The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Renaissance: A European Awakening
- The End of the Nightmare
- The Call of Greece
- The Papacy and the Renaissance
- The Spirit of Humanism
- Erasmus and the Other Humanists
RENAISSANCE is the French word for Rebirth. In its earliest use in history it referred to the revival in Italy of the ancient Roman architecture. Other countries had adopted the Gothic style, but the Italians preferred the purer lines of the old temples, whose stately remains still rose from the soil of their country to rebuke the barbarism of the new era.
Later historians, observing that it was not the pagan architecture alone that was reborn in the later Middle Ages, used the word Renaissance in a much broader sense. They meant by it the Rebirth of Greek and Roman literature and ideals as well as art, chiefly in the fifteenth century. That is the proper meaning of the word, but modern writers give it a still wider significance. The Rebirth of the classical spirit and literature was part of a very widespread “revival of intelligence, knowledge, refinement, and conscious mastery of life” so the Renaissance has come to mean the Rebirth of Civilization out of the darkness of the Middle Ages. It means to modern historians the entire transition from the Middle Age to the Modern Age, the Awakening.
This division of the Christian Era into Classic Age, Middle (or Dark) Age, and Modern Age does not flatter Christianity. It suggests that civilization was suspended during the long period between the death and the resurrection of paganism: that Christendom was coarse, brutal, and ignorant until the spirit of Greece and Rome restored it to some sense of dignity and humanity. And as our literature of general information is now largely written by anonymous priests and by literary men who would close like oysters if you asked them merely in what century Charlemagne lived, some singular ideas about the Renaissance are in circulation. In unexpected places you get smiling assurances that the “old history” was quite wrong: that now the splendor of the Catholic Middle Age is fully recognized, and the “tinsel” of the Renaissance is estimated at its true value. A Catholic writer (not an historian, of course) who was entrusted with the Renaissance in a recent series of manuals for the general public, wonders, with the grave air of a Michelet or a Gibbon, whether it did not do more harm than good!
Unfortunately, historical writers often use language which these propagandists can quote. On the specious plea that history, like art, must be neutral, we find extraordinary concessions made to a false version of human events. Moreover, modern history is so specialized that it can hardly realize its own aim of taking broad views. No recent work on the Renaissance is equal even in historical truth, to say nothing of the appalling contrast in literary quality, to the superb study, written fifty years ago, by John Addington Symonds, “The Renaissance in Italy,” and none approaches Jacob Burckbardt’s “Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” in detailed knowledge of the period. No one today, however, can find leisure to read a seven-volume work, like that of Symonds, and in a sense his beautiful and true study of the spirit of the Renaissance requires a correction. The blaze of his period so fills his eyes that all the previous history of Europe seems to him uniformly dark.
The finest recent study ought to be the first volume of the “Cambridge Modern History,” which is entitled “The Renaissance.” Unfortunately, it is not an analysis of the Renaissance and its meaning, but mainly a chronicle of the wars and other familiar “historical events” which occurred during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and its deliberate concessions to possible Roman Catholic readers, by inviting men like Canon W. Barry to contribute, make it in some degree historically false. Mr. S. Dark’s recent “Story of the Renaissance” is similarly a piece of Catholic propaganda and is unreliable. The last edition of Professor W.H. Hudson’s “Story of the Renaissance” (1924) is still the best manual of moderate dimensions.
Here we take the Renaissance as a stage in the evolution of Christendom, and a most important stage. What every thoughtful person wants to know is, not what antics the French kings played in Naples, but what is the religious meaning of this fact, now endorsed by all historians, that civilization, or a higher civilization, was not reborn in Europe until a thousand years after the adoption of Christianity: what is the exact relation of the Christian creed or Church to the previous barbarism and the later revival.
Academic historians often evade this unpleasant issue by gibing at “popular writers” who describe Europe as sunk in barbaric sloth until the revival of Greek literature in the fifteenth century, which is the main period of the Renaissance. Symonds thinks that the period proper is 1450 to 1500; others take the whole fifteenth century; and others — most recent writers — a period of two or three centuries. It depends on the precise sense in which you take the word Renaissance, and it is well to remember that it has two definite meanings — the revival of classical literature and the revival of civilization.
Now it is an essential part of my program that the awakening began long before the fifteenth century. After a few centuries of barbarism Europe was constantly endeavoring to rouse itself from its torpor, but — this is what the academic historians will not clearly say — the Church murderously suppressed every attempt. Bogomiles, Catharl, Albigensians, Patarenes, Lollards, Hussites, and Luciferists (witches), representing millions of heretics, are just symptoms of the very widespread effort of Christendom, from the tenth century onward, to civilize itself in spite of Christianity; and the successful secularization of architecture, sculpture, painting, teaching, law, etc., is another symptom. Let me, as we are now passing from the Middle Ages to modern times, give a further and final illustration.
Historical writers who diplomatically, and with fatal effect, borrow a phrase or two from “Catholic historians” speak of the guilds as “inspired by the Church” (they were of pagan origin and the Church fought them for a century), the schools and philanthropy of the monasteries (which were generally colonies of sensual and slothful parasites, who rarely had schools even for themselves), the wonderful art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (which became wonderful only when it was secularized), and Dante.
I doubt whether any of these Catholic writers who enthuse about Dante ever read him. The third part of the “Divine Comedy” is, as Goethe bluntly said, “insipid.” It is precisely a proof that pure Christian doctrine cannot inspire poetry. The other two parts are made interesting — Goethe says “repulsive” — by their material setting, but they are absolutely heretical from the Catholic point of view.
Read Canto iv of the “Inferno.” Before entering hell proper, Dante comes to a “noble castle,” with a charming “meadow of fresh verdure,” and finds a number of “great spirits” leading a life of ghostly dignity and tranquillity in this desirable home. Their only punishment is that they are not allowed the “Beatific Vision” (of God) which makes up the bliss of Paradise. (And from Dante’s description of this in his third book, I should say that they must have been profoundly grateful for the exclusion from heaven, for an eternity of such bliss, with no throat to cut, is a lot to which I would not condemn even Innocent III or Anthony Comstock.) These “great spirits,” whom Dante honors with all his art, are the great pagans of Greece and Rome, the Moorish thinkers Avicenna and Averroes, and even Saladin, the deadly foe of Christianity!
