JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


IT is customary with a certain class of writers to identify the revival of letters with the downfall of Constantinople. This is a mistake. "It dates at least from the eleventh century," says Dr. Nevin, "and there is abundance of evidence that the progress made between that and the age of the Reformation was quite as real and important as any that has taken place since."{1} The Church at all times encouraged letters, and we can trace the literary tradition in an unbroken line from Boëtius and Cassiodorus to Isidore of Seville, from Isidore to Beda, thence to Alcuin, thence to Scotus Erigena, thence to Lanfranc and Anselm. Down the ages it flows clear and strong. Columbanus, with twelve religious men, arrives about 590 at the Court of Gontran, and recommends the reading of the ancient poets as well as of the Early Fathers.{2} About the same time Virgilius Maro teaches grammar in Toulouse, and organizes a school of esoteric Latinity which exercises a baneful influence on style for centuries after.{3}

Women vie with men in the pursuit of learning. St. Lioba, a kinswoman of St. Boniface, instructs her nuns in the convent of Bischofsheim. Their reputation extends far and wide. They are in great demand, and there are few religious houses in their day that did not have some of them as teachers. St. Melanie transcribes manuscripts with ease, grace and correctness. The nuns of the convent of St. Cesarie become no less famous for their excellent penmanship.{4} Adelaide of Luxembourg, leaving the chapel after matins, goes to warm the feet of the children who are cold, and caresses those who answer her questions in grammar correctly.{5} The incident speaks volumes, In the tenth century St. Hrosvitha, abbess of the convent of Gandesheim, composes plays full of bold thought and striking scenes, and not altogether lacking in literary polish. We find in them wit and humor and pathos. The innocent mirth and laughter lurking in her pages still resound in our ears. Hers are no dead pages; they are instinct with life; love's throbbings still palpitate beneath her lines, and in more respects than one has she anticipated the modern drama.{6} The theme into which she has especially poured her soul is the triumph of chastity. Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne, brought artists and professors from Constantinople. To some of these learned men did St. Hrotsvitha submit her compositions, and from them she received encouragement to give them to the public. She believed herself imitating Terence, but she was anticipating Racine.{7}

In this century Irish monks flock to the continent, build monasteries, reclaim whole tracts of wilderness, found towns and cities, open schools and become the schoolmasters of the West. "Shall I speak of Ireland," says an eye-witness, "which, despising the perils of the sea, has almost wholly emigrated upon our shores with its herd of philosophers?"{8} And of the latter part of this same century, which is usually designated as tbe iron age, Meiners says "In no age, perhaps, did Germany possess more learned and virtuous churchmen of the episcopal order than in the latter half of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century."{9} The name of Gerbert is enough to redeem the age from the imputation of midnight darkness. As Pope Sylvester II., he was the patron of learning and science, and established chairs of mathematics, astronomy, and geography.{10} "The eleventh century," says Renan, "had witnessed in philosophy, in poetry, in architecture, a renaissance such as humanity has seldom remembered.{11} With the advance of time, a thirst for learning increased. The lecture rooms could not contain the throngs that assembled to hear great teachers. Abelard counted his audience by thousands. Albertus Magnus was compelled to lecture in the public square that still bears his name.{12} Students sat in the streets on litters of hay and straw discussing their themes or listening to their masters. They travelled from afar, gave up all the luxuries of home, and turned valets, that they might acquire an education.{13} Schools for the poor were especially attended to. The poor scholar was held in honor. Masters gave him their cast-off clothing. Sometimes, in order to make a living and to study, he swept rooms, or copied books, or if he was possessed of a good voice, he sang in the streets for the common amusement{14} The Councils of the Church -- those landmarks of civilization -- from the beginning, decree that every church that has the means, provide a master for the gratuitous instruction of the poor "according to the ancient customs." That of Lateran, in 1180, says that the Church of God, "like a dutiful mother," being bound to provide for the indigent in soul as well as in body, to every church shall be attached a master to instruct the poor gratuitously.{15} Innocent III., in 1215, reiterates the same decree.{16} The study of languages was encouraged. The Council of Vienne, in 1311, decreed that the Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaic tongues be taught wherever the Roman Court was held,{17} as well as in the universities of Paris, Oxford, Salamanca and Bologna; and that two professorships of each language be established and maintained at the expense of the bishops and the Pope in each of these universities, except that of Paris, the expenses of which the King was to defray. Though such wholesome decrees were not always responded to as cordially as could be wished, they still prove that the Church fostered learning in all classes, noble as well as peasant.{18}

