European Religion and Culture in the 15th and 16th Centuries

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16th Century Literature as a Force for Moral Improvement

In 1579 the writer Stephen Gosson published a denunciation of poets and the stage called The School of Abuse. "Pul off the visard that Poets maske in," he advised, "you shall disclose their reproch, bewray their vanitie, loth their wantonnesse, lament their follie, and perceive their sharp sayings to be placed as Pearles in Dunghills....". Sir Philip Sidney, on the other hand, argued in his Defence of Poetry that the poet is a force for morality, delighting the reader, and by drawing him in by means of this delight, points the way to improve his mind. "For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it". Before taking a brief look at three great 16th century writers, Rabelais, Spenser and Cervantes, it might be interesting to explore this debate a little further.

At the risk of offending latter-day followers of Sidney, ("[The poet] beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margin with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness"), it is worth considering what is meant by "Literature" in this context. To 16th century eyes the word meant anything to do with letters, or written works of any kind. As this is too broad for our purposes, it would be more sensible to confine discussion to those works which by a deliberate use of poetic imagery, fantasy, satire or allegory, portrayed things and expressed views which are more than a straightforward recitation of facts or precepts. This would include, for example, Thomas More's Utopia, but exclude Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.

The invention of printing had resulted in an enormous explosion in the number of books in circulation, with maybe as many 200 million in existence by the end of the 16th century. Roughly half the population of Europe could read to some extent, so the potential for literature to corrupt morals was high. Before the advent of printing much of the cultural entertainment of the populace had been more or less in the control of the church. It is true that story-telling, songs and ballads were a well-established oral tradition and not directly influenced by the clergy, but other popular entertainments such as the Mystery Plays in England were supported by, and in some cases written by, members of the clergy. Thus there was little need for any formal censorship or moral debate from the centre. But the joint arrival of printing and the reformation posed enormous problems to the church authorities, who rapidly found that their role as the guardians of the morals and religious orthodoxy of their flocks was being seriously undermined. Hence we see strenuous efforts, by the Roman Catholic church in particular, to stamp out heresy by proscribing whole lists of books, including not just the religious writings of reformers like Luther and Calvin, but also philosophers such as Pico and Erasmus, and various more or less satirical writers. An early attack was made by Fra Filippo di Strata, a Dominican friar in Venice, who fulminated against printers who were ignorant vagabonds and idlers, snoring away the hours in a drunken stupor.

It was not just potential heretics that attracted censorial attention. Fra Filippo also attacked books of pagan myths and Roman love poetry that titillated the erotic fancies of the young. The New Learning encouraged a renewed reverence for the authority of the Classics. This not only caused problems because of their inherent paganism, but also because of the doubtful morals of the gods and heroes of Greek and Roman literature. Jove was a notorious fornicator and ravisher of women, the Trojan war was fought to avenge an adulterous seduction, and Aphrodite spread her favours all round Mount Olympus. "What stuffe is this", asked Stephen Gosson, "wantons in heaven?"

There was also a substantial vogue for romances, many of which were based on the Arthurian legends. There were two sides to the argument about the merits of these works. On the one hand they instilled in their readers a proper sense of courtly behaviour, particularly towards women, and fostered politically acceptable ideals of patriotism, loyalty to kings and religious and godly conduct. In his introduction to Morte d'Arthur William Caxton wrote "Herein may be seen noble chyvalrye, curtosye, humanyte, frendlynesse, hardynesse, love, frendshyp, cowardyse, murdre, hate, vertue, and synne ... And for to passe the tyme thys book shal be plesaunte to rede in". Having, presumably, caught the reader's attention with this promise of pleasure and delight, he adds the moral note: "Doo after the good and leve the evyl, and it shall bring you to good fame and renommee". On the other hand Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth's tutor, complained that the whole pleasure of the book "standeth in two speciall poyntes, in open mans slaughter, and bold bawdrye". Lancelot, Tristram and Lamorak all commit royal adultery, so "What toyes, the daily readyng of such a booke, may worke in the will of a yong gentleman, or a yong mayde, .... wise men can judge, and honest men do pitie".

This brings us back to one of Sidney's central arguments in his Defence of Poetry. He defined poetry as "an art of imitation..... with this end, to teach and delight" (my italics). He argued that philosophers and historians, essential writers though they may be, without the ability of the poet to delight the reader are ineffective. The philosopher "is so hard of utterance and so misty to be conceived....that happy is the man who may understand him". Meanwhile the historian "is so tied, not to what should be but to what is,...that his example draweth no necessary consequence, and therefore a less fruitful doctrine". The peerless poet, on the other hand, has no such difficulty. The greatest writers were aware of this: Erasmus urged students to read a classic work (and by implication his own Colloquies) first for the sense, then for the grammar, then for the rhetoric and finally for the moral and philosophical instruction. However there were some who disagreed. Joao de Barros, historian to the Portuguese Government, deplored any poetic or literary additions to straightforward narration of facts. "Writings which do not have the utility of instruction, besides wasting time which is the most precious thing in life, fill the mind with dust from torrents of words and deeds they convey".

The work of François Rabelais was judged by many contemporaries in the harshest possible light. Lamartine called him "the mudheap of humanity", and throughout the ages his bawdy and scurrilous prose has been attacked. But Rabelais had set out to write a scathing satire on most church practices of the day, and it was for this, rather than his lavatorial humour, that he was principally attacked. Faith, not filth, was the issue of the day.

There is no doubt that Rabelais succeeded in delighting and pleasing his readers; there were six editions of Pantagruel between 1532 and 1534. But as a humanist and scholar he had many targets at which to aim his satire. For instance in Pantagruel he mounted a fierce attack on formal pronouncements from the Holy See, or "Decretals".

"What was it that founded, underpropped, and shored up, that now maintains, supports, and nourishes, the devout monks and nuns in their convents, monasteries, and abbeys? To what do we owe these holy folk, without whose continuous prayers, day and night, the world would be in evident danger of returning to its ancient chaos? To the holy Decretals."
After several similar ironic sallies, Rabelais suddenly adds a paragraph which, presumably, is there not only to please and delight those of his readers with a taste for this sort of thing, but also to continue to set churchmen in as bad a light as possible:
"Here Greatclod began to belch, fart, laugh, dribble, and sweat. He handed his great, greasy bonnet with its four codpiece-like corners to one of the girls, who placed it on her head in great delight, having first kissed it most lovingly".
This kind of lampoon was attacked not only by the Catholics, but also by serious-minded reformers such as Calvin: "They are mad dogs who disgorge their ribaldry against the majesty of God and wish to pervert all sacred things".

Amazingly, in an age of increasing censorship and religious persecution, Rabelais lived to a ripe old age. He had friends in high places, particularly in the church itself, which obviously helped. One can only speculate whether, without the restraints imposed by the political and religious climate of his day, he might have bitten even deeper with his satire than he did.

Edmund Spenser, on the other hand, like several other 16th century men of letters (More, Wyatt, Sidney and Montaigne amongst others), was active in public life, and therefore had to ensure that his writings were politically acceptable. His monumental work, The Fairie Queene, was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, and in his explanatory letter to Ralegh he makes it clear that he identifies Elizabeth with the Fairie Queene herself.

This multi-layered poem works at several levels, both to improve morals (as Spenser saw it) and to teach through pleasure and delight. Early on, for example, the Red Cross knight's encounter with the monster Errour is written with tremendous power and dramatic effect, using all kinds of poetic tricks of the trade:

"His Lady sad to see his sore constraint,
  Cride out, Now now Sir knight, shew what ye bee,
  Add faith unto your force, and be not faint:
  Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee.
  That when he heard, in great perplexitie,
  His gall did grate for griefe and high disdaine,
  And knitting all his force got one hand free,
  Wherewith he grypt her gorge with so great paine,
That soone to loose her wicked bands did her constraine."
(Canto 1 stanza 19).
At first sight it is hard to imagine anyone taking exception to this, but the whole poem is a strong attack on Rome and the papacy, and the monster Errour herself in the next stanza vomits up with the "loathly frogs and toades" a mass of "bookes and papers". In Protestant England most politically unacceptable views, including Catholic dogma, found their way into pamphlets and books sooner or later, and are here represented as part of the life-blood of Errour. The knight is urged on by his lady, representing the true Protestant faith, in his slaughter of this evil.

Cervantes' Don Quixote was less controversial, but just as thought-provoking. The book is a burlesque of the romances that were very popular at the time, with Don Quixote and his page involved in all kinds of episodes, most of which concerned relevant issues of the day. For example, the famous scene wherein the Don frees the galley-slaves, gives an opportunity for the author to criticise, albeit somewhat obliquely, the harshness of sentences in contemporary Spain, "it seems to me a hard case to make slaves of those whom God and nature made free". It could be argued that freeing convicted criminals is of doubtful morality, but as the Don gets beaten up and robbed for his pains the challenge to Spanish authority cannot have been considered too great. The book never received official censorship.

In the later Part Two a discussion takes place around the fact that Don Quixote and his squire Sancho know that their adventures have already been made into a book, and some of their reactions to it take us back to our central arguments. There is even a direct echo of Sidney's sentiments: "The poet can relate and sing things, not as they were but as they should have been, without any way affecting the truth of the matter". There is a comment on censorship: "An author runs a very great risk in printing a book. For it is the greatest of all impossibilities to write one that will satisfy and please every reader". And in a somewhat ironic tone he makes his own disclaimer of any religious unorthodoxy: "Nowhere is to be found anything even resembling an indelicate expression or an uncatholic thought".

The enduring popularity of Cervantes shows that by the beginning of the 17th century at any rate, good literature had got the upper hand in the argument, and the majority opinion generally concurred with Philip Sidney. But the debate was not over, and was destined to run and run.


Stephen Gosson The Schoole of Abuse (1579)

Duncan-Jones and van Dorsten (eds) Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1973)

Englander and others Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Blackwell 1990)

Thomas Malory The Tale of King Arthur, forward by K Crossley-Holland (Folio Society edn 1982)

Roger Ascham The Scholemaster (1570)

Edmund Spenser The Fairie Queene Book 1 (OUP edn 1966)

Hall D (ed) Historians of South East Asia (OUP 1961)

Screech P (ed) The Portable Rabelais (Viking)

F Rabelais The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel trans and ed J Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955)

J Calvin On Scandals (1550)

M Cervantes The Adventures of Don Quixote trans and ed J Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950)

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Antwerp and Venice: Centres of Arts and Learning in the 15th and 16th Centuries

As in many European cities, Antwerp and Venice were certainly important centres for the arts and learning. It is interesting to compare these two cities and explore in what ways culture thrived and was encouraged. Antwerp and Venice were both highly successful commercial cities whose leading citizens were prosperous and independent, thus fulfilling the basic conditions for their becoming important cultural centres.

Geographically the two cities occupied important positions. Antwerp had access by sea to the north and west of Europe, and overland to the trade routes of the Netherlands, Germany and France. It was built near the estuary of the river Scheldt which added an important inland route for its merchant shipping. Venice, the dominant sea-power in the Mediterranean, was the vital trading link between the Levant and Europe and had large territories in northern Italy providing crucial access to inland Europe. Its proximity to the Baltic meant it was favourably placed to profit from North-South trading traffic. Their geographical position helped the cities become thriving industrial and financial centres. Venice excelled in the production of woollen fabrics, silks, glass from Murano, candles, leather and luxury goods such as lace and jewellery. It also had a prosperous sugar-refining industry and a successful trade in printing and books. Antwerp did even more trade, "more in a fortnight than Venice in the whole year" as the Venetian envoy complained, and was particularly strong in many of the same things. Both cities, whose traders preferred to deal more in credit than in coin, also became important banking and financial centres.

Other key factors were their relative independence and, in Venice at any rate, the stability of the city's government. Antwerp, although nominally under the control of Brabant, was in practice left to its own devices for the internal running of its affairs - at least until the last quarter of the century when religious controversy brought unrest and outside interference. Indeed the Hapsburgs - Dukes of Brabant - became increasingly Spanish, so that Philip II spoke only Spanish. Stability in Antwerp was brought about through a system of government which, while maintaining the principal power in the hands of the rich patrician families, recognised the aspirations of the tradesmen and craft workers to have some say in the control of their own affairs. In both Venice and Antwerp the guilds provided this outlet, and their members had the opportunity to be elected to important offices in the government of both cities. As in any successful city, there were occasional riots and unrest, but there was usually plenty of work and no internal conflict was troublesome for long.

The success of both cities brought large population growth and much urban development. Antwerp had developed south and east from the 11th century castle overlooking the banks of the Scheldt until by the end of the 15th century it reached the line eventually to be bounded by the 1555 fortifications. But whereas the population living in this area was 20,000 in 1394 it was five times that size by 1568, and so property became increasingly valuable. The bounds of the islands of Venice had been set by the natural geography much earlier, and although the population growth was not as explosive as that of Antwerp, nonetheless space for further building was at a premium.

