by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)
The Donatist heresy was still raging in Africa; the Arians were triumphant in Spain and Northern Italy; a miserable schism arising out of the affair of the Three Chapters was vexing the Istrian provinces; France was torn by intestine wars, and the imperial power which nominally held rule in Italy was fast crumbling to pieces; the almost civilised dominion of the Ostrogoths had been exchanged for the wild barbarism of the half pagan, half Arian Lombards; floods, plague, and famine were rapidly depopulating the southern peninsula, when, in the year 590, St. Gregory the Great was placed in the chair of St. Peter, and received into his hands the destinies of the Western world.
“There are,” says the German philosopher, Frederic Schlegel, “grand and pregnant epochs in the history of the world, in which all existing relations assume a new and unexpected form. At such junctures, God Himself seems, as it were, to interfere, and establish a theocracy.” Such was the epoch of which we speak. All the power of human government had come to nought, and while men’s hearts were failing them for fear, the reins were falling into the hands of a frail and feeble monk, worn out with sickness and austerity, and so little conscious of possessing in himself the capacity of ruling, that, when the unanimous voice of clergy and people raised him to the pontifical dignity, he fled in terror to the woods, and was brought back weeping, and giving vent to his anguish in accents almost of despair. It will suffice very briefly to remind the reader what kind of pontificate it was that was thus begun. During the fourteen years that St. Gregory governed the Church, he achieved greatness enough to furnish fame to a dozen autocrats. He defended Rome from the Lombards, and the Lombards themselves from the treachery of the Eastern emperors; he won them from Arianism, extirpated Donatism from Africa, and put an end to the Istrian schism. Whilst providing for the necessities of the Italian provinces, desolated by the cruel calamities of the times, he firmly resisted the exactions of the Byzantine court, and maintained the independence of the Church against the Cæsars. From the effete civilisation of the corrupt East, he turned to the new and semi-barbarous races of the West,–taught the Frankish kings the duties of Christian sovereignty, and urged their bishops to wage war against ecclesiastical abuses. His prodigious correspondence carried his paternal care into the most distant provinces. He condemned slavery, defended the peasants, and protected even the Jews. And in the midst of these multifarious labours, he found time to preach and write for future ages also. Thirty-five books of “Morals,” thirteen volumes of Epistles, forty Homilies on the gospels, twenty-two on the prophet Ezechiel, an immortal treatise on the Pastoral care, four books of Dialogues, and the reformation of the Sacramentary or ritual of the Church, are the chief works left us by the Fourth Latin Doctor. Nevertheless, as most readers must be aware, there exists a certain tradition which represents this great pope as the enemy of learning, a tradition elaborated out of the rebuke administered by him to Didier, Bishop of Vienne, on occasion of that prelate having delivered lectures on the profane poets, and the supposed fact of his having burnt the Palatine Library, a fact which, however, remained without record until six centuries had elapsed. We need not pause to examine charges which, however often refuted or explained, will always find credence among a certain class of writers and readers, who cling to a time-honoured mumpsimus. But it was necessary to recognise the existence of this view of his character before presenting the supposed destroyer of the Palatine Library as the undoubted founder of a Palatine school. And first we will hear how his biographer, John the Deacon, describes his manner of life. After naming several of the ecclesiastics, whom he chose as his chief councillors, among whom occur the names of Paul the Deacon, and our English apostles, Augustine and Mellitus, he goes on to relate how, in company with these, St. Gregory contrived to carry out monastical perfection within the walls of his own palace. “Learned clerks and religious monks,” he says, “lived there in common with their pontiff, so that the same rule was exhibited in Rome in the time of St. Gregory as St. Luke describes as existing in Jerusalem under the Apostles, and Philo records as established by St. Mark at Alexandria.”
These clerks assisted St. Gregory in his learned labours. Some were notaries, who wrote out his Homilies under his direction; and Paul the Deacon is introduced as the interlocutor in his Dialogues. And the historian goes on to tell us, that out of the canonical life established in the pontifical palace, there sprang a school. “Then did wisdom visibly fabricate to herself a temple,” he continues, “supporting the porticoes of the apostolic see by the seven liberal arts as by columns formed of the most precious stones. In the family of the pontiff, no one from the least to the greatest, dared utter a barbarous word; the purest Latinity, such as had been spoken in the time of the best Roman writers, was alone permitted to find another Latium in his palace. There, the study of all the liberal arts once more flourished, and he who was conscious to himself that he was wanting either in holiness or learning, dared not show his face in presence of the pontiff.” He goes on to speak of the number of learned men constantly to be found in the company of the pope, who encouraged poor philosophy rather than rich idleness. But he confesses that one thing was wanting: the “Cecropian muse” was absent; in other words, there was no one skilful in the interpretation of Greek.
In addition to this Palatine academy, if I should not rather say in connection with it, St. Gregory founded a school destined to have a more world-wide influence and more lasting fame. The extraordinary diligence bestowed by the holy pontiff on the reformation of the ecclesiastical chant gave rise in after times to a graceful legend, which represented him as visited in his sleep by a tenth Muse, who appeared to him with her mantle covered with the mystic notes and neumas, and inspired him with that skill in science of sacred melody, which he ever afterwards possessed. The legend, like most legends, only embalms and beautifies a fact. The Church was the real Muse who inspired her pontiff to give to her order of sacred chant the same perfection he had already bestowed upon her Liturgy. Other popes and prelates had laboured before him at the same work, and indeed the very name of Centon, which is given to his Antiphonary, shows that it was a compilation of those ancient melodies which passed from the Temple to the Church, and which may be traced through St. Mark at Alexandria, and through St. Ignatius at Antioch, up to St. Peter himself. In process of time the Eastern churches introduced a more pompous and florid style, but in Africa, thanks to the exertions of St. Athanasius, the ancient severity was preserved, and made matter of reproach against the Catholics by the Donatist heretics, who attributed it to the natural heaviness and stupidity of the African character. Baronius observes that, according to the most ancient monuments, the Roman Church appears to have taken the middle course, between the extreme simplicity of the Africans and the florid ornamentation of the Orientals, and thus united gravity with sweetness.
St. Ambrose, who introduced the chant into Milan, permitted women to join in the chanting of the Psalms, a custom which degenerated in some churches into the establishment of female choirs; though this abuse was prohibited by many popes and councils. Everywhere the bishops encouraged the cultivation of the chant, and Fortunatus describes St. Germanus of Paris presiding in the apse of the Golden Church, and directing the singing of his two choirs. But, as St. Augustine remarks in one of his letters, no uniformity existed among the different churches, and both variations and corruptions were introduced according to the genius of different nations. Hence, the reformation of the Cantus, and the establishment of some uniform standard based on the ancient models, had engaged the attention of several popes before the time of St. Gregory, and particularly of St. Gelasius and St. Damasus. St. Gregory completed their work: he collected in his Centon, or Antiphonary, all the ancient fragments still existing, corrected and arranged them with his own pen, and added some original compositions, bearing the same character of majestic simplicity with the venerable melodies on which they were formed. And finally, to secure the permanence of these reforms, and to extend the use of the ecclesiastical chant throughout the Church, he founded a school which, three centuries later, still survived and flourished. “After the manner of a wise Solomon,” says John the Deacon, “being touched by the sweetness of music, he carefully compiled his Centon or Antiphonary of chants, and established a school of those chants which had hitherto been sung in the Roman Church, and built for this purpose two houses, one attached to the Church of St. Peter the Apostle, and the other near the Lateran Patriarchium, where, up to this day, are preserved, with becoming veneration, the couch whereon he was accustomed to rest when singing, and the rod with which he was wont to threaten the boys, together with the authentic copy of his Antiphonary.”
