Sir Thomas More's life spanned a tumultuous era in European history. Europe and England were still founded on the economic models of feudalism, in which virtually all power resided with rich nobles while the peasants endured a backbreaking existence that supported the lavish lifestyles of their rulers but provided little more than a subsistence level of existence for themselves. The late 15th and early 16th centuries were formative years in the Renaissance, a flowering of art and thought that began in Italy and flooded through Europe and England. Aspects of this revolution included a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome, an emphasis on reason and science, and an intellectual movement known as humanism that, remarkably for the time, was dominated by secular men of letters rather than religious monks or priests.

Humanists emphasized the dignity of man and the power of reason while remaining deeply committed to Christianity. Their thought and writings helped to break the hold of the strict religious orthodoxy that had constrained thought through the Middle Ages. Humanists often argued against feudalism, seeing it as a society dominated by the rich and exploitative of everyone else. Further, they saw feudal society as irrational, and, in many ways, as paying only lip service to Christian ideals. While humanism allowed for a new understanding of society, it had effects far beyond what its foremost practitioners—including More and Erasmus—anticipated or supported.

In 1517 Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. With the Reformation, the face of Europe was warped by intense religious and political conflict. England was no exception; protestants continuously cropped up throughout the country only to be persecuted. Then Henry VIII broke with the Pope and England itself became Protestant, leaving the staunch English Catholics in the lurch. More is probably best remembered today for his opposition to Henry’s break with the Catholic Church leading to his execution and martyrdom.

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