The Age of Don Quixote
Thou Shalt Not suffer a Witch to Live!
The fictional character of Don Quixote came along at the time when Europe was in transition. Exploration by safer ships meant new discoveries. China was becoming better known to the west. Old beliefs were being challenged.
The 17th and 18th Centuries were a time of experimentation. It was also a bold period when it comes to the spread of ideas and the ability to transmit those ideas to an increasingly larger audience.
There was opposition. Women were still being accused of witchcraft and the same can be said for men.
Say, write or do something the Church authorities might not like and you could be in real trouble. You could be tortured then killed.
Astrology was accepted more in some countries than the science of astronomy. There were those who claimed to be able to predict the future in the stars or in a bowl of water.
We wouldn't have the science we have today if not for the printing press. There was a time when how to build was handed down from father to son and, if that human chain was ever broken, then knowledge was simply lost.
Thanks to the ability to put ideas onto paper and to have them stored cheaply, this sort of loss came to an end or very close to an end.
The information we have on some alchemists such as Paracelsus (1493 - 1541) and their experiments are still a mystery. An interpreter is required to read through what has been left behind and, unfortunately, no such interpreter is presently in existence.
It isn't just a matter of language but how language is used. Fear of the Church resulted in much scientific information either being forgotten with the passing of the scientist or ending up in tomes written to be obscure, requiring the right person to fathom them.
How much of a scientist and how much of a mystic were people like Paracelsus? In the 21st Century we can only speculate.
In the Middle Ages, the Church was powerful enough to attack anyone who went against what was then current Church belief.
Women who showed some herbal knowledge that the local monks or nuns might lack were too often condemned as witches.Thus information handed down from mother to daughter was lost.
Thanks to the printing press, the Church lost much of its power to condemn and suppress knowledge that didn't fit in with Church thinking.
Galileo Galilei (1564 -1645) developed scientific knowledge which ran afoul of what was then Church belief in the heavens.
Galileo thought the fact that he knew Pope Urban VIII before he became the pope would save him. It may well have prevented a grissly death but not house arrest. Regardless, he was forced to recant his position and views.
His Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) involved phylosophical discussions between three fictional people about the heavens over a period of four days. The idea was to get scientific truth out there despite the road block put up by the Church.
It had some initial success which illustrated to Church authority the weakening of their position as dictators of all truth.
Here also we have fiction lending a hand to science which is something that may not have happened before. Even ideas presented in a fictional context could apparently have teeth.
Meanwhile, Hammer of the Witches (Malleus Maleficarum) was getting around.
Written in 1486 as a judicial text against those who practice witchcraft, it definitely had its fictional elements. Unfortunately for centuries these fictional elements were taken as being for real.
In 1490 the Catholic Church wisely condemned this book as containing beliefs not in keeping with the Church. No doubt this condemnation by the Church produced some good results.
A few years ago I managed to get a copy of this book in English so it is still available for those who have an interest in such things. It is, however, no longer being used in courts of law.
Certainly in the 17th and 18th Centuries there were dangers in travel. There were highwaymen on the roads and pirates at sea. All of this was reflected in the literature of the day.
Also the large town and cities were considered by some to be safer than the forests and under populated hill and mountain areas. Here ghosts from long forgotten battles and witches shrinking from whatever was left of their humanity dwelt or, at any rate, were said to dwell.
Such notions made for exciting fiction. In the 18th going into the 19th Centuries the Brothers Grimm who lived in Germany made much of this sort of thing in the folk tales they gathered.
One of the genuine hazards of life which could spread faster in a crowded city or big town was plague. What caused plague was unknown.
There was the belief that bad smells were responsible. It was further believed that if you could get rid of the bad smells you could stop plague from either happening or control it when it did happen.
Fear of plague was one of the factors that created an expanding interest in Gothic horror.
Bibles, Windmills and Giants
The 17th Century
There were a number of reasons why the novel had not come about earlier than the 17th Century. One was the cost involved in making a book.
When books had to be hand written on velum and other expensive material the price of a finished book was extremely high.
A team of monks was required to work on one single bible. Hence only the wealthy could afford to own a book, any book.
Paper had been known to Muslims a lot longer than it had been known to Christians.
When paper eventually made its way into Europe it caused a sensation as did the movable type printing press that made good use of it.
Then there was the question of who could read the book. Most people couldn't read.
A song could be sung out of a book and then memorized by those who could not read so that it could then be passed on to others.
The same can be said when it comes to poetry. If lines rhyme then they can be memorized and passed on. This is so even for an epic poem that is quite long.
It has been said that certain passages out of the New Testament rhyme in Aramaic making them, in the view of some scholars, old and likely to be from Jesus' time.
It has been theorized that Jesus, as a teacher, may have used rhyme to help his followers to remember his teachings. Long, complex passages that don't necessarily rhyme are difficult on a public that is mostly illiterate.
Once books, other than picture books, came to see print and on paper, the reading public increased in number. This caused problems for mother Church.
