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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 10. Transition of society

We have seen in the foregoing summary how large a reading public still remained untouched by the renascence, and continued to enjoy medieval literature, borrowing freely from France and Germany. But, at the same time, the great social changes of the sixteenth century were inspiring a large number of quite different tracts. Trade was encouraged by both the Henrys, and the growing taste for luxury, which ruined the gentry, enriched the commercial classes. Moreover, the discovery of the New World added immensely to the opportunities of making money. This commercial activity seemed, to the moralists of the age, to be a rupture with the good traditions of the past. In 1540–50, was printed Charles Bansley’s Pryde and Abuse of Women, which belongs to quite a different world of satire from that of The Schole-house of Women or The Proude Wyves Paternoster. The coarse, picturesque narrative is gone and, with it, the rough humour and caricature. Bansley’s invective is a sermon in verse. He views female failings in the light of the Seven Deadly Sins, and lashes their ostentation and vanity as Romish and inspired by the Devil. At about the same time, a dialogue called The Booke in Meeter of Robin Conscience was printed, in which Conscience remonstrates first with his father, whose aim is to have abundance of worldly treasure, then with his mother Neugise, who follows French fashions and dresses like one nobly born, whereas the wife of the previous century would never have ventured to rival the gentlewoman’s finery, and, lastly, with his sister, Proud Beauty, who has mastered the essentials of cosmetics and delights to “colly and kis.”

A class which increases in wealth and importance does not stand still. Burghers began to marry their sons and daughters to insolvent nobility, and Henry, who aimed at creating an aristocracy dependent on himself, frequently recruited the diminished ranks of the old peers from among burghers, lawyers and borough magistrates. This growth of the royal court at the expense of the feudal castle filled London with raw courtiers, drawn from all classes, who attached themselves to men of influence, partly to see the world, and partly to advance their own fortunes under shelter of a great name. Such a suddenly enriched or ennobled society was not likely to be reconciled to the simple, rought life of their forefathers. Luxury and excitement became necessities and received their comment in contemporary literature. In 1530, the Address in verse to new-fanglers was prefixed to Chaucer’s Assembly of Fowls. Wynkyn de Worde issued three editions of A Treatise of a Gallant, which laments the pride, avarice and ambition of the new-fledged courtier and his love of quarrel. The tract deplores the influx of foreigners, whose phraseology was corrupting the purity of the English idiom, and censures the Englishman’s admiration for French customs and French vices. At this time, the example of Henry VIII and his sister Margaret made dice and card-playing fashionable and the pleasures of gambling gave great opportunities to the gentleman theif, who now became a perpetual menace to society, and, in 1532, apparently, was printed a Manifest detection of the most vyle and detestable use of dice play and other practices like the same. This tract is one of the first great exposures of the age throwing into relief the practices and resources of those who fall “from the hardness of virtuous living to the delicacy and boldness of uncareful idleness and gainfull deceit.” We learn how the provincial is met at Paul’s by a gentleman with three or four servants in gay liveries, an acquaintance is cleverly established, the “couzin” is unwittingly introduced to the gaming-house and, eventually, he is fleeced. Elaborate tricks to entice the “couzin” with different kinds of cogged dice, even the name of the most reliable maker, canting terms, the mode of making cards and other forms of imposture and thievery, are all made public. These disclosures are presented in a lively dialogue, in clear, simple English. The sixteenth century love of anecdote is gratified and the conversation is carried on between two well-defined characters, the one a raw courtier, the other an experienced man of the world.