The Elizabethan age considered itself scientific, indeed the word ‘science’ was used to mean ‘knowledge’. The so called Age of Reason was a much later term applied by historians of science to broad-brush the slow ascent of experimental-based knowledge. What we now call science originated from the attempts to separate the observer from the method of experiment; a method that would employ only the intellectual functions to arrive at a repeatable conclusion, backed up by numbers – the mathematics of quantity.
In so doing, the kind of knowledge that became ‘science’ cut itself off from any intimacy, religious or otherwise, that mankind had felt towards the cosmos – his home – for thousands of years. It is said that the average Elizabethan farmworker would have known the heavens much more intimately than most of us do, today. For them, it was life and death, planting and reaping – and a warning of things to come, like the winter. Occasionally, it also contained dark portents…
A clear night sky was a boon, and immediately synchronised them with their year; a cycle that fed them, if they were lucky. We can imagine the relationship with such a sky. It would be a constant living book, in which was written their own life-story as well as that of all life on Earth.
Perhaps the loss of this intimate relationship was a necessary step. Man turned inwards and began to calculate, rather than see. Intimate vision gave way to accuracy – but only within the mind–self-referentially. Emotions, valued in the artist, were not considered useful in the men of science, who, by a nineteenth century built on the foundations of the Elizabethans, were beginning to create a psychological ‘truth’ for mankind that required only the authentication of numbers, having ‘achieved’ a separation from the essential ‘quality’ of something. Qualities could only be experienced; they were not susceptible to numbers, and therefore suspect and unreliable. The idea of ‘humanness’ was to be, quite literally, taken out of the equation. In their eyes, what watched an experiment was not the observer, it was the ‘truth’.
The result of this has been a loss of wholeness in our numerically-dominated lives. The Church began to lose its grip as absolute arbiter of truth. Many would say this was no bad thing; that much abuse of position masqueraded as divine authority.
The Elizabethan age, like the Medieval period before it, was founded on qualities, and the undisputed authority was the Church. Henry VIII’s schism with Rome did not diminish the Church’s authority, it just replaced Rome with something centred in England, freeing up the wealth of the plundered monasteries for the royal purse in the process.
After a period of intense psychological trauma, including being incarcerated in the Tower of London, the young Elizabeth I inherited this world. She found herself at an unchosen crossroads in the story of England (and Ireland). Women, even potential queens, were not allowed to go to university, but, in a gift to her life to come, she had been tutored at home by the best the age could offer. She was said to be able to correct the Greek of the country’s best scholars…
Hers was one of the best minds of the age, and she sought after truth where it would further her constantly precarious existence. This search, though, had its boundaries. There was a world view that the age adhered to rigidly. This natural order was predicated on Biblical dogma, backed up by a tapestry of cosmology, mathematics and logic that had dominated thought for an astonishing fourteen hundred years.
The highest degree of study was Theology, which been passed down from its (known) origins in the work of Pythagoras, via Plato, then Aristotle; and widened into a God-centric cosmology by Ptolemy. The universities (all religious in nature) had this at their teaching core, and Aristotle was their unchallenged authority. It was the core of the advanced mind, and everything else derived from its foundations.
Strangely, magic was rife in Elizabethan times, and was not seen as threat as long as it did not challenge the consensus. A belief in the physical existence of angels came from the Bible, so the supernatural was implicit. Magicians were those who could navigate the frontiers of knowledge – ‘science’, and forge extensions to it for the common good. Alchemists were of this ilk and much respected as the chemists of their day, though they operated in a way that we would now view as magical. Their approach to such lore was an intimate one. They knew that their own ‘inner worth’ was as much to do with a successful outcome of a process as the rules of engagement with the secrets of nature.
Dr John Dee was such a man. His life was self-documented in his (often very personal) diaries. He was the Queen’s astrologer, in an age when the profound connection between the heavens and life on Earth was an self-evident fact. Each person was born with a certain configuration of the heavens above them. This imprinted their character for life, though personal evolution was part of the picture, too. A later Alchemical reference painted the process of birth as a journey in which ‘the heavenly wanderers kissed the soul on its descent into incarnation’. A very beautiful concept…
The heavenly wanderers were the seven planets visible to the naked eye: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Within the Aristotlean world-view, they were organised into concentric crystal spheres which rotated around the Earth – exactly what the heavens appear to do. Saturn was the farthest. The Earth had been placed, immobile, by God, at the centre of these crystal spheres and was the recipient of all their influences in its ‘sub-lunar’ centrality.
