« PreviousContinue »
traditional hold upon the lower classes, and their determination to retain this hold even by habitually resorting to the most dubious of methods. Lastly, we find in the lower secular clergy, and doubtless may also assume it to have lingered among some of the regular, some of the salt left whose savour consists in a single-minded and humble resolution to maintain the highest standard of a religious life. But such “clerks” as these are at no times the most easily found, because it is not they who are always running “unto London, unto St. Paul's” on urgent private affairs. What wonder, that the real teaching of Wyclif, of which the full significance could hardly be understood, but by a select few, should have virtually fallen dead upon his generation, to which the various agitations and agitators, often mingling ideas of religious reform with social and political grievances, seemed to be identical in character and alike to require suppression! In truth, of course, these movements and their agents were often very different from one another in their ends, and were not to be suppressed by the same processes.
It should not be forgotten that in this century learning was, though only very gradually, ceasing to be a possession of the clergy alone. Much doubt remains as to the extent of education-if a little reading and less writing deserve the name—among the higher classes in this period of our national life. A cheering sign appears in the circumstance that the legal deeds of this age begin to bear signatures, and a reference to John of Trevisa would bear out Hallam’s conjecture, that in the year 1400 “the average instruction of an English gentleman of the first class would comprehend common reading and writing, a considerable knowledge of French, and a slight tincture of Latin." Certain it is that in this century the barren teaching of the Universities advanced but little towards the true end of all academical teaching--the encouragement and spread of the highest forms of national culture. To what use could a gentleman of Edward III.'s or Richard II.'s day have put the acquirements of a Clerk of Oxenford in Aristotelian logic, supplemented perhaps by a knowledge of Priscian, and the rhetorical works of Cicero ? Chaucer's scholar, however much his learned modesty of manner and sententious brevity of speech may commend him to our sympathy and taste, is a man wholly out of the world in which he lives, though a dependent on its charity even for the means with which to purchase more of his beloved books, Probably no trustworthier conclusions as to the literary learning and studies of those days are to be derived from any other source than from a comparison of the few catalogues of contemporary libraries remaining to us; and these help to show that the century was approaching its close before a few sparse rays of the first dawn of the Italian Renascence reached England. But this ray was communicated neither through the clergy nor through the Universities; and such influence as was exercised by it upon the national mind, was directly due to profane poets, --men of the world, who like Chaucer quoted authorities even more abundantly than they used them, and made some of their happiest discoveries after the fashion in which the Oxford Clerk came across Petrarch's Latin version of the story of Patient Grissel : as it were by accident. There is only too ample a justification for leaving aside the records of the history of learning in England during the latter half of the fourteenth century in any sketch of the main influences which in that period determined or affected the national progress. It was not by his theological learning that Wyclif was brought into living contact with the current of popular thought and feeling. The Universities were thriving exceedingly on the scholastic glories of previous ages; but the ascendancy was passing away to which Oxford had attained over Paris—during the earlier middle ages, and again in the fifteenth century until the advent of the Renascence, the central university of Europe in the favourite study of scholastic philosophy and theology.
But we must turn from particular classes and ranks of men to the whole body of the population, exclusively of that great section of it which unhappily lay outside the observation of any but a very few writers—whether poets or historians. In the people at large we may, indeed, easily discern in this period the signs of an advance towards that self-government which is the true foundation of our national greatness. But on the other hand it is impossible not to observe how, while the moral ideas of the people were still under the control of the Church, the State in its turn still ubiquitously interfered in the settlement of the conditions of social existence, fixing prices, controlling personal expenditure, regulating wages. Not until England had fully attained to the character of a commercial country, which it was coming gradually to assume, did its inhabitants begin to understand the value of that which has gradually come to distinguish ours among the nations of Europe, viz. the right of individual Englishmen, as well as of the English people, to manage their own affairs for themselves. This may help to explain what can hardly fail to strike a reader of Chaucer and of the few contemporary remains of our literature. About our national life in this period, both in its virtues and in its vices, there is something, it matters little whether we call it--childlike or childish ; in its “apert” if not in
its "privy" sides it lacks the seriousness belonging to men and to generations, who have learnt to control themselves, instead of relying on the control of others.
In illustration of this assertion, appeal might be made to several of the most salient features in the social life of the period. The extravagant expenditure in dress, fostered by a love of pageantry of various kinds encouraged by both chivalry and the Church, has been already referred to; it was by no means distinctive of any one class of the population. Among the friars who went about preaching homilies on the people's favourite vices some humorous rogues may, like the Pardoner of the Canterbury Tales, have made a point of treating their own favourite vice as their one and unchangeable text :
My theme is always one, and ever was:
But others preferred to dwell on specifically lay sins; and these moralists occasionally attributed to the love of expenditure on dress the impoverishment of the kingdom, forgetting in their ignorance of political economy and defiance of common sense, that this result was really due to the endless foreign wars.
Yet in contrast with the pomp and ceremony of life, upon which so great an amount of money and time and thought was wasted, are noticeable shortcomings by no means uncommon in the case of undeveloped civilisations (as for instance among the most typically childish or childlike nationalities of the Europe of our own day), viz. discomfort and uncleanliness of all sorts. To this may be added the excessive fondness for sports and pastimes of all kinds, in which nations are aptest to indulge before or after the era of their highest efforts,--the desire to make life one long holiday, dividing it between tournaments and the dalliance of courts of love, or between archery-meetings (skilfully substituted by royal command for less useful exercises), and the seductive company of "tumblers," "fruiterers,” and “waferers." Furthermore, one may notice in all classes a far from eradi. cated inclination to superstitions of every kind,—whether those encouraged or those discouraged by the Church, an inclination unfortunately fostered rather than checked by the uncertain gropings of contemporary science. Hence, the credulous acceptance of relics like those sold by the Pardoner, and of legends like those related to Chaucer's Pilgrims by the Prioress (one of the numerous repetitions of a cruel calumny against the Jews), and by the Second Nun (the supra-sensual story of Saint Cecilia). Hence, on the other hand, the greedy hunger for the marvels of astrology and alchemy, notwithstanding the growing scepticism even of members of a class represented by Chaucer's Franklin towards
such follý As in our days is not held worth a fly, and notwithstanding the exposure of fraud by repentant or sickened accomplices, such as the gold-making Canon's Yeoman. Hence, again, the vitality of such quasi-scientific fancies as the magic mirror, of which miraculous instrument the Squire's “ half-told story” describes a specimen, referring to the incontestable authority of Aristotle and others, who write “in their lives ” concerning quaint mirrors and perspective glasses, as is well known to those who have “ heard the books” of these sages. Hence, finally, the cor
1 For holy Church's faith, in our belief,
The Franklin's Tale.