The important place which the Roman school of chant occupied in the history of Christian education will be seen in the following pages. Its value in our own day can hardly be appreciated, for the training of Christendom has long since ceased to be liturgical. But an era was about to open on the world during which the human intellect was no longer to receive its shape and colouring from the forms, however beautiful, of pagan antiquity, but from that Christian Muse whom our English poet has invoked. St. Gregory lived at a time when the old empire, with its letters and civilisation, was fast passing away. The little stone had struck the statue, and the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, had been carried away by the wind, and become as the chaff on the summer’s threshing-floor. He beheld new races rising out of the dust of fallen empires. What now are Homer and Horace to the grim Goth or savage Lombard who has spent his life in beating to pieces with his battle-axe the fairest monuments of Greece and Rome? To him no inspiration will flow from Castaly or Parnassus.
The mossy fountains and the sylvan shades,
The dreams of Pindus and the Aonian maids Delight no more,
and the name of Woden is far more venerable in his eyes than that of Apollo. But there is One Power that has caught him in its golden nets and holds his soul a willing captive. When the waters of baptism flowed over his brow he was brought face to face with that mighty Mother from whose hands he was to receive the knowledge of letters, and a far vaster education than the knowledge of letters alone can ever give. Heart, will, imagination, and understanding, all found their teacher in the Church of the Living God. Her sacred offices appealed to his soul through a thousand avenues, by their inspired ceremonial, their matchless poetry, their solemn melody, and their pictured art. The following pages will sadly fail of their main object if they do not succeed in conveying to the reader a faint notion of that marvellous education which the Church supplied to countless populations who, it may be, never learnt to read. Her Liturgy became the class-book of the barbaric races: it was to them all, and far more than all, that Homer or Ossian had been to the children of a darker age. What wonder, then, that the study of its musical language should be erected by them into a liberal art, and that those who were receiving their civilisation from the Rome, not of the Cæsars, but of the Popes, should welcome among them the teachers of the Roman music with as great enthusiasm as ever Florence in the fifteenth century, welcomed her professors of Greek?
The importance of St. Gregory’s foundation regarded from this point of view will readily appear. It was in some sort the mother of those grand liturgical schools which were afterwards to cover the face of Europe, the erection of which in any country serves as an epoch to mark the introduction or restoration of Christian letters. Henceforth, for nine centuries at least, grammar and the Cantus, the Latin tongue and the Roman music, were to take their places side by side as the two indispensables of education. Up to this time even the Christian learning had been coloured by a civilisation of pagan growth; but a new era had now begun: the Holy Scriptures and the Liturgy of the Church were to become to Christian Europe what the profane poets had been to the ancient world–the fountains of inspiration and the intellectual moulds wherein a new generation was to be cast; and though scholars were far from abandoning Virgil, yet for long ages the Muse of Solyma was to hold the mastery in the schools.
This new era of letters may be said to commence with St. Gregory, for the schools of Christian origin which existed before his time were fast becoming extinct, and it was chiefly from the new foundation, planted by him on English soil, that the torch of science was relit. How truly was he termed the Great, this pontiff, prince, and tutor of a barbarous world! Yet to conceive aright of his greatness we must remember that his work was painfully wrought out in the midst of continual bodily sufferings and mental troubles yet harder to bear. He who may be said to have founded the temporal sovereignty of the Roman Pontiffs had his throne in the midst of ruins. He delivered his discourses on Ezechiel while the barbarous Lombards were marching against his capital. He had to witness the Roman nobles dragged off into slavery with ropes about their necks, to be sold like dogs in the markets of Gaul. Then came the news that Monte Cassino was in flames and its monks cast out as houseless wanderers. “Woe is me!” he exclaims, “all Europe is in the hands of the barbarians. Cities are cast down, villages in ruins, whole provinces depopulated; the land has no longer men to cultivate it; and the idolaters pursue us even to death.” Yet in this awful crisis his mind was bent on effecting new conquests for the faith, and he was planning the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons with the Lombards at his gates. Many writers have not hesitated to ascribe the pertinacity with which he carried out this, his favourite enterprise, to the profound sagacity of an ecclesiastical politician, who foresaw that the loyal devotion of the new converts to the Holy See would repair the losses inflicted by the barbarians on the rest of Christendom. But it may safely be affirmed that no mere natural acuteness could possibly have predicted anything favourable from the dispositions which had hitherto been manifested by the Anglo-Saxons. Ancient writers are unanimous in classing them among the most savage of the northern tribes. They slaughtered their captives taken in war, and drove a lucrative trade by the sale of their countrymen, and even of their own children, to foreign merchants. The courage which formed their solitary virtue too often degenerated into a brutal ferocity, and their notions of a future state were exceedingly faint. In Gaul they were regarded with terror as barbarians of uncouth speech and aspect, and strange stories were told of their reckless deeds of bloodshed and cruelty. Gregory himself would probably have found it difficult to explain the hold they had gained on his heart ever since he first beheld the blue-eyed and golden-haired Angles in the market-place of Rome. But from that moment the thought of them never left him; and though frustrated in his purpose of himself becoming their apostle, he made it a labour of love to provide for their conversion by other hands.
His first plan had been a sort of anticipation of the system since so successfully carried out by the Roman Propaganda. He conceived the idea of redeeming a certain number of the Anglo-Saxon youths annually brought into the slave-markets of Gaul, educating them in some monastery school, and then sending them back as missionaries to their own country. We are not told why this scheme was abandoned, but in 596 the English mission was at last opened, and a band of Roman monks, headed by St. Augustine, the former prior of St. Gregory’s monastery set out for the barbarous and unknown island. Never was any mission more amply cared for. St. Gregory had poured out his whole heart upon it; he multiplied letters to the bishops and Sovereigns of Gaul to secure his monks hospitality on the road; his letters cheered them on their way, and when the welcome tidings came that their work had begun under prosperous auspices, he sent them a reinforcement of labourers under the abbot Mellitus, bringing everything necessary for the celebration of the Divine offices–sacred vessels, vestments, church ornaments, holy relics, and “many books.”
A catalogue of the library which St. Augustine and his companions brought with them into England is preserved at Trinity College, Cambridge. It consisted of a Bible in two volumes, a Psalter and a book of the Gospels, a Martyrology, the Apocryphal Lives of the Apostles, and the Exposition of certain Epistles and Gospels. The brief catalogue closes with these words: “These are the foundation or beginning of the library of the whole English Church, A.D. 601.” These were the books sent to us by a Pope to be the beginning of our national library, and from them did St. Augustine and his companions begin to teach the English.
The manner of life to be adopted by the missionaries was plainly laid down by St. Gregory in his instructions to St. Augustine. “You, my brother,” he writes, “who have been brought up under monastic rules, are not to live apart from your clergy in the English Church; you are to follow that course of life which our forefathers did in the time of the primitive church, when none of them said that anything he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” The ancient canonical life was to be the rule of the new clergy, and measures were at once taken for carrying this precept into effect. A monastery dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul was speedily founded at Canterbury. In after years it bore the title of St. Augustine’s, and obtained rare privileges as the first-born of our religious houses, being designated “the Roman Chapel in England.” The abbot took his place in general councils next to the abbot of Monte Cassino, and the monastery was recognised as under the immediate jurisdiction of the Holy See. Here, then, at one and the same time, began the apostolic and scholastic labours of the missionaries. It was not, indeed, until some years later, that the school of Canterbury attained its full celebrity under the abbot Adrian, but thirty years before his time it had become the model of other seminaries founded in different parts of England. When Sigebert, King of the East Angles, who had been baptized and instructed in France, wished to set up a school for youth to be instructed in literature, “after the good fashions he had seen in that country,” he sent to Canterbury for his schoolmaster, and obtained one in the person of Felix the Burgundian, who became the apostle of the East of England. At this time the liberal sciences are said to have been cultivated at Canterbury, and some writers persuade themselves that the school of Bishop Felix was the germ of Cambridge University.