In the next Canto, which describes the first circle of hell, with the very lightest punishments of that divine invention, Dante puts Semiramis and Cleopatra, Dido and Francesca, and all the prettier women known to history who lived in what the theologian calls the deadliest of sins, impurity. Throughout his “Inferno” and “Purgatorio,” Dante classifies sins and sinners, not according to Christian teaching, but according to the social moral standard of Cicero and Aristotle.
And the meaning of this bold heresy of “the great Catholic poet” can be gathered from Canto x. It describes the quarter of hell, and by no means the worst quarter, where dwell “Epicurus and all his followers, who make the soul die with the body.” Amongst these Dante puts the greatest monarch of the thirteenth century, Frederick II, the famous Cardinal Negli Ubaldini, and “more than a thousand” other Italians of his time! In this glorious thirteenth century, in other words, Florence was, in spite of the Inquisition, a hotbed of radical skepticism. Indeed, there is very strong reason to believe that Pope Boniface VIII, who crowns the century, was an utter skeptic.
Let us now go back to the early part of the century, when Pope Innocent III inaugurated the practice of murdering people who would not profess to believe what they did not believe.
We read that in the opening years of his reign Innocent had to fly from Rome, driven out of his city by anti-clerical democrats. We follow the clue and learn that in the twelfth century a fiery and noble-minded ex-monk, Arnold of Brescia, induced the Romans to throw off the authority of corrupt priests and establish the first Republic in the world since pagan days. He was, of course, hanged for this vile transgression of the ethic of Christ; yet fifty years later the democrats of Rome were still strong enough to make the aristocratic Innocent fly for his life. And I presume you never even heard of that splendid little man, Arnold of Brescia, or of the democratic movement in the heart of Christendom nearly four centuries before the time of Luther.
We may, in fact, divide “the Christian Era” into four parts. I may use round numbers, as they are near enough to the facts to justify me in thus simplifying the history of Christendom. The first section (1 to 500 A.D.) was not a Christian Era; during three-fourths of it Christians were a small and despised minority, and they won the majority only by the use of force. The next five hundred years (500 to 1000) were the Nightmare; not even the most ingenious historian of our time who wishes to distinguish himself by correcting his predecessors has attempted to lighten the darkness and mitigate the horrors of that real and only Christian Era. The next five hundred years (1000 to 1500) are the Awakening. To our positive knowledge hundreds of thousands, and probably millions, had to be killed by the Church to prevent Europe from rejecting its tyranny. And the period 1500-2000 is the Dawn. It opens with the destruction of one-half of the Papal dominion; it sees irreligion broadening and deepening in each century; it already finds the Christian majority turned into a minority in every great civilization; its close will see the end of Christianity.
Christendom awoke, first, because a nation or a race does not, any more than an individual, sleep forever. One must not suppose that the terrible reaction from the fifth to the twelfth century is without parallel in history. Egypt twice fell into some such confusion, though apparently not to such a depth of degradation, in the course of its long history. China and India and Persia have similar periods. They awoke by the action of their own political and economic forces. Men find that order is preferable to disorder, wealth is preferable to poverty, security of life and property is better than lawlessness. The economic vitality of Europe again gathered in the condensations which we call towns. Wealth made for art and refinement, and a class of lay artists, teachers, and writers arose, who wrested what was called art and learning from the monks and raised them to a higher level.
Secondly, there was a very material awakening force which hardly any writer on the Renaissance properly appreciates; the stimulation of the Moorish civilization. The fact that Dante mentions with honor Avicenna and Averroes does lead some historians to remark, in a foot-note, that there was a civilization in Spain; but few seem to be aware that when he mentions Homer, all the Greek philosophers from Thales to Zeno, Euclid and Ptolemaeus, Galen and Hippocrates, he is borrowing from the Mohammedans. No one in his time in Italy knew Greek or had Greek books. The group of skeptical scholars in Florence to which Dante at first belonged, and whose influence he never entirely escaped, owed their culture to the Mohammedans of southern Italy or of Spain. The third awakening factor was the influence of Greek and Roman literature. These are the three fundamental influences in the Rebirth of civilization, and the other causes assigned are either effects of them or are of little importance.
The Crusades are often vaguely quoted as having contributed to the civilization of Europe, since they enabled the boorish Christian knights to see what civilization really was, in the refined Mohammedan world. But the influence of this hostile clash was trivial compared with the peaceful penetration of Europe by the Moors and Jews. One does not learn much on a battlefield except how to fight.
The astronomical revolution, the discovery that the sun is the center of the solar system, is given as a factor by all writers. It is one of the three causes of the Renaissance given by Professor Hudson; the others are printing and the discovery of new lands overseas. These two events are rather parts of the general awakening, or effects of the deeper causes I have assigned. As to the “Copernican Revolution,” the effect of which modern writers fancifully exaggerate, it had no share whatever in the Italian Renaissance (which is regarded as ending in 1500 or 1520) and little elsewhere. The work of Copernicus did not appear until 1543, and its contents were known to very few until the days of Kepler and Galileo. Europe was then awake.
Much stress is laid also on the decay of the idea of a universal empire and a universal Church. Symonds thought that this lifted a burden of despotism from the minds of men and fostered the spirit of initiative and independence. It sounds rather fanciful. The classic revival would favor the idea of a universal empire; and certainly the monarchs of France, England, Spain, etc., were as despotic as the emperors had been. As to the idea of a universal Church, there had been wide revolts against it ever since the tenth century, but there were less in the fifteenth century than before. The Inquisition seemed to have triumphed. It was the corruption rather than the tyranny of the Church that stirred men.
If we admitted any fourth fundamental cause of the Renaissance, it should be the realization of the corruption of the Church. It fired Humanists like Petrarch and Erasmus as much as it fired Luther and Melanchthon. It was the deepest and most persistent cause of revolt, But the Renaissance was a rebellion of a very special kind. It is not in the same line of evolution with the big democratic movements of the Bogomiles, Albigensians, Lollards, Hussites, and Protestants. It was sensual, aristocratic, and scholarly; they were ascetic, democratic, and simple. Its standard was the pagan ideal; theirs was, generally, the Bible. The Renaissance was the beginning of modern times, if we think especially of the modern spirit; the Reformation, taking men back to Christ and the Bible, essentially rebuked it, and postponed its development.
