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The range and difficulty of the task essayed in the following pages render explanation unavoidable. The writer entered on the undertaking, not only with much trepidation, but with some amount of misapprehension. When at last the real nature of the enterprise dawned upon him, he was already too deeply committed to withdraw from it. He determined therefore to do his best, consoling himself with the thought that the work was worth accomplishing, were the workman unworthy. It is evident that a book of this sort must depend, in a larger measure than is entirely agreeable, on compilation. The only alternative is to ignore the claims of whole literatures with which one possesses no large first-hand acquaintance. To be precise, the writer, though he once knew a little Swedish, is exceedingly backward in Icelandic, whilst his Welsh is even more elementary, being almost non-existent. It is hardly necessary perhaps to inflict on the reader an exact statement of literary and linguistic limitations in respect of other European tongues. Enough that these limitations are felt and confessed; but they do not affect, in any serious degree, the vitals of the work.
From an author's point of view, the making of such a book, though it has its advantages, especially in deepening his insight into the various subject-matters, has also its disadvantages. If personal reputation were the object at stake, then he must needs lament the mingling of results attained by his own thought and industry with those accepted on authority, though he recognises, with all sensible judges, that only in that way can a work of this kind be satisfactorily carried through. If there be a danger of the author receiving more credit than his due, there is also a danger of his receiving considerably less. Neither event, however, is of much public importance, if the object of the series be overtaken, or, at any rate, approached, in the broadening of literary study, in the breaking down of artificial barriers of race, and language, and country.
Long before he contemplated the possibility of such an honour as that which has now fallen to his lot, the writer had studied practically on the lines now suggested for imitation. On the right-hand side of the fireplace in the library of Balliol there was, and may still be, a set of Italian classics, for inopportune attention to which he was reproved by the illustrious scholar who then presided over the fortunes of the college. The reproof was strictly conditional. That sagacious and kind-hearted man would, I am confident, have been foremost in sympathising with the attempt here made to deal with literature, not indeed "scientifically," but still as an organism, as a whole in relation to its parts. Pursued by isolated readers, the study of European Literature too often becomes irregular—wanting in cohesiveness and wanting in aim. Apart from the guidance of a series like the present, a way to avoid a fatiguing and demoralising discursiveness is to take some great writer—Dante or Shakespeare—and then to work outwards, studying other writings and literatures in relation to the central subject. But, if this be done, it will still be desirable to gain, as it were, a "bird's-eye view" of the intellectual conditions of the age in which the great writer flourished, even though, as will often be the case, we can trace no immediate connection between particular "stars"—say, Dante and Froissart. To learn all of Dante and nothing of Froissart would be, at best, an imperfect education.
Most of the works that I have used, and some that I have not (e.g., translations), have been mentioned either in the text or in the footnotes; but I desire especially to record the obligations under which I rest, in common with all students of mediaeval literature, to the famous publishing house of Herr Karl J. Triibner, whose services to learning, and especially to this branch of learning, are simply incalculable. If only on account of their bibliographies, I may cite his Grundrisse of Germanic and Eomance philology, to which the most eminent scholars have contributed, and which are now almost completed, as monumental additions to the scientific side of literary study. Among scholars generally no one perhaps ever covered so wide a field as Herr Karl Bartsch, from whose shadow I found it at one time not easy to emancipate myself.