Page images

possess no claim whatever. And the very few compositions of this class which exhibit any degree of literary talent are only rare exceptions from the rule of general mediocrity. Yet, if inpartially considered, they will not be perused without interest. Political discussion was unknown. The keen subtilizing spirit of the schools found sufficient employment in the mazes of the ecclesias tical commonwealth. As yet, the arcana of the state were undis. cussed or undivulged. But the monks treated history as every other branch of human knowledge then cultivated was treated. They studied history in connexion with religion. Human deeds and events were not narrated as resulting from the policy of mankind, but as parts of the great scheme of Providence, revealed, foretold, exemplified. Sacred and profane history were united into one body, or rather all was sacred history. If they opened the annals of the nations they read them as the comments of holy writ. The Bible was the foundation of all faith and of all history. In each of the great monarchies as it rose and fell, they acknowledged the accomplishment of the mystic vision of the Seer: Whenever calamities afflicted a nation, they anticipated the pouring out of the vials of wrath reserved for the latter day. The blazing star announced impending vengeance. Pestilence and famine and slaughter are deplored as chastisements, not related as misfortunes. This mode of thought gave a monstrous tone and colouring to their compositions, but, at the same time, they acquire from it a degree of harmony and unity of effect which is neither unsatisfactory nor unpleasing.

The extent of information varied, of course, with the diligence and activity of each individual writer. Research and labour might accomplish mighty tasks when : knowledge could be gathered from the shelves of the library; but unless the chronicleri was invested with a station 'which placed him in the busy haunts of men, his opportunities of becoming acquainted with the history of his own times must have been limited and rare. We, who live in an age and country in which the means of locomotion and communication have been facilitated by all the power of human ingenuity and science, can scarcely iniagine to ourselves the difficulty of obtaining intelligence in those regions where newspapers are unknown, and whose peaceful solitudes have never been disturbed by the bugle of the guard. Destitute of these aids, even bad news does not fly apace; and the details of passing events, which in the course of eight-and-forty hours are transmitted from the Channel to the border, could scarcely creep the same distance in a twelvemonth, when Fame was compelled to limp with her dispatches along the primitive ruts and patriarchal bridle-paths of Watling Street and Ikenild Street, and the other renowned highways,


That the olde Kynges mad where thoru men may wende:

From the on ende of Engel lond north to the other ende. Epistolary correspondence was confined to a small class of the community. The Abbot returning from the synod perhaps whispered to the older brethren the particulars of the last dissension between the King and his nobles; or the monks lis tened to the pilgrim, fraught with the account of the wars which, some seven years before, had taken place between the Soudau-and his rebellious vassals, the heathen hounds of Benamarin or Garbo. Narrations produced from such communications cannot fail to be loose, vague, and unsatisfactory. And when Montesquieu speaks of the 'faiseurs de chroniques, qui savoient à peu près de l'histoire de leur temps ce que les villageois savent aujourd'hui de celle du nôtre,' he hardly exaggerates their average ignorance.

Inaccurate in their source, the statements thús embodied must often have been deeply tinged by popular prejudices and popular passions. The period of poetical romance has its bounds, but wben can we escape from the romance of faction and of party? Can we discover a conspiracy which has not become an article of faith in the heated imaginations of the one party, or a criminal whom the other faetion has not venerated as a martyr? Let century be placed in parallel with century, and


and the chance of our being enabled to pronounce an'accurate judgment upon remote transactions may be estimated by the impractícability of affording any satisfactory solution of the historical problems whose dates are to be placed almost in our times. Mary Stuart ought never to be acquitted until Brunehault is finally condemned. Nor can this difficulty be a subject of surprize. In the most enlightened periods the uncertainty of all human testimony perpetually battles and deludes the inquirer. The more momentous the question, the greater is the difficulty of meeting with an unbiassed and competent relator.' He who best knows the truth is usually the person most tempted to distort or conceal the knowledge of which he is possessed.

To these moral causes of perplexity must be added the obstacles arising from the paucity of written records of ancient history, After Rome was reduced to ashes by the Gauls, where could the writers of the republic peruse the annals of her kings?. A single manuscript has often been the sole depositary of the best and surest monuments of history, which, had it perished, would have been entirely lost. Ignorance and neglect consume the relics which have been exempted from the devastations of war and conquest. If any have escaped, they are preserved by chances almost beyond the limits of probability. Nor must we overlook the various causes which impede us in extracting the truth from


age with

those scanty, memorials. A simple allusion, well understood by the writer and his contemporaries, but unintelligible to posterity, may destroy the sense of an entire chapter. The obliteration of a numeral, the transposition of a date, the erroneous transcription of a letter in a name, may lead the modern historian into the most baseless theories, or involve his narrative in total confusion.

