Knowledge and Education


For most of humanity’s time  knowledge was based on memory. Tribal elders and later ‘professional’ storytellers such as bards and poets would provide the community with the ancient knowledge, passed on from generation to generation. This also included the knowledge from the gods and how they had passed on laws to the tribe. This created a sense of depth to their culture and a sense of shared history.

Added to this became knowledge based on day to day experiences in relation to the hunt, building of huts and later houses, farming,  workshops, tool making, etc.

A combination of knowledge and memory related to landmarks, parcels of land in relation to certain practices and also landownership, plants, herbs.  In these situations combined knowledge also played a key role both at a level of tribal leadership (the elders) and inter-tribal exchanges of information and knowledge (bards, poets, etc).

There are particular good examples of such knowledge and of the people who were the guardians of this knowledge and the important status of these people within the tribe in the Icelandic sagas.

Other good examples come from the Mediterranean basin. In Mesopotamia and Greece these ‘poets’  were seen as the messengers of the Gods. Homerus was one of the most well known. Through oral and later written tradition they passed on the knowledge from the past to the future. They could recite the mythological stories which contained the ‘knowledge’ of that time and they also could recite the laws of the gods and the people and they were often required to attend the tribal assemblies where the kings held court. Their mythological knowledge was widely accepted as the truth.


Key centres of ancient learning

Academy of Athens

The father of the Greek democracy was such a poet, Solon (c. 638 – 558 BC). From him onward, this situation started to change with learned people starting to arrive. With a booming Greek ‘economy’ it became possible for the well off to spend time on learning and at that early stage that was largely self-taught.

Most probably the first centre of learning became Athens where the famous Academy of its name was founded by Plato in ca. 387 BC. Aristotle studied there for twenty years (367 BC – 347 BC) before founding his own school, the Lyceum. The Academy persisted throughout the Hellenistic period as a sceptical school, until coming to an end after the death of Philo of Larissa in 83 BC. Schools were not buildings as we know them today, they were more in the sense of an institution, teachers travelled, met in parks, public places in town and so on, they also rented themselves out for private tutoring.

The School of Athens Vatican
The School of Athens a fresco by Raphael. It was painted between 1509 and 1511 for the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

Another remarkable intellectual was Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus – b.99 BC d.55 BC). This early rationalist and scientist wrote down all that he knew or reasoned for the Epicureans, this group of  scholars and students followed the teachings of Epicurus (307BC) who did not believe in superstition and divine intervention.

Lucretius poem De Rerum Natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicurean physics, which includes atomism, and psychology. His works were rediscovered in a monastery in Germany in 1417, by Poggio Bracciolini. The ideas of Lucretius had a great influence on the academics of the Renaissance. However, similar to the works of Aristotle they needed to be – in one way or another – integrated in the teachings of the Church in order for them to obtain any traction. Lucretius works clearly were atheistic and it took much longer for it to obtain its own rightful position in modern reasoning and science. It has been argued that his work provided a clear path towards the Age of Enlightenment.

Cicero (106 – 43 BCE)  was an admirer of Lucretius and introduced the Greek Philosophy to the Romans and this is what he later on became famous  for. He also became the hero of Renaissance Humanistic letter writing (see below).

Although philosophers continued to teach Plato’s philosophy in Athens during the Roman era, it was not until AD 410 that a revived Academy was re-established as a centre for Neoplatonism, persisting until 529 AD when it was finally closed down by Justinian I. Several of its lecturers went to Persia where they continued a centre of classic learning in Ctesiphon.

Platonism (Neoplatonism)

Based on the works of Plato, the Egyptian philosopher Plotinus, in the 3rd century developed a set of religious and mystical  teaching aimed at trying to reconcile the various aspects of life on earth. He introduced the concept of the ‘One’ , being the highest level of reality. It is clear that this sounded very appealing to the early Christian philosophers such as Augustine. Trying to make sense of the world around them through a simpler and purer ‘ concept of an ‘unconflicted’ world. Neoplatonism lasted well into the Middle Ages, only slowly started to be replaced by new scientific ideas which started to emerge during and after the Enlightenment.


The Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest and most significant  library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major centre of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).


Pergamon’s library on the Acropolis is the second largest in the ancient Greek civilization. When the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus, partly because of competitors and partly because of shortages, the Pergamenes invented a new substance to use in codices, called pergaminus or pergamena (parchment) after the city. This was made of fine calfskin, a predecessor of vellum. The library at Pergamon was believed to contain 200,000 volumes, which Mark Antony later gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present.

Temple for Trajan and Zeus Philios


A formal education started to evolve during the Roman Republic, indications are that these were for paying students only and for both boys and girls. This system was highly influenced by the Greek system as that existed in Athens and other cities. Schooling was limited to the higher classes of Roman society.

Differences between the Greek and Roman systems emerge at the highest tiers of education. Roman students that wished to pursue the highest levels of education went to Greece to study philosophy, as the Roman system developed to teach speech, law and gravitas.

The Roman education system arranged schools in tiers, starting at the age of 4 and organised very much along modern school systems (play school, primary, secondary, college, university).

Some of these schools continued after the fall of Rome and were continued to be used by the senatorial families and also by the Church.

Medieval times

The end of reason

Ironically in the same year that the 1,000 year old School of Athens (Platonic Academy) was closed by Emperor Justinian, the Ecumenical Council of Orange in 529 declared that each diocese was suppose to run a school.  These  decisions forms the link between the Greek and Roman education systems (Platonism or what later on became know as Neoplatonism) and the new attempts to again more formally address education, this time led by the Church. However, the Council decision did not deliver on its promise.

For most of the medieval period the Catholic Church had total control over the media. This only changed with the arrival of the printing press.

A key element was that the world was the work of God – this was already established by Plato and Aristotle – and was in a state of immobility and as a work of God this didn’t tolerate examination based on reason.

Slowly the Latin West started to move away from the Greek East. The Latins moved more towards the Aristotelian way of thinking, while the Greeks in the East were more drawn towards Plato and this became clear in the fact that the Church in the East became known as the Orthodox Church, with even less interest in logic and science and no room for innovation at all, any new idea was seen as a heresy. By 500 Latin had become the main language and only a handful of Romans could still speak Greek, consequently many of the Greek literature and knowledge  started to disappear.

