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The earliest writer of English prose, whose work survives, was Sir John de Mandeville.
He was born at St. Albans in Hertfordshire about the year 1300. Educated for the medical profession, he had scarcely finished his studies when, impelled by the irresistible desire of change, or, perhaps, by some deeper motive of which we know nothing, he set out at the age of twenty-two to travel in distant lands. He joined a Mahometan army in Palestine. some service under the Sultan of Egypt. He penetrated even as far as Cathay (China), where, we are told, he lived for three years at Pekin. Turkey, Persia, Armenia, India, Ethiopia, Libya, and many other places, were also visited by him. His knowledge of medicine often stood his friend, no doubt, among the rude tribes with whom he met. For thirty-four years Mandeville roved over the wildest regions of the Old World, looked upon as lost and dead by all his friends at home. And when he came back a worn greybeard, he found, instead of the many fresh cheeks and bright eyes of the friends from whom he had parted so long ago,
only the grave welcome of a few thin and withered men. 1356 In or about the year 1356, immediately after his return,
he wrote in Latin a Narrative of his Travels. This work
was afterwards translated by himself into French, and thence into English.
Mandeville's great fault as a writer was, that he loaded his pages with the wildest and most absurd stories, picked up by the way, and admitted upon the shallowest testimony—often, indeed, upon none at all. The most extravagant offshoots of the chival
EXTRAVAGANT STORIES OF OLD TRAVEL.
rous Romance find a parallel in many passages of the oldest work of English prose, in which monsters, giants, and demons are found to swarm. Such stories as of men with tails, and of a bird native to Madagascar that could carry an elephant in its talons, are given with the greatest seriousness. Much, however, as we may laugh at the extravagant tone of the work, it possesses for us a deep interest, both as a remarkable monument of our noble old speech in its infancy, and as a specimen of the style of thought common in an unripe age.
Mandeville, roving again from England, died and was buried at Liège in 1372.
The following extract is from the seventh chapter of his Travels, entitled, “Of the Pilgrimages in Jerusalem, and of the Holy Places thereaboute :”—
And zee schull undirstonde that whan men comen to Jerusalem her first pilgrymage is to the chirche of the Holy Sepulcr wher oure Lord was buryed, that is withoute the cytee on the north syde. But it is now enclosed in with the ton wall. And there is a full fair chirche all rownd, and open above, and covered with leed. And on the west syde is a fair tour and an high for belles strongly made. And in the myddes of the chirche is a tabernacle as it wer a lytyll hows, made with a low lityll dore; and that tabernacle is made in maner of a half a compas right curiousely and richely made of gold and azure and othere riche coloures, full nobelyche made. And in the ryght side of that tabernacle is the sepulcre of oure Lord. And the tabernacle is viij fote long and v fote wide, and xj fote in heghte. And it is not longe sithe the sepulcre was all open, that men myghte kisse it and touche it. But for pilgrymes that comen thider peyned hem to breke the ston in peces, or in poudr; therefore the Soudan Sultan] hath do make a wall aboute the sepulcr that no man may towche it. But in the left syde of the wall of the tabernacle is well the heighte of a man, is a gret ston, to the quantytee of a mannes hed, that was of the holy sepulcr, and that ston kissen the pilgrymes that comen thider. In that tabernacle ben no wyndowes, but it is all made light with lampes that hangen befor the sepulcr. And there is a lampe that hongeth befor the sepulcr that brenneth light, and on the Gode ffryday it goth out be him self, at that hour that our Lord roos fro deth to lyve. Also within the chirche at the right syde besyde the queer of the churche is the Mount of Calvarye, wher our Lord was don on the cros. And it is a roche of white coloure and a lytill medled with red. And the cros was set in a morteys in the same roche, and on that roche dropped the woundes of our Lord, whan he was pyned on the cros, and that is cleped [called] Golgatha. And men gon up to that Golgatha be degrees (steps]. And in the place of that morteys was Adames hed found after Noes flode, in tokene that the synnes of Adam scholde ben bought in that same place. And upon that roche made Abraham sacrifise to our Lord.
On a rocky point, overhanging the Tees in Yorkshire, a manorhouse stood, in which once lived the Wycliffes of Wycliffe. There, probably in 1324, a boy was born, who has gilded the family name with undying lustre. Among the rich woodlands of that fertile valley he grew up, taught, we know not certainly where or by whoni, until he reached his sixteenth year.
