by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)
In the seventh year of the Emperor Nero, and the sixtieth of the Christian era, a little ship entered the harbour of Alexandria, and after rounding the great Pharos that stood at its northern extremity, cast anchor by that granite quay, round which was grouped, as in an amphitheatre, six miles in span, a city of palaces and temples. It bore on its decks one of whom that proud city as yet knew nothing, but who had come to erect his patriarchal throne in the midst of her sea girt walls, bringing with him his Gospel and the sovereignty of St. Peter’s keys. It was St. Mark, the interpreter and spiritual son of the Prince of the Apostles, sent in his name and by his authority to plant the Church in the southern capital of the Empire. Descending from the ship, and crossing the crowded quay overshadowed by its plane-trees, he made his way towards the great Moon-gate which opened into the street of the Seven Stadia. He was partially bald, and his hair and beard were sprinkled with grey hairs; but his beautiful eyes flashed beneath their high arched eyebrows, and there was a quickness in his step and a grace in his movements which bespoke him not yet past the middle age. So at least he has been described by the historian Simeon Metaphrastes, who, though writing in the tenth century, has embodied in his narrative the account of far earlier authors, who have minutely recorded the circumstances which attended the entry into Alexandria of her first patriarch.
We need not describe the world in which he found himself. It was the fairest city of the East; Greek in its aspect and population though planted on Egyptian soil, with a clearer sky than even that of Athens; a nobler harbour than Corinth could boast of; and that which was denied to Rome and Carthage, the command of a mighty river, which brought down to the port the corn and rose-coloured granite of Upper Egypt, the ivory of Ethiopia, the spices and gold-dust of Arabia, and the gems of Eastern lands. Like that other more ancient city on whose site she was reared, she “dwelt in the midst of the rivers; the sea was her riches, the waters were her walls.” Then as now the highway to India lay through Egypt, and her seaport of Arsinoe on the Arabian Gulf communicated by a canal with the Nile, the western branch of which flowed out into the Mediterranean just north of the Alexandrian harbour. Thus the capital of the Ptolemies became the central point between East and West, and into her markets flowed the costly Oriental luxuries which were carried by her merchants into every European port. She was rich and she was populous; all nations met to traffic in her harbour, all tongues were spoken in her “many-peopled” streets. Yet her trading pre-eminence formed but a small part of her glory. It is not often that a great commercial emporium becomes the haunt of the Muses; but Alexandria united graces and attractions of the most opposite character, and her fame for learning eclipsed even that of her wealth. Three hundred years before the time of which we are speaking, one of Alexander’s royal successors, after erecting the temple of Serapis and the great Pharos, which last was numbered among the wonders of the world, bethought him of another way of rendering his name immortal, and gathered together a society of learned men whose duty was to consist in studying and teaching every known science. He built schools for them to lecture in, halls in which they ate in common, and marble porticoes, where, after the fashion of the Greek philosophers, they could walk and converse with their disciples. A noble library, which was enlarged by successive princes till it consisted of seven hundred thousand volumes, completed the Musæum or University of Ptolemy Soter, and the whole was joined to his own palace and delicious gardens by stately marble colonnades. Royal patronage was scarcely needed to foster the intellectual life of a city which had been designed by its founder to be the capital of the world; but with such encouragement the schools of Alexandria grew apace, and in the Apostolic age ranked as the first within the wide dominions that owned the Roman sway.
Here then the Blessed Peter came in the person of his chosen disciple, to claim for Christ the southern capital of the Empire, as he had already in his own person taken possession of East and West–of Antioch and Rome. Solitary and unknown, the Evangelist came there bent on conquests vaster than those of Alexander, for he had but enslaved a base material world; but St. Mark, as he stood at the Mendion, or Moon-gate, that led from the harbour into the busy streets, was deliberating on the conquest of a million of souls. How was he to begin? Where should he first bear his message of good tidings? Should he bend his steps to the porticoes of the Musæum, or try to find a listener in the crowded exchange which met his eye through that open gate? Providence itself was to give the reply, and neither wealth nor science was to yield him his first convert. The thong of his sandal snapped in two, and to get it mended he entered the shop of a cobbler that stood close at hand. The cobbler, whose name was Anianus, gave him hospitality that night; and questioning him as to who he was, heard in reply that he was the servant of Jesus Christ, declared in the Scriptures to be the Son of God. “Of what Scriptures do you speak?” he inquired; “I have never heard of any writings but the Iliad and the Odyssey, and other such things as are taught to the sons of the Egyptians.” Then St. Mark sat down and unfolded to him the Gospel; through the long hours of the night, in the midst of that heaving world of idolatry and sin–the teacher spoke, and the disciple listened; and when morning dawned the first fruits of Alexandria had been laid up in the garner of Christ.
It was meet that an Evangelist should deliver his first message to the poor; but it was not with the poor alone that he had to do. The Church of Alexandria was to receive into her embrace the philosopher of the Musæum as well as the despised Egyptian slave. She was to address herself to the wise and prudent of this world as well as to little ones. So St. Mark, as we are told, surrounded his see with learned men, and became the founder of a catechetical school. Although its chief celebrity dates only from the end of the second century, yet its first foundation is universally attributed to St. Mark.
It rose under the shadow of the temple of Serapis, near those marble porticoes where the Neo-Platonists, who despised such vulgar idolatry, were dreaming of some misty impersonal abstraction to which they gave the name of God; where Pyrrhonists took refuge in a system of universal doubt; where many were content to know nothing at all about the soul, and concerned themselves rather with mathematics and material prosperity; where Greek Epicureans talked of a world that had made itself by chance, and set up sense as the standard of certainty, and enjoyment as the end of life; while Roman freethinkers quoted the witty atheisms of Lucretius, and then went to burn incense before the statue of the Emperor. What new elements of knowledge could a Christian Evangelist contribute to such a world as this? There was no need for him to bring it the literature of Greece and Rome; and as to the sciences of figures and numbers, Egypt was their native soil. Even the Hebrew Scriptures had long ago been translated into Greek and laid up in the library of Ptolemy. But he brought the Gospel–his own Gospel in particular; the one Book out of which for long ages the faithful of Alexandria were exclusively instructed, and which the teacher of the catechetical school was required to hold in his hand when he stood before his hearers. He brought the traditions of St. Paul and of St. Peter, for he had been the disciple of both. He brought the Creed, the Apostolic symbol, which in the brief compass of its twelve articles contains more truths than Plato or Cicero had ever known, and which discovered in the certainty of faith that _Eureka_ which every system of human philosophy had sought in vain. He brought his Liturgy too; if not that which bears his name, at least some earlier form which served as its groundwork. And lastly, he brought that Liturgy’s musical voice–the eight ancient tones, which, like so many things that belong to the Church, when first we meet with them in history, are already clothed with venerable antiquity: those tones to which the Jewish Church had for centuries chanted the Psalms of David; which must so often have fallen on the ears of Jesus, and in whose melody, it may be, His Divine Voice had sometimes mingled; the sweet songs of Sion which Jewish captives had sung by the rivers of Babylon, and whose echoes now floated from Christian lips over the dark waters of the Nile. The Holy Gospels, the Creed, the Liturgy, and the Ecclesiastical Chant, these were the contributions which were offered by the Patriarch of Alexandria to her learned stores, and which formed the first class-books of the Christian schools. But St. Mark did something more than this. All early writers agree in declaring that he established among his clergy that canonical rule of life which was a copy of the community life of the first Christians; while at the same time, as St. Jerome and Cassian inform us, some of his disciples retiring into the neighbourhood of the city, and there giving themselves up to prayer and the study of the Scriptures, laid the first foundations of the cœnobitical, or monastic life.
