Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/August 1882/The Book-Men


By the late Hon. T. WHARTON COLLENS.

WHAT a vast difference there is between us and our ancestors who lived three thousand years ago! What savages they were! What a polished people are we! Surrounded by all the glories and lights, blessings and hopes of civilization, we can hardly realize the fact that we are the descendants of men who roamed in forests and deserts, of men as ignorant, superstitious, wild, and brutal as the Comanche Indians. Such, nevertheless, is the fact; and the question naturally arises: How, through the ages, have our ancestors been able to overcome their abject condition, and rise to the heights of knowledge and art, to survey an immense horizon of truth, and use the magical bounties of invention? Did the light break upon us all at once; did we get all the superior advantages of science and art we now enjoy from a single hand or from one inspiration, or was the process not only slow and gradual, but difficult and terrible? To what or to whom do we owe this great change, this wonderful transformation of the mind, manners, and labors of the human race?

We answer at once: The progress of man from the savage to the civilized state of society and to its functions and uses was indeed slow and arduous, and is due to the studies of solitary, thinking book-men, careful theorists, or inquisitive philosophers, who, in each generation, and one after the other, have promulgated the result of their meditations.

Understand us—we mean what we say: we say book-men, we say theorists; and, if humor prompts, it may add contemptuous epithets to the terms. We may say, if we choose, mere book-men, mad theorists, or dreamy philosophers, and still the proposition would be true.

To demonstrate this truth we might begin with primeval man, go through ancient history, tracing the march of mind from the mythic Hermes of Egypt, the Pythagoras of Greece, the Zoroaster of Persia, to the grand display of civilization exhibited by the Roman Empire under Aurelius Antoninus, or under Constantine the Great, and thence follow the current in all its vicissitudes down to the present age. But the limits of a single article preclude so extended a review of human progress. Hence, we are compelled to select, if possible, a period of history within which a fair illustration of the march of mind may be found (leaving out former and subsequent ages), to test other periods by the same laws of development. Let us, therefore, begin in the middle of the middle ages, that is to say, in the year 800 after Christ, and finish with the discovery of America, in the fifteenth century. From this first point our premises will be apparent. At the last point our conclusion will be reached; and then all the consequences, as applicable to modern times, will show themselves as clearly as the landscape in the light of day.

In the year 800 after Christ, what was the state of Europe? The Goths, the Vandals, the Franks, the Huns, the Normans, the Turks, and other barbarian hordes, had invaded and overthrown the Roman Empire, and had established various kingdoms upon its ruins. These hordes of savages had destroyed, not only all the works of civilization, but civilization itself. Ignorant as they were of everything that distinguishes and elevates human nature, they broke up the schools, ruined the monuments, abolished arts and manufactures, prevented commerce, and reduced the conquered nations to their own condition, inaugurating in the completest manner the reign of brute-force and mental darkness. If they afterward espoused Christianity, they molded it to their own savage superstition, till at last naught was left of the divine dispensation but its name, to cover the most degrading idolatry and demonism. At the time we begin our specific examination we find that, in the then so-called Christian nations—

1. There existed no science worthy of the name, no schools whatever. Reading, writing, and ciphering, were separate and distinct trades. The masses, the nobility, the poor and the rich, were wholly unacquainted with the mysteries of the alphabet and the pen. A few men, known as clerks, who generally belonged to the priesthood, monopolized them as a special class of artists. They taught their business only to their seminarists, apprentices; and beyond themselves and their few pupils no one knew how to read and write, nor was it expected of the generality, any more than it would be nowadays, that everybody should be a shoemaker or a lawyer. Kings did not even know how to sign their names, so that when they wanted to subscribe to a written contract, law, or treaty, which some clerk had drawn up for them, they would smear their right hand with ink, and slap it down upon the parchment saying, "Witness my hand." At a later date, some genius devised the substitute of the seal, which was impressed instead of the hand, but oftener besides the hand. Every gentleman had a seal with a peculiar device thereon. Hence the sacramental words now in use, "Witness my hand and seal," affixed to modern deeds, serve at least the purpose of reminding us of the ignorance of the middle ages.

In fact, in those days a nobleman considered it below his dignity to have any knowledge of letters. This was left to persons of inferior rank. The use of arms, horsemanship, and war, were the sole avocation of the lords of the land. As all authority, and indeed safety, depended upon force and success in battle, skill at arms was necessarily the genteelest of the arts. The nobility knew no other; and the workmen they admired the most were those who forged their uncouth armor, ungainly shields, and clumsy swords.

