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Lecture the Second.
THE ERA OF EDWARD THE THIRD-JOHN WICKLIFFE-THE PRECURSORS OF CHAUCER-GEOFFREY CHAUCER-JOHN GOWER-SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE.
HE entire annals of English history do not, perhaps, present another period more splendid, in all respects, than the age of Edward the Third. Besides that illustrious monarch himself, than whom a superior never occupied the English throne, it was the era of Wickliffe, emphatically the Father of the Reformation, and of Chaucer, the Father of English poetry.
JOHN WICKLIFFE, certainly not the least brilliant of the great lights of this remarkable period, was born at Wickliffe, in Yorkshire, 1324. He early entered Queen's College, Oxford, but soon after removed to Merton College in the same university, because the scholastic theology which at that time prevailed in the latter institution was better calculated to display the acuteness of his intellect, and enable him to distinguish himself above his fellows. After having successfully graduated at the college to which he was attached, he, for some years, turned his exclusive attention toward theological studies, and finally obtained the divinity professorship. He had not long discharged the important duties which this new position imposed upon him, before he was made doctor in divinity, and raised, in 1361, to the position of master of Baliol College in the same university. His reputation now advanced so rapidly, that in 1365, he was elevated to the head of Canterbury Hall, a new Oxford College just at that time founded. His election to this important office was made by the students of the college themselves, and as the tenets which he now entertained in opposition to the Church of Rome, began to undisguisedly manifest themselves, he was strenuously opposed by a number of monks who had gained admission to the college, and who wished a head of their own order. Wickliffe and his secular associates, however, gained the ascendency in the contest which followed; and the monks were, accordingly, expelled from the college. From this sentence of expulsion, they immediately appealed to Cardinal Langham, Archbishop of Canterbury, under whose control the college then was. The
Archbishop at once espoused their cause, and immediately ordered Wickliffe to resign his office; but as Wickliffe refused to submit to this order, Langham had recourse to a sequestration of the revenues of the college, and thus left it without support. Wickliffe and his secular associates now appealed from the decision of the Archbishop to Pope Urban the Fifth. The Pope, however, having been well advised of all the circumstances connected with this contest between Wickliffe and the monks, confirmed the decree of the archbishop, and Wickliffe having no alternative left him, resigned his position, and retired to a small living which he had previously secured at Lutterworth in Leicestershire.
Being now released from all obligation to the court of Rome, Wickliffe began more seriously to inquire into its impositions. The authority of the pope, and the temporalities of the church, were at that time very firmly established in England, and the jurisdiction of the bishops was of vast Wickliffe resolved to oppose both; and he had scarcely entered upon the course of opposition which he had determined to pursue, before he found many able associates and protectors; for the doctrine which he inculcated was favorable to the king, whose authority was weakened by that of the pope and the bishops; to the great lords, who were in possession of the revenues of the church; and to the people, to whom the tax of Peterpence and other impositions of the Church of Rome were very burthensome.
Wickliffe's doctrines having now become a matter of public notoriety, Simon Sudbury, who had recently succeeded to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, assembled in 1377, a council at Lambeth, before which he cited Wickliffe to appear and defend himself against the charge of heresy preferred against him by the monks. This summons he unhesitatingly obeyed; and being accompanied by the duke of Lancaster, who, at that time, exercised an important share in the government, and by other noble lords, he was honorably acquitted.
Pope Gregory the Eleventh, however, being advised of the doctrines which Wickliffe was inculcating, and of the protection which he received from those who were able to screen him from condemnation, wrote to the bishops of England, and directed that if they could not have him apprehended, they should cite him to repair to Rome, and there defend himself before the pope. But Wickliffe, now the favorite both of the lords and of the people, refused to obey the pontiff's summons, in consequence of which another council was held at Lambeth, before which Wickliffe unhesitatingly appeared, and in the event as signally triumphed as he had in the former case.
Strengthened by these recurring discomfitures of his opponents, Wickliffe now proclaimed his new doctrines boldly and without reserve; and as he drew after him great numbers of disciples, William Courteney, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, called a council in 1382, and condemned the Reformer's doctrines by public decree. Unfortunately the weak and pusillanimous Richard the Second now occupied the English throne, and
through fear of the power of the Romish church, gave to this decree his royal sanction; in consequence of which the followers of Wickliffe were severely persecuted, though he himself remained undaunted: and such was the respect in which he was held, that the reformation, which he had so boldly commenced, was rapidly advancing, when he unfortunately died, just at the time when nothing but a leader equal to the exigency was needed to carry the work to a successful consummation. His death occurred 1384, in the sixty-first year of his age; but the good seed which he had already sown, continued, though slowly, yet surely, to geminate in the heart of the whole nation, until it burst forth in the full bloom of the Reformation, perfected more than two centuries afterward under the conspicuous reign of Queen Elizabeth.
