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Tuis lively and elegant address was given, during last winter, in the lecture-room of the Wesleyan chapel, 4, Rue Roquépine, Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris, by M. Demogest, of the Sorbonne, associate-professor of the Faculty of Letters, and author of “ Histoire de la Littérature Française,” just published. Our thanks are due to the professor for sending us his manuscript. His remarks will be read, especially by the young, with a keen relish ; and anything that may be deemed needful to qualify the views of a learned Frenchman, when he looks from his point at the advancement of civilization, and the polity of the “Catholic” church, (which, with him, means far more than Popery,) the English student will easily supply.
MR. CHAIRMAN, LADIES, AND GENTLEMEN,--It is a commonplace topic to begin a speech by calling for the indulgence of the hearers. But such a preamble is to-day so convenient for me, that I make no doubt it will be judged the most proper part of this lecture. I need not say, (since I have already pronounced some words,) that I am a foreigner, and that it is the first time I publicly use your beautiful but very difficult language. Let us then make a common effort, I to speak something like English, you to understand something very like French disguised under English words; and thus we shall perhaps succeed in conversing together.
Nay, I do not despair of your finding some kind of pleasure in this lecture of mine. Rich people, accustomed to luxury, sometimes like to taste some homely dish. You are rich, accustomed to eloquence. I dare not allude to the religious teachings we together enjoy above stairs. They are too holy.and venerable to come within the reach of my praise. But even here, in this lower room, have you not seen the magnificent image of Jerusalem suddenly rise amidst the applause of the beholders? Have you not heard poetry itself, with all its influences and its charms? And, then, have you not seen the old kings of Egypt, the mummies of the Pharaohs, awake in their graves, and come hither, clad in their hieroglyphed shrouds, to bow down before Moses, and acknowledge the authenticity of the Book of Exodus? You are accustomed to good cheer; you shall to-day taste brown bread,
The subject I am to treat would, however, have deserved a better style. It seems to me one of the most interesting in literature. I purpose speaking of the spirit and character of that period of history which stretches between the end of the middle ages and the beginning of modern times : a very glorious and pleasant epoch, endowed with all the sweet gracefulness and all the alluring blemishes of adolescence; a truly enviable age, in spite of its sufferings, when every body seems to be young,—when even old men indulge in the happy dreams of inexperience, when mercy, with a kind profuseness, lavishes upon a whole generation that rapture which we too early learn to call illusion,
I wish to determine with you, ladies and gentlemen, the true ineaning of that appellation of revival, renaissance. What is the thing which had died during the middle ages, and began to live again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? What part must we assign to that time in the long and magnificent drama, the poet of which is God, while its hero is mankind ?
Had these questions been asked of most critics of the last century, the answer would certainly have been, that the sciences and arts of antiquity had entirely sunk into darkness, during the middle ages; that, after the fall of the Roman empire, a long barbarism of nine hundred years had overspread Europe ; until, on a sudden, at the end of the fifteenth century, Constantinople, being taken and laid waste, cast the noble wreeks of its knowledge on the shores of the western countries.
Contemporary erudition calls upon us to modify that answer. It evinees that the chain of classical learning has never been broken off. We already knew what Boccaccio and Petrarch had done, before the ruin of Byzantium, for the study of antiquity. Modern erudition points out to us, in the twelfth and eleventh centuries, some studious readers of Cicero, Quintilian, Virgil. It shows us into the learned abbeys of Fontenelles and Jumiegès. In the tenth century, it introduces to us the illustrious Gerbert, displaying in his epistles a perfect knowledge of the best Latin authors, and the feeling of their beauties. Still farther on, through the darkest times of the middle ages, it brings to light, even before Charlemagte, the laborious monasteries of England and Ireland ; whither, so early as the seventh century, a Greek of Tarsos brought Homer's poems. Thas the revival of letters seems to recede from one century to another, until at last it vanishes away on the very threshold of the palace of Romulus Augustulus.
I am sure I put much trust in erudition ; but I still more believe in the general feeling, in the constant opinion of mankind. Erudition is often too keen-sighted to see well; she perceives each of the particulars, to the prejudice of the whole. So many are the exceptions she descries, that she mistakes them for the rule. If we want to encompass the large bulk of history, let us not take a microscope, but be content with our eyes.
