The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.
The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).
In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.
Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:
- The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
- The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
- Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death
According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.
Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.
Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.
The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms. For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.
Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.
Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:
And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.
Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).
Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.
Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.
Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).
 The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.
 The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.
 Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.
 An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.
 Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.
 Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.