Today, we will shed light on the rise of the English language during the Renaissance. English was not considered to be the language of education and scholarship and was dominated before the Renaissance.
English language during the Renaissance: as the Age of Mainstreaming of English Language, Protestant Culture, and British Nations
This research paper attempts to explore the rise of the English language during the Renaissance. Before renaissance, English language and literary productions were dominated by other European languages and productions. At the same time, Roman Catholicism was at the center and religious beliefs were thrown to the corner. But during Renaissance, the dominated English cultures, languages and religion rose to a new level breaking all the Rome-centric Catholic barriers imposed upon them suppressing European diversity and also cross the European borderlines which we call English colonization.
Before the Renaissance, the English language was not much worthy of European scholarship and intellectuals. Latin was known as the international language and the language of scholars and intellectuals. French and Italian languages were certainly more useful in higher ranks than the English language. About the usefulness and value of contemporary European languages, Andrew Hiscock writes-“Latin was the international language of scholarship and intellectual dialogue. Among the living languages, Italian and French were infinitely more useful than English for trader and traveler overseas” (160).
According to the above-mentioned quotation, Latin was the international language and the language of intellectuals. And even the status of Italian and French languages was more important than the English language during the Renaissance because they were used by the traders and travelers.
Before the Renaissance, writers who wrote in Latin were more valued and respected than those who wrote in English. As the English language was known as the language of common people, nobody was interested in writing in English. Some of the famous literary works were initially written in Latin and later on translated into English. Those texts written in English could not be accessed to the wider range of intellectual readers. So, even the texts written in English were translated into Latin for their wider readership and fame. About the readership, translation and popularity of text, Hiscock writes, “Sir Thomas Moore wrote Utopia first in Latin in order to secure an international audience for his treatise, and, at the beginning of seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon had some of his works translated into Latin in order once again to access to European readership for his theories of scientific thinking” (160).
As the above-mentioned quotation says, Thomas More was not sure about the future of the English language. So for the international audience, he wrote his famous book Utopia in the Latin language because at that time Lain was an international language, not the English language. So, the above-mentioned quotation says that before Renaissance the condition of the English language was very poor.
English language during Renaissance developed as a better language in European history and came to the mainstream of the European intellectual community with high production of literary texts including poems and plays of famous writers such as William Shakespeare. The production of literature took U-turn in the advancement and flourishing of English language. The role played by translation of Bible into English also cannot be underestimated. About the advancement of English language Hiscock writes-“The impact of Biblical translation upon the development of English language was very significant and is discussed in later section. In the world of arts, a linguistically innovative dramatist like Shakespeare clearly often tried to seduce his audiences with new, extravagant and archaic language forms” (162).
Above mentioned quotation reveals out that translation of the Bible into English played a significant role in the rise of English language during the Renaissance. Along with the translation of the Bible role of dramatists of the time like William Shakespeare is also very significant in strengthening the influence of the English language.
Before religious reformation led by Martin Luther King Senior, Catholic priests had unquestionable power over common people. They themselves were superior to the Christian grand narrative and holy book: Bible itself. They could interpret it for their own benefits and its translation into other languages was strictly restricted. So, the Bible, source of knowledge and power, was not allowed to be interpreted and studied by common people except Catholic Priests. But, in Renaissance, some reformists including Martin Luther King protested against the Rome centered, Latin dominated and Church centered religion and formed another stream of religion with radical thoughts with access of religion to everyone, end of Latin domination and establishment of Bible-based religion rather than the super value of Church and church Fathers’. About the opposing views of Martin Luther to Catholic doctrine Hiscock says:
[…] in this tracts he affirmed (in opposition to Catholic doctrine) that salvation could not be bought, that true faith (rather than good works) was the most important commitment of the Christian wishing to be saved, that the Bible rather than the pope was the source of religious authority, for example, that only the sacraments of baptism and communion were sanctioned in the Bible. (140)
The above-mentioned lines of Andrew Hiscock say that at the beginning of Renaissance Martin Luther King Senior brought an idea to challenge the Catholic notion of Christianity which prioritized Biblical rules rather than the interpretations of the Church authority. So the Anti-Catholic notion of Luther brought the Protestant belief to the mainstream of Christianity.
The reformists’ ideas broke the barriers and hierarchy between popes and laymen, created by traditional Roman Catholics. In the Catholic doctrine, Popes were said to be the representatives of God and always superior to common human beings. This shows that prior to the Renaissance period or the reformation movement, all the members of society, except Popes, were provided with marginal attributes. They were the beings to follow the commands of church authority though unjust and wrong. But after the Reformation, church authority was sharply questioned and the marginalized society came to the mainstream of the society. Though most of the fundamental reformist thoughts were developed by Martin Luther, John Calvin added some more valuable and radical ideas such as an issue of equality of priests and layman which was very significant at the church dominated and unequal society. About the additional radical issues of reformation time raised by Calvin Hiscock adds:
Like Luther, he affirmed the importance of biblical (rather than papal) authority, the irrelevance of such things as indulgences for personal salvation, the spiritual equality of priest a layman, and the crucial significance of the Christian understanding that God’s grace was the sole source of redemption. However, Unlike Lutherans and Catholics, Calvin insisted that the church should serve God’s will rather than make its followers believe that it could assist them on their journey to salvation.(140)
Above aforementioned lines of Hiscock reveals out that like Luther, another Protestant founder; Calvin talked about the equality between the Priests and layman along with the breaking down the blind faith in salvation and tyrannical church authority. This radical idea on the behalf of common people also helped Protestant culture to come to the mainstream of Christian Religion.
Language is always said to be the source of power. Because of the marginal position of the English language, British Isles were also having marginal power. Their access to the outer world was limited due to their language’s inability to communicate with the outer world dominated by Latin, French and Italian. But soon after the Reformation, English language, the language of British Isles, got advanced and became the means of connecting trade routes with Asian and African nations which ultimately resulted in colonization. So, because of Renaissance reformation movement, the marginal language and culture spread all over the world and dominated all the languages and cultures across the world including the Catholic Culture suppressing them under the Roman Catholic umbrella. About the advancement of British states and their colonial expansion Hiscock mentions:
However, as the period unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that the British Isles were no longer seen as marginal kingdoms set on the edge of the map. The growth in the Atlantic trade and voyages down the African coast began to place these Islands (with their many harbors and sea-faring traditions) much more centrally in the growing field of commerce. (181)
Above mentioned quotation of Hiscock makes clear that during Renaissance British Isles improved their status in such a way that they were no longer marginal Kingdoms. They had been able to expand their trade and voyages to the African coast and using it to commercial benefits.
The rise of English language during the Renaissance, what should we conclude?:
To sum up, the age prior to Renaissance was known as Dark Age; church authority was in the mainstream and could impose whatever would be comfortable for their superiority. Though there were kings, they would be ordered to follow the church authority as the kings were supposed to be the representatives of common people. But after the emergence of Renaissance effects in every field of society, Rome-centered and Latin-dominated church superiority were sharply questioned in favor of the common people at the margin of the society. The Reformation Movement, during Renaissance, led by Martin Luther King senior succeeded in establishing the equality between the priests and the layman, religion based on Bible rather than the papal authority, commencement in the translation of Bible in other languages. These drastic changes in religion and culture uplifted the long been marginalized and suppressed people except the Roman Catholic Priests in power. So, the Renaissance period is the age of marginalized.
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Hiscock, Andrew. “ The Renaissance, 1485-1660”. English Literature in Context. Paul Poplawski .4th ed. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press,2008. 140-181. Print.