English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment
The scope and basic theme of the course
The basic theme of our course is a series of cultural crises that took place during 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries in Western Europe (and America). These crises focused on a number of distinct but interrelated issues: (1) What is the meaning and purpose of human life? (2) Who should obey whom? (3) What is the nature of the universe that human beings find themselves in? More deeply still: (4) How can we know the answers to these questions? People began to propose widely divergent answers to these questions, and their disagreements often ended in terrifying violence. All of these questions, in turn, eventually lead to the question "What must we put our trust in -- what, or whom, are we to believe?" For short, we can call this last, "deepest," question (5) "the question of [ultimate] authority." We can say, in short, that the subject of our course is crises in authority during the early modern period.
Before we go further, let's make sure we are clear about some basic terminology in the passage above.
"The Sixteenth Century" is the term we use to cover the period 1501 to 1600 -- i.e., "the fifteen-hundreds." Here are a few of the important things that you may already have heard about that happened during this century.
1517: The German monk Martin Luther publishes the "95 Theses" questioning the validity of certain practices then going-on with the apparent approval of high Church authorities. This is the conventional date for the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, which shatters forever (or at least up to today) the unity of "Western Christendom" that had persisted since the days of the "Fathers of the Church" (e.g., Saint Augustine, who died in 432, as the Roman Empire was in its final stages of decay).
Regarding this particular event as "the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation" is highly convenient -- so long as we keep in mind that it is overly precise (for reasons that we will become acquainted with).
1521: The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés destroys the Mexican Aztec capital city Tenochtitlán (on the site of today's Mexico City), and declares the Aztec empire a Catholic possession of the Spanish Crown.
This American event is conventionally regarded as the beginning of the European domination of the continental Western Hemisphere, which (from another standpoint) could just as well be said to have begun with the Columbus's voyages, starting in 1492.
1543: The Polish monk Nicholas Copernicus publishes his book On the Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies. This is the conventional date for the outbreak of the Copernican Revolution, which eventually replaced the traditional geocentric (earth-centered) picture of the cosmos with the heliocentric (sun-centered) picture that is the direct ancestor of modern astronomy's picture of our solar system.
As we will see, the "Copernican Revolution" actually took some 143 years to complete. (It culminates only with the publication of Isaac Newton's The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687, and is the result of many important changes in Copernicus' hypothesis, resulting from the contribution of a number of astronomers and physicists.)
1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Spanish Armada was a huge fleet of warships sent by the Catholic King Philip of Spain to dethrone Queen Elizabeth of England, and return England to the True Faith.
"The Seventeenth Century" is the term we use to refer to the period 1601 through 1700 -- i.e., the "sixteen hundreds." Some of the things that you may already know something about that occurred during this period.
1620: the ship Mayflower lands at Plymouth Rock, Massachussets, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony is founded.
1633: Trial of Galileo for heresy before the Inquisition in Rome, for having published a book defending the Copernican hypothesis of the structure of the cosmos.
1687: Isaac Newton publishes The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, formulating the laws of motion for material bodies (both on earth and in the heavens), triumphantly confirming Johannes Kepler's version of the Copernican hypothesis of the structure of the universe.
1692: Witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, result in the execution of scores of citizens for traffic with the Devil.
"The Eighteenth Century" is the term we use to refer to the period 1701 through 1800 -- i.e., the "seventeen hundreds." Some of the things that you may already know something about that occurred during this period.
1719: Daniel Defoe publishes the novel Robinson Crusoe.
1776: The Declaration of Independence of the 13 Atlantic seaboard colonies from England.
1782: James Watt (English engineer) invents the double-acting rotary steam engine.
1789: The storming of the Bastille begins the French Revolution.
"The Early Modern Period" is a term that applies roughly to the period 1500 to 1800 (or the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries) in Western Europe.
Scholars have generally agreed that it is helpful to extend the stretch of time (covered by the term "Early Modern Period") slightly on both ends, to cover the period between 1492 (Columbus' first landfall in the Western Hemisphere) and 1815 (the defeat of Napoleon).
"Western Europe" in this sense of the term covers both less and more than what may at first occur to you when you think of the phrase. For the purposes of defining the "Early Modern Period," as above, "Western Europe"
- includes the "British Isles" (Ireland and England [with Wales and Scotland],
- extends eastwards from the Atlantic Ocean (bordered by the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal) to Poland, the territory of what is now the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Austria.
- and northwards from the Mediterranean Sea (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy) up through Switzerland and Germany, to the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway).
- Note that the Balkans (today Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, and Macedonia) and Greece were not, during the period of our course, culturally part of "Western Europe," since they fell within the domain of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Hungary fell to the Turks in 1526, but in the 17th Century became part of the Hapsburg Dynasty -- the ruling family in Austria.
- It is useful to extend the concept "Western Europe" in the cultural sense to gradually include, in the course of the Early Modern Period, large parts of the Western Hemisphere, that are eventually overrun -- and politically controlled -- by colonists, settlers, and emigrants from Western Europe.
In sum: we can think of our course as covering critical cultural developments within the Western European sphere of influence (increasingly in the Americas) between Columbus's First Voyage (in 1492) and the attempt (ultimately unsuccessful) of the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to reverse the French Revolution.
As we said before, the particular cultural events that we are focusing on are a series of growing conflicts over 5 particular questions, cited above. We could just as well reduce them (See how?) to 3: what is our situation, and how should we behave in it, and what can we rely on in deciding these matters? The "deepest" of these is the last -- the question of "what should we trust?", the question of "legitimate authority."
We said these crises take the form of conflicts. You can't have a conflict without at least two factors that are opposed to each other. This means that, for each of these issues we are examining, our exploration, to be complete, will have a definite logical structure among certain essential elements. We will have to develop a clear picture of
- a traditional position on each of the issues we are examining
- some distinctly other position
- a clear view of how these positions are not just different but opposed
- what is at stake in this opposition --
- how these differences arise
- what further differences these differences make (i.e., so what?)
But our window on these issues is a special one: the "humanities." That is, we will be looking at how the various cultural conflicts concerning authority was carried on through the elite public media of the early modern era -- i.e., in literature, the visual arts, philosophy, and (though our attention here will be most brief) even music.
(Note that this means there is much genuine culture that we will not directly address: the whole domain of "popular culture" -- the oral fiction, history, and philosophical and theological discussions that passed among the common people, the music of the peasantry and urban taverns -- a whole rich array which has largely passed from the historical record available to us, but which scholars have found ingenious ways to reconstruct in part.)
Our aim in doing this, however, will not be to describe some conflicts, using the arts merely as a source of illustrations. Rather, it will be to appreciate how these works can themselves be understood only by situating them within the overall milieu of conflicted cultural assumptions within which they were produced and responded to. But this goal means we have to embrace additional ones, which are the topic of the memo on the Goals and Methods of the Course.
Check out the more detailed description of how our central theme governs, and is articulated by, the Organizational Framwork of the Course.
Go to the Home Page of the course.
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Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker.
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This page last updated 15 January 2000.