Overview: Life and Literature in the Era of the Reformation

In Academics, the Reformation saw a revival of the study of Greek and Latin writings, as well as a love of beauty. “Humanism” became the newborn ideal, one that advocated individualism, an ideal which gave a tremendous impetus to literature and the arts. “The word “humanism” has a number of meanings. 

Literary Humanism is a devotion to the humanities or literary culture.

Renaissance Humanism is the spirit of learning that developed at the end of the middle ages with the revival of classical letters and a renewed confidence in the ability of human beings to determine for themselves truth and falsehood.

Western Cultural Humanism is a good name for the rational and empirical tradition that originated largely in ancient Greece and Rome, evolved throughout European history, and now constitutes a basic part of the Western approach to science, political theory, ethics, and law.

Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest.

Christian Humanism is “a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles.” This more human-oriented faith is largely a product of the Renaissance and is a part of what made up Renaissance humanism.”(What is Humanism?)

220px-Thomas_Linacre_2During the Reformation, in Europe this new learning gave birth to Martin Luther, and to Copernicus, who upset all accepted notions of the universe. University saw the likes of “Thomas Linacre (c. 1460 – 20 October 1524) was a humanist scholar and physician, after whom Linacre College, Oxford and Linacre House The King’s School, Canterbury, are named. Among his pupils was one—Erasmus—whose name alone would suffice to preserve the memory of his instructor in Greek, and others of note in letters and politics, such as Sir Thomas More, Prince Arthur and Queen Mary I of England, John Colet, William Grocyn, William Lilye and other eminent scholars were his intimate friends, and he was esteemed by a still wider circle of literary correspondents in all parts of Europe.” (Thomas Linacre) England began to experience the effects of European discoveries. These men denounced the worldliness of the Church and opposed absolutism. 

Henry VIII, nevertheless, remained an absolute monarch. Based upon his whims, he weakened both church and nobles and controlled Parliament, which he only called into session when he wished his policies to appear to possess an appearance of popularity or when he wished Parliament to be the scapegoat for his unpopular measures. Henry maintained his own popularity with his people by not overtaxing them. History indicates that Henry VIII often extorted or borrowed the necessary funds. Later, he debased the coinage system and raised prices, the result of which was the poor losing their employment because of gild restrictions on labor and the enclosure of lands. To counter this, King Henry threw a sop to the public with measures of relief. The land swarmed with beggars, but Henry set the sturdy ones to work and had the remainder seek out a begging license. Each parish established a poor fun.

220px-Roger_Ascham_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_12788Meanwhile schools were springing up throughout the country, so that a work like Ascham’s Schoolmaster could be popular, and a scholar like Erasmus, who came from Holland, could feel that he was at home in England. (Roger Ascham (c. 1515 – 30 December 1568) was an English scholar and didactic writer, famous for his prose style, his promotion of the vernacular, and his theories of education. He acted as Princess Elizabeth’s tutor in Greek and Latin between 1548 and 1550, and served in the administrations of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.)

The literature of the Reformation was more scholarly (the classics took prominence) than original in its productions. The time is one of transition from an old day to the great Elizabethan. Contemporary European literature, especially those from Italy, also found a following. King Henry’s break with Rome and the social disruption that ensued gave rise to the popularity of “controversial” literature.

“Henry VIII separated the “Church of England from the Roman Catholic church, but he had not reformed the church’s practices or doctrines. On Henry’s death, his young son Edward became King. Many of Edward’s advisors tried to move the English church in the direction of a more Bible-based Christianity. Two such men were Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

“The scholar Nicholas Ridley had been a chaplain to King Henry VIII and was Bishop of London under his son Edward. He was a preacher beloved of his congregation whose very life portrayed the truths of the Christian doctrines he taught. In his own household he had daily Bible readings and encouraged Scripture memory among his people.

