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Bacon's maxim, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” yet, in our hasty examining, have we rightly discriminated as to the books we should taste, and those we should digest ?
Responsibility and privilege are so linked together that none can be guiltless in separating them. If we have more ample means of knowledge than our ancestors, woe be to us if we have not also, as the result, more earnestness and more wisdom!
The words “ transition age” have passed into a current and popular phrase, often liable, from its very convenience, to be misapplied. We use the term frequently to describe changes of outward manifestation, rather than changes in the characteristics of a period. The fourteenth century may be pre-eminently called a transition age, because its changes have a distinctive character, as marking the transition from the primitive to the modern state of Europe. It was not the actions but the thoughts of that time that were memorable. There was strife, and struggle, and clamour every where, without effecting much immediately for man.
Meanwhile a few illustrious thinkers were arising in the South of Europe, and lightening the darkness that had so long spread over the nations.
The important facts of the preceding ages of the Christian era may be comprised in a rapid summary: The decline of the Roman power in the fifth century; the incursions, conquests, and final establishment of independent states by peoples of North and Central Europe, who had been called by one contemptuous phrase, “Barbarians,” by the polished and luxurious Romans; the establishment of a Christian Church, not, as in the earlier ages, as a spiritual principle of union to be individually received by faith, but as a political institution of supreme authority; the feudal system; the institution of chivalry; and, lastly, the crusades. Of these, M. Guizot says with equal brevity and force, “ They were the first European event.
Before the crusades the different countries of Europe had never been simultaneously moved by the same cause, actuated by the same sentiment. Europe as a whole did not exist. The crusades animated all Christian Europe. France supplied the greater portion of the first crusading army; but Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and English, were also found in its ranks. In the second and third crusades the whole of Christendom was engaged. Nothing like it had ever been seen before.
“ This was not all: — Although the crusades were an European event, they were also a national event in each separate country; all classes were animated by the same impression, yielded to the same idea, and abandoned themselves to the same influence. Kings, nobles, priests, citizens, and
the rural population, all took the same part, the same interest, in the crusades. The moral unity of nations was exhibited, a fact as new as that of European unity.”
Each of these facts left its impress on the national mind, and influenced our early literature, whose course we may trace—first, from rude oral metrical compositions of warlike tribes — odes, battle songs, wild and fabulous traditions, — to the written literature of the cloister, treatises, homilies, expositions, doctrinal controversies, legends of martyrs, lives of saints, traditions of miracles — the true and the false, the valuable and the worthless strangely mingled. The wisdom and the reasoning contained in the earlier writings of the Fathers were intended evidently for the learned and the initiated, while the spiritual and mental influence gained over the many was through the passion of fear and the natural appetite for the wonderful. Hence the power and the popularity of wild and degrading superstitions.
The feudal institution, by its injustice and oppression, gave rise to chivalry as its professed antagonist; though it may be questioned whether it was not its ally, even while uttering liberal promises of redress of grievances, protection of the weak, and a particular deference to woman. If most of this was mere profession, yet external manners were improved; politeness became a principle; and poetry of a tender and complimentary kind began to be uttered in the lays of the troubadours: the mental influence of woman as a judge of such poetry was conceded a far higher tribute this than that which poets had, time immemorial, paid to her mere external beauty as an inspirer of their muse.
Then the crusades, by bringing the natives of various countries into association, must have enlarged the sympathies and increased the knowledge of all. And the Eastern land they visited, besides giving that kind of local corroboration to Christian belief which is so influential with the general mind, supplied also a store of the graceful and
gorgeous fancies of oriental literature, to be transplanted from the East to the West. Hence came the stories of enchantment and of genii that operated as a pleasing variation of the gloomier superstitions of witchcraft and demonology.
Meanwhile in our own land during these times we had had an historian, a statesman, and a conqueror, each of whom had left traces on the language, the literature, the land, and the manners of the nation. The Venerable Bede had given an ecclesiastical history that not only chronicled the darkest period of the past, but was likely in better times to found a taste for historical inquiry. The great Alfred introduced, or at all events more regularly systematised law,