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science, than to corrupt both, by confounding the common sense of mankind with frivolous speculation'. These visionary theologists never explained or illustrated any scriptural topic: on the contrary, they perverted the simplest expressions of the sacred text, and embarrassed the most evident truths of the Gospel by laboured distinctions and unintelligible solutions. From the universities of France, which were then filled with multitudes of English students, this admired species of sophistry was adopted in England, and encouraged by Lanfranc and Anselm, archbishops of Canterbury". And so successful was its progress at Oxford, that before the reign of Edward the Second, no foreign university could boast so conspicuous a catalogue of subtle and invincible doctors.
Nor was the profession of the civil and canonical laws a small impediment to the propagation of those letters which humanize the mind, and cultivate the manners. I do not mean to deny, that the accidental discovery of the imperial code in the twelfth century contributed in a considerable degree to civilise Europe, by introducing, among other beneficial consequencesy more legitimate ideas concerning the nature of government and the administration of justice, by creating a necessity of transferring judicial decrees from an illiterate nobility to the cognisance of scholars, by lessening the attachment to the military profession, and by giving honour and importance to civil employments: but to suggest, that the mode in which this invaluable system of jurisprudence was studied, proved injurious to polite literature. It was no sooner revived, than it was received as a scholastic science, and taught by regular professors, in most of the universities of Europe. To be skilled in the theology of the schools was the chief and general ambition of scholars : but at the same time a knowledge of both the laws was become an indispensable requisite, at least an essential recommendation, for obtaining the most opulent ecclesiastical They both flourished about the year SENTENTIARUM Parisiis," &c. Rog.
Bacon, apud A. Wood, Hist. Antic “ Baccalaureus qui legit textum Univ. Oxon. i. p. 53. (sc. S. Scripturæe) succumbit lectori the author of the Sentences.
dignities. Hence it was cultivated with universal avidity. It became so considerable a branch of study in the plan of academical discipline, that twenty scholars out of seventy were detined to the study of the civil and canon laws, in one of the most ample colleges at Oxford, founded in the year 1385. And it is easy to conceive the pedantry with which it was pursued in these seminaries during the middle ages. It was treated with the same spirit of idle speculation which had been carried into philosophy and theology, it was overwhelmed with endless commentaries which disclaimed all elegance of language, and served only to exercise genius, as it afforded materials for framing the flimsy labyrinths of casuistry.
It was not indeed probable, that these attempts in elegant literature which I have mentioned should have any permanent effects. The change, like a sudden revolution in government, was too rapid for duration. It was moreover premature, and on that account not likely to be lasting. The habits of superstition and ignorance were as yet too powerful for a reformation of this kind to be effected by a few.polite scholars. It was necessary that many circumstances and events, yet in the womb of time, should take place, before the minds of men could be so far enlightened as to receive these improvements.
But perhaps inventive poetry lost nothing by this relapse. Had classical taste and judgement been now established, imagination would have suffered, and too early a check would have been given to the beautiful extravagancies of romantic fabling. In a word, truth and reason would have chased before their time those spectres of illusive fancy, so pleasing to the imagination, which delight to hover in the gloom of ignorance and superstition, and which form so considerable a part of the poetry of the succeeding centuries.
are the learning of a rude age. In the progress of letters, speculation and enquiry commence with refinement of
Literature becomes sentimental and discursive, in proportion as a people is polished : and men must be instructed by facts, either real or imaginary, before they can apprehend the subtleties of argument, and the force of reflection.
Vincent of Beauvais, a learned Dominican of France, who flourished in the thirteenth century, observes in his MIRROR of History, that it was a practice of the preachers of his age, to rouse the indifference and relieve the languor of their hearers, by quoting the fables of Esop: yet, at the same time, he recommends a sparing and prudent application of these profane fancies in the discussion of sacred subjects. Among the Harleian manuscripts in the British Museum we find a very antient collection of two hundred and fifteen stories, romantic, allegorical, religious, and legendary, which were evidently compiled by a professed preacher, for the use of monastic societies. Some of these appear to have been committed to writing from the recitals of bards and minstrels: others to have been invent, ed and written by troubadours and monksb. In the year 1389,
a grand system of divinity appeared at Paris, afterwards trans>lated by Caxton under the title of the COURT OF SAPYENCE, which abounds with a multitude of historical examples, parables, and apologues; and which the writer wisely supposes, to
• Specul. Hist. lib. iv. c. viii. fol. 31. b. edit. Ven. 1591.
