Introduction to the Literature of
The full volume of this work, "Introduction to the Literature
of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries,"
was published about 1837, and is a vast accumulation of
facts, but is lacking in organic unity, in vigour, and vitality.
Hallam's spelling of proper names has been followed throughout this epitome.
I.—Before the Fifteenth Century
The establishment of the barbarian nations on the
ruins of the Roman Empire in the West was followed
by an almost universal loss of classical learning. The
last of the ancients, and one who forms a link with the
Middle Ages, is Boëthius, whose "Consolation of
Philosophy" mingles a Christian sanctity with the lessons
of Greek and Roman sages. But after his death,
in 524, the downfall of learning and eloquence was inconceivably
rapid, and a state of general ignorance, except
here and there within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, lasted
for five centuries.
The British islands led the way in the slow restoration
of knowledge. The Irish monasteries, in the seventh
century, were the first to send out men of comparative
eminence, and the Venerable Bede, in the eighth century,
was probably superior to any other man whom the world
at that time possessed. Then came the days when
Charlemagne laid in his vast dominions the foundations
In the tenth century, when England and Italy alike
were in the most deplorable darkness, France enjoyed an
age of illumination, and a generation or two later we
find many learned and virtuous churchmen in Germany.
But it is not until the twelfth century that we enter on
a new epoch in European literary history, when universities
were founded, modern languages were cultivated,
the study of Roman law was systematically taken up,
and a return was made to a purer Latinity.
Next, we observe the rise of the scholastic theology
and philosophy, with their strenuous attempt at an alliance
between faith and reason. The dry and technical style
of these enquiries, their minute subdivisions of questions,
and their imposing parade of accuracy, served indeed to
stimulate subtlety of mind, but also hindered the revival
of polite literature and the free expansion of the intellect.
Dante and Petrarch are the morning stars of the modern
age. They lie outside our period, and we must pass
them over with a word. It is sufficient to notice that,
largely by their influence, we find, in the year 1400, a
national literature existing in no less than seven European
languages—three in the Spanish peninsula, the
French, the Italian, the German, and the English.
II.—The Fifteenth Century
We now come to a very important event—the resuscitation
of the study of Greek in Italy. In 1423, Giovanni
Aurispa, of Sicily, brought over two hundred manuscripts
from Greece, including Plato, Plotinus, Diodorus, Pindar,
and many other classics. Manuel Chrysoloras, teacher of
Greek in Florence, had trained a school of Hellenists;
and copyists, translators, and commentators set to work
upon the masterpieces of the ancient world. We have
good reason to doubt whether, without the Italians of
those times, the revival of classical learning would ever
have occurred. The movement was powerfully aided
by Nicolas V., pope in 1447, who founded the Vatican
library, supported scholars, and encouraged authors.
Soon after 1450, the art of printing began to be applied
to the purposes of useful learning, and Bibles, classical
texts, collections of fables; and other works were rapidly
given to the world. The accession to power of Lorenzo
de Medici in 1464 marks the revival of native Italian
genius in poetry, and under his influence the Platonic
academy, founded by his grandfather Cosmo, promoted a
variety of studies. But we still look in vain to England
for either learning or native genius. The reign of Edward
IV. is one of the lowest points in our literary annals.
In France, the "Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles," 1486, and
the poems of Villon, 1489, show a marked advance in
style. Many French "mysteries," or religious dramas,
belong to this period, and this early form of the dramatic
art had also much popularity in Germany and in Italy.
Literary activity, in France and in Germany, had become
regularly progressive by the end of the century.
Two men, Erasmus and Budæus, were now devoting
incessant labour, in Paris, to the study of Greek; and a
gleam of light broke out even in England, where William
Grocyn began, in 1491, to teach that language in Oxford.
On his visit to England, in 1497, Erasmus was delighted
with everything he found, and gave unbounded praise to
the scholarship of Grocyn, Colet, Linacre, and the young
The fifteenth century was a period of awakening and
of strenuous effort. But if we ask what monuments of
its genius and erudition still receive homage, we can give
no very triumphant answer. Of the books then written,
how few are read now!
III.—The Sixteenth Century (1500–1550)
In the early years of this century the press of Aldus
Manutius, who had settled in Venice in 1489, was publishing
many texts of the classics, Greek as well as Latin.
