Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Block-books




It is difficult in this age of popular literature to realise as a fact that at so comparatively recent a period in the history of man as the fourteenth century, books were so rare as to be worth their weight in silver. Those born to the enjoyment of wealth rarely reflect on the toils that were involved in its accumulation; and, while exulting in its strength, this generation, the heir of all other ages, is apt to forget how largely it is indebted to the exertions of its ancestors for its superiority, and by what slow and laborious processes of thought the useful arts, whereon its prosperity is founded, have been brought to their present perfection.

That the flickering lamp of learning was not extinguished during the ages of anarchy that succeeded the dissolution of the Roman Empire is undoubtedly due to the monastic orders; but to whom the world is indebted for the diffusion among the masses of that practical religious knowledge which was the germ of modern civilization is not so generally known or recognised.

Dwelling in a tranquil seclusion which must have strangely contrasted with the tumultuous whirl of events around, enjoying the popular reverence, material ease, and abundant leisure; and familiarised by the ritual of the Church with the tongue exclusively employed by the learned, the monks naturally became the depositaries of the scanty knowledge of a period when a score of volumes constituted an important library, and when princes, more familiar with the sword than with the pen, could often do no more than, like Hodge, the ploughman, make their mark. The attainments of the monks, though generally very limited, were sufficient to inspire them with a hearty admiration for ancient literature, foreign as its spirit was to their peculiar views and modes of thought; and they were incited by that admiration to collect, preserve, and transcribe the classical writers, some of whom they must have regarded with a vague and ignorant interest, somewhat akin to that with which a virtuoso may contemplate the stone, the mystery of whose cuneiform characters he is unqualified to solve. Though there is reason to conclude that a monkish chronicle or a saintly legend was occasionally inscribed on a parchment whence the monks had obliterated a valuable work, which their ignorance incapacitated them from appreciating, yet respectful gratitude is due to these reverend men for their services to literature.

In the accumulation of these treasures the monks acquired a sad habit of hoarding them; and, partly from reluctance to resign an intellectual pre-eminence flattering to their pride, and partly from a habit of looking on knowledge as esoteric, proper to ecclesiastics, and incommunicable except to the initiated, were very jealous of their escaping from their care and passing into general circulation. In fact, the Catholic hierarchy, showing the ignorant prejudices of the times, conceived that unrestricted knowledge was incompatible with faith and orthodoxy—though it is hard to apprehend the value of a faith without knowledge, or in what lack of faith can originate but in an imperfect knowledge—and, thus conceiving, it endeavoured to limit education and subject it to the absolute control of the Church. The perpetuation of its own authority being what the hierarchy principally aimed at in cherishing learning, it had constructed out of the precious wrecks of pagan antiquity a philosophical basis for the doctrines of the Church; and in association with this arose an abstruse dialectical system, extending over the entire realm of mind, and imprisoning thought within a narrow circle of abstract and barren ideas intelligible only to the erudite. This scholastic philosophy, by substituting in an age emerging from barbarism a system of logical reasoning for ignorant acquiescence in authority, was undoubtedly favourable to the growth of learning; but, as it was a form rather than the substance of knowledge, and attached more value to the art than to the profitable results of reasoning, it materially impeded the progress of real enlightenment. In order to exercise a wide and profound influence, knowledge should not be abstruse or veiled in a learned tongue; but, like the Gospel, should accommodate itself to the ignorance, appeal to the hearts, and satisfy the spiritual needs of men.

The middle ages were characterised by a propensity to association—derived from the necessity for combination against the tyranny of princes and the rapine of nobles—and by a singular disposition to mysticism which was the protest of the popular heart against the arid and unspiritual theology of the period. In the Netherlands, which had long been ravaged by wars and pestilence, and the genius of whose people was practical and industrious, the spirit of charity born of the Gospel combined with these two popular tendencies in the formation of various fraternities for religious and charitable purposes, the result of whose labours was the wide diffusion of that spiritual religion and that practical knowledge which scholasticism in itself could never have originated.

