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Background to the Renaissance in England
At the end of the 1400s, the world changed. Two key dates can mark the beginning of modern times. In 1485, the Wars of the Roses came to an end, and, following the invention of printing, William Caxton issued the first imaginative book to be published in England – Sir Thomas Malory’s retelling of the Arthurian legends as Le Morte D’Arthur. In 1492, Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas opened European eyes to the existence of the New World. New worlds, both geographical and spiritual, are the key to the Renaissance, the ‘rebirth’ of learning and culture. England emerged from the Wars of the Roses (1453–85) with a new dynasty in power, the Tudors.
The Curious Case of Henry VIII
As with all powerful leaders, the question of succession became crucial to the continuation of power. So it was with the greatest of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII, whose reign lasted from 1509 to 1547. In his continued attempts to father a son and heir to the line, Henry married six times. But his six wives gave him only one son and two daughters, who became King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I.
The need for the annulment of his first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, brought Henry into direct conflict with the Catholic church, and with Pope Clement VII (1521–32) in particular. In reaction to the Catholic church’s rulings, Henry took a decisive step which was to influence every aspect of English, then British, life and culture from that time onwards. He ended the rule of the Catholic church in England, closed (and largely destroyed) the monasteries – which had for centuries been the repository of learning, history, and culture – and established himself as both the head of the church and head of state.
In a very short period of time, centuries of religious faith, attitudes and beliefs were replaced by a new way of thinking. Now, for example, the King as ‘Defender of the Faith’ was the closest human being to God – a role previously given to the Pope in Rome. Now, England became Protestant, and the nation’s political and religious identity had to be redefined. Protestantism, which had originated with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg in 1517, became the official national religion, and the King rather than the Pope became head of the church. Although King Henry himself remained nominally Catholic, despite being excommunicated by the Pope, all the Catholic tenets, from confession to heaven and hell, were questioned.
Henry VIII’s break with Rome was not carried out as an isolated rebellion. Two European thinkers, in particular, established the climate which made it possible. The first of these was the Dutch scholar Erasmus, whose enthusiasm for classical literature was a major source for the revival in classical learning. His contempt for the narrowness of Catholic monasticism (expressed in The Praise of Folly) was not an attempt to deny the authority of the Pope, but a challenge to the corruption of the Catholic church. Erasmus had no time for unnecessary ritual, the sale of pardons and religious relics. He wished to return to the values of the early Christian church and in order to do so, produced a Greek edition (1516) of the Scriptures in place of the existing Latin one. Through his visits to England, Erasmus became a friend of Sir Thomas More, who was later beheaded for refusing to support Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Although much of Erasmus’s work prepared the ground for Protestant reforms, his aim was to purify and remodel the Catholic church, not to break away from it. He represented the voice of learning and knowledge, of liberal culture and tolerance.
Martin Luther and his 95 Theses
It was a quite different temperament, the German Martin Luther’s, which marked the decisive break with Rome. Luther agreed with much of what Erasmus said about the corruption of the Catholic church but they disagreed on their responses and Luther refused to submit to the Pope’s authority. Many historians regard 1517, when Luther pinned to a chapel door his 95 Theses Against the Sale of Papal Indulgences, as the start of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. Luther’s continuing opposition to the Pope led to his excommunication (1521) and the further spread of religious individualism in Northern Europe. It is against this background that we should place Henry VIII’s adoption of the role of the head of the English church and the church’s own quite separate style of Anglicanism.
Luther - Responsible for the Formation of a Church outside Catholicism
Luther’s mission in developing the church outside Catholicism was taken up by the Frenchman, Jean Calvin. Like Luther, Calvin saw the Bible as the literal word of God and the very foundation for his ideas. For the last twenty years of Calvin’s life, Geneva became the powerhouse of Protestantism. It functioned as a model of civic organization and behaviour and included a much stricter morality – for example, dress was austere, patriarchy took a stronger grip, drama was censored, women were drowned and men beheaded for adultery. This was significant because the ideas developed in Geneva spread to regions of Northern Europe, including Scotland and the non-conformist tradition in England and Wales. This influential movement culminated a century later in the triumph of Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth.
After the Reformation, the relationship between man and God, and consequently the place of man in the world, had to be re-examined. This was a world which was expanding. In 1492, Christopher Columbus travelled in search of the Indies, landing first in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. For many years he was credited with having ‘discovered’ the Americas. Over the next century or so, Copernicus and Galileo would establish scientifically that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. This expansion was reflected in the mental explorations of the time. The figure of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus also takes on considerable importance here. His humanist thinking had a great influence on generations of writers whose work placed man at the centre of the universe.
