see also:


History of Literature


Timeline: 1300-1600

Medieval literature

Medieval, “belonging to the Middle Ages,” is used here to refer to the literature of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean from as early as the establishment of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire about AD 300 for medieval Greek, from the period following upon the fall of Rome in 476 for medieval Latin, and from about the time of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance he fostered in France (c. 800) to the end of the 15th century for most written vernacular literatures.
Christianity and the church

The establishment of Christianity throughout the territories that had formed the Roman Empire meant that Europe was exposed to and tutored in the systematic approach to life, literature, and religion developed by the early Church Fathers. In the West, the fusion of Christian and classical philosophy formed the basis of the medieval habit of interpreting life symbolically. Through St. Augustine, Platonic and Christian thought were reconciled: the permanent and uniform order of the Greek universe was given Christian form; nature became sacramental, a symbolic revelation of spiritual truth. Classical literature was invested with this same symbolism; exegetical, or interpretative, methods first applied to the Scriptures were extended as a general principle to classical and secular writings. The allegorical or symbolic approach that found in Virgil a pre-Christian prophet and in the Aeneid a narrative of the soul's journey through life to paradise (Rome) belonged to the same tradition as Dante's allegorical conception of himself and his journey in The Divine Comedy.

The church not only established the purpose of literature but preserved it. St. Benedict's monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy was established in 529, and other monastic centres of scholarship followed, particularly after the 6th- and 7th-century Irish missions to the Rhine and Great Britain and the Gothic missions up the Danube. These monasteries were able to preserve the only classical literature available in the West through times when Europe was being raided by Goths, Vandals, Franks, and, later, Norsemen in succession. The classical Latin authors so preserved and the Latin works that continued to be written predominated over vernacular works throughout most of the period. St. Augustine's City of God, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the Danishchronicle of Saxo Grammaticus, for example, were all written in Latin, as were most major works in the fields of philosophy, theology, history, and science.

Vernacular works and drama

The main literary values of the period are found in vernacular works. The pre-Christian literature of Europe belonged to an oral tradition that was reflected in the Poetic Edda and the sagas, or heroic epics, of Iceland, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and the German Song of Hildebrand. These belonged to a common Germanic alliterative tradition,but all were first recorded by Christian scribes at dates later than the historical events they relate, and the pagan elements they contain were fused with Christian thought and feeling. The mythology of Icelandic literature was echoed in every Germanic language and clearly stemmed from a common European source. Only the Scandinavian texts, however, give a coherent account of the stories and personalities involved. Numerous ballads in different countries also reflect an earlier native tradition of oral recitation. Among the best known of the many genres that arose in medieval vernacular literatures were the romance and the courtly love lyric, both of which combined elements from popular oral traditions with those of more scholarly or refined literature and both derived largely from France. The romance used classical or Arthurian sources in a poetic narrative that replaced the heroic epics of feudal society, such as The Song of Roland, with a chivalrous tale of knightly valour. In the romance, complex themes of love, loyalty, and personal integrity were united with a quest for spiritual truth, an amalgam that was represented in every major western European literature of the time. The love lyric has had a similarly heterogeneous background. The precise origins of courtly love are disputed, as is the influence of a popular love poetry tradition; it is clear, however, that the idealized lady and languishing suitorof the poets of southern and northern France were imitated or reinterpreted throughout Europe—in the Sicilian school of Italy, the minnesingers (love poets) of Germany, and in a Latin verse collection, Carmina Burana.

Medieval drama began in the religious ceremonies that took place in church on important dates in the Christian calendar. The dramatic quality of the religious service lent itself to elaboration that perhaps first took the form of gestures and mime and later developed into dramatic interpolations on events or figures in the religious service. This elaboration increased until drama became a secular affair performed on stages or carts in town streets or open spaces. The players were guild craftsmen or professional actors and were hired by towns to perform at local or religious festivals. Three types of play developed: the mystery, the miracle, and the morality. The titles and themes of medieval drama remained religious but their pieces' titles can belie their humorous or farcical and sometimes bawdy nature. One of the best knownmorality plays was translated from Dutch to be known in English as Everyman. A large majority of medieval literature was anonymous and not easily dated. Some of the greatest figures—Dante, Chaucer, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—came late in the period, and their work convincingly demonstrates the transitional nature of the best of medieval literature, for, in being master commentators of the medieval scene, they simultaneously announced the great themes and forms of Renaissance literature.

The Renaissance

The name Renaissance (“Rebirth”) is given to the historical period in Europe that succeeded the Middle Ages. The awakening of a new spirit of intellectual and artistic inquiry, which was the dominant feature of this political, religious, and philosophical phenomenon, was essentially a revival of the spirit of ancient Greece and Rome; in literature this meant a new interest in and analysis of the great classical writers. Scholars searched for and translated “lost” ancient texts, whose dissemination was much helped by developments in printing in Europe from about 1450.

Art and literature in the Renaissance reached a level unattained in any previous period. The age was marked by three principal characteristics: first, the new interest in learning, mirrored by the classical scholars known as humanists and instrumental in providing suitable classical models for the new writers; second, the new form of Christianity, initiated by the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, which drew men's attention to the individual and his inner experiences and stimulated a response in Catholic countries summarized by the term Counter-Reformation; third, the voyages of the great explorers that culminated in Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 and that had far-reaching consequences on the countries that developed overseas empires, as well as on the imaginations and consciences of the most gifted writers of the day.

To these may be added many other factors, such as the developments in science and astronomy and the political condition of Italy in the late 15th century. The new freedom and spirit of inquiry in the Italian city-states had been a factor in encouraging the great precursors of the Renaissance in Italy, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The flowering of the Renaissance in France appeared both in the poetry of the poets making up the group known as the Pléiade and in the reflective essays of Michel de Montaigne, while Spain at this time produced its greatest novelist, Miguel de Cervantes. Another figure who stood out above hiscontemporaries was the Portuguese epic poet Luís Camões, while drama flourished in both Spain and Portugal, being represented at its best by Lope de Vega and Gil Vicente. In England, too, drama dominated the age, a blend of Renaissance learning and native tradition lending extraordinary vitality to works of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, and others, while Shakespeare, England's greatest dramatic and poetic talent, massively spanned the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the17th.

In the 16th century the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus typified the development of humanism, which embodied the spirit of critical inquiry, regard for classical learning, intolerance of superstition, and high respect for men as God's most intricate creation. An aspect of the influence of the Protestant Reformation on literature was the number of great translations of the Bible, including an early one by Erasmus, into vernacular languages during this period, setting new standards for prose writing. The impetus of the Renaissance carried well into the 17th century, when John Milton reflected the spirit of Christian humanism.






see also texts:


"King Arthur and of his Noble Knights" by Sir Thomas Malory

 "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

"Idylls of the King" by Alfred Tennyson


ABELARD PETER   "The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise"

 BOCCACCIO "The Decameron"

 "The Lay of the Cid"

"The Divine Comedy"

 PETRARCH "Song Book"

"The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood" by H. Pyle

ARETINO PIETRO "Dialogues", "Sonetti lussuriosi"

ARIOSTO "Orlando Enraged" canto 1-4

BASILE GIAMBATTISTA "Stories from Il Pentamerone"


JONSON BEN "Volpone"




CHARLES PERRAULT "The Tales of Mother Goose"


TASSO TORQUATO   "Jerusalem Delivered"

VASARI "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects"


see also illustrations:

Arturian Legend


Pre-Raphaelite's and
Beardsley's Vision
Dante Alighieri "The Divine Comedy"
Illustrations by G. Dore, W. Blake, S. Dali


Boccaccio "The Decameron"

Illustrations by Salvador Dali

Ariosto "Orlando Fuioso"

Illustrations by Gustave Dore

Rabelais "Gargantua and Pantagruel"

Illustrations by Gustave Dore

W. Shakespeare "Hamlet"

Illustration from Eugene Delacroix


As the Roman Empire declined and 'civilised' Greco-Roman culture was overcome by a diversity of 'barbarian' counter culture, so literature was lost to what has become known as the 'Dark Ages'. With the end of classical culture European thought had lost its central focus of Rome and scholarship was left to the many emerging monasteries.
The Dark Ages is seen as a cultural step backwards, however this was a time of gradual fusion between the largely Christian Roman civilisation and heathen practices. Despite the lack of literary profusion during the Middle Ages a strong oral tradition was maintained and stories from these mysterious times have inspired many writers. Eventually works from all over Europe did emerge and had a great influence on the evolution of literature with the writings of such luminaries as Chaucer and Dante still being studied in schools today.



William Morris
Queen Guinevere




The decline of the Roman Empire was an immensely long and complicated process. In
spite of the name sometimes given to the succeeding centuries, not all knowledge of
Roman civilization was lost in the 'Dark Ages', and the Empire itself survived in Byzantium, in a
form increasingly alienated from the West. But Rome itself fell into ruins and large parts of the
former Roman Empire were occupied by tribes who were not only pagans but also illiterate.
Among them were the Germanic tribes known as the Anglo-Saxons who occupied lowland Britain,
extinguishing the culture of the Romano-Celts, despite the efforts of the legendary King Arthur
and his knights.



Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, is the oldest form of our language. Modern readers, unless they have studied it, cannot read it any more than they can read classical Greek, but the language is not the only problem. It is much easier to relate to the ancient Greeks than to the Anglo-Saxons with their grim gods and bloody, beleaguered heroes. Life in an Anglo-Saxon village is more remote to us than life in classical Athens. We would feel more at home dining in some comfort in an Attic villa while a bard recites Homer than we would in the draughty hall of some Saxon chief, or even in the cloisters of a Benedictine abbey listening to the Latin chants of the monks.


Beowulf, the first English epic, dates from the 7th century and runs to about 3,000 lines. It relates the adventures of a Scandinavian hero and his conflicts with several ghastly monsters, the last of which proves fatal. Though in verse, it depends more on alliteration rather than rhyme and, like all early poetry, was designed to be recited - intoned even. It is slow-moving, largely due to the rhetorical trick of describing every object by a metaphorical synonym. Homer of course always referred to the sea (for instance) as 'the wine-dark sea' (actually a mistranslation, but a happy one), but in Beowulf this device is carried to excess, each mention of the object being followed by a whole string of descriptive terms.
Beowulf gets a mixed reception nowadays. It was defended in memorable terms by J. R. R.
Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings: 'profound feeling, and poignant vision, filled with the beauty and mortality of the world, are aroused by brief phrases, light touches, short words resounding like harp-strings sharply plucked'. On the other hand, the late Brigid Brophy put it top of her list of 'works of literature we could do without'.
The author of Beowulf is unknown, and although a number of Old English poems have been preserved, the names of only two poets have come down to us. In the case of Caedmon (late 7th century), a monk of humble origins, who is said to have translated parts of the Bible into English verse, it is little more than a name, since only one poem can definitely be ascribed to him. Cynewulf, who lived later, about the early 9th century, has had many poems on religious subjects ascribed to him, but modern scholars accept only four, to which his name was attached in runic characters, as definite.


- heroic poem, the highest achievement of Old English literature and the earliest European vernacular epic. Preserved in a single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) from c. 1000, it deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. It did not appear in print until 1815. Although originally untitled, it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified.

The poem falls into two parts. It opens in Denmark, where King Hrothgar's splendid mead hall, Heorot, has been ravaged for 12 years by nightly visits from an evil monster, Grendel, who carries off Hrothgar's warriors and devours them. Unexpectedly, young Beowulf, a prince of the Geats of southern Sweden, arrives with a small band of retainers and offers to cleanse Heorot of its monster. The King is astonished at the little-known hero's daring but welcomes him, and after an evening of feasting, much courtesy, and some discourtesy, the King retires, leaving Beowulf in charge. During the night Grendel comes from the moors, tears open the heavy doors, and devours one of the sleeping Geats. He then grapples with Beowulf, whose powerful grip he cannot escape. He wrenches himself free, tearing off his arm, and leaves, mortally wounded.

The next day is one of rejoicing in Heorot. But at night as the warriors sleep, Grendel's mother comes to avenge her son, killing one of Hrothgar's men. In the morning Beowulf seeks her out in her cave at the bottom of a mere and kills her. He cuts the head from Grendel's corpse and returns to Heorot. The Danes rejoice once more. Hrothgar makes a farewell speech about the character of the true hero, as Beowulf, enriched with honours and princely gifts, returns home to King Hygelac of the Geats.

The second part passes rapidly over King Hygelac's subsequent death in a battle (of historical record), the death of his son, and Beowulf's succession to the kingship and his peaceful rule of 50 years. But now a fire-breathing dragon ravages his land and the doughty but aging Beowulf engages it. The fight is long and terrible and a painful contrast to the battles of his youth. Painful, too, is the desertion of his retainers except for his young kinsman Wiglaf. Beowulf kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends with his funeral rites and a lament.

Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and thematically to the inherited Germanic heroic tradition. Many incidents, such as Beowulf's tearing off the monster's arm and his descent into the mere, are familiar motifs from folklore. The ethical values are manifestly the Germanic code of loyalty to chief and tribe and vengeance to enemies. Yet the poem isso infused with a Christian spirit that it lacks the grim fatality of many of the Eddic lays or the Icelandic sagas. Beowulf himself seems more altruistic than other Germanic heroes or the heroes of the Iliad. It is significant that his three battles are not against men, which would entail the retaliation of the blood feud, but against evil monsters, enemies of the whole community and of civilization itself. Many critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory, with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of a good (some would say “too good”) hero's life.

That is not to say that Beowulf is an optimistic poem. The English critic J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that its total effect is more like a long, lyrical elegy than an epic. Even the earlier, happier section in Denmark is filled with ominous allusions that were well understood by contemporary audiences. Thus, after Grendel's death, King Hrothgar speaks sanguinely of the future, which the audience knows will end with the destruction of his line and the burning of Heorot. In the second part the movement is slow and funereal; scenes from Beowulf's youth are replayed in a minor key as a counterpoint to his last battle, and the mood becomes increasingly sombre as the wyro (fate) that comes to all mencloses in on him. John Gardner's Grendel (1971) is a retelling of the story from the point of view of the monster.

Encyclopedia Britannica




Early History of the Danes

You have heard of the Danish Kings
in the old days and how
they were great warriors.
Shield, the son of Sheaf,
took many an enemy's chair,
terrified many a warrior,
after he was found an orphan.
He prospered under the sky
until people everywhere
listened when he spoke.
He was a good king!

Shield had a son,
child for his yard,
sent by God
to comfort the people,
to keep them from fear--
Grain was his name;
he was famous
throughout the North.
Young princes should do as he did--
give out treasures
while they're still young
so that when they're old
people will support them
in time of war.
A man prospers
by good deeds
in any nation.

Shield died at his fated hour,
went to God still strong.
His people carried him to the sea,
which was his last request.
In the harbor stood
a well-built ship,
icy but ready for the sea.
They laid Shield there,
propped him against the mast
surrounded by gold
and treasure from distant lands.
I've never heard
of a more beautiful ship,
filled with shields, swords,
and coats of mail, gifts
to him for his long trip.
No doubt he had a little more
than he did as a child
when he was sent out,
a naked orphan in an empty boat.
Now he had a golden banner
high over his head, was,
sadly by a rich people,
given to the sea.
The wisest alive can't tell
where a death ship goes.

Grain ruled the Danes
a long time after his father's death,
and to him was born
the great Healfdene, fierce in battle,
who ruled until he was old.
Healfdene had four children--
Heorogar, Hrothgar, Halga the Good,
and a daughter who married
Onela, King of the Swedes.

The Adventures of Beowulf
an Adaptation from the Old English
by Dr. David Breeden



Caedmon's poem was preserved in a manuscript by Bede, or Baeda, (A.D. 673-735), the great figure of the early Anglo-Saxon period, who spent most of his life in a monastery at Jarrow and was known to later generations as the Venerable Bede. As a monk and a scholar, he wrote in Latin, and his most famous work, among many on various subjects, is his History of the English Church and People, which he completed in about A.D. 731. It describes the history of Britain from the invasion of Julius Caesar (55 B.C.) up to his own day and, although displaying understandable bias in favour of the Church and of his native Northumbrian kingdom - and against the marauding Vikings, destroyers of monasteries — it is generally both reliable and perceptive.


Bede's History was translated into Old English as part of the literary revival associated with Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (A.D. 871-899). The King himself even translated some works from Latin for the furtherance of education, and he encouraged an important venture already in existence, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The most important historical source for the period, the Chronicle was in fact several, produced in different versions in different towns: the Peterborough Chronicle is the most famous survivor. It eventually covered the period from the beginning of Christianity to the mid-12th century. The records for the early years are merely a brief register, but from the 5th century the entries become more detailed, especially for certain events, such as Alfred's wars against the Danes, and poems are included, notably one about the Battle of Brunanburh (A.D. 937), best known in a translation bv Tennyson.


see also:

Arturian Legend



Beardsley's Vision)



Middle English, the language of Chaucer, is easier than Old English for the modern reader. The transition took place gradually, but is conveniently dated from the Norman Conquest (1066). Thereafter the ruling class spoke French and, inevitably, English absorbed many French words. A more fundamental change was the loss of most of the inflections that, in Old English, indicated the function of a word within a sentence. Thus, in Old English it was possible to have a sentence in which, for example, the object preceded the verb, as in Urne dceghwamlican hlaf sele us todae, or 'Give us today our daily bread'. The suffix -ne (in urne) indicates the object of the verb sele ('give'). In Middle (or modern) English, it was necessary for the verb to precede the object.