Thus a very visible contribution to the artistic side of both cities was the architecture, and the wealth of the patrician families made it all the more practical. In Venice this was manifest not only in the splendours of the Ducal Palace, St Mark's Church and Square and many religious buildings, but also in the houses of the patrician families, some of which survive today. On the Grand Canal for instance one can still see the mid 15th century Ca Foscari and Ca Farsetti and the later Palazzo Grimani. Building in Venice attracted some of the best architects of the Italian Renaissance such as Sansovino, and later in the 16th century Andrea Palladio was to give his name to a style of domestic architecture which spread as far as England. In Antwerp the wealthier merchants built their houses mostly in conservative Gothic style, and as in Venice many of them contributed to the cost of building new churches such as St Jakobskerk and St Andrieskerk.

In Venice the aristocracy, who had become rich and powerful through their interest and expertise in commerce and finance, turned increasingly to the pursuit of pleasure. Many of them patronised artists and made significant collections of paintings and sculpture. Some of this patronage was private, such as the banker Odoni who commissioned a portrait from Lotto, and some more public in such places as the local parish church. Titian's altarpiece in the Pesaro family chapel in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice is a good example. It is no accident that 16th century Venice contained painters of the calibre of Giorgioni, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, indeed Titian became so famous that he attracted patronage from François I, Charles V and Philip II. Art collecting thrived in Antwerp as well. In 1552 the collection of one Michiel van der Heyden was inventoried, and it showed an impressive number of art objects, including two pictures by Hieronymus Bosch.

There was also a thriving export trade in art objects themselves, particularly from Antwerp with its prime position as an international trade centre. In Venice, too, there were several prosperous Jewish art-dealers. As well as in paintings and sculpture there was a brisk trade in the work of goldsmiths and silversmiths, glass-workers, tapestry-makers and other craftsmen. These craftsmen belonged to one of the various trade and craft guilds that flourished in both cities. The guilds were another source of patronage for the arts, both in the building of impressive headquarters for themselves, and also in commissioning artwork, often with their associated religious confraternities. The Grote Markt in Antwerp was flanked by several guild houses built side by side, and the trade-hall of the butchers guild, the Vleeshuis, was built by the leading architect of the day, de Waghemakere, and was cited by Guicciardini, a Florentine who wrote about Antwerp in 1567, as being one of the most impressive buildings in the city. In 1508 the shrineworkers guild commissioned an altarpiece from Quinten Massys, the leading Antwerp painter, for their own altar in Antwerp cathedral.

Religion dominated every European city at this time, and an important source for furthering the arts were the religious confraternities. The most influential of these were the Scuole Grandi in Venice, which, financed by the patrician families and by the guilds, grew very wealthy. The Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, for instance, was able to afford paintings by the Bellinis, the then leading family of Venetian painters, architectural improvements by the leading architect Codussi, and a series of ceiling paintings from Titian. The prevailing religious attitudes of a city also influenced the extent to which it became a centre of learning as well as of the arts. Antwerp, like most northern European cities, was swept up in the religious controversies of the Reformation. At one stage in the middle of the 16th century almost one heretic a week was burned in the Grote Markt, and while this cannot have improved Antwerp as a centre of learning, it shows that there was much religious discussion and controversy among the intellectual classes. Throughout history a thriving urban society has often been the catalyst for new ideas. The Netherlands had its share of intellectuals and Humanists, including the great Erasmus, and some of these will have resided in Antwerp. We know from the collection of books left by Pensionary Pauwels to the city that here was at least one intellectual with an eclectic taste for books on law, history and humanist philosophy. There are also examples of practical humanism at work, such as the Maagdenhuis school for poor girls and orphans which was supported largely through the philanthropy of the brewer Gilbert van Schoonbeke.

Conditions in Venice were more conducive for the furtherance of learning. Papal influence was less than in other Italian cities, and Venice was criticized from Rome for its erastianism and attempted control of religious affairs. Religious tolerance was higher than usual, and the Venetian Inquisition was more interested in the prevention of heresy than its punishment. Censorship of books was fairly rigorous - Venice published an index of proscribed books in 1547, some twelve years before the famous Papal Index, and in 1568 there was a mass burning of Jewish books. However this did not stop Fra Francesco Giorgi producing his remarkable De Harmonia Mundi, with its controversial ideas about the Jewish Cabbala and unorthodox Neoplatonism. The artists and architects of the time listened to and consulted the learned scholars, witness the support given to Giorgi's recommendations for the design of the church of San Francesco della Vigna. One of the reasons that Venice was chosen by the Greek cardinal Bessarion as the home for his book collection was its political stability. He also wanted to create influence in a city that traditionally looked eastwards towards his beloved Byzantium, and equally wanted a city which would appreciate the presence of a major source of learning. In the event it was nearly 100 years before the books were properly housed in the magnificent library built by Sansovino on a prime site in St Mark's Square.

As in many other European cities at the time, Antwerp and Venice both made much play of ceremony and displays of religious and political pomp, and several works of art were produced to commemorate this. In Antwerp Hogenberg produced a series of engravings of the entry of the Duke of Anjou to the city, although these may have been produced more as political records than as works of art. In Venice many important paintings were produced by Bellini, Carpaccio and others to record the annual processions and original events associated with the many myths connected with Venice, such as the acquisition of the relic of the cross from Cyprus, and the symbolic marriage of the Doge to the sea to celebrate Venetian naval power.

Antwerp and Venice were two of the leading cities in Europe for the printing and production of books. At least a million books were produced in Venice in the 15th century, and a thriving industry grew up around them, feeding not only the nearby universities at Padua and elsewhere, but also the rest of the world. This required considerable scholarly activity, particularly with the growing popularity of Humanist ideas of returning to original Classical texts. Venice was well placed to house Greek and Latin scholars, and its Jewish community, which had its own successful printing industry, provided access to scholars of the ancient Jewish and Hebrew texts. In 1500 the printer Aldus founded an academy of Hellenists to pursue this activity in Venice, and in Antwerp fifty years later Plantin did much the same. Printing had a big impact on the cultural life of ordinary people, and books were read by a wide cross-section of the community.

In the later part of the 16th century Italy was pre-eminent in musical achievement, and Venice played an important and influential part in this. Much of the earlier influences on Italian music came from the Netherlands, and it is reasonable to suppose that a bustling and successful city like Antwerp had its share of musical activity. In 1527 the organist of St Mark's in Venice was the Dutchman Adriaen Willaert, who was an original and innovative musician. Amongst other things he introduced trombones and strings into the cathedral, and paved the way for the later success of the Gabrielis and other Venetian composers. Venice was later to be a major contributor to the development of Italian opera.

As a final note, there appears to have been little to no contribution to either arts or learning from women in either city, which reflects the lack of opportunities for them in any sphere outside the domestic one. The only exception was poetry, where in Antwerp the schoolmistress Anna Bijns became renowned for her rhetorical poems attacking Lutheranism.

So Antwerp and Venice, both highly successful commercial cities, had the wealth, energy and ambition to become in addition significant centres of the arts and learning. In Antwerp this success was swift and more commercially oriented, but in Venice the effects were longer lasting and the renown more permanent.


Englander, Norman, O'Day and Owens (eds), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Blackwell)

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The Pewterers' and Founders' Play

This play is one of several to be found in manuscript form in the British Museum. It was one of the so-called Mystery Plays performed at York in the 15th century and probably dates between 1463 and 1477. It was called "Joseph's Trouble about Mary", and was the responsibility of the Pewterers and Founders, who were makers of pots and pans for domestic use. The play's main purpose was to provide the correct religious interpretation of the Gospel story of the Virgin Birth, highlighting what every thinking person probably felt at some time about it. The following passage is particularly relevant in this context:

Mary: To my witness great God I call
That I mind wrought never no miss.
Joseph: Whose is the child thou art with all?
Mary: Yours sir, and the King's of bliss.
Joseph: Ye, and how then?
No! Selcouthe tythandis then is this!
Excuse them well there women can!
But Mary, all that sees thee
May wit thy works are wan;
Thy womb all way it wreyes thee
That thou has met with man.
Whose is it, as fair mot thee befall?
Mary: Sir, it is yours and God's will.
Joseph: Nay, I ne have nought ado with all,
Neme it no more to me, be still!
Thou wate as well as I
That we two same fleshly
Wrought never swilk works with ill.
Look thou did no folly
Before me privily
Thy fair maidenhead to spill.
But who is the father? Tell me his name!
Mary: None but yourself.
Joseph: Let be for shame!
I did it never! Thou dotist, dame, by books and bells!
Full sakles should I bear this blame after thou tells.
For I wrought never in word nor deed,
Thing that should mar thy maidenhead,
To touch me till -
For of slyk note war little need!
Yet for my own I would it feed,
Might all be still.
Therefore the father, tell me, Mary!
Mary:But God and you I know right none.

It might be interesting to speculate on how this passage would have come across in actual performance. Joseph is portrayed as an everyday working man with whom the audience can readily identify. The actor playing him probably addressed many of his remarks directly to the audience to increase their involvement in the play, and to underline that identification. Mary, too, would have been dressed in workaday clothes and there would have been little need for what nowadays would be called a "set".

The passage starts with Joseph's straightforward questioning of his wife as to who is the father of the child she is carrying. When she replies "Yours sir, and the King's of bliss", it is not too difficult to imagine the actor getting a laugh from the audience by raising his eyebrows and saying with heavy sarcasm that this is marvellous news, and then, to the audience, "Excuse them well there women can!" In other words he does not believe a word of what his wife is saying, and looks upon her excuse as far-fetched and improbable. He repeats the question, adding (again bringing in the audience - probably with a gesture and a look) that "all that sees thee may wit thy works are wan (evil)" and that the shape of her womb betrays the fact that she has "met with man". When she gives more or less the same reply he exclaims that he could not possibly have anything to do with it as "we two same fleshly (together) wrought never swilk works (such deeds) with ill." Earlier in the play he has explained that he is weary and of "great elde (age)", so the implication will not be lost on the audience that he and Mary have not been making physical love at all. This might well have been a point of recognition in the audience at a time when marriages could encompass great age differences.

The actor at this point in the passage probably starts to show more impatience and anger as he persists in his questioning, and he warns her to "look thou did no folly before me privily thy fair maidenhead to spill." This time, after her reply, he accuses her of prattling and starts to swear "by books and bells". He then complains that he should not be held to blame for marring her maidenhead, but says he would feed the baby if it were his own. And he repeats the question yet again, and gets the same answer.

This constant repetition of the same question followed by the same answer from Mary, probably delivered in a quiet measured manner in contrast to Joseph's more stressed manner of speaking, serves the main purpose of the piece, to bring home the message that the Conception was indeed of Divine origin. This message is humbly accepted by Joseph by the end of the play.

Thus Joseph displays emotions which could be readily recognised by the audience. To add to this effect, the play is written with much humorous content. The very title is slightly comic, and there are plenty of opportunities for the actor playing Joseph to heighten the comedy with voice and gesture, as when he points to Mary's swelling stomach on the line "Thy womb all way it wreyes (betrays) thee". One can imagine the audience offering ribald or downright bawdy comment to each other during the performance.

The religious establishment at the time welcomed and supported the production of these plays, indeed they may well have written them in the first place, although they were actually produced and performed by the local guilds. The clergy must therefore have approved of the slightly bawdy humour which probably contributed much to the popularity of the plays, thus bringing the approved interpretation of the Gospel message to the ears of as many of the populace as possible.

The use of humour has another purpose. Joseph is portrayed as a somewhat bumbling simple-minded person, almost a figure of fun. He is Everyman, who needs the intervention of the Angel of God to explain to him the wonders of God's complex purpose. Ordinary citizens will of course require the guidance of the clergy. Joseph is contrasted with Mary, who totally accepts God's will earlier in the cycle, and she exactly fits the role-model of the humble, willing and obedient wife.

Even to today's eyes and ears the Mystery Plays remain rewarding and greatly enjoyable, so it is not surprising that in their day they were very popular and lasted a long time.


The complete play can be found in Englander, Norman, O'Day and Owens (eds), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Blackwell) pp. 8-16.

