Renaissance Europe 1300-1600: Literature

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Early Renaissance Literature

Growth of Italian

During the fourteenth century Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) laid the foundations for Italian as a literary language. Around 1300, Dante became one of the first Europeans to discuss a subject that would become increasingly important during the Renaissance. In his On the Vulgar Tongue he considered what style was most appropriate for writers who decided to compose their works in their own native language, rather than in Latin. Dante advocated his own “sweet new style,” an elegant form of medieval Italian that was intended to please both the mind and the ear. In his great masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, Dante used the “sweet new style” to record his imaginary pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and paradise. He intended this masterpiece, which he completed shortly before his death in 1321, to be a summation of everything he had learned in his life about philosophy, theology, and science. The Comedy expressed its author’s profound faith that everything in the world operated according to the designs of God’s will. Throughout the work humanity is caught in a divinely-controlled drama it cannot hope to influence, and human beings are ultimately powerless when judged against God’s omnipotence. Dante’s bleak and personal vision of the afterlife still ranks as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature, and its influence in establishing Dante’s own language—the Tuscan Italian used in and around Florence—as a literary language was considerable. But by 1400, the new philosophical and literary movement known as humanism had altered literary tastes. To many of Italy’s authors, Dante’s “sweet, new style” seemed dated and old-fashioned. For inspiration, Italy’s growing number of humanists would now turn to Petrarch and Boccaccio, the other two literary geniuses of the fourteenth century.


Petrarch and Boccaccio were the two acknowledged geniuses among early Renaissance humanists. Humanism had begun to appear as an educational movement within the Italian cities during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. In place of the scholastic curriculum of Europe’s universities, which stressed logic and the disciplined proof of theological and philosophical principles, the humanists advocated study of the language arts, moral philosophy, and history. Petrarch, who is sometimes called the “Father of Humanism,” was the first of many of these scholars to achieve an international fame through his literary works. In a life devoted to writing and study, he tried to create a relevant personal philosophy guided by the works of classical Antiquity. In place of the austere vision of Dante and many medieval writers, Petrarch’s works stressed that there was a place for the enjoyment of literature and the other good things that the world had to offer. Although he remained deeply traditional and Christian in his outlook, his philosophy emphasized that graceful writing and speaking might have a good end if used to encourage its audience to lead a virtuous life. Petrarch was not a systematic thinker; he frequently contradicted himself and at times adopted points of view that were in conflict with his earlier positions. But in both his Italian and Latin writings, Petrarch devoted himself to the cause of eloquence, making it the basis for a career that spread his fame throughout Europe.


Petrarch wrote his philosophical works largely in Latin, while composing his poetry mostly in Italian. In some of his philosophical works, though, Petrarch argued that the art of poetry might have a philosophical function, an idea that would have puzzled most medieval thinkers. While poetry had not been neglected in the Middle Ages, it was seen more often than not as a kind of literary enjoyment and recreation that was incapable of conveying the profound truths of philosophy. In his Divine Comedy Dante had used poetry to address deep religious truths, but he had placed the ancient Roman poet, Vergil, within his creation to represent the limits of human reason. His choice of the acknowledged master of ancient poetry to personify earthly knowledge expressed the traditional medieval judgments about the limits of poetic wisdom. By contrast, Petrarch argued that poetry could, through its use of metaphor, simile, and other literary devices, convey truths that were more profound than those derived from arid logic. Poetry could also appeal to the senses and captivate the imagination, and in these ways spur the mind and the human will to try to achieve virtue. While Petrarch developed this defense of poetry in his philosophical works, most of his poetry celebrated human love. When he was 23, Petrarch was to have met his love Laura, the woman who would serve as his poetic muse for the remainder of his life. Whether Laura was real or imagined has never been definitely determined, but Petrarch always emphasized that his love for her went unrequited. For Petrarch, Laura became the subject of his most lyrical and influential poetry, the Canzoniere or Songbook. This collection would eventually include 366 poems, more than 300 of which would be written in the sonnet form Petrarch perfected. He wrote about two-thirds of these poems while Laura was living, and the other third after her death, but he often returned to polish the collection. Although Petrarch would discredit his Italian poetry later in life as youthful indulgence, he seems to have realized that it would form one of the foundations of his reputation. In them, Petrarch made use of the long tradition of love poetry from Ovid and Vergil, to the medieval troubadours, and to the Italian poets of the “sweet new style.” Petrarch transformed these influences, though, to create poems that were stunningly lyrical and profound in their psychological depth. They ranged over a variety of topics—love, death, politics, and religion—but somehow their most important subject emerges as Petrarch himself. He uses the poems, in other words, to present himself to his readers as a thoughtful and unique personality. Time and again Renaissance writers would return to these poems, and they would eventually be seen as setting the highest standard for verse treating love. During the sixteenth century, the style of the Songbook would even give rise to a literary movement known as “Petrarchism” in Italy that would spread throughout Europe.

The Triumphs

Petrarch’s collection of six poems treating triumphs also influenced later writers and artists, although their influence upon the art of the Renaissance was more profound than on literature. The Triumphs were written in rhymed triplets around 1355, when Petrarch was in his middle age. They depict a series of six victories that occur in a sequence. Petrarch richly describes symbolic battles between Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. Each of these abstract nouns is personified, and each in turn experiences its own victory, but every one but the last, Eternity, is conquered in turn by another, more powerful figure. Through this sequence the Triumphs lead Petrarch to a final consoling realization. In the first poem, for example, the God of Love is victorious, as he leads famous historical lovers in bondage to the island of Cyprus. Soon, though, the figure of Chastity rises in the figure of Petrarch’s Laura. She rescues Love’s captives and steals the god’s bow and arrow, which she places in the Temple of Chastity at Rome. Chastity’s victory, too, is short-lived, as Death arrives to steal her and her ransomed lovers. In his grief Petrarch consoles himself that Fame triumphs over Death, since reputation and accomplishments outlive mortal life. But even Fame’s conquest is ephemeral because in the fifth poem, the God of Time’s decaying effects on human memory conquers Fame. In the final poem the God of Eternity conquers Time, a victory that reassures Petrarch. He realizes that in the infinity of Eternity, he will be able to enjoy the beauty and love of his Laura. Because of their rich visionary description, Petrarch’s Triumphs were frequently exploited by artists throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in paintings, tapestries, and even on furniture. Depictions of the Triumphs were most prominent on Renaissance dowry chests, which were the ceremonial caskets used to carry a woman’s dowry from her family’s house to her husband’s in the weeks that preceded her wedding. The Triumphs were usually included in the many manuscript and printed editions of the Songbook that circulated in the Renaissance. Although Petrarch downplayed their importance as he had the poems of the Songbook, he also returned to revise them many times, even in the months leading up to his death.

Latin Works

Petrarch’s Italian verse would rank among his most important contributions to the literary traditions of the Renaissance. The impact of his Latin works, by contrast, would be felt most keenly among the humanist moral philosophers who followed him, and these works were generally less important in inspiring new literary themes and genres. His The Secret, or the Soul’s Conflict with Desire, an important philosophical work written in dialogue form, inspired many subsequent Renaissance dialogues. There were also some other notable exceptions among Petrarch’s Latin works that would prove influential to later Renaissance authors. In his monumental poem, Africa, Petrarch turned to the history of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage and he treated the life and deeds of the Roman hero Scipio Africanus. Petrarch admired this work above all his other poetry, and its praise of Roman valor and the virtues of patriotism helped popularize the study of history among his humanist followers. He continued to praise Roman virtues in his collections of biographies entitled The Lives of Illustrious Men and his Letters to the Ancient Dead. But perhaps Petrarch’s most important contribution to Latin literature during the Renaissance was his collections of letters; these helped establish the art of letter writing as one of the literary techniques favored by later humanists. In 1345, Petrarch discovered at Verona a collection of letters written by the ancient Roman philosopher and orator Cicero. These letters encouraged Petrarch to collect and edit his own communications in a series of manuscript editions. By the time of his death in 1374, he had compiled three volumes of his Latin letters. These would circulate during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in both manuscript and printed editions and would inspire other collections of letters written by famous political dignitaries, scholars, and literary figures.


Petrarch’s relationship with Giovanni Boccaccio also helped to shape the course of early Renaissance literature. In 1350, these two figures met for the first time, and struck up a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Petrarch continually worried about his own posterity and the reputation that his works would achieve after his death. Boccaccio, on the other hand, was more humble about his literary achievements, and he allowed his ideas to be shaped by his older friend Petrarch. For example, Petrarch’s defense of poetry, his love for the classics, and his insistence that literature and eloquence must serve the cause of virtue all influenced Boccaccio. In his Genealogy of the Gods (written over many years but finished shortly before his death), Boccaccio displayed the influences that he had derived from his relationship with Petrarch. This work catalogued pagan mythology and would be widely used as a textbook for students of literature and by artists composing works on mythological themes during the next four centuries. When they had turned to consider ancient myths, medieval writers had usually granted these stories Christian interpretations. Boccaccio’s Genealogy strove instead to present Greek and Roman mythology from their literary sources without extensive commentary or Christian philosophizing. In the final two sections of The Genealogy Boccaccio also defended the study of pagan literature and the writing of poetry and fiction along lines consistent with his mentor Petrarch. Boccaccio insisted that poetry’s purposes were far more profound than mere literary enjoyment. Poetry could convey truths concealed in beauty, and the poet’s gift consisted in “exquisitely discovering and saying, or writing, what you have discovered.” Poetry was not, according to Boccaccio, an earthly enjoyment that led away from divine truth, as many medieval commentators had argued. It was instead a craft that brought glory to God, since He was the ultimate source of the poet’s inspiration. Importantly, the Genealogy also defended the writing of fiction, insisting that fables and stories possessed the power both to entertain and to instruct their readers in morality.


While Petrarch’s influence on the development of Boccaccio’s humanist ideas was great, he shares little of the credit for directly shaping Boccaccio’s great masterpiece, The Decameron. Boccaccio had begun that work in 1348, shortly after the Black Death struck Florence. He completed it in 1352, only shortly after his first meetings with Petrarch. The work’s prologue recounts the horrors of the bubonic plague as it winnowed down the city’s population during 1348 and 1349. Few descriptions of epidemics are more chilling than this, as Boccaccio describes the swiftness with which the plague moved through the city, the variety of ways in which Florentines responded to the disease, and the gruesome manner in which many met their deaths. In the midst of this carnage a group of ten wealthy men and women decide to flee the city. They take refuge in the countryside outside Florence and begin to tell tales to pass the time. Each day, the group elects a king or queen from among their members to preside over their storytelling, and during the ten days that they stay in the countryside, each of the group’s members tells a tale. Boccaccio relates the resulting 100 tales in a short story form known as novella, a literary form popular in Italy at the time. Some of the stories are written for pure literary and comic enjoyment; others convey a message. To underscore these messages, Boccaccio identifies themes for most of the days’ storytelling. Day One, for example, treats tales of villainy and deceit, while Day Ten recounts stories in which virtue triumphs over vice. Between these two extremes of hellish wickedness and heavenly virtue, Boccaccio tells a number of other tales that presented a variegated portrait of human nature. In many of these, women get the better of men because of their cunning nature or superior intelligence. Other characters redeem themselves from imminent catastrophe because of a witty reply or sheer human inventiveness. And still others are able to confront harsh fortune successfully because of their ability to master their will and overcome human passions. These last themes—the passions and the human will—are elements that run throughout the tales. Some people, Boccaccio shows, are able because of their superior intelligence and will power to shape the world to their needs and desires, while those who succumb to their passions are rarely ever able to rise above the blows of ill fortune. The clergy are prominent among those Boccaccio criticizes as victims of their own desires, and a number of the tales recount the clergy’s sexual antics. At other times he presents Jews and Moslems as more virtuous than Christians. Finally, he records many of the tensions of fourteenth-century Italian life, particularly those that existed between the new merchant class and the older nobility. In all these ways Boccaccio’s work presents an extraordinary tapestry of Mediterranean life, and one which found a wide readership during the following centuries, both in Italy and throughout Europe.

