ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Humanism and Reformation

Primary Readings checklist: 1) on the Politics of the Reformation:

  • John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (NA 551-2);
  • Thomas Cranmer's Book of Homilies (NA 556-8);

  • 2) On Renaissance Humanism: 
  • Roger Ascham's The Schoolmaster (NA 563-7 only -- skip "The Italianate Englishman")
  • Sir Thomas Hoby, The Courtier (selection 1 only, "Grace,"  NA 578-9; note that this work is an English translation of Castiglione's Italian Il Cortegiano);
  • Sir Walter Ralegh's The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana (NA 885-7) ;
  • Sir Thomas More's Utopia; framework of the story (NA 506-10 and NA 520-3) and the selection on Religions (NA 516-20) only

General: the Renaissance

For the purpose of this class, we will consider 1485 the "start" of the "Renaissance" (knowing that any such date is somewhat arbitrary).  Some of the changes and movements that characterize the "Renaissance" had in fact had begun well before 1485, while some "medieval" characteristics and phenomena persist after that date.  1485 is a convenient date because of two key events that mark important political and cultural transitions:  the accession of Henry VII marks the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, while Caxton's publication of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthure ushers Engish literature into the print era, marking the transition between a manuscript and a print culture.

Note that the word "Renaissance," from the French for "rebirth," was not used during the early modern period which it now designates.  It is an invention of the Romantics who considered the so-called "middle ages" to be the interval between two glorious eras:  Classical Antiquity (i.e. ancient Greece and Rome) and the "rebirth" of that lost glory in the period now called the "Renaissance."  But in fact, medieval writers shared the Renaissance humanist's preoccupation with establishing a connection to the "glory that was Rome"; they saw themselves as inheriting and preserving the torch of literary culture (and of political legitimacy) passed down to them from the Greeks and Romans according to a concept called translatio studii et imperii.  This sense of connectedness with the literary past in many ways anticipates the Renaissance admiration for the literature of classical antiquity and preoccupation with establishing themselves as the new "torch bearers," the Virgils of their time.

Read carefully the background information NA 469-72, noting in particular the status of the English language at the beginning and end of the sixteenth century and the influence of court culture and the advent of printing on the literature of the Renaissance.

The Politics of the Reformation 

Review the speeches of Knowledge and Five-Wits in the anonymous morality play Everyman (handout distributed in class) for a sense of what the reformers of the Reformation were reacting against. Be aware that Everyman dates from after 1485 and was performed well into the 16th century; it therefore "overlaps" with the period we call the Renaissance despite its distinctly medieval character. 

Read carefully the background information NA 469-83, paying particular attention to the sections on the Reformation and on the Kingdom in Danger.  Then read the HEADNOTES (not the texts, except as assigned below) to Sir Thomas More (NA 503-6); Literature of the Sacred (NA 538-9); The English Bible (NA 539-40); William Tyndale (NA 542-3); John Calvin (NA 544-5); Anne Askew (NA 547-8); John Foxe (NA 551); Thomas Cranmer's The Book of Common Prayer (NA 553) and his The Book of Homilies (NA 556); and Richard Hooker (NA 558-9).  Note the intersection between religion and politics in these headnotes and the emphasis on obedience to authority.  Note that many prominent figures in the Reform movement, as well as some of their ardent opponents, were highly educated humanists (e.g. the Catholic Sir Thomas More and the Protestants Lady Jane Grey, Tyndale, Calvin, etc.)

By the midterm exam, you should know the key dates/figures in the English Reformation (esp. steps in and motivation for Henry VIII's religious "conversion," and when and by whom the Bible was first translated into English). Be able to identify significance of and give relevant dates for: Everyman; Martin Luther; Tyndale and Coverdale; Sir Thomas More; Henry VII; Henry VIII; his wives Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour; their children Edward VI, Mary Tudor (a.k.a. "Bloody Mary") and Elizabeth Tudor; Lady Jane Grey; and Mary (Stuart), Queen of Scots. Know dates of reigns or attempted reigns (and executions); religion (and thus side in Catholic/Protestant conflict).