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Hans Sachs, The Old Game (1554)

Hans Sachs was a prolific writer who also earned a living as a shoemaker. As a writer of "master-songs" he appears in Wagner's opera Die Meistersingers von Nurnberg. He also wrote scores of Fastnachtspiele or Shrovetide plays, each of which lasted about a quarter of an hour. The Old Game (Der dot Man wur Lebentig) was written in 1554, and has been freely translated for use by modern Theatre companies. Nonetheless it provides some interesting insights into the relationships between married couples in Reformation Germany. The following is a short extract from the play:

Wife: Then, when is it you love me best?
Hans [readily]: Why to be sure, when you do as I bids you, like a humble, willing and obedient wife. Then I'm ready enough to share my last crust of sour bread with you, and to see you lack no clothing nor finery. then, it's a pleasure to look after you, and give you good counsel. If I'm a bit cold and stern at times, why 'tis your own fault entirely.
Wife: And how is it my own fault pray? When is it I act as you don't like?
Hans: I can give you a short answer to that. When you go against my wishes, either behind my back, or in front of my eyes.
Wife: But tell me just what it is I do.
Hans: Oh, no end of things. Every day I suffer torments from what you say and do.
Wife: [very persistently] And what is it I says and does?
Hans: [peevishly] Aren't I telling you? You don't manage the house as it ought to be managed, and when I points it out, you are angry and answer me back. you are always crossing me. I can't never do nothing right. Why anyone would think I was the wife and you the husband! That's not right! It puts a man against you!
Wife: Now husband, if you let such petty things upset you, your love is worth no more than that! [She snaps her fingers.] If you was as fond of me as I am of you, 'twouldn't flicker in and out, but get stronger and brighter every day.

This remarkably modern-sounding piece tells us a considerable amount about the roles and relationships in the marriage of the two characters represented. How much one can use it to infer things about roles and relationships in sixteenth century marriages generally is another matter altogether.

The piece starts with Hans describing his ideal wife, who would be "humble, willing and obedient". The fact that she does not appear to be particularly humble, willing or obedient says much about her independence of spirit, and is the cause of the friction between the couple. The rewards promised to her if she is humble, willing and obedient are that he will "share my last crust of sour bread with you, and to see you lack no clothing nor finery." Hans naturally assumes the role of the provider of essentials as well as luxuries, and sees himself as the owner of what food there is available. It is he that "gives her good counsel", not the other way around, so he clearly expects to be the dominant partner giving the orders. It is he who decides how the house should be managed, and he does not seek her opinion about it but merely "points it out" when she, in his judgement, gets it wrong. No wonder she is "always crossing" him. He freely admits that his mood depends on her behaviour, but appears to have no consideration of how her mood can be affected by his behaviour.

A significant passage is when he complains that "anyone would think I was the wife and you the husband! That's not right!" In some communities in the sixteenth century it was quite a serious matter if the wife assumed too much authority, and the other villagers were likely to intervene if that happened. Later in the play the neighbours do have an important role in the development of the story.

Finally in the above extract we see the wife dismissing the arguments as trivial and petty, and stating her clear long-term fondness for him, which gets "stronger and brighter every day".

Hence we have a picture of a dominant male, provider and owner of everything, who expects to make the rules and be obeyed by a humble and willing wife. The wife on the other hand is fiercely independent, cares little about what she says, and manages the house in the way she considers to be best. There appears to be no question of who should do the work, only of how it should be done, and hence the precise nature of the relationship within the household.

But how far this is a typical sixteenth century picture cannot be inferred solely from this play. The play was written in mid-century and performed in Germany, so is not necessarily similar to pieces written or performed elsewhere in Europe, nor of relationships in Germany say fifty years earlier or later. Also Hans is a farm labourer, so one is only looking at one type of rural community, which may have had profoundly different attitudes from the urban and elite communities in the same country.

Also we have to take into account that this is part of a play, written probably for performance at a public festival, by a prolific writer who was something of a professional at it. We do not know how popular it was, nor do we know the reasons why it was written in the first place. Maybe the author set out to mirror reality, or perhaps more likely he was writing an exaggerated piece to heighten the comic effect. We do not know whether he was under any obligation to point up a moral by his paymasters, and again we do not know to what extent the play differed in actual performance from the text as presented here. Finally we do not know whether the audience was likely to share the views expressed by the main characters. Just because it may have been popular does not mean that everyone agreed with it.

In conclusion however, one is bound to say that the situation shown is so well written and so typical of many married couples today, that one is tempted to infer that despite all the reservations expressed above, in all probability we have a very typical picture of many sixteenth century marriages.


E. U. Ouless, Seven Shrovetide Plays (London: The Year Book Press, 1930) pp. 38-46

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Humanist Tendencies in Lotto's Portrait of Andrea Odoni

Portrait of Andrea Odoni Andrea Odoni was a well-known Venetian banker, who was also a great collector of antiques. Lorenzo Lotto painted this portrait in 1527, and it is now known as "Andrea Odoni the Venetian banker holds Diana Natura in his hand". It was painted at a time when the so-called Humanist movement was in full swing, and there are several reflections of this in the painting. The most obvious humanist tendency present is the importance of Classicism, demonstrated by the Classical sculpture surrounding the sitter.

One of the fundamental tenets of the humanist movement was the need to study and thoroughly understand the writings and art of the Classical era. It was only by returning to the original texts and works of art themselves and applying scholarly methods to these primary sources that modern man could understand their true significance and meaning. In the case of Greek and Roman sculpture and painting they could thus develop techniques worthy to be used to represent divine figures and improve the quality of their images of lesser beings.

Lotto's picture is a large canvas, presumably commissioned by Odoni himself, which was hung in Odoni's house in Venice. There is a clear reference to Odoni's trade as a banker with the coins scattered on the table at which he is sitting. Also on the table is a book, which because it is turned away from the viewer so that one cannot read the title, may not be the Bible but some other learned volume. His clothes are expensive-looking, and he wears a certain amount of jewellery round his neck and on his left hand. His expression is serious and somewhat glum, and perhaps also rather haughty and possessive. This possessiveness is underlined by the fact that in his right hand he carries the small figure of Diana of Ephesus. His left hand, which is placed across his heart, also guides the beholder's eye towards the figure. The rest of the figures and pieces of sculpture are either behind him, or placed half under the table in the right foreground, with part of the tablecloth covering them.

The study of Classical art is, then, the most obvious humanist tendency displayed. We know that Odoni was a well-known antiquary and collector, and obviously he wanted to be portrayed surrounded with objects which reflected this. But the actual choice of objects is interesting. Michiel, a contemporary Venetian historian, made an inventory of Odoni's house about five years after the painting was finished, which contained quite a collection of Classical statuary, so one can probably assume that he would have had some of this at the time the painting was being done. And yet Lotto included at least one item which was at the time in the Vatican in Rome. The subject of this figure is not immediately obvious; it is Hercules (before he became immortal) wrestling successfully with Antaeus who was the son of Gaea and Poseidon and hence a god. This therefore could well be a reference to the ability of man to get to grips with and conquer the philosophies and learning of the ancients, which is very much a humanist idea. Apart from Diana, the only immediately recognizable figure is the other Hercules, which although headless carries the usual club and the skin of the Nemean lion.

It is also probable that the placing of the large Roman head and the limbless Venus partially under the tablecloth is meant to signify the dominance of modern humanist Venetian man, represented by Andrea Odoni, over things Classical. Certainly the need for learning was central to the humanist ideal, and the prominence of the book points this up - perhaps the sculptures under the cloth are supposed to signify Odoni's mastery of the subject.

Some critics have suggested that the presence of the Diana statuette symbolizes the eternity of Nature in contrast to the transitory quality of Man's achievements. Certainly the humanist Neoplatonists believed that Man contains within him the seeds of everything, and that he is the link between the spiritual and the material in the universe. By study and learning Man can begin to unravel the mysteries of this universe, and thus move nearer to his ideal of the Enjoyment of God. So a slightly different interpretation of the presence of Diana is that it emphasises the ability of Man to assimilate the lessons of Nature and profit by them. Many-breasted Diana of Ephesus was supposed to have appeared miraculously at Ephesus wrapped in her ornamental sheath, thus persuading the local citizenry to worship and revere her. The humanists, particularly the artists, believed strongly in the efficacy of the study of Nature (if not exactly its worship) as part of the comprehensive acquisition of knowledge that they advocated.

So here is Signor Odoni, a successful dignified citizen, surrounded by, but also dominating, and hence by implication superior to, the best in Graeco-Roman art. The emphasis is on the dignity and achievement of Man, which is a cornerstone of the humanist edifice.


J. Martineau and C Hope, The Genius of Venice 1500-1600 (London, 1983) p.177

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Harmony of the World by Francesco Giorgi

Francesco Giorgi (1466-1540) was a Franciscan monk who used Jewish culture and the ancient philosophers to support his argument that Man was a microcosm of the universe. The following passage from De Harmonia Mundi Totius was published in Venice in 1525. It is here presented in a translation by Stuart Brown.

Our Moses, an entirely sound philosopher, has shown us with how much fullness and harmony the supreme Workman has included and assembled all things in Man. He did this in a single mysterious sentence, when he said: "The Lord God formed Man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his face and nostrils the Breath of Life." He touched both extremes of every thing, so that whatever comes in between the extremes should be understood as included in Man. By this means he has ordered things so that the highest and lowest degree are brought together. for the lowest and least of all things is the element of the earth, and the highest is He who says: "I am the life": as if to say "I am He who diffuses the rays of life into everything.” And when Moses declared all the degrees of living things to be included in Man, he did not say "Breath of Life" without reason. For Man's life spans all the degrees of living things. He shows then that the extremes and the middle come together in Man when he says that the earth, the dust and the Breath of Life come together in him. And just as in the Great World the divine things, which exert their influence through the Heavens, are united with the terrestrial so [in the Lesser World] the divine, the celestial and the dust are united in Man. This was indicated secretly by the name "Adam", which first meant "Man". For "A" signifies divinity, "D" signifies celestial nature and "M" signifies corruptible corporeal nature. Thus there are in Man the corruptible, the celestial and the divine, or every kind of living thing. For Man lives by the life of the elements and stones, to which is ceaselessly given the strength to be, to grow, to alter or change. With the metals he lives a higher life, for their spirit is deeply hidden, and is rarely or never found by artisans or alchemists, however carefully they have searched. With the plants Man lives a vegetative life, with the animals a mobile life, with the separated intelligences a rational life or one with understanding, and with the true God a life divine and eternal, of which [St] John says: "The life was the light of men." And again, according to the Highest Truth: "I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
Thus it was well said that the Breath of Life. of every kind of living thing, was breathed into Man. And what Moses showed secretly by means of the two extremes and the middle, Solomon, or perhaps Philo, expresses openly by saying: "God took Man from the silt of the earth and gave him the power to contain all things." Trismegistus agrees with this. To his son's question about how Man was brought into being he replied: "Man is a whole, a totality within the whole", that is, within God. Man consists of an aggregate of the powers of all things whereas God, who contains all powers, is not an aggregate.
Augustine was thinking of this inclusion of all things not only in Man as a totality but also in the soul by itself when he said: "The soul, being the semblance of all wisdom, carries within itself the image of all things." For this reason the philosopher has defined the soul as the likeness of all things. For it has within itself the powers by which it includes all things, investigates all things and is the likeness of all things. Though it is only one thing, through the senses it is like the earth, through its imagination like the water, through its reason like the air, through its understanding like the firmament and through its intelligence it is like the Heaven of Heavens. Just as God may be received by and participate in all things, so the soul is capable of all things.

"Harmony of the World" was a dangerously near-heretical work which drew on the scholarship of the Jews of Giorgi's Venice for much of its content. It propounded the Platonist theory that God had created a world of perfect harmony, and that if one looked hard and carefully enough one could get nearer to God by a full understanding of that harmony. Central to that harmony is Man himself, who is seen by the ancient philosophers as having a life which "spans all the degrees of living things."

Giorgi starts by quoting Genesis (Moses): "The Lord God formed Man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his face and nostrils the Breath of Life." Thus Man is central between the Creator on the one hand ("I am the Life" - St John's Gospel) and Dust on the other, and so contains everything between these two extremes. He then cites the Cabbalistic notion that the name "Adam" represents the fusion by divine intervention of a "celestial nature" with that of a "corruptible corporeal nature", further evidence that "every kind of living thing" is present in Man. "Living things" include stones and elements as well as plants and animals, so there is nothing that is beyond the reach of Man, including a "higher" life, "vegetative", "mobile" and "rational" lives, and ultimately a life "divine and eternal".

Giorgi then goes on to quote support from other ancient philosophers who expressed much the same thing, including the Jewish Philo, the Egyptian Trismegistus and the Christian Augustine. The latter goes further than the others by including with the totality of Man the concept of the soul, which has "powers by which it includes all things", and is "capable of all things". This attempt to seek universal truths in ancient philosophers was typical of the humanist Neoplatonist approach. Plato himself, for example, believed totally in the immortality of the soul, and thus became an extremely useful authority for Christian humanists. They believed that by careful study and understanding of the ancients many fundamental truths could be revealed, and Giorgi goes further than many in claiming that several of them were saying much the same things when it came to Man being a microcosm of the universe.

