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15th and 16th centuries in English Literature

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ENGLİSGH LİTERATURE IN THE 15TH AND 16TH CENTURIES Social , political, cultural, religious, and historical background The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are the period of the European Renaissance or four great transforming movement of European history. This impulse by which the medieval society of scholasticism, feudalism, and chivalry was to be made over into what we call the modern world came first from Italy. Italy, like the rest of the Roman Empire, had been overrun and conquered in the fifth century by the barbarian Teutonic tribes, but the devastation had been less complete there than in the more northern land, and there, even more, perhaps, than in France, the bulk of the people remained Latin in blood and in character. Hence it resulted that though the Middle Ages were in Italy a period of terrible political anarchy, yet Italian culture recovered for more rapidly than thank of the northern nations, whom the Italians continued down to the modern period to regard comtemunously as still mere barbarians. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, further, the Italians had become intellectually one of the keenest races whom the world has ever known, though in morals they were sinking to almost incredible corruption. Already in fourteenth century Italy, therefore, the movement for a much fuller and freer intellectual life had begun, and we have seen that by Petrarch and Boccaccio something of the spirit was transmitted to Chaucer. In England Chaucer was followed by the medievalizing fifteenth, but in Italy there was no such interruption. THE RENAİSSANCE MOVEMENT first received definite direction from the rediscovery and study of Greek literature, which clearly revealed the unbounded possibilities of life to men who had been groping dissatisfied within the now narrow limits of medieval thought. Before Chaucer was dead, the study of Greek, almost forgotten in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, had been renewed in Italy, and it received a still further impulse when at the taking of Constantinople by the Turks (1) in 1453 Greek scholars and manuscripts were scattered to the West. It is hard for us to-day to realize the meaning for the men of the fifteenth century of this revived knowledge of the life and thought of Greek race. (2) the medieval Church, at first merely from the brutal necessities of a period of anarchy, had for the most part frowned on the joy and beauty of life, permitting pleasure, indeed, to the laity, but as a thing half dangerous, and declaring that there was perfect safety only within the walls of the nominally ascetic Church itself. The intellectual life, also, nearly restricted to priests and monks, had been formalized and conventionalized, until in spite of the keenness of its methods and the brilliancy of many of its scholars, it had become largely barren and unprofitable. The whole sphere of knowledge had been subjected to the mere authority of the Bible and of a few great mind of the past, such as Aristotle. All questions were argued and decided on the basis of their assertions, which had often become wholly inadequate and were often warped into grotesquely impossible interpretations and applications. Scientific investigation was almost entirely stifled, and progress was impossible. The whole field of religion and knowledge had become largely stagnant under an arbitrary despotism. To the minds which were being paralyzed under this system, (3) Greek literature brought the inspiration for which they longed. For it was the literature of a great and brilliant people who, far from attempting to make a divorce within man’s nature, had aimed to see life steadily and see it whole, who, giving free play to all power, had found in pleasure and beauty some of the most essential constructive forces, and had embodied beauty in Works of literature and art where the significance of the whole spiritual life was more splendidly suggested than in the achievements of any, or almost any, other period. The enthusiasm, therefore, with which the Italians turned to the study of Greek literature and Greek life, was boundless, and it constantly found nourishment. Every year restored from forgotten recesses of libraries or from the ruins of Roman villas another Greek author or volume or work of art, and those which had never been lost were reinterpreted with much deeper insight. Aristotle was again vitalized, and Plato’s noble idealistic philosophy was once more appreciaticest studied and understood. In the light of this new revelation, Latin literature, also, which had never ceased to be almost superstitiously studied, took on a far greater human significance. Virgil and Cicero were regarded no longer as mysterious prophets from a dimly imagined past, but as real men of flesh and blood, speaking out of experiences remote in time from the present but no less humanly real. The word ‘human’, indeed became the chosen motto of the Renaissance scholars, ‘humanists’ was the title which they applied to themselves as to men for whom nothing was without appeal. New creative enthusiasm, also, and magnificent actual new creation, followed the discovery of the old treasure, creation in literature and all the arts; culminating particularly in the early sixteenth century in the greatest group of painters whom any country has ever seen, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In Italy, to be sure, the light of the Renaissance had its palpable shadow; in breaking away from the medieval bondage into the unhesitating enjoyment of all pleasure, the humanists too often overleaped all restraints and plunged into wild excess, often into mere sensuality. Hence the Italian Renaissance is commonly called Pagan, and hence when young English nobles began to travel to Italy to drink at the fountain head of the new inspiration moralist at home protested with much reason against the ideas and habits which many of them brought back with their new clothes and flaunted as evidences of intellectual emancipation. History, however, shows no great progressive movement unaccompanied by exaggerations and extravagances.

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