The Renaissance

    After Chaucer, literature continued to be written but there is little that can be read with much pleasure today. In the royal court, courtiers liked to write poetry to display their verbal and emotional skills. All over Europe, Petrarch’s Canzoniere led to an explosion of love poetry, mostly in the form of “complaints” in which a man expresses frustration with his “cruel lady.” He loves a woman who does not return his love, or who refuses to remain faithful. “Unrequited love” became the oddly popular subject of thousands of poems, often written in the 14-line sonnet form that Petrarch and his Italian imitators made so popular.

    In England, the mid-15th century was a time of great social conflict as different branches of the royal family, mostly divided between the dukes of York and Lancaster, fought for the throne in the Wars of the Roses. In 1485, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III (the last Plantagenet ruler) and became Henry VII.

A few years before this, in the mid-1470s, William Caxton brought printing to London. Gutenberg had first introduced printing to Europe in the 1450s, printing the Latin Bible. The books that Caxton printed and sold were almost entirely medieval romances and included the works of Chaucer.

The 16th century

The “Northern Renaissance” came to England with a visit by the Dutchman Erasmus just before 1500 and led to a new stress being put on education in the Latin classics as the best preparation for the leading citizens in the increasingly prosperous towns; “grammar schools” were founded for that purpose. Erasmus’s closest friend in England was Thomas More, who wrote his Utopia for him. Thomas More rose to be Lord Chancellor but he opposed the king when he wanted to separate the English Church from the universal Catholic Church under the Pope, so he was executed as a traitor. He is a Catholic saint.


In 1515 More was sent as a royal ambassador to Flanders (the Netherlands), where he met Peter Gilles, a humanist who was town clerk of Antwerp and a friend of Erasmus. During the months there, he composed the main part of Utopia, the description in Latin of an imaginary land of Nowhere (in Latin nusquam, in Greek utopia) which is now Part II of the completed work. On his return to England he added Part I, a Platonic dialogue introducing some of the work's main themes. The whole work was published in Louvain in 1516, thanks to Erasmus, and although More had been eager to have it published he expressed great regret a few months later. He perhaps realized that most readers would not be aware of the work's origins in his own private life, and read it in too simple a way.

More's Utopia is the single most influential Latin work of the Renaissance, and one of the seminal works of modern literature. It was already widely known in Humanist circles before it was translated into English in 1551, about the same time as it was translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish. Like Plato's Republic, it offers the picture of a fictional "other place" in order to provoke reflection on the current state of the reader's own society. It was written at a time when More was thinking deeply about his own future, and especially about the possibility of being an agent of change for the better in English society. One side of him felt that there were many aspects of contemporary English life that were not acceptable, that had to change; another side told him that he was being an over-optimistic dreamer because human nature was incapable of true goodness. Utopia arose out of this inner debate.

More than Plato, however, it was the satiric Greek writings of Lucian of Samosata (125 - 200) that inspired More to write, as they had prompted Erasmus to compose his Praise of Folly and as they later gave rise to Jonson's Volpone. Lucian was the Greek writer most widely read and enjoyed in the Renaissance; Erasmus and More both translated many of his works. His sense of irony and his love of challenging intellectual games that were at the same time serious and comic were very close to the spirit of men like Erasmus and More. Lucian's True Story, in which a naively foolish narrator named Lucian relates a journey to the Moon, clearly underlies Hythloday's narrative. This work inspired many other 'imaginary journeys,' including Gulliver's Travels, where readers can never be sure of the author's own opinion, and have to think for them­selves.
The other major inspiration for the form of Utopia was the account of voyages of discovery to the New World written by Amerigo Vespucci and published all over Europe from 1507. The story of his four journeys between 1497 and 1504 made a tremendous impact and earned him the lasting memorial of giving his name to America, a continent that Columbus and Cabot had discovered before him. More had read Vespucci's work, and he makes his main narrator, Raphael Hythloday, a sailor who accompanied Vespucci on the last three of his journeys, and who remained in Brazil when he returned from the fourth; from there he set out on a journey over the Pacific that gave him the chance to visit Utopia.

