Introduction to the 16th Century

29 Apr

Portrait of Henry VIII, King of England

Image via Wikipedia

The 16th century is my favorite time period for the history of England (not for the literature). I watch or read every Henry VIII and Elizabeth movie or book I come across. I have read and seen enough of it that I actually have context for a good bit, so I’m really looking forward to getting into some of the literature for the period. It may become my favorite period for literature as well as history!

The introduction to this time period (which the Norton editors define as 1485 to 1603, the era of the Tudors) gives an overview of the history, culture and literature of those years. English was slowly becoming the language of choice for scholars, who had favored Latin, Greek, Italian and French, and writers were taking the time to translate works of classic literature into English from their native language. The classics were important to the scholars and educators because the literature contained the moral, philosophical and political truths that the 16th century society held dear. Additionally, Henry VIII authorized an English translation of the Bible so that any Englishman who could read could also read the Bible; previously, laypersons had to rely on priests and churches to relate scripture to them and, of course, all theological discussions were also in Latin.

Educators for those privileged enough to have education stressed the medieval trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), along with rhetoric and classical texts.

Writers of the day wrote without the expectation of making a living at it. Literature, and the creation of it, was regarded as a pastime, and those who participated in the craft also worked as tutors, secretaries, civil servants or statesmen. Those who did make a living writing generally did it for the flattery of a wealthy person who would pay to have works written about them or for them. The seeking of patrons could be so fruitless, though, that some writers engaged in the practice of selling their custom books to multiple patrons, each with a different dedication page so he could get paid over and over for the same work.

Authors who sought to get published had a series of hurdles to jump. The government had strict controls over authorship, including limiting the number of printers, requiring the printing to take place at Oxford or Cambridge, mandating each work have an imprimatur from top clergy, and making authors register the book. Often, writers (and their publishers and printers) would then get into trouble once a book was printed based on its content, and punishment ranged from investigation to reprimands to prison time. In John Stubbs‘ case, he lost his right hand for the publication of The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf, which challenged Elizabeth’s possible marriage to the brother of the king of France. The Norton editors remarked, “It was dangerous to put pen to paper and so unprofitable that it is a wonder any original writing was published at all.” Many works of literature circulated only in manuscript form for this very reason.

The literature and rhetoric that were produced seemed to have the following characteristics: copia (abundance of words), poetic figures, ornament, the relation of poetry and rhetoric, concern with style, and allegory. The Norton editors, plus Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy, identify important literary modes of the period:

  • pastoral (simple, idealized world; leisure, humble contentment; country life; joy, love)
  • heroic (honor, battle, courage, loyalty, leadership, endurance, glorification of nation or people; often in epic form; example: Spenser‘s Faerie Queene)
  • lyric (praises, love, celebration of nature or of the good life; often hymns or odes; charged with feeling; example: Spenser’s Epithalamion)
  • satiric (plain in matter and style; scorn society made up of fools, lawyers, courtiers, greedy merchants, etc.; example: Jonson’s Epigrams and The Silver Swan)
  • elegiac (not elaborated upon by Norton, but I suspect it’s sorrowful poetry)
  • tragic (character falls from on high, bemoans his fate and warns others; example: The Mirror for Magistrates)
  • comic (also not elaborated upon by Norton, but I suspect it’s drama written for amusement, and includes love, wit and humor)

The Elizabethan Age was filled with ambiguity: It was characterized by both optimism and anxiety, exuberance and ambivalence, conformity and conflict. The women were subordinate (even with a queen ruler) and expected to be chaste, silent and obedient; literature gives us some heroines who challenge the patriarchal ideal but later conform to it. It was a time of loyalty to a queen who loved her people but would cut their hands off if she didn’t like what they wrote.

This section of the book includes works by Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor; Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare; Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. While I’m reading this section, I’ll also reference a work called Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England by Louis B. Wright. The Norton editors referenced it once and it looks like it might help add context to what the bourgeoisie were experiencing at the time.


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