Under the dogmatic Christian regime education only very slowly developed and mainly evolved around theology.

It wasn’t until the 13th century – based on Arab and Indian knowledge that among other things geography was studied again which led to questions regarding a flat of a round earth, a stationary or moving earth.

However, all of this knowledge was in Greek , Latin and Arabic and as such not accessible to 99% of the population. In the West, the Church had therefor an easy monopoly on knowledge. This in contrast to the Quran and Arabic knowledge which was written in the vernacular and was therefore easily accessible to their people. The same applied to the Jews. Throughout the Middle Ages we see Jews and Arabs  being among the most intellectual people of Europe , in stark contrast with the small  number of intellectual native Europeans.

For nearly a thousand years education would be limited to the very few and as indicated nearly totally limited to religion. Even among the small higher class the number of literate people would be small; concentrated at courts, abbeys and cathedrals. At the most between 5-10% of the population during the Middle Ages could read and write and nearly all of them would belong to the clergy. It wasn’t until the mid to late 13th century before the vernacular became more widespread used in Europe.

For nearly a thousand years knowledge in the West was controlled by the Church, this also becomes clear when  looking at the intellectual output of the following ages, the words written at that time are nearly all without exception church manuscripts.

All thoughts were filtered by the teachings of the Church and even the most learned man of his time, Thomas Aquinas, stated that in order to understand and learn one must posses and cultivate the seven theological virtues: faith, hope and charity (the three most important ones) and also prudence, justice, fortitude and temperateness. Within that context it become very difficult to discuss complex issues such as the universe, solar system, opposing concepts, abstract thoughts and so on.

Monastic schools

The more privately oriented system of teaching continued to well into the Early Middle Ages.  In 789 Charlemagne issued an edict making these monastery schools compulsory, together with a minimum curriculum for the teachers to follow. Now, for the first time, we start to see the developments of schools as in buildings as as we still know them today. However, Charlemagne’s reign didn’t last long enough and his successors weren’t strong enough to actually implement this fully. While it was the next major step in the education process of northwest Europe, education for much of the Middle Ages remained a casual affair. Monasteries remained the major education institutions but they were mostly limited  for the educations of the monks and the very few diocese schools were there for the (often very limited) education of priest. Increasingly also cathedral schools started to emerge such as the ones in Chartres, Orleans, Paris, Laon, Liege, Rheims, Rouen and Utrecht.

Around 1000 the monastic system was seen as to rigid and limited and slowly the so call ‘scholastic’ approach started to evolve (see below). The dialectical approach as had been introduced by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle was based on a dialogue between opposing views with the aim to that through reasoning the truth would be revealed.  While still very much linked to defending the orthodox view, rigorous analyses and debates became now part of the education system. Part of this process was also aimed at reconciling the classical Greek philosophy with the Christian teachings. The main leaders of medieval  scholasticism  are Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas (see below).

The only category of literate children – across the various layers of society –  where those of the Jews, all of them were taught to read the Torah and every Jewish family did have a copy of this book – at a time when books were still a rarity.

 Court schools

Apart from this the the systems also provided for educated and trained monks and priests as well as for the children from the nobility, they where the only ones who could afford some of the relative few (travelling) private tutors. At the castle, both boys and girls did received education. The emphasis for girls however was on obedience, humbleness and goodness. Girls sometimes got also trained in archery, but the focus was more on needlework, embroidery and spinning. Boys would become a page between the ages of 7 and 10, basically to be trained in chivalry and weaponry. They are also in charge of the caring for the dogs and the horses. In these court schools education was mainly based on the personal interpretation of the private tutor in charge of the job. The future Burgundy Duke John the Fearless was at the age of 5 trained on a mule, later on a merry and in the meantime he was taught on how to hunt.

Vocational education

Most tradespeople learned their trade through apprenticeships or from family members. This could talk anywhere between 3 and 6 years and most of the time this meant very hard work often little or nothing to do with the trade itself. Some of these ‘trainings’ were also very physical as professions such as millers and blacksmiths required muscle power.

Public education

The social economic development of the 12th and 13th centuries made it possible for more people to participate in education.

Once cities started to emerge, a few public schools started to arrive they were needed to support the new trading skills required in the new city economies taking the education monopoly away from the church. Here reading, writing, arithmetic and trading and commercial skills were taught. But also travel information (geography) became part of the curriculum of these institutions. Already in 1179 one such school was in operation in Ghent.

The secularisation of writing saw the power of education moving away from the monasteries to what would become the first universities. Apart from the monks an increasingly growing part of middle class people started to learn to write.

It was not until the 13th century before Leonardo da Pisa replaced – at Emperor Frederic’s  Court in Sicily  – the Roman numbers  by the Hindu-Arabic numbers. This made arithmetic much easier to learn and to practice.

However it was not until the 15th century – when, thanks to the printing press and pulp based paper, the costs of education materials started to become more affordable – that we also start to see a more widespread availability of city schools; nothing less than an information revolution. At the end of the Middle Ages – apart from the poor – most children in the cities did receive some form of education even as little as very basic arithmetic and writing their name. Nevertheless it has been estimated that of the total population in Western Europe not much more than 10% of them could read or write.

In England, more so than elsewhere, some of the schools received the income of property that they used to fund some of the colleges that started to appear in the 14thcentury; for boys aged between 8 and 12 years old, in preparation for university. These funds allowed them to built separate campuses which often did look like monasteries. While these institutions were dominated by the students from well to do parents, others were also allowed in. However, for example the ‘rich’ kids dined separately at a big table, the others had to dine with the servants but only after they had served the rich kids first.

Paris became an early centre of learning. Already in 1380 Paris had more than 60 schools. Students typically attended such schools for 2 month to learn reading (reading was seen as more important than writing) and 4 month to learn arithmetic. Increasingly also schools started to emerge in rural areas, be it with a very low number of students (often not more than 1 or 2 pupils). Education was done by the priest either in the church or in the rectory

Most learning was done by memorising as there were no books (or very few) and paper was an expensive luxury. At best there would be wax panels in which letters could be scraped and reused by warming them up again. Wooden panels with wooden letters and pictures were also used by teachers as education materials. Often prayers were used as the only texts to be read or write (in Latin!).

