Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi


  • Anja-Silvia GoeingEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_245-1


The Renaissance treatise (Latin, tractatus) is an explanatory text presenting descriptions, arguments, and evidence to formulate a valid opinion about an object of knowledge. The variety of topics in this format covers the entire range of scholarly disciplines. Renaissance authors used the notion of tractatus in philosophy, broadly defined, to present the following types of reasoning: encyclopedic overviews of a discipline; interpretations and reorganizations of ancient and medieval texts; mathematical, astrological, and cosmographical descriptions; and logical thinking. Whereas these forms evince different aspects of reasoning and modes of discussion, the term tractatus was also employed merely as an organizational element, in the manner of the late ancient notion of separate essays on the same subject within the same volume.

The notion of a philosophical treatise with which we are nowadays familiar through, for example, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), was not the sole form that Renaissance philosophical treatises assumed. On the contrary, there were a wealth of forms and formats and different ways of presenting arguments and collecting of evidence, all connected under the headings “philosophy” and tractatus. Authors in this period were highly experimental, trying out new forms for reasoning and explaining.


Seventeenth Century Sixteenth Century Italian Peninsula Valid Opinion Philosophy Professor 
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Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

The Renaissance treatise (Latin, tractatus) is an explanatory text presenting descriptions, arguments, and evidence to formulate a valid opinion about an object of knowledge (Latin, res). The variety of topics in this format covers all the scholarly disciplines and includes encyclopedic works such as an illustrated compendium about the identification of herbs, the Tractatus de herbis (1440), today in the British Library, as well as juridical discussions such as those about the jurisdiction of matrimony in the Tractatus de matrimonio regis Anglia (1530), and displays of architectural forms organized by category (Tractatus de architectura, c. 1250).

In order to stay as close as possible to the Renaissance notion of tractatus and also to embrace the whole of Europe, the following characterization of treatises is based on a thorough study of all – not just philosophical – Latin European treatises in print that have tractatus in their title and that have been catalogued by the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), the most comprehensive database of Renaissance writing available on the Internet, with a chronological range from the beginning of print in the 1450s to the end of the sixteenth century. There are currently 3,860 treatises that match these criteria.

Philosophy in the context of the Renaissance included a number of different topics, and, to get to grip with the specifics of the philosophical tractatus as it was understood at the time, it will be helpful to work with the notion, which derives from Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica (1503), of an enhanced curriculum of the seven liberal arts plus ethics and natural philosophy. Leaving aside the often-contradictory disciplinary borders and developments of contemporary philosophy, the samples considered here are representative of various aspects of topics and formats connected to the Latin treatise of the Renaissance.

As regards the geographical distribution of the 3,860 books with tractatus in their title, 1,479 were printed in the Italian peninsula, 995 in France, 946 in the Holy Roman Empire, 138 in Spain, 129 in the Low Countries, 96 in the Swiss Confederation, 28 in England, 26 in Poland, 17 without any indication of country, and nine in Portugal. Measured against the Latin print production of these countries or regions, the Italian peninsula leads with 3.85%, followed by Spain (2.85%) and France (2.52%). Portugal (1.86%) and the Holy Roman Empire (1.74%) are next, and the last group consists of England (1.12%), Poland (0.99%), the Low Countries (0.95%), and the Swiss Confederation (0.92%). These figures also show that the Latin term was not used as frequently in German-, English-, Dutch-, and Polish-speaking countries as in lands where Romance languages were spoken (with the trilingual Swiss Confederation as an exception). This raises the question of whether choosing the title tractatus was a purely linguistic decision or, instead, was influenced by the spread of Protestantism. Given that Protestantism had an effect especially on juridical and religious texts, the latter possibility seems more likely, since over 50% of all titles containing the term tractatus are found in the fields of jurisprudence (1,370) and religion (837). It seems that authors of Protestant jurisprudence and religion may have preferred to erase any link to the medieval scholastic tractatus by using other title key words. This would explain why, at least during the sixteenth century, the term tractatus was used less in the British Isles and in the Protestant parts of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Low Countries than in Southern Europe. Jurisprudence and religion are not, however, among the disciplines covered by Reisch’s definition of philosophy, and medicine (296) is also excluded. The remaining titles (1,357) represent the liberal arts along with ethics and natural philosophy. The format of the tractatus was developed in different ways over the centuries, according to the preferred methods of reasoning adopted by the various philosophical disciplines, with the help of the learned community known as the “Republic of Letters.”