Northumbria was meanwhile receiving the light of faith from the monks of Iona, who, being invited into his kingdom by St. Oswald, in 635, despatched thither the holy bishop Aidan. He chose for the site of his cathedral monastery the island of Lindisfarne, which soon became the ecclesiastical capital of the north of England. This celebrated spot, which is an island only at high tide, and is connected with the mainland when the sea retires by a firm neck of sand, doubtless bears at the present day an aspect very different from that which it presented when the monks raised their first cathedral of oak-planks thatched with reed. The ruins of a far statelier pile may now be seen, built of dark-red sandstone, to which time has given a melancholy hue not out of character with the scene. But there are some features which time itself can never quite efface; the bold promontories of the coast visible to the north and south, the wide expanse of that tossing sea so often ploughed by the keels of the Vikings, and those ruddy golden sands, are unchanged since the days when the brethren of Lindisfarne raised their eyes, weary with the labours of the Scriptorium, to rest them on that beautiful line of wooded coast, or on the sparkling waves beyond it. Their manner of life differed in no degree from that of their brethren at Iona. “It was very different,” says Bede, “from the slothfulness of our times, for all who bore company with Aidan, whether monks or laymen, were employed either in studying the Scriptures or in singing Psalms. This was his own daily employment wherever he went and if it happened that he was invited to eat with the king, he went with one or two clerks, and having taken a small repast, he made haste to be gone with them either to read or write.” All the money that came into his hands he employed in relieving the poor or ransoming slaves, and many of the latter he made his disciples, instructing them and advancing them to the ecclesiastical state.
Whilst the north was being thus evangelised by the disciples of St. Columba, the south also had received a foundation of Hibernian origin. In the wilds of Wiltshire a school had arisen round the cell of Maidulf, an Irish recluse, who had been tempted to settle there by the sylvan beauty of the spot, which was then surrounded by thick luxuriant woods. To procure the means of support he received scholars from the neighbourhood who supplied his scanty wants and as his pupils increased his school became famous; and the name of its teacher is preserved in that of the modern town of Malmsbury. But it is remarkable how very soon both the Scottish and Irish foundations became Romanised. One of the first scholars of Lindisfarne was St. Wilfrid, who, not satisfied with the ecclesiastical discipline of the Scottish monks, found his way to Canterbury, and there learnt the whole Psalter over again, according to the Roman version, which differed from that used in the Northern schools. He was joined by another North Country scholar, St. Bennet Biscop, and the two set out together on a pilgrimage to Rome.
The after history of these two saints was full of momentous results to the Anglo-Saxon schools. At Rome Wilfrid studied the Scriptures, the rules of ecclesiastical discipline, and the system of Paschal computation under the Archdeacon Boniface, secretary to Pope Martin I., and Scholasticus of the Lateran school. He returned to England to found the Abbey of Ripon, into which he introduced the Benedictine rule, and whither he invited Eddi, the chanter of Canterbury, to come and teach his monks the Roman chant. Then he set himself to reform the errors of the Northern churches, and thirty years after the foundation of Lindisfarne, the Scottish discipline was, by his vigorous exertions, exchanged for that of Rome. Biscop, meanwhile, was not less busy. After his first visit to the Holy City, he returned there a second time, and devoted himself not only to ecclesiastical studies, but also to the acquisition of many useful arts which he was resolved to plant in his native land. Next he went to Lerins, where he received the habit of a monk, and spent two years learning and practising the monastic rule; and then he returned a third time to Rome, at the very moment when the death of Deusdedit, sixth archbishop of Canterbury, had induced Pope Vitalian to nominate as his successor the Greek scholar, Theodore. He was a native of St. Paul’s city of Tarsus, and well skilled in all human and divine literature. So says St. Bede, and so the Western bishops seem to have thought, when they delayed drawing up their synodal letter to the Third Council of Constantinople until “the philosopher Theodore” should be able to take part in their deliberations. Vitalian had the prosperity of the English mission scarcely less at heart than St. Gregory, and discerned the full importance of providing the infant Church with men who should be capable of laying a solid foundation of sacred learning in her schools. With this view he sent together with Theodore, the abbot Adrian, whom William of Malmsbury calls “a fountain of letters, and a river of arts.” At the same time Benedict Biscop received orders to join the company of the new archbishop and to him was committed the direction of the monastery and school of Canterbury. But Benedict had one purpose fixed in his heart; it was to devote his life and extraordinary energies to the foundation of a great seat of learning and religion in his own land, and to fit himself thoroughly for the work before he began it. The weald of Kent might have richer pastures, the sky of Italy a softer glow, but the brown moors of Northumbria were ever present to his mind’s eye, and it was there that he desired to spend and be spent for Christ. He was not long before he found out that Adrian’s acquirements were far beyond his own; so resigning the abbacy into his hands, from a master he became a scholar, and spent two years more studying under him, and acting as interpreter to him and to the archbishop. Theodore had brought with him a large addition to the English library, and among his books were a copy of Homer (which, in Archbishop Parker’s days, was still preserved at Canterbury), the works of Josephus, and the homilies of St. Chrysostom. Bede’s account of the new life infused into the English schools by these two illustrious foreigners is doubtless familiar to all readers. Yet it is too much to the purpose to be omitted here. “Assisted by Adrian,” he says, “the archbishop everywhere taught the right rule of life and the canonical custom of celebrating Easter. And forasmuch as both of them were well read in sacred and secular literature, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and there daily flowed from them rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers: and together with the books of Holy Writ, they also taught the arts of ecclesiastical poetry, astronomy, and arithmetic. So that there are still living to this day some of their scholars who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as in their own wherein they were born. Never were there happier times since the English came to Britain, for their kings being brave men and good Christians, were a terror to barbarous nations, and the minds of all men were bent upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom of which they had heard; and all who desired to be instructed in sacred literature had masters at hand to teach them.”
Adrian had many good pupils, among whom was Albinus, who succeeded him in the government of his abbey, and greatly assisted Bede in collecting the materials of his history, and who was besides an excellent Greek scholar; and St. John of Beverley, whom Oxford historians fondly believe to have been the first master of liberal arts in their university. For, according to some authorities, the Oxford schools grew out of those founded at Cricklade, which place is said to have derived its original name of “Greeklade” from the good Greek which was there taught by Adrian’s disciples. Another student drawn to Canterbury by the fame of its classical learning was St. Aldhelm, one of Maidulf’s early pupils, who very soon resolved upon migrating from Malmsbury to the archiepiscopal seminary. Ill-health did not permit him to remain there long, but a letter from the young collegian is preserved, addressed to his own diocesan, Hedda, Bishop of Wessex, which gives very ample information as to the nature and extent of the studies on which he was engaged. Some suspicion of exaggeration may naturally attach to such general notices of the English learning as that given by Bede, but the more minute account of Aldhelm is open to no such objection. “I confess, most reverend father,” he says, “that I had resolved, if circumstances had permitted, to have spent the approaching Christmas in the company of my relations, and to have enjoyed for some time the pleasure of your society. But as I find it impossible to do so for various reasons, I hope you will excuse my not waiting on you as I had intended. The truth is that there is a necessity for spending a great deal of time in this seat of learning, specially if one be inflamed with the love of study, and desirous, as I am, of becoming acquainted with all the secrets of the Roman jurisprudence. And I am engaged also on another study still more tedious and perplexing.” Here he enters at some length on the subject of Latin versification, and describes the various classical metres, all of which were taught in Adrian’s school; and in the intricacies of which the Anglo-Saxon scholars singularly delighted to exercise their ingenuity. He then continues in a tone of less satisfaction; “but what shall I say of arithmetic, the long and intricate calculations of which are sufficient to overwhelm the mind, and cast it into despair? For my own part all the labours of my former studies are trifling in comparison with this. So that I may say with St. Jerome on a like occasion, ‘before I entered on that study I thought myself a master, but now I find I was but a learner.’ However, by the blessing of God, and assiduous reading, I have at length overcome the chief difficulties, and have found out the method of calculating suppositions, which are called the parts of a number. I believe it will be better to say nothing of astronomy, the Zodiac and its twelve signs revolving in the heavens, which require a long illustration, rather than to disgrace that noble art by too short and imperfect an account, especially as there are some parts of it–as astrology and the perplexing calculation of horoscopes–which require a master’s hand to do them justice.”
