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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

III. The Dissolution of the Religious Houses.

§ 5. Antiquarian study.


It can scarcely be reckoned as a gain that the dispersal of the libraries took place, except in one definite point, for it has been seen in what manner the books were usually treated. This gain was the founding of the school of English antiquaries under John Leland, 1  and the concentration in their hands of certain kinds of manuscripts that, practically, had no existence except in the recesses of monastic libraries. In 1533, this priest was appointed king’s antiquary. It was his office “to peruse the libraries of all cathedrals, abbeys, colleges, etc.,” no doubt with a view to the coming dissolution; but for six years he travelled, and claims to have “conserved many good authors, the which otherwise had been like to have perished, of the which part remain” in the royal libraries. That there was a slight degree of truth in this implied reproach we have already seen; and it is certain that access was now made possible to many copies of English and classical authors, the loss of which might have occurred under monastic complacency, and certainly would have occurred under reforming zeal. “In turning over of the superstitious monasteries,” says Bale, Leland’s friend and editor, “little respect was had to their libraries.” Others followed Leland in his care for antiquities of literature and history. Matthew Parker, says Josselin his secretary, “was very careful to seek out the monuments of former times… . Therefore in seeking up the chronicles of the Britons and English Saxons, which lay hidden everywhere, contemned and buried in forgetfulness,” as well as in editing and publishing them, Parker and his assistants did a good work which had scarcely been possible under the old system. Josselin himself helped, and Sir Robert Cotton’s collection of Saxon charters and other manuscripts is one of the great founds of English history.   13
  It is impossible, then, with any degree of justice, to set the gains and the losses, resultant from the dissolution, in parallel columns. The former were subtle, far-reaching, immature; the latter were concrete, verifiable and sentimental. Rather, until some definition of progress be agreed upon by all men, we are only safe in saying that, from the purely intellectual side, while the injury to the education of those who lived at the time, and the loss of innumerable books, antiquities and traditions for all time, are lamentable beyond controversy, yet, by the diffusion of general knowledge, by the widening of the limits of learning and philosophy, by the impetus given to independent research, art and literature, and by the removal of unjustifiable prejudice, we are the inheritors of a treasure that could hardly have been ours without the payment of a heavy price.   14

Note 1. See post, Chap. XV. [ back ]

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