The "dark" Middle Ages were followed by a time known in art and literature as the Renaissance. The word "renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and was used to denote a phaze in the cultural development of Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The wave of progress reached the shores of England only in the 16th century. The ideas of the Renaissance came to England together with the ideas of the Reformation (the establishment of the national Church) and were called the "New Learning". Every year numbers of new books were brought out, and these books were sold openly, but few people could read and enjoy them. The universities were lacking in teachers to spread the ideas of modern thought. So, many English scholars began to go to Italy, where they learned to understand the ancient classics, and when they came home they adapted their classical learning to the needs of the country. Grammar schools (primary schools) increased in number. The new point of view passed from the schools to the home and to the market place.
Many of the learned men in Italy came from the great city of Constantinopole. It was besieged and taken by Turks in 1453. All the great libraries and schools in Constanstinople had been broken up and destroyed. The Latin and Greek scholars were driven out of the city, glad to escape with their lives and with such books as they could carry away with them. Being learned men, many of them found a welcome in the cities and towns in which they stopped. They began to teach the people how to read the Latin and Greek books which they had brought with them and also taught them to read the Latin and Greek books which were kept in many towns of Europe, but which few people at that time were able to read.
Foreign scholars and artists began to teach in England during the reign of Henry VIII. In painting and music the first period of the Renaissance was one of imitation. Painting was represented by German artist Holbein, and music by Italians and French men. With literature the case was different. The English poets and dramatists popularized much of the new learning. The freedom of thought of English humanists revealed itself in antifeudal and even antibourgeois ideas, showing the life of their own people as it really was. Such a writer was the humanist Thomas More.
Thomas More (1478-1535)
Thomas More, the first English humanist of the Renaissance, was born in London in 1478. Educated at Oxford, he could write a most beautiful Latin. It was not the Latin of the Church but the original classical Latin. At Oxford More met a foreign humanist, and made friends with him. Erasmus believed in the common sense of a man and taught that men ought to think for themselves, and not merely to believe things to be true because their fathers, or the priest had said they were true. Later, Thomas More wrote many letters to Erasmus and received many letters from him.
Thomas More began life as a lawyer. During the reign of Henry VII he became a member of Parliament. He was an active-minded man and kept a keen eye on the events of his time. The rich landowners at the time were concentrating on sheep-raising because it was very profitable. Small holders were not allowed to till the soil and were driven off their lands. The commons (public ground) were enclosed and fields converted into pastures. The mass of the agricultural population were doomed to poverty. Thomas More set to work to find the reason of this evil. He was the first great writer on social and political subjects in England.
Fourteen years after Henry VIII came to the throne, More was made Speaker of the House of Commons. The Tudor monarchy was an absolute monarchy, and Parliament had very little power to resist the king. There was, however, one matter on which Parliament was very determined. That was the right to vote or to refuse to vote for the money. Once when the King wanted money and asked Parliament to vote him 800.000, the members sat silent. Twice the King's messengers called, and twice they had to leave without an answer. When Parliament was called together again, Thomas More spoke up and urged that the request be refused. After a long discussion a sum less then half the amount requested by the King was voted, and that sum was to be spread over a period of four years.
Thomas More was an earnest Catholic, but he was not liked by the priests and the Pope on account of his writings and the ideas he taught. After Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope he gathered around himself all the enemies of the Pope, and so in 1529 More was made Lord Chancellor (highest judge to the House of Lords). He had not wanted the post because he was as much against the king's absolute power in England as he was against the Pope. More soon fell a victim to the King's anger. He refused to swear that he would obey Henry as the head of the English Church, and was thrown into the Tower. Parliament, to please the King, declared More guilty of treason, and he was beheaded in the Tower in 1535.
The Works of Thomas More
Thomas More wrote in English and in Latin. The humanists of al1 European countries communicated in the Latin language, and their best works were written in Latin. The English writings of Thomas More include:
* Discussions and political subjects.
His style is simple, colloquial end has an unaffected ease. The work by which he is best remembered today is "Utopia" which was written in Latin in the year 1516. It has now been translated into all European languages.
"Utopia" (which in Greek means "nowhere") is the name of a non-existent island. This work is divided into two books.
In the first, the author gives a profound and truthful picture of the people's sufferings and points out the socia1 evils existing, in England at the time.
In the second book More presents his ideal of what the future society should be like.
The word "utopia" has become a byword and is used in Modern English to denote an unattainable ideal, usually in social and political matters. But the writer H.G. Wells, who wrote an introduction to the latest edition, said that the use of the word "utopia" was far from More's essentia1 quality, whose mind abounded in sound, practical ideas. The book is in reality a very unimaginative work.
"Utopia" describes a perfect social system built on communist principles.
First book While on business in Flanders, the author makes the acquaintance of a certain Raphael Hythloday, a sailor who has travelled with the famous explorer Amerigo Vespucci. He has much to tell about his voyages, Thomas More, Raphael Hythloday and a cardinal meet together in a garden and discuss many problems. Raphael has been to England too and expresses his surprise at the cruelty of English laws and at the poverty of the population. Then they talk about crime in general, and Raphael says:
"There is another cause of stealing which I suppose is proper and peculiar to you Englishmen alone."
"What is that?" asked the Cardinal.
"Oh, my lord," said Raphael, "your sheep that used to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, have now become so great devourers and so wild that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves. The peasants are driven out of their land. Away they go finding no place to rest in. And when all is spent, what can they do but steal and then be hanged?"
The disastrous state of things in England puts Raphael Hythloday in mind of a commonwealth (a republic) he has seen on an unknown island in an unknown sea. A description of "Utopia" follows, and Raphael speaks "of all the good laws and orders of this same island."
There is no private property in Utopia. The people own everything in common and enjoy complete economic equality. Everyone cares for his neighbour's good, and each has a clean and healthy house to live in. Labour is the most essential feature of life in Utopia, but no one is overworked. Everybody is engaged in usefu1 work nine hours a day. After work, they indulge in sport and games and spend much time in "improving their minds" (learning)-All teaching is free, and the parents do not have to pay any schoo1 fees. (More wrote about things unknown in any country at that time, though they are natural with us in our days.)
For magistrates the Utopians choose men whom they think to be most fit to protect the welfare of the population. When electing their government, the people give their voices secretly. There are few laws and no lawyers at all, but these few laws must be strictly obeyed. "Virtue," says Thomas More, "lives according to Nature." The greatest of all pleasures is perfect health. Man must be healthy and wise.
Thomas More's "Utopia" was the first literary work in which the ideas of Cornmunism appeared. It was highly esteemed by all the humanists of Europe in More's time and again grew very popular with the socialists of the 19th century. After More, a tendency began in literature to write fantastic novels on social reforms, and many such works appeared in various countries.