The Dawn of Modernity: Late Middle Ages & Italian Renaissance Literature

The dawn of the Early Modern era.

The Black Death
The printing press

The End of the Middle Ages

The transition from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance happened at different times in different countries, so there’s no clear-cut date marking the end of medievalism. However, events in the 14th century initiated significant social change: The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, and the Peasants Revolt all nudged society toward redefinition.

The Black Death wiped out one-third of the European population. Since peasants were hardest hit, they became more valuable, and their increased value led to the Peasants Revolt, the first move toward the end of feudalism.

Events of the 15th century were also significant, including the introduction of the printing press into Europe, Columbus’ voyage to the new world, and the fall of Constantinople. The synergy created between the printing press, mass education, and increased availability of reading material most significantly impacted late medieval literature, moving further from the oral tradition and stabilizing the language.

Writing in the Vernacular

Although the term ‘vernacular’ can refer to any casual forms of a language that are spoken but not written, here we use it to refer to the commonly used language of a people or nation. Until near the end of the Middle Ages, all serious writing was in either Koine Greek or Latin, creating a lingua franca, or a common language, for educated Europeans.

The writings in the various vernacular languages of Europe emerged at different times across the continent, but the first uses of vernacular in literature were Irish, Welsh, English and Gothic in the 7th to 10th centuries. Although English appeared early, the Norman Conquest in 1066 replaced English with French until the 14th century, when it re-emerged in the works of Chaucer.

Italian writer Dante Aligheiri argued for the use of vernaculars in literature, and his *Divine Comedy* is an important example. John Barber’s *Brus* in Scots, Chaucer’s *Canterbury Tales* in English, and Jacob Van Maerlants *Spieghel Historiael* in Dutch are other important examples.

The Gutenberg Bible

Completed in 1455, the Gutenberg Bible is one of the earliest texts reproduced in Europe by moveable type. Moveable type was new to Europe at the time, and proved to be an important step forward for Western literature. It used individual letter pieces that could be moved around – instead of wood blocks that would contain a whole page of text. This made printing different texts way easier than it was before.

Gutenberg was a printer, and one of the first to use this style of printing in Europe. He also developed an oil based ink for his press. With the publication of the Bible, Gutenberg established that literature could be mass-produced in a way that was practical, beautiful, and accessible to a wider economic group than hand-written manuscripts.

Considered to be Gutenberg’s masterpiece, copies are now considered to be invaluable. Historians disagree on the total number of copies that were originally printed, but 49 complete or partial copies are still in existence.

Defining Renaissance Literature

Renaissance literature reflected a move away from the church as the central authority and was produced in Europe after 1300. Common themes include the recovery of the classics and humanist philosophy.


During this time, writers reverted to classical styles and content, making humankind the focus, rather than the Catholic church or Christian God. This literature incorporated ideas of Platonism, the search for sensual pleasure, and a rational mindset.

During this time, the essay grew to be a recognized literary form (much to the disappointment of high schoolers everywhere).

The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and spread across Europe. Although Chaucer is sometimes considered to be a Renaissance writer, the movement didn’t really take hold in England unitl the 15th century, peaking in the 17th century with Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans.

The development of the printing press and the spread of education contributed to the temperment of the age as universities replaced the church as centers of learning.

Renaissance Humanism


During the medieval period, the Catholic church was the center of life and thought for the Western world, as well as the source of information and perspective. However, as the power of the church began to wane with the Protestant Reformation, writers began to look to other sources for moral authority and education.

The most appealing sources for Renaissance writers were the classics, and writers returned to the idea of humans, rather than God, as the measure of all things. This resulted in Renaissance humanism – the study of the humanities as they were recovered from classical antiquity.

By the 15th century, grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy emerged as the most popular subjects of study. Although the interest in the classics originated from the same source, not everyone came to the same conclusions, and humanists could be either Catholic or Protestant and might pursue very different branches of thought.