Society was divided into orders: at the top were the prelates and priesthood, the kings and nobles; at the bottom the serfs who were the bulk of the people; and intermediate were a few free workmen and burgesses who enjoyed a sort of quasi exemption from personal servitude, but were subject to the despotic rule of the king and lords.

All persons were also unmitigated believers in magic, sorcery, witchcraft, enchantments, amulets, astrology, evil-eye, conjuration, fascination, divination, fetichism, charms, evocation of ghosts, specters and devils, talismans, incantations, fortune-telling, palmistry, cabalistic arts, spells, divining-rods, bargains with the occult powers, and the like. Even in our time vestiges of the like belief exist among us, but then it was universal and denied by none, whether prince, priest, or populace. There is no parallel to this state of things in modern times, except in the interior towns of Africa.

It was then universally conceded that the nobles were men of a superior race; that their blood was different and purer than that of other men. All the land belonged to them. No one doubted their title. The population of every barony considered the baron as their rightful master, holding his authority from God himself. It was next to sacrilege to disobey him. Yet these barons were brutal, extortionate, and cruel. They were constantly at war with each other, and therefore lived in fortified castles, whence they now and then sallied to levy contributions among their own serfs, rob passengers and caravans on the highway, or plunder and* burn the property or massacre the people of neighboring fiefs. They had the right of life and death over their vassals. These could not marry or travel without their permission. The maidens of the baronies were obliged to gratify the lusts of the baron whenever he took a fancy to any of them; and this, so far from being considered as an act of outrageous despotism, was generally accepted as an honor conferred. No Turkish pasha or Russian boiar holds now greater power than the feudal lords possessed and abused during the middle ages. They exacted and took the first, the largest, and the best products of the labor of the people; and none (not even those who were the victims of unscrupulous tithes, tribute, and pillage) ever suspected that the nobles exceeded their divine and rightful privileges. The people, when robbed, or put to the rack, might think their lord was a hard and cruel master; but his right to do as he pleased was to every mind unquestionable.

The laws which then existed (if indeed the name of law could be justly applied to such an ordination of society) were only such as were calculated to maintain the power and fortune of the tyrants we have just described. Murder was punished only when the culprit was a villain, or a man of inferior rank to that of his victim; and then the punishment was graded, so that the murder of a noble or priest by a villain or inferior was avenged by the most revolting and agonizing tortures and death, while, if on the contrary the victim was a villain and the homicide a nobleman, a few pence was the price of blood. Trials there were none worthy of the name. They tested the guilt or innocence of those who were suspected of offenses by various superstitious practices, such for instance as making the supposed offender walk over red-hot plowshares. If he got burned he was guilty, if he passed over unscathed he was innocent. The favorite mode of deciding causes before the courts was the trial by battle. The parties were made to fight it out, but not always with equal arms. The villains were permitted only to wield the club, while the gentry entered the lists sword in hand, clothed in armor and on horseback. The result of the combat was religiously believed to be "the judgment of God" between the parties.

We have said that in those ages no science existed. Let us add that it was then universally taken for certain truth that the earth was flat; that the skies were a dome of hard adamant, which inclosed and covered the world like the walls and roof of a building; that the stars were occult beings having good or evil influences over men; that the winds and the floods, the rain and the crops were either special dispensations of Providence, independent of any original design or law, or were, when unfavorable, the act of evil spirits or magical operations. The monuments of Roman architecture were allowed to go to ruin. The art of building had been almost forgotten, and was limited to the erection of rough and uncouth fortresses and walls suited to keep men and horsemen at bay. These were usually located on the tops of almost inaccessible rocks. The people lived in huts; they ate with their hands; food was cooked without pots or kettles, on the embers, or roasted on spits. Candles were unknown, stockings were unknown, clothing was made of dressed skins, and, though some woven fabrics were made by means of hand-looms, they were so inferior that the ordinary stuffs worn by the people of the present day would have been then considered as luxurious finery fit for a king to wear.

We forgot also to mention, in relation to the trial by battle, that the lawyers of those days did not gain their suits by means of evidence, authorities quoted out of books, and speeches or arguments addressed to the courts; but the lawyers were men-at-arms, expert in the use of the sword, the lance, the mace, and the bâton; and the parties, when they were able, would hire them to fight out the case in the arena as gladiators. Thus the case would be decided in favor of him whose lawyer beat, or cut down, or unhorsed his adversary's lawyer. Those were indeed the days when might was right.