There are other typically humanist ideas in the piece. For example there is the reliance on mysterious Cabbalistic signs to reveal the truth. Ficino, one of the Florentine Neoplatonists, believed that the whole universe was a secret, and many humanist philosophers took their cue from Plato in adopting a degree of mysticism in their thinking. Then there is the idea that even stones and minerals have a life of their own. Although beliefs like this as well as such things as alchemy and astrology were by no means held uniquely by humanists, they were nonetheless fairly common in humanist circles. Many humanists believed that the elements contained mystic powers.

But probably the most important humanist tendency in the passage is the idea that Man has all things within him, which is a central belief of humanism. It was expressed in different ways by different humanists; Pico, for example, said that "God the Father endowed man from birth with the seeds of every possibility and every life." Giorgi believed in the ability of Man to reach the full enjoyment of God, and in the ultimate Perfectibility of Man.


Englander, Norman, O'Day and Owens (eds), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Blackwell) p.157

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The Catholic and Protestant Reformations as attempts to Christianize pagan Europe

It has sometimes been suggested that one of the main purposes of the Catholic and Protestant Reformations in the 16th Century was to Christianize pagan Europe and mount a direct attack upon the prevalent folk culture. At the start of the 16th century life for the ordinary man or woman in Europe was dominated by religion. Christianity had developed through the centuries as a primary code of conduct for most people, as a source of hope for final salvation from the miseries of a strife-torn and plague-ridden world, and in many cases as a means of achieving political ends both within and outside the church itself. In accomplishing this, the church had had to absorb many local customs and traditions, many of which were either of pagan origin, and to adapt its own rituals and practices to incorporate traditional folklore. This paganism was most prevalent in the rural peasant communities, where literacy and more advanced intellectual discussion were obviously less available.

In many country towns and villages the highlights of the year were the annual events tied to the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Holy Week. Often these festivals were a time of enjoyment and merry-making, and were celebrated by carnivals, processions and other entertainments such as the performance of Passion Plays. To give but one example of a pagan influence, and one that still survives today, it is thought that the Christmas tradition of the Yule Log has a pagan origin.

Any attempt by the local priesthood to suppress the festivities would have resulted in a swift loss of influence and an inability to control the wilder and more excessive elements of them, and one must not forget that in many cases the priests themselves were products of those communities and genuinely shared many of the beliefs of their congregations. It is recorded for instance that in 1533 in the rural French village of Montbrison the local priest played Christ in the Passion Play, and in England the Mystery Plays, many of which contained passages of quite astonishing ribaldry and bawdiness, were as often as not supported by the church. In many cases they were seen as an important educational tool.

To many peasants one of the main functions of religion was to help to stave off things over which they had no other control, such as famine, war and pestilence, and also to increase their well-being and prosperity through the successful exercise of pagan fertility rites. Many quasi-religious ceremonies such as the annual processing round the parish borders had their origins in pagan ritual, and one can see how easy it was to associate the church with miraculous, and by extension magical, happenings. The church actively encouraged such things as pilgrimages, shrines and the miracle-working properties of the relics and saints associated with them, indeed a substantial part of the churches' income was derived in this way. The shrine at Santiago de Compostela and the Holy House at Loreto attracted pilgrims from all over Europe, and were renowned for their miraculous properties.

The Portinari Altarpiece There was widespread belief in witchcraft, both the white and black varieties, and demons, devils and evil spirits had always played a part in religious activities. Indeed Jesus Christ himself expressed many of his miraculous cures in terms of casting out demons and evil spirits. Many religious pictures and sculptures incorporated portrayals of these spirits, for example the Portinari altarpiece, painted by Hugo van der Goes for the Portinari family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence in about 1475, has an evil looking demon lurking behind one of the pillars, while St Anthony on the wing carries a bell to ward off such evil spirits.

Fifteenth century Europeans were deeply superstitious, and some of the rituals associated with the dead were of extremely ancient origin. The Danse Macabre for example was depicted in many churches and cemeteries, with the dying soul being led a dance by a company of grinning skeletons. The concept of Purgatory, where souls awaited the solemn Day of Judgement, was part of orthodox teaching, and gave easy credence to the notion of ghosts released by God to revisit this world.

It was not just in rural peasant communities that belief in the supernatural was current. Many of the highest intellectuals of the time believed in prophecy and astrology, and even such enlightened scientists as Tycho Brahe, the leading cosmologist of his time, were avid astrologers, as was Luther himself. Many Humanists, including the Italian scholars Pico and Giorgi, considered that the Jewish Cabbala with its secret codes and magic numbers contained important keys to a fuller understanding of the true philosophy. Cornelius Agrippa, whose reputation as a supporter of witchcraft was probably unfounded in truth, nonetheless believed that witchcraft existed and that it was able to work good or evil according to its complexion.

Before the Protestant and Catholic Reformations got under way the main missionary activities of the church were to challenge the Antichrist by attacking and isolating the Jewish communities in various parts of Europe at various times, to spread the word of God by missionary activity outside the borders of Europe in places such as India and the New World, and to resist at all costs the inroads being made by the dreaded forces of Islam.

The main centres of the Protestant Reformations were the cities rather than the countryside, where folklore and pagan practices were most prevalent. The Protestant reformers, particularly Martin Luther, advocated strongly a return to faith and the pre-eminence of the written Gospel as the ultimate Authority, thus condemning many traditions and practices as unchristian. Luther preached strongly against the Catholic practices of worshipping saints and relics, and by implication against all the quasi-pagan rituals and the indulgence industry associated with them. Interestingly his hopes that Jews would be readily converted to his new ways of thinking were unfulfilled, and under his influence they continued to be persecuted, in some cases more fiercely than before.

The so-called popular piety proved very difficult for the Reformers to reform. John Calvin was a great believer in monitoring the progress of his reformation through ecclesiastical discipline. A consistory tribunal was set up, and two members of it accompanied by the local priest would regularly tour the parish so that they could personally check on the people. Without adequate data on church attendance and little popular literature it is difficult to assess to what extent these attempts to reform the rural way of thinking were successful, although we do know that visitations from several cities in Germany (Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Wiesbaden etc) to their rural communities reported disappointing results in church attendance and religious knowledge.

The Catholic Reformers on the other hand were more accommodating in their attitude to popular piety, mainly because it was deeply embedded in much Catholic practice. Catholic church ritual, the importance of the sacraments and so forth were even more heavily emphasised after the Council of Trent. Supernatural forces were given credence for many things and were supported by the church. In Lyons for example, the church put it about that a blasphemous soldier had been miraculously punished by the Virgin Mary. They encouraged popular festivities and processions, promoted belief in miracles and apparitions, and performed exorcisms when the need arose. In some cases the laity were involved through the support given by the church to lay confraternities such as the Scuole Grandi in Venice which gave ordinary people a ready outlet for involvement in religious matters without destroying the basic structures and hierarchies of the Catholic church.

One aspect of popular belief that was never tolerated was witchcraft. Although the most fervent witch hunts did not take place until the early 17th century, the main textbook on how to stamp out witchcraft, The Witches Hammer, was compiled in 1488. A great deal of energy was expended by both Catholic and Protestant churches in efforts to eradicate witchcraft by the mass persecution of thousands of women, and hence enhance the Christianization of rural society.

On the face of it the main aim of the Reformers was not primarily to Christianize Europe and spread the Gospel to non-believers, but rather to reform the means by which the true faith was preached and maintained. In the early years for example, the 15th century movement in the Netherlands, the Devotio Moderna, was preoccupied more with Christian life than with Christian doctrine, and wanted the church to return to more orthodox spiritual values rather than concentrating on more worldly and temporal ones.

Luther himself recognised the Devotio Moderna as containing the seeds of many of his own ideas. He found fame by attacking the more blatant commercially oriented practices of the church of his day such as the sale of indulgences and the achievement of salvation through good works. He believed that good works do not make man good, but a good man does good works. His other main pre-occupations were the role of the clergy, the value of the sacraments and the place of the church in the political scheme of things. He believed that the function of the clergy should not be to interpret the word of God for the people, and behave as a representative of the pope and as an intermediary between the people and God. Rather he saw the clergy very much as belonging to and part of the congregation. He considered that all Christians were priests and all priests Christians. He condemned many of the sacraments as not having a basis in the scriptures, although he continued to allow the performance of them in his churches without their acquiring the status of divinely blessed sacraments. In order to ensure the continued development and endurance of his Reformation, he spent a great deal of time and effort in discussion of the role of the magistracy in church matters, and the extent to which it was right and proper for church people to resist the civil powers in various circumstances. (He came to be a moderating influence on some of the more radical reformers who left to their own devices might well have led the new movement into fatal confrontation with authority). All this left little room for a missionary drive to Christianize the people as such, although it is quite clear that without the support of the masses of the people the Reformation would never have got off the ground in the first place. Some of the beliefs which had their origin in pagan traditions were maintained by Luther, notably the concept of devils and demons - Luther himself claimed to have seen a devil sitting outside his window just before his death. But one of the net effects of the Reformation was to return pious people to the basics of the Christian religion as set out in the New Testament, and by implication this would exclude belief in much of the paganism and folklore of former times.

Other reformers had other preoccupations. Zwingli and Calvin for instance both spent great energy in campaigning against the worshipping of idols and images, and where they were successful they weakened the popular belief in the ability of prayer and worship of those idols to influence the lives of ordinary people.

The Catholic Reformation similarly did not start out as a movement to Christianize Europe, although the reforming and disciplining of the existing church created the conditions for a more willing adherence to that church by the populace. The Jesuits, led by Ignatius Loyola, believed in a disciplined mysticism and that man experiences God through all his senses. They tended to work from the top down, seeking to influence rulers as confessors and diplomats to the powerful, and also in the all-important field of education. From the mid-16th century onwards much of the debate within the Catholic church was concerned with the question of the ultimate authority in ecclesiastical matters, whether it was the papacy or the various councils of bishops, particularly the Council of Trent. Catholic doctrine, power politics at the centre of the church and the nationalism of the more powerful European countries all played their part, but it is probably true to say that by the end of the century the Catholic church, at any rate in its traditional strongholds of Italy, France and Spain, was in a much stronger position than it had been earlier. The strength of the disciplines imposed from above to enforce Tridentine Catholicism at the local level varied from country to country. The Spanish Inquisition in the 1560s, though not as fierce as it had been in the 15th century, was nevertheless strict to enforce true orthodoxy as they saw it, and heretical pagan beliefs had no place in their creeds. Other countries were less intransigent, and the local priesthood in rural France, for example, tended towards a much less strict regime.

In conclusion then, one could say that the net effect of both the Catholic and Protestant Reformations was to leave the majority of church people more Christianized than before and less prone to belief in paganism and folklore, although this was not the primary purpose of either reformation in the first place.


Koenigsberger Mosse and Bowler, Europe in the Sixteenth Century. A general History of Europe (Longmans, 1989)

Scribner, R W, The German Reformation (Macmillan, 1986)

Courvoisier, J, Zwingli: a Reformed Theologian (John Knox Press, 1963)

Strauss, G, "Success and Failure in the German Reformation" in Past and Present, 67 (1975)

Dillenberger, I (ed), Martin Luther: Selections from his writings (Anchor Books 1961)

Muchembled, R, Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France 1400-1750 (trans) (University of Louisiana Press, 1985)

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Dr Faustus and the Enquiring Spirit of the Age

Although Christopher Marlowe's play embodies much of the enquiring spirit of the age, yet it also exemplifies the contradictory and paradoxical state of the times in that the Renaissance scholar appears to cast aside the new learning in favour of magic. It is difficult in this scientific age to imagine the kind of intellectual climate that existed at the time. Today most people believe it possible that the true nature of everything in our universe can and will, by the proper application of the scientific method, be explained and understood. But even the greatest intellectuals in 16th Century Europe believed that there were forces, which today we would call supernatural, that mankind could learn to harness and perhaps control, but which were not possible to describe and delineate in scientific terms. Some of the basic tenets of Platonic philosophy such as the music of the spheres, and the association of spirits and forces to inorganic things such as stones and stars, were commonly believed in. Man himself was a creature with a physical presence on earth, but with an immortal soul that belonged to God.

The enquiring spirit of the new age was not yet to encompass the major advances in scientific learning and understanding which, pioneered by brilliant thinkers such as Leonardo and Galileo, did not really come about until the 17th Century. However in the last decades of the 16th Century, philosophical enquiry was no longer the province of theologians and the established churches, but had become increasingly secularised. This was particularly true in Protestant countries such as England, where one of the major effects of the Reformation on intellectual thought was to remove the Roman Catholic Church as the only major source for the true philosophy. Erasmus, More and most of the early humanists came from within the church, but by the end of the century the leading intellectual in England was John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer. Dee was a Neoplatonist philosopher whose spirit of enquiry led him into attempts to relate many subjects to the concepts of Number, including Astronomy, Music and the study of the perfect body of Man, "Anthropography" as he called it. Dee's intellectual curiosity led him amongst other things into studies of the occult and witchcraft, which activities led to his ultimate downfall. He is a good example of someone who embodied the enquiring spirit of the age.

