Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 1. Destruction of books and of opportunities for study

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

III. The Dissolution of the Religious Houses

§ 1. Destruction of books and of opportunities for study

THE GENERAL wave of new thought breaking upon England in the first half of the sixteenth century swept away with it, among other things, the almost countless religious houses with which the country was covered. Their disappearance is more significant considered as an effect than as a cause; yet it cannot be doubted that, in its turn, it had an effect, both for good and for evil, on the movement in which it was an incident. And first let the losses to learning be estimated.

The destruction of books was almost incredibly enormous. Bale describes the use of them by bookbinders and by grocers and merchants for the packing of their goods. Maskell calculates the loss of liturgical books alone to have approached the total of a quarter of a million. An eye-witness describes the leaves of Duns Scotus as blown about by the wind even in the courts of Oxford, and their use for sporting and other purposes. Libraries that had been collected through centuries, such as those of Christ Church and St. Albans, both classical and theological, vanished in a moment. It was not only the studious orders that gathered books; the friars, also, had libraries, though, as Leland relates of the Oxford Franciscans, they did not always know how to look after them. So late as 1535, a bequest was made by the bishop of St. Asaph of five marks to buy books for the Grey Friars of Oxford. Nor can it be doubted that vast numbers of books less directly theological must have perished.

A second destruction was that of the homes of study which the religious houses, especially those of the Benedictines, provided for all who leaned that way. The classical renascence had not yet made sufficient way, except among the more advanced, to disturb the old system by which it was natural for the studious to enter the cloister and the rest to remain men of sport or war. The use of the word “clerk” as denoting a man of education, apart from the question as to whether he were tonsured or not, indicates this tendency. Even Erasmus, it must be remembered, was once an Augustinian. Closely allied to the disappearance of this aid to learning was that of the influence of tradition which, if it held thinkers within narrow bounds, at the same time saved them the waste of energy that is the inevitable accompaniment of all new enterprise. There is abundant evidence to show that the religious houses were so used; at Durham, Gloucester and Canterbury, for example, there remain traces or records of the provision for making books accessible and for accommodating their readers; and the details of the life of Erasmus, as well as those of the life of Thomas More, show that the most advanced scholars of the age numbered among their equals and competent critics the students of the cloister. Such a man was prior Charnock of Oxford, Bere, abbot of Glastonbury, and Warham, archbishop of Canterbury. Further, it must be remembered, not only were monastic houses in themselves homes of study, but, from their religious unity with the continent, they afforded means of communication with scholars abroad. Not only were the great houses the natural centres to which scholars came, but from them there went out to the foreign universities of Bologna and Pisa such religious as were in any sense specialists. This, of course, practically ceased, not only because of the religious change, but because there were no longer rich corporations who could afford to send their promising pupils abroad. The proverbial poverty of scholars had, to a large extent, been mitigated by this provision. The lives of such men as Richard Pace show that among the religious were to be found generous patrons as well as professors of learning.

Next must be reckoned the direct and indirect loss to the education of children. To a vast number of religious houses, both of monks and nuns, were attached schools in which the children of both poor and rich received instruction. Richard Whiting, for example, the last abbot of Glastonbury, numbered among his “family” three hundred boys whom he educated, supporting, besides, students at the university. Every great abbey, practically, was the centre of education for all the country round; even the Benedictine nuns kept schools attended by children of gentle birth, and, except in those rare cases where scholarly parents themselves supervised the education of their children, it may be said that, for girls, these were the only available teachers of even the simplest elements of learning. The grammar schools, which are popularly supposed to have sprouted in such profusion under Edward VI, may be held to have been, in nearly every case, remnants of the old monastic foundations, and, even so, were not one tithe of those which had previously existed. The rest fell with the monasteries, and, even in places of considerable importance, as at Evesham, practically no substitute was provided until nearly a century later. Signs of this decay of learning may be found to some extent in the records of the universities. The houses fell, for the most part, about the year 1538, but they had been seriously threatened for three or four years previously; and the effect may be seen in the fact that, at Oxford, in 1535, one hundred and eight men graduated, while, in 1536, only forty-four did so. Up to the end of Henry’s reign, the average was but fifty-seven, in Edward’s, thirty-three, while, during the revival of the old thought under Mary, it rose again as high as seventy. The decrease of students at Cambridge was not at first so formidable. This was natural, since that university was far more in sympathy with the new ideas than was her sister. But, ten years after the dissolution, a serious decrease showed itself. Fuller reports “a general decay of students, no college having more scholars therein than hardly those of the foundation, no volunteers at all and only persons pressed in a manner by their places to reside.” He traces this directly to the fall of the religious houses. “Indeed, at the fall of the abbeys fell the hearts of all scholars, fearing the ruin of learning. And those their jealousies they humbly represented in a bemoaning letter to king Henry VIII.” The king, whose dislike of the old canon law had abolished the degrees in that faculty, so that “Gratian fared no better … than his brother Peter Lombard,” took steps to amend all this by the creation of Regius professors in Divinity, Law, Hebrew and Greek; but it was not until Mary was on the throne that the number of degrees taken yearly at Cambridge rose, once more, to their former minimum of eighty. Other details of the steps that Henry had taken to secure sound learning at Cambridge, shortly before the fall of the houses, while the university was yet “very full of students,” will be found suggestive. Thus, scholars are urged in his injunctions to the “study of tongues,” of Aristotle, Rodolphus Agricola, Melanchthon and Trapezuntius, while Scotus, Burleus, Anthony Trombet, Bricot and Bruliferius are forbidden.