Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Early Renaissance in England
THE EARLY RENAISSANCE IN ENGLAND.
It is sometimes worth while, even for a lecturer, to look at the rock whence he was hewn, and to content himself with explaining why he exists. This is the humble purpose which I have set before myself. Other lecturers, in their yearly courses, have celebrated the advance of science, or have unfolded the development of thought. I would ask you to go back with me and consider some of the causes which made this progress possible, some of the labours of forgotten men by whose goodwill and zeal our intellectual heritage has been slowly built up. When Sir Robert Rede founded this lectureship in 1518 he did so because he wished to enrich the University with opportunities which it had not possessed before. He wished to broaden its studies by favouring that New Learning which was changing men's views about the world and life. My object this morning is to discover the motives which probably weighed with him and explain the meaning of what he did.
The Renaissance is a familiar theme; and its history in Italy has been elaborately studied of late years. Perhaps so much has been written about it that its main features have been somewhat obscured. Italy was the home of the Renaissance movement, and attention has been chiefly given to the most exaggerated forms which it there assumed, while its simpler, I might almost say its normal, development, has been somewhat overlooked. Let me try and put before you in its simplest form the chief object of that intellectual movement which we have agreed to call the Renaissance.
The great formative power of ancient life was the culture derived from Hellas. Culture after all means an attitude towards life, and the attitude expressed by Hellenic thought was one of clear outlook upon the world, frank acceptance of things as they were, and resoluteness in clothing them with beautiful form. These qualities of the Hellenic mind were to some degree impressed upon the sterner and more practical mind of Rome, which gave them wide dominion. But Rome, with all its capacity for action, lacked the faculty of preserving by perpetual readjustments the spiritual conceptions on which natural life must ultimately be based. Each step in Rome's expansion left it poorer in actual contents, till it fell through sheer exhaustion. In the downfall of material civilisation, in the miseries of barbarian invasions, the new power of Christianity alone survived and was strong enough to build up again the life of man upon an enduring basis; but the task was enormous, the struggle was arduous, and amid the general wreckage only such elements of the old civilisation survived as had been absorbed by Christianity. This revived society bore manifold traces of the conflict which had been necessary to train and discipline the conscience to an abiding sense of duty. But as society became more settled, as material civilisation was again recovered, as men had more leisure, and life grew richer, the need was felt for fuller recognition of the primary and immediate objects of that life—of the thoughts and fancies and passions of which each man was directly conscious in his individual experience. There had been such an expression once; it must be recovered. Italy, as the most ancient nation, felt most keenly the need of regaining its forgotten treasures. The Renaissance was the movement for this purpose.
At first the movement was unconscious, and it is difficult to fix upon a time which made it definite. But it seems to me that the important crisis in the fortunes of any movement is that which impresses its aim upon the imagination of the multitude. Such an impression was made by one who is not much recognised in this connexion, by Francis of Assisi. The unconscious purpose of his life was to find peace for himself by freedom from all common ties and conventions, so that he might live unfettered and unhindered in joyous communion with God and man. All the world was his, because he called nothing his own: all men were his brothers; the delights of outward nature, the companionship of birds and beasts, were his to the full, for God bestowed them upon him. His life was a poem which told of the joys of liberty, of earth's loveliness, of the delight of human intercourse founded on pure love. Francis announced, in a way that could not be forgotten, that it was possible to have a clear outlook on the world, to see in things as they were a promise of what they should be and to clothe them with beauty. I admit that his message was delivered fantastically, that its method was impossible for ordinary men, but it was a message none the less. Its spirit was not forgotten. It created the great theologians of the succeeding age: it lies at the bottom of all that is loftiest in Dante: it inspired the art of Giotto. It went far to make all these men possible, because it prepared men's minds to understand their object, and sympathise with their efforts to set forth the unity yet variety of life. Be this as it may, there was ever after the time of Francis a constant endeavour to grasp human character with all its powers and capacities; and the scientific means towards this end was the study of classical literature. Italy gave itself to this object, and its separate states vied with one another in their zeal. Plato lamented that in his days the study of geometry was neglected because no state held it in sufficient repute. The Italian city communities were convinced that the pursuit of classical culture was an object of political importance. Scholars were esteemed as public benefactors; they enjoyed exceptional advantages; they were freely supplied with leisure for their studies; their lectures were crowded. It was as disgraceful for a man of position not to be a patron of scholarship, as it would be nowadays if he refused to subscribe to the local hospital; every one was bound to be interested in literature, and show his good taste by some addition to the beauty and enjoyment of the common life.