To St. Mark, therefore, and through him to the Prince of the Apostles, may be traced up every one of those institutions which were the nurseries of the Christian schools. For, as will hereafter be seen, the Christian seminaries took their origin in the episcopal and monastic schools, and these again grew out of that system of community life which, being first embraced by the faithful at Jerusalem, was afterwards elsewhere established by the Apostles, who lived with their immediate followers as they themselves had lived with their Divine Master. The Apostolic origin of the canonical rule of life has never been denied. When St. Augustine was accused by Petilianus the Donatist of introducing a novelty into the Church by establishing his community of regular clergy, he defended himself by appealing to the example of the first Christians, and showing that, if the name of monastery were new, the manner of life which he and his brethren followed was as old as Christianity itself. It is thus that the author of the ancient book called the “Recognitions” describes St. Peter as living, with a chosen number of disciples, among whom were St. Mark, St. Clement, St. Evodius, and St. Linus; so St. Paul was accompanied by St. Luke and St. Timothy, and St. John the Evangelist by St. Polycarp and St. Papias. St. Irenæus, a disciple of the last-named saints, carried into Gaul the discipline of the school in which he had been nurtured, and, writing in after years to the heresiarch Florinus, reminds him how, when yet a child, he had been accustomed to meet him in the house of Polycarp. “Early recollections,” he says, “grow with the soul, and entwine themselves about it, so that I could tell of the very place where the blessed Polycarp sat when he spoke, of his employments and his external appearance.”
Out of this manner of life, as we shall presently show, sprang up the episcopal seminaries, which were designed for the training of the younger clerics, whilst the catechetical schools were intended for the religious instruction of the neophytes. But though this last-named institution was, of course, sui generis, and exclusively belonged to those primitive ages when adult converts from Paganism had to be prepared for baptism by at least a two years’ course of instruction, yet their history, and specially that of the Alexandrian school, helps us in a convenient manner to watch the absorption into the Christian system of education of every branch of learning afterwards cultivated in the schools.
In the absence of more particular details of the kind of instruction which prevailed at Alexandria before the time of St. Pantænus, we may reasonably suppose that the same system was adopted in that city as we find established at Jerusalem under St. Cyril. There the Hearers or Catechumens assembled in the porch of the church; the men and women sat separate from one another, and the master stood to deliver his instruction. The catecheses of St. Cyril that are preserved are twenty-three in number, eighteen being a summary of the chief articles of the Faith, given in the form of an exposition of the Creed, and the five others intended for the competent, or those preparing to receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. The last-named subject is treated in an explanation of the Liturgy of St. James. This, of course, was the sort of teaching for which the catechetical schools were primarily intended, and up to the year 179 the teachers of Alexandria do not appear to have aimed at anything of a higher character. But about that time Pantænus, a former stoic, whose eloquence earned him the title of the Sicilian Bee, became master of the school, and introduced a wider range of studies. He made use of his old learning to illustrate and defend his new faith. Clement of Alexandria, his earliest disciple, speaks of his “transcendent powers,” and St. Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem, gloried in calling him his lord and blessed father.
The renown of St. Pantænus passed into the Indies, carried thither by some of the swarthy Hindoos, who were no strangers in the busy streets of Alexandria, and who had managed to find their way to that school where Jew and Gentile, bond and free, met together without distinction. The Indians invited him to come among them, and St. Pantænus accordingly exchanged his mastership for an apostolic life, and went to preach the faith to the Brahmins. Clement, his former disciple and assistant, succeeded him. He had visited all lands and studied in all schools in search of truth, and had found it at last on the humble bench of the Catechumen. No one understood better than he the emptiness of human learning when pursued as an end, or its serviceableness when used as a means. His end was to win souls to Christ; and to reach it, he laid hands indifferently on all the intellectual weapons that fell within his reach; poetry and philosophy, science and even satire;–he neglected nothing that would serve his turn. He did not disdain to give a Christian interpretation to Pagan fables, and took occasion from the stories of Orpheus and Amphion, who, as the poets pretended, had moved the stones and tamed the wild beasts with the music of their lyres, to present to his hearers the Word made Flesh, conquering the stony and ferocious heart of fallen man, and restoring that universe which he beautifully calls “a lyre whose harmony has been destroyed by sin.” He could use with equal ease the phraseology of the Neo-Platonists whilst engaged in dispersing their transcendentalism into thinnest air, or the plainer language of the Gospel when he had to put heretics to silence. Nor was he too deep or profound for the comprehension of the simple-hearted faithful; he could write hymns for little children to sing in church, and when he spoke to exclusively Christian hearers set forth no other wisdom, no other model for their imitation, than “Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.”
The result of all this may be imagined. While the first neophytes of St. Mark and his immediate followers had been chiefly gained from the ranks of the Jews, to whom Alexandria was a second home, Gentile converts now flowed into the Church in ever-increasing numbers. The philosophers found in the Christian teachers those who could beat them with their own weapons, and human learning became elevated and ennobled by its marriage with the faith. It may be taken as a proof how thoroughly it was now recognised that Christians were men who could think and reason like other men, had as fair a knowledge of books and as great a command of what the Roman world valued far more than mere book-knowledge–eloquence; in short, that they were men of whom a university city need not be ashamed, and who might even be capable one day or other of setting up a university of their own–that it was becoming possible for Christians to gain a livelihood by teaching grammar and profane letters. There was one who so began his career, and who, at the age of eighteen, succeeded Clement in the direction of the catechetical school. The child of a martyr, Origen had been the pupil of saints. He had been taught not only by Clement, but also by St. Hyppolitus the martyr, commonly called Bishop of Porto, the disciple of Irenæus, the disciple of Polycarp, the spiritual son of the Apostle St. John. Hyppolitus was a man of many sciences, a philosopher, a poet, and a mathematician. He was one of the earliest who comes before us as attaining eminence in that distinctively Christian science, which will often appear in these pages under the name of the Computum. The computum was in fact the art of calculating the time of Easter, and included so much astronomical and arithmetical knowledge as was necessary for that purpose. Hence it was a science indispensable in the education of clerics; for in those days the Tabula Paschalis did not as now figure at the beginning of every Prayer-book; nor did the invention of almanacs bring home much science in a simple form to the fireside of the most unlettered layman. The calculation of Easter, therefore, had to be painfully gone through year after year, to the sore travail of many heads; and he was a benefactor to his species who first thought of lightening the labour. Hyppolitus, who is supposed to have been an Alexandrian by birth, and to whom, therefore, astronomy and arithmetic were second nature, composed two cycles which determined the Easter for a hundred and twelve years to come; and after his death a statue was erected representing the bishop, with the cycles engraved on his chair, which is still preserved in the Christian Museum of the Lateran.