It was at this time that the regular drama was first
introduced into Europe. "Calandra," the earliest modern
comedy, was presented at Venice in 1508, and about the
same time the Spanish tragi-comedy of "Calisto and
Meliba" was printed. The pastoral romance, also,
made its appearance in Portugal; and the "Arcadia,"
1502, by the Italian Sannazaro, a work of this class, did
much to restore the correctness and elegance of Italian
prose. Peter Bembo's "Asolani," 1505, a dialogue on
love, has also been thought to mark an epoch in Italian
literature. At the same time, William Dunbar, with his
"Thistle and Rose," 1503, and his allegorical "Golden
Targe," was leading the van of British poetry.
The records of voyages of discovery begin to take a
prominent place. The old travels of Marco Polo, as well
as those of Sir John Mandeville, and the "Cosmography"
of Ptolemy, had been printed in the previous century;
but the stupendous discoveries of the close of that age
now fell to be told. The voyages of Cadamosto, a Venetian,
in Western Africa, appeared in 1507; and those of
Amerigo Vespucci, entitled "Mondo Nuovo," in the same
year. An epistle of Columbus himself had been printed
in Germany about 1493.
Leo X., who became pope in 1513, placed men of letters
in the most honourable stations of his court, and was
the munificent patron of poets, scholars, and printers.
Rucellai's "Rosmunda," a tragedy played before Leo in
1515, was the earliest known trial of blank verse. The
"Sophonisba" of Trissino, published in 1524, a play
written strictly on the Greek model, had been acted some
years before. Two comedies by Ariosto were presented
Meanwhile, the printing press became very active in
Paris, Basle, and Germany, chiefly in preparing works
for the use of students in universities. But in respect of
learning, we have the testimony of Erasmus that neither
France, nor Germany, stood so high as England. In
Scotland, boys were being taught Latin in school; and
the translation of the Æneid by Gawin Douglas, completed
about 1513, shows, by its spirit and fidelity, the
degree of scholarship in the north. The only work of
real genius which England can claim in this age is the
"Utopia" of Sir Thomas More, first printed in 1516.
Erasmus diffuses a lustre over his age, which no other
name among the learned supplies. About 1517, he published
an enlarged edition of his "Adages," which displays
a surprising intimacy with Greek and Roman literature.
The most remarkable of them, in every sense, are
those which reflect with excessive bitterness on kings
and priests. Erasmus knew that the regular clergy were
not to be conciliated, and resolved to throw away the
scabbard; and his invectives against kings proceeded
from a just sense of the oppression of Europe in that
age by ambitious and selfish rulers.
We are now brought by necessary steps to the great
religious revolution known as the Reformation, with
which we are only concerned in so far as it modified
the history of literature. In all his dispute, Luther was
sustained by a prodigious force of popular opinion; and
the German nation was so fully awakened to the abuses
of the Church that, if neither Luther nor Zwingli had
ever been born, a great religious schism was still at hand.
Erasmus, who had so manifestly prepared the way for
the new reformers, continued, beyond the year 1520,
favourable to their cause. But some of Luther's tenets
he did not and could not approve; and he was already
disgusted by that intemperance of language which soon
led him to secede entirely from the Protestant side.
The laws of synchronism bring strange partners
together, and we may pass at once from Luther to
Ariosto, whose "Orlando Furioso" was printed at
Ferrara in 1516. Ariosto has been, after Homer, the
favourite poet of Europe. His grace and facility, his
clear and rapid stream of language, his variety of invention,
left him no rival.
No edition of "Amadis de Gaul" has been proved to
exist before that printed at Seville in 1519. This famous
romance was translated into French between 1540 and
1557, and into English by Munday in 1619.
A curious dramatic performance was represented in
Paris in 1511, and published in 1516. It is entitled
"Le Prince des Sots et la Mère sotte," by Peter Gringore;
its chief aim was to ridicule the Pope and the
court of Rome. Hans Sachs, a shoemaker of Nuremberg,
produced his first carnival play in 1517. The English
poets Hawes and Skelton fall within this period.
From 1520 to 1550, Italy, where the literature of
antiquity had been first cultivated, still retained her superiority
in the fine perception of its beauties, but the study
was proceeding also elsewhere in Europe. Few books of
that age give us more insight into its literary history and
the public taste than the "Circeronianus" of Erasmus,
against which Scaliger wrote with unmannerly invective.
The same period of thirty years is rich with poets, among
whom are the Spanish Mendoza, the Portuguese Ribero,
Marot in France, many hymn-writers in Germany; and
in England, Wyatt and Surrey. At this time also, Spain
was forming its national theatre, chiefly under the influence
of Lope de Rueda and of Torres Naharro, the
inventor of Spanish comedy. The most celebrated writer
of fiction in this age is Rabelais, than whom few have
greater fertility of language and imagination.