While – after the invention of the book press –  books did become more available they were still only limited to the rich as the students would have to provide their own materials and for a long time books remained expensive. The distribution and sales of more affordable books started to become available during the 16th century. By 1500 the printing presses of Europe had already produced an estimated 8 million books and by the end of that century this number had grown to 200 million. Erasmus asked: “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” Printing also saw a fundamental shift in the nature of literacy. Under the stewardships writing was used to preserve literature, now literacy became the start of what we now call scholarship 2.

The school year started in October, after the harvest. Children were desperately needed during the harvest months. There were also up to 150 church holidays during the year. Education was only for boys and those who went school did so between the ages of 14 and 16. Some basic family education was done at the age of 8-10 years. Girls were taught household tasks but did not attend school if they did receive some private education it was at a minimum supervised by men.

The intellectuals of the early and mid Middle Ages

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

According to his contemporary, Jerome, Augustine “established anew the ancient Faith.”In his early years, he was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterward by the neo-Platonism of Plotinus. After his baptism and conversion to Christianity in 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and perspectives. He basically christianised the works of Plato, however Augustine believed that Plato had not understood God’s intentions. Believing that the grace of Christ and the Triumph of Christianity was indispensable to human freedom. He was influential in formulating the doctrine of original sin – otherwise there was no need for divine providence – and made seminal contributions to the development of just war theory and had extensive theories about the upcoming Apocalypse. He essentially  created the concept of sin in his book ‘The Fall of Man” as this was needed to create the ‘ideal’ Christian God.

When the Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the pre-Schism Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God, distinct from the material Earthly City. In his book Civitas Dei  (The City of God) he projects a linear history , the Fall from Paradise, Fall of Rome, Fall of Humanity and the Final Destruction. Humans are active participants in this linear history but are hampered by sin and this can only be rectified through Divine Providence.

His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. The segment of the Church that adhered to the concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople closely identified with Augustine’s City of God- a Christian utopia in a prophetic way.

Boethius (ca. 480–524)

Born in Rome to an ancient and important family. His father was consul in 487 after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. Boethius himself was consul in 510 in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. Boethius was imprisoned and eventually executed in Pavia by King Theodoric the Great, who suspected him of conspiring with the Eastern Empire. While jailed, Boethius composed his Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical treatise on fortune, death, and other issues. The Consolation became one of the most popular and influential works of the Middle Ages.

It was specifically stated that he spoke Greek, an indication that the Greek language had started to disappear in the West. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin. His completed translations of Aristotle’s works on logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th century. However, some of his translations (such as his treatment of the topoi in The Topics) were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.

 Cassiodorus (ca 485-580)

Cassiodorus, succeeded Boethius as the Ostrogoth Court and  devoted much of his life supporting education within the Christian community at large. He founded the monastery of Vivarium with a monastery school on the Ionian Sea. When his proposed theological university in Rome was denied, he was forced to re-examine his entire approach to how material was learned and interpreted. His Variae shows that, like Augustine of Hippo, Cassiodorus viewed reading as a transformative act for the reader.

Beyond demanding the pursuit of discipline among his students, Cassiodorus encouraged the study of the liberal arts. He believed these arts (disciplines) were part of the content of the Bible, and some mastery of them–especially grammar and rhetoric–necessary for a complete understanding of it.

He found the writings of the Greeks and Romans valuable in their ability to portray higher truths where other arts failed. He connected deeply with Christian neoplatonism, which saw beauty as concomitant with the Good. This inspired him to adjust his educational program to support the aesthetic enhancement of manuscripts within the monastery, something which had been practiced before, but not in the universality that he suggests.

Before the founding of Vivarium, the copying of manuscripts had been a task reserved for either inexperienced or physically infirm devotees, and was performed at the whim of literate monks. Through the influence of Cassiodorus, the monastic system adopted a more vigorous, widespread, and regular approach to reproducing documents within the monastery. This also became a turning point for monasteries from places of austerity to places of knowledge.

 Isidore (Isidorus) of Seville (ca 560 – 636)

The Visigoth archbishop Isidore was the first Christian writer to essay the task of compiling for his co-religionists a summa of universal knowledge, in the form of his most important work, the Etymologiae (taking its title from the method he uncritically used in the transcription of his era’s knowledge). It is also known by classicists as the Origines (Orig.). This encyclopaedia — the first such Christian epitome — formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes. It epitomized all ancient and contemporary learning. It preserves many fragments of classical learning, otherwise lost.

At many occasions Isidore lamented about the lack of knowledge in Europe. Explanations about the natural world based on empirical quest was gone, and mostly replaced by superstition.

  Beda (Bede) Venerabilis (the venerable)(ca 672–735)

Beda was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter. This monastery had access to a superb library (with 100-120 works, which was very large for that time) which included works by Eusebius and Orosius among many others. Together with another Englishman Alcuin they were the most knowledge  persons of the 8th century, this in itself indicates a remarkable turnaround of the the country after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Thanks to Christianity that was reintroduced by Augustine, the first bishop of Canterbury, knowledge started to return to the country.

Beda studied ‘time’,  a critical element of the Church calendar, in particular the dates for Easter.  Dogma had it that God didn’t like mistakes. The fact that even today there are still disputes over the dates, show how difficult these calculations are. Calendars were also needed to calculate the ‘end of the world’.

Bede wrote scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He knew patristic literature, as well as Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers. His Latin is generally clear, but his Biblical commentaries are more technical. Bede might also have been the first person to come up with the concept of AD and BC.

He is well known as an author and scholar, and his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title “The Father of English History”.

He also was  a skilled linguist and translator, and his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to Anglo-Saxon Christianity.

Rediscovery of knowledge

Arabs progressed knowledge

The crusades played a key role in the re-discovery of the long lost knowledge from the Greek and Romans. After the Church had decided that all knowledge was contained with faith the old Greek and Roman science and educations institutions disappeared. The famous School of Athens was closed after 1000 years and many of the scientists and intellectuals moved to Persia where the institute continued. Tolerance within the Islamic world was significantly higher than in the Christian Church and for hundreds of years Christians, Jews and Muslims shared knowledge and expanded their knowledge from places such as Damascus and Baghdad, where it also was combined by knowledge coming from Persia and India. The Muslims saw science in the light of honouring Allah.