Once the Bible could be printed in Latin for a larger audience the question arose as to whether the bible could or even should be published in the ordinary languages of the ordinary people.
People died pushing the idea that the Bible should be available in English.
The men who first had the Bible published in English and those who distributed it risked their lives.
It wasn't until the time of James the 1st of England and the Sixth of Scotland that there was an official state sanctioned Bible in English that was available to the general public.
With the question of whether the bible should be published in the popular languages also came the question of whether other books should be published at all.
There were fundamentalist Christians that not only felt that publishing other books was not only a frivolous waste of time but something bordering on blasphemy. Francis Bacon was one of the earliest advocates for having more rather than less books around.
One of the earliest European examples of the novel is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Part One came out in 1605 and part Two came out in 1615, Part One was first printed in English in 1612 and Part Two in 1620.
Don Quixote is a send up of the popular romantic poems, songs and stories of the day.
A well off land owner goes mad from reading about knights and damsels in distress and so sets off with Sancho Panza, his servant, on a knightly quest. People mostly quote from Part One which has the windmill incident but, for my money, Part Two is better written and therefore a better read.
The mistaking of a windmill by Don Quixote for a giant is made a point of in the play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand.
Shipwrecks to Gothic Horror
The 18th Century
The British navy was the most powerful navy in the world. This does not mean, however, that British ships could not come to grief.
One of the earliest examples of the novel in English is The life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719).
It is about how a shipwrecked Englishman and a Island native survive on an otherwise deserted island.
Printed in the same year (1719) was also The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe so the first book must have reached an appreciative audience.
In 1721 there was The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. This is the story of a woman who is born into wickedness and leads a basically wicked life but repents in the end.
As in the Crusoe novels, there is no lack of adventure but here there is more titillation and what would then have been scandalous material.
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, satirist supreme, came out in 1726. It involved shipwrecks on some very strange and highly fictional shores.
Gulliver's adventures and misadventures with the tiny Lilliputians may best be remembered out of all the adventures and misadventures in this oft times humorous but always intriguing book.
In many ways, Swift was the forerunner of novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Terry Pratchett.
The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749) is the story of a foundling who grows up well but is hampered in terms of romance by the fact that he is a bastard and therefore cannot fit into polite society.
It is, however, made clear that this is not his fault but the fault of society as a whole in not accepting him for his own virtues but rejecting him for the lack of virtues by his parents. He is not by any means perfect, however, and so he does make mistakes. It is a complex novel for its time touching upon important social issues of the day.
During the second half of this century, the Gothic novel took off in a big way in England. There was plenty of old, broken down medieval structures for inspiration. There had been destruction of medieval structures during the War of the Roses.
There was further damage done during the reign of King Henry VIII when a form of Protestantism replaced the Catholic church as the country's religion.
Then the war between the forces of King Charles the First (the cavaliers) and the forces of parliament (the round-heads) rendered other examples of medieval architecture less than what it had once been.
For some time there had been tales of ghost soldiers returning on certain nights to old battlefields and of monks sent mad by changes to the land.
Songs about women or men who have died for want of love and have returned for revenge upon those who have spurned them were popular and had been for some time.
Possibly the first true Gothic novel was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764). It is a novel full of ancient prophecies and strange occurrences. Set in Naples in 1529, there are also mysterious knights and strange goings-on to do with a church that add spice to the unfolding tale.
In 1778 The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve was published. It had a similar plot to that of Walpole's The Castle of Otranto but was more realistic in places. this time the setting is Medieval England.
The Monk by Mathew Gregory Lewis (1796) is one of the more famous and infamous of the Gothic romances. Here were have strange monastic goings-on including black magic.
Within the work there is the fall from grace to out and out evil. Since the late Middle Ages there have been fictional writings indicating that not all monks and priests come up to scratch in the eyes of their fellow humans let alone the Lord. Here is an example in the form of a novel.
The Marquis de Sade, whose name is now connected with sadism, wrote Justine in 1791. It is the story of the trials and tribulations of a French woman. These include becoming the sex slave of not so virtuous monks. She also falls into the hands of a man of means she had added. Her reward? Confinement in a cave and abuse.
Where there is dialogue it is rather stilted and reads more like so many mini-speeches than the kind of more natural 'talk' we expect from characters in more modern novels.
Our Right to Read
In the 17th Century the novel was uncertain. Cervantes, the writer of Don Quixote, was plagued by other writers using his characters but giving neither money or acknowledgement for having done so.
By the 18th Century there was a large enough readership to justify the existence of the novel and this readership was growing.
What's more, the novel was becoming more and more complex. Authors were delving into social commentary with some wit and there was experimentation.
By the end of the 18th Century the Gothic Horror novel was selling well and had quite a future ahead of it. I hope you have enjoyed the read.
As in the 17th and 18th Centuries, today we must guard our right to be able to read from those who would take this right t away from us.
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