The Renaissance, then, is not one of letters. It is of another stamp. The spirit that animated Roscelin and Abelard, that flowed down the ages in undercurrents, and appeared in the Cathari and Paterini, in the Lollards and the Hussites, and perpetuated itself through the channels of secret societies, now rose to the surface, and became the predominant spirit of the age. It is the spirit of rationalism. In 1326 Massiglio of Padua caught up the whole spirit, and embodied it in his book Defensor Pacis. Therein he advocates the supremacy of State over Church and family, regards Holy Writ as the sole foundation of faith, considers all priests equal, and the primacy a matter of convenience that might be changed. In the fifteenth century, this spirit assumed the shape of enthusiasm for the pagan ideal. Petrarch (1304-1374) had thrown the whole vigor of his poetic soul into the study and diffusion of Latin and Greek letters. Men without his genius imbibed his enthusiasm for literature, and grew blind in their admiration not only for the authors of Greece and Rome, but even for every non-Christian writer. Petrarch tells us that they did not think that they had done anything for philosophy, unless they had barked at Christ and the supernaturalness of His doctrine. Averroës they placed above the Fathers and Apostles. Thus one of Petrarch's friends says to him on occasion of his having quoted St Paul: "You still hold to your Christian religion; I don't believe a word of it. Your Paul, your Augustine, and all those you so extol, were great babblers; and could you only bear the reading of Averroës, you would soon perceive how much superior he is to those jesters of yours."{19} Later the Humanists are intoxicated with Plato. Marsilius Ficino keeps a lamp before his bust,{20} and is said to have addressed the people: "Beloved in Plato." His name sounded sweeter to the ear than that of the Saviour. His writings were cherished more than the Gospel. Men imagined that they had found the whole scheme of Christianity in his pages. The simplicity of the sacred writings grew distasteful to them. Cardinal Bembo writes to Sadoleto not to read the epistles of St. Paul, lest their style corrupt his taste.{21} Upon the fall of Constantinople (1453), the presence of Greek scholars among them added more fuel to their enthusiasm. Their academies fostered an anti-Christian spirit, and yearned for pagan freedom; and some of them were known to have revived the worship of Madre Natura. Their language was considered elegant only in proportion as it was enveloped in mythological allusion. The epoch was a partial reversion to the nature-worship and love of the sensuous, always characteristic of the Aryan race. All this effort to revive a bygone spirit caused literary men to lose the real spirit of their own times, and the cold literalness of their imitation was destructive of native genius. The religious influence that for ten centuries had been gradually gaining ground began to be weakened, reason began to revolt against faith, though both, proceeding from the same Divine Author, are not, and cannot be contradictory; and the harmony that was being consummated between the secular and clerical elements of society, was changed to discord.

That is the more perfect society which is best in accordance with the nature of things. In the Mind of their Divine Author, faith is intrinsically superior to reason, grace to nature, the supernatural to the natural. The society in which this order obtains is the one best in accordance with the nature of things, and is therefore the most perfect. Now this is what society was coming to in the Middle Ages, and the checking of this tendency, the estrangement of the two orders, the natural and the supernatural, and the initiation of a revolt of one against the other, are among the most baneful effects of the Renaissance. It turned the destiny of society from its natural course. It induced universal indifferentism -- indifferentism influenced by a spirit of rapacity in England, by a spirit of cupidity and immorality in Germany, and by a spirit of philosophical speculation in Italy. In their hearts' core, the literary men of Italy were Catholic; their indifferentism was affected, because it was the fashion; but it blinded them to the real dangers of the age. They trifled when they should have been serious. But the people were still sincere in their faith and piety.

Such was the state of affairs among the literary circles of Italy, when there came among them a young monk from Germany, simple and unsophisticated, and though lacking discrimination, still possessed of quick perception. He enters Rome, and is astonished at the enthusiasm with which fragments of an antique statue are triumphantly paraded through the streets; he is horrified at the paeans that are sung upon their discovery. He comes in contact with some of the literary men; he hears them converse; their language is almost unintelligible to him -- it is the language of pagan Rome. He is shocked at the familiarity with which holy things are treated; he finally wonders if he is not in dreamland, carried far back on the stream of time to the days of Augustus, surrounded by just enough of Christianity to give his dream still more the appearance of reality. Young Luther returns to his native land, and broods over the words he heard and the scenes he witnessed, until a chain of circumstances places him in position to make use of his recollections; and, entrenching himself in faith alone as the key to salvation, by the fire of his eloquence he sets aglow the mass of corruption and dissatisfaction he found in Germany. Luther was the most remarkable man of his age. He had all the versatility of character to be the chief instrument of circumstances in the religious movement then afoot. He knew at the same time how to flatter the people and to pay court to the great. He made a deep impression upon letters. His translation of the Scriptures did as much for the formation of style in German literature, as did King James's version for English letters. But what influence did the Reformation have upon letters?

