47. Early Renaissance Views on Education

Poverty is the distinguished mother of all laudable study.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375)

The term “Renaissance” was first coined in 1840, by Jules Michelet, to mean “discovery of the world and man.” Perhaps a better definition would be the “rediscovery of the world of man,” for it is the rediscovery of the values of the human and his secular life, in contrast to a galaxy of Christian spirits, angels and the sacred dogma of the Church. With the new ability of man to think of himself apart from the Church came a great sense of self-confidence, which was a necessary prerequisite to many of the advances in science and the arts.

Important societal developments also contributed to the new environment. In Italy, in particular, the growth of trade and industry produced the wealth by which more enlightened princes could imitate the fostering of the arts they had learned from the East through the crusades. The rediscovery of the ancient literature, again through the East, went hand in hand with the developing sophistication of the vernacular languages. Finally, all of these developments joined to provide the courage and freedom of thought necessary to break the long domination of thought by the Church. Man at long last could freely begin to think independently, and to ask questions — something the early Church had distinctly discouraged.

These new attitudes, which were all essential parts of humanism, rapidly repaid society with accomplishments which the Church had been unable to achieve in 1,000 years. In a relatively short period of time came the achievements of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus and Gutenberg.

In one of the most important poems of 14th century England, Piers Plowman, William Langland makes passing reference to the two major positions of the Church against which the intellectual life of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was positioned. In the early centuries when the Church had finally won its battle against pagan Rome, the basic attitude of the Church was to abolish formal secular education and say to the faithful, in effect, “you don’t need to question, or think for yourselves, just believe what we tell you.” Thus the line which Langland attributes to St Augustine, “Know no more than is necessary.”1

By the 6th century, finding itself unable to keep people uneducated, the Church accepted the teaching of the seven liberal arts — Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music — under the argument that it was necessary to educate the faithful in order for them to understand the Scriptures.

This was followed in the late Middle Ages, the rediscovery of the works of the great ancient Greek philosophers, principally Aristotle, in a period called Scholasticism, during which the Church tried to adjust to the rational arguments of the older philosophers. It is against this intellectual background that the Renaissance philosophers began to turn in a more humanistic direction.

But, at the same time, there were still many philosophers and intellectuals who held true to the old Church dogma, especially the contention that only Reason should rule man. In Guillaume Machaut’s (1300–1377) Remede de Fortune, for example, the character Hope contends that Reason must still rule, even over states like happiness. Happiness here perhaps is meant in the context of the result of moral behavior, for in another poem Machaut defines the determination of good and bad as the chief concern of Reason.

I agreed to Reason’s counsel,
And sweetly I importuned her
Henceforth to keep me company
So I might never go amiss,
But follow all her precepts and
Thus live in wisdom and in peace.2

Similarly, in The Judgment of the King of Navarre, where Machaut, himself a character in the poem, is introduced to a number of allegorical characters, the first, Understanding, specialized in the differences between virtue and vice and between good and evil.

Even more conservative were some who tended to be anti-education. These views might be characterized as a return to some aspects of the philosophy of the medieval Church, as if there was a need felt by some to create a counter-humanism movement. It is astonishing, for example, to read John Gower (1330–1408), reaching back 1,000 years to say, in effect, “don’t think, you don’t need education, just believe what we tell you.”

Submit your mind to faith, for a mortal creature cannot understand the mysteries of eternal judgment … Since it is certainly not for us to understand the circumstances of the world, to what purpose does man labor to understand creation? For us to experience faith tested by reason — that task is not for human powers. It is not a human task to mount up to the stars; mortal man does not grasp that by his reason … It is helpful for man to be in ignorance about a great deal; most facts offend the senses. Therefore, a man should acquire knowledge prudently. Let him entrust to faith what he would not have been able to trust to reason.3

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Gower complained that the young were not paying attention to his teaching.

Knowing very little used to be a great disgrace for an old man … But nowadays if old age is wise in any way or teaches what it has learned earlier, its voice hardly receives the welcome of a youth’s. Even if they are fervent in their zeal, the words which old men write are, as a rule, acceptable to young men only quite rarely. Yet no matter how much the voices of the dogs may bark in objection, I shall not run away, but instead I shall sing out my words. Imbibe oil from the rocks and honey from the stones for yourself, and single out the sweet notes from my harsh song.4

Against such medieval viewpoints was a new spirit, a movement toward humanism is a new sense of recognition of the importance of secular education. We find this also expressed several times in the poetry of Machaut, as for example in the Remede de Fortune.

