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THE WENERABLE BEDE. 23
nay, the Anglo-Saxon ladies, – wrote countless pages of Latin prose and verse. The great subject of these Latin works was theology, as was natural from the circumstance that they were chiefly the productions of the cloister. ALDHELM.—Most ancient of the Anglo-Saxon writers in Latin was Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborn. He was born in Wessex about 656, of the best blood in the land. His chief teacher was an Irish monk named Meildulf, who lived a hermit life under the shade of the great oak trees in north-eastern Wiltshire. When the followers of Meildulf were formed into a monastery bearing its founder's name (Meildulfesbyrig or Malmesbury), Aldhelm was chosen to be their abbot. There he lived a peaceful life, relieving his graver cares with the sweet solace of literature and music. He died at Dilton in May 709. His chief works are three; a prose treatise in praise of Virginity,+a work in verse on the same subject, and a book of Riddles. His Latin is impure, filled with Greek words, and stuffed with those alliterations and metaphors which are characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry. BEDE—Second in time, but first in place, comes the name of the Wenerable Bede, or Beda. This illustrious man was born about 672 or 673, at Jarrow in Durham, near the mouth of the Tyne. To the newly founded monastery of Wearmouth, not far distant, the studious boy went at the age of seven, to profit by the teaching of Benedict Biscop. Thenceforward—until his death fifty-six years later—the cloisters of Wearmouth were his home; and within their quiet seclusion he wrote the great work, on which his title to the name Venerable is justly founded. In his fifty-ninth year he brought to a close his famous History of the Anglo-Saxon Church, written—like nearly all his works—in Latin. Its style is simple and easy, unsullied by the far-fetched figures which are such favourites with Aldhelm. From it we learn nearly all we know of the early history of the Anglo-Saxons and their Church. At the end of this book Bede gives a list of thirty-eight works, which he had already written or compiled. These are chiefly theological; but there are, besides, among them, histories, poems, works on physical science, and works on grammar.
24 THE GREAT SCHOLAR ALCUIN.
Cuthbert, one of Bede's disciples, gives us a sketch of his dying bed. From the beginning of April until the end of May 735, he continued to sink under an attack of asthma, which had long been sapping his strength. To the very last he worked hard, dictating with his failing breath a translation into Anglo-Saxon of John's Gospel. It was morning on the 27th of May. “Master,” said one of the young monks who wrote for him, “there is but one chapter, but thou canst ill bear questioning.” “Write 735 quickly on,” said Bede. At noon he took a solemn fareA.D. well of his friends, distributing among them his treasured spices and other gifts. By sunset there remained but one sentence of the work to do, and scarcely had the concluding words of the Gospel flowed from the pen of the writer, when the venerable monk sighed out, “It is done.” The thread was just about to snap. Seated on that part of the floor where he had been wont to kneel in prayer, he pronounced the “Gloria Patri,” and died as the last words of the sacred utterance were breathed from his lips. ALCUIN.—The year 735, which sealed the eyes of Bede in death, is thought to have given life to the great scholar Alcuin. It is doubtful whether Alcuin was born at York or in Scotland. He won a prominent place in the great school presided over at York by Archbishop Egbert, and when he was called to fill the chair— from which his master, Egbert, had taught so well—he drew even greater crowds of students to this capital of the north. Besides his work as a teacher, he acted as keeper of the fine library collected in the Cathedral of York. While returning from a visit to Rome, he became acquainted at Parma with the Emperor Charlemagne, who invited him to France. Going thither in 782, he speedily became one of the most cherished friends of his imperial patron, who was never happier than when he was chatting and laughing unreservedly with men of thought. After a short visit to England (790–792) in the character of Imperial Envoy, Alcuin seems to have settled permanently in France. There his position was a proud one, for he was recognised as chief among the distinguished group of wits and lettered men who encircled the throne of Charlemagne. The name by which he was known in
ERIGENA, THE LEARNED LAYMAN. 25
this brilliant circle was Flaccus Albinus, a title under which he could converse more freely with his friend David (Charlemagne), than if the monk and the emperor always retained their distinctive names and titles. In his old age Alcuin desired earnestly to retire from the glare and bustle of court life to that quiet monastery round which his earliest associations were twined. He had all ready for the journey, when news came of terrible massacres and burnings in the north of England, such as had not before been suffered, although the Raven's beak had left many a deep and bloody gash upon the fair English shore. Frightened at such tales, he asked from the emperor a post, in which he might calmly pass the evening of his days. The Abbey of Tours, falling vacant just then, became his place of retirement, where he spent his learned leisure in training a new generation of scholars, and in writing most of those books by which his name has come down to us. At Tours he died in 804. The Letters of Alcuin give a life-like picture of the great events of his day. The wars of Charlemagne against the Saracens and the Saxons are there described; and there, too, we find a graphic account of the inner life of the imperial court. A Life of Charlemagne has been ascribed to the pen of Alcuin; but, if there was ever such a work, it has long been lost. Of his poems, the best is an Elegy on the Destruction of Lindisfarne by the Danes. He wrote, besides, a long metrical narrative of the bishops and saints of the Church at York; which, on the whole, is not very elegant Latin, and poor enough poetry. Theology, of course, was his principal study; and on this theme he wrote much, pouring from his pen a host of Scriptural commentaries and treatises on knotty points of doctrine. As a teacher he ranks much higher than he ranks as an author. His chief glory—and the thing of which his countrymen were especially proud—was the fact that he, a Briton, had been chosen to give instruction to the great Emperor of the West. ERIGENA.—John Scotus or Erigena, although not a Saxon, but, as his name shows, an Irishman, claims our special notice here. Little is known of this great man. He probably settled in France
