Home  »  Volume VII: English CAVALIER AND PURITAN  »  § 1. English scholarship and learning in the seventeenth century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XIII. Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60

§ 1. English scholarship and learning in the seventeenth century

THE STARTING-POINT of English scholarship and learning in the seventeenth century is not the humanism of the early renascence. The main current was diverted from its onward flow by the events of the reign of queen Mary and the political and ecclesiastical exigencies of queen Elizabeth’s reign. From the moment of the return of the English exiles from Geneva, Frankfort and Strassburg, the conviction set in of the necessity of a discipline in life and learning founded on the Bible. This conviction permeated every activity of the nation, putting energetic representatives of learning founded on the Bible. This conviction permeated every activity of the nation, putting energetic representatives of learning and education in the very front of the propaganda, and reserving meditative scholars as the very bulwarks of defence. William Chillingworth’s Religion of Protestants maintained that the Bible alone is the religion of protestants; and, in the thought of the age, the Bible, also, was the centre towards which all scholarship could gravitate most profitably and creditably, and by which it could most certainly gain acceptance and stability. The usefulness of learning became almost axiomatic, so long as “human” was kept subsidiary to “divine” learning. The older humanism which dominated Erasmus, Thomas More and Thomas Elyot was crushed. The day had passed for placing Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, side by side, in the joyful enthusiasm for new found comrades, with New Testament writers, or with St. Chrysostom and St. Jerome, fearlessly running the risk of unifying sacred and profane, in the common appeal to antiquity. The fires of Smithfield in Mary’s reign and the penal inflictions of Elizabeth, together with the St. Bartholomew massacres in France, stirred, in the minds of both the opposing parties, the intuition that the struggle between Roman Catholics and protestantism was a personal concern as well as a national issue—and, if there was authority on the one side, there must be authority on the other. The issue, necessarily, was the church versus the book. If the contest was not to be by fire and sword solely, the only alternative was that in the arena of scholarship. The extreme puritan view of a discipline in religion, based only on the Bible, was soon found to be ineffective against opponents like the Jesuits, who commanded all the resources of Bible erudition, as well as of scholarship in ecclesiastical history, for disputational purposes. The most redoubtable protestant advocates were, of necessity, increasingly driven to include in their scholarly studies the early Fathers as well as the Bible, and to agree that the primitive church had at least a high degree of authority. But the main point in tracing the course of this scholarship is to realise that the church, the early Fathers, the Bible, constituted authorities to which appeal could be made, and that both Catholics and their opponents had to pursue, with an intensity of application unequalled before or since, the history of antiquity in so far as it concerned these issues. Christianity, whether of the church or of the Bible, was a historical religion—and to imply either aspect was to bring the argument into the historical environments within which these crucial sanctities had their origin, development and continuity.

The puritans, who staked their all intellectually on Biblecentred knowledge, might have confined English scholarship to the narrowest of limits. England, as J.R. Green has said, became “the people of one book, and that book the Bible.” But there were other influences at work, in this period, which tended to enlarge the scope of intellectual interests. The spirit of national enterprise and sea exploit that characterised queen Elizabeth’s reign continued to mark the Stewart period, and transferred itself into intellectual efforts in new directions. The companies of Merchant Adventurers made a discovery of the east, as Columbus had discovered America. Eastern languages were learned and transmitted, and oriental MSS. were triumphantly brought home to eager scholars. Physical adventure in east and west tended to provoke fearlessness of enquiry into natural science. The old sea groups of Hawkins, Ralegh, Frobisher gave place to the camaraderie of intellectual centres like the society of Antiquaries, gatherings of gentlemen-investigators, such as Falkland’s group at Great Tew, Hartlib’s group in London and the groups at Oxford, Cambridge, London, which coalesced into the Royal Society. All these and other groups were fascinated by the expanding spaciousness of physical research and the love of truth, and ideals of independent enquiry stimulated them to complete the knowledge of the Orbis Visibilis and Orbis Intellectualis, and to supply “gaps” such as those indicated by Bacon.