It was a great half-century, that culminating period of the Renaissance, from 1450 to 1500. Every step in advance made the way easier, and put pride and joy into the heart of the wayfarer. Printing and piper gave a marvelous opportunity to the new ambition to spread knowledge. I do not compare it with the nineteenth century — I repeat that in the nineteenth century the world saw more progress than it had ever before seen in a thousand years — because science was too feeble to advance much, and because the Renaissance did little directly for the mass of the race. Ninety percent of the people of Europe remained illiterate, miserably poor, practically serfs. Catholic writers who point out this, and charge the Renaissance with aristocratic selfishness, have no sense of humor. Their church had made ninety percent of the people so ignorant and coarse. The Renaissance, which would in time have helped them (it greatly enlarged the artisan class) — was checked by the old Church as well as the new or Lutheran Church. But it put a spirit into Europe; it gave a thirst for knowledge; it lit up a vision of science, which would never again perish. Our age is the son of the Renaissance.
Of the three fundamental causes of the awakening, I fully described the second, the inspiration of Mohammedan civilization, in the last chapter. The first cause I assigned, the internal economic development of Europe, is a matter that would require a large volume. I have lightly sketched it, but most readers will understand it even without the historical details. The consolidation of the new monarchies and republics of Europe brought about a more settled, a more protected life. The population increased and got more out of the soil. Market centers became towns, then cities. By the time of the Renaissance Italy had cities of a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand people. Cities meant wealth, leisure, thinking, luxury, art. Regular international relations promoted travel and commerce. The artisan class and the middle class greatly increased.
And when we remember that during all this time, from the ninth century onward, travelers were bringing into Christendom stories of the high culture and prosperity of Spain, we realize that Europe was bound to return to a fair level of civilization. Then occurred what we call the Renaissance in the stricter sense, the revival of classical literature, and it had a most important influence.
Europe had almost no Greek works and only an imperfect collection of the Latin classics. Catholic writers now remind us how (for reasons of Church policy) the Council of Vienne had in 1311 ordered the teaching of Greek and how this or that scholar of the Middle Ages knew Greek. As Sir R. Jebb says, “Several scholars” in the course of “several centuries” knew a little Greek — a fine record, surely — and not a single teacher was appointed after the Council of Vienne. No priest could read the New Testament in Greek. It was a dead language. Religious bitterness had raised an insuperable barrier between eastern and western Christendom. Even the Latin classics had so fallen into obscurity that the Humanists, as we call the scholars of the Renaissance, had infinite trouble in making collections of them.
Petrarch (1304-1374) is regarded as the first Humanist. The English poet, Chaucer, is often said to have been the morning star of Humanism, but the word is then taken in a broader sense. Petrarch is counted as the founder of the classical Renaissance.
However, there was a good deal of Humanism in Italy before the time of Petrarch, and his zeal for the classics was a direct outcome of it. Frederick II had done everything in his power to foster the intellectual revival. From his youth, when Pope Innocent III had been his guardian and had taken shameless advantage of his position, Frederick had learned to despise the Church; and he had later appreciated the far higher civilization of the Saracens. through his influence Florence and the other growing cities of Italy had begun to treasure lay culture and independent thinking, and had acquired the veneration of paganism that is reflected in Dante.
For men, the moment they began to reflect, saw three things: the degradation of Christendom, the corruption of the Church, and (if they had any learning) the superiority of Greece and Rome. Indeed, we must not forget that the really religious Popes, bishops, and monks did more harm than the corrupt majority. Gregory VII and Innocent III did incalculable injury to human interests; and the more pious monks were the men who thrust the classics out of sight and kept art and literature in swaddling clothes. The truculent austerity of the good Christians was as irksome as the hypocrisy of the others.
What really characterizes the new movement, from the thirteenth century onward, is the scorn of hypocrisy. Modern pagan writers on the Renaissance, like Symonds and Pater, describe, with equal elegance and feeling, how the Renaissance was an assertion of man’s right to beauty and love. Catholic writers entirely agree in this — though, boasting of medieval art, as they do, they would rather say sensuality and love — and they appeal to the puritanism of modern times to see in the Renaissance only an outburst of immorality. Both are right — and wrong. Symonds never quite explains how this assertion of the right to beauty and love was related to men’s religious belief; and the Catholic never explains how it was that his religion rose to its greatest height in the thirteenth century (he says), only to be followed at once by the license of the Renaissance.
There was a continuous intellectual revolt against the Christian religion long before the Renaissance, and there was a revolt of the heart, an assertion of the right to beauty and love, all the time since the fourth century. All through its history Christendom was generally and profoundly immoral. The difference was that in the earlier period the taste was coarser and the right to love was not regarded as an admitted right, but an encroachment on God’s rights. Old-age or death-bed repentance or clerical incantations would put matters straight. It was a stupid frame of mind, the result of forcing upon human nature a creed which was really unnatural.
With the growth of intellectual life men became clearer- headed. We must remember always that we are speaking of a minority — the few who could read. All through these changes which fascinate the historian — the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century, the Renaissance, the Reformation, etc. — the overwhelming mass of the people remained unchanged. The names in their prayers changed, that was all. But the thoughtful minority began to conceive God much like H.G. Wells conceives his Invisible King: he was not interested in small matters like love affairs. The Church, with its massive and general hypocrisy in regard to sex, was evidently a human business. The laity felt itself free; free to paint the human figure in all its fleshiness, as Giotto did; free to depict human joviality as it was, as Rabelais did; free to love, as people had hitherto illicitly done. It is absurd to say that there was a growth of immorality after the revival of Greek literature. It had no margin for growth. Now, however, in cultivated men, it was a deliberate act, on principle, and therefore not immoral.