The band of scholars which was thus produced was divided into two great parties, a division which seems to be inevitable in all that man attempts. The object of their efforts was to explain and set forward the individual. How was this to be done? by taking the existing individual and developing its powers; or by the creation of a new form of character, emancipated from existing shackles, and frankly formed upon the antique model? This was the question which divided the Humanists. Both parties were agreed about the paramount importance of classical studies, both were opposed to the old-fashioned modes of thought and means of education. But one party wished to expand, the other to subvert; one party was Christian and progressive; the other was revolutionary and pagan.
It was only in Italy that this pagan party found strong support, and expressed itself with freedom. All movements tend to be judged by their extreme representatives. Much that has been written about the Renaissance in Italy treats its most extravagant exponents as typical of all, and does not adequately distinguish. But when we attempt to consider the influence of the Renaissance outside Italy, as I am trying to do, we must clearly differentiate three classes of students. First of all, there were the men of the old school, who were assiduous students of classical literature, but used it as a help to their own pursuits. Secondly, there were the Humanists, who wished to extend the old studies, and improve the old methods of education, and take a freer outlook over the world. Thirdly, there were the poets and rhetoricians, who cared nothing for the contents of life, but taking themselves as they were, strove only after beautiful expression, and gloried in a freedom from prejudice which they would have all men follow.
It is a matter of some interest to see how England was affected by this movement. The first class of scholars was, I think, strongly represented, and English writers early show the influence of considerable reading of the classics. For instance, the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, who died in the middle of the twelfth century, tells us that his object in writing was "barbarice exarata Romano condire sale," to season with classical flavour the barbarous chronicles of his predecessors. The object and phrase in which it was expressed are alike worthy of a Florentine of the best period. I have come across one testimony to a knowledge of classics in England in early times which is so remarkable, and so difficult of explanation, that I think it worth mentioning even at the risk of seeming pedantic. Æneas Sylvius, who certainly knew MSS., says that in the Library of St Paul's in London he found an ancient history, written, according to its colophon, six hundred years before, that is, roughly speaking, about 800 to 850 A.D. "The writer of this history," he goes on, "was noted as the Greek Thucydides, whom we know by report to have been famous: I found, however, no translator's name." England was indeed far in advance of the rest of Europe if at that early date it possessed a student capable of translating Thucydides. However this may be, England produced in the fourteenth century one of the earliest collectors of books. Richard of Bury, Bishop of Durham, was a type of the omnivorous student: even on his journeys he carried a library with him and sat surrounded by piles of books so that it was difficult to approach him. He left his large library to Durham College, Oxford; both college and library have passed away, but the treatise which he wrote on the care of books and the proper ordering of a library still remains and gladdens the hearts of librarians. Moreover, Richard visited Italy and was a correspondent of Petrarch. Yet we cannot class him as a Humanist. His conduct towards Petrarch shows a lamentable want of interest in the problems which exercised the men of the New Learning. Petrarch meeting an inhabitant of the distant north inquired eagerly his opinion about the identification of the island of Thule. Richard answered that when he had returned home he would consult his books, and would then be able to satisfy his inquirer's curiosity. This we now know to be the proper answer for a professor to give, but wholly unsuited to a university extension lecturer and still more to a man of letters. Further, though Petrarch frequently wrote to remind Richard of his promise, he received no answer: "so that," he sadly remarks, "my English friendship brought me no nearer to Thule". It may be urged that Richard knew nothing about the subject on which his opinion was asked; but the duty of a scholar was to disguise his ignorance by drawing attention to the beautiful style in which he could clothe it with irrelevant remarks about everything else. Certainly a man who lost an opportunity of writing a long and elegant Latin letter to Petrarch, even though he had nothing to say, has no claim to be considered a Humanist.