It must be borne in mind that at the time when Aldhelm wrote, every problem in arithmetic had to be worked by means of the seven Roman letters C. D. I. L. M. V. and X., and the decimal system was unknown. Very often the student was compelled to abandon their use and _write_ the numbers he was employed on in words. And in default of more convenient numerals, recourse was had to what might be called a duodecimal system, by which every number was divided into twelve parts, the different combinations of which were named and computed according to the divisions of the Roman money. And lastly, there was the system of “indigitation,” wherein the ten fingers were made to serve the purpose of a modern arithmeticon.
St. Aldhelm elsewhere enumerates the studies pursued in the school of Canterbury as consisting of grammar, that is the Latin and Greek tongues, geometry, arithmetic, music, mechanics, astronomy, and astrology: he himself is also said to have studied the Hebrew Scriptures in their original text, and his works both in prose and poetry bear witness to his familiarity with the chief Latin poets, such as Virgil, Juvenal, Lucan, and Persius, whom he frequently quotes. He was the first Englishman who appeared before the world in the character of an author; his chief poems being a Treatise on the Eight Virtues, and one in praise of Virginity. His Latin versification is of the most artificial structure; in one of his poetical prefaces the initial letters of each line read downwards, the terminal letters read upwards, and the last line read backwards, all repeat the words of the first line read straightforwards; and this he pleasantly denominates “a square poem.” I will give but one couplet as a sample of the kind of brain-puzzles which afforded such solace to the Anglo-Saxon students. The reader will observe that the lines may be read equally well backwards or forwards, still forming the same succession of letters:–
Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor
Sole medere pede, ede, perede melos.
All the writings of Aldhelm exhibit instances of the same misplaced ingenuity, as well as that love of enigma which was general among his countrymen. In spite of these faults, however, and of a certain pompous and pedantic style which treats very ordinary subjects in very big words, and is an anticipation by eleven centuries of the Johnsonian dialect, it is impossible to deny that our first English author was a man of genius and erudition. In his poems, which are redundant with imagery, he gathers his similitudes now from the household arts of the smith and the weaver, now from the natural beauties of hill and field. You see that you are reading the thoughts of one who does not owe everything to books, but who has observed and reasoned for himself. Thus, desiring to show that perfection does not consist in chastity alone, but in a combination of all the virtues in their proper order, he compares it to “a web, not of one uniform colour and texture, but woven with purple threads and many colours into a variety of figures by the shuttles flying from side to side.” Describing a well-stored memory, he compares it to the work of the sagacious bees, “who, when the dewy dawn appears and the beams of the limpid sun arise, pour the thick armies of their dancing swarms over the open fields; and, now lying in the honied leaves of the marigold or the purple tops of the heather, suck the nectar drop by drop, and carry home their plunder on burdened thighs.” A copy of his treatise on Virginity is preserved in the Lambeth library, in which a highly finished illumination represents him seated in his chair surrounded by a group of nuns. The book was in fact written for the use of the Abbess Hildelitha and her religious daughters of Wimbourne; for the Anglo-Saxon nuns very early vied with the monks in their application to letters.
On leaving Canterbury Aldhelm returned to Malmsbury and soon raised the reputation of the school. Pupils flocked to him even from France and Scotland, for, says William of Malmsbury, “some admired the sanctity of the man, and others the depth of his learning. He was as simple in piety as he was multifarious in knowledge, having imbibed the seven liberal arts so perfectly that he was wonderful in each, and unrivalled in all.” One of his pupils was Ethilwald, afterwards Bishop of Lindisfarne, to whom, as to his “most beloved son and disciple,” he addressed a letter, preserved among his other works. After warning him against the vain pleasures of the world, “such as the custom of daily junketings, indulgence in immoderate feasting, and continued riding and racing,” he admonishes him to be on his guard against the love of money and silly parade, and exhorts him rather to apply himself to the study of the Scriptures; and inasmuch as the meaning of almost every part of them depends on the rules of grammar, to perfect himself in that art, that so he may dive into the signification of the text. Ethilwald was a devoted admirer of the saint, and left some verses in praise of his illustrious master whom he is too good a scholar to call by his barbarous Saxon name, preferring to translate it into the more classic appellation of _Cassis prisca_, or _old helmet_. Another of Aldhelm’s pupils and correspondents was Eadfrid, who, after the fashion of the times, passed over into the sister isle to profit by the learning of the Irish schools. He remained there six years, and was heartily congratulated by Aldhelm on his return from what he calls the “land of fog.” “Nowadays,” says the scholar of Malmsbury, “the renown of the Irish is so great that one daily sees them going or returning; and crowds flock to their island to gather up the liberal arts and physical sciences. But if the sky of Ireland has its stars, has not that of England its sun in Theodore the philosopher, and its mild moon in Adrian, gifted with an inexpressible urbanity?”
In 675 Malmsbury became an abbey, and Aldhelm was chosen its first abbot. When the diocese of Wessex was divided into two parts he was named Bishop of Sherburne, whence the episcopal see was afterwards removed to Salisbury. A well-known anecdote represents him to us instructing the rude peasantry of Malmsbury who would not stay to listen to the Sunday sermon, by singing his verses to them, harp in hand, after the fashion of a wandering gleeman. We read also of the pains he took in forming a library in his abbey, and how, being on a visit to Bretwald, Archbishop of Canterbury (an old companion and former schoolfellow), he heard of the arrival at Dover of a foreign ship, and at once hastened down to the coast to see if there were any books among its cargo. As he was walking on the seashore intently examining the merchandise that was unlading, he espied a heap of books, and among them a volume containing the entire Bible. This was a treasure indeed, and a very rare one, for the books of Scripture were generally written out separately, and had to be procured and copied one by one. He determined at once to secure the Bible for his library, and turning over the pages with a knowing air, began to bargain with the owners and to beat them down somewhat in the price. The sailors grumbled at this, and said he might undervalue his own goods if he liked, but not those of others. At last they turned him away with very abusive language, and, refusing all his offers, pulled off with the Bible to their ship. But a terrible tempest arose, which made them repent of their churlish conduct, and returning to the shore they entreated the good bishop to pardon their rudeness and accept the book as a gift, for it seems they considered that they had only been saved from shipwreck by his prayers. Aldhelm, however, laid down the half of their original demand, and returned with his prize to his convent, where the book was still preserved in the time of William of Malmsbury.
We must now return to St. Bennet Biscop, who, after completing his studies at Canterbury, was planning a fourth expedition to Rome, chiefly for the purpose of collecting books. His bibliographical tour was crowned with complete success. He travelled along purchasing, and also begging books in all directions, which when procured were deposited in the keeping of trusty friends, from whom he gathered them up again on his homeward journey. He returned to England laden with his treasures, and obtained a grant of land from Egfrid, king of Northumbria, for the erection of his long-contemplated monastery. It was dedicated to St. Peter, and situated at the mouth of the Wear–a spot, says William of Malmsbury, “which once glittered with a multitude of towns built by the Romans,” and which in our own days also is a busy scene of trade. Though the Roman towns had disappeared in Biscop’s time, his monastery was far from standing in the midst of a solitude. In fact, he sought, not shunned, the haunts of men, for his main object was their instruction. He had no intention of being merely “the man wise for himself;” his books and his learning had been acquired to profit other souls besides his own. So he did not choose a lonesome wilderness, or a marsh, or a desert island, but a spot conveniently situated within reach of what, even in the seventh century, was a tolerably busy port. “The broad and ample river running into the sea,” says the old historian already quoted, “received vessels borne by gentle gales on the calm bosom of its haven;” and the parish of Monk-Wearmouth in the now smoky town of Sunderland marks the ground occupied by St. Bennet’s first foundation.
