The Renaissance and the Reformation

Renaissance (“rebirth”) is the name commonly applied to the period of European history following the Middle Ages. It is said to have begun in Italy in the late fourteenth century and to have continued, through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In this period the European arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature reached an eminence not exceeded in any age. The development came late to England in the sixteenth century, and did not have its flowering until the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, sometimes, in 212. fact, John Milton (1608-74) is described as the last great Renaissance poet.

Many attempts have been made to define “the Renaissance” in a brief assertion, as though a single essence underlay the complex features of the intellectual and cultural life of numerous countries over several hundred years. It has, for example, been described as the birth of the modern world out of the ashes of the Dark Ages; as the discovery of the world and the discovery of man; and as the era of untrammelled individualism in life, thought, religion, and art. Recently some historians, finding that attributes similar to these were present in various people and places in the Middle Ages, and also that many elements long held to be medieval survived into the Renaissance, have denied that the Renaissance ever existed. This sceptical opinion serves as a reminder that history is a continuous process, and that “periods” are not given by history but invented by historians. Nonetheless, the division of the temporal continuum into named segments is an all but indispensable convenience in discussing history. Furthermore, during the span of time called “the Renaissance”, it is possible to identify a number of events and discoveries which began approximately in the fifteenth century, clearly affected radical and distinctive changes in the beliefs, productions and manner of life of many people, especially in the upper and the intellectual classes.”

All these occurrences may be regarded as putting a strain on the relatively closed and stable world of the great civilization of the later Middle Ages, when most of the essential and permanent truths about God, man and the universe were considered to be adequately known. The full impact of many developments in the Renaissance did not make itself felt until the enlightenment in the later seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, but the fact that they occurred in this period indicates the vitality, the audacity, and the restless curiosity of many men of the era, whether scholars, thinkers, artists, or adventurers. Prominent among these developments were:

  1. The new learning: Renaissance scholars of the classics, called humanists, revived the knowledge of the Greek language, discovered and disseminated a great number of Greek manuscripts and added considerably to the number of Roman authors and works which had been known to the Middle Ages. The result was to open out the sense of the vastness of the historical past, as well as to enlarge immensely the stock of ideas, materials, literary forms, and styles available to Renaissance writers. In the mid-fifteenth century the invention of printing on paper from movable type made books for the first time cheap and plentiful, and floods of publications, ancient and modern, poured from the presses of Europe to satisfy the demands of the expanding population who had learned to read. The rapidity of the spread of ideas, discoveries and types of literature in the Renaissance was made possible by this new technology of printing.

The humanistic revival sometimes resulted in pedantic scholarship, sterile imitations of ancient works and styles, and a rigidly authoritarian rhetoric and literary criticism. It also bred, however, the gracious and tolerant humanity of an Erasmus, and the high concept of a cultivated Renaissance aristocracy expressed in Baldassare Castiglione’s II Cortegiano (“The Courtier”) published in 1528. This was the most admired and widely translated of the many Renaissance courtesy books, or books on the character, obligations, and training of the man of the court. It sets up the ideal of the completely rounded or “universal” man, developed in all his faculties and skills, physical, intellectual, and artistic. He is especially trained to be a warrior and statesman, but is capable also as athlete, philosopher, artist, conversationalist, and man of society. The courtier’s relations to women, and of women to men, are represented in accordance with the quasi-religious code of Platonic love, and his activities and productions are crowned by the grace of sprezzatura-the Italian term for what seems the casual ease with which someone has been schooled to meet the demands of very complex and exacting rules. Leonardo da Vinci in Italy and Sir Philip Sidney in England are often represented as embodying the many aspects of the courtly ideal.