The debased idea of Christianity then prevalent—identifying it with monachism, assuming monachism to be its highest form, and, as the spirit of an age is shown by its use of words, terming the monastic orders religious—this, and the expediency of conciliating the favour of an all-powerful hierarchy, led these fraternities to adopt the monastic organisation, submit to a rule, and assume the cowl, and, while distinguished from the monks by the temporary nature of their vows and dependence on labour for their support, become an intermediate class between the monks and the laity.

The disproportion between the sexes, caused by the Crusades, favoured the establishment, in the eleventh century, of the first of these associations, the Beguines, some communities of which yet survive; and this was succeeded in the early part of the thirteenth century by the Beghards and Lollards, or prayer-makers and chanters, as the words may be interpreted, who devoted themselves especially to the education of youth. After a century of benevolent exertions, which won for them the love of the people and the approbation of the authorities, the tendency to decay being inherent in human institutions, the mysticism of the Beghards and Lollards lost sight of the distinction between moral and substantial unity with God, and assumed a pantheistic form almost identical with Vedantic Hinduism; and the notion that all man’s impulses are divinely originated, the corollary of their speculations, countenanced immoralities which brought the fraternities into collision with society and justified their extinction.

The traditionary mysticism, however, survived and received a higher development, being reduced by John Ruysbroeck, prior of an Augustine monastery near Brussels, into a contemplative system, akin to Quietism, which aimed at absorption of the soul into the divine substance, and was distinguished from the pantheism it succeeded by its broad assertion of the divine transcendance. The disposition to religious association and the conditions rendering co-operative benevolence practicable yet existing in the Netherlands—the canon Gerhard Groot and other disciples of Ruysbroeck were actuated by love of letters and religious zeal to form themselves, in 1380, into a community on the apostolic pattern—having their goods in common, living by their own labour, submitting to a rule, but preserving individual freedom—for the purpose of spreading practical Christianity among the people by the transcription and circulation of the Scriptures and religious works, and for the improvement of general education.

Town and conventual schools had long existed in the Netherlands; but education in the first was costly, and in the second superstitious, and, being founded on scholasticism, at variance with enlightenment. The age was erudite, but not wise; for its learning, like that of the Greek sophists, was abstruse, treating of words, not of things, and therefore altogether unprofitable. As of old, it was necessary to recall philosophy from the clouds; from idle or presumptuous speculations to practical wisdom. The estimable Brethren of the Common Lot did this, by boldly casting aside the absurdities of scholasticism, replacing the cumbrous old grammars by simpler and more intelligible ones, and putting the classics themselves into the hands of their pupils; and all their religious teaching, being in the vernacular and founded on the Gospel, was imbued with a new life and spirit. Such acceptance did these labours meet with, that Brother-houses soon arose in various parts of the Netherlands and Germany, that at Deventer, in Overyssel, the birthplace of the society, retaining the pre-eminence. Some female communities and monasteries of regular canons, in connection with the parent society, were also organised, but without any noticeable results.

The good effected by the Brethren was incalculable. They revolutionised the educational system; their teaching and their example caused a revival of spiritual religion in an age of superstitious formalism; their practice of mutual confession spread, and awoke a new moral sense; their use of the vernacular in prayers gave new fervour and depth to devotion; and their dissemintaion of the Scriptures in the common tongue brought truth within the reach of the unlearned. Moreover, their translation of the Scriptures defined the popular language, and gave birth to a national literature; and as nationality is based on language, the acquisition of literature of their own was the first step to the emancipation from Latin Rome of the European nationalities, which were ripe for freedom when religion thus assumed the national garb.

