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Humanism: An Introduction

by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

The intellectual and social movement which historians call humanism is what lies at the base of the period we call the Renaissance. Humanism and its ideals came to pervade the art, literature, learning, law, and civic life, first in Italy, then in all of Europe. But what is humanism? Scholars are still debating this issue, but there is a consensus on a basic definition. Simply put, humanism is a rediscovery and re-evaluation of the aspects of classical civilization (ancient Greece and Rome) and the application of these aspects to intellectual and social culture. It is also in many ways a reaction against scholasticism, the dominant intellectual school of the Middle Ages. Scholasticism, while a vital and dynamic method in its early days in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had, in the eyes of its detractors, by the fourteenth century become little more than organized quibbling over minor points of philosophy and theology. You may recall the famous question over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; such questions were actually fairly regularly debated by the later scholasticists.

In contrast, the early humanists espoused a return to study of the original texts, rather than a reliance on the glosses and commentaries produced by the scholasticists. This break was by no means clear--many of the later humanists continued to admire and make use of the works of scholastic scholars, while forging ahead with their own examination of the sources.



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