Sample Essay on The French Renaissance

The French Renaissance

The Renaissance occurred during the medieval middle ages between 1485 and 1660, although traditionally it had referred to the period beginning from when the French invaded Italy in 1494 until the time following the demise of Henry IV in 1610. Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, and was coined by historian Jules Michelet in 1855 to signify the cultural, artistic, and intellectual rebirth of Europe in an age of religious strife. Humanism was a philosophy that spread from Italy emphasizing on human dignity and value. It was more rathe pervasive and profoundly influential and is the reason that the Renaissance is referred to as a distinct age. Even after the end of the Renaissance period, humanism continued to exert its power and is responsible for the development of the present day humanities field. There are many notable humanists who influenced the debate during the Renaissance and after it, with many offering criticisms on the culture of the day, as well as elucidating novel ways of thinking and doing things. This paper aims to look at the origin of humanism, the achievements of notable scholars, as well as their critics and supporters.


While the term humanism is of recent coinage, it borrows from studies pursued as early as the 15th century in the form of Umanisti, the study of classical literature. Humanism takes from the Latin word Humanitas, meaning the development of humanoid virtue in all its forms and to the fullest extent (Grudin). Anyone possessing humanitas thus not only had the qualities consonant with humanity but also had to have other aggressive traits such as being a participant in active life, as insight without action was regarded as imperfect and barbaric. Renaissance humanism called for a balance between action and contemplation and sought to guide both young and old in shirking the passive and ignorant ways of the Middle Ages. It sought to reform culture in a way that people could become more reflective and yearning to attain the grandest of all human potentialities.

Humanism arose in Italy in the 13th Century through the influence of one man, Florentine Chancellor Brunetto Lattini. As a statesman, he was responsible for the establishment and preservation of civil liberties. He led his community from the shackles of feudal authority into a community grounded in community and individual initiative, sparking a revolution that shaped the discourse on Italian humanism a few centuries after his death. Lattini exemplified the very nature that came to be known of later humanists. He was an author, a teacher, leader, and a poet with a direct influence on the later generation of scholars such as Dante, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Coluccio. His emphasis on personal activism and emancipation, civic liberty, leadership, and political education have been emulated for centuries, even to the time of the making of the American Declaration of Independence (Grudin).

Petrarch is referred to as the “Father of Humanism” because of his love for Greek and Latin scrolls, most of which he read and collected. A majority of the early humanists, including Petrarch, were religious and worked in the church while others worked as lawyers and city chancellors. The humanist educational program that had its roots in Italy was met with great approval, and many of the noble class citizenries received both traditional and humanist education. After the 100-year war, migrating Greek scholars familiar with the ancient Greek and Roman languages and works provided the much-needed assistance to these early humanists. The church was especially full of humanists who had the resources to collect vast volumes of work and create great libraries. Many of the popes were also humanists, including Pope Pius II, who wrote on the education of boys.

Since most of the early humanists were churchmen, much of humanist comprehension and knowledge went into improving the understanding of the Bible as well as other Christian edicts (Löffler). Eventually, these humanist notions started challenging traditional religious beliefs, especially after the pagan edicts written by the Greeks and Romans were deemed to be in harmony with Christian beliefs after being properly interpreted. As a result, many scholars such as Marsilio Ficino attempted to reconcile the pagan writings with Christianity, while others attempted to construct a syncretism of all religions. All in all, an understanding of both the pagan edicts as well as Christian teachings led to an emphasis on intellectual freedom and individual expressions, as seen in the writings of notable scholars of the time.


Medieval France had managed to maintain a tradition of classical learning, with the University of Paris being an important center of scholastic learning. With the establishment of humanism beginning at the end of the 15th century, many nobles started adapting this novel mode of education. The new King of France, Francis I (1515) as well as sister Marguerite of Angoulême, a significant proponent of reforms in the church, were particularly receptive of the humanist spirit. The new king gave support for artists and poets of humanism, and in 1530, he founded an institution for the study of ancient languages. The novel Institute had humanism as its main curriculum, and it quickly gained prominence to evolve into the distinguished College de France.

