Cambiamenti e societa' inglese nel XVII secolo



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Starting from the reign of James I, a broad process of change gradually replaced the Elizabethan world picture, which was characterised by submission to hierarchical order, with a system founded on the concepts of multiplicity and toleration. The Civil War in the 1640s marked a dramatic turning point in the political, social and intellectual framework. A new, strong religious tension among common people led them to :
1. The rejection of strict authoritarian kingly rule legitimated by God
2. A newly accepted frame of mind causing two party system and a loyal opposition in Parliament
3. The consolidation of a new middle class of merchants and businessmen
4. The spread of many independent Puritan sects
The Puritans were the cause of this unprecedented rebellious mood which led to a dramatic tug of war between the Crown and the Parliament, resulting in an inevitable civil war and the execution of the king Charles I.
The cultural influence

The most relevant consequence of the Civil war and the revolution was man’s awareness that there was no universal truth. The age had already given birth to a new scientific spirit aroused from a firm disbelief in the power of magic. This new attitude led intellectuals to investigate and try to understand the mysterious workings of God’s ways. Therefore men had no need to attach importance and be blindly obedient to the teachings of the ancients or to the doctrines of the established church. Science and religion alike contributed to the dismantling of the never previously principle of authority. Among the supporters of the authoritarian rule, Hobbes affirmed the necessity of a strong civil power able to control men’s perpetual state of war and moral degradation. At the same time, Bacon developed a modern idea of cooperative scientific research and widened his range of investigation to the conception and function of knowledge. Bacon’s method found full and acknowledged achievement in the foundation of the Royal Society for the improving of Natural knowledge, whose members-Boyle and Newton among others-were able to discover some of the simplest and most general laws found in nature. This new approach to reality marked the end of the scholastic frame of mind based on logic observations on a geocentric universe. Religion, on the other hand, underwent significant developments: Protestant theology appealed to the individualism of the middle class, and the abolition of saints and priesthood set individual consciences face to face with God. In this general situation Puritanism represented a framework for life with its insistence on salvation and election. The Puritan elevation caused a shift from the Established Church and this new spirit will become the very essence of the Industrial Revolution.

The writers’ role

While previous beliefs and way of living were rapidly changing, the old system of patronage in the arts did so at a much slower rate under the Stuarts. The court was still the centre of intellectual life.
The most renowned poets of the time, such as Donne and Jonson, knew each other well and quite naturarally reflected the court values of the time in their works. During the Civil War years, the reverence and respect that men of letters owed to the Court turned into independence of thought. The need for higher educational standards allowed the intellectuals to enlarge their breadth of experience showing the wide range of their knowledge together with their versatility. Apart from the literary world which they belonged to, many writers tried to assume a more important role searching for careers in politics or in the clergy. The printing press, moreover, helped writes to reach the ever-increasing number of the reading public, and booksellers began to replace the older courtly patrons.

Places of cultural entertainment

In the age of religious controversy, the control of the pulpit was of the greatest social and political importance, comparable to mass media today. In fact, the pulpit represented for those semi-illiterate people the only source of ideas on economics and politics and on religious issues. The discussions an reflections prompted outside could find fertile ground of accomplishment in the home. In fact, most noblemen’s houses came to include chaplains, tutors, pensioners and boys from neighbouring families were sent there for a training. In that time everybody looked at London as the crossroads of human activity, and the “ Londonisation” of England became a matter of course. In the capital city new ideas were more easily conveyed. At the same time, London’s siding with Parliamentarians against the landowners supporting the Royalists during the Civil war, was a further example of how new ideas had developed into straightforward attitudes of rebellion and independence of thought. London was not only the place where religious and political fights were fought; as a matter of fact the trading companies, the major English industry, the financial market as well as the most fashionable entertainment were all concentrated there. The capital city attracted lots of people and its increase was never checked, despite two terrible events, the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666, which considerably reduced its population and its size. In the course of the century, the theatre became more and more a class entertainment for wealthier people, losing its nature of meeting point for men belonging to different groups. In the 17th century theatres were seen as a valuable business in which to invest money. Up to the closing of the theatres in 1642, drama still felt the influence of the great Elizabethan playwrights. Charles II chartered two companies of actors, brought foreign musicians, composers and painters to the Court, and was interested in the progress of science, but his way of living determined that sharp contrast between the town, seen as symbol of corruption, and the country, still linked to the traditional values. However, this two distinct social entities, which were to remain separated throughout the following century, shared some fundamental experiences in this period:
1. A rise in democracy
2. More religious toleration
3. A practical use of science
4. Greater freedom of discussion