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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Transition from the Age of Chivalry
By William Stubbs (1825–1901)
 
From the ‘Constitutional History of England’

AND here our survey, too general and too discursive perhaps to have been wisely attempted, must draw to its close. The historian turns his back on the Middle Ages with a brighter hope for the future, but not without regrets for what he is leaving. He recognizes the law of the progress of this world; in which the evil and debased elements are so closely intermingled with the noble and the beautiful, that in the assured march of good, much that is noble and beautiful must needs share the fate of the evil and debased. If it were not for the conviction that however prolific and progressive the evil may have been, the power of good is more progressive and more prolific, the chronicler of a system that seems to be vanishing might lay down his pen with a heavy heart. The most enthusiastic admirer of mediæval life must grant that all that was good and great in it was languishing even to death; and the firmest believer in progress must admit that as yet there were few signs of returning health. The sun of the Plantagenets went down in clouds and thick darkness; the coming of the Tudors gave as yet no promise of light: it was “as the morning spread upon the mountains,”—darkest before the dawn.  1
  The natural inquiry, how the fifteenth century affected the development of national character, deserves an attempt at an answer; but it can be little more than an attempt, for very little light is thrown upon it by the life and genius of great men. With the exception of Henry V., English history can show throughout the age no man who even aspires to greatness; and the greatness of Henry V. is not of a sort that is peculiar to the age or distinctive of a stage of national life. His personal idiosyncrasy was that of a hero in no heroic age. Of the best of the minor workers, none rises beyond mediocrity of character or achievement. Bedford was a wise and noble statesman, but his whole career was a hopeless failure. Gloucester’s character had no element of greatness at all. Beaufort, by his long life, high rank, wealth, experience, and ability, held a position almost unrivaled in Europe, but he was neither successful nor disinterested: fair and honest and enlightened as his policy may have been, neither at the time nor ever since has the world looked upon him as a benefactor; he appears in history as a lesser Wolsey,—a hard sentence perhaps, but one which is justified by the general condition of the world in which the two cardinals had to play their part; Beaufort was the great minister of an expiring system, Wolsey of an age of great transitions. Among the other clerical administrators of the age, Kemp and Waynflete were faithful, honest, enlightened, but quite unequal to the difficulties of their position; and besides them there are absolutely none that come within even the second class of greatness as useful men. It is the same with the barons: such greatness as there is amongst them—and the greatness of Warwick is the climax and type of it—is more conspicuous in evil than in good. In the classes beneath the baronage, as we have them portrayed in the Paston Letters, we see more of violence, chicanery, and greed, than of anything else. Faithful attachment to the faction which from hereditary or personal liking they have determined to maintain, is the one redeeming feature; and it is one which by itself may produce as much evil as good,—that nation is in an evil plight in which the sole redeeming quality is one that owes its existence to a deadly disease. All else is languishing: literature has reached the lowest depths of dullness; religion, so far as its chief results are traceable, has sunk, on the one hand into a dogma fenced about with walls which its defenders cannot pass either inward or outward, on the other hand into a mere war-cry of the cause of destruction. Between the two lies a narrow borderland of pious and cultivated mysticism, far too fastidious to do much for the world around. Yet here as everywhere else, the dawn is approaching. Here as everywhere else, the evil is destroying itself; and the remaining good, lying deep down and having yet to wait long before it reaches the surface, is already striving toward the sunlight that is to come. The good is to come out of the evil: the evil is to compel its own remedy; the good does not spring from it, but is drawn up through it. In the history of nations, as of men, every good and perfect gift is from above: the new life strikes down in the old root; there is no generation from corruption.  2
  So we turn our back on the age of chivalry, of ideal heroism, of picturesque castles and glorious churches and pageants, camps and tournaments, lovely charity and gallant self-sacrifice; with their dark shadows of dynastic faction, bloody conquest, grievous misgovernance, local tyrannies, plagues and famines unhelped and unaverted, hollowness of pomp, disease and dissolution. The charm which the relics of mediæval art have woven around the later Middle Ages must be resolutely, ruthlessly broken. The attenuated life of the later Middle Ages is in thorough discrepancy with the grand conceptions of the earlier times. The thread of national life is not to be broken; but the earlier strands are to be sought out and bound together, and strengthened with threefold union for the new work. But it will be a work of time: the forces newly liberated by the shock of the Reformation will not at once cast off the foulness of the strata through which they have passed before they reached the higher air; much will be destroyed that might well have been conserved, and some new growths will be encouraged that ought to have been checked. In the new world, as in the old, the tares are mingled with the wheat. In the destruction and in the growth alike, will be seen the great features of difference between the old and the new.  3
