To apply the term "humanism" to the fourteenth century is using a word that in fact was not coined until 1808 by a German educator, F. J. Niethammer. Even so, Christian humanism, in the sense of a philosophical union of Christian and humanist principles, has been traced back to at least the twelfth century. Humanism attained its full bloom in the era of the Renaissance, which began in Italy.
But centuries earlier Dante Alighieri of Florence (1265 – 1321) gives strong evidence of this movement. Humanism does not elevate ordinary human beings to the status of gods, nor does it deny the primacy of God. Instead, it seeks to celebrate humanity and place the serving of fellow human beings as one of the highest Christian duties. A humanist style of approach was nevertheless a prelude to the Renaissance, and Augustinians of this particular approach became influential in the Order of Saint Augustine after the year 1370, particularly in Florence and Rome.
Relative to the size of the other mendicant orders (with the Dominicans and Franciscans generally three times more numerous than the Augustinians), the Augustinians produced far more friar-humanists. Only an Augustinian would preach on the subject of a return to founding principles accompanied by recommendations to emulate the ethical examples of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and Pythagoras. More than any other mendicant order, the Augustinians developed a conception of eremitical (hermit) life that was authentically intellectual. This was a life that was wholeheartedly endorsed by the humanist author and a poet of sonnets, Francesco Petrarch (1304 - 1374); he is popularly called the Father of Humanism.
By virtue of their legendary foundation in Tuscan hermitages, the Augustinians claimed to be the unchallenged custodians of a classically-inspired life of learning, in a solitude that was a barrier for the distractions and corruptions of urban living. A number of these humanist Augustinians went on to be elected to the position of Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine. In humanism, members of the Order of Saint Augustine saw merit and potential for the Christian Faith. They opted to join and contribute to this movement, rather than to ignore or resist it. Usually they were men who saw the church in need of reform, and hoped that humanism might become part of the change that was necessary for the Church.
In the fourteenth century not much more than a century after its Grand Union, the Order of Saint Augustine lay foundations for its tradition of patronage of and participation in secular learning. This was immortalised by the association of members of the Order of Saint Augustine with Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375), the two early lights of the Renaissance in Italy. It is therefore helpful to focus on what Petrarch learned from Augustine.
The Augustinian tradition was a strong and vital tradition all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Even so, it was eclipsed in the schools by Scholasticism (the philosophy coming mainly from the work of the Dominican, Thomas Aquinas). From Augustine, Petrarch learned that the only proper study for a human being to engage in was to study oneself, to look within oneself and work within oneself to guarantee eternal salvation. This idea would eventually develop into the hallmark of humanist belief, the dignity of humanity.
For the humanists, humanity was something special in creation and has a special relationship to God. This relationship is expressed in salvation and the principle concern of every human being should be precisely this salvation. The humanists saw such studies as Scholastic logic, arithmetic, theology (the study of divinity) and natural science as completely unrelated to this most important mission of life.
Petrarch was closely bound by friendship with four Augustinians, Denis of Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A. (died 1342), Bartholomew of Urbino O.S.A. (died 1350), Jean Coci O.S.A. (died 1364) and Cardinal Bonaventure Baduario da Padova (Padua) O.S.A. (died 1385, and later declared a Blessed of the Church). The devotion of Petrarch to Saint Augustine was both literary and spiritual. It had been fostered by these Augustinians. When Petrarch died in 1374 it was Bonaventure Baduario da Perago (Padua) O.S.A. who delivered the funeral oration at his tomb. Boccaccio did not have as many Augustinian friends as Petrarch, but in Martino da Signa O.S.A. he found intelligence and sympathy. In August 1374 Boccaccio bequeathed his library to the Augustinians at Florence, and asked that he be buried with the Augustinians in Florence or Certaldo. These golden years of friendship with Petrarch and Boccaccio took place when some members of the Order of Saint Augustine were intent in the pursuit of secular learning. For example, the Augustinian studium (the local study house for Augustinian candidates) in Florence was noted as being "frequented by the best and most outstanding men of the city."
Most representatives of humanism preserved their close connection with the Church, although a few isolated forerunners of the coming Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century already made their appearance. The seeds of this religious revolution were sown by the lampoons and libidinous poems of such men as Poggio Bracciolini, Antonio Beccadelli and Lorenzo Valla. Humanism was planted in Germany by Petrarch during his residence there as ambassador to Charles IV, with whom he corresponded after his departure.