The late 16th century was a time of considerable contradiction and paradox. For a start the established church in England had changed to Protestantism under Henry VIII, back with much violence to Catholicism under Mary Tudor, and back again to Protestantism under Elizabeth. On the other hand religious and political turmoil were probably greater in other decades than the 1580s and 1590s, when, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England was fairly stable. Religious debate continued however, and it is possible that Marlowe himself was recruited as a spy by government agents to report on possible defectors from the Protestant to the Catholic faith.

In the play Faustus early on rejects the new learning in the form of logic, medicine, law and theology. It is arguable that the learning that Faustus actually does cast aside is somewhat superficial, and cannot be compared with the loftier ideals sought after by contemporary learned men but not achieved by Faustus, such as a fuller understanding of oneself, a greater acceptance of responsibility towards society, increased gravitas on the part of the individual, and a deepening of faith in the spiritual destiny of mankind.

The "magic" that Faustus adopts, or "necromancy" as he prefers to call it, is closer to the "monstrous thing" that Pico della Mirandola abhorred, the "work and authority of demons", than to the white magic that Pico described as "the utter perfection of natural philosophy". As we shall see, Faustus dabbles in several different kinds of magic. However it is not immediately obvious to what extent Faustus takes up magic in a spirit of intellectual enquiry and curiosity, and to what extent he does it to gratify a lust for pleasure-seeking on this earth. At the start of the play he reckons up the state of his learning so far. If the goal of studying Aristotle is to dispute well, then he has reached that goal: "a greater subject fitteth Faustus' wit" (39). As a physician, having saved whole cities from the plague, he lacks further challenges except the impossible one by conventional means of raising the dead. Law is too boring and too "servile and illiberal" (64), and divinity with its emphasis on predestination is not for him ("Che sera, sera") (76). This mockery of his previous learning leads one at first to believe that his interest in magic is primarily as an intellectual exercise, although he swiftly displays his other motives, the power honour and omnipotence "promised to the studious artisan" (84). When he gloats about the wonders he is going to perform in 110-126, he also wants the spirits to "resolve me of all ambiguities" (109). (Interestingly he appears to achieve far less during the play than this early ambition: for instance he never reigns "sole king of all our provinces" (123)). He tells Valdes he "will be as cunning as Agrippa was" (146), a desire for academic achievement for its own sake, although he quickly and cheerfully reverts to straightforward greed when Cornelius promises "all the wealth that our forefathers hid" (175). He questions Mephostophiles closely on astronomical matters to improve his knowledge (664-696), and is contemptuously dissatisfied by the answers he receives. The one intellectual question he never gets an answer to is "Who made the world?" (698). By the end of the play he is heartily regretting embarking on this voyage of discovery in the first place, and wishes he "had never seen Wittenberg, never read book!" (1426).

The magic that is displayed during the play is of several different kinds. It is important to remember that many of the original audience will have believed strongly in the power of magic, and that the existence of devils and devil-worship and the power of evil was taken without question by almost everybody. This would have made the dramatic end to the play all the more powerful and frightening, and the different kinds of magic better understood. As well as the discovery of more intellectual truths as we have discussed, Faustus uses Mephostophiles to perform what are tantamount to conjuring tricks, such as the production of a bunch of grapes in January and the appearance of a pair of horns on the knight's head. Clearly Marlowe introduced these for his own dramatic purposes, in the one case to solicit approval for Faustus' humanity (or social climbing) in gratifying the whims of a pregnant lady, and in the other for its comic effect, but belief in the ability of magicians to perform this sort of thing was still part of popular culture in many parts of the world. There is a possible rather subtle reference to witchcraft, in that the first place Faustus visits with Mephostophiles on his grand tour is Trier, where no less than 368 people were executed in witchcraft trials in the six years from 1587. The summoning of devils, spirits and apparitions was a device used by many Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights - Shakespeare uses ghosts in Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Richard III and other plays, witches and apparitions in Macbeth, fairies and transformations in A Midsummer Night's Dream, spirits and more apparitions in The Tempest, and so on. Most of Marlowe's audience would have accepted the ability of the forces of evil to perform these things as an absolute fact.

A significant part of the dramatic tension in the play is the repeated exhortations to Faustus to repent and his efforts to do so. The interventions of the Good and Evil Angels heighten the effect, and clearly represent the conflicts going on in Faustus' own conscience. This inner conflict in Faustus' mind is related to another theme of the play, the extent to which the forces of evil can play a part in everyday life. Obviously they dominate completely in the case of Faustus, but remembering that Christianity and all the paraphernalia of religious symbolism were part of the everyday lives of most of the audience, it is interesting to see the parallels to orthodox religious symbols that Marlowe employs in order to make the evil powers more realistic. Firstly there is the opposition of the magic books, "that damned book" as the Good Angel calls one of them (99), and the Bible. Later Mephostophiles gives Faustus more books of spells and incantations (614-628). Then there is the black trinity set up with Valdes and Cornelius - "what shall we three want?" (177). Part of the ritual of magic is to take the word of God and by manipulating it, "racking" it and anagrammatizing it (247), invoke the powers of hell. Standard Christian texts are presented in corrupted form, such as the Evil Angel's comment that contrition, prayer and repentance are "illusions, fruits of lunacy, that makes men foolish that do trust them most" (459), which is a corruption of 1 Cor 4.10. Faustus' pact with the devil, signed in his own blood, parallels Christ's shedding of his own blood for man's redemption, and when it is done he cries out with deliberate blasphemy "Consummatum est!", the very words used by Christ on the cross in the Vulgate version of John 19.30.

Every good play carries contradiction and paradox which are the stuff of good drama, and Dr Faustus is no exception. But to call Faustus an embodiment of the enquiring spirit of a new age is probably an overstatement, and his status as a Renaissance scholar and the depth of his mastery of the new learning that he casts aside are questionable. The branch that was cut only might have grown full straight.


Christopher Marlowe Dr Faustus: The A-Text ed Ormerod & Wortham (Univ of W.Australia Press 1989)

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15th and 16th Century Book Illustration and the Introduction of Printing

January from Les Tres Riches Heures The art of book illustration is almost as old as the art of making books themselves. By the middle of the 15th century, before printing had been invented, many books were well supplied with illustrations, if not throughout the book then at least on the first page. Before the advent of printing, most books, particularly religious works, were produced in manuscript form by educated clerics, and occasionally beautifully and painstakingly illuminated. A well-known example dating from the early 15th century is Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc de Berry. This Book of Hours was intended as a book for prayer, with a calendar on which are inscribed the saints to be honoured each day. The Duke commissioned three well-known artists of the day, the Limbourg brothers, to illuminate the book and paint landscape scenes and zodiacal signs for each month.

42-line Bible Books were commonly passed from hand to hand, but sometimes further copies were needed, which involved much time-consuming and difficult work. Illustrations, like the text itself, would have to be copied using pen and ink on parchment or paper, and it is not surprising that in some cases the copies were of cruder execution than the original. But with Gutenberg's invention of the adjustable metal type-mould a whole new world of possibilities of book illustration was opened up. From the earliest days printers strove to make type that followed as nearly as possible the best calligraphy available, and to copy as faithfully as possible the techniques of illustrating by hand. Examples exist of early successful efforts to do so, such as the Latin Psalter published by Fust and Schoffer in Mainz in 1457. Gutenberg's own best known work, his so-called 42-Line Bible, produced in 1453-5, was itself elaborately illuminated: his target audience was the rich, and he saw the whole printing process as a more efficient method of making manuscripts.

VeniceMounted Turkish Soldiers The main techniques used in illustrating printed books were the woodcut and the engraving, with the later refinement of etching. Woodcuts had the original design drawn onto a flat piece of wood, and then the parts that were to remain white were cut away, using a small knife. Those craftsmen who were used to working in wood took most readily to the new craft, and some extremely skilful and elaborate book illustrations were produced this way. Bernhard von Breydenbach's travel book, Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, produced in Mainz in 1486, contained several interesting pictures of scenes and people, such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice and mounted Turkish soldiers.

Portrait of VesaliusVesalius title-page Engraving was accomplished by cutting the image on a metal plate, only unlike woodcuts it was the part that was to print black that was removed, as the engraved plate was subsequently inked and wiped clean, leaving the ink in the incised lines Both engravings and woodcuts were used to illustrate printed books, sometimes both in the same one. Andreas Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica contained amongst many other illustrations a woodcut portrait of the author and an elaborately engraved title-page.

Love Poems of Pierre Sala Illustrations in books, whether printed or manuscript, were used for several different purposes. When a book was created and considered as a work of art, the quality of the illustrations as well as of the calligraphy of the text itself would obviously add to the overall artistic enjoyment of the beholder. A fine example is the exquisite book of love poems dedicated by Pierre Sala to his intended, Marguerite Bullioud, in the early 16th century. Although it can be inferred that some of the illustrations have more than straightforward meanings, nevertheless the artistic enjoyment of the whole is considerably heightened by them.

Autumnus and PomonaKermis print The enjoyment received from illustrations was not always purely artistic. Giacomo Caraglio's book of prints of Love of the Gods contained engravings which, although imitating pure classical images, were clearly designed to be erotic as well as artistic. Also there were numerous examples of humorous engravings, many of a robust and bawdy nature, some of which appeared in books. These included, for example, prints of peasant merry-making at the Kermis fairs in the Low Countries.

Astrological Signs for Blood-letting Orders of Nature and Man Illustrations were widely used to amplify the text by way of diagrams and other images. The more scientific the work and the more educational in nature, the more these illustrations became necessary for a full understanding. A medical textbook, for example, containing a discussion of the best astrological signs for blood-letting was much improved by diagrams, and the philosophical discussion of hierarchy in the orders of nature and of man in Bovillus' Liber de Intellectu was more readily understood because it was illustrated.

Ancient Rome by LigorioBlemmyae The enjoyment and understanding of books on history and exploration could be enhanced by illustrations, either for their explanatory nature such as Pirro Ligorio's reconstructions of Ancient Rome or for their curiosity and shock value such as the picture of the headless Blemmyae from Voyages de Jean de Mandeville.

Ignatius Loyola Portraiture was often used, typically in biographies such as that of Ignatius Loyola, where the Saint is depicted receiving inspiration from the Almighty.

Joseph by Pfister Vast numbers of people were illiterate, and still more had little Latin and less Greek, so that the illustrations in Bibles and other religious works would have been the only way some people would have got any direct religious educational value from the books. Even the local parish priest may have found the illustrations helpful before texts in the vernacular were available. Albert Pfister printed in around 1462 an edition of the "Poor Preacher's Bible" with more illustrations than text.

Duke of Anjou in AntwerpFraudulent Miracle Illustrations were also used to enforce a kind of political message, either for or against the established order. Hogenberg's engraving of the Duke of Anjou processing through Antwerp, published in De Leone Belgico in 1585, shows all the correct pomp of the visiting dignitaries, but closer inspection reveals remarkably few local spectators. Thomas Murner used a woodcut to illustrate graphically the perpetration of a scandalous fraud by the Roman church at Bern.

Euclid's Geometry Title-page In the 15th and 16th centuries there was a wide range of different types of book in circulation. There were Bibles, missals and other books of a religious nature which were commonly used, although interestingly religious works did not predominate in the library inventories of either of two important collectors we know about, namely Pauwels in Antwerp and Bessarion in Venice. Writings on philosophy, including translations from the classics, were frequent, as were text-books and educational aids on many subjects including law, mathematics, astronomy, cosmography, medicine (including anatomy and herbal remedies), architecture, drawing, pattern books for clothes and furniture, and what we might today classify as "arts and crafts". There were illustrated history books, and stories of travel were very popular, particularly as new and exciting lands were discovered overseas. Books of maps and town plans, often with illustrations of places and flora and fauna, were also available. Books of modern and classical poems, ballads and tales of romance were popular, and several plays were published. Almost all of these made use of illustrations to a greater or lesser extent, even if only to add authority by means of an elaborate title-page. The new translation of Euclid's Geometry, for instance, which was published with a preface by John Dee in 1570, carried a surprisingly fanciful title-page.

The most obvious effect of the arrival of printing on the European scene was to increase enormously the number of books in circulation. By 1500 it was estimated there were 7.5 million books available in Italy alone. But printing also had some interesting and sometimes quite subtle influences on the uses and effects of illustrations.

Resurrection by Durer One major effect on the artistic world was the development of a new type of artist, specialising in the production of prints. The most celebrated example is Albrecht Durer, whose work received such wide circulation that he was famous throughout Europe. The publication of books of his prints, such as his series known as the Large Passion and the Small Passion, gave the opportunity for other artists, such as the Italian Pontormo, to copy his style. This contributed to the increasing internationalism of art throughout the 16th century.

