The Disreputable 16th Century


In this course, we will examine fundamental beliefs about the world shared by most 16th-century Europeans and discuss the writings of a number of 16th-century thinkers and men of letters who challenged one or another on these beliefs. We will be paying particular attention to beliefs that secular-minded modern Westerners are likely to find “disreputable”—intellectually preposterous, morally outrageous, or both. Almost all well-educated people in 16th-century Europe believed that the Earth was the center of the universe; that human destinies were dictated, at least to some extent, by the influence of the planets and stars; that the welfare of their communities was threatened by the maleficent activities of witches; and that rulers had a moral duty to compel their subjects to practice a particular religion. It is a valuable exercise in historical imagination and human sympathy to learn what 16th-century people believed and how these beliefs fit together to form a coherent picture of the world. Given the gulf between this vision of the universe and our own, it should not be surprising that many of the 16th-century writers whose names are most familiar to us today were “disreputable” in their own time. We remember them because the unconventional views with which they scandalized their contemporaries prefigured features of our own outlook. There is much to be learned about the mind of the 16th century by studying the various ways in which these dissidents challenged the received wisdom of their age; there is also much to be learned by considering to what extent, in spite of their intellectual daring, they continued taking for granted many of their society’s basic assumptions. The 16th century was the century of the Reformation and early Counter-Reformation. But this course is not primarily concerned with the theological beliefs that separated Protestants and Catholics. On the contrary, the beliefs about the world that will engage our attention were cherished by virtually every respectable person, whether Catholic or Protestant, in 16th-century Latin Europe; and the ideas of the dissident thinkers we will be reading were, in most cases, denounced by Protestants and Catholics alike.