It has been stated by a recent medieval scholar that the Order of Augustine fostered some of the most mercurial and original minds of the later Quattrocento (fourteenth century) in Italy. There had been – mainly in Florence and Rome – the scholars and authors Denis of Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A. (died 1342), Bartholomew of Urbino O.S.A. (died 1350), Jean Coci O.S.A. (died 1364), Martino da Signa O.S.A. (died 1374?), Cardinal Bonaventure Baduario da Padova (Padua) O.S.A. (died 1385), and Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. (died 1394).
But humanism in Augustinians was not confined to Italy. In France, Jacques Legrand O.S.A. (1360 – 1415), a preacher of national fame, had a favorable attitude to this new cultural movement. His life as a writer coincided with the years in which the humanistic current began to emerge among the cultured and aristocratic classes of his country. He was such an eloquent preacher that John of Montreuil, "the first French humanist", confessed that he was dazzled by Legrand, listening to him "for six hours, in a sermon on Good Friday.” Jacques Legrand O.S.A with considerable justification is usually described as a humanist - although he would have challenged that assertion as in itself being an inadequate and too-facile description.
In the year 1400 Legrand produced his main work called Sophilogium, his "collection on wisdom." He demonstrated an ability to harmonize an appreciation of the values of cultural antiquity with the postulates of the Christian faith. He wrote it in Latin, and his name became known throughout the Christian world of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
These were obviously quotations that appealed to him personally. Indeed, one purpose of such a book was to provide preachers with a ready source to quotations they could use in sermons. Legrand himself translated the Sophilogium into the French language. It is not completely identical with the previous Latin edition, and is a better work. Parts of it were printed in Lyon in 1513 and in Paris in 1513. A graduate of the Augustinian studium generale in Paris, he died in in 1422 or 1425, and received the honour of being buried in front of the high altar of the Augustinian church in Paris; other manuscripts say this happened at Poitiers.
While humanism and the Renaissance in Italy, France, and Germany was often oriented toward the past, with naturalist and pagan tendencies, in Spain humanism showed that it could fully serve the cause of Christianity, and do so in a grand style. In his prose works, Fray Luis de Leon O.S.A. (1527 - 1591) succeeded in harmonizing erudition and precise exegetical analysis with a classical elegance of literary form. His original poetry, unsurpassed in Spanish literature, united deep religious sense, intense inspiration, and beauty of style. In this category are his Vida del cielo, Noche serena, En la Ascension, and A nuestra Senora, etc.
Two Augustinians in England have their place in English literature as humanists: John Capgrave O.S.A. (1393 – 1464) and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. (1393 – 1467). It is important to bear in mind that, unlike some Franciscans (the mendicants of the religious order founded by Francis of Assisi), both the Augustinian conventual members and observant members had no division between them about the value of secular learning. The humanists of the Renaissance had to consider whether pagan virtues had anything to offer the Christian culture of Europe, and decided that virtue was culturally neutral. Many followed the earlier advice of Saint Basil. He suggested, "Imitate the bees, who select only from certain flowers and take what is useful to them, but leave everything else behind."
Humanists read the Classics of Greek and pre-Christian Roman culture, and compiled and printed collections of quotations. William Caxton translated it into English, and re-titled it the Boke of Good Manners ("Book of Good Manners"). Caxton printed it in 1487 and again in 1500. Other published did likewise in English in 1494 (seven editions), 1500, 1507 and 1515. Another popular genre in which Legrand participated was akin to what would be called "self help" books today.
There were many books on the social formation of children, and on social customs and etiquette. Members of this genre include the book by Vincent of Beauvais, De Eruditione Filiorum Nobilium (1245: "The Education of the Daughters of Nobles"), and the mirrors for princes, such as the book by William Perrault, De Eruditione Principium (circa 1265: "The Education of Princes") and the book by Aegidius Colonna, De Regimine Principium (circa 1281).For further reading
The Sophologium online. In Latin, a well-photographed PDF version on a medieval manuscript.http://dl.ub.uni-freiburg.de/diglit/legrand1466/0005?sid=40202ed3e8a29112a4b5f2890f1593fb