method of interpreting the Biblical texts, moreover, he broke with tradition perhaps even more radically. For centuries the interpretation of the Scriptures had been chiefly figurative; of the four standard methods of exegesis, only one was literal or historical. When Colet began his lectures, he adhered to the old method, but while he was lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans a revolutionary change took place. Thereafter he approached the text from a grammatical and historical standpoint. He gave attention to the circumstances in which the Apostle had written and sought to discover the simple, direct meaning of the words, avoiding figurative and allegorical interpretations. His chief purpose was practical, to point out the moral lessons in Paul's writings as a means for the improvement of his hearers. It is possible that he owed his new approach, at least to some extent, to contact in Italy with the grammatical and philological methods of Lorenzo Valla.

Colet was primarily a reformer. In his sermons he roundly criticized the clergy for worldliness, pride, greed, and avarice. His distaste for some of the common religious practices of the day may be seen in Erasmus's colloquy, A Pilgrimage for Religion's Sake, in which Gratian Pullus, who is described as being disgusted with the relics paraded at the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, represents Colet himself.

Colet was also an educational reformer. In 1510, he founded, or revived, St. Paul's School in London. Unlike most previous schools, this one was entrusted not to the clergy but to one of the great London guilds, the Mercers' Company. Its first headmaster was not a priest, but a married layman and a humanist, William Lily. In planning the curriculum, Colet called on the help of humanist friends, including Erasmus. Erasmus prepared some of the textbooks as well as a manual for teachers. In the statutes he prepared for the school, Colet indicated that the boys should learn Latin and Greek from "good authors" and that they should write and speak the pure Latin used by the great classical writers and the church fathers. Scholasticism he scorned and excluded. Together with sound learning, the boys were to be trained in religion; thus the aims of the school were closely allied to those of Vittorino and Guarino and expressed the program of the northern humanists.

Colet did not write or publish much; he owes his place in intellectual and religious history largely to his influence on others. Among those who came under his influence, one of the greatest was Thomas More. More was born in London in 1478. Though his profession was the law, he was also devoted to the study of the classics and was a friend of Grocyn, Linacre, Colet, and Erasmus. Above all, he was a devout Christian, who at one time even considered becoming a monk. He was elected to the House of Commons as early as 1504. In addition to all this, he was writing from an early age both in Latin and in English. His writings show his keen wit, his interest in public affairs, and his awareness of the need for reform in the church. They also make it clear that he regarded King Henry VII as unjust and tyrannical. As a young man he collaborated with William Lily and Erasmus in translating some Greek works into Latin.

During the reign of Henry VIII, More advanced rapidly in public service. From 1510 to 1519 he held the important legal post of undersheriff of London. During this time probably between 1514 and 1518 he wrote, in both Latin and English, his History of King Richard III. It was an attack on tyranny, and helped to give Richard III the sinister reputation that he has borne through the centuries and which some recent authors have undertaken to revise. The book shows More to have been a humanistic historian. It shows the effects of his wide reading among the classical historians of both Greece and Rome. It has been said that this book initiated modern English historical writing, and it became a model for other historians. In 1516 More published his Utopia, one of the greatest products of English humanism. Its humanistic character is shown in its deep concern for social improvement, its kinship with Plato's Republic, and its stress on education as a means to carry out its program. A discussion of it is reserved for Chapter 21 on political thought.


It was once thought that the Renaissance crossed the Alps from Italy to France when Charles VIII's descent into Italy in 1494 began the period of French invasions. Today it is recognized that we must go much further back in time to find the origins of the Renaissance and humanism in France; the Italian invasions at most gave a further stimulus to a process already well under way. In France the continuity of humanism with the medieval tradition is especially clear. Classical writings were frequently copied there from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, so that by 1300 there were many classical manuscripts in French libraries, and fourteenth-century France was a center for the diffusion of classical learning.