… for he who doesn’t learn in his youth regrets it in his old age, if he could have learned: for learning is a most noble endeavor.5

And in The Judgment of the King of Navarre, he adds Happiness and Honor to the rewards of Education.6

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of education by Machaut is his description of the ideal student, in particular the skills and attitudes the student must have. It is especially interesting that he warns that education must begin at an early age, before the student acquires too much experience. He speaks of the importance of honoring and serving one’s profession, and that learning is easily forgotten if not put into practice.

He who wishes to learn any skill must take heed of twelve things: first, he must choose something to which his heart most leads him and for which he has a natural inclination, because a person does not willingly finish what he seeks to do contrary to his will, since Nature stands against him. He should love his master and his profession above everything; and he must honor, obey, and serve them; and he must not feel he is enslaving himself, for if he loves them, they will love him; and if he hates them, they will hate him; he can gain nothing otherwise. He must receive instruction meekly; and he must be careful to follow it, for learning is difficult to retain and easily forgotten when it is not put into practice. He should be diligent, assiduous, and eager for knowledge, for thus can he attain wisdom. And he should seek it at an early age, before his heart turns to wickedness through too much experience; for the true state of innocence is like the white and polished tablet that is ready to receive the exact image of whatever one wishes to portray or paint upon it. And it is also like wax that can be written upon, and which retains the form and imprint exactly as one has imprinted it. Truly it is the same with human understanding, which is ready to receive whatever one wishes and can apprehend whatever one sets it to: arms, love, art or letter. For there is nothing so difficult that he cannot master it if he so chooses, providing he is willing to work and toil in accordance with what I have said above.7

A similar discussion of the education needed by a young man by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) has the young courtier in mind,

Then, consorting with young men of condition and learning the fashions and carriage that befitted gentlemen and especially lovers, he first, to the utmost wonderment of everyone, in a very brief space of time, not only learned the first elements of letters, but became very eminent among the students of philosophy, and after … he not only reduced his rude and rustical manner of speech to seemliness and civility, but became a past master of song and sound and exceedingly expert and doughty in riding and martial exercises, both by land and by sea.8

From France, which in the 15th century was perhaps more conservative than Italy, we find a discussion of the value of education by Christine de Pizan, one of the most prolific writers of the 15th century, in her The Book of the Body Politic, where she describes the nature of the education appropriate to princes. It is surprising to find a viewpoint here more characteristic of the Middle Ages than the Renaissance. She recommends that one should find a teacher “who is wise and prudent more in morals than in lofty learning, despite the fact that in ancient times, the children of princes were taught by philosophers.” She then makes an even more surprising statement that, “present princes do not desire to be educated in the sciences as they used to be,” before concluding,

I believe that it would be better to have a very discrete and wise teacher who had good morals and loved God, rather than the most excellent and subtle philosopher.9

She recommends that the education of children include hearing, during meals, songs “about the deeds of the noble dead and the good deeds of their ancestors,” in order to make them courageous.10 Finally, she notes that it is the nature of children not to learn except out of fear of punishment, but she advises against “severe beatings.” Strangely enough, when she is addressing “the Common People,” she suddenly has a much higher regard for knowledge. Speaking to the students of the University of Paris, she most enthusiastically says,

Oh well advised, oh happy people! I speak to you, the disciples of the study of wisdom, who, by the grace of God and good fortune or nature apply yourselves to seek out the heights of the clear rejoicing star, that is, knowledge, do take diligently from this treasure, drink from this clear and healthy fountain. Fill yourself from this pleasant repast, which can so benefit and elevate you!… There is nothing more perfect than the truth and clarity of things which knowledge demonstrates how to know and understand. There is no treasure of the goods of fortune that he who has tasted of the highest knowledge would exchange for a drop of the dregs of wisdom. And truly, no matter what others say, I dare say there is no treasure the like of understanding. Who would not undertake any labor, you champions of wisdom, to acquire it?11

As for herself, de Pizan regrets that she failed to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to her, especially the study of philosophy.

Alas! when I had masters of knowledge beside me, I neglected learning; and now the time has come when my mind and feeling are beggars, longing for that which they cannot have because of the failure to learn — your art, my mistress Philosophy. Ah learning: sweet, savory, and honeyed thing, supreme and preeminent among all other treasures! How happy are they who taste you fully!12

Francois Villon (1431–1474), in his Great Testament, similarly laments his failure to take advantage of his early educational opportunities.

