Seventeenth-Century English Literature and Cultural Change

Key Dates in the Post-Elizabethan Political Struggle--Vespucci's Map (1526); Cabot's Map (1540); Speed's Map (1627); "Upside-Down Map" (C20)

1603 Elizabeth I dies without an heir--cousin James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Stuart, becomes James I of England (staunch Protestant but autocrat who believes in the "divine right of kings" to govern with absolute authority over their subjects)

1605 Gunpowder Plot, Titus Oates accuses Guy Fawkes and other Catholics of planning to blow up King and Parliament--massive persecution of Catholics and Dissenters follows. In 1608, a group of Puritan Dissenters flee to the Continent.

1620 Puritan Dissenters from Anglican church, having fled to the Netherlands, set sail for New World colonies at Massachusetts Bay.

1625 Charles I succeeds James I--more absolutist than his father and Catholic in his personal beliefs, alienating Parliament. Puritans increase Parl. power.

1627-8  Under the influence of the duke of Buckingham, Charles I authorizes a failed attack on the French city of La Rochelle and the fortress of Ré--Buckingham is assassinated by a disappointed subordinate; Spain contemplates a second Armada to avenge the loss of the 1588 fleet and to retake England for the Roman Church; Dutch Admiral Piet Heyn captures Spanish treasure fleet at Havana and temporarily ends Spain's imperial designs.

1632  Charles I grants Cecil Calvert millions of acres on both sides of a large bay in the New World, with the explicit purpose of offering refuge to English Catholics who were increasingly persecuted by the Puritan forces seizing control of Parliament.  Calvert is said to have named it "Maryland" after Charles' wife.  In 1634, Calvert's brother, Leonard, leads the first expedition to the mouth of the Potomac where St. Mary's City is founded.

1639  Maryland tobacco and grain farmers import their first African slaves to augment the labor power of indentured English servants.

1642 Civil War begins, Parliamentary armies (Oliver Cromwell most famous general) pray before battle and adopt severe "Roundhead" haircuts; Royalist forces, called "Cavaliers" dress in traditional feudal finery with long hair and write love poetry. Theaters closed by Parliamentary decree as seat of immorality; printing freed from royal authority and broadside pamphlets flourished.

1647 Charles I captured, end of monarchy--son Charles (II) exiled in France.

1649 Charles I executed--beginning of "Commonwealth" ruled by Parlaiment; Maryland's legislature defensively passes the Act Concerning Religion (later called "of Religious Toleration") forbidding persecution of any Trinitarian Christian faiths.

1660 The Restoration--after Cromwell's heir cannot rule effectively, Parliament recalls Charles II from France. French court styles influence literature again.

1671  Charles Ogilby creates a "portolan" or navigational map of the Chesapeake Bay and environs that is one of the earliest to show the Maryland Colony's counties.

1688 Bloodless Revolution, after James II threatens to take the nation Catholic again, attorneys persuade William of Orange, and Mary, to reign as figureheads.

1694 Annapolis is at the mouth of the Severn River in the American colonies, and in 1695, it becomes the colony's new capital.

Key dates/discoveries in science redraw the universe & human nature--

1453-1543 Nicholas Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, posits a heliocentric universe to explain flaws in the Ptolemaic explanation of the planets' movements (in manuscript, 1512, published 1543). Without evidence, slow to win converts.

1546-1601 Tycho Brahe, astronomer, observes a supernova in Cassiopeia (1572) and makes precise observations on planetary and lunar orbits that nearly confirm C's theory, but rejects Copernicus' theory.

1561-1626 Sir Francis Bacon, in Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum Organum (1625) develops scientific method of inquiry by controlled experiment, drawing conclusions from evidence via induction (vs. deduction).

1571-1630 Johanes Kepler, mathematician, based on TB's observations, abandons "perfect" circular orbits of planets for elliptical orbits, which fit observations perfectly. Mysterium cosmographia (1596) and Harmonia mundi (1619) explain celestial mechanics as a result of three divine "laws."

1578-1657 William Harvey, first modern medical researcher in comparative anatomy and embryology, describes the heart as a blood pump and maps the circulatory system in On the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628)

1546-1642 Galileo Galilei builds telescope with power to resolve craters on the "perfect" moon, to describe Milky Way galaxy, and to detect four moons orbiting Jupiter. In 1616, the pope declares Copernican system "false and erroneous." Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) disproves Ptolemaic system and upholds Copernican. Called to Rome by Inquisition (1633), Galileo recants. "The Book of Nature is written in mathematical characters" (1623). His word for "experiment" is "cimeno," "ordeal."

