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17. More's Utopia: Medievalism and Radicalism

Anne Lake Prescott


Thomas More published his Latin bestseller Utopia (Louvain, 1516) at a time when, according to our perhaps debatable timetable, English elite culture was leaving the Middle Ages for the Renaissance. Granted the text's liminal moment, then, we can wonder what in More's imaginative and disturbing work is new or radical (digging to examine the roots of institutions or assumptions or planting ideas that will take root and grow into the future) and what remains traditional or medieval. This is not the place to interrogate the concept of “medieval,” but we should remember that, despite the sometimes smug if often beleaguered claims of Renaissance humanists, much classical culture survived the collapse of Rome's empire and lived on through the Middle Ages. Augustine's The City of God , moreover, on which More lectured and which doubts that even the best City of Man can approach that of God, straddles the late classical and the early medieval. Closer to More's time, late medieval Scholastic thinking did not disappear in the culture wars between conservatives and advocates of the “new learning. “Nor would More's belief in the arbitrariness of verbal signs, the names of things, startle any Nominalist philosopher – or any postmodernist in our own era. Finally, what seems radical can be very old. Communism and equality hardly characterize medieval Europe, but they are ancient dreams and ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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