26 How DUNSTAN won HIS SAINTSHIP.
about 845, and lived there, under the patronage of Charles the Bald, for thirty years. He should be well remembered for two things: he was a learned layman, and a well-read Greek scholar, both characters being very rare in those benighted days. His chief works are a treatise on Predestination, in which he argues that God has fore-ordained only rewards for the good, and that man has brought evil on himself by the exercise of his own perverted will; a treatise on the Eucharist, denying the doctrine of transubstantiation; and—more remarkable than either—a book On the Division of Nature, which embraces a wide range of scientific knowledge, and is copiously enriched with extracts from Greek and Latin writers. The bold, fearless mature of the man, and the familiar tone of the Frankish court life, are well illustrated by an anecdote told of Erigena. One day the king and he sat on opposite sides of the table, with the courtiers ranged around. The scholar—through forgetfulness orignorance—transgressed some of the rules of etiquette, so as to offend the fastidious taste of those who sat by, upon which, the king asked him what was the difference between a Scot” and a sot. “Just the breadth of the table,” said Erigena; and it is more than likely that the royal witling ventured on no more puns, for that day at least, at the scholar's expense. Erigena is said to have died in France some time previous to the year 877. DUNSTAN.—One of the foremost Saxons of his day, though more noted for his learning than for his writings, was Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. Born in 925, near Glastonbury in Somersetshire, and educated there in the Irish school, he became a monk at an early age. His advances in learning were surprisingly rapid, in spite of the convulsive fits to which he was subject, and under the influence of which he thought that he was hunted by devils. Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music were his favourite studies. While living at Winchester, he was persuaded by his uncle the Bishop to crush down his early love for a girl of great beauty, and to devote himself with might and main to the austerities of a monkish life. Be
* A Scot then meant a native of Ireland.
IdECAY OF SAXON LITERATURE. 27
side the church wall he built a cell, into which he shut himself with his tools of carpentry and smith-work, his paints and brushes for the illumination of manuscripts. Seldom venturing from this retreat, he soon won a reputation for wonderful sanctity and alliance with supernatural beings. King Edmund made him Abbot of Glastonbury; and with Edred also—the next king—he was in high favour. Banished by Edwy to Ghent, he was by Edgar recalled to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Thenceforward he was first man in the English realm, able not merely to rebuke the king, but even to bestow the crown at his pleasure. He died in 988. His works are nearly all theological, the best known being the Benedictine Rule, modified for English monks, and having its Latin interlined with a Saxon translation. He wrote also a Commentary or Set of Lectures on the Rule; which were probably read by him in the various schools with which he was connected. The latter days of the Anglo-Saxon literature were feeble compared with the vigour of its youth. Even in the day of Alfred, when it may be said to have reached its prime, decay was at work, and the ravages of the Danes completed the blight of its promise. Those were days when many kings made their mark at the foot of charters, for want of skill to write their names. Alfred could find no tutors able to teach the higher branches of education; and he was forced to state publicly, in his preface to “Gregory's Pastorale,” that he knew no men south of the Thames, and few south of the Humber, who could follow the sense of the public prayers, or construe a Latin sentence into English. Yet that an AngloSaxon literature—however scanty—did flourish, is no slight wonder, for during those ages clouds of thickest darkness hung over all Europe with a seemingly impenetrable gloom.