The most useful early definition of the word humanist, and, by extension, of its synonym humanitian, also happens to be the blandest.
In his translation of Suetonius' De vita Caesarum (1606), Philemon Holland describes one Sphaerus as a 'deep Scholler and great Humanitian as we speake, and whom the Greekes call Philologon'.(2) Suetonius also wrote a book called De grammaticis et rhetoribus, and there we learn that 'Atteius seems to have assumed the title "Philologus" because, like Eratosthenes, who first laid claim to the name, he was known for his wide and various learning'.(3) But in practice, the philologus tended to be an antiquarian, and Holland reproduces this emphasis in his definition of the humanitian.
Now that we have some idea of the variety of interconnected senses in which the word humanity was used in the late sixteenth century, we may proceed to the way in which specific writers used the terms humanist and humanitian. These writers include Harington, the translator Abraham Fleming, and the Harvey brothers, John, Richard, and, of course, Gabriel.
John Harvey uses the word humanitian twice in his Discursive Problem Concerning Prophecies (1588), a general refutation of unauthorized prophesying.
The second use of the word humanitian adds a little to the picture.
They might give us some clue as to what he means by the word humanitian when he (wrongly) accuses Petrus Pomponatius of trying to convert Pope Leo X to atheism, 'as Iouius an humanitian bishop saith'.(22) Paulus Jovius was bishop of Nocera, but, as Harvey indicates, he was a humanitian as well as a divine.
Gabriel Harvey has the distinction of being the first Englishman to profess himself a humanitian. He does so in Pierce's Supererogation (1593), a polemical piece in which he returns the cuffs dealt him by John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe (the 'Pierce' of the title).
The passage in which this remarkable self-description occurs affords little assistance in understanding what Harvey means by humanitian, but his idea of humanity can be worked out very clearly from elsewhere in his book.
No doubt Harvey felt that the age of the 'silly humanitian' had long since passed, and that now his place had been usurped by upstart humanists.
These early records of the words humanist and humanitian allow us to draw some tentative conclusions about the way they were used by late sixteenth-century writers.
So it was, I suggest, that the humanitian Harvey could take what might at first glance seem a paradoxically hostile attitude towards his 'superficial humanists'.