James Archer
Le Morte D'Arthur




While the aristocracy spoke and wrote in French, the monkish chroniclers, such as William ot Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth. wrote in Latin, the language of the Church. Geoffrey's
History of the Kings of Britain (c.1148) helped to popularize the legends of king Arthur, and the first English version of Arthurian legend appeared near the end of the 12th century in a poetic history, the Brut, by Layamon. a Worcestershire cleric. It also contained the first English accounts of Lear and Cymheline.
Arthurian legend, the standard medieval version of which was Sir Thomas Malorv's Le Morte d'Arthur (1470), was not confined to England, and the story was developed by Chretien de Troves (late 12th century) and other French writers. Epic was characteristic of other European peoples. In France, the Chansons de Geste, dating from the 12th century, recounted heroic episodes in the time of Charlemagne. They were similarly infused with a spirit of patriotism and Christian idealism, dealing in particular with the contest with Islam.


The great Icelandic Sagas, mostly written down in the 13th century, also recorded the heroic pioneers of earlier times, such as Erik the Red who colonized Greenland in about A.D. 1000. They are prose narratives, however, in general less high-flown than French epic and more reliable historically. The Volsunga Saga, a retelling of the earlier, poetic Edda, the chief source for Norse mythology, provided the material for Wagner's operatic Ring cycle (1848-74).


Most medieval writing was religious, and miracle plays, as they were called, were dramatizations of miraculous episodes from the lives of the Christian saints. Later they included stories from the Bible (first translated in full into English in the 14th century) and were called mystery plays ('mystery' referred to a craft or trade). They were commonly performed in the market-place by local craftsmen, often with much humour, sometimes macabre, and (as in modern pantomime) with contemporary allusions. Each craftsmen's guild had responsibility for a particular piece, frequently linked with the craft concerned. In York, for example, the Shipwrights performed the story of Noah's Ark.
A later development was the 'morality play', in which the characters are personified virtues and vices (Beauty, Truth, Greed, etc.). The 15th-century Everyman, originally Dutch, is the best known. Mystery plays were first recorded in the 13th century; possibly they began as religious pageants associated with the feast day of Corpus Christi. ('Pageant' originally meant the stage on wheels on which the plays were performed.)
Complete cycles of mystery plays have survived from Chester, Wakefield and York, but many other towns had them. Some show considerable literary merit. They were popular in most of Europe, but in England they were finished off by a combination of the Reformation (opposed to religious pageantry), realist drama and professional theatre. They have been revived in the 20th century and The Passion Play of Oberammergau, Bavaria, dating from 1633, is still produced.


The two poetic gems of medieval England, Chaucer apart, are The Vision of Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, and the unknown author of Sir Gawain were contemporaries of Chaucer, they seem to have belonged to an earlier age, partly because they used the old technique of alliteration rather than the syllabic rhyming verse introduced from France. Piers Plowman, often described as the greatest religious poem in English, opens with the narrator falling asleep on the Malvern Hills and dreaming that he sees 'a fair field full of folk', where he can observe the whole of society engaged in their tasks. The poem contains episodes of great imaginative power, unequalled by any other medieval writer.
The subject of Sir Gawain is an episode in Arthurian legend, in which Sir Gawain overcomes a supernatural opponent, the fearful Green Knight. Though an impeccable epic hero. Sir Gawain remains human and fallible, and the poem, about 2,500 lines long, is written in gorgeous and complex language. It survives in only a single manuscript, which also contains three other alliterative poems of high quality, 'The Pearl', 'Patience' and 'Purity1 which, though of a completely different type, are probably by the same poet.

"After sharpe shoures,' quod Pees • 'moste shene [bright] is the sonne; Is no vveder warmer • than after watery cloudes. Ne [nor] no love levere [dearer] • ne lever frendes. Than after werre [war] and wo • whan Love and Pees be maistres. Was nevere werre in this world • ne wykkednesse so kene, That ne Love, and [if ] hym luste • to laughynge ne broughte, And Pees thorw pacience • alie perilles stopped.' 'Truce,' quod Treuth • thow tellcs us soth, bi lesus! Clippe [embrace] we in covenaunt • and each of us cusse other!' 'And lete no peple,' quod Pees • perceyve that we chydde! For inpossible is no thying • to him that is almyghty."

Piers Plowman, (B-text) 17, (ed, Alastair Fowler).




In the late Middle Ages, the northern Italian cities were the most prosperous states in Europe, with Florence, thanks to its geographical and economic circumstances, outstanding. The dialect of Tuscany resembled Latin, the mother tongue, and by 1300 it was generally recognized as the language of literature. Italian literature reached new heights, love poetry in particular, but also newer forms such as satire and comedy. The greatest among many fine lyric poets established a unique position in the Western literary tradition.

See also:

Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy"

Illustrations by

Gustave Dore,

William Blake,

Salvador Dali


Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265—1321) was a prominent citizen of Florence, closely involved in the fractious politics of the time, hut his personal circumstances were far more important than his public career. In his twenties he fell in love with the young woman whom in his poetry he calls Beatrice. When she died young, in 1290, Dante was inconsolable. She was the subject of most of the poems in his Vita nuova, probably written in the years immediately following her death, and she plays a prominent part in his later, most famous work, Divina Commedia (
Divine Comedy).
The Divine Comedy has been described as a summary of the civilization of the Middle Ages and heralded the Renaissance. The work, a magnificent structure in 100 cantos, is divided into three sections, 'Hell', 'Purgatory' and 'Paradise', around which the poet takes a guided tour, firstly with Virgil around Hell and Purgatory. In Paradise, a world of joy and beauty, his guide is Beatrice. The poem is based on Dante's considerable knowledge of philosophy and other learned subjects and is undeniably a challenge to the modern reader. However, no one could fail to find certain passages extremely moving, others charming and delightful, yet others horrifying.
It seems to have been written mainly in the last decade of Dante's life. A political revolution in Florence in 1300 had barred him permanently from his native city, and he spent his later years wandering, finally settling at Ravenna, where he completed the Divine Comedy just before his death. He was mentioned by Chaucer and was widely admired in 17th-century England. Out of fashion in the 18th century, he was enthusiastically revived by the Romantics. In the 20th century his greatest advocate was T. S. Eliot.

Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Inferno

Inferno: Canto I

Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
  But of the good to treat, which there I found,
  Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
  So full was I of slumber at the moment
  In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
  At that point where the valley terminated,
  Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
  Vested already with that planet's rays
  Which leadeth others right by every road.

Then was the fear a little quieted
  That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
  The night, which I had passed so piteously.

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
  Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
  Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
  Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
  Which never yet a living person left.

After my weary body I had rested,
  The way resumed I on the desert slope,
  So that the firm foot ever was the lower.

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
  A panther light and swift exceedingly,
  Which with a spotted skin was covered o'er!

And never moved she from before my face,
  Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
  That many times I to return had turned.




Francesco Petrarca
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304—74) represented a milestone — his devotion to the Classics and his criticism of Aristotle suggest a Renaissance man, and he is regarded as the founder of Italian humanism. Although Petrarch considered them relatively unimportant, he is remembered especially for his lyrics, known as 'rime sparse', including the long series about Laura, Petrarch's Beatrice, whose identity is similarly obscure. He met her in 1327 in Provence, his home as a young man. Though his family had been exiled from Florence, Petrarch was often in Italy, and in 1341 was crowned Poet Laureate in Rome. He remained a great traveller, employed on diplomatic missions by various Italian courts, and was known and admired throughout Europe. He was the favourite Italian poet of the English Renaissance and his love sonnets had immense influence on 16th-century English poets from Wyatt to Sidney.



born July 20, 1304, Arezzo, Tuscany [Italy]
died July 18/19, 1374, Arqua, near Padua, Carrara

Italian in full Francesco Petrarca Italian scholar, poet, and Humanist whose poems addressed to Laura, an idealized beloved, contributed to the Renaissance flowering of lyric poetry. Petrarch's inquiring mind and love of classical authors led him to travel, visiting men of learning and searching monastic libraries for classical manuscripts. He was regarded as the greatest scholar of his age.
Education and early poems.

Petrarch's father, a lawyer, had been obliged to leave Florence in 1302 and had moved to Arezzo, where Petrarch was born. The family eventually moved to Avignon (1312), in the Provence region of southern France, the home of the exiled papal court, at which an Italian lawyer might hope to find employment. Petrarch's first studies were at Carpentras, Fr., and at his father's insistence he was sent to study law at Montpellier, Fr. (1316). From there he returned toItaly with his younger brother Gherardo to continue these studies at Bologna (1320). But already he was developing what, in a later letter, he described as “an unquenchable thirst for literature.”

Petrarch's earliest surviving poems, on the death of his mother, date from the Montpellier and Bologna period, though like all Petrarch's work they were heavily revised later. Meanwhile, his knowledge and love of the classical authors increasing, he made his acquaintance with the new vernacular poetry that was being written. After his father's death, in 1326, Petrarch was free to abandon his law studies and pursue his own interests. Returning to Avignon, he took minor ecclesiastical orders and entered the household of the influential cardinal Giovanni Colonna. Petrarch enjoyed life in Avignon, and there is a famous description of him and his brother as dandies in its polished courtly world; but he was also making a name there for his scholarship and the elegance of his culture.

As well as a love of literature, Petrarch also had during his early youth a deep religious faith, a love of virtue, and an unusually deep perception of the transitory nature of human affairs. There now followed the reaction—a period of dissipation—which also coincided with the beginning of his famous chaste love for a woman known now only as Laura. Vain attempts have been made to identify her, but Petrarch himself kept silent about everything concerning her civil status, as though he thought it unimportant. He first saw her in the Church of St. Clare at Avignon on April 6, 1327,and loved her, although she was outside his reach, almost until his death. From this love there springs the work for which he is most celebrated, the Italian poems (Rime), which he affected to despise as mere trifles in the vulgar tongue but which he collected and revised throughout his life.

Classical studies and career (1330–40)

He spent the summer of 1330 at Lombez, Fr., the bishop of which was an old friend from Bologna, Giacomo Colonna. In 1335 he received a canonry there but continued to reside at Avignon in the service of the Cardinal, with whom he stayed until 1337. Quite apart from his love for Laura, this period was an important one for Petrarch. These were years of ambition and unremitting study (notably in the field of classical Latin). They were also years of travel. In 1333 his journeying took him through France, Flanders, Brabant, and the Rhineland, where he visited men of learning and searched monastic libraries for “lost” classical manuscripts (in Liège he discovered copies of two speeches by Cicero). InParis he was given a copy of the Confessions of St. Augustine by a friend and spiritual confidant, the Augustinian monk Dionigi of Sansepolcro, and he was to use this more and more as the breviary of his spiritual life.

These experiences bring Petrarch's mission as a stubborn advocate of the continuity between classical culture and theChristian message more sharply into focus. By making a synthesis of the two seemingly conflicting ideals—regarding the one as the rich promise and the other as its divine fulfillment—he can claim to be the founder and great representative of the movement known as European Humanism. He rejected the sterile argumentation and endless dialectical subtleties to which medieval Scholasticism had become prey and turned back for values and illumination to the moral weight of the classical world. In1337 he visited Rome for the first time, to be stirred among its ruins by the evident grandeur of its past. On returning to Avignon he sought a refuge from its corrupt life—the papacy at this time was wholly absorbed in secular matters—and a few miles to the east found his “fair transalpine solitude” of Vaucluse, which was afterward to become a much-loved place of retreat.

The chronology of Petrarch's writings is somewhat complicated by his habit of revising, often extensively. By the time he discovered Vaucluse, however, he had written a good many of the individual poems that he was to include in the Epistolae metricae (66 “letters” in Latin hexameter verses) and some of the vernacular Rime inspired by his lovefor Laura. At Vaucluse he began to work on Africa, an epic poem on the subject of the Second Punic War. He also began work on De viris illustribus, intended as a series of biographies of heroes from Roman history (later modified to include famous men of all time, beginning with Adam, as Petrarch's desire to emphasize the continuity among ideals of the Old Testament, of the classical world, and of Christianity increased).

Moral and literary evolution (1340–46)

Meanwhile, his reputation as a scholar was spreading; in September 1340 he received invitations from Paris and Rome to be crowned as poet. He had perhaps sought out this honour, partly from ambition but mainly in order that the rebirth of the cult of poetry after more than 1,000 years might be fittingly celebrated. He had no hesitation in choosing Rome, and accordingly he was crowned on the Capitoline Hill on April 8, 1341, afterward placing his laurel wreath on the tomb of the Apostle in St. Peter's Basilica: again, the symbolic gesture linking the classical tradition with the Christian message.

From Rome he went to Parma and the nearby solitude of Selvapiana, returning to Avignon in the autumn of 1343. It is generally believed that he went through some kind of moral crisis at this time, rooted in his inability to make his life conform to his religious faith and possibly heightened by his brother's decision to enter a Carthusian monastery. At any rate, this is a common reading of the Secretum meum (1342–43). It is an autobiographical treatise consisting of three dialogues between Petrarch and St. Augustine in the presence of Truth. In it he maintains hope that, even amidst worldly preoccupations and error, even while absorbed in himself and his own affairs, a man might still find a way to God. Thus, Petrarch's spiritual “problem” found a coherent solution, one that can be said to express the Petrarchan vision and the Humanist's religious and moral outlook.

It was therefore an evolution—both moral and literary—rather than a “crisis” that made Petrarch decide his love for Laura was love for the creature rather than for the Creator and therefore wrong—proof of his attachment to the world. It was an evolution in his thinking that led him to break through the barriers of his too-exclusive admiration for antiquity and to admit other authoritative voices. It was now, for example, that De viris was enlarged to include material from sacred as well as secular history, while in the De vita solitaria (1346) he developed the theoretical basis and description of the “solitary life” whereby man enjoys theconsolations of nature and study together with those of prayer.

Break with his past (1346–53)

The events of the next few years are fundamental to his biography, both as a man and as a writer. In the first place, he became enthusiastic for the efforts of Cola di Rienzo to revive the Roman republic and restore popular government in Rome—a sympathy that divided him still more sharply from the Avignon court and in 1346 even led to the loss of Cardinal Colonna's friendship. The Plague of 1348, known as the Black Death, saw many friends fall victim, including Laura, who died on April 6, the anniversary of Petrarch's first seeing her. Finally, in the jubilee year of 1350 he made apilgrimage to Rome and later assigned to this year his renunciation of sensual pleasures.

These are the landmarks of Petrarch's career, but the time in between was filled with diplomatic missions, study, and immense literary activity. In Verona in 1345 he made his great discovery of the letters of Cicero to Atticus, Brutus, andQuintus, which allowed him to penetrate the surface of the great orator and see the man himself. The letters spurred himon to write epistles to the ancient authors whom he loved and to make a collection of his own letters that he had scattered among his friends. These great collections record not only Petrarch's genius for friendship but also all those shifts in attitude by which he left behind the Middle Ages andprepared for the Renaissance. Toward the end of 1345 he returned again to the peace of Vaucluse and spent two years there, chiefly revising De vita solitaria but also developing the theme of solitude in a specifically monastic context, in De otio religioso. Between November 1347 and his pilgrimage to Rome in 1350 he was also in Verona, Parma, and Padua. Much of the time was spent in advancing his career in the church; the manoeuvring and animosities this involved resulted in an intense longing for the peace of Vaucluse; not even a visit from his lifelong friend the poet Boccaccio, who offered him a chair to be established under his guidance in the University of Florence, could deflect him. He left Rome in May 1351 for Vaucluse.

Here he worked on a new plan for the Rime. The project was divided into two parts: the Rime in vita di Laura (“Poems During Laura's Life”) and the Rime in morte di Laura (“PoemsAfter Laura's Death”), which he now selected and arranged to illustrate the story of his own spiritual growth. The choice of poems was further governed by an exquisite aesthetic taste and by a preference for an approximately chronological arrangement, from the description of his falling in love to his final invocation to the Virgin; from his “youthful errors” to his realization that “all worldly pleasure is a fleeting dream”; from his love for this world to his final trust in God. The theme of his Canzoniere (as the poems are usually known) therefore goes beyond the apparent subject matter, his love for Laura. For the first time in the history of the new poetry, lyrics are held together in a marvellous new tapestry, possessing its own unity. By selecting all that was most polished and at the same time most vigorous in the lyric tradition of the preceding two centuries and filtering it through his new appreciation of the classics, he not only bequeathed to humanity the most limpid and yet passionate, precise yet suggestive, expression of love and grief, of the ecstasies and sorrows of man, but also created with his marvellous sensibility the form and language of the modern lyric, to provide a common stock for lyric poets of the whole of Europe.

