EARLY MODERN HISTORY
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
Assess the impact of humanist values on Welsh Life before 1640.
It is necessary, when looking at the changes that took place in any aspect of Welsh life during the sixteenth century, to take into consideration the complexity of the sixteenth century world. Humanism was not the only movement to take ground, and did not have the monopoly on influence. In the space of a hundred years, a number of developments had occurred, which were to exercise an incredible influence on the lives of millions of people across Europe by the death of Queen Elizabeth the first in 1603. The fifteenth century saw the discovery of the "New World", and this influenced beliefs and intellectual understandings of Europeans, shattering the familiarity and certainly of their lives, while at the same time exciting their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. The sixteenth century brought in its wake a whole new religious outlook which challenged almost every aspect of life. The Reformation played an important role in creating a new attitude to education as Protestantism was a far more intellectually demanding religion than Catholicism, requiring a sound knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. The need for competent clerics became all the more important, and as the standards of the Catholic and early Protestant clergy were not particularly high, it became apparent that a higher standard of education was necessary. On a lay level, to be able to fully participate in Protestant culture, it was necessary to be literate, and to be literate demanded at least a rudimentary education.
Another very significant development of the fifteenth century, which was not really felt in Western Europe until the sixteenth century, was the coming of the Printing press. This "German invention" revolutionised the nature of communication in Europe. Not only did it make the mass production of texts so much easier by requiring far less man power, it also made the mass production of identical texts possible. This was significant for education and in particular scholarship. It made textual criticism simpler and more practical, enabling scholars to communicate with each other simply by referring to the edition and page number of texts. The simultaneous development of paper also helped to reduce the cost of books, and these too developments combined allowed individual scholars to buy their own books. This undoubtedly helped their understanding of intellectual theories and debates, and also implicitly encouraged a move away from the oral/aural, scholastic education that predominated in the universities.
These developments alone were responsible for significantly altering the values and attitudes of individuals across Europe, and gave rise to a new culture. It is difficult, if not impossible to determine the exact influences of each development, as the influences of each are so entangled in each other. The Reformation changed religious outlooks, but this in part stemmed from the new attitude towards man's role in society and human achievement. Also it is Arguable that Luther's arguments and opinions would not have been able to reach such a vast audience, and thus giving inertia to the Protestant movement, had not it been for the coming of the printing press. These problem make the studying of the impact of "Humanism" on any country in the sixteenth century problematic. In Wales there is the added problem of the Acts of Union of the early sixteenth century, which provided Welshmen with new opportunities, both politically and educationally, and the accession of the "Welsh Tudors" to the throne gave an impetus to a feeling of National pride, and a fervent loyalty to the Crown.
Before continuing to look at the impact of humanist values on Welsh life, it is perhaps necessary to look in some detail at what is meant by "humanist values" in this essay. Humanism can be interpreted in several ways. In historical writings, it is usually taken to mean the new interest in Greek and Roman civilisation by scholars in Europe, and seen as synonymous with the Renaissance which was the "re-birth" of an interest in this Classical world. It is certainly true that scholars began to study enthusiastically the works of Classical writers such as Cicero (the "father of the Latin eloquence" (1) ) , Aristotle and Plato, and wanted to emulate their elegant and eloquent style. Latin had long been the "lingua franca" of Europe, but its use had become rather routine and accepted. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century it gained a whole new lease of life. It received much praise and was considered, with Greek, the most sophisticated language of the known world. This interest in Greek was a new development, and owed a lot to the coming of printing. Prior to printing, Greek works had tended to be neglected by scribes who were not familiar with the language, as they preferred to employ their efforts on more familiar territory, but printing made it possible to mass produce the language with little effort. The desire to emulate the Classical authors, changed considerably the nature of scholarship and writing amongst European scholars. Elegance and Eloquence were now demanded in works, not only in contents, but in styles of handwriting too. The scholastic emphasis on logic and conciseness, gave way to a "flowery", rhetorical style of writing. In the realm of historical study, the desire to "get to the truth" was considered all important. It was no longer acceptable to passively accepts myths and legends about the past, but to actively challenge them and search for documentary evidence. The Vernacular however in the midst of all this activity was not neglected, quite the contrary, it became increasingly valued. As Italian humanists began to turn to their own language, so did humanists in other areas of Europe, and when they realized how undeveloped their native languages were, they tried to enhance the vocabulary, to enable more eloquent and elegant means of expression. As much as the Latin language was venerated, humanists outside Italy wanted to see their own language just as exalted and esteemed. Humanists also had a more liberal approach to female education, believing that a degree of education in women, especially women with political or economic responsibilities, was necessary, but the impact was minimal. Patriarchal principles prevailed, and females were still denied access to the universities.