Our object in giving this sketch of the state of civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries is, to contrast the condition of society then with what it is now, and to inquire how mankind could emerge from that order of things to the present stage of human progress. By what means were barbarism, universal ignorance, and superstition to be overcome? From whom was the first light to come? Who was to take the first step toward a better order or higher knowledge?

The impediments were of the most formidable character. Everybody was ignorant except the few clerks, or clergymen, we have mentioned, and even the range of their knowledge, beyond theology, was very limited. All around them was darkness, and naught indicated even a gleam of light or liberty.

By whom or when was the first step taken? By the very clerks or book-men we have mentioned, during the reign of Charlemagne in France, and that of Alfred in England. Long had they labored in the solitude of their cloisters to enlarge the scope of their learning. Assiduously had they multiplied copies of precious manuscripts and of their own works. Zealously had they striven to find laymen willing to purchase and study those works and listen to their instructions. At last they persuaded Charlemagne to establish a school in Paris, and Alfred to found a university at Oxford, in order to educate aspirants for the priesthood and form doctors of theology. Nothing was thought of but to cultivate the kind and extent of learning: then existing. It was natural to procure for these schools copies of all the books then to be found. Few, indeed, were these—as brief sketches of Latin grammar, a few Latin vocabularies, a meager treatise on arithmetic and geometry, and a stray copy of the philosophical work by Porphyry, and another by Boetius. The rest was all Christian theology and philosophy, such as the works of St. Augustine and other fathers, besides the Bible and the canons of the Church. The savant chosen for Paris was the monk Alcuin, and the scholar selected for Oxford was another monk, Grimbaldus.

The deed was done. A school was established. Men were offered a great opportunity of becoming book-worms, and consequently to think and theorize. The result was inevitable. To meditate, they had to exercise their reasoning faculty, while they studied the philosophy they found in the few books they had, and pondered over theology, theology and ancient philosophy as harmonized with dogma.

One of the teachers who succeeded Alcuin was a doctor of philosophy named John Scotus Erigenus, an Irishman by birth. He wrote philosophical treatises in which a new question was raised. This question was, whether an abstract term or a word, such, for instance, as the word "humanity" represented a real being; an essence in nature; a real and single thing existing independent of any individual. Not whether there were many individual men included by a process of thought under a general name, but whether that general name "humanity" was not the name of a reality, antecedent in creation and in time to the existence of any individual—antecedent to Adam himself.

Vain as this question would seem, it raised a great debate among the clerks and doctors. Soon parties were formed among them, pro and con. The one party got the name of Realists, the other that of Nominalists. Minds became excited, curiosity was aroused. In order to prove one opinion or the other, information was sought in every direction. Every scrap which could be found of Plato's and Aristotle's works was rescued from oblivion, and quoted as authority by one or the other side. Other ancient books were disinterred. The savants began to investigate natural phenomena, and, above all, to closely scrutinize man himself, physically and intellectually.

Though the question in debate might appear at this day quite frivolous and easily answered, yet in those times it was necessary as a first step in the progress of getting rid of the fundamental errors and prejudices prevalent even among the savants. We must not lose sight of the mental condition of all men in those times. If we keep this in view, we shall, instead of despising the men who first put the question just stated, wonder how at that stage of intellectual progress it could have suggested itself to any mind. Certain it is that the most learned (so small was their amount of science, and so peculiar were the settled opinions of their age) were not ready to discuss other subjects.

They soon brought their discussions before their pupils, and from among these the debate found its way into society: kings, nobles, and burgesses talked about it, and as a consequence talked about the points of knowledge necessary to solve the question. This was a slow operation indeed. It took eight centuries before the controversy was settled.

Yet, in time, hundreds of other questions grew out of this single one, and it became necessary to settle all the minor objections and issues before the main one could be concluded upon. What is soul? what is mind? what is reason? what is feeling? what is sensation? what is knowledge? what is man and his destiny? what is revelation in contradistinction to science? how far can science go without requiring the aid of revelation? is man a free agent? are all men of the same species? what are the laws of thought?—in one word, what was true or not true in everything then generally held to be true?

We are far from wishing it to be understood that all these questions were immediately suggested or started; but the book-men (as their sphere of thought became more and more enlarged) by the sharp contradiction of one another, found it necessary to suggest and discuss them all. They did so boldly and conscientiously, in their contestations. They did so, though many among them were, for the ant i-Christian opinions they advanced, condemned as heretics.

But we are too hasty. We must endeavor to show the different steps of this evolution, and the main instrumentality of the book-men and the theorists in every advance that was made.