{1} Mercersburg Review, March, 1857.

{2} Columbanus ad Hunoldum. Usher: Epist. Hibern. Sylloge.

{3} The works of Virgilius were published by Cardinal Mai Classicorum auctorurn e Vaticanis codicibus editorum. t. v., Roma, 1833. For an account of his school see Ozanam: Etudes Germaniques, pp. 480, sqq.

{4} Mabillon : Etudes Monastiques, Paris, 1691, p. 37.

{5} Acta SS. 0. S. B., t. viii., p, 128.

{6} Compare the tomb scene in Callimachus of Hrotsvitha with the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare.

{7} Charles Magnin, Théatre de Hrotsvitha. Paris, 1845; Chasles, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1845, p. 708.

{8} Heiric of Auxerre, Epist. dedicat. ad Carolum. Vita S. Germani. Patrologia, vol. cxxiv., col. 1133.

{9} Quoted in Hallam, Literature of Europe, vol. i., p. 3!.

{10} It is erroneously stated that Gerhert studied with the Arabs at Cordova; he studied with Hatton, Bishop of Vich, in Catalonia. Richer, Just. lib iii. cap. 43.

{11} Revue des Deux Mondes, t. xl. p. 203.

{12} The Place Maubert, i. e. Maitre Albert. This is the tradition that accounts for the name of the Rue du Fouarre in Paris.

{13} The custom was still prevalent at Salamanca in the 18th century.

{14} De Disciplina Scholarum, cap. iv. p. 980. This book was attributed to Boëtius. Roger Bacon quotes it; but it does not date earlier than 1200.

{15} "Quoniam Ecclesia Dei et in iis quae spectant ad subsidium corporis, et in iis quae ad profectum veniunt animarum, indigentibus sicut pia mater providere tenetur: ne pauperibus, qui parentum opibus juvare non possunt, legendi, et proficiendi opportunitas sub trahetur, per unamquamque Ecclesiam cathedralem magistro, qui Clericus ejusdem Ecclesiae et scholares pauperes gratis doceat, competens aliquod beneficium assignetur, quo docentis necessitas sublevetur, et discentibus via pateat ad doctrinam." -- Concil. Lateran., sub. Alex. III., cap. xviii.

{16} Concil. Lateran., sub. Innocent. III., cap. ii., De Magistris Scholasticis.

{17} It was then held at Avignon; Clement V. was the reigning Pope.

{18} That expression said to he found on mediaeval documents -- "This one being a nobleman, attests his inability to sign his name," -- is a piece of exaggeration and historical formalism. See Maitland's Dark Ages, p. 9. et seq. The reader will find a more detailed account of mediaevaI learning and mediaeval schools in Kenelm Digby's great work Mores Catholici; or Ages of Faith, bk. iii. chaps. v., vi.

{19} "Egil [Petrarca] se ne duole spesso nelle sue opere, e fra l'altre cose racconta ciò che gil avenne in Venizia (Senil., L. 5, ep. 3) quando venuto a trovarlo nella sua bibioteca un di colori i quail, com' egli dice, secondo il costume de' moderni filosofi pensano di non aver fatto nulla, se non abbaiano contro di Cristo e della sovrumana di lui dottrina, costui prese a deriderlo e ad insultarlo, perche nel parlare avea usato di qualehe detto dell' Apostolo Paolo; Tien tu pure, disse egli al Petrarca, la tua Religione cristiana: nulla de tutto ciò io credo. Il tue Paolo, il tuo Agostino e tutti coloro che tanto esalti, furone nomini loquacissimi. Cosi fotessi tu sostenere la lettura di Averroe, tu ben vedresti quanto egli sia maggiore di cotesti tuoi gioccoliere." -- TIRABOSCHI, Storia della Letteratura Italiana, lib. secondo, vol. v., p. 282-3.

{20} Caesar Cantu, vol. xv., p. 8.

{21} And he adds: Omitte has nugas; non enim decent gravem virum tales ineptiae. See Cantù, vol. xiv., p. 442.

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