Indeed this story shows that England, even at that time, exercised great caution in receiving foreign influences. Englishmen, when abroad, were doubtless as sympathetic as their proverbial stiffness enabled them to be; but when they returned home external impressions rapidly passed away and insular stolidity again possessed them. This is seen in the case of Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who visited Constance during the Council in 1417. He posed so successfully as a man of letters that the great Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini trusted to his vague promises and came to England hoping to enjoy the benefits of his patronage. But Poggio's sojourn was one continued disappointment. Such of the monastic libraries as he searched contained no classical MSS. The English nobles lived in the country, occupied in agricultural pursuits, and were wool merchants instead of patrons of letters. Their chief enjoyment was eating, and they cared more about the quality of the food than the refinement of the repast. Poggio found no sympathetic souls, and after waiting for eighteen months to see what the Bishop of Winchester would do for him, the mountain produced a mouse. He was offered a small benefice, miserably below his expectations. He was so disappointed that he did not choose to allude much afterwards to his English experiences, and we are deprived of an interesting record of our illiterate forefathers.
But better days were at hand; and it is strange that no rumour reached the ears of Poggio of the literary taste shown by Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, who provided what England had not hitherto enjoyed, a distinguished and wealthy patron for scholars. Where Humphrey acquired his fondness for letters it is hard to say. He was educated at Oxford, and in his lifetime enriched the University with so many valuable books that he may be regarded as the founder of the Bodleian Library. We know, however, of no teacher in Oxford who can have turned his mind towards the New Learning; and his busy and adventurous life seems averse from literary pursuits. Yet Humphrey is the nearest approach in England to an Italian prince, and he was recognised as a congenial soul by Italian scholars. He set himself to bring Italian influences into England, and he succeeded in turning the attention of some towards the acquisition of a polished style.
In this he was helped by the fact that the Council of Basel drew many Englishmen abroad, and brought them into personal contact with Italian scholars. One of these Italians especially, Æneas Sylvius Piccolomini, had a happy geniality of manner, and a power of exhibiting the practical value of that versatility of character which is the result of culture.
Æneas had his way to make in the world, and early learned to turn his hand to anything that needed doing. He was a keen observer, a man of ready sympathy, an excellent exponent of the substantial value of a good education to enable you to find plausible reasons for what it is expedient for you to do. Amongst others whom he trained in the art as well as the science of scholarship was an Englishman, Adam de Molyneux, who died in 1450 as Bishop of Chichester and Keeper of the Privy Seal. I do not know that the temper of New Learning, or the hopes of its followers in England, can be better expressed than in a somewhat patronising letter which Æneas wrote to his English disciple:—
"I read your letter with eagerness, and wondered that Latin style had penetrated even into Britain. It is true that there have been amongst the English some who have cultivated the eloquence of Cicero, amongst whom common consent would place the Venerable Bede. Peter of Blois was far inferior, and I prefer your letter to any of his. For this advance all gratitude is due to the illustrious Duke of Gloucester, who zealously received polite learning into your kingdom. I hear that he cultivates poets, and venerates orators; hence many Englishmen now turn out really eloquent. For as are the princes so are the people; and servants progress through imitating their masters. Persevere therefore, friend Adam. Hold fast and increase the eloquence you possess: consider it the most honourable thing possible to excel your fellows in that in which men excel other living creatures. Great is eloquence; nothing so much rules the world. Political action is the result of persuasion; his opinion prevails with the people who best knows how to persuade them."
Let me remark in passing that these words were written in 1444. They may make us doubt if the growth of democracy has done as much as we commonly think to develop the methods of politics.
I will not weary you by any account of the Italian scholars whom Duke Humphrey patronised. It is enough to say that he did everything which befitted a literary prince. He has the merit of causing Latin translations to be made of two such works as the Politics of Aristotle and the Republic of Plato. Besides translations he encouraged the writing of such treatises as the age enjoyed, discussions of questions of no particular meaning for the sake of gathering round them a certain amount of recondite knowledge, of exercising dialectical skill and exhibiting the beauty of a classical style. The subjects resemble those which virtuous schoolboys might presumably choose if they were left to select topics for essays—e.g., the difference between virtues and vices: or, a comparison of the life of a student and that of a warrior. Besides receiving such compositions from others, Humphrey was himself a letter-writer, and sent presents of books to other princes, with appropriate remarks on the fitness of the work for the character of its recipient. Further, he welcomed in England an unknown Italian, who took the high-sounding name of Titus Livius, and constituted himself the biographer of Henry V. Nor did Humphrey neglect English writers; he befriended Pecock, Capgrave and Lydgate. I do not see that he omitted anything which became one who formed himself on the best Italian model.