It was commenced in the year 674, the monastery being at first only built of wood, but the church was planned on a more magnificent scale. Bennet, who thought nothing of a long journey in pursuit of his cherished designs, crossed over to France to seek out good masons, and brought them back with him to Wearmouth, where they built him a very handsome church of hewn stone. The fame of this noble structure spread far and wide, and Naitan, king of the Picts, sent ambassadors imploring that the French masons might be sent to build an exactly similar church in his dominions. As soon as the walls of his church were up, Bennet sent over once more to France for glass-makers, who glazed all the windows both of the church and monastery. Bede tells us that these were the first artificers in glass who had been seen in England. “It is an art,” he says, “not to be despised, because of its use in furnishing lamps for the cloisters and other kinds of vessels.” The church being now finished and furnished, the books were stored up in the library, and four years were spent by the abbot in collecting the spiritual stones of his edifice. The result of his labours was so satisfactory that King Egfrid desired to see another monastery of similar character founded in his kingdom, and in 682 the saint obtained a second grant of land at Jarrow-on-the-Tyne, about five miles from Wearmouth. “The spot has no claim to beauty,” says a modern writer, “yet it is calculated to produce an impression of solemn quiet. The church and crumbling walls of the old monastery standing on a green hill sloping to the bay, the long silvery expanse of water, the gentle ripple of the advancing tide, the sea-birds perpetually hovering on the wing or dipping in the wave, and the distant view of Shields harbour with its clouds of smoke and forests of masts, form no ordinary combination.” And we may add that no ordinary feelings stir in the heart of the visitor who sees in those grey crumbling walls, with their vestiges of Norman and Saxon ornament, the remains of that monastic seminary which nurtured the genius and the sanctity of the Venerable Bede. Here arose the monastery of St. Paul’s; and if you look in the eastern wall of the church you may still see the inscription, of unquestioned antiquity, which preserves the memory of its dedication. It is cut on a small tablet in good Roman letters, and tells you that the church was dedicated on the eighth of the kalends of May, in the fifteenth year of Egfrid the king, and during the abbacy of Ceolfrid.
This Ceolfrid deserves a few words to himself. He was originally a monk of Ripon, where he became master of the school and the novices. His pupils, who were mostly high-born youths, showed some disdain for those menial employments that formed part of a monk’s daily life, and which they associated with the idea of servitude; but Ceolfrid, himself an earl’s son, overcame their repugnance by his own example. He undertook the care of the bakehouse, and might daily be seen cleaning the oven, bolting the meal, and baking the bread for the use of the brethren. From labours such as these he passed to the school, and there made his scholars understand that a man may make a very good baker without losing his taste for the liberal arts. Ceolfrid’s fame at last reached the ears of St. Bennet, who, it must be owned, was covetous of learned monks and good books. So he begged him of the abbot of Ripon, and, having obtained him, placed the new monastery of Jarrow under his government. The two houses, however, continued to be so closely united as to form but one community; they were like one monastery, says Bede, built in two places. Ceolfrid held the abbacy of St. Paul’s for seven years, during which time the dreadful pestilence of 686 broke out, which swept away all the choir monks, with the exception of the abbot himself and one little boy, with whose aid he still contrived to chant the canonical hours, though their voices were often enough choked with their tears. This little boy could be no other than St. Bede himself, who had accompanied the monks from Wearmouth to Jarrow, and was then seven years of age.
St. Bennet’s journeys were not yet over. As soon as the foundation of Jarrow was completed he set out on a fifth expedition to Rome accompanied by Ceolfrid, and this time brought back, not only books and relics, but also pictures. These last he placed in his two churches: at the west end of the Church of St. Peter he placed pictures of our Lady and the twelve Apostles; on the south wall were scenes from the Gospels, and on the north the visions of the Apocalypse. The pictures placed in St. Paul’s were intended to show the connection between the Old and New Testaments. There you saw representations of Isaac bearing the wood of the sacrifice, and of our Lord bearing His Cross: of the brazen serpent, and the Crucifixion. “Those, therefore, who knew not how to read,” says Bede, “entering these churches, found on all sides agreeable and instructive objects, representing Christ and His saints, and recalling to their memory the grace of His Incarnation and the terrors of the last judgment.” But Bennet had brought from Rome something even more precious than his pictures. It was not to be supposed that in his solicitude to provide his monks with the best instruction that books or teachers could afford he should overlook the necessity of providing them with masters of the ecclesiastical chant. The Roman chant had already been introduced into Northumbria by James the Deacon, the fellow-labourer of St. Paulinus, who, says Bede, was extraordinarily skilful in singing, and taught the same to many, after the custom of the Romans. But he was now an old man, and does not seem to have formed any disciples qualified to succeed him in his office. Benedict therefore entreated Pope Agatho to allow him to take back into England no less a personage than John the Venerable, abbot of St. Martin’s, and arch-chanter of St. Peter’s, that he might teach in his monastery the method of singing throughout the year as it was practised in St. Peter’s Church. It argues much the importance which was attached at Rome to Benedict’s foundations, that his petition was granted. Abbot John received orders to set out for the barbarous north, and, taking up his residence at Wearmouth, he taught the chanters of that monastery the whole order and manner of singing and reading aloud, and committed to writing all that was requisite throughout the whole course of the year for the celebration of festivals; “all which rules,” adds St. Bede, “are still observed there, and have been copied by many other monasteries. And the said John not only taught the brethren of that monastery, but such as had skill in singing resorted from almost all the monasteries of the same province to hear him, and many invited him to teach in other places.”
Such, then, was the provision made by St. Bennet for the instruction of his monks and the establishment among them of a school of sacred learning. And his enterprise was a grand success. His twin houses became centres of human and divine science, as well as of regular discipline. The life led within their walls has been made familiar to us by the pen of Bede, who, with that simplicity which forms the charm of his writing, describes it in all its homely features. The men who were engaged in rearing, on the barbarous shores of England, a seminary of learning which had not its equal north of the Alps, might every day be seen taking part in the duties of the farmyard and the kitchen. Abbot Easterwine, a former courtier of King Egfrid’s, who was chosen to fill the place of abbot during the absence of St. Bennet, delighted in winnowing the corn, giving milk to the young calves, working at the mill or forge, and helping in the bakehouse. It is thus that Bede describes him; but he dwells also on the spiritual beauty of the abbot’s “transparent countenance,” his musical voice and gentle temper, and tells us how, being seized with his last illness, “coming out into the open air, and sitting down, he called for his weeping brethren, and, after the manner of his tender nature, gave them all the kiss of peace, and died at night as they were singing lauds.”
As St. Bennet was still absent, the monks chose in his room the deacon Sigfrid, who continued to share the government with Bennet after his return. Both of them were afflicted with grievous infirmity during the three last years of their lives, St. Bennet being almost entirely paralysed, while Sigfrid was wasted with a slow consumption. The last hours of the saint were in harmony with his life. His monks read the Scriptures aloud to him during his sleepless nights, and he often charged them to remember the two things that he most earnestly recommended to his children, the preservation of regular discipline, and the care of his books. When unable to leave his bed, and too weak to recite the Divine Office, he caused some of the brethren to recite it in his chamber, divided into two choirs, and joined with them as well as he could. The two venerable abbots, who were both hourly expecting death, had a great wish to meet once more in this life, and to satisfy their desire, the monks carried Sigfrid on a litter to St. Bennet’s cell, and laid them side by side, their heads resting on the same pillow, that they might give each other a farewell kiss; but so extreme was their weakness, that even this they were not able to do without assistance. After their departure Ceolfrid continued to govern both houses for twenty-eight years, during which time he did much to advance the studies of the brethren, and sent several of them to Rome to complete their education. He increased the library, and caused three copies of the entire Bible to be written out, one of which he sent as a present to the Pope, whilst the other two were placed in the two churches, “to the end that all who wished to read any passage in either Testament might at once find what they wanted.” Naitan, king of the Picts, applied to him for church ornaments, as he had applied to St. Bennet for masons. The abbot’s reply may be quoted as giving some notion of his scholarship. “A certain worldly ruler,” he wrote, “most truly said that the world would be happy if either philosophers were kings, or kings philosophers. Now if a worldly man could judge thus truly of the philosophy of this world, how much more were it to be desired that the more powerful men are in this world the more they would labour to be acquainted with the commandments of God.” In this passage the Anglo-Saxon monk is quoting from the Republic of Plato.