Under Hyppolitus and the other masters provided for him by his father’s care, Origen had made progress in every human science; but on becoming chief catechist of Alexandria he had to make a sacrifice. He was forced to resign his grammar-school and to sell his books. Not, indeed, that he had no further need of these treasures, but they were his solitary riches; and as even he could not absolutely live on nothing, he parted from them and lived on the small pension of four oboli a day, which was paid him by the purchaser. And having thus wedded himself to poverty, alike the spouse of the scholar and the saint, he began to study Hebrew, and entered on those vast labours which had for their object the production of a correct version of the Sacred Text. And all the time the business of the school went on, and persecution raged with small intermission. Seven of his disciples suffered under Severus–a glorious crown for the master who envied them their palms. But we are only concerned with the history of Origen in so far as it exhibits the expansion of the Christian studies. So passing over twenty years of his life, we shall follow him to Cæsarea, where in 231 he retired from the storm that had driven him from Alexandria, and accepted the direction of another school entrusted him by the two bishops, Theoctistus of Cæsarea and Alexander of Jerusalem. It appears to have been a combination of the episcopal seminary and the catechetical school, for scholars of all classes resorted to it. Among them were Theodore, better known by his Christian name of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, and his brother Athenodorus, who were then studying in the famous law-schools of Berytus. The conversation of Origen, however, soon put Roman jurisprudence out of their heads, and determined them to apply exclusively to philosophy under the guidance of their new friend. Both were at this time pagans, and Origen had to prepare their minds to receive the truth in a very gradual manner. He began by mercilessly rooting out the weeds and briars of bad habits and false maxims which he found choking up the soil, a process which at first, as his pupils acknowledged, cost them not a little. Then he taught them in succession the different branches of philosophy: logic, in order to exercise their minds and enable them to discern true reasoning from sophistry; physics, that they might understand and admire the works of God; geometry, which by its clear and indisputable demonstrations serves as a basis to the science of thought; astronomy, to lift their hearts from earth to heaven; and finally, philosophy, which was not limited like that taught in the pagan schools to empty speculations, but was conveyed in such a way as to lead to practical results. All these were but steps to ascend to that higher science which teaches us the existence and nature of God. He permitted his pupils freely to read whatever the poets and philosophers had written on this subject, himself watching and directing their studies, and opening their eyes to distinguish those sparks of truth which are to be found scattered in the writings of the pagans, however overlaid by a mass of fable. And then at last he presented them with the Sacred Scriptures, in which alone the true knowledge of God is to be found. In one of his letters to St. Gregory he explains in what way he wishes him to regard the profane sciences. “They are to be used,” he says, “so that they may contribute to the understanding of the Scriptures; for just as philosophers are accustomed to say that geometry, music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy all dispose us to the study of philosophy, so we may say that philosophy, rightly studied, disposes us to the study of Christianity. We are permitted when we go out of Egypt to carry with us the riches of the Egyptians wherewith to adorn the tabernacle; only let us beware how we reverse the process, and leave Israel to go down into Egypt and seek for treasure: that is what Jeroboam did in old time, and what heretics do in our own.”
In addition, therefore, to the elements of education which have been named before, we see that, at the beginning of the third century, Christians were expected to teach and study the liberal arts, profane literature, philosophy, and the Biblical languages. Their teachers commented on the Scriptures, and devoted themselves to a critical study of its text; positive theology, as it is called, had established itself in the schools, together with a certain systematic science of Christian ethics, and, we may add, many branches of physical science also. It matters very little that these latter were but imperfectly known; the real point worth observing is, that every branch of human knowledge, in so far as it had been cultivated at that time, was included in the studies of the Christian schools; and, considering that this had been the work of scarcely more than two centuries, and those centuries of bloody persecution, it must be acknowledged to have been a tolerably expansive growth.
We have now to consider the gradual development of the episcopal seminaries, which in their early stage formed but a part of the bishop’s household. I have already spoken of the sort of community life established among the bishops and their clergy in apostolic times. During the first four centuries of the Church this manner of life was the more easily carried out, as the clergy were to be found only in towns. The establishment of rural parishes and the appointment of parochial priests to country villages, is first spoken of in the Council of Vaison, held in 528. The community life of the city clergy had many obvious advantages, and afforded singular facilities for training younger aspirants to the ecclesiastical state under the eye of the chief pastor. Accordingly, we very early find notices of the schools for younger clerics, which sprang up in the episcopal households. Thus, the martyr St. Vincent is stated to have been educated in sacred letters, even from his childhood, by Valerius, Bishop of Saragossa. St. John Chrysostom studied for three years as lector in the household of Meletius, Bishop of Antioch, St. Cyril in that of his uncle Theophilus, and St. Athanasius with Alexander of Alexandria. Towards the close of the second century we read how Pope St. Eleutherius placed the future martyr St. Felicianus in the school which was then presided over by his archdeacon, St. Victor, his successor in the Apostolic Chair; and all the early annals of the Roman Church represent her clergy as for the most part educated in this manner, under the eye of her Pontiffs. The author of the Philosophumena acquaints us with the fact that Pope Calixtus I. established a school of theology at Rome, which appears from his account to have been crowded with disciples. When, after the conversion of Constantine, the imperial palace of the Lateran became the residence of the popes, their ecclesiastical school was maintained within the Patriarchium, as the papal palace was called, and in it not a few of the greatest popes of the first nine centuries received their education. It possessed a noble library, and the names of its librarians are preserved in unbroken order from the fifth century. Here, ecclesiastical students were received at an early age, and admitted to the successive degrees of holy orders only at long intervals and after careful preparation. The very first Decretal that exists of known authenticity, that of Pope St. Siricius, addressed, in 385, to Himerius, Bishop of Tarragona, lays down the rules to be observed in promoting clerics to holy orders, and indicates the existence of such episcopal seminaries as we have described. Those who have been devoted to the service of the Church from childhood are to be first placed in the rank of lectors. Then, if they have persevered to the age of thirty, they may be advanced through the inferior orders to the subdiaconate, and thence to the diaconate, in which they must pass five years before being admitted to the priesthood. A few years later we find St. Zozimus ordaining that the young clerics should remain in the rank of lectors till their twentieth year, and that they should not be raised to the priesthood until after many years of trial. St. Leo I. writes to the African bishops, about the middle of the fifth century, appealing to the venerable ordinances of the holy fathers on the ordination of those _who have lived from childhood subject to ecclesiastical discipline_, by which expression we must certainly understand the young lectors of the episcopal seminaries. And, glancing on to the eighth and ninth centuries, we find exactly the same discipline kept up in the school of the Patriarchium as had existed in the seventh. Pope Gregory II. is spoken of as brought up from childhood in the Lateran palace, “under the eye and discipline of the Blessed Pontiff Sergius,” as being promoted by him to the subdiaconate, and after having for some years discharged the offices of treasurer and librarian, being advanced to the rank of deacon and, subsequently, of priest. So, too, Pope Leo III. is described as “educated from infancy in all ecclesiastical and divine discipline in the vestiarium of the Lateran Palace.” In most cases the Lateran seminary was presided over by the Roman archdeacon, and, as we shall see, the superintendence of the cathedral schools continued, in after ages, to form one of the duties commonly attached to the archdiaconate.
In the fourth century, when the monastic institute spread from the East into the West, the community life of the bishops and their clergy assumed, in many places, a yet more regular form. St. Eusebius of Vercelli, who had himself been committed by his mother in early youth to the care of Pope Eusebius, and had been instructed and baptized by him, was the first to erect an episcopal monastery in his own city, which became a nursery of illustrious prelates. This was in 354, and forty years later St. Augustine established a similar monastery at Hippo, which is regarded as the parent of all houses of canons regular. Yet, though these establishments are sometimes called monasteries, the rule of life observed in them is ordinarily designated the Apostolic rule, and the monasteries or colleges of a similar kind established in Gaul and Britain are said to be “of the Apostolic Order.” From this time the community life of the clergy became subject to fixed rules or canons. In 398 the fourth Council of Carthage, whilst prescribing the laws for the administration of holy orders, regulates the manner of life to be observed by the bishops with their clergy in very precise terms. The bishop is to have his residence near the church; he is to commit the care of temporalities to his archdeacon, and to occupy himself exclusively with prayer, study and preaching. In the church he is to have a higher seat than his clergy, but in the house he must recognise them as in all respects his colleagues, and never to suffer them to remain standing while he is seated. Similar canons were passed in the first Council of Toledo, held two years later.
In all this there is no distinct reference to the education of the younger clerics as forming one of the duties of the cathedral clergy. The Council of Vaison, held in 528, speaks, indeed, of the parish priests, who are required, according to the practice of the priests of Italy, to bring up young lectors in their houses, who may succeed them in their cure; and the establishment of similar schools was solemnly ordered, in 680, by the General Council of Constantinople; but the institution, of which we here see the germ, was not the episcopal, but the priest’s or parochial school. However, in 531, the second Council of Toledo passed several canons, which bear distinct reference to the bishop’s seminary, which by this time is evidently supposed to be attached to the cathedral church. Those children who are destined by their parents for the ecclesiastical state are to receive the tonsure, and to be placed in the rank of lectors in order to be instructed _in the house of the church under the eyes of the bishop, by him who shall be appointed over them_. At the age of eighteen their vocation is to be publicly examined, that no one may embrace the ecclesiastical state save with his own free consent. If this be given, they may be ordained sub-deacons at twenty and deacons at twenty-five. And clerics so educated cannot pass to any other diocese, but owe canonical obedience to the bishop at whose charge they have been brought up.