Petrarch, the first of the Humanists, was the son of a Florentine lawyer who seems to have belonged to the cultivated circle which venerated pagan Rome. He had manuscript works of the old Latin writers, and Petrarch was reared in a high regard for these. After a time he settled near Avignon, where the Papal court then was, and the sordid hypocrisy of its puritan creed and open vices — unnatural vice was common amongst the clerics, from the cardinals downward, though women were as numerous as pages — intensified his veneration for Cicero. The Roman orator’s sober and reasoned work “On Duty” (the chief moral authority used by Dante) gave a plainer map of life than did this ecclesiastical organization that lived by “the fable of Jesus Christ” (as a later Pope said) and outraged every letter of his teaching. Petrarch searched everywhere for, and got other men to seek, more fragments of the old Latin literature. He was a Christian and in orders, but he was clearly very independent of the actual teaching of the Church. It was too obviously human.
The Romans, Petrarch soon found, had candidly represented the Greeks as far greater thinkers than themselves, and he turned to Greece. The story of those days is a singular commentary on the worn legend, which one still finds in magazines and books, that the monks preserved the classics. When the Humanists began, there was very little even of Latin literature on the market. They had to spend whole lives traveling from town to town, and monastery to monastery, sifting the rubbish to find manuscript copies of the old Roman writers. Greek was a dead language in Europe, and scarcely anybody could have read or copied a Greek manuscript. Petrarch learned a little Greek from an Italian who had been some years in Greece, but there was no such thing as a grammar or dictionary, and he could never read the language.
Contemporary with Petrarch was his friend Boccaccio (1313- 1375), author of the “Decameron”: a serious scholar who was much prouder of his learned works than of his stories. At the instigation of Petrarch he took up the study of Greek and even made a bad translation of Homer. Rich merchants were interested. The ambition arose to have collections of manuscript books. What we call “the Greek spirit” was discussed in literary gatherings, and to those men and women of the Middle Ages, living in a world of weird speculation and peculiar dogmas, it seemed as new and characteristic as Omar Khayyam seemed to moderns when he was first translated.
The Humanists recognized that the Greek spirit was the guide they needed. The real history of Judaism and early Christianity was quite unknown in those days, but educated men felt that there was something wrong in the account which the Church gave of itself and its authority. The Greeks gave them a sane and balanced creed. Strictly speaking, there is no single Greek spirit. The spirit of Plato is not the spirit of Aristotle; the spirit of the Stoics is so different from that of the Epicureans that the rivals fought bitterly. But there is the common element that they all speculate in complete independence of religious traditions. They make man his own oracle and legislator. They exalt human nature and natural law. They reflect a civilization in which there was a general cultivation of beauty and wisdom; a glorification of the human body in art, of nature in poetry, of the intellect in science and philosophy. This was just the note for awakening Christendom. Human nature felt that it had been oppressed and exploited. The Greeks gave it its Magna Charta, formulated its Rights of Man,
But we must be careful not to exaggerate. Down to the end of the fourteenth century and long after, only a few hundred people were involved in this new Humanism, whereas the Lollards, Hussites and witches (or Luciferists) must have numbered well over a million. Very few people could read, and so rebellion generally took the form of an appeal to the Gospels against the usurped authority and corruption of the Church.
I am not going to complicate this simple sketch by giving all the names and dates of the Humanists. In short, the living Greeks before the end of the fourteenth century discovered this new zeal for their old literature and began to encourage it and profit by it. A well-educated Greek, Manuel Chrysoloras, came to Italy on a diplomatic mission in 1391, and the cultured group at Florence prevailed on him to stay there and teach Greek. He wrote the first Greek grammar. Other Greeks now came over to earn a living by teaching, and chairs were set up in all the leading cities of Italy. Italians went to Constantinople, to learn the language at its source. The Turks were now pressing the Greeks very hard, and it was discovered that the fact that the western Christians were a little heretical as regards the procession of the Holy Ghost did not really matter so much — now that the Greek Empire was in danger. Traffic across the Adriatic increased, and the zeal for Greek spread into Italy. It is related of Guarino, one of the Humanists, that, when his precious Greek manuscripts were lost in a shipwreck on his way back from Constantinople, his hair turned white in a day.
This was the great age of the Medici family at Florence, and the wealth which the bankers had accumulated, and the social and political power which the family acquired, were used on behalf of the new culture. Greek tutors were engaged for the Medici boys. Zeal for classical culture opened the door of the palace more easily than wealth or piety. Florence was becoming the wonderful city, the new Athens, which is so frequently described in George Eliot’s “Romola.” The “Cambridge Modern History” makes the point, which is worth noting, that Florence was not at all a city of vice. It was noted for its general sobriety and its disgust with the corruption of Rome. Other cities — Genoa, Venice, Mantua, Ferrara, etc. — followed the lead of princely Florence. Even Rome — always the last to join in a cultural development — had to adopt the fashion.
It was also the great age of art, which had a separate and earlier development. Architecture and sculpture had reached their height, and painting was in the first stage of its new evolution. Independently of any literary influence, laymen had taken over architecture and sculpture from the monks, and had by their soaring structures helped to educate Europe in a sense of beauty. This helped the new feeling for culture, and the revival of the classical standards reacted on painting and lifted it to its highest level.
But it was an historical accident which did most to promote the classical Renaissance. As I have said, the Greeks were relenting in their attitude toward the heretics of Rome because they wanted help against the Turks. The aggression of the Mongols had driven the Turks from western Asia into Mesopotamia, and they turned Mohammedan and joined the Arabs. We have here one more instance of the utter falseness of the Christian plea that no agency could have civilized the Teutonic tribes in less time — six or seven centuries — than the Church took to civilize them. Like the Arabs in the days of Mohammed the early Turks were not a whit higher in culture than the Teutons had been, yet, again like the Arabs, they were fully civilized within about a century; not by any religion, but by contact with the older civilization. They steadily encroached upon the Greek or Byzantine Empire, and in 1543 they took Constantinople. Then it was, especially, that Greek scholars swarmed to Italy, with manuscript copies of the old Greek classics in their trunks.