IV.—The Sixteenth Century (1550–1600)
Montaigne's "Essays," which first appeared at Bordeaux
in 1580, make an epoch in literature, being the
first appeal from the academy to the haunts of busy and
idle men; and this delightful writer had a vast influence
on English and French literature in the succeeding age.
Turning now to the Italian poets of our period, we
find that most of them are feeble copyists of Petrarch,
whose style Bembo had rendered so popular. Casa, Costanzo,
Baldi, Celio Magno, Bernardino Rota, Gaspara
Stampa, Bernado Tasso, father of the great Tasso, Peter
Aretin, and Firenzuola, flourished at this time. The
"Jerusalem" of Torquato Tasso is the great epic of
modern times; it is read with pleasure in almost every
canto, though the native melancholy of Tasso tinges all
his poem. It was no sooner published than it was
weighed against the "Orlando Furioso," and Europe has
not yet agreed which scale inclines.
Spanish poetry is adorned by Luis Ponce de Leon,
born in 1527, a religious and mystical lyric poet. The
odes of Herrera have a lyric elevation and richness of
phrase, derived from the study of Pindar and of the
Old Testament. Castillejo, playful and witty, attempted
to revive the popular poetry, and ridiculed the imitators
The great Camoens had now arisen in Portugal; his
"Lusiad," written in praise of the Lusitanian people, is
the mirror of his loving, courageous, generous, and patriotic
heart. Camoens is the chief Portuguese poet in this
age, and possibly in every other.
This was an age of verse in France. Pierre Ronsard,
Amadis Jamyn his pupil, Du Bartas, Pibrac, Desportes,
and many others, were gradually establishing the rules of
metre, and the Alexandrine was displacing the old verse
of ten syllables.
Of German poetry there is little to say; but England
had Lord Vaux's short pieces in "The Paradise of
Dainty Devices"; Sackville, with his "Induction" to the
"Mirrour of Magistrates," 1559; George Gascoyne,
whose "Steel Glass," 1576, is the earliest English satire;
and, above all, Spenser, whose "Shepherd's Kalendar"
appeared in 1579. This work was far more natural and
more pleasing than the other pastorals of the age.
Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis," and his "Rape of
Lucrece," were published in 1593–94. Sir Philip Sidney,
Raleigh, Lodge, Breton, Marlowe, Green, Watson, Davison,
Daniel, and Michael Drayton were now writing
poems, and Drake has a list of more than two hundred
English poets of this time.
The great work of the period is, however, the "Faëry
Queen," the first three books of which were published in
1590, and the last three in 1596. Spenser excels Ariosto
in originality, force, and variety of character, and in
depth of reflection, but especially in the poetical cast of
Of dramatic literature, between 1550 and 1600, we have
many Italian plays by Groto, Decio da Orto, and Tasso.
The pastoral drama originating with Agostino Beccari
in 1554, reached its highest perfection in Tasso's "Aminta,"
which was followed by Guarini's "Pastor Fido."
Lope de Vega is the great Spanish dramatist of this
time. His astonishing facility produced over two thousand
original dramas, of which three hundred have been
preserved. Jodelle, the father of the French theatre,
presented his "Cléopatre" in 1552. In 1598 the foundations
were laid of the Comédie Française.
In England, Sackville led the way with his tragedy of
"Gorboduc," played at Whitehall before Elizabeth in
1562. In 1576, the first public theatre was erected in
Blackfriars. Several young men of talent appeared,
Marlowe, Peele, Greene, Kyd, and Nash, as the precursors
of Shakespeare; and in 1587, being then twenty-three
years old, the greatest of dramatists settled in
London, and several of his plays had been acted before
the close of the century.
Among English prose writings of this time may be
mentioned Ascham's "Schoolmaster," 1570, Puttenham's
"Art of English Poesie," 1586, and, as a curiosity of
affectation, Lilly's "Euphues." But the first good prose-writer
is Sir Philip Sidney, whose "Arcadia" appeared
in 1590; and the finest master of prose in the Elizabethan
period is Hooker. The first book of the "Ecclesiastical
Polity" is one of the masterpieces of English
V.—The Seventeenth Century (1600–1650)
The two great figures in philosophy of this period are
Bacon and Descartes. At its beginning the higher
philosophy had been little benefited by the labours of
any modern enquirer. It was become, indeed, no strange
thing to question the authority of Aristotle, but his disciples
could point with scorn at the endeavours made to
In the great field of natural jurisprudence, the most
eminent name in this period is that of Hugo Grotius,
whose famous work "De Jure Belli et Pacis" was published
in Paris in 1625. This treatise made an epoch in
the philosophical, and, we might almost say, in the political
history of Europe.
