Utopia500 - A Book Called Nowhere

In my last blog post, I wrote about the trip that inspired More to write Utopia in the summer of 1515. This post will tell the rest of the story, from More's return to England in autumn 1515, to the publication of Utopia in the winter of 1516. It is a familiar story to anyone who has ever had to write to a deadline, fighting for time and keeping editors at bay. Of course, not every such experience results in one of the most influential texts of all time, inspiring revolutions, a genre of literature and 500 years of scholars and students.

More returned to England in the autumn of 1515. The diplomatic mission may have been frustrating, taking longer than expected and yielding little financial reward, but More almost certainly returned to his home in Cheapside with a draft of Book II of Utopia in hand. Now, it just remained to write Book I. This proved unexpectedly difficult. In contrast to the enforced leisure on the continent, back in England More seems to have immediately thrown himself back into his work. By 1515 More was a high-ranking London lawyer, undersheriff of London, Justice of the Peace for Middlesex, and had 4 young children.

More found himself in the position facing most writers and academics today; the stuff of everyday living getting in the way of time and space to write. As he writes to Gillis in a letter later published with Utopia:

'Most of my day is given to the law... I pay a curtesy call to one man and visit another on business; and so almost all day I'm out dealing with other people, and the rest of the day I give over to my family and household; and then for myself - that is, my studies - there's nothing left. For when I get home, I have to talk with my wife, chatter with my children, and consult with the servants.... And so, amid the concerns I have mentioned, the day, the month, the year slips away. When do I write, then? ... My own time is only what I steal from sleeping and eating. It isn't very much (hence the slow pace), but it's something' - Utopia

Change 'the law' to 'lectures' and 'consult with servants' to 'answer emails' and it's suddenly remarkably familiar.

In July 1516, Erasmus, Europe's leading humanist and More's friend, visited More and his family. More had done an important favour for Erasmus the summer before, and Erasmus had introduced More to Gillis. It is probable at this time they discussed the publication of More's new book, which Erasmus would oversee a few months later. Perhaps Erasmus, as the eager editor, was checking up on More's progress, though most editors (thankfully) don't drop by writers' houses for a long weekend and complain about their wives (as Erasmus did with great vehemence).

On the 3 September 1516, More wrote to Erasmus. He had finished the book, and was sending along the manuscript. He referred to this book as Nusquama - 'no-place' in Latin. It may have been Erasmus himself who gave the book the intriguing and lasting title 'Utopia', which has the added benefit of meaning 'no-place' and 'best place' (eutopia) in ancient Greek. More gives 'no urging' to Erasmus, but it is clear that he wants the scholar to oversee its publication, and hopes that Erasmus will find 'glowing testimonials' to accompany it, like the blurbs on the back of paperbacks today.

A month later, Erasmus wrote to More, promising to take care of his 'Island', his Nusquama, and sure enough he had shared it with Gillis and was gathering the requested 'testimonials' for publication. On the 18 November, Erasmus confirmed that he had given the text and the testimonials to the publisher, Dirk Martens in Louvain. The final product was almost certainly published in December 1516, to More's great joy. Within months, it was clear that it was an instant hit, and soon Erasmus was planning a second edition, to be published in Basel by Johann Froben.

But by 1517 More had other concerns, as London was in the middle of drought and frost, and tensions were about to explode in the Evil May Day Riot of 1517. More had also received an invitation to join the court of the King of England, Henry VIII. Taking such a position would certainly make it much more difficult to find time to produce texts like Utopia. To make matters worse, in autumn 1517, while More was once again a diplomat on the continent, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation. There would soon be nowhere for Utopia in More's rapidly-changing world.

For more More see:

Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, p. 180.

Maritere López, Daniel T Lochman, Lorna Hutson, Discourses and Representations of Friendship in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700, p. 50-2.

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