One may wonder — indeed, it is remarkable how few historical writers do wonder — why this Greek literature which they brought to Europe had not proved a greater inspiration to themselves. By the middle of the fourteenth century, hardly a hundred years since the first Turks had pitched their rude tents in Mesopotamia, the Turkish Mohammedan civilization was so superior, not only to the Latin Christian, but to the Greek Christian, that numbers of Greeks fled to it and embraced Islam. The Turkish corruption with which we are more familiar belongs to later centuries of Ottoman history. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Turkish government or administration was one of the purest in the world, and art and letters were brilliantly cultivated; whereas the Greek Empire was, as I have shown in my “Empresses of Constantinople,” corrupt, degenerate, vicious, and — in spite of its very conventional art and decorativeness — coarse and brutal.
I do not see how any historian can avoid the conclusion that the responsibility lies with the creed of the Greeks. It may have inspired many self-tormenting saints, as it did in Europe, on the principle that forty years’ repression or starvation of their sex- impulses would be rewarded with an eternity of bliss. I am, I fear, obtuse to that kind of superiority. It may have insured a safe passage through the gates of heaven for millions: a matter on which I do not care to speculate. But its entire and lamentable failure to sustain a civilization is as obvious in the east as its failure to inspire a civilization is in the west. Not the German barbarism, but the creed imposed upon them, ruined Europe.
But these works which the Greek refugees brought to Italy, and helped to make known to Europe, entered a new world. One thinks of the seed stored in Egyptian tombs for millennia; or one would recall that fact if it were true that the seed will germinate if we plant it today. The Greek ideals were not dead. They had but lain for a thousand years in a living tomb. They were brought to Europe when the corruption of the Papal Church was at its height, and men were therefore prepared to consider other standards of life. They were brought to a race which had for a century or two been pushing, half consciously, in the direction of the Greek idea of life. That feeling was really anti-Christian, and we have to see how it was that no thunders from the Vatican fell upon the ears of the Humanists, and why so few of them were requested to explain their philosophy of life to the Inquisition.
The Popes, as I said, were living luxuriously, and some of them immorally, in Avignon when Petrarch began the classical revival. Read his letters, and you will realize that it was in large part the spectacle of ignorant Christendom exploited to pay for the vices and luxuries of the Papal court at Avignon which made Petrarch turn with affection and regard to the old pagan world reflected in the classical literature. Petrarch loved when he listed, not when priests permitted it, yet the sight of Avignon, near which he then lived, in its Papal days makes him write as if he were a Marcus Aurelius.
During the seventy years’ absence of the Popes at Avignon, which was due entirely to bribery and political influence, Rome sank rapidly in culture and importance. The grass grew on its streets. We have seen that it had never taken the lead in any cultural advance, and now the opulent cities of northern Italy regarded it with disdain. There was a serious danger of Italy disavowing the Papacy, and with much trouble the Popes were at length induced to return to Rome. A Neapolitan monk, of fiery speech, was made Pope, and, when he told the cardinals what he thought of their morals, they elected an Anti-Pope; and the cardinals sought the life of the Pope, and the Pope had six of them lowered into a deep well and almost murdered.
So the strange spectacle was prolonged from age to age — the heart of Christendom sinking lower and lower as the rest of Christendom rose in civilization — until at last the whole Church was outraged to learn, from the great Council of Constance, that the man who had ruled it for five years under the name of John XXIII was an ex-brigand of boundless sensuality, entirely destitute of religious or moral sentiments. Rome was by this time the butt of popular songsters all over Europe. The best elements in the Church united in a demand that the Roman masquerade should cease. and the Church should be governed by Councils.
It will thus be understood why up to this stage the Papacy had taken no interest in the new cultural movement. Three decent Popes then ruled the Church for a few decades, and the third of them, Nicholas V, was a man of some cultivation. He opened Rome to the classical revival. He began the adornment of the city with beautiful buildings.
It is now the fashion for Catholic writers to tell how the Church applauded the Renaissance and sought to direct the zeal for knowledge without infidelity and for beauty without license. Let us remind them that it was not until 1450 — a century or more after the rest of Europe — that the Papacy began to show any concern for letters or art though its wealth was enormous. Let us remind them also that Rome, with its glorious ancient monuments, was the natural home for the Renaissance, yet it was not until 1462 that any Pope forbade builders to strip the marble linings off the old buildings to make lime and use the precious stones to make the miserable dwellings of the medieval Romans.
And, when it is boasted that Pope Nicholas V vied with the Humanists in a zeal for letters, let us recall that at his death in 1455 his collection consisted of only 1,176 manuscript books, mostly ecclesiastical literature, and that in 1484 the Vatican Library, “the most important library in the west in the fifteenth century” (an apologist in the “Cambridge Modern History” proudly says), had only about two thousand books. Six centuries earlier the Moorish ruler in Spain, Al Hakim, had had a library of half a million books, and hundreds of his subjects, with not one-tenth the income of the Popes, would have regarded the Papal collection with disdain.
Nicholas V made a beginning, and it was quite time. That is the germ of historical truth in all the glorification of him by writers on “the Catholic Renaissance.” Granted, you may say, but why cavil about these humble beginnings? Within a hundred years Rome became the most beautiful city in the world and had the greatest school of painters, sculptors, and architects in the world. A long line of Popes used all the resources of the Renaissance to embellish the center of Christendom.
I am meeting questions which occur to every thoughtful person and the answers to which are generally shirked by academic historians. And the question here is: What relation had this late artistic splendor in Rome, this patronage of the Renaissance by the Popes, to the Christian creed? The answer is: None. Of the inspiration of the artists I will speak later, but about the Papal patrons of the art there is now no controversy, The most learned Catholic historian of the Papacy, Dr. Pastor, is in line with all other historians. The Papal court had passed into a new phase of degradation, and, the less religious the Popes were, the more they patronized art.
Since the cardinals elect the Pope, it is upon these that the moral health of the Papacy depends, and for two hundred years the cardinals were, as a body, appallingly corrupt. At every election they fought, with gold and hired assassins, for the great prize, since the income of the Papacy was now stupendous, and the successful candidate was forced to make new cardinals of totally unworthy supporters, or chose to make cardinals of equally unworthy relatives. When the Popes were not corrupt, they were nepotists, promoting and enriching their relatives irrespective of character. The result was that during the period of what is called the Catholic Renaissance the Papal court had a degradation which differed from that of the tenth century only in being refined and perfumed and clad in silk. I have given the details in my “Crises in the History of the Papacy” and “Popes and Their Church,” but the whole of them may be read, or discovered by the diligent inquirer, in the very extensive Catholic history of Dr. L. Pastor “The History of the Popes.”