In the footsteps of the crusaders were also monks who were attracted by the stories over the highly educated nature of the Muslim society and again within an atmosphere of tolerance they started to meet with Arab scientists and philosophers.

Trade was another side effect of the crusades as well as the earliest form of tourism and international money transfer (Knights Templar). In its turn the rediscovered sciences such as algebra  and trigonometry,  assisted further developments in trade and the broader economy. Instruments as the compass and the astrolabe were critical in maritime developments and the consequent ‘discoveries’ of new lands.

A further breakthrough happened with the reconquista of Toledo, in 1085, where enormous libraries existed. The books were translated into Latin and its knowledge rapidly spread over Europe and the mathematical knowledge assisted for example in the building of the cathedrals. Long before Copernicus proclaimed that the earth circled the sun, Arab scientists had already documented this phenomenon. Via the Arab work the Hindu numbering system was now passed on to the Europeans who rapidly used this to replace the cumbersome Roman numerical system.

City of God (St. Augustine) from the Translation School in Toledo. MET New York
City of God (St. Augustine) from the Translation School in Toledo. MET New York

Averroës  ( 1126-1198)

One of the most famous philosophers and scientists of this day was the Muslim Ibn Rushd (Averroes), born in Cordoba in 1126. The Caliph – who had its court at Marrakesh at that time – had complained that he found Aristotle hard to understand and the existing translations were unhelpful. Averroes was up to the task and as a consequence of his studies  his understanding of Aristotle is unsurpassed; the way that Europeans started to understand the very complex works of Aristotle was largely because of the extensive comments written by Ibn Rushd (he was simply known as The Commentator). Ibn Rushd was also able to successfully argue the difference between philosophy and religion and his arguments were also used by early European scientists to defend themselves against the Church. His ideas about that God needed to be removed from the Earth, eventually he was accused as a heretic and in 1190 was send into exile.

All this new and rediscovered knowledge allowed Europe to enter the ‘early Renaissance’, which reached its heights around 1250, which led to some fundamental changes to the universities – they became institutionalised, required higher degrees were introduced and were also required for example to order to be licensed in medicines and law.  After a ban for Masters of Art to comment on Aristotle, the resistance to the ban became so strong that universities started to ignore the ban first in England and France followed some years later, There was also  much more interest in logic and natural science. There is  no coincidence that massive cathedral and castle constructions were undertaken as knowledge became more disseminated throughout the western society.

It is also worthwhile to mention the enlightened Pope Sylvester II (945-1003), who also significantly contributed to the development of science before and during his reign. From this time onward dialectica becomes more prominent and this brought many academical people and philosophers into hot water with the Church, for example, Peter Abelard  (1079-1142) was twice prosecuted by the Church.

Reintroduction of Aristotle

The influence of Aristotle on the religious and scientific developments in Europe and the Middle East has been profound. Differently from Plato, Aristotle embraced all elements of science, Plato had never ventured into the natural sciences. Furthermore Aristotle was not a theist but a rationalist and also had a rational approach to God, who he saw perhaps as the original creator, the mechanic, and the organiser behind it all; but not one who would interfere in daily life or who had to work with through battles or prophets.

His influence on all the three religions of the books is very substantial and especially thanks to the translation of his work by the House of Wisdom through which his work was re-introduced in the broader societies during the High Middle Ages.

The key students of Aristotle at that time were

  • Averroes was probably the most knowledgeable Aristotle follower ever.
  • The Rabi Maimonides (1135 – 1204), who wrote in Latin and worked in Spain and Egypt, is his most famous Jewish follower
  • Thomas Aquinas (1255 – 1274) worked in Italy, France and Germany; he was the Christian intellectual who used Aristotle for his reasoning between faith and philosophy (see below).
Statue of Maimonides in his birthplace Cordoba
Statue of Maimonides in his birthplace Cordoba

Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna)  930-1037

Ibn Sīnāor as he is known by his Latinized name Avicenna, was a Persian polymath, who wrote almost 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects: philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics, as well as poetry. Most of his works were on works of  philosophy and 40 of them concentrate on medicine.

His most famous works are The Book of Healing, a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia.  The Canon of Medicine  – a complete system of medicine according to the principles of Galen (and Hippocrates) – was a standard medical text at many medieval universities; at  Montpellier and Leuven even as late as 1650.

 Muammad Abū’l-Qāsim Ibn awqal – 10th century

Ibn Ḥawqal Muslim writer, geographer, and chronicler. His famous work, written in 977, is called “The face of the Earth”.  He was a traveller who spent much of his time writing about the areas and things he had seen. He spent the last 30 years of his life in remote parts of Asia and Africa.

He provides detailed description of Muslim-held Spain, Italy and particularly Sicily.  He also mentions the “Lands of the Romans,” the term used by the Muslim world to describe the Byzantine Empire. In it, among other things, he describes his first-hand observation of 360 languages spoken in the Caucasus, with Azari and Persian languages being used as Lingua Franca, he also gives a description of Kiev.

Peter the Venerable (1092 – 1156)

He was one of Europe’s’ greatest intellects of the 12th century. His greatest achievement is his contribution to the reappraisal of the Church’s relations with the religion of Islam. A proponent of studying Islam based upon its own sources, he commissioned a comprehensive translation of Islamic source material, and in 1142 he travelled to Spain.

The project team he brought together translated a number of texts relating to Islam (known collectively as the “corpus toletanum”). They include the Apology of al-Kindi; and most importantly the first-ever translation into Latin of the Arabic Qur’an (the “Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete”). With this translation, the West had for the first time an instrument for the serious study of Islam.

Siger of Brabant ca 1240 – 1284

While the hunger for knowledge certainly grew, so also did the opposition to ‘reason’. The Church demanded that knowledge was based on unquestioned faith. Siger (Zeger) of Brabant however, took a more rational and fearless approach and taught the works of Aristotle in its original form and the commentaries on this work from Averroës. He didn’t seek reconciliation with the ‘faith’ instead like  Averroës he believed that there was no conflict between religion and philosophy . Siger was accused by Thomas Aquinas  of ‘double truth’; one based on reason and one based on faith. For that reason he was called to appear before the Roman Curia in Orvieto. The dramatic event that happened next was also captured in a poem, contributed to Dante. Soon after Siger arrived he was stabbed to death by his own secretary. Dante was well aware of political conflicts and it is clear that poem sees the death of Siger as a political church murder.

