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Ch. 3: The Renaissance and the Reformation

We have now arrived at a period in the history of Oxford which is confused and unhappy, but for us full of interest, and perhaps of instruction. The hundred years that passed by between the age of Chaucer and the age of Erasmus were, in Southern Europe, years of the most eager life. We hear very often--too often, perhaps--of what is called the Renaissance. The energy of delight with which Italy welcomed the new birth of art, of literature, of human freedom, has been made familiar to every reader. It is not with Italy, but with England and with Oxford, that we are concerned. How did the University and the colleges prosper in that strenuous time when the world ran after loveliness of form and colour, as, in other ages, it has run after warlike renown, or the far-off rewards of the saintly life? What was Oxford doing when Florence, Venice, and Rome were striving towards no meaner goal than perfection?

It must be said that "the spring came slowly up this way." The University merely reflected the very practical character of the people. In contemplating the events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in their influence on English civilisation, we are reminded once more of the futility of certain modern aspirations. No amount of University Commissions, nor of well-meant reforms, will change the nature of Englishmen. It is impossible, by distributions of University prizes and professorships, to attract into the career of letters that proportion of industry and ingenuity which, in Germany for example, is devoted to the scholastic life. Politics, trade, law, sport, religion, will claim their own in England, just as they did at the Revival of Letters. The illustrious century which Italy employed in unburying, appropriating, and enjoying the treasures of Greek literature and art, our fathers gave, in England, to dynastic and constitutional squabbles, and to religious broils. The Renaissance in England, and chiefly in Oxford, was like a bitter and changeful spring. There was an hour of genial warmth, there breathed a wind from the south, in the lifetime of Chaucer; then came frosts and storms; again the brief sunshine of court favour shone on literature for a while, when Henry VIII. encouraged study, and Wolsey and Fox founded Christ Church and Corpus Christi College; once more the bad days of religious strife returned, and the promise of learning was destroyed. Thus the chief result of the awakening thought of the fourteenth century in England was not a lively delight in literature, but the appearance of the Lollards. The intensely practical genius of our race turned not to letters, but to questions about the soul and its future, about property and its distribution. The Lollards were put down in Oxford; "the tares were weeded out" by the House of Lancaster, and in the process the germs of free thought, of originality, and of a rational education, were destroyed. "Wyclevism did domineer among us," says Wood; and, in fact, the intellect of the University was absorbed, like the intellect of France during the heat of the Jansenist controversy, in defending or assailing "267 damned conclusions," drawn from the books of Wyclif. The University "lost many of her children through the profession of Wyclevism." Those who remained were often "beneficed clerks." The Friars lifted up their heads again, and Oxford was becoming a large ecclesiastical school. As the University declared to Archbishop Chichele (1438), "Our noble mother, that was blessed in so goodly an offspring, is all but utterly destroyed and desolate." Presently the foreign wars and the wars of the Roses drained the University of the youth of England. The country was overrun with hostile forces, or infested by disbanded soldiers. Plague and war, war and plague, and confusion, alternate in the annals. Sickly as Oxford is to-day by climate and situation, she is a city of health compared to what she was in the middle ages. In 1448 "a pestilence broke out, occasioned by the overflowing of waters, . . . also by the lying of many scholars in one room or dormitory in almost every Hall, which occasioned nasty air and smells, and consequently diseases." In the general dulness and squalor two things were remarkable: one, the last splendour of the feudal time; the other, the first dawn of the new learning from Italy. In 1452, George Neville of Balliol, brother of the King-maker, gave the most prodigious pass-supper that was ever served in Oxford. On the first day there were 600 messes of meat, divided into three courses. The second course is worthy of the attention of the epicure:


Vian in brase.   Carcell.
Crane in sawce.  Partrych.
Young Pocock.    Venson baked.
Coney.           Fryed meat in paste.
Pigeons.         Lesh Lumbert.
Byttor.          A Frutor.
Curlew.          A Sutteltee.

