General Characteristics of the Renaissance
Yet the Renaissance was more than a "rebirth." It was also an age of new discoveries, both geographical (exploration of the New World) and intellectual. Both kinds of discovery resulted in changes of tremendous import for Western civilization. In science, for example, Copernicus (1473-1543) attempted to prove that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the planetary system, thus radically altering the cosmic world view that had dominated antiquity and the Middle Ages. In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged and ultimately caused the division of one of the major institutions that had united Europe throughout the Middle Ages--the Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers often thought of themselves as ushering in the modern age, as distinct from the ancient and medieval eras.
Study of the Renaissance might well center on five interrelated issues. First, although Renaissance thinkers often tried to associate themselves with classical antiquity and to dissociate themselves from the Middle Ages, important continuities with their recent past, such as belief in the Great Chain of Being, were still much in evidence. Second, during this period, certain significant political changes were taking place. Third, some of the noblest ideals of the period were best expressed by the movement known as Humanism. Fourth, and connected to Humanist ideals, was the literary doctrine of "imitation," important for its ideas about how literary works should be created. Finally, what later probably became an even more far-reaching influence, both on literary creation and on modern life in general, was the religious movement known as the Reformation.
Renaissance thinkers strongly associated themselves with the values of classical antiquity, particularly as expressed in the newly rediscovered classics of literature, history, and moral philosophy. Conversely, they tended to dissociate themselves from works written in the Middle Ages, a historical period they looked upon rather negatively. According to them, the Middle Ages were set in the "middle" of two much more valuable historical periods, antiquity and their own. Nevertheless, as modern scholars have noted, extremely important continuities with the previous age still existed.
Among the most important of the
continuities with the Classical period was the concept of the Great
Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in
the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical
order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended.
("Hierarchical" refers to an order based on a series of higher and
lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object's "place" depended on
the relative proportion of "spirit" and "matter" it contained--the
less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it stood. At
the bottom, for example, stood various types of inanimate objects,
such as metals, stones, and the four elements (earth, water, air,
fire). Higher up were various members of the vegetative class, like
trees and flowers. Then came animals; then humans; and then angels.
At the very top was God. Then within each of these large groups,
there were other hierarchies. For example, among metals, gold was
the noblest and stood highest; lead had less "spirit" and more
matter and so stood lower. (Alchemy was based on the belief that
lead could be changed to gold through an infusion of "spirit.") The
various species of plants, animals, humans, and angels were
similarly ranked from low to high within their respective segments.
Finally, it was believed that between the segments themselves,
there was continuity (shellfish were lowest among animals and
shaded into the vegetative class, for example, because without
locomotion, they most resembled plants).
Besides universal orderliness, there was universal interdependence. This was implicit in the doctrine of "correspondences," which held that different segments of the chain reflected other segments. For example, Renaissance thinkers viewed a human being as a microcosm (literally, a "little world") that reflected the structure of the world as a whole, the macrocosm; just as the world was composed of four "elements" (earth, water, air, fire), so too was the human body composed of four substances called "humours," with characteristics corresponding to the four elements. (Illness occurred when there was an imbalance or "disorder" among the humours, that is, when they did not exist in proper proportion to each other.) "Correspondences" existed everywhere, on many levels. Thus the hierarchical organization of the mental faculties was also thought of as reflecting the hierarchical order within the family, the state, and the forces of nature. When things were properly ordered, reason ruled the emotions, just as a king ruled his subjects, the parent ruled the child, and the sun governed the planets. But when disorder was present in one realm, it was correspondingly reflected in other realms. For example, in Shakespeare's King Lear, the simultaneous disorder in family relationships and in the state (child ruling parent, subject ruling king) is reflected in the disorder of Lear's mind (the loss of reason) as well as in the disorder of nature (the raging storm). Lear even equates his loss of reason to "a tempest in my mind."
Though Renaissance writers seemed to be quite on the side of "order," the theme of "disorder" is much in evidence, suggesting that the age may have been experiencing some growing discomfort with traditional hierarchies. According to the chain of being concept, all existing things have their precise place and function in the universe, and to depart from one's proper place was to betray one's nature. Human beings, for example, were pictured as placed between the beasts and the angels. To act against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions--was to descend to the level of the beasts. In the other direction, to attempt to go above one's proper place, as Eve did when she was tempted by Satan, was to court disaster. Yet Renaissance writers at times showed ambivalence towards such a rigidly organized universe. For example, the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola, in a work entitled On the Dignity of Man, exalted human beings as capable of rising to the level of the angels through philosophical contemplation. Also, some Renaissance writers were fascinated by the thought of going beyond boundaries set by the chain of being. A major example was the title character of Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe's drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard, suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations.
The fear of "disorder" was not
merely philosophical--it had significant political ramifications.
