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This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.

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Chap. II

Education of Chaucer.-State of Learning in England Under the Norman and Plantagenets Princes.


CHAUCER appears to have passed the latter years of his education at the university of Cambridge. He speaks of himself as residing there at the age of eighteen. It is probably from the words above quoted from his Testament of Love that he received his first initiation in letters in the city of London.

We are extremely apt to put the cheat upon our imagination by the familiar and indiscriminate use we make of the terms, the dark, and the barbarous ages. These


terms are far from being applicable, without material distinctions, to the times in which Chaucer was born. The muddy effervescence which was stirred up in Europe by the continual influx of the barbarians, subsided in a considerable degree in the eleventh century. William the Norman may be considered as having introduced politeness and learning into this island; and being succeeded after an interval by his youngest son, upon whom he had bestowed a careful and elaborate education, and to whom his contemporaries gave the appellation of Beauclerc, or the fine scholar, to empire of literature became so fixed among us as not to be easily capable of being exterminated. Henry II. was still more conspicuously the patron of letters than Henry I. His court was crowded with scholars, poets, and elegant writers. His greatest and most illus-


trious subject, Thomas of Becket, drew around him a circle of literary men, whose correspondence has been handed down to us, and who every where compliment each other with the appellation of philosophers. The Latin style of John of Salisbury, Peter of Blois, and Joseph of Exeter, who were among this number, is more elegant than that of the Latin writers of any other age, from the fall of the Western empire to the reformation: nor are the conceptions of John of Salisbury in particular, the admirable good-sense of his remarks, and the pointedness of his satire, in any way inferior to the choice of his language.

Contemporary with the reign of our Henry I, other memorable exertions were making to free the intellect of Europe from that state of torpor, in which it had now been sunk for several ages. The Saracens, particularly under the caliph Almanon, who reigned in the beginning of the ninth century, had made considerable strides in the advancement of science, and, with the exception of its poets and historians, had rendered the


stores of Grecian literature their own, by a translation into Arabic. Early in the twelfth century several enterprising Europeans, urged by the thirst of knowledge, and instructed by the observations of the crusaders as to the spot where they might successfully seek it, passed over into Asia, and brought back with them, among various acquisitions, the elements of the sciences of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, medicine, natural history, alchemy, astronomy, astrology, and the Aristotelian philosophy. The Aristotelian philosophy furnished a groundwork for the achievements of those illustrious champions of human intellect commonly known by the appellation of the schoolmen.

Such were the beginnings of the revival of letters in the West of Europe. No sooner was the field of improvement laid open, than the progress was seen to be not less auspicious and novel than the commence-


ment. Among various circumstances worthy of notice, our ancestors seem to have been in no inconsiderable degree indebted, however fortuitous the concurrence may appear, to the labors of an officer of the court of Constantinople about the year of 1070, by the name Simeon Seth. This man was learned in the Oriental tongues, and, beside other works, translated from Persian and Arabic into Greek, a fabulous history of the exploits of Alexander the Great, and the book which under different forms has commonly been known by the name of the Fables of Pilpay. The first of these pieces received almost immediately a version into Latin from and unknown hand, and in this form became familiar to the European nations. The latter was imitated, soon after teh year 1100, by Piers Alfonse, a converted Jew, whose writings were well known in the time of Chaucer, and furnished, about the close of the century, the basis of a work, highly celebrated in those days, entitled Gesta Romanorum. The


above-named productions of Simeon Seth, together with the writings of Dares Phrygius and Dictys Cretensis, which probably owed the popularity they now acquired to the pretensions advanced at this time by several Western nations to a Trojan original, supplied the first intimations of ancient history to the scholars who lived under the Normans and the Plantagenets. upon the groundwork furnished by Turpin, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, (writers whom we shall presently have occasion to mention) by Simeon Seth, and by the pretended historians of the Trojan was, the French and Latin poests of the reign of Henry II. built their lucubrations; and, to crown the literary glories of the period of that monarch, Galfirede de Vino Salvo, a monk of St. Frideswide near Oxford, produced a Latin poem on the art of writing verse, entitled De Nova Poetria.