Perhaps a more important effect was the way in which illustrations were used in text-books and educational aids. As has already been noted, the copying of a manuscript diagram or picture was a laborious process and prone to error. Although printing did not guarantee the elimination of error, nonetheless a book that had been carefully researched, written and illustrated by authoritative people and then printed for wide circulation would have had wide acceptance and could profoundly effect the state of learning in Europe. It is probably true that the scrupulous attention to detail and painstaking search for accuracy, which went hand in hand with the new printing techniques available, made books such as Vesalius' De Fabrica major influences on the development of science.

De Historia Stirpium Similarly the production of books of herbal remedies, which had previously been the province of learned and experienced monks, went through a fairly major change of direction. Illustrations in manuscript herbals often bore little resemblance to the plants they were supposed to represent, usually because the effort of copying an intricate drawing was too great, and also because it was largely unnecessary as the plant would have been well-known to the reader in the first place. But by the time the production of accurate printed herbals for the general public had been seen as opportunities for big business, the illustrations had improved out of all recognition in accuracy, and incidentally in artistic content. A fine example is De Historia Stirpium by Leonhard Fuchs which was published in Basel in 1542. The science of botany and the classification of plants received a major boost by these works.

Vitruvius by Cesariano Another area where the availability of printed, and therefore supposedly accurate, illustrations was important was that of architectural treatises. Humanist learning had led to renewed interest in classical architects such as Vitruvius, and the publication of authoritative translations of Vitruvius' works by Cesariano and others, with complex and elaborate drawings and diagrams, was enormously influential in the spread of classical architectural ideas all over Europe. Hence architecture, as well as painting and drawing, became a much more international art largely through the wider circulation of printed images, and classical lines could be seen as far apart as the Escorial in Spain and the "Palladian" houses of the English gentry.

Skeleton by CalcarSkeleton in Osteotome All, however, was not perfect. The inaccurate copying of some illustrations and in particular the unauthorised piracy of printed works led to the giving of a spurious authority to inaccuracies in a number of cases. For example, the skeleton in a book called Osteotome published in 1539 is clearly a plagiarism from Calcar's engraving for Vesalius, but accentuates the errors, notably the size of the hands, in the original work.

The Whore of Babylon It is an exaggeration to say that printing was the major factor that contributed to the upheaval brought about by the Reformation, but it is clear that illustrations, in broadsheets if not in books, helped to make the meanings of many of the Reformers' ideas clearer to a wider public. There is no mistaking the basic message, for example, behind a woodcut of the Whore of Babylon wearing a papal mitre and seated on a seven-headed beast. A similar engraving by Hans Holbein was reproduced in a New Testament printed in German. Illustrations like this when used to convey anti-establishment messages were much more effective when printed as they reached many more people than was previously possible.

Cattle Raiding Party The exploitation of this effect was not the monopoly of the Reformers, and could be used by anyone who had a particular message he wished to convey. As an example, illustrations such as a picture of an Irish lord setting out on a cattle raid in John Derricke's Images of Ireland, published in 1581, must have reinforced the negative view of the Irish people that was being propounded by such as the poet Edmund Spenser, who was also a major landowner in Munster.

Between the middle of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century there was a profound shift in intellectual authority away from the church and the clergy and towards the secular. One of the contributing factors to this was the change in the ownership of book production. No longer could books be effectively controlled by the church, despite its still mighty influence and varying successes in the field of censorship. Book production was more in the hands of hard-headed businessmen like Christopher Plantin in Antwerp. The efforts of Plantin and his competitors in turning out often lavishly illustrated printed books meant that they had a major influence on learning throughout Europe, and put in secular hands a power that the churches were never to regain.


Koenigsberger, Mosse & Bowler Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Longman 1968)

Cazelles, R. Les Tres Riches Heures Du Duc de Berry (Eyre Methuen 1974)

Burke, P. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (Temple Smith 1978)

Eisenstein, E.L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press 1979)

Febvre, L. and Martin, H.-J. trans. D. Gerard The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing (London NLB 1976)

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Michel de Montaigne's Independent Thought

Every writer is to some extent a product of the time in which he lives. At first sight many of Montaigne's essays are about the innermost feelings and philosophies of the man himself, and therefore independent of time. But this is only a superficial reading. Montaigne was an astute observer of what went on around him, and he held views on how to remedy, and how not to remedy, some of the ills he perceived. "A man may regret better times, but he cannot fly from the present" (On Vanity).

The essays were written in the 1570s and 1580s, during which time France had multiple civil wars, political assassinations, massacres and religious upheavals. The massacre of St Bartholomew had taken place in 1572, and this and other atrocities were followed by countless written justifications and counter-justifications for horrific acts of violence by extremists on both the Huguenot and Catholic sides.

"An unnatural war! Other wars act outwardly; this one acts inwardly also, gnawing and destroying itself with its own poison. It is of so malign and destructive a nature that it ruins itself together with everything else, and in its frenzy tears itself limb from limb" (On Physiognomy).
Montaigne does not take sides, nor does he set out to chronicle the events as he sees them. "I would not undertake the task for all the fame of Sallust" (On the Power of the Imagination). He does, however, profit from it:
"My curiosity makes me in some way congratulate myself on being a witness to ..... our society's death, its symptoms, and its nature. And since I am unable to delay it, I am content that I was destined to be a spectator of it and to get instruction from it" (On Physiognomy).
Despite some misgivings, "It is wrong for a wise man to risk himself for the good of his country, and endanger wisdom for fools" (ibid), he did play a minor part in public life, and was twice elected mayor of Bordeaux. He was free of the "evil of ambition" (On Liars), and strove to do his best for his city and country. He had a clear conscience:
"A man might look into my very soul, and yet he would not find me guilty of anyone's affliction or ruin, or of revenge or envy, or of offending against the public laws, or of innovation and disturbance, or of failing to keep my word" (On Repentance).
("Innovation" was considered by many conservatives to be a major source of trouble and therefore something to be avoided.)

Montaigne had much to say on the subject of political authority; he questioned who had legitimate authority over whom, and how that authority should be exercised. He was also interested in intellectual authority and the trustworthiness of sources of knowledge. He seldom tackled these subjects head on, but tended to approach them tangentially. It is never his purpose to instruct directly, but he leaves it to others to draw their own conclusions: "I have no authority to exact belief, nor do I desire it, for I do not feel myself to be well enough instructed to instruct others" (On the Education of Children). He is usually content to quote from classical sources to support his own conclusions: "I have established and fortified them with the authority of others and the sound reasoning of the ancients, with whose judgements I have found myself to agree" (On Presumption).

Montaigne's discussions of parental authority and the education of children probably owe little to the turbulence of the times in which he lived, indeed they read astonishingly like some of today's modern liberal education policies. As he says, his idea "is at variance with common usage" (On the Education of Children).

"The usual way is to bawl into a pupil's ears as if one was pouring water into a funnel, and the boy's business is simply to repeat what he is told. I would have the tutor ..... make his pupil taste things, select them, and distinguish them by his own powers of perception. ..... The authority of those who teach is very often a hindrance to those who wish to learn" (ibid).
He believes in a rounded education, particularly for the nobility, which should cover all aspects of social behaviour and personal demeanour: "It is not a soul or a body that one is training, but a man; the two must not be separated" (ibid). He abhors the use of the whip, both as a means of enforcing discipline when learning and also for maintaining parental authority. He tells the sad story of an acquaintance whose son died early, without ever having had revealed to him the deep love his father bore to him (On the Affection of Fathers for their Children). He also has rather advanced ideas about fathers giving over their inheritance to their sons at an early age, rather than hanging on to their riches until their death:
"It is unjust that an old, broken-down, half-dead father should ..... enjoy wealth that would suffice for the advancement and support of several children, and that he should let them, meanwhile, waste their best years, for lack of the means to advance themselves" (ibid).
The only jarring note to modern ears is his view of the role of women in family affairs: "Women ought not to possess any sort of authority over men, other than the natural authority of the mother" (ibid) and "It is dangerous to leave the disposal of our succession to women's judgement, and let them choose between our children, for their choice is always capricious and unfair" (ibid). One never quite knows whether Montaigne has his tongue in his cheek or not, but he was probably reflecting here the commonly held view of men at the time he wrote.

Discussion of religious authority was an altogether different matter. It was difficult in 16th century Europe for a writer to survive long if he challenged too profoundly the established religious orthodoxies. Montaigne sought approval from Rome for the first edition of his essays, and obtained it by promising to alter slightly some of the passages (which he subsequently failed to do). On the surface he acknowledged the authority of the Catholic church, and criticised those within the church who made concessions: "What seems to me to bring so much confusion into our minds in our present religious troubles is the partial abandonment of their belief on the part of the Catholics" (That it is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by our own Capacity). It was all or nothing:

"Either we must submit entirely to the authority of our ecclesiastical government, or we must dispense with it altogether. It is not for us to settle what degree of obedience we owe it" (ibid).
Yet in a later essay he challenges one of the prime functions of Catholic churchmen, the interpretation of the scriptures: "There is no book to be found, human or divine, ..... in which the difficulties are cleared up by the interpretation" (On Experience). He has unorthodox ideas on other areas covered by Catholic dogma, such as Sin ("There is a great difference between a man who does not want to sin and one who does not know how to" (On the Education of Children)), and Miracles ("How many improbable things there are, vouched for by trustworthy people, about which we should at least preserve an open mind, even if they do not convince us!" (That it is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by our own Capacity)).

It is quite possible that Montaigne the sceptic may have been at least agnostic in his fundamental religious beliefs. If this were true he could not have admitted it without the severest censure. People had been burned for less. Certainly there is little mention of Jesus Christ, and the mind of Socrates is "the most perfect of which I have any knowledge" (On Cruelty). There is a case for inferring that had Montaigne been writing in an age of more religious tolerance and open discussion, his agnosticism would have been more explicit. He may well have believed in a divine Creator, but had ambivalent views about the divinity of Christ. Certainly he seems to be speaking from the heart when he says: "I love life and cultivate it in the form in which it has pleased God to bestow it on us" (On Experience), and his obvious pleasure in everyday things bears this out. He believes in the God-given power of Reason: "Reason alone should guide us in our inclinations" (On the Affection of Fathers for their Children), and has an instinctive horror of vices: "I hold them in abhorrence ..... from so natural and inborn a conviction that I still retain the same instinctive attitude to them that I imbibed at the breast" (On Cruelty). He admired the simplicity of Cannibals:

"They are in such a state of purity that it sometimes saddens me to think we did not learn of them earlier, at a time when there were men who were better able to appreciate them than we" (On Cannibals).
He claims that heathen Mexicans had greater virtues than Christian Europeans:
"As to religious conduct, obedience to the law, goodness, liberality, loyalty, and honest dealing, it was greatly to our advantage that we had not as much as they. By excelling us in these virtues, they ruined, sold, and betrayed themselves" (On Vehicles).
These thoughts are dramatically different to anything put forward by any other writer, and are certainly not those of an orthodox Catholic Christian.

Politically Montaigne was a moderate and a conservative. He believed that the worst thing that could happen to a state was change:

"Our morals are extremely corrupt, and have a remarkable tendency to grow worse; many of our laws and customs are monstrous and barbarous: nevertheless, because of the difficulty in improving our state, and the danger of a collapse, if I could put a drag on our wheel and stop it at this point, I would gladly do so" (On Presumption).
In this attitude he was much influenced by the times; the violent changes wrought by the civil wars often left the state in a worse condition than before. He believed in the established order, which happened to be monarchy in France, not because of any particular merit but merely because it was there. He counsels a tutor to school his pupil to be
"a very loyal, devoted, and courageous servant to his prince. But .... discourage any desire he may have to attach himself to that master except out of public duty" (On the Education of Children).
Laws are to be obeyed merely because they are laws: "Laws maintain their credit, not because they are just, but because they are laws. This is the mystical basis of their authority; they have no other" (On Experience).
"We may certainly wish for other magistrates, but we must notwithstanding obey those we have. So long as the image of the ancient and received laws of this monarchy shall shine in any corner thereof, there I shall plant myself" (On Vanity).
He does not recommend any one political system, and does not enter with any enthusiasm the debate about whence the prince derives his authority. He believes the prince should be obeyed, but acknowledges that he derives his power from the people: "It is solely by the will of the people that he can perform his function" (On Presumption). The appalling nature of the civil wars drives him to ask: "Is there any political wrong so bad that it is worth fighting with so deadly a drug as civil war?" (On Physiognomy) and to answer in the negative. He believes that "Machiavelli's arguments ..... were quite easy to contest" (On Presumption), and yet he recognizes that "The public weal requires that a man should betray, and lie, and massacre: let us leave that commission to men who are more obedient and more pliable" (On Usefulness and Honesty). This may have been the prime motivation for his withdrawal from public life. Perhaps these thoughts would only have been put forward by a humane thinker such as Montaigne because the times were so awful that any change might lead to something even worse. If this be true then Montaigne's political thoughts were by no means independent of the times in which he lived.