  The printing-press is an apt emblem or embodiment of the change. Hitherto men have spent their labor on a few books, written by the few for the few, with elaborately chosen material, in consummately beautiful penmanship, painted and emblazoned as if each one were a distinct labor of love, each manuscript unique, precious,—the result of most careful individual training, and destined for the complete enjoyment of a reader educated up to the point at which he can appreciate its beauty. Henceforth books are to be common things. For a time the sanctity of the older forms will hang about the printing-press; the magnificent volumes of Fust and Colard Mansion will still recall the beauty of the manuscript, and art will lavish its treasures on the embellishment of the libraries of the great. Before long, printing will be cheap, and the unique or special beauty of the early presses will have departed; but light will have come into every house, and that which was the luxury of the few will have become the indispensable requisite of every family.  4
  With the multiplication of books comes the rapid extension and awakening of mental activity. As it is with the form, so with the matter. The men of the decadence, not less than the men of the renaissance, were giants of learning; they read and assimilated the contents of every known book; down to the very close of the era, the able theologian would press into the service of his commentary or his summa every preceding commentary or summa, with gigantic labor, and with an acuteness which, notwithstanding that it was ill-trained and misdirected, is in the eyes of the desultory reader of modern times little less than miraculous: the books were rare, but the accomplished scholar had worked through them all. Outside his little world all was comparatively dark. Here too the change was coming. Scholarship was to take a new form: intensity of critical power, devoted to that which was worth criticizing, was to be substituted as the characteristic of a learned man for the indiscriminating voracity of the earlier learning. The multiplication of books would make such scholarship as that of Vincent of Beauvais, or Thomas Aquinas, or Gerson, or Torquemada, an impossibility. Still there would be giants like Scaliger and Casaubon,—men who culled the fair flower of all learning; critical as the new scholars, comprehensive as the old: reserved for the patronage of sovereigns and nations, and perishing when they were neglected, like the beautiful books of the early printers. But they are a minor feature in the new picture. The real change is that by which every man comes to be a reader and a thinker; the Bible comes to every family, and each man is priest in his own household. The light is not so brilliant, but it is everywhere; and it shines more and more unto the perfect day. It is a false sentiment that leads men in their admiration of the unquestionable glory of the old culture, to undervalue the abundant wealth and growing glory of the new.  5
  The parallel holds good in other matters besides books. He is a rash man who would, with one word of apology, compare the noble architecture of the Middle Ages with the mean and commonplace type of building into which, by a steady decline, our churches, palaces, and streets had sunk at the beginning of the present century. Here too the splendor of the few has been exchanged for the comfort of the many; and although perhaps in no description of culture has the break between the old and the new been more conspicuous than in this, it may be said that the many are now far more capable of appreciating the beauty which they will try to rival, than ever the few were to comprehend the value of that which they were losing. But it is needless to multiply illustrations of a truth which is exemplified by every new invention: the steam plow and the sewing-machine are less picturesque, and call for a less educated eye than that of the plowman and the seamstress: but they produce more work with less waste of energy; they give more leisure and greater comfort; they call out, in the production and improvement of their mechanism, a higher and more widely spread culture. And all these things are growing instead of decaying.  6
  To conclude with a few of the commonplaces which must be familiar to all who have approached the study of history with a real desire to understand it, but which are apt to strike the writer more forcibly at the end than the beginning of his work. However much we may be inclined to set aside the utilitarian plan of studying our subject, it cannot be denied that we must read the origin and development of our Constitutional History chiefly with the hope of educating ourselves into the true reading of its later fortunes, and so train ourselves for a judicial examination of its evidences,—a fair and equitable estimate of the rights and wrongs of policy, dynasty, and party. Whether we intend to take the position of a judge or the position of an advocate, it is most necessary that both the critical insight should be cultivated, and the true circumstances of the questions that arise at later stages should be adequately explored. The man who would rightly learn the lesson that the seventeenth century has to teach, must not only know what Charles thought of Cromwell and what Cromwell thought