"U-topia" means "no-place" and More was conscious of the pun with "eu-topia" meaning "good-place". Utopia is nowhere, because it is fictional, but also because it is applicable in every place as a challenge to the way life is being lived there; at the same time, it is nowhere, because no one would ever want or be able to live as the Utopians do. More's Utopia is a good place, but it is not without its limits and problems. The way the word "Utopianism" is used today might seem to imply that More's work is of the idealizing kind, proposing a model of an alternative, perfect society; this is not correct. In many ways, More's Utopia is a terribly inhuman society. In literary history More's work has inspired such famous social satires as Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Orwell's 1984. Much modern science fiction is either eu-topian or "dystopian" (from "dys-topia" meaning a bad place) but no writer has offered so deeply challenging a text as More.

The narrator of the first Book is More himself, or at least a character (persona) called More (in Latin Morus); he tells how, in Antwerp, Peter Gilles introduces him to the Portuguese sailor-philoso­pher Hythloday (hythlos in Greek means "nonsense"). He speaks of Hythloday's stories of the Utopians (and others) as an example of "customs from which our own cities, nations, races, and kingdoms might take example in order to correct their errors." Suddenly, though, he begins to report a discussion that arose there between Hythloday, Peter Gilles, and himself about the possibility of Raphael's usefully serving some king as an advisor on account of the wisdom he has acquired through his experiences.

The first half of Book I, after this introduction, consists of Raphael Hythloday's account of a discussion he was involved in one day during a visit to Cardinal Morton when he was Lord Chancellor. A lawyer commends the English habit of hanging thieves, sometimes 20 at a time. Raphael ventures the opinion that such punishment is unjust since many are forced to steal in order to feed themselves and their families. When the lawyer claims that they could earn money by working, Raphael points out that many crippled soldiers cannot work. The debate extends to the recent spread of enclosures, which has deprived many farm-workers of a job, while those who used to be fed by rich land-owners have been dismissed on account of high grain-prices:
"To make this hideous poverty worse, it exists side by side with wanton luxury. Not only the servants of noblemen, but tradespeo­ple, farmers, and people of every social rank are given to ostentatious extravagance of dress and too much wasteful indulgence in eating. Look at the restaurants, the brothels, and those other places just as bad, the inns, wine-shops and beer-houses. Look at all the crooked games of chance like dice, cards, backgammon, tennis, bowling, and quoits, in which money slips away so fast. Don't all these lead straight to robbery.... If you do not find a cure for these evils, it is futile to boast of your severity in punishing theft. Your policy may look superficially like justice, but in reality it is neither just nor practical. If you allow young people to be badly brought up, their characters will be gradually corrupted from childhood; and if then you punish them as grown-ups for committing crimes to which their early training has inclined them, what else is this, I ask, but first making them thieves and then punishing them for it?"

Cardinal Morton asks Raphael to suggest an alternative. Again he condemns the death penalty, then reminds the Cardinal that the Romans used to send criminals to work camps; he goes on to suggest that thieves might become slaves not allowed to possess money. The audience is ready to laugh at this foreigner's odd ideas, until the Cardinal expresses his general agreement, when suddenly everyone is full of praise. A fool turns the debate into an anti-monastic joke, by suggesting that the poor should be fed by the rich monasteries, an idea that makes the Friar very angry. In reading this debate, it has to be remembered that England had no prisons in the modern sense until the 19th century, and the problem of social welfare when there is mass unemployment remains largely unsolved even today.

For Raphael, this story is the proof that he has no future as a courtier; for the reader, it is a preparation for the skills needed to read Book 2 correctly. In both books the text claims to record things said by Hythloday; in both he is arguing an extreme, idealistic opinion, and in both the figure of More opposes a differing, more pragmatic opinion. 