1642-1727 Isaac Newton, in 1666 discovers the law of universal gravitation (force varies proportionately to the inverse square of the distance between the bodies) which explains Kepler's observations. The Principia naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1667) explains the forces controlling planets, comets, moons, earthly tides, and falling bodies. He invents differential calculus and the particulate theory of light (Optics, 1704).  Until the advent of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in 1916, Newtonian physics constructed the mental world within which literature was created.  The C18-19 emphasis on reason and order, including a preference for balanced clauses in sentences and iambic pentameter couplets (AKA "heroic couplets") conformed to the geometric and mathematical uniformity of the Newtonian view of the universe, which Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") described as a perfectly functioning "clockwork" or machine, from which he inferred the necessary presence of a "watchmaker," i.e., God, who had apparently left the scene.

1656-1742 Edmund Halley, using Newton's physics calculates the orbit of the "Great Comet of 1682," now "Halley's Comet," showing it to have been the comets of 1531 and 1607, calculating its return around 1759, and enabling us to predict its return in 1835, 1910, and 1982. Its next return will be in 2057.

Modes of thought and literary change--

Mass literacy and silent reading from printed texts replace the manuscript literacy and reading-aloud technologies of literary production.  This process had begun in the previous century, aided especially in England by Protestant theologians' insistence that Christians had to be personally familiar with the Bible and responsible for correct interpretations of its (now) translated English text.  Craft guilds, which already had become powerful in Chaucer's era, expected their members and the members' children to become literate and numerate as a practical matter of trade.  Education by the guild schools, like the Merchant Taylors School (1561) where Spencer was educated, was no longer an unusual accomplishment but increasingly part of normal preparation for adult life.  The book, the pamphlet, and the "news-paper" became accessible to ordinary citizens of London, and when the great Civil War broke out between the Royalists and Parliamentarians, it was first fought in pamphlets and broadsides bought for pennies from street-merchants and partisan booksellers.    

"Enthusiasm" becomes a synonym for dangerous emotional instability. Reasonableness comes to be sought after as the ideal mental state and many poems (e.g., Shakespeare's sonnets) lament the disruptive effects of passions on the human mind.

"Humors" theory of human medicine--Human emotional states and character were produced by an excess of one of the four "humors" thought to control the human body (blood=hot+wet, phlegm=cold+wet, choler=hot+dry, black bile (cold+dry). In proper proportion, they produced health, but in whose excesses and deficiencies they produced mental illness (e.g., Lear was "bloody-minded" when he raged against his daughters, and Kent was "choleric" in his violent outrage at Oswald). The "comedy of humors" (esp. Jonson) depicts emotional states as a psychological drama that might be thought of as a more sophisticated, materialist way to understand our inner workings than the spiritual mechanism of the moralities' allegory.

Melancholy (usually attributed to excess black bile) becomes a popular concern, perhaps a psychological response to dislocating intellectual and social change. A natural counterpart of "enthusiasm," it was to be expected in "reasonable minds" as they resisted the stresses surrounding them.

"Wit" changes meaning from rapid fluency of dialogue (Kent railing on Oswald or Hal and Falstaff trading insults) into a seemingly effortless capacity for a ready reply, and finally to quick, unexpected and often paradoxical discovery of equivalence between two apparently opposed things or difference between things thought the same. Late in C17, "wit" is a code word for social debate, but some continue to identify it with "raillery" or rapid exchanges of ironic humor, and others with insightful observations reasonably expressed. It's now mainly a synonym for comic expressions.

Genres on the way out: sonnets, after a brief resurgence on divine subjects (Donne, Milton) and Lady Mary Wroth's abduction of it to express a woman's experience of being the pursued Beloved; epic, after Paradise Lost (1667,1674); pastoral poetry, after Marvell and Herrick; masque (rarefied court drama on mythical or allegorical subjects, like Milton's Comus or Jonson's Masque of Blackness [see 1327-34]).

Genres being invented or on the way in: the novel (Oroonoko, 1700); irregular lyrical stanzas (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw); prose essays (Bacon; Mary Astell), satires (Rochester, Montagu, Swift), heroic couplet verse (Swift, Pope and Johnson [in 212]), blank verse for serious, big, epic poems (Paradise Lost [1667/1674 2nd ed.] and later Wordsworth's answer to it in The Prelude [1798], and much later, Walt Whitman's free verse answer to Milton and Wordsworth in Leaves of Grass).