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Literary History

The Religious Imperative

Equally far-reaching, in Europe, was the impact of Christianity. With its volatile mix of stories, poems, and sacred and prophetic texts, the Bible provided a moral groundwork that formed the basis for hagiographies, sermons, and devotional verses. The book of Genesis unlocked "Logos," the divine word or sacred seal of inspiration: thus, being literally "God given," language was able to transcend the clasp of mortality and enshrine the numinous. Literature was annexed for the promulgation of doctrine. A library was an institution that preserved sacred texts rather than a place where a commoner might go and acquire knowledge. The one great rebel was Satan, who, having been expelled from Heaven, pursued his counteroffensive among the fallen and fallible of the world.

With the spread of monotheism, the relationship of man to God dominated prose and poetry. In the early medieval period, fables, histories, and courtly tales of love and chivalry predominated. Stories were promoted as exempla, designating a suitable way to behave in order to draw down grace or, alternatively, court damnation. However, in the Phaedrus, Plato had placed art a rung below "truth," being a product of materiality rather than spirit. Hence it could never be wholly trusted.

So that the Bible should hold absolute authority, this doctrine was modified by the Scholastics (c. 800–1400), whose era of crippling, devotional studiousness was shattered by the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—an amazing upsurge in learning that held fast to classical models (Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero's rules of rhetoric) yet managed to accommodate a vast influx of new ideas—from science, natural history, philosophy, theology, botany, mechanics, anatomy, and engineering. Literary art promoted a worldview with God and his angels at the top, a spiritual cartography that found its acme in Dante's Divine Comedy, in which love was the redeeming force and every station of saint and sinner had their precise place and part.

Naturally a great deal of literature was the preserve of monks and scholars who tended to propagate heroes of a devotional bent. By the time of the Reformation (1517), this mold showed signs of cracking. Eventually it was superseded by a new type of psychological truth, typified in England by the dramas of an emergent laity that included men such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, writers who portrayed characters—villains, nobles, and commoners—bursting with painful, turbulent contradictions hinting at the inadequacy of religion in engaging human dilemmas.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Linear expansivity to Macrocosm and microcosmLiterary History - The Religious Imperative, Enlightenment And Romanticism, From Masterpiece To Text, Guilt And Contrition, Contemporary Dilemma