« PreviousContinue »
THE PERIOD PRECEDING THE NORMAN CONQUEST.
OUR literature does not, any more than our laws and our political institutions, begin with the Norman Conquest, but they and it alike received from that event a new impulse, a new life and direction, and the better part of the colour and character they have ever since preserved. Whatever of our literature precedes the Conquest is a root hidden under the earth; the majestic tree, as it exists above ground, and is a visible thing, has all sprung up since that date. In other words, the Saxon literature and language are rather to be accounted among the sources than as a part of the English, to which they have hardly in truth a closer relationship than the old Latin has to the modern Italian. The Saxon and English are two distinct languages, although the one is in part formed from the other they are as distinct as the English and French, or the English and German. In the present survey, therefore, such literary remains as have come down to us from the times before the invasion of the Normans may be disposed of in a very brief retrospect.
The space of about a thousand years, extending from the overthrow of the Western Roman empire, in the middle of the fifth century, to that of the Eastern, in the
middle of the fifteenth, may be divided into two nearly equal parts; the first of which may be considered as that of the gradual decline, the second as that of the gradual revival of letters. The first of these periods, coming. down to the close of the tenth century, nearly corresponds with that of the Saxon domination in England. In Europe generally, throughout this long space of time, we perceive the intellectual darkness, notwithstanding some brief and partial revivals, deepening more and more on the whole, as in the natural day the grey of evening passes into the gloom of midnight. The Latin learning, properly so called, may be regarded as terminating with Boethius, who wrote in the early part of the sixth century. The Latin language, however, continued to be used in literary compositions, as well as in the services of the Church, both in our own country and in the other parts of Europe that had composed the old empire of Rome.
When the South of Britain became a part of the Roman empire, the inhabitants, at least of the towns, both adopted generally the Latin language and applied themselves to the study of the Latin literature and art. The diffusion among them of this new taste was one of the first means employed by their politic conquerors, as soon as they had fairly established themselves in the island, to rivet their dominion. A more efficacious they could not have devised; and, happily, it was also the best fitted to turn their subjugation into a blessing to the conquered people. Agricola, having spent the first year of his administration in establishing in the province the order and tranquillity which is the first necessity of the social condition, and the indispensable basis of all civilization, did not allow another winter to pass without beginning the
work of thus training up the national mind to a Roman character. Tacitus informs us that he took measures for having the sons of the chiefs educated in the liberal arts, exciting them at the same time by professing to prefer the natural genius of the Britons to the studied acquirements of the Gauls; the effect of which was, that those who lately had disdained to use the Roman tongue, now became ambitious of excelling in eloquence. In later times, schools were no doubt established and maintained in all the principal towns of Roman Britain, as they were throughout the empire in general. There are still extant many imperial edicts relating to these public seminaries, in which privileges are conferred upon the teachers, and regulations laid down as to the manner in which they were to be appointed, the salaries they were to receive, and the branches of learning they were to teach. But no account of the British schools in particular has been preserved. It would appear, however, that, for some time at least, the older schools of Gaul were resorted to by the Britons who pursued the study of the law Juvenal, who lived in the end of the first and the beginning of the second century, speaks, in one of his Satires, of eloquent Gaul instructing the pleaders of Britain. But even already forensic acquirements must have become very general in the latter country and the surrounding regions, if we may place any reliance on the assertion which he makes in the next line, that in Thule itself people now talked of hiring rhetoricians to manage their causes. Thule, whatever may have been the particular island or country to which that name was given, was the most northern land known to the ancients.
It is somewhat remarkable that while a good many
names of natives of Gaul are recorded in connexion with the last age of Roman literature, scarcely a British name of that period of any literary reputation has been preserved, if we except a few which figure in the history of the Christian church. The poet Ausonius, who flourished in the fourth century, makes frequent mention of a contemporary British writer whom he calls Sylvius Bonus, and whose native name is supposed to have been Coil the Good; but of his works, or even of their titles ́or subjects, we know nothing. Ausonius, who seems to have entertained strong prejudices against the Britons, speaks of Sylvius with the same animosity as of the rest of his countrymen. Among the early British churchmen the celebrated heresiarch Pelagius and his disciple Celestius belongs to the fifth century. Pelagius, although he has been claimed as a native of South Britain, was more probably, like his disciple Celestius, a Scot; that is to say, a native of Ireland (the only Scotia, or Scotland, of this date). He is said to have been a monk of Bangor; but whether this was the monastery of Bangor in Wales, or that of Bangor, or Banchor, near Carrickfergus in Ireland, has been disputed. Pelagius supported his peculiar opinions with his pen as well as orally; and some controversial writings attributed to him still exist. Until he began to propagate his heretical opinions he appears to have enjoyed the highest esteem of his contemporaries for his moral qualities as well as for talent and eloquence; the extraordinary success with which he diffused his views may suffice to attest his intellectual ability and accomplishments.* The re
* A late writer, who regards Pelagius as having been a Briton, says, in reference to a statement which has been
putation of his disciple Celestius was nearly as great as
* The original Latin is "Scotorum pultibus prægravatus." -Vossius, however, in his Dissertation upon Pelagianism, considers the Irish flummery with which Celestius is here said to have been swollen, as meaning the notions of his master Pelagius, and adduces the words as a testimony in favour of the Irish origin of the latter.