Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in Latin in 1516, is one of the world’s most famous books. It has given us the adjective ‘Utopian’, a mode of thought (‘Utopianism’), a literary genre. Yet, at some point in its 500-year history, the concept of ‘Utopia’ became detached from More’s book. It came to express an ideal, which has its own legacy in the brand names it inspires: there are cafes and a pdf reader named after More’s imaginary land, a travel agent I used to cycle past on Leman Street, even a barber’s shop in Ely.
More strikingly, ‘Utopia’ also came to express what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as an ‘unrealistic belief in the perfectibility of society’: a belief that is ‘excessively idealistic’, ‘impracticable’, ‘illusory’—a meaning that is evident in its almost daily use to dismiss ideas and the possibility of change.
Throughout the 500th anniversary year, the Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies will be hosting a blog, curated by Cathy Shrank, which looks in detail at specific passages from More’s work, putting them in their historical context, and addressing some commonly held assumptions about Utopia.
Not least of these (mis)conceptions is that More presents the island as an ideal. The title-page declares that the book will discuss ‘the best state of a commonweal and the new island of Utopia’. Not only is ‘best’ a more relative, contingent term than ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’, there is no suggestion—here at least—that Utopia is in fact the ‘best’ form of government that can be achieved. This ambivalence towards Utopia is also expressed in the name that More chose for his imagined island, which is a pun on the Greek ‘Outopia’ (no place) and ‘Eutopia’ (good place).
Thomas More was in his late 30s when he wrote Utopia. He was born in 1478 to a prominent and wealthy London family: his father Sir John More was a judge; his maternal grandfather, Thomas Graunger, was sheriff of the city in 1505. Thomas followed his father into the law. By the time he wrote Utopia, he was known for his legal expertise in dealing with matters of international trade and was taking a prominent role in London affairs as one of the under-sheriffs of the city (a role to which he was appointed in 1510). He was also an intimate friend of leading scholars—men with reputations and contacts that extended across Europe—such as John Colet (founder of St Paul’s School), the royal physician Thomas Linacre, and the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus.
The first of our series of blogs reflects this wide range of contacts, looking at the opening to Utopia: a letter from More to his friend Peter Giles in Antwerp which shows the way in which the book blends fact and fiction (and Greek puns!). If you’d like to read more, then please do visit the anniversary blog.
Cathy Shrank is Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Writing the Nation in Reformation England, 1530-1580 (Oxford University Press, 2004) and the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009). She is currently on a Major Leverhulme Research Fellowship, researching a book about late medieval and early modern dialogue (the form in which More’s Utopia is written). You can find Cathy on twitter @cathy_shrank.
Image: Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497 [Wikicommons].