More than forty years after his death, by decree of the same council of Constance which condemned John Huss and Jerome of Prague to be burned, Wickliffe's bones were ordered to be disinterred, and burnt, and the ashes thrown into a brook. This brook,' says Fuller, the church historian, in a passage which brings quaintness to the borders of sublimity, 'hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean: and thus the ashes of Wickliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which is now dispersed all over the world.'
The principles of the Romish church against which Wickliffe particularly inveighed, were the supremacy of the pope, his infallibility, and the corruptions to which these unfounded pretensions necessarily lead; and in his controversy with his antagonists, he wrote many works on those subjects, the principal of which was the Trialogus, a dialogue, the three speakers in which were Truth, Lye, and Wisdom. But by far his most important literary performance was a translation of the Bible into his native language. This important work he accompanied by explanatory notes, the value of which is still very generally acknowledged. A single passage from this translation will close our notice of this important character in English literature. It is given in the original spelling, that it may serve as a specimen of the language at that period.
And Marye seyde, My soul magnifieth the Lord,
And my spiryt hath gladid in God myn helthe.
For he hath behulden the mekenesse of his handmayden: for lo for this alle generatiouns schulen seye that I am blessid. For he that is mighti hath don to me grete thingis, and his name is holy.
And his mercy is fro kyndrede into kyndredis to men that dreden him.
He hath made myght in his arm, he scatteride proude men with the thoughte of his herte.
He sette doun myghty men fro seete, and enhaunside meke men. He hath fulfillid hungry men with goodis, and he has left riche men voide. He heuynge mynde of his mercy took up Israel his child.
As he hath spokun to oure fadris, to Abraham, and to his seed into worlds.
CHAUCER, the remaining member of this bright trio, next demands our attention; but before we proceed to investigate his life and genius, we must glance at those of his predecessors who immediately preceded him; for until that time, English poetry assumed no other form than that of the Chronicle, and the Romance. Henceforward, however, we shall be called upon to regard it under all those varied and interesting aspects under which it has been employed to point a moral lesson, to describe natural scenery, to convey satiric reflections, and to give expression to refined and delicate sentiment. The dawn of miscellaneous poetry, as these poems may be comprehensively called, is to be faintly discovered about the middle of the thirteenth century, during the reign of Henry the Third. The earliest of these poems which can be said to possess any literary merit, is an Elegy, written 1307, on the death of king Edward the First. This poem is executed in musical and energetic stanzas, of which the following may be taken as a fair specimen :
Jerusalem, thou hast i-lore,
He wolde ha rered up ful heyge1
Wel longe we mowe clepe2 and crie,
The first name that occurs in this department of English literature, is that of Lawrence Minot, who about 1350 composed a series of short poems on the victories of Edward the Third, beginning with the battle of Halidon Hill, and ending with the Siege of Guines Castle. At about the same time flourished Richard Rolle, a hermit of the order of St. Augustine, who lived a solitary life in the vicinity of the nunnery of Hampole, near Doncaster. He wrote paraphrases of various parts of the Scriptures, and an original poem of a moral and religious nature, entitled, The Precke of Conscience. From this long and generally tedious poem, we select the following agreeable passage, and present it in the original spelling.
WHAT IS IN HEAVEN.
Ther is lyf withoute ony deth,
And ther is youthe without ony elde ;3
And ther is nevere wynter in that countrie:-
And ther is grete melodie of aungeles songe,
And ther is alle manner frendshipe that may be,
And ther is wisdom without folye,
And ther is honeste without vileneye.
Al these a man may joyes of hevene call:
Is the sighte of Goddes bright face,
The Vision of Pierce Ploughman, a satirical poem of the same period, ascribed to Robert Langlande, a secular priest, also shows very clearly and expressively the progress which was made about the middle of the fourteenth century, toward a literary style. This poem is, in many respects, one of the most important works that appeared in England previous to the invention of printing. It is the popular representative of the doctrines which were even then silently bringing about the Reformation; and it is also a peculiarly national poem, not only as being a purer specimen of the English language than even Chaucer's poetry presents, but as exhibiting the revival of the same system of alliteration to which we have already alluded as characterizing the Anglo-Saxon poetry. It is, in fact, both in this particular, and in its political character, characteristic of a great literary and political revolution, in which the language as well as the independence of the AngloSaxons had at last gained the ascendency over those of the Normans.
Pierce is represented as falling asleep on the Melvern hills, and as seeing, in his sleep, a series of visions. In describing these, he exposes the corruptions of society, and particularly the dissolute lives of the religious orders, with much bitterness. From this poem we present the allegory of Mercy and Truth, as fairly indicating the spirit of the entire work.
MERCY AND TRUTH ALLEGORIZED.
Out of the west coast, a wench, as me thought,
For the virtue that her followed afeard was she never.
Either axed other of this great wonder,
Of the din and of the darkness.
With these imperfect models before him as his only native guides, arose the great Father of English poetry, GEOFFREY CHAUCER. Though the English language had risen into importance with the rise of the Commons in the time of Edward the First, yet the French long kept possession of the court,