The humanism spirit in France did not lead to the immediate creation of new works from the new ideas, as the rhetoriqueurs devoted to the old rhetoric and form dominated French literature for the first quarter of the Century. Francois Rabelais was perhaps the first humanist French writer. His love for humanism, beauty, and pleasure led to him creating great works such as Pantagruel, Gargantua, and Le Tiers Livre. These works address the themes of religion, justice, war, and education while also satirizing stupidity and superstition. Rabelais also exalted the need for humans to reach their full potential, a standard that became synonymous with the Renaissance. The printing press, introduced in France in 1470, was particularly pivotal in diffusing these novel ideas, as well as in diffusing ancient Latin and Greek works. The writings and teachings of Cicero, Plato, and Livy were either newly translated or rediscovered and provided much of the framework for the novel movement

Notable Humanists


Of the three figures pivotal to the rise of humanism in the 14th Century, Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) had perhaps the most notable and multifaceted influence. His recovered and transcribed classical texts were a significant influence on future generations of scholars and his definition of a novel humanism in deep contrast to the medieval conception of the term elicited a lot of debate. His correspondences made him a cultural focal point and provided an accurate view of his thoughts decades after his death. He was many things in one; a theologian, poet, political apologist, and philosophical spokesman.

Petrarch believed in the compatibility and harmony of classical learning and Christian spirituality, and his eloquence and forceful presence made him a personal representation of his ideas, leading to him becoming the focus of renewed interest in the classical revival. He had numerous vernacular compositions of poetry and his poem, Africa, was the first Latin epic by a renaissance writer. His writings also led to secular poetry being considered as a noble and worthy pursuit while also forming the standard by which future works came to be judged.

Petrarch was, however, notable for his work as a philosophical spokesman which he disseminated as letters and prose works. He created positions that would be pivotal to the success of the humanist movement, and the issues that he broached, such as the necessity of studying rhetoric and the idea of language informing the individual and society became favorite topics for debate on humanism. He believed that a poet was a teacher and a champion of culture, a belief that inspired future humanists ranging from Boccaccio to Sir Sidney. Petrarch also held that classical culture offered an alternative to one’s medieval society, and insisted on moral autonomy of the individual (Kennedy). He also emphasized on human virtue as opposed to fortune, and his dilemma with action versus contemplation shaped the future debate and the tenets of humanism. The energy and commitment with which he approached his work shaped humanism in Italy at the time and informed the thinking of future scholars such as Erasmus.

Desiderius Erasmus

Born on 27th October 1469, Erasmus was one of the non-Italian scholars who found inspiration in the Italian tradition. He is the only humanist of the time besides Petrarch, who found international fame during his lifetime, both as a humanist and as the first editor of the New Testament. Just like Petrarch, Erasmus shared a deep love for language and a distaste for the pretenses and complexities prevalent in the secular and religious institutions of the day.

He espoused Christian hedonism and justified earthly pleasure using a religious script. He deemed himself a poet and orator more rathe than a truth-seeker, and while his writings made good sense, they were predominantly derivative. He was, however, preeminent in Latin eloquence, and his Cicerion prose earned him a golden reputation, largely due to his magisterial prose style that was infused with judiciousness and self-control.

Two of his major works, On Copia of Words, and Praise of Folly, have been heralded as literary works of art that stretched the limits of then-permissible expression. These two works received widespread criticism from the church. The church felt that his criticism of ecclesiastical abuses, his encouragement for reform, and fierce confessional stance and independent stance were seen as suspicious by the church as well as loyal partisans. After his death, Erasmus’ reputation in the church waned, and in some nations where his work had been previously translated, it became taboo to own or cite his works. In 1559, Pope Paul IV placed Erasmus’ works in the forbidden category. Even some of his admirers including Martin Luther labeled him an atheist, a hypocrite, and a man lacking any religious conviction. With time, he came to represent the factions in the church, with the Catholic Church prohibiting his writings while the Church of England not only praised him but also actively promoted the translation and publication of his work.

Erasmus’ reputation did not wane even after his death. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he continued being regarded positively by moderates on both sides of the religious divide, and his works were still utilized and emulated. He is still regarded as a precursor to modern intellectual thinking, and his work still debated. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, strict Catholics regarded him as an endangerment to true religion, while Protestant Liberals view him as a precursor of the Reformation whose only crime was not following his heart and denouncing Catholicism. In the late twentieth Century, Catholicism saw a revival of Erasmus’ ideas, especially due to his stubborn criticism in the Church while maintaining that the Church must remain united, his reason for not breaking from Catholicism.

His writings were, however, popular among those who valued liberty, and were emulated by other notable scholars such as Montaigne and Shakespeare. Erasmus’ writings were also pivotal to the acceptance of the new humanistic curriculum to replace the scholastic curriculum. He wrote widely on education and authored five influential texts on the humanistic educational theory that were widely utilized in humanistic schools all over Europe. He also translated and critiqued numerous classical Greek and Latin manuscripts that most educated people of his generation could read. Additionally, he authored various books on spiritual counsel, and even wrote and published various Latin poems that had a secular and religious undertone.  Erasmus also regarded letters as an important literary genre and wrote numerous letters and correspondences with his peers. In fact, the only genre he did not write on was philosophy as he was more interested in philology, and he was even hostile towards philosophers, though he quoted them in his work.