He also continued work on the Metricae, begun in 1350; he embarked on a polemic against the conservative enemies of his new conception of education, which rejected the prevailing Aristotelianism of the schools and restored the spiritual worth of classical writers—the new studies to be called litterae humanae, “humane letters.” He also began work on his poem Trionfi, a more generalized version of the story of the human soul in its progress from earthly passion toward fulfillment in God.

Later years (1353–74)

But the death of his closest friends, dislike of the newly elected pope, Innocent VI, increasingly bitter relations with the Avignon court, all finally determined Petrarch to leave Provence. He found rooms in Milan and stayed there for most of the next eight years. During these eight years he also completed the first proper edition of the Rime, continued assiduously with the Fami liares, worked on the Trionfi, and set in order many of his earlier writings.

Early in 1361 he went to Padua, hoping to escape the Plague. He remained there until September 1362, when, again a fugitive from the Black Death, he sought shelter in Venice. He was given a house, and in return Petrarch promised to bequeath all his books to the republic. He was joined by his daughter Francesca, and the tranquil happiness of her little family gave him great pleasure. He was visited by his dearest and most famous friends (including the great chancellor Benintendi de' Ravegnani and Boccaccio, who presented him with a long-desired Latin translation of Homer's poems); he was invited to play an honourable part in the life and politics of the city; he worked peacefully but with great concentration at the definitive versions of his various writings. Nevertheless, after receiving an insult fromfour young men who followed the Arab “naturalist” interpretation of Aristotle's work, Petrarch was induced to move back to Padua in 1367. He remained there until his death, dividing his time from 1370 between Padua and Arquà, in the neighbouring Euganean hills, where he had a little house. There he wrote the defense of his Humanism against the critical attack from Venice, De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia. He was still in great demand as a diplomat; in 1370 he was called to Rome by Urban V, and he set off eager to see the fulfillment of his great dream of a new Roman papacy, but at Ferrara he was seized by a stroke. Yet he did not stop working; in addition to revision he composed more minor works and added new sections to his Posteritati, an autobiographical letter to posterity that was to have formed the conclusion to his Seniles; he also composed the final sections of the Trionfi. Petrarch died in 1374 while working in his study at Arquà and was found the next morning, his head resting on a manuscript of Virgil.

The hallmark of Petrarch's thought was a deep consciousness of the past as the nutriment of the present. His abiding achievement was to recognize that, if there is a Providence that guides the world, then it has set man at the centre. Petrarch provided a theoretical basis for the enrichment of man's life. But, even more important, the Humanist attitudes of the Italian 15th century that led into the Renaissance would not have been possible without him.

John Humphreys Whitfield

Encyclopedia Britannica





Sonnet I

To Laura in Life

O you, who hears in scattered verse the sound

Of all those sighs with which my heart I fed,

When I, by youthful error was misled,

Unlike my present self in passion drowned;

Who hears the woes, the pleadings that abound

Throughout my song, by hopes and vain griefs bred;

If ever true love its influence over you shed,

Oh ! let your pity be with pardon crowned.

But now full well I see how to the crowd

For a long time I proved a public jest:

E'ven by myself my folly is allowed:

And of my vanity what's left is shame,

Repentance, and a knowledge deep impressed,

That worldly pleasure is a passing dream.

Translated by R. Nott

Sonnet XXIV

To Laura in Death

The eyes, the face, the limbs of heavenly mold,

So long the theme of my impassioned lay,

Charms which so stole me from myself away,

That strange to other men the course I hold;

The crisped locks of pure and lucid gold,

The lightning of the angelic smile, whose ray

To earth could all of paradise convey,

A little dust are now —to feeling cold.

And yet I live—but that I live bewail,

Sunk the loved light that through the tempest led

My shattered bark, bereft of mast and sail:

Hushed be for aye the song that breathed love's fire!

Lost is the theme on which my fancy fed,

And turned to mourning my once tuneful lyre.

Translated by Lady Dacre



Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313—75), a close contemporary and friend of Petrarch, shared his admiration for Classical civilization, his love of the new Italian poetry and his wide-ranging interests. He was a great enthusiast for Dante, writing his biography and giving public lectures on the Divine Comedy. As a lyric poet, he was in neither Dante's nor Petrarch's class, his strong suit being narrative; like Petrarch, he became famous chiefly for what he would have considered a lesser work, The Decameron.
It is a collection of a hundred stories told by a party of young men and women sheltering in a house outside Florence to avoid the Black Death — the plague that carried off perhaps one-third of the population of Europe in the late 1340s. Most of the stories were written, or compiled, very soon after the epidemic. They were drawn from many sources and, provided rich material for other writers, notably Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales - although it is possible that Chaucer obtained them indirectly since he never mentions Boccaccio by name. (As there was no law, or even conception, of copyright, writers felt no need to disguise their sources.)


see also:

Boccaccio "The Decameron"

(Illustrations by Salvador Dali



born 1313, Paris, Fr.
died Dec. 21, 1375, Certaldo, Tuscany [Italy]

Italian poet and scholar, best remembered as the author of the earthy tales in the Decameron. With Petrarch he laid the foundations for the humanism of the Renaissance and raised vernacular literature to the level and status of the classics of antiquity.


Boccaccio was the son of a Tuscan merchant, Boccaccio di Chellino (called Boccaccino), and a mother who was probably French. He passed his early childhood rather unhappily in Florence. His father had no sympathy for Boccaccio's literary inclinations and sent him, not later than 1328, to Naples to learn business, probably in an office of the Bardi, who dominated the court of Naples by means of their loans. In this milieu Boccaccio experienced the aristocracy of the commercial world as well as all that survived of the splendours of courtly chivalry and feudalism. He also studied canon law and mixed with the learned men of the court and the friends and admirers of Petrarch, through whom he came to know the work of Petrarch himself.

These years in Naples, moreover, were the years of Boccaccio's love for Fiammetta, whose person dominates all his literary activity up to the Decameron, in which there also appears a Fiammetta whose character somewhat resembles that of the Fiammetta of his earlier works. Attempts to use passages from Boccaccio's writings to identify Fiammetta with a supposedly historical Maria, natural daughter of King Robert and wife of a count of Aquino, are untrustworthy—the more so since there is no documentary proof that this Maria ever existed.

Early works

It was probably in 1340 that Boccaccio was recalled to Florence by his father, involved in the bankruptcy of the Bardi. The sheltered period of his life thus came to an end, and thenceforward there were to be only difficulties and occasional periods of poverty. From Naples, however, the young Boccaccio brought with him a store of literary work already completed. La caccia di Diana (“Diana's Hunt”), his earliest work, is a short poem, in terza rima (an iambic verse consisting of stanzas of three lines), of no great merit. Much more important are two works with themes derived from medieval romances: Il filocolo (c. 1336; “The Love Afflicted”), a prose work in five books on the loves and adventures of Florio and Biancofiore (Floire and Blanchefleur); and Il filostra to (c. 1338; “The Love Struck”), ashort poem in ottava rima (a stanza form composed of eight 11-syllable lines) telling the story of Troilus and the faithless Criseida. The Teseida (probably begun in Naples and finished in Florence, 1340–41) is an ambitious epic of 12 cantos in ottava rima in which the wars of Theseus serve as abackground for the love of two friends, Arcita and Palemone, for the same woman, Emilia; Arcita finally wins her in a tournament but dies immediately.

While the themes of chivalry and love in these works had long been familiar in courtly circles, Boccaccio enriched them with the fruits of his own acute observation of real life and sought to present them nobly and illustriously by a display of learning and rhetorical ornament, so as to make his Italian worthy of comparison with the monuments of Latin literature. It was Boccaccio, too, who raised to literary dignity ottava rima, the verse metre of the popular minstrels,which was eventually to become the characteristic vehicle for Italian verse. Boccaccio's early works had an immediate effect outside Italy: Geoffrey Chaucer drew inspiration from Il filostrato for his own Troilus and Criseyde (as William Shakespeare was later to do for Troilus and Cressida) and from Boccaccio's Teseida for his “Knight's Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.

The 10 or 12 years following Boccaccio's return to Florence are the period of his full maturity, culminating in the Decameron. From 1341 to 1345 he worked on Il ninfale d'Ameto (“Ameto's Story of the Nymphs”), in prose and terza rima; L'amorosa visione (“The Amorous Vision”; 1342–43), amediocre allegorical poem of 50 short cantos in terza rima; the prose Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343–44); and the poem Il ninfale fiesolano (perhaps 1344–45; “Tale of the Fiesole Nymph”), in ottava rima, on the love of the shepherd Africo for the nymph Mensola.

Boccaccio, meanwhile, was trying continually to put his financial affairs in order, though he never succeeded in doing so. Little is known, however, of the detail of his life in the period following his return to Florence. He was at Ravenna between 1345 and 1346, at Forlì in 1347, in Florence during the ravages of the Black Death in 1348, and in Florence again in 1349.

The Decameron

It was probably in the years 1348–53 that Boccaccio composed the Decameron in the form in which it is read today. In the broad sweep of its range and its alternately tragic and comic views of life, it is rightly regarded as his masterpiece. Stylistically, it is the most perfect example of Italian classical prose, and its influence on Renaissance literature throughout Europe was enormous.

The Decameron begins with the flight of 10 young people (7 women and 3 men) from plague-stricken Florence in 1348. They retire to a rich, well-watered countryside, where, in the course of a fortnight, each member of the party has a turn as king or queen over the others, deciding in detail how their day shall be spent and directing their leisurely walks, their outdoor conversations, their dances and songs, and, above all, their alternate storytelling. This storytelling occupies 10 days of the fortnight (the rest being set aside for personal adornment or for religious devotions); hence the title of the book itself, Decameron, or “Ten Days' Work.” The stories thus amount to 100 in all. Each of the days, moreover, ends with a canzone (song) for dancing sung by one of the storytellers, and these canzoni include some of Boccaccio's finest lyric poetry. In addition to the 100 stories, Boccaccio has a master theme, namely, the way of life of the refined bourgeoisie, who combined respect for conventions with an open-minded attitude to personal behaviour.

The sombre tones of the opening passages of the book, in which the plague and the moral and social chaos that accompanies it are described in the grand manner, are in sharp contrast to the scintillating liveliness of Day I, which isspent almost entirely in witty disputation, and to the playful atmosphere of intrigue that characterizes the tales of adventure or deception related on Days II and III. With Day IVand its stories of unhappy love, the gloomy note returns; but Day V brings some relief, though it does not entirely dissipate the echo of solemnity, by giving happy endings to stories of love that does not at first run smoothly. Day VI reintroduces the gaiety of Day I and constitutes the overtureto the great comic score, Days VII, VIII, and IX, which are given over to laughter, trickery, and license. Finally, in Day X, all the themes of the preceding days are brought to a high pitch, the impure made pure and the common made heroic.

The prefaces to the days and to the individual stories and certain passages of especial magnificence based on classical models, with their select vocabulary and elaborate periods, have long held the attention of critics. But there is also another Boccaccio: the master of the spoken word and of the swift, vivid, tense narrative free from the proliferation of ornament. These two aspects of the Decameron made it the fountainhead of Italian literary prose for the following centuries.

The influential 19th-century critic Francesco De Sanctis regarded the Decameron as a “Human Comedy” in succession to Dante's Divine Comedy and Boccaccio as the pioneer of a new moral order superseding that of the European Middle Ages. This view is no longer tenable, however, since the Middle Ages can no longer be presented as having been wholly ascetic or wholly concerned with God and heavenly salvation in contrast with a Renaissance concerned only with the human.

Also, in particular, the whole corpus of Boccaccio's work is basically medieval in subject matter, form, and taste, at least in its point of departure. It is the spirit in which Boccaccio treats his subjects and his forms that is new. For the first time in the Middle Ages, Boccaccio in the Decameron deliberately shows man striving with fortune andlearning to overcome it. To be truly noble, according to the Decameron, man must accept life as it is, without bitterness, must accept, above all, the consequences of his own action, however contrary to his expectation or even tragic they may be. To realize his own earthly happiness, he must confine his desire to what is humanly possible and renounce the absolute without regret. Thus Boccaccio insists both on man's powers and on their inescapable limitations, without reference to the possible intervention of divine grace. A sense of spiritual realities and an affirmation of moral valuesunderlying the frivolity even in the most licentious passages of the Decameron are features of Boccaccio's work that modern criticism has brought to light and that make it no longer possible to regard him only as an obscene mocker or sensual cynic.

During the years in which Boccaccio is believed to have written the Decameron, the Florentines appointed him ambassador to the lords of Romagna in 1350; municipal councillor and also ambassador to Louis, duke of Bavaria, in the Tirol in 1351; and ambassador to Pope Innocent VI in 1354.

Petrarch and Boccaccio's mature years

Of far more lasting importance than official honours was Boccaccio's first meeting with Petrarch, in Florence in 1350,which helped to bring about a decisive change in Boccaccio's literary activity. Boccaccio revered the older man as his master, and Petrarch proved himself a serene andready counselor and a reliable helper. Together, through the exchange of books, news, and ideas, the two men laid the foundations for the humanist reconquest of classical antiquity.

After the Decameron, of which Petrarch remained in ignorance until the very last years of his life, Boccaccio wrote nothing in Italian except Il Corbaccio (1354–55; a satire on a widow who had jilted him), his late writings on Dante, and perhaps an occasional lyric. Turning instead to Latin, he devoted himself to humanist scholarship rather than to imaginative or poetic creation. His encyclopaedic De genealogia deorum gentilium (“On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles”), medieval in structure but humanist inspirit, was probably begun in the very year of his meeting with Petrarch but was continuously corrected and revised until his death. His Bucolicum carmen (1351–66), a series of allegorical eclogues (short pastoral poems) on contemporary events, follows classical models on lines already indicated by Dante and Petrarch. His other Latin works include De claris mulieribus (1360–74; Concerning Famous Women), a collection of biographies of famous women; and De casibus virorum illustrium (1355–74; “On the Fates of Famous Men”), on the inevitable catastrophe awaiting all who are too fortunate.

The meeting with Petrarch, however, was not the only cause of the change in Boccaccio's writing. A premature weakening of his physical powers and disappointments in love may also have contributed to it. Some such occurrence would explain how Boccaccio, having previously written always in praise of women and love, came suddenly to write the bitterly misogynistic Corbaccio and then turn his genius elsewhere. Furthermore, there are signs that he may have begun to feel religious scruples. Petrarch describes how the Carthusian monk Pietro Petrone, on his deathbed in 1362, sent another Carthusian, Gioacchino Ciani, to exhort Boccaccio to renounce his worldly studies; and it was Petrarch who then dissuaded Boccaccio from burning his own works and selling his library. As early as 1360, moreover, Boccaccio's way of life was regarded as austere enough to justify his being entrusted with a pastoral cure of souls in a cathedral. He had taken minor orders many years earlier, perhaps at first only in the hope of being given benefices.

Boccaccio's circle in Florence was of vital importance as a nucleus of early humanism. Leonzio Pilato, whom Boccaccio housed from 1360 to 1362 and whose nomination as reader in Greek at the Studio (the old University of Florence) he procured, made the rough Latin translation through which Petrarch and Boccaccio became acquainted with Homer's poems—the starting point of Greek studies by the humanists. The recovery of Latin classical texts—Varro, Martial, Apuleius, Seneca, Ovid, and, above all, Tacitus—likewise occupied Boccaccio's admiring attention. Even so, he did not neglect Italian poetry, his enthusiasm for his immediate predecessors, especially Dante, being one of the characteristics that distinguish him from Petrarch. His Vita di Dante Alighieri, or Trattatello in laude di Dante (“Little Tractate in Praise of Dante”), and the two abridged editions of it that he made show his devotion to Dante's memory.

Last years

All these studies were pursued in poverty, sometimes almostin destitution, and Boccaccio had to earn most of his income by transcribing his own works or those of others. In 1363 poverty compelled him to retire to the village of Certaldo. In October 1373, however, he began public readings of Dante's Divina commedia in the Church of San Stefano di Badia in Florence. A revised text of the commentary that he gave with these readings is still extant but breaks off at the point that he had reached when, early in 1374, ill health made him lose heart. Petrarch's death in July 1374 was another grief to him, and he retired again to Certaldo. There Boccaccio died the following year and was buried in the Church of SS. Michele e Jacopo.

Boccaccio and the Renaissance

Boccaccio was a man of the Renaissance in almost every sense. His humanism comprised not only classical studies and the attempt to rediscover and reinterpret ancient texts but also the attempt to raise literature in the modern languages to the level of the classical by setting standards for it and then conforming to those standards. Boccaccio advanced further than Petrarch in this direction not only because he sought to dignify prose as well as poetry but alsobecause, in his Ninfale fiesolano, in his Elegia de Madonna Fiammetta, and in the Decameron, he ennobled everyday experience, tragic and comic alike. Although his Teseida and Ninfale d'Ameto invite comparison with classical genres, his Filocolo and Filostrato raised to the level of learned art the literature of chivalry and love that had fallen to the level of the populace. The same attention to popular and medieval themes characterized Italian culture in the second half of the15th century; without Boccaccio, the literary culmination ofthe Italian Renaissance would be historically incomprehensible.