Now, what do our eyes teach us, when we try to cast a glance over the space that lies between the fall of the Roman empire and that of the Greek? -I first see the provinces given up to the invasion, or, if you will, to the infiltration, of the barbarians. No security anywhere. The cultivation of the arts falls away by degrees, among the calamities and anxieties of the conquest. I hear the melancholy complaints of the last writers of Gaul; who, in a barbarous language, confess their own barbarousness, and bewail the death of civilization. The generous and fruitless endeavours of Charlemagne bardly interrupt this spread of ignorance. The rude and miserable tribes feel no sympathy for that knowledge which is imposed on them by the master, and gaze unconcernedly at it, while it passes over their heaks Under his successors, the utter misery and fearful confusion that prevailed,
in the beginning of the middle ages, made all general culture of mind quite impossible. Continual wars, frequent plagues, starvation, familiar as a thing of course, had brought back the people to the cares and concerns of a savage state. In the space of twenty-three years, at the end of the second race of our [French] kings, we find in the chronicles fourteen years of extreme famines ; four of which were so frightsul, that men killed each other in order to feed on human flesh. Now, try to imagine, in such circumstances, the peaceful study of ancient literature !
Meanwhile, the feudal system is established. Somewhat of order is to be seen among the chaos. Monasteries are founded, endowed, enriched. Crusades open a new horizon to the human mind. Universities are created : the great school of Paris collects the most highly-gifted students on the straw of its halls. But is classical knowledge, is the deposit of ancient letters, restored on that account to the new generations? Please to observe, that monasteries then are asylums; the scanty literature that is sheltered there is only allowed to lurk in a corner, and to live on low diet. Studies flock together, because they cannot spread. You cite to me monasteries and universities, to prove that learning was cherished within ; I cite to you universities and monasteries, to prove that learning was suffering without. Your assertion is right, but mine is, perhaps, still more accurate. We never want shelter, when no storm is to be feared ; were there no winter, gardeners could spare hothouses.
And what shelter did the monasteries of the middle ages offer to the noble studies of antiquity? Let us fancy one of those celebrated Norman abbeys of the twelfth century ; that of Jumiegès, for instance, or that of Le Bec, still more famous. Its situation alone bespeaks that for which it was built. We find it either in a winding of the Seine, encompassed by the river as by an intrenchment, or in a solitary valley, on the bank of some unknown stream, surrounded with meadows, shades, and silence. The men-at-arms, who plunder and fire the country in their feudal wars, ransack it but seldom, and only in their most evil days. Devastation is scared away from those holy walls by protecting legends. There an asylum is provided for the young son of the serf, too weakly constitutioned to become a ploughman, clever enough to be a reading clerk, and to sing in the choir ; for the townsman, tired with the world, and unable to withstand oppression any longer; nay, sometimes for the knight himself, when he grows old, and remembers his past life with dismay. Prayer, the singing of psalms, the work of the hands, take up the greatest part of the days of our good-nutured monks; and then something must be granted to this poor body of ours. St. Benedict's role sometimes slackens, and complies with our weakness. The blessings of the earth are lavished on those who make a vow to give them up. As for studies, among such of the monks as like them, they are chiefly theological. These students hasten through grammar, that they may reach theology ; and that theology scarcely aims at anything but catechism and shrift. If ever it happens that an abbot comes to us from Italy, like Lanfranc or Anselm, those lights of the church will only flash through our
VOL. X. - FIFTH SERIES.
convent, and soon shine on some episcopal see. They may even become archbishops of Canterbury. Meanwhile, the inatter of their teachings and writings is not the profane and heathen antiquity : they fight against rising heresies,—that of Berenger, for instance, who even then denies the real presence. We have here, it is true, our “ novices,” who transcribe ancient books. The abbot looks that they do their task carefully; and, moreover, their good will is roused by great hopes : for their eternal salvation may depend on their work. It is enough that the transcribed pages exceed the number of their sins by one single letter! But paper is scarce, as yet ; parchment is dear. Instead of buying new, it is far more easy to scratch out old and useless manuscript, like Cicero's treatise “On the Commonwealth,” that we may copy in its stead some beautiful psalms with illuminated titles.
