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.

Sonnet: The Wedding Feast

As beaut’ful bride stands with the conf’dent groom,

the marriage will be great that starts this day.

Proud families and friends here in this room

hear love, respect, and joy in all they say.

 

To spend an hour in such good company,

with friends both old and new, to celebrate

and share their wedding joy, it seems to me

that this life has no pleasure half as great.

 

E’en as the mist doth vanish with the sun,

so fears and worries vanished with this day.

May all the problems of their life so run,

testing their strength, then mist-like fade away.

 

May, as their journey now together starts,

God’s wisdom fill their minds, and love their hearts.

Sonnet: Apples

Fair Atalanta made her suitor’s run

a footrace, betting life against her hand.

Hippomenes had apples like the sun,

a gift from Venus, and used them as planned.

 

The apples, o’er the race, the maiden chose.

Forgetting Venus, both were punished. Yet,

my mistress’ golden apples rival those

that foolish Atalanta stopped to get.

 

And o’er this fruit my mistress’ beauty shines

with courtesy and courtly grace most rare.

For favors giv’n, she proper tribute finds

(and would quickly correct me if I err).

 

Though apples Atalanta’s folly showed,

with them my mistress’ wisdom is bestowed.

Sonnet: Aristotle

E’en Aristotle, Wisest of the Greeks,

the great philosopher of ancient days,

upon first hearing a fair maiden speak

forgot his wisdom and his noble ways.

 

This maid, who did hear Aristotle chide

his student for his love-struck actions, then

by trickery the Master she did ride

to demonstrate love’s power over men.

 

So, if I seem a fool for writing verse,

or fawning o’er a love that’s newly met,

your beauty could make men do much that’s worse.

I’ll fear no scorn, the precedent’s been set.

 

If Aristotle, how e’er wise, did fall,

then none, for love, can blame me after all.

 

Based on the story of Aristotle and Phyllis, which was popular in the middle ages.  See http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2013/04/phyllis-rides-aristotle.html for the story.

Turning Point – Heraldry

Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick, was known as the Kingmaker. He helped Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, and his son Edward IV take the Crown of England back from the Lancastrian Henry VI in 1461. Henry VI and his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, were beaten but not taken prisoner. They fled to Scotland and then to France, working to return to power.

By 1469, Warwick had changed sides. Although he had spent most of his life and fortune supporting York, he had received little thanks from Edward. Instead, Edward heaped titles, lands, and offices on his wife Elisabeth Wydville’s family. In September 1470, Warwick and the Lancastrians invaded England from Calais. They regained the throne for Henry VI, temporarily.

Edward returned in the spring of 1471, and took Henry prisoner in London. His army met with Warwick’s at Barnet on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1471. This was the turning point for the house of Lancaster.

As the fighting began that morning, a dense mist kept the commanders from seeing where the armies were. Each group’s right flank routed the opponent’s left, but no use was made if it because nobody knew. At one point, the Earl of Oxford left his position in the Lancastrian lines with his 800 troops to chase the Yorkist left wing through the town of Barnet. When they returned, the mullet badge that they wore was mistaken for Edward of York’s personal badge, the sun in splendor. A. C. Fox-Davies wrote in “A Complete Guide to Heraldry”:

The mullet occurs in the arms of Vere, and was also the badge of that family. The part this badge once played in history is well known. Had the De Veres worn another badge on that fatal day the course of English history might have been changed.”

The Lancastrians fired several volleys of arrows at them, so Oxford’s men fled crying “Treason! Treason!”. The word “treason” spread like wildfire through the Lancastrian army and shattered morale. The tide of battle was turned. Men panicked and ran from the fighting. Warwick was killed, and the battle was over before 8:00am. The fog hadn’t even lifted yet.

Thus the House of Lancaster and Warwick the Kingmaker both fell because of poor heraldry.

 

Heraldry References:

  • Fox-Davies, A. (1978). A complete guide to heraldry. New York: Bonanza Books.
  • Dennys, R. (1982). Heraldry and the heralds. London: Cape.
  • Moncreiffe, I., & Pottinger, D. (1979). Simple heraldry. New York: Mayflower Books.

Wars of the Roses References:

Weir, A. (1995). The Wars of the Roses. New York: Ballantine Books.

Weir, A. (1994). The princes in the tower. New York: Ballantine.

Seward, D. (1996). The Wars of the Roses : through the lives of five men and women of the fifteenth century. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Penn, T. (2012). Winter king : Henry VII and the dawn of Tudor England. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Baldwin, D. (2013). Richard III. Stroud: Amberley.

Turning Point – The Princes in the Tower

Edward IV was the Duke of York who took the Crown of England back from the Lancastrian Henry VI. He had killed the last of the direct male descendents of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, so it seemed that York had won the Wars of the Roses. But that was not to be. When Edward died on April 9, 1483, his 12 year old son became Edward V. The dead king’s brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, was supposed to be Protector of the King and Realm until the young king came of age.

Richard knew that his power would last only until Edward V was crowned. After that, the dowager Queen Elizabeth Wydville would soon arrange for parliament to pass an Act of Attainder, which meant execution for treason and the loss of his family property and titles. Therefore, Gloucester imprisoned Edward V and his younger brother the Duke of York in the Tower of London, and had himself crowned King Richard III on July 6, 1483.

The Lords and people of England were not happy with the story Richard invented to declare his brother’s children illegitimate, or the way he had usurped his nephew’s place. To keep the Princes from becoming the focus of rebellion, Richard secretly had them killed on September 4, 1483. This was the turning point for Richard III.

When the word got out that the Princes had been murdered, the Yorkist Lords who still supported Richard III joined the Lancastrians and Margaret Beaufort in supporting her son, an unknown Welshman named Henry Tudor. At Bosworth on August 22, 1485, Henry defeated Richard with the help of Lords like Stanley, who kept his troops out of the battle until the end, then joined Henry after it seemed he would win. Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII, and married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York.

Edward IV gave so much power to his wife’s family that the realm was unstable after his death. Richard III attempted to grab and secure the throne, but ultimately caused the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, and the fall of the House of York.

Elizabethan Settlement of Religion

When Elizabeth Tudor became Queen of England, one of her first big problems was what to do about the state religion. Her father, Henry VIII, had split the church of England from Rome in order to get a divorce so he could marry her mother, Ann Boleyn. Henry’s church was Catholic in ceremony, but English in governance. Edward VI made the church more protestant, changing the liturgy to English and issuing the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.

When Mary came to the throne in 1553, she tried to restore everything to the old ways. The people of England did not like her sudden return to the catholic church any more than they liked her foreign marriage.

Elizabeth had to make the Church of England protestant, and she wanted to control the church to increase her political control of the country. However, Elizabeth did not have any strong protestant ideology. She “did not desire a window into men’s souls, but that they should obey the law”.

So the question was not to be catholic or protestant, but how protestant to be. Should she restore Edward’s Book of Common Prayer? If so, which version? Should she follow her Puritan advisors? The decisions she made secured her throne, and set the foundation for the Anglican, Episcopal, and Methodist churches of today.

Elizabethan Settlement of Religion