St. Bede, who has preserved these records of the Fathers of Wearmouth and Jarrow, dwells with delight on the memory of the many happy years he himself passed within those walls, and on the thought that none of them had been spent in idleness. “All my life,” he says, “I have spent in this monastery, giving my whole attention to the study of the Holy Scriptures; and in the intervals between the hours of regular discipline, and the duties of church psalmody, I ever took delight in either learning, teaching, or writing.” It was his love of study that made him decline the office of abbot, “for that office demands thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness brings distraction of mind, which is an impediment to learning.” Though invited to Rome by Pope Sergius, it appears certain that he never left his own country, and that all he knew was derived from native teachers, principally, as he tells us, from the abbots Bennet and Ceolfrid. The science of music, indeed, in which he excelled, and on which he wrote several treatises, he had studied under John of St. Martin’s; Trumhere, a monk of Lestingham, was his master in divinity, and his Greek scholarship was probably acquired from Archbishop Theodore himself. But the varied character of Bede’s erudition must be principally explained by his free use of Biscop’s noble libraries. It was at the command of his abbot, and of St. John of Beverley, who ordained him priest, that he began, at thirty years of age, to write for the instruction of his countrymen. For his greater convenience a little building was erected apart from the monastery, which Simeon of Durham speaks of as yet standing in the twelfth century, “where, free from all distraction, he could sit, meditate, read, write, or dictate.” The original building must have been swept away at the time of the destruction of the monastery by the Danes in 794, yet Leland describes what he calls St. Bede’s oratory, as remaining, even in his time.
His studies, however, were not suffered to interfere with his other duties, for he was most exact in the minute observance of his rule, and specially in the discharge of the choral office, though, as he owns in a letter to Bishop Acca, these necessary demands on his time, the monasticæ servitutis retinacula, as he calls them, proved no small hindrance to his work. Yet he never sought exemption of any kind, and least of all from attendance in choir. “If the angels did not find me there among my brethren,” he would say, “would they not say, Where is Bede? why comes he not to worship at the appointed time with the others?” It was thus he found the secret of keeping alive the spirit of fervour in the midst of continued labour of the head. Printed among his theological and philosophical works, is a little manual, drawn up, as it would seem, for his own private use, and consisting of a selection of favourite verses from the Psalms. His disciple, Cuthbert, says of him. “I can declare with truth, that never saw I with my eyes, or heard I with my ears, of any man so indefatigable in giving thanks to God.” Besides the requirements of his monastic rule, and his own private studies, Bede had other duties which engaged a large portion of his time. He was both mass priest and scholasticus. In the first capacity, he had to administer the sacraments, visit the sick, and preach on Sundays and festivals; in the second, to communicate to others the learning he had himself acquired. Even before his ordination, the direction of the monastic school was placed in his hands, and here he taught sacred and humane letters to the 600 monks of Jarrow, as well as to the pupils who flocked to him from all parts of England. The character of his teaching is beautifully noticed in the breviary lessons for his feast. “He was easily kindled and moved to compunction by study, and whether reading or teaching, often wept abundantly. And after study he always applied himself to prayer, well knowing that the knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures is to be gained rather by the grace of God than by our own efforts. He had many scholars, all of whom he inspired with extraordinary love of learning; and what is more, he infused into them the holy virtue of religion; he was most affable to the good, but terrible to the proud and negligent; sweet in countenance, with a musical voice, and an aspect at once cheerful and grave.”
The writings of Bede bear witness to the extent of his learning. He himself gives a list of forty-five works of which he was the author, including, besides his homilies and commentaries on Holy Scripture, treatises on grammar, astronomy, the logic of Aristotle, music, geography, arithmetic, orthography, versification, the computum, and natural philosophy. His Ecclesiastical History and Lives of the Fathers must always be admired as models of unaffected simplicity of style. He was well skilled in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues. His Greek erudition is proved by the fact of his having translated the life of St. Athanasius out of Greek into Latin, and also by the Retractations, which, with characteristic candour, he published in his old age, to correct some errors into which he had fallen in his earlier commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles, and which he became aware of after meeting with a Greek manuscript of that portion of the Scriptures which varied from the Latin text. His treatises on grammar and versification betray an acquaintance with Latin literature which shows us that St. Bennet’s libraries must have been well stored with classics. In his scientific views, he of course followed the generally received theories of the time in which he lived; though in some points he corrected the errors of former writers by the result of his own observations. “Bede’s works,” observes Mr. Turner, “are evidence that the establishment of the Teutonic nations on the ruins of the Roman Empire did not barbarise knowledge. He collected and taught more natural truths than any Roman writer had yet accomplished; and his works display an advance, not a retrogression, in science.” Thus, he taught that the stars derived their light from the sun; that the true shape of the earth was globular, to which he attributes the irregularity of our days and nights. He explains the ebb and flow of the tide, by the attractive power of the moon, and points out the error of supposing that all the waters of the ocean rise at the same moment, instancing observations which he has taken himself on different parts of the English coast in support of his statement. He shows that the sun is eclipsed by the intervention of the moon, and the moon by that of the earth. He also gives simple and intelligent explanations of various natural phenomena, such as the rainbow, and the formation of rain and hail. He had the good sense to condemn judicial astrology as equally false and pernicious, and applied his scientific knowledge to useful purposes, constructing tables to serve the place of a modern ephemeris.
By far the greater part of his writings, however, consist of commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, in which his design is less to indulge in original speculation, than to resume the teaching of the Fathers. After the fashion of the early writers, he reproduces their metaphysical arguments, and even their words and imagery, his love of science occasionally appearing in his selections. Thus, in speaking of the Holy Trinity, he embodies in his text the beautiful illustration repeated before him by St. John Chrysostom, and other early Fathers, wherein the Three Divine Persons in one essence are compared to the form, the light, and the heat of the sun. The globular body of the sun, he says, never leaves the heavens, but its light (which he compares to the person of the Son), and its heat (to that of the Holy Ghost) descend to earth and diffuse themselves everywhere, animating the mind and kindling the heart. Yet though universally present, light never really quits the sun, for we behold it there; and heat, too, is never separated from it; and the whole is one sun, comprised within a circle, which has no end and no beginning. He shows the same analogies in other forms of nature, as in water, wherein we see the fountain, the flowing river, and the lake–all different in form, yet one in substance, and inseparable one from the other. In his treatise, De Natura Rerum, he not only exhibits vast erudition but often expresses himself with a certain unadorned eloquence. “Observe,” he says, “how all things are made to suit and to govern one another. See how heaven and earth are respectively adorned; heaven, by the sun, moon, and stars, and earth by its beautiful flowers, its herbs, trees, and fruits. From these men derive their food, their shining jewels, the various pictures so pleasantly woven in their hangings, their variegated colours, the sweet melody of strings and organs, the splendour of gold and silver, and the pleasant streams of water which bring us ships and set in motion our mills, together with the fragrant aroma of myrrh, and the sweet form of the human countenance.” Bede’s love of music reveals itself in a thousand passages. “Among all the sciences,” he says, “this one is most commendable, pleasing, mirthful, and lovely. It makes a man liberal, cheerful, courteous, and amiable. It rouses him to battle, enables him to bear fatigue, comforts him under labour, refreshes the disturbed mind, takes away headaches, and soothes the desponding heart.”
