Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 11. The spread of the classical renascence

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

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 11. The spread of the classical renascence

Among the MSS. preserved in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, there is the ledger or day-book of an Oxford bookseller which records the books he sold during the year 1520. It gives us some indication of the reading of the period in a university city and enables us to see how far the classical renascence had become popular. John Dorne sold 2383 books during that year—some English, most of them Latin, one or two Greek. The English books were, for the most part, almanacs, ballads, Christmas carols, popular Lives of Saints and medieval romances, three copies of a book on cooking, three of one on carving, one on table etiquette, one on husbandry and three on the care of horses. One is a translation of Vergil into English—probably Caxton’s Aeneid (Westminster, 1490).

Among the Latin books are breviaries, missals, portiforiums, a very large number of grammars and a few lexicons. A large part of the more important books represent the learning of the past, the scholastic theology and philosophy not yet displaced, and, as was to be expected, the Scotist greatly outnumber the Thomist theologians—John Duns Scotus himself being represented by twenty, and Thomas Aquinas and Augustine by four each. But the humanities, in the shape of Latin authors and Latin translations of Greek writers, are not much behind. Dorne sold that year thirty-seven copies of various works of Cicero, the same number of Terence, thirty of Aristotle, twenty-nine of Vergil, twenty-three of Ovid, fourteen of Lucan, twelve of Aristophanes (one being in Greek), nine of Lucian (one in Greek), eight of Horace, six of Sallust, eight of Pliny, three of Aulus Gellius and one of Tacitus and of Persius.

The names of the English humanists are only represented by one copy of Linacre’s translation of Galen, and three of More’s Latin letters to Edward Lee. The name of Lupset occurs, but only to record that that scholar took away a book without paying for it. The Italian teachers of these Englishmen appear on the list of sales—twenty-nine copies of various works of Sulpitius, twenty-two of Laurentius Valla and three of Angelo Poliziano. Budé, the greatest French humanist, is not represented, but Dorne sold thirty-three copies of works written or edited by his comrade, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples.

The outstanding feature of this list of sales of books, however, is the place occupied by the writings of Erasmus. One-ninth of the whole sales were of books written or edited by him. If the small primers, almanacs, ballads and so on and the grammars written by two popular Oxford grammar-school teachers be excluded, one customer out of every seven came to buy a book written by the great humanist. It is instructive, also, to notice what books of his command the largest sale. These are Colloquia, De Constructione, Copia, Enchiridion Militis Christiani and Adagia. The popularity of three of these writings occasions no surprise and conveys no information. The book entitled Adagia was a compendium of the wit and wisdom of antiquity, a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs which were made the text of short essays sparkling with the author’s inimitable humour. Almost every one in that age wished to know something of ancient learning, and it was in this book served up to them in a way which made them feel able to comprehend it. Colloquia had grown gradually from being a collection of conversations on familiar subjects fitted for beginners in Latin until it had become a series of charming pictures of all sorts and conditions of men. It was the most popular book of the century and went through ninety-nine editions before 1546. It circulated everywhere. Enchiridion taught a simple piety of the heart and contained a calm and consistent appeal to the central standard of all Christian behaviour—the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. It was translated into English in 1518, into Czech in 1519, into German in 1524 and into Spanish in 1527. Seventy-five editions had been published before 1545. But De Constructione and Copia were books of an entirely different kind and appealed to a more limited class of readers. They were really text-books for advanced Latin students who wished to acquire a good style. In them the great literary artist disclosed the secrets of his art. The sale of many copies means the existence of circles of students, for, in those days, one book served many readers, who were trying to perfect themselves in the humanities, who were looking to Erasmus as their great teacher and who were taking pains to fashion themselves after his example. It shows the spread of the classical renascence among the students of England.

We do not find in England the extravagant adulation of the great Dutchman which meets us everywhere in Germany. There, he was the idol of every young scholar. They said that he was more than mortal, that his judgment was infallible and that his work was perfect. They made pilgrimages to visit him as to the shrine of a saint. An interview was an event to be talked about for years, and a letter from him was a precious treasure to be preserved as an heirloom. In England, they seized on one side of his work which specially appealed to their practical instincts, and tried to imitate it in their own way.