In this endeavour he was followed by a nobleman who went to Italy and there studied to perfect himself in his part, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester. Tiptoft attended lectures at Venice, Padua, Florence and Rome. He rambled alone through the streets of these cities, going where chance led him, and drinking in the inherent charm of Italy. He addressed Æneas Sylvius, who had become Pope Pius II., in a speech of such exquisite Latinity that it brought tears into the eyes of that too susceptible pontiff. He was a good customer to the great Florentine bookseller, Vespasiano di Bisticci, who has placed him as the only Englishman among the great scholars of the time whose lives he wrote.
But Tiptoft learned more from Italy than Englishmen approved of. Into the unscrupulous politics of the dark days of Henry VI. he introduced an Italian carelessness of human life. The people hated him for his cruelty, and called him "the butcher of England". His Italian biographer tells us that, when he was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1470, the mob cried out that he deserved to die because he had brought to England the laws of Padua. I think that this is an undue charge against English insularity, great as it was; and that the mob cried out against his use of the treacherous methods of Italian politics. Anyhow Tiptoft is a conspicuous example of that truth, so often taught and so constantly disregarded, that when a scholar takes to politics his scholarship does not save him from occasionally losing his head.
The troubled times of the Wars of the Roses dashed the prospects of court patronage; but the tradition still remained. Even so staid a king as Henry VII. had a court poet and historian, Bernard André, a native of Toulouse. André's poetry is irrepressible. We wish he had told us more facts and sung us fewer Sapphic odes, which are at best an imperfect medium for conveying accurate information. Moreover, Henry curiously favoured some Italians who came to England in the unpopular capacity of collectors of the papal dues. One of them, Giovanni dei Gigli, did his best to throw some romance over Henry's prosaic marriage by a fervent epithalamium, which gave England some excellent political advice. For this and other services he was made Bishop of Worcester, in which office he was succeeded by his nephew, and afterwards by another Italian, Gerolamo Ghinucci. The practical sense of English kings combined patronage of Humanism with requirements of diplomatic service, and paid for both out of the revenues of the Church. Yet these men were useful in their way as means of literary communication with Italy. Ghinucci engineered at Rome Wolsey's plan for founding Cardinal College out of monastic revenues, and was employed to seek for books and order transcripts of Greek MSS. He even sent Wolsey catalogues of the Libraries of the Vatican and of Venice, that he might select such books as should be most useful for the library of his college. Another Italian, Polidore Vergil of Urbino, was not so fortunate in winning Wolsey's favour; but he avenged himself by writing a history of England in which Wolsey was steadily depreciated. Its graceful Latinity made it for a long time the current history of England on the Continent, while England refused to believe that a foreigner could really understand its affairs. In yet another quarter Italian influences directly operated on England. It was long before natives could write Latin letters with freedom; and Henry VIII.'s Latin secretary, Andrea Ammonio of Lucca, was a close friend and a kindly instructor of the eminent English scholars of his time.
I have said enough about the foreign side of the Renaissance in England. English learning was not affected by courtly patronage, nor was it much influenced by the presence of foreign scholars. The pursuit of style had little attraction for Englishmen, nor did those who strove after it acquire any great facility. Very few, if indeed any, seem to have learned from the Italian scholars who were brought to grace courtly society. Such Englishmen as wished to learn went for that purpose to Italy, where they prepared themselves to vie with the Italians on their own ground. In the middle of the fifteenth century we find a small body of Oxford men who responded to the impulse given by the Duke of Gloucester, and wandered to Italy to seek there that instruction which England could not give. These self-selected Humanists have scarcely been appreciated as they deserve, and I would venture to trace the outlines of their careers. I think the first to set the example was William Grey, of the family of Lord Grey of Codnor, who, after learning what he could at Balliol College, went to Cologne, which was in advance of England in logic, philosophy and theology. But Grey had a desire for classical culture, which Cologne could not supply, and resolved to seek it in Italy. Being a man of wealth, he lived with some state; and the burghers of Cologne found him so profitable a resident, that they were unwilling to let him go. To escape from their embarrassing hospitality he had to feign a serious illness, and then flee by night with his complaisant physician, both disguised as Irish pilgrims. He went to Florence, where he ordered a library of books: thence to Padua, and finally to the great Italian teacher, Guarino, who was then lecturing at Ferrara. He was made by Henry VI his representative at the papal Court; and the great literary Pope, Nicholas V., so admired his learning that he nominated him Bishop of Ely in 1454. It is to be feared that Bishop Grey's scholarly tastes found no response in the university of his diocese. At all events he passed by Cambridge, and set his hopes of a classical revival on his old college at Oxford, to which he gave a large sum for the purpose of building a library, which was to hold the literary treasures acquired in Italy. His collection amounted to 200 MSS., many of which still remain.
