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INTRODUCTION. 1. Social and Literary Character of the Period,-LITERATURE FROM
1307 to 1850. 2. Occam's Philosophy-Ecclesiastics - English Poems.—PROSE FROM 1350 to 1999. 3. Ecclesiastical Reforms—John Wycliffe- His Translation of the Bible -Mandeville-Trevisa-Chaucer.-POETRY FROM 1350 TO 1999. 4. Minor PoetsThe Visions of Pierce Plowman-Character of their Inventions-Chivalrous Romances. 5. John Gower-His Works—Illustrations of the Confessio Amantis. 6. Geoffrey Chaucer-His Life-His Studies and Literary Character. 7. Chaucer's Metrical Translations and their Sources – His smaller Original Poems—The Flower and the Leaf. 8. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Their Plan-The Prologue-Description of the Pilgrims. 9. The Stories told by the Canterbury Pilgrims—Their diversified Character, Poetical and Moral.
1. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the afternoon and evening of the middle ages, are the picturesque period in English history.
In the contemporary chronicle of Froissart, the reign of Edward the Third shines like a long array of knightly pageants ; and a loftier cast of imaginative adornment is imparted, by Shakspeare's historical dramas, to the troubled rule of the house of Lancaster, the savage wars of the Roses, and the crimes and fall of the short-lived dynasty of York. The characters and incidents of those stormy scenes, coloured so brilliantly in descriptions from which all of us derive, in one way or another, most of our current ideas in regard to them, wear, in their real outline, a striking air of irregular strength and greatness. But the admiring registrar of courtly pomps, and the philosophic poet of human nature, alike passed over in silence some of those circumstances of the times, that influenced most energetically the state of society and knowledge.
It is with the fourteenth century only, that we are in the meantime concerned.
The reign of Edward the Second was as inglorious in literature, as it was in the history of the nation. That of his son, cov
ering half of the century, was not more remarkable for the victories of Crecy and Poitiers, than for the triumphs then achieved in poetry and abstract thinking. The Black Prince, our model of historic chivalry, and Occam, the last and greatest of our scholastic philosophers, lived in the same century with Chaucer, the father of English poetical literature, and Wycliffe, the herald of the Protestant Reformation. In the reign of Richard the Second, the insurrection of the peasants gave token of deep-seated evils for which the remedy was distant; while the more powerful classes, thinking themselves equally aggrieved, sought for redress through a change of dynasty, and thus prepared the way for several generations of conspiracy and bloodshed.
LITERATURE FROM 1307 TO 1350. 2. The earlier half of this century may conveniently be regarded, in all its literary relations, as a separate period from the later. The genius of the nation, which had already shown symptoms of weariness, seemed now to have fallen asleep.
England, it is true, became the birthplace of “ The Invincible B. ab. 1300. Doctor," William Occam. But this distinguished }
in parted any strong impulse to his countrymen. Educated abroad, he lived chiefly in France, and died at Munich. While the writings of his master Duns Scotus were then the chief authorities of the metaphysical sect called Realists, Occam himself was the ablest, as well as one of the earliest, among the Nominalists. In regard to his position, it must here be enough to say, that the question to which these technical names refer, was considered by the schoolmen to be the great problem of philosophy, and was discussed with a vehemence for which we cannot sufficiently account, without knowing that the metaphysical speculations of the middle ages were always conducted with an immediate regard to their bearings on theology. Realism was held to be especially favourable to the distinctive doctrines which had then been developed in the Roman Catholic church. Nominalism, on the contrary, was discouraged not only as novel but as heretical ; and Occam was persecuted for having been the first to enunciate clearly opinions which, in modern times, are held, in one shape or another, by almost all metaphysicians. Meanwhile, the English ecclesiastics were not very
eminent for speculative ability, and still less so for accuracy in classical knowledge. Three of the theological writers have some claim to notice in the history of philosophy. The Augustinian canon Robert Holcot was one of the few Nominalists of his day; while on the other side stood Archbishop Bradwardine, an able controversialist, and Walter Burleigh, a commentator on Aristotle. It is in a dearth of attempts at classical composition, that such names are cited as that of Richard Angarville or De Bury, bishop of Durham, author of a gossiping essay on books, (the Philobiblon), and likely to be longer remembered for having been one of the earliest of our book-collectors.
Nor have we any distinguished names in the literature of the spoken tongue, which as yet had not taken the form of prose. Mannyng's Chronicle has already been noticed. Richard Rolle, usually called the hermit of Hampole, and Adam Davie of Stratford-le-bow, were writers of religious poems, which are not alleged by the most zealous antiquaries to possess any literary merit.
But the dawn of English literature was close at hand. The star which preceded its approach had already risen on the birth of Chaucer. He attained to early manhood in the close of the short period at which we have glanced; and the generation to which he belonged inherited a language that had become adequate to all literary uses. They were about to record in it high achievements of genius, as well as precious lessons of knowledge.
