"Stronge and tough studie": humanism, education, and masculinity in Renaissance England

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Strycharski, Andrew Thomas

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In the English Renaissance, a new kind of manliness arose in response to an increasingly centralized bureaucratic state. This humanistic manliness was characterized by practical wisdom, pragmatic conviction, busy-ness, rhetorical plainness, plain dealing in affairs, mental and physical discipline, and concern with diplomatic negotiation rather than military action. Humanist masculinity offered ideals of negotium and the vita activa to distinguish itself from the unmanliness of courtiers and clerks—instead offering the counselor as its ideal figure. The humanist program for upbringing boys, including study and exercise, instilled the new manliness in youth. Humanists presented formal education and book learning— properly oriented—as masculine endeavors opposed to a bellicose aristocratic masculinity. Humanists also used archery, both its practice and especially the act of writing about it, in forming an ideal of the scholar-archer who appropriates and redirects the martial energy of the knight. If humanism offered a manliness to resist the older elite masculinity of medieval aristocrats, the humanist ideal begot resistance in turn. The Petrarchan sonnets of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and the warlike manhood of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine— while on their face seeming to support traditional patriarchal power relations— at the same time offer resistance to or negotiations with the new manliness. Through Astrophil and Stella, Sidney opposes both the communally oriented stoicism of the new manliness and a feminized courtliness with a psychic trope of boyishness. Refusing to “grow up” into the adult worlds of counselor or courtier, Astrophil indulges in boyishness as a way to explore a kind of authentic interiority not governed by a judging external audience. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part 1 negotiates with and threatens the humanist ideal. Tamburlaine negotiates between the manly thought of pragmatic humanism’s vita activa and the effeminate thought of Neoplatonism’s vita contemplativa. Marlowe’s sublime blank verse mirrors the expansive mental movements of the neoplatonic contemplative, rather than the pragmatic aphoristic wisdom of the trained humanistic counselor. However, by orienting that sublime thought to political and military action, Tamburlaine masculinizes Neoplatonism in a way that threatens early modern patriarchy.