Who was Martin Luther and what was his significance? What was his attitude toward the personal reading of scripture (see NA 475)? In order for individuals to be able to read scripture for themselves, it was imperative not only that they be literate, but that the Bible be available in languages that they could understand (rather than only in Latin).  Keeping in mind our discussion of the status of the Catholic church at the end of the Middle Ages (as reflected in Everyman), what position would you expect the Catholic Church to take on vernacular translations of the Bible? To what extent might these translations be perceived as a threat to the authority of the Church? Know the roles played by Tyndale and Coverdale in the effort to translate the Bible into English and what happened to Tyndale as a result (see NA 475-6, 538-40 and 542-3).

Why did Henry VIII break with the Roman Catholic church? What role did religious conviction play in his "conversion"? Prior to declaring himself "Supreme Head on Earth" of the Anglican church, Henry had been praised by the Vatican as a "Defender of the Faith" (both for writing a treatise critical of Luther and due to his persecution of Tyndale). Given his later "conversion," we might doubt that Henry's Catholic faith was as strong as the Pope's praise implies. What other reasons may have contributed to his early hostility toward the Reform movement? Who was Sir Thomas More? How and why did he die? When reading the excerpts from More's Utopia (one of the assigned primary texts on the topic of "Renaissance Humanism"), be sure to note the Utopians' attitude toward religious freedom.

In addition to the HEADNOTES listed above, you are responsible for two primary readings which illustrate the Politics of the Reformation:  the excerpts from John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (NA 551-2) and from Thomas Cranmer's Book of Homilies (NA 556-8). 

John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (NA 551-2):  Why do you think the first version of Foxe's work was in Latin, and the second in English? (Where and when was each written, and for what purpose and audience?) What is Foxe's attitude toward Anne Askew and Lady Jane Grey?  Note that these two female Protestant martyrs were active participants in both the humanist and reform movements.  If you like, you can read excerpts from Anne Askew's defense against Catholic charges of heresy, NA 548-50.  Roger Ascham's appreciation of Jane Grey's learnedness is found in one of the assigned texts on the topic of "Renaissance Humanism."

Thomas Cranmer's Book of Homilies (NA 556-8): note the emphasis on obedience throughout this passage.  Rebellion against God is closely associated with Pride, first of the Seven Deadly Sins (and the cause of the downfall of e.g. Dr. Faustus and Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost).  Is it surprising that texts from the Protestant Reformation movement, which itself rebelled against the authority of the Catholic church, should have such a negative view of rebellion?

Renaissance Humanism

Read carefully the background information on the status of the English language at the beginning of the sixteenth century (NA 469-70), on Renaissance Humanism (NA 472-4), and on Writers, Printers and Patrons (NA 483-5), as well as headnotes to individual authors and work introductions. Be able to identify or define: symbolism and significance of discovery of "New World" (see NA 479 and NA 889-90, as well as headnotes to Sir Thomas More's Utopia, NA 504-6, and to Sir Walter Ralegh, NA 878-9, particularly the comments relative to his travels in the New World, recounted in The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana);  importance and influence of the Italian Renaissance (NA 472-3; we will discuss the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch in relationship to the Sonnet form); the curriculum of English grammar school and influence of universities (NA 473-4, 483-5 and online reading). What was the attitude toward intellectual property in the Renaissance? What about copyright (see NA 483)?  By the midterm, you should know basic biographical information (including DATES of lifespan) for all authors assigned, as well as titles, genres, language of composition and dates of publication or composition for all primary works assigned.