The presence of the papacy in Avignon during most of the fourteenth century made that city one of the great European capitals and strengthened its ties with Italy. Avignon had possessed a certain international commercial importance since the twelfth century; it was connected by trade routes to northern Italy, and contained a flourishing Italian colony. The Avignon popes began to build up the papal library, and among its volumes were works by classical authors as well as by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Petrarch, as we have seen, spent many years in and near Avignon, and gave a great stimulus to classical studies there. However, he only helped to provide an impetus to the existing tradition of study in France; he by no means created it. This is shown by the vigor with which some Frenchmen rejected his claims for Italian leadership. It is also made clear by the enthusiastic welcome he received when he came to Paris in 1360; the presence of a group of admirers, familiar with his work, is clear evidence that the interests he cultivated had already attracted a group of Frenchmen. Even at this time, moreover, French humanism proved its independence by departing from the rhetorical interests of the Italians to pursue its own chief concerns, which were moral, legal, and political. The French king Charles V (1364-80) was an admirer of Petrarch and built up a library of eleven hundred volumes, an enormous one for that time, and one which included many classical writings. He also had French translations made of the classics, continuing an enterprise undertaken by his father, King John II. Other members of the royal family shared these interests.

At the University of Paris, at the end of the fourteenth century, students were exposed to a good deal of classical literature, studied for its practical usefulness by priests, for example, in preaching. The great Jean Gerson, one of the most important figures in the university and in the church, encouraged humanistic study and scorned scholastic logic.

The fifteenth century was a period of transition in French intellectual life. During the first half, the country was undergoing the ordeal of foreign and civil war combined. The French church was in serious need of reform. The University of Paris, which played a vital role in the country's intellectual and religious life, reflected the disorder and turbulence of the times. It was plagued by the efforts of kings and popes to deprive it of its privileges, as well as by a shortage of funds and by severe internal conflicts among its faculties and the "nations" into which it was divided. The number of students declined, instruction broke down, and instances of violence took place. In 1453, a conflict between students and police resulted in the death of a student, and in retaliation the university suspended its regular activities for nine months. Scholasticism was dying, lost in the barren wastes of formal logic detached from the real world. Against all this disorder and sterility, a reaction took place among those who demanded more satisfying intellectual and religious nourishment. In part, this reaction took the form of mysticism and of renewed efforts at church reform, assisted by influences from the Devotio Moderna in the Netherlands. Another element in the reaction was humanism. From the middle of the fifteenth century, it changed its character as the humanists, moved by the gravity of the conditions in which they lived, turned from literary concerns and toward practical reform ideas. At about the same time, Italian influence began to make itself felt at the University of Paris. Early in 1458, an Italian scholar was appointed to teach Greek there.

The real introduction of Italian humanism into the university was the work of Guillaume Fichet, a member of the theological faculty and a holder of important administrative positions in the university. Besides theology, he taught rhetoric, the key subject of the Italian humanists, which he wanted to promote to a place of eminence in the curriculum. He also had some part in the establishment of the first printing press in Paris. The leading spirit in the foundation of the press was Johann Heynlin, who was at the time a member of the Sorbonne, one of the colleges of the University of Paris, of which Fichet was prior. The press began publishing in 1470, and its production was humanistic; it printed works by distinguished Italian humanists, including Lorenzo Valla, and classical writings, as well as Fichet's book on rhetoric.

Fichet's work was continued by like-minded men, who introduced into the curriculum works by Italian humanists and classical texts as well. They also brought a humanistic method into the writing of French history, examining sources critically and showing, like their colleagues in other countries, a nationalistic spirit. Henceforth, there was always at the University of Paris a group of men who eagerly pursued the study of the ancient writers, welcomed Italian humanists and read their works, and regarded the scholastics and their methods as the powers of darkness. They were devout Christians who regarded the cause of humane letters and true Christian piety as inseparable.

