Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 2. Erasmus and Cambridge

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

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 2. Erasmus and Cambridge

Robert Barnes, an Augustinian friar of Norfolk descent, had been educated at Louvain; and, on coming to Cambridge as prior of the Augustinian friars, he began to lecture, first on classics, and then on theology. George Stafford, a Fellow of Pembroke, was also a celebrated lecturer upon the Scriptures; the expositions with which he “beatified the letters of blessed Paul” deeply affected Thomas Becon and others. This, like other great movements, had its distortions and its extremes; Skelton could ridicule the theologians who with a “lytell ragge of rhetoricke,” a “lesse lumpe of logicke,” a patch of philosophy, “tumbled” in theology and were drowned in “dregges of divinite,” posing as “doctours of the chayre” at the taverns. Some of the young theologians were of “whirling” spirits; some, like Robert Barnes, flew high and far into politics, and, by their indiscretion, brought danger upon themselves and their cause; some of them not infrequently dropped to the lower depths of controversy. But solid results remained. Richard Croke, who, after a distinguished career abroad, became Reader in Greek (1519), carried on the work already begun; he recognised the pre-eminent claim of the Bible upon theological students, and, when Wolsey (1527) formed his Cambridge colony at Oxford, the new and active school of thought entered upon a wider field. The English reformation began at Cambridge, and the Cambridge movement began with Erasmus, although he was not its sole author. For, both at Cambridge, and in the country at large, the general movement towards reform and the religious influence of the revival of learning formed a sympathetic atmosphere in which his influence easily spread.

The new movement—a quickening of religion and theology, upon the background of an awakened world—took many forms and turned in many ways. It was not always revolutionary, and, in one direction, it turned to older forms of devotion. Religion in England had enriched the church with the Sarum use, akin to other uses elsewhere and of wide importance, and with uses less popular in England, like those of Hereford and York; it had, further, formed the Primers, books of private devotion, translated in the fourteenth century from Latin into English, and printed at early dates and in many forms. Not only in England, but in other countries, the reformation concerned itself largely with these aids to devotion; everywhere appeared much needed revisions of liturgies and offices, everywhere attempts were made, more or less successfully, at altering them to meet popular needs, or to avoid abuses. In England, the great outcome was The Book of Common Prayer, which was essentially conservative, although its history showed much of revolution.