Sixteenth-Century Transition

Some additional notes on the Norton introduction

The Section Dates ("1485-1603"):

        Isn't it a trifle weird that they start the "century" fifteen years early, and end it three years late? If you look at the events below the main title, you'll see that they're really tracking the Tudor dynasty with the implication that this series of sovereigns had some kind of coherent effect on the literature of the time. (Boy would I like to be the Norton editors' examining committee for their doctoral "orals"!) The need to periodize, to "chunk" time into digestible bits for the student's convenience, here raises serious questions about whether there's anything so "new" about Henry Tudor's accession to the throne in 1485 that warrants drawing such a line between what happened and what was written in 1480 or 1483, for instance. Henry was pursuing a shot at the throne of England under the guise of redressing a nobleman's grievance against a king, just as Henry Bolingbroke had done in 1399 when he deposed Richard II, almost 100 years earlier. I'd make the case for 1400 as a better terminus for the previous era, and a start of something new, if not yet fully realized. It's the year Chaucer died, if nothing else, and soon rebellions and organized opposition among noble alliances disturbed the coherence of English government until near civil war broke out between supporters of the house of York and those of the house of Lancaster (Bolingbroke's dukedom). Henry Tudor's arrival was just another stage in that nasty to and fro, and as late as his grandson, Henry VIII's rule, there were arrests and executions and assassinations of claimants to the throne with blood from York or Lancaster (or the Swinford's, Bolingbroke's half-siblings). Only the arrival of the religious conflicts following Henry VII's conversion to Protestantism really made a difference.

        Now if they had said 1485 was the year Caxton published Malory, I'd have agreed! Malory marks Caxton's most adventurous publication, nationalist in nature, but critical of the popular status quo and the nobility's code of behavior, but a complete unknown as an author, with a nearly 1000-page manuscript to print--and, he was fifteen years dead, in jail, on political charges. But that's another story. Other period-defining events are the first publicized European explorations of the Americas, the emergence of mass lay literacy and the first mass market for any vernacular medium, and the use of printing to spread the word about those early explorations, about manners and customs, about crafts and laws, in short, everything that makes an informed populace ready for imperial ambition. It all starts bubbling between 1475 (1st English printed book) and 1492 (Columbus, and the year after Caxton's death, but his shop's still printing under his former pressman, Wynkyn de Worde). So maybe we can accept 1485 as a convenient compromise?

        There is somewhat less doubt that James I's reign was different for artists than that of Elizabeth I, so her death in 1603 and the arrival of her distant Scots relative to rule in lieu of a direct heir forms a good terminus for the period.