The Renaissance was a time of rebirth in Europe, and it saw many changes in how people thought and behaved compared to Medieval times. People started shedding medieval thinking, and instead embraced Humanism.

So how did Renaissance Humanists differ from Medieval thinkers? What changed?

One of the most significant changes was how they viewed knowledge. In Medieval times, knowledge was seen as something that needed to be preserved, protected, and controlled by the few.

In contrast, Renaissance humanists believed that knowledge should be freely shared and explored and they revived classical learning as a basis for acquiring knowledge. This thinking led to innovations in areas such as art, science, and philosophy.

In this article, we will explore how renaissance humanists differed from medieval thinkers, and how their ideas helped to shape the modern world.

What Characterized Medieval Thinking?

Medieval thinking was primarily characterized by a focus on religious and spiritual matters. Knowledge was seen as something that needed to be protected and preserved, so it could be used by those in power (such as the Church).

In addition, there was an emphasis on tradition and hierarchy – knowledge was seen as something that had to be accepted from authorities and institutions. Even the monarchy in Medieval times was often illiterate.

How did Renaissance Humanists differ from Medieval Thinkers

Also, Europe in the Middle Ages had completely shed the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 395AD, the Roman Empire split. The Western Roman Empire based out of Rome adopted Latin as its official language and the Eastern Roman Empire based out of Constantinople kept Greek.

The Western Roman Empire was under constant barbarian attacks and it eventually collapsed and broke into separate kingdoms. With this Europe entered the Middle Ages, and the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome was lost over time.

This knowledge did, however, survive in Constantinople, as the Eastern Roman Empire continued to thrive for another 1000 years until it fell to the Ottomans in May 1453. The fall of Constantinople led to a deluge of Greek scholars coming to the West and this contributed greatly to the Renaissance which had seen a revival of Classical Antiquity.

So, in short, Medieval thinkers believed that knowledge should be preserved and passed on from generation to generation. They also thought of knowledge as something that was best left in the hands of an elite group of scholars. This meant that access to knowledge was limited, and many people were unable to learn more than what was taught in or by the Church.

What was Renaissance Humanism?

Humanism is a philosophy that puts humans at the center of all things. It emphasizes our intellectual, creative, and moral capabilities, and insists that we (and not some greater power) should be the starting point for inquiry into all matters related to morals and philosophy. This idea was embraced by many Renaissance intellectuals.

Humanism, in general, is different than Renaissance Humanism, which is refers to something specific that happened during the Renaissance.

How did Renaissance Humanists differ from Medieval Thinkers - Chateau

In the late 14th century, a particular school of thought emerged that looked back to the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration and guidance. This particular school of thought is best defined as Renaissance Humanism.

Renaissance Humanism was based on the idea of recreating the Golden Age from classical antiquity. Its focus was on learning from classical texts written by people like Plato, Aristotle and Virgil so that they could learn how to live their lives more fully and how best to interact with those around them.

How Did Renaissance Humanists Differ From Medieval Thinkers?

Now that we’ve discussed what characterized Medieval thinking and have defined Renaissance Humanism, we can compare the two.

How did Renaissance humanists differ from medieval thinkers? They did so in the following ways:

  1. Religious Dogma Vs Free Thinking
  2. Top-down Education Vs Self-learning
  3. Traditional Authority Vs Personal Autonomy
  4. Faith Vs Reason
  5. Knowledge as Hierarchy vs Knowledge as Open to All
  6. Religious Learning Vs Classical Learning

Let’s look closely at each of these differences between the Renaissance humanist and the Medieval thinker.

#1. Religious Dogma Vs Free Thinking

The primary difference between the Medieval thinker and Renaissance Humanist was how they approached religious dogma.

Medieval thinkers believed that knowledge should only come from within the Church, while Renaissance Humanists thought that knowledge should be free and open to all.

For example, during the Middle Ages, the Bible was considered the ultimate source of all knowledge, and it was thought to be infallible.

