Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. London in the times of Elizabeth and James

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 1. London in the times of Elizabeth and James

SINCE the collapse of feudalism, London had become the centre of political power in England, and the nobility tended more and more to abandon their estates and frequent the court, where preferment was to be won. But, since the fall of Antwerp (1576), London had also established its lf as the capital of European commerce, to which all nationalities crowded in search of wealth. Thus, the rich men of the upper, as well as the middle class were gradually being gathered into one city where, for want of other investments, their wealth was converted into gold plate, jewellery and rich apparel, till London became the city of fastastic costumes and extravagant ostentation. With its cosmopolitan population and foreign imports, London soon inspired the desire for travel; and Italy, the cradle of the renascence and the school of courtesy, became the goal of all voyagers. But Italy was also the home of immorality and intrigue, and northerners brought back to their own country the cynical curiosity and the ribald insincerity of the south. The centre of wealth and commerce is also, the centre of civilisation, and the sons of rich men, whether nobles or farmers, came to London to avail themselves of its opportunities. These young men, though nominally students of law, attendants at court, or professional soldiers, formed a new and disturbing element in society. They affected a cult of modernity in which literary dilettantism and a false sense of honour combined with contempt for English traditions and indulgence in all forms of dissipation. These gilded vagabonds crowded places of public resort, introduced new fashions, cultivated foreign vices and even made their influence felt in current literature. But they achieved more lasting harm by calling into existence a class of unscrupulous tradesmen and insidious usurers, who grew rich by ministering to their capricious extravagance.

Such degeneracy, however, was not universal. Ever since Tudor times, the evils of progress had met with strong opposition from the steadier and sounder portion of the nation. Brinkelow, Bansley, Awdeley, Copland, Harman, Bullein, Gosson and a host of anonymous writers had lamented specific abuses of society, and reflected the feeling of discontent which oppressed the people. But their work was not adjusted to the new conditions. In the last half of the century, London had grown to twice the size it had reached at the reformation, and this vast concentration of human beings, together with new activities, luxuries and temptations, occasioned problems of existence which the Tudor pamphlets were powerless to solve. Besides, the number of educated men had increased enormously. Grammar schools had been multiplied; the universities were in closer touch with the capital; a literary atmosphere was being created; intellectual interests were bringing men together. It became fashionable to read books, to criticise them and to introduce their phraseology into conversation. But the social writers of Tudor times had not that subtle persuasiveness which comes from style, and without which the man of taste can never be won. And it was this type, whether courtier, graduate, divine, soldier, lawyer, merchant, or ’prentice, who now formed the reading public. Among them arose a generation of brilliant, but mostly penurious, youths who, urged by the pinch of hunger or the spur of ambition, now came forward as authors. Their task was to interpret the features of London social life and, at the same time, to gratify the existing tendency towards literary style and conversational witticisms. In their efforts to meet this double demand, they created a literature of comment and observation which was, eventually, to evolve some of the best work in the language.