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13.03.05, Rundle, ed., Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe

13.03.05, Rundle, ed., Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe

The present volume in the Medium Aevum Monographs series emerged from a conference which, in turn, was occasioned by an editorial project: the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss' Humanism in England in the Fifteenth Century, printed originally in 1941, and now available online in David Rundle and Anthony Lappin's new edition. [1] Though it is fair to ask whether a work, however significant, which has already appeared in three printed editions (1941, 1957, and 1967), and which is by no means a rare book, requires yet another edition in the age of Google Books, it should be pointed out that (apart from the fact that the work is not yet available on Google Books) the editors of the fourth edition offer instructive addenda (both the author's and their own) as well as Rundle's interesting introduction to the work. In any case, making a significant work of older scholarship readily available to all interested is a laudable venture.

The collection of essays celebrating the new edition of Weiss' first book sets out to gauge the influence of Italian humanism in the fifteenth century on a broader, European scale, and, in some cases, in critical reassessment of Weiss' arguments. It should be stressed from the outset that the contributions to this volume are without exception highly informative and well written pieces of scholarship. The book as a whole has, to my understanding, strong points as well as shortcomings, the latter, however, do not detract from the quality of the papers.

The obvious characteristic of this collection is its division into the traditional national units. Though chronologically more restricted and geographically broader than Roy Porter and Mikulás Teich's The Renaissance in National Context, [2] the consideration of fifteenth-century humanist phenomena is carried out squarely within the traditional framework of national contexts. This approach has its obvious merits, but since Rundle points out in the final chapter, that the "studia humanitatis were less about genius of place than mastery over space" (309) one cannot help regretting that the conference and ensuing volume did not focus on thematic rather than geographical chapters. National histories of Renaissance humanism are a well-trodden path; there are, as with most well-trodden paths, good reasons for it being so, but in a volume dedicated to humanism as a European cultural idiom, perhaps a cross-national thematic approach (e.g. rhetoric and politics, learning and patronage, humanism and the universities, humanism and the religious orders etc.) would have been rewarding. [3] It is also the case that with the notable exception of Daniel Wakelin's "Humanism in England beyond Weiss" and Stephen Milner's chapter on Italy, which serves in a sense as the book's introduction, Roberto Weiss' Humanism in England is not an essential part of the studies of fifteenth-century humanism presented here. Without detracting from the significance of Humanism in England or of Weiss' later works, the volume, to my mind, does not demonstrate this work to be particularly rewarding vantage point for Renaissance scholarship today. Wakelin's engagement with Weiss, however, stands out, not only because of his revision of Weiss' bleak view of humanism in England before the Tudors' ascent, but first and foremost for its methodological revision: instead of positing "great achievement" and fifteenth-century English candidates for the title of "first rate humanists" Wakelin offers a highly rewarding account of "diffuse" humanism (as opposed to Weiss' "pure" humanism) and the types of elusive historical documentation such a widespread and "diluted" cultural idiom leaves on record.

The book opens with Stephen Milner's above-mentioned chapter "The Italian Peninsula: Reception and Dissemination" which serves as an introduction to the volume. In it Milner considers Italian Renaissance humanism from a medieval perspective, stressing the continuity between thirteen-century concerns with grammar and rhetoric and fifteenth-century humanists in the peninsula. Milner follows Weiss' argument that an early form of humanism existed before Petrarch and Boccaccio and offers an account of Roberto Weiss' life and work. Though stressing the continuities between fifteenth-century humanism and its predecessors is in itself welcome, as well as being a valuable corrective to humanist self- portrayals as emerging into history like Pallas Athena out of Zeus' head, the stress, in this otherwise fine chapter, on continuity overshadows an essential element of fifteenth-century humanism in Italy and beyond--innovation. That scholarship in recent decades has taught us to question "heroic" narratives of conflict between the "medieval old" and the "humanistic new" does not obviate the question of what was new about this backward looking and innovative cultural movement.

John Monfasani's "The Greeks and Renaissance Humanism" offers a concise and highly interesting overview, due especially to its bifocal approach: Byzantine contribution to the study of Greek antiquity in later fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italy (i.e. their instrumental role in the service of their Italian contemporaries' interests), and the late Byzantine scholars' own interests--ignored by Italians--first and foremost a late Byzantine interest in Scholasticism. To this are added three appendices: a list of Byzantine émigrés and visiting Greek copyists in the Renaissance, émigré teachers of Greek, and émigré Greek translators.

