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

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 1. The birth of the classical renascence

THE CLASSICAL renascence implied a knowledge and imitation of the great literary artists of the golden past of classical antiquity, and, as a preliminary, a competent acquaintance with, and some power to use, the Latin and Greek languages. Italy gave it birth and it gradually spread beyond the Alps into Germany, France and England. In the end it created, almost imperceptibly, a cosmopolitan republic of which Guillaume Budé and Erasmus disputed the sovereignty, and where, latterly, Erasmus, by universal consent, ruled as chief. This republic established itself in a Europe almost savage, supremely warlike and comparatively untaught—in it and yet not of it. Its citizens were a select people who lived and worked in the midst of the tumult of arms, the conflict of politics and the war of creeds which went on around them. It spread widely and silently until it almost became the mark of a well-educated person to be able to read, write and converse fluently in Latin, and to know something of Greek. It refused to admit the limitations of sex. The learned lady (erudita) of the Colloquia of Erasmus easily discomfits the pretentious abbot. The prince of humanists himself, in no spirit of condescension, corresponded with the sisters of Pirkheimer and the daughters of More. At the celebrated reunions of Marguerite d’Angoulême, which were anticipations of the eighteenth century salon, Latin, Greek and even Hebrew were continually used. Her niece and grand-nieces were trained in the humanities. Mary of Scotland read Latin authors with George Buchanan. In England, wellborn young ladies, towards the close of queen Mary’s reign, were accomplished scholars. Elizabeth herself overwhelmed luckless ambassadors with floods of improvised Latinity. “But this queen is extremely wise and has eyes that can flame,” wrote one who had, with difficulty, saved himself from the deluge.

The enthusiasts of the classical renascence, who had spent time and pains in mastering the secrets of style of the literary artists of antiquity, were somewhat disdainful of their mother tongues. They were inclined to believe that cultured thought could only find fit expression in the apt words, deft phrases and rhythmical cadences, of the revived language of ancient Rome. They preferred to write in Latin, and the use of the common speech of their cosmopolitan republic gave them an audience in all parts of educated Europe. Nevertheless, the classical renascence had a powerful effect in moulding the literary languages of modern Europe and in enriching them with graces of style and expression. Its influence was so pervading and impalpable that it worked like leaven, almost imperceptibly, yet really and potently.