"The Classics" in English:
Title pages of the Great Translations


One of the central developments in English Renaissance culture was the Englishing (the translation) of many of the great classical Greek and Latin and continental texts: Homer, Ovid, the Bible, Montaigne (also see additional links 1, 2, & 3), Castiglione, Tasso, Ariosto. (For copies of Tasso's and Ariosto's great works, click on their names here: Tasso, Ariosto.) The translation of the Bible into its great King James version (1611) had obvious religious implications in a Protestant England that was still afraid of its significant Roman Catholic minority, and whose Protestant majority was also divided into many conflicting sects for whom access to the Bible meant different things. But the translation of the great Greek and Latin texts also signified that the works of human beings had value, were necessary to know, should be accessible to the majority of people who could read. See this link for a definition of Renaissance Humanisim, one of the indications of which is this explosion of translations of the classics. (Another Humanism link.) Estimates are that about 50% of the population of London in 1600 was at least minimally literate. Notice how the following title pages show the esteem in which such translations were held, how important they were. Here, one might argue, is the beginning of "high" culture--and perhaps the "culture wars" that some politicians and savants today claim we are experiencing.

The King James Version of the Bible, 1611:

Did you notice the architectural quality of the images, the way the title page design says: I'm massively important? How do you like the depiction of Moses on the left side of the page? Who's depicted at the top? (I'm sorry the quality isn't better. Sue me!) The word in Hebrew at the very top/center of the title page is what's called, in Greek, the "tetragrammaton," the four letters (yud, heh, vav, heh, read right-to-left)  signifying the unsayable name of God that some (but not Jewish people) refer to as Yahweh, though it is not a name, per se.


Now take a look at the title page of Thomas Hoby's translation of Baldassare Castiglione's important guide to courtly life The Courtier (trans. 1561). (Click on his name to see Raphael's wonderful painting of old Baldassare). Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which we'll be sampling, is another "courtly conduct" book. We'll read a few pages of Il Courtegiano, too--from Hoby's translation, no less. It's an important source of neo-Platonist ideals for the educated people of the time. And it reflects the deeply held reverence for order (in human life and in nature) during the English Renaissance. (Remember reading about this in the first pages of this web site?)

The title page of Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of The Courtier (1561):

Again, notice the imagery on this page. Did you know that lions were kept in the Tower of London (a link to a YouTube tour of the Tower!) at this time...nice symbols of royalty, don't you think. They were highest on the "chain of being" of all animals, as the kings or queen was of all people. And for whom was the book intended, anyhow? See the title page!


Now let's see the title page of George Chapman's translation of Homer's Iliad (1598). This is the version the great Romantic poet John Keats read one night that led him to write his great sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." (Here's a link to Chapman's later translation of The Odyssey--an 1857 reprint.) Looking at this title page, what place in the realm of literature do you think Homer occupied for the readers and writers of the Renaissance?

I hope you are impressed! A little more than a century later, the great poet Alexander Pope wrote in his An Essay on Criticism (1711) that "Nature and Homer were the same." That reveals much about why the classical Greek and Roman writers were held in such high esteem. (We'll see this in reading Sir Philip Sidney's A Defense of Poesy). Simply put, writers and readers in the Renaissance knew that the classical writers came first and therefore assumed that their writing was closer to the origins of human experience and thus more authentic than anyone in the 1500s or 1600s could hope to write. Another assumption underlying this view of the classics was that "modern" people were more corrupt than earlier folks, more fallen. Hence, note such books as The Faerie Queene and, later, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, not to mention Milton's Paradise Lost (which we'll read much of)--all books about the progress of the fallen human soul. Here is a link that will get you to images of the title pages of Paradise Lostpublished during Milton's lifetime.


Here's the title page of Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1596). Do you think it's plainer than the others you've seen because Spenser was a Puritan, suspicious of worldly ornamentation (in design, though surely not in language and imagery!)?

Note how the title page claims the FQ is a book for "fashioning morall vertues"! In a sense, it's a Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Castiglione's The Courtier. Doesn't it also ring a bell in your memory, the interest in "moral vertues" I mean, regarding the title page of Topsell's natural history? Read again Hamlet's great speech, "What a piece of work is a man...." Humankind's moral nature is indeed a key issue and interest in Renaissance England. Do you think that morality would be such a primary topic in a discussion of human nature today? Click for more.

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