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

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 1. Simon Fish

THE REFORMATION left its mark upon the national literature, as upon the national life, but, beyond this abiding influence, there was, in this period, much literary activity of a mere passing interest. Yet even this was so significant of current thought, and helped so greatly to form public opinion, that it must not be forgotten. The appearance of the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer must not hide from us the vigour of religious tracts and controversies, the number of sermons, of books of devotion and instruction, which seemed, to the age itself, of hardly less importance. Much of the religious literature which had appeared before had issued from definite local centres and, for the most part, reached merely local audiences. This was now ceasing to be the case, for the country was drawn more closely together, and the printing press, answering to the instincts of the day, gave writers a ready means of wider influence.

Lollard tracts and Lollard adaptations of orthodox works had long been current, especially in certain districts. Some of these, after a long life, were now reprinted, as, for instance, Wyclif’s supposed work, The Wicket, which Coverdale edited. The question, therefore, arises how far the English reformation was either the outcome, or an indirect result, of the Lollard movement, and an answer may be given either from the literary, or from the purely historic, side. On the former, we gather that Lollard works were reprinted, partly, it may be, for their supposed value, but, also, to show that the opinions held by their editors had been taught in England long before. These reprints appeared, moreover, not in the early stages of the reformation, but when it was well under way. There is no need, therefore, to reckon these reprints among the causes of the reformation: their nature and the date of their appearance tend strongly against such an assumption. Approaching the question, however, from the purely historic side, we find that the Lollard movement had left behind it, in some localities, much religious discontent, and some revolutionary religious teaching. Such discontent and teaching would, doubtless, have come into being irrespective of Lollardy. When the reformation came, however, it found these influences already at work; no doubt it quickened them and drew them around itself. That is the utmost we can say.

This popular reformation literature, the successor, although hardly the descendant, of the Lollard literature, was, for the most part, printed abroad, and was, sometimes, prohibited by English bishops. But it would appear that probably Henry VIII, and certainly the protector Somerset, connived at its circulation, because they welcomed any help that made change seem desirable. The story of The Supplication for the Beggars, as told by Foxe, is an illustration of this.

Simon Fish, a gentleman of Gray’s Inn, had to leave London, about the year 1525, for acting in a play which touched cardinal Wolsey; he, like Tindale, fled across the sea, and, while abroad, wrote The Supplication for the Beggars. This effectively written pamphlet urged the abolition of monasteries and the seizure of their lands; its incidental, and often coarse, abuse of ecclesiastics, and its many exaggerations, merely heightened the effect it produced. Either through Anne Boleyn or some royal servant the pamphlet reached the hands of Henry VIII, who is said to have studied it carefully and long kept it by him. Through the king’s connivance, Fish was allowed to return from his banishment. By the time his pamphlet had appeared, the writings of Tindale, to whom Sir Thomas More replied in his Dialogue, were also current. Sir Thomas More, in his Supplication of Souls, replied to Fish, and the Cambridge student, John Frith, retorted upon More. The Lollard literature and controversies were thus swallowed up in the reformation, and, although a lower class of writings, such as that of Fish, still continued to be written and circulated, more literary interest belongs to a theological class that followed them. The new writings recalled, always in their exaggeration and sometimes in their violence, the old, but they were composed upon a larger scale; and the importance of single members of the class, and the numbers in which they were published, made this new movement more important than Lollardy had ever been.

This reformation movement was essentially academic in origin. The revival of letters had already shown its power at Oxford, where Colet, More and Erasmus had directed it into religious channels. The shares taken by these three in the classical renascence in England has already been discussed; and reference need only be made here to the impulse which Erasmus gave to religious thought and learning in Cambridge. Bishop Fisher had brought to the service of the university an enthusiasm for practical piety; he had revived the best side of medieval religious discipline; but he had placed the claims of practical life first, although that life was to be tempered with learning and purified by the Scriptures. Fisher gladly welcomed Erasmus, who was the fourth Lady Margaret Reader (1511); if Erasmus, as his works show, sympathised with Fisher’s practical aim, he understood, as Fisher, who was not unreservedly a humanist, hardly did, the breadth of learning needed for effective preaching.

Thomas Bilney, whose friendship altered the life of Hugh Latimer, had for the first time (to use his own words, which should not be taken too literally) “heard speak of Jesus, even then when the New Testament was first set forth by Erasmus.” William Tindale admired the great scholar and translated his Enchiridion, which Coverdale also summarised. Cranmer counted Erasmus among the authors he studied specially, and, when he gave himself up more exclusively to Biblical learning, he was still following the steps of his master. Erasmus was able, in a letter written later (1516), to his pupil, Henry Bullock of Queens’, to speak with pride of the increased Biblical study at Cambridge as a result he had hoped for from his labours.