Introducing Utopia: More’s Letter to Giles

View of Antwerp
Bonaventura Peeters, View of Antwerp Pier (1614-42), (c) Musea en Erfgoed Antwerpen

Welcome to the first of our 500th-anniversary posts on Thomas More’s Utopia.  The series, curated by Utopia-scholar Cathy Shrank, will run throughout 2016.  We begin with a close look at the book’s opening: a letter from More to his friend Peter Giles in Antwerp.

From the outset Utopia blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. More’s letter (below left) is addressed to a real historical figure, Peter Giles, a citizen of Antwerp. More met Giles in 1515 whilst on an embassy to the Low Countries (what we’d now call Belgium and the Netherlands). 

Thomas More to Peter Giles sendeth greeting:
I am almost ashamed, right well-beloved, Peter Giles, to send unto you this book of the Utopian commonwealth, well-nigh after a year’s space, which I am sure you looked for within a month and a half. And no marvel, for you knew well enough that I was already disburdened of all the labour & study belonging to the invention in this work and that I had no need at all to trouble my brains about the disposition or conveyance of the matter, & therefore had herein nothing else to do, but only to rehearse those things which you and I together heard Master Raphael tell and declare. […] Howbeit to the dispatching of this so little business my other cares and troubles did leave almost less than no leisure.

While I do daily bestow my time about law matters (some to plead, some to hear, some as an arbitrator with mine award to determine, some as an umpire or a judge with my sentence finally to discuss); while I go one way to see and visit my friend, another way about mine own private affairs; while I spend almost all the day abroad amongst others, and the residue at home among mine own, I leave to myself – I mean to my book – no time. For when I am come home, I must common [i.e. converse] with my wife, chat with my children, and talk with my servants, all the which things I reck and account among business, forasmuch as they must of necessity be done, and done must they needs be, unless a man will be a stranger in his own house. […] Among these things now rehearsed stealeth away the day, the month, the year. […]

I therefore do win and get only that time which I steal from sleep and meat [i.e. food], which time, because it is very little – and yet somewhat it is – therefore have I […] finished Utopia and have sent it to you, friend Peter, to read and peruse, to the intent that if anything have escaped me, you might put me in remembrance of it […], for John Clement, my boy, […] hath brought me into a great doubt, for whereas Hythloday (unless my memory fail me) said that the bridge of Amaurot, which goeth over the river of Anyder is five hundred paces – that is to say, half a mile in length – my John sayeth that a hundred of those paces must be plucked away, for that the river containeth there not above three hundred paces in breadth. […] Howbeit this matter may easily be remedied, if you will take the pains to ask the question of Raphael himself, by word of mouth if he be now with you, or else your letters, which you must needs do for another doubt also which hath chanced – through whose fault I cannot tell, whether through mine or yours or Raphael’s – for neither we remembered to enquire of him, nor he to tell us, in what part of that new world Utopia is situate, the which thing I had rather have spent no small sum of money than that it should thus have escaped us, as well for that I am ashamed to be ignorant in what sea that island standeth, whereof I write so long a treatise, as also because there be with us certain men, and especially one devout and godly man and a professor of divinity, who is exceeding desirous to go unto Utopia, not for a vain and curious desire to see news, but to the intent he may further and increase our religion which is there already luckily begun. Wherefore I most earnestly desire you, friend Peter, to talk with Hythloday, if you can, face to face, or else to write your letters to him, and so to work in this matter that in this my book there may neither anything be found which is untrue, neither anything be lacking, which is true. […]

I am not yet fully determined with myself whether I will put forth my book or no. […] Howbeit, seeing I have taken great pains and labour in writing the matter, if it may stand with his mind & pleasure [i.e. if Hythloday doesn’t object to its publication], I will as touching the edition or publishing of the book follow the counsel and advice of my friends, and specially yours. Thus fare you well, right heartily beloved friend Peter, with your gentle wife, and love me as you have ever done, for I love you better than ever I did.

(Based on Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation)

The letter presents the work, not as a piece of fiction concocted by More, but as the reconstruction of an actual conversation between More, Giles, and the traveller Raphael Hytholoday (whose surname means either ‘disseminator’ or ‘destroyer of nonsense’).  John Clement, More’s servant, cited as another witness to the conversation, is also a real historical figure, and this depiction of the book as documentary is continued by More’s pedantic concern for the accuracy of small details, such as the exact length of the bridge over the River Anyder (which means ‘no water’ in classical Greek) in the Utopian capital of Amaurot (‘shadowy’ or ‘unknown place’ in classical Greek).

The fact that clues to the fictional status of Utopia are contained in these linguistic puns is indicative of the way in which More’s work is aimed at a quite limited audience. It was written in Latin. This made the work accessible to readers across Europe (Latin then being the lingua franca), and it is important to recognise Utopia as the product of a European—not English—culture: the conversation with Hythloday is set in Antwerp; the book was first printed in Louvain (or Leuven); and, as we will see in later posts, Utopia also became the vehicle by which scholars across Europe made and advertised their contact with each other. However, the choice of Latin also meant that the work was only accessible to those with some degree of formal schooling, and full understanding of the work was further restricted by the Greek puns, the study of classical Greek lagging far behind Latin. (The first English school to teach Greek was St Paul’s, founded by More’s friend John Colet in 1509.) More thus establishes a hierarchy of readers: those who can understand the Latin, but do not necessarily get the joke (here represented by the professor of divinity who wants to go and convert the Utopians), and those—a small number of the highly educated, like him—who are in possession of the full picture would have it otherwise. When he wrote in the early 1530s that he himself would help to burn some of his works rather than have them translated into English, he was almost certainly thinking of Utopia.

More’s letter to Giles also paints More as a man much occupied by public and domestic affairs, and who—even in his busy schedule—devotes time to his friendships: the long sentence at the beginning of what is here the second paragraph heaps up his responsibilities in a series of parallel clauses (a structure that replicates the Latin original). Giles, too, is shown as a family man, and as a man capable of friendship. This is important to remember when we meet Hythloday, a man who has renounced all ties to family and friends, and who remains unmoved by a sense of public duty.