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Northern Renaissance

The Northern Renaissance started latter than the Italian Renaissance, and it is not until the second half of the 15th Century that the spirit of classical revival began to take hold upon Germany, France, and England.

Northern Renaissance - Erasmus, by Albrecht Dürer
Albrecht Dürer -
Erasmus of Rotterdam
National Gallery of Art, Washington

But the culture of the Northern countries was fully prepared through the intense activity seen during the 14th and the 15th centuries, when many schools had been established, and monasteries had kept up the tradition of learning. The University of Prague was founded in 1348, Vienna in 1365, Heidelberg in 1386, Cologne in 1388, Erfurt in 1392, Leipzig in 1409, and Rostock in 1419.

Gradually, the influence of the Italian culture crossed the Alps, and it found a soil ready for it.

A difference between the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance was that, while in Italy the intellectual impulse came from above, in Germany the work began at the bottom. There was a slow build up of a system of elementary education, out of which leaders were to be developed. During this long process, some individuals of exceptional talent and energy, went personally to Italy and brought back the more refined literary taste and an improved method of teaching.

Northern Renaissance Humanists

The Northern Renaissance way of thinking was shaped by the Humanistic Triumvirate of Johann Reuchlin and Ulrich von Hutten in Germany, and Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam in The Netherlands. Each in his own fashion applied the new intellectual energy to the service of religion, as in general, the Northern Humanism was attempting to revive primitive Christianity.

Erasmus rendering of the Gospels was a literary work attracting refined readers. His comments were pointing with subtle irony to the contrast between the precepts of Christ and the practice of the Church.

The great contribution of Erasmus and of the less delicate (even if he was named the Knight of the Order of Poets) Ulrich von Hutten to the Northern Renaissance was the serious satire, mainly directed against the prelates and the friars. Their satirical art is showing a refined taste, a link between North and Italy.

Erasmus had the natural scholar's dread of action, especially of any action that seemed to threaten to overthrow even the corrupt institutions. He disapproved with the "Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum" on account of their violent and personally abusive tone. When Luther began to pound away at the evils of the Church, Erasmus exhausted language to show that he not only disapproved of him, but that he had never read a word of his writings.

The German Renaissance movement was almost entirely intellectual. It did not show the pagan belief, and it could not boast a multitude of Patrons excepting a handful of potentates like the poetizing Emperor Maximilian, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, the wealthy Fuggers, the literary Pirkheimer.

Another group of Northern Renaissance contemporary humanists was composed of English scholars, John Colet, William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, and the great Thomas More.

John Colet was the son of a merchant and ex-mayor of London. He received the best education possible in England, then spent some time in Italy, and on his return, happening around 1496, began to give lectures at Oxford on the “Epistles of Paul.” Three years later, every person at the university, professors, doctors, and students, flocked to these lectures, so fresh and stimulating was Colet's method as compared to that of the earlier, purely scholastic interpretation. What distinguished Colet's view of scripture was the element of personal judgment and individual, spiritual insight.

Two friends of Colet deserve mention here as further expressing the spirit of Northern Renaissance.

William Grocyn (c. 1446-1519) is remembered chiefly as perhaps the first person known to have given instruction in Greek in England. He may have done this at Oxford even before his visit to Italy in 1488, and he certainly taught there after his return in 1490, and continued his work at intervals for about ten years, when he went to London and afterward held various church benefices elsewhere.

Thomas Linacre was a friend and Oxford colleague of Grocyn. From 1485 to 1499 he went to Italy, in Florence, like Grocyn, and he studied under Poliziano. From about 1500 on he led a triple life, as an ecclesiastic, humanist and physician.

Ulrich von Hutten
Portrait of Ulrich von Hutten
The fourth and in many ways one of the most important personality of the Northern Renaissance is Thomas More. Besides being a humanist, he was also a lawyer, and this fact probably determined his tragic fate. As a lawyer, he could not lend himself easily to ideas and policies that seemed to him likely to overthrow the institutions he had spent a lifetime in defending. He believed that King Henry VIII, in trying to place himself above all other powers within the realm, was going beyond his constitutional rights, and he could not act against his belief. He died as he had lived, a defender of the faith and the religious system of his fathers.

The English group illustrates the application of humanistic studies to the several professions and to every form of public life.

The movement in France is later in time and more independent in character than elsewhere in the countries of Northern Renaissance. The learned world of France was still dominated by the University of Paris.

Jean de Montreuil (c. 1355-1418) is the earliest Frenchman to whom the name "humanist" can properly be applied. The phrase which has been applied to him, "a Petrarch in little," gives this impression in brief. Like his model, Coluccio Salutato, the Florentine secretary, he had an extravagant admiration for Petrarch as the restorer of ancient culture to a benighted world.

Nicholas de Clémanges (c. 1360-c.1434), secretary during several years to the Papacy at Avignon, might on first thought be compared to his contemporary Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to the Papacy at Rome. Clémanges also was famous for a ready and refined Latinity and doubtless owed his official appointment to this accomplishment.

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