• MSS. HARL. 463. membran, fol.
be much more likely to interest the attention and excite the devotion of the people, than the authority of science, and the parade of theology. In consequence of the expediency of this mode of instruction, the Legends of the Saints were received into the ritual, and rehearsed in the course of public worship. For religious romances were nearly allied to songs of chivalry; and the same gross ignorance of the people, which in the early centuries of Christianity created a necessity of introducing the visible pomp of theatrical ceremonies into the churches, was taught the duties of devotion, by being amused with the achievements of spiritual knight-errantry, and impressed with the examples of pious heroism. In more cultivated periods, the DECAMERON of Boccace, and other books of that kind, ought to be considered as the remnant of a species of writing which was founded on the simplicity of mankind, and was adapted to the exigencies of the infancy of society.
Many obsolete collections of this sort still remain, both printed and manuscript, containing narratives either fictitious or historical,
Of king and heroes old,
In solemn songs at king Alcinous' feast.“ But among the antient story-books of this character, a Latin compilation entitled GESTA ROMANORUM seems to have been the favourite.
This piece has been before incidentally noticed: but as it operated powerfully on the general body of our old poetry, affording a variety of inventions not only to Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, but to their distant successors, I have judged it of sufficient importance to be examined at large in a separate dissertation: which has been designedly reserved for this place, for the purpose both of recapitulation and illustration, and of • Milton. AT A VACATION EXERCISE, the beginning of his Third Volume,which
was published seven years after the First: * (This Dissertation on the Gesta Ro- it has now been thought best to let it fol. manorum was placed by the author at low the other Dissertations. Edit. )
giving the reader a more commodious opportunity of surveying at leisure, from this intermediate point of view, and under one comprehensive detail, a connected display of the materials and original subjects of many of our past and future poets.
Indeed, in the times with which we are now about to be concerned, it seems to have been growing more into esteem. At the commencement of typography, Wynkyn de Worde published this book in English. This translation was reprinted, by one Robinson, in 1577. And afterwards, of the same translation there were six impressions before the year 16014. There is an edition in black letter so late as the year 1689. About the year 1596, an English version appeared of “Epitomes des cent HISTOIRES TRAGIQUES, partie extraictes des ACTES DES Romains et autres, &c. From the popularity, or rather familiarity, of this work in the reign of queen Elisabeth, the title of Gesta GRAYORUM was affixed to the history of the acts of the Christmas Prince at Grays-inn, in 1594€. In Sir Giles GOOSECAP, an anonymous comedy, presented by the Children of the Chapel in the year 1606, we have, “ Then for your lordship’s quips and quick jests, why Gesta ROMANORUM were nothing to them f.” And in George Chapman's MAY-DAY, a comedy, printed at London in 1611, a man of the highest literary taste for the pieces in vogue is characterised, “One that has read Marcus Aurelius, Gesta ROMANORUM, the Mirrour of Magistrates, &c.—to be led by the nose like a blind beare that has read nothings!” The critics and collectors in black-letter, I believe, could produce many other proofs.
The GESTA ROMANORUM were first printed without date, but as it is supposed before or about the year 1473, in folio, · with this title, Incipiunt HISTORIE NOTABILES collecte ex
GESTIS ROMANORUM et quibusdam aliis libris cum applicationibus eorundemh. This edition has one hundred and fifty-two d See vol. ii. p. 322. seq.
• Act iii. pag. 39. e Printed, or reprinted, in 1688. 4to. # Much the same title occurs to a ma
f Lond. Printed for John Windet, nuscript of this work in the Vatican, 1606. 4to.
“ Historiæ Notabiles collectæ ex Gestis