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

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 7. John Colet

Among English scholars who were contemporaries of Erasmus, the first place must be given to John Colet, if precedence be determined not so much by the acquisition of exact scholarship as by the gifts of a commanding personality and the power to influence workers in a man’s own and the succeeding generation. In another age, he might not have been the leader of men that he actually was; but, north of the Alps, during the close of the fifteenth and the earlier part of the sixteenth century, the moving force was religion, and Colet was the chief Christian humanist of England. Singularly enough, he seems to have been awakened to his vocation while in Italy. No evidence connects Colet with Florence, yet it is probable that his inspiration came from Savonarola. The probability is strengthened by his familiarity with the works of Marsilio Ficino, who, for a time, was completely under the influence of the great Florentine reformer, and of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was his lifelong and ardent disciple. Colet began his work on his return to England. His was a typically English mind—conservative, practical, careless about exact definitions in theology—and the value of the classical learning for him was the use it could be put to in effecting the task which lay nearest his heart.

His sermon, preached before convocation (6 February, 1511–12), was instinct with the sense of individuality, a new product of the renascence, and with a wise ecclesiastical conservatism. Everyone admitted the need of reformation: the question was how it could be effected. Colet argued that all reformation must begin within the individual soul, and that, if those in authority within the church set about reforming themselves, the movement would spread throughout the inferior clergy and the laity. No startling change was needed either in ecclesiastical constitution or in the enactment of new and drastic ecclesiastical laws. The existing laws could be made sufficient by the example of the bishops and their honest administration of their dioceses. The sermon was immediately published, and has been frequently reprinted. It was enlivened by pictures of the luxury, sloth and simony of the bishops and clergy of England, and, naturally, gave great offence. Colet’s bishop, FitzJames of London, hastened to prefer charges of heresy against the dean of St. Paul’s, and extracts from his sermons, showing that he had at other times denounced the worship of images, large episcopal revenues and the practice of reading sermons, were laid before archbishop Warham with a view of procuring his condemnation. The charge was dismissed as frivolous.

Colet was more than careless of exact definitions in theology; he disliked them thoroughly. Most of those theologians who were at all tinged with the spirit of the renascence had turned from the later Scotist theology with its endless quibbles, but Colet went much further. He had a rooted dislike to Thomas Aquinas and had no sympathy with the reviving study of St. Augustine. An examination of his various writings and of the reports of the lectures which he delivered in Oxford on his return from Italy suggests that he did not care for that use of legal terms and forms of thought which had been the characteristic of western theology from Tertullian to Aquinas and Ockham, to say nothing of post-reformation developments. The great men who built the western church and gradually formulated its elaborate constitution and its scheme of doctrine were almost all Roman lawyers, and their training influenced their ways of thinking on all matters ecclesiastical and theological. They inspired the medieval church with the conception of an intellectual imperialism, where a system of Christian thought, expressed in terms of legal precision, bound into a comprehensive unity the active intelligence of mankind. Dogmas thus expressed may become the instruments of a tyranny as galling as, and more penetrating than, that of an institution. In his revolt, Colet turned to the Christian thinkers who had lived before Gregory the Great, whose writings form the bridge between the earlier Latin Fathers and the schoolmen, to the Greek theologians who never exhibited the lawyer-like instincts of their western colleagues and, above all, to a thinker removed further than any other from the legal precision of statement which was distasteful to his practical English common-sense. It is probable that his intercourse with Christian humanists in Italy, and his introduction to the Christian Platonists and Neo-Platonists there, drew him to the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom, at first, he believed to be the convert of St. Paul and, therefore, able to tell what a Christian thinker taught during the first age of the church. After Grocyn had convinced him that these writings could not be of earlier date than the sixth century, he still held that, through them, he could recover a theology such as it had been before being subjected to the domination of the schoolmen. They led him to two things he was very willing to learn: that the human mind, however it may feel after, and apprehend, God, can never imprison His character and attributes in propositions—stereotyped aspects of thought—which can be fitted into syllogisms and built up into a compact and rigidly harmonious structure; and, also, that such things as hierarchy and sacraments are not to be prized because they are in themselves the active sources and centres of mysterious powers, but because they faintly symbolise the spiritual forces through which God works silently for the salvation of His people.