Umberto Bosco

Encyclopedia Britannica






Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400) is one of the handful of great figures like Shakespeare or Samuel
Johnson whose name alone sums up a literary age. He was a member of the minor gentry, who
fought in Edward Ill's army as a young man, was captured in France and ransomed. He enjoyed
the patronage of John of Gaunt, to whom he was related by marriage, he held several minor
offices at court, and he undertook diplomatic missions abroad. One of these took him to
Florence in 1373 and he could, conceivably, have met Boccaccio and Petrarch. His early writings
show French and Italian influence, and culminate in
Troilus and Criseyde, his most important
work before
The Canterbury Tales, which was written in 'rhyme royal'
(seven-line units rhyming ababbcc).



The learned John Gower (d. 1408) was a contemporary and friend of Chaucer who wrote in three languages, French, Latin and English. He was responsible for bringing much classical literature (especially Ovid) and medieval romance into the mainstream of English literature. His greatest work is Confessio Amantis, which contains a series of stories in verse, rather like The Canterbury Tales. In fact several of Gower's stones are echoed in Chaucer's great work.


In The Canterbury Tales, the framework for the stories is a group of pilgrims who meet at an inn in Southwark on their wav to the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury and, for the prize of a free supper, agree to tell stories to pass the time. Some of the stories are fables, some are moral, some romantic, and some comical and coarse (schoolteachers used to avoid 'The Miller's Tale'). Several are based on Petrarch and Boccaccio. There are about 30 pilgrims but only 24 stories: the work was unfinished, but it runs to about 17,000 lines, most, in rhymed couplets, some in prose. Although he could write lovely lines, Chaucer was not a great lyric poet. He was a great story-teller, a master of comedy, the first illustrious name in the great tradition of English comedy — and he had an understanding of human nature that rivaled Shakespeare.
The form of The Canterbury Tales is a familiar one. What is new is the intense realism of the characters. Chaucer not only had a profound and sympathetic understanding of human nature, he also seems to have had comprehensive knowledge of all levels of English society. His characters are the first in English literature who leap off the page, alive and kicking and totally believable, their virtues and still more their vices are all too easily-linked with contemporary equivalents.

Several portraits of Chaucer appeared in
manuscripts after his death.


Chaucer was widely admired in his own time. Thomas Hoccleve, a younger contemporary who is sometimes unjustly dismissed as a mere imitator of Chaucer (and there were many of those), called him his 'master dear, flower of eloquence'. The manuscript of Hoccleve's De Regimine Principum (The Regiment of Princes) has a portrait of Chaucer in the margin. The poet appears as an elderly, white-haired man: this is clearly intended to be a likeness, another example of the dawn of realism. The flowering of English literature about the time of Richard II (1377-99) was followed by a comparatively barren period. In Scotland, however, the flowering came later, during the reigns of the cultured Stewart monarchs James III and James IV The outstanding poets were Robert Henryson (d.?1506), William Dunbar (d.?1513) and Gavin Douglas (d.1522), who translated the Aeneid and was one of the first to emphasize the distinction between 'Scottis' and 'Inglis'. Henryson's Testament of Cresseid follows on from Chaucer's poem about the same lady. Chaucer is not always an easy read, even with modernized spelling, but the dialect of Henryson's poem, although written roughly a century later, is harder, which, together with his powerful, though humane, morality, may explain why it is not better known. Dunbar, a sharp satirist with a ribald sense of humour, is for most moderns a more attractive figure, although he is best known for a decidedly doleful work, his elegy on the transitory nature of life, 'Lament for the Makaris', with its haunting Latin refrain, Timor mortis conturbat me ('The fear of death convulses me'). Circumstantial evidence suggests that death came to Dunbar on the terrible battlefield of Flodden.
An equally well-known and evocative verse refrain is Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? (But where are the snows of yesteryear?). It comes from a poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis ('Ballad of the women of olden times') by Francois Villon, who lived in the mid-15th century and seems to have spent most of his life dodging the gallows. He was little known outside his own country until the 19th century, but is now widely regarded as the greatest poet of medieval France.

'Ful wed she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And Frenssh she spak full faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford attee Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe,"

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 'Prologue', 1,122.





History gets more eventful, and change happens faster and more dramatically, the nearer you approach the present - or so it seems to us, at the leading edge. In the Middle Ages, change was so slow that people were hardly aware of it, there was a sharp quickening in the Renaissance and a tremendous spurt with the Industrial Revolution, since when the pace has become ever more frantic. Whatever the truth, this does not hold for literature.
It could be argued that, for European literature, the two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution were more eventful than the two centuries following, though the reasons were not all literary. In the Renaissance, there was a hugely important development - the invention of printing with movable type, which made books as we know them possible. The establishment of nation states, especially in England and France, coincided with the establishment of the vernacular, a national language, which proved especially productive in England and France before the bones, so to speak, had set hard. By the 18th century, every form of literature was established in, or near to, its modern form, including the all-important genre of the novel, the one form of literature of which practically everyone today has some experience.

The Renaissance is the name given to the flowering of the arts, literature and politics that marked the transition from the European Middle Ages to the Modern Era. It began in the 14th century in Italy, where it reached its height in the early 16th century, and spread throughout Europe. The impulse for the Renaissance was the revival of interest in Classical (Greek and Roman) culture, and its predominant characteristic was humanism -an interest in human beings and in the potential of human nature, apart from religious values. Humanism was not anti-religion; on the contrary, the 16th century was an intensely religious age, but it did imply a reduction in the overwhelming authority that the Church had exercised in the Middle Ages. There was a new spirit of freedom, summed up by the young humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-94): 'Constrained by no limits [Man] shall ordain for himself the limits of his nature'.


Nicolo Machiavelli

To us, the most remarkable characteristic of the great figures of the Renaissance was their versatility. Leo Battista Alberti (1404-72), best known as an architect, was also a painter, a poet, a philosopher, a musician and, by all accounts, a remarkable athlete. In literature, however, the writers of the High Renaissance never quite measured up to their great predecessors, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. There was Ariosto's romantic epic Orlando Furioso, Castiglione's humanist dialogues in The Courtier, and Aretino's witty and scandalous satires. The most famous literary figure of Renaissance Florence is Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). He is best known as a political philosopher, author of The Prince, a candid guide to statesmanship which admitted the necessity of using unpleasant means to gain desirable ends. It shocked Elizabethan England, where the adjective 'machiavellian' came to mean downright villainous. Machiavelli wrote many other works, including an excellent comedy, La Mandragola.


see also:

Ariosto "Orlando Fuioso"

(Illustrations by Gustave Dore)


Ludovico Ariosto

born Sept. 8, 1474, Reggio Emilia, duchy of Modena [Italy]
died July 6, 1533, Ferrara

Italian poet remembered for his epic poem Orlando furioso (1516), which is generally regarded as the finest expression of the literary tendencies and spiritual attitudes ofthe Italian Renaissance.

Ariosto's father, Count Niccolò, was commander of the citadel at Reggio Emilia. When Ludovico was 10, the family moved to his father's native Ferrara, and the poet always considered himself a Ferrarese. He showed an inclination toward poetry from an early age, but his father intended him for a legal career, and so he studied law, unwillingly, at Ferrara from 1489 to 1494. Afterward he devoted himself to literary studies until 1499. Count Niccolò died in 1500, and Ludovico, as the eldest son, had to give up his dream of a peaceful life devoted to humanistic studies in order to provide for his four brothers and five sisters. In 1502 he became commander of the citadel of Canossa and in 1503 entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, son of Duke Ercole I.

Ariosto's duties as a courtier were sharply at odds with his own simple tastes. He was expected to be in constant attendance on the cardinal and to accompany him on dangerous expeditions as well as travel on diplomatic missions. In 1509 he followed the cardinal in Ferrara's campaign against Venice. In 1512 he went to Rome with the cardinal's brother Alfonso, who had succeeded Ercole as duke in 1505 and had sided with France in the Holy League war in an attempt to placate Pope Julius II. In this they were totally unsuccessful and were forced to flee over the Apennines to avoid the pope's wrath. In the following year, after the election of Leo X, hoping to find a situation that would allow him more time to pursue his literary ambitions, Ariosto again went to the Roman court. But his journey was in vain, and he returned to Ferrara.

So far Ariosto had produced a number of Latin verses inspired by the Roman poets Tibullus and Horace. They do not compare in technical skill with those by Pietro Bembo, a contemporary poet and outstanding scholar, but they are much more genuine in feeling. Since about 1505, however, Ariosto had been working on Orlando furioso, and, indeed, he continued to revise and refine it for the rest of his life. Thefirst edition was published in Venice in 1516. This version and the second (Ferrara, 1521) consisted of 40 cantos written in the metrical form of the ottava rima (an eight-line stanza, keeping to a tradition that had been followed since Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century through such 15th-century poets as Politian and Matteo Maria Boiardo). The second edition shows signs of Bembo's influence in matters of language and style that is still more evident in thethird edition.

Orlando furioso is an original continuation of Boiardo's poemOrlando innamorato. Its hero is Orlando, whose name is the Italian form of Roland. Orlando furioso consists of a number of episodes derived from the epics, romances, and heroic poetry of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. The poem, however, achieves homogeneity by the author's skill and economy in handling the various episodes. Despite complete disregard of unity of action (which was to become compulsory in the second half of the century), it is possible to identify three principal nuclei around which the various stories are grouped: Orlando's unrequited love for Angelica, which makes him go mad (furioso); the war between Christians (led by Charlemagne) and Saracens (led by Agramante) near Paris; and the secondary love story of Ruggiero and Bradamante. The first is the most important, particularly in the first part of the poem; the second represents the epic background to the whole narrative; and the third is merely introduced as a literary courtesy, since the Este family was supposed to owe its origin to the union of the two lovers. The main unifying element, however, is thepersonality of Ariosto himself, who confers his own refined spirituality on all his characters. Sensual love is the prevailing sentiment, but it is tempered by the author's ironical attitude and artistic detachment. Upon its publication in 1516, Orlando furioso enjoyed immediate popularity throughout Europe, and it was to influence greatlythe literature of the Renaissance.

In 1517 Cardinal Ippolito was created bishop of Buda. Ariosto refused to follow him to Hungary, however, and in the following year he entered the personal service of Duke Alfonso, the cardinal's brother. He was thus able to remain in Ferrara near his mistress, Alessandra Benucci, whom he had met in 1513. But, in 1522, financial necessity compelled him to accept the post of governor of the Garfagnana, a province in the wildest part of the Apennines. It was torn by rival political factions and overrun by brigands, but Ariosto showed great administrative ability in maintaining order there.

During this period, from 1517 to 1525, he composed his seven satires (titled Satire), modeled after the Sermones (satires) of Horace. The first (written in 1517 when he had refused to follow the cardinal to Buda) is a noble assertion ofthe dignity and independence of the writer; the second criticizes ecclesiastical corruption; the third moralizes on the need to refrain from ambition; the fourth deals with marriage; the fifth and sixth describe his personal feelings at being kept away from his family by his masters' selfishness; and the seventh (addressed to Pietro Bembo) points out the vices of humanists and reveals his sorrow at not having been allowed to complete his literary education in his youth.

Ariosto's five comedies, Cassaria (1508), I sup po si ti (1509), Il negromante (1520), La lena (1529), and I studenti (completed by his brother Gabriele and published posthumously as La scolastica), are based on the Latin classics but were inspired by contemporary life. Though minor works in themselves, they were among the first of those imitations of Latin comedy in the vernacular that would long characterize European comedy.

By 1525 Ariosto had managed to save enough money to return to Ferrara, where he bought a little house with a garden. Probably between 1528 and 1530 he married Alessandra Benucci (though secretly, so as not to forego certain ecclesiastical benefices to which he was entitled). Hespent the last years of his life with his wife, cultivating his garden and revising the Orlando furioso. The third edition of his masterpiece (Ferrara, 1532) contained 46 cantos (a giunta, or appendix, known as the Cinque canti, or “Five Cantos,” was published posthumously in 1545). This final version at last achieved perfection and was published a few months before Ariosto's death.

Giovanni Aquilecchia

Encyclopedia Britannica


see also:

Ariosto "Orlando Fuioso" (Illustrations by G. Dore)




Angelica, whom pressing danger frights,
Flies in disorder through the greenwood shade.
Rinaldo's horse escapes: he, following, fights
Ferrau, the Spaniard, in a forest glade.
A second oath the haughty paynim plights,
And keeps it better than the first he made.
King Sacripant regains his long-lost treasure;
But good Rinaldo mars his promised pleasure.

And from those ancient days my story bring,
When Moors from Afric passed in hostile fleet,
And ravaged France, with Agramant their king,
Flushed with his youthful rage and furious heat,
Who on king Charles', the Roman emperor's head
Had vowed due vengeance for Troyano dead.

In the same strain of Roland will I tell
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,
On whom strange madness and rank fury fell,
A man esteemed so wise in former time;
If she, who to like cruel pass has well
Nigh brought my feeble wit which fain would climb
And hourly wastes my sense, concede me skill
And strength my daring promise to fulfil.



Pietro Aretino

born April 20, 1492, Arezzo, Republic of Florence [Italy]
died Oct. 21, 1556, Venice

Italian poet, prose writer, and dramatist celebrated throughout Europe in his time for his bold and insolent literary attacks on the powerful. His fiery letters and dialogues are of great biographical and topical interest.

Although Aretino was the son of an Arezzo shoemaker, he later pretended to be the bastard son of a nobleman and derived his adopted name (“the Aretine”) from that of his native city (his real name is unknown). While still very young, he went to Perugia and painted for a time and then moved on to Rome in 1517, where he wrote a series of viciously satirical lampoons supporting the candidacy of Giulio de' Medici for the papacy (Giulio became Pope Clement VII in 1523). Despite the support of the pope and another patron, Aretino was finally forced to leave Rome because of his general notoriety and his 1524 collection of Sonetti lussuriosi (“Lewd Sonnets”). From Rome he went to Venice (1527), where he became the object of great adulation and lived in a grand and dissolute style for the rest of his life.

One of Aretino's closest friends in Venice was the painter Titian, for whom he sold many paintings to Francis I, king of France; a great gold chain that Aretino wears in Titian's portrait (c. 1545; Pitti Palace, Florence) was a gift from the king.

Among Aretino's many works, the most characteristic are his satirical attacks, often amounting to blackmail, on the powerful. He grew wealthy on gifts from kings and nobles who feared his satire and coveted the fame accruing from hisadulation. His six volumes of letters (published 1537–57) show his power and cynicism and give ample justification for the name he gave himself, “flagello dei principe” (“scourge of princes”). Aretino was particularly vicious in his attacks on Romans because they had forced him to flee to Venice. In his Ragionamenti (1534–36; modern edition, 1914; “Discussions”), Roman prostitutes reveal to each other the moral failings of many important men of their city, and in I dialoghi and other dialogues he continues the examination of carnality and corruption among Romans.

Only Aretino's dramas were relatively free of such venomous assaults. His five comedies are acutely perceivedpictures of lower-class life, free from the conventions that burdened other contemporary dramas. Of the five comedies, written between 1525 and 1544 (modern collection, Commedie, 1914), the best known is Cortigiana (published 1534, first performed 1537, “The Courtesan”), a lively and amusing panorama of the life of the lower classes in papal Rome. Aretino also wrote a tragedy, Orazia (published 1546; “The Horatii”), which has been judged by some the best Italian tragedy written in the 16th century.

Encyclopedia Britannica




In the early 16th century, French was becoming established as a literary language. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, flourished; no more productive period for French poetry (excluding drama) would occur until the 19th century. However, the two greatest French writers of the century, especially in terms of their influence on literature in general, both wrote prose, though of totally different kinds. Rabelais (d.1533) is now not often read, partly because of the difficulty of translating this exuberant genius. He was at one time a monk, then a wandering scholar, then a physician, who wrote learned works on medicine in Latin. But he is remembered for his humorous, ribald, life-affirming tales of the popular giants Gargantua and Pantagruel, a vast, bubbling collection of stories and learning, condemned by some as obscene. Like Machiavelli, he bequeathed us the adjectives 'rabelaisian', and 'gargantuan'.
The difference between Rabelais and Montaigne (1533-92) has been likened to the difference between a pub at closing time and a quiet public library in mid-afternoon. A scholarly country gentleman, Montaigne is regarded as the inventor of the essay. His first volume of essays was published in 1580 and reissued several times with extensive additions. They reflect the author's changing philosophy and were increasingly based on his searching analysis of himself. Amused, tolerant, sceptical, Montaigne was the first great master of French prose, a model to later generations and a pervasive influence on other writers, including Shakespeare: one of his essays was a source for The Tempest.


see also:

Francois Rabelais

"Gargantua and Pantagruel"

Illustrations by Gustave Dore


Francois Rabelais

born c. 1494, Poitou, France
died probably April 9, 1553, Paris

pseudonym Alcofribas NasierFrench writer and priest who for his contemporaries wasan eminent physician and humanist and for posterity is the author of the comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel . The four novels composing this work are outstanding for their rich use of Renaissance French and for their comedy, which ranges from gross burlesque to profound satire. They exploit popular legends, farces, and romances, as well as classical and Italian material, but were written primarily for a court public and a learned one. The adjective Rabelaisian applied to scatological humour is misleading; Rabelais used scatology aesthetically, not gratuitously, for comic condemnation. His creative exuberance, colourful and wide-ranging vocabulary, and literary variety continue to ensure his popularity.