Everyone had their place – it may have been a humble one, but it was inclusive…
The telescope didn’t arrive until the early 1600s, the time of Galileo, who did not invent it, but was the first to point it at the sky and make serious astronomical observations – including the discovery of the Milky Way, sunspots and Jupiter’s moons. For most of the Elizabethan age, the naked eye, back up by a calibrated cross, was the only way to study the heavens. Even with this limitation, Kepler had shown how disciplined observation could be revolutionary, as the disciplined observers began to question the Earth position at the centre of a religious universe.
Although the ancient Greeks had postulated the idea of a solar-centric universe, the idea had not gained ground in the face of the continual refinement of the Ptolemaic world view, which required complex ‘epicycles’ to explain such things as the planets’ periodic retrograde motion – a time when their path against the map of the heavens appeared to reverse.
All this was about to change…
Nicolaus Copernicus published two works, beginning in 1517, which challenged this worldview, establishing the Sun as the centre and (to pacify his critics) throne of the planets. With the later work, De Revolutionibus (1543), which was not published until after his death, the seeds were sown for a revolution in the astronomical, and eventually, theological order. It would take a further century for this to unravel, confirmed by Galileo’s telescopes, which rendered the new model self-evident, but the literal earthquake had begun. Such theories made little difference to day-to-day life, but the appearance in the sky of several major comets and eclipses did. People began to wonder if their world was well and truly changing. The puritans welcomed this, believing that the Apocalypse was approaching…
Queen Elizabeth I could choose, to an extent, how she reacted to these changes in the natural order. She was not only well-educated but surrounded by wise and learned advisors – including Dr John Dee, her astrologer, mapmaker, mathematician and, later, alchemist. William Shakespeare, born thirty-one years after his queen, came into a world where the new view of the natural order was already rocking the established worldview – the words ‘Breaking Glass were a popular sentiment – and its religions. Leading thinkers were also beginning to question the fundamentals of mankind’s character, and to wonder to what degree a person could take responsibility for their own evolution. This did not reduce God’s involvement in their lives, but it did increase their own responsibilities. Such thoughts could border on the revolutionary, and Shakespeare’s characters trod a fine line on his stage:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar
Copernicus’ findings had done something else; something that changed the way the average man would come to consider their own lives – No longer fixed at the centre of the divine crystal spheres, he had set the Earth in motion…
Can we, in a weekend, ‘become’ Elizabethans? Can we live a microcosm of their world, with its intense politics, set against this backdrop of changes in the natural order. Our story is told in retrospect, through the eyes of the dying Shakespeare. Looking back, he can tell a very different tale of the threats to the existence of his now departed Queen….
This is our task for the Silent Eye’s spring workshop 2018: “The Jewel in the Claw’. The jewel is the emerging spirit of tolerance that Elizabeth, the self-styled virgin-queen, engendered; the claw is the nature of the forces of ignorance that still plague us in the twenty-first century every bit as much as they did in 1588, the year that the mighty Spanish Armada was defeated by a combination of English naval courage and our equally fabled weather; and Elizabeth I finally achieved a degree of security.
The Silent Eye has produced dramatic mystical workshops since its inception in 2013, but this is a break from tradition, and will stick closely to the formula of an actual Elizabethan production, letting the acts of the play tell the deeper story. There is no formal audience, of course. We, the players, play to each other, and in doing so invoke the desired depth of psychological and spiritual interaction.
If you’ve never been to such an event before, don’t be over-faced by this heady agenda. There are always new people joining us, and we take great care to ensure they are comfortable. We do not expect our ‘actors’ to learn their lines! We all read from scripts – as though doing a final rehearsal, but the atmosphere is truly electric and you will find yourself working to bring your character to the greatest life you can give them! You will also find they stay with you for years afterwards…
Above all else it is always fun; and every year, come the Sunday farewell lunch, those attending do not want to go home and end that living link with a body of experience and aspiration that they have helped create…
We can honestly say that the workshops become a living thing, formed and sustained in the minds and hearts of those attending. Come and join our ‘merry band’ and you’ll want to come back.
Places are still available for ‘The Jewel in the Claw’. 20-22 April, 2018. The average price is approximately £250, fully inclusive of all meals and accommodation. You will struggle to find a better value weekend, anywhere.
The weekend workshop will be held at the lovely Nightingale Centre, Great Hucklow, near Buxton, in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales at a wonderful time of year – the spring.
You can download the pricing and booking form here:
Image: Composite of original artwork by the author plus a portrait of Dr John Dee courtesy of Wikipedia, CC by 3.0, Public Domain.
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via low-cost supervised correspondence courses.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com