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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

§ 4. New channels of intercourse

Another gain that compensated for the loss of the old kind of intercourse with Italy was, undoubtedly, to be found in the new connections of England with northern Europe as well as with the vigorous life of renascence Italy. The coming of such men as Bucer and Fagius to Cambridge at the invitation of the king, and a flood of others later, the intercourse with Geneva and Zürich, culminating in Mary’s reign—these channels could hardly have been opened thus freely under the old conditions; and if this exchange of ideas was primarily on theological subjects, yet it was not to the exclusion of others. So long as the religious houses preserved their prestige in the country at large and in the universities in particular, every new idea or system that was antagonistic to their ideals had a weight of popular distrust to contend against: the average Englishman saw that ecclesiastics held the field, he heard tales of vast monastic libraries and of monkish prodigies of learning, he listened to pulpit thunderings and scholastic disputations, while all that came from Germany and the Low Countries was represented by single men who held no office and won but little hearing. When the houses were down and their prestige shattered, it was but between man and man that he had to decide.

And, further, in a yet more subtle way, the dissolution actually contributed to the prestige of the new methods of thought under whose predominance the fall had taken place and, under Elizabeth, these new methods were enforced with at least as much state pressure as the old system had enjoyed. There were, of course, other causes for the destruction—the affairs of the king, both domestic and political, religious differences, the bait of the houses’ wealth—all these things conspired to weigh the balances down and to accomplish in England the iconoclasm which the renascence did not accomplish in southern Europe. It can hardly be said that the superior culture in England demanded a sacrifice which Italy did not demand; but, rather, that it found here a peculiar collocation of circumstances and produced, therefore, peculiar results. Yet in men’s minds the revival of learning and the fall of the monasteries were inextricably associated; and the enthusiam of Elizabeth’s reign, with its countless achievements in art and literature and general effectiveness, was certainly enhanced by the memory of that with which the movement of thirty years before had been busily linked. Great things had been accomplished under a Tudor, an insular independence unheard of in the history of the country had been established; there were no limits then, it seemed, to what might be effected in the future. The triumphant tone in Elizabethan writers is, surely, partly traceable to this line of thought—they are full of an enthusiasm of freedom—and, in numberless passages, Shakespeare’s plays served to keep the thought alight.