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MonkeyNotes-Utopia by Sir Thomas More
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HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The time that Sir Thomas More lived was a very exciting one throughout Europe. This period, known as the Rennaissance, was marked by the revival of classical arts and literature as well as an emergence of new technologies and geographical explorations. It was also the age of humanism where the focus was more on humanity and its man-made structures such as politics and science rather than on the divine aspect of life that marked the Middle Ages. A new spirit of discovery and wonder was replacing the rigid atmosphere of the Middle Ages and great innovations were made in the arts and sciences such as the invention of the printing press, the discovery of gunpowder, and new navigational techniques that allowed for exploration into new lands.

In England, the Renaissance was to see its flowering a little bit later in the 16th century during the reign of Elizabeth I, yet it was already being felt in England during More's lifetime as well as spreading throughout northern Europe. From the 14th century, Italy had been the center of the Renaissance. Da Vinci, Petrarch and Boccaccio, men deeply influenced by classical antiquity, had made Italy a veritable storehouse of beauty and art. Later, Erasmus, Machiavelli, and Castiglione were political writers who critiqued the social and political institutions, providing new political and social alternatives to how states should be ruled. Many aspects of life that has been suppressed during the Middle Ages came to life in the Rennaissance bringing with it a flourishing of artistic and scientific practices as well as a more secular society.


The Protestant Reformation was still to come when Utopia was written (it started officially in 1517, a year after the book was published), but when Utopia was written, great religious controversies were raging. The rigid control that the Roman Catholic Church had over much of the social and political life of Europe was under attack as blatant transgressions occurred more and more frequently, and corruption became commonplace. The greed of clergymen, the trafficking of relics, and the absolute supremacy of the Pope all gave rise to much discontent. The concept of a single Christian empire was coming to an end as the loyalties of the people were divided between God and the king.

Two phalanxes occurred due to this rift in the Catholic Church: one was the complete severance from the Church promulgated by Martin Luther. The Protestant Reformation of 1517 was to have a severe impact on religious authority in Europe as it rejected the tenets of Catholicism for a new, more humane religion. The other phalange was the rise of a reformation movement within the Church. Among the outspoken leaders of this movement was Erasmus, who became a good friend of More's. It was through this critical inquiry of the Church that More came up with the idea for Utopia, although his criticisms are more oblique than Erasmus' were. His other influences seemed to have come from the specific period of English history that he lived in as well as the great explorations occurring that brought news of foreign lands and alternative social conditions to those imposed in Europe.

More was born only a few years before Henry VII became the first Tudor king in 1485. Married to Elizabeth, the daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV, Henry ascended the throne after defeating Elizabeth's uncle, Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. With Richard, the long line of Plantagenets came to an end. The Tudors were considered Welshmen and were not accepted by everyone. But after the long and troublesome period of the War of the Roses, England was finally at peace. When the Tudors came to the throne, English law was in chaos. The common law was not effective in many cases. But Henry VII was a prudent man and introduced a number of good laws that brought a reign of relative prosperity and stability to the country.

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