Innovative and Original Aspects

Throughout the period from 1450 to 1600, authors used the notion of tractatus in philosophy, broadly defined, to present the following types of reasoning: encyclopedic overviews over a discipline; interpretations and reorganizations of ancient and medieval texts; mathematical, astrological, and cosmographical descriptions; and logical thinking. Whereas these forms evince different aspects of reasoning and modes of discussion, the term tractatus was also employed merely as an organizational element, in the manner of the late ancient notion of separate essays on the same subject within the same volume such as in the treatise on alchemy attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, Septem tractatus seu capitula ... aurei, published in Strasbourg in 1566.

An example of the type of layout found in the Renaissance tractatus is an early printed encyclopedia of natural history entitled Ortus Sanitatis (c. 1507) and attributed to the Frankfurt town physician Johannes Wonnecke of Kaub (Johannes of Cuba). A version of this book, containing only the section on herbs, first came out in Latin in 1484 and then a year later in German (Hirsch 1876); the last edition was published in 1538. The 1507 Latin edition separates the book into different tractatus: one each on herbs, animals, birds, fish, stones, and – showing that it is a medical reference book – types of urine. Each tractatus has encyclopedia-style entries arranged in alphabetical order and called chapters (capitula), most of which have identifying woodcut illustrations. Each chapter contains the physical description and medical use of one species. In this way, many short chapters combine to make one treatise, and six treatises make one book. The treatise on herbs is the most comprehensive, with more than 200 leaves, over 500 illustrations, and 530 chapters, accounting for more than half of the entire book. An alphabetical index for each part of the book, placed at the end of the volume, indicates the medical use of the different species, thus helping the practitioner to find the right plants, animals, or stones for medical recipes. The development of encyclopedic printed reference books on natural history starts with works such as this which use the term tractatus in their title.

Another characteristic example is Heinrich Glarean’s new and annotated edition of Donatus’ Latin grammar, first published in 1535, together with eight tractatus of his own covering the main topics dealt with by the ancient grammarian: generic nouns, their declension, comparative forms, irregularities, conjugation, grammatical rules, syllables, and figures of speech such as tautologies or enigmas (Donatus 1535, 1540; see also Donatus 1527). Glarean’s eight treatises deploy many examples in order to explain how to understand and apply Donatus’ rules. This entailed a radical extension and transformation of the ancient grammarian’s approach. While Donatus’ grammar was designed to be short, so that children could memorize the declensions of nouns and conjugations of verbs, Glarean had a very different pedagogical aim: at more than 100 folios in length, his treatises were not intended to be memorized, but were instead explanatory statements to be consulted. From a dictation manual for teachers of small children, Glarean’s edition of Donatus had become a reference book for independent scholars of all ages. His eight tractatus had turned an ancient grammar text into an accessible manual for self-study and a repertory of grammatical information.