There is one subject which engaged his attention that deserves a more particular notice, I mean the labours he directed to the grammatical formation of his native language, a work of vast importance, which, in every country where the barbarous races had established themselves, had to be undertaken by the monastic scholars. Rohrbacher observes that St. Bede did much by his treatises on grammar and orthography, to impress a character of regularity on the modern languages which, in the eighth and ninth centuries, were beginning to be formed out of the Latin and Germanic dialects. Much more was his influence felt on the Anglo-Saxon dialect, in which he both preached and wrote. A curious poetical fragment of the twelfth century, discovered some years since in Worcester Cathedral, names him among other saints “who taught our people in English,” and praises him in particular, for having “wisely translated” for the instruction of his flock. This is not mere tradition. Besides commenting on nearly the whole Bible, Bede is known to have translated into English both the Psalter and the four Gospels. But this involved a labour the character and amount of which is not easily appreciated, unless we bear in mind what the state of the vernacular tongue was at that time. Before their conversion to Christianity the Anglo-Saxons possessed no literature, that is to say, no written compositions of any kind, and their language had not therefore assumed a regular grammatical form. In this they resembled most of the other barbarous nations, of whom St. Irenæus observes, that they held the faith by tradition, “without the help of pen and ink;” meaning, as he himself explains, that for want of letters they could have no use of the Scriptures. The Anglo-Saxons were indeed acquainted with the Runic letters; but there is every reason to believe that these were exclusively used for monumental inscriptions or magic spells. The Runic letters were indeed so closely associated in the mind of the people with magical practices that the Christian missionaries found it necessary to avoid their use, and introduced the letters commonly called Anglo-Saxon, which are, however, nothing more than corruptions of the Roman alphabet. Although the Saxons had no written literature, they had, however, a body of native poetry consisting of songs and fragmentary narratives which, like the poems of Homer or Ossian, were preserved solely in the memory of the bards, who occasionally made additions or enlargements of the story, as their genius prompted. Together with the change of religion appeared a change in the character of the popular minstrelsy. Tales from the Scriptures took the place of legends of pagan heroes, and the Christian missionaries made use of these for the purpose of instilling into their rude hearers some knowledge of the mysteries of faith.
But the Saxon poetry, even in its Christianised form, does not appear to have been written down until the time of Alfred. Before any steps could be taken to form a literature, the language itself had to be laboriously reduced to grammatical rules. The Anglo-Saxon language, as it exists in the literature of a later period, is of extremely complex construction, far richer in grammatical inflexion than our modern English. But in its barbarous state, as we read it in the early fragments of the bardic poems, it was a barren combination of verbs, nouns, and pronouns, and nouns freely used in an adjective and verbal sense, and entirely destitute of all the smaller particles. The change it underwent during the two centuries that preceded the time of Alfred was the transformation of a barbarous dialect into a finished grammatical language, and this change was mainly effected by the labours of the monks. Nor is it mere matter of conjecture that Bede had a considerable share in this great work. He was probably the first who applied himself to it, and has himself let us know the reasons which induced him to undertake the translation of certain familiar forms of prayer into the native dialect. In 734, Archbishop Egbert, who then presided over the school of York, having invited him thither, Bede accepted the invitation, as he says, “for the sake of reading,” the York library offering temptations not to be resisted. He stayed there some months, teaching in the archbishop’s school; and would have repeated his visit in the following year had not his declining health rendered this impossible. To excuse the failure of his promise, he addressed a long and interesting letter to Egbert, in which, among other things, he suggests the appointment of priests to the rural districts, who should be diligent in instructing the peasantry, and who should teach them the Creed and the Our Father in their own tongue, “which,” he adds, “I have myself translated into English for the benefit of those priests who are not familiar with the vernacular.” But the translation of these prayers was a very small part of his labours; he had, as we have already said, made an Anglo-Saxon version of the Psalter and the Gospels, and on this latter work he was engaged up to the day of his death. This we learn from the beautiful letter written by his pupil Cuthbert to a fellow reader and schoolfellow Cuthwin, which, often as it has been quoted, we cannot here omit. After speaking of the way in which his beloved master had spent the whole of his life, cheerful and joyful, and giving thanks to God day and night; and how he daily read lessons to his disciples even to within a fortnight of his death, he relates how the saint admonished them to prepare for death, “and being learned in our poetry,” quoted some things in the English tongue; how, according to his custom, he often sung antiphons, specially that belonging to the season of the Ascension which then drew nigh, beginning “O Rex gloriæ.” “And when he came to those words ‘leave us not orphans,’ he burst into tears and wept much, and we also wept with him. By turns we read, and by turns we wept; nay, we wept continually while we read.” … During this time he laboured to compose two works well worthy to be remembered, besides the lessons that we had of him, and the singing of the Psalms; namely, he translated the Gospel of St. John, as far as the words “But what are these among so many?” into our own tongue for the benefit of the Church, and some collections out of St. Isidore’s works; for he said, I will not have my scholars read falsehoods after my death, or labour in that book without profit…. When the Tuesday before the Ascension of our Lord came, he passed all that day dictating cheerfully, for, he said, I know not how long I shall last, or what time my Maker will take me. And yet to us he seemed to know very well the time of his departure. And so he spent the night; and when the morning appeared, that is, Wednesday, he ordered us to write with all speed what he had begun, and this done, we walked till the third hour with the relics of saints, according to the custom of that day. There was one of us with him who said to him, “Dear Master, there is still one chapter wanting, will it fatigue you to be asked any more questions?” He answered, “It is no trouble. Take your pen and mend it, and write quickly.” He then took farewell of them all, and so continued cheerfully to speak till about sunset, when the youth before mentioned said again, “Beloved master, there is still one sentence unwritten.” “Then write it quickly,” he replied. In a few moments the youth said, “Now it is finished.” “You have spoken true,” said the dying saint. “It is finished. Now, therefore, take my head into your hands, for it is a great delight to sit opposite to that holy place where I have been wont to pray, and there let me sit once more, and call upon my Father.” So sitting thus on the floor of his cell, and repeating the ejaculation “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” he breathed his last, on May 26, 735.
The school of York was rising into celebrity just as Bede was withdrawn from the scene of his useful labours. Egbert, who may be considered as its founder, was himself a pupil of Bishop Eata’s, but had completed his studies in Rome. He was brother to the reigning King of Northumbria, and succeeded to the see of York at a time when the affairs of the diocese had fallen into some disorder. One of his great works was the collection of a body of canons, and the publication of his famous Penitential, which furnished the Anglo-Saxon Church with fixed laws of discipline, gathered from the early fathers and canonists. While thus engaged, however, the archbishop applied himself with no less fervour to the encouragement of learning. He committed the mastership of the school he founded to his relation Albert, but himself continued to overlook the studies, and charged himself with the explanation of the Scriptures of the New Testament, leaving to Albert the other departments of literature. Under their united care the fame of the York seminary soon extended beyond the shores of Britain, and it is said to have embraced a larger course of instruction than was to be found at the same period in any school either of Gaul or Spain. Alcuin, a pupil of the academy over which he afterwards presided, enumerates among the studies there pursued, the seven liberal arts, as well as chronology, natural history, jurisprudence, and mathematics. Attached to the school was a library, which, under the munificent care of Egbert, became rich in all the works both of Christian and heathen antiquity. Alcuin, who filled the office of librarian, has given a list of its contents; he enumerates the works of SS. Jerome, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory the Great, Leo, Basil, Fulgentius and Chrysostom; of Orosius, Boethius, Pliny, Aristotle, and Cicero; of the poets Virgil and Lucan, of Prosper, Lactantius, and many others, together with the writings of Bede and Aldhelm, the two English writers who had already acquired a literary fame. These books were chiefly collected by Albert, whose custom it was to pass over to the Continent on book-hunting expeditions, in which he was generally accompanied by Alcuin.