It would seem that Grey had made friends at Balliol of men like-minded with himself, who listened to his enthusiastic reports of the excellence of Guarino's teaching, and set out to join their comrade at Ferrara. The first of these was John Free, a poor student whose expenses were probably paid by Grey. Free, besides Latin and Greek, learned botany and also medicine, which he both taught and practised at Padua and Florence. He was, however, above all things a scholar, made several translations from the Greek, and wrote a cosmography. He went to Rome, where Pope Paul II. testified to his merits by appointing him Bishop of Bath in 1465, but he died before consecration.
Free, in his turn, invited to Italy another Balliol friend, John Gunthorp, who as soon as he had learned to make Latin speeches returned to England, was employed by the King for the purpose of going on complimentary embassies, which the decorum of the fifteenth century rigorously demanded, and finally was made Dean of Wells. There he built the deanery house, much of which still remains, bearing clear traces of the influence exercised by Italian architecture on the new houses which were beginning to replace the castle. Gunthorp has some interest for us, for he was for a time Warden of King's Hall (which was absorbed into Trinity College), and bequeathed some of his MSS. to Jesus College, which was founded a year before his death. He obviously had greater hopes of Cambridge than had his friend Grey.
There is yet another who belonged to this curious band, Robert Fleming, who stayed at home till he was appointed Dean of Lincoln, and then joined his friends at Ferrara. Thence he went to Rome, and was in time appointed English representative at the papal Court. He had a country house at Tivoli, where he composed a long Latin poem in honour of Pope Sixtus IV., to which he gave the title Lucubrationes Tiburtinæ to mark, I suppose, that it was the work of a busy man in villeggiatura.
I have wearied you with these details. But they were necessary to prove my conclusion. There was no real interest in scholarship in England. Patronage could not create it, nor could foreign example plant it and make it grow. The only result of the attempt was to kindle interest in a chosen few, who went to Italy in search of a career, and when they returned to occupy eminent posts at home felt that they had left their literary life behind them. All that they could do was to provide books and leave them where others in happier times might read them. England was exceptionally callous to the attractions of culture, as such.
These men were Latinists, stylists, engaged with form rather than content, opening out no new intellectual horizon. It was not till the value of Greek thought became in some degree manifest that the New Learning awakened any enthusiasm in England. An increase of knowledge was worth working for, not a development of style. Englishmen were little moved by purely æsthetic perceptions. They were willing to accept what was proved to be useful, or true; they were not much affected by what was only beautiful. English society in the fifteenth century was engaged in developing trade, and its tone was eminently practical. The nobles who followed the Italian model in developing their individuality were not appreciated and ended ill. The New Learning, if it was to take root in England, must come into definite connexion with English life and temper.
It was another band of Oxford men who gave it this form, and so secured for it an abiding home. The first Englishman who studied Greek was William Selling, of All Souls College, afterwards Prior of Christ Church, Canterbury. In the monastery school he breathed his own enthusiasm into one of his pupils, Thomas Linacre, who with two friends, William Grocyn and Thomas Latimer, went to Italy for the special purpose of learning Greek. These men differed from their predecessors in that they were not wandering scholars, but were academic to the core. When they had learned what they wanted, they returned to Oxford and taught. Moreover, they applied their learning to practice. Latimer and Grocyn were theologians; Linacre was the most eminent physician of his day. Grocyn showed what a knowledge of Greek could do for theology by proving that the treatise on "The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy," attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, could not have been written by him. This was the introduction of criticism into England. Linacre revived classical medicine by his translation of Galen, and so prepared the way for its more scientific study. He left a considerable estate for the foundation of three lectureships in medicine, two at Oxford and one at Cambridge.