  1. The new religion: The Reformation led by Martin Luther (1483- 1546) was a successful heresy which struck at the very foundations of the institutionalism of the Roman Catholic Church. This early Protestantism was grounded on each individual’s inner experience of spiritual struggle and salvation. Faith (based on the word of the Bible) was alone thought competent to save, and salvation itself was regarded as a direct transaction with God in the theatre of the individual soul, without the necessity of intermediation by Church, priest, or sacrament. For this reason Protestantism is sometimes said to have been an extreme manifestation of “Renaissance individualism” in northern Europe; it soon, however, developed its own type of institutionalism in the theocracy proposed by John Calvin (1509-64) and his Puritan followers. England in characteristic fashion muddled its way into Protestantism under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, empirically finding a middle way that minimized violence and hastened a stable new settlement.
  1. The new world: In 1942 Christopher Columbus, acting on the persisting and widespread belief in the old Greek idea that the world is a globe, sailed west to find a new commercial route to the East, only to be frustrated by the unexpected barrier of a new continent. The succeeding explorations of this continent and its native populations, and its settlement by Europeans, gave new materials to the literary imagination; the magic world of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for example, as well as the treatment of its native inhabitants by Prospero and others, is based on a contemporary account of a shipwreck on Bermuda and other writings about voyages to the New World. More important for English literature, however, was the fact that economic exploitation of the new world-often cruel, and devastating to the native peoples-put England at the centre, rather than as heretofore at the edge, of the chief trade routes, and so helped establish the commercial prosperity that in England, as in Italy earlier, was a necessary though not sufficient condition for the development of a vigorous intellectual and artistic life.
  1. The new cosmos: The cosmos of medieval astronomy and theology was Ptolemaic (that is, based on the astronomy of Ptolemy, second century) and pictured a stationary earth around which rotated the successive spheres. In 1543 Copernicus published his new hypothesis concerning the system of the universe; this gave a much simpler and more coherent explanation of accumulating observations of the actual movements of the heavenly bodies, which had led to ever greater complications of the Ptolemaic world picture. The Copernican theory proposed a system in which the centre is the sun, not the earth, and in which the earth is not stationary, but only one planet among many planets, all of which revolve around the sun.

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Investigations have not borne out the earlier assumption by historians that the world picture of Copernicus and his followers delivered an immediate and profound shock to the theological and secular beliefs of thinking men. For example in 1611, when Donne wrote in “The First Anniversary” that “new Philosophy calls all in doubt”, for “the Sun is lost, and the earth”, he did so only to support the ancient theme, or literary topes, of the world’s decay, and to enforce a standard Christian “contemptus mundi” (contempt for the worldly). Still later, Milton in Paradise Lost (1667) expressed a suspension of judgement between the Ptolemaic and Copernican theories; he adopted, however, the older Ptolemaic scheme as the cosmic setting for his poem, because it was more firmly traditional and better adapted to his narrative purposes.

Much more important, in the long run, was the effect on men’s opinions of the general principles and methods of the new science developed by the great successors of Copernicus in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, such as the physicists Johannes Kepler and Galileo and the English physician and physiologist William Harvey. Even after Copernicus, the cosmos of many writers in the Elizabethan era remained not only Ptolemaic; it remained also an animate cosmos that was invested with occult powers and inhabited by demons and spirits, and was widely believed to control men’s lives by stellar influences and to be itself subject to control by the powers of witchcraft and of magic. The cosmos that emerged in the course of the seventeenth century, as a product of the scientific procedure of constructing hypotheses capable of being tested by precisely measured sense-observations, was the physical cosmos of Rene Descartes (1596-1650)..”Give me extension and motion”, Descartes wrote, “and I will construct the universe”. This universe of Descartes and the new science consisted of extended particles of matter which moved in space according to fixed mathematical laws, free from interference by angels, demons, human prayer, or occult magical powers. his universe was, however, subject to the limited manipulations of experimental scientists who set out in this way to discover the laws of nature, and who, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, had learned to obey nature in order to be her master. In Descartes and other thinkers, the working hypotheses of the scientists about the physical world were converted into a philosophical worldview, which was made current by popular expositions, and-together with the methodological principle that controlled observation is the criterion of truth in many areas of knowledge-helped to constitute the climate of eighteenth-century opinion known as the Enlightenment.



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