The librarian of York afterwards composed a poem on the subject of the saints and archbishops of that city, in which he celebrates the virtues of the two illustrious prelates under whom he studied, and the treasures of science stored up by their praiseworthy care. Egbert, as he tells us, presided personally over the studies of the younger clergy, for this was then reckoned one of the chief duties of a bishop. As soon as he was at leisure in the morning he sent for some of his young clerks, and, sitting on his couch, taught them in succession till about noon, when he said mass in his private chapel. After a frugal dinner he had them with him again, and entertained himself by hearing them discuss literary questions in his presence. Towards evening he recited Compline with them, and then, calling them to him one by one, gave his blessing to each as they knelt at his feet.
In the collection of canons already mentioned Egbert provided for the religious instruction of the poor as well as the rich. The teaching of the common people is one of the duties specially enjoined on the clergy, every priest being required to “instil with great exactness into the people committed to his charge the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as the whole doctrine and practice of Christianity.” In the absence of books this was done orally, much use being made of instructions cast into a metrical form, and so committed to memory. Thus the multitude, if ignorant of letters, were certainly not uninstructed, as we see in the case of St. Cædmon whom Bede calls illiteratus, that is, unable to read; but who was nevertheless perfectly familiar with sacred history, which he had learnt by oral instruction, and was thus able to sing of the creation, the Deluge, the journeys of the Israelites, and the last judgment.
Albert, the master of the school, and the successor of Egbert in the see of York, is described by Alcuin in one of his poems as “a pattern of goodness, justice, and piety, teaching the Catholic faith in the spirit of love, stern to the stubborn, but pitiful and gentle to the good.” If he marked any youths among his pupils who showed peculiar signs of promise, like a good master, he made them his friends. “He observed the natural dispositions of each with wonderful skill, and, drawing them to him, taught and lovingly cherished them. Some he dexterously imbued with the grammatical art, whilst into the minds of others he instilled the sweetness of rhetoric. These he endeavoured to polish with the juridical grindstone, those he taught to cultivate the songs of the muses, and to tread the hill of Parnassus with lyric steps. To others, again, he made known the harmony of the heavens, the motions of the sun and moon, the five zones, the seven wandering stars; the laws of the heavenly bodies, their rising and setting; the aerial movements of the sea, and the quaking of the earth; the nature of man, cattle, birds, and wild beasts; the diversities of numbers and varieties of figures.” He taught also how to calculate the return of the Paschal solemnity, and above all expounded the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures. He often travelled into Gaul and Italy in quest of books and new methods of instruction. The noblest families of Northumbria placed their sons under his care, not only those who were training for the ecclesiastical state, but those intended for the world. Indeed it is certain that the pupils of the episcopal and monastic schools were by no means exclusively ecclesiastics. Eddi tells us that St. Wilfrid received many youths to educate, who on reaching man’s estate, if they chose to embrace a secular life, were presented in armour to the king. Alfred, the son of king Egfrid of Northumbria, was himself a pupil of St. Wilfrid, and spent some years in Ireland that he might pursue his studies with greater advantage. He became a great patron of learning, and corresponded with St. Aldhelm on philosophical subjects and the difficulties of Latin prosody; and it was to his son Ceolwulf that St. Bede addressed the dedication of his Ecclesiastical History.
On the death of Egbert in 766 the unanimous voice of the people called Albert to the vacant see. He showed himself worthy of their choice, “feeding his flock with the food of the Divine Word, and guarding the lambs of Christ from the wolf.” He governed the Church of York for thirteen years, during which time he never abandoned his care of the school. The mastership, however, devolved on Alcuin, and such was the fame of his scholarship as to draw students not only from all parts of England and Ireland, but also from France and Germany. Among the latter was St. Luidger, a native of Friesland, afterwards known as the Apostle of Saxony, of whom we shall have more to say in the following chapter.
The extent and character of Alcuin’s learning will be more properly studied when we come to speak of his labours at the court of Charlemagne; it will be sufficient here to notice the fact that he was a scholar of exclusively English growth, and drew all the materials with which he worked in his after career from the library and the schools of York. In his writings he often alludes to the want he feels of “those invaluable books of scholastic erudition” which were there placed at his command, through the affectionate industry of his master, Albert, who continued, after his elevation to the episcopate, to add to the treasures already collected. Two years before his death Albert resolved on resigning his pastoral charge that he might spend his last days as a simple monk, and devote himself exclusively to the affairs of his salvation. Calling to him, therefore, his two favourite pupils, Eanbald and Alcuin, he committed to the first the care of his diocese, and to the other that of his books, “the dearest of all his treasures.” Alcuin was despatched to Rome to obtain the sanction of the Holy See for the appointment of Eanbald and it was at Parma on his homeward journey that the solicitations of Charlemagne won his promise to settle at the court of that monarch, and transfer to a foreign soil the learning he had acquired on the shores of Saxon England.
With the death of Albert the prosperity of the Early English schools may be said to have closed. Five years later the Danish keels appeared for the first time off the Northumbrian coast: it seemed only a passing alarm, but in 793 another armament effected a landing at Lindisfarne, and after slaughtering the monks, gave to the flames the most venerable of the English sanctuaries. This was but the beginning of sorrows. The following year the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow shared a similar fate, and all the treasures of art and literature collected by St. Biscop were ruthlessly destroyed. For seventy years these scenes of carnage and plunder went on without interruption in every part of England, and the riches laid up in the churches everywhere pointed them out as the first objects of attack. The finishing-blow came in 867, when “a great heathen army,” as they are called by the Saxon chronicler, having wintered in East Anglia, and there supplied themselves with horses, marched northwards and made themselves masters of the city of York. Thence they overran the kingdom of Northumbria, carrying fire and sword wherever they appeared, till the whole country between the Ouse and the Tyne presented only the smoking ruins of what had once been cities and abbeys. Beverley, Ripon, Whitby, and Lastingham, all seats of learning and civilisation, were swept away, and in 875 the sea-king Halden crossed the Tyne and destroyed the last remains of the monastic institute in Northumbria. After burning Jarrow for the second time, he directed his course to Lindisfarne, where the episcopal see was still fixed, and where a new monastery had sprung up on the ruins of that formerly destroyed by the Danes. Eardulf was then bishop, and on learning the approach of the pagans he determined to save the holy relics of St. Cuthbert by a timely flight. Calling his monks around him, therefore, he communicated to them his resolve, and having disinterred the body of the saint, together with those of St. Oswald and St. Aidan, they prepared to bid farewell to the holy island, whence the light of Christianity had shone forth over all the north of England for two hundred and forty years. This closing scene in the history of northern monasticism exhibits to us the monks of Lindisfarne in the hour of their sorest trial, surrounded by their school. There were in the monastery, says Simeon of Durham, a certain number of youths, brought up there from their infancy, who had been taught by the monks and trained in the singing of the Divine Office. These boys entreated Eardulf to suffer them to follow him. They set out, therefore, monks and children together, carrying the bier with the holy relics, their sacred vessels, the Holy Book of the Gospels, and their other books, and commenced that melancholy journey which, after seven years of wandering, was to bring them at last to the “grassy plain, on every side thickly wooded, but not easy to be made habitable,” where afterwards grew up, on the site of their wattled oratory, the princely city of Durham.
By these and similar calamities, extending not over one district, but over every part of the country, England was plunged back into the barbarism out of which she was but just emerging: her seats of learning were all swept away, and during the century that elapsed from the first landing of the Danes to the accession of Alfred, a night of gloomy darkness settled over the land.
Source: Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .