Skip to main content

Unit information: Ancients and moderns: cultures of humanism in Renaissance Europe in 2018/19

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Ancients and moderns: cultures of humanism in Renaissance Europe
Unit code MODL30002
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Tomlinson
Open unit status Open




School/department School of Modern Languages
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, humanism played a central role in European culture, moving beyond its philological roots – the rediscovery of the culture of antiquity – to have a profound influence on all areas of intellectual and political life. In this unit, we will examine the character and reach of the various manifestations (literary, political, philosophical, artistic, religious) of humanism across Europe, with a particular emphasis on Italy and France. Close engagement with primary texts, from Petrarch to Montaigne, by way of Erasmus and Machiavelli, will be complemented by scrutiny of the ways in which humanism has been read – and appropriated – in subsequent historiography. Our approach will use the tools of literary history to gain a nuanced understanding of the varieties and complexity of a movement that has been heralded as marking the birth of modernity and the ‘modern self’. But we will also use this ‘turning point’ in the history of ideas to reflect on the practices and purpose of literary and historical study more broadly. N.B. All set texts will be available in English translation so that students from all Departments can enroll on the course.

Intended learning outcomes

To gain an understanding of the character, motivation, and influence of the cultures of humanism in Europe (above all in France and Italy) between the 14th and late 16th centuries, by means of engagement with primary texts from the period. To develop critical understanding of the historiography of humanism. The course will help students to develop their skills in critical thought, assessment of the uses and abuses of concepts in literary and cultural history, close reading, and academic writing.

Teaching details

A combination of lectures and seminars across the TB

Assessment Details

2-hour written exam (50%); 3000 word essay (50%); formative presentation.

The exam will assess the breadth of student understanding of the course content and relevant critical approaches. The essay will assess students’ in depth understanding of particular topics and develop critical skills in extended written form. The formative class presentation assists the development of subject knowledge and critical thinking.

Reading and References

  1. Jill Kraye (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism
  2. Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe

Set primary texts (all available in English translation and some as ‘readers’) to include: Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ficino, Erasmus, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Rabelais, Marguerite de Navarre, Du Bellay, Bodin, Montaigne.