PROSE LITERATURE FROM 1350 TO 1399. 3. We pass to the latter half of the century, an era never to be forgotten either in the history of our intellectual or in that of our ecclesiastical progress.
The prevalence of metaphysical studies, in the thirteenth century, has been alleged as main cause of that decay in accuracy of classical scholarship, which was already observable in England. From philosophical pursuits, in their turn, the attention of the clergy was now called away by matters more practical and exciting
Learning had several munificent patrons, whose benefactions still survive. We must be satisfied with being able to note, in the course of the century, the foundation of several colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, with that of Winchester by the bishop and chancellor William of Wykeham.
Notwithstanding these and other tokens of prosperity, the state of the church was viewed with great dissatisfaction in many quarters. The increase of the papal power led to claims which, affecting the emoluments of the ecclesiastics, were resisted by many of them, as well as by the parliament, now systematically organized. Against abuses in discipline, indignant remonstrances arose, not only from the laity, but among the churchmen themselves; being prompted both by the pure zeal which animated some, and also by the rivalry which always prevailed between the secular priests and the monastic orders, especially the Mendicant Friars.
Foremost among those who called for reforms in the church, dab: 3824
stood the celebrated John Wycliffe, a native of Yorkd. 1384. shire. Becoming a priest, and attaining high fame for his knowledge and logical dexterity in dealing with philosophical and theological questions, he was placed at the head, first of one and then of another, of the colleges of Oxford. There, and afterwards from the country parsonages to which he was compelled to retreat, he thundered forth a series of denunciations, which gradually increased in boldness. At length, from exposing the ignorance and profligacy of the begging friars, and advocating the independence of the nation against the financial usurpations of the Roman See, he went so far as to attack the papal supremacy in all its relations, to deny several doctrines distinctively Romish, and to set forth in fragments doctrinal views of his own, which diligent students of his works have interpreted as making a near approach to Calvinism.
Although Wycliffe was repeatedly called to account for his opinions, he was never so much as imprisoned; and he retained his church-livings to the last. The papal hierarchy was then weakened by the Great Schism; and he was protected by the king's son, John of Gaunt, as well as by other powerful nobles. But, not long after his death, there burst on his disciples a storm of persecution, which crushed dissent till the sixteenth century; and his writings, both Latin and English, preserved by stealth only, had by that time become difficult of identification.
We are sure, at least, of owing to him, either wholly or in great part, the Version of the Holy Scriptures which bears his name, and which is still extant, and may now be read in print. There seems to be no reason for doubting, that this was the first time the Bible was completely rendered into the English tongue. The date of the composition appears to have been soon after the year 1380. The translation is from the Latin Vulgate, the received text of the Romish church. It has been remarked, with justice, that the language of Wycliffe's original compositions in English shows little advance, if any, beyond the point which had been reached in the early part of the century; but that his Bible, on which probably greater pains were bestowed, is very
superior, though still ruder than several other compositions of the same date. Indeed, besides the reverence due to it as a monument in the religious history of our nation, it possesses high philological value, as standing all but first among the prose writings in our old tongue.
Our very oldest book in English prose, however, is the account given by Sir John Mandeville of his travels in the East, from which he had returned about the
year 1355. It is an odd and amusing compound of facts correctly observed and minutely described, with marvellous stories gathered during the writer's thirty-three years of wandering. Soon afterwards, John De Trevisa, a canon residing in Gloucestershire, began a series of translations from the Latin, of which the most remarkable were the ancient law-treatise bearing the name of Glanvile, and the Polychronicon recently written by Ralph Higden, which is a history of the world from the creation. But the prose writings of the time, which exhibit the language in the most favourable light, are decidedly those of the poet Chaucer. Besides translating Boethius, he has bequeathed to us in prose an imitation of that work, called “The Testament of Love,” with two of his Canterbury Tales, and an astrological treatise.
POETICAL LITERATURE FROM 1350 TO 1399. 4. The principal writings of Chaucer belong to the last few years of the century; and, in examining hastily a few of the minor poems of his time, several of which appeared considerably earlier, we are preparing ourselves for understanding the better what our obligations to him have been.
Highest by far in point of genius, as well as most curious for its illustrations of manners and opinions, was the long and singular poem usually called “The Visions of Piers Plowman," written or completed in 1362, by a priest or monk named Robert Langland. The poet supposes himself, falling asleep on the Malvern Hills, to see a series of visions, which are descriptive, chiefly in an allegorical shape, of the vices of the times, especially those which prevailed among the ecclesiastics. The plan is confused ; so much so, indeed, that it is not easy to discover, how the common title of the poem should be justified by the part assigned in it to the character of the Ploughman. But the poetical vigour of many of the passages is extraordinary, not only in the satirical vein which colours most of them, but in bursts of serious feeling and sketches of external nature. It has been compared with the Pilgrim's Progress; and the likeness lies much deeper than in the naming of such personages as Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best, by which the parallel is most obviously suggested. Some of the allegories are whimsically ingenious, and are worth notice as specimens of a kind of inventions appearing everywhere in the poetry