Thus an association, many of whose members were priests entertaining profound reverence for and protected by the hierarchy, by its silent labour in the very bosom of scholasticism and the Roman Church, prepared the way for the emancipation of the people from both. Their reverence, however, was of a negative character; for,—assuming the “De Imitatione” of Thomas A-Kempis, one of the most zealous of the brethren, to be a fair exposition of their religious views—without impugning any of the dogmas of the Church—they considered the dogma only in its moral and spiritual import, employed it merely as the vehicle of an ascetic mysticism, and insisted, above all, on spirituality and Christian freedom. It seems unaccountable that the hierarchy should have been so short-sighted as to sanction doctrines the tendency of which was subversive of its power; and it is greatly to its honour, that so far from opposing, as is a prevalent impression, it favoured the translation of the Scripture into the vulgar tongue. Self-interest rendered the mendicant orders more perspicacious as to the ultimate tendency of the labours of the brethren who had taken education entirely out of their hands, weakened their influence, and sadly diminished their customary revenues; for they were always persistently hostile to the association, and at the Council of Constance made a vigorous but unsuccessful effort to procure its interdiction.

If not the first to substitute block-printing for transcription, the brethren largely employed it for the diffusion of religious knowledge; some of the finest block-books extant having been produced by them,—as the “Biblia Pauperum,” and “Canticum Canticorum,”—illustrated summaries wherein scriptural history was presented pictorially to the imagination of the unlearned, and rhythmically to the memory of the intelligent; meagre substitutes for the Bible, it is true, but invaluable when books were rare. The invention of type in great measure superseded the occupation of the brethren as producers of books, but their estimable labours were continued down to the era of the Reformation, when, their work being accomplished, what was good in their efforts received a higher development, what was narrow and particular decayed of itself. Luther highly commended them as the “first to begin the Gospel,” and opposed the interference with them of those who “knew how to destroy but not how to build,” on account of their wearing the religious habit and observing old and laudable usages not contradictory to the Gospel.

The honour of the invention of type is claimed by both Germany and Holland. The claim of Holland rests chiefly on a statement made by Junius, the historiographer of the Netherlands, to the effect that an eminent citizen of Haarlem, named Laurence Coster, had made the discovery by accident in 1430, had employed it to print certain books, one of which, named the “Speculum Humanæ Salvationis,” he had himself seen; and that it was in consequence of the treachery of a servant that Fust had been able to print his book in 1442 at Metz. This statement has the defect of being founded on hearsay, but its circumstantiality, the probity of Junius, and the technical evidence furnished by the book itself, favour the conclusion that it is correct, though the question is yet controverted.

An admirable fac-simile of this book, on paper, and with ink of the same description, as were employed by Coster,—reproducing so accurately the peculiarities which render it dear to bibliographers, that it is not improbable that, at some future time, it may be palmed on the unwary as the original—has recently been published by Mr. C. J. Stewart, of King William Street, Strand, with a learned introductory essay by M. Berjeau; and since the work, interesting as it is in many aspects, is not of a character to get into general circulation, Mr. Stewart having obligingly permitted us to reproduce two of its illustrations, we propose adding some description of the work.

The “Speculum Humanæ Salvationis” is a rhymed Latin poem,—the Latinity of which is respectable, though not exactly Ciceronian, consisting of a proem and forty-five chapters, whereof the last sixteen being omitted by Coster—on the Redemption and its prefiguration in History. MSS. of it yet existing are dated 1324, but conceal the author’s name “from humility.” The first printed edition, now under consideration, consists of sixty-four leaves, printed on one side only, so that thus the two cuts, which the size of our page compels us to separate, are in the original printed side by side, and form the upper half of a folio page, the letter-press being subjoined below. Besides the proem, it exhibits fifty-eight folio pages in double columns, each headed by a pair of illustrations within an architectural frame. The engravings, and twenty pages of the text, are printed in pale brown, and the remaining pages in rich black ink; the distinction indicating that this, the first edition, must have been printed partly from wood-blocks and partly from metallic type; and was therefore produced at the very period of transition from the ruder to the improved process; though there is neither date, place, nor printer’s name in this or in the three later editions wherein the text is typographed throughout. This conclusion is confirmed by the unique character of the types,—not found in any other books of the period but those of Coster,—by the use of masked type to fill up lines, and by the exceptional substitution, from paucity of type, of certain letters for syllables—such, for instance, as m for ni, in, iu, &c., and nn for im, mi, uv, &c. The similarity observable in subject, style, and artistic execution of the plates of the “Speculum” to those of the “Biblia Pauperum,” and other works known to have been produced by the excellent Brethren of the Common Lot, justifies the supposition that the community prepared the plates and partly engraved the text, but, disconcerted by some untoward occurrence—such as the loss of their artist—the latter plates being very inferior to the earlier—or perhaps by Coster’s discovery, parted with the imperfect impressions to him to be completed by the new process.