Other Works

The Decameron was Boccaccio’s undisputed masterpiece, but the author’s literary output was enormous, both in Latin and Italian. Like Petrarch, Boccaccio styled some of his works self-consciously to resemble ancient literary styles and genres, hoping to revive these forms. In his Country Songs, or Buccolicum carmen Boccaccio wrote in Latin and used the ancient Roman form of the eclogue, a kind of pastoral poetry that had been developed by the ancient poet Vergil. Boccaccio, like Petrarch who also wrote eclogues, used these poems to discuss ethical, political, and religious themes. And like Petrarch, Boccaccio also devoted himself to writing biographical studies. Two of these, The Fates of Illustrious Men and On Famous Women, continued to debate an issue that Boccaccio had identified in the Decameron: the role of fortune in human affairs. In the Fates of Illustrious Men Boccaccio examined the lives of men from the Garden of Eden to contemporary times and argued that the fall of powerful historical figures was most often the result of moral failings, rather than mere bad fortune. Sometimes, though, he admitted that pure misfortune could prove disastrous. In his catalogue of women’s lives, On Famous Women, Boccaccio became the first European author to create a collection of biographies devoted exclusively to women. The examples that Boccaccio treated in this work were all drawn from pagan Antiquity, and he praised these women for their learning, their writing, their political skill, and even their military prowess. While Boccaccio presented this work as a tribute to a famous Florentine woman, his comments throughout the book show that he intended it to be read by both men and women. He often criticized men for allowing women to outdo them in scholarship and other endeavors. On Famous Women appeared during the early Renaissance, and inspired at least one other collection of feminine biographies: the more famous Book of the City of Ladies written by Christine de Pizan in the early fifteenth century.

Greek Language and Literature

Boccaccio exercised a significant impact on later Renaissance literary tastes through his support of the study of the Greek language and literature. Although he was usually self-deprecating, he did stress in his Genealogy of the Gods his role in establishing the first professorship of Greek at the University of Florence. He called Leontius Pilatus, a southern Italian Greek scholar, to this position and asked him to translate works of Homer and Euripides into Latin. Boccaccio became Pilatus’ student, and he was the first Renaissance European to learn Greek for the expressed purpose of reading classical literature. He circulated the translations that Pilatus had completed of Greek texts, sending copies to Petrarch and other humanists. In this way, he helped to encourage the revival of the study of Greek, a language that had been virtually unknown in Western Europe over previous centuries.


Both Petrarch and Boccaccio’s literary endeavors provided models for later Renaissance writers. Each figure had conducted extensive studies of ancient prose and poetry, and they had often self-consciously used their works as a way of reviving classical style and literary genres among their fellow humanists. While dedicated to the study of ancient literature, and using it as a guide, both Petrarch and Boccaccio were also original and innovative artists. In his Italian lyrics, for example, Petrarch perfected the sonnet and expressed psychological insights that would inspire later writers. For his part, Boccaccio created a fictional universe in his Decameron that made use of the medieval genre of the novella. Boccaccio breathed new life into this form by weaving his own consistent perspective as well as the philosophical insights of early humanism into the work. These features helped to raise his work to the level of a masterpiece.

The Fifteenth Century in Italy

Civic Humanism

During the first half of the fifteenth century humanists in Florence and elsewhere in Italy wrote mostly prose treatises and dialogues. They did not immediately develop the fictional possibilities that Boccaccio’s Decameron presented. Nor did they devote themselves to the writing of love lyrics or other poetry in the style of Petrarch. Florence’s first humanist chancellor, Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), had been a disciple of both Boccaccio’s and Petrarch’s humanism, and he continued to defend the study of poetry in his writings in ways similar to his mentors. In the first half of the fifteenth century the humanist circle that Salutati was largely responsible for assembling in Florence devoted itself to other concerns. These scholars turned instead to study ancient philosophy, history, and the classical languages, rather than pursue purely literary pursuits. Their writings were not without literary merit or importance, but they often used their treatises and dialogues to discuss the arts of good government and the importance of a life of civic engagement. A perennial theme of their works considered how one might achieve virtue while living an active life in society. For these reasons, the humanists of this period have often been called “civic humanists.” Other achievements of the humanists in this period would prove decisive for the later development of Italian and Latin literature in subsequent generations. The humanists recovered a thorough knowledge of classical Latin’s structure, style, and rhetoric, providing the basis upon which later Renaissance writers would successfully imitate the style of the ancients. The recovery of the knowledge of Greek, too, continued to expand in Florence and elsewhere in Italy, and with it, came a deeper understanding of the classical literary and historical past. Humanist writers like Leon Battista Alberti also expanded the use of Italian in this period by adopting it as the language for their dialogues and treatises. Alberti wrote his massive dialogue The Book of the Family in Tuscan Italian rather than Latin during the 1430s, and he circulated the work among educated Florentines. The Book of the Family presented a conversation between members of the Alberti family about the strategies that could best ensure a family’s survival, and it advised readers about ways to achieve marital harmony. It was practical concerns like those that Alberti demonstrated in this dialogue that most often dominated the humanists’ attentions at the time.

Importance of History

The study of history was also an area in which the humanists distinguished themselves. Leonardo Bruni, another of Florence’s humanist chancellors, ranks among the finest of Italy’s many fifteenth-century historians. In his History of the Florentine People, completed between 1415 and 1429, Bruni used his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history to debunk many long-standing myths about Florence’s and Europe’s history. His work defended republicanism as the best mode of government, against medieval notions that the monarchical Roman Empire was the supreme political achievement of the ancient world. Until Bruni’s time, legend had located Florence’s origins in the days of the Roman Empire. Bruni’s History of the Florentine People relied on documentary evidence to disprove those myths. He pushed back the city’s origins into the days of the Roman Republic, arguing that Florence’s greatness was a product of her republican past. Medieval thinkers had admired the Roman Empire because they believed that it had played a providential role in the establishment of Christianity in Europe. Bruni, by contrast, stressed that the earliest forms of governments in Greece and Rome had been republican, and these societies had valued the free debate and circulation of ideas. He established a link, in other words, between these free political systems and the cultural greatness of these ancient civilizations. The Roman emperors had destroyed these long-standing traditions of civic liberty, and in this process classical civilization itself had decayed. Thus by locating Florence’s founding within the Republic, Bruni aimed to prove that the city’s greatness was a product of its long fidelity to the traditions of civic liberty. At the same time Bruni was no modern democrat; most of his works reveal an essentially conservative political thinker. He accepted that aristocratic dominance was a necessary part of government, even in the government of a republic. It was natural for those who possessed greater wealth and status to have a greater say in a state’s government. He also defended imperial expansion, so long as a republic, and not a dictatorial empire conducted it. His histories celebrated Florence’s conquest of neighboring cities in Tuscany. Importantly, their popularity helped encouraged a new disciplined study of local history throughout Italy, even as they nurtured the republican sentiments of many Italians against the despotic princes who were growing more powerful at the time. Bruni’s works would eventually be read elsewhere in Europe, where they helped to establish history as an important humanist literary genre. Because of his disciplined reliance upon the sources, his revisionism, and his use of history to defend liberty, Bruni has sometimes been called “the first modern historian.”

Revival of Classical Latin

Bruni had located the cultural greatness of ancient Rome in the time of the Republic. At the same time as his histories were appearing, humanists were actively engaged in recovering and studying the literature and language of this period. While most humanists were concerned with recovering the entire classical heritage, they were often especially interested in the literature of the late Republic, the so-called “Golden Age” of classical Latin. In particular, they were fascinated by unearthed copies of the letters and other works of Cicero (d. 43 B.C.E.), who had been identified even in Antiquity as the finest master of the language. In Florence, two figures were particularly important in these attempts to recover classical texts: Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò de Niccoli. Through his letters to friends and associates, Niccoli tracked down the locations of many works and he purchased a number of these manuscripts for his personal library. Upon his death he left this collection to Florence, and his close friend Cosimo de’ Medici built facilities within the town’s Dominican monastery of San Marco so that scholars could study his library. Poggio Bracciolini surpassed even Niccoli’s exhaustive efforts. Besides conducting a voluminous correspondence to track down texts, he ransacked many German monastery libraries while he was serving as a Florentine delegate to the Council of Constance (1413-1417). Among the treasures that Bracciolini discovered were several unknown orations of Cicero as well as many works of history and philosophy in ancient Latin. As a result of his efforts, scholars studied the classical heritage more intently than ever before, and subjected antique Latin to critical scholarship. During the 1430s, for instance, Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) devoted his attentions to studying the language of classical texts. His research resulted in the foundation of a new discipline: philology. Valla discovered that languages changed and developed over time. Until Valla’s time, the humanists had tried to emulate the style of ancient writers intuitively. From Petrarch and Boccaccio’s time, humanist authors had labored to acquire a voluminous knowledge of Latin literature, and they had tried to write in a classical Latin style merely by pulling phrases and other literary devices from their reading. Valla warned his fellow humanists that Latin had changed greatly over time. One could not, for example, draw phrases and stylistic devices from texts that had been written several centuries apart. If a writer hoped to write in a classical Latin style, he must confine himself to imitating the works of a certain period. Like most fifteenth-century humanists, Valla preferred the Latin of the Golden Age, and in his Elegances of the Latin Language he guided his readers through the style, usage, and grammar that characterized the Latin of this period.


By the mid-fifteenth century humanist students were carefully learning the lessons that Lorenzo Valla had taught. They paid close attention to mastering the grammar and rhetoric of ancient Latin and many tried to emulate the elegant and polished style of ancient writers using the disciplined methods Valla had outlined. Valla himself had preferred the Latin of the ancient Roman Quintillian to Cicero, but later authors more often followed the example of Cicero. The Roman works of Horace, Livy, Ovid, and Vergil also provided important models. Among the many humanists who distinguished themselves as students of ancient style, Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) was acknowledged as the master. A precocious student, Poliziano had translated Homer’s Iliad into classical Latin verse by the time he was 19. The depth of his knowledge of Latin and Greek impressed Lorenzo de’ Medici, who became his patron and soon asked Poliziano to tutor his children. Poliziano developed an especially profound attachment to Giuliano Medici, who was murdered in the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478, an unsuccessful coup directed against the Medici. The family tutor wrote a vivid account of the event, one that was touching for its pathos. Eventually, Poliziano became a professor of rhetoric and poetry at the University of Florence, and in that position he published a study of texts that would have far-reaching impact. Poliziano’s Miscellanea was a collection of essays about certain problems in textual editing and interpretation. Humanist scholars had long been aware of many variations in the texts that they studied. Over the centuries, scribes had introduced errors into later manuscripts and medieval scholars had sometimes written variant forms of texts willfully to defend their own principles. Until Poliziano’s time, scholars had dealt with this problem intuitively. When faced with several variations in different manuscript versions, they had chosen the reading that seemed to fit with the style of the entire work. Poliziano showed that the use of intuition was insufficient, and his Miscellanea provided a method for establishing which manuscript version of a text was the oldest, and therefore, likely to be the most accurate. In his brief life Poliziano examined many variant versions of ancient texts in circulation, and the dates that he assigned to many of these manuscripts continue to be accepted even now. His most important contribution to Renaissance literary study, though, was his method, which became known as codicology. Codicology became in the following centuries an essential tool for philologists and historians, who used its critical methods to weed out erroneous texts and even to debunk forged manuscripts.

New Genres

The developments in the study of language that were occurring in Florence and elsewhere throughout Italy point to a growing literary sophistication, a sophistication that would produce an undeniable flowering of Italian poetry and prose in the later fifteenth century. Emboldened by their new knowledge of classical literature, authors from throughout Italy would revive ancient genres and develop new ones to express their ideas. They were supported in these endeavors by the princely patrons of the period. Literary achievement became an important marker of social distinction at the time, and Italy’s many princes encouraged inventiveness and experimentation in the authors they supported. Finally, the spread of the printing press in Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century helped stimulate the rise of new literary forms since it allowed writers and scholars to circulate numerous copies of both ancient texts and their own works more quickly than ever before. Writers, in other words, could imitate successful works in their own writing. Lyric poetry, pastoral literature, and chivalric romances were the most common literary forms favored by late fifteenth-century Italian writers. Most lyric poetry treated love, and would now be influenced by Petrarch’s Songbook, as well as the more thorough knowledge of ancient love poetry that had recently been acquired. In his Books of Love, for example, Matteo Maria Boiardo relied on Petrarch’s example as well as the ancient Roman poet to tell of the problems that his love for a young woman caused him. A similar sensibility about the pains of love shaped the Italian poetry of cultivated figures like Angelo Poliziano and Lorenzo de’ Medici. In Florence, the love poetry of these all figures would also be shaped by Neoplatonism, which downplayed the importance of erotic attraction, and instead stressed the intellectual character of love as a meeting of minds.