The thirteenth century witnessed the studies of William de Lorris, Guido dalla Colonna author of the Troy-Book which was afterward translated by Lydgate, Thoman Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Alfonso king of Castille inventor of the Alfonsine tables of astro-


nomy, Dante Alighieri, and Roger Bacon. Most of these illustrious names we shall have cause to refer to on future occasions.

The century however in which Chaucer lived, and those which immediately preceded, labored under one disadvantage from which we have happily escaped. The invention of printing has enabled us to multiply books almost the the extent of human want, and has rendered them cheap and accessible to a great portion of our species. In these early times it was otherwise. Seven hundred volumes were esteemed to afford a foundation for a national library. But the times of Chaucer did not in this respect suffer a disadvantage peculiarly their own. The best ages of Greece and Rome had no other method for multiplying copies than by the tedious process of transcription. This undoubtedly prevented literature from being within the reach of so large a portion of the community as at present, but was not incompatible with


learning. If we look over the list of authors quoted by Chaucer and other writers of that period, we shall find it considerably numerous. The libraries of monasteries probably in a great degree supplied the disadvantage arising from the small collections of individuals. They were prevented from being so minute and accurate in quotation as scholars of our own times frequently are, but not from being learned.

Another disadvantage incident to this remote period was the gloomy and despotic empire of papal superstition. This was in its highest pride of power under the emperors Henry III. and Henry IV. in the eleventh century, and even under our Henry II, whose age was to a considerable degree and age of letters, in the twelfth. But this evil was greatly diminished before the time of Chaucer. Popes no longer ventured to talk of depriving monarchs of their crowns. The Italian writers had decanted with great free-


dom upon the corruptions of the church. In England the scandalous lives of the monks were a favorite topic of invective. The idea had even been started and gravely discussed in the parliaments of Edward III, of throwing off the yoke of Rome. The king, the princess of Wales, and several of the greatest persons in the realm, were suspected of favouring the doctrines of Wicliffe: John of Gaunt duke of Lancaster, and many of the ablest and most skillful courtiers avowed themselves his abettors. When we consider these things, we are almost astonished that this fervor subsided, and that the spirit of resistance to superstition appears to have gained no ground from the close of the fourteenth to the commencement of the sixteenth century. Popery however had acquired so complete an ascendancy, that nothing less than the art of printing could give it a decisive and irrecoverable blow.


Meanwhile, in spite of all the appearances which favoured intellectual freedom in matters of religion, our countrymen still labored under the most powerful restraints. The right of the church to condemn speculative tenets of opinion, and to proscribe writings offensive to the reigning religion, had scarcely been questioned. It was in the year 1010 that Galileo was condemned for asserting the diurnal motion of the earth.

There was besides an incidental disadvantage in this island, which powerfully operated to check the growth of English literature. This was the state of our language. When William the Norman ascended the throne, he brought over with him great multitudes of his native nobility, and it was the policy of his reign and the reigns of his immediate successors, firmly and unrelentingly to depress the former inhabitants of the island. William possessed great and important districts in France and under Henry II. these acquired a vast additional extent. A great portion of the nobility under these princes were natives of France, and most of


those who were not strictly so, possessed estates in that country. Living in intercourse with each other and with their neighbours on the continent, and despising the rudeness and barbarity of the Saxon race, the vernacular language of our island sunk into neglect and contempt. Few of the nobles or of the dignified clergy were able to express themselves in it on the most ordinary subjects. Our laws, our pleadings, our parliamentary discussions, and our deeds of inheritance, were all French. The very boys at school were confined to translate the phraseology of the Latin classics into that language. The princes of the Norman line, who were encouragers of literature, had no conception of any literature which was not Latin or French. That language, which in its constituent members is the same which has since been immortalised in the writings of Shakespear, Bacon, and Milton,


was at this time threatened with total extinction.