Good God, if I had studied in the days of my mad youth and been devoted more to virtue,
I now would have a house with downy bed.
But look! I ran away from school just like a naughty child.
And now, as I write these words, my heart is close to breaking.13

Higher education meant, to Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), the traditional seven liberal arts, which still included music. His clear respect for these studies reflects the tremendous expansion in knowledge which occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Life is too short for any of the [liberal] arts … To know completely but one art in all its respects has never been accomplished even by the most outstanding scholars.14

Otherwise, Petrarch was rather pessimistic about education. For the common man, such extensive development of the mind he probably felt was not possible, which led him to this definition of a good mind: “If it serves liberal studies it is a precious instrument; if not, it is ponderous, perilous and laborious.”15

Thus, in his Remedies, he makes it clear, in a dialogue between a teacher and Reason, that he believed that attempts to educate the general public were largely a waste of time.

Sorrow: It was my lot to get an unteachable pupil.
Reason: You are tilling barren soil! Unhitch your oxen — why torture yourself? Quit bothering him and yourself. There are so many needed and inevitable chores; it is sheer stupidity to look for useless ones!
Sorrow: I have a pupil who cannot be taught how to pursue the study of letters.
Reason: If he can be taught to pursue virtue, urge him to do that: and you will have enriched him with the best of all the arts. But if he cannot do either, leave him alone, lest you try pouring into a leaky jug water, which will not stay in it, and exhaust yourself in continual weariness.16
Teach those who can be taught, do not bother with those who cannot learn, and avoid tiring them as well as yourself. Art rarely overcomes nature.17

It follows that Petrarch seemed to have little respect for the teacher whose duty it was to attempt this futile public education. It certainly is one of the most pessimistic reflections on the teaching profession in all of literature.

Let them teach who can do nothing better, whose qualities are laborious application, sluggishness of mind, muddiness of intellect, lack of imagination, chill of the blood, patience to bear the body’s labors, contempt of glory, avidity for petty gains, indifference to boredom … What is more, neither grammar nor any of the seven liberal arts is worth a noble spirit’s attention throughout life. They are means, not ends.18

Regarding his own teacher, Convenevole da Prato, he anticipates the phrase commonly heard today, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach!”

I had from boyhood a schoolmaster who taught me my first letters, and later grammar and rhetoric. He was an excellent teacher of both subjects; at least in theory, for in practice he was like Horace’s whetstone, which can sharpen steel but cannot cut.19

Petrarch reflects on the extent of his own early education in his little biographical essay addressed to posterity,

I learned as much of grammar, logic, and rhetoric as my age permitted, or rather, as much as it is customary to teach in school: how little that is, dear reader, thou knowest.20

It is no surprise to find that the man who symbolizes the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), fully understood the importance of education for every man. He regarded knowledge as so fundamental to man that he several times spoke of it as a kind of food.

The knowledge of past times and of the places on the earth is both ornament and nutriment to the human mind.
Acquire learning in youth which restores the damage of old age; and if you understand that old age has wisdom for its food, you will so conduct yourself in youth that your old age will not lack sustenance.21

He continued this analogy in recommending that education should seek to make the acquisition of knowledge palatable.

Just as food eaten without caring for it is turned into loathsome nourishment, so study without a taste for it spoils memory, causing it to retain nothing which it has taken in.22

Among the virtues of knowledge, Leonardo often points to their moral contribution.

The acquisition of any knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good.23

Similarly, in the first of two reflections on culture in general, Leonardo found those who had not obtained knowledge to be little above animals.

It seems to me that men of coarse and clumsy habits and of small knowledge do not deserve such fine instruments or so great a variety of natural mechanism as men of speculation and of great knowledge … for it seems to me they have nothing about them of the human species but the voice and the figure, and for all the rest are much below beasts.24

But, in this regard, that knowledge must be personally understood and absorbed, and not merely data which is employed in quotation. Leonardo make a timeless observation,

Anyone who in discussion relies upon authority uses, not his understanding, but rather his memory. Good culture is born of a good disposition; and since the cause is more to be praised than the effect, you will rather praise a good disposition without culture, than good culture without the disposition.25

Leonardo also offers a thought which must be the prayer of every good teacher in the arts,

He is a poor disciple who does not excel his master.26

Leonardo was also a great believer in the educational value of experience, a belief shared by the great Englishman, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400). On the whole, one gets the impression that Chaucer himself valued what he had learned by experience more than what he had gained by traditional education. Even when he mentions “science,” it is usually a reference to some practical knowledge, rather than formal or speculative knowledge. Going even further, Chaucer says we should trust books only in the perspective of personal experience. “We should honor and believe these old books, where there is no test other than experience.”27

Indeed, in numerous places Chaucer clearly states that various kinds of knowledge is proven only by experience. For example, with regard to the fact that there is a limit to one’s lifespan, Chaucer says we need no authority for this, as it is proven by experience.28 Or regarding the significance of dreams, “This has been well founded by experience.”29 Even, Chaucer says, where the Bible does not suffice, experience will teach you.