Siger’s Death

A Brabantine chronicle says that he was stabbed by an insane secretary (a clerico suo quasi dementi). The secretary is said to have used a pen as the murder weapon and his critics claimed since he had done so much damage with his pen, he deserved what was coming. Dante, in the Paradiso (x.134-6), says that he found “death slow in coming,” and some have concluded that this indicates death by suicide. A 13th century sonnet by one Durante (xcii.9-14) says that he was executed at Orvieto: “a ghiado it fe’ morire a gran dolore, Nella corte di Roma ad Orbivieto.” The date of this may have been 1283-1284 when Pope Martin IV was in residence at Orvieto. His fellow radicals were lying low in the face of the Condemnations of 1277 and there was no investigation into his murder. Source Wikepedia

Ibn Khaldoun 1332 – 1406

He was a Muslim historiographer and historian who is often viewed as one of the forerunners of modern historiography, sociology and economics. He is best known for his Prolegomenon (an introduction to his planned history of the world).

He had considerable influence on 17th-century Ottoman historians who relied on his theories to analyse the growth and decline of the Ottoman empire. Later in the 19th century, Western scholars recognised him as one of the greatest philosophers to come out of the Muslim world.


The oldest ‘university’+ in Europe was the one in Salerno on the Amalfi Coast in Italy it started already as a center of learning during the Greek and Roman times. However its medieval medical school dates back to the 10th century. They only taught medicine here, based on the works of Hippocrates (46-375 BCE), Galenus (130-200AC) and those of Arab and Jewish authors, which were collected and  kept at this institution.

Archbishop Alfanus of Salerno (died 1085) was famed as a translator, writer, theologian, and medical doctor. He was a physician before he became archbishop, one of the earliest great doctors of the Schola Medica Salernitana.

As a translator, Alfanus was well-versed in Greek, Latin and Arabic. He translated the medical work of Galen from Greek and Latin as well as the medical writings on the brain from the Syrian Nemesius. His interest in medicine and the translation of Arabic treatises on the subject led him to invite Constantine the African from Carthage (in what is now Tunisia) to Salerno to assist him. Constantine brought with him a library of Arabic medical texts which he commenced to translate into Latin. Constantine in turned was influenced in his thinking by Abelard (see below).

These were the glory days of the Amalfi coast when its merchant dominated trade in and around the Mediterranean bringing Arab, Spanish, Jewish, Byzantine, Egypt and other influences to its region. They were the key link between the East and the West.

There was a sudden flux of educative activities at the end of the 12th and during the 13th century.  In many places this development led to the foundations of ‘universitas’ basically a guild of learned people (what we would now call scientists and academics), with that structure these people cooperated and taught at the cathedral and private schools.

Initially these early developments had little to do with the institutions as we know them today. They were organised around the teacher and the ‘university’ could be his house or on the street in front of his house in a church or a park. He could be a priest, a clerk, a cannon or a travelling student from another city or another country. Apart from ecclesiastic education for monks and priests, most other education was available on an ‘a la carte’ basis.

Eventually however, these structures led to the development of the universities that started to arrive;  between 1195 and 1220  no less than 10 universities opened their doors in Europe.

The first among this group was the university of Bologna, which started in the 12th century as a juridical school -(School of Glossators).

In Paris higher education started to evolve around the Notre Dam and Peter Abelard was one of a key figures who, during the 12th century,  lifted Paris to a European center for learning. It was King Philip of France who in 1200 granted his royal privileges to the university, at a time where France started to grew beyond its traditionally limited territory of Paris. One of the most famous colleges was establishes around 1250 by Robert de Sorbonne this was later upgraded to the Sorbonne University. Colleges started at 5am and went on to 5pm. This center of education grew so large that it became know as Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) that still exists  today.

Based on the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman text the ‘artes liberales’ became the foundation of the  the curriculum (see below).  Already under the influence of   Peter Abelard innovation in education led to summaries of the key points of the ‘artes’. His ‘Summaes’ became standard works. At the same time grammar and rhetoric  moved to the Latin schools, which became a preparation for the universities (higher education). The education system around this was called ‘scholasticism’.

The rather ‘free’ structure of these universities was soon cracked down by the Church. Peter Abelard was declared a heretic and some of his books were burned, he was however reinstated, but clearly such a free spirit was a potential danger to a dogmatic church .

Already in 1230 the minor religious orders, the ‘mendicants’ feared an undermining of the Church doctrine. Assisted by the church hierarchy they started to take control over these ‘universitas’. Interestingly they did so under the direct authority of the pope. From now on only the pope could found new universities. The foundation bull also provided the universities with a significant amount of independence and this allowed them to obtain a separate status in society. They were the only institutions that were authorised to grant degrees. This system was especially noticeable in Oxford and Cambridge.


While there was some specialisation, under the influence of the church there was little flexibility, let alone innovation and the scholastic system became rigid and not much more than an instrument of the church, based around church dogmas, faith and the rather unmovable theories around this. From a materialistic point of view, the earth and the universe around it,  as well as men where the pinnacles and the end points of God’s creation, they were given, unchangeable and therefore no objects for study.

What did require study and interpretation was that God had created men in his image and surrounded them with temptations to test how good they were in choosing between God end Evil. Such studies could only be done through the facilitation of the Church, they did have the knowledge that was needed to make the right choices and what virtues, behaviour and actions were required to reach salvation needed to end up in Heaven. The aim of the learned men of the Middle Ages was to put all of this within one vision, one framework and the ‘artes liberales’ were used to create this. This led to the most complex and hopeless discussions and publications of theories based on those principles. Without any room for innovation and flexibility on the side of individual thought and interpretation, all of these discussions in the end stalled.

While people such as Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham recognised and even praised individual thought and Dante seriously questioned the stifling nature of the Church, they still did this within the very strict confines of the Creator and his Creation.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that more functional and utilitarian elements based on the individual started to change this system of education, know as humanistic reforms.

