Elizabethan Cultural Literacy

Cultural Literacy is the common language used within a culture to express ideas without explaining in detail. It reflects the shared experiences and stories of the culture. For example, people in the SCA know that “call the blow” means to acknowledge your mistake, but others would not understand it. If you talk about “crying wolf”, “Cupid’s arrow”, “the road to Jericho”, or “met his Waterloo” most Americans will understand. Cultural literacy helps to define a group, and brings its members closer together. As we try to understand a culture that existed centuries before we were born, it would be helpful to know what its cultural literacy was.

Elizabethans knew Greek mythology and medieval stories like King Arthur or Robin Hood. The second most popular book, after the Bible, was “Acts and Monuments of Martyrs” which is more commonly knows as Fox’s book of Martyrs. This detailed the deaths of famous and recent martyrs, especially protestant reformers.

Perhaps the most famous renaissance book is “The Book of the Courtier” by Baldesar Castiglione. He describes discussions at the court of Urbino about the ideal courtier. It was published in 1528 and translated into English by 1561. It was widely read in the renaissance throughout Europe, and was considered to be the definition of courtly behavior.

Another popular book on etiquette was “Galateo” by Giovanni Della Casa. It was published in 1558 and translated to English in 1576. It has long been out of print. In the Renaissance if someone was rude it was said that he “did not know his Galateo”. Like quoting Miss Manners, people would make their point by saying, “Monsignor Della Casa says …”.

Other Elizabethan books that describe popular culture are Benjamin Harrison’s “Description of England” and Stowe’s “A Survey of London”. These describe occupations, neighborhoods, diet, clothing, and a wealth of other useful details. Phillip Stubbes’ “Anatomy of Abuses” is a complaint about the extravagant lifestyles of Elizabethan courtiers. He explains in great detail what they do and what he doesn’t like about it.

Sometimes modern books about the time can give the modern reader a better understanding of the culture than period sources. A good one is “Daily Life in Elizabethan England” by Jeffrey Singman. Singman was one of the founders of the “Trayn’d Bands”, another living history group.

The best book for understanding Elizabethan ideas is “The Elizabethan World Picture” by E. M. W. Tillyard. He describes the medieval and renaissance concepts of order, and discusses the differences. This short book will help you understand many of the concepts, jokes, and sayings of period authors. It is often used as a college textbook, so you can sometimes find it used in college bookstores.

If you read the stories, plays, sermons, and advice books of a culture, you can understand it and portray it better.

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