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THE LIBERAL ARTS-HISTORY-MYTHOLOGY AND LEGEND-THE
HEROIC POEM--COMMONPLACES AND COMMON FORMS.
The darkest time in the Dark Ages was from the end of the sixth century to the revival of learning The Liberal under Charles the Great. Bad grammar
was openly circulated, and sometimes commended. St Gregory the Great quoted the Bible in depreciation of the Humanities, “Quoniam non cognovi litteraturam introibo in potentias Domini” (Ps. lxx. 15, 16). The study of heathen authors was discouraged more and more. “Will the Latin grammar save an immortal soul ?” “What profit is there in the record of pagan gods or pagan sages, the labours of Hercules or of Socrates ?”i Books
1 “Quid posteritas emolumenti tulit legendo Hectorem pugnantem aut Socratem philosophantem ?" This is a quotation from Sulpicius Severus (A.D. 400), but the same sort of argument is used in the time of Gregory the Great, and later.
came to be scarce; the industry of copying was not applied to the poets or orators of the ancient world, except a very few. But the decline of education was not universal. If studies failed in Gaul or Italy, they flourished in Ireland, and later in Britain, and returned later from these outer borders to the old central lands of the Empire. Further, in spite of depression and discouragement, there was a continuity of learning even in the darkest ages and countries. Certain school-books hold their ground with little fluctuation of popularity, keeping an honourable position as representatives of classical culture. Martianus Capella On the Nuptials of Mercury and Philology; Fulgentius, Mythologiarum Libri iii.; Orosius, Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri vii.; Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiæ ; Cassiodorus, Institutiones; and later Isidorus of Seville, with a number of other authors, are found in the ages of distress and anarchy more or less calmly giving their lectures and preserving the standards of a liberal education. Much of this work was humble enough, but it was of great importance for the times that came after. For these later times it did not matter that many great authors had been unread and unvalued by the contemporaries of Gregory of Tours and Gregory the Great; but if Martianus Capella had been forgotten, with the school-traditions exemplified in his book, there would have been no chance of a revival of learning. As it was, the elementary and often pedantic matter of the favourite school- books was enough to foster the taste for literature ; it had the seeds of literature in it. The darkest ages, with all their negligence, kept alive the life of the ancient world. What is more, their elementary text-books gave a character to the literature of Europe that it never lost. Their work was poor and low compared with what followed it, but it was never undone. They preserve out of classical times the things that were best available for the largest number of scholars, for the multitude of preachers. The learning is popular, not difficult or recondite, except perhaps in such displays as the ornamental rhetoric of Martianus Capella. Generally the text-books of the Dark Ages make things easy, and simplify the results of ancient learning for simple audiences. There were many temptations to be oversubtle, whether in orthodoxy or heresy, and some praise must be allowed to the educational writers who were content to explain the elements. The paradox of the Dark Ages is that this period, which at first seems to be so distinctly marked as a gap and interval between the ancient and modern worlds, is in its educational work and general culture both ancient and modern. Most of the intellectual things on which it set most store are derived, on the one hand, from ancient Greece, and on the other are found surviving as respectable commonplaces, scarcely damaged, in the Augustan Ages of Louis XIV. and Queen Anne. Great part of the educational furniture of the Middle Ages, the favourite views, opinions, and classifications, may be found already in the Republic of Plato. The four Cardinal Virtues of popular doctrine in the Middle Ages, familiar in preaching and allegory, are according to the division and arrangement adopted by Plato. The persons of Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice” represent a very old tradition. It might be fanciful to derive the three Estates—oratores, bellatores, laboratores—from the Republic, though nowhere in history are the functions of the three Platonic orders of the Sages, the Warriors, and the Commons more clearly understood than in the mediaeval theory of the Estates as it is expounded, for example, in the book of Piers Plowman. There is, however, no doubt about the origin of the mediaeval classification of the Liberal Arts. The Quadrivium is drawn out in the Republic in the description of the studies of Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music, though Plato does not allow the mediaeval classification of Dialectic as a Trivial Art along with Grammar and Rhetoric. Furthermore, the vision of Er the Pamphylian is ancestor, through Cicero's Dream of Scipio, to the mediaeval records of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; the mediaeval reverence for the heavenly spheres and their intelligences and their song is anticipated in the same passage, as again in the Somnium Scipionis. It is in allegory that mediaeval literature sometimes appears to be most distinguished and to differ most from the clear humanities of classical art. It is not wonderful that many English students of history find their notion of the Renaissance summed up conveniently and pictorially in a contrast between the drowsy allegorical Rose-garden of Chaucer's youthful worship and the wakefulness of his Canterbury prologue. There, in the Romaunt of the Rose, are the Middle Ages and their fantasies and dreams; here, in the Kentish April, is daylight, clearness, the old humanities restored without superstition. So also the beginning of the Reformation is often illustrated, as it was by the Reformers themselves, with a contrast between the absurd allegorical commentaries of the old school and the rational single-minded interpretation of the text. But while all this may be convenient and satisfactory, and while it may be admitted that the allegorical methods are in a special sense the property of the Middle Ages, there is also something else to be said before the Gothic period is closed, and the allegorical spirit dismissed to its shadowy dwelling-place. Mediaeval allegory is derived from a very luxuriant stock in classical literature. As a mode of imagination, making pictures and stories, it is almost wholly drawn from classical precedents as old as Homer. Rumour painted full of tongues, in the Æneid, is responsible for many things in mediaeval literature—a figure whose portentous and prodigious attributes might have strained the most courageous “Gothic" artist to depict. As a mode of interpretation, to get hidden values out of documents that mean something different on the face of them, Allegory is equally the product of classical times. The mediaeval expositors applied it largely and freely to
* See, e.g., the English thirteenth-century allegory of Sawles Warde, translated from a Latin original of the school of St Victor.