But even then, despite the fact that a more empiric approach started to become more accepted, some of the old ingrained notions remained. Astrology was still seen as highly influential in interpreting the personal fate of individuals. Alchemy – while also containing the basis of modern science – also had a lot of ‘magic’ attached to it. In turn they both had a great influence on the medical thoughts of those days.

Slowly, driven by individuals outside the university structures alternative thoughts (humanism) started to win ground.

On the request Duke John IV of Brabant, in 1425, Pope Marten V issued a papal bull  for the foundation of the first university in the Low Countries in Leuven. Initially it started with the faculties: philosophy, civil law, canon law and medicine. Students were grouped in four nations: Brabant, Flanders, Holland and France.  Adriaan Florisz Boeyens, the later Pope Adrianus VI, was rector of the university from 1493 till 1500. Erasmus also lectured at the university.

Leuven was one of the approx 75 universities that were founded during the Middle Ages. It is estimated that between 1350 and 1500 some 750,000 (male only) students registered at these universities. The largest universities attracted between 2000 and 4000 students per year, Paris in its hay day could even have had as many as between 5,000 and 8,000 students. Universities were visited by students from all over Europe, there was no problems with communications as the lingua franca was Latin. The students often lived in fixed quarters (Latin Quarters).

University courses often took many years to complete, theology for example 15 years. By the High Middle Ages the majority of students were city kids as well as children from the wealthier farmers; the nobility by that time only accounted for a very small percentage. While students could start university when they were 10 years old, the majority joined between the ages of 16 and 20. The first graduation could take place 3 years after the student commenced his studies, which also would provide him with a licence to teach. The doctorate diploma would normally not be issued to persons under 30 which would also allow him to teach at university.

We have all heard of rowdy students, interestingly as they were all taught at catholic institutions they fell outside civic laws, only the church could punish them who also received the lucrative fees for the education service. Nevertheless, the Church was opposed to any form of rowdiness, opposing views, even private joy , songs and other ‘excesses’ were quickly seen as anarchy and were not tolerated.

Description of student life at Paris, by Jacques de Vitry ca 1225

  • the English were drunkards and had tails;
  • the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women;
  • the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts;
  • the Normans, vain and boastful;
  • the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers;
  • the Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid;
  • the Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable and were often reproached for the death of Arthur;
  • the Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly;
  • the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous;
  • the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel;
  • the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers;
  • those of Flanders, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter, and slothful.

For teachers to get paid for their work by their students (their parents) was often a major exercise. Often fees were paid in local produce, cloths, a good meal, etc. Later on when it became more institutionalised the pay remain meagre but some facilities (schools and housing) were provided e.g. by cities. Children could be punished but contractually you could not break their limbs or draw blood.


Scholasticism and Humanism

Scholasticism and humanism were not philosophies or theories; they were  movements, methods of learning, techniques on how to approach a specific subject, a body of knowledge. They were means to approach this body of knowledge; they were methods of learning.

By around 1000 the monastic teaching system had become rigid and started to reach the limits of its usefulness  – from the 12th century onward – the so call ‘scholastic’ approach started to evolve. Scholasticism took off after the fall of Toledo in 1085  slowly the  ancient works of the Greek and Romans – as they were preserved and translated by the Arabs – were rediscovered by the scholars in Western Europe. This revolutionised study in the middle ages.

An  increased and interest in a more deeper understanding of the texts of the ancient philosophers created a more self-conscious  driven development in learning.  In particular the works of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle  played a key role in this movement (the Greek language had largely been lost during the Middle Ages and this had to be relearned). This deeper level of learning pushed scholasticism slowly into humanism;  starting from the 14th century onward.

By the time the Greek woks started to re-emerge there were hardly any Greek speaking scholars left and it wasn’t until the late 15th century that Greek text started to become more accessible. This created a real stir as now for the first time the early scriptures became available in their original language and this required significant rewriting of Latin texts which had been based on translations of translations and often on rather inaccurate translations.  The humanists thrived on these rediscoveries.


The scholastic teaching system revolved around disciplines called ‘artes liberales’ (liberal arts): grammatica, retorica, dialectica, arithmetica, geometria, astronomia and musica. The first three were grouped as ‘trivium’ the 3-way road needed to find the truth through language. The other four: ‘quadrivium’, the fourfold way to use knowledge to get to the truth.

To understand scholasticism it is important to look at this from a medieval perspective. For example:

  • Dialectic (Logic) = HOW to think and analyse.
  • Grammar = HOW to COMPOSE what you have thought of (Latin).
  • Rhetoric = HOW to EXPRESS what you have composed and thought of .

Scholastics (schoolmen) used this system to prepare men for certain jobs: lawyers, teachers, doctors, administrative and financial functionaries, etc. This was based on a set of practical and fixed  studies; education in this context was seen as a utility.

At the same time knowledge and the application of it had to be done in the name of God, with the aim to honour and advance his glory. Scholasticism was employed  to articulate and defend orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context. It originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools.

The dialectical approach as had been introduced by Greek philosophers such as Aristotle was based on dialogue between opposing views with the aim to that through reasoning the truth would be revealed.

While still very much linked to defending the orthodox view, rigorous analyses and debates became now part of the education system. Part of this process was also aimed at reconciling the classical Greek philosophy with the Christian teachings.

The main leaders of medieval  scholasticism  are Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Thomas Aquinas was perhaps the most intellectual person of the 13th century. His philosophical masterwork, the Summa Theologica, is often seen as the highest fruit of Scholasticism. In 1252, he began his own teaching career in Paris during the heights of the 13th century Renaissance. He subsequently became involved in all of the dynamics and controversies  of this time in relation to theology but also politics (Ghelphs and Ghibbelines) and the works of Aristotle.

A serious problem for medieval scholastics was that Aristotle was a pagan! And his naturalism and rationalism clashed with the Christian way of supernaturalism. However, between the 1250 and 1270, his text were openly included by the scholastics at the University of Paris, this happened because of Thomas Aquinas  who was able to create an argument in his large philosophical work proposing the union of Aristotle’s reason and faith and philosophy and theology. He reconciles Aristotle works with the teachings of the Bible (God’s revelations). This solved the problem and Aristotle was accepted in Universities; he had previously been banned because of his teachings on Aristotle.