Against this prodigious gormandising we must set that noble gift, the Library presented to Oxford by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester. In the Catalogue, drawn up in 1439, we mark many books of the utmost value to the impoverished students. Here are the works of Plato, and the Ethics and Politics of Aristotle, translated by Leonard the Aretine. Here, among the numerous writings of the Fathers, are Tully and Seneca, Averroes and Avicenna, Bellum Trojae cum secretis secretorum, Apuleius, Aulus Gellius, Livy, Boccaccio, Petrarch. Here, with Ovid's verses, is the Commentary on Dante, and his Divine Comedy. Here, rarest of all, is a Greek Dictionary, the silent father of Liddel's and Scott's to be.

The most hopeful fact in the University annals, after the gift of those manuscripts (to which the very beauty of their illuminations proved ruinous in Puritan times), was the establishment of a printing-press at Oxford, and the arrival of certain Italians, "to propagate and settle the studies of true and genuine humanity among us." The exact date of the introduction of printing let us leave to be determined by the learned writer who is now at work on the history of Oxford. The advent of the Italians is dated by Wood in 1488. Polydore Virgil had lectured in New College. "He first of all taught literature in Oxford. Cyprianus and Nicholaus, Italici, also arrived and dined with the Vice-President of Magdalen on Christmas Day. Lily and Colet, too, one of them the founder, the other the first Head Master, of St. Paul's School, were about this time studying in Italy, under the great Politian and Hermolaus Barbarus. Oxford, which had so long been in hostile communication with Italy as represented by the Papal Courts, at last touched, and was thrilled by the electric current of Italian civilisation. At this conjuncture of affairs, who but is reminded of the youth and the education of Gargantua? Till the very end of the fifteenth century Oxford had been that "huge barbarian pupil," and had revelled in vast Rabelaisian suppers: "of fat beeves he had killed three hundred sixty seven thousand and fourteen, that in the entering in of spring he might have plenty of powdered beef." The bill of fare of George Neville's feast is like one of the catalogues dear to the Cure of Meudon. For Oxford, as for Gargantua, "they appointed a great sophister-doctor, that read him Donatus, Theodoletus, and Alanus, in parabolis." Oxford spent far more than Gargantua's eighteen years and eleven months over "the book de Modis significandis, with the commentaries of Berlinguandus and a rabble of others." Now, under Colet, and Erasmus (1497), Oxford was put, like Gargantua, under new masters, and learned that the old scholarship "had been but brutishness, and the old wisdom but blunt, foppish toys serving only to bastardise noble spirits, and to corrupt all the flower of youth."

The prospects of classical learning at Oxford (and, whatever may be the case to-day, on classical learning depended, in the fifteenth century, the fortunes of European literature) now seemed fair enough. People from the very source of knowledge were lecturing in Oxford. Wolsey was Bursar of Magdalen. The colleges, to which B. N. C. was added in 1509, and C. C. C. in 1516, were competing with each other for success in the New Learning. Fox, the founder of C. C. C., established in his college two chairs of Greek and Latin, "to extirpate barbarism." Meanwhile, Cambridge had to hire an Italian to write public speeches at twenty pence each! Henry VIII. in his youth was, like Francis I., the patron of literature, as literature was understood in Italy. He saw in learning a new splendour to adorn his court, a new source of intellectual luxury, though even Henry had an eye on the theological aspect of letters. Between 1500 and 1530 Oxford was noisy with the clink of masons' hammers and chisels. Brasenose, Corpus, and the magnificent kitchen of Christ Church, were being erected. (The beautiful staircase, which M. Brunet-Debaines has sketched, was not finished till 1640. The world owes it to Dr. Fell. The Oriel niches, designed in the illustration, are of rather later date.) The streets were crowded with carts, dragging in from all the neighbouring quarries stones for the future homes of the fair humanities. Erasmus found in Oxford a kind of substitute for the Platonic Society of Florence. "He would hardly care much about going to Italy at all, except for the sake of having been there. When I listen to Colet, it seems to me like listening to Plato himself"; and he praises the judgment and learning of those Englishmen, Grocyn and Linacre, who had been taught in Italy.

