Introduction to the Literature of Europe

by Henry Hallam

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 of learning.

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 Thomas More.

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 Melibœa" 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 about 1512.

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 of Petrarch.

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 feeling.

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 eloquence.

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 supplant it.

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 Overbury's "Characters."

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 minor poets.

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 Vanbrugh.

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 French writers.

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.