Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. During the period, the term humanist (Italian: umanista) referred to teachers and students of the humanities, known as the studia humanitatis, which included grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. It was not until the 19th century that this began to be called humanism instead of the original humanities, and later by the retronym Renaissance humanism to distinguish it from later humanist developments. During the Renaissance period most humanists were Christians, so their concern was to "purify and renew Christianity", not to do away with it. Their vision was to return ad fontes ("to the sources") to the simplicity of the New Testament, bypassing the complexities of medieval theology.
Under the influence and inspiration of the classics, humanists developed a new rhetoric and new learning. Some scholars also argue that humanism articulated new moral and civic perspectives and values offering guidance in life. Renaissance humanism was a response to what came to be depicted by later whig historians as the "narrow pedantry" associated with medieval scholasticism. Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. Humanism, whilst set up by a small elite who had access to books and education, was intended as a cultural mode to influence all of society. It was a program to revive the cultural legacy, literary legacy, and moral philosophy of classical antiquity.