His reasoning is still difficult to understand by modern people, as he deployed rational thinking and debate to interpret God’s revelations. For example he accepts that angels exist and than rationalise what and who they are, how they behave, etc.

Aquina’s works remained very important for the Catholic doctrine for many centuries after his death, especially from the 16th century onward.

We hardly ever come across any opposing views, there is no peer review other than within the context of church dogma and faith, but those review are all internal and never discussed in a public setting. It is as if nothing that the learned men of the Middle Ages wrote was opposed by the people of that time.

Transition period

However, slowly beliefs were accepted as being within the realm of the individual who was able to follow them within their own personal intellectual freedom. This more personal approach was most prevalent in Italy. North of the Alps it were the he newer universities that started to teach humanism. In Italy it were the classical texts that were analysed and interpreted in the north that level of interpretation was mostly applied to biblical texts.

The difference between medieval intellectual writing and what became known as humanistic writings is that the first group would write about history, personal life and other daily affairs along the lines ‘what do I do in my life’, humanists would write along the lines of ‘why am I doing this in life‘.

Dante Aligheri (c.1265–1321) was one of them and he represents the transition from Middle Ages to Renaissance.

In his master work ‘Divina Commedia’ he still very much represents traditional Medieval religious representations. He for example still wrote along the lines of the traditional thinking:  ’Sienna made me‘. Also “De Monarchia” from around 1315 is still a classical scholastical text.

However, in his descriptions of the people involved in the ‘Divina Commedia’ he introduced elements such as reason, free choice and free will.

A major difference between medieval thinking and humanism was that the latter was more centered on the individual while the existing system at the time were based around people acting as groups; be it the family, the court system, the nobility, the guilds, the church and so on. One did not replace the other but humanist and renaissance attitudes started to evolve parallel to the existing systems.


Humanism did not agree with the utilitarian and functional orientation of university professionalism and was against the rigid way in which the works of Aristotle were taught.  Instead humanist teachers aimed to educate a certain kind of person: men who would become virtuous, prudent and eloquent, through the classical Latin and later also through the Greek classical texts.

Humanism  as  form of education didn’t develop at the Italian universities but was fostered at the private ‘academies’ of Italian princes.

The art of letter writing

The way letters were written by educated people to well into the 19th century is based on the prose style the Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist Marcus Tullius Cicero developed during his life ( 106 – 43 BCE).

His works as that of other ancient writers was rediscovered by western scholars in the 11th century. The first manual of the art of letter writing (Ars dictaminis) dates from the 11th century, and came from a certain method of teachings, the teachers of rhetoric and ’speaking well’ – the dictatores. These were officials involved in the composition of two sorts of texts: epistles (letters), and orations (speeches). The need for dictators came out of a growing need for the official documentation in State Chancelleries where letters in Greek, Latin, Arabic, etc were written. There was even a night writer, so a 24 hour workload.

The letters were open and read aloud, so the letter writing art and the speech art was combined. The aim was to agree to a certain position, and to achieve this they followed the classic method of speech and letter writing:
• Salutation (greeting)
• Premium (introduction)
• Narratio (narration)
• Argumentation (Argument)
• Conclusio (Conclusion)

It was the Italian humanist Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) who brought this art to the next level. He absolutely adored Cicero and started to write letters to Cicero using the Classical Latin as he had used that in his times.
The art of persuasion thus came out of chancellors rather than universities, the prevailing theory now is that humanism – interest in rhetoric, art of persuasion – came from the medieval art of letter writing.
This is the reason why many humanist teachers are not university lecturers but men of state, who work in the letter writing, bureaucracy. This paradigm of classical letter writing was also introduced in non-official letter writing and gradually introduced in the teaching world and in every day world. The ancient models of grammar and rhetoric were the models for this. Substance, grammar and style were combined: how you put the letters together and what you say was essential. This was used in all levels of society, from state, to business, to private to learning.
Now to the 19th century, to Stephanus Hanewinkel who was a Dutch Reformed minister. He traveled extensively trough the Meierij of Den Bosch and wrote travel stories most likely to his sponsor, the publisher of his stories. He writes his stories as letters to ‘his friend’ and the prose used here could have come straight out of the text books of Petrarch and Cicero. His works were extremely condescending of the people in the Meierij and in particular of the catholic population. Nevertheless this was done in eloquent language. He died in 1856 in Ravenstein (Oss).

Humanists such as Francesco Petrarca  (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio (both around 1350)  are seen as the first true renaissance writers. They were among the first to write about reason, ethics, and justice, outside the realm of religion or the supernatural. Theirs are secular works based on humanism and individuality; they both also wrote  in the vernacular (Italian), which made their work far more accessible. Key humanistic qualities they wrote about include: Virtue, Goodness, Faith,  Eloquence and Rhetoric.

Four cardinal virtues

The were first mentioned by Plato, expanded on by Cicero, and adapted by Saint Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas. They consist of:

  • Prudence – able to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
  • Justice – proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others
  • Temperance or Restraint – practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation
  • Fortitude or Courage – forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation

By being taught moral value, as a model of thought and as a model of living and thus by studying the liberal arts, the moral and virtuous men could become a better citizen and better leaders. Humanists put a lot of faith in the power of language.

Francesco Petrarch 

Francesco was born in Arezzo.  His father was exiled from Florence, for being a White Guelph and moved with the pope to Avignon where he became a as a notary. Francesco studied at the Montpellier university and later Law at Bologna (in his own words: seven wasted years). He returned to France, but started to travel again in late 1320s, he indicated that he did not want to be a lawyer.

He started his autobiographical writings whereby he explains his relation to virtues and morals and how he deployed them in his own life.

In 1336 he went to Rome, which made a big impression on him with its Roman ruins from antiquity. As mentioned he started to write letters to famous people from antiquity, eg Cicero using Classical Latin, expressing his thoughts. This passion of him was shared by following generations of humanists. He also collected ancient objects, not because they were materially valuable but they were ancient and part of history.

In his poetry he writes about an Idealised woman called Laura. He is also famous for being one of the first to write vernacular poetry. In 1344 he received the award of being the Poet Laureate of Rome in 1348. His style became the dominant style for at least the next 200 years; Shakespeare even based his poetry on Petrarch’s style.