It would be wrong, though, to assume that the More who speaks in the text of Utopia always expresses the opinions of Thomas More the author. Hythloday himself has two sides: he is a fanatical idealist, using the example of Utopia to support his demands for radical social change, and he is also bitterly disillusioned with European society, so that in his fury against the folly of the courtiers at Cardinal Morton's table, he does not even notice the positive example of the uncorrupted statesman offered in Cardinal Morton himself. While Hythloday is a purist, putting his finger on many examples of political immorality in the second half of Book I, More argues in favour of compromise. Hythloday says there is no place for honest men in politics (in court), to which More replies:

"That's how things go in society, and in the councils of princes. If you cannot pluck up bad ideas by the root, if you cannot cure long-standing evils as completely as you would like, you must not therefore abandon society. Don't give up the ship in a storm because you cannot direct the winds. And don't arrogantly force strange ideas on people who you know have set their minds on a different course from yours. You must strive to influence policy indirectly, handle the situation tactfully, and thus what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make less bad. For it is impossible to make all institutions good unless you make all men good, and that I don't expect to see for a long time yet."

This debate can be seen as an expression of Thomas More's own struggle at this time, in his decision as to the future. For the next 15 years or so, More certainly compromised and acted as a skilled politi­cian, in his rise to the highest lay position in English society as Lord Chancellor. The last months, though, saw him standing firm on a principle that he could not abandon. Utopia's More and Hythloday stand, then, in ironic relationship to one another. Each of them is at the same time right and wrong, wins and loses. Biographically, Hythloday and Morus are both More.
Book II is the description of the communistic way of life on the island of Utopia that Raphael hopes will support his radical social opinions expressed at the end of Book I:

"As long as you have private property, and as long as money is the measure of all things, it is really not possible for a nation to be governed justly or happily. For justice cannot exist where all the best things in life are held by the worst citizens; nor can anyone be happy where property is limited to a few, since those few are always uneasy and the many are utterly wretched....  Thus I am wholly convinced that unless private property is entirely done away with, there can be no fair or just distribution of goods, nor can mankind be happily governed."

This is one of the main starting-points for the fantasy of Utopia. Writing at the time when modern capitalism was just beginning to take shape in Europe, Thomas More tried to imagine a society in which all the mechanisms of capital were abolished. At the beginning of the century in which people began actively to move off the land and into the cities, he imagined a society in which no such choice was possible, since in Utopia all are obliged to take their turn in the fields. Just as conspicu­ous consumption and luxurious life-styles were spreading, he made Utopia a country in which all people live at an equal level of austerity.

There is no place for individual desires or private will in Utopia, since the private good is completely subject to the common good. In many ways, as critics have often remarked, Utopia is an extension into society of some of the ideals that existed in the monasteries, and it is no coincidence that Hythloday ends his story with a speech denouncing pride. Only in Utopia, every form of individuality is seen as pride.

Book II, much more widely read than Book I, begins with a description of Utopia that makes it clear how similar it is in many ways to England in its size and disposition. Amaurot, the capital, is set on a river similar to the Thames, for example. Book II begins with general descriptions of Utopian society, the social hierarchy, the relationship between town and country, and the daily timetable. It is very easy to pick holes in the details of the descriptions. We are told, for example, that when the founder of Utopia, Utopus, first conquered it, it was not an island until he caused a channel fifteen miles wide to be dug to separate it from the continent. We may wonder what was done with the huge quantities of earth and rock removed! There is competition between the householders living in different streets, to produce the best gardens, yet the gardens are always open to anyone who cares to go in and take anything. More (or Hythloday) is clearly not painting a very precise picture but it is striking to note how many aspects of life in Utopia resemble More's own family life.

The main difficulty in reading Utopia today comes from the way in which Utopian society is so similar to some of the most repressive and totalitarian systems that recent history has produced. There may be readers who do not care that everyone must wear identical clothing, and must move houses every ten years, or that intimate family meals are strongly discouraged, meals being taken by 30 families together in neighborhood dining halls. More difficult to accept are customs such as the internal passport system:
"Anyone who wants to visit friends in another city, or simply to see the country, can easily obtain permission from his superiors, unless for some special occasion he is needed at home. They travel together in groups, taking a letter from the prince granting leave to travel and fixing a day of return... Anyone who takes upon himself to leave his district without permission, and is caught without the prince's letter, is treated with contempt, brought back as a runaway, and severely punished. If he is bold enough to try it a second time, he is made a slave."
It is the Utopians' attitude towards these slaves that arouses most critics' anger:

"Slaves do the slaughtering and cleaning in the slaughter-houses: citizens are not allowed to do such work. The Utopians feel that slaughtering our fellow-creatures gradually destroys the sense of compassion, which is the finest sentiment of which our human nature is capable... In the dining-halls, slaves do all the particularly dirty and heavy work."
Utopia is in the fortunate position of producing far more food than it needs; it keeps two years' supply in stock, and sells the rest abroad. In exchange Utopia purchases iron ore, gold and silver. It never experiences a foreign-exchange deficit, and has accumulated vast quantities of gold. This is used to hire mercenary soldiers from abroad when Utopia is at war, or to buy off the invading army, or to bribe parts of it to attack the rest. Only how to store their fortune? Gold is employed to make fetters for criminals, turning it into a sign of disgrace instead of dignity, for the worst criminals wear crowns and chains of gold, the signs of the highest power and honor in Europe. Jewels and precious stones are the playthings of children, who naturally give them up on becoming adult. Added vividness comes from a description of the visit to Utopia of foreign envoys, who arrive dressed in gold chains and are naturally taken for the slaves of their servants. Cultural values and conventional attitudes are thus challenged by difference.

Next comes a long section on the moral philosophy practiced in Utopia, and their delight in learning which Hythloday was able to encourage by the classical books that he brought. Thanks to his books, too, the Utopians were able to re-invent for themselves the art of printing.

In the sections on the care of the sick, and on marriage customs, there are ideas which show clearly that More is not simply describing a perfect model for his own human society. People in Utopia who are incurably sick and in great pain are encouraged by the state to put an end to their lives by a form of sanctioned suicide (euthanasia). This is contrary to Catholic teaching, in More's time as now. If two people, after marriage, find that they have made a mistake and want to marry other partners, divorce and remarriage is permitted. Divorce is also permitted in the case of adultery by one of the parties. This too is not allowed by the Church.

"Women do not marry till they are eighteen, nor men till they are twenty-two. Premarital sex by either men or women, if discovered and proved, is severely punished and those guilty are forbidden to marry during their whole lives, unless the Prince by his pardon lightens the sentence... the reason is that they suppose few people would join in married love, with confinement to a single partner and all the petty annoyances that married life involves, unless they were strictly restrained from a life of promiscuity.  . . . . . In choosing marriage partners, they solemnly and seriously follow a custom which seemed to us foolish and absurd in the extreme. Whether she is a widow or a virgin, the bride-to-be is shown naked to the groom by a responsible and respectable matron; and similarly some respectable man presents the groom naked to his future bride. We laughed at this custom and called it absurd; but they were just as amazed at the folly of other nations.... They leave all the rest of her body covered with clothes and estimate the attractiveness of a woman from a mere handsbreadth of her person, the face, which is all they can see."

Finally, Hythloday notes that adultery (sexual relations between a married person and some other partner) is punished by the strictest form of slavery, while a second conviction is punished by death. Death is also the punishment for rebellion by slaves.

Turning to international relations, Hythloday tells that Utopia never makes any treaties with other lands:

"In that part of the world, treaties and alliances between kings are not generally observed with much good faith.  . . . . In Europe, of course, the dignity of treaties is everywhere kept sacred and inviolable, especially in these regions where the Christian religion prevails. This is partly because the kings are all so just and virtuous, partly also because of the reverence and fear that everyone feels towards the ruling Popes. Just as the Popes them­selves never promise anything which they do not most conscientiously perform, so they command all other chiefs of state to abide by their promises in every way. If someone quibbles over it, they compel him to obey by means of pastoral censure and sharp reproof. The Popes rightly declare that it would be particularly disgraceful if people who are specifically called 'the faithful' did not adhere faithfully to their solemn word. But in that New World nobody trusts treaties. The greater the formalities, the more numerous and solemn the oaths, the sooner the treaty will be broken...."

It is worth comparing these lines with the ideas of Mach­iavelli. In Utopia, the irony of this passage is particularly interesting; is Hythloday being sarcastic? Or is he being particularly unrealistic? Is he saying what he thinks, or is his author manipulating his words? In the next chapter, about the Utopians' strategies in warfare, we find the same Machiavellian spirit at work: "If they overcome the enemy by skill and cunning, they rejoice mightily." The Utopians offer high rewards for the killing of their enemies' king, or his capture. This sows discord and distrust. Yet if they have to fight, they are very brave.