It was not by accident that neo-Platonic philosophy, from the great age of classical Greece, became dominant in the Renaissance. Its ideals of the harmony of the universe and the perfectibility of mankind, formulated before the birth of Christianity, opened up the humanist ways of thinking that pervaded much European and English Renaissance writing.
Literature before the Renaissance had frequently offered ideal patterns for living which were dominated by the ethos of the church, but after the Reformation the search for individual expression and meaning took over. Institutions were questioned and reevaluated, often while being praised at the same time. But where there had been conventional modes of expression, reflecting ideal modes of behaviour – religious, heroic, or social – Renaissance writing explored the geography of the human soul, redefining its relationship with authority, history, science, and the future. This involved experimentation with form and genre, and an enormous variety of linguistic and literary innovations in a short period of time.
Reason, NOT Religion becomes the Driving Force
Reason, rather than religion, was the driving force in this search for rules to govern human behaviour in the Renaissance world. The power and mystique of religion had been overthrown in one bold stroke: where the marvellous no longer holds sway, real life has to provide explanations. Man, and the use he makes of his powers, capabilities, and free will, is thus the subject matter of Renaissance literature, from the early sonnets modeled on Petrarch to the English epic which closes the period, Paradise Lost, published after the Restoration, when the Renaissance had long finished.
The Impact of the Reformation
The Reformation gave cultural, philosophical, and ideological impetus to English Renaissance writing. The writers in the century following the Reformation had to explore and redefine all the concerns of humanity. In a world where old assumptions were no longer valid, where scientific discoveries questioned age-old hypotheses, and where man rather than God was the central interest, it was the writers who reflected and attempted to respond to the disintegration of former certainties.
Impact of the Birth of Science, Mathematics and Astronomy
At the same time there occurred the growth, some historians would say the birth, of modern science, mathematics and astronomy. In the fourth decade of the sixteenth century Copernicus replaced Aristotle’s system with the sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of the universe. In anatomy, Harvey discovered (1628) the circulation of the blood, building on sixteenth-century work in Italy. There was a similar explosion from the start of the seventeenth century in the discovery, development and use of clocks, telescopes, thermometers, compasses, microscopes – all instruments designed to measure and investigate more closely the visible and invisible world.
The literature of the English Renaissance contains some of the greatest names in all world literature: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and Jonson, among the dramatists; Sidney, Spenser, Donne, and Milton among the poets; Bacon, Nashe, Raleigh, Browne, and Hooker in prose; and, at the centre of them all, the Authorised Version of the Bible, published in 1611.
Unsettling Political Climate
Politically, it was an unsettled time. Although Elizabeth reigned for some forty-five years, there were constant threats, plots, and potential rebellions against her. Protestant extremists (Puritans) were a constant presence; many people left the country for religious reasons, in order to set up the first colonies in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the beginnings of another New World. Catholic dissent (the Counter-Reformation) reached its most noted expression in Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, still remembered on that date every year. And Elizabeth’s one-time favourite, the Earl of Essex, led a plot against his monarch which considerably unsettled the political climate of the end of the century.
Elizabeth's Reign - A Sense of Stability
Elizabeth’s reign did, however, give the nation some sense of stability, and a considerable sense of national and religious triumph when, in 1588, the Spanish Armada, the fleet of the Catholic King Philip of Spain, was defeated. England had sovereignty over the seas, and her seamen (pirates or heroes, depending on one’s point of view) plundered the gold of the Spanish Empire to make their own Queen the richest and most powerful monarch in the world.
With this growth in the wealth and political importance of the nation, London developed in size and importance as the nation’s capital. The increasing population could not normally read or write, but did go to the theatre. Hence, from the foundation of the first public theatre in 1576, the stage became the forum for debate, spectacle, and entertainment. It was the place where the writer took his work to an audience which might include the Queen herself and the lowliest of her subjects. Hand in hand with the growth in theatrical expression goes the growth of modern English as a national language.
Efflorescence of Humanism in England During the Renaissance
During some thirty years, from 1490 to 1520, there was in England an efflorescence of humanism which was accomplished by a few vibrant spirits. Some young Englishmen were attracted to Italy by the desire to learn Greek, since knowledge of Greek had been carried to Italy by refugees after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. They were eager to see the masterpieces that these fugitive Greeks had saved and brought with them, and in search of these, they journeyed to Florence, Bologna, Padua, Venice and Rome.
Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn: returned to Oxford about 1490 and established the teaching of Greek. Thomas Linacre was one of the first Englishmen to study Greek in Italy, and brought back to his native country and his own university the lessons of the "New Learning" (a term for Renaissance humanism). Erasmus was one among his famous pupils, and other renowned men of letters like Sir Thomas More, John Colet, William Grocyn, William Lilye and other eminent scholars were his intimate friends. He was known for the rudiments of (Latin) grammar (Progymnasmata Grammatices vulgaria), composed in English, a revised version of which was made for the use of the Princess Mary. William Grocyn was lecturer at Exeter College, Oxford, where he helped indoctrinate his countrymen in the new Greek learning. He was also chosen by Colet to deliver lectures in St Paul's.
John Colet and William Lily: Colet - a friend of Erasmus, was a key figure in Christian humanism. He found in Italy the inspiration of that purified Christianity which he preached in London and Oxford, and explored an historical examination of St. Paul’s mission, and established St. Paul’s School in 1504. For this school he asked William Lily (an English classical grammarian and scholar) to write a Latin grammar which was to reign supreme in schools till today, called as Eton’s Latin Grammar or Accidence. Part of the grammar is a poem, "Carmen de Moribus", which lists school regulations in a series of pithy sentences. [Note: When John Milton wrote his Latin grammar Accedence Commenc't Grammar (1669), over 60 percent of his 530 illustrative quotations were taken from Lily's grammar]. Lily also had many distinguished sermons. In addition to his sermons Colet's works include some scriptural commentary and works entitled Daily Devotions and Monition to a Godly Life.
Erasmus and More: Erasmus enjoyed the sobriquet "Prince of the Humanists", and has been called "the crowning glory of the Christian humanists." resolved upon a profound study of Greek, upon the influence of Colet, his studies took a more religious turn. He is famous for his Adages (1500), and Praise of Folly (1509). In 1499, while in England, Erasmus was particularly impressed by the Bible teaching of John Colet who pursued a style more akin to the church fathers than the Scholastics. This prompted him, upon his return from England, to master the Greek language, which would enable him to study theology on a more profound level and to prepare a new edition of Jerome's Bible translation.
Thomas More was a close friend of Erasmus. It was under More’s guidance that Erasmus wrote the Praise of Folly, and it was with Erasmus in mind that More wrote his Utopia, (1516), the masterpiece of English humanism, and the true prologue of the Renaissance.
More opposed the Protestant Reformation, in particular the theology of Martin Luther and William Tyndale. He also wrote Utopia, published in 1516, about the political system of an imaginary ideal island nation. More supported the Catholic Church and saw the Protestant Reformation as heresy, a threat to the unity of both church and society.
Between 1512 and 1519 More worked on a History of King Richard III, which he never finished but which was published after his death. The History is a Renaissance biography. More's best known and most controversial work, Utopia is a novel written in Latin. More completed and Erasmus published the book in Leuven in 1516, but it was only translated into English and published in his native land in 1551. Fundamentally, the book is derived from Plato’s Republic, that Greek philosopher’s dream of an ideal state.
The men who were inspired by classical works after More, were Educationists rather than imaginative writers. Sir Thomas Elyot wrote a treatise on moral philosophy and education titled Governor (1531). Sir John Cheke’s The Hurt of Sedition, was written against the rebels who were against the authority of the State. Sir Thomas Wilson was concerned solely with style in his Art of Rhetoric (1553), in which this English Quintilian recommends purity and simplicity of language. Roger Ascham was the most popular of the educationists of his time and the most pungent of the group. Ascham was pupil of Cheke, tutor to Elizabeth in her sixteenth year, and yet prudent enough to be Mary Tudor’s Latin secretary. His Toxophilus (1545) is intended to revive the love of archery. His other book The Schoolmaster (1570) contains his advice to masters on the teaching of Latin.
The accepted attitude toward Elizabethan drama was established on the publication of Charles Lamb’s Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare. The outburst of English drama is the glory of the Elizabethan period of literature. Modern drama arose out of the miracle plays. Miracle plays passed into the moralities. Moralities passed into modern dramas. The miracle plays continued to be performed, till the Protestants took over and the cycles of the different towns disappeared, one after another, as the reformation advanced.
Reformation and Religious Controversies
Humanism’s influence in literature was crossed and opposed by the religious Reformation. Most of the writers had now to chose between Pope and Luther or Calvin. In the year Utopia (1516) was published, Martin Luther published his famous theses at Wittenberg. More’s career was thereby transformed: the rest of his life was devoted to Catholic unity.
Martin Luther rejected several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God's punishment for sin could be purchased with money, proposing an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517.
His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture, and influenced the writing of an English translation, the Tyndale Bible. His hymns influenced the development of singing in Protestant churches. His marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, set a model for the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant clergy to marry.
Next: The English Renaissance as The Golden Age of: Chronicles, Poetry, Translations, Theatre, Satire, Prose and Literary Criticism
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
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