A Vernacular is an everyday language or a dialect of a particular region, country or people. The term usually refers to the language that’s spoken at home and amongst friends rather than one used for studying or work.

Up until the Renaissance, across Europe, Latin was the language used by scholars and the clergy for literature, poetry, education and religion. But the Renaissance changed all that.prin

In this article, we’ll study the rise of the use of the vernacular in the Renaissance and how that changed every aspect of society, leaving its mark on history and helping form modern Europe.

What is a Vernacular?

 As we saw in the introduction, a Vernacular is a language or dialect of a region, a country, or a group of people like a cross-section of a larger population.

A Vernacular language is often distinguished from a larger language like a national language or a literary language or a language that is a standard across a group of people who speak different vernaculars.

The use of the vernacular in the renaissance evolved over time. Until the high middle ages and even into the late middle ages (which partially overlapped with the Renaissance), the use of the vernacular was restricted to everyday conversations, while Latin was the language of literature, education, and religion.

(Note: We talk about the Renaissance we restrict ourselves to Western Europe which included the kingdoms that were once a part of the Western Roman Empire where Latin was the dominant language. In the Eastern Roman Empire, which lasted till the Fall of Constantinople, the dominant language was Greek)

Common Vernacular Languages during the Renaissance

The most common vernacular languages during the Renaissance are those we would associate with national languages in Western Europe.

In Italy, as early as the 13th century, vernaculars like Tuscan and Florentine Italian were already being used in poetry. Early Renaissance Italian literature includes works of Dante Alighieri, Petrarch and Boccaccio in the vernacular.

Vernacular of the Renaissance - Dante-Alighieri
Dante Alighieri
(Image Source – CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Famous poets of the Italian Renaissance include Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, who wrote in vernacular Italian. In fact, Ariosto would be credited for coining the term Humanism (“Umanesimo”, in Italian) which would become the defining philosophy of the Renaissance.

During the Middle Ages, France saw the growth of two vernaculars. The Langue d’Oil was spoken in the North, while Langue d’Oc (also known as Occitan or Proven├žal) was spoken in the South.

These vernaculars continued to be spoken during the Renaissance, although the northern vernacular ultimately would become the more broadly spoken and become modern French while the Langue d’Oc would morph into what would become Catalan – the language spoken on either side of the Pyrenees – in Catalunya, Spain and the Basque country in France.

Germany too had two vernaculars – High German and Low German. High German would evolve into the German spoken in central to south Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the German-speaking part of Belgium. Low German would evolve into the German spoken in northern Germany and become the basis of languages like Dutch.

In England, the Anglo-Saxons spoke a dialect of Low German and this would be the basis of the English language. In fact, the word English comes from ‘Angles’, the name of a tribe of Germanic peoples that settled on the islands that we call Great Britain.

Over time, the use of vernacular in the Renaissance would elevate these regional languages of the common people into full blown modern languages.

How did the use of Vernacular in the Renaissance affect the spread of Humanism?      

Humanism is a philosophy that emphasizes the value of human beings and human potential capacity for self-realization. It believes in the intellectual, creative, and moral capabilities of human beings and puts humans in the center of their own destinies.

Renaissance Humanism believed in the revival of Classical antiquity and using Classical learning as a basis for exploring new ideas and perspectives. Renewed interest in classical art, literature, and philosophy was at the heart of Renaissance Humanism and drove the Renaissance movement. And to this end, Renaissance humanists reintroduced the study of Greek alongside Latin to allow scholars to study classical works by people like Plato and Aristotle in their original language.

But, Renaissance humanists also believed that knowledge should be available to as broad a segment of the population as possible. And unlike, medieval times when knowledge was concentrated in the hands of the clergy, during the Renaissance it began to spread because many classical works were translated into vernaculars making them more accessible to the masses.

The use of the vernacular in the Renaissance helped spread Humanism and make it accessible to those who did not know Latin or Greek.

How did Vernaculars Affect the Protestant Reformation?

For centuries, the Catholic Church had been the dominant force in Europe but during the Renaissance, many people began to challenge the Church’s monopoly on knowledge and access to God.

Renaissance humanists wanted to change religion by making it more humanistic and accessible to people. Reformists like Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that people should be able to read and interpret the bible by themselves, rather than being reliant on priests. This meant translating the Bible into vernaculars so that reading it would not be restricted to those who knew Latin.

