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The Interdependence of Literature
Latin Literature and the Reformation
by Curtis, Georgina Pell

It has been said that the literati of the Middle Ages--the monks and schoolmen--sought to keep the people in ignorance by writing in Latin. Those who so think can ill have studied the trend of events in Europe for several hundred years before the Reformation, or its bearing on literature.

After the fall of the Roman Empire vast hordes of barbarians invaded Europe. In every country the language was in a state of transition. One nation often spoke two or three different dialects according to locality. In England the Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, the Cymric (or Welsh) and the Norman-French all had their day. Under these circumstances it was impossible to have a literature in the language of the people until, in the course of time, the national languages were formed, and during this period of transition the Latin was the language of literature, the one medium of communication between the literati of different countries; and had it not been for the preservation of learning in the cloisters during these ages, all knowledge, and literature, and even Christianity itself, would have been lost. The monks, therefore, deserve more credit than is usually meted out to them by hasty or superficial critics.

In the earliest ages Ireland was the seat of the greatest learning in Europe. While England was still plunged in barbarism, and France and Germany could boast of no cultivation, Ireland was full of monasteries where learned men disseminated knowledge. The Latin language thus became a means for preserving the records of history, and it has also been a treasure house of stories, furnishing material for much of the poetry of Europe. One of these legends gave Scott the story of the combat between Marmion and the Spectre Knight.

It has been said that the Ancients did not know how to hold converse with nature, and that little or no sign of it can be found in their writings. Matthew Arnold has traced to a Celtic source the sympathy with, and deep communing with nature that first appeared among European poets. Under the patronage of Charlemagne the cloisters and brotherhoods became even more learned and cultivated than they had been before. Whatever the people knew of tilling the soil, of the arts of civilization, and of the truths of religion, they learned from the monks. By their influence States were rendered more secure, and it is to the monks alone that Western Europe is indebted for the superiority she attained over the Byzantines on the one hand (who were possessed of far more hereditary knowledge than she), and over the Arabs on the other, who had the advantage of eternal power. The cloisters were either the abode, or the educators, of such men as the Venerable Bede, Lanfranc and Anselm, Duns Scotius, William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth (who preserved the legends of Arthur, of King Lear, and Cymbeline), of Geraldus Cambrensis, of St. Thomas a Kempis, of Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk, and of Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar, who came very near guessing several important truths which have since been made known to the world by later scholars.

The Bible was protected and cherished from age to age in these cloisters, where it was, in fact, preserved solely by the labors of the monks, who translated it by hand, with illuminated border and text. When a new religious house was opened, it would obtain from some older monastery a copy of one of these priceless copies of the Sacred Scriptures; and then this new house in its turn, would set to work to multiply the number of Bibles, through the labor of its monks and brothers.

The German translation of the Bible was made in classic High Dutch, and many later writers have fashioned their style from it, although modern scholars, Catholic and Protestant, have found many faults in it, especially whole passages, wherein Luther has erred. This craze for High Dutch caused the historians of both Denmark and Sweden to utter a vigorous protest against the influx of High Dutch literature into their respective countries in the sixteenth century. They averred it was ruining the native language and literature; but, in spite of this, Lutheranism got a firm foothold in both these nations.

In the sixteenth century the poetry of all Southern Europe was affected by the upheaval caused by Luther and his teachings, while in the Northern countries it was even worse; for, as a great German author (von Schlegel), has said:

"The old creed could not be driven into contempt without carrying along with it a variety of images, allusions, poetic traditions and legends, and modes of composition, all more or less connected with the old faith."

The struggle that we can trace (in all the works Luther has left) of his own internal conflict between light and darkness, faith and passion, God and himself, is a type and indication of what took place in literature during the Reformation, when the old was in opposition to the new.


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