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Humanism in the Renaissance Period

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2748 words Published: 22nd May 2017

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Humanism of the renaissance period has manifested a new and developed courtier that is different from earlier courtiers of the medieval age. Courts, during the Renaissance, were the center of social as well as political life of monarchs and other members of society. Individuals like clergymen, soldiers, and clerks were always present in courts. But the most important figure in courts is the Courtier who basically is “a person who attends a royal court as a companion or adviser to the king or queen.” [1] . This definition of the courtier is applicable to the medieval courtier who is knightly and chivalric, but with the emergence of Humanism and the publication of books of conduct that strive for perfection in a human being a new Humanistic inclusive courtier has emerged.

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To understand what constitutes a Renaissance courtier and whether he is different from his medieval counterpart an examination of the medieval ideal and of Renaissance Humanism is a must. Classical mythology has always appealed to the medieval court and many medieval romances were based on classical works. The pagan Greek and Roman heroes were transformed into chivalric knights, the classical wars became medieval crusades and the platonic concept of love inspired medieval courtly love.

Chaucer’s “parfit gentil knyght” (Halsall L.71)seems to be the noblest of the pilgrims embodying military expertise, devotion, honor, bounty, and courtesy. He carries himself in a gracious and well bread fashion, never articulating a cruel word about anyone:

A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,

(Halsall L.43-7)

His tale, a chivalric romance set in ancient Athens, touches upon all the great subjects and values of knightly conduct. Courtly love, honor, chivalry and adventure dominate this tale. Every conduct in this story is ideal; the love is pure, ideal and platonic, honor is at its highest standards, chivalry is exemplary in its magnificence. The poem starts with the Knight, Theseus, coming back from a triumphant journey and on his way he meets a group of mourning women grasping onto his horse’s bridle. The women tell their terrible story of how they lost their husbands in the siege of Thebes and how the cruel tyrant of Thebes plans to dishonor their husbands’ bodies by denying them burial. Moved by this spectacle the Knight takes pity on them and changes his course. Instead of returning to Athens to celebrate victory, he rides off with traditional knightly spirit to right the wrongs in this world. Then in this war he takes two prisoners who are friends, Arcite and Palamon, and who are Knights as well. In prison the two notice, from the window of their cell, the beautiful Emily walking in the garden. In an instant they fall in love, and their friendship is replaced by a passionate rivalry. At this point in the Knight’s tale readers are introduced to the concept of courtly love. After a great deal of dispute and duels and a grand tournament, Arcite, the noble knight and gentleman, calls Palamon Emily to his deathbed and asks of his friend to marry his beloved in an attempt to reconcile with his friend. A true embodiment of the medieval gentry.

In early modern Europe, people paid special attention to the life of the royal court, and the image of the courtier was depicted in many literary works. In Cortegiano (1528), or The Book of The Courtier (an English translation by Sir Tomas Hoby 1561), Baldassare Castiglione – an Italian courtier in the Renaissance Italy – writes an account on the ideal image of the perfect courtier. This book is recognized by historians as a resourceful reference to the Renaissance court life. Over the course of four evening conversations between the courtiers in the court of Urbino in Italy, the narrators discuss and describe what constitute a perfect courtier, for they agree that a courtier who had the privilege to accompany the royalties must be perfect. It is been argued in The Book of The Courtier that a noble courtier is often: “endowed with such gifts that they seem not to have been born but to have been formed by some god…and blessed with every possible advantage of mind and body” (Castiglione 124). The perfect courtier must have a reputation of a brave strong man and must maintain this reputation. His profession should be of a warrior who is “enterprising, bold, and loyal to whomever he serves”(131). This warrior courtier “should be fierce rough and always to the fore, in the presence of the enemy; but anywhere else he should be kind, modest, reticent and anxious above all to avoid ostentation or the kind of outrageous self- glorification” (135). The aspect of the perfect courtier’s appearance is also identified. He must be very agreeable and pleasing and well dressed. He should manage to “appear both manly and graceful” (141). There is great resentment for the courtier who tries to appear soft and feminine not only in his looks but also in the way he speaks and walks. As for the physical appearance, he should be well built not necessarily too small or too big. He must possess the physical appearance of a warrior who masters the skills of every kind of weapon. The perfect courtier is expected to be a good athlete who is so skilful in many kinds of sports, like horse riding, swimming, and running. There are also many other sports, but it seems that hunting is the most important since “it resembles warfare [and] it is the true pastime of great lords” (147). Besides his appearance, the good gentleman of the court must possess the finest set of manners. He is modest, gentle, elegant and graceful. He ought to avoid the affectation of being a bold fellow who shouts, swears and brags. When the perfect courtier speaks, his words have grace and dignity and they are sensible and effective and convey what he wants to say. He is a good writer too, and the words he uses in his writings should be appropriate, carefully chosen, clear, and well formed. The courtier requires knowledge in order to speak and write well, because the man who has nothing in his mind that is worth hearing has nothing worth writing and speaking of.