The section on religion has interested many critics, since More imagines a non-Christian civic religion of great nobility and purity:

"Most believe in a single power, unknown, eternal, infinite, inexplicable, far beyond the grasp of the human mind, and diffused throughout the universe, not physically, but in influence. Him they call 'Father' and to him alone they attribute the origin, increase, change, and end of all visible things.' The name given to this supreme being is Mithra, a name taken from Persian religion."

From Hythloday and his companions, the Utopians heard about Christ for the first time, and were deeply impressed, especially by the community of goods practiced in the monasteries. Some of them were baptized, but there was no priest to give the other sacraments. Tolerance is important; a Utopian who began to preach that non-Christians would go to hell was quickly imprisoned and exiled.

Individual freedom of religion was first established by Utopus himself, but within limits: "The only exception he made was a positive and strict law he made against any person who should sink so far below the dignity of human nature as to think that the soul perishes with the body, or that the universe is ruled by mere chance, rather than divine providence." In More's Europe, these two ideas were subjects of intense debate; they were considered to be revealed truths that had to be believed by all Christians, yet thinkers could offer no convincing rational proof of them.

In conclusion, Hythloday compares the equality found in Utopia with the gross inequalities of European society, in a particularly powerful speech:

"What kind of justice is it when a nobleman or a goldsmith or moneylender, or someone else who earns his living by doing either nothing at all or something completely useless to society, gets to live a life of luxury and grandeur? While a laborer, a carter, a carpenter, or a farmer works so hard and so constantly that even a beast of burden would perish under the load; yet this  work of theirs is so necessary that no country could survive a year without it. But they earn so meager a living and lead such miserable lives that a beast of burden would really be better off. Beasts do not have to work every minute, and their food is not much worse; in fact they like it better. Besides, they do not have to worry about their future. Working men not only have to sweat and suffer without present reward, but agonize over the prospect of a penniless old age. Their daily wage is inadequate even for their present needs, so there is no possible chance of their saving toward the future."

Hythloday explains the general refusal of people to share what they have with others as a result of Pride. The figure of More concludes with some comments on the tale he has just heard:

It seemed to me that not a few of the customs and laws he had described were quite absurd... but my chief objection was to the basis of their whole system, that is, their communal living and their moneyless economy. This one thing alone takes away all the nobility, magnificence, splendor, and majesty which (in the popular view) are considered the true ornaments of any nation....

I cannot agree with everything he said. Yet I confess there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia which I wish our own country would imitate, though I don't really expect it will.

The English Reformation

    Henry VII died in 1509 and his son, Henry VIII, initiated the Reformation in England by separating the English Church from the control of Rome (in order to be free to divorce his Spanish wife because she seemed unable to give him a son) and abolishing all the monasteries in order to steal their land and wealth.

A more idealistic kind of Protestantism arose across Europe, led by Martin Luther and Jean Calvin in Germany and Swizterland. Between 1548 when Henry died and 1558, England was first drawn towards Protestantism by those ruling in the name of the child Edward VI (Henry’s only son despite his six marriages) but when he died aged 17, in 1553, his older half-sister Mary tried to bring back Catholicism. By this time, western Europe was divided politically and culturally between the Catholic South and the Protestant North.

While the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and its subsequent exploitation brought Spain and Portugal immense wealth, the merchant cities of north Germany and the Baltic were in fact far more dynamic. The English merchants felt no affinity for the conservative Catholicism of the south and were delighted when “bloody” Mary died in 1558, after marrying the king of Spain, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth became the last Tudor monarch.

    Elizabeth was only 25 when she became Queen, she reigned until 1603 and left the memory of the “Elizabethan Era” as a time of national prosperity, full of a new patriotism. Many felt that God had a special plan for Protestant England. The greatest crisis came in 1588 when Catholic Spain sent a large fleet, the “Armada,” to conquer England. Thanks to the skill of the English sailors, and a sudden violent storm, the Armada was defeated.