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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

§ 2. Decrease of scholarship

Other causes, no doubt, contributed to the decrease of scholarship; the unrest of the age was largely inimical to serious study; but among these causes must be reckoned a further and more direct relation in which the monasteries stood towards the universities. At both Oxford and Cambridge were large establishments to which monks and friars came to finish their education; and, of these scholars, the numbers were so large that, in the century previous to the reformation, one in nine of all graduates seems to have been a religious. At Oxford, the Benedictines alone had four colleges, the Augustinians two and the Cistercians one. All this, then, after the first rush of the disbanded religious to Oxford, stopped with the dissolution, and the universities began to empty. In two years of Edward’s reign, no student at all graduated at Oxford; in 1550, Latimer, a fierce advocate of the new movement, laments the fact that there seem “ten thousand less students than within the last twenty years,” and remarks that “it would pity a man’s heart to hear that I hear of the state of Cambridge”; in Mary’s reign, Roger Edgworth pleads for the poor students who have grievously suffered from the recent changes; the study of Greek, on Thomas Pope’s evidence, had almost ceased to exist; Anthony Wood mourns over the record of the decline of the arts and the revival of ignorance; Edward VI rebukes the unscholarliness of his own bishops.

The estimation of the gain to learning and letters which followed the fall of the monasteries is more difficult to summarise, since the beginning of a new growth cannot be expected to produce the fruit of a mature tree. The effects must be more subtle and intangible, yet none the less real. And, even could it be accurately gauged by statistics, it would be impossible to place one against the other. We cannot set a pear and a peach in the same category. “It is generally believed,” remarks Warton, “that the reformation of religion in England … was immediately succeeded by a flourishing state of letters. But this was by no means the case.”

First, however, it may be stated confidently, that the breaking up of the old ground and the planting of it with new roots brings with it at least as much gain as loss. The scholastic method had done its work. From much concurrent testimony it is evident that there was no more progress to be made, at any rate for the present, along those lines. The deductive method was to yield more and more to the inductive; the rubbish generated by every system of thought carried to extremities must be swept away, and new principles enunciated. Against this inevitable movement, the religious houses, also inevitably, were the most formidable obstacle, since they focussed and protected a method of thought of which the learned world was growing weary. The old principles certainly had led up to fantastic conclusions and innumerable culs-de-sac in philosophy and science—conclusions which eminent men of the old party deplored as emphatically as their enemies. Sir Thomas More, who died in defence of the old faith, Erasmus, who clung as firmly as his friend to what he believed to be the divinely revealed centre of truth, and many others, protested as loudly as Latimer himself, and almost as contemptuously as Skelton, against the follies to which real learning had descended. With the fall of the monasteries, therefore, the strongholds of academic method were, for the time, shattered.