« PreviousContinue »
EARLY TUDOR PROSE
"Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus."
Lord Berners' Froissart-Fabyan's New Chronicles-Richard Grafton-John Leland-Andrew Boorde-George Cavendish -Grocyn and Linacre-John Colet-Sir John Cheke-Roger Ascham-The Scholemaster-Latimer-Sir Thomas Elyot— Sir Thomas More-Utopia-Its influence in literature.
Or the chief prose writers during the two reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII., covering a period of over sixty years, it is proposed to give a classified rather than a chronological survey. Hitherto English prose had been strictly limited in kind. There were, of course, chronicles and letters, translations and treatises. Annals, theology, and law had engrossed by far the greater part of the activity of English prose writers. Only a few years before the crowning mercy of Bosworth (1485) Malory had adapted prose to the purpose of highly imaginative narrative, and it was soon to be bent to other fresh uses. New forms of literature are now rising, and they are associated everywhere with the battle of opinion which, like the first movement of sap in plants, is a first condition of health, growth, and fruit-bearing. The example of the Italian courts had strengthened the faith of king and courtiers in the skilled use of the pen. Henry VIII. among his courtly makers attacked Luther in a treatise, and composed some tunable songs. He was soon to defy the Pope of Rome, like Shakespeare's King John, and to make himself Pope of England, to the exceeding great joy of the Lollard remnant, and of the much greater section of the
community who either hated or coveted, as the case might be, the power and the wealth of Rome.
Commencing in the old paths of chronicle and translation we pass on to the outpourings of our first really great English antiquary, John Leland; the early English eccentric and merry-andrew, Boorde; and our first distinctive and individual biographer, George Cavendish. The great humanistic movement was now beginning effectually to quicken English thought, especially through the influence of the universities. Linacre and Grocyn, Colet and Erasmus, lead us to More, Elyot, and Ascham. But the Renaissance in England soon becomes merged in the Reformation, of which we have a noble representative in Latimer, although for the most fundamental work of our English reformers in the evolution of the English Scriptures, the liturgy, and other formularies of Protestant doctrine, we must refer our readers to a special chapter a little later on.
The chief work of Lord Berners (c. 1467-1533), his famous translation of Froissart, was undertaken by the express command of Henry VIII. The first volume was printed by Pynson in 1524, the second in 1525. It may be freely admitted that Berners shows a gentlemanly indifference to pedantic niceties of style, whether French or English. He makes no pretence to superior qualifications for the work. In the preface to the Froissart he speaks of his "rude translation"; and elsewhere he speaks of his lack of facility in English, and his incomplete study of French. This unpretentiousness had one capital result; the translator attempts no soaring flights, but keeps his nose down close to the phrasing of his original. When his author is clear, Berners is comparatively lucid, but when there are hard words or difficult constructions he is apt to become confused. The difficulty is often due to the printed text of the French, which was not derived from
the best manuscripts and is full of corruptions; yet he is frequently very careless both in translating his French and in constructing his English, while instead of correcting the English proper names, of which the French-speaking Froissart had made a most admired havoc, he frequently makes matters worse by incorrect transcription. With all his faults, however, Berners, with his unformed fifteenthcentury English, probably represents the spirit of the original better than any accurate version in modern prose could do. There is a vigorous picturesqueness about his phrase, and a vitality about the utterances of his personages, for the loss of which no amount of grammatical concord with the original could possibly atone. He has, too, this unique advantage-that he was born within seventy years of the death of Richard II., the event with which his translation terminates. His diction is, on this account, not too far removed from the time of his author, or from the famous acts and glorious deeds in which the ancestors of the translator and his readers alike had borne their share.
"It is well to read Froissart," writes Taine to his sister, "but do not seek facts there. Simply remark and make a note of the picture of manners. For the rest, read it like a romance. You can read Rollin in the same way, but that will profit you less." In reading Froissart, nevertheless, we are reading the history of the fourteenth century, breathing the spirit and the very air of that age of infinite variety, in which the knight-errant appears side by side with the plundering adventurer, while popular uprisings sound the first note of alarm to feudal oppressors, and the schism of the papacy leaves an open door to the religious reformer. The Chronicles only really cover two reigns in any detail, but these two reigns-of Edward III. and Richard II.-make up the greater part of the fourteenth century. The chief landmarks of the book are exploits of war-Sluys, Creçy, Calais, Poitiers,
Najara, Limoges, Wat Tyler's Revolt, Rosebeque, and Otterburn-concluding with the coronation of Henry IV. The whole forms a great pageant of court and camp, of barons, captains, archers, sieges, and fierce "journeys," or noble adventures of feats of arms. As we read it, we seem to be unrolling a length of ancient tapestry, displaying an animated crowd of knights and ladies with a background of castles, tilts and tournaments, unfaded in colour, harmonious in grouping, yet presenting to the eye no regular or uniform picture.
From the glittering pages of Froissart as rendered by Lord Berners one turns sadly to the tedious homespun of our native chroniclers such as Fabyan and Hall, representatives of English history under Henry VII. and Henry VIII.
Fabyan's New Chronicles of England and France, the concordance of histories, was printed by Pynson in 1516 in two parts: Part I., from the mythical Brut of Geoffrey of Monmouth to Henry II.; Part II., from Richard I. down to the accession of Henry VII. Successive continuations carried the work down to the enthronement of Elizabeth. Each year is dealt with separately under the heading of its Lord Mayor, and much space is devoted to the London Corporation and to the details of bloodcurdling executions. More attractive, perhaps, is the socalled chronicle of Edward Hall, another Londoner, who studied at Eton, Cambridge, and Gray's Inn, became a common serjeant, and died in 1547. The character of Hall's book is shown in its title: The Union of the Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and York, commencing with Henry IV. and ending with Henry VIII.; printed by Berthelot in 1542. Hall's chronicle is a glorification of the House of Tudor and a justification of all the acts of Henry VIII., especially as regards Church matters. Hall is far superior to Fabyan in style, and the limitation of his subject enables him to invest it with considerable dramatic
interest. He uses the Latin history of Polydore Vergile to some extent as a groundwork, but for the early years of Henry VIII. he becomes an original authority. Some of his descriptions are very vivid and were closely followed by Shakespeare, in Richard III. for instance. Later historians also, such as Grafton, Holinshed, and Stow, borrowed very largely from Hall.
Richard Grafton (died 1572) was an important printer and stationer, who printed the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. He edited the metrical chronicle of John Hardynge, brought down Hall from 1532 to 1546, and in 1568 brought out a chronicle of his own, entitled A Chronicle at Large and Mere Historye of the Affayres of England.1
Of greater intrinsic value than these chronicles is the work of our first great (extra-legal) antiquarian scholar, John Leland, who was educated first at St. Paul's School, under the celebrated grammarian William Lilly, grandfather of the Euphuist, and then at Cambridge, Oxford, and Paris. Henry VIII., with his undoubted gift in discerning talent, encouraged Leland in every way, making him Chaplain Librarian and King's Antiquary, in addition to according him a special permit to examine the historical records of the country. From 1536 to 1542 Leland travelled all over the kingdom. His tours were as extensive as those of Defoe, but his survey was not so much social and economic as topographical and antiquarian. He visited towns, villages, castles, cathedrals, and monasteries; ransacked libraries for valuable books and records; hunted out coins, inscriptions, and ancient works of art; and even collections in
1 The scientific value of these chronicles is not perhaps great, but they mark progress in the history of English prose as a vehicle of narrative. They were all edited and indexed by Sir Henry Ellis between 1809 and 1816. On Berners, see W. P. Ker, Essays on Medieval Literature, 1905.