At the death of Nicholas V the rival cardinals fought until there was a deadlock, and a pious old Spaniard, the first Borgia, got the prize. His piety, however, was quite consistent with his rapid promotion of his amorous nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, who at once began to exploit the venereal opportunities of his high clerical position. The next Pope, Pius II, was actually a Humanist, but he did next to nothing for letters. He was gouty and repentant, and he saw “the gates ajar” in front of him. The next Pope, Paul II, also was aged and inactive, and the stream of Roman life simply flowed on.
Then a Franciscan friar, Sixtus IV, became Pope; and Catholic writers tell how the patronage of art and letters in Rome took a more generous turn. They do not tell how Sixtus IV at once promoted two nephews (some historians say natural sons) of his who were as unbridled as Rodrigo Borgia. Sixtus IV said his prayers while Cardinal Pietro Riario, his younger nephew, painted Rome red — very literally, for his gorgeous palace had five hundred servants in scarlet silk. His favorite paramour, Tiresia, wore two thousand dollars’ worth of pearls on her slippers. Pietro, a raw provincial youth until the Holy Ghost descended upon his uncle, spent nearly a million dollars (worth many times that sum today) and died of vice and drink, under the shadow of the Vatican, within two years. The other nephew was sober by comparison. He was piling up his dollars to buy the Papacy — it now went to the greatest briber — and his one luxury was handsome women. His children were not disguised as nephews or his chief mistress as a secretary. This was the “great Pope” of the future, Julius II.
When Sixtus died, Rome was an armed camp. The cardinals had troops of the medieval equivalent of gunmen, and the bribery was opulent. But it was again a deadlock, and the tired Holy Ghost selected Innocent VIII. In the new fashion he at once sent for his natural son, Franceschetto, and this youth leaned much nearer to Nero than to Christ. Most of the cardinals kept their pages — unnatural vice was as common as natural — and their mistresses in their luxurious palaces, and their gambling, in which half a million dollars might be lost in a night, was done in the light of their own lamps. But the palate for this kind of thing was becoming jaded in Rome, and the Pope’s son wandered about at night, with his cutthroats, breaking into any house where a pretty maid or wife had been located.
The old Roman families, such as the Colonna and the Orsini, who regarded the Papacy as their proper heritage, had now to contend with three new broods: the Borgias, the Riarios, and the Cibos. All of them left it to a few old-fashioned cardinals to practice the old-fashioned virtues of chastity and sobriety, and for their advancement in the Sacred College relied on the new weapons, steel and gold. More than two hundred murders distinguished the Papal election of 1492, but Cardinal Borgia distributed amongst the voting cardinals gifts worth something like a million dollars and became the Holy Father. Rome gasped, and smiled.
We are now permitted to believe that there were “a few” bad Popes and a few others who had been “irregular” in their youth, but we are asked to admire how rarely Popes were immoral during their tenure of office. Is the world losing its sense of humor? This modern apologetic makes one wonder. In the first place, cardinals are not usually chosen to be Popes unless they are well advanced in years, and, on careful inquiry, these new apologists will learn that men advanced in years are, curiously, not so ardent in love as they had once been. In the next place, however, the Papal record is, in view of this highly moral arrangement, to say nothing of the light of the Holy Ghost and the very special interest of Christ in his Church, quite picturesque. We really know nothing about the youth of the great majority of the Popes of the Middle Ages, but of those whose actions have been chronicled between 900 A.D. and 1500 A.D. twelve of the Popes were immoral (five of them in an unnatural way) during their term of office, and as many more had merely outburned their vices. For a series of generally old men, presiding over one of the most ascetic of creeds, it is certainly a gay calendar.
Alexander VI is by no means the worst of the Popes. Several Popes of the tenth century, as well as Boniface VIII and John XXIII, were much worse. But we happen to know him well, and even Catholic historians like Dr. Pastor now reproduce the birth certificates of his six children.
In a sort of historical romance, “The Pope’s Favorite,” I have given a detailed picture of Rome and the Vatican in the days of Alexander and his latest mistress, a beautiful girl of fifteen when he first seduced her. The element of fiction in that book is light. It is simply history clothed with flesh; and it is safe to say that no professedly religious establishment that the world has ever seen could compare for a moment with the Vatican Palace at that time. Alexander’s philandering was all conducted in the “Sacred Palace.” Not content with his lovely young mistress, and although he was nearing seventy years old, be had other women brought to him. In 1496, four years after his election, the sixty-seventh year of his age, the Pope begot a son; and in the same year a severed head was found on a pole in Rome with the inscription: “This is the head of my father-in-law, who prostituted his daughter to the Pope.” His favorite and dissolute son Juan was murdered, most probably by his brother Cesare, in the following year, yet as late as 1501, less than two years before his death, the veteran sensualist had orgies in the Vatican of so exotic a nature that my British publisher compelled me to curtail the description of one of them which I took from the highest possible authority, the Master of Ceremonies of the Vatican. The Pope and his son and daughter had fifty of the most beautiful prostitutes of Rome dancing naked before them. And the priest who wrote this down in the Vatican at the time concludes with the amazing statement that the Pope distributed prizes to those of his male servants who could demonstrate the greatest virility. I have read many descriptions of orgies, in many tongues, but his in the “Sacred Palace” is the most picturesque.
So the Popes did not discourage the Renaissance. That is the serious point of my again writing on these matters. Rome and the Vatican were drenched with what the Christian ethic calls corruption. Alexander’s rival, Julius II, had to wait so long for the Papacy, that the days of his natural and unnatural vices were over. He was quite a proper Pope, a very great patron of art; but he swore like a stevedore, and his passions were only less elegant than the amorous excesses of his cardinal-cousin. Leo X followed him, and fully sustained the princely patronage of art; and he had the most grossly indecent comedies enacted in the Vatican; he is said by the contemporary historian Guicciardini to have been, as Pope, “excessively devoted to pleasures which cannot be called decent” (he means unnatural vice), and was quite clearly devoid of any moral sentiment and most probably of religious sentiment or beliefs. Paul III closes the period of the Catholic Renaissance; and he had been made a cardinal because his sister was Alexander’s mistress, and had had four children born in his palace.