Their aims are best displayed in the work of Jacques Lefvre d'étaples (1450-1536), who as a student and a teacher at Paris combined an interest in antiquity with a fervent devotion to Christianity. He was especially eager to make available the real thought of Aristotle, whose ideas he was sure had been distorted by the scholastic commentators. He not only taught Aristotle to his classes but also published a large body of the philosopher's works in Latin translation with his own commentary. Like other members of the Paris humanistic circle, he was attracted to the monastic ideal. These men were also interested in mysticism, and Lefèvre published works by many of the great mystics. He had a mystical interpretation of Aristotle, which made it possible for him also to accept the thought of Plato and of the Neoplatonism of Ficino and Pico, both of whom he knew and admired. Like them and many others, he was also fascinated by the occult: He even wrote a book on natural magic, which he did not publish, and brought out editions of the Hermetic writings, which will be discussed in a later chapter.

In addition to all this, he wrote textbooks in a number of fields and had a more extensive knowledge of antiquity than anyone else in France had possessed up to that time. As time went on, he became more and more interested in theology, especially the study of the Bible and the church fathers. In 1509 he published the Psalms in Latin, calling his version the Quincuplex Psalterium. In parallel columns he placed five versions: Three were by Jerome, one was an ancient version even older than Jerome's, and the fifth was Lefvre's own translation. He was convinced that the study of the Bible must be undertaken with the grammatical and philological tools introduced by the Italian humanists in the study of classical texts. In 1512 he published the letters of St. Paul. In parallel columns appeared two Latin texts; one was the Vulgate, the other Lefvre's own version, based on the Greek. In the commentaries and notes that he added, he aimed at presenting a simple, clear exposition of the text and expounding and clarifying the Apostle's ideas, avoiding the subtleties and complications of scholastic commentators.

The Reuchlin affair had brought a polarization of opinion at the University of Paris. Lefvre and his circle were outspoken on behalf of Reuchlin, whereas the faculty of theology, whose opinion was solicited by the University of Cologne, decided against him. Henceforth, the university was divided into two camps. For the more rigid conservatives, the enemy was to be found following the banner of Lefvre and Erasmus; while these two men, whose outlook was by no means identical, were made more aware of what they had in common by the presence of the common adversary.

With the accession of Francis I, humanism appeared to triumph, because the king proved to have a genuine interest in promoting humanistic studies. He crowned his services to learning by the establishment in 1530 of a college for the teaching of the three ancient languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In the foundation of this institution, which was eventually to be known as the Collge de France, the king was encouraged by one of the greatest of all French classical scholars, Guillaume Bud (1468-1540).

Bud combined scholarship with public life; like his father, he held offices in the royal service. He was trained in the law, and one of his great accomplishments was the application of the philological method of humanism to the study of Roman law. In 1508 he published his Notes on the Pandects. The Pandects, or digest, constituted that part of the Roman civil law in Justinian's codification that contained opinions of the jurists. Bud's book was epoch- making; applying the methods of textual and historical criticism used by Lorenzo Valla, he attempted to improve the received text, to clarify obscurities, to understand the law in its historical setting, and to study the social changes reflected in it. The methods he brought to bear on his research were of great value in helping to bring to light the real meaning of the Roman law and had a further significance in helping to produce modern critical history. He showed the same sort of hostility toward his predecessors, the medieval commentators on the law, that Lefvre displayed toward the scholastic philosophers and theologians.

Bud had a more profound and exact knowledge of classical antiquity than any other man of his age. His treatise, De asse (the as was a Roman unit of coinage), published in Paris in 1515, dealt with ancient coinage and measures of capacity. This was a subject of great importance for understanding antiquity and one that had not previously received systematic investigation. His Commentaries on the Greek Language (1529) secured his reputation as the greatest Greek scholar of his age.

