Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

lustre! The low cells, the long and narrow aisles, the gloomy arches, the damp and secret caverns which wind beneath the hollow ground, far from impressing on the mind the idea of the God of truth and love, seem only fit for those dark places of the earth in which are the habitations of cruelty. These massy stones and scattered reliques of the vast edifice, like the large bones and gigantic armour of a once formidable ruffian, produce emotions of mingled dread and exultation, Farewel, ye once venerated seats ! enough of you remains, and may it always remain, to remind us from what we have escaped, and make posterity for ever thankful for this fairer age of liberty and light.

Such were for a while my meditations; but it is cruel to insult a fallen enemy, and I gradually fell into a different train of thought. I began to consider whether something might not be advanced in favour of these institutions during the barbarous ages in which they flourished; and though they have been productive of much mischief and superstition, whether they might not have spread the glimmering of a feeble ray of knowledge through that thick night which once involved the western hemisphere.

And where, indeed, could the precious remains of classical learning, and the divine monuments of ancient taste, have been safely lodged amidst

the ravages of that age of ferocity and rapine which succeeded the desolation of the Roman empire, except in sanctuaries like these, consecrated by the superstition of the times beyond their intrinsic merit? The frequency of wars, and the licentious cruelty with which they were conducted, left neither the hamlet of the peasant nor the castle of the baron free from depredation; but the church and monastery generally remained inviolate. There Homer and Aristotle were obliged to shroud their heads from the rage of Gothic ignorance; and there the sacred recor s of divine truth were preserved, like treasure hid in the earth in troublesome times, safe, but unenjoyed. Some of the barbarous nations were converted before their conquests, and most of them soon after their settlement in the countries they over-ran.

Those buildings which their new faith taught them to venerate, afforded a shelter for those valuable manuscripts, which must otherwise have been destroyed in the common wreck. At the revival of learning, they were produced from their dormitories. A copy of the pandects of Justinian, that valuable remain of Roman law, which first gave to Europe the idea of a more perfect jurisprudence, and gave men a relish for a new and important study, was discovered in a monastery of Amalphi. Most of the classics were recovered by the same means; and to this it is owing, to

198

the books and learning preserved in these repositories, that we were not obliged to begin anew, and trace every art by slow and uncertain steps from its first origin. Science, already full-grown and vigorous, awaked as from a trance, shook her pinions, and soon soared to the heights of knowledge.

Nor was she entirely idle during her recess ; at least we cannot but confess that what little learning remained in the world was amongst the priests and religious orders. Books, before the invention of paper, and the art of printing, were so dear, that few private persons possessed any. The only libraries were in convents; and the monks were often employed in transcribing manuscripts, which was a very tedious, and at that time a very necessary task. It was frequently enjoined as a penance for some slight offence, or given as an exercise to the younger part of the community. The monks were obliged by their rules to spend some stated hours every day in reading and study; nor was any one to be chosen abbot without a competent share of learning. They were the only historians; and though their accounts be interwoven with many a legendary tale, and darkened by much superstition, still they are better than no histories at all; and we cannot but think ourselves obliged to them for transmitting to us, in any dress, the annals of their country.

They were likewise almost the sole instructors of youth. Towards the end of the tenth century, there were no schools in Europe but the monasteries, and those which belonged to episcopal residences; nor any masters but the Benedictines. It is true, their course of education extended no further than what they called the seven liberal arts, and these were taught in a very dry and uninteresting manner. But this was the genius of the age,

and it should not be imputed to them as a reproach that they did not teach. well, when no one taught better. We are guilty of great unfairness when we compare the school-men with the philosophers of a more enlightened age: we should contrast them with those of their own times; with a high-constable of France who could not read; with kings who made the sign of the cross in confirmation of their charters, because they could not write their names ; with a whole people without the least glimmering of taste or literature. Whatever was their real knowledge, there was a much greater difference between men of learning, and the bulk of the nation at that time, than there is at present; and certainly, some of the disciples of those schools who, though now fallen into disrepute, were revered in their day by the names of the subtle, or the angelic doctors, showed an acuteness and strength of genius, which, if properly directed, would have gone far in philosophy;

and they only failed because their inquiries were not the objects of the human powers. Had they exercised half that acuteness on facts and experiments, they had been truly great men. However, there were not wanting some, even in the darkest ages, whose names will be always remembered with pleasure by the lovers of science. Alcuin, the preceptor of Charlemagne, the first who introduced a taste for polite literature into France, and the chief instrument that prince made use of in his noble endeavours for the encouragement of learning; to whom the universities of Soissons, Tours and Paris owe their origin : the historians, Matthew Paris and William of Malmsbury; the elegant and unfortunate Abelard ; and, to crown the rest, the English Franciscan, Roger Bacon. <. It may be here observed, that forbidding the vulgar tongue in the offices of devotion, and in reading the Scriptures, though undoubtedly a great corruption in the Christian church, was of infinite service to the interests of learning. When the ecclesiastics had locked up their religion in a foreign tongue, they would take care not to lose the key. This gave an importance to the learned languages; and every scholar could not only read,

, but wrote and disputed in Latin, which without such a motive would probably have been no more studied than the Chinese. And at a time when the modern languages of Europe were yet un

« AnteriorContinuar »