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The Renaissance: 'Golden Age' or 'Cultural Fashion'?

Updated: Dec 21, 2022


The belief that, particularly in terms of philosophy and religion, the Renaissance marked a break with medieval culture on the path upwards to modernity is a convenient one for many. It fits with popular and simplistic narrative views of history. However, recently, scholars have begun to question the existence of a break or even a significantly distinct period.

This essay attempts to address the above question with particular reference to literary, educational, philosophical and religious traditions. It opens by briefly outlining the main academic positions (historical and current) concerning the Renaissance – those held by the likes of Jacob Burkhardt, Russell Frazer, Paul Kristeller, and Sir Ernst Gombrich – and the general progression from the nineteenth-century position of Burkhardt to the more complex view generally accepted today.[1]

Secondly, the article looks at continuity and change between the Middle Ages and the fourteenth/fifteenth century (the years associated with the start of the Italian Renaissance). It begins in the highly controversial fields of religion and philosophy – touching on what it meant to be a Renaissance humanist – and concludes that, particularly in religion, there was almost no fundamental change (and, in the case of philosophy, no abrupt or direct change).

In the third paragraph, it looks at the significant continuity in the field of education in terms of programs, structures and curricula. Finally, the paper turns to the highly variable area of classical literature where there was both significant change and substantial continuity between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages (particularly the High Middle Ages).

Ultimately, it concludes, to say that the Renaissance marked a break – let alone a complete break – with medieval culture is not a historically defensible position.

The Historical Debate

For many years, scholars have debated the ultimate significance of the Renaissance and to what extent it presented a new era in human history. Jacob Burkhardt, the famous nineteenth-century Swiss historian, interpreted the Renaissance as a significant new period modelled on classical society on the ‘other side’ of the Medieval Age.[2] For him, as for many of his contemporaries, the Renaissance was the start of a new modern era and, thus, represented a complete departure from medieval culture. This belief was also held by Renaissance humanists like Petrarch, who described the Middle Ages as a time of ‘dense gloom’ characterised by a ‘sleep of forgetfulness’.[3]

Marsilio Ficino wrote of the Renaissance, in contrast, as a ‘golden age’.[4]

The Renaissance was a 'golden age'. (Marsilio Ficino)

In the middle of the twentieth century, Paul Oskar Kristeller wrote an influential work to correct what he saw as an overly simplistic view of the Renaissance. While not denying the elements of Renaissance humanism that constituted an invigorated interest in classical education, Kristeller argued that there remained, in fact, a considerable amount of continuity between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (particularly in Italy).

Today, there are a growing number of scholars who emphasise the significance of other so-called renaissance movements – including the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth and ninth centuries and the Twelfth-Century Renaissance – even more so, or at least equally, with the traditional fourteenth/fifteenth-century Renaissance.[5] This is seen in the creative but provocative title of Jerome Moran’s 2018 article ‘The R/renaissance(s), humanists and classics’.[6] In fact, some historians, like Sir Ernst Gombrich, go so far as to describe the Renaissance as more of a ‘cultural fashion’ or trend than a distinct era or period.[7]

The Renaissance was merely a 'cultural fashion'. (Sir Ernst Gombrich)

Elizabeth Eisenstein places an emphasis on the rise of printing as a significant reason for the sustained success of the fourteenth/fifteenth-century Renaissance when compared with other renaissances.[8] In sum, between the nineteenth century and today, historians have interpreted the Renaissance as a powerful new era in history on the one extreme and as a mere cultural fashion on the other.

Religion, Philosophy and the Humanists

An objective study of the historical facts surrounding the Renaissance demonstrates that there was no serious break with medieval society with regard to religion and philosophy. At a popular level today, an impression has arisen of the Renaissance as the beginning of an age of secular ‘reason’ following the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of previous centuries.[9]

This perception is also often fuelled by histories and writings by some Renaissance humanists themselves.[10] While its origins were during the Renaissance itself, this kind of terminology was popularised by so-called Enlightenment scholars like Burkhardt who saw their era as the pinnacle of the transformations that were commenced in the Renaissance.[11]

The question of whether in these fields the Renaissance presented a break from medieval culture goes to the heart of the definition of humanism. Contrary to their popular image, humanists were teachers of the liberal arts, or grammar, history, rhetoric, ethics and poetry – the study of ‘what is distinctive of, peculiar to, human beings’.[12] Humanism was ‘essentially a Classical education’ not a coherent philosophy.[13] Thus, Kristeller argues that, in fact, Renaissance humanists cannot be called ‘philosophers at all’.[14]

Certainly, at the core of humanist pursuits were a set of fundamental philosophical emphases or assumptions; namely, an emphasis on the value of humankind and human emotions as well as a belief in the superiority of classical culture and literature when compared with that of medieval society.[15] However, they were not primarily philosophers, but educators. Further, as Kristeller argues, these assumptions were not necessarily due to the influences of antiquity, but were instead a ‘characteristic of the age’.[16]

Indeed, we see in the writings of many humanists a re-focus on the value of humankind.[17] Interestingly, however, while these writings are more extreme in their emphasis on man and, in some respects, border on the heretical (e.g. ‘man…is a kind of god’), the humanist mindset still functioned within the acceptance of the reality of the Theistic worldview (e.g. ‘God, who is the universal cause for all things, alone is omniscient and omnipotent’).[18]

This intellectual acceptance of the Truth of Christianity is a common theme in the lives of most Renaissance humanists, from Petrarch, Valla and Erasmus to Calvin and Melanchthon, among others.[19] In light of this, Kristeller concludes that, rather than being an Age of Reason contrasting with an Age of Faith, it more accurate to ‘call the Renaissance a fundamentally Christian age’.[20]

The Renaissance was 'a fundamentally Christian age'. (Paul Oskar Kristeller)

In fact, Giovanni Rucellai noticed during the mid-fifteenth century that, ‘men and women attend[ed] mass and divine offices with more devotion than had been customary in the past.’[21]

The impression of a secular period or movement has come about due to the tendencies of humanist educators to emphasise humankind and human emotions, but this was in no ways a challenge to fundamental Christian beliefs.[22] As Witt notes, the Renaissance humanists were in many ways less secular in emphasis than generations of humanists during the Late Middle Ages.[23]

Nevertheless, the assumptions behind their educational emphases – namely, the value of humankind as created in God’s image – did have somewhat of an ‘indirect’ and more gradual impact on the overall philosophical thought of the Renaissance.[24] A love for ‘individualism’ was certainly apparent during the later parts of the Renaissance due to the prestige and eventual rise in popularity of humanist liberal arts education.[25] Certainly, though, this did not represent a clear break with medieval culture. Therefore, Christianity proved to be a consistent factor in both the Renaissance and the Middle Ages; neither did Renaissance thought appear as an immediate or significant break from medieval philosophy.

Education in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

When one looks at the forms of education available before and during the Renaissance, it is also soon clear that there was no immediate fundamental change in many ways – certainly not a sharp break with medieval culture in this field. Kristeller points out that in many of the educational processes of Renaissance Italy there were strong links to medieval heritage – if not with Italian heritage, than with that of other Western European countries.[26] As Orme points out, while English

‘medieval and also Renaissance schools were…modest in their size and resources’, ‘the modern school…and the modern educationist…are the respective heirs of the town schools of the twe