Christian Literature Vs. Renaissance Literature

Demonstrative examples of early Renaissance literature (Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) made interesting breaks from the literary tradition of Biblical, Medieval, and early Christian literature. These breaks took place chiefly in the areas of sovereignty, ethics (or law), and sanctions. There were breaks in the areas of authority  and succession as well. These pieces of literature followed trends of the Renaissance and were closer to Classical Literature in many ways. This sort of outlook was characteristic of the Renaissance, and was exemplified in these classic works of literature.

The divergence of Renaissance literature from Biblical, Christian, and medieval literature, and its closer association with Greek and Roman literature occurred in several areas. The first area, that of sovereignty, was probably the most pronounced area of division between these different types of literature. In the Bible, God was the undisputed sovereign power. This was true in both New Testament and Old Testament literature (however in New Testament Literature Jesus was introduced as co-sovereign with God). He had no equal and no force could resist Him. He was the ultimate source of all sanctions, good and bad. In addition, God as the sovereign operated under a system of ethics, and laid down concrete laws based on His supreme authority. The position of God as sovereign was undisputed in early Christian literature (Augustine’s The City of God, Justin Martyr’s Confessions, etc.). This position was still firm in late medieval literature (e.g. The Song of Roland, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis), where God’s sovereignty over heaven and earth was affirmed many times.

However, in Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) literature, sovereignty was an ambiguous issue. It was never truly clear whether or not Zeus of Greek literature (or Jove/Jupiter, as in the case of Roman literature) was the absolute undisputed sovereign (as God was in the Bible). Sovereignty seems to be divided not only among the many rival gods and goddesses, but also among the Furies and the whims of fortune. The Furies (called the Eumenides by the Greeks) were greatly feared beings who relentlessly pursued vengeance. They were a feature of  AeschylusOresteia Trilogy, particularly The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. Not even Zeus could stop them. In the conclusion of The Eumenides, they were placated only with an assembly of Athenian citizens, over which the goddess Athena presided. In Roman literature as well Sovereignty did not come from a single source.

Renaissance literature, especially Boccaccio’s The Decameron, was similar to Classical literature in that sovereignty was not concentrated at a central source. In the The Decameron, a set of 100 short stories written in the mid-14th century, fortune and chance were widely invoked in place of God. God was not totally forgotten, however. He was invoked at the beginning of the first novel by one of the story-tellers. The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer also, to a lesser extent, invoked fortune and chance as sovereign figures. This was especially true in The Monk’s Tale, where the story-teller told a series of vignettes in which the rise and fall of historical figures was attributed to the jealousy of fortune. God was not absent, and was a part of the vignettes dealing with Adam, Lucifer, and especially that of Nebuchadnezzar.

The second area is authority, or hierarchy, which deals with the relationships between man and/or God(s) in a hierarchical system. In the Bible, man’s role was very clear: he existed under God and above the rest of creation. Introduced in the New Testament was Jesus, a figure that served as sort of an intermediary between God and man, and the Virgin Mary, who served as an intermediary between man and Jesus. Early Christian literature touched on the importance of hierarchy, calling Christians to obey temporal leaders. In medieval literature, especially The Song of Roland, hierarchy was a central feature; Charlemagne under God, Roland and the other barons under Charlemagne, the soldiers under the barons, etc. In The Little Flowers, St. Francis’ whole religious order was founded on hierarchy. Renaissance literature (mostly The Decameron) was influenced by the Black Death, which uprooted traditional hierarchical systems. This is illustrated in Boccaccio’s gripping account of the Plague at the beginning of The Decameron.