Apart from the value attaching to it on account of the peculiar circumstances under which it was produced, the “Speculum” is very interesting as illustrating the state of art, peculiar theology, imperfect instruction, and costume of the age.

As conventional modes of artistically treating sacred subjects had prevailed for centuries, and were abundantly exemplified in missals painting, sculpture, stained glass, and orféverrie, much originality is not to be expected from one restricted by traditional rules to imitation of his predecessors. Designs varying but little from some of these are to be found among the relics of early Christian art disinterred from the catacombs of Rome. If, where they may fairly be supposed original, the designs generally betray poverty of conception, they are always pure in idea, and without other errors in drawing or perspective than a disproportion between buildings and their inhabitants attributable to lack of room. Scripture and the narratives of pilgrims being the only sources of information about oriental life then available, the artist was reduced to pourtray the life around him. Hence Patriarchs, Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Syrians, Babylonians, and Romans, all alike recline on couches, and sit in chairs whose medieval form and carving would be at a premium in Wardour Street; attire themselves in doublet, hose, and pointed shoon; put on the uncomfortable Christian hat; travel in boots and spurs, begirt with sword and dagger; and combat under knightly pennons with lance, mace, battle-axe, and two-handed sword, arrayed in all that variety of armour wherewith, as worn by rapacious counts and their ruffianly followers, the peaceful citizens of the day were unhappily too familiar. It is impossible to refrain from smiling at Abraham clad in steel, and courteously doffing his plumed hat to Melchizedek; at Jephtha armed cap-à-pie, and stooping from his destrier to clutch his kneeling daughter by the hair;—at David in plate armour, his shield emblazoned with a harp, and with the head of Goliah on his lance, making his triumphal entry surrounded by men-at-arms; at David sitting in his palace in regal state, wearing a broad-brimmed hat; at Sampson in top-boots bearing away the gates of Gaza; at Eliezer in boots and spurs communing with Rebecca at the well; at high priests in episcopal mitres, and kings reposing, according to the nursery fancy, with their crowns for nightcaps.

There are many singularities in addition to these and other incongruities. The idea of Satan differs somewhat from that of later times, for he is not only represented as κερκοκεριονυχα, but with a monstrous supplementary visage on his abdomen, and once with the head of a swine. In one place the serpent, as in Raphael’s picture, has the form of a dragon in every respect but the long-haired feminine head. At her birth Eve is a pigmy rising and but half emerged from the side of the slumbering Adam. After the fall our first parents are arrayed in flowing garments, Adam digging, and Eve sitting beside him with a child on her knee and a distaff in her hand. The passage of the Jordan is represented by two men in very Israelitish hats bearing a tabernacle or shrine like those wherein the Host is kept in Roman Catholic churches. David wears a crown when slaying the Philistine champion. A vine, rising from the bosom of the sleeping psalmist—amid the branches of which crowned cherubs perch like sparrows, while the Virgin and Child are seen on its topmost branch—represents the root of Jesse; a fancy which recalls Spanish paintings similarly representing the growth of a monastic order and the saints it has produced. Our Lord, bearing a bannered cross, delivers the souls of the patriarchs from Hades, which is depicted as a monstrous maw—a fancy derived probably from Dante. The traditional physiognomy of Christ is uniformly preserved. Trees are suggested rather than depicted, the palm appears not at all, but the vine invariably is accurately drawn. The representations of animals proper to Europe is good, but reference to the annexed illustrations will show that the idea of an elephant must have been evolved from the artist’s own self-consciousness, being as vaguely incorrect as that of the military costume of the Dorians.