Details of Rabelais's life are sparse and difficult to interpret. He was the son of Antoine Rabelais, a rich Touraine landowner and a prominent lawyer who deputized for the lieutenant-général of Poitou in 1527. After apparentlystudying law, Rabelais became a Franciscan novice at La Baumette (1510?) and later moved to the Puy-Saint-Martin convent at Fontenay-le-Comte in Poitou. By 1521 (perhaps earlier) he had taken holy orders.

Rabelais early acquired a reputation for profound humanist learning among his contemporaries, but the elements of religious satire and scatological humour in his comic novels eventually left him open to persecution. He depended throughout his life on powerful political figures (Guillaume du Bellay, Margaret of Navarre) and on high-ranking liberal ecclesiastics (Cardinal Jean du Bellay, Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac, Cardinal Odet de Chatillon) for protection in thosedangerous and intolerant times in France.

Rabelais was closely associated with Pierre Amy, a liberal Franciscan humanist of international repute. In 1524 the Greek books of both scholars were temporarily confiscated by superiors of their convent, because Greek was suspect to hyperorthodox Roman Catholics as a “heretical” language that opened up the original New Testament to study. Rabelais then obtained a temporary dispensation from Pope Clement VII and was removed to the Benedictine houseof Saint-Pierre-de-Maillezais, the prior of which was his bishop, Geoffroy d'Estissac. He never liked his new order, however, and he later satirized the Benedictines, although he passed lightly over Franciscan shortcomings.

Rabelais studied medicine, probably under the aegis of the Benedictines in their Hôtel Saint-Denis in Paris. In 1530 he broke his vows and left the Benedictines to study medicine at the University of Montpellier, probably with the support of his patron, Geoffroy d'Estissac. Graduating within weeks, he lectured on the works of distinguished ancient Greek physicians and published his own editions of Hippocrates' Aphorisms and Galen's Ars parva (“The Art of Raising Children”) in 1532. As a doctor he placed great reliance on classical authority, siding with the Platonic school of Hippocrates but also following Galen and Avicenna. During this period an unknown widow bore him two children (François and Junie), who were given their father's name and were legitimated by Pope Paul IV in 1540.

After practicing medicine briefly in Narbonne, Rabelais was appointed physician to the hospital of Lyon, the Hôtel-Dieu, in 1532. In the same year, he edited the medical letters of Giovanni Manardi, a contemporary Italian physician. It was during this period that he discovered his true talent. Fired by the success of an anonymous popular chapbook, Les Grandes et inestimables cronicques du grant et énorme géant Gargantua, he published his first novel, Les horribles et épouvantables faits et prouesses du très renommé Pantagruel, roy des Dipsodes (1532; “The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes”), under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an obvious anagram of his real name). Pantagruel is slighter in length and intellectual depth than his later novels,but nothing of this quality had been seen before in French in any similar genre. Rabelais displayed his delight in words, his profound sense of the comedy of language itself, his mastery of comic situation, monologue, dialogue, and action,and his genius as a storyteller who was able to create a worldof fantasy out of words alone. Within the framework of a mock-heroic, chivalrous romance, he laughed at many types of sophistry, including legal obscurantism and hermeticism, which he nevertheless preferred to the scholasticism of the Sorbonne. One chapter stands out for its sustained seriousness, praising the divine gift of fertile matrimony as acompensation for death caused by Adam's fall. Pantagruel borrows openly from Sir Thomas More's Utopia in its reference to the war between Pantagruel's country, Utopia, and the Dipsodes, but it also preaches a semi-Lutheran doctrine—that no one but God and his angels may spread thegospel by force. Pantagruel is memorable as the book in which Pantagruel's companion, Panurge, a cunning and witty rogue, first appears.

Though condemned by the Sorbonne in Paris as obscene, Pantagruel was a popular success. It was followed in 1533 bythe Pantagrueline Prognostication, a parody of the almanacs, astrological predictions that exercised a growing hold on the Renaissance mind. In 1534 Rabelais left the Hôtel-Dieu to travel to Rome with the bishop of Paris, Jean duBellay. He returned to Lyon in May of that year and publishedan edition of Bartolomeo Marliani's description of Rome, Topographia antiquae Romae. He returned to the Hôtel-Dieubut left it again in February 1535, upon which the authorities of the Lyon hospital appointed someone else to his post.

La vie inestimable du grand Gargantua (“The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua”) belongs to this period. The second edition is dated 1535; the first edition was probably published in 1534, though it lacks the title page in the only known copy. In Gargantua Rabelais continues to exploit medieval romances mock-heroically, telling of the birth, education, and prowesses of the giant Gargantua, who is Pantagruel's father. Much of the satire—for example, mockery of the ignorant trivialization of the mystical cult of emblems and of erroneous theories of heraldry—is calculated to delight the court; much also aims at delighting the learned reader—for example, Rabelais sides with humanist lawyers against legal traditionalists and doctors who accepted 11-month, or even 13-month, pregnancies. Old-fashioned scholastic pedagogy is ridiculed and contrasted with the humanist ideal of the Christian prince, widely learned in art, science, and crafts and skilled in knightly warfare. The war between Gargantua and his neighbour, the “biliously choleric” Picrochole, is partly a private satire of an enemy of Rabelais's father and partly a mocking of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and the imperial design of world conquest. Gargantua commands themilitary operations, but some of the exploits are carried out by Frère Jean (the Benedictine). Though he is lean, lecherous,dirty, and ignorant, Frère Jean is redeemed by his jollity and active virtue; for his fellow monks are timorous and idle, delighting in “vain repetitions” of prayers. Gargantua's last major episode centres on the erection of the Abbey of Thélème, a monastic institution that rejects poverty, celibacy, and obedience; instead it welcomes wealth and the well-born, praises the aristocratic life, and rejoices in good marriages.

After Gargantua, Rabelais published nothing new for 11 years, though he prudently expurgated his two works of overbold religious opinions. He continued as physician to Jean du Bellay, who had become a cardinal, and his powerful brother Guillaume, and in 1535 Rabelais accompanied the cardinal to Rome. There he regularized his position by making a “supplication” to the pope for his “apostasy” (i.e., his unauthorized departure from the Benedictine monastery); the pope issued a bull freeing Rabelais from ecclesiastical censure and allowing him to reenter the Benedictine order. Rabelais then arranged to enter the Benedictine convent at Saint-Maur-les-Fossés, where Cardinal Jean du Bellay was abbot. The convent was secularized six months later, and Rabelais became a secular priest, authorized to exercise his medical profession.

In May 1537 Rabelais was awarded the doctorate of medicine of Montpellier; and he delivered, with considerable success, a course of lectures on Hippocrates' Prognostics. Hewas at Aigues-Mortes in July 1538 when Charles V met the French king Francis I, but his movements are obscure until hefollowed Guillaume du Bellay to the Piedmont in 1542. Guillaume died in January 1543, and to Rabelais his death meant the loss of an important patron. That same year Geoffroy d'Estissac died as well, and Rabelais's novels were condemned by the Sorbonne and the Parlement of Paris. Rabelais sought protection from the French king's sister Margaret, queen of Navarre, dedicating to her the third book of the Gargantua-Pantagruel series, Tiers livre des faitset dits heroiques du noble Pantagruel (1546; “Third Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”). Despite its royal privilege (i.e., license to print), the book wasimmediately condemned for heresy by the Sorbonne, and Rabelais fled to Metz (an imperial city), remaining there until 1547.

The Tiers livre is Rabelais's most profound work. Pantagruelhas now deepened into a Stoico-Christian inerrant sage; Panurge, a lover of self and deluded by the devil, is now an adept at making black seem white. Panurge hesitates: Should he marry? Will he be cuckolded, beaten, robbed by hiswife? He consults numerous prognostications, both good Platonic ones and less reputable ones—all to no effect because of his self-love. He consults a good theologian, a Platonic doctor, and a Skeptic philosopher approved of by the learned giants, but his problem is not treated by the judge Bridoye, who—like Roman law in cases of extreme perplexity—trusts in Providence and decides cases by casting lots. Panurge trusts in no one, least of all in himself. Itis therefore decided to consult the oracle of the Dive Bouteille (“Sacred Bottle”), and the travelers set out for the temple. The Tiers livre ends enigmatically with a mock eulogy in which hemp is praised for its myriad uses.

From 1547 onward, Rabelais found protection again as physician to Cardinal Jean du Bellay and accompanied him toRome via Turin, Ferrara, and Bologna. Passing through Lyon, he gave his printer his incomplete Quart livre (“Fourth Book”), which, as printed in 1548, finishes in the middle of a sentence but contains some of his most delightful comic storytelling. In Rome Rabelais sent a story to his newest protector in the Guise family, Charles of Lorraine, 2nd Cardinal de Lorraine; the story described the “Sciomachie” (“Simulated Battle”) organized by Cardinal Jean to celebrate the birth of Louis of Orléans, second son of Henry II of France.

In January 1551 the Cardinal de Guise presented him with two benefices at Meudon and Jambet, though Rabelais never officiated or resided there. In 1552, through the influence of the cardinal, Rabelais was able to publish—with a new prologue—the full Quart livre des faits etdits héroïques du noble Pantagruel (“Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of the Noble Pantagruel”), his longest book. Despite its royal privilège, this work, too, was condemned by the Sorbonne and banned by Parlement, but Rabelais's powerful patrons soon had the censorship lifted. In 1553 Rabelais resigned his benefices. He died shortly thereafter and was buried in Saint-Paul-des-Champs, Paris.

In 1562 there appeared in Lyon the Isle sonante, allegedly by Rabelais. It was expanded in 1564 into the so-called Cinquiesme et dernier livre (“Fifth and Last Book”). This workis partly satirical, partly an allegory; the Sacred Bottle—the ostensible quest of the Quart livre—is consulted, and the heroes receive the oraculous advice: “drink” (symbolizing wisdom?). This work cannot be by Rabelais as it stands. Some scholars believe it to be based on his (lost) drafts, while others deny it any authenticity whatsoever.

Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rabelais's purpose in the four books of his masterpiece wasto entertain the cultivated reader at the expense of the follies and exaggerations of his times. If he points lessons, it is because his life has taught him something about the evils of comatose monasticism, the trickery of lawyers, the pigheaded persistence of litigants, and the ignorance of grasping physicians. Rabelais was a friar with unhappy memories of his monastery; his father had wasted his moneyon lengthy litigation with a neighbour over some trivial waterrights; and he himself was earning his living by medicine in an age when the distinction between physician and quack was needle-fine. Though it is an entertainment, therefore, Gargantua and Pantagruel is also serious. Its principal narrative is devoted to a voyage of discovery that parodies the travelers' tales current in Rabelais's day. Rabelais begins lightheartedly; his travelers merely set out to discover whether Panurge will be cuckolded if he marries. A dozen oracles have already hinted at Panurge's inevitable fate, yet each time he has reasoned their verdict away; and the voyage itself provides a number of amusing incidents. Yet, like Don Quixote's, it is a fundamentally serious quest directed toward a true goal, the discovery of the secret of life.

Intoxication—with life, with learning, with the use and abuse of words—is the prevailing mood of the book. Rabelais himself provides the model of the exuberant creator. His four books provide a cunning mosaic of scholarly, literary, and scientific parody. One finds this in its simplest form in the catalog of the library of St. Victor, in the list of preposterous substantives or attributes in which Rabelais delights, and in the inquiry by means of Virgilian lots into thequestion of Panurge's eventual cuckoldom. But at other times the humour is more complicated and works on several levels. Gargantua's campaign against King Picrochole (book 1), for instance, contains personal, historical, moral, and classical points closely interwoven. The battles are fought inRabelais's home country, in which each hamlet is magnifiedinto a fortified city. Moreover, they also refer to the feud between Rabelais the elder and his neighbour. They also comment on recent historical events involving France and the Holy Roman Empire, however, and can even be read as propaganda against war, or at least in favour of the more humane conduct of hostilities. On yet another level, Rabelais's account of this imaginary warfare can be taken as mockery of the classical historians: Gargantua's speech to his defeated enemy (book 1, chapter 50) echoes one put into the mouth of the Roman emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger.

Despite these complex levels of reference, Rabelais was not a self-conscious writer; he made his book out of the disorderly contents of his mind. As a result it is ill-constructed, and the same thoughts are repeated in Gargantua that he had already set down in Pantagruel; the nature of an ideal education, for example, is examined in both books. Moreover, the main action of the story, which arises from the question of Panurge's intended marriage, only begins in the third book. The first, Gargantua, throws up the enormous contradiction that has made the interpretationof Rabelais's own intellectual standpoint almost impossible. On the one hand we have the rumbustious festivities that celebrate the giant's peculiarly miraculous birth and the “Rabelaisian” account of his childish habits; and on the other a plea for an enlightened education. Again, the brutal slaughter of the Picrocholine wars, in which Rabelais obviously delights, is followed by the utopian description of Thélème, the Renaissance ideal of a civilized community. Pantagruel follows the same pattern with variations, introducing Panurge but omitting Frère Jean, and putting Pantagruel in the place of his father, Gargantua. In fact the characters are not strongly individualized. They exist only in what they say, being so many voices through whom the author speaks. Panurge, for instance, has no consistent nature. A resourceful and intelligent poor scholar in Pantagruel, he becomes a credulous buffoon in the third book and an arrant coward in the fourth.

The third and fourth books pursue the story of the inquiry andvoyage, and in them Rabelais's invention is at its height. The first two books contain incidents close in feeling to the medieval fabliaux, but the third and fourth books are rich in anew, learned humour. Rabelais was a writer molded by one tradition, the medieval Roman Catholic, whose sympathies lay to a greater extent with another, the Renaissance or classical. Yet when he writes in praise of the new humanist ideals—in the chapters on education, on the foundation of Thélème, or in praise of drinking from the “sacred bottle” of learning or enlightenment—he easily becomes sententious. His head is for the new learning, while his flesh and heart belong to the old. It is in his absurd, earthy, and exuberant inventions, which are medieval in spirit even when they mock at medieval acceptances, that Rabelais is a great, entertaining, and worldly wise writer.

M.A. Screech

Encyclopedia Britannica



Michel de Montaigne

born Feb. 28, 1533, Chateau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, France
died Sept. 23, 1592, Château de Montaigne

in full Michel Eyquem de Montaigne French writer whose Essais (Essays ) established a new literary form. In his Essays he wrote one of the most captivating and intimate self-portraits ever given, on apar with Augustine's and Rousseau's.

Living, as he did, in the second half of the 16th century, Montaigne bore witness to the decline of the intellectual optimism that had marked the Renaissance. The sense of immense human possibilities, stemming from the discoveries of the New World travelers, from the rediscovery of classical antiquity, and from the opening of scholarly horizons through the works of the humanists, was shattered in France when the advent of the Calvinistic Reformation was followed closely by religious persecution and by the Wars of Religion (1562–98). These conflicts, which tore the country asunder, were in fact political and civil as well as religious wars, marked by great excesses of fanaticism and cruelty. At once deeply critical of his time and deeply involved in its preoccupations and its struggles, Montaigne chose to write about himself—“I am myself the matter of my book,” he saysin his opening address to the reader—in order to arrive at certain possible truths concerning man and the human condition, in a period of ideological strife and division when all possibility of truth seemed illusory and treacherous.


Born in the family domain of Château de Montaigne in southwestern France, Michel Eyquem spent most of his life at his château and in the city of Bordeaux, 30 miles to the west. The family fortune had been founded in commerce by Montaigne's great-grandfather, who acquired the estate and the title of nobility. His grandfather and his father expanded their activities to the realm of public service and established the family in the noblesse de robe, the administrative nobility of France. Montaigne's father, PierreEyquem, served as mayor of Bordeaux.