Martin Luther, himself, translated the New Testament from Greek into the German vernacular. (As it turns out while hiding in Wartburg castle after having been labeled a heretic after the Edict of Worms in 1521)

Vernacular in the renaissance - Martin Luther German Bible
Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German

Like Martin Luther, Myles Coverdale translated the Bible into Early English in 1535. Coverdale was, briefly, Bishop of Exeter, and his theological translations into English would be a significant contribution to the English Renaissance.

And so the use of vernacular in the Renaissance extended to religious works bringing religion closer to the common man.

How did Vernaculars influence Education during the Renaissance?

During the Middle Ages, education was limited to the upper classes and was mostly focused on religious studies. The language of instruction was Latin, which kept education exclusive to those with wealthier backgrounds. This meant before the Renaissance, literacy was limited to the elites.

The Renaissance had a big influence on education, with vernaculars began to make their way into education making it more accessible. Schools began teaching vernaculars alongside Latin, and this allowed people from different backgrounds to access education. Also, many vernaculars did not have a standardized written script. But with standardization, scholars started translating books into vernaculars making knowledge accessible to those who did not know Latin.

The invention of the Printing Press made it possible to print books in different languages. Within 50 years of the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, printing presses sprung up all across Europe and there were more than 20 million volumes in circulation – many in vernaculars.

So the use of Vernacular in the Renaissance saw education becoming available to more people than before.

What was the impact of Vernaculars on Renaissance Literature?

Perhaps the greatest impact of vernacular in the Renaissance was on Literature. Like education, the Renaissance brought about changes in literature. By ushering in an era of inquiry and questioning, Renaissance writers no longer felt bound by the moral and aesthetic strictures of Medieval literature.

This new wave of writing meant that writers felt free to write in vernaculars. No longer did they need to write solely in Latin for the sake of recognition from their peers. Writing in vernaculars made their works accessible to larger audiences. And which writer doesn’t want that?

In Renaissance Italy, writers like Dante, and Boccaccio, and in England, William Shakespeare wrote in their respective vernaculars which helped popularize vernacular literature. In fact, William Shakespeare would come to symbolize English literature.

Vernacular in the Renaissance - William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

The use of vernaculars became increasingly popular and vernaculars such as French, English and Italian became the dominant languages of vernacular literature.

How did the Vernacular in the Renaissance affect modern Europe?

Vernaculars, by their very definition, were local or regional languages. During the Middle Ages, vernaculars were not identified necessarily with a specific nation-state, for a simple reason that national boundaries were always in flux.

But during the relative political stability of the Renaissance, vernaculars started to coincide with specific nation-states. This was a trend that would continue even after the Renaissance and eventually vernaculars became associated with national identities.

For example, the Langue d’Oil, which would transform into modern French and become associated with the nation of France. Early English would become modern English and become the language of England. Vernacular Florentine or the Tuscan dialect of Italian would be a major influence in the creation of modern Italian – clearly associated with Italy.

So, vernaculars in the Renaissance can be seen as an important factor in the identity of nations in modern Europe. This would go on to affect not just European history but, as the 20th century taught us, also world history.

How did Vernaculars influence the spread of ideas during the Renaissance?

Interestingly, the spread of ideas during the Renaissance was both aided and hindered by the use of vernaculars.

If books and works of literature had not been translated into vernaculars, ideas and knowledge could have spread more rapidly as there would have been less of a need to replicate production infrastructures in different parts of Europe.

But without vernacular literature or books, knowledge and ideas would have remained limited to those educated in Latin and the fast spread of ideas would have come at the expense of limited penetration.

So, if it had not been for vernaculars, would Renaissance Humanism have been as accepted by the European population as it was? What about the Reformation?

So, you can see that broadly speaking, the use of vernacular in the Renaissance ensured that ideas and knowledge were both widely and deeply spread across Europe.


The Bottom Line

The use of vernacular in Europe accelerated the changes brought about by the Renaissance. It sped up the acceptance of Renaissance philosophies. Renaissance humanists could reach a larger audience and spread their ideas faster.

Education and literature became accessible to more people. And for better or for worse, the boundaries of modern European countries started to take shape along linguistic lines.