In the history of poetry, between 1600 and 1650, we
have the Italians Marini, Tassoni, and Chiabrera, the
last being the founder of a school of lyric poetry known
as "Pindaric." Among Spanish poets are Villegas and
Gongora; in France, Malherbe, Regnier, Racan, Maynard,
Voiture, and Sarrazin; Opitz, in Germany, was
the founder of German poetic literature; and this, the
golden age of Dutch literature, included the poets
Spiegel, Hooft, Cats, and Vondel. The English poets
of these fifty years are very numerous, but for the most
part not well known. Spenser was imitated by Phineas
and Giles Fletcher. Sir John Denham, Donne, Crashaw,
Cowley, Daniel, Michael Drayton, William Browne, and
Sir William Davenant wrote at this time, to which also
belong the sonnets of Shakespeare. Drummond of Hawthornden,
Carew, Ben Jonson, Wither, Habington, Suckling,
and Herrick, were all in the first half of the seventeenth
century. John Milton was born in 1609, and in
1634 wrote "Comus," which was published in 1637;
"Lycidas," the "Allegro" and "Penseroso," the "Ode
on the Nativity," and Milton's sonnets followed.
The Italian drama was weak at this period, but in
Spain Lope de Vega and Calderon were at the height of
their glory. In France, Corneille's "Mélite," his first
play, was produced in 1629, and was followed by
"Clitandre," "La Veuve," "Medea," "Cid," and others.
The English drama was exceedingly popular, and the
reigns of James and Charles were the glory of our
theatre. Shakespeare—the greatest name in all literature—Ben
Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger,
Shirley, Heywood, Webster, and many other dramatists
contributed to its fame.
In prose writings, Italian and Spanish works of this
time show a great decline in taste; but in France, the
letters of the moralist Balzac and of Voiture, from 1625,
have ingenuity and sprightliness. English prose writings
of the period include the works of Knolles, Raleigh,
Daniel, Bacon, Milton, Clarendon; Burton's "Anatomy
of Melancholy," Earle's "Microcosmographia" and
Fiction was represented by "Don Quixote," of which
the first part was published in 1605—almost the only
Spanish book which is popularly read in every country;
by the French heroic romance, and by the English
Godwin's "Man in the Moon."
VI.—The Seventeenth Century (1650–1700)
Among the greatest writers of this period are Bossuet
and Pascal, in theology; Gassendi, Malebranche, Spinoza,
and Locke, in philosophy; and Cumberland, Puffendorf,
La Rochefoucauld, and La Bruyère, in morals. Leibnitz
wrote on jurisprudence before he passed on to philosophy,
and the same subject was treated also by Godefroy,
Domat, and Noodt.
Italian poetry had now improved in tone. Filicaja, a
man of serious and noble spirit, wrote odes of deep patriotic
and religious feeling. Guidi, a native of Pavia,
raised himself to the highest point that any lyric poet of
Italy has attained. Spain and Portugal were destitute of
poets; but in France La Fontaine, Boileau, Benserade,
Chaulieu, Segrais, Deshoulières, and Fontenelle, were
famous. In England at this time there were Waller,
Milton, Butler, and Dryden, as well as Marvell and other
Neither Italy nor Spain was now producing dramatic
works of any importance, but it was very different in
France. Corneille continued to write for the stage, and
Racine's first play, the "Andromaque," was presented in
1667. This was followed by "Britannicus," "Bérénice,"
"Mithridate," "Iphigénie," and others. Racine's style is
exquisite; he is second only to Virgil among all poets.
Molière, the French writer whom his country has most
uniformly admired, began with "L'Étourdi" in 1653, and
his pieces followed rapidly until his death, in 1673. The
English Restoration stage was held by Dryden, Otway,
Southern, Lee, Congreve, Wycherley, Farquhar, and
In prose literature Italy is deficient; but this period
includes the most distinguished portion of the great age
in France, the reign of Louis XIV. Bossuet, Malebranche,
Arnauld, and Pascal are among the greatest of
English writing now became easier and more idiomatic,
sometimes even to the point of vulgarity. The best masters
of prose were Cowley, Evelyn, Dryden, and Walton
in the "Complete Angler."
Among novels of the period may be named those of
Quevedo in Spain; of Scarron, Bergerac, Perrault, and
Hamilton, in France; and the "Pilgrim's Progress"—for
John Bunyan may pass for the father of our novelists—in
England. Swift's "Tale of a Tub," than which
Rabelais has nothing superior, was indeed not published
till 1704, but was written within the seventeenth century.