'Immortal God, what a world I see dawning! Why can I not grow young again?' This was written in 1517 by Desiderius Erasmus, the most famous of all Christian humanists. He was surveying the European culture he knew so well and was full of hope for the future. By tragic irony, even as he wrote these words, a small storm was brewing in the remote university town of Wittenberg, which would in time obstruct and obscure everything Erasmus valued most. Even more confusingly, both Erasmus and Luther could be described as Christian humanists, sharing the excitement about the Bible which so characterised the age, using their scholarship to uncover the beliefs and devotions of the early church, using their skills as teachers and writers to reform and inspire the world around them. Yet less than ten years later they were bitterly divided, with Erasmus lamenting the 'disaster' that Luther had brought upon them all.
So what was Christian Humanism? It hovers in the background of all our discussions of Renaissance and Reformation; it is applied to many great figures, from Erasmus and Luther to such ill-assorted individuals as Thomas More, Huldrych Zwingli, Reginald Pole or even Elizabeth I. It is immediately clear that the chief proponents of Christian humanism were often incapable of agreeing with one another, and sometimes became fiercely opposed. Can the label of 'Christian humanist' be of any value to the historian today?
The first thing we need to wrestle with is the problem of definitions. 'Christian humanism' was itself a form of a wider movement we call 'humanism', which might broadly be described as the intellectual aspect of the Renaissance, another historical movement which evades easy categorisation. At this point it is easy to feel discouraged, but it is important to persevere, because humanism was a movement of extraordinary richness, inventiveness, ideological commitment and literary beauty, worth studying for its own sake, but also for its important intellectual legacy. We might locate its heyday in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but its influence was to shape the literature, thought, art, architecture and music of every subsequent century until our own. Furthermore, humanists wrestled with problems of conflicting cultures, religious division, the encounter between Christianity and Islam, poverty, disease, war and political corruption. These are all issues with relevance to the modern world, and the works of the humanists still speak with startling immediacy and moral force to our own contemporary problems.
The Renaissance and the 'Golden Age' of Humanism
The Renaissance was, broadly speaking, a movement of cultural revival which sought to rediscover and redeploy the languages, learning and artistic achievements of the classical world. It used to be claimed as the 'dawn of modernity', with humanism seen as a set of convictions concerning the dignity of man; the beginnings of that individualism which would one day find expression in the Enlightenment. These grand claims are now seen as deeply misleading. The Renaissance was not a new dawn after the darkness and ignorance of the 'Middle Ages', but a gradual development with a huge intellectual debt to the medieval past. We also now understand how distinct Renaissance ideas were from the ideas of the Enlightenment, or from modern attitudes. We have largely stopped trying to find our own ideas and attitudes in the past, and started looking at the work of the humanists in its own context; still an astonishing achievement, but coloured less by individualism and the beginnings of secularism than by the particular political, religious and cultural currents of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The idea of the Renaissance as an age of gold after an age of darkness was actually a tale spun by the humanists themselves, and makes the important point that this was a very self-conscious …