Study Guide

Renaissance Literature

Renaissance Literature Biography

Introduction

It could be argued that no other literary period in history is as rich—or paradoxical—as the Renaissance. Many historians place the Renaissance from the mid-fifteenth until the early seventeenth century. There are, however, a few writers from other time periods whom historians and critics commonly associate with the Renaissance. The European Renaissance produced some of history’s greatest writers and works of literature, yet most historians and critics have not reached a consensus as to when it actually took place. In addition, the very ideas that began the Renaissance eventually led to other movements that signaled its demise. So what is the Renaissance? Contemporary “Renaissance” fairs and many movies set in “Renaissance” times are often set in England. In reality, however, the Renaissance started in Italy, then spread slowly to other European countries, most notably France, Spain, and finally, England.

At its most pure form, the Renaissance (from the French word for “revival”) refers to the widespread renewal of interest in classical Greek and Roman learning and culture that took place between the Middle Ages and the modern period. With the advent of the printing press in 1450, the development of vernacular languages, and the weakening influence of the Catholic Church on daily life, among other historic events, Renaissance writers and scholars received new avenues for expressing their views. The explosion of literary works that followed live on today as some of the most celebrated in literary history. Early writers like Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More staged direct attacks on the Church and society with works such as Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia. These writers helped open doors for later writers, including William Shakespeare, who is considered the greatest writer of all time by some critics.

Renaissance Literature Representative Authors

Miguel de Cervantes (c. 1547–1616)
Miguel de Cervantes (Saavedra), son of Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra and Leonor de Cortinas, was born circa September 29, 1547, in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. After studying under a humanist teacher in Madrid, Cervantes enlisted in the Spanish military and helped to defend southern “Europe from the invasion of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. While involved in this effort, Cervantes suffered an injury that crippled his left hand. On the way back home from the front, Cervantes and other Spanish soldiers were captured by pirates and detained in northern Africa for five years, at which time they returned to Spain as heroes. However, economic times were tough, and Cervantes’s status as hero soon waned. He turned to writing plays but with little success. He finally was able to secure a civic position as a supplies manager, whereupon he was blamed for the mismanagement of food and jailed. Following these misfortunes, Cervantes wrote his masterpiece El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha (translated as The History of that ingenious gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha), commonly referred to as simply Don Quixote, which details the misadventures of a madman. Cervantes died of edema on April 22, 1616, in Madrid, Spain.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536)
Desiderius Erasmus was born circa October 1466, most likely in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He attended cathedral school, where he was first exposed to Renaissance humanistic thought, and his desire for the intellectual life was born. He used his religious education to access as many classics as he could find. Unlike many Renaissance writers who followed him, Erasmus wrote entirely in Latin, still considered at this time to be the language of the educated. Although he made plans to obtain a degree in theology, these plans were constantly put on hold because of his intellectual pursuits, including several trips to England, where he met influential English humanists like Thomas More. Following More’s lead, Erasmus eventually combined his religious and intellectual interests into a new program of reform, using his literary works to stage satirical attacks on the Church and society. Out of all of his works, Erasmus’s satire The Praise of Folly had the greatest influence on later humanist writers, who mimicked Erasmus’s style in their own satirical works. It should be noted that Erasmus, like other humanist writers, wished to reform the Catholic Church while keeping it unified. However, in his criticisms of the Church and his scholarly interpretation and translation of the Bible, Erasmus was one of many humanists who inadvertently helped to instigate the Protestant Reformation and subsequent division of the Church. Erasmus died on July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–c. 1527)
Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to a middle-class family of civic workers. He studied Latin from an early age and was drawn to the classics, particularly texts about the Roman Republic. He followed family tradition and entered the Florentine political scene during Italy’s politically unstable “city-state” period, when large cities like Florence acted as independent republics. Within Florence, a number of factions vied for power. In 1498, Machiavelli helped one of them overthrow the dominant religious and political figure. Through a few other political posts he held over the next...

(The entire section is 1425 words.)