Need one say more? You can read all this in Pastor, the Catholic historian. The poor man imagined that, when Leo X threw open the Secret Archives of the Vatican (after abstracting the compromising documents), and urged Catholic writers to “tell the truth,” the Pope meant what he said. So he wrote a fairly (not entirely) candid history of the Popes of the Renaissance; and his Church has kept him in sackcloth and ashes, so to say, ever since. The whole story is, however, now well known. Rome was as conspicuous for “free love” during the Catholic Renaissance as Corinth or Antioch or Alexandria had ever been.
But to complete the story we must glance at the sources of the wealth with which the Popes built St. Peter’s, decorated the Vatican, and drew great artists from all sides to form a Roman School.
Here again there is no dispute. It was tainted money, if there ever was tainted money. The simony of Rome, the sale of sacred offices, shocked Christendom even more than its vices. For two hundred years the system had grown of selling a clerical office with income before the holder died — selling it to various people, with “expectations” and “preferences” — and charging fees for every grace and permit that Rome had to issue. John XXII at the beginning of the fourteenth century so organized and enlarged this traffic as to secure an acknowledged income of about a million dollars a year: and the brother of his banker tells us that he left sixty million dollars in gold and jewels, the far greater part of which never passed through his ledgers. We must not forget, moreover, that a dollar would then purchase many times as much as it now does.
But Pope after Pope extended the sordid traffic and discovered that “indulgences” could be gained just as easily by those who remained at home and paid to the Church the price of a journey to Rome as by those who made the actual pilgrimage; and since one was robbed all the way across Europe, and even in St. Peter’s, to say nothing of the loss of time and business, the easier way proved popular. It was like the discovery of the Californian gold-fields. The Popes sent agents out over Europe, and, unfurling the Papal banner in the churches, they shouted their wares with all the oratory of street-salesmen, and the gold flowed in streams to Rome. It is estimated that Leo X, who is generally named by Catholics as the greatest patron of the Renaissance, spent about two million dollars (ancient value) a year, and left enormous debts at his death. Nor was it, in his case, mere zeal for the prestige of Rome that cost so much. “The splendor of the Leonine Age,” says Dr. Pastor, “so often and so much belauded, is in many respects more apparent than real.” He spent prodigious sums on luxuries for the Vatican palace, but neglected the Roman University, slighted Michelangelo, and did relatively little for sculpture and architecture. His tastes were in many respects gross, and his rooms and gardens stank with what his Church calls indecency.
St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel, and the other memorials of the Catholic Renaissance are monuments of the corruption of the Papacy. For a season the great art of the Renaissance found a superb opportunity in Rome, precisely because the spirit of Christ was utterly forgotten in it for a season. Of the eight “Holy Fathers” who ruled the Church during that season, from 1484 to 1549, five were fathers in the carnal sense, and the other three reigned only twelve years collectively. All the time the atmosphere of the clerical world was one of extravagant luxury and every kind of vice, and the funds for it all were derived in ways in comparison with which the ways of the money-changers whom Jesus is said to have driven from the Temple were as innocent as the games of children.
The leading scholars of the Renaissance are generally described as the Humanists, and the latter word is, like the former, open to more than one interpretation. The poet Chaucer is often hailed by literary men as the first Humanist, though his Humanism had no relation to classical literature; and the philosopher William of Occam is hailed by philosophical writers as the first Humanist, though his work in turn was unaffected by Greek or Roman literature. In our own day a new meaning has been read into the word.
It is, in any case, an awkward term. Properly speaking, it ought to mean a concern about human affairs rather than divine. The Agnostic is the only real Humanist, and ours is the dawning age of Humanism, the inauguration of the kingdom of Man instead of the passing kingdom of God.
But the persistence with which the word has clung to the scholars of the Renaissance brings out a very important truth. Few of them rejected belief in God, but as a body they rejected the tyranny over life and culture exercised by the clergy in the name of God. They brought the world nearer to Humanism. Painters and sculptors demanded the use of living human models instead of the lifeless conventional figures which had hitherto been copied. Literary men demanded that they should be allowed to tell stories and write poems or songs about common human life — be as free to describe a sin as the painter was to describe a limb — and not confine the pen to chronicles and hymns and lives of saints. Teachers insisted on the value of instruction about man and nature as well as about God. Philosophers determined to speculate freely about man and nature apart from revelation. The Renaissance was, as Michelet said, “the discovery of the world and of man,” but man was the more important of the two. Humanism is a note rather than a creed in the Renaissance,
But the note is skeptical and it is significant in world- history. It was a rebellion against the genuine teaching of the Christian creed. The interest, the inspiration, the high potentialities of man had been obscured by the miserable philosophy of human nature which priests imposed in the name of the Bible. If the race lay under a primitive curse, if all men had died in Adam, as Paul said, Paul’s attitude to human nature was correct. If Jesus was right that to look with desire at a beautiful woman was to be punished for all eternity, and that wealth was a very serious handicap to one’s hopes of heaven, the moral was clear.
Yet somehow, in the course of that long awakening that I have described, human nature was vindicating its worth in spite of the creed. Men felt that they had the high powers which priests denied. Unconsecrated men wrested in succession from the hands of priests and monks the arts and crafts of building, carving, painting, governing, making laws, teaching, thinking, writing, etc., and each rose to a much higher level. In a glorious burst of confidence, strengthened by the example of the Mohammedans, they tried their creativeness, and they found it as great in art as in industry. And the discovery of beauty, in woman or in nature, brought its usual sequel: the assertion of the right to love and to enjoy. It was the beginning of naturalism as a deliberate creed, and the beginning of the end of supernaturalism.
It is easy to see how the classical revival, which supervened upon this development, stimulated it. It was the human form that had inspired the world’s greatest artists. It was in an age when men were proud of their human nature, and had no theology which overshadowed it, that man wrought his finest achievements. It was a little nation with the least tyrannical and most superficial of religions (as far as the men who did things were concerned) which gave us the finest philosophies, finest sculpture and architecture, finest tragedies, and finest ideals of corporate and individual life. Pride in human power is the real Humanism of the Renaissance.
