What are the differences between Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance literature?

Renaissance literature differs from pre-Renaissance literature in more wholly integrating the work of Greek and Roman writers, many of whom had been recently rediscovered. Renaissance literature is humanistic, focusing on human beings as the crown of God's creation. Renaissance authors increasingly produced literature that reflected human interiority and individuality, as seen in playwrights such as Marlowe and Shakespeare.

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The predominant difference between Renaissance literature and the medieval literature which immediately preceded it is the shift from a religious conception of the universe to a more humanistic one. While God and religion were still significant, creators were more interested in the glory of man and the world during this period. Renaissance-era artists and thinkers were also enthralled by classical Greek and Roman art, literature, and philosophy, and they often incorporated it into their work. In contrast, such elements were viewed as too "pagan" during the middle ages, even though there were medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas who took inspiration from them as well. Notice how often the Greco-Roman gods and other mythical figures are referenced in Renaissance paintings and plays, for instance.

Portrayals of human nature were also more nuanced in Renaissance-era literature. Medieval literature and drama tended to focus on allegory, simplifying human beings to particular types. Morality plays such as Everyman or poetry such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have relatively simple characters whose concerns are with their immortal souls and their adherence to Christian moral conduct.

The Renaissance offers a richer array of characters whose morality is less defined, whether those figures are tragic like Hamlet and Dr. Faustus or comic like Falstaff. While critic Harold Bloom's claim that Shakespeare invented our modern conception of human personality might be far-fetched, it is true that the literature of the Renaissance tends to feature characters who are more three-dimensional than what is generally seen in medieval literature.

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One of the main differences between Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance literature is that the latter tended to focus on Christianity, whereas the former was more concerned with man. Broadly speaking, the emphasis shifted from God to man. That is one of the senses in which it is possible to speak of Renaissance humanism.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that atheism became rampant during the Renaissance; it most assuredly did not. Virtually all Renaissance writers saw themselves as deeply devout Christians. It’s just that the emphasis of their work was more on man as the center of the universe. To be sure, that universe, and everything in it, had been created by God, but man was unequivocally at the center of it.

This humanistic focus on man introduced into Renaissance literature a greater degree of complexity relating to human nature. In the medieval era, man tended to be depicted as hopelessly fallen, as was the world into which he had been born. In Langland’s Piers Plowman, for example, we see portrayed a fallen world that spiritual pilgrims have to traverse in order to achieve salvation. The emphasis here is on only one aspect of human nature, namely his submissiveness in relation to God.

Renaissance literature, on the other hand, shows man as having so many more different facets to his character. In creating rich, three-dimensional characters, such as Hamlet and Doctor Faustus, artists like Shakespeare and Marlowe were able to reveal a whole different side to human nature, a side much deeper and more complex than anything we would be likely to encounter in medieval literature.

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The Renaissance began in the fourteenth century and lasted until the seventeenth century. The most notable shift in this period was away from wholly Christian literature to the emergence of literature which put far more emphasis on classical sources from Greece and Rome and more emphasis on the centrality and goodness of humankind.

Renaissance literature that focused on the importance of humans was called humanist. Christian humanist writers of the Renaissance, such as Pico della Mirandola, wrote about humans not as abject sinners but as the glorious crown of God's creation. Mirandola wove the thought of Classical thinkers and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca into his work in an attempt to synthesize and harmonize Classical and Biblical thought—a hallmark of the Renaissance.

An important invention that emerged in fifteenth century was the printing press, which allowed an explosion in writing that questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic church and promoted new ways of thinking about the world. Writers such as Martin Luther, though a Christian, put an emphasis on the individual that aligned with Renaissance thought.

The shift toward greater individualism, questioning, and interiority can be illustrated in drama. Medieval mystery plays, for example, were cycles of plays that retold Biblical stories. They were anonymously authored and tended to be identified by their geographic region, such as the York cycle or the Chester cycle. Characters were often archetypes representing virtues and vices without any deep interiority. The focus was entirely Christian.

By the Renaissance, that had changed. Playwrights such as Marlowe and Shakespeare were incorporating classical texts into their work or basing their plays on classical events, such as the death of Julius Caesar. Interiority was being fully explored in characters who moved from archetypes to fully individualized human beings.

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One of the primary differences between Renaissance and Medieval (Pre-Renaissance) literature is the rediscovery of texts from classical antiquity. In the Middle Ages, there was extreme attention given to Biblical and religious texts, while writers largely dismissed the great writers of the past because they were pagan.

This began to shift during the Humanist period in Italy, when Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio began to examine classical writers within the context of religious themes; thus we have the Roman poet Virgil as Dante's guide through Christian Hell in his Inferno.

The discovery of Plato (who was largely lost during the Middle Ages) in the Renaissance led to Neo-Platonism in the Renaissance, which proved to be very compatible with Christian ideology due to the idea that the more perfect soul is trapped inside the corrupt body. Not only did this influence literature, but also the other arts, as seen in both Michelangelo's poetry and sculpture.

Literature in the Renaissance also began to be more personal and examined, as Petrarch wrote sonnets about his own individual condition in his Rime sparse, evoking the first person singular in reference to his melancholy disposition. This proved to be an early indicator of what would come in modern literature.

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