These considerations may reasonably induce the inquirer to entertain a considerable degree of historical scepticism; and the ecceqtricity of genius, aided by the stimulus of paradox, and rebelling against the general submission to received authorities, may extend such pyrrhonism almost beyond the bounds of right reason. Hardouin may be adduced as a memorable example of learned extravagance. Listen to bim, and all the authors of Greece and Rome, excepting only Virgil and Pliny, are the forgeries of the ingenious impostors of the middle ages. Not contented with annihilating the remains of classical antiquity, he extends his inexorable proscription to languages. Neither the Coptic por the Anglo-Saxon, he maintains, have ever existed, both being, as he argues with a considerable show of plausibility, mere fanciful jargons invented in the middle ages and written in arbitrary characters.--Hardouin has left no followers, nor bas he made any proselytes, but from time to time a kindred spirit has received à transient excitation. More critical modifications of unbelief have thus been shown by the ingenious writers who have occa. sionally questioned the probability of particular portions of his tory. Able reasoners have appeared who have pronounced the Iliad to have as little pretensions to historical truth as the Ramayuna; and, in the opinion of others, the blind bard himself dissolves into the airy nothingness of his heroes. Thermopylæ and Marathon have been deprived of their honours, lu Xerxes, the King of Kings, the orientalist more than suspects that he disco, vers the vassal satrap of the Persian monarch, whoin the garrulous vanity of Athens and Ionia invested with the diadem avd attributes of empire. The same tone of investigation has been extended to the Roman history; and the virtues of Numa, and the crimes of Tarquin, merge alike in the mythological cycles of the erudite scholars of Germany. We do not believe that these theories, many of which have been supported with great learning and ingenuity, have as yet succeeded in persuading the multitude out of their old opinions. It will be a long time before the world at large will be convinced that the exploits of Achilles and of Humayoon the monkey rest upon the same basis. And indeed we must recollect that the acuteness of historical criticism may lead to abuse. The chief error arising from the vulgar' mode


of viewing history is the admission that every thing which is possi ble, is true, without much inquiry respecting the weight of the evidence upon which the assertion rests. Historical pyrrhonism tends to the contrary extreme. The critic may be deceived into the persuasion that every event is false unless it can be proved by uncontrovertible and undeniable evidence. These principles tbus applied to the investigation of history are, perhaps, even more dangerous than the popular absence of inquiry. The negative side is always the easiest of defence. Entrenched by contradiction, an able reasoner may easily show that the most certain event can never have happened, particularly if he calls in the aid of a supposed mythological allegory. Give full scope to allegory, and there is not a reign in the History of England whose annals could not be turned into a political parable no less perfect than Fenelon's Telemachus. A middle course between the two oppo. site extremes is found in the investigation of the character of the materials of history; and instead of speculating on the evidence of the witnesses it is better to examine both their competence and credibility, and to discuss their era, their origin, their transmis. sion, and their preservation.

In considering the progress of the modern European nations, the first question relates to the manner in which any. memorials of their internal history, anterior to their conversion to Christianity, can have been preserved. Cæsar and Tacitus for a short period dispel the shades of the Hercynian forest, and lead us into the wilds and fastnesses of Gaul and Britain. But the knowledge which we obtain from these mighty masters of history expires with their age; and the writers of the declining empire only afford confused and unconnected notices of the fortunes of the barbarians, whose annals do not appear in any instance to have been reduced into a continuous narrative until the introduction of Christianity, In England an interval of upwards of two centuries intervened before any historian of the people arose. · Uutil the era of venerable Bede, no work can be discovered to which the title of a history or chronicle can properly be assigned. , It must not, however, be supposed, that the invading tribes usually designated under the general name of Anglo-Saxons were entirely ignorant of letters. Like all the other Germanic nations, they possessed the use of the alphabetical characters called Runes-a name which may be traced as high as the sixth century;--and which continued in England to be employed as a term for writing in the age of Alfred, and perhaps until the very expiration of the Anglo-Saxon language.

Though the English runes are closely allied to the runes of Scandinavia, still it is not to be concluded that they are derived


[ocr errors]

from them. Both are to be deduced from that primeval alphabet whose forms can be discovered amongst all the Caucasian nations, and which was probably the parent of all the alphabetical charac. ters now in use in the world. Our present mode of publication forbids us to enlarge on an hypothesis which must be supported by the characters themselves. But there is sufficient evidence yet existing to show that all the signs of sound now known to mankind are modifications of one system, the simplest form being found in those characters, which, for want of a better name, we may term the Cadmæan alphabet. The Runes of the Northmen are only sixteen in number. The Anglo-Saxon Runes are more numerous, and therefore probably include compounds and combinations of later date, but they must, nevertheless, have been invented before the nation left the shores of Germany, being identically the same with the characters which, as we learn from Rabanus Maurus, were employed by the Marcomanni, a name which he applies, not to the Marcomanni of the Romans, but to the heathen Saxons, then living beyond the Elbe;* and we consider this circumstance as affording the strongest inference that the Anglo-Saxon runes are authentic and original. Accident could not occasion the affinity, and no motive could have existed for imposture. Every Anglo-Saxon letter had its significant name. In the Beth-luis-nion alphabet of Ireland, plants and trees alone afforded the denominations of the characters. But the English alphabet was more diversified. Some letters were named from visible objects, others from abstract ideas. These appropriations, however, do not seem to indicate any hieroglyphic origin. It is more probable that they were given for the purpose of aiding thé memory. Similar devices may be traced amongst other nations, The names given to the letters of the Sclavonian alphabet form a prayer.t

All writing was originally engraving. The runes, like the Bardie characters of the Britons, seem to have been usually engraved upon wooden wands. Of this practice, which existed within time of historical memory in Scandinavia, we have a memorial in the word Stave, which has been variously employed to denote a letter of the alphabet, an epistle, a line, a verse.

* De inventione linguarum. Ap. Goldas. Scrip. Rer. Alem. II. p. i. p. 67.

† The English letters, with a curious poetical exposition grounded on the names, were preserved in one of the Cottonian manuscripts (since burnt), Otho, B. 10. from whence they were engraved by Hickes, Grammatica Anglo-Saxonica, p. 135. They are also found, with little variation, in many other ancient manuscripts. »

# The ancient custom' prevails without any variation in the islands of the Indian archipelago. We have now before us a poem in the Lampung character, each verse whereof is neatly cut upon'a sniall stick or staff of bamboo cane. The Battaks use larger timber, and a distinguished Orientalist in this metropolis possesses an epic poem in their language, cut upon a club of about six feet in length.


« PreviousContinue »