Many years ago I read “The Origins of Humanism” by the eminent Renaissance scholar Nicholas Mann of the University of London, for a class I was teaching on literary and philosophical movements. The chapter appears in Jill Kraye’s excellent The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (1996). I found my old notes about this chapter because I’m reading a work that may be classified as Humanist: Lazarillo de Tormes. To refresh my memory I reread Mann and reviewed my notes and wrote these impressionistic, filtered notes.

Mann underlines that the studia humanitatis in classical times referred to the study of what we today call the Liberal Arts: philosophy, literature, art, language, etc. It was thanks to the northern Italian city states of the fourteenth century that this concept was reinstated as something valuable, and as a key part of university education. To be a humanist (umanista), in that period, was to be a student of classical Roman literature, art, and rhetoric. I was interested to find that Humanist in English dates to the sixteenth century, and that the Germans coined the noun humanism in the nineteenth century to refer to classical literature and the values they embody.

Mann’s definition of Humanism is this:

“Humanism is that concern with the legacy of antiquity —and in particular, but not exclusively, with its literary legacy — which characerizes the work of scholars from at least the ninth century onwards. It involves above all the rediscovery and study of ancient greek and roman texts, the restoration an interpretation of them and the assimilation of the ideas and values that they contain. It ranges from an archaeological interest in the remains of the past to a highly focused philological attention to the details of all manner of written records — from inscriptions to epic poems — but comes to pervade, as we shall see, almost all areas of post-medieval culture, including theology, philosophy, political thought, jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics, and the creative arts. Grounded in what we would now think of as learned research, it rapidly found expression in teaching.” (2)

What I learned in college was that Humanism was a child of the Renaissance, and therefore essentially began in the fourteenth century. However, Mann qualifies that view by noting how classical literature was preserved from the ninth century onward, in fragmentary but significant ways. The dark ages were not dark, basically. Mann also notes the presence of classical references in vernacular literature in the twelfth century, as in the case of florilegias, which were anthologies of excerpts from classical works. But the power of the Church over intellectual (and other spheres of ) life, and the all pervasive influence of Aristotelianism, did not allow classicism to gain a dominant footing.

In the fourteenth century, in Northern Italy, prosperous city states with a thriving educational culture, the demands of commerce and communication dictated that classical models be rediscovered and reactivated as practical knowledge relating to the law and to public speaking. There was also linguistic and regional pride because classicism did not mean Roman and Greek literature, but Roman literature in latin. Besides the lawyers who studied Roman law, and annotated it, and sought to apply it to contemporaneous issues, there were the dictatores, the letter and speech writers trained in the classical art of rhetoric, who brought their talents of persuasion to merchants, lawyers, notaries, patrons, and others, who wanted to draw from that art for their benefit.

Mann observes that this enthusiasm for the classics, and this desire to apply it to the problems of the present, was accompanied by a fascination with classical history and literature, which lead to the recovery of numerous classical texts, the restoration of incomplete classical texts, and the writing of new texts that were clearly inspired in classical models. In places like Bologna, Naples, Padua, and especially the Papal Curia at Avignon, scholars passionately threw themselves into studying the past and recreating its rhetoric and style. The most famous of these figures is Petrarch, arguably the greatest Humanist of the Renaissance. Petrarch recovered lost classics, annotated them, and drew tremendous inspirations and models from the classics for his own poetry and writings. He was a great disseminator, explicator, and collector, and Renaissance Humanism owes a great deal to the arc of his scholarship and creativity.

Mann closes his essay with some reflections on how Greek was much lesser known during the Renaissance. I was particularly interested in the fact that it was Arabic culture that helped to preserve Greek writing and reintroduce it to Europe through Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain.