Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Pierre de Ronsard

Pierre de Ronsard

Writer, Poet
(1524 – 1585)

Pierre de RonsardPierre de Ronsard is considered by many scholars to be the greatest poet of the French Renaissance. He founded and led a small group of like-minded writers known first as the Brigade and later as the Ple´iade who sought to create a French literature. Ronsard’s body of literary works shaped French poetry long after his death, giving direction to the idealistic voices of the nineteenth-century romantics.

Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnie`re on September 11, 1524, the youngest of the four surviving children of Jeanne Chaudrier and Louis de Ronsard. Jeanne was the daughter of a Poitevin family with ties to several prominent bloodlines of sixteenth-century France; Louis was a country gentleman whose distinction as a knight in the Italian campaigns of Charles VIII and Louis XII earned him the position of royal diplomat and maıˆtre d’hotel. As Louis was frequently absent, Ronsard was strongly influenced by his relation with his cleric uncle, Jean de Ronsard. Thought to have played an important role in his nephew’s earliest education,

Jean de Ronsard was a writer of verses, and he possessed a substantial library to which Ronsard became heir upon his uncle’s death. In 1533 Ronsard left his home to receive formal instruction in Paris at the academically and religiously conservative Colle`ge de Navarre. In spring 1534, after only one semester of study, the boy was peremptorily withdrawn from the school and returned to the paternal manor. This departure has been ascribed both to the young Ronsard’s homesickness and to his father’s fear that his son might become associated with the position taken by the college against the reformist leanings of the king’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre.

Cruel Fortune and the Inevitability of Death

Louis took advantage of his office in the royal household to secure his son a position as page to the dauphin Francis. A mere six days after joining Francis in the Rhoˆne Valley, the dauphin died, and Ronsard, not yet twelve years old, found himself attending the prince’s autopsy—an event he recalled, some thirty-nine years later, among the verses of his Le Tombeau de tres-illustre Princesse Marguerite de France, Duchesse de Savoye (1575; Tomb for the Most Illustrious Princess, Marguerite de France, Duchess of Savoie). This shocking experience was followed by others. While in Lyon on October 7, 1536, Ronsard was witness, on orders from a vengeful Charles V, to the quartering of the dauphin’s foreign-born squire, who was wrongly convicted of poisoning his master.

On July 2, 1537, barely a month and a half after arriving in Scotland as a page in the service of Madeleine de France, Ronsard watched as the ravaging effects of tuberculosis, a highly contagious and often deadly disease, extinguished the lady’s life before she reached her seventeenth birthday. Biographers and literary critics have speculated that these encounters with human mortality at an early age account for the themes of cruel fortune and the inevitability of death throughout Ronsard’s poetry. Read the rest of this entry

Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn


Nell GwynWhen she was just a child, Eleanor Gwyn lost her father, who likely died in a debtor’s prison. The future great actress of the Restoration stage therefore grew up under the care of her mother, who ran a house of prostitution near Covent Garden, then in the western end of the city of London. In her childhood years she was a barmaid in her mother’s establishment before becoming a fruit seller at the nearby Drury Lane Theater. She came to the attention of the theater’s major actor, Charles Hart, and although only fifteen at the time she became his lover. Hart saw to it that she was given roles in productions and she continued in the company until 1669 when she became pregnant by the king. She returned to the theater for one production after the birth, but then soon retired to devote herself to her love, King Charles II. In the years that she had performed at the Drury Lane Theater, Gwyn premiered a number of roles in plays by John Dryden and James Howard.

Although she acted in dramas, it was in comic roles that her talents were most evident. Observers noted that she had a quick and ready wit, and althoug hilliterate, was able to charm even the most educated by the intelligence of her conversation. She was also considered to be an excellent singer and dancer, and she was admired for her abilities to recite the poetic prologues and epilogues that were common in the theater of the day. In her retirement the king granted her a house, where she entertained Charles and members of the aristocracy. She was twice coaxed back onto the stage during the 1670s, the first time to play the female lead in Aphra Behn’s comedy of manners, The Rover (1677) and again in a role in the author’s Sir Patient Fancy a year later. These productions were staged, not at her former establishment the Drury Lane Theater, but at the Dorset Gardens, the house belonging to the troupe known as “The King’s Men.”

In the years after she became the king’s lover, she devoted almost all of her energies to entertaining Charles and members of his court and to tending to her mother and children. Since she had the royal ear, she frequently became involved in intrigues at court, although she seems never to have tried to interfere in politics. Charles richly rewarded her with a generous allowance and a handsome house in the St.James’ section of London so that she could be near the palace. He elevated the two sons she bore him to the nobility. With her newfound wealth, Gwyn provided a house for her mother in fashionable Chelsea, but her mother died in an accident in 1679 brought on by a bout of drunkenness. Despite the king’s great largesse, Gwyn spent prodigiously and when Charles died in 1685, she was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison. Read the rest of this entry

Spanish Theatre – 17th Century

Spanish Theatre – 17th Century

A Century of Greatness – 17th Century

17th century spanish theaterAlthough Spain suffered military and economic setbacks in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this same period was one of brilliance in the arts and literature in the country. By 1600, the cities of Spain had already developed a vigorous theater that was in many ways even more vital than that of London. The origins of Spanish theater can be traced to the late medieval dramas that were performed on solemn religious occasions. Like England the Feast of Corpus Christi in late spring was an important occasion that was often celebrated with the staging of imposing religious dramas. Unlike many parts of Europe where Protestantism gradually restricted religious drama, such productions remained a vital part of urban piety in the seventeenth century, inspiring a new genre of auto sacramentals, or sacramental plays, that aimed to teach the Spanish the tenets of Counter Reformation Catholicism.

In particular, these sacramental plays focused on the theology of the Eucharist, and their series of scenes often demonstrated the biblical events that had produced the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as the rise of Christianity. Even as such religious theater remained a growing tradition in Spain’s Golden Age, popular secular drama was undergoing a dramatic expansion, although its roots also lay in the religious institutions of the country. In the second half of the sixteenth century religious confraternities brotherhoods of lay and clerical members began to stage performances of secular dramas and comedies for paying audiences. Many of these brotherhoods cared for the sick and dying, and the profits of their dramatic performances were used to underwrite their charitable efforts.

The typical Spanish theater of the time was known as a corral, a word that referred to the walled in courtyards in which plays were performed. At one end of these corrals a raised stage provided the setting on which the dramas were performed. Usually these stages were two stories high, with an upper gallery that was decorated to suggest towers, houses, and other elements of urban architecture. The first two of these theaters the Corral de la Cruz and the Corraldel Principe were constructed as makeshift affairs in the newly named Spanish capital of Madrid. Others developed there and at Seville, and by 1600, these two cities were home to the most vigorous theater life in Spain, although other theatrical troupes thrived elsewhere in the country. Read the rest of this entry

Giovanni Boccaccio

Giovanni Boccaccio

(1313 – 1375)

Giovanni Boccaccio was perhaps the greatest realistic story teller of the later Middle Ages and along with Chaucer did much to develop a vernacular literature of wit, sharp psychological observation, and tolerance for human foibles. He was born the illegitimate child of a merchant of Naples but was later legitimized.

His father, a banker, gave him a good education and allowed him to follow a literary career. He claimed that his mother was French, though this, like other supposed “facts” in his biographical comments, may be pure self-construction. Another key element in his life, his love for a certain Fiammetta, may also have been somewhat fictionalized. Boccaccio went to work in Naples in his father’s countinghouse, but he soon left to study canon law at the University of Naples about 1331. All told, he spent some thirteen years in Naples, reading in the Royal Library, learning the life of the court and of the mercantile classes. Thus, books, business, and aristocratic love would all come to be later subjects of his work. It was also in Naples that he started to read Dante.

Life in Mercantile Florence

The second phase of Boccaccio’s life was in a totally different environment, in the mercantile city-state of Florence, where the nobility were forbidden to hold public office. Here money and political shrewdness were elevated above the virtues he had learned at Naples.

In 1340 he became secretary to important Florentines, making a living serving the commune as a roving ambassador or as an emissary to the papal court at Avignon (in 1354 and again in1365). It was in Florence that he became friendly with the famous poet Francesco Petrarch in about 1350, who helped him with his Latin. He also later learned Greek, though with difficulty. Thus Boccaccio was a man of two worlds: one of the Neapolitan culture of lords and vassals, watching tournaments and pageantry, and reading about aristocratic values and refined love; the other of Florentine mercantilism, in a city dominated by a class struggle for political and social power, where money and opportunism were prized above all things. Read the rest of this entry

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of BingenComposer, Playwright
(1098 – 1179) 

Hildegard of Bingen  is one of only a few of the men and women known by name who authored plays in the Middle Ages, and the only one about whom modern scholars have a substantial amount of information. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, polymath and mystic, was the composer of the Ordo virtutum or  “Service of the Virtues,” among many other works. Hildegard’s extraordinary life and achievements have attracted the attention of an extremely wide and varied audience including medievalists, feminist critics, New Age spiritualists, historians of science, and fans of medieval music.

Hildegard was the tenth child born into an aristocratic family. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, and by the time she was eight years old her parents apparently decided that she should be dedicated to religion. She was entrusted to the care of a young anchoress called Jutta, who lived in seclusion in a cell attached to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, near the German city of Speyer. There, Hildegard learned some Latin and also apparently received informal instruction in a wide and eclectic array of subjects, including medicine and the natural sciences. Above all, she learned the elements of musical composition, which she would later employ inher drama. At the same time, Hildegard began to experience the visions for which she would later become renowned. By the time Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard had acquired a secretary, the monk Volmar, to whom she dictated and described the visual and aural messages that came to her from God. In the ensuing decade, Hildegard attracted many young women to the tiny convent that had grown up around her, and by 1147 was actively in search of a new home for her burgeoning community.

Drama in the Convent

In the meantime, thefame of her visions and holiness had spread, and Hildegardbegan to preach in public, as well as to circulate herwritings. These controversial activities brought her to the attention of the bishop of Mainz and also to that of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153), both of whom eventually declared her teachings to be divinely inspired and encouraged her to complete work on what is now recognized as one of the great mystical books of the Middle Ages, the Liber Scivias, roughly translated as “The Book on Knowing the Ways.” By 1150, Hildegard and her followers were established in a new and larger convent at Rupertsberg on the banks of the Rhine, near Bingen.

It was here that Hildegard composed the Ordo virtutum ,a drama about a female soul appropriately called “Anima” and her journey through life. This work is only one of many innovative liturgies, hymn sequences, and song cyclesintended for performance by her nuns. She also oversaw the copying of the books containing her writings and personally directed the production of the many manuscript images designed to illustrate these books and to capture the extraordinary visual qualities of her mystical communications with God. The color, vibrancy, and sensuality of these illuminations provide some indication of the qualities that must also have enriched the spectacle of performance in the convent.

An Unorthodox Career

Hildegard died in 1179, and it was widely believed that she would be canonized as a saint. An official biography was produced, and a number of miracles were attributed to her. However, the late twelfth century was a time when the process of canonization was becoming highly politicized, and when control over this procedure had shifted from local authorities to the papal court. Official enquiries were conducted four times over the course of the next two centuries but, on each of these occasions, objections to the orthodoxy of Hildegard’s life and works were raised by various factions within the church. To this day, only a few religious communities acknowledge her sanctity and celebrate her feast on 18 September.