An Italian in the fourteenth century, the first of the commentators of Dante, by name Benvenuto da Imola, went one day to visit the monastery of Mount Cassiu, the cradle of the Benedictines, the model convent founded by St. Benedict. “I humbly begged,” says he, “ to visit the famous library. A monk dryly answered, 'Go up; the door is open. There was neither door nor key. The grass grew over the window-sill ; the books were sleeping on the shelves, under a thick coat of dust. I opened many ancient volumes ; not one was complete. Of some, many sheets were missing; from others several leaves had been torn out, that the monks might make use of the unwritten margins. I went down with eyes full of tears, and asked the cause of such mutilation. A monk answered, that his brethren, in order to earn two or three pence, tore and scraped some sheets, and out of them made small copy-books, to sell to boys and women!"
You see, ladies and gentlemen, what indifferent and questionable hospitality welcomed the ancient letters in the convents of the middle ages. But, perhaps, universities will be more favourable to them. To ascertain it, let us cast a glance on the most celebrated schools of that time, and inquire about the nature of their teaching.
The old school of Montpellier, already renowned in the twelfth century, applies itself to the sole art of healing, and lays no claim to polite learning. Bologna, and the other Universities of Northern Italy, give themselves up to the study of law, on which they comment in wretched Latin. Orleans follows in their steps, and remains, as late as the sixteenth century, the peculiar homestead of law in France. Oxford and Cambridge, Toulouse and Paris, aim at a higher mark; they wish to encompass the whole learting of that time. What was done at Cambridge and Oxford, it would be your part, gentlemen, to teach me. Of the school of Paris, I may, perhaps, have something to say.
This University was then in all its glory. From every country of Europe, from “the four nations,” flocked together, in spite of the fatigue and dazgers of the way, a crowd of scholars, young and boisterous citizens of the Latin commonwealth, who filled up a third of the town, and sometimes caused the Provost of Paris to pass most troublous nights. They had their
chiefs, their laws, their privileges; they had their meetings, discussions, and votes; and we are told that one day as many as ten thousand voters were summed up in behalf of a question.
Now, would you like to know what the occupation of a Parisian student was in the fourteenth century? I shall speak of his literary engagements only.
As soon as a boy could read, write, and lisp a few words of Latin, he was able to attend the lessons of the Faculty of Arts; he became an artist ;which usually happened before he was fifteen years old. Arrived at Paris, he got acquainted with the scholars of his own nation, and stuck to one of the two hundred masters who had obtained the license of teaching publicly. The lessons commenced at sunrise, as soon as the Carmelite friars of the Place Maubert were ringing for the first mass. The professor, dressed in a black gown, with his furred hood on, made his appearance upon a raised platform, which supported a chair and a desk. These were the only pieces of furniture in the room. The pupils sat down upon the ground, which sometimes was carpeted with straw. Wooden forms, that corrupting luxury of ours, endeavoured several times to worm themselves into the schools ; but long to no purpose. One of the Cardinals still proscribed them in the year 1452.
As for the teaching, there were two exercises. At first the master read Priscian's Grammar, and the treatises included in the “Organon” of Aristotle. The peculiar character of instruction in the middle ages was, not to expound science itself, but only to read, with a running commentary, the authors who had written about it. That practice was in vigour among
all Faculties; and Roger Bacon has reduced it to this formula: He who knows the text, knows whatever is in the science.
But the capital exercise was disputation, and the weapon of disputation was the meager syllogism. No written compositions; no study of any orator or poet. From the thirteenth century, we hear no longer of Virgil, Horace, Cicero. Logic has intruded everywhere, and superseded every other study. Oral discussion is the only labour of the scholars. “ They dispute during dinner,” says an eye-witness ; " they dispute after dinner ; they dispute publicly, privately, in any place, in any time. They make it a point of honour to find problems in the most unpretending matters. Upon the mere words, Scribe mihi, “Write to me, they will put questions of grammar, of dialectics, of metaphysics, and of natural philosophy. They leave to the adversary no time to explain hiniself. Should he attempt to unfold his meaning, they cry, 'Come to the point ; answer categorically.' They care not for truth; they only think of vindicating what they have advanced. They get hoarse by hard shouting; they are prodigal of rude things, insults, and threatening words. They even come to kicking, and fighting, and biting. Dispute degenerates into brawl, and brawl into battle."
What are we to infer from all those facts? Truly, that, in the middle ages, the study of ancient literature was everywhere narrow, pinched in,