Erasmus was largely apolitical, both by choice and circumstance. He deemed a monarchy as the best form of government, though he felt that the crown ought to consult with other people of the country. He also believed that hereditary succession was more rathe risky, and the best way to choose a competent ruler was through election by community leaders. Like other educated contemporaries of his time, he believed that the masses were not qualified to share political power and were anyway too gullible to false prophecies, making them a potential menace to social order and internal peace. While he did not have many political ideologies, he was a near-pacifist who deemed war as the besetting vice of monarchical government. He hoped that the indoctrination of future leaders in moral philosophy and the tenets of Christianity would curb the tendency of leaders going into war as a means of amassing power, territory, and wealth. He warns of dynastic marriages that create future territorial claims that may result in war and urges any leader wishing to wage war first to consider all the costs, including the anxieties, uncertainties, and dangers involved. He also lamented the tendency of men of God to incite war instead of turning people away from it. Erasmus also warned of the worldly influence of Aristotle that corrupted Christian piety even among the clergy. He states that when the clergy accept the need for material goods and begin accepting money, soon comes the desire for power, and the more the need for power, the higher the propensity of going to war.

Erasmus cited Jesus in his preaching of peace and the non-necessity of war. He even dedicated a treatise specifically to pacifism. In the treatise, peace declares herself as the cause of all that is good while war is destructive of prosperity. He laments how other animals can manage to live peacefully while humans, accorded reason and a great need to preserve themselves, cannot manage to live together peacefully. Erasmus’ publication, a Discussion of Free Will, in which he directly attacks Luther’s assertion that only those elected by God for salvation would escape eternal damnation for their sins has been a major cause for debate. His main reason for attacking Luther was that he felt Luther’s harsh and divisive language were uncalled for and could not have been inspired by God. Erasmus always preached peace and was not shackled by what was popular at the time, something that inspired other notable humanists.

Michel de Montaigne

One of the scholars whom Erasmus inspired was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who lived between 1533 and 1592, a period of deep religious strife. Ranked as one of the most erudite humanists, he respected religion, but upon seeing the religious excesses such as the bloody conflicts, persecutions, and fanaticism that arose from deep religious convictions, he deemed religion as a begetter of vice. He became increasingly skeptical of religion, especially after the Calvinistic Reformation that was followed closely by the Wars of Religion between 1562 and 1598 (Diefendorf).

Montaigne was a scholar, traveler, soldier, and statesman who was alert to both theory and practice and believed in the multiplicity of human events and their effects. He refuted the notion that a comprehension of intellectual arts could teach one a sovereign art of life, and dwelt more rathe on self-inquiry that had been espoused by Petrarch. He rejected the theoretical methodology of philosophizing, and stated that science did not exist, only a general belief in it did. He stated that the main issue with Science was that it spends time justifying inherited beliefs as rational, instead of questioning its core foundations. He called for a thought process that would lead to free inquiry and not be tied down by doctrinal principle; a philosophy of morals and not science.

Montaigne’s philosophy conceived in the practice of free judgment led him to try his judgments so as to become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of these judgments. He made himself the subject of his memoirs, contained within three books of essays, and with time was able to show the ineluctable nature of human spirit. His essays guide readers through a multidimensional comprehension of morality and history and teaches people to accept life in all its contradictions. He states that human dignity, while possible, can only be achieved through self-knowledge and not through heroic achievement.

Montaigne dedicated his life to achieving intellectual freedom and peacefulness of the soul and implores others to follow their path in securing happiness. He urges people to moderate their thirst for knowledge since it stifles thought. He also states that a gentleman should not dedicate himself entirely to philosophy, as it leads to eccentricity and insociability (Montaigne). He also deviated from the teachings practiced by many of Erasmus’ followers, and stresses on the more action and play when teaching children, and transfers the major duty of erudition from school to practical life. Montaigne was also a relativist and skeptic who acknowledged that no universal thought presides over the birth of man’s beliefs. He is hailed as the pioneer of cultural relativism and human sciences.

Jacques Pelletier du Mans

Du Man was a humanist, poet, author, composer, and mathematician who was born in 1517 in Le Mans, France and died in 1582. Pelletier had an intense love for Greek and Latin poetry, and he translated many of these, earning him membership in La Pleiade, a prestigious French poetry group. Pelletier has over 289 works in 865 publications. He tried to revolutionize French spelling that had acquired many inconsistencies when being modeled on its Latin roots. In 1555, Pelletier published a manual of poetry that called for peace. He was a major proponent of peace, having borrowed his ideas from Erasmus, and he also believed in the futility of war.

