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Mid-15th century
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The influence of Erasmus
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Northern humanism: 16th century

Although the pictorial style associated with the Renaissance features early in northern art (with Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries in the Netherlands), the interest in classical studies, which provided the original impulse for the movement in 14th-century Italy, arrives late in the north. It is associated above all with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Erasmus spends much of his life travelling Europe as a scholar, finding employment where he can. This brings him into contact with other like-minded men such as John Colet and Thomas More in England.


The interest which unites them can be described as Christian humanism. These men wish to use the classics not as an alternative to Christianity but as a means of strengthening Christian life. Erasmus learns Greek so as to edit the New Testament in its original form, stating in his preface that he wants the holy text translated into every language to bring the Gospel truth closer to ordinary men and women.

John Colet, in similar vein, founds the London school of St Paul's to educate the next generation in both the classics and the Greek New Testament.


These men have a detached and even humorous view of the foibles of the world, as is seen in two of the most popular satirical works of the 16th century - Erasmus's Praise of Folly (1509) and Thomas More's Utopia (1516).

But events, in the violent upheaval of the Reformation, overtake these well-meaning Christian scholars. Erasmus is side-lined in his old age by religious controversies in which he refuses to come down firmly on either side. Thomas More dies a martyr's death because he cannot in good conscience accept the political cynicism of the English Reformation.


In these early decades of the 16th century the idealism of the Renaissance dies. What lasts is a new ability to question all aspects of life and to accept the stark facts of reality. The unflinching pragmatism of Machiavelli is a legacy of the Renaissance. So is the more gently observant eye of Montaigne, and the all-embracing genius of Shakespeare.

The Renaissance spirit is capable of reflecting the horror of the sack of Rome in 1527 in the contrast between the ceiling and end wall of the Sistine chapel. With the same clear sight, Shakespeare's Hamlet can begin a speech in marvelling mood ('What a piece of work is man!') and end in disillusionment ('and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me').


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