This brings me to a point which is of importance. As soon as it was seen that the New Learning had a vivifying influence on thought, an attempt was made to provide for it in the Universities. Doubtless this was largely due to the academic patriotism shown by Linacre and Grocyn. Their predecessors tried to leaven English life directly; they trusted to high position, to patronage, to their personal reputation, to their practical success. They entirely failed to produce any effect. England was slow to move, and was not to be fascinated by brilliancy. Culture did not radiate from the royal court or from the efforts of stray bishops. Englishmen in a dim way seemed to agree that the Universities were the organs of national life for the purpose of promoting learning. In fact I think that nowhere does the English temper show itself more clearly than in its relation to the Universities. Two centres of intellectual life came into being, we can hardly say how: but so soon as two existed, great objection was felt to the creation of any more. They were enough for local convenience. They were enough to excite emulation and display slightly different tendencies. Attempts to add to the number were rigorously suppressed. It seems as if the notion of two parties, to keep one another in order, was an ideal of early growth, and was dimly felt in the domain of learning before it was extended to the domain of politics. Anyhow England looked coldly on the New Learning till it forced its way into the Universities and proved its practical utility. When it had thus attracted attention, had shown its power, and had declared its combativeness, it received ready help. There was a desire to give it a fair chance, and allow it to prove its mettle in the places where questions respecting learning ought naturally to be decided.
Perhaps one cause of the lethargy which certainly settled on the Universities in the fifteenth century was an uneasy feeling that the intellectual future belonged to the Humanists, who lived outside their influence, and whom they could not assimilate. The Oxford Hellenists reassured men's minds of their loyalty to their Alma Mater, and a system of University extension was begun in consequence. In this Cambridge slowly and tentatively, with an eye to strictly practical results, took the lead under the influence of John Fisher. He was backed by a powerful patron, the Lady Margaret, whose generosity he cautiously diverted into academic channels. He began on a small scale with an object of immediate usefulness, the foundation of divinity professorships at Oxford and Cambridge, which should aim at teaching pulpit eloquence. On this point the adherents of the Old and the New Learning might agree. If style was to be attended to, if rhetoric was to flourish, it might as well be applied to the great engine of popular education. The professorship at Cambridge was soon supplemented by the Lady Margaret preachership, the holder of which was to go from place to place and give a cogent example of the new style of pulpit oratory, which was ordered to be free from "cavillings about words and parade of sophistry, and was to recommend God's word to men's minds by efficacious eloquence". I need not remind you that the Lady Margaret was so well pleased with the results of her new venture that she went on to found the colleges of Christ and of St. John. Patronage had now been successfully diverted to enrich and extend the resources of the ancient seat of learning.
It must, however, be admitted that the animating motive of Fisher's endeavours was a laudable desire to raise Cambridge to the level which Oxford had already reached. The example of the early Hellenists still survived, and John Colet followed the example of his teachers, Grocyn and Linacre, in spending three years in Italy. On his return in 1496 he went to Oxford, and as a volunteer delivered a course of lectures on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, in which he abandoned the scholastic method of interpreting sentence by sentence, or word by word, and endeavoured to discover the meaning of the whole. It is most probable that the effect produced by Colet's lectures suggested to Fisher the foundation of a professorship at Cambridge, by which the new method might have a secure footing and not depend on the personal efforts of individuals. Be this as it may, the fame of Colet, Grocyn and Linacre, to whom was added an attractive youth, Thomas More, made Oxford renowned, and drew thither the eager scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who gives a charming picture of the delights of academical society. "When I listen to my friend Colet," he wrote, "I seem to be listening to Plato himself. Who does not admire in Grocyn the perfection of training? What can be more acute, more profound, or more refined than the judgment of Linacre? What has nature ever fashioned gentler, sweeter or pleasanter than the disposition of Thomas More?" Such a body of scholars, living and working together, sufficed to establish the reputation of Oxford, especially when such a man as Erasmus sang their praises to the learned world.
Fisher steadily kept before his eyes a like possibility for Cambridge, and in 1511 summoned Erasmus to teach Greek and lecture on the foundation of the Lady Margaret. I need not speak of this interesting episode in our history, as it is not long since Professor Jebb brought before you its picturesque significance. Erasmus tells how within the space of thirty years the studies of the University had progressed from the old grammar, logic and scholastic questions to some knowledge of polite letters, mathematics, the renewed study of Aristotle and the study of Greek. Cambridge has so flourished, he adds, that it can vie with the chief schools of the age.