On the other hand most of the essays live up to their promise of portraying their author in "simple, natural, and everyday dress, without strain or artifice" (To the Reader), and are truly independent of their time. Montaigne knew where he was aiming in life, and brings the reader willingly with him on the journey. "The man who knows how to enjoy his existence as he ought has attained to an absolute perfection, like that of the gods" (On Experience).


Michel de Montaigne Essays trans J.M.Cohen (Penguin Classics 1958)

Michel de Montaigne Oeuvres Complètes (Gallimard, La Pleiade 1963)

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One of the major influences that led to the development of 15th and 16th century humanism stemmed from discoveries made during the crusades. Often these were accompanied by priests and other holy men who sought salvation through their efforts to rid the Holy Land of the infidel Saracens. During their travels they discovered that Islamic intellectuals studied many ancient Greek writings which had been translated into Arabic. This led to a quest to find the original texts which lay hidden in monasteries and other seats of learning throughout Europe, or, failing the discovery of the original, a re-translation from the Arabic back into Greek or Latin. The study of these ancient texts led in turn to a profound respect for the achievements of the ancient world, including Greek philosophy, medicine, drama, sculpture and the other arts, and Roman architecture and civic planning.

The scholars who took up this study became known as Humanists. They believed that by going back to the original texts of the great Greek, Latin and Hebrew writers they would be able to learn profound truths about the nature of Man and his role at the centre of the universe, and see to what extent these ideas could be applied to the society of the day. A proficiency in these three languages was a starting-point for all humanist scholars, and the study of language and philology was all-important. In Marlowe's Dr Faustus, when Faustus is being coached by the experienced magician Valdes, he is urged to study two books written in Latin (Bacon and Albanus), one in Greek (the New Testament), and the Hebrew Psalter.

Many humanists began their studies by attempting to understand the exact meaning of the classical texts at the time they were written. This could only be done by a serious study of the vocabulary and style used at the time of writing, enabling the subtleties and nuances of meaning to be understood fully. Philology became a major study in academic circles. One of the pioneers in this endeavour was the Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla. He first came to prominence when he examined the so-called Donation of Constantine. This was a document allegedly written by the emperor Constantine when he quit Rome for Byzantium in the 4th century A.D., bequeathing the task of running the religious affairs of the western empire to the Roman popes. Valla showed by careful scholarship that the document contained words and stylistic usage which were not current until the 8th century, and that there were no references to it in any known documents before the 8th century. Therefore the document was clearly shown to have been a forgery. Valla also showed that a passage in Gratian, an early canon lawyer, saying that the so-called Apostle's Creed had been written by the Apostles themselves, had been misunderstood and actually said nothing of the sort.

Valla also turned his attention to the Bible, and compared the currently used Latin Bible (the 4th century "Vulgate") with the original Greek. His work on the new testaments was later taken up and published by Erasmus in 1515. He showed up many differences in meaning which became extremely important in the context of the Reformation movements. For example, where the Latin said "Do penance", the original Greek said "Change your heart and mind": in other words no priests were required. And indeed where the Latin had "priest" the Greek had "elder", or leader of the community. Where the Latin had "bishop", the Greek had "overseer", someone less powerful. Where the Latin had "church" the Greek had "fellowship". There was a colossal difference between these two words - the church was an extremely powerful body owning about one sixth of the available land in a country like England, whereas "fellowship" just means a group or congregation of individuals. These new interpretations played an important role in paving the way for reform.

An important group of humanist philosophers developed in Italy at the end of the 15th century. The first in the group was Marsilio Ficino, who translated many classical texts including Plato into the vernacular. His most famous disciple was probably Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Pico's main aim was to show that there was truth in all the main philosophies and religions, and he attempted to harmonise them as much as possible. He wrote a compendium of 900 theses which caused a furore, and the pope ordered his arrest. He was an aristocrat, and was therefore able to cultivate influential friends who probably saved him from being put to death.

Ficino and Pico subscribed to the school of thought which became known as Neoplatonism. They believed that the works of Plato, who believed amongst other things in the immortality of the soul, contained many eternal truths, and they considered him to be a Greek version of Moses. Developing the humanist theme of Man's centrality in the universe, the Neoplatonists, following Plato and the mathematician Pythagoras, believed in the numerical symmetry of the world, and sought to explain many natural phenomena in terms of numbers and their properties. Many of them were also interested in the ancient Jewish mysteries of the Cabbala, which were supposed to have been passed to Moses in secret, and were available to scholars who could understand some of the ancient Jewish books such as the 13th century Zohar. A Venetian Franciscan, Tasso, even claimed that the Zohar demonstrated the mystery of the Christian trinity. Because in Hebrew the same symbols are used for writing letters and numbers, great play could be made on the numerical significance of words and names. The pre-occupation with numbers, and such Platonic concepts as the harmony of the spheres, coupled with the feeling that Man at the centre of human affairs could be influenced by the stars, led to the enormous interest in astrology that was prevalent at the time. "A wise man dominates the stars", said Ficino. Even Tycho Brahe, one of the pioneers in the field of astronomy, was a convinced astrologer. Ficino described how, seeking to gain the influence of Ursa Major, he once wore a magnet with an engraving of a bear on it round his neck. Unfortunately he had miscalculated and came under the malign influence of Saturn instead.

Historians have identified two main groupings of humanists: the secular humanists and the Christian humanists. Pre-eminent among the former in the early 16th century was Niccolo Machiavelli, whose writings were enormously influential throughout the century. As a good humanist scholar he believed in studying the classics, and believed that "the ancients did all things better and with greater prudence than us.... in the affairs of war we do everything wrong." He was a pioneer in the writing of history, and like other Italian scholars such as Giuccardini did much for the development of history as a discipline, using the past to consider the wisdom of present actions. He was uncompromisingly secular in outlook, believing that a ruler should do everything to ensure his political survival. If this entailed putting on an outward show of religiosity then so be it, there was no need for the ruler actually to believe in what he was professing. "Virtù" (courage and vigour) was a much more important attribute of a ruler than morality.

The outstanding Christian humanist was undoubtedly Desiderius Erasmus. The English humanist John Colet, the founder of St Paul's School in London, said "the name of Erasmus will never perish". Erasmus looked upon the study of classics as a means to the end of a fuller understanding of the scriptures. Elements of the visible world were symbolic of the invisible world, and the understanding of this was crucial because it was only spiritual matters that benefited Man. Because of this he attacked much of the then current church ritual, which was worldly and not spiritual. He was influenced in his early days by a group which started in the Netherlands in the 14th century known as the Devotio Moderna, who took an anti-intellectual view of religious matters, rejecting scholasticism and the then traditional church practices. He believed that the scriptures were the common property of all, and produced new translations of them. He wrote in Latin rather than the vernacular because he felt that his studies had developed a Latin which could express all the shades of meaning that he required, and that as it was a common language his work would become better known throughout Europe, as indeed it did. He was a prolific writer, being particularly keen on letter-writing. He wrote a textbook on how to write good letters. His Colloquies was one of the best known books in Europe, and was used as a source by Shakespeare, Johnson, Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes and many others. He told his pupils to read a classical text four times, first for its sense, secondly for its grammar, thirdly for its rhetoric, and finally for its moral and philosophical instruction.

Above all Erasmus was a Christian, believing that this life is a journey towards perfection in the next world. He epitomises the true Christian humanist. He looked for concord between classical and Christian texts. He maintained scholarly contact with humanists all over Europe, and was diligent in seeking out original texts. He was keenly interested in education, and also in printing and the widest possible dissemination of humanist ideas. He attacked contemporary religious practices, although he never left the Roman Catholic church and always sought reconciliation with the Protestant reformers. He constantly laid emphasis on the life of Christ as the ideal model for Man's life on earth, and was ultimately optimistic in Man's ability to attain salvation.

Many early humanists were not theologians, but like Erasmus, Colet, Cardinal Ximines in Spain, and others, were attached to the universities. Thus humanism and philosophy, like the arts, followed the general 16th century trend of increasing secularisation.

There are many examples of humanists from different walks of life. In Antwerp for instance there was the brewer von Schoonbecke who built the Maagdenhuis orphanage for the benefit of the city, pensionary Pauwels who bequeathed his collection of books to the city, and the printer Christophe Plantin, who in order to ensure the accuracy and quality of his publications assembled a small army of scholars to supervise and edit the books he printed and provide authoritative translations of classical works.

The translation of the Bible into the vernacular was a pre-occupation of many humanist scholars. Erasmus was very keen that the Scriptures should be available to everyone, although Thomas More argued that they should still be kept in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities for fear of misguided interpretations being put upon the scriptures by lay people. Tyndale's English New Testament had to be printed abroad because of opposition from the established church, as was Coverdale's first full Bible.

Several powerful rulers encouraged humanist learning, and often embodied classical themes in the buildings and artwork that they commissioned. Naturally this helped to compare their power with that of Imperial Rome or such heroes as Hercules or Alexander the Great. Pope Pius VI in the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, François I at his palace in Fontainebleau and Philip II at the Escorial are three examples of this. Herrara, the main architect of the Escorial, was a keen student of the classical architecture of Vitruvius, and made some attempt to link the palace to the ancient temple of Solomon, who was much revered as a Cabbalist by scholars such as Pico. Both Philip II and François I encouraged the use of books. Philip II incorporated in the Escorial a magnificent library, with an eclectic selection of books including some that had been banned by the Papal Index of 1559, showing perhaps that even knowledge was under the control of the king. François I founded the library which has now become the Bibliothèque Nationale. He employed as his librarian the French humanist scholar Lefèvre, who, although not a Protestant, believed like Luther in justification by faith.

The true humanists never followed the classics slavishly. For instance the Italian Alberti who produced advanced theories of perspective in drawing, believed that combining this with what could be learned from the classics would result in Florence and modern Rome being even more glorious than ancient Rome. Erasmus in The Ciceronian argued that Cicero himself would take the correct scholarly approach to texts which were to him ancient, and that today's scholars should use the same approach to studying ancient works, including Cicero.

The need for education was another popular pre-occupation of humanists. Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier in 1528 described the kind of things in which a courtier should be educated, which should include a study of letters and poetry, both reading and writing. This, along with their education in other social graces, would make them more pleasing to the women of the court. Castiglione was a believer in the efficacy of a kind of courtly love, which did not necessarily have any sexual connotation, but was recommended by Plato and is now known as Platonic love.

François Rabelais, too, had strong views about education. He believed in the concept, like Plato, of the philosopher-king, and in one significant passage describes how Gargantua's education should proceed. Firstly, no time should be wasted - indeed every hour of every day is fully occupied with learning (even in the lavatory). Even games and physical education (which was important in itself to develop the whole man) should be carried out in such a way that lessons in mathematics or other subjects could be drawn in parallel. Tutors should not be patronising, but should allow the pupil to learn for himself with intelligent guidance. Education should cover a wide range of subjects including geometry, music, astronomy (but, interestingly, not astrology), philology, law, medicine and botany, and should all be done in a religious rather than secular context.

Amazingly Rabelais managed to live to a ripe old age, although his writings were much attacked. He wrote a bitter and scurrilous attack on the formal church and its hierarchy, and it was probably this which caused much of the hostility, rather than his lavatorial humour and descriptions of farting popes and fornicating prelates. Faith not filth was the issue of the day. Calvin attacked him bitterly for wishing "to pervert all things".

Michel de Montaigne was another humanist writer with strong views on education, believing in what today would be called a liberal modern approach to tutelage, allowing the pupil to learn for himself and not by rote from a bullying tutor. Unlike Machiavelli, Montaigne believed that princes should excel in humanity, truth, loyalty, moderation and justice. He tended towards fideism, with a view that as mere mortals we are unable ever to understand the mind of God, and that religion depends on faith alone. He thus helped to revive the ancient philosophy of scepticism.

Pico had said that "God endowed Man with the seeds of every possibility and every life", and this was a central plank of the humanism and Neoplatonism of the remarkable Venetian friar, Francesco Giorgi. He published an extraordinary work called The Harmony of the World, in which he urged the adoption of all ancient sages as religious authority, not just the Bible. He believed that truth could be gathered from many cultures, and was something of an expert on the Cabbala and Jewish scholarship. Indeed Henry VIII consulted him for a favourable interpretation of Leviticus and Deuteronomy over the issue of the legality (in biblical terms) of the marrying of one's deceased brother's wife. Giorgi was also considered by the intellectual community in Venice as an expert in the "correct" numerical proportions in which churches should be built, basing his views on his interpretations of Pythagoras and Plato and their number theories.