The proscription against trying to rise beyond one's place was of
course useful to political rulers, for it helped to reinforce their
authority. The implication was that civil rebellion caused the
chain to be broken, and according to the doctrine of
correspondences, this would have dire consequences in other realms.
It was a sin against God, at least wherever rulers claimed to rule
by "Divine Right." (And in England, the King was also the head of
the Anglican Church.) In Shakespeare, it was suggested that the sin
was of cosmic proportions: civil disorders were often accompanied
by meteoric disturbances in the heavens. (Before Halley's theory
about periodic orbits, comets, as well as meteors, were thought to
be disorderly heavenly bodies.)
derived from the
classical past (though it was present in the Middle Ages too), was
the literary doctrine of "imitation." Of the two senses in which
the term had traditionally been used, the theoretical emphasis of
Renaissance literary critics was less on the "imitation" that meant
"mirroring life" and more on the "imitation" that meant "following
predecessors." In contrast to our own emphasis on "originality,"
the goal was not to create something entirely new. To a great
extent, contemporary critics believed that the great literary works
expressing definitive moral values had already been written in
Theoretically, then, it was the task of the writer to translate for present readers the moral vision of the past, and they were to do this by "imitating" great works, adapting them to a Christian perspective and milieu. (Writers of the Middle Ages also practiced "imitation" in this sense, but did not have as many classical models to work from.) Of course Renaissance literary critics made it clear that such "imitation" was to be neither mechanical nor complete: writers were to capture the spirit of the originals, mastering the best models, learning from them, then using them for their own purposes. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there were a great many comments by critics about "imitation" in this sense, it was not the predominant practice of many of the greatest writers. For them, the faithful depiction of human behavior--what Shakespeare called holding the mirror up to nature--was paramount, and therefore "imitation" in the mimetic sense was more often the common practice.
The doctrine of "imitation" of ancient authors did have one very important effect: since it recommended not only the imitation of specific classical writers, but also the imitation of classical genres, there was a revival of significant literary forms. Among the most popular that were derived from antiquity were epic and satire. Even more important were the dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy. In fact, Europe at this time experienced a golden age of theater, led by great dramatists such as Shakespeare.Finally, as it developed during the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation was a movement that had profound implications, not only for the modern world in general, but specifically for literary history. Just as Renaissance Humanists rejected medieval learning, the Reformation seemed to reject the medieval form of Christianity. (It should be noted, however, that both Catholics and Protestants were Humanists, though often with different emphases.) In the early sixteenth century, the German monk Martin Luther reacted against Church corruption, the sort depicted, for example, by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.
Many Catholics like Erasmus wanted to reform the Church from within. However, Luther's disagreements with Church policy ultimately led him to challenge some of the most fundamental doctrines of the Church, which in turn led him and his followers to break away from the Catholic Church in protest; hence they were known as Protestants. The Reformation had significant political ramifications, for it split Europe into Protestant and Catholic countries which often went to war with each other during this period. Protestantism broke up the institution that had for so long unified all Europe under the Pope (though there were also national struggles with the Papacy that had little to do with Protestantism).
Among the most important tenets of Protestantism was the rejection of the Pope as spiritual leader. A closely related Protestant doctrine was the rejection of the authority of the Church and its priests to mediate between human beings and God. Protestants believed that the Church as an institution could not grant salvation; only through a direct personal relationship with God--achieved by reading the Bible--could the believer be granted such. Many scholars argue that this emphasis on a personal, individual connection with God spawned the modern emphasis on individualism in those cultures affected by Protestantism. On the other hand, some Protestants also believed that after the Fall of Adam in Eden, human nature was totally corrupted as far as human spiritual capabilities were concerned. (Early Protestantism's emphasis on human depravity distinguishes it sharply from Renaissance Humanism.) Humans therefore are incapable of contributing to their salvation, for instance through good deeds; it could only be achieved through faith in God's grace. Overall, there is a good deal of ambivalence regarding many of the Protestant positions, and in fact the disagreement among the many Christian sects may be precisely what distinguishes Renaissance from Medieval religion.
Among the literary ramifications of
the Reformation, two stand out. First, the Protestant rejection of
the authority of Church representatives resulted in placing that
authority entirely on the Bible, at least in theory. Consequently,
Protestants stressed the need for all believers to read the Bible
for themselves. To help make that possible, they were active in
translating the Bible into the vernacular languages so that all
laymen could read it. This practice was opposed by the Catholic
Church, which insisted on preserving the Bible in Latin. At the
same time, Protestants also stressed the need to understand the
Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) so that it could
be properly translated. In their interest in such learning,
particularly of ancient languages, Protestants were similar to
Humanists. This emphasis on the Bible had a significant impact on
literature because the Bible became a renewed source of literary
inspiration, both in literary form and subject matter; it also
became a rich source of symbols.
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