CROSS CURRENTS OF THE RENAISSANCE
IF Chaucer's Poor Parson could have compared his religious and philosophical beliefs with those of a typical Renaissance figure such as Castiglione's Courtier of a century later, he would have found under their different terminologies a considerable measure of agreement. Both would have agreed, in the first place, that God created the universe to show forth his own goodness, and that without his perpetual support it would dissolve once more into the formless chaos from whence it came. They would have agreed, moreover, that the Universe was a great hierarchy, ranging from the most perfect celestial spirits at the top to the most corruptible matter at the bottom, and that every rank had its precise position and function in the total scheme. In this great system of Nature, man's position was at the junction of the spiritual and the material, a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the beasts; and, as the link between the two, his function was to follow the angelic pattern as far as his material nature would permit. They would have agreed, too, that before the Fall, the system was complete from highest to lowest, with each rank embodying the divine image at its own level and the whole hierarchy reflecting in its diversity what God himself possessed in his unity. After the Fall, however, it seemed that man had a permanent tendency to follow his animal instead of his spiritual leanings, thus causing a gap in nature and endangering the completeness of the whole system. For this reason, human sin was something of more than merely local importance, and threatened the whole order of Nature just as a single broken link will endanger the whole chain.
At this point, the Poor Parson and the Courtier would begin to differ over questions of interpretation and emphasis, though their basic beliefs would be substantially the same. The Fall meant a great deal more to the Middle Ages than it did to the Renaissance.