The confusion over what constitutes the official period of the Renaissance and its role in history dates back to 1858. Samuel Johnson says, “The term ‘Renaissance’ was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet.” Two years later, Jacob Burckhardt immortalized the term in the publication of his The Civilization of the Renaissance, in which the period was viewed as the beginning of the modern age.
From that time until late in the twentieth century, historians and critics alike envisioned the Renaissance as a transition period between the Dark Ages—in which there was little or no technical innovation or cultivation of the arts—and the modern age. In fact, Renaissance critics themselves were under a similar impression about the importance of the time period. Critic Vernon Hall sums it up in his book A Short History of Literary Criticism, when speaking about the literary critics of the time: “Looking upon the Middle Ages as a semibarbaric period, they were out to bestow form, classical form, on the literature and life of their age.”
During the Renaissance, the new humanistic literature inspired both positive and negative responses from readers and critics. Because many Renaissance works criticized the Catholic Church, they were not received well by either the Church or the Church’s supporters, who would often ban or burn these works. On the other hand, for those who were open to the new ideas Renaissance literature proposed, the works were received very well. So to a large extent, the reception of a work depended on the predisposition of the critic examining it. In addition, in many cases the writer and critic were the same, as in the aforementioned examples of works promoting the use of vernacular language. Hall says about the Renaissance critics, “regardless of whether their influence was good or bad they succeeded admirably in doing one thing. They established literary criticism as an independent form of literature.”
As scholars in later years have looked back on the Renaissance, critics have tended to focus on one country. Says Jonathan Hart in his introduction to Reading the Renaissance, a collection of essays examining the Renaissance as a whole, “Most often, scholars examine the national literatures of the Renaissance in isolation.”
Some of the most famous criticism has been for one particular author, as in the famous “Preface to Shakespeare” by eighteenth-century writer and critic Samuel Johnson, in which he notes, “Shakespeare is above all writers. . . . the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and life.” Shakespeare has been, without fail, the single most studied writer of the Renaissance, in part because his works synthesize many of the humanistic themes that Renaissance writers employed, which still ring true with many critics and audiences in the twenty-first century.