Poliziano and others also encouraged a new attention to an ancient literary form: the pastoral. In the fourteenth century Boccaccio had written pastoral poems that were set in the countryside and featured bucolic conversations between shepherds, sprites, and nymphs. He had been inspired to compose these poems after discovering the beautiful pastoral lyrics of the ancients, and he hoped his compositions would bring about a revival of the genre. His lead, however, was not followed until long after his death, as Poliziano and other late fifteenth-century writers now turned to champion pastoral imagery to give shape to their poems, plays, and novels. Pastoral literature often recounted tales of those who discovered wise and noble circles of shepherds and nymphs in the countryside. The genre expressed a nostalgic longing for the simpler pleasures of rural life. Poliziano set his Stanzas Begun for the Jousting Match of the Magnificent Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici (1478) within a pastoral setting, a classical landscape he placed around the city of Florence. In this country landscape he placed the love affair of his pupil, Piero de’ Medici and Simonetta Cattaneo. He mixed themes that he derived from his study of history, classical mythology, and the Bible. And his work was freely tinged with the Neoplatonism popular among Florentine humanists at the time. Poliziano’s shift to tales set in an idyllic rural setting was also symptomatic of the cultural transformations that were underway in Florence and other Italian cities in the second half of the fifteenth century. Before 1450, most of Florence’s humanists had favored issues of government and civic engagement in their philosophical and historical works. Or in their treatises they had outlined programs for the liberal arts, the revival of ancient rhetoric, and the development of eloquence as part of a philosophy designed to encourage men and women to virtuous living. After 1450, in Florence and somewhat later elsewhere in Italy, many humanists became disciples of Neoplatonism, a philosophical movement that favored meditation and a solitary life spent in the pursuit of individual perfection. These changes were also reflected in the architecture and art of the time. In the early part of the century great public monuments were constructed throughout the city of Florence, while later in the century, the town’s great families built new, private family palaces and country villas in the areas surrounding the town. These changes were occurring elsewhere in Italy, and in these imposing structures Italy’s reigning princes, nobles, and wealthy merchants achieved the privacy to cultivate the arts and their literary pursuits—recreations Neoplatonism advocated. The longing for the countryside and the isolation and simplicity of rural life then expressed in pastoral literature was yet another symptom of this shift toward privacy and inwardness. Eventually, these sensibilities became popular throughout Europe, and pastoral literature became one of the most widely read genres of the sixteenth century. In England, the taste for pastoral themes produced the famous rural scenes of Spenser’s Faerie Queene as well as the forest images of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


The most accomplished work of pastoral fiction to appear in late fifteenth-century Italy was Jacopo Sannazaro’sArcadia, which was first published in 1502. Sannazaro set his rural vision in a shepherd’s world, and he mixed poetry and prose together throughout the work. He recounts the tale of an autobiographical figure named Sincero, whose entrance into the idyllic Arcadia province of Greece becomes a vehicle for the author to consider the nature of poetry and art. Sincero is only gradually accepted into the company of shepherd poets he finds in this new world. The local shepherds share their wisdom, poetic skills, culture, and customs with him, but ultimately Sincero cannot be completely assimilated into their company. He leaves Arcadia and returns to Naples to find that his former love has died, and the poem ends with Sincero cursing his decision to leave the peaceful tranquility he had once experienced in Greece. The return to his native world has exposed him to the sorrow attendant upon all human attachments. The outlines of this plot, with its story of a wayfarer who learns poetic wisdom in a peaceful Paradise, would often be repeated in later pastorals.

Chivalric Romance

In another genre known as chivalric romance, writers forged together influences from many different literary traditions and periods, including works drawn from the classical period, the Middle Ages, and the more recent Renaissance. During the 1480s and 1490s Matteo Boiardo (1441-1494) published his Orlando innamorato or Orlando in Love, a masterpiece of chivalric romance. Boiardo was a member of the brilliant D’Este court at Ferrara, a place in which a cultivated knowledge of literature and history was prized. His story drew upon Carolingian history and Arthurian legends, medieval romances, and the literature of courtly love. The epic poem recounts the life and deeds of Roland, the nephew of the emperor Charlemagne, and of Roland’s love for the Saracen Princess Angelica. The plot is complex, involving numerous twists of fate that keep Roland apart from his Lady. But in the process of relating the complex tale, Boiardo transforms the rude and rough manners of the Carolingians into a courtly culture similar to the D’Este. While acknowledged as a masterpiece, the work was left incomplete at the author’s death. In the sixteenth century the brilliant poet Lodovico Ariosto continued the poem, carrying the story to its conclusion as Orlando furioso or Mad Roland. Over time, Ariosto’s Furioso enjoyed an even wider fame than the original that inspired it. Another chivalric romance, Il Morgante (1483) by Luigi Pulci, reveals a similar tendency to merge literary traditions drawn from the classical and medieval periods. Pulci was a member of the cultivated circle that surrounded the Medici family in late fifteenth-century Florence. His subject matter is similar to Boiardo’s Roland in Love; his tale relates, in other words, events at the court of Charlemagne. While the tale is epic in proportion and complexity, Pulci lightens his story by narrating the tale from the perspective of the mock hero and giant Morgante. Along the way, the ponderous action is punctuated with many comic episodes. In France, the novelist François Rabelais read Pulci’s work and relied upon it as one source of inspiration for his comic novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel.


During the fifteenth century Italy’s literary figures moved to assimilate fully the traditions of classical Antiquity. At the beginning of the century, humanist writers, particularly in the city of Florence, devoted themselves to the study of history and to writing philosophical works that dealt with the ethics of government and an active life in society. By mid-century, though, new styles and fashions had helped to inspire a taste for Neoplatonism. In art, architecture, and literature, Italy’s cultivated elites expressed a fondness for privacy and inward contemplation. In literature especially, these new sensibilities produced a number of new genres. Through these new literary forms Italy’s literati demonstrated their intense classical learning, their mastery of rhetoric and stylistic devices, and their sheer imaginative inventiveness.

The High and Later Renaissance

The Stylish Style

At the very end of the fifteenth century the artistic and literary achievements of Italy reached their apex in the movement known as the High Renaissance. In art, an impressive merger of the knowledge of classical art and technical brilliance produced the serenely beautiful works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Raphael Sanzio. In the visual arts this High Renaissance synthesis emphasized classical proportions, balance, naturalism, rationality, and harmony. These accomplishments began with Leonardo’s Baptism of Christ and Annunciation in the 1480s and concluded with Raphael’s frescoes in the papal apartments in the Vatican and the early stages of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling paintings. By 1520, the High Renaissance style, which had been favored for only a generation, was already beginning to give way. By that time, Michelangelo was the sole surviving genius of the movement, and he was moving to develop a new style that would become known as Mannerism. Mannerism has often been called the “stylish style,” because it was often exaggerated and contorted and its spirit was tenser and more disturbed than the peaceful, harmonious compositions of the High Renaissance. Mannerism survived into the later sixteenth century and affected artists throughout Europe. At the same time Mannerism was also symptomatic of more general cultural trends in the age. In literature, we can see the development of a similar “stylish style” occurring in Italy around the same time. These changes resulted, in part, from the rise of refined court culture throughout Italy. Many of the peninsula’s finest sixteenth-century authors lived and worked in this new refined environment. Members of a court, or courtiers for short, were expected to have mastered the Renaissance ideal of universality; that is, they were to have achieved competence in many different areas of endeavor. In literature, the refined courtier was expected to display a cultivated knowledge of classical literature, mythology, and the ancient rhetorical forms. Writing was also conceived of as a craft, and every refined courtier was expected to be able to write at least a passable sonnet or an elegant letter. The distinguishing signs of literary genius consequently shifted in this period to prize ingenuity and invention as signs of individuality. In the visual arts, the rise of this heightened sense of individuality extended the boundaries of preexisting styles and genres. So, too, did writers strive to display their unique character, their refinement, and their individuality to their readers.


Another value that was prized in the court culture of Italy at this time was known as sprezzatura. It can best be described as grace under pressure. To demonstrate sprezzatura, a courtier was expected to undertake difficult tasks—whether they be in writing, acrobatics, or horsemanship—and to perform them with an effortless ease. For writers, achieving sprezzatura often meant the ability to write about difficult themes and subjects in ways that seemed artless. In practice, reaching this goal sometimes proved beyond many writers’ skills. At its best, the fashion for displaying one’ssprezzatura produced stunning and original literary creations, but at its worst, it resulted in literature that could be overwrought, obscure, and merely difficult to understand.

Book of the Courtier

Nowhere can the emerging values of late Renaissance court culture be observed more brilliantly than in the Book of the Courtier, a work begun by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) around 1510. Castiglione was a nobleman who was related to the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua. In his youth he enjoyed the best education available in Italy and when he reached maturity he served as a diplomat in the courts of the dukes of Mantua and Urbino as well as in the papal government. He knew the life of a courtier firsthand, and in his guide to court life he tried to encapsulate the perfect mix of qualities necessary for someone to survive and prosper in this environment. The Book of the Courtier is written in dialogue form, a genre that the humanists had favored since the fourteenth century. The conversation it relates is set within the court at Urbino in Northern Italy, reputedly one of the most elegant and refined in sixteenth-century Europe. The text is divided into four books, each treating a different dimension of the ideal courtier. The portrait that emerges from the dialogue is complex and multi-faceted. The ideal courtier must be of noble birth, skilled in the arts of war, but at the same time a master of all the liberal arts. His outward appearance must be pleasing, and in his speech and all his behavior he should be moderate and avoid any affectation. He must be a good conversationalist, witty, and able to crack a good joke. And since he serves as an adviser to a prince, he must always speak the truth. In this way, he can gain the trust and admiration of his lord, and having done so, he should speak his mind freely to prevent his master from erring. The Courtier also deals extensively with the role of the court lady, and the participants in the discussion at Urbino are similarly idealistic about this figure. While she should have many of the same qualities as her male counterparts, she must also cultivate discretion, generosity, grace, and purity. To this list, Castiglione also adds likability, liveliness, and a kind nature. Importantly, he supports women’s education and argues through his courtiers’ conversations that women are in many cases the intellectual equals of men. But in these discussions of women’s capabilities, the female members of the Urbino court only rarely contribute to the dialogue.


The impact of Castiglione’s work was two-fold. Written in an elegant Italian, The Book of the Courtier’s style was imitated by Italian writers in the decades that followed its publication. More importantly, though, Castiglione championed an ideal of a truly liberal and wide-ranging education for those who participated in court life. In Italy, the standards of behavior and intellectual life had risen in these societies during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Elsewhere in Europe, though, court life often remained rude and unsophisticated, and many courtiers at the dawn of the sixteenth century, particularly in Northern Europe, were illiterate. Castiglione’s work championed a higher standard of education and conduct. Although it has often been criticized for placing too much emphasis on outward appearances, it did have a civilizing effect on courts throughout Europe. It was widely published throughout Italy in the sixteenth century, and was soon translated into Spanish, French, English, and Latin. In Northern Europe, it inspired an entire genre of conduct books. And in England, as wealthy but non-aristocratic gentry came to play a more dynamic role in the political life of the country in the seventeenth century, “gentlemen’s books” promoted an ideal of civilized behavior similar to Castiglione among members of this rising class. In short, Castiglione’s work proved to be an important chapter in what some historians have called the “tilt toward civility” in early-modern Europe.


Questions of style took on renewed importance in another area of sixteenth-century literary life, this time concerning issues of rhetoric. During the fifteenth century the humanist campaign to emulate the classical Latin of the ancients had focused on recovering the language of the “Golden Age,” that era believed to encompass roughly the century before and after the birth of Christ. Most scholars had insisted that Cicero represented the best model for prose, while for poetry they had usually turned to Vergil or Ovid as models. Lorenzo Valla had been a dissenting voice in the early debate over Latin style, as had the prolific Latinist Angelo Poliziano. In a famous letter to one Ciceronian disciple, Poliziano had pronounced “I am not Cicero; I express myself.” Still, the example of Cicero prevailed. In the early sixteenth century the issue of which Latin style should be emulated took on renewed and now heated importance among the humanists. In 1513, Pietro Bembo, a philologist and literary theorist, defended the principle of literary imitation in a highly influential treatise written against those who attacked over-dependence on Cicero’s model. Bembo showed that only by emulating a single example could an author hope to produce a work in a unified style. Imitation, in other words, was not stifling to creativity, but it allowed authors to achieve a unified voice that they could use to express their own individuality. Like many before him, Bembo promoted Cicero as the best model for Latin prose and Vergil for Latin poetry. At the same time that he was at work on his defense of Cicero and Vergil, Bembo devoted his attentions to literary Italian, too. Like many, he realized that Italian would eventually triumph as a mode of written expression over Latin. In his Prose Bembo considered what form written Italian should take. Should literary Italian emulate the fourteenth-century Tuscan works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio? Should writers adopt the language of the Italian court? Or should they aim to express themselves in a generalized form of the language that everyone might understand? Bembo debated these questions and advised authors again to adopt the principle of literary imitation. For poetry, he insisted Petrarch’s fourteenth-century Italian provided the best model, while for prose, Boccaccio was the best source for emulation. Bembo’s many disciples followed his advice, and imitated the already archaic forms of Italian written by Petrarch and Boccaccio. The style that Bembo outlined in his Prose quickly became known in colorful Italian as “Bembismo,” or “in the manner advocated by Bembo.” Characteristics of Bembismo included complex turns of phrase, veiled meanings, and finely carved and chiseled lines, all of which writers in this vein saw as an attempt to revive the literary Italian of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Poetry and prose written in the style that Bembo advocated was often beautiful to the ear, but its critics charged that it was overly difficult and precocious as a literary language. But over time, Bembo’s position would triumph. The long-term consequence of his support of the archaic usage of Petrarch and Boccaccio would mean that literary Italian tended to diverge increasingly from spoken forms of the language.


