Page images
[blocks in formation]

INTRODUCTION TO THE PERIOD. 1. Distribution of Races and Kingdoms.-2. Literary

Character of the Times.—THE REGULAR LATIN LITERATURE. 3. Learning in the Eleventh Century-Lanfranc-Anselm.--4. Philosophy and Physical Science in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries—Hales and Duns Scotus-Roger Bacon.-5. Historians-William of Malmesbury-Geoffrey of Monmouth-Girald du Barri-Matthew Paris.—6. Success in Poetry-Joseph of Exeter-Geoffrey de Vinsauf, Nigel Wircker's Ass.—THE IRREGULAR LATIN LITERATURE. 7. Latin Pasquinades—The Priest Golias-Walter Mapes.-8. Collections of Tales in Latin-Gervase of TilburyThe Seven Sages—The Gesta Romanorum-Nature of the Stories.-9. Uses of the Collections of Tales—Reading in Monasteries-Manuals for Preachers-Morals annexed in the Gesta-Specimens.—10. Use of the Latin Stories by the Poets-Chivalrous Romances taken from them-Chaucer and Gower-Shakspeare and Sir Walter Scott-Miscellaneous Instances.


1. At this point we have to take account, for the last time, of events that affected the distribution of the nations inhabiting our country, and the languages spoken in the several regions.

The Norman Conquest introduced into England a foreign race of nobles and landholders, dispossessing certainly a large majority, and probably almost the whole body, of those who had been the ruling class in the preceding times. But the only new settlers were the kings, the barons with their military vassals, and the many churchmen who followed the Conqueror and his

The mass of the people continued to be Teutonic; and the mixture of the Saxons with the Britons was now completed in all those provinces that were subject to the Norman kings. The Anglo-Saxon tongue, in the state of transition which it was undergoing throughout the period now in question, spread itself everywhere over those territories in the course of two or three centuries, Cornwall being perhaps the only exception. The



Cymric tongue continued to be spoken in Wales, not only while the Welsh princes maintained their independence, but after they were subdued by Edward the First.

The boundaries of the kingdom of Scotland were now stretched southward, to the line which has marked them ever since. In the western district of the border, the two petty British states had already become dependent on their more powe ful neighbours. For Cumbria had been incorporated into Anglo-Saxon England, and had passed under the sceptre of the Normans; while the kings of Scotland had acquired, on the south of the Clyde, territories which may be supposed to have mainly constituted the ancient princedom of Strathclyde. On the eastern border, again, a long series of wars took place between England and Scotland; but, in the end, Berwickshire and the Lothians were, for a time at least, held by the Scottish kings as fiefs under the English

Gradually an Anglo-Saxon dialect became universal throughout the Scottish Lowlands; the Highlands retaining their Celtic inhabitants and Gaelic speech.

For Ireland, invaded by the English in the year 1170, there opened a series of ages, in which the misery and disorganization of native feuds were succeeded by the evils of foreign oppression, evils yet more irritating, and more thoroughly preventive both of social and of intellectual advancement. The literary history of that beautiful and unfortunate country must be for us a dead blank, till, in modern times, we gladly discover many Irishmen among the most valuable citizens in the republic of letters.

2. In England, during this long period, literature flowed onward in its course, with a ceaseless, though somewhat eddying

The generation which succeeded the Conquest gave birth, as we might have expected, to little that was very remarkable. The twelfth century, beginning with the reign of the accomplished Henry Beauclerc, and closing with that of the chivalrous Cour de Lion, was distinguished, beyond all parts of our mediaeval history, for the prosperity of classical scholarship; and the NormanFrench poetry, studied with ardour, began to find English imitators.

The thirteenth century was a decisive epoch, not more for the constitutional history of England, than for its intellectual progress. The Great Charter was extorted from King John; the commercial activity of the towns, and the representative functions of all the commons, were thoroughly grounded in the reign of his successor; and the ambition of Edward Longshanks, suiccessful in crushing the independence of Wales, was equally so in

. tide.

Scotland, till the single-handed heroism of Wallace gave warning of the spirit which was to achieve deliverance on the field of Bannockburn. During this momentous array of public events, the English universities were founded or regularly organized ; the stream of learning which had descended from preceding generations was turned into a new channel, giving birth to some of the greatest philosophers and scientific men of the Middle Ages; the romantic poetry of Northern France continued to flourish, and now began to be transfused into a language intelligible throughout England; and, above all, the Anglo-Saxon tongue passed, in the course of this century, through the last of those phases which transformed it into English.

This was also a time when religious sentiment was very keen. Three of the crusades had previously taken place; and the other four fell within the thirteenth century. They not only diffused knowledge, but kindled a flame of zeal: and the foundation and prosperity of the rival monastic orders of Dominicans and Franciscans (the Black and Grey Friars of our history), sh al the devotion of the age, the growing suspicion that the church needed reform, and the dexterity of the Papal See in using zealots and malcontents for her own ends.

The Literature of those two centuries and a half will now engage our attention, that which was couched in Latin being first examined.


