The Historical Background of English during the Renaissance (1500-1650)

In Court and City, in Parliament and manor house, in workshop and field-furrow, talk ran upon the ocean and the new lands beyond it, on sea power as England’s wealth and safety, on the prospect of colonization as a means of personal betterment and national strength.

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Even up-country squires and farmers began to dream of boundless expanses of virgin soil, waiting since the dawn of time to be broken by the English plough.

Harvey discovered the circulation of blood and Newton propounded the theory of gravitation and the laws of motion. Attempts were made to reform the church and the English Bible came into existence. In the sphere of literature this Renaissance spirit in England manifested itself in the plays written by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson, in the prose writings of Francis Bacon and John Lyly and in the poetry written by Spenser and many others.

This Renaissance spirit also expressed itself in the introduction of the printing press and rapid spread of popular education. William Caxton introduced the printing press in England in 1476 and by 1640 more than twenty thousand titles had appeared in Britain. Before the introduction of the printing press books were in the form of handwritten manuscripts and only the privileged few could ever possess books.

But the introduction of the printing press brought books within the reach of the common man and facilitated a rapid spread of education. Though accurate information in this regard is not available, it is estimated that in Shakespeare’s London more than one third of the population knew how to read.

All this had its bearings on the growth of the English language. The Englishmen’s sense of achievements developed in them a patriotic feeling of attachment towards their native language.

The Renaissance spirit of enquiry resulting in scientific discoveries and in new commercial and cultural links led to a phenomenal rise in the English vocabulary, particularly in the number of words borrowed from other languages. The introduction of the printing press and a rapid spread of popular education strengthened the desire for the maximal exploration of the inherent possibilities of the English language.