Pelletier spent his years traveling, and in this time, he met numerous other humanists who had an influence on his thought system and writings. He also published numerous works on algebra, mathematics, and medicine, and developed the novel scale for large numbers that used milliards. He was also a big friend of Montaigne, and together they influenced each other on the need for testing of judgment instead of taking theoretical assumptions as the truth.

Edward W. Said

In the modern world, one of the greatest critics of medieval humanism has been Edward W. Said, a Palestinian-American intellectual and one of the founders of the school of thought of Critical Theory. Critical theory was developed in a bid to free humans from the political, economic, and religious circumstances that shackle them. Said opines that ideology is the primary stumbling block to human liberation. He stressed on worldliness and anti-imperialism and deemed transnational capitalism and global finance as rather primitive concepts.

Despite his criticism of humanism, Said adhered to some of the tenets of humanism, such as the idea that criticism is necessary for an intellectual, and an intellectual must speak the truth at all times. He, however, deviates from this idea by stating that an intellectual should be a migrant exile, refusing to accept the conventions and truths of one’s society in search for their truths. Said goes ahead to mock all forms of political ideologies such as nationalism, imperialism, and communisms, insisting that these are proof of moral bankruptcy in individuals and nations.

For Said, humanism can only be sustained by a sense of community with other individuals, societies, and odes; and thus, there cannot be an isolated humanist. He also insists that humanism has since died, and can only be revived by extensive literary discovery, secular criticism, and worldliness. He argues that the status quo today is built on ethnic and religious differences, misplaced nationalistic pieties, and blind patriotism (Raposa).

In his book, “Humanism and Democratic Criticism,” a collection of posthumous lectures, Said turned attention to the political effects of representation. He brings out the notion of translation, as well as the constitution of tradition. He states that bourgeois humanism has been linked with tradition and national practices, most of which have been suggestive of European superiority over other peoples and cultures. Said differentiates between the national and the aesthetic and states that national political power aims to consolidate public opinion by the careful construction of tightly enclosed identities fueled by radical contrasts. The aesthetic, on the other hand, aims to expose the power strategies that assert to a mono-cultural perspective by introducing a divisive historical perspective. Said opines that reading, philological reception and translation are key values that any humanists should possess and utilize in the way of political activism.

To be able to read a humanistic text, however, one needs to empathize with the author. Said opines that to blur the line between actual events and one’s reflective mind and thus be able to comprehend a text, a reader should place his/herself in the author’s reality, undergoing the same kind of experiences that the author did. By so doing, a reader-critic will be in harmony with the text and thus the reading will be a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits trying to communicate with each other. One thus needs to leave behind the known truths of his native land to be able to understand another text from a different culture or person, and understand it without bias. A humanist should thus not confine himself/ herself to widely held beliefs, but should search for truths as and when they do occur.

Said is, however, quick to clarify that asceticism does not entail withdrawing from the world or limiting one’s philological activity to the narrow confines of personal and solitary scholarship. Asceticism brings about detachment and subjectivity, but also brings about a strong sense of belonging. He notes that exile is borne out of the love for one’s native place, and those in exile have not lost their love for home, rather inherent in each of them is a deep sense of loss. These critics, humanists, and intellectuals, therefore, have the independence and detachment of someone whose homeland is sweet, but who has been robbed of it and wishes to see it restored. For a philologist, however, the national culture and heritage are still important as it enables them to identify the difference that separates what one is reading from his age. To attain self-knowledge, therefore, one must engage in self-criticism as well as study the experiences, traditions, and ideas of other people (Said).


Medieval humanism referred to the development of human virtue in all its forms and the fullest extent. It stemmed from early 13th Century Florentine civic discourse that influenced thinking a few centuries later. In its earliest form, it involved the learning of cultural art and antiquities and aimed to challenge the conventional way of thinking that relied too much on religion. Over time, it spread to different cities and regions and was promoted by different scholars and institutions of the time. While they had different influences and lived in different ages, these scholars have numerous similarities when it comes to humanism. Most prominent is the need for self-criticism and self-observation in the acquisition of knowledge. These humanists, furthermore, reject the widely-held beliefs of their communities and cultures, setting in turn to find their truths. The French movement lacked the intellectual lushness and programmatic unity of its Italian counterpart, but the methods and themes fashioned by its notable scholars reverberate to the modern age.



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