Here, then, is the cathedral seminary fairly established, and a few years later we find it expanding into a noble public school. It was St. Leander, of Seville, who first conceived the idea of establishing a staff of professors for teaching the liberal arts in connection with his cathedral. He directed their labours in person, and received among his first scholars his own brother Isidore, who afterwards succeeded him in his see. Isidore greatly extended the range of studies, which included the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues, and all the liberal arts, besides law and medicine. His famous Origines drawn up for the use of this school present an encyclopedia of every known subject, and embody several fragments of ancient authors which would otherwise have been lost to us. The first five books treat of Grammar, Rhetoric, Philosophy, Dialectics, Music, Geometry, Mechanics, Astronomy, Jurisprudence, Chronology, and History. The sixth is on the Holy Scriptures, the seventh and eighth are on God and the Angels, the ninth on the various nations and languages of the earth, and the remaining books treat of Etymology. But his efforts for the promotion of Christian education did not stop here. In 633 he presided over the fourth Council of Toledo, at which all the bishops of Spain were required to establish seminaries in their cathedral cities on the model of that of Seville, the study of the three learned languages being specially enjoined. This decree was carried into effect, and hence it is commonly said that the system of cathedral schools took its origin in Spain.
Besides the catechetical and episcopal schools, instances occur, even in the age of martyrdom, of private schools kept by Christian teachers. Such was the school of Imola, presided over by the martyr Cassian; and the story of his martyrdom exhibits to us the light in which the brutal pagan school-boy regarded his master. Yet there were cases when the hearts even of Gentile scholars were softened by the influence of a sanctity which they comprehended not. The exquisite story of the Eight Martyrs of Carthage, as related in their authentic Acts, exhibits to us the pagan scholars of the deacon Flavian obtaining his reprieve from the judge by vehemently denying his ecclesiastical character; and when he at last succeeds in proving a fact which brings with it the joyful death-warrant, his Christian disciples follow him to the place of execution to gather up the last words of instruction from their master’s lips. We have a yet more particular account of the school established at Cæsarea by the martyr St. Pamphilius. He had been educated, as a Gentile, in the public schools of Berytus, where he attained to great proficiency in profane science. But, on his conversion, he became desirous of acquiring a knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures, and for this purpose placed himself under the tuition of Pierius, the successor of Origen in the catechetical school of Alexandria. On his return to Syria he was ordained priest, and devoted the rest of his life, and his wealth, to the creation of a Christian school and library. No Florentine scholar in the age of the Renaissance had a more passionate love of books than he. He caused them to be sent to him from every quarter, and his library numbered no fewer than thirty thousand volumes, many of which had been copied by his own hand. They included the best works of the ancients, besides those of Christian writers. Pamphilius spent the greater part of his life in transcribing books, and both bought and wrote out an amazing number of copies of the Holy Scriptures, which he distributed gratis to all who desired to have them. He applied himself with unwearied diligence to obtain a correct edition of the whole of the Sacred Text; and, in the midst of these labours, he directed a school of sacred learning, wherein was reared more than one martyr.
The public schools of the Empire were not generally resorted to by the faithful until after the conversion of Constantine, when Christians were permitted to aspire to the professor’s chair. But this privilege, great as it was, did not produce any material change in the character of the State academies; they continued to flourish under the Christian Cæsars as they had done under their pagan predecessors, but they never merited to be regarded as Christian institutions. Though both Constantine and Gratian did much to provide excellent rhetoricians and grammarians to instruct their subjects, and though Valentinian I. made some laudable efforts, to correct the worst abuses of the schools, they continued to bear the stamp of their origin; and it is a significant fact that, long after the establishment of a nominal Christianity in the institutions of the Empire, the saint whose children were destined to hold in their hands the future education of Europe is introduced to us in the first incident of his life, flying into the wilderness to escape the corruption of the semi-pagan schools of Rome. St. Augustine has told us something of the condition of the schools of Carthage in his time, which may probably be taken as a fair specimen of the State gymnasia in other parts of the Empire. The masters exercised an excessive severity with their pupils, so that, as the saint confesses, he first began the use of prayer when yet a child, to beg of God that He would save him from a school flogging. His elders, and even his parents, were so used to the idea of these punishments, “whereby labour and sorrow are multiplied to the sons of Adam,” that they only made a jest of his sufferings. All the sweets of Greek poetry were, he says, sprinkled with gall to him, he being forced to learn them by “cruel terrors and stripes.” He lets us know moreover that the wholesome admonitions of Quinctilian were altogether neglected, and that the worst writings of the pagan authors were placed in the hands of the scholars. In academies where the professorial system reigned supreme, moral training was neither given nor expected; the professors were paid for teaching their pupils grammar and rhetoric, and, as St. Augustine remarks, would have treated it as a greater fault to pronounce homo without the aspirate than to hate a man. Many were pagans, like Libanius, the master of St. Chrysostom; others were content with the smallest possible seasoning of Christianity. They were, in short, the sophists by profession–a pragmatical race of beings whose mental horizon hardly extended beyond the logic of Aristotle and the rules of rhetoric. Honourable exceptions of course were to be found, such as Marius Victorinus, who in the Julian persecution resigned his school rather than renounce the Divine Word who maketh eloquent the tongues of children. But as a general rule the professors troubled themselves very little about questions of Christian faith or ethics. Absolute dictators of a petty circle, they were devoured by a vanity which tainted their very eloquence, and expressed itself in such a turgid and affected style, that, as Cicero said of one of their class, if you wanted to be dumb for the rest of your life you had nothing to do but to study their lectures. This vanity showed itself moreover in perpetual squabbles and rivalries, in which the disciples took part with their masters. New-comers were laid violent hands on by the scholastic jackals, who would endeavour by all manner of insolence to press them into the school of their own particular sophist, initiating them by burlesque and uproarious ceremonies. Thus it was that they prepared to seize St. Basil on his first coming to Athens, when St. Gregory of Nazianzen, who well knew how offensive such riotous scenes would prove to one of his grave and reserved character, interfered to protect him, and thus laid the foundation of a friendship which has inspired some of the most exquisite pages of Christian literature. I need not quote the well-known passage that describes their university life: it is often cited as a model for Christian students; yet St. Gregory does not forget to inform us that it was as difficult for a youth to preserve his innocence in the midst of such an atmosphere as it would be for an animal to live in the midst of fire, or for a river to preserve its sweetness when flowing through the briny ocean.