Bembo’s victories in defining Latin and Italian style did not go unquestioned. In Northern Europe the humanist Desiderius Erasmus was widely recognized as the best Latinist of the age. On his travels to Italy, Erasmus had wearied of the devotion to Cicero that he found among scholars there, and he had been horrified to learn of the path taken by one of his Dutch countrymen, Christophe Longueil. With Bembo’s encouragement, Longueil had dedicated himself to becoming a kind of living Cicero. In 1528, Erasmus published a bitter satire of Longueil and the Italian Ciceronians entitled The Ciceronian. The central character of this dialogue is Nosoponus, a pedant, who is cured of his disease of Ciceronianism through the ministrations of Bulephorus, the character in the dialogue that represents Erasmus’s point of view. Throughout The Ciceronian Erasmus attacked the notion that Cicero’s language could be an appropriate vehicle for communicating the very different circumstances of sixteenth-century European life. As the battle raged over literary Italian, other authors expressed their disapproval. In Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli, an important literary figure as well as political theorist, advocated that contemporary Florence’s language should be the basis for literary Italian, and he dismissed Bembo’s attempts to revive the archaic form of the language written by Boccaccio and Petrarch. Baldassare Castiglione, a champion of yet a third perspective, advocated the use of the language of Italian courts because it made free use of words drawn from many Italian dialects and even incorporated words from non-Italian languages.


The imitation of Petrarch’s poetry advocated by Pietro Bembo in his Prose also gave rise in Italy to a poetic movement known as Petrarchism. In the course of the sixteenth century Petrarchism became truly international, spreading to almost every corner of Europe. Among those who wrote poetry in the style of Petrarch were the Italians Baldassare Castiglione, Vittoria Colonna, and Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Frenchman Pierre de Ronsard, and the English poets Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare. At its best, Petrarchism’s emulation of the language and style of the fourteenth-century poet produced many beautiful lyrics. In his Songbook Petrarch had written mostly in the sonnet form which, because of its relatively few lines and tightly controlled scope, was a suitable candidate for mimicry. But in the hands of lesser artists and amateur poets the fashion for Petrarch would also produce much mediocre verse.


In the sixteenth century Italian humanists continued to nourish their fascination for local history. Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) produced notable works in this genre that treated the history of their native Florence. In his History of Florence Machiavelli used the past as a mirror to support his republican political assumptions. He drew heavily upon older works, including those of Leonardo Bruni. Bruni had drawn strong links between republicanism and human creativity, and Machiavelli, too, used history to confirm such assumptions. At the same time he believed that the past repeated itself in cyclical patterns. Thus the astute observer could hope to predict coming events through a thorough knowledge of history. As in his Prince, Machiavelli’s Florentine history also celebrated the virtues of the ancient Romans of the Republic. He found the valor they displayed sorely missing among contemporary Italians. Through his writing of history he hoped to reinvigorate this spirit among his readers, encouraging them to emulate Roman virtues. Machiavelli was a writer of unusual brilliance, creativity, and verve. After 1512 he lived in exile from government in Florence. During this time writing proved both a solace and a tangible means of support. He wrote in a colloquial Florentine Italian different from the highly stylized forms favored by other Italians. His use of the contemporary spoken language distinguished his writing and probably enhanced its popularity. Like many of Machiavelli’s literary endeavors, the ideas contained in his History of Florence were neither new nor particularly insightful. His historical writing fit with his political philosophy, which favored both strong republican government when possible, and dictatorship when necessary to serve the common good. The strength of Machiavelli’s history and the admiration that it drew resulted primarily from its literary style which, like most of Machiavelli’s works, was clear, forceful, and capable of inspiring readers through its immediacy.


The Florentine statesman Francesco Guicciardini, on the other hand, was more sophisticated as an historian. He has long been seen, in fact, as the greatest historian of the Renaissance. In his Florentine History he wrote in the same contemporary Florentine Italian that Machiavelli had used, but he relied more heavily upon documentary evidence than Machiavelli had. In fact, before the modern world few historians evidenced a dedication to the documents deeper than Guicciardini’s. His narrative covered the period of Florence’s history from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. It retold events clearly and evaluated the actions of the key players in Florence’s government fairly. Guicciardini was not content merely to construct this history on the basis of past works, or documents he had seen while working on behalf of the state. Instead, as a member of Florence’s government, he gained access to the city’s secret files. At one point he even moved the city’s wartime archives to his villa, where he carefully combed through thousands of documents. As a result, he constructed a relatively unbiased picture of this decisive period in the city’s past. His efforts anticipated the development of historical objectivity pioneered by the great German historian Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century. The results of this research produced a history that was more thorough and objective than Machiavelli’s, but one that was sometimes ponderous and slow reading. It was also no more optimistic in its conclusions than Machiavelli’s had been. Like Machiavelli, Guicciardini was pessimistic about the course of Florence’s development and about its citizenry’s moral virtues. He presented the period following the death of the capable Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492 as a story of persistent decline in the city’s fortunes.


One of the most unusual of Italy’s sixteenth-century literati was Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), a native of the city of Arezzo near Florence. Aretino was the son of a shoemaker, but despite his humble origins and little formal schooling, he rose to play a role on the literary and political scene in Rome, and later in Venice. Above all, Aretino was a satirist, and the defamatory letters that he circulated about candidates for the papacy in 1523 influenced the election of Giulio de’ Medici to the office. In his years in Rome, Aretino wrote pornography and used literal “blackmail” to extort money from the city’s powerful. He threatened to expose the hypocrisy of these figures in published letters if they did not pay him off. Eventually, Aretino’s intrigues forced him to flee Rome, and he wandered through Italy for a time before finding a home in Venice. There he wrote for the popular press, but he also produced a remarkable range of literary works. These included sonnets, plays, mock predictions, dialogues, and even biographies of saints known as hagiographies. His satires mocked the rich and the powerful as well as contemporary trends in the arts and learning, including Petrarchism and Neoplatonism. Aretino’s greatest achievement, though, was the publication of his correspondence. He became the first Renaissance figure to publish his letters in Italian, and the witty and sometimes salacious contents of these letters inspired a fashion for the great and near-great to publish gossipy correspondence. These documents show Aretino advising princes, cursing his enemies, and holding forth on subjects in literary and artistic criticism. Together with Venice’s famous painter, Titian, and the architect, Jacopo Sansovino, Aretino formed a kind of triumvirate that judged artistic taste in the city. Aretino’s chief goal in life seems always to have been to tend his own fame, and in this profession, he was an astute master. He realized many of the promotional opportunities that the printing press offered and he used these to his advantage to become one of Europe’s first modern celebrities.


The last major literary genius the Italian Renaissance produced was Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). His life and work show the influence that the increasingly puritanical tastes of the Counter Reformation produced upon literary fashions in the second half of the sixteenth century. Tasso was born in Sorrento near the city of Naples in Southern Italy, where his father Bernardo served as a courtier to the Baron of Salerno. Bernardo’s opposition to the establishment of the Inquisition in nearby Naples forced his departure from that position. During the 1550s, Torquato traveled with his father, who had to take a series of insecure court positions in Northern and Central Italy to support the family. While on these travels, Tasso acquired an excellent education, but he also became familiar with the uncertainties that could plague a courtier’s life if he failed to please his prince. In 1560, he entered the University of Padua, where his father wanted him to pursue a legal career that would free him from the need to secure literary patronage. Young Tasso, though, preferred poetry and philosophy to the law, and in these years, he began some of the poems that eventually established his fame. He began the chief of these works, Jerusalemme liberata or Jerusalem Delivered, at this time, although he did not finish it until many years later. He conceived the poem as a chivalric epic similar to those of Ariosto, Boiardo, and Pulci. Its tastes, though, were more moral and religiously profound than these earlier works. While Tasso did not completely abandon the complex plot twists, eroticism, or adventure of the chivalric romance, he sublimated these features to the higher themes of love and heroic valor. Completing Jerusalem Delivered, though, proved to be a lifelong, tortuous task. After leaving university, Tasso received patronage from a wealthy and influential cardinal. He had few duties except to write and amuse the cardinal’s court in the city of Ferrara. In this environment Tasso circulated his poems, realizing that his works might cause offense in the heightened moral climate of the day. Over time, Tasso grew suspicious of his critics, and he feared that he would be denounced to the Inquisition. He went to confess his wrongdoings to the body when he had not even been summoned. Eventually, he stabbed a household servant whom he suspected of spying on him and he fled Ferrara. He left behind his manuscripts for Jerusalem Delivered and spent several years wandering through Italy. Later he returned to Ferrara where he denounced his former patrons, who imprisoned him, believing him to be mad. After seven years spent in an asylum, Tasso was finally released and had his writings returned to him. He regained his sanity and completed his masterpiece. His exaggerated, often paranoid fears of being persecuted by the Inquisition colored Jerusalem Delivered, and Tasso seems to have practiced a thorough self-censorship to avoid giving offense. Nevertheless, in his capable hands he still raised the chivalric tale he told to the level of high art.

The Northern Renaissance

Spread of Humanism

In the final quarter of the fifteenth century humanism’s influence began to spread beyond Italy, into France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and England. The timing of the arrival of this New Learning differed from place to place. In most countries pockets of scholars active in the first half of the fifteenth century had tried to revive ancient Latin grammar and rhetoric and to imitate the ancients’ style in their work. Many of these proto-humanists were teachers, and their interests nourished in their students a hunger to learn about the studia humanitatis. By the 1460s and 1470s, an increasing number of northern European scholars journeyed to Italy to learn firsthand about the Italians’ textual scholarship and their historical discoveries. As these figures began to return home, they frequently faced resistance from more traditional faculties in the universities. By 1500, though, the dogged persistence of this first generation of humanists had paid off and the movement was now established in many places outside Italy. As humanism matured in the sixteenth century, it helped to inspire a literary Renaissance. Inspired by the study of the classics, humanist scholars labored to revive ancient Latin and to reinvigorate their own native literary traditions. Their efforts resulted in a brilliant flowering of poetry and prose in sixteenth-century Europe.


Latin had long been the lingua franca of Europe, a shared language that had allowed literate people from every corner of the continent to communicate with each other. During the Middle Ages the language had never ceased growing, as theologians, philosophers, and government officials had constantly coined new terms and phrases in Latin to fit changing realities. Over the centuries, the native languages spoken in Europe had influenced medieval Latin, as writers often latinized terms drawn from their own spoken vocabulary. But Latin’s influence on the development of the vernacular languages—that is, on French, German, English, and the other languages spoken in Europe—was even greater. As these native languages developed more and more into literary languages in the later Middle Ages, Latin provided a constant well from which writers drew words and phrases that had no equivalent in their own tongue. By contrast, the Renaissance humanists bypassed medieval Latin and worked to revive the language of ancient Rome, a Latin that differed enormously from the many medieval forms in use throughout Europe. Ancient Latin was an extremely precise language with a rich vocabulary and a complex and highly structured grammar. Latin now had to be mastered as a foreign language and it required years of instruction and practice to become fluent. Sixteenth-century intellectuals proved more than equal to this task. During this period more Latin literature would be written in Europe than at any other time in history, and while many works were of a mediocre quality, much of this writing was also distinguished by its technical brilliance and learning. The roll call of distinguished Latinists included Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More, Juan Luis Vives, Philipp Melanchthon, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Michel de Montaigne. Many Latin writers translated or arranged to have their works translated into vernacular languages, and in this process classical Latin enriched the style and vocabulary of the vernacular languages, as medieval Latin had once done. There were few signs of any decline in Latin’s importance throughout the sixteenth century. The period was instead a great autumn harvest in the uses of Latin. Most intellectuals were bilingual, and while the language was used for every kind of writing, its precision and literary sophistication were seen as absolutely essential to those who wished to discuss theological, scholarly, or technical issues in their writing.