Another literary work that depicted the lives of the courtiers is Le Morte Darthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory. This work is considered a masterpiece of the fifteenth century prose of romance tales about the legendary King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. (Alexander). “The Faerie Queene” (1590), an allegorical epic poem written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I, follows several knights in an examination of several virtues. In Spenser’s “A Letter of the Authors” he states that the entire poem is “cloudily enwrapped in allegorical devises” and that the aim of publishing The Faerie Queene was to “fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline” (Department of Literature). The printed text of Jonson’s Every Man out of his Humour (1599) opens with a series of short prose sketches entitled ‘The Characters of the Persons’ Fastidius Brisk, for example, is described as:

A neat, spruce, affecting courtier, one that wears clothes well and in fashion; practiseth by his glass how to salute; speaks good remnants (notwithstanding the base viol and tobacco); swears tersely, and with variety; cares not what lady’s favour he belies, or great man’s familiarity: a good property to perfume the boot of a coach . (Braunmuller and Hettaway)

Instructive prose, which become somewhat of a trend at the time, were written for the aim of improving gentlemen. They were mostly written by tutors to the greats, sons of monarchs and noblemen. These prose were written under the influence of the Humanist tradition of the time, “the instruction of the youth” (Bates). Sir Thomas Elyot dedicated his Governor (1531) to guide Henry VIII on being the perfect gentleman and governor. He stressed the importance of education in classical literature for governors. Henry VIII, prior to being a king, was in fact a ideal example of a renaissance courtier and gentleman; a champion athlete who composed poems and songs, highly educated and skilled in speech. Another instructive book of the Renaissance within the same tradition is Toxophilus (1544). A book about bow archery by Roger Ascham also dedicated to King Henry VIII. Toxophilus is written in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Philologus, who loves study, and Toxophilus, who loves archery and who is also a scholar and defends archery as a noble hobby (Ascham). The Prince (1532) by Niccolo Machiavelli is a political treatise that was published after the death of its author. The book is a practical guide to the exercise of political power. It preaches that the princes’ ends justify the means which they take to attain them; a rather disturbing but truthful statement (Machiavelli). Other instructive books with titles like, The Schoolmaster and On the Excellency and Dignity of Mankind appeared during the Renaissance (Baldwin).

Renaissance Humanism in its narrowest sense is a movement devoted to the study, revival and translation of classical literature which is why at its beginnings early Humanism focused on education. The need to educate the rulers springs out from the platonic and ancient belief in a perfect republic. Renaissance humanists found it most necessary to educate the leaders of the time in a hope to transform them into capable intelligent patrons of a humanist culture. Thus, early Humanism transformed the European high culture pushing for the inclusive human who is not only educated in the classics but who is educated in philosophy, art, literature, science, music etc. this lead Renaissance Humanism to have a broader philosophical dimension; to encompass all forms of knowledge for the aim of guiding humanity to a better position in life, hence the explosion in scholarly interests and inventions.