of Charles, but must try to understand the real questions at issue, not by reference to an ideal standard only, but by tracing the historical growth of the circumstances in which those questions arose; he must try to look at them as it might be supposed that the great actors would have looked at them if Cromwell had succeeded to the burden which Charles inherited, or if Charles had taken up the part of the hero of reform. In such an attitude it is quite unnecessary to exclude party feeling or personal sympathy. Whichever way the sentiment may incline, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is what history would extract from her witnesses; the truth which leaves no pitfalls for unwary advocates, and which is in the end the fairest measure of equity to all. In the reading of that history we have to deal with high-minded men, with zealous enthusiastic parties, of whom it cannot be fairly said that one was less sincere in his belief in his own cause than was the other. They called each other hypocrites and deceivers, for each held his own views so strongly that he could not conceive of the other as sincere; but to us they are both of them true and sincere, whichever way our sympathies or our sentiments incline. We bring to the reading of their acts a judgment which has been trained through the Reformation history to see rights and wrongs on both sides; sometimes see the balance of wrong on that side which we believe, which we know, to be the right. We come to the Reformation history from the reading of the gloomy period to which the present volume has been devoted; a worn-out helpless age, that calls for pity without sympathy, and yet balances weariness with something like regrets. Modern thought is a little prone to eclecticism in history: it can sympathize with Puritanism as an effort after freedom, and put out of sight the fact that Puritanism was itself a grinding social tyranny, that wrought out its ends by unscrupulous detraction, and by the profane handling of things which should have been sacred even to the fanatic, if he really believed in the cause for which he raged. There is little real sympathy with the great object, the peculiar creed that was oppressed: as a struggle for liberty, the Quarrel of Puritanism takes its stand beside the Quarrel on the Investitures. Yet like every other struggle for liberty, it ended in being a struggle for supremacy. On the other hand, the system of Laud and of Charles seems to many minds to contain so much that is good and sacred, that the means by which it was maintained fall into the background. We would not judge between the two theories which have been nursed by the prejudices of ten generations. To one side liberty, to the other law, will continue to outweigh all other considerations of disputed and detailed right or wrong: it is enough for each to look at them as the actors themselves looked at them, or as men look at party questions of their own day, when much of private conviction and personal feeling must be sacrificed to save those broader principles for which only great parties can be made to strive.  7
  The historian looks with actual pain upon many of these things. Especially in quarrels where religion is concerned, the hollowness of the pretension to political honesty becomes a stumbling-block in the way of fair judgment. We know that no other causes have ever created so great and bitter struggles; have brought into the field, whether of war or controversy, greater and more united armies. Yet no truth is more certain than this, that the real motives of religious action do not work on men in masses; and that the enthusiasm which creates Crusaders, Inquisitors, Hussites, Puritans, is not the result of conviction, but of passion provoked by oppression or resistance, maintained by self-will, or stimulated by the mere desire of victory. And this is a lesson for all time; and for practical life as well as historical judgment. And on the other hand, it is impossible to regard this as an adequate solution of the problem: there must be something, even if it be not religion or liberty, for which men will make so great sacrifices.  8
  The best aspect of an age of controversy must be sought in the lives of the best men; whose honesty carries conviction to the understanding, whilst their zeal kindles the zeal, of the many. A study of the lives of such men will lead to the conclusion, that in spite of internecine hostility in act, the real and true leaders had far more in common than they knew of: they struggled, in the dark or in the twilight, against the evil which was there, and which they hated with equal sincerity; they fought for the good which was there, and which really was strengthened by the issue of the strife. Their blows fell at random: men perished in arms against one another whose hearts were set on the same end and aim; and that good end and aim which neither of them had seen clearly was the inheritance they left to their children, made possible and realized not so much by the victory of one as by the truth and self-sacrifice of both.  9
  At the close of so long a book, the author may be suffered to moralize. His end will have been gained if he has succeeded in helping to train the judgment of his readers to discern the balance of truth and reality; and whether they go on to further reading with the aspirations of the advocate or the calmness of the critic, to rest content with nothing less than the attainable maximum of truth, to base their arguments on nothing less sacred than that highest justice which is found in the deepest sympathy with erring and straying men.  10
 
 
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