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

IV. Barclay and Skelton

§ 14. German influence on English literature

Compared with The Ship of Fools, most of the other contributions of German to English literature in the beginning of the sixteenth century seem insignificant. That German influence should be felt in England at the time was only natural. In Germany, the reformation had its chief seat, many publications of a reformatory character were printed there or in Holland, and it became a second home to many refugees, who became acquainted with German literature and adopted what they found useful for their purpose. But, as most of these men were not great writers, and, as Germany was very soon left behind by Elizabethan England, this influence, in most cases, was not lasting.

Of German popular poetry, next to nothing became known in England, and it is not before 1593 that we find the titles of a few stray German ballads mentioned in the Stationers’ Register. Miles Coverdale tried to introduce the protestant hymn into England about 1540. His Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songes are a fair selection of the first period of protestant hymnology (1527–31), and might have been effective under more favourable conditions. But the translation was too poor; moreover, Italian influence was so strong just at that time that the attempt proved a failure.

From Germany, the English reformers learned how to use the dialogue as a weapon in the religious struggle. A great many polemical dialogues were written in Germany by advocates of either side, with a decided balance in favour of the protestant, in number as well as in literary value. The most distinguished names in the beginning of the movement were those of Erasmus and Hutten, who were followed by a host of more or less capable men. The strain of these “discussions” varies very much, according to the individuality of the authors. Learned and popular elements were blended in various ways; and sometimes we have miniature dramas, especially when the writers, to illustrate their point, used the background of contemporary life.

In England, the number of controversial dialogues is comparatively small; and there is no such continuous tradition as in Germany. One of the first is Rede me and be not wrothe, composed by two converted Greenwich friars, William Roy and Jerome Barlow, in Strassburg, in 1528. The framework is suggested by Niclas Manuel’s famous Krankheit der Messe, of which the dialogue is simply a continuation; the contents are English—a violent attack on the English clergy and its highest representative, cardinal Wolsey. Numerous striking parallels to Skelton’s satires occur; but the tone of the whole is emphatically protestant. Compared with Manuel’s spirited production, the English imitation seems dull, and it is far too long to be impressive. Wolsey’s agents bought up all copies obtainable almost instantly, and, in 1531, it was proscribed and soon forgotten. According to Tindale, Roy had translated another reformatory work, Dialogus inter patrem christianum et filium contumacem; but the translation, as well as the original, is lost. Barlow recanted in 1533 and wrote, probably very soon after, a somewhat feeble Dialogue upon the origin of the protestant fashions. Purely English in spirit is the Proper Dyalogue betwene a Gentillman and a Husbandman, complaining of the oppression of the lay people by the clergy after a fashion which would have been impossible in Germany.

The Catholic side is represented at that time by no writer of distinction. Skelton, who, apparently, had written the interlude, Negromansir, alluded to above, in the favourite form of a trial, was dead, and More’s somewhat lifeless dialogue against Tindale’s book on the mass is of an entirely different type.

Under Edward VI, protestant dialogue flourished with the official sanction of the government, dealing particularly with the mass, which was ridiculed under various names as “Round Robin,” “Jack in the Box,” “Jack of Lent” and so on. Among the translations of German dialogues we find Hans Sachs’s Goodly disputacion between a christian shoemaker and a Popysshe Parson, printed by one Anthony Skoloker, in 1547. In 1548, Day printed John Bon and Mast Parson, a disputation on Corpus Christi by L. Shepherd. Robin Conscience is a good English example of the well known “son against father” type, showing strong influence of the morality play. The excellent translations of two of Erasmus’s dialogues, published about 1550, are absolutely un-English.

The more elaborate form of the trial, used largely in Germany already in the Fastnachtsspiele, was adopted in England particularly by William Turner, a Northumbrian man of science and theologian and a disciple of Latimer, who travelled in Germany between 1530 and 1540. His Hunting of the Fox (Basel, 1573), answered by Gardiner’s Contra Turneri vulpem, was followed by the much better Hunting of the Wolf and, in 1547, by the Examination of the Mass. Still more elaborate than this specimen of the “drama of debate” is the Endightment against Mother Messe. The last dialogue of Edward’s reign, a dialogus duarum sororum, mentioned by Bale, is a translation of one of Wolfgang Resch’s dialogues, by Walter Lynne, of very literary value. Under Mary, only very few protestant dialogues were written; under Elizabeth, German influence was dead, and the form was applied to all sorts of secular subjects. Six dialogues by Wingfield, printed 1566, Contra Expugnatores Missae, taking the Catholic side, are rather weak and tame.