The Humanistic movement was initiated by Petrarch, the father of Humanism. He is the first to put into words why the centuries between the Roman age and his current age were called age of darkness. According to him this darkness can be remedied only by the study and imitation of the great classical authors. Only by caring about the self, educating and polishing one’s mind can one attain wisdom:

The care of the soul calls for a philosopher, while the proper use of language requires an orator. We must neglect neither one, if, as they say, we are to return to the earth and be led about on the mouths of men. But I shall speak of the care of the soul elsewhere; for it is a great undertaking and an enormous labor, though very rich in harvest. At this time in order to avoid slipping into a subject other than the one that I set out to treat, I urge and admonish that we correct not only our life and conduct, which is the primary concern of virtue, but our language usage as well. This we will do by the cultivation of eloquence. [2] (Zak 79)

Petrarch here is building on Cicero’s conception of the art of persuasion. Petrarch emphasizes that once language is mastered it could be utilized to attain eloquence or rhetoric, and then rhetoric is led to embrace philosophy.

Renaissance Humanism have made use of the earlier idea of the exemplary magnificence of knights and fused the ideal Knight with the Classics scholar and the end result was the Renaissance Courtier. He is a citizen who excels in classical literature, history, and arts. A skilled fencer, rider, and most importantly a composer and performer of music and poetry which is the immediate result of humanistic stress on eloquence. This courtier is of noble decent and is trained to administrate and govern. Success to him comes naturally and it is worn with grace.

The historical records of the era list a number of English poets who were courtiers. Sir Thomas Wyatt, is considered the first English Gentleman courtier (Alexander). Surrey’s “Epitaph on Sir Thomas Wyatt” praises the parts that constitute of him a Renaissance courtier:

A tongue that served in foreign realms his king,

Whose courteous talk to virtue did inflame

Each noble heart: a worthy guide to bring

Our English youth by travail unto fame.

An eye whose judgment no affect could blind, feeling

Friends to allure and foes to reconcile,

Whose piercing look did represent a mind

With virtue fraught, reposèd, void of guile. (Alexander 57)

Surry portrays him as an exemplary gentleman. In fact Sir Thomas Wyatt lead the typical life of a courtier; performing political duties and going on diplomatic posts on behalf of his patron, King Henry VIII. He was a sonneteer who sang about unrequited love, and is rumored to having a romantic relation with the king’s wife which caused him to suffer imprisonment. But given the tradition of courtly love it is not strange for courtiers of the time to go through such ordeals.

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Sir Walter Raleigh was also a very famous courtier who served Queen Elizabeth I and who suffered imprisonment for unbecoming conduct. The ideal, however, of aristocracy and courtliness is embodied in the person and accomplishments of Sir Philip Sidney who served in several political and military posts. He refers, for example, to his vast literary work “Arcadia” as a trifle. But his ultimate embodiment of the Renaissance courtier is when he lay dying on the battlefield, he is said to have given his water-bottle to a common soldier, saying, “Take it, for thy necessity is yet greater than mine” [3] .

It is interesting, however, to find that these courtly values and commitment to character and its refinement are not restricted to the Renaissance age. Islamic humanism has produced a similar tradition of ethics. Courtly Humanism existed in the form of ambitious wazirs [4] and princes seeking to be polished and of a higher culture through the patronage of poets, painters, scholars, scientists, and philosophers. Having administrative skills and military expertise were virtues that were highly rewarded. The tradition of courtly love was also present in Islamic culture; Ibn Hazm’s Neckring of the Dove (Tawq al-Hamama)is the first book that talks about this tradition of courtly love; its symptoms, secrets, betrayals, etc.(62) The most explicit advocate of this philosophical concept is Miskawayh. He is an embodiment of the Muslim courtier; Khalidi describes him “as ‘a prolific author, a philosopher of very broad interests, an accomplished poet and adib [5] , as well as a universal historian.’ His On the Refinement of Character [Tahdhib al Akhlaq] has been called ‘the most influential work on philosophical ethics’ in Islam” (Goodman). It is an ethical work that encompassed all his values by demonstrating and stressing the importance of an inclusive gentleman, courtier or rather human for the purpose of the betterment of humanity (107).

Evidently, the Renaissance courtier springs out from Humanism’s tendency for perfection. Humanistic conduct text’s and literary works have contributed to exemplify what a courtier should be, an all inclusive human being. As the attainment of perfection is integral in humans, and the aspiration for perfection and the affirmation of human ability is universal, the Humanistic courtier can be found in other cultures as well.


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