Morality Plays

Because literacy was almost non-existent for the everyday person in the Middle Ages, the church used allegorical plays to teach values and Christian principles. Starting in the 15th century, these plays were put on by the Catholic church and were intended to teach more than to entertain.

Because these plays were largely allegorical, characters in the morality plays were personifications of moral concepts or abstractions such as mercy, death, greed and justice, not real people. In most plays the hero, representing humanity as a whole or a specific social group, found himself in competition between good and evil, and events in the play were intended to guide the hero to salvation.

At the end of the medieval period, morality plays began to shift toward more secular ideas and were essential to the development of Western drama and flourished during the Elizabethan Era, influencing the craft of playwriting throughout the Renaissance.

Key Figure: Dante Alighieri

Born in 1265, Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet who helped usher in the Renaissance. He is the author of the *Divine Comedy*, both a personal story and a sweeping allegory. It’s widely considered his masterwork.
Dante wrote the poem in Italian rather than Latin, a choice that made a significant impact on Italian literature and solidified Italian as the literary language of the Renaissance.


Written in 100 cantos, or divisions, and grouped in three sections, the *Divine Comedy* takes Dante on a tour of hell, purgatory, and paradise. The *Divine Comedy* was quickly recognized as a masterpiece and has remained a key literary work ever since.

In addition to poetry, Dante wrote theoretical works on everything from rhetoric to moral philosophy, drawing on his extensive knowledge of the classics.

Key Figure: Petrarch

Francesco Petrarca is often called the father of Renaissance humanism. He was born in Arezzo, Italy, on July 20, 1304 and became a key figure in the Italian Renaissance. Petrarch actively searched medieval libraries to find ancient manuscripts, which he collected and edited. He was particularly interested in Cicero, whose life strongly influenced Petrarch’s own.


Petrarch wrote in both Italian and Latin, and his masterwork of literature, *Canzoniere*, is in Italian. It’s a collection of love poems about an unattainable woman named Laura, and Canzoniere offers excellent examples of what is now called the Petrarchan sonnet – a sonnet in two stanzas, one with eight lines and one with six.

Through his scholarly research, editing, and original works, Petrarch turned back to the classical focus on human lives rather than the medieval focus on religious questions. Ironically, he remained very religious and pursued Christian studies, writing religious treatises in Latin.

Key Figure: Geoffrey Chaucer

Born in London in 1343, Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the father of English literature.

Although we now consider the works of Chaucer as high literature, readers are often surprised to discover that his works contain a lot of dirty humor and fart jokes. Chaucer also wrote mostly in English, which was in disfavor at the time and seen as lower class, while French was the preferred language of the upper classes.

Between the Norman Invasion in 1066 and Chaucer’s writing, no literature appeared in English, and all of England’s correspondence, laws and legal documents were in French. Chaucer began by writing in French but soon turned to English, showing that it could be used for great literature.

The *Canterbury Tales*, his great masterpiece, is a lively, entertaining work that follows a group of Pilgrims on a long journey. Each of them tells stories to one another, which are by turns bawdy, heroic and heartfelt. They’re a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary medieval people. Chaucer is remembered for the complexity and creativity of his writing and for his recognition of the power and potential of the English language.

The Spread of the Renaissance through Europe

Although it started in Italy, the Renaissance spread eventually to France, Germany, Flanders, Holland, England and Spain, primarily through trade, travel, and education. While the Italian Renaissance started as early as 1500, in the rest of Europe it was another 100 years before it was truly underway.

Italy was the center of several trade routes, and people passed from all parts of the world through Italy; visitors also spread Renaissance ideas as they came from all over the world to Italy to learn about humanism and medicine, painting and sculpture. When they returned home, these visitors sometimes started universities to share the riches of Renaissance thought and writing.

The printing press helped the spread of Renaissance thinking, creating much greater access to written material. Reasonably inexpensive, identical copies of a single book could be duplicated and distributed with relative ease. The availability of books increased people’s interest in literacy, and publishing, literacy, education, and Renaissance thinking came together to create a force for change.

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