In fact, if the revival in Cambridge was slower and less brilliant than at Oxford, it was more secure, for it rested on the cautious and careful supervision of Fisher, who had the influence of the Lady Margaret's new colleges at his back. In Oxford the departure of Linacre, Grocyn and Colet removed the spell of dominant personalities, which strangely enough has at many times lent a picturesque interest to Oxford which Cambridge can rarely claim. With their departure the glory of the New Learning departed also, as they left no equally distinguished successors. It was clear that, if Oxford had given the stimulus to new studies, Cambridge was more skilful in providing for them a permanent home. If progress was to be made, Oxford must copy the methods of Cambridge. The man who grasped this fact, and taught it to Wolsey, Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, had special means of knowing it, as he had been Chancellor of Cambridge and Master of Pembroke. In 1516 Fox founded Corpus Christi College at Oxford, avowedly in the interests of the New Learning. But here again we may notice a characteristic difference between the two Universities. Fisher had gone his way quietly, without laying down new principles in such a shape as to awaken antagonism, content with slowly breaking down barriers and finding room for the new studies by the side of the old. Fox, on the other hand, blew the trumpet of revolt, and his statutes breathe notes of defiance. His college is to be a beehive; its lecturers are gardeners who are to provide wholesome plants on which the bees may browse. They are "to root out barbarism from the garden and cast it forth, should it at any time germinate therein". When metaphors are dropped, provision is made for lecturers who are to teach Greek and Latin classical authors. This, be it noticed, is the first establishment of a teacher of Greek in England, as previous efforts had been voluntary or else temporary. Still more significant was the provision for a reader in Divinity, who is to follow the ancient doctors, both Latin and Greek, and not the schoolmen, who are pronounced to be "both in time and learning far below them". This was a bold declaration of war both in its depreciation of the schoolmen, and in its recognition of Greek theology. It led to a formidable rising of the Old Learning, whose supporters dubbed themselves Trojans, and assaulted the audacious Grecians in the streets. Fox's beehive was in a sorry plight, and its bees found it difficult to gather honey. More had to interpose with Wolsey, and Wolsey sent a royal letter commanding all students in Oxford to study Greek. It was the handful of dust necessary to restrain the buzzing of the angry insects. But Wolsey made the matter sure by proceeding with the foundation of Cardinal College.
Thus both Universities were brought into line, and the position of the New Learning was secured. It is not my purpose to carry its progress further. It was just at this time, in the year 1518, that Sir Robert Rede, who had been a Fellow of King's Hall, and died as Lord Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, bequeathed by will to the University a small sum of money for the endowment of lectures in philosophy, logic and rhetoric. His bequest was an indication of the revived interest which was felt in the Universities, and of the desire that room should be found in them for every branch of knowledge. The spirit of his intention has been observed by the institution of this annual lecture, which recognises the usefulness of an occasional divagation from the ordinary course of studies, an occasional invitation to the members of the University to ramble into fields which are not mapped out and enclosed for that careful and methodical tillage which a tripos examination necessarily entails.
The history of scholarship is generally disregarded. We commemorate our founders and benefactors without troubling ourselves about their immediate purposes and motives. It is enough for our gratitude to know that we are because they were. I fear that I may seem pedantic in having attempted the impossible task of condensing into an hour's lecture the beginnings of the New Learning in England. I did so from a sense of natural piety; and I hope that I have established some links between the present and the past. England in the past showed much the same characteristics as England of to-day. It was not to be captivated by brilliancy. It did not care for mere graces of style. It was unmoved by attractive novelties till they had showed a capacity for sending their roots below the surface, and gave promise of fruit as well as flower. Nor would England receive its learning from abroad. If there was anything worth having beyond the seas, let Englishmen go and bring it back, and adapt it to the shape in which it was fitted for home consumption. Patronage and court favour might foster an exotic culture, but in that shape it would not spread. Further, England in a dull sort of way trusted its national institutions, even when they were little worthy of trust. Learning was a matter for the Universities; if they were not doing what they ought to do, those who were interested in the matter must set them right. Questions concerning learning must be decided in the places set apart for that purpose from time immemorial. New inventions were good wherever they came from, if they were proved useful; but the goods for English consumption must be manufactured by the old established firms, and their premises must be enlarged for that purpose. Again I say, England trusted its Universities in the past. It is in consequence of that trust that I have had the privilege of addressing you to-day. I thought that I could not use the opportunity better than by recalling a fact which brings with it an abiding sense alike of dignity and of responsibility.
- The Rede Lecture, delivered in the Senate House, Cambridge, on 13th June, 1895.