Nevertheless, the circumstances of the times compelled the faithful to resort to these academies. Many had done so even when the professorships were exclusively in the hands of the pagans. Tertullian, in his treatise on Idolatry, examines the lawfulness of the practice, and decides that though it would be impossible for Christians to teach in schools wherein the masters were obliged to recommend the worship of false gods, and to take part in pagan sacrifices and ceremonies, they might properly attend them as students, because they could not otherwise acquire that necessary knowledge of letters which he calls “the key of life,” and because they were perfectly free to reject the fables to which they listened. Such an argument of course implies the existence of very powerful safeguards on the side of faith; and he seems to take it for granted that Christian students will imbibe only the honey from the flowers of eloquence, and reject the poison. The general feeling certainly was that human learning was sufficiently necessary to justify some risks being incurred in its acquisition. After the triumph of the Church, the most religious parents, such as those of St. Basil, hesitated not to send their sons to the public schools; and when the crafty attempt was made by Julian the Apostate to close them to the Christians, and to prohibit even their private study of pagan literature, we know how strenuously the bishops protested against his edict, as a cruel and unheard-of tyranny. So long as it remained in force they exerted themselves to supply the want of the old class-books, the use of which was interdicted, by imitations of the poets from their own pens. No one was more active in this work than St. Gregory Nazianzen, who took up the cudgels against his imperial schoolfellow in good earnest. “For my part,” he exclaims, in his fourth discourse, “I trust that every one who cares for learning will take part in my indignation. I leave to others fortune, birth, and every other fancied good which can flatter the imagination of man. I value only science and letters, and regret no labour that I have spent in their acquisition. I have preferred, and shall ever prefer, learning to all earthly riches, and hold nothing dearer on earth, next to the joys of heaven and the hopes of eternity.” The decree was revoked by Valentinian at the request of St. Ambrose, so unanimous were the Christian prelates in regarding human learning as a treasure the possession of which the faithful were jealously to vindicate. Even in those passages which occur in the writings of the Fathers wherein they appear to undervalue polite studies, it is evident that they only do so relatively, and the scholar is pretty sure to peep out before you have turned the page. “You ask me for my books,” writes St. Gregory to his friend Adamanthus; “have you then turned a boy again that you are going to study rhetoric? I have long ago laid aside such follies, for one cannot spend all one’s life in child’s play. We must cease to lisp when we aspire to the true science, and sacrifice to the Divine Word that frivolous eloquence which formerly so charmed our youth. However, take my books, my dear Adamanthus–all at least that are not devoured by the worms, or blackened with the smoke, on the shelves where they have lain so long. Take them, and use them well. Study the sophists thoroughly, and both acquire and teach to others all the learning you can, provided the fear of God reign paramount over these vanities.” But though the Fathers, both by word and example, authorised the study of the pagan literature, they required that it should be read with certain restrictions, and according to what may be termed the Christian method. This is explained by St. Basil, in a treatise he wrote on the subject for the guidance of some young relations. He advocates the right use of human learning, comparing the soul to a tree, which bears not only fruit but leaves also. The fruit is truth, to be found only in the Sacred Scriptures, but the leaves are the ornaments of literature which cover truth and adorn it. Moses and Daniel both became skilled in the Gentile learning before they devoted themselves to the study of sacred science. And it is not to be doubted that the poets and philosophers have many wise and virtuous precepts, which cannot be too deeply engraved on our minds. Christians are engaged in a mighty struggle, in which they should make use of everything that can help them–poetry, philosophy, rhetoric, or the arts. They should contemplate the Sun of Truth as it is reflected in the waters of human literature, and then lift their eyes to gaze on it in its full effulgence in the heavens.
He then goes on to cite many passages from Homer, Hesiod, and Socrates, and other ancient writers, showing that they abound in excellent maxims, which a Christian may very well apply to his own benefit. A Christian student, he says, should follow the example of the bees, who draw out honey from flowers which seem only proper to charm the eye, or gratify the smell. But then they must also imitate them, in only selecting those flowers that yield honey; and when they extract the sweet juices, let them be careful to leave the poison behind. In like manner we should gather together from the heathen literature whatever may be useful, and leave what is pernicious to morals behind. This was but saying what Plato and Cicero had said before him, and it cannot be charged to the account of a Christian prelate as narrow bigotry, that he should insist on at least as much reserve in the use of profane writers as had been required by the pagan moralists themselves.
It cannot be supposed that the Christian prelates were insensible to the dangers incurred by students in the State academies. St. Chrysostom, indeed, who knew what they were by experience, and who was certainly the last man to undervalue a knowledge of letters, was induced to weigh the arguments for and against a public school education, and decides that the risk is too great to be compensated for by any intellectual advantage. He declares that he knows of no school in his neighbourhood where the study of profane literature can be found united to the teaching of virtue; and this being the case, he considers that Christian parents will generously sacrifice the superior tuition given in the State gymnasia, and send their children to be brought up in a monastery. His words are the more remarkable from the extreme moderation of their tone, and the evident reluctance with which he advocates a course of conduct which must needs place the faithful at a disadvantage. They are also important as showing how very early the monasteries began to be regarded as places of education, for seculars as well as religious. “If you have masters among you,” he writes, “who can answer for the virtue of your children, I should be very far from advocating your sending them to a monastery; on the contrary, I should strongly insist on their remaining where they are. But if no one can give such a guarantee, we ought not to send children to schools where they will learn vice before they learn science, and where in acquiring learning of relatively small value, they will lose what is far more precious, their integrity of soul. Are we then to give up literature? you will exclaim. I do not say that; but I do say that we must not kill souls…. When the foundations of a building are sapped, we should seek rather for architects to reconstruct the whole edifice, than for artists to adorn the walls. In fact, the choice lies between two alternatives; a liberal education which you may get by sending your children to the public schools, or the salvation of their souls, which you secure by sending them to the monks. Which is to gain the day, science or the soul? If you can unite both advantages, do so by all means; but if not, choose the most precious.”
It will be apparent from what has been said, that the State academies of the Empire are not to be numbered among the nurseries of the Christian schools. The only imperial foundation which had a distinctly Christian character about it, appears to have been that which grew up at Constantinople, under the patronage of the Greek emperors. It was established in the Basilica of the Octagon, built by Constantine the Great, where an immense library was collected, which in Zeno’s time amounted to 120,000 volumes. Seven librarians and twelve professors were maintained at the public expense, and the college was presided over by a president, called the _Œcumenicus_, because he was supposed to be a sort of university in himself. The church attached to this academy was served by sixteen monks, and prelates were often chosen from the ranks of the professors to fill the first sees of the Empire. This noble foundation perished in 730, by the hands of Leo the Isaurian, who, finding that the academicians would not enter into his Iconoclastic views, and fearing their learning and their influence, caused fire to be applied to the building by night, so that the Basilica, the vast library, and the professors themselves, were all pitilessly consumed together.
But the parentage of the Christian schools is to be traced to less splendid sources than the Greek universities or the palace of the Cæsars. What these were has been indicated at the beginning of the chapter; the catechetical and the episcopal schools have been already spoken of, and we have now to examine how the work of education came to be embraced by the fathers of that monastic life which, like the canonical life of the clergy, found its first development among the followers of St. Mark. St. Chrysostom’s words, above quoted, show that in his time the monks of the East were already in the habit of receiving and training children. In the West, the work of education did not fall into the hands of the Church until the dissolution of the Roman Empire, when she saw herself obliged to open the doors of her episcopal and monastic schools to secular students. But one thing is evident, that from the first, the Western cœnobites had a certain organised system among them for the education of their own younger members and that the germ of the monastic school is to be found even in the deserts of Egypt. In the rule of St. Pachomius, special directions are given for the instruction of all those who shall come to the monastery. If ignorant of letters, they are to have the rule explained to them, and shall be sent to one who can teach them, and standing before him, shall diligently learn from him, with all thankfulness. After that they shall write for him letters, syllables, words, and names, and they shall be compelled to read, even if unwilling; there shall be no one in the monastery who shall not learn letters, and know something of the Scriptures, at least the New Testament and the Psalter. Twice a week there were to be disputations; that is, spiritual conferences or catechisms. Here is evidently the origin of the interior or claustral school for the instruction of the younger or more ignorant of the monks; and the object of such very stringent regulations is better understood when we study the rest of the rule, and observe the great importance attached to the exercise of spiritual reading, which occupied almost as large a place in the horarium of St. Pachomius as prayer or manual labour.