While living in Venice in 1360, he critically wrote about the limitations of Scholasticism and the advantages of Humanism. His autobiography – in its themes of classicism moral enquiry and celebrity – has become a metaphor for Humanism.

He Retired to the country site and died in Padua.

Italian humanist, chancellor of Florence and historian Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) stressed that proper liberal education was based on training for services to society as well as on classic models. This new way of thinking led to a cultural revolution in education and would start to include teachings that would lead to men being able to be personally engaged in society, politics and the church; based on his human qualities such as reason and intellect.

The university started to change their curriculum towards the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy.

Also these thinkers went back to the Classics works of people like Plato and Aristotle but they traced back the original texts rather than those that had been copied many times and included many mistakes. In doing so the started to take a more anthropocentric philosophical view and became interested in the human aspects, the relation between people and their environment, for this reason they were called humanists. It was not such a rigorous philosophy as Aristotelianism, nor provided it with an all encompassing belief system such as Christianity; (civic) humanism was an attitude towards learning and towards life.

This intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression led to a wave of innovations in all aspects of society: social and political structure, economy, the arts and many other cultural aspects of life. The explosion in humanism coincided, not surprisingly, with the zenith of the Renaissance.

While humanism didn’t undermine the scholastic principles of honouring God, it added the elements to it that knowledge can also be used to advance the world around them.


Niccolò Machiavelli

One of the most interesting (civil)  humanists who still has enormous political influence in modern times is Niccolò Machiavelli. His book the Prince (Il Principe) is still a best seller. He based his political principles on the ancient Greek and Roman rulers. He used them as examples to describe what the ideal Prince (ruler) should look like. He added ‘prowess’ to the above mentioned virtues.

Il Principe needs be read in parallel with his other much larger work “The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy (Discorsi)”. Here he nominally discuss a classical history of early Ancient Rome and presents it as a series of  lessons and reasons how a republic as he promotes it in Il Principe should be started and structured.

He separated brutal and bestial human nature from reason. Rulers with the national interest at heart should use strong violence to reach their goals. Once that is goal is reached laws are needed to maintain stability and peace. For that reason he saw the republican form as the best way forward and his ideas were driven by his vision that the many Italian principalities and city states should be united in an Italian Republic; for this he obviously had the Roman Empire in mind. A strong leader was needed to bring Italy together.

What has given his name its devious character is that he did not link strong violence,  deception and treachery with ethical and moral principles, he basically gives total power to the rulers. His works can therefor be interpreted  in favour of totalitarianism and this is exactly what people like Hitler and Mussolini did.

Machiavelli certainly can be seen as the philosopher of management and government.


Northern Europe – Religious Humanism

Very slowly however, from around 1350 onwards we also see a more humanistic approach entering the religious world.  God was more and more seen in the people themselves (God is in us) rather than in the traditional external medieval way. As long as these movements didn’t lead to any changes to the Church, they were tolerated. This led to religious humanism which developed as more liberal religious movement. Notable examples of religious humanists are:  Pope Pius II, Sixtus IV and Leo X.

This resulted in an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with the rituals and beliefs of religion, but centering on human needs, interests, and abilities. Slowly this started to replace many of the supernatural elements on which the Church so heavily relied.

While there were many religious humanists, the fact that humanism lead to intellectual freedom was something the Church found difficult to cope with.

It was in more northern regions that  the humanisation (secularisation) of religion was the strongest. The Modern Devotion that developed around Deventer and spread further through the Low Countries can be seen as a link between religious and civic thinking. Several humanist were attracted to this new religious movement.

It is therefore no wonder that the Reformation started in the north. Movements such as the Modern Devotion can be grouped together as the prelude to the Reformation. However it would still take more than a century before more significant changes in society – known as the Renaissance followed by the Reformation. By that time the secular humanist developments from the private ‘academies’ of Italian princes, had reached northern Europe and here they merged with these ‘protestant’ movements.

Religious humanism in the north was unlike what happened in Italy. In the north at this early stage humanism was not supported by the ruling nobility, the courts in the north were still very much medieval. Here secular humanism and the following Renaissance was driven by individual merchants within these cities and the Netherlands (Flemish) Renaissance art was mainly acquired by these people.

The Church however, tried to hang on to the autocratic attitude supported by the power of the rulers and they launched the Contra Reformation but power corrupts and both in the Church and in the secular world this led to gross misbehaviour by those who had the monopoly on power, the so called Renaissance popes were a disgrace, with strong reminders of the papal pornocracy.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

The important position that Erasmus had as a religious humanist during the Late Middle Ages was very much influenced by his monastic education and in particular by the Brethren of the Common Life (closely linked to the Modern Devotion), where he gleaned the importance of a personal relationship with God.

In 1492 he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and took vows as an Augustinian canon at Steyn, Soon after this he was  offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. In 1495 he went on to study at the University of Paris. In the following years he was active as a teacher and advisor in Leuven (Louvain), England and Basel.

In England he worked with John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacreand William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity. He stayed at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and may have been an alumnus.

From 1506 to 1509, he was in Italy: in 1506 he graduated at the Turin University, and he spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius (Manuzio) in Venice.  Manuzia was an Italian humanist who became a printer and publisher when he founded the Aldine Press at Venice.

Biblioteca Marciana

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s) is a library and Renaissance building next to the Procuratoe Nuove on the Piazetta of San Marco; it is one of the earliest surviving public manuscript depositories in the country, holding one of the greatest classical texts collections in the world. The library is named after St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice.
At the time we visited the Bilioteca on October 2016,  there was an exhibition of Aldus Manuzio.

Later at his residence at Leuven, where he lectured at the Catholic University,  Erasmus received much criticism from those ascetics, academicians and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and the loose norms of the Renaissance  to which he was devoting his life. However, feeling that this lack of sympathy was actually a form of mental persecution, he sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Johann Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe. Erasmus also greatly influenced the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland Huldrych Zwingli.

Initially Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in Martin Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church. Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus’s superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life.

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the Peasants’ War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalisation of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it.

When the city of Basel was definitely and officially “reformed” in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

In 1536 Erasmus died suddenly in Basel and was buried there in the cathedral.

Source Wikepedia

The radical changes that humanism brought with them brought the Middle Ages to its end.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)