As a young child Montaigne was tutored at home according to his father's ideas of pedagogy, which included the creation of a cosseted ambience of gentle encouragement and the exclusive use of Latin, still the international language of educated people. As a result the boy did not learn French until he was six years old. He continued his education at the College of Guyenne, where he found the strict discipline abhorrent and the instruction only moderately interesting, and eventually at the University of Toulouse, where he studied law. Following in the public-service tradition begun by his grandfather, he enteredin to the magistrature, becoming a member of the Board of Excise, the new tax court of Perigueux, and, when that body was dissolved in 1557, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, one of the eight regional parliaments that constituted the French Parliament, the highest national court of justice. There, at the age of 24, he made the acquaintance of Etienne de la Boetie, a meeting that was one of the most significant events in Montaigne's life. Between the slightly older La Boetie (1530–63), an already distinguished civil servant, humanist scholar, and writer, and Montaigne an extraordinary friendship sprang up, based on a profound intellectual and emotional closeness and reciprocity. In his essay “On Friendship” Montaigne wrote in a very touching manner about his bond with La Boetie, which he called perfect and indivisible, vastly superior to all other human alliances. When La Boetie died of dysentery, he left a void in Montaigne's life that no other being was ever able to fill, and it is likely that Montaigne started on his writing career, six years after La Boetie's death, in order to fill the emptiness left by the loss of the irretrievable friend.

In 1565 Montaigne was married, acting less out of love than out of a sense of familial and social duty, to Françoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of one of his colleagues at the Parliament of Bordeaux. He fathered six daughters, five of whom died in infancy, whereas the sixth, Léonore, survived him.

In 1569 Montaigne published his first book, a French translation of the 15th-century Natural Theology by the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond. He had undertaken the taskat the request of his father, who, however, died in 1568, before its publication, leaving to his oldest son the title and the domain of Montaigne.

In 1570 Montaigne sold his seat in the Bordeaux Parliament, signifying his departure from public life. After taking care of the posthumous publication of La Boetie's works, together with his own dedicatory letters, he retired in 1571 to the castle of Montaigne in order to devote his time to reading, meditating, and writing. His library, installed in the castle's tower, became his refuge. It was in this round room, lined with a thousand books and decorated with Greek and Latin inscriptions, that Montaigne set out to put on paper his essais, that is, the probings and testings of his mind. He spent the years from 1571 to 1580 composing the first two books of the Essays, which comprise respectively 57 and 37 chapters of greatly varying lengths; they were published in Bordeaux in 1580.

Although most of these years were dedicated to writing, Montaigne had to supervise the running of his estate as well, and he was obliged to leave his retreat from time to time, not only to travel to the court in Paris but also to intervene as mediator in several episodes of the religious conflicts in his region and beyond. Both the Roman Catholic king Henry III and the Protestant king Henry of Navarre—who as Henry IV would become king of France and convert to Roman Catholicism—honoured and respected Montaigne, but extremists on both sides criticized and harassed him.

After the 1580 publication, eager for new experiences and profoundly disgusted by the state of affairs in France, Montaigne set out to travel, and in the course of 15 months he visited areas of France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Curious by nature, interested in the smallest details of dailiness, geography, and regional idiosyncrasies, Montaigne was a born traveler. He kept a record of his trip, his Journal de voyage (not intended for publication and not published until 1774), which is rich in picturesque episodes, encounters, evocations, and descriptions.

While still in Italy, in the fall of 1581, Montaigne received the news that he had been elected to the office his father hadheld, that of mayor of Bordeaux. Reluctant to accept, because of the dismal political situation in France and because of ill health (he suffered from kidney stones, which had also plagued him on his trip), he nevertheless assumed the position at the request of Henry III and held it for two terms, until July 1585. While the beginning of his tenure was relatively tranquil, his second term was marked by an acceleration of hostilities between the warring factions, and Montaigne played a crucial role in preserving the equilibrium between the Catholic majority and the important Protestant League representation in Bordeaux. Toward the end of his term the plague broke out in Bordeaux, soon raging out of control and killing one-third of the population.

Montaigne resumed his literary work by embarking on the third book of the Essays. After having been interrupted again, by a renewed outbreak of the plague in the area that forced Montaigne and his family to seek refuge elsewhere, by military activity close to his estate, and by diplomatic duties, when Catherine de Médicis appealed to his abilities as a negotiator to mediate between herself and Henry of Navarre—a mission that turned out to be unsuccessful—Montaigne was able to finish the work in 1587.

The year 1588 was marked by both political and literary events. During a trip to Paris Montaigne was twice arrested and briefly imprisoned by members of the Protestant League because of his loyalty to Henry III. During the same trip he supervised the publication of the fifth edition of the Essays, the first to contain the 13 chapters of Book III, as well as Books I and II, enriched with many additions. He also met Marie de Gournay, an ardent and devoted young admirer of his writings. De Gournay, a writer herself, is mentioned in the Essays as Montaigne's “covenant daughter” and was to become his literary executrix. After the assassination of Henry III in 1589, Montaigne helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry IV. He spent the last years of his life at his château, continuing to read and to reflect and to work on the Essays, adding new passages, which signify not so much profound changes in his ideas as further explorations of his thought and experience. Different illnesses beset him during this period, and he died after an attack of quinsy, an inflammation of the tonsils, which had deprived him of speech. His death occurred while he was hearing mass in hisroom.

The Essays

Montaigne saw his age as one of dissimulation, corruption, violence, and hypocrisy, and it is therefore not surprising that the point of departure of the Essays is situated in negativity: the negativity of Montaigne's recognition of the rule of appearances and of the loss of connection with the truth of being. Montaigne's much-discussed skepticism results from that initial negativity, as he questions the possibility of all knowing and sees the human being as a creature of weakness and failure, of inconstancy and uncertainty, of incapacity and fragmentation, or, as he wrote in the first of the essays, as “a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating thing.” His skepticism is reflected in the French title of his work, Essais, or “Attempts,” which implies not a transmission of proven knowledge or of confident opinion but a project of trial and error, of tentative exploration. Neither a reference to an established genre (for Montaigne's book inaugurated the term essay for the short prose composition treating a given subject in a rather informal and personal manner) nor an indication of a necessary internal unity and structure within the work, the title indicates an intellectual attitude of questioning and of continuous assessment.

Montaigne's skepticism does not, however, preclude a belief in the existence of truth but rather constitutes a defense against the danger of locating truth in false, unexamined, and externally imposed notions. His skepticism, combined with his desire for truth, drives him to the rejection of commonly accepted ideas and to a profound distrust of generalizations and abstractions; it also shows him the way to an exploration of the only realm that promises certainty: that of concrete phenomena and primarily the basic phenomenon of his own body-and-mind self. This self, with all its imperfections, constitutes the only possible site where the search for truth can start, and it is thereason Montaigne, from the beginning to the end of the Essays, does not cease to affirm that “I am myself the matter of my book.” He finds that his identity, his “master form” as he calls it, cannot be defined in simple terms of a constant and stable self, since it is instead a changeable andfragmented thing, and that the valorization and acceptance of these traits is the only guarantee of authenticity and integrity, the only way of remaining faithful to the truth of one's being and one's nature rather than to alien semblances.

Yet, despite his insistence that the self guard its freedom toward outside influences and the tyranny of imposed customs and opinions, Montaigne believes in the value of reaching outside the self. Indeed, throughout his writings, as he did in his private and public life, he manifests the need to entertain ties with the world of other people and of events. For this necessary coming and going between the interiority of the self and the exteriority of the world, Montaigne uses the image of the back room: human beings have their front room, facing the street, where they meet and interact with others, but they need always to be able to retreat into the back room of the most private self, where they may reaffirm the freedom and strength of intimate identity and reflect upon the vagaries of experience. Given that always-available retreat, Montaigne encourages contact with others, from which one may learn much that is useful. In order to do so, he advocates travel, reading, especially of history books, and conversations with friends. These friends, for Montaigne, are necessarily men. While none can ever replace La Boetie, it is possible to have interesting and worthwhile exchanges with men of discernment and wit. As for his relations with women, Montaigne wrote about them with a frankness unusual for his time. The only uncomplicated bond is that of marriage, which reposes, for Montaigne, on reasons of family and posterity and in which one invests little of oneself. Love, on the other hand, with its emotional and erotic demands, comports the risk of enslavement and loss of freedom. Montaigne, often designated as a misogynist, does in fact recognize that men and women are fundamentally alike in their fears, desires, and attempts to find and affirm their own identity and that only custom and adherence to an antiquated status quo establish the apparent differences between the sexes, but he does not explore the possibility of overcoming that fundamental separation and of establishing an intellectual equality.

Montaigne extends his curiosity about others to the inhabitants of the New World, with whom he had become acquainted through his lively interest in oral and written travel accounts and through his meeting in 1562 with three Brazilian Indians whom the explorer Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon had brought back to France. Giving an example of cultural relativism and tolerance, rare in his time, he finds these people, in their fidelity to their own nature and in their cultural and personal dignity and sense of beauty, greatly superior to the inhabitants of western Europe, who in the conquests of the New World and in their own internal wars have shown themselves to be the true barbarians. The suffering and humiliation imposed on the New World's natives by their conquerors provoke his indignation and compassion.

Involvement in public service is also a part of interaction with the world, and it should be seen as a duty to be honourably and loyally discharged but never allowed to become a consuming and autonomy-destroying occupation.

Montaigne applies and illustrates his ideas concerning the independence and freedom of the self and the importance of social and intellectual intercourse in all his writings and in particular in his essay on the education of children. There, aselse where, he advocates the value of concrete experience over abstract learning and of independent judgment over an accumulation of undigested notions uncritically accepted from others. He also stresses, throughout his work, the role of the body, as in his candid descriptions of his own bodily functions and in his extensive musings on the realities of illness, of aging, and of death. The presence of death pervades the Essays, as Montaigne wants to familiarize himself with the inevitability of dying and so to rid himself of the tyranny of fear, and he is able to accept death as part of nature's exigencies, inherent in life's expectations and limitations.

Montaigne seems to have been a loyal if not fervent Roman Catholic all his life, but he distrusted all human pretenses to knowledge of a spiritual experience which is not attached to a concretely lived reality. He declined to speculate on a transcendence that falls beyond human ken, believing in God but refusing to invoke him in necessarily presumptuous and reductive ways.

Although Montaigne certainly knew the classical philosophers, his ideas spring less out of their teaching than out of the completely original meditation on himself, which he extends to a description of the human being and to an ethics of authenticity, self-acceptance, and tolerance. The Essays are the record of his thoughts, presented not in artificially organized stages but as they occurred and reoccurred to him in different shapes throughout his thinking and writing activity. They are not the record of an intellectualevolution but of a continuous accretion, and he insists on theimmediacy and the authenticity of their testimony. To denote their consubstantiality with his natural self, he describes them as his children, and, in an image of startling and completely nonpejorative earthiness, as the excrements of his mind. As he refuses to impose a false unity on the spontaneous workings of his thought, so he refuses to impose a false structure on his Essays. “As my mind roams, so does my style,” he wrote, and the multiple digressions, the wandering developments, the savory, concrete vocabulary, all denote that fidelity to the freshness and the immediacy of the living thought. Throughout the text he sprinkles anecdotes taken from ancient as well as contemporary authors and from popular lore, which reinforcehis critical analysis of reality; he also peppers his writing with quotes, yet another way of interacting with others, that is, with the authors of the past who surround him in his library. Neither anecdotes nor quotes impinge upon the autonomy of his own ideas, although they may spark or reinforce a train of thought, and they become an integral part of the book's fabric.

Montaigne's Essays thus incorporate a profound skepticism concerning the human being's dangerously inflated claims to knowledge and certainty but also assert that there is no greater achievement than the ability to accept one's being without either contempt or illusion, in the full realization of its limitations and its richness.


Throughout the ages the Essays have been widely and variously read, and their readers have tended to look to them, and into them, for answers to their own needs. Not all his contemporaries manifested the enthusiasm of Marie de Gournay, who fainted from excitement at her first reading. She did recognize in the book the full force of an unusual mind revealing itself, but most of the intellectuals of the period preferred to find in Montaigne a safe reincarnation of stoicism. Here started a misunderstanding that was to last a long time, save in the case of the exceptional reader. The Essays were to be perused as an anthology of philosophical maxims, a repository of consecrated wisdom, rather than as the complete expression of a highly individual thought and experience. That Montaigne could write about his most intimate reactions and feelings, that he could describe his own physical appearance and preferences, for instance, seemed shocking and irrelevant to many, just as the apparent confusion of his writing seemed a weakness to be deplored rather than a guarantee of authenticity.

In the 17th century, when an educated nobility set the tone, he was chiefly admired for his portrayal of the honnete homme , the well-educated, nonpedantic man of manners, asmuch at home in a salon as in his study, a gentleman of smiling wisdom and elegant, discreet disenchantment. In the same period, however, religious authors such as Francis of Sales and Blaise Pascal deplored his skepticism as anti-Christian and denounced what they interpreted as an immoral self-absorption. In the pre-Revolutionary 18th century the image of a dogmatically irreligious Montaigne continued to be dominant, and Voltaire and Denis Diderot saw in him a precursor of the free thought of the Enlightenment. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, the encounter with the Essays was differently and fundamentally important, as he rightly considered Montaigne the master and the model of the self-portrait. Rousseau inaugurated the perception of the book as the entirely personal project of a human being in search of his identity and unafraid to talk without dissimulation about his profound nature. In the 19th century some of the old misunderstandings continued, but there was a growing understanding and appreciation of Montaigne not only as a master of ideas but also as the writer of the particular, the individual, the intimate—the writer as friend and familiar. Gustave Flaubert kept the Essays on his bedside table and recognized in Montaigne an alter ego, as would, in the 20th century, authors such as André Gide, Michel Butor, and Roland Barthes.

The Essays were first translated into English by John Florio in1603, and Anglophone readers have included Francis Bacon, John Webster, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Today Montaigne continues to be studied in all aspects of his text by great numbers of scholars and to be read by people from all corners of the earth. In an age that may seemas violent and absurd as his own, his refusal of intolerance and fanaticism and his lucid awareness of the human potential for destruction, coupled with his belief in the human capacity for self-assessment, honesty, and compassion, appeal as convincingly as ever to the many who find in him a guide and a friend.

Tilde A. Sankovitch

Encyclopedia Britannica


Little memorable poetry was written in England in the century after Chaucer's death, perhaps because everyone was trying to imitate Chaucer. As in so many other respects, English poetry of the early 16th century took its example from Italy. Thomas Wyatt, who visited Italy in 1527, wrote the first English sonnets as well as translating Petrarch, from whom he learned the art.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, also wrote sonnets after Petrarch, but he adopted a different rhyming system, which became standard for Shakespeare and other English sonneteers. He was also the first to use blank verse - in his translation of the Aeneid. He was executed on an improbable charge of treason in 1547.
The same lamentable fate befell the admirable Sir Thomas More in 1535 when, as Lord Chancellor, he could not bring himself to accept Henry VIII's reformation of the English Church. Literature was More's great recreation, and he wrote (in Latin) Utopia, an early attempt to describe an ideal civilization, while he was on diplomatic business abroad. Prominent literary figures were often to be found at his house, and some were painted there by Holbein, who was introduced by another visitor, the Dutch-born Erasmus (d..1536), the greatest humanist scholar of the age whose output was prodigious. It was More who suggested the ideas behind Erasmus's most famous work, The Praise of Folly, a satire aimed chiefly at the leaders of the Church. His scholarly work on Classical and early Christian writers, and his translations of the Bible, had an immeasurable effect on contemporary European culture and encouraged the Reformation, though Erasmus himself remained loyal to, though critical of, the Roman Catholic Church.


Sir Thomas More

born Feb. 7, 1477, London, Eng.
died July 6, 1535, London; canonized May 19, 1935; feast day June 22

also called Saint Thomas More humanist and statesman, chancellor of England (1529–32), who was beheaded for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church.
Early life and career.

Thomas—the eldest son of John More, a lawyer who was later knighted and made a judge of the King's Bench—was educated at one of London's best schools, St. Anthony's in Threadneedle Street, and in the household of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England. The future cardinal, a shrewd judge of character, predicted that the bright and winsome page would prove a “marvellous man.” His interest sent the boy to the University of Oxford, where More seems to have spent two years, mastering Latinand undergoing a thorough drilling in formal logic.

About 1494 his father brought More back to London to study the common law. In February 1496 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the four legal societies preparing for admission to the bar. In 1501 More became an “utter barrister,” a full member of the profession. Thanks to his boundless curiosity and a prodigious capacity for work, he managed, along with the law, to keep up his literary pursuits. He read avidly from Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the classics and tried his hand at all literary genres.

Although bowing to his father's decision that he should become a lawyer, More was prepared to be disowned rather than disobey God's will. To test his vocation to the priesthood, he resided for about four years in the Carthusian monastery adjoining Lincoln's Inn and shared as much of the monks' way of life as was practicable. Although attracted especially to the Franciscan order, More decided that he would best serve God and his fellowmen as a lay Christian. More, however, never discarded the habits of early rising, prolonged prayer, fasting, and wearing the hair shirt. God remained the centre of his life.

In late 1504 or early 1505, More married Joan Colt, the eldest daughter of an Essex gentleman farmer. She was a competent hostess for non-English visitors, such as the Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who was given permanent rooms in the Old Barge on the Thames side in Bucklersbury in the City of London, More's home for the firsttwo decades of his married life. Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly while staying there.

