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Historical Sketch of the Revival of Anglo

Saxon Learning in England.


HE deep interest which exists, at the present

day, in all that has to do with the AngloSaxon period of English life, would be evident from the extent of the published literature on this subject, even if we had nothing further to guide us.

The language, the poetry, the history, the political institutions, the forensic system, the ecclesiastical polity, the social customs, and the antiquities in general of Anglo-Saxon England have, each and all, been explored, in recent years especially, by some of the ablest scholars in Europe, with the result of placing in the hands of the student of this period invaluable help in the prosecution of his subject.

But, perhaps, the best proof of the deep interest in Anglo-Saxon studies, which is evident to-day in both England and America, is to be found in the largely increased number of our prominent seats of learning in which Anglo-Saxon now forms part of

the regular curriculum, and, as a consequence, in the greater number of educated men who can enjoy, as a recreation, the poetry of the Mead-hall and the cloister-the Beowulf and the so-called Paraphrase of Cædmon,-or who can read, in the original, for the purposes of their profession, such works as the Saxon Chronicle, Ælfric's homilies, or the AngloSaxon laws in Wilkins' digest, which, in a greater or less degree, are of a purely technical or professional character.

A brief survey of the gradual decay and final revival of Anglo-Saxon learning in England may serve to account for the widespread neglect which until very recent years, comparatively speaking, was the fate of Anglo-Saxon studies generally.

Previous to the Norman conquest, although the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics regarded Latin as the only language worthy of expressing their views on history, science and theology, yet the spoken language was the Anglo-Saxon. This was also the language of the laws and charters; and, judging from the numerous books of manuscript homilies described in monastic catalogues as Sermoncs Anglici vetusti et inutiles, it is reasonable to suppose that this class of writings was, for the most part, in the popular language of the country, as well as those poems which were intended for public recital by the scops or

minstrels. The incursions of the Danes, during the ninth and two succeeding centuries, doubtless caused the destruction of much valuable Anglo-Saxon literature. These “slayers from the North,” not able to discriminate between ecclesiastical and secular property, burned monastery and tower alike, and with the monasteries perished many a rich and noted library. These daring pirates could scarcely be expected to know or to care for the extent of the loss which they thus caused.* But this cannot be said in excuse of the Norman ecclesiastics, of whom we are about to speak. By the middle of the thirteenth century, when Anglo-Saxon had sunk into its modified form of Early English, pure Anglo-Saxon writings could no longer be understood. AngloSaxon was, to all intents and purposes, a dead language, even to those of Anglo-Saxon descent. The clerics were the only class, before the Revival of Learning, capable of mastering the literature of the past; and they were too ignorant, too indolent, or too indifferent to attempt it. Hence, it came to pass that many an old manuscript was taken down from its dusty shelf only to be cleaned off with

umice in order to make room for some, then, more interesting Latin treatise. A case of this kind, came under our own observation not many

* Vide Note A.

years ago. In the library of Jesus College, Cambridge, there is an old manuscript which now contains Latin decretals; but beneath these, and especially around the margins of some of the folios, can be traced the remains of a fine copy of Ælfric's Anglo-Saxon sermons. At other times, old AngloSaxon manuscripts have been sewed together in order to make covers for other works.

Sir T. Phillips, in some remarks prefixed to the table of “errata,” in his edition of Fragments of Ælfric's Grammar, Ælfric's Glossary, and a Poem on the Soul and Body, discovered among the Archives of Worcester Cathedral, makes the following statement : “The fragments having been found in the cover of an old book (of which they, with some other fragments, constituted the sole stiffening), had been so much smeared with a brown paste, to make them adhere together, that it required much washing to make them, in the least degree legible.” From these, and such like practices of illiterate clerics, we can form some idea of the total neglect into which Anglo-Saxon had fallen before the end of the fif. teenth century.

At the period of the Reformation, and of the dissolution of the monasteries which followed, the monastic libraries were scattered, and much that was valuable was lost past recovery. At such a

crisis, when men's minds were intent upon the allengrossing religious topics of the hour, what time could the ecclesiastics—the literary men of the time -find for such an apparently worthless study as that of Anglo-Saxon? If a man thought at all, it was upon the all-absorbing theological tenets of the day. It was not a time for the prosecution of trilling and useless studies. It was an exciting time, when every man who wrote, did so as if absolute truth were on his side, and absolute error on that of his opponent. Yet, strange as it may appear at first sight, this was the first time since the Anglo-Saxon had yielded to the Norman that the long-forgotten Anglo-Saxon writings were taken down from their dusty shelves and allowed to see the light. During this period of theological warfare the minds of men were absorbed in ransacking works on theology, philosophy, and science everything, in fact-in support of their cherished opinions. In this way it came to pass that Anglo-Saxon writings attracted attention, their authority being called in to give weight to the innovations of the reformers.

Moreover, these writings were highly valuable, inasmuch as they could boast of antiquity, a very powerful weapon, when the contest turned, to such an extent as it actually did, on ancient traditions and customs. Yet, when the occasion ceased which

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