Renaissance and Early 17th Century

Jackson Fanger and Nate Dimelfi

The Renaissance and its Influences on the English Language

The word Renaissance is derived from the Italian word for rebirth, Rinascenza. According to Giorgio Vasari, it stood for the rebirth of classical Greek and Roman culture that ended a “thousand-year long era in which civilization had gone into an eclipse. Contrary to popular thought, The “Renaissance” as we know it wasn’t actually isolated to just Italy. In fact, it was supported greatly by other powerful European monarchs such as King Francis I of France, and Kings Henry VII and VIII of England. An effect caused by the Renaissance’s rise was the development of Humanism, not in the modern sense, instead focusing more on being open to both studying secular and religious texts and ideas. Some famous humanists were Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus. Renaissance humanism indirectly helped enrich the English language through its acceptance of English as a language worth studying and refining.

The Scientific Revolution

A second advancement caused by the Renaissance was the creation of more modern approaches to science. While there was an increased use of pseudoscience such as astrology, the new focus on the sciences pushed the development of more modern observational approaches by those such as Francis Bacon, William Harvey, and Galileo. The scientific approaches developed during this period have been continued in the centuries since, and have enabled advancements in space travel as well as the development of computers and other digital technology.

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation that took place on October 31, 1517 pushed for a new way of thinking for the church. Rather than have such a separation from the people as the Catholic Church had, the reformation pushed for mass publications of the Bible, the ending of indulgences, that faith alone is cause for salvation, and that humans do not have free will to do good. These changes were furthered in 1539 by King Henry VIII when he separated officially from the Catholic church and ordered that the Bible (“Great Bible” of Miles Coverdale) be printed in the vernacular of England, English.

Drama Between England and its Neighbors

Also during this time period, Kings Henry VII and VIII managed to establish a greater and more structured control over Wales. Through the Acts of Union of 1536-43, the laws of the Welsh lands became similar to those found in England. However in their attempts to do the same with Ireland, many bloody revolts broke a out and success therefore was limited. There were also diplomatic issues regarding England and Scotland which lead to bloody battles at which England ultimately prevailed. However during the reign of James I of England/ James VI of Scotland, a more peaceful union between the two was sought after. This diplomacy was an underlying theme within Shakespeare’s “King Lear”.

The Reigns of Bloody Mary and Queen Elizabeth I

Mary I, known as Bloody Mary marked a massive shift in the religious movement in England. She reinstated the Catholic mass and executed protestant leaders and followers within England which earned her the title. However, her successor, Queen Elizabeth I used this blunder of a reign as an advantage that ultimately strengthened Protestantism in England. Queen Elizabeth I also demonstrated that women were capable of holding power as she wasn’t insecure towards the men around her, and was able to rule authoritatively which created a much more stable England compared to her predecessor. Aemilia Lanyer was one of the first women to have published her own poems which was rare at the time. One of her most notable was Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum which refuted the claim that women are responsible for man’s downfall with regards to the Adam and Eve story.

Population in England in 17th Century

The working population had by this point just recovered from the Black Death, and because of this there was a great labor surplus. This lead many people to towns and cities which increased the urban population drastically. The surplus as well as nasty legal processes called “enclosures” where landowners would block off their land and prevent people from gaining access to their animals that grazed there. The population by the mid 17th century had reached five-million with London reaching 500,000 up from 50,000 in 1500. From a religious perspective, the rise in population also came from the Protestant idea of predestination and wealth being a symbol of god’s love. This idea led to people believing that they were chosen so they would open businesses to try to make as much money as they could.

Living in the Cities

Life in this period was especially rough for city dwellers, as only about half made it to adulthood. Despite this, there was a book in economic growth at the time, and this growth in the economy created a good amount of limited opportunity for social mobility. The government English aristocracy weren’t fans of this social mobility, and did their best to limit it with laws like the 1563 Statutes of Artificers, but their attempts to convince the lower class that it was their obligation to, “toil,” fell largely on deaf ears.

Social Mobility

The rise seen from the lower and middle classes of England coincided with the English victory over the Spanish armada and the subsequent rise of England as a world power. Around the same time, a bevy of rationalist thought could be found in the minds of the English, however their belief in the magic or the supernatural barely diminished, which shone through in the literature of the time.

An important distinction to make is that England’s growth into a world power and the prominence of its literature at the time were greatly influenced by their interactions with other European nations as well as places like India, Africa, and the the Americas. While the English felt profoundly superior to these nations and their peoples, the influence and and spread of ideas between both governments and literary practices in undeniable.

Elizabeth I and her popularity

Central to England’s power was its government and the sheer amount of power it wielded, controlling things like wages, religion, prices and international trade. A notable monarch of the time that wielded a great deal of power was Elizabeth I, her status as the virgin queen giving her a great deal of autonomy and power against other nations. The issue with this was that she did not leave an heir, and a civil war of succession followed after her death. Eventually, King James won and came over from Scotland to rule, a result many were satisfied with.

Cromwell’s regime through the reign of Charles II

Not among those satisfied were the English Puritans who saw James as too Catholic. As a result of this, Anglican vs Puritan debates became increasingly prevalent in the 1630’s. Not much came of these debates initially due to James and his skill at ruling. He did too good a job in government for enough people to want to get rid of him. James eventually passed away and his son, Charles I, began his reign, which was far less successful. He was seen by many as a brat and ended up shutting down parliament at one point. Because of his poor reputation, Charles gets beheaded, and puritan Oliver Cromwell begins to rule as Lord Protector. Cromwell’s rule was brief, as people felt his puritan disposition made things in England too strict. As a result, Charles II took over as King. As a result of the poor rule of Charles I, however, England became a parliamentary monarchy, and the crown would never wield as much power as it once had.


Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation Copyright © by Jackson Fanger and Nate Dimelfi. All Rights Reserved.

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