Third are ethics and law, the later being very carefully laid out in the Bible. This law was the basis for ethical conduct, and had to be obeyed. Ethics was of no small importance in the Bible, and was, in conjunction with law, the basis for all conduct. In medieval literature law was very central. In many cases the issue rested on who’s law one took, the good or the bad, the Saracens’ or the Christians, as in The Song of Roland; Rome’s or the Christians’, as in St. Augustine and Justin Martyr; and the world’s or the Friars’, as in The Little Flowers. In Classical literature, ethics seemed absent, at least among the gods. They did whatever they pleased, whenever they pleased, with no concern for proper ethical conduct as laid out by any law. Law was ambiguous, and ethics were erratic.

In The Decameron all systems of law broke down as a result of the Plague, and subsequently all ethical practice. The only remaining system to live by was natural human reason, employed by the seven young women taking refuge in the church. In some of The Canterbury Tales law and ethics took very erratic and unexpected turns. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a knight of King Arthur raped a young maiden, and was sentenced to death by the royal court. The ladies of the court intervened, and said that if the knight could answer a riddle, he would live. The riddle was “what do women want?”. With the help of an ugly old women (in exchange for an unspecified favor), he said that women want authority over men. This answer was acceptable to the women of the court, who let him go. The favor the old woman asked was for the knight to marry her, which he did after she turned into a beautiful young woman, and they lived happily ever after. This tale is an example of a crazy ethical system that did not permeate The Canterbury Tales, but was present in some of the stories.

Fourth is the area of sanctions. Again, starting with the Bible, sanctions came from an ethically predictable source: God alone. In medieval literature, sanctions were also based on God’s law. The defeat of the Saracens in The Song of Roland came as a direct sanction from God for not following His law, to take one example. Just as ethics and sovereignty were random, so were sanctions in Classical literature. There was never a single undisputed source of sanctions in Classical literature because there was never a single undisputed source of sovereignty. Gods, goddesses, Fates, Furies or fortune were all possible sources.

In Boccaccio’s account of the Plague, it is an open question whether this horrible sanction came from God or from some other source. The sanctions were so random and unpredictable during the Plague that people began to question things. They questioned Christianity, the Church, and even God. This new outlook was prevalent in the Renaissance, and subsequently its literature. In The Monk’s Tale, fortune was the source of many sanctions, not God.

Finally, the fifth area of divergence, that of succession. In Biblical literature there is concrete sanction of succession and inheritance, or eternal life, for the righteous who obey God’s ethically based law. There is also the sanction of disinheritance, or damnation, for the sinners. Early Christian literature was unconcerned with the success of Christianity in history, but was concerned with its far more important success in eternity.

In The Decameron’s account of the Plague there was no promise of succession because the disease wiped out family lines and killed heirs. In the actual stories there was little concern for the future, just the immediate present. The idea of the importance of the “here and now” was a common feature of the Renaissance. Concern for success in eternity shifted to concern for success in history. The poet Petrarch (1304-1374) was extremely concerned about gaining worldly fame as a sort of immortality, not dissimilar to the poets of Rome who sought immortality through their work.

The Renaissance and its literature was marked by a closer association with the ideas and outlook of the Classical world. The Black Death had called into question many undisputed beliefs of the medieval period and earlier, and paved the way away from the concrete sovereignty, ethics, and sanctions of the Christian world. What the main difference between Renaissance and Classical literature and Biblical and Christian literature boiled down to is the relationship between sovereignty, ethics, and sanctions. In Renaissance an Classical literature sovereignty was not necessarily based in ethics, whereas in Biblical and Christian literature sovereignty was firmly rooted in ethical principle, for God can do no evil, only ethical good. Sovereignty and sanctions were not directly related in Renaissance and Classical literature, because sanctions did not necessarily come from one sovereign source, they came from either God(s), fate, or fortune, none of which were totally sovereign. Christian literature had sanctions come directly from God, the one sovereign source. Ethics and sanctions were not related as related in Renaissance literature, and were definitely not related in Classical literature. Gods and goddesses administered positive and negative sanctions regardless of any ethical laws. In Biblical literature sanctions came as a direct result of either the breaking of God’s ethically grounded laws, or adherence to them. The Renaissance marked a breakaway from the predictable and constant system of Christianity, and an embrace of the strange and random system of the Classical world.

Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a very interesting figure in the history of Florence. He was a Dominican Friar and an extremely persuasive speaker. He was very much against the Renaissance and its ideas. His persuasive anti-Renaissance preaching influenced important people, including Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo, and the painter Botticelli who decided to devote his skills to religious art after hearing Savonarola. Savonarola was also a critic of the Medici family (a politically powerful family that basically ruled Florence).

With Florence’s mixed up political system, Savonarola actually came into power after Pietro de Medici was chased out. He then proceeded to establish a dictatorship of virtue. People were forced to be virtuous, and to obey innumerable strict laws. Renaissance art had trended towards the representation of stories in classical mythology. This “pagan art” was destroyed under Savonarola, along with any items of luxury. An interesting point is that much of this destruction was voluntary by the people. They were so mesmerized by Savonarola’s preaching that they burned their art and luxurious goods themselves in events called “the bonfires of the vanities”. Groups of young men were set about the city to make sure that everyone was acting virtuously, and severe penalties were established for minor offenses.

Savonarola had also been denouncing the immoral behavior of Pope Alexander VI, of which he at first had taken little notice, but began to grow concerned when these denunciations started going too far. Savonarola had made prophecies, of which some came true and some did not. He was called to Rome to justify his prophecies as divinely inspired, which he refused to do. He was then told to stop his public preaching, which he again refused to do, bringing down the sanction of excommunication from the Pope in 1497. Savonarola called for a council to depose Alexander VI, but this was not met with enthusiasm among the population. Still fresh in their minds was the disastrous fiasco of the Great Western Schism (1378-1415), in which the Church split in two with two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The population had also grown tired of Savonarola’s dictatorship, and the initial enthusiasm with which his speeches were met was fading. The Pope had also threatened interdict (restriction on the use of some sacraments over a geographical area) on Florence if Savanarola was not handed over. A rival Franciscan Friar remembered that Savonarola had claimed that he would go through the ordeal by fire to prove what he said was divinely inspired, and told him to prove himself by it. Savonarola refused this challenge.

The San Marcos monastery was invaded by a mob, and Savonarola, along with two fellow Friars, was imprisoned. Under torture, he confessed to making up his prophesies and visions. On May 23, 1498, Savonarola was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic, and was hanged and burned. This little episode in Florentine history was not of great significance, but is of interest as an historical and political anomaly.

Death in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’

The Canterbury Tales were a series of stories written in the late 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400). They were told by travelers of diverse backgrounds on their way to Canterbury. The 13th tale, ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, concerned three drunken men who swore  an oath to find and kill death after seeing someone they knew die. On their quest they encountered an old man who directed them to where death was residing. When they came to the place, they instead found a large quantity of gold and jewels. The oath was dissolved, and the men killed each other over the riches. The old man who showed them the place was most definitely death himself.

This story was told by a corrupt pardoner (someone who sells indulgences), and was a call to buy what he had to offer. He said in the prologue to his story “Out come the pence, and specifically for myself, for my exclusive purpose is to win and not at all to castigate their sin”, and “But let me briefly make my purpose plain; I preach for nothing but for greed of gain”. He said that this story was a moral one, and that he had often used it to seal a deal in the past. The drunken men were examples of sinners, and their fate was meant to strike fear into the hearts of potential customers.

The old man which they encountered said that he was unable to die, and then he directed them to where death was. He did not lie to them when he set them on the path to the gold, he was telling the truth. The riches were not death in themselves, they were the means by which death took hold of them. The old man was death, and the riches they encountered were agents of death. This story shows how even through great determination (albeit drunken raving determination), death will always win. The purpose of this tale was not to show this, however. It was to scare his audience into buying his product.

‘The Decameron’: Short Stories or the Account of the Plague?