The questions about universals (Quaestiones de universalibus) written by the Oxford Franciscan John Duns Scotus before 1295 were used in the second half of the sixteenth century as university texts. The Paduan professor Gaspare Torri (1531–1595), who adopted the Franciscan convent name of Costanzo Boccadifuoco, or Sarnano (Moroni 1840; Dreyer et al. 2013), explained these questions to his students and published his lectures in 1576 in Venice (Boccadifuoco 1576). In this volume, he refers to Duns Scotus’ chapters as a sequence of quaestiones in order to highlight the scholastic format of late medieval syllogistic argumentation. Boccadifuoco added one tractatus of his own to the volume, in which he introduced his young students to the methods of constructing a syllogistic quaestio and thus provided them with a manual, not only for understanding Duns Scotus’ way of constructing logical deductions but also for formulating their own. (Boccadifuoco 1576, 503–525). Seven years later, in 1583, Boccadifuoco finally published an emended text of Duns Scotus’ treatise, prefaced by a short biography of the “Doctor subtilis” (Duns Scotus 1583).

Impact and Legacy

The Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus by the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a milestone in the new twentieth-century direction taken by philosophical argumentation, which aimed to understand and criticize the use of language in relation to the perception of the world (Wittgenstein 1922). In Bertrand Russell’s words: “Mr Wittgenstein is concerned with the conditions for a logically perfect language ... that the whole function of language is to have meaning, and it only fulfills this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language which we postulate” (Russell 1922). The predecessors of Wittgenstein were philosophers of the Holy Roman Empire in the seventeenth century who used the title tractatus logicus in works they produced for universities. Two examples of this highly stylized genre, both exercises in syllogistic argumentation, were published in Giessen near Frankfurt am Main by Christoph Scheibler, a Lutheran philosophy professor at the University of Giessen: one on propositions and axioms and the other on syllogisms (Scheibler 1619a, b). Scheibler first explained the structure of truth-bearing sentences and presuppositions and then the methods of logical thinking, referring back to Aristotle and the medieval tradition of the quaestio (Roncaglia 2003). Another example of a tractatus logicus was a published examination for philosophy doctorate in logic at the Lutheran University of Wittenberg: the student respondent was Christoph Boehm, and the philosophy professor Martin Caselius presided over the examination (Caselius and Boehm 1633). Published dissertations were also quite common in the Holy Roman Empire from the seventeenth century onward (Marti 2011).

Although there are no sixteenth-century works called tractatus logicus in the USTC database, there are 1,008 Latin entries with titles containing the term dialectica – that part of logic which explained how to formulate an argument (Brown 1966, 26) – mostly without tractatus. With the appearance of the tractatus logicus, however, the seventeenth century witnessed a revival of medieval scholastic forms emphasizing the syllogistic quaestio, a trend which was connected to a revival of metaphysics (Posy and Ferejohn 1993; Hartbecke 2006; Smith 2010.)

The notion of philosophical treatise we are now familiar with, the tractatus logicus, was not the only form that Renaissance philosophical treatises assumed. On the contrary, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries devised a wealth of forms and formats, along with different ways of arguing and of collecting of evidence. Even though most treatises referred in one way or another to writings from antiquity and from the Middle Ages, Renaissance authors were highly experimental, trying out new forms of reasoning and explaining.



Primary Literature


    1. Palladius, Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus. Tractatus de architectura. c. 1250. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Library, MS SCHOENBERG_103870.Google Scholar
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    Printed Books

    1. Boccadifuoco, Costanzo. 1576. Expositiones quaestionum Doctoris Subtilis Joannis Duns Scoti in Universalia Porphyrii. Venice: Francesco De Franceschi.Google Scholar
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Secondary Literature


    1. Universal Short Title Catalogue: USTC Database. 2015. http://www.ustc.ac.uk. Accessed 4 July 2015.
    2. Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 16. Jahrhunderts (VD 16): https://opacplus.bib-bvb.de/TouchPoint_touchpoint/start.do?SearchProfile=Altbestand&SearchType=2. Accessed 20 Sept 2015.
    3. Verzeichnis der im deutschen Sprachbereich erschienenen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (VD 17): http://www.vd17.de/; integrated into VD 16. Accessed 20 Sept 2015.

    Books and Articles

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Copyright information

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of United Kingdom 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.University of ZürichZürichSwitzerland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jill Kraye
    • 1