In spite of all this promise, the Renaissance in England was rotten at the root. Theology killed it, or, at the least, breathed on it a deadly blight. Our academic forefathers "drove at practice," and saw everything with the eyes of party men, and of men who recognised no interest save that of religion. It is Mr. Seebohm (Oxford Reformers, 1867), I think, who detects, in Colet's concern with the religious side of literature, the influence of Savonarola. When in Italy "he gave himself entirely to the study of the Holy Scriptures." He brought to England from Italy, not the early spirit of Pico of Mirandola, the delightful freedom of his youth, but his later austerity, his later concern with the harmony of scripture and philosophy. The book which the dying Petrarch held wistfully in his hands, revering its very material shape, though he could not spell its contents, was the Iliad of Homer. The book which the young Renaissance held in its hands in England, with reverence and eagerness as strong and tender, contained the Epistles of St. Paul. It was on the Epistles that Colet lectured in 1496-97, when doctors and abbots flocked to hear him, with their note-books in their hands. Thus Oxford differed from Florence, England from Italy: the former all intent on what it believed to be the very Truth, the latter all absorbed on what it knew to be no other than Beauty herself.

We cannot afford to regret the choice that England and Oxford made. The search for Truth was as certain to bring "not peace but a sword" as the search for Beauty was to bring the decadence of Italy, the corruption of manners, the slavery of two hundred years. Still, our practical earnestness did rob Oxford of the better side of the Renaissance. It is not possible here to tell the story of religious and social changes, which followed so hard upon each other, in the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth. A few moments in these stormy years are still memorable for some terrible or ludicrous event.

That Oxford was rather "Trojan" than "Greek," that men were more concerned about their dinners and their souls than their prosody and philosophy, in 1531, is proved by the success of Grynaeus. He visited the University and carried off quantities of MSS., chiefly Neoplatonic, on which no man set any value. Yet, in 1535, Layton, a Commissioner, wrote to Cromwell that he and his companions had established the New Learning in the University. A Lecture in Greek was founded in Magdalen, two chairs of Greek and Latin in New, two in All Souls, and two already existed, as we have seen, in C. C. C. This Layton is he that took a Rabelaisian and unquotable revenge on that old tyrant of the Schools, Duns Scotus. "We have set Dunce in Bocardo, and utterly banished him from Oxford for ever, with all his blind glosses . . . And the second time we came to New College we found all the great quadrant full of the leaves of Dunce, the wind blowing them into every corner. And there we found a certain Mr. Greenfield, a gentleman of Buckinghamshire, gathering up part of the same books' leaves, as he said, therewith to make him sewers or blanshers, to keep the deer within his wood, thereby to have the better cry with his hounds." Ah! if the University Commissioners would only set Aristotle, and Messrs. Ritter and Preller, "in Bocardo," many a young gentleman out of Buckinghamshire and other counties would joyously help in the good work, and use the pages, if not for blanshers, for other sportive purposes!

"Habent sua fata libelli," as Terentianus Maurus says, in a frequently quoted verse. If Cromwell's Commissioners were hard on Duns, the Visitors of Edward VI. were ruthless in their condemnation of everything that smacked of Popery or of magic. Evangelical religion in England has never been very favourable to learning. Thus, in 1550 "the ancient libraries were by their appointment rifled. Many manuscripts, guilty of no other superstition than red letters in the front or titles, were condemned to the fire . . . Such books wherein appeared angles were thought sufficient to be destroyed, because accounted Papish or diabolical, or both." A cart- load of MSS., lucubrations of the Fellows of Merton, chiefly in controversial divinity, was taken away; but, by the good services of one Herks, a Dutchman, many books were preserved, and, later, entered the Bodleian Library. The world can spare the controversial manuscripts of the Fellows of Merton, but who knows what invaluable scrolls may have perished in the Puritan bonfire! Persons, the librarian of Balliol, sold old books to buy Protestant ones. Two noble libraries were sold for forty shillings, for waste paper. Thus the reign of Edward VI. gave free play to that ascetic and intolerable hatred of letters which had now and again made its voice heard under Henry VIII. Oxford was almost empty. The schools were used by laundresses, as a place wherein clothes might conveniently be dried. The citizens encroached on academic property. Some schools were quite destroyed, and the sites converted into gardens. Few men took degrees. The college plate and the jewels left by pious benefactors were stolen, and went to the melting-pot. Thus flourished Oxford under Edward VI.