He devoted himself tirelessly to the defense and propagation of humanism, encouraging and assisting men who showed an interest in classical studies. When he heard of two monks who were being harassed by their fellows for their interest in the classics, he wrote to express his sympathy. One of the monks was Rabelais. Bud wrote books defending humanism, including his De philologia (On Philology) in 1532, which took the form of a dialogue between himself and the king. He was a patriotic Frenchman, whose love of country led him to study French institutional development and medieval history.

Thus the characteristics of French humanism, which had announced themselves when the papal court was at Avignon, were still in evidence in the early sixteenth century. Though influenced profoundly by Italian scholarship, it was a distinct and autonomous development. It always had a moral and religious tone; the humanists were Christians first. They were interested in educational reform and regarded the scholastics as the enemy. Style was subordinate to content; Lefèvre and Bud were anything but elegant stylists. The French humanists were, in a word, reformers religious, educational, and intellectual.

By the time of the Reformation, the dominant influence in French humanism, as in humanism in general, came from a man who had studied in France for many years and who was personally acquainted with many of the humanists there. Although he never returned to Paris after 1511, his writings were eagerly read there, and he had become the leading figure in European culture. It is to this man, Erasmus, who better than anyone else represents the culmination of northern humanism, that we now turn.



These abuses included reliance on mechanical performance of outward religious obligations while the heart was far from Christian humility and love; superstitious reverence for relics of the saints; the pride, pomp, and luxury of some of the clergy, especially those in high office, the unfaithful shepherds who were neglecting their flocks; and the hypocrisy of monks and friars. In the secular arena, he took a very dim view of kings, who in his eyes were more often devourers of their people than guardians. Above all, he hated war and condemned it in some of his most bitter and most eloquent pages. Though his literary output was immense, it all revolved around these ideas, whose directness and simplicity helped increase their effectiveness. This appeal was enhanced by the brilliance of his style. He wrote always in Latin, with unparalleled grace and wit and with a devastating command of satire. A few of his most significant works can be briefly mentioned here. In 1500 there appeared the first edition of his Adages, a collection of proverbial sayings of the ancients. It was enormously popular, and subsequent editions were steadily enlarged. To the proverbs Erasmus attached his commentaries, often quite long. The result was a book that not only gave his contemporaries a good picture of the ideas of the ancients, but that also conveyed Erasmus's own comments on society, government, and the church. One example is his famous antiwar essay, which accompanies the adage Dulce bellum inexpertis (War is sweet to those who do not know it).

In 1503 there appeared his Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), one of the best expressions of his ideal of Christian piety. Here he presents the Christian life as a warfare with the world, in which the weapons are chiefly prayer and knowledge, particularly knowledge of the Scriptures. He prescribes remedies against the vices and inveighs against the false worship of many so-called Christians.

In 1505 Erasmus published Valla's Notes on the New Testament. This work, showing discrepancies between the Greek New Testament and the Latin Vulgate, may have inspired Erasmus with the plan of bringing out an edition of the New Testament in Greek. In 1509, at the home of his friend Thomas More in London, he dashed off a little book, The Praise of Folly. Written in the form of an oration in which the goddess Folly delivers a eulogy of herself, it satirizes a wide range of human activities, poking gentle fun at the human foibles that enable men and women to live happily with themselves and their fellows and pouring scorn on abuses of the powerful in church and state. It ends with a beautiful passage in praise of the highest folly of all, the folly of true Christians who are possessed with a madness that makes them forget the things of this world in their love of God and of the blessed life with Him. This book has probably been Erasmus's most widely read work. It is the greatest of all specimens of the fool-literature of which Brant's Ship of Fools was an earlier example.

When Julius II, the "warrior" pope, died in 1513, there appeared anonymously a little dialogue entitled Julius exclusus (Julius excluded from Heaven). In it Julius appears at the heavenly gate, and St. Peter refuses him admittance. Though Erasmus, understandably, never admitted to its authorship, he was widely suspected of it. Since he had never gotten over the sight of Julius entering Bologna in 1506 at the head of a conquering army, it is quite possible that Erasmus wrote this work, which expresses his sentiments about the earthly successor of the Prince of Peace acting more like the Caesar whose name he bore.