If the stress Colet laid on the worth of the individual soul, and his dislike of the puerilities and intricate definitions of medieval theology, were characteristic of the spirit of his age, striving to escape from the thickets of medieval thought and reach the open country, the lectures he delivered in Oxford after his return from Italy showed that he was strikingly original and in advance of his time in seeing how to apply classical learning to the requirements of Christian thought. His method of exposition, familiar enough after Calvin had introduced it in the reformed church, was then absolutely new. He discarded completely the idea, as old as Origen, indeed older, that the Scriptures may be understood in a variety of senses, and that the simple historical sense is the least valuable. He insisted on the unity of the meaning of Scripture, and that the one meaning was the plain historical sense of the words. An intimate acquaintance with the methods of exegesis common in the medieval church is necessary to enable us to understand not merely the originality but the daring involved in the thought and practice. Colet, however, went further. He believed that the aim of a true interpretation of Scripture was to discover the personal message which the individual writer meant to give; and this led him, in his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, to seek for every trace which revealed the personality of St. Paul. It was equally imperative, he believed, to know what were the surroundings of the men to whom the letter was addressed. This led him to study in Suetonius and other historians the conditions of the Roman populace during the first century. Colet was the first to introduce the historical method of interpreting Scripture, and, as such, was far in advance not merely of his own time but of many a succeeding generation. It is not surprising that his lectures were thronged by Oxford scholars and that the audience included such personages as Richard Charnock and Erasmus. They revealed a new world to men who had been accustomed to believe that the only method of interpreting Scripture was to string together quotations, appropriate and inappropriate, from the Fathers. Scholars like Cornelius Agrippa studied theology under the lecturer, and Erasmus wished to take part in his researches.

Colet continued his lectures at Oxford on the New Testament during six successive years. When he became dean of St. Paul’s, he was accustomed to preach courses of sermons which are said to have resembled his Oxford lectures and drew crowds of listeners to his church. An Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and An Exposition of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, enable us to understand somewhat of Colet’s lectures. Their merits must be judged by comparing them with contemporary attempts at exegesis.

Colet is now best remembered by his educational work. He resolved to set apart a large portion of his great private fortune to endow a school where boys could enjoy the privilege of an education in Latin and Greek. The buildings were erected on a site at the eastern end of St. Paul’s churchyard, and consisted of a schoolhouse, a large school-room and houses for two masters. An estate in Buckinghamshire was transferred to the Mercers’ company to provide for the salaries of the teachers. Other property was afterwards given to provide the salary of a chaplain to teach the boys divinity and for other school purposes. Colet’s letters to Erasmus show how absorbed he was with his project and what pains he took to see that his ideals were carried out. He asked Linacre to write a Latin grammar for use in his school; but, not being satisfied with the book, he himself wrote a short accidence in English, and William Lily furnished a brief Latin syntax with the rules in the vernacular. This syntax was afterwards enlarged or rewritten at Colet’s request and, in this form, was revised by Erasmus. The book remained long in use and was revised and amended at various dates during two centuries. It was so highly valued that, in 1571, the upper house of convocation actually passed a canon making its use compulsory throughout England, and a bill was introduced in the House of Lords to give legal effect to the decision, but was withdrawn. In 1758, after further emendation, it became the Eton Latin Grammar.

Colet wrote a short series of rules for the guidance of his teachers and scholars, and an English version of the creed and some prayers. They were printed at the beginning of the accidence. Erasmus, likewise, furnished some Latin prayers for the use of the scholars and wrote for the school his Copia Verborum et Rerum—a Latin phrase-book. In the last year of his life, Colet, after long thought, drew up a final set of statutes for his school. He formally appointed the Mercers’ company to be the governing body and desired that the actual governors should be “married men,” not ecclesiastics. The combination of religious education with the firm rejection of clerical control was very characteristic of the man. It indicated a trend of mind corresponding to that which was to be found in Germany at the same time.

From all the accounts that have come down to us, it is evident that Colet was a great personality, who impressed everyone with whom he came in contact by his incalculable force of character. He had not the scholarship of Grocyn, Linacre, Latimer, or even of More, yet he was the central figure in the group of English humanists who figure in the correspondence of Erasmus. He was, perhaps, the only man who exercised a commanding and abiding influence on the brilliant Dutch humanist. What his attitude would have been in the crisis which overwhelmed his friends More and Fisher, it is impossible to say. We may be sure that he could never have accepted in any complete way the Lutheran reformation. The revived Augustinianism of the German reformer would, certainly, have repelled him as it did Erasmus and many of the German humanists; but he held opinions which neither Fisher nor More ever shared.

He openly expressed his disbelief in the efficacy of relics, and ridiculed the credulity of the pilgrims when he made the famous journey to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury which is recorded in Peregrinatio Religionis ergo. “Viclevita quispiam opinor,” was the remark made by the hearer when Colet’s behaviour was described. He omitted the usual reference to the Blessed Virgin and the saints in his last will, and left no money to be expended on masses for the benefit of his soul. He delighted in the Novum Instrumentum of Erasmus, and would not have transmitted to him the criticisms and cautions which More thought proper to send. He was among the earliest Englishmen of his generation to believe that the Bible in the vernacular ought to be in the hands of the people, and he would not have indulged in the disparagement and angry comment with which More greeted the remarkably accurate translation of the New Testament by William Tindale. His refusal to permit ecclesiastical control over his school is very significant, and suggests that he shared the opinion which Cranmer came to hold, that the transference of power from the clergy to the laity was the only guarantee for a reformation of the evils he clearly saw infesting the church and society. He was passionately convinced of the degradation of the church of his day, and believed that, in order to effect its cure, Christians must revert to the thoughts and usages of primitive Christian society. It is scarcely too much to say that the process of the English reformation down to the publication of the Ten Articles and the Bishop’s Book to a very large extent embodied the ideas of the dean of St. Paul’s.