The reign of Mary was scarcely more favourable to letters. No one knew what to be at in religion. In Magdalen no one could be found to say Mass, the fellows were turned out, the undergraduates were whipped--boyish martyrs--and crossed at the buttery. What most pleases, in this tragic reign, is the anecdote of Edward Anne of Corpus. Anne, with the conceit of youth, had written a Latin satire on the Mass. He was therefore sentenced to be publicly flogged in the hall of his college, and to receive one lash for each line in his satire. Never, surely, was a poet so sharply taught the merit of brevity. How Edward Anne must have regretted that he had not knocked off an epigram, a biting couplet, or a smart quatrain with the sting of the wit in the tail!

Oxford still retains a memory of the hideous crime of this reign. In Broad Street, under the windows of Balliol, there is a small stone cross in the pavement. This marks the place where, some years ago, a great heap of wooden ashes was found. These ashes were the remains of the fire of October 16th, 1555--the day when Ridley and Latimer were burned. "They were brought," says Wood, "to a place over against Balliol College, where now stands a row of poor cottages, a little before which, under the town wall, ran so clear a stream that it gave the name of Canditch, candida fossa, to the way leading by it." To recover the memory of that event, let the reader fancy himself on the top of the tower of St. Michael's, that is, immediately above the city wall. No houses interfere between him and the open country, in which Balliol stands; not with its present frontage, but much farther back. A clear stream runs through the place where is now Broad Street, and the road above is dark with a swaying crowd, out of which rises the vapour of smoke from the martyrs' pile. At your feet, on the top of Bocardo prison (which spanned the street at the North Gate), Cranmer stands manacled, watching the fiery death which is soon to purge away the memory of his own faults and crimes. He, too, joined that "noble army of martyrs" who fought all, though they knew it not, for one cause--the freedom of the human spirit.

It was in a night-battle that they fell, and "confused was the cry of the paean," but they won the victory, and we have entered into the land for which they contended. When we think of these martyrdoms, can we wonder that the Fellows of Lincoln did not spare to ring a merry peal on their gaudy-day, the day of St. Hugh, even though Mary the Queen had just left her bitter and weary life?

It would be pleasant to have to say that learning returned to Oxford on the rising of "that bright Occidental star, Queen Elizabeth." On the other hand, the University recovered slowly, after being "much troubled," as Wood says, "AND HURRIED UP AND DOWN by the changes of religion." We get a glimpse, from Wood, of the Fellows of Merton singing the psalms of Sternhold and Hopkins round a fire in the College Hall. We see the sub-warden snatching the book out of the hands of a junior fellow, and declaring "that he would never dance after that pipe." We find Oxford so illiterate, that she could not even provide an University preacher! A country gentleman, Richard Taverner of Woodeaton, would stroll into St. Mary's, with his sword and damask gown, and give the Academicians, destitute of academical advice, a sermon beginning with these words:

"Arriving at the mount of St. Mary's, I have brought you some fine bisketts baked in the Oven of Charitie, carefully conserved for the chickens of the Church, the sparrows of the spirit, and the sweet swallows of salvation.

In spite of these evil symptoms, a Greek oration and plenty of Latin plays were ready for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Oxford in 1566. The religious refugees, who had "eaten mice at Zurich" in Mary's time, had returned, and their influence was hostile to learning. A man who had lived on mice for his faith was above Greek. The court which contained Sydney, and which welcomed Bruno, was strong enough to make the classics popular. That famed Polish Count, Alasco, was "received with Latin orations and disputes (1583) in the best manner," and only a scoffing Italian, like Bruno, ventured to call the Heads of Houses THE DROWSY HEADS--dormitantes. Bruno was a man whom nothing could teach to speak well of people in authority. Oxford enjoyed the religious peace (not extended to "Seminarists") of Elizabeth's and James's reigns, and did not foresee that she was about to become the home of the Court and a place of arms.

Andrew Lang