Vernacular Languages

At the same time as the revival of classical Latin was occurring throughout Europe, the continent’s rich variety of spoken dialects were more and more coalescing into the forms we recognize today as modern national languages. Spoken dialects persisted in European countries until modern times, and the gulf between many of these spoken dialects and the national written language continues even now to be enormous. Yet by the end of the Middle Ages, vernacular French, German, English, Italian, and Spanish began to challenge Latin’s dominance as a literary language. At least three factors had stimulated the development of these languages as written forms of expression. First, in the high Middle Ages Europe’s aristocracy had evidenced a taste for chivalric themes and epic literature written in their own languages. The literary traditions that had been born in this period—epic poetry, chivalric romances, and ballads, to name just a few—continued to live on in the later Middle Ages. The language used to retell these tales was the vernacular, a written approximation of the spoken dialect of a region. Government was a second force that stimulated the rise of the vernacular. By the end of the Middle Ages, government documents, court records, and wills were being kept in many parts of Europe in native languages rather than Latin. These practical uses created a demand for notaries, secretaries, and other officials who were trained in both Latin and the native language. Governmental usage helped elevate the importance of the vernacular language, which had long been seen as a form of expression inferior to Latin. The final factor that aided the rise of vernacular languages was the invention of the printing press. In the first generation of the press, most printers devoted their attentions to printing copies of ancient classics, theological works, and other texts useful to scholars, typically published in Latin. Though less common, vernacular works printed during this early period of the development of the press resulted in the circulation of hundreds of copies, influencing later writers to adopt the vernacular. The press, moreover, played an important role in standardizing the form of the national languages. In Germany, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped establish the reformer’s own Saxon German as the dialect many later German writers preferred. In England, the publication of the Great English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer played similar roles in standardizing English. While great regional variations in usage and vocabulary persisted in written forms of the national languages, the economies of printing tended to fix the style, vocabulary, and spelling of the early-modern national languages. Authors and printers concerned with maximizing their earnings favored the emerging standard forms of English, French, and German used in the press at the expense of other regional dialects. In adopting these standard vernacular forms their works could be read by the broadest possible audience.

French Language

The French language possessed the longest literary tradition of all the vernacular languages of Europe and its influence spread across a great area of the continent. As a result of the Norman Conquest, French had been established in Britain, where it shaped the development of Middle English. Even in the sixteenth century, many of the English and Scottish aristocracy continued to write and speak French rather than the native languages of their countries. French was also a language used in diplomacy in Northern Europe, and it was spoken in parts of Flanders (a province of modern Belgium), in Burgundy (an important duchy located between France and Germany), and in regions of Germany and Switzerland. Thus a large portion of Northern Europe was French-speaking in the later Middle Ages, although there were considerable regional variations in the language. Over the course of the sixteenth century these differences diminished within France itself, in part because of a royal edict of 1539 requiring all court proceedings within France to be conducted in the French language. This decision sounded the death knell for Provencal, a widely spoken and written form of French in the southern part of the country. Now attorneys, judges, and royal officials needed to adopt the northern French dialect favored by the royal government.

Literary Traditions

Medieval French authors had written a vast body of lyric poetry, historical chronicles, epics, and romances. In the course of the sixteenth century Renaissance humanism affected these older literary traditions, in most cases causing writers to abandon the older genres in favor of new classical forms. Enlivened by these classical examples, writers produced some of the language’s finest poetry, and in the works of François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne, France made two undeniably great prose contributions to world literature.

Influence of Erasmus

Literary achievement, though, was far from the minds of the first French thinkers to develop their skills as humanist scholars. Instead religious issues stimulated the growth of humanist studies, as France’s first humanists aligned themselves with the movement because of its support of Christian reform. The example of Erasmus was particularly important to many of France’s early humanists. In his many satires Erasmus had mocked the sterile theology taught by scholastic theologians in the universities. Erasmus had acquired this distaste for traditional theology, in fact, while he was a student at the University of Paris during the 1490s. As his ideas developed in the first decade of the sixteenth century, he promoted a revival of primitive Christianity as the only sure way to enliven the reform of the church. Guillaume Budé (1467-1540) and other early French humanists took interest in these ideas and they became avid students of Greek and Latin so they could deepen their understanding of the scriptures and the early history of the church. This sure and certain understanding of primitive Christianity, though, could not be achieved without a thorough knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics. And so, like Erasmus, many French humanists argued that classical eloquence and ancient moral philosophy could play a role in helping to shape the reform of the church. Budé, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, and other French humanists of this first generation developed this form of “Christian humanism” during the first decades of the sixteenth century.

Initial Literary Developments

Humanism’s impact on literary developments in France was already evident by the 1530s. At this time the first generation of Renaissance fictional writers and poets relied on the critique of the church and of medieval traditions that humanist philosophers like Erasmus, Budé, and Lefèvre d’Étaples had developed. Three figures stand out in this early period of the French Renaissance: François Rabelais, Marguerite of Navarre, and Clément Marot. Of the three, François Rabelais (1494-1553) was the undisputed genius. In two novels, Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534), he wove together fantastic comic tales about a race of giants into an enormous tapestry that attacked traditional medieval religious life and learning. He had developed his disdain for the monastic life firsthand. In his youth he had been a member of a Franciscan monastery. There, Rabelais frequently came to logger-heads with his superiors, and he soon left the convent to join a more liberal group of Benedictines. Eventually, he left the religious life altogether to pursue his classical studies and to complete a medical degree. Rabelais promoted his Gargantua and Pantagruel as mere trivialities he had created to lighten the sufferings of his sick patients. While the two books contain much buffoonery and grotesque humor, a deeply serious vein runs through these comic tales. Their satire mocks contemporary hypocrisy, popular superstitions, and religious intolerance, faults that Rabelais saw as being in abundant supply during his times. Beyond his Christian humanism, Rabelais did not subscribe to a set of religious orthodoxies or to a single philosophical perspective in his work. Instead he preached the enjoyment of life, the value of study, and a tolerant understanding of human foibles and shortcomings. Rabelais wrote two more installments to the series in the 1540s, and in these he stepped beyond the stylistic confines of the medieval chivalric epic in which he had begun the tales. He moved to develop instead a classical heroic narrative that was more consonant with the story’s underlying humanist ideology. Throughout the entire series, though, the tales were freely tinged with a frank and open sexuality, a great deal of coarse and scatological humor, and the language of the street. These factors helped to stimulate their enormous popularity, which was immediate and stretched far beyond France. Rabelais’ works were translated into other European languages, and eventually influenced Cervantes’ Don Quixote in seventeenth-century Spain as well as novel writers in eighteenth-century England and France. At home, though, the scholastic theology that litter the tales were not fondly received by the theologians of the University of Paris, who routinely condemned Rabelais’ works as subversive.

Marot and Marguerite of Navarre

Christian humanist and Protestant ideas shaped the poetic works of Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549) and Clément Marot (1496-1544). Marguerite of Navarre was one of the most brilliantly educated women of the sixteenth century. She was the sister of King Francis I of France and, following her first husband’s death, she married the King of Navarre, a small but important kingdom between Spain and France. Marguerite’s interests were wide-ranging, and included Neoplatonic philosophy and the cause of church reform. While she remained outwardly loyal to Rome, her court harbored a number of Protestants, and those suspected of Protestant sympathies. She was a prolific writer, although most of her works were not published during her lifetime. In many of these she develops a consistent theme, first outlined in the Mirror of the Sinful Soul. In that long work she describes the soul as constantly in danger from temptation, but still moving along toward the path of salvation. Many of Marguerite’s poems were allegories that described her own religious turmoil and the consolation she received from Christ. She modeled her greatest work of fiction, the Heptameron, on Boccaccio’s Decameron. In it, a flood traps a group of ten French noble men and women. While they wait to be rescued, they tell tales to pass the time. After each of these, the group considers the moral message of the fable. Like Rabelais, Marguerite’s tales are often marked by a frank sexuality, which caused some scholars to discount its value. More recent examinations of the Heptameron have shown that it is filled with dynamic female characters, complex observations, and a subtle morality. For a time Marguerite of Navarre was also patron of Clément Marot, a figure that influenced much later sixteenth-century French verse. Marot fell under suspicion of Protestant sympathies at more than one point in his life, and his persecution became the subject for several of his poems. When he was not yet thirty, he abandoned the traditional medieval style of verse that he had used until that point, and adopted a lighter and more elegant style. At Marguerite of Navarre’s urging, he translated the Old Testament Psalms into French verse, and these soon became wildly popular. They were used at the royal court and adopted by congregations of French Protestants. During the sixteenth century French presses published more than 500 editions of Marot’s poetic versions of the Psalms, even though the theological faculty at the University of Paris had condemned them. Fears about his religious orthodoxy forced Marot into exile later in his life, and he died in the Northern Italian city of Turin. Importantly, Marot became the first French poet to learn of the Italian movement of Petrarchism, the imitation of Petrarch’s style. He wrote the first sonnet in the French language, and his other verses, which included a number of short poems and epigrams, influenced poets in the second half of the sixteenth century.

The Pleiades

Around 1550, a group of seven poets known as the Pleiades self-consciously tried to separate themselves from France’s medieval traditions of verse. In the place of native verse forms, they adopted a strictly classicizing style based on poetic models found in Greek and Roman literature. The group took its name from the heavenly constellation, which according to Greek myth had been formed to immortalize the memories of seven great poets. The Pleiades rejected France’s medieval poetry as barbaric, and instead they wanted to endow literary French with the same kind of elegance that was to be found in the works of Homer, Vergil, Horace, and other ancient figures. They fashioned the manifesto for the movement after Joachim Du Bellay’s treatise Defense and Illustration of the French Language, which he published in 1549 along with thirteen odes written in the style of Horace. Du Bellay’s friend Pierre de Ronsard soon followed with the publication of a much larger collection of odes, and over the course of the next two decades the other members of the Pleiades worked to perfect classical style in French verse. Around 1570, the movement began to die out as fashions changed. By this time the members of the Pleiades had succeeded in introducing a number of ancient poetic forms into French verse, and writers continued to return to many of these forms during the early-modern and modern periods.


In the final decades of the sixteenth century religious wars broke out in France. As the disruptions of these conflicts grew, the dream of reviving a classical Golden Age seemed increasingly unrealistic. Now Renaissance writers experimented with more personal styles, making many of their works difficult to classify within the existing French or the newly adopted classical genres. Such is the case with the greatest author of the period, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). He was at one and the same time a classical humanist of distinction, a critical and literary theorist, a political philosopher, and a skeptical figure of some subtlety (see Philosophy: Trends in Sixteenth Century Thought: Montaigne). Disgusted by the violence and intolerance that was becoming increasingly common in France, Montaigne retired from public life to his country chateau when he was not yet forty. For the rest of his life he devoted himself to his Essays, a collection of internal thoughts, debates, and trials of ideas which he recorded and expanded upon over a number of years. From his earliest youth Montaigne had been trained in the traditions of Renaissance humanism and he had grown up speaking classical Latin. While his mastery of that language was prodigious, he chose to write his Essays in French, a sign of the growing dominance of the language among writers in sixteenth-century France. The beauty of his style, his depth of classical knowledge, and the fine literary distinctions he made in recording his thoughts and feelings expanded the boundaries of literary French even farther. They would also make the Essays one of the milestones in the history of the language. As the sixteenth century drew to a close, Montaigne’s Essays came in their final form to reflect the increasingly pessimistic cast of the humanist movement in France. The century had opened in high optimism, as a new generation of scholars like Budé had seen in the imitation of classical Antiquity a force that would revitalize morality and reform Christianity. Inspired by Erasmus and other Christian humanists, French humanists had labored to revive the antique ideal of eloquence in speaking and writing. But now as religious intolerance and violence punctuated the final years of the sixteenth century, figures like Montaigne questioned the civilizing effects of these efforts. “Between ourselves,” he wrote, “these are the things that I have always seen to be in remarkable agreement: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.”

Spanish Language

In Spain, Renaissance humanism did not produce the great flowering of Latin works that the movement did elsewhere in Northern Europe and Italy. In the second half of the fifteenth century the humanist Antonio de Nebrija helped to establish the study of classical Latin in Spain by publishing a textbook about the language in 1481. Queen Isabella of Castile soon encouraged Nebrija to translate the work into Spanish so that a wider audience could study his text. By 1500, small groups of Spanish humanists wrote literature in a revived classical Latin, and some of these scholars worked on the great Polyglot Bible project that began at the University of Alcala in 1506. But Spanish humanists wrote largely in their own language, and despite the intensely orthodox character of religious life in Spain at the time, they adopted many of the ethical and moral teachings that humanists did elsewhere in Europe. Erasmus was a key figure in the Spanish Renaissance—so key, in fact, that humanism came to be known in parts of Iberia as Erasmianism. As elsewhere in Europe, written Spanish was being standardized during the sixteenth century, its vocabulary, spelling, and phonetic structure acquiring its modern elements. In the creation of this national language, the Castilian dialect grew to be dominant. The expansion of Castilian hastened in the sixteenth century as the union of Castile and Aragon that had first been forged by the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella grew tighter over time. Like France, Spain had a distinguished medieval tradition of chivalric romances, epic poetry, and love lyrics. In the course of the sixteenth century, these native traditions would be influenced by Petrarchism, which popularized the writing of sonnets, and by the revival of knowledge of ancient poetry.