In England the best known Neoplatonist philosopher was John Dee, whose most famous work was probably his introduction to a treatise on Euclid's geometry, when he made a comprehensive review of a wide range of subjects, relating them to his Neoplatonic ideas, including number theory, music, anthropography (the study of the human body), navigation, perspective and astronomy.

The German Reformers were mostly humanist scholars as well. Johannes Reuchlin, who has been called the Father of the German Reformation, was a Neoplatonist who knew Ficino and Pico. He was a renowned Hebrew scholar, and produced a Hebrew grammar. He was considered by many as too pro-Jewish and was attacked by the anti-Semites in Germany, although he received support from Luther.

Cornelius Agrippa wrote a book which copied Erasmus' In Praise of Folly, and argued that a true knowledge of the world can only be gained by experience. He was a follower of the obscure Egyptian, Hermes Trismegistus, and quoted him as authority on many forms of magic, astrology and alchemy. Agrippa's defence of witches on humanitarian grounds, and his writings on occult philosophies earned him a reputation as a magician, and he came to be reviled and feared for reasons that today are not entirely clear. He shared with many reforming humanists a radical dissatisfaction with the church of his time, but like Erasmus he died a Catholic.

Not all the reforming humanists were Neoplatonists. Melanchthon, for instance, advocated a return to Aristotle's philosophy, although he never advocated the scholastic method of studying theology. This was left to people like the Spanish Jesuit Suarez, whose advocacy of scholasticism led to a revival in the 17th century.

Some humanists went too far. The Italian Giordano Bruno carried Hermetic and Cabbalistic studies so far that he proposed a multi-universe state with God in everything. This pantheism left no place for Christ and Christianity, so it is not really surprising that the last significant event that affected humanism in the 16th century was Bruno's execution by the Inquisition in 1600.


C Marlowe Dr Faustus: The A-Text ed Ormerod & Wortham (Univ of W.Australia Press 1989)

L Valla, The Profession of the Religious and The falsely Believed and Forged Donation of Constantine, trans and ed by O Z Pugliese (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies 1985)

Ross & McLaughlin (eds), The Portable Renaissance Reader (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977)

E Casirrer et al (eds), Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1948)

N Machiavelli, The Prince trans and ed G Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961)

Mynors & Thompson (trans), Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974)

B Castiglione The Book of the Courtier trans and ed G Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967)

F Rabelais The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel trans and ed J Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955)

M de Montaigne Essays trans J.M.Cohen (Penguin Classics 1958)

Euclid Elements Preface by J Dee (London, 1570)

Englander, Norman, O'Day and Owens (eds), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600 (Blackwell 1990)

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European Attitudes to the New World

15th and 16th century Christian Europeans found it extremely difficult to come to terms with the, to them, totally alien pagan peoples that had been discovered by Columbus, Vespucci, Pizarro, Cortés and the rest in the New World. Until that time the most alien culture with which they had come into contact was Islam. Islam was explainable in terms of a deviant heresy, whose supporters could be defeated in battle and/or converted to Christianity. Many Muslims lived relatively civilised and cultured lives which the European Christians could comprehend by a comparison with their own civilisations or cultures. The other main group of non-Christians with whom they were familiar were the Jews. Whereas Judaism was heartily abhorred by many Christians, and anti-Semitism was rife in many parts of Europe and at many times, at least the Christians could understand Judaism as a sort of undeveloped Christianity - sharing as it did some of the same holy books - and they could describe and understand the Jewish culture and way of life.

But American Indians were neither Turks nor Jews, and presented enormous difficulties of comprehension and placing in context to the Europeans. These difficulties took several forms. Firstly there was the understanding of who they were and what they were like. Then there was the mystery of their origin and where they had come from, and finally there was the vexed problem of the rights of white Europeans to conquer, colonise, Christianize and in some cases exploit to the point of slavery, the native peoples of the New World.

Blemmyae Naturally the discovery of these strange peoples in strange lands caused enormous excitement in Europe. Hitherto respected classical writers such as Pliny had talked of monstrous races in darkest Africa, and legends such as the Blemmyae, and "Men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" as Othello puts it, were widespread. Maps of the world would carry phrases like "Here be dragons" in their farthest corners. So books about the voyages were widely popular, and images and descriptions of the native peoples were in great demand.

Tupinamba Man Indian man The difficulty that Europeans had in coming to terms with the American people is evidenced by the remarkable inability of the image-makers to produce pictures which resemble what we can now safely assume were the salient features of the Indians. Even as skilful an artist as Albrecht Durer produced pictures of natives with noticeably European features, and it was not until John White who joined the ill-fated expedition to Roanoke in the late 1580s that an artist who could produce more realistic images could be found. When Indians were depicted in the nude, they were usually placed in classical poses. Most pictures used the European conventions of representation, and reinforced the implicit superiority of the European race.

Savages The characteristic of the natives that most caught the public imagination was probably the reports of cannibalism. Columbus mentions it as hearsay, and Amerigo Vespucci reported that one of his sailors who had been captured was eaten by his captors. It is not surprising therefore that many early pictures of natives look as if they live in some kind of butcher's shop, with human limbs lying about, being eaten, and hanging on the walls ready for later consumption. In actual fact there was remarkably little direct evidence to prove the existence of cannibalism. True, the Aztecs and others indulged occasionally in human sacrifice, but there were no eye-witnesses to cannibalism itself. Some of Pizarro's men were alleged to have resorted to consuming their deceased comrades when there was no other means of survival. The charge of cannibalism was perhaps more a product of the expectation of the civilized Europeans, and was an expression of the "otherness" of the alien peoples.

Another characteristic that excited the European imagination was that in many cases the natives were naked. Nudity was usually considered in Europe to be the first step towards promiscuity and incest, and although many Indian societies seemed to exist in perfect harmony without recourse to these vices, the Europeans found this difficult to believe.

Another difficulty which profoundly worried missionaries like Jose Acosta was to understand where the natives had come from. Traditionally the coloured races were supposed to have been descendants of Ham, who was cursed by his father Noah for catching sight of his naked body. But how had they got to America after the flood? As there was some evidence that they had never seen ships before - certainly not ships powerful enough to have survived an Atlantic crossing - Acosta concluded that they must have arrived overland from somewhere. He also had similar difficulties with the other fauna and flora which were unique to the New World. There was no mention of this New World in the Bible, and Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, was proved to be plain wrong on several matters. Large land masses near the tropics could exist without deserts, it was not unbearably hot on the equator and it did not get warmer as you climbed up a mountain nearer to the sun.

The questions that caused the biggest debate, particularly in Spain, were those connected with the morality in the conquest of the New World, the rights of the Indians, and whether or not and how forcefully they should be converted to Christianity.

100 years after Columbus' landing in the Caribbean in 1492 the commercial exploitation of the Americas was in full swing. By 1650 over 18,000 voyages had taken place from Seville alone. Appalling hardships had been suffered on the voyages themselves and in the settlements, but the lure of wealth untold proved sufficient to keep the sea lanes busy. There was not much commercial gain to be found in the plants or crops, except perhaps tobacco and other plants which were thought to have curative properties, and cochineal which was a much sought-after dye. The real wealth however was in the bullion, both gold and more particularly silver. So much of this was imported into Europe that it became a source of inflation and much disturbance to the economies of several countries. But more distressing to many people, particularly the missionaries who accompanied the expeditions, was the dreadful cruelty meted out to the natives who worked in the mines to extract the silver.

The actual conquest of the lands had been accomplished by superior technology in terms of weapons, by the use of horses which were unknown to the natives, and by exploiting the disunity apparent among the native peoples themselves. Diseases such as smallpox, measles and syphilis also took their toll, and the populations of many areas of the New World decreased significantly.

Contact with the New World caused 16th century Europeans to question some of the values they had assumed about their own world. It gave them insights into new forms of social and economic systems, as well as totally different religions and cultures. They found it a constant struggle to fit these new phenomena into the existing familiar patterns of behaviour and society.

One theme is fairly constant among the writers who had actually been there, and that is the innate superiority in their minds of the Europeans over the Indians. Columbus, Vespucci and Diaz (the chronicler of Cortés's conquest of Mexico) all agreed that Europeans were superior in religion, in civilisation, and had a superior moral sense. Diaz admired the Aztecs, who in many ways behaved more like Europeans than other Indians. Many admired the guileless simplicity of some of them, and even harked back to classical theories of the Golden Age of mankind, from which Man has been descending since the beginning of time. This was paralleled by the Christian stories of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, although as descendants from Adam they would still bear the mark of Cain and be tainted by Original Sin, thus requiring salvation through Christianity. Virginia was described as a paradise, and the Incas as a people totally without vice. Vespucci was undecided: at one point he describes the Epicurean way of life of the Indians as "clean and modest", and at another point "dirty and shameless".

Other writers who had not been there shared a fascination for the New World. Michel de Montaigne, for instance, in his Essay "On Cannibals", showed much moral admiration for Indians whom most Europeans considered as morally depraved. "I do not believe there is anything barbarous or savage about them", he wrote. He believed it would often be better to be closer to nature than "civilised", and that Christianity alone does not bring moral superiority. He admired the fact that they had no commerce, no letters, no number science, no political superiors, no servants, no riches, no contracts, no inheritance and no divisions of property. Everyone abhors treachery, disloyalty, tyranny and cruelty practised by anyone, and he concludes that Indian cannibalism was not as bad as European cruelty.

In the 1490s the Spanish Pope had issued a series of papal bulls giving Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain authority to conquer and convert to Christianity the native peoples of the New World. Conquest, with a view to exploit the conquered territories, was always at the forefront of the explorers' motivation. Cortés wrote to Charles V saying that if he managed to conquer the Pacific coast His Excellency would be the ruler of the world. It is never quite clear how much the missionary zeal motivated them. Certainly Columbus' messages to his royal sponsors always stressed the good works he would be able to do in the royal name, but maybe these thoughts were more for public consumption than for private motivation.

There were three main strands of thought among Spanish jurists over the vexed question of whether Spain was entitled to secular power on papal, and hence by implication divine, authority. Also what authority did the Indian rulers themselves have, and did Spain have a right of conquest? What were the Christian duties of the colonists, and what was the source of their authority?

The Franciscan school of thought took a mystical viewpoint, believing that the discovery of the New World heralded the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Franciscan missionary Mendieta claimed that God had commanded the conversion of the Indians, and that compulsion and punishment were justifiable in achieving this end, although cruelty was to be abhorred. He believed that the Europeans stood in relation to the Indians rather as parents do to children. Cortés was a Christian hero for having carried out the necessary conquest of the devil-worshipping Aztecs. Using the allegorical method of interpreting the scriptures, the Franciscans were able to find biblical authority for these actions.

The Dominicans on the other hand believed that Spanish rule was only valid after the voluntary conversion of the Indians. Bartolomé de Las Casas, who was a missionary and bishop in the New World, drew the distinction between natural law and divine law, and said that the Spanish king had no temporal authority over unbaptized Indians. The influential Dominican philosopher Vitoria asserted that treatment of the Indians was a matter of conscience, that the church had authority over the conscience of the king, and so the interpretation of the correct course of actions could only be carried out by those learned in divine law, in other words the church. Hence decisions about such things as the ownership of the Indians' property could not be taken in the king's name, but only in the church's. In his view, by natural law the Indians were natural owners of their own property.

The humanist Sepúlveda, who had never been to the New World, was nevertheless looked upon by the colonists as their champion. He took a very practical view, that Indians were natural slaves and Spaniards natural masters, quoting as his authority the philosophies of Aristotle. Spaniards came from a nobler and more civilized race, and therefore possessed natural rights over pagan Indians with wicked practices. "The perfect should command the imperfect", as he put it.

Thus many issues which bedevil modern society today were being argued about in the 16th century: issues of colonisation, racial superiority, religious differences and human rights. Doubtless these debates will run and run.


Quinn D & Quinn A The Virginia Voyages from Hakluyt (OUP 1973)

B Diaz The Conquest of New Spain trans and ed J Cohen (Penguin Books 1963)

The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus trans and ed J Cohen (Penguin Books 1969)

A Book of Travellers' Tales ed E Newby (for Vespucci) (London, Collins 1985)

Latin American History ed F Blake (for de las Casas, Sepúlveda and the Franciscans) (New York, Harcourt, Brace & World 1969)

M de Montaigne Essays trans J.M.Cohen (Penguin Classics 1958)

Classics of International Law ed E Nys (for Vitoria) (Washington DC: Carnegie Institution 1917)

J de Acosta Historia natural y moral de las Indias ed and trans B Beddall (Gil Torron, Valencia, 1977)

Koenigsberger Mosse and Bowler, Europe in the Sixteenth Century. A general History of Europe (Longmans, 1989)

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