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An expanding world

The restless of 16th century was increased by new geographical and scientific discovers which weakened the old models of the world and the universe. In Ptolemy’s view of the universe, the sun and the planets revolved in concentric spheres around a stationary earth. This old order of ideas was weakened by new cultural influences, such as the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, who set the basis of modern astronomy. Copernicus was born in Poland but studied in Italy. He created a new model of the solar system in which the sun was at the centre, with the earth and the other planets moving in a combination of circular movements around it. With the invention of the telescope, Galileo Galilei proved that the earth turns around the sun. The human microcosm could be understood by reference to the macrocosm of all creation. An entire hierarchical system linked the orders of life-from minerals to angels- connecting plants and animals at each level of the chain. First there was the inanimate class: the elements, liquid and metals. Next there was the vegetative class. Then there was the animal class, with man at the top. Finally there were the angels.

The New Learning

England fought to free itself from the Italian influence, which was identified with Rome and the papacy. The new literature was also influenced by the training in classical imitation of a number of Humanist scholars and translators, reaching back to the time of Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca 1469–1536). At the beginning of the century, he had stressed the importance of studying classical literature for the Christian student. The ‘New Learning’, as Humanism was also called, was established in grammar schools all over the country and in the two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. It encouraged confidence in the power of human reason to interpret man and nature, in the value of literature as an instrument of reason and in the dignity of modern English as a literary medium.

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