And yf that hooly writ may nat suffyse,
Experience shal the teche.30

The 15th century German writer, Sebastian Brant, in his classic work, The Ship of Fools (1494), praises those who naturally carry the wisdom of common sense, in contrast to those who must be taught.

The best is he who’ll always know
What he should do and what forego,
Whom no one needs to drill and teach,
Since wisdom he himself does preach.31

In his Of Reward for Wisdom, he suggests that wisdom is something which is genetic, a gift of Heaven, and among those he finds who fail to understand this are both the scholars of his day and the Greek philosophers.

Some fools seek knowledge high and higher,
To M.A., Ph.D. aspire,
Though people deem them very bright,
These fools can’t understand aright
How they’d attain that knowledge rare
Wherewith to heaven they may fare.
And that all wisdom ‘neath the sun
To God is folly men should shun.
The Lord has given us the light
Of wisdom, making all things bright.
To darkness wisdom puts an end
If but to wisdom we attend.
It shows us too the difference
‘Twixt folly’s course and prudent sense.
Such precious wisdom these did prize:
Pythagoras, Plato the wise,
And Socrates, who through their creed
Won lasting fame and honor’s mead
Yet could not picture bright and clear
The real wisdom dwelling here,
Wherefore of them the Lord did say:
“Their knowledge, skill I’ll toss away
And wisdom too, who here are wise,
Let children have it – this their prize.”
To children only wisdom’s taught,
Which they from heavenly regions brought.32

Brant has also left a valuable critique of higher education in Germany in the 15th century. He argues that in Germany one now finds good universities and there is no longer justification for traveling to other countries for education.

No need to foreign schools to turn.
Who’d study here in native land
Will now find many books at hand,
You can’t excuse yourself, you see,
Without misleading shamefully.
Once men thought learning could but ay
Be sought at Athens far away,
And then in Italy ‘twas found,
But now here too on German ground.
Our only failing’s love for wine,
To it we Germans do incline,
And good hard work is rarely done.33

At the same time, Brant observes that education and scholars are not honored at this time. Curiously, one reason he seems to suggest is that education has become too common and perhaps too easily attainable.

The books are published ton on ton,
Because there’s too much printing being done.
In our times all those books come forth
Which long ago our parents wrought.
So numerous are they here and there,
They count for nothing anywhere
And no one pays to them much heed,
So ‘tis with science, so with creed.
In number schools were ne’er so great,
As now are found in every state,
And scarce a city now is known,
That calls no higher school its own.
There many scholars now are trained
Who nowadays are quite disdained,
And knowledge gets a scornful glance,
Most men do look at it askance.
The scholars needs must feel a shame
For studies, gown, their very name.
The peasants now attain the fore,
And scholars hide behind the door.
Men say: “These lazy apes, these beasts,
The devil’s cursing us with priests!”
That’s ample evidence that science
Lacks honor, love and breeds defiance.
‘Tis thus that studies will be wrecked,
For knowledge prospers through respect,
And when no honor’s paid to science
Most men will view it with defiance.34

Another poem suggests that this disrespect may have followed the quality of teaching.

And for his son Achilles hired,
And Philip scoured Greece till he’d won
The ablest teacher for his son;
The greatest king that ever reigned,
By Aristotle was he trained,
And he did sit at Plato’s knees,
While Plato learned from Socrates.
But fathers, oh, of nowaday,
When greed and stringiness hold sway,
Engage such teachers for a son
Who’d made a fool of anyone
And send him home again (for shame!)
More foolish now than when he came.35

In spite of these problems in the universities, Brant was concerned for those who waste or do not take advantage of their opportunities for education. He begins with himself, as being among those “fools” who own many books, but never read them.

In dunce’s dance I take the lead,
Books useless, numerous my creed,
Which I can’t understand or read.
Of splendid books I own no end,
But few that I can comprehend….
I, too, have many books indeed
But don’t peruse them very much;
Why should I plague myself with such?36

In his tale, Of Useless Studying, Brant includes in his “Ship of Fools” the German student who fails to take advantage of the opportunity of education and thus ends up in a servile trade such as waiting on tables.