Nor was this all. The rule of this great monastic legislator distinctly proves that children were received, and that at a very early age, to be educated among the monks. He felt great compassion, we are told, for the young, and was accustomed to say, that in the soil of their minds good seed might be sown more easily than in more advanced years. He considered them particularly capable of being trained to acquire the habit of the presence of God; by which they might afterwards advance to great perfection. Accordingly, his rule is full of provisions for the proper care of these young disciples. The monks are warned not to scandalise them, even by an incautious word: they are to have the recreation and food proper to their age, but the monks are not to sport or laugh with them; and if any boy be too much given to play and idleness, he is to receive sharp correction. They are to eat in the refectory with the brethren, and join them at their work, but at other times a sort of separation is to be observed between them and the community. The terms on which the Fathers lived with their little disciples exhibit that character of paternal tenderness which was one of the distinctive features of the early Christian schools, offering a striking contrast to the state of things existing in the pagan academies. There is, indeed, frequent mention of the rod, but strict discipline was never held incompatible with affectionate familiarity. The Fathers of the Desert had received their traditions on this head from the immediate followers of Him who took the young children in His arms, and willingly suffered them to approach Him; and so it seemed but natural that they who sought to imitate their Master, should surround themselves with little ones, and permit them a certain holy familiarity which constantly reappears in the intercourse between monks and children. Every one will remember the anecdote that is told of St. Pachomius, who, in his extreme humility, did not disdain to be set right by a little boy. As he sat at work with his brethren, making mats, one of the children said to him, “My father, you are not working in the right way; the abbot Theodore does it quite differently.” “Then sit down, my child,” replied the saint, “and show me how I ought to do it;” and having received his lesson, he untwisted his osiers, and began his work all over again. Another time, the saint having returned to the monastery after an absence of some weeks, one of the children ran out to meet him, saying, “I am glad you have come back, my father; since you have been away they have given us neither soup nor vegetables for dinner.” “Well, my child,” was the kind reply, “I will take care that you do not want them for the future;” and calling the cook, he administered to him a sharp rebuke.
Sometimes, even solitaries were induced to undertake the care of children not intended for the religious state. Thus St. Chrysostom relates the example of a Christian lady living at Antioch, who was very desirous to procure for her son the blessings of a holy education, and induced a certain solitary to leave his retreat among the mountains, and undertake the care of the youth: and he adds, the boy made great progress in the sciences, but yet more in piety, and by his example won many of his playfellows to embrace a life of virtue. When, therefore, the great father of the monastic life in the Western world received his two disciples, Placidus and Maurus, with a view to their education, and so gave his followers an example which resulted in the foundation of the great Benedictine schools, he was not departing from the earlier monastic tradition, as Mabillon is careful to show. Nor must the decrees of certain councils which prohibit monks from receiving any children, save those “offered” by their parents to the religious state, be understood as implying more than that such children could not be received into the interior or claustral school; for, as the same writer proves, seculars were always freely admitted into the exterior schools of monasteries.
St. Pachomius was not the only monastic legislator of ancient times who in his rule provided for the admission and education of children. St. Basil permitted them to be received into his monasteries at a very early age, especially if they had lost their parents, because monks should be the fathers of orphans. Their education, he says, should be strictly religious; they are to have a separate portion of the monastery assigned them, and are to be governed by one of the elder monks who shall be both mild and learned, and experienced in the care of children. He is very precise on the point which proves the crux in most systems of education, namely, the method to be observed in inflicting punishment; and though he does not prohibit the use of the rod, he recommends in preference the adoption of such penances as may correct the fault, as well as punish the offender. “Let every fault have its own remedy,” he says, “so that while the offence is punished the soul may be exercised to conquer its passions. For example, has a child been angry with his companion? Oblige him to beg pardon of the other and to do him some humble service, for it is only by accustoming them to humility that you will eradicate anger, which is always the offspring of pride. Has he eaten out of meals? Let him remain fasting for a good part of the day. Has he eaten to excess, and in an unbecoming manner? At the hour of repast, let him, without eating himself, watch others taking their food in a modest manner, and so he will be learning how to behave at the same time that he is being punished by his abstinence. And if he has offended by idle words, by rudeness, or by telling lies, let him be corrected by diet and silence.”
After this he passes on to the studies of the children, and desires that instead of learning the fables of the poets they should be taught the wonderful events narrated in Scripture History. They are to learn by heart sentences chosen from the Book of Proverbs, and little prizes are to be given them in reward for their exercises of memory, “to the end that they may learn with the less reluctance, nay rather with pleasure, and as though engaging in agreeable recreation.” The masters are particularly enjoined to train them to recall their wandering thoughts and fix their attention on their work, by frequently interrogating them as to what they are thinking about. And whilst acquiring a knowledge of letters, they are likewise to be taught some useful art or trade.
In most of the rules drawn up by the early Gallican prelates we see that stringent regulations were introduced for obliging all the brethren to acquire a certain knowledge of letters. “Literas omnes discant,” is the thirty-second brief and emphatic rule of St. Aurelian, Bishop of Arles in the sixth century. What is more remarkable, we find exactly the same provisions in rules drawn up for religious women, as in those of St. Donatus and St. Cæsarius of Arles. The sixth chapter of the rule of St. Leander of Seville, is headed thus: Ut jugiter virgo oret et legat. “Let your time and occupation be so divided,” he says, “that after reading you pray, and after prayer you read; and let these two good works perpetually alternate, so that no part of your time be wholly without them. And when you do any manual work or refresh your body with needful food, then let another read, that when the hands and the eyes are intent on work the ear may be fed with the Divine Word. For if even when we read and pray we are hardly able to withdraw our minds from the temptations of the devil, how much more prone will not the soul be to vice, if it be not held back by the chain of prayer and assiduous reading.” And in the chapter that follows he gives directions for the proper manner of studying the books of the Old Testament.
Before bringing these remarks to a close we cannot omit all notice of the education received in primitive times by the children of the faithful, in the bosoms of their own families. Fleury points out to his readers as one proof of the care taken by Christian parents in the instruction of their children, that in all antiquity we do not find the least notice of any public catechism for children, or any public instruction for those who had been baptized before they came to the use of reason. It was not needed, he says, for in those days, to use the words of St. Chrysostom, “every house was a Church.”
The office of religious instruction generally devolved on the mother. Even in Scripture there is evidence of this, for St. Paul, writing to St. Timothy, reminds him of what he owed to the “faith unfeigned” of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. St. Basil, and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, gloried in preserving the faith in which they had been trained by their grandmother St. Macrina the elder. Their other brother, St. Peter of Sebaste, was chiefly brought up by his sister of the same name. St. Gregory thus describes the extraordinary care bestowed by his mother on the education of her daughter. “My mother,” he says, “took extreme pains with her instruction, not after the manner customary with those of her age, who are ordinarily taught the fables of the poets…. Instead of these she made her learn such portions of Scripture as were easiest to understand. She began with the book of Wisdom, and thence went on to the Psalms.” St. Fulgentius owed his education, not merely in sacred science, but also in polite literature, to the care of his mother Mariana, the religiosa mater as she is called in his life, who was so solicitous about the purity of his Greek accent that she made him learn by heart the poems of Homer and Menander before he studied his Latin rudiments. The early education, both liberal and religious, of St. John Chrysostom was in like manner directed by his admirable mother Anthusa, whose conduct in this particular drew from the lips of the pagan sophist, Libanius, the exclamation, “Ye gods of Greece! how wonderful are the women of the Christians!” In fact it is remarkable how many Christian women of early times are spoken of as being learned. Not to mention St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose case was possibly exceptional, we know that St. Thecla, the disciple of St. Paul, was versed in philosophy, poetry, and rhetoric; St. Olympia, the holy widow of Constantinople, not only corresponded with St. Chrysostom, seventeen of whose letters are addressed to her, but received the dedication of several of St. Gregory of Nazianzen’s poems. St. Jerome, again, dedicated his commentaries on Isaias and Ezechiel to his pupil St. Eustochium, who, he assures us, wrote, spoke, and recited Hebrew without the least trace of a Latin accent. And, not to multiply examples, we may just refer to that passage in his epistles where he speaks of St. Marcella, “the glory of the Roman ladies,” as showing that the learned accomplishments of these illustrious women were not acquired at any sacrifice of qualities more peculiarly becoming their sex. “What virtues did I not find in her?” he says, writing to her spiritual daughter, Principia; “what penetration, what purity, what holiness! She became so learned that after my departure from Rome, when difficulties were found in any obscure passage of Scripture, people applied to her as to a judge; yet she possessed in a sovereign degree that delicate discernment which always perceives what is becoming; and used always to communicate her ideas as if they had been suggested by somebody else, so that while instructing others, she appeared herself to be a pupil.”
