Page images

madrigals. John Dowland studied in France and Italy before taking his Mus. Bac, at Oxford in 1588. He was a wonderful lutenist, and was eagerly welcomed at the Danish court in 1600, but he appeals to us most as a connoisseur of song. William Byrd (1539-1623), another Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, who ranks with Tallis in the van of old English music, made his reputation as Organist at Lincoln. His taste was rather Puritan, and he shows an undue fondness for squaretoed psalmody, yet he also set some delightful pastoral songs. The volume of all this collected verse is enormous, not to speak of the dainty verselets "in private chambers that encloistered are." To the lover of word-music these composers are a race apart, inasmuch as they were not content to regard the words of a song as a "mere peg on which to hang the music, but sought the services of true-born lyrists." And it is "not too much to say that, for delicate perfection of form" some of these obscure librettists come within measurable distance of the choicest epigrams in the Greek Anthology. For the musical side of the subject the student should consult the Fourth and Fifth Chapters of Henry Davey's extremely interesting History of English Music. The contents of the best of the song-books, with comments on the more notable songs, are given in Shorter English Poems (An English Garner, 1903). There, too, will be found a copious collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Posies for Rings, Handkerchers and Gloves (1624). “Taken a few at a time,” says Mr. Bullen, “these suckets have a pleasant relish."







"Wyclif, Langland, and Chaucer are the three great figures of English literature in the Middle Ages.”—JUSSERAND.

John Wyclif-Piers Plowman-William Langland-William Tyndale-John Foxe The English Prayer Book-The Metrical Psalms-The Authorised Version of the Bible.

THE text we have put at the head of this chapter is one that strikes home with the vigour of what seems almost a familiar truth. Langland, who taught the people by poetic allegory in an old alliterative verse which takes us back to the days before the speech of the people was disdained as vile, and forms a kind of bridge between Anglo-Saxon and English; Chaucer, who naturalised Italian story and French verse in the new "mother-tongue," as Midland English began to be called from about the time of the Black Death; Wyclif, who formed the conception of a popular Bible in the vulgar tongue or English of the commonalty. These three sum up what is of most pith and moment to the twentieth century in what remained of the Middle Ages to England in 1475.

John Wyclif belonged to the rich and respectable family of the Wyclifs, lords of the manor of that name in the Richmond district of Yorkshire. He was born from ten to twenty years before Langland and Chaucer, somewhere about 1322. He studied at Oxford, probably at Balliol, and soon attracted notice, being one of those men who occupy from the beginning of their lives without seeking for it, but being, as it were, born to it, a place apart and aloof from the limp multitude of men. When he was

[ocr errors]

barely thirty-five the College of Balliol, which had lost its master, elected him to fill the post, which he seems to have held for a brief space only. In 1372, after sixteen years' study, he became a doctor of divinity. He was already famous as a writer and logician, and was preparing to qualify for the title of ecclesiastical politician.

Advancing upon the familiar lines of those who said that the action of the Pope must be restrained and controlled by General Councils, Wyclif soon outstripped all his predecessors in daring as a theorist. He was not satisfied, in fact, until he had destroyed the papal theory altogether, and by so doing acted as pioneer of that Protestant sap of the organisation of Christianity as a Church which has gone on more or less steadily ever since. Wyclif was charged in papal bulls ordering his arrest with no less than nineteen notorious heresies, and was tried at Lambeth early in 1378. But with the court and baronial backing at his command, the prelates manifestly dared not condemn him to any severe penalty. He was merely adjured not to disseminate his errors, and naturally paid no attention whatever to the adjuration.

But there was another side to Wyclif's activity, not theological or theoretical at all, but evangelical. He was the pioneer of the university extension movement, for it was the main object of his care in his later life that the plain outlines of the gospel story should be disseminated among the poor by college men in the guise of itinerant preachers.

Lollardism and Methodism, too, as well as the so-called "Oxford Movement," began at Oxford. By the "poor preachers" the authority of the Bible was to be exalted against that of the Bishop of Rome. There was no printing press then, we must remember, and reading was still an accomplishment. About 1380, or possibly a little before, he began to arrange for the version of the Bible from the

Latin which goes by his name, and which he undoubtedly inspired, though the bulk of the actual translating was done by his Oxford disciples. His final stage as an insurgent against Church authority was reached when, in his antagonism to sacerdotal miracle-mongering, he questioned the miracle of the mass, and declared (though somewhat ambiguously) that he recognised in the sacrament only an emblem of remembrance and communion. In the eyes of opponents he had now quitted "error" for black heresy, which was promptly condemned by the assembled D.D.'s at Oxford in 1381. The political situation alone could now have saved Wyclif, as it subsequently saved Luther. As it was, the great peasants' revolt of this year was followed by a steadily accelerating movement of ecclesiastical reaction. But Wyclif himself was left unmolested, and retired to the peaceful parsonage of Lutterworth, in Leicestershire (where his pulpit may yet be seen): there he occupied himself with preaching to his rural congregations the sermons which have come down to us, in completing some portion of his translation of the Bible, and in composing treatises of enhanced violence against the abuses of the Church and the scandals of the pontificate, until his death on the last day of 1384. He was buried at Lutterworth.

Since the beginning of his academic course Wyclif had been deeply absorbed in the study and exposition of the Scriptures. His controversial tracts were varied by strenuous Bible sermons. The Oxford students listened with rapt attention to the life-giving words of his preaching, and soon, in accordance with the scholastic habits of the day, they styled him "Doctor Evangelicus." It was then that the idea first dawned in his mind of transferring the dead letter of the Latin version into the recently developed speech of his mother-land. This great work, which seems to have occupied him mainly about 1379-80, was of neces

sity based upon the Vulgate or Latin Bible, for Wyclif did not understand the original Hebrew or Greek. Part of the Bible had already been done into Anglo-Saxon and into English, especially the great treasure-house of mediaval devotion, the Psalms, and the whole Bible had been done into court French, which had but recently ceased to be the common language of the law courts and of the upper classes. As part of his great appeal to Scripture against the medieval Church, it was Wyclif's earnest desire that the Scriptures in the living tongue should reach the people through the medium of the poor priests which he had instituted a few years previously. Wyclif himself seems to have inspired and supervised the translating of the whole Bible into the vulgar tongue. He himself was responsible probably only for quite a small portion of the New Testament. But a great emulation seems to have prevailed among his disciples in regard to the carrying on of the work by which their master set so much store. Nicholas Hereford rendered most of the Old Testament, and the whole was revised after Wyclif's death by his former curate at Lutterworth, John Purvey. Purvey's version of 1388-9 is less stiff and awkward, yet at the same time is freer from colloquialisms and from Midland provincialisms than the original. In spite of the subsequent persecution of the Lollards, as many as a hundred and seventy manuscript copies of Wyclif's version are extant to this day, affording a faint hint of the impression which must have been produced by the first appearance of the translation. Its wide diffusion was in fact the first irreparable breach in the fortress round which the clergy had reared the Vulgate as an impregnable bulwark. Wyclif's Bible was extensively copied down to about 1450, and even amid the violence of orthodox reaction during the fifteenth century the Bible penetrated so deeply into the hearts of the people that the knowledge of it could not again be wholly

« PreviousContinue »