John Flood's "Humanism in the German-speaking Lands during the Fifteenth Century" stresses the vitality of fifteenth-century German. Flood offers Celtis-centred account of humanism in the Empire, stressing the link between the new culture and print and national pride--especially vis à vis Italian claims to superiority. This is also the perspective from which he discusses the reception of Tacitus' Germania.

Jacqueline Glomski's "Fifteenth-Century Humanism in Poland: Court and Collegium" suggest two foci for fifteenth-century humanist culture in her analysis of humanism in the Jagiellonian kingdom: the court eager to emulate Italian example and the university (Cracow's collegium) influenced by German and Erasmian trends. Apart from considering the ambivalent (and ultimately limited) impact of the Council of Basel on the transfer of humanist interest at the Collegium, Glomski considers the role of the Italian diplomat and advisor to the Polish crown, Filippo Buonaccorsi and his contacts with Marsilio Ficino, which helped foster an interest in Neo-Platonic philosophy in Poland. The influence of the German humanist Conrad Celtis is stressed in discussing the variant of humanist culture fostered at Cracow's Collegium.

Cristina Neagu offers a fine account of humanism in Hungary, focusing on the period before the watershed of the Hungarian defeat at the Battle of Mohács (1526), stressing the significance of Italian (mostly Ferrarese) influence, either through study in Italy (e.g. Janus Pannonius) or the activity of Italians in Hungary (e.g. Pier Paolo Vergerio). By the end of the fifteenth century Hungarian humanists were shifting culturally toward northern humanist influence. The Ottoman threat, Neagu argues, had left its stamp on Hungarian humanism: "Essentially cosmopolitan in nature, the Hungarian Renaissance fostered the idea of asserting itself as the prime custodian of European Christian values against the Turkish threat" (154).

Jeremy Lawrence paper examines humanism in fifteenth-century Castile in particular in the context of the shift in the political role of its aristocratic champions in the service of the emerging absolutist state (the example of Íñigo López de Mendoza). Apart from considering the revival of ancient conventions as well as the use of the vernacular, Lawrence makes the interesting observations, relevant for the study of humanism in other European contexts, that humanist pedagogy was a response to aristocratic demand and not vice versa.

In considering the reception of Italian humanism in late medieval France Craig Taylor, points out that humanism had its roots, however modest, in late fourteenth-century France, i.e. prior the invasion of Italy and the introduction of print. Two central factors in this late-medieval reception of Italian ideas are the Papal court in Avignon and the Angevin claims to Naples and Sicily. Petrarch, both in his lifetime and posthumously, played a pivotal role in this reception: "...Petrarch can be seen as the father of French humanism not only because of the influence of his desire to discover, imitate and revive Antiquity, but also because of the way that he provoked French scholars to defend their cultural heritage" (215).

In assessing late-fifteenth-century humanism in Scotland Thomas Rutledge suggests the crucial role played by Scottish students encountering humanist culture in Paris. Due to the nature of extant sources a great part of Rutledge's argument is based on accounts of Scottish ownership of copies of classical and Renaissance works. The broad scope of ancient and humanist literature available in Scotland at the time is attested by Gavin Douglas' Palis of Honoure (1501) as evidence of the "The availability of new humanist materials in late-fifteenth-century Scotland accompanied rather than displaced the continuing vitality of older traditions; it is in this heterogeneity that its greatest and distinctive richness lies" (262).

This is followed by Daniel Wakelin's above mentioned re-assessment of humanism in fifteenth-century England and by David Rundle's concluding "Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts" offering a consideration of humanism as a European cultural phenomenon, with an Italian epicentre, and the various forms and networks of cultural transfer which sustained and proliferated it. The volume is concluded by a biographical appendix of fifteenth- century Italian humanists compiled by Oren Margolis and David Rundle.

And so, as this review opened with doubts as to the concept underlying this volume, it is only appropriate to conclude by stressing the merits of its content, which make it instructive and a pleasure to read.



1. A printed copy is expected to appear this year.

2. Roy Porter and Mikulás Teich, The Renaissance in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

3. These too, needless to say, are no terrae incognitae.