Codrus (Speculum Humanae Salvationis).png

In his proem the author states it to be his purpose to adduce for each event in the History of Redemption three instances from general history prefiguring it; and after giving a brief outline of his plan, closes with the observation that this proem had been compiled for the sake of preachers lacking matter for their discourses, but without means to purchase the entire work; which, while showing the rarity of books and the apostolic poverty of the lower clergy, also suggests the threadbare character of the teaching founded on such “skeletons of sermons.” Those parallels drawn from sacred history are often legendary, or founded on singular misconstructions of the text; and those selected from profane history fabulous; such as adducing the self-devotion of Codrus as typifying the sacrifice of Christ, or twisting the dream of Astyages, that a vine springing from his daughter overshadowed his kingdom, into a type of the Miraculous Conception—Christ delivering men from sin as Cyrus liberated the captive Jews.

Elephant (Speculum Humanae Salvationis).png

Sharing the tendency to mysticism of his day, the writer is disposed to allegorise all historical events, finds “sermons in stones and words in running brooks,” and his fancy riots in extravagances only comparable to the dreams of Philo-Judaeus and the Talmudists. But only once does he lapse into that indelicacy of thought unfortunately so common in old religious writers. As might be expected, such undue pre-eminence is given to the Virgin that it might be conceived her glorification had been the chief object of the work. As Stella Maris, she is thought to have been prefigured in the star seen in vision by Balaam; as Cella Dei, in the closed door of the sanctuary seen by Ezekiel; and Jephtha’s daughter, Aaron’s rod, the sacred ark, the seven-branched candlestick, David’s tower, the sealed fountain in Canticles, Esther, the temple, and Solomon’s throne are all converted into types of Mary. Types of the Miraculous Conception are found in the burning bush, Gideon’s fleece, and in Rebecca, who drew water for both Eliezer and his camels, as the Virgin drew water from the well of life for both men and angels, Mary also having been sought by the angel as a spouse for God, as Rebecca was by the steward as a spouse for Isaac! Eight strange reasons are assigned for the marriage of the Virgin to Joseph, which event is supposed to have been prefigured by the virginity of Sara, who was married to seven husbands. A type of the nativity is found in the dream of Pharoah’s butler: the vine being Christ, its three branches His flesh, soul, and divinity, and the wine pressed from its grapes, the blood of His passion whereby the wrath of God was appeased. A passage in Jeremiah is assumed to prefigure the flight into Egypt, said to have been attended by the downfal of idols; which again was typified by the ancient Egyptian adoration of the Virgin and Child—an allusion to Isis, and the breaking of Pharoah’s crown by the boy Moses—a legendary incident. Types of the baptism of Christ are found in the Brazen Sea, the twelve oxen supporting which typified the Apostles; and in the Passage of Jordan, the ark being Christ and the twelve stones similarly the apostles. The Passion is conceived to have been prefigured by Nebuchadnezzar’s dream,—the felling of the boughs of the tree being the death of Christ and the dispersion of his followers, the root which was left the resurrection, and the bands of brass and iron, the fetters whereby He was bound; and likewise by the invention of music, which was suggested by the ringing of the hammer of Tubal Cain, as agony elicited from the Lord a melody of prayer. Yet despite these absurdities, the earnest piety of the writer and his luxuriant fancy render the work an agreeable study.

Francis Morton.