Students should likewise not be skipped,
With fool’s caps they are well equipped,
When these are pulled about the ear
The tassel flaps and laps the rear,
For when of books they should be thinking
They go carousing, roistering, drinking.
A youth puts learning on the shelf,
He’d rather study for himself
What’s useless, vain – an empty bubble;
And teachers too endure this trouble,
Sensible learning they’ll not heed,
Their talk is empty, vain indeed.
Could this be night or is it day?
In Leipzig students act this way,
In Erfurt, Mainz, Vienna, ay,
Heidelberg, Basel, any place,
Returning home in sheer disgrace.
The money’s spent in idleness,
They’re glad to tend a printing press
And, learning how to handle wine,
They’re lowly waiters many a time.
Thus money spent to train and school
Has often gone to rear a fool.37

Finally, Brant’s work contains much in the way of practical advice for his readers, as perhaps two examples will demonstrate. First, on the importance of advance planning, one can learn a lot from women, who do this all the time.

But those who plan the while they act
Must have experience in fact,
Or must have watched the other sex,
Who’re very shrewd in these respects.38

And, courts make decisions, but they do not necessarily find truth.

Let judgment be a lesser care,
For it alone does not make right,
One must be searching, must be quite
Inquisitive of evidence,
Else right is wrong and bare of sense.39


  1. William Langland, Piers Plowman, trans. E. Talbot Donaldson (New York: Norton, 1990), X, 121 ↩︎
  2. The Talel of Alerion, trans. Gaudat and Hieatt, University of Toronto, 4403ff ↩︎
  3. John Gower, The Voice of One Crying, trans. Eric Stockton in The Major Latin Works of John Gower (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962), II, ix ↩︎
  4. Ibid., II, Prologue ↩︎
  5. Remede de Fortune, Op. cit., 400 ↩︎
  6. The Judgment of the King of Navarre, Op. cit., lines 3925ff ↩︎
  7. Remede de Fortune, Op. cit., 168ff. ↩︎
  8. The Decameron, trans. Musa and Bondanella (New York: Norton, 1977), I, 371 ↩︎
  9. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Body Politic, trans. Forhan, Cambridge University Press, I, iii ↩︎
  10. Ibid., I, iv ↩︎
  11. Ibid., III, iv ↩︎
  12. Pizan, Christine’s Vision, trans. Glenda McLeod (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), III, ix ↩︎
  13. Francois Villon, The Testament, in William Williams, The Complete Works of Francois Villon (New York: David McKay, 1960), lines 201ff ↩︎
  14. Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, trans. Conrad Rawski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), I, xlvi, 149–150 ↩︎
  15. Ibid., I, vii, 23 ↩︎
  16. Ibid., II, xli, 103 ↩︎
  17. Ibid., I, lxxxi, 223 ↩︎
  18. Bishop, trans., Letters from Petrarch, 108 ↩︎
  19. Letter to Luca Penna, in Ibid., 207 ↩︎
  20. Quoted in James Robinson, Petrarch, The First modern Scholar and Man of Letters (New York: Putnam, 1914), 66 ↩︎
  21. Quoted in Jean Paul Richter, ed., The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (London: Phaidon, 1970), II, 243 ↩︎
  22. Ibid., II, 244 ↩︎
  23. Ibid., II, 244 ↩︎
  24. Ibid., II, 235 ↩︎
  25. Ibid., II, 241 ↩︎
  26. Ibid., I, 308 ↩︎
  27. The Legend of Good Women, line 27 ↩︎
  28. The Knight’s Tale, 3001 ↩︎
  29. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, 4168 ↩︎
  30. L’Envoy de Chaucer a Bukton, 21. For additional references to understanding being proven by experience, see The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 468; The Friar’s Tale, 1517; The Sumner’s Tale, 2057; The Merchant’s Tale, 2238; Troilus and Criseyde, III, 1283; The House of Fame, II, 370; and Romaunt of the Rose, 5553 ↩︎
  31. Trans. Zeydel, Columbia University Press, 108 ↩︎
  32. Ibid., 107 ↩︎
  33. Ibid., 92 ↩︎
  34. Ibid., 103 ↩︎
  35. Ibid., 6 ↩︎
  36. Ibid., 1 ↩︎
  37. Ibid., 27 ↩︎
  38. Ibid., 12 ↩︎
  39. Ibid., 2 ↩︎