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.