In the course of the reign of Charlemagne, the doctors of philosophy composed a calendar, and proposed the months as we have them now. This calendar they formed by means of their studies of such ancient writings of the Greeks and Romans as they had been able to procure.

They prevailed upon Charlemagne to establish this calendar by law. By doing this, Charlemagne got all the credit of the work itself; but to a certainty he was incapable of performing it. Individually, he was an ignorant man; but he thirsted for knowledge, glory, and power; had heard from the scholars of the ancient grandeur, monuments, and literature of Rome and Greece; and his ambition impelled him to carry into effect any suggestion of measures likely to contribute to his glory. He was devout, and sought also the glory of God. Hence he encouraged education, for he found it furnished men capable of serving him effectually in all his aspirations. But who could give education? None but the clerks or book-men, who were then the only men of science.

Passing beyond this reign, we see the effects of this policy gradually developing themselves. During the tenth century, the arithmetical figures we now use to write down numbers were first introduced into Europe. Previously the Roman letters I, V, X, L, C, etc., had been employed to express numeric quantities. The advantage of the new method we can all appreciate, for it is the method we all use at present. But who first introduced and taught this improvement in arithmetical notation, with all the facilities it affords for the calculations? We owe the importation to the book-men who traveled to acquire knowledge from the Arabs who had conquered Spain, and whose schools at Cordova had acquired great celebrity. Thus we see the advance of science was from one set of book-men to another set of book-men, and from their schools to the people.

In this and the preceding century too, we find that it had become a common practice for the doctors of philosophy and theology to challenge each other to public debates; and that it became fashionable for the gentry to be present at these intellectual duels, where thought met thought in a struggle to convince of truths or convict of error.

From theologians arose the most distinguished philosophers of the times. We could, in our advanced state of knowledge, consider the scientific opinions they advanced as unworthy of our serious consideration; but then they were of the utmost importance, in this, that they were incitements to thought and to further investigation. This was the main thing in an age of intellectual obscurity, to bring forth more and more light from the first sparks of truth. The mind once awakened, curiosity and reflection once aroused, a process of development of right reason was inaugurated, which in time spread itself from the mind of man over all nature.

This takes place in the midst of the first Crusades, by which hundreds of thousands were led to perish disastrously; but restless and curious philosophers followed in the wake of war and rapine, and hovered around the armies to bring back from the East all the science they could gather. We often read of the improvement in science the West of Europe derived from the Crusades; but the story is always told so as to leave the impression that the plunder the mind brought back from Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, was gathered there by the boorish soldiers and their captains. A moment's thought will, however, set us right on this point. Science could only be gathered by men already partially acquainted with science, by men having a taste for it, by the scholars and the book-men. To them, therefore, must we award all the praise for any scientific advantage which Europe derived from the Crusades. The armies were intent upon booty and power; the philosophers who followed them were seeking for new truths; and the advance of knowledge that they returned with is one of the benefits the West of Europe derived from the Crusades.

Let us note some of the most important prizes they carried home. At Amalfi, a port in the southern part of Italy, a stopping-place for the Crusaders, they discovered a copy of the "Institutes and Pandects of Roman Law," a work which had been long lost to the world. From the Arabians of Spain or Alexandria they procured the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as other learned treatises of ancient sages. These they studied and commented on with assiduity, each one according to the bent of his mind. Hence, in time we find the learned men not only becoming numerous, but divided into classes. Some follow the study of religion, humanity, and mind; others devote themselves to history, grammar, and poetry; others to law; others to mathematics and astronomy, and others to architecture. But we must keep in view that all these sciences and arts were yet in a crude state, far, far beneath what they are at this day. The book-men, the theorists, the philosophers, had centuries of research, discussion, and reflection to accomplish, and numberless labors to undergo, before producing the good harvest we are now enjoying.

Thus, in the thirteenth century the book-men and their disciples, the lawyers, politicians, poets, painters, masons, astronomers, architects, navigators, physicians, and all other seekers and distributors of knowledge, had hosts of adherents among the masses. Hence, the practical results of the labors of the scholars were becoming more apparent.

