Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

Excerpt

It must not be inferred from what has been said above that the Middle Ages were a period of tranquil security, rudely broken by the Renaissance. The seventeenth century followed a catastrophe in the sense that the sixteenth century had shown whole areas to be full of problems which had previously been taken for granted. The notion that the 'Ages of Faith' are some sort of historical Eden from which modern man is excluded by his impiety is as silly as that which treats 'medieval' as a synonym for Dark Ages. Men had plenty to worry about in the Middle Ages, and from some points of view life must have been a perpetual nightmare for many. The facts of physical existence were brutal enough, with war, famine, pestilence always round the corner, if not actually raging. Superstition added unseen terrors to those which visibly threatened, and where sheer ignorance veiled so much of the truth, speculation often arrogated the place of knowledge. The fifteenth century in particular was not a gay time, and the danse macabre is a representative enough legacy of generations beaten down by the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. It is an absurd simplification to compare Villon and Ronsard as spokesmen for their respective centuries, simply because each is the best poet of his time, but behind the absurdity there is an element of truth. One of Villon's principal themes is death, which also inspires some of Ronsard's best work. They both write movingly of the transience of earthly beauty, of the decay of flower and flesh, but there is a basic difference, going beyond Villon's insistence on corruption and Ronsard's greater delicacy; for Villon the real worries begin with death, for Ronsard poetic fame already offers a guarantee of immortality. Whatever might worry medieval man on earth, one anxiety took precedence over all others; judgement. The Crusades, the flagellant movements, the pious trinkets of Louis XI are three examples taken at random of how bodies of men, as well as individuals, took to . . .

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