Then a new world opened upon the country squire's son. Travelling to Oxford on horseback, and spending, no doubt,
many weeks upon the rough and perilous journey, young 1340 Wycliffe was entered as a Commoner upon the books of A.D. Queen's College, a newly founded school. From Queen's
he soon removed to Merton. The students of Oxford in that day were, as we learn from Chaucer's pictured page, as strongly marked out into reading men and fast men as they are in our own century. Among the motley company that rode out of the Tabard gateway down the Canterbury road, there was "a clerk of Oxenforde,” lean and logical, who would rather have had twenty red or black-bound books at his bed's head than wear the richest robes or revel in the sweetest joys of music; and in violent contrast to this good threadbare bookworm, the Miller in his tale gives a fulllength portrait of the dissolute "parish clerk Absolon,” who, clad in
* The name Wycliffe means the “cliff by the water." from their manor.
The family took their surname
THE DOCTOR OF DIVINITY.
hosen red and light blue kirtle, with a snowy surplice flowing around his dainty limbs, and the windows of St. Paul's carved upon his shoes, minced through the service of the parish church. Many such did John Wycliffe meet in the streets and schools of Oxford; ; but his place must have been, not among the fast men in the brew-houses, ringing with the sounds of fiddle and dance, but among the red-bound books in his quiet rooms, else how could he have won a Fellowship in Merton, which was then considered the most learned college in Oxford ?
His rise was rapid. In 1361 he was presented to the college living of Fylingham; and towards the close of the same year he was elected Master of Balliol College. Four years later, the Primate appointed him to the Wardenship of Canterbury Hall, in the room of the deposed Wodehall.
Mendicant friars at that time swarmed all over England, who, by the sale of relics and pardons “all hot from Rome,” fleeced the poor country folk of their hard-earned groats. Such a one was the Pardoner of the “ Canterbury Tales,” who sold clouts and pigs' bones as holy relics, for money, wool, cheese, and wheat, swindling even the poorest widow out of her mite; and all the while, amid the farrago of old stories, with which he pleased his gaping audience, taking up the hypocritical cry, “ Radix malorum est cupiditas." Such canting and cheating kindled rage in the honest heart of Wycliffe, who directed his sturdy eloquence against them. In his treatise called Objections to Friars, he maintained that the Gospel in its freedom, without error of man, is the sole rule of religion. And thus he struck the key-note in the noble music of his life.
In 1372 Wycliffe took the degree of D.D. at Oxford, and thus became qualified to lecture as a. Professor of Divinity. Armed with this new power, the plain-speaking, true-hearted Englishman gathered a band of pupils in a wooden hall, roughly plastered and roofed with thatch, like all Oxford at that date, and there lifted up his voice boldly against the corrupted doctrines and the swollen avarice of the Church.
His fame led the rulers of England to send him, in 1374, as
WYCLIFFE AT OLD ST. PAUL's.
envoy to Bruges, to protest against certain encroachments of the papal power. A momentous journey it was to Wycliffe, for at Bruges he seems to have become acquainted with John of Ghent, Duke of Lancaster, who shielded the daring reformer in many a perilous hour. Already there was thunder in the air, gathering and blackening
round Wycliffe's path. A charge of heresy was laid 1377 against him, and he was summoned before the Houses of
Convocation. On the 19th of February, 1377, a vener
able man, his face "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,” stood within old St. Paul's, a grey beard sweeping his breast, a dark belted robe flowing to his feet, and a tall white staff held firmly in his thin band. But he did not stand alone. The eldest living son of the King, and the Earl Marshal of England stood by his side; for Lancaster and Percy loved and honoured the brave Oxford Doctor. The storm passed harmless by. A dispute which rose between Lancaster and Bishop Courtney as to whether the accused should sit or stand, Courtney insisting on the latter, excited so fierce a tumult that the meeting was dissolved. During all the evening shouting mobs ran riot through the streets of London.
Then King Edward died, and his grandson Richard reigned. So marked a man had Wycliffe become in this Reformation struggle, that the first Parliament of Richard II. submitted to him a question, “ Was it lawful to keep back the treasure of the kingdom for its own defence, instead of sending it away to the Pope?” Who can need to be told the reply?
This could not go on without drawing forth thunder from the banks of Tiber. Five bulls, couched in the fiercest words, were launched against that “master in error,” John Wycliffe, who was forthwith to be committed to jail. Summoned before a synod at Lambeth in April 1378, he replied to all charges manfully, and to honest minds most convincingly. And yet, in spite of this increased boldness, he was not seized and martyred; because nearly all English laymen were on his side-some from political motives, others on religious grounds. The pope and his creatures,