Yet, whatever were the disadvantages to which learning was exposed, there was a great portion of it among us. London itself was one of its favourite seats. This has induced some of our old writers to style it the third university. The liberal sciences had not yet so fixed and denizened themselves at Oxford and Cambridge as they have since done. The oldest colleges in these universities were founded between the middle of the thirteenth and the middle of the fourteenth centuries. Till that time students resided indiscriminately in such lodgings as they could procure among the citizens of these places. A variety of incidental circumstances successively concurred to give to Oxford and Cambridge the distinctive character which they have since borne. William Fitzstephen, the historian and friend of Thomas of Becket, in a description of London an-


nexed to his Life of that Prelate, has treated with some minuteness the studies which in his time were pursued in this metropolis. He informs us that "three principal churches in London," supposed to be St. Paul's, St. Peter's Cornhil, and Westminster, "had their respective schools adjoining, of notable privilege and venerable antiquity. In addition to these there were others which under the patronage of some individuals, or sustained by the fame of such celebrated doctors as taught in them, were permitted their several institutions. On holidays the masters of these schools held their public assemblies in certain churches assigned for that purpose. The elder scholars engaged in demonstrative or dialectical disputation, some using enthymems, and others the regular syllogism. Some exercised their art in the spirit of an ostentatious contest, and others with a reverent anxiety for the discovery of truth. The former rester their reputation upon the arrangement and inundation of words, while their logic could boast no better than an external speciousness.


Orators then delivered their respective declamations, using every topic of persuasion, adhering to all the rules of art, and careful to omit no branch of their subject. The younger boys contended with each other in verse, or tried who could give the most accurate statement of the element of grammar, and the rules respecting the preterits and futures of verbs. The whole was wound up with a recitation of epigrams, ballads and rhymes, in which was revived the ancient Fescennine liberty of sarcasm, and, whith nameing indiviuals, teh foibles and frailties of each, or the secret history of his ancestors, were made the subject of bithing cockeries and tuants in the Socratic manner, the speakers at the same time taking care not to overstep the decorum due to the situaiton. The auditors, prepared to enter into the jest, shook the assembly with peals of laughter. "

Whether London retained, from the time


of William Fitzstephen to that of Chaucer, so many characteristics of an university as are here described, may be doubted. it is probably that, as the establishments of Oxford and Cambridge increased in stability and extensiveness of foundation, the rival colleges of the metropolis declined. it is not however to be imagined that a young man so advantageously circumstanced as to be designed to finish his general education at the universities, and afterward, as we have some reason to believe, to remove to the inns of court, was not made to partake of every advantage that the scholastic institutions of the city in which he resided could afford, for the cultivation of his infant mind. Private tuition, in the sense in which we now understand it, was as yet scarcely invented. young persons upon whom the discipline of education was intended to be bestowed, were either placed in the families of some of our principal nobility, where a sort of seminary was formed for their improvement in the exercise of the mind, and still more in those of the body, or were sent to some of those


public resorts of learning, which for a certain stipend were accessible to all. There seems no reason to believe that Chaucer's boyish days were spent under the auspices of nobility. His early poem of Troilus and Creseide is inscribed to no more magnificent patrons than the "moral Gower, and the philosophical Strode. "We may therefore image to ourselves our youthful poet as resorting daily to some one of the classical seminaries of the metropolis, and in the language of Fitzstephen, "contending with his fellows for the prize of Latin verse or emulously reciting with them the elements of grammar, and the rules for the preterits and futures of Latin verbs. "

Here doubtless Chaucer became acquainted with many of the Roman writers: of the Greek language it does not appear that he had any knowledge; the words of Homer, Pindar, Demosthenes, and Thucydides, never sounded in his ears, or rolled from his tongue.


He never drank from their pure and primeval wells of poetry; he held no intercourse with their manly sense, and their ardent passion for liberty. Among the Latins the nobler classics were almost uniformly deserted: the energy of Lucretius, the simplicity of Tibullus, the unaffected manner of Ternce, and the poignant gaiety of Horace were forgotten; Virgil was comparatively neglected; the favourite Roman poets were Ovid, Lucan, Satatius, and Prudentius. In prose Cicero and Livy were rarely consulted; but the daily amusement of scholars was in the unnatural style of Seneca and Boethius, or the desultory collections of Macrobius and Valerius Maxiumus. To these they added the Latin compositions of authors who had preceded by a century or two the period in which they lived. The writers of Latin verse in the twelfth century have already been mentioned with commendation; the Bellum Trojanum and the Antiocheis of Jo-


seph of Exeter, and the Phillippid of Guillaume le Breton, were particularly admired; and the Alexandreid of Gultier de Chatillon was equalled with the most perfect productions of antiquity.


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