16th century dreams: Thomas More

Thomas More (1477 - 1535) wrote the first formal utopia. He imagined a complex, self-contained world set on an island, in which communities shared a common culture and way of life.

This selection of extracts illustrates many of the systems and practices that More imagined for his Utopians. He defined systems of punishment, social hierarchy, agriculture and education, as well as customs for marriage, dress, and death.

  • How do More's versions of social systems and practices compare with those of his own, real, 16th century world? How do they compare with the world today? Which aspects did he retain? Which did he replace?
  • Can you find clues to what he was reacting against?

Should we consider More's Utopia to be 'outside time' and set apart from the real world? Isolation is not only about geography - think about other measures of self-containment.

What can More's Utopia tell us about citizenship in the 16th century , and what we can learn about citizenship today?

Background

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, writer, and statesman. He was at one time one of Henry VIII's most trusted civil servants, becoming Chancellor of England in 1529.

However, More was also a passionate defender of Catholic orthodoxy. More wrote in the 16th century, at the time of the Reformation, which set out to reform the Catholic Church in Europe and resulted in the development of Protestantism. When Henry established the Anglican Church, which allowed him to divorce Catherine of Aragon, More resigned his chancellorship. He continued to argue against the king's divorce, the Reformation and the split with the Catholic church. He was tried for treason and executed by beheading on July 6th 1535.

The Island of Utopia

The Utopian alphabet

Pomp, circumstance and wealth

The prince of Utopia

Engagement and marriage

Communal living

Celebration of life and death

Utopian laws

Town and country living

Moral philosophy

Education in Utopia