However, as John Stevens and Peter Burke argue, Humanism was far more than a scholarly movement. It was also a value system, embodying ancient values, or what were believed to be ancient values. This gave rise to a whole new attitude towards politics and human social behaviour. In politics however, perhaps the humanist outlook was the most conservative. The Classical authors may have advocated republic, classless societies, but in an overwhelmingly monarchial, aristocratic, Europe, such theories needed to be adapted if they were to be accepted. One of the most influential political writings in sixteenth century England was Sir Thomas Elyot's, "Boke named the Governor", perhaps influenced by Castiglione's "The Courtier". He, like other Renaissance humanists, justified hierarchy by declaring that it offered the best means of government and the best safety to the state as "that maner of governance is best approved, and hath longest continued." (2) In this work he discussed methods of governing, as well as the personal qualities governors should have, their education and their leisure activities. Rulers were expected to be just, virtuous, wise, cautious, knowledgeable and generous patrons. A sound education, incorporating language, geography and history, was seen as the basis of all good government. It ensured that leaders were fully prepared for their role, and intellectually capable of coping with decision making. Yet although the ideal Renaissance Prince was to embody all these qualities , he was to avoid extremes in anything. He was to keep to Aristotle's "golden mean", by keeping his activities and interest varied. Humanists firmly rejected the Machiavellian principles as advocated in the "The Prince", which suggested that rulers should be exploitive, self seeking, shrewd, and opportunists. The qualities expected in a ruler were also expected in those occupying positions of power in society, and there developed a whole new concept of gentility. In the middle ages, military prowess or wealth were considered to be the main qualifications, but in the sixteenth century, this was increasingly questioned. Civility was becoming all important. To be a brave warrior in the monarch's service was still much esteemed, as was physical agility and fitness, but to use physical force in the settling of personal feuds was increasingly frowned upon. Now personal disputes were expected to be settled by more civilised methods by courts or by monarchial intervention. Also the notion of "service" changed. Humanists advocated the idea of serving the Commonweal, the common "good". All actions were to be for the good of the State, and it was a sign of true gentility if a man put service to his monarch and country before all else. The rise of a new concept of gentility however, was not entirely due to humanist influence. The sixteenth century saw the rise of the "nouveau riches" and they challenged the position of the established nobility and gentry. There was an increasing hostility to the old gentry who seemed not to be adequately contributing to the governing of the realm, an attitude reflected in the words of Lord Burghley, himself a self-made man, "gentility is nothing else but ancient riches." (3) Wealth and birth status were no longer seen as the only justification for their privileged position. It be "errour and folye", wrote Sir Thomas Elyot, if you think that "nobilitie may in no wyse be but onely where men can avaunte them of auncient lignage, or auncient robe, or great possessions." (4) Wealth and birth status were still important, but as J. Gwynfor Jones argues were the "symbols of gentility", (5) not the basis of it. The nobility and gentry increasingly found that they had to justify their position. They found this justification through the notion of intellectual superiority, and were thus more capable of governing the country. To prove their worth, and fulfill the idea of service, they increasingly took up positions of authority in their towns, such as a Justice of the Peace or served as a member of Parliament.
Wales was very much on the periphery of Europe, both geographically and politically. She was also a small country, one of the smallest in Europe, with a population of perhaps two or three hundred thousand . Wales had important trade connections, but otherwise was a country of minor significance except to those that lived there. Arguably in such a country as Wales, humanist values could only have a very minor impact on everyday life. To begin with, the people were not exposed to the Culture to any great extent. Wales was overwhelmingly an agricultural country. There were some urban centres of significance such as Ludlow, but even this town did not compare to such centres in London. Neither did Wales have centres of learning as had the cities of Oxford and Cambridge, which housed the prestigious universities. In many ways it can be argued that Humanism and all it stood for passed by the Tudor men and women of Wales. However, the picture is not clear cut. When considering the influence of humanism or any movement on a given people, it is necessary to take into consideration economic and social factors. Undeniably the impact was far more pronounced on the more wealthy, literate people of society, on what Robert Redfield describes as the "Great tradition" in contrast to the "little tradition".(6) This is an English model, but it equally applies to Wales.
The ordinary folk had their own, time old culture, which was largely impermeable, and suited their lack of formal education and limited financial means. In terms of literacy, Wales was no worse than England and it is estimated that approximately one in five of the population could read and write, but on the whole, literacy was not common amongst the poor. Thus, the culture of the lower classes was predominately oral- poems, ballads, songs, ritualistic dancing, and was a custom tinged with superstitions and paganism. Wales was one of the dark corners of the land where it was difficult for the powers that be to infiltrate. There was a conscious, active attempt by the government to assert the Protestant faith , but until the seventeenth century were largely unsuccessful. What can best be described as a "Pagan-Catholicism" prevailed. What hope then had humanists of gaining ground when there was not such a conscious attempt to make their values accessible to the lower orders ? Also it is arguable that the people of the upper classes did not want to make humanism more accessible to these people, as an educated lower class would totally undermine their justification for their privileged position.
Bibliography & Endnotes