The Novel

In the writing of novels, the sixteenth century in Spain was a distinguished prelude to the Golden Age of Spanish literature in the seventeenth century. As in France, the traditions of chivalric romance had been strong in medieval Spain. Novels about knightly love affairs formed a widely popular genre in Renaissance Spain. The most successful of these was Amadis de Gaula, a tale which had been written by several authors before being given its final form by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and published in 1508. Amadis recounted the tale of an idealized knight and his love for an equally idealized lady. The success of the work gave rise to an entire genre of knightly romance in which military figures embodied Christian virtues. But by the end of the sixteenth century, the popularity of these tales had begun to wane in favor of new kinds of fiction. Tragicomedy, as evidenced in the success of Spain’s greatest sixteenth-century novel La Celestina, also attracted new readers. Published in 1502, Fernando de Rojas’s great masterpiece relates in dialogue form the love interests of the noble Calisto, who tries to seduce the lovely, but lowborn woman Melibea. She rebuffs his advances, and Calisto, offended by this assault to his honor, appeals to the sorceress Celestina for aid. After many twists and turns, the novel ends uncharacteristically with Celestina’s gruesome murder, the accidental death of Calisto, and the suicide of the de-flowered Melibea. The picaresque novel was another important form of fiction that emerged in sixteenth-century Spain. Instead of recounting the heroic deeds of great lovers or knights errant, these stories treated society’s downtrodden and outcasts. These novels are notable for their moral ambiguity since their heroes are, in reality, anti-heroes. Vagabonds, thieves, and other deviants populate the pages of these works, and writers often used the genre to satirize society’s absurdities. The first novel in this vein, The Life of Lazarillo of Tormes is often judged the best. It was published in 1554, and by the end of the century many authors had imitated its formula. As a genre, the picaresque novel proved important in the seventeenth century in forging more realistic kinds of fiction. A final fictional form that was popular in sixteenth-century Spain was the pastoral romance. In 1559 Jorge de Montemayor published the first of these works in Spanish entitled Diana. Modeled after the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro, Diana included scenes in which nymphs and shepherds engaged in airy discussions of Platonic love. By century’s end, Spanish authors had published a number of other pastoral romances; most notable among these was Miguel de Cervantes’ Galatea, first published in 1585.


Spain’s most accomplished sixteenth-century humanist philosopher, Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), was also a literary figure of distinction. When he was only seventeen Vives left Spain for the University of Paris. He soon attracted the attention of Erasmus, Budé, and other humanists in northern Europe, and he lived for a time in Louvain in Flanders before moving on to England where he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Oxford. He remained in England for several years, but eventually fell out of favor when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon. He moved on to Bruges, the home of his wife, and spent the remainder of his life there. He continued in these years to nourish a correspondence with Thomas More and other humanists, both in England and throughout Europe. Vives made powerful contributions to the study of philology and philosophy, but he was also an advocate of social and educational reform. In 1526, for instance, he wrote a tract entitled On Aid to the Poor which he sent to the magistrates of his wife’s city Bruges. Vives recommended that the increasingly large number of refugees present in Europe should be treated as natives in those places in which they settled, a visionary plan when judged against the restrictive citizenship requirements common at the time. In his educational tracts he outlined plans for the education of children and women. One of these, On the Right Method of Instruction for Children, was written for Princess Mary of England, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. In On the Education of the Christian Woman, Vives advocated the education of women in the classics. These tracts influenced court societies throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, and where the advice of On the Education of Women was followed the status accorded women’s education was elevated. Vives today is best remembered for one of his early works, The Fable of Man, a parable that expounds the Christian humanism and Neoplatonism that were popular at the time.

German Language

In comparison to France, Italy, and Spain, the development of a national language proceeded more slowly in Germany and England. The Holy Roman Empire, the political confederation that governed Germany, Austria, and much of Central Europe, was comprised of more than 300 individual territories loosely joined together under the rule of an elected monarch. Most people within this complex political entity were German-speaking, although there were large minorities that spoke other languages. In addition, enormous differences characterized the German spoken and written in the various regions of the empire, so that the language of one area was often unintelligible to people from another area.

Written German

Many different written forms of German developed from these local dialects, and this complex variety did not give way decisively to a single standard literary German until the late seventeenth century. Spoken dialects, on the other hand, have persisted in Central Europe ever since to confound natives and travelers alike. The origins of written forms of German stretched back to the High Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, some German states began keeping their records in native forms of their language, rather than in Latin. During the fourteenth century the emperor Charles IV (1346-1378) helped to stimulate the growth of the empire’s first shared form of written German. Charles ruled from Prague, but his officials adopted both a new form of Latin based upon the writings of the early Italian humanists and a standard German. They based this written German on the spoken dialects of Austria and South Germany and the eastern and central parts of the empire. Johannes von Tepl used this language, known as “Common German,” around 1400 to write The Ploughman of Bohemia, one of the first literary classics of early-modern German. In the fifteenth century the imperial court continued to develop a standard form of written German, but the Austrian Habsburg emperors who ruled at this time now favored their own local South German dialects in comparison to the more broad-based “Common German” that had been used in the fourteenth-century court. Around 1500, another form of written German developed and began to compete against the Habsburg court’s language. The powerful electors of Saxony developed a new literary form of German based upon their own dialect. The use of this form of written German was greatly expanded during the sixteenth century as a result of the rise of Protestantism, since Martin Luther used it to write his tracts condemning the pope and the Roman Church. As Luther’s career continued, he translated the Bible into this same Saxon German. Eventually, Luther’s German Bible became the most powerful tool in establishing a standard written language throughout Germany. By the time of his death in 1546, more than three hundred editions of the Luther Bible had been printed and as many as three million copies of the German Bible may have been in circulation throughout the empire. During the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Luther’s idiom, ensconced in this biblical translation, became the dominant force in establishing a standard form of written German throughout the empire. While he did not single-handedly create modern German as some might suppose, his forceful and colorful use of the language exerted a powerful influence on shaping the language’s style, vocabulary, and grammar. At the same time, vast regional differences in written German persisted, and while the press had originally aided in the dissemination of a standardized form of literary German through the publication of books like the German Bible, it also kept alive regional differences. Local printers, concerned to satisfy their readership, continued to use written forms of local dialects for years to come.

Renaissance Styles

Humanism appeared in Germany slightly earlier than in France and Spain and, by 1500, it had established itself in a pattern similar to other places in Northern Europe. The movement was present in small circles throughout the country, where it often faced the opposition of the scholastics. The first German humanists of distinction, Rudolph Agricola (1444-1485) and Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) devoted themselves to writing poetry in the style of Petrarch as well as mastering the languages and literary styles of Antiquity. Celtis became the most accomplished poet of early humanism, although he wrote most of his important creations in Latin, rather than German. One undisputed classic of the early German Renaissance was Das Narrenschiff or The Ship of Fools written by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) and published in 1494. The work was a long allegorical poem that mocked the foibles of humankind. It served as a prelude to Erasmus’ great Latin oration, The Praise of Folly of 1509, a work which also criticized human stupidity. Although Brant was less thorough and biting in his attacks than Erasmus, a similar spirit animates his long work, which is divided into 112 chapters each devoted to mocking a different kind of human fool. Satire was one of the genres in which German humanists excelled during the Renaissance. Among the many achievements in this vein, The Letters of Obscure Men of Ulrich von Hutten were particularly brilliant and influential. Written in a mock scholastic style, they poked fun at the absurd conventions of Germany’s university theologians. Composed to defend the German humanist Johann Reuchlin during the height of a controversy over the study of Jewish books, von Hutten’s works became the model for a truly widespread genre of satirical tracts and polemics that would be published during the Protestant Reformation. Later Protestant and Catholic writers made use of the broad humor and satirical techniques that von Hutten perfected in his Letters, spawning one of the most universally consumed literatures of sixteenth-century Germany.

Religious Crisis

The controversies of the Reformation and Counter Reformation often dominated sixteenth-century German literature. Critical analysis has only begun to digest the enormous amount of pamphlet literature published during the period. Although most of these tracts were not of high literary quality, one does find fine allegorical poems and humanist-inspired dialogues amidst the thousands of short tracts defending the Roman Church or promoting the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant reformers, including Thomas Müntzer and Martin Luther, also wrote some of the finest lyric poems of the period and these often served as hymns in the developing Protestant churches. Another genre that arose in Lutheran territories was the funeral sermon, of which more than 100,000 printed copies survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Originally, the Protestant reformers had been reluctant to allow eulogies to accompany the sermons preached at the burial of the dead. Over time, however, eulogies treating the life of the deceased crept into these sermons, which were printed in the days and weeks following a funeral and circulated as a memorial to the dead. While many of these texts show that the task of writing and delivering a funeral sermon was frequently a perfunctory one, in some cases and in the hands of some gifted preachers these Lutheran funeral sermons could rise to the level of high art. In addition, the tradition of the Meistersinger continued unabated in sixteenth-century Germany, and in Protestant towns this late-medieval form of singing was placed into the service of the Reformation. The Meistersinger, immortalized in Richard Wagner’s famous opera, The Meistersinger from Nuremberg were usually members of local guilds who met at certain times to perform musical works they had written. They performed their works as unaccompanied solos, and their compositions were judged according to strict rules that had long been laid down by their society. The city of Nuremberg was the most famous center of this art, and during the sixteenth century as the town became a center of Protestantism, the Meistersinger focused increasingly on using their songs to promote Lutheran ideas. The most fertile of all the Meistersinger at Nuremberg was Hans Sachs, (1494-1576), a dramatist and poet, and the central character of Wagner’s opera. During his long life Sachs wrote more than 4,000 of these songs, and an additional 2,000 other short verses, dramas, and dialogues.


The excitement that religious disputes created in sixteenth-century Germany helped to increase the number of readers throughout the population. As the German audience grew, new forms of fiction appeared to satisfy an increasingly diverse public of readers. By mid-century collections of short, humorous stories, written either in prose or verse, appeared. The most popular of these were Humor and Seriousness, written by the Franciscan monk Johannes Paul, andThe Carriage Booklet, by Jörg Wickram. Wickram, from Colmar in the far western province of Alsace, was illegitimate and had little more than a rudimentary education. He did read widely in German works, but was apparently unschooled in Latin. In several fictional works he pioneered the form of the novel in the German language. These longer narratives had central characters, more involved plots, and better character development than the short German fiction that had been written up to his time. His most fully developed work was Of Good and Bad Neighbors, a tale of a merchant family across several generations. The values that he praised in his works included hard work, thrift, respect for authority, and kindness to one’s neighbors. Another great achievement of late sixteenth-century German fiction was the History of Dr. Johann Faustus, a short anonymous book published at Frankfurt in 1587. It was an overnight success and was soon translated into a number of other languages. In its original form the plot of Dr. Faustus treats the story of a young theologian who turns from his studies to take up magic. To strengthen his knowledge of the new art, he concludes a pact with the devil to enjoy 24 years of prosperity and mastery of magic. At the conclusion of this period the devil returns to take him to hell. Dr. Faustus soon became the basis upon which other writers constructed more complex plots in other fictional and dramatic works. The most famous Renaissance adaptation of the tale of Faustus was Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which he apparently wrote within just a few years of the original. The story of Faustus is one of the most enduring tales in European history; it survived long after the Renaissance to become the subject for operas, plays, and novels. While the original work warned of the dangers of magic and curiosity, the Faustian tale has come to be seen since then as symptomatic of the dangers that lurk in humankind’s search after knowledge.

English Language

The reception of humanism followed a similar path in England as elsewhere in Northern Europe. Toward the end of the fifteenth century a group of scholars, inspired by Italian examples, devoted themselves to the study of Latin and other ancient languages. Over time Neoplatonism and the Christian humanism popularized by figures like Erasmus in the early sixteenth century developed in circles of scholars throughout the island. The greatest member of this group, Sir Thomas More, produced a number of works that inspired later generations of English writers. Until 1550, though, most humanists in England wrote in Latin. Even More’s immensely popular work of political philosophy, Utopia did not have an English translation until a quarter century after its Latin publication. In England, Latin was usually the language of scholarship, while most of the country’s nobles preferred to speak and write in French. This situation, though, began to alter quickly and dramatically in the first half of the sixteenth century. At the same time as humanism was maturing in England, the use of written forms of English was also expanding greatly. Long thought by English aristocrats and intellectuals to be an inferior form of expression, English gradually replaced Latin in the course of the sixteenth century as the preferred written language. These developments occurred at a time of rapid change for the English language. Chaucer completed his Canterbury Tales around 1400 in a form of Middle English, and in the century that followed English changed dramatically. By 1600, the English vocabulary underwent a serious expansion, aided by the publication of William Tyndale’s English New Testament in 1525, by the English Great Bible in 1539, and by the Protestant Book of Common Prayer adopted throughout England in 1549.