Never, surely, was there a greater error than that into which one of our most learned critics has fallen, when he asserts that “the idea and place of woman has been slowly and laboriously elevated by the Gospel.” He could not have written thus had he been as familiar with the records of the Christian Church as with those of pagan antiquity. The most perfect exemplars of Christian womanhood appear in the history of the primitive ages. The grand ideal of the Roman virgin or matron, softened, purified, and elevated by the Gospel precepts and the Apostolic teaching, retaining all its former strength, but acquiring a new element of tenderness, produced those exquisite flowers of sanctity whom the Church appears in some sort to regard as her children of predilection. They were not the growth of one Church or province, but simultaneously, wherever the Christian faith was preached, they expanded their beautiful petals to the Sun of Justice; and we have in Rome an Agnes and a Cecilia; in Sicily a Lucy and an Agatha; in Carthage a Felicitas; in Alexandria a Catherine; a Blandina in Gaul, and in barbarous Britain, an Ursula.
Whence arose this instantaneous regeneration of the womanly character? The Catholic hardly needs to ask himself the question, for the form on which it was modelled is so obvious that it requires not to be indicated. It grew out of no dead code of precepts, but out of the living memory of her, the Mother par excellence, the Virgin-Mother of God, and the model of all Christian virgins and mothers; she whose countenance St. Isidore describes as “gravely sweet and sweetly grave;” whose tranquil gait and gentle voice St. Ambrose has dwelt on, as well as her modesty and reverence, “rising up in the presence of her elders.” And it was she of whom he also says, gathering up the precious fragments of ancient tradition, that she was “diligent in reading,” legendi studiosior, a trait which reappears in the character of the holy women of early times, and which we are thus able to link on to the source whence they derived their ideal of womanly perfection.
It cannot be doubted that the influence of such women, and specially of such mothers, was a powerful means of preserving the Roman youth from the infection which hung over the public academies, even after the establishment of a nominal Christianity in the institutions of the State. But of these academies I need speak no further. They formed a part of the old Roman civilisation, and perished in its wreck, swallowed up in those waves of barbarism which, as they poured over Europe, ground to pieces every monument of the Empire, and swept their fragments into oblivion. In the midst of the deluge, however, the Ark of God floated over the waters, and accepted the mission of reconstructing a ruined world. The Church alone preserved so much as the memory of letters, though in the inconceivable troubles of the crisis her utmost efforts for a time only sufficed to keep up schools in which the clergy received the instruction necessary for their state; and secular learning for the most part fell into decay. But the want was felt and lamented by the clergy themselves, a proof that learning, at any rate, never lost its value in their eyes. Thus, in his letter to the Council of Constantinople in 680, Pope Agatho excuses the simplicity of his legates; “for how,” he says, “can we look for great erudition among men living in the midst of barbarous nations, forced with difficulty to earn their daily bread by the labour of their hands? Nevertheless,” he adds, “they will expound to you the faith of the Apostolic Church, not with human eloquence, for they have none; but with the simplicity of the faith which we have held from our cradles.” The synodal letter of the Western bishops to the same council is couched in similar terms. “As to secular eloquence,” they say, “we think no one in our time will boast of possessing it. Our countries are continually agitated by the fury of different nations; there is nothing around us but war, invasion, and plunder. In the midst of the barbarians our life is full of disturbance, the patrimony of our churches has been seized, and we have to live by the labour of our hands. The faith is all that is left us, and our solitary glory is to preserve it during life, and to be ready to die in its defence.”
These two documents, often quoted, have perhaps given rise to somewhat exaggerated notions regarding the extent of the ignorance complained of. It is certain that there were periods of comparative tranquillity during which liberal studies were at least partially preserved. The schools of Gaul did not begin to decay till the end of the fifth century, and even then some were found who exerted themselves to keep alive the ancient learning; such as St. Sidonius Apollinaris, who received his education in the public schools of Lyons before his elevation to the Episcopate in 471, and Claudian Mamertus, a monk by profession and education, who was declared by his friend Sidonius to be equally incomparable in every science to which he applied. Besides being an amazing reader, he was an original thinker. His great work on “The Nature of the Soul” is said to display the precision and method of the latter scholastics, and contains proofs of the existence and immateriality of the soul drawn from its capacity of thought, which appear like anticipations of the famous Cartesian formula _Cogito, ergo sum_. In his arguments he appeals not only to the authority of Scripture and the Fathers, but also to that of Plato and other Greek philosophers, and shows himself not unacquainted with the systems of Zoroaster and the Brahmins. To him we owe the arrangement of a great part of the Breviary office, and the beautiful hymn for Passion Sunday, Pange lingua gloriosi prœlium certamina. For poetry, no less than philosophy, found votaries in the Gallican schools. The lyre, which had fallen from the hands of Prudentius, was still touched by St. Prosper of Aquitaine and St. Avitus of Vienne, the former of whom may be called the poet of Divine grace, whilst the latter, eleven centuries before the time of Milton, chose for the theme of his verses the Fall of Man.
Down to the beginning of the seventh century the schools of Gaul still taught Virgil and the Roman law, and in them the sons of the barbarous Visigoths received some tincture of polite letters. The Gallo-Roman nobility showed the utmost solicitude to obtain such education for their children as the times afforded; and we find notices of schools wherein grammar, rhetoric, and law were taught in separate courses after the Roman fashion. The Gallican orators, as in the time of St. Jerome, betrayed their Celtic origin by a certain verbose eloquence, which had to be pruned according to the severer rules of Roman rhetoric. The mother of Rufinus had sent him to the imperial capital, that the Roman gravity might temper the too great fecundity of the Gallic speech, and St. Desiderius of Cahors was made to go through a course of Roman jurisprudence with the same intention.
Nor, whilst noticing these evidences of a love of letters, surviving even in the period of decay, must I neglect to mention that notable academy of Toulouse, which at one time did its best to involve all Europe in a fog of learned perplexity. Its eccentricities would scarcely merit to be recorded, had they not left very distinct traces both in the Irish and Anglo-Saxon literature. The history of this academy has been written by one of its members, the false Virgil, as he is called, who has contrived to mystify both the date and whereabouts of its foundation. It is presumed, however, to have flourished at Toulouse sometime in the sixth century. Holding to the principle that pearls must not be cast before swine, certain enthusiasts of Aquitaine formed among themselves a secret scholastic society, the members of which spoke a language understood only by the initiated, and conferred on men and places the nomenclature of ancient Greece and Rome. The grand, I might almost say the exclusive, study of these illuminati was grammar. An assembly of thirty of their number had gravely determined that the subject most worthy of a wise man’s meditation was the conjugation of the Latin verb, and on this momentous theme they split into two sects, which rivalled Guelph and Ghibelline in the ardour of their mutual animosities. The heads of these two parties, whose academic names were Terence and Galbungus, spent fourteen days and nights discussing the question whether the pronoun Ego had a vocative case: at last the difficulty was referred to Eneas, who decided that it might be allowed to possess one when employed in the interrogative phrase. These grammatical debates took place when Virgil was but a youth, but in his riper years he thoroughly maintained the reputation of his masters. It was the exact government of words which left him no repose, and he tells us how one night, having retired to rest, he was awaked by a knocking at his door, and found that the disturbance was caused by the arrival of a certain Spanish grammarian, named Mitterius, whom he honoured neither more nor less than if he had been a prophet of God. Mitterius begged for a night’s lodging, promising in return to answer any question which his entertainer might put to him. The opportunity was not to be lost; there was but one thing just then that Virgil desired to know, and, springing from his bed, he at once required, as the price of his hospitality, a direct rule by which he could determine when the word _hic_ was an adverb and when it was a pronoun. These anecdotes, however, give us but a faint notion of the labours of the Toulouse grammarians. The difficulties of the Latin syntax were not sufficient to satisfy their thirst for obscurity, and they therefore expended their ingenuity on inventing new means of perplexing their own brains and those of their scholars. “Was it to be supposed,” they asked, “that this noble tongue was so poor and barren, that its words could be used in one sense only? On the contrary, the true grammarian knew very well that, besides the vulgar Latin known to the common herd, there existed eleven other kinds, each of which had a distinct grammar of its own.” According to this system of “the twelve Latinities,” everything had twelve names, any one of which might be used according to pleasure. New vocabularies had to be invented, either by the Latinising of Greek roots, or transposing the letters of the original words in such a way as to form a variety of new combinations. New conjugations and declensions adorned the grammar of the initiated, and to complete their system a new prosody was added, in which the dactyls and spondees appear to have been measured, not by quantity, but by accent.