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)’s book, The Decameron, was a series of short stories (100 in all) that were told through seven young women and three young men. These people were taking refuge from the plague in an abandoned villa, and told these stories to amuse themselves. It was written shortly after the Black Death. The Decameron began with an account of the Plague in Florence. This account is regarded as a very important primary source for studying the Plague, and is probably of more interest to modern readers than the main focus of the book, which are the tales it contained.

The stories in The Decameron marked a shift from the medieval world to the Renaissance. They exhibited many Renaissance ideas, which were at that time very new. The clergy was attacked numerous times, and the moral values of the Church itself were undermined. In the first story, the veneration of Saints was questioned. In the sixth the Friars Minor were attacked, and in many others the integrity of the Church was in some way called into question. There was an emphasis on the present throughout the stories, and secular practices were honored above spiritual ones. Even the sovereignty of God was de-emphasized, in that sanctions were often attributed to fortune and chance rather than to divine providence.

This new outlook sprung largely from the Plague, because it brought much social change with it. Morality fell into a state of degeneracy among the people, and the clergy was no exception (at least according to Boccaccio). Hierarchies broke up, leaders lost control, and family structure collapsed. The effects of the Plague had seemingly no pattern and no discrimination. People lost faith in God because these sanctions were so horrible and so erratic and could not be attributed to any system of ethics. People lived by the day and by the hour because they had no idea when they would die, but it would probably be soon. This event had a huge influence on Boccaccio’s stories, which personified Renaissance mentality.

The ideas presented in the stories are not highly unusual or revolutionary to us today, but if someone from the middle ages were to read them, that is most definitely the conclusion they would come to. Since these ideas are not unfamiliar to us, they are not as interesting to a popular audience. Far more interesting is the vivid account of the Black Death, which is an important primary source for historians. This account is valuable to us today, far more valuable than the actual stories of the book (and more exiting to read).

Boccaccio’s The Decameron was heavily influenced by the dramatic upheavals of the Black Death, and his account of it is of importance today. The ideas and themes of the actual stories, however, are not so alien to us, and consequently not as interesting. This book was not only an early example of Renaissance thought, but was also an extremely relevant and gripping account of the horrors of the Black Death.

Problems of the Renaissance Papacy

The Renaissance was marked by secularization, and the papacy was no exception. The Popes were becoming so concerned with art, political power, and other worldly matters that they neglected their spiritual duties, to varying extents. This neglect caused the Church to degrade, and invited the Protestant Reformation.

Two events, the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism, greatly effected the condition, unity, image, and privileges of the Church. The Avignon Papacy was a period from 1305 to 1377 in which the entire papacy moved from Rome to Avignon in France. This period was marked with corruption. People filled church offices simply to receive their income, Cardinals attempted to gain extra power, along with other abuses. The Great Western Schism was a split in the Church that started in 1378 (just a year after the papacy had been moved back to Rome by Pope Gregory XI), where two opposing Popes operated independently of each other at the same time. One was based in Rome, and the other moved back to Avignon. The schism was healed in 1415, when at the Council of Constance both the Roman and Avignon Popes were declared illegitimate, and a new Pope, Martin V, was elected. During these terrible events in Church history, various political units had seized this opportunity to take privileges belonging to the papacy. It was thought by the Popes that the best way to respond would be to do what a temporal political leader would do, that is, engage in diplomacy, forge alliances, and even wage war.

Nicholas V, who was Pope from 1447 to 1455, was afraid that the disorder of Italy at the time would invite the intervention of outside forces, namely the French. He formed alliances between Venice, Milan, and Florence, and viewed the papacy as instrumental in Italian politics. Several Renaissance Popes engaged in nepotism, chief among them were Calixtus III (r.1455-1458) and Sixtus IV (r.1471-1484). Calixtus appointed as Cardinal his nephew, Roderic Borgia, who would later wind up as Pope Alexander VI (r,1492-1503), one of the most notorious Popes in church history. He had several natural children, and allegedly even committed murder (although this is unlikely). Julius II (r.1503-1513) waged war against Venice, which he thought was becoming far too powerful in the north of Italy. He formed a coalition with the French to attack Venice, and attacked cities that refused to join in person. He won the war with Venice in 1509.