In religion St. Thomas produces his "Sum of Theology," and brings the scholastic philosophy to its perfection. In politics, the yeomanry of England, instigated by Archbishop Langton, a book-man, demand and obtain Magna Charta—that is to say, no taxes without representation, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and no taxes without the consent of Parliament; while in Florence a democratic constitution is established by the people. In science, the labors of the alchemists and astrologers are progressing toward the first positive dawn of chemistry and astronomy; and Roger Bacon, the first of the great prophets of natural science, reveals some of the most important secrets of chemistry. Roger Bacon, the first of the natural philosophers, who was he? History answers—a book-man, a monk, a solitary student of the works of his predecessors in philosophy and theology. In the arts, Gothic architecture raises a worthy tribute to Heaven. We also find that in this century navigation begins to improve and commerce to be developed, particularly in England and in Italy; and the learned take advantage of the facilities thus afforded to undertake voyages in search of geographical and other knowledge. Among the rest, Marco Polo, a student of languages, travels throughout Asia, finds his way even to China and Japan (a most wonderful feat in those days), and, on his return, writes an account of his travels; and his book, at a later day, serves (among other things) to induce the discovery of America by Columbus.

We now enter the fourteenth century, and amid the many practical consequences of the dissemination of knowledge from its original source, the book-men and philosophers, we might, unless we consider the necessity of the case, lose sight of the starting-point. In Spain, Alfonso the Wise gives his people the laws of the Seven Partides, compiled by philosophical jurisconsults from the Roman law. In France, the States-General, or Grand Parliament, is convoked by Philip le Bel, and, after him, Louis X makes the Parliament a permanent institution for the sanction of all laws. By-and-by the serfs and peasantry acquire their freedom and gain many valuable rights—not, however, without insurrection and bloodshed. Marcel in Paris and the Jacquerie in the provinces strike for liberty. In England the Commons assert their privileges: no money to government without their consent; the concurrence of the Commons with the Lords necessary for all laws; and the right of inquiry and impeachment by the Commons established. In Switzerland, William Tell leads his countrymen to victory and national independence and republican institutions. In Italy, the mariner's compass is invented by Gioja de Amalfi. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, those first lights of the dawn of polite literature, compose their beautiful romances and poems. In Germany clocks are invented, and Schwartz first puts gunpowder, invented by Roger Bacon, to practical use, and some scientific mechanic builds the first paper-mill. Previously manuscripts were all written on parchment. These were magnificent results, taking place in the midst of terrible persecution; but we understand it all when we know that in spite of every obstacle and opposition the book-men had, in this and the preceding centuries, unceasingly labored amid the capricious favors and disfavors of princes and kings to establish libraries, schools, and universities everywhere. They succeeded admirably, and every generation saw the increase of the number of those to whom the benefits of education had been communicated. Notwithstanding the fears of despots, the trial by ordeal began to fall into disrepute, the influence of the principles of the laws of ancient Rome as Christianized by Justinian was felt.

At last we reach the glorious fifteenth century, ever memorable for the invention of printing and the discovery of America. Why was printing' invented? Because the demand for books had directed inventive genius to seek a substitute for the laborious and costly process of copying. Guttenberg, the inventor, was himself a lover of books and a scientific mechanic. Why was America discovered? Because schools of mathematics, astronomy, and navigation had been established at Genoa, in one of which Columbus was educated. Thence, and in subsequent life, he derived the benefits of the labors of Lorenzo of Pisa, who had introduced algebra into the universities of Europe; and of Müller and Boehm, who had, by their geometrical researches and theories, demonstrated the rotundity of the earth. With this knowledge, confirmed by observation during his early life as a navigator, and the works of Marco Polo, Columbus projected the voyage which resulted in the discovery of the Western Continent. But printing and the rotundity of the earth were not the only consequences of the studies of book-men in the fifteenth century. We have already mentioned algebra, and have time only to state that the establishment of the first bank at Genoa, the Hanseatic League, the voyage of Vasco de Gama around the Cape of Good Hope, the first working of coal-mines at Newcastle, Norwich, the first drama, the final systematization of musical notation, all took place in the fifteenth century. We should also have shown how the study of æsthetical principles in this and the preceding century, by the societies and guilds of masons and architects, endowed the world with great painters and architects, and sculptors—Benvenuto, Raphael, Angelo, Titian, and many more who have left behind them imperishable monuments of their studies and genius.

Need we look back to recapitulate and confirm the fact that the highest source, continuous movers and central custodians of the studies which caused these great events were book-men, school-men, and theologists? Let us rather look forward into succeeding centuries, and merely mention the names of Erasmus, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Dalton, Lavoisier, Shakespeare, Harvey. But no! the names of the studious thinkers who from their cabinets and laboratories have revolutionized the world, and to whom we owe the grand and beautiful civilization and works—arts, machines, products, conveniences, political science, liberty, commerce, etc., which we now enjoy, would take hours to enumerate. There is not a development of science or art that can not be traced back to the "eureka" of some solitary, plodding book-man.