The "dark" Middle Ages were followed by a time known in art and literature as the Renaissance. The word "renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and was used to denote a phaze in the cultural development of Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The wave of progress reached the shores of England only in the 16th century. The ideas of the Renaissance came to England together with the ideas of the Reformation (the establishment of the national Church) and were called the "New Learning". Every year numbers of new books were brought out, and these books were sold openly, but few people could read and enjoy them. The universities were lacking in teachers to spread the ideas of modern thought. So, many English scholars began to go to Italy, where they learned to understand the ancient classics, and when they came home they adapted their classical learning to the needs of the country. Grammar schools (primary schools) increased in number. The new point of view passed from the schools to the home and to the market place.
Many of the learned men in Italy came from the great city of Constantinopole. It was besieged and taken by Turks in 1453. All the great libraries and schools in Constanstinople had been broken up and destroyed. The Latin and Greek scholars were driven out of the city, glad to escape with their lives and with such books as they could carry away with them. Being learned men, many of them found a welcome in the cities and towns in which they stopped. They began to teach the people how to read the Latin and Greek books which they had brought with them and also taught them to read the Latin and Greek books which were kept in many towns of Europe, but which few people at that time were able to read.
Foreign scholars and artists began to teach in England during the reign of Henry VIII. In painting and music the first period of the Renaissance was one of imitation. Painting was represented by German artist Holbein, and music by Italians and French men. With literature the case was different. The English poets and dramatists popularized much of the new learning. The freedom of thought of English humanists revealed itself in antifeudal and even antibourgeois ideas, showing the life of their own people as it really was. Such a writer was the humanist Thomas More.
Thomas More (1478-1535)
Thomas More, the first English humanist of the Renaissance, was born in London in 1478. Educated at Oxford, he could write a most beautiful Latin. It was not the Latin of the Church but the original classical Latin. At Oxford More met a foreign humanist, and made friends with him. Erasmus believed in the common sense of a man and taught that men ought to think for themselves, and not merely to believe things to be true because their fathers, or the priest had said they were true. Later, Thomas More wrote many letters to Erasmus and received many letters from him.
Thomas More began life as a lawyer. During the reign of Henry VII he became a member of Parliament. He was an active-minded man and kept a keen eye on the events of his time. The rich landowners at the time were concentrating on sheep-raising because it was very profitable. Small holders were not allowed to till the soil and were driven off their lands. The commons (public ground) were enclosed and fields converted into pastures. The mass of the agricultural population were doomed to poverty. Thomas More set to work to find the reason of this evil. He was the first great writer on social and political subjects in England.
Fourteen years after Henry VIII came to the throne, More was made Speaker of the House of Commons. The Tudor monarchy was an absolute monarchy, and Parliament had very little power to resist the king. There was, however, one matter on which Parliament was very determined. That was the right to vote or to refuse to vote for the money. Once when the King wanted money and asked Parliament to vote him 800.000, the members sat silent. Twice the King's messengers called, and twice they had to leave without an answer. When Parliament was called together again, Thomas More spoke up and urged that the request be refused. After a long discussion a sum less then half the amount requested by the King was voted, and that sum was to be spread over a period of four years.