Questions of Style

By 1550, it had become increasingly clear that English would eventually triumph over Latin, and humanist-trained intellectuals now debated what direction English style should take. During the so-called “Inkhorn Controversy” opponents of Latin style and eloquence like Thomas Wilson argued that English possessed a clear and forceful style and that it should be kept free of Latin, Greek, and French words and phrases. Against this purist pose, others supported borrowing phrases from Latin and other languages for which there was no ready English equivalent. Over the remainder of the century, the practice of adapting words from other languages gradually won out over the purist perspective, although purists continued to defend native words and styles into the seventeenth century. Despite the purists’ opposition, borrowing from other languages continued, and a tremendous expansion in vocabulary transformed the language into an elegant and malleable vehicle for written and spoken expression. The masters of sixteenth-century English who had helped to expand the language included Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), who was influenced by Italian Petrarchism and introduced the sonnet into English; Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546), who was a prolific writer and whose courtesy book, The Book of the Governor, helped to establish standards of civility in English aristocratic life; and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), who among his other literary accomplishments translated Vergil’s Aeneid into English. These figures had laid the foundation for the incredible flowering of English verse and prose that would occur in the final years of the Elizabeth period, the era of Marlowe and the early Shakespeare.

Study of History

Outside Italy, Renaissance scholars also devoted themselves to the study of history. Humanist historiography varied greatly in quality and sophistication throughout Europe. Nationalistic concerns often dominated the writing of history, as humanists from England, Germany, France, and Spain became interested in treating the glories of their nations’ past. Other authors saw in the central characters of history morality lessons; they stressed that certain figures were worthy of emulation. As a rule, though, humanist historiography in Europe downplayed the role of God in shaping human events, and instead saw history as the product of great men working with and against fortune. Toward the end of the sixteenth century a more objective, less moralistic spirit began to prevail among some scholars, particularly in France. The standards of proof these historians applied laid the foundations for a more modern and unbiased writing of history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

German Trends

History was a central concern of the German humanists. In the early sixteenth century these scholars began to form a recognizable group within the court of the emperor Maximilian I, and many of these figures wrote histories. In the fifteenth century Italian humanists had frequently pointed to the works of Latin Antiquity to confirm their dark judgments about German culture—that is, that Germans were barbaric and their learning was inferior to Italians. As a result, the early German humanists frequently focused on rehabilitating their own heritage. Their histories celebrated the bravery and independence of the early German tribes and these writers posed Germanic valor against effete Italian culture. They pointed to the early Christianization of the German tribes, a sign of the depth of German piety and religious sentiments. But humanists also devoted themselves to writing local histories, as Italians had done in the fifteenth century. In scores of works like Johannes Aventinus’ Bavarian Chronicle, Germany’s new historians tried to reconstruct the history of Germany’s many regions. Much of this work was uncritical, merely relying on ancient myths that had long circulated in older chronicles. But every now and then, a new critical spirit sometimes shone through. The Strasbourg historian Beatus Rhenanus (1486-1547) was a friend of Erasmus who questioned the uncritical tactics of many of his fellow humanist historians. Rhenanus constructed more reliable histories of the German past by examining the surviving documents. One of the insights that Beatus Rhenanus had—his suggestion that the Franks were also a Germanic tribe—would spark a great deal of controversy in France. Longstanding myths about French history had traced the French to the descendants of Francus, a refugee from the destroyed city of Troy. Beatus Rhenanus debunked these myths, instead interpreting the early history of the Germanic tribes according to the documents and artifacts that survived from the early-medieval period. Even though Beatus Rhenanus helped to debunk myths about France and Germany’s past, new legends developed in the sixteenth century. The Protestant Reformation had a profound influence on shaping ideas about the German past. Many German historians at the time had been trained as humanist scholars, and as Protestants, men like Martin Bucer at Strasbourg and the Lutheran theologians Philip Melanchthon and Matthias Flacius Illyricus developed the notion of a medieval “Roman yoke.” In their works they celebrated the Protestant Reformation for freeing Germany from the weight of Roman oppression. This Protestant view of history interpreted the Middle Ages as a dark period of decay and degeneration in which the Roman papacy had tyrannically ruled over the human conscience. The revival of the New Learning and the Reformation’s restoration of true Christian teaching in Germany had rescued the nation from the oppression of a thousand years of medieval history.

History in France

In France, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also saw a revival of interest in history. Philippe de Commines (1445-1509) was one of the first of a new breed of historians in France who applied a more distanced and objective spirit to his retelling of the past. He was not a humanist scholar, but he served as a member of the court of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. At the time Burgundy was one of the most powerful territories in Europe, and Commines recorded many of the great events he had witnessed in his Memoires in a relatively unbiased way. As humanists devoted themselves to writing history after Commines, they downplayed the role of divine providence in shaping history. Instead they stressed the role that human actors had played in shaping their countries’ history, and like many Italian Renaissance historians, they identified virtuous individuals in history who were worthy of emulation. Among the many humanist scholars who practiced history in the sixteenth century, Jean Bodin, Étienne Pasquier, and Jacques Auguste de Thou stand out. In his works treating history, Jean Bodin (1530-1596) tried to develop a theory for interpreting the past and for undertaking study in the discipline itself. He stressed the importance of acquiring a broad knowledge of the past before specializing one’s study in a particular era. By contrast, Étienne Pasquier (1529-1615) was a lawyer who adopted legal methods of proof in his histories. He worked in the royal government in France and, like Guicciardini before him, had unprecedented access to state documents. Through this experience he acquired a critical understanding of France’s past as well as a broad picture of how government had developed over time. When he was thirty years old, he began his Researches on France, a work he did not complete until forty years later. The Researches eventually comprised ten thick volumes. Pasquier intended his work to stir an admiration in his readers for the glories of French history, but he applied a judicious standard to do so, carefully documenting his conclusions. In constructing his French history he did not rely on past chronicles, but went instead to the primary legal and court documents that contained more reliable information about developments. His work did much to advance notions about documentary proof and the necessity for an historian to adopt an unbiased spirit. The last great genius of French sixteenth-century historical writing was Auguste de Thou (1533-1617). De Thou was also a trained lawyer, and in his works he strove for a similarly objective presentation of the past. He wrote his works in a commanding and eloquent Latin. As Pasquier had been before him, de Thou was also a Gallican—that is, he supported the notion that the French Church should develop as a national church and be kept free from papal intervention. He believed that this tradition of relative French independence had deep roots, and he attempted to demonstrate the origins of Gallicanism in medieval history. These sentiments did not endear him to church authorities outside France. Although the histories he wrote of sixteenth-century France were erudite and largely objective, his judgments about Gallicanism resulted in the placing of at least one of his histories on the Index of Prohibited Books, the organ of censorship in the Roman Catholic Church.


While Pasquier and de Thou favored a distanced objectivity, the religious crises of the second half of the sixteenth century in France, England, and other parts of Europe stimulated the popularity of another more emotional historical work: the martyrology. Martyrologies treated the lives and deaths of those who had sacrificed themselves for their faith, and these sometimes gruesome books had both Catholic and Protestant versions throughout the sixteenth century. Among the most astute authors in this genre were the English historian John Foxe and the French Protestant Jean Crespin. Crespin published his Book of Martyrs in 1554, and the work continued to be edited and re-issued after his death, becoming an enormously popular text among French Calvinists at the end of the sixteenth century. Since the publication continued over time, new editions of the work added accounts of those who had been killed for their faith during the Wars of Religion. In England, John Foxe drew upon Crespin’s example for his Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Days first printed in 1563. Foxe included many stories of European martyrs drawn from Crespin’s text, but, in particular, he focused on those recently executed in England during the reign of Mary I. Together both Crespin and Foxe hoped that these tales of suffering would invigorate readers to defend the Reformation against those who would subvert it. Martyrologies like these remained a tremendously popular genre throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as it came to be popularly known, would be published many times, and influenced later writers, including the seventeenth-century authors John Bunyan and John Milton.

Trends in England

In England it was the Italian Polydor Vergil (1470-1555) who established the genre of humanist historical writing. Vergil was a native of Urbino and he had been sent to England in 1502 on a minor diplomatic mission. He stayed on in England, eventually publishing his English History in Latin in 1534. Vergil cast doubt on the traditional myths of Britain’s origins which traced England’s kings to Brutus the Trojan, a figure who had reputedly liberated England from the rule of giants. Vergil’s history served Tudor purposes, since throughout his history he did celebrate the “great deeds of England’s kings and those of this noble people,” and these included the deeds of the ruling Tudor dynasty. But the skeptical eye he cast on some of the legends of English history irritated native scholars, and his humanist-styled history of England and the “great deeds” of its people would not be imitated until very late in the sixteenth century. Another humanist work of history was Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III, a book that More wrote in both English and Latin editions about the same time. The picture he drew of this hated king has largely persisted until the present, although recently some have questioned Richard’s villainy, and historians have never conclusively decided whether Richard was a hunchback, as More treated him. More had been a child when many of the pivotal events of Richard III’s reign had occurred, and he probably based his accounts on the testimony of his father and others who had been adults at the time. As a literary work, though, More shaped his account of the king’s life relying on Roman history, particularly the works of Tacitus. He injected imaginary dialogue into the account, and he made maximum tragic use of Richard’s alleged slaying of the “little princes,” the two sons of Edward IV. His version of events became canonical, and survived to be read by William Shakespeare and immortalized in the playwright’s masterpiece Richard III.

Spanish History and the New World

In Spain, a country recently unified from separate kingdoms, history took on a special importance during the Renaissance. Both the monarchy and the scholars hired to write histories of the country were keenly interested in the distant past, as they searched for a source of Spain’s sixteenth-century greatness and imperial expansion. In the early sixteenth century King Ferdinand hired several historians to undertake historical studies. He desired to justify his expansionist policies, but unfortunately most of these projects, although undertaken by capable scholars, were left unfinished. Similar problems dogged later monarchical histories, too. The most important literary histories to emerge in sixteenth-century Spain were not those that dealt with Iberia’s distant past, but with more recent events. Spain produced a distinguished lineage of humanist and non-humanist scholars who turned their attentions to Spain’s conquests in the New World. These writers produced a record of events, which if not always factual, was of a consistently high literary quality and was often characterized by profound human insight. Christopher Columbus had helped to stimulate this attention to the New World discoveries by publishing accounts of his voyages. Peter Martyr D’Anghiera, an Italian, studied Columbus’ accounts intently and published the first historical treatment of his journeys. It was Martyr who actually coined the term, “New World,” through using it as the title of a history he published in several stages between 1511 and 1530. Bartolomeo de Las Casas built upon these efforts with his History of the Indies, which he finished around 1550. De Las Casas based his work on documentary evidence, and upon his own firsthand observations of conditions in Spain’s American possessions. His account still proves useful today for the insights it offers concerning native peoples and their treatment at Spanish hands. The greatest historian of the period, though, was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who lived for a decade in the New World, undertaking various jobs before being appointed official historian of the Indies. Oviedo amassed a valuable collection of documents about the conquest and he used them to write a history of the early conquest and settlement of Mexico and Peru. His career as a professional historian of the Spanish territories inspired a lineage of later sixteenth-century New World historians, who often treated in detailed fashion the establishment of Spanish rule within the various regions of Central and South America. Many of these turned in particular to treat the establishment of Spain’s control over the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru. While these later accounts often celebrated the conquistadors’ bravery in subduing native populations, some were more critical. Some of Spain’s New World historians, particularly those that treated the history of Peru, attacked the Conquest for unleashing the unbridled individualism of the conquistadors and for destroying the Incas’ basically peaceful and orderly way of life.