From 1514 to 1516 Erasmus lived in Basel, where in collaboration with the great printer Froben he brought out two of his most significant works: the nine-volume edition of the writings of St. Jerome and the first edition of his Greek New Testament. Both of these appeared in 1516. Erasmus's Greek New Testament, which was accompanied by his own Latin translation, was the first to appear in print, though Spanish scholars had already finished an edition, which was not published until later. In some cases, Erasmus's readings and translations differed from the accepted interpretation and from the Vulgate, and thereby brought down on him the wrath of the old guard. On the other hand, the work was welcomed by all who shared Erasmus's ideal of a purified religion based upon the true sources of the faith, and was a vital part of his program of reform. As a version of the text, however, it left a good deal to be desired, and the Spanish edition was to prove more accurate.

In 1516 Erasmus was given the honorary title of councilor to the young prince Charles, soon to become king of Spain and later Holy Roman emperor. In recognition of this appointment, he wrote The Education of the Christian Prince (1516) and The Complaint of Peace (1517). In the former work, he admonishes rulers to devote themselves to the welfare of their people and to keep peace with their neighbors. The Complaint of Peace is one of his attacks on war, which he regarded as inhuman, unnatural, and especially to be condemned when waged between men who all called themselves Christians.

One of his most popular writings was his Colloquies, written over a period of many years. Originally he wrote them as exercises to help in the teaching of Latin to schoolboys, but they developed into a vehicle for Erasmus's comments on contemporary society, the state of the church, and the failings of mankind. As the title indicates, they are in the form of conversations; and Erasmus makes them lively, entertaining, and always pointed. The speakers are sometimes real people, more or less disguised under fictitious names. For students of the period and of Erasmus, they are still one of the most accessible ways of learning what he thought about the issues of the day. By the time the Reformation began, Erasmus was the most influential writer, scholar, and intellectual in Europe, the leader of those who pinned their hopes for reform on education, "good letters," peace, and moral improvement in both church and secular society. In the years after about 1517, their hopes were to be shattered by war among nations and by the violence and fanaticism that accompanied the Protestant Revolt. Erasmus, as we shall see later, came to a realization that Luther's aims and methods were not his own, while Luther ended by scorning the great scholar for whom he at one time expressed great respect. Erasmus was never able to understand the force of the political and religious passions that moved his contemporaries. Neither the power of nationalism nor the depth of a religious experience like that of Luther seems to have found any echo in him. He remained a man of moderation, capable of seeing both sides of the religious conflict without giving himself wholly to either, though he did remain in the old church. Luther accused him of cowardice, and Erasmus himself confessed to a kind of timidity. But to be able, in an age of fanaticism, to remain detached from the opposing parties, may itself be a kind of courage. Certainly it must have been a source of loneliness to Erasmus. He lived in many places without ever finding a truly permanent home, and he died though a Catholic in Basel, a city that had become Protestant.

He was rejected not only by the Protestants but also by a strong party among the Catholics. Much of his work became forbidden reading to Catholics before the century was over; in Spain, where his influence had been tremendous, his very name ceased to be heard. From a superficial point of view, he might seem to have failed, but this would be most inaccurate. His ideals of reason, tolerance, and humane dealing among men have never lost their appeal to many persons. Even in the short run, it can be seen how enduring his influence was. To study the English Reformation is to see his imprint on the outlook of the new church in numerous ways for example, in the idea of the adiaphora or the nonessential things on which Christians may disagree as long as they hold to the basic points all have in common. Where the idea of the unimportance of ceremonies and theological subtleties was accepted, together with the transcendent importance of love for God and one's neighbor, there we can divine the ideas of Erasmus. Though he did not raise his voice so loudly as many of his contemporaries, it was heard and heeded long after some of the others had become silent and forgotten.