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Religion and Social Roles in More’s Utopia

 

Sir Thomas More chose to invent a land with no borders that he termed as being nowhere, yet he opted to use themes from his own society that failed to contrast the two.  In Discourses of Raphael Hythloday, Of The Best State of A Commonwealth, there is a line that reads, “patterns might be taken for correcting the errors of these nations among whom we live” (More). But, was Utopia so different from England? More created a society dependent on citizens maintaining a compliant attitude to the laws that was just as enforceable as King Henry VIII’s monarchy. But it is within the themes of religion and social roles that More largely failed to deliver modern ‘non-existent’ ideas. In Social Structure in the 16th century, it says, “Life in the 16th century was by and large governed by two important factors- religion and social structure” (Abrams). More failed to offer criticism of either category where the English could rectify any errors upon a Utopian reflection. By analyzing both social structures, a reader will determine the societies were primarily analogous to the period that More lived.

Most citizens in early 16th-century England were Catholics, but there were other religious belief systems acknowledged by Henry VIII. Cressy and Ferrell writes of English society, “The pattern of the cosmos, the history and the destiny of the world, and the ordering of social, political, and domestic relationships were all explained in biblical and theological terms” (1).  The same interpretation can be established in More’s Utopia as religious tolerance was part of his social structure. More writes, “There are several sorts of religions, not only in different parts of the island, but even in every town; some worshipping the sun, others the moon or one of the planets” (Of The Religions Of The Utopians). The Tudor court was religiously tolerant in 1516, so it leaves readers to question why More did not create a community different from his own.

One interesting observation that differentiated his societies occurred when More wrote, “yet all agree in this: that they think there is one Supreme Being that made and governs the world, whom they call, in the language of their country, Mithras” (Of The Religions of The Utopians). In mythology during the Middle Ages, the Persians accused the Christians of stealing their religion as Mithras lived centuries before Jesus yet share the same details of birth, life, and death. The use of the singular acknowledgement of ‘Mithras’ lends credibility to the Persian accusation. It seems more plausible that More was answering the criticism of the accusers to validate Christianity as opposed to creating a controversy for Christians. Simply speaking, creating a modern religious community with rules and laws inordinately different than his English society would have likely caused his readers to denounce his work as blasphemy. His interpretation of gender roles was no different.

In the 1500s, families abided by a patriarchal society. Sons normally learned their fathers’ trades, and the daughters worked in the home with the mothers. The same hierarchal conditions existed in Utopia.  In Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life, it says, “The same trade generally passes down from father to son” (More).  He goes on to define women’s roles in Of Their Trades, and Manner of Life when he writes, “Women, for the most part, deal in wool and flax, which suit best with their weakness” (More). In reality, many of the people in England made their income in cloth production, and women were an important part of the process. He failed to create a world where women existed outside of the roles of mothers, wives, and light trade. In 1553, England recognized its first queen in power, but More failed to realize the significance of a female leader decades earlier in his invented society because he could not realize it in reality.

One area that More did offer modernist ideas is in the age of marriage. In Of Their Slaves and Of their Marriages, it says, “Their women are not married before eighteen nor their men before two-and-twenty” (More). In reality, Tudor women married as early as age 12, and men married around the age of 14 (Abrams). The law introduced by More offered people the choice to marry as adults opposed to how marriages were often arranged for children in the 1500s for political or social status. It helped to differentiate More’s society, and, it supported his theory about the need to change the age that English citizens married.  In 1753, Parliament enacted The Marriage Act that states, “No marriage of a person under the age of 21 was valid without the consent of parents or guardians” (UK Parliament). The advancement in marriage two centuries later shows that he did promote futuristic ideologies of change.

More had carte blanche with his creativity to construct a fictitious existence with modernized religious and social roles. The story insinuates that religious beliefs and social roles were not areas he felt needed modifications. The themes did not fit into his agenda of correcting the errors of temptation and sin, so he did not see a reason to change the roles in Utopia.  If he had envisioned a world of single mothers or queens without kings, he might have offered his patriarchal society an error they perceived as worthy of correction.

Works Cited

Abrams, Andrew, Social Structure in the 16th century, The Tudor Group, etext, 2016, retrieved on Oct. 30, 2016, from http://www.tudorgroup.co.uk/Articles/Social_structure.html

Cressy, David, and Ferrell, Lori Anne. Religion & Society in Early Modern England: A Sourcebook. Psychology Press, 2005.

More, Thomas, Utopia, (1516), etext, Retrieved on Oct. 30, 2016, from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2130.

UK Parliament, The Law of Marriage, (n.d.), Retrieved on Oct. 30, 2016, from http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/private-lives/relationships/overview/lawofmarriage-/

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