Renaissance Women Writers

Women’s Lives

Social class and wealth were the chief determinants of the path a woman’s life would take in the Renaissance. At the bottom of the social ladder the poorest women often faced bleak prospects, and daily life could become a quest for survival. High social status and family wealth, not unsurprisingly, enhanced a woman’s choices, and also granted her greater leisure. An increasing number of women learned to read and write their native languages during the Renaissance, although female literacy continued to be rare. Literacy was prized in the cities, where it was necessary for both men and women from certain sectors of society to be able to read. Merchants who were frequently away on business needed wives who could manage their business interests while they were away from home. In cities, then, many merchants’ wives could read and write. Reading was also important to artisans, and since many women helped their husbands in their businesses, there were also many artisans’ wives who could read as well. While many urban women probably possessed basic literacy during the later Renaissance, most women as a rule had little time to indulge in reading or studies. They were usually far more interested in their account ledgers than in literature. Only a few women, moreover, were ever taught Latin, the dominant language of scholarship until the late Renaissance. Widespread male prejudice and even Renaissance medical wisdom taught that women were not cut out for a life of scholarship, their intellect being of a more delicate and sensitive nature than men’s. Despite these enormous barriers to women’s literary and scholarly careers, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw an increasing number of women writers, many of whom left behind subtle and refined works of fiction, poetry, and scholarship. This trend first appeared in the fifteenth century in Italy and France. During the sixteenth century women writers appeared in every major European country, and although the career of a woman author was still extraordinary, there were more women who wrote in this period than at any other time in the past. Humanism was one important force in producing this change; many humanists elevated the importance given to women’s education. The list of humanists who advocated a more thorough education for women was long, and included Giovanni Boccaccio, Leonardo Bruni, Baldassare Castiglione, and Juan Luis Vives. At the same time even the most enlightened Renaissance men continued to think that women’s capabilities as writers and scholars were distinctly inferior to men. A woman who wrote and recorded her thoughts and who did so elegantly was often described as “surpassing her sex.” Still, the groundwork was being laid in Renaissance Europe for women to compete in the arena of literature, philosophy, and the humanities. By the end of the sixteenth century, although women still wrote far less than men, they had begun to take their place beside their male counterparts, a trend that would persist and expand further in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Christine De Pizan

Although Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) is known today primarily as a French writer, she was an Italian who was born in Venice and whose family was originally from Pizano, a village outside the Italian city of Bologna. When she was five, Christine’s family moved to Paris where her father had been appointed as the astrologist to the king. She was schooled alongside her brothers, a common Italian custom of the day. She married early and became a widow by the time she was 25. There followed a hard period in Christine’s life, as she lost her money because of bad advice. Gradually, she created a new life based around literature, study, and writing. In these endeavors she was largely self-taught. At first she wrote a great deal of conventional poetry, but she gradually broadened the scope of her literary work. Around 1400, she wrote The Letter of the Goddess Othea to Hector in which she theorized about the proper education that should be given to young men. Christine de Pizan became aware of humanism’s development in Italy, and she seems, in particular, to have come into possession of copies of at least two of Boccaccio’s important works: his Genealogy of the Gods, the textbook of classical mythology he had written late in life; and his On Famous Women, his catalogue of great women of classical Antiquity. Knowledge of these is reflected in Christine’s most famous work, her Book of the City of Ladies, a long allegory in which the author set forth a new positive view of the role of women in history. As her career as a writer continued, Pizan also treated a number of political themes in her works, advising the French queen and members of the court on matters of social policy. Many of these works dealt with the problems that France’s wars with England caused throughout the country. As a result of these troubles, Christine de Pizan gradually despaired, and she withdrew from public life, although shortly before her death she did write The Tale of Joan of Arc, commemorating the arrival of this French heroine on the contemporary scene. Although Christine de Pizan was the first independent female writer in European history, her career would not be immediately emulated in France. It was instead in Italy that female scholars and authors began to grow more common during the remaining years of the fifteenth century.

Women Humanists

The two women who achieved the greatest notoriety as scholars in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy were Laura Cereta (1469-1499) a native of Brescia, and Cassandra Fedele (1465-1558), a Venetian. Fedele became the most famous female humanist of her time, learning Latin at a young age and, slightly later, Greek. Fedele went on to master philosophy and Aristotelian logic. Early on, her father promoted her as a prodigy. When she was not yet an adult, she delivered Latin addresses to the faculty of the University of Padua and to the Senate of Venice. She published her first book at 22, but spent most of her life writing letters to a distinguished circle of intellectual and political figures. Angelo Poliziano, the great Florentine Latinist of the late fifteenth century, admired her writing, and Fedele was even offered a post as a professor in Spain. She refused, was eventually widowed, and was forced by hardship to live with her sister. The pope learned of her plight and offered her a position in a local orphanage so she could be independent. In her letters and the small surviving body of other texts she wrote, Fedele made clear that she accepted the inferiority of women as part of the pattern of nature. She often criticized her own weaknesses of style and intellect. This self-deprecating strain endeared her to her elite readers. Laura Cereta’s disposition, on the other hand, was not nearly so modest. Cereta was the daughter of a Brescian attorney from a family that had noble pretensions. After being educated at home and in a nearby convent, she married, but was quickly widowed. She spent her widowhood alone writing lengthy and urbane letters to notable humanists, political figures, and churchmen, and of these a number survive. In her letters she develops a number of themes that would be pursued by later Renaissance and early-modern women, and many of her ideas have a distinctly feminist cast. Unlike Fedele, she was not content to see herself as a mere decorative ornament in Italy’s learned society. Instead she assaulted traditional stereotypes about women; her letters painted marriage as enslavement and the chores of women’s lives as drudgery. This early brand of feminism would influence later Renaissance women writers.


Prepared by the examples of Cereta and Fedele, women entered into the arena of public letters in sixteenth-century Italy. Among those who achieved notoriety for their cultivated learning and literary endeavors, most were members of noble families. Vittoria Colonna, a member of the Roman aristocracy, was happily married to a marquis, and cultivated her literary and artistic ambitions during his frequent absences. She became friends with such important members of the Italian literati as Jacopo Sannazaro (author of the pastoral Arcadia) and the artist Michelangelo. For many years at Naples she transformed her home into an early version of the salon, inviting visiting intellectuals there and cultivating local talents. When her husband died, she was grief stricken. She eventually left Naples and spent the remaining twenty years of her life living in convents. While staying in Rome, she befriended a number of Catholic religious reformers who were known as the “Spirituals.” Their religious beliefs emphasized an interior pious devotion, and even made use of the concept of justification by faith that was being promoted at the time in northern Europe by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Colonna devoted herself to these religious pursuits, but she also became one of the premier Italian poets of the sixteenth century, developing her sonnets and other literary inventions in the Petrarchan mode that had become popular at the time. She wrote some of her most beautiful lyrics to her beloved deceased husband. For several generations of sixteenth-century noblewomen in Italy she represented the highest standard in piety and learning. The poetess Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554), by contrast, followed a different path. She wrote about the same time as Colonna, but her works were frequently filled with erotic and passionate imagery rather than religious inspiration. Her mother had brought her to Venice so that she might pursue a career as a musician. She entertained Venice’s cultured elite with her musical renditions of her poetry and soon came to the notice of the best poets in the city. They admitted her to their literary academy and cultivated her talents. Although she did not live long, Stampa wrote more than three hundred poems that were published soon after her death. She wrote her verse in a Petrarchan style and was influenced by Italy’s arbiter of literary taste at the time, Pietro Bembo.

Notorious Celebrity

Since Petrarch’s time authors had been concerned with cultivating their fame. In the sixteenth century self-promotion reached new heights in Italy with figures like Pietro Aretino, whose celebrity derived from his scandal-filled letters and his connections to other famous people. A similar strain of fame can be seen in the career of a Venetian courtesan, Veronica Franco (1546-1591). Franco became an “honest courtesan” after separating from her husband; this category of woman in sixteenth-century Venice was seen as standing above the level of the common prostitute. They were often literate and educated, and in their homes they nourished their male companions’ desires for intellectual stimulation, as well as erotic love. Franco, like many educated Italian women, had received her education at home by sharing tutors with her brothers. She became an important literary figure on the Venetian scene by compiling and publishing collections of poems she received from members of Venice’s male elite. She was herself a poet and released a volume of her own poetry in 1575. In these works she was honest about her profession and sometimes even candid about sexual matters, in contrast to the Platonic love poses that many men took at the time. Like Aretino and a number of sixteenth-century Italian authors, she also printed her letters and these displayed her as conversant with the ideas of ancient authors. Franco’s life came to a tragic end, however, when she was brought before the Inquisition on charges she practiced love magic. Although she was exonerated, the trial cast a shadow over her reputation and, as she had already experienced financial losses, she died an impoverished and lonely figure.

Women Poets in France

Outside Italy, the largest group of accomplished women authors appeared in sixteenth-century France. Here the example of the powerful and dynamic figure Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549) helped to foster a literary climate receptive to female authors. Marguerite was not only the author of the cultivated prose Heptameron, but also of a number of poetic allegories that expressed her powerful religious sentiments as well as her passionate emotions. Two other figures, Marguerite de Briet and Louise Labé, would build upon and expand Marguerite’s example of the feminine author. Marguerite de Briet was a noblewoman who separated from her husband and took up residence in Paris. There she fashioned a literary career that attacked male misogyny and defended female virtues. Under the pseudonym “Hélisenne de Crenne,” she published a collection of her letters that became popular and were reprinted a number of times. These provide insights into sixteenth-century life, but they also dissected male prejudices against women in a way that had not been done in French letters since the time of Christine de Pizan. Marguerite de Briet pointed out the logical inconsistencies in men’s attitudes toward women. Women took the blame for tempting men with their beauty, but men, who were supposed to be “wiser than women should not deal with anything they know to be harmful or dangerous.” De Briet was also a novelist and her romance The Painful Anxieties that Proceed from Love treated her literary creation Hélisenne de Crenne’s passionate and disastrous devotion to her lover. Marguerite intended this fiction to serve as a warning to her women readers of the dangers that lurked in a love that was not tempered by reason. The second of France’s great female authors was Louise Labé, who came from the country’s second largest city, Lyon. She was not a noblewoman, but the daughter of a wealthy rope maker. The extensive education she acquired in languages, music, and art was extraordinary for the time. She married a much older man, also a rope maker, and possessed leisure to pursue her studies and writing. She struck up an acquaintance with a member of the Pleiades, a group that sought to revive classical styles in French verse. In 1555, she published a collection of her poems, which she wrote largely as sonnets and elegies. Labé also composed a prose work, The Debate Between Madness and Love, that was a dialogue between Folly and Cupid. Like writers elsewhere in Europe at the time, her works were influenced by the fashions of Neoplatonism and Petrarchism, but her poems in particular were notable for their passionate imagery.

Other European Developments

The works of Marguerite of Navarre and Louise Labé represent only the best known surviving works of sixteenth-century women writers in Northern Europe. Throughout Europe, the sixteenth century produced an enormous increase in the number of women writers. In the course of the century the spread of the press throughout Europe, the religious controversies of the age, and the diffusion of humanist educational ideas resulted in an enormous expansion of the sixteenth-century reading public. Not everyone who could read and write chose to leave behind a written record. The writing of poetry and prose fiction was still a rare art, usually practiced only by those who possessed sufficient leisure to do so. But among the educated elites of Europe, literary achievement was becoming an increasingly important sign of one’s cultivation. It was recommended by courtesy books like Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and humanist educational treatises like those written by Erasmus and Vives. Women, particularly those from the wealthy urban classes and the nobility, benefited from this attention to literature, even if they were not nearly so great beneficiaries as men. Outside the cultured and urbane circles of Italy and France, women who were instructed in Latin, Greek, and classical literature remained rare. In England, for instance, only the very highest ranks of ladies at court and Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth received classical educations. But in time the rise of the vernacular languages made classical instruction increasingly irrelevant to those women who wanted to write. The growing body of women who wrote about their ideas and emotions in the later sixteenth century thus helped to lay the foundations for the even greater literary achievements of European women in the centuries to come.


Beginning with Petrarch in the fourteenth century, Renaissance writers identified literary achievement as a way to achieve fame and immortality after death. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries humanists in Italy devoted themselves to the study of ancient literature, to perfecting classical Latin style, and to incorporating these insights into their own letters, histories, and poetry. By 1500, the methods they had perfected were being adopted elsewhere in Europe, where they often joined with demands for the reform of Christianity. Many members of this first generation of Northern Renaissance humanists shared a common desire to revive the moral standards of the church. They studied the literary forms of Antiquity with a mind toward imitating ancient style and applying the moral insights they discovered in classical Antiquity. Over the course of the sixteenth century they created an enormous body of Latin literature, even as they devoted themselves to perfecting and expanding their own native languages. The rise of the vernacular and the increasing demands of a non-specialist, non-Latin reading public helped to produce an enormous flowering of literature in French, Spanish, German, and English. Many of those who wrote in these native languages adopted styles drawn from the classics. Yet as the sixteenth century progressed an increasing sophistication and innovation can be seen in the vernacular literature that was being written throughout Europe.