The important negotiations More conducted in 1509 on behalf of a number of London companies with the representative of the Antwerp merchants confirmed his competence in trade matters and his gifts as an interpreter and spokesman. From September 1510 to July 1518, when he resigned to be fully in the king's service, More was one of the two under sheriffs of London, “the pack-horses of the City government.” He endeared himself to the Londoners—as an impartial judge, a disinterested consultant, and “the general patron of the poor.”

More's domestic idyll came to a brutal end in the summer of 1511 with the death, perhaps in childbirth, of his wife. He wasleft a widower with four children, and within weeks of his first wife's death, he married Alice Middleton, the widow of a London mercer. She was several years his senior and had a daughter of her own; she did not bear More any children.

More's History of King Richard III, written in Latin and in English between about 1513 and 1518, is the first masterpiece of English historiography. Though never finished, it influenced succeeding historians. William Shakespeare is indebted to More for his portrait of the tyrant.

The “Utopia.” In May 1515 More was appointed to a delegation to revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. The conference was held at Brugge, with long intervals that More used to visit other Belgian cities. He began in the Low Countries and completed after his return to London his Utopia, which was published at Louvain in December 1516. The book was an immediate success with the audience for which More wrote it: the Humanists and an elite group of public officials.

Utopia is a Greek name of More's coining, from ou-topos (“no place”); a pun on eu-topos (“good place”) is suggested in a prefatory poem. More's Utopia describes a pagan and communist city-state in which the institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason. The order and dignity of such a state provided a notable contrast with the unreasonable polity of Christian Europe, divided by self-interest and greed for power and riches, which More described in book i, written in England in 1516. The description of Utopia is put in the mouth of a mysterious traveler, Raphael Hythloday, in support of his argument that communism is the only cure against egoism in private and public life. Through dialogue More speaks in favour of the mitigation of evil rather than its cure, human nature being fallible. Among the topics discussed by More in Utopia were penology, state-controlled education, religious pluralism, divorce, euthanasia, and women's rights. The resulting demonstration of his learning, invention, and wit established his reputation as one of the foremost Humanists. Soon translated into most European languages, Utopia became the ancestor of a new literary genre, the Utopian romance.

Career as king's servant

On May 1, 1517, a mob of London apprentices attacked foreign merchants in the city. More's role in quenching this Evil-Mayday riot inspired a scene, attributed to Shakespeare, in Sir Thomas More, a composite Elizabethan play. More's success in the thorny negotiations with the French at Calais and Boulogne (September to December 1517) over suits born of the recent war made it harder for him to dodge royal service. That year he became a member of the king's council and from October was known as master of requests. He resigned his City office in 1518. While yielding to pressure, he embraced the chance of furthering peace and reform. The lord chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, now looked ready to implement some of the political ideas of the Christian Humanists.

Between 1515 and 1520 More campaigned spiritedly for Erasmus' religious and cultural program—Greek studies as the key to a theology renewed by a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers—in poems commending Erasmus' New Testament. More's Latin poems were published in 1518 under one cover between his Utopia and Erasmus' Epigrammata; they are extremely varied in metre and matter, their main topics being government, women, and death.

Erasmus offered his London friend as a model for the intelligentsia of Europe in letters to the German Humanist Ulrich von Hutten (1519); the Paris scholar Germain de Brie (1520), with whom More had just engaged in a polemic; and Guillaume Budé, whom More had met in June 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the meeting ground, near Calais, between Henry VIII and Francis I. According to Erasmus, simplicity was More's mark in food and dress. He shrank from nothing that imparted an innocent pleasure, even of a bodily kind. He had a speaker's voice and a memory that served him well for extempore rejoinders. “Born for friendship,” he could extract delight from the dullest people or things. His family affections were warm yet unobtrusive. He gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks. Amid his intense professional activity, he found hours for prayer and for supervising his domestic school. Most of his charges weregirls, to whom he provided the most refined classical and Christian education.

In 1520 and 1521 More took part in talks, at Calais and Brugge, with the emperor Charles V and with the Hansa merchants. In 1521 he was made undertreasurer and knighted. His daughter Margaret married William Roper, a lawyer. For Henry VIII's Defense of the Seven Sacraments, More acted as “a sorter out and placer of the principal matters.” When Martin Luther hit back, More vindicated the king in a learned, though scurrilous, Responsio ad Lutherum (1523). In addition to his routine duties at the Exchequer, More served throughout these years as “Henry's intellectual courtier,” secretary, and confidant. He welcomed foreign envoys, delivered official speeches, drafted treaties, read the dispatches exchanged between the king and Wolsey, and answered in the king's name. Often he rode posthaste between the cardinal's headquarters at Westminster and Henry's various hunting residences. In April1523 More was elected speaker of the House of Commons; while loyally striving to secure the government's ends, he made a plea for truer freedom of speech in Parliament. The universities—Oxford in 1524, Cambridge in 1525—made him their high steward.

By 1524 More had moved to Chelsea. The Great House he built there bore the stamp of his philosophy, its gallery, chapel, and library all geared toward studious and prayerful seclusion. In 1525 he was promoted to chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which put a large portion of northern England under his judiciary and administrative control.

On More's return from an embassy to France in the summer of 1527, Henry VIII “laid the Bible open before him” as proof that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, was void, even incestuous, because of her previous marriage to Henry's late brother. More tried in vain to share the king's scruples, but long study confirmed his view that Catherine was the king's true wife. After being commissioned in March 1528 by Bishop Tunstall of London toread all heretical writings in the English language in order to refute them for the sake of the unlearned, he published seven books of polemics between 1529 and 1533—the first and best being A Dialogue Concerning Heresies.
Years as chancellor of England.

Together with Tunstall, More attended the congress of Cambrai at which peace was made between France and the Holy Roman Empire in 1529. Though the Treaty of Cambrai represented a rebuff to England and, more particularly, a devastating reverse for Cardinal Wolsey's policies, More managed to secure the inclusion of his country in the treaty and the settlement of mutual debts. When Wolsey fell from power, having failed in his foreign policy and in his efforts to procure the annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine, More succeeded him as lord chancellor on Oct. 26, 1529.

On Nov. 3, 1529, More opened the Parliament that was later to forge the legal instruments for his death. As the king's mouthpiece, More indicted Wolsey in his opening speech and, in 1531, proclaimed the opinions of universities favourable to the divorce; but he did not sign the letter of 1530 in which England's nobles and prelates, including Wolsey, pressured the pope to declare the first marriage void, and he tried to resign in 1531, when the clergy acknowledged the king as their supreme head, albeit with the clause “as far as the law of Christ allows.”

More's longest book, The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, in two volumes (1532 and 1533), centres on “what the churchis.” To the stress of stooping for hours over his manuscript More ascribed the sharp pain in his chest, perhaps angina, which he invoked when begging Henry to free him from the yoke of office. This was on May 16, 1532, the day when the governing body (synod) of the church in England delivered tothe crown the document by which they promised never to legislate or so much as convene without royal assent, thus placing a layperson at the head of the spiritual order.

More meanwhile continued his campaign for the old faith, defending England's antiheresy laws and his own handling ofheretics, both as magistrate and as writer, in two books of 1533: the Apology and the Debellacyon. He also laughs away the accusation of greed levelled by William Tyndale, translator of parts of the first printed English Bible. More's poverty was so notorious that the hierarchy collected £5,000to recoup his polemical costs, but he refused this grant lest it be construed as a bribe.

Indictment, trial, and execution

More's refusal to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry married after his divorce from Catherine in 1533, marked him out for vengeance. Several charges of accepting bribes recoiled on the heads of his accusers. In February 1534 More was included in a bill of attainder for alleged complicity with Elizabeth Barton, who had uttered prophecies against Henry's divorce, but he produced a letter in which he had warned the nun against meddling in affairs of state. He was summoned to appear before royal commissioners on April 13 to assent under oath to the Act of Succession, which declared the king's marriage with Catherine void and that with Anne valid. This More was willing to do, acknowledging that Anne was in fact anointed queen. But he refused the oath as then administered because it entailed a repudiation of papal supremacy. On April 17, 1534, he was imprisoned in the Tower. More welcomed prison life. But for his family responsibilities, he would have chosen for himself “as strait a room and straiter too,” as he said to his daughter Margaret, who after some time took the oath and was then allowed to visit him. In prison, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, a masterpiece of Christian wisdom and of literature.

His trial took place on July 1, 1535. Richard Rich, the solicitor general, a creature of Thomas Cromwell, the unacknowledged head of the government, testified that the prisoner had, in his presence, denied the king's title as supreme head of the Church of England. Despite More's scathing denial of this perjured evidence, the jury's unanimous verdict was “guilty.” Before the sentence was pronounced, More spoke “in discharge of his conscience.” The unity of the church was the main motive of his martyrdom. His second objection was that “no temporal manmay be head of the spirituality.” Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, to which he also referred as the cause for which they “sought his blood,” had been the occasion for the assaults on the church: among his judges were the new queen's father, brother, and uncle.

More was sentenced to the traitor's death—“to be drawn, hanged, and quartered”—which the king changed to beheading. During five days of suspense, More prepared hissoul to meet “the great spouse” and wrote a beautiful prayer and several letters of farewell. He walked to the scaffold on Tower Hill. “See me safe up,” he said to the lieutenant, “and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” He told the onlookers to witness that he was dying “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the king's good servant and God's first.” He altered the ritual by blindfolding himself, playing “a part of his own” even on this awful stage.

The news of More's death shocked Europe. Erasmus mourned the man he had so often praised, “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like.” The official image of More as a traitor did not gain credence even in Protestant lands.


Though the triumph of Anglicanism brought about a certain eclipse of Thomas More, the publication of the state papers restored a fuller and truer picture of More, preparing public opinion for his beatification (1886). He was canonized by Pius XI in May 1935. Though the man is greater than the writer, and though nothing in his life “became him like the leaving of it,” his “golden little book” Utopia has earned him greater fame than the crown of martyrdom or the million words of his English works.

Erasmus' phrase describing More as omnium horarum homowas rendered later as “a man for all seasons” and was given currency by Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons (1960). Monuments to him have been placed in Westminster Hall, the Tower of London, and the Chelsea Embankment, all in London. In the words of the English Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, More “may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English History.”

The Rev. Germain P. Marc'hadour

Encyclopedia Britannica



Desiderius Erasmus

born Oct. 27, 1469, Rotterdam, Holland [now in The Netherlands]
died July 12, 1536, Basel, Switz.

humanist who was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, the first editor of the New Testament, and also an important figure in patristics and classical literature.

Using the philological methods pioneered by Italian humanists, Erasmus helped lay the groundwork for the historical-critical study of the past, especially in his studies of the Greek New Testament and the Church Fathers. His educational writings contributed to the replacement of the older scholastic curriculum by the new humanist emphasis on the classics. Bycriticizing ecclesiastical abuses, while pointing to a better age in the distant past, he encouraged the growing urge for reform, which found expression both in the Protestant Reformation and in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Finally, his independent stance in an age of fierce confessional controversy—rejecting both Luther's doctrine of predestination and the powers that were claimed for the papacy—made him a target of suspicion for loyal partisans on both sides and a beacon for those who valued liberty more than orthodoxy.
Early life and career

Erasmus was the second illegitimate son of Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician's daughter. He advanced asfar as the third-highest class at the chapter school of St. Lebuin's in Deventer. One of his teachers, Jan Synthen, was ahumanist, as was the headmaster, Alexander Hegius. The schoolboy Erasmus was clever enough to write classical Latin verse that impresses a modern reader as cosmopolitan.

After both parents died, the guardians of the two boys sent them to a school in 's Hertogenbosch conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious movement that fostered monastic vocations. Erasmus would remember thisschool only for a severe discipline intended, he said, to teachhumility by breaking a boy's spirit.

Having little other choice, both brothers entered monasteries. Erasmus chose the Augustinian canons regular at Steyn, near Gouda, where he seems to have remained about seven years (1485–92). While at Steyn he paraphrased Lorenzo Valla's Elegantiae, which was both a compendium of pure classical usage and a manifesto againstthe scholastic “barbarians” who had allegedly corrupted it. Erasmus' monastic superiors became “barbarians” for him by discouraging his classical studies. Thus, after his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he was happy to escape the monastery by accepting a post as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. His Antibarbarorum liber, extant from a revision of 1494–95, is a vigorous restatement of patristic arguments for the utility of the pagan classics, with a polemical thrust against the cloister he had left behind: “All sound learning is secular learning.”

Erasmus was not suited to a courtier's life, nor did things improve much when the bishop was induced to send him to the University of Paris to study theology (1495). He disliked the quasi-monastic regimen of the Collège de Montaigu, where he lodged initially, and pictured himself to a friend as sitting “with wrinkled brow and glazed eye” through Scotist lectures. To support his classical studies, he began taking in pupils; from this period (1497–1500) date the earliest versions of those aids to elegant Latin—including the Colloquia and the Adagia—that before long would be in use in humanist schools throughout Europe.

The wandering scholar

In 1499 a pupil, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited Erasmus to England. There he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life. John Colet quickened Erasmus' ambition to be a “primitive theologian,” one who would expound Scripture not in the argumentative manner of the scholastics but in the manner of Jerome and the other ChurchFathers, who lived in an age when men still understood and practiced the classical art of rhetoric. The impassioned Coletbesought him to lecture on the Old Testament at Oxford, but the more cautious Erasmus was not ready. He returned to the Continent with a Latin copy of St. Paul's Epistles and the conviction that “ancient theology” required mastery of Greek.

On a visit to Artois, Fr. (1501), Erasmus met the fiery preacher Jean Voirier, who, though a Franciscan, told him that“monasticism was a life more of fatuous men than of religious men.” Admirers recounted how Voirier's disciples faced death serenely, trusting in God, without the solemn reassurance of the last rites. Voirier lent Erasmus a copy of works by Origen, the early Greek Christian writer who promoted the allegorical, spiritualizing mode of scriptural interpretation, which had roots in Platonic philosophy. By 1502 Erasmus had settled in the university town of Louvain (Brabant) and was reading Origen and St. Paul in Greek. The fruit of his labours was Enchiridion militis Christiani (1503/04; Handbook of a Christian Knight). In this work Erasmus urged readers to “inject into the vitals” the teachings of Christ by studying and meditating on the Scriptures, using the spiritual interpretation favoured by the “ancients” to make the text pertinent to moral concerns. The Enchiridion was a manifesto of lay piety in its assertion that “monasticism is not piety.” Erasmus' vocation as a “primitive theologian” was further developed through his discovery at Park Abbey, near Louvain, of a manuscript of Valla's Adnotationes on the Greek New Testament, which he published in 1505 with a dedication to Colet.

Erasmus sailed for England in 1505, hoping to find support for his studies. Instead he found an opportunity to travel to Italy, the land of promise for northern humanists, as tutor to the sons of the future Henry VIII's physician. The party arrived in the university town of Bologna in time to witness the triumphal entry (1506) of the warrior pope Julius II at the head of a conquering army, a scene that figures later in Erasmus' anonymously published satiric dialogue, Julius exclusus e coelis (written 1513–14). In Venice Erasmus was welcomed at the celebrated printing house of Aldus Manutius, where Byzantine émigrés enriched the intellectuallife of a numerous scholarly company. For the Aldine press Erasmus expanded his Adagia, or annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages, into a monument of erudition with over 3,000 entries; this was the book that first made him famous. The adage “Dutch ear” (auris Batava) is one of many hints that he was not an uncritical admirer of sophisticated Italy, with its theatrical sermons and its scholars who doubted the immortality of the soul; his aim was to write for honest and unassuming “Dutch ears.”

De pueris instituendis, written in Italy though not published until 1529, is the clearest statement of Erasmus' enormous faith in the power of education. With strenuous effort the very stuff of human nature could be molded, so as to draw out (e-ducare) peaceful and social dispositions while discouraging unworthy appetites. Erasmus, it would almost be true to say, believed that one is what one reads. Thus the “humane letters” of classical and Christian antiquity would have a beneficent effect on the mind, in contrast to the disputatious temper induced by scholastic logic-chopping or the vengeful amour propre bred into young aristocrats by chivalric literature, “the stupid and tyrannical fables of King Arthur.”

The celebrated Moriae encomium, or Praise of Folly, conceived as Erasmus crossed the Alps on his way back to England and written at Thomas More's house, expresses a very different mood. For the first time the earnest scholar saw his own efforts along with everyone else's as bathed in auniversal irony, in which foolish passion carried the day: “Even the wise man must play the fool if he wishes to beget achild.”