31016“Hugh Latimer also became an influential preacher under King Edward’s reign. He was an earnest student of the Bible, and as Bishop of Worcester he encouraged the Scriptures be known in English by the people. His sermons emphasized that men should serve the Lord with a true heart and inward affection, not just with outward show. Latimer’s personal life also re-enforced his preaching. He was renowned for his works, especially his visitations to the prisons.” (Bishops Ridley and Latimer Burned)

Bishop Latimer preached sermons with vigor, while Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was religious excellence. The works of Ascham and More was distinctly literary. Thomas More’s Utopia, an indirect attack on social abuses and a picture of an idealistically harmonious universe, was one of the early English Utopian writings. “Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, are generally considered the inaugurators of the golden age of English poetry in the reign of Elizabeth I. Both men were educated in the humanistic tradition, and they early became familiar with the polished lyric poetry of the Italians and the French. They attempted to demonstrate in their own works that English, too, was a language flexible and elegant enough for court poetry. Skillful experimenters with metrics, they imitated a number of the verse forms popular on the Continent, including the sonnet, ottava rima, terza rima, and the rondeau. Many of the lyrics of both poets are based upon the Petrarchan conventions of the cruel, scornful lady and her forlorn, rejected lover; a number of the sonnets are, in fact, either translations or close adaptations of Petrarch’s works.” (The Poetry of Wyatt and Surrey) Surrey, in his translation of the Aeneid used blank verse for the first time in English. 

The Italian Renascence, the influence of Humanism, new geographical discoveries and explorations, and England’s triumph over Spain all stimulated the national consciousness. Adaptations and translations were numerous. In addition to Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid, William Painter collected a number of Greek, French, Italian, and Latin stories in 1566. He called his work the Palace of Pleasure. Thomas North translated Plutarch’s Lives in 1579. 

This admiration for the works from other countries did not mean there was no remarkable English literature of the time. “In his Garlande of Laurell [John] Skelton, who once served as Henry VIII’s tutor, gives a long list of his works, only a few of which are extant. The garland in question was worked for him in silks, gold and pearls by the ladies of the Countess of Surrey at Sheriff Hutton Castle,  where he was the guest of the Duke of Norfolk. The composition includes complimentary verses to the various ladies concerned, and a good deal of information about himself. But it is as a satirist that Skelton merits attention. The Bowge of Court is directed against the vices and dangers of court life. He had already in his Boke of the Thre Foles drawn on Alexander Barclay’s version of the  Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant, and this more elaborate and imaginative poem belongs to the same class.” (John Skelton)

Skelton began writing in the previous century, but the new era saw much of his work completed. Literature became an expression of the middle class as the cities saw a growing population. Coke Lorell’s Bote, a burlesque of middle-class characters and tradesmen, displays evidence of the growing interest in the middle class. Mock testaments, such as that of Andrew Kennedy (1508), emphasized character development, a major improvement in the literary form. “Jest” books became popular among the populace. The Jests of Skoggan (1565) was one of the most widely read of this genre. Other “jest” books included Mery Tales (1526), Mery Tales and Quick Answers (1535), and Mery Tales of Master Skelton

1557 saw one of the first English collections of miscellaneous verse: Tottel’s Miscellany. It contained poems by Wyatt and Surrey. Minor poets of the time, including Nicholas Grimald, Edward Somerset, Thomas Vaux, and John Heywood also had poems within the collection. Other popular poets of the period include Thomas Churchyard (Churchyard’s Choice, Churchyard’s Chippes, and The Mirror of Men); Thomas Tusser (who wrote maxims on the virtuous life of thrift); Barnaby Googe (who wrote pastoral eclogues); George Turberville (who produced songs and sonnets); and Thomas Howell (who wrote of love). In 1568, Howell’s Arbor of Amitie appeared, but his Devises did not arrive until 1581. George Gascoigne’s greatest poem, the Stele Glas, a blank verse moral satire, appeared in 1576. Edward Haicke wrote View Out of Paul’s Churchyard in 1567. 





About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, customs and tradiitons, Great Britain, literature, Living in the UK, poetry, religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.