Read the description of the Humanist Grammar School (online) in conjunction with the selections from Roger Ascham's The Schoolmaster (NA 563-7 only -- you may skip "The Italianate Englishman"). For "Humanist Grammar School," you need not remember the rhetorical and technical terms nor which authors were introduced in which forms, but you should be aware of the literary (and linguistic) knowledge that could be expected of an educated poet -- or reader -- in the English Renaissance, even if, like Shakespeare, he never went on to study at a University. Shakespeare was mocked by Thomas Nashe (a lesser playwright but a "university wit" [see NA 484, 1200]) for supposedly having mastered only "little Latin and less Greek." According to Ascham, what are the benefits of learning Latin through "double translation" (NA 565-6)? Are they limited to cultural literacy, linguistic ability, or skill as a writer/rhetorician? Note that Jane Grey, whom we have read about as a Protestant martyr in Foxe's Acts and Monuments, is admired by Ascham for her humanist learning (NA 566-7). 

[OPTIONAL: Ascham's "The Italianate Englishman" (NA 567-9) displays an interesting hostility to Italian influences on his countrymen, despite the fact that Italy was the cradle of Renaissance humanism (NA 472-3). From his comments on the Morte Darthure, we can see that Ascham was a bit of a Puritan. Why might a Protestant like Ascham associate Italy with corruption?]

But despite Ascham's reticence, most English humanists admired the Italian humanists, as we can see by Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of the Italian humanist's Castiglione's Il Cortegiano ("The Courtier").  Read carefully the headnote (NA 577) and the first selection (only) from The Courtier ("Grace," NA 578-9). You should be aware that Castiglione's work is an example of a genre known as a "courtesy book" (so called since it taught how the ideal Courtier behaved, in a "courtly" or "courteous" manner); this genre will be important when we get to Spenser's Faerie Queene.  Know the Italian term sprezzatura (mistranslated by Hoby as "recklessness"); as NA 579 n. 8 makes clear, this term refers to a sort of "natural, easy grace" -- the ability to make everything one does seem easy and effortless, even when it isn't.  We will return to this term in our discussion of sonnets as we discuss aristocratic attitudes toward poetry writing.

Sir Thomas More, Utopia, and Sir Walter Ralegh, The Discovery and the Empire of Guiana. More was among the first English humanists, a learned man who helped to usher in the English "Renaissance." Reread the headnote on More (NA 503-6). Know who Erasmus and Amerigo Vespucci were and their significance to the life / writings of More. In what language did More write Utopia? Why might he have done so? (Who was its "target audience"?)

Humanists had great confidence in the potential of humankind to better itself through knowledge, and believed that the "rediscovery" of classical learning would lead to a new Golden Age, a "brave new world" (to cite Miranda's words in Shakespeare's Tempest, not Aldous Huxley!) The imagery of the human mind's limitless potential to discover "new worlds" (which is echoed e.g. in the words of Dr. Faustus) was reinforced by real and imaginary travel accounts of voyages to the actual "new world," the Americas.

Read the headnote on "The Wider World" (NA 889-90) and the selection from Sir Walter Ralegh's The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana (headnote NA 878-9, text NA 885-7) as a context for Sir Thomas More's use of the theme of the exploration of the New World in his Utopia.

Read the assigned selections from Utopia over quickly; don't worry about all the details. You are responsible ONLY for the framework of the story (NA 506-10 and NA 520-3) and the selection on Religions (NA 516-20).  Notice the role played by the "returned traveller" Raphael Hytholoday and the way in which social criticism is disguised as a travel account.  Compare his account with the selection from Ralegh's actual account of a journey to Guiana (NA 885-7). How is interest in the "new world" (Utopia, Guiana) related to the intellectual curiosity of the Renaissance? Note the religious tolerance of the Utopians (remember: More was a devout Catholic who was willing to die for his faith rather than swear allegiance to Henry VIII as "Supreme Head on Earth of the Anglican Church").

In the passage from Ralegh's The Discovery of the Empire of Guiana (NA 885-7), note the imagery of rape and exploitation, a darker note in the theme of the glorious conquest of a brave New World.  A similarly dark thread in the fabric of Renaissance humanism can be felt in e.g. Christopher Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus (ENGL 331) or Shakespeare's The Tempest (ENGL 204).

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1997-2005

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