Even the triumphs of the barbarians did not in all cases result in the immediate extinction of letters. In Italy a second Augustan age bid fair at one time to arise under the rule of Theodoric, the Ostrogoth. His court was adorned by the genius of two great men–Boethius, the Christian philosopher, and the last of the classic writers; and Cassiodorus, in whom closed the long line of Roman consuls. Both of them exerted a powerful influence over the studies of succeeding generations. The original Latin works of Boethius supplied the schools with a series of Christian classics which were naturally held in extraordinary esteem by teachers who, as time went on, felt with increasing force the difficulty of training Christian youth exclusively out of pagan class-books. And it was chiefly by his translations from the Greek that the mediæval scholars acquired their knowledge of the Greek philosophy, at a time when the study of that tongue had ceased to be generally pursued. A yet further addition to scholastic literature was contributed by Cassiodorus. He was not indeed the only statesman who had distinguished himself in this line. Towards the close of the fifth century Marcian Capella, an African pro-consul, had produced his celebrated work on the Espousals of Mercury and Philology, which he chooses to personify as a goddess; the seven liberal sciences, into which all known learning had been classified since the days of Philo, being represented as the handmaidens presented by the bridegroom to the bride. His Satiricon, written in nine books, continued to be one of the most popular text-books in use during the middle ages, and was at an early period translated into the vernacular.
But Cassiodorus was not merely a writer of schoolbooks; he was the founder of a monastic school, which, for the variety of sciences which it cultivated, has not unfrequently been given the title of a university. And indeed it was not undeserving of the name. Its noble founder, when still in the service of Theodoric, had attempted, in conjunction with Pope St. Agapetus, to found a catechetical school at Rome, on the model of those which formerly flourished at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Nisibis, in which he proposed to maintain a staff of professors at his own expense. This magnificent design having failed, in consequence of the troubles of the time, Cassiodorus retired from a world in which he had nobly toiled for seventy years, and devoted his old age to the creation of a seminary of Christian learning on his own estate of Vivaria, at the very extremity of the Calabrian peninsula. He collected a rich library, which he increased by the labours of his monks, on whom he enjoined the transcription of books as their principal manual labour. It was to ensure their accuracy in this employment that, at the age of eighty-three, he undertook the composition of his treatise De Orthographia. He drew up a plan of studies for his scholars, and wrote for their use two treatises, one “On the Teaching of Sacred Letters,” and the other “On the Seven Liberal Arts.” This latter was a kind of encyclopædia, including separate treatises on each subject, which formed some of the favourite elementary class-books in use during the middle ages. Hallam remarks of this encyclopædia and of others undertaken on a similar plan, that they themselves furnish significant indications of a decadence of letters. Such collections must necessarily include only the most meagre sketches of the sciences of which they profess to treat, and their multiplication at this period indicates that men were beginning to be content with a very superficial description of knowledge. So also the numerous translations from the Greek undertaken by Boethius and Cassiodorus are sufficient evidence that the knowledge of that language was becoming rare. Nor will the praises bestowed by Cassiodorus on his friend’s versions, which he declares superior to the originals, probably raise his character as a critic in the judgment of scholars. But the fact that his labours were undertaken at a period of literary decay, when the inconceivable disorders of the time seemed to present an insuperable obstacle to the pursuit of learning, increases our admiration of the energy and zeal displayed by the old Roman, which enabled him in spite of every discouragement to create a school of sacred and profane learning, where strangers were encouraged to seek that hospitality the exercise of which was regarded as one of the most sacred duties of the brethren. There, under porticoes and gardens adorned with every beauty that could charm the eye or soothe the heart, pilgrims, weary with those scenes of violence and devastation that were turning many a fair district of Gaul and Italy into a howling wilderness, found all that remained of Roman learning and civilisation linked with the higher attractions of Christian devotion; and were able, amid the monastic shades of Vivaria, to enjoy at one and the same time the calm of retirement and the solace of prayer.
The foundation of Cassiodorus took place in the year 540. Eighteen years previously–in 522–the two Roman senators, Equitius and Tertullus, had taken their sons Maurus and Placidus to the grotto of Subiaco, and committed them to the care of a solitary named Benedict. Maurus was twelve years old and Placidus seven, and they were soon joined by other children of the same age. They were humble beginnings indeed of a mighty edifice, the first fruits of the Benedictine schools. In 543 St. Maurus carried the rule of St. Benedict into Gaul, where monasteries soon multiplied, in which were cultivated letters both sacred and profane. But they were not the earliest monastic schools which had sprung up on the Gallican soil. I need not here remind the reader of that famous abbey of Marmoutier, erected by St. Martin of Tours in the fourth century, and formed on the model of those episcopal monasteries founded by St. Eusebius of Vercelli and St. Ambrose of Milan. Yet more celebrated, and more closely associated with the history of letters in our own country, was the school of Lerins, a rocky isle off the coast of Gaul, where, about the year 400, St. Honoratus fixed his abode, peopling it with a race of monks who united the labours of the scholar to the penitential practices of the recluse. Its rule, though strictly monastic, aimed at making its disciples apostolic men, “thoroughly furnished to all good works.” Hence the brethren were not required to renounce the pursuit of letters. St. Honoratus himself did not disdain the flowers of eloquence, and the sweetness of his style drew from St. Eucher the graceful remark, that “he restored the honey to the wax.” St. Hilary of Arles, another of the Lerins scholars, is represented by his biographer sitting among his clergy with a table before him, whereon lay his book and the materials of his manual work, and while his fingers were busy making nets, dictating to a cleric, who took down his notes in shorthand. It would take us too long to enumerate the distinguished prelates who were sent forth from the school of Lerins during the sixth century. The names of St. Cesarius of Arles and St. Vincent of Lerins; of Salvian, the master of bishops as he was called; of St. Eucher, the purity of whose Latin eloquence even Erasmus has praised; and of St. Lupus of Troyes, whom Sidonius Apollinaris hesitated not to call the first bishop in the Christian world–may suffice to show what sort of scholars were produced by this holy congregation.
Such then was the state of letters at the opening of the sixth century, an epoch when Europe was covered with the shattered remains of an expiring civilisation, and when whatever literary activity lingered about the old academies of Italy and Gaul must be regarded as the parting rays of a light, fast sinking below the horizon. Yet, as it sank, another luminary was sending forth its rising beams, and the essentially Christian institution of the monastic schools was acquiring shape and solidity. Such an epoch stood in need of a master to harmonise its disordered elements, and such a master it found in St. Gregory. But before speaking of him and of his Anglo-Saxon converts we must glance at the state of letters among that earlier Celtic population which sent students from Britain to the schools of Rome in the days of St. Jerome and St. Damasus. Nor whilst doing so, can we forget that sister-isle which never felt the tread of the Roman legions, and which, sharing with Britain the glorious title of the “Isle of Saints,” merited by its extraordinary devotion to learning to be designated also the “Isle of Scholars.”
Source: Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .