A Matter of Degree: Worldview in Elizabethan England

Shaped by elements of Christian and ancient Greek thought, the Elizabethan worldview envisioned the universe as a balance between heavenly order and sinful chaos, with man the pivotal link in the chain of being.

Published Categorized as Philosophy
Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine. She wears her hair loose, as traditional for the coronation of a queen, perhaps also as a symbol of virginity. The painting, by an unknown artist, dates to the first decade of the seventeenth century (NPG gives c.1600) and is based on a lost original also by an unknown artist.
Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine

…Our dim eyes, which though they see the less,
Yet are they blest in their astonishment,
Imitate heaven, whose beauties excellent
Are in continual motion day and night,
And move thereby more wonder and delight.”

− “Orchestra; or, A Poem of Dancing” by John Davies

Considered England’s golden age, the Elizabethan Era spanned the latter half of the 16th century, coinciding with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Tudor heir of Henry VIII, Elizabeth ruled at a time when absolutism remained unchallenged and internal religious struggles had subsided, with Protestantism maintaining dominance. Externally, England successfully faced off against Catholic Spain and foiled various assassination plots, while the frugal policies of the Queen and her predecessors turned a bankrupt kingdom into a prosperous one, reaping the first benefits of overseas colonies and the subsequent expansion of Atlantic trade.

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait. The portrait was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada (depicted in the background).
Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait. Elizabeth’s hand rests on the globe, symbolizing her international power.

The economic wealth and intellectual humanism of the English “Renaissance”—coupled with a highly stratified society ruled by an absolute monarch employing a highly effective network of spies—made Elizabethan England a place of stark contrasts. The relative stability and prosperity of the era saw the growth of an upwardly mobile middle class and a flourishing of the arts, particularly literature and theater, nurturing the genius of the likes of Milton, Shakespeare, and Donne, to name but a few. Caught between the tenets of the late Middle Ages and a rapidly changing world, heavily influenced by Christian thought and ancient Greek philosophy, the Elizabethan intellectual held many implicit beliefs that shaped the arts and literature of the age. At once foreign and wholly familiar to a contemporary Anglophone reader, the Elizabethan worldview represents one of the formative elements of modern Western thought. 

Order

The concept of order, or degree, held a central role in both the cosmic and the commonplace in such a stratified society, one where violence, plague, and poverty remained rampant, even as the higher classes enjoyed greater wealth and increasingly refined pleasures. The beginning of the Colonial Era, accompanied by massive advances in science and philosophy, presented Europeans with entirely new ideas, commodities and conceptions of civilization. This infinitely varied universe, albeit seemingly chaotic, was ruled by an archetypal “Law” protecting creation from dissolution; the political aspect of this perspective saw the Queen and her council as omnipotent representatives of earthly law. Chaos and order thus stood in opposition to one another, with the former representing the state of the cosmos before creation and the latter representing the unifying power of God that makes life possible. Mutability may have been ubiquitous in the sublunar sphere, but all changes fell within the plan of an omniscient Creator.

This dualistic worldview helped justify the havoc of the Elizabethan lived experience, despite the assumed perfection of creation. The primordial Fall of Lucifer and the original sin committed by Adam and Eve were responsible for the distance between cosmic archetypes and chaotic reality. Sin and salvation formed counterparts to chaos and order, with sin increasing entropy and salvation bringing human souls closer to the organizing force of God’s will.

Picturing Creation

Great chain of being by Didacus Valades
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana

Three principal images illustrate the Elizabethan view of creation: The Great Chain of Being, corresponding planes, and The Great Dance. Often used complementarily, these images all integrated elements of Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy. Given the importance of God in Protestant England, each image served as a testament to the power of the Creator and the infinite logic of His creation.

The Great Chain of Being was seen as stretching from the highest angels at the foot of God’s throne to the most insignificant inanimate object. This concept arranged the cosmos in a hierarchical series of classes, each possessing an aptitude, a certain attribute at which the members of that class excelled. Angels excelled at adoration, being capable of comprehending God directly; men excelled at learning; beasts in the strength of their desires and drives; plants in their capacity for growth; even rocks excelled in their durability. Each class also contained a primate, a head of the class that strove for the class above it: the dolphin among fish, fire among the elements, the king among men.

Whereas The Great Chain presents a vertical framework for the universe, the concept of corresponding planes is horizontal. Correspondence had tied the movement of the heavens with the development of human affairs since ancient Babylon, most conspicuously through the practice of astrology. In correspondences the part resembled the whole, the micro the macro, and vice-versa: the sun represented the king, the ruler of the heavens and the ruler of the state, while the queen drew comparison to the moon, ruling over her court of stars. The order of the state was meant to resemble the order of the universe, and disorder in the heavens—that is, an unfortunate alignment of the planets—meant disorder in the state. Another parallel linked the composition of the cosmos and the composition of the human body, not unlike the ancient concept of the Zodiac Man. The architecture of the human soul was also projected onto natural phenomena. For Elizabethan literati, the virtue of love was comparable to the eternal light of fixed stars, while the tempests that shook the sky were likened to the passions that rack the human heart.

The third conception of the universe was itself a kind of correspondence: The Great Dance. Described as “degree in motion”, in this model earthly, celestial, and divine hierarchies moved in varied paths within a perfect whole, from the movement of the angels to the dances of the royal court. The concept of creation as a musical act dates back to ancient Greece, and the Elizabethan Christian mind attributed man’s inability to hear this music to the corrupting influence of the Fall.

The Dance of the Heavens

In The Great Dance, the planets and stars were thought to dance to the music of the spheres, just as the kingdom moved under the direction of Queen Elizabeth, the primum mobile. While the average educated Elizabethan had access to Copernicus’ findings, the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe remained the predominant philosophical conception of man’s place in the cosmos. God and the angels moved in the realm of perfection beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, while the sublunary realm inhabited by men was a place of disorder and decay.

The Elizabethan mind identified three moving forces of history: providence, fortune, and human character. Fortune, often depicted as a wheel, was continually in motion, subjecting kings and commoners alike to its “slings and arrows”. The wandering stars and the luminaries—now known as the seven classical planets—represented the influence of God’s changeless order on the sublunary sphere, forming the middle link between eternity and mutability. Sometimes associated with angels, the planets, like Nature, were forces without initiative, set in motion by the Creator. They were seen as acting on the physical predispositions of man determined by the combination of elements within each individual but were not considered to possess absolute power to bind or agency of their own.

Both the Christian worldview and new advances in astronomy challenged the power of the stars as agents of fate. While the stars did not influence the immortal part of man, they present an open book relating the progression of earthly events, albeit an account often beyond the wit of man to read. The correspondence of planetary movements with human affairs implied a balanced system, a testament to God’s infinite wisdom. Astrology remained a significant and respected practice, with the work of William Lilly representing what was still a flourishing art in the 17th century.

Man: The Supreme Commonplace

All things within the sublunary sphere were seen as composed of the four Aristotelean elements: fire, air, water, and earth, themselves composed of the opposing qualities of hot and cold, dry and moist. A perfect mixture of these elements was eternal, while an imperfect mix meant a tendency toward death and decay. The effect of the elements, the influence of the stars, and God’s intervention determined how the world functioned, with the impermanence of life justified by the corrupting influence of the Fall. All things had their place within The Great Chain, with even the elements arranged hierarchically. Fire, considered the noblest element, rose upward, while heavy earth, trending downward, represented the dregs of the universe.

Man at the center of the cosmos
The Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1165

Despite the Christian pessimism regarding the innately sinful, corruptible nature of humanity, man formed a nodal point in the Elizabethan chain of being, the connection between the material and the spiritual. One of the most important correspondence was the idea of man as a little world, containing all the elements of creation within himself but lacking in each. As during the Middle Ages, Elizabethan medical theory focused on the balance of the four humors, which corresponded to the four elements, within the human body. The predominance of a certain humor would mark the man, and their mixture formed his temperament, which caused character.

This physical theory emphasized man’s proximity to nature and the influence of the planets over his internal and external life. However, the immortal part of man contained equal capacity for sin and salvation. Whereas angels understand creation intuitively, man must do so gradually through the use of discursive reason. Beginning in ignorance, a man’s first task was to know himself before he could learn about the universe and its Creator. Learning thus took on an ethical or religious quality, with knowledge gained through painstaking study bringing the individual closer to salvation and God.

Brave New World

Just as Elizabethan England enjoyed stability as continental Europe was caught in the throes of religious and territorial warfare, the Elizabethan worldview represented an immutable order governing an increasingly complex and unclassifiable world. Concepts such as the correspondences and The Great Chain could no longer command the mathematical precision of medieval thought; discoveries across the ocean and beyond presented Europeans with unfamiliar information that would not fit into older philosophies, which became increasingly metaphorical. At the center of this new kind of globalization stood the self-made man, increasingly drawn from the middle classes. From William Shakespeare to Sir Walter Raleigh, the learned man wrote plays and poetry, sailed to distant continents, and gazed at the stars, paving the way to the modern world we live in today.

Further Reading

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