Little is known of Erasmus' long stay in England (1509–14), except that he lectured at Cambridge and worked on scholarly projects, including the Greek text of the New Testament. His later willingness to speak out as he did may have owed something to the courage of Colet, who risked royal disfavour by preaching a sermon against war at the court just as Henry VIII was looking for a good war in which towin his spurs. Having returned to the Continent, Erasmus made connections with the printing firm of Johann Froben and traveled to Basel to prepare a new edition of the Adagia (1515). In this and other works of about the same time Erasmus showed a new boldness in commenting on the ills of Christian society—popes who in their warlike ambition imitated Caesar rather than Christ; princes who hauled wholenations into war to avenge a personal slight; and preachers who looked to their own interests by pronouncing the princes' wars just or by nurturing superstitious observances among the faithful. To remedy these evils Erasmus looked to education. In particular, the training of preachers should be based on “the philosophy of Christ” rather than on scholastic methods. Erasmus tried to show the way with his annotated text of the Greek New Testament and his edition of St. Jerome's Opera omnia, both of which appeared from theFroben press in 1516. These were the months in which Erasmus thought he saw “the world growing young again,” and the full measure of his optimism is expressed in one of the prefatory writings to the New Testament: “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

Erasmus' home base was now in Brabant, where he had influential friends at the Habsburg court of the Netherlands in Brussels, notably the grand chancellor, Jean Sauvage. Through Sauvage he was named honorary councillor to the 16-year-old archduke Charles, the future Charles V, and was commissioned to write Institutio principis Christiani (1516; The Education of a Christian Prince) and Querela pacis (1517; The Complaint of Peace). These works expressed Erasmus' own convictions, but they also did no harm to Sauvage's faction at court, which wanted to maintain peace with France. It was at this time too that he began his Paraphrases of the books of the New Testament, each one dedicated to a monarch or a prince of the church. He was accepted as a member of the theology faculty at nearby Louvain, and he also took keen interest in a newly founded Trilingual College, with endowed chairs in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Ratio verae theologiae (1518) provided the rationale for the new theological education based on the study of languages. Revision of his Greek New Testament, especially of the copious annotations, began almost as soonas the first edition appeared. Though Erasmus certainly made mistakes as a textual critic, in the history of scholarship he is a towering figure, intuiting philological principles that in some cases would not be formulated explicitly until 150 years after his death. But conservative theologians at Louvain and elsewhere, mostly ignorant of Greek, were not willing to abandon the interpretation of Scripture to upstart “grammarians,” nor did the atmosphere at Louvain improve when the second edition of Erasmus' New Testament (1519) replaced the Vulgate with his own Latin translation.

The Protestant challenge

From the very beginning of the momentous events sparked by Martin Luther's challenge to papal authority, Erasmus' clerical foes blamed him for inspiring Luther, just as some of Luther's admirers in Germany found that he merely proclaimed boldly what Erasmus had been hinting. In fact, Luther's first letter to Erasmus (1516) showed an important disagreement over the interpretation of St. Paul, and in 1518 Erasmus privately instructed his printer, Froben, to stop printing works by Luther, lest the two causes be confused. Ashe read Luther's writings, at least those prior to The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Erasmus found much to admire, and he could even describe Luther, in a letter to Pope Leo X, as “a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth.” Being of a suspicious nature, however, he also convinced himself that Luther's fiercest enemies were men who saw the study of languages as the root of heresy and thus wanted to be rid of both at once. Hence he tugged at the slender threads of his influence, vainly hoping to forestall a confrontation that could only be destructive to “good letters.” When he quit Brabant for Basel (December 1521), he did so lest he be faced with a personal request from the Emperor to write a book against Luther, which he could not have refused.

Erasmus' belief in the unity of the church was fundamental, but, like the Hollanders and Brabanters with whom he was most at home, he recoiled from the cruel logic of religious persecution. He expressed his views indirectly through the Colloquia, which had started as schoolboy dialogues but now became a vehicle for commentary. For example, in the colloquy “Inquisitio de fide” (1522) a Catholic finds to his surprise that Lutherans accept all the dogmas of the faith, that is, the articles of the Apostles' Creed. The implication is that bitter disputes like those over papal infallibility or Luther's doctrine of predestination are differences over mereopinion, not over dogmas binding on all the faithful. For Erasmus the root of the schism was not theology but anticlericalism and lay resentment of the laws and “ceremonies” that the clergy made binding under pain of hell. As he wrote privately to the Netherlandish pope Adrian VI (1522–23), whom he had known at Louvain, there was still hope of reconciliation, if only the church would ease the burden; this could be accomplished, for instance, by grantingthe chalice to the laity and by permitting priests to marry: “At the sweet name of liberty all things will revive.”

When Adrian VI was succeeded by Clement VII, Erasmus could no longer avoid “descending into the arena” of theological combat, though he promised the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli that he would attack Luther in a way that would not please the “pharisees.” De libero arbitrio (1524) defended the place of human free choice in the process of salvation and argued that the consensus of the church through the ages is authoritative in the interpretation of Scripture. In reply Luther wrote one of his most important theological works, De servo arbitrio (1525), to which Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526–27). In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow.

The years in Basel (1522–29) were filled with polemics, some of them rather tiresome by comparison to the great debate with Luther. Irritated by Protestants who called him a traitor to the Gospel as well as by hyper-orthodox Catholic theologians who repeatedly denounced him, Erasmus showed the petty side of his own nature often enough. Although there is material in his apologetic writings that scholars have yet to exploit, there seems no doubt that on the whole he was better at satiric barbs, such as the colloquy representing one young “Pseudo-Evangelical” of his acquaintance as thwacking people over the head with a Gospel book to gain converts. Meanwhile he kept at work on the Greek New Testament (there would be five editions in all), the Paraphrases, and his editions of the Church Fathers, including Cyprian, Hilary, and Origen. He also took time to chastise those humanists, mostly Italian, who from a “superstitious” zeal for linguistic purity refused to sully their Latin prose with nonclassical terms (Ciceronianus, 1528).

Final years

In 1529, when Protestant Basel banned Catholic worship altogether, Erasmus and some of his humanist friends moved to the Catholic university town of Freiburg im Breisgau. He refused an invitation to the Diet of Augsburg, where Philipp Melanchthon's Augsburg Confession was to initiate the first meaningful discussions between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. He nonetheless encouraged such discussion in De sarcienda ecclesiae concordia (1533), whichsuggested that differences on the crucial doctrine of justification might be reconciled by considering a duplex justitia, the meaning of which he did not elaborate. Having returned to Basel to see his manual on preaching (Ecclesiastes, 1535) through the press, he lingered on in a city he found congenial; it was there he died in 1536. Like thedisciples of Voirier, he seems not to have asked for the last sacraments of the church. His last words were in Dutch: “Lieve God” (“dear God”).

Influence and achievement

Always the scholar, Erasmus could see many sides of an issue. But his hesitations and studied ambiguities were appreciated less and less in the generations that followed his death, as men girded for combat, theological or otherwise, in the service of their beliefs. For a time, while peacemakers on both sides had an opportunity to pursue meaningful discussions between Catholics and Lutherans, some of Erasmus' practical suggestions and his moderate theological views were directly pertinent. Even after ecumenism dwindled to a mere wisp of possibility, there were a few men willing to make themselves heirs of Erasmus' lonely struggle for a middle ground, like Jacques-Auguste de Thou in France and Hugo Grotius in the Netherlands; significantly, both were strong supporters of state authority and hoped to limit the influence of the clergy of their respective established churches. This tradition was perhaps strongest in the Netherlands, where Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert and others found support in Erasmus for their advocacy of limited toleration for religious dissenters. Meanwhile, however, the Council of Trent and the rise of Calvinism ensured that such views weregenerally of marginal influence. The Catholic index expurgatorius of 1571 contained a long list of suspect passages to be deleted from any future editions of Erasmus' writings, and those Protestant tendencies that bear some comparison to Erasmus' defense of free will—current among the Philippists in Germany and the Arminians in the Netherlands—were bested by defenders of a sterner orthodoxy. Even in the classroom, Erasmus' preference for putting students directly in contact with the classics gave way to the use of compendiums and manuals of humanist rhetoric and logic that resembled nothing so much as the scholastic curriculum of the past. Similarly, the bold and independent scholarly temper with which Erasmusapproached the text of the New Testament was for a long time submerged by the exigencies of theological polemics.

Erasmus' reputation began to improve in the late 17th century, when the last of Europe's religious wars was fading into memory and scholars like Richard Simon and Jean Le Clercq (the editor of Erasmus' works) were once again taking a more critical approach to biblical texts. By Voltaire'stime, in the 18th century, it was possible to imagine that the clever and rather skeptical Erasmus must have been a philosophe before his time, one whose professions of religious devotion and submission to church authority could be seen as convenient evasions. This view of Erasmus, curiously parallel to the strictures of his orthodox critics, waslong influential. Only in the past several decades have scholars given due recognition to the fact that the goal of hiswork was a Christianity purified by a deeper knowledge of itshistoric roots. Yet it was not entirely wrong to compare Erasmus with those Enlightenment thinkers who, like Voltaire, defended individual liberty at every turn and had little good to say about the various corporate solidarities by which human society holds together. Some historians would now trace the enduring debate between these complementary aspects of Western thought as far back as the 12th century, and in this very broad sense Erasmus and Voltaire are on the same side of a divide, just as, for instance, Machiavelli and Rousseau are on the other. In a unique manner that fused his multiple identities—as Netherlander, Renaissance humanist, and pre-Tridentine Catholic—Erasmus helped to build what may be called the liberal tradition of European culture.

James D. Tracy

Encyclopedia Britannica




The Renaissance in England reached its peak late in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) which, in spite of the work of revisionist historians, still seems a golden age. Almost all forms of literature flourished. Poetry in the tradition established by Wyatt and Surrey was carried on by the prolific Michael Drayton. Some of the finest lyric poets were courtiers, like Sir Philip Sidney, hugely admired by contemporaries for his personal qualities as well as his poetry, and Sir Walter Raleigh, who also wrote a history of the world while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Drama rose in little more than one generation from modest beginnings to the supreme achievement of Shakespeare.



Edmund Spenser (d. 1599) is the herald of the Elizabethan Renaissance, a poet who first attracted attention as a student with his Petrarchian sonnets. He joined a noble household and became friendly with Sidney, to whom he dedicated his long pastoral poem, The Shepheard's Calendar, in 1579. Soon afterwards he started to write The Faerie Queen, of which he completed only six of the planned twelve books. Its complex allegories make it difficult for the modern reader, and its greatest virtue is atmosphere: beautiful, musical language, a suggestion of magic in the air. It was written in a new metre, the 'Spenserian stanza', nine lines to a verse rhyming abab-bebec, the last line having six, rather than five, iambic feet. It was to be often copied. Spenser is a poet's poet, generally admired by his successors and an inspiration to Milton, Keats and others.

'There wont faire Venus often to enjoy
Her deare Adonis joyous company,
And reape sweet pleasure of the wanton boy;
There yet, some say, in secret he does ly,
Lapped in flowres and pretious spycery,
By her hid from the world, and from the skill
Of Stygian Gods, which doe her loue envy;
But she her selfe, when ever that she will,
Possesseth him, and of his sweetnesse takes her fill.'

Spenser, The Faerie Queene, bk. 3, canto vi, st. 46.




The sudden literary creativeness of the late Elizabethan period can be partly ascribed to the development of the language, which in the early 16th century was still relatively inflexible and dominated by foreign forms. The new confidence, spurred by national pride and increasing wealth, was no less evident in prose than in poetic drama. Sir Thomas North's fine translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans proved a treasure trove for Shakespeare, while Richard Hakluyt wrote an invaluable history of the Renaissance voyages of exploration. The Chronicles (1577) of Holinshed (and others), the first full account of English history in English, provided the raw material for the history plays of Shakespeare and others. Bishop Richard Hooker defended the Church of England in classic English prose, and the philosopher Francis Bacon, who rose to be Lord Chancellor and Viscount St Albans, explored almost every area of human knowledge in his Essays and other works. He was regarded by 17th-century thinkers as the father of modern science and by some 19th-century critics as the real author of Shakespeare's plays, a notion still not entirelv dead.
There was prose fiction - hardly novels - at first influenced by the tales of Boccaccio (Rabelais was as yet untranslated and known to only a few). John Lyly's Euphues was written in the elaborate style called (after his book) 'euphuistic', in which verbal dexterity takes precedence over sense. The style was fashionable for a while, and was affected in conversation by ladies of the court, where Lyly, who was also a talented playwright, was an influential figure, but it is often excruciating to read. Robert Greene wrote a sequel to Euphues, among his many disparate publications. One of his stories gave Shakespeare, whom he famously attacked as an 'upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers', the plot for The Winter's Tale.


By the accession of Elizabeth, medieval religious drama was in decline, but for some time European kings and great nobles had supported their own companies of actors. The earliest surviving plays were also probably performed privately. The first known English tragedy is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, a dull and static drama in inferior blank verse. Early tragedies are in general unsatisfactory, though a step forward was taken with Thomas Kyd's lurid 'revenge' drama. The Spanish Tragedy (1592), which continued to hold the stage throughout Shakespeare's time. Among comedies, Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553) was written by Nicholas Udall, headmaster of Westminster School, and was probably designed for his boys. It is a rustic comedy in rough verse.
Similarly, Gammer Gorton's Needle, another knockabout comedy, was performed at Cambridge University in 1563. Companies of boy actors performed at the royal court. Boys playing women, as they still did in Shakespeare's time, were probably more believable than boys playing the great heroes of antiquity, in plays by Lyly and others. Companies of professional actors, organized on the lines of a craft guild and supported by an aristocratic patron, at first performed in inn yards. That was to influence the design of Elizabethan theatres, the first of which, called simply The Theatre, was built in 1576.



see also:

W. Shakespeare


illustration from Eugene Delacroix




The work of the poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), comprising about 36 plays (one or two are disputed), 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems, is more admired than that of any other writer in the history of Western civilization. Shakespeare's outstanding gifts are his ability to create vivid characters in profound psychological depth and his extraordinary command of language, both in blank verse and prose. His imagination is immensely rich, and the subtlety of his characterization allows almost unlimited scope for interpretation by actors and directors. Shakespeare studies have formed a major part of the Western cultural tradition for nearly 400 years and every generation finds something new and stimulating in
him. He is universal.


There's no life portrait of Shakespeare but this painting resembles
the engraving that formed the frontispiece of the First Folio (1623).


In spite of diligent research by scholars, Shakespeare the man is elusive. The known facts are few, encouraging endless speculation on the basis of his writings. His understanding of so wide a range of human experience inclines soldiers to think he must have been in the army, lawyers that he had studied law, doctors that he must have had some medical experience, etc.
He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, son of a successful merchant who fell on hard times. The son later restored the family fortunes. He probably attended the local grammar school, and in 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant with a daughter, Susanna. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born in 1585, but ultimately the marriage seems to have been unsatisfactory. He may have taught in a local school, but by 1592 he was associated, as writer and actor, with a company of actors in London. The company, in which he held shares, built its own theatre, the Globe, in 1599. In 1596 Shakespeare's application for a grant of arras was accepted, making him officially a gentleman. He bought a large house, New Place, in Stratford, and gradually cut down his business in London. He was buried in Holy Trinity, Stratford, and his last descendant, a granddaughter, died in 1670. Most of his poetry seems to have been written in 1593—94, when the London theatres were closed by plague. His plays, on the other hand, were written for performance, and he apparently took no interest in their printing. Othello was not printed until 1622 and some scripts were supplied from memory by the actors; moreover, no manuscript of Shakespeare's has survived. Problems concerning accuracy and dating have exercised scholars since the 18th century.


Shakespeare began writing plays in the late 1580s, among the first being the three parts of Henry VI and their sequel, Richard III, which shows a growing grasp of his powers. In the early 1590s came the first of his Roman tragedies, Titus Andronicus, often dismissed as melodrama, but recently rising in reputation, and the early comedies, including The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost, another play that has proved more interesting in recent years. Richard II (probably 1595), is an enthralling dry run for the great tragedies, but in the following years, apart from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare concentrated mainly on comedy, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and (in about 1600) the enchanting Twelfth Night. The best of his English history plays, Henry IV, Parts I and II, featuring Sir John Falstaff, and Henry V, were written about 1596-99, Julius Caesar about 1599. The first and probably the most famous of the great tragedies, Hamlet, came soon afterwards, to be followed within the next five years by Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. These arc generally regarded as Shakespeare's greatest plays, though not necessarily the most popular. Some of his finest verse is to be found in Antony and Cleopatra, and the last of the Roman plays, Coriolanus (c.1607), is by some ranked close to the great tragedies.
Although only 43, Shakespeare now entered his 'late' period. Cymbeline, the enigmatic The Winter's Tale and The Tempest are neither tragedy nor comedy, but a romantic mixture of the two. The Tempest, first performed in 1611, is traditionally regarded as his last complete play, but he appears to have co-operated with other playwrights on several subsequent productions.
Within a few years of Shakespeare's death, two of his colleagues began to collect his plays. The collection, generally known as the First Folio, was published in 1623. It is a mark of his contemporary distinction, for no similar enterprise was launched for any other playwright. The work may be regarded as one of the most important publications in literary history. Not only does it provide texts which were as accurate as they could be in the circumstances, but it contains 16 plays of which no copy has survived in any other form. It also contains a poetic tribute by Ben Jonson, who describes his late colleague as 'not of an age, but for all time'.

'Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.'

Shakespeare, The Tempest, IV, i.




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