3. In a generation or two after the Conquest, Classical and Theological learning, if profoundly acquired by few, was pursued by very many. There was no inconsiderable activity in the monasteries, as well as among the secular clergy; and, however apocryphal may be the alleged foundation of the older of the two English universities by Alfred, it is certain that, both at Oxford and Cambridge, by the beginning of the twelfth century, schools had been established, which were thenceforth permanent, and rapidly attained an academic organization. The continental universities, and the other ecclesiastical seminaries, both in France and elsewhere, were continually exchanging with England both pupils and teachers.

But the movement was, as yet, almost wholly among the Normans and their dependents: and the only great names which adorned the annals of erudition in England, in the latter half of the eleventh century, were those of two Lombard priests, Lanfranc and Anselm. Both of them were brought by Duke William from his famous Abbey of Bec; and, being raised in succession to the

primacy, they not only prepared the means for diffusing among the ecclesiastics a respectable amount of classical learning, but themselves acquired and have retained high celebrity as theological writers. Lanfranc was chiefly famous for the dialectic dexterity with which he defended the Romish doctrine of the eucharist. Anselm, a singularly original and subtle thinker, is held by many to have been the true founder of the scholastic philosophy; and he is especially remarkable as having been the first to attempt moulding into a scientific shape, that which has been called the argument à priori for the existence of the Supreme Being. It is hardly necessary to remark, that these speculations, and all other ecclesiastical and theological writings for several aģes afterwards, were composed in Latin. The excuse of ignorance among the clergy, so artlessly assigned in the Anglo-Saxon times as a reason for writing in the living tongue, was no longer to be listened to: and the practice of freely publishing such knowledge to the laity was heretical in the eyes of those ecclesiastical chiefs, who now sat in the chairs of Aidhelm and Ælfric.

4. The abstract speculations of Lanfranc and Anselm were but slowly appreciated or emulated in England. Their effects, however, may be traced, to some extent, in the theological and other writings of the two most learned men whom the country possessed during the next century. John of Salisbury, befriended by Thomas à Becket, did himself honour by the fidelity which he maintained towards his patron; and he may be reckoned an opponent, not very formidable, of the scholastic philosophy. Peter of Blois

, brought from France, became the king's secretary and an active statesman.

In the thirteenth century, when the teaching of Roscellinus and Abelard had made philosophy the favourite pursuit of all the most active-minded scholars throughout Europe, England possessed names which in this field stood higher than any others. Alexander de Hales, called “ The Irrefragable Doctor," was a native of Gloucestershire; but he was educated and lived abroad. “The 6. ab. 1265, 2 Subtle Doctor,” Joannes Duns Scotus, was born either

d. 1808. I in Northumberland or Berwickshire, received his education from the Franciscan friars at Oxford, taught and wrote with extraordinary reputation both there and at Paris and Cologne, and died in the prime of life. He was one of the most acute of thinkers, and founded a characteristic system of philosophical doctrine.

In the same age, while Scotland sent Michael Scot into Germany to prosecute physical science with a success which

d. 1292.

earned for him the fame of a sorcerer, a similar course was followed at Oxford and Paris, and a similar character acquired 6. ab. 1214, through labours still more valuable, by Roger Bacon,

a Franciscan friar. This great man's life of scientific experiment and abstruse reflection was embittered, not only by the fears and suspicions of the vulgar, but by the persecutions of his ecclesiastical superiors. His writings abound with curious conjectures, asserting the possibility of discoveries which have actually been made in modern times. In his supposed invention of gunpowder, we may perceive the foundation of the story which was told, how the fiend, to whom the heretical wizard had sold himself, carried away his victim in a whirlwind of fire.

5. The unsettled state of the languages spoken in England co-operated with the clerical tendencies, in causing the Latin to become the vehicle of almost all Historical writing.

Very few works of this class possessed, till much later, any literary merit; but very many of them, still extant, are valuable or curious as records of facts. A considerable nu er of Chronicles were kept in the monasteries, furnishing, from one quarter or another, a series which extends through the greater part of the Middle Ages. The individual Historians, all of them ecclesiastics, were very numerous. Among those who have claims to notice for skill in writing, William of Malmesbury, one of the earliest, (but virtually belonging to the twelfth century,) deserves honour as an industrious and candid investigator of early * traditions. The history of Geoffrey of Monmouth is notorious for its unsifted mass of legendary fiction; but the poetical student cannot well be ungrateful to the preserver of the fable of Arthur, and of the stories, hardly better vouched, of Lear and Cymbeline. The vain and versatile Girald de Barri, best known by the name of Giraldus Cambrensis, has left elaborate historical and topographical works, notable for their national partialities, especially in Irish affairs, but very lively both in narrative and description. The principal work of Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk of Saint Albans, shows close acquaintance with the events of his times, and is written with very great spirit. Its freedom of dealing with church questions made it a favourite authority with the early Reformers.

Of the many other historians and chroniclers, it may be enough to name, as perhaps possessing greater importance than the rest, Henry of Huntingdon, Gervase of Tilbury, Roger de Hoveden, and the recently discovered Jocelin de Brakelonde.

6. The classical knowledge of the times was tested more severely by composition in Latin Verse, which was practised ac

« PreviousContinue »