Conversely, Renaissance Humanists believed that the Bible was only one source of knowledge and that other sources, such as the works of ancient Greek and Roman authors, could also help answer deep questions about how to live a moral and meaningful life.

#2. Top-Down Education Vs Self-learning

Another key difference between Renaissance humanists and medieval thinkers was how they approached education. Medieval thinkers believed that knowledge should be passed down from teacher to student in a top-down manner.

On the other hand, Renaissance Humanists believed in self-learning. They sought to learn by reading widely, debating ideas with others, and engaging in critical thinking.

Overall, Renaissance Humanism was a movement that placed greater emphasis on free thought and knowledge as being open to all people. It broke away from the traditional methods of teaching and learning in medieval times, instead relying on self-directed learning and critical thinking.

This shift enabled individuals to explore new ideas and form their own opinions on how best to live life. By doing so, it provided a foundation for both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.

#3. Traditional Authority Vs Personal Autonomy

In addition to this, Renaissance Humanists also believed in free thought and encouraged the questioning of authority.

In contrast, medieval thinkers believed in traditional authority and rules of conduct that had been established by their predecessors.

The difference between these two approaches was a major factor in how the Renaissance ended up being so different from the Middle Ages.

With the advent of Renaissance Humanism, individuals could develop personal autonomy and think for themselves, rather than simply accepting traditional roles and rules.

#4. Faith Vs Reason

The spirit of inquiry and questioning that characterized the Renaissance was also in stark contrast to how medieval thinkers approached knowledge.

Medieval thinkers were largely guided by faith and tradition, whereas Renaissance Humanists sought to use reason and logic to understand the world around them.

This shift in how people interacted with knowledge was important for how the Scientific Revolution eventually took place. By relying on reason, rather than faith alone, individuals were able to make new discoveries and explore how the world worked in greater detail.

A perfect example is the place of the Earth in the Universe. During Medieval times, it was thought that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, a belief based on faith rather than reason.

However, with the Renaissance Humanists, this belief was challenged and eventually overturned when it was discovered that the Earth orbited around the sun as part of a heliocentric solar system.

#5. Knowledge as Hierarchy Vs Knowledge as Open to All

Finally, Renaissance Humanists also saw knowledge differently than how it was viewed in Medieval Times. In the Middle Ages, knowledge was seen as a hierarchical structure and held only by certain individuals or organizations.

Conversely, Renaissance Humanists believed that knowledge should be open to all and used for the betterment of society. This belief in the free sharing of knowledge was a cornerstone of how the Renaissance influenced how we think about learning and knowledge.

The Renaissance humanist was strongly aided by the Printing Revolution, which made it possible to mass-produce books and spread new ideas rapidly throughout Europe. This, in turn, helped knowledge become increasingly accessible to the general public than the select few, and gave rise to the concept of self-learning.

#6. Religious Learning Vs Classical Learning

The basic premise of Renaissance Humanism was a return to classical learning and the study of classical antiquity. Renaissance humanists placed a much higher value on ancient Greek and Roman texts than religious ones, which was in stark contrast to how medieval thinkers used the Bible as the primary source of knowledge.

Renaissance Humanism involved the study of Plato, Aristotle and other classical authors, which had a major impact on how the Enlightenment eventually unfolded. In addition to this, Renaissance Humanism also encouraged new forms of learning and exploration that opened the door to the Scientific Revolution.

The Renaissance’s influence on education is also based on the philosophy of Renaissance Humanism. During the Renaissance, students learned both Latin and Greek so that they could read classical works by themselves and formulate their own views on how the world worked. This approach to education was instrumental in how modern universities eventually developed and how we think about education today.


In conclusion, Renaissance Humanism was a stark departure from how Medieval thinkers approached knowledge. Relying more on reason and logic, Renaissance Humanists encouraged the free sharing of knowledge, the use of ancient texts for learning and how education should be open to all. Ultimately, this philosophy had a lasting impact on how we think about knowledge and how we approach learning.


Medieval Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)