Concerning the arts, Nicholas V again comes to mind. He saw Rome as the center for the arts in the world, and summoned many artists to Rome. He had people translate great works of classical literature, keeping with the Renaissance tradition, and established what would become the Vatican library. He focused himself so much on art that he neglected necessary reforms. Julius II was also an art lover, and formed a collection of sculptures, including Laocoön, that would develop into the Vatican museum. Leo X (r.1513-1521) was so preoccupied with the arts that he neglected the enforcement of necessary reforms, and was oblivious to the Reformation, which was gaining steam around him.

As in many other fields, the papacy was marked with secularization during the Renaissance. Popes concerned themselves with politics and the arts, while ignoring the fact that reform was necessary. The Protestant Reformation was not dealt with properly during the Renaissance papacies, and it gained speed due to the Renaissance Pope’s negligence.

Essay 16: Aquatic Osmoregulators

Aquatic animals have several mechanisms for dealing with the effects of osmosis. Without these methods, the cells within these creatures would either shrivel up and die, or swell up and explode. Osmosis is the tendency for a liquid (solvent) with a low concentration of particles (solutes) dissolved in it to move to through a semi-permeable membrane to an area of high solute concentration. The semi-permeable membrane allows the solvent to pass though, while blocking the solutes. The area on the side of the membrane with a higher concentration of solutes is called the hyperosmotic side, and the side with lower solute concentration is called the hypoosmotic side. Osmosis is necessary for the function of the kidneys, which rely on its properties to remove toxins from the blood, and for the re-absorption of water.

Osmosis presents a problem to aquatic life, because through it the concentration of water (H2O, the solvent) or salt (NaCl, the solute) can be affected in dangerous ways. In salt water, the cells of an aquatic animal are hypoosmotic in relation to the surrounding water, so through osmosis water has the tendency to pass through the cell membrane and leave the cell. This causes problems, because water is essential for the function of a cell. Likewise, in a freshwater environment, the interior of cells are hyperosmotic in relation to their surrounding water. Through osmosis, water tends to leave the area of lower solute concentration, and enter the cells. This can also be a problem, because too much water can cause a cell to explode (cytolysis).

In aquatic animals, there are several different methods employed to maintain osmotic homeostasis. Most marine invertebrates are osmoconformers, meaning that they maintain the concentration of solutes in their own body to conform with that of their environment. The downside of this is that it is dependent on a stable water composition.

The next group are the osmoregulators, who regulate the concentration of solutes and solvents in their cells. There are two different kinds of osmoregulators: marine osmoregulators and freshwater osmoregulators. Marine osmoregulators have to deal with high solute concentration in their environment, and a constant tendency to lose water. To cope they drink large amounts of water and use active transport (that which is not caused by a natural tendency, but by expending energy) to remove chloride ions (and subsequently sodium ions) from their body. Freshwater osmoregulators have the opposite problem, which is too much water. They drink very little water, and excrete lots of water in their urine, while obtaining new salts and minerals from food.

Salmon are an interesting case, because they spend most of their life in salt water and return to freshwater later on. When in freshwater, they function as regular freshwater osmoregulators, but they need to deal with extra salt in the ocean. In order to cope, they secrete the steroid hormone cortisol, which stimulates chloride cells to grow. These chloride cells secrete salt out of the body, and maintain osmotic homeostasis.

In order to live in different environments, different animals have different methods for keeping the concentration of water and salts in their bodies at an optimal level. These methods used include osmoconformity, and marine and freshwater osmoregulation. Osmosis can be either a problem that needs to be solved, or a necessary property that functions as a tool, especially in the kidneys. Whatever the case, creation has many ways of correcting for it, and even harnessing it.