It is usual to contrast Humanism and Scholasticism, the system of theological thought elaborated in the medieval schools which became the universities of Europe. As I have occasionally pointed out, some modern writers, partly to make a parade of liberality, partly to say something new, partly in a consciousness that a sixth of the reading public in America is Catholic, borrow phrases from Catholic writers. Scholasticism had been calumniated, they say; it was not a barren system of thought, discussing such things as how many angels can stand on the point of a needle. Let them try to read the Scholastics, as they have obviously not done. When I was a Catholic professor, I found that even my colleagues never read them. There is no living thought in them.
But Scholasticism is interesting on one side. Large numbers of French students went to work amongst the Moors in Spain, and it was impossible for men like Thomas Aquinas to ignore that a very high civilization smiled at his verbose deductions from Scripture and the Fathers. These Moorish philosophers, he found, swore by Aristotle; and just at that time Greek copies of Aristotle’s works reached Paris. The Crusaders had gone out to meet the Saracens once more, and they had this time preferred the easier and more profitable task of taking and sacking Christian Constantinople (1204 A.D.). They brought home manuscript copies of Aristotle amongst their loot, and these were translated into Latin. Aristotle was henceforward used to give some substance to the frothy verbiage of the Schoolmen. Some (Roger Bacon, etc.) tried even to develop the germs of science buried in Aristotle’s works, but the Church smelt sulphur at once and stamped out the danger.
The philosophical works brought to Italy in the fifteenth century were chiefly those of Plato and the Neo-Platonists. I cannot discuss here the contrast between Plato and Aristotle. One illustration must suffice. Plato used all his art of rhetoric and reasoning to prove the personal immortality of the soul, and Aristotle rejected the belief. So, as the Humanists followed Plato, there was a very decided hostility to the professional or clerical teachers of theology and philosophy. The main point was, however, that Plato was used as a cover for free speculation, while the teachers in the universities were hidebound. The Church, naturally, watched this side of the Renaissance, and some, like Pomponazzi, were driven to say that a thing could be false in the light of reason and true in the light of religion.
Philosophy is, however, a subject too large for the limits of my space and, to say the truth, too small for my inclination. Let us pass to the other extreme and consider what influence the new spirit had on art.
Until well on in the fifteenth century the classical revival affected a relatively small number of people, whereas medieval art was then far advanced. Painting, however, lingered behind sculpture and architecture. It began its higher development, in Giotto, independently of classic literature, by the sheer artistic impulse to reproduce beauty as it actually was, in man and nature. Yet it had not reached its great days when the classical ideals began to be diffused in Italy, and the influence of the new spirit is then plain to the eye.
It will suffice here to consider for a moment the two supreme artists of the Roman school, if not of all Christendom, Michelangelo and Raphael. I have described the skeptical and sensual atmosphere in which they worked, but one is constantly confronted with the claim that, as they were “profoundly religious” men, they found their mighty inspiration in their own piety in spite of the scurrilities of Popes and cardinals. I would not here express a personal opinion, and I have earlier quoted Symonds and various authorities on art. But it is interesting to see how Professor W.H. Hudson, who had a weight of authority behind his words, deals with these artists in his particularly valuable chapter on the art of the Renaissance.
He quotes the often-quoted saying of Michelangelo, that the painter of religious pictures must, if he is to succeed, be a good man, or “even a saint.” The Catholic (forgetting the paintings of Pinturicchio, a very wicked man, or of Rubens, a very fleshly man) generally ends there. But Professor Hudson goes on to say that “no man did more than he [Michelangelo] to destroy the religious meaning of traditional Christian art.” The great artist, he says, contributed mightily to the “secularization” of painting, sculpture, and architecture. He says in one of his sonnets that the highest manifestation of God is in “human forms sublime.” And of his wonderful painting of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, to which the enthusiast will turn most eagerly for proof of religious inspiration, Professor Hudson observes that it is “difficult to detect the play of any distinctively Christian feeling,” that “the last link connecting art with Christian tradition has been broken,” and that “to regard it as a Christian interpretation of a Christian theme is absurd,” (“Story of the Renaissance,” pp. 205-6).
Raphael, on the other hand, he says, sometimes shows religious inspiration, but “more often be simply paints the most beautiful woman he can find as the representative of motherhood, without indicating, either by symbolism or by general tone and expression, the transcendental significance of his type” (p. 203). Murillo in his best work does the same, and it is the general truth about the Renaissance painters. Like Rubens, who loved to paint the luscious nude body of his mistress as Venus — there are three known copies of his “Venus and Adonis” — they painted figures from the ancient mythology and allegory just as beautifully as they represented the Madonna and the Bambino. Titian, the last great Italian painter, was a pure Humanist. Rembrandt shows art fully secularized. Darer and Holbein seem to the expert to reflect the influence of Protestantism. In any case, the broad historical fact is that once Rome was purified of its paganism and sensuality, all great art ceased in it. Let the admirer of the Catholic Renaissance digest that.
In literature the spirit of Humanism did not wait for the classical revival, but it received a remarkable invigoration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Chaucer is decidedly a Humanist, and the entire body of troubadours and song and ballad makers of earlier centuries represents a determination to secularize music and poetry. By the fifteenth century many of these popular songs actually satirized the vices of the clergy and the greed of the Vatican. Then came the new learning, and Italy soon had its Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, Cellini, Machiavelli, etc.
A very distinctive effect of the classical Renaissance, and more particularly of the Catholic Renaissance, if we were to take that phrase seriously, was the revival of indecent comedy. The comedies of Plautus and Terentius are now cited by the apologists as one of the symptoms of the low moral tone of the pagan world, but he would be astonished if he took the trouble to ascertain how fond the Popes were of seeing them acted in the Vatican. In point of fact, they are much less gross than they are represented to be by the people who do not read them. I have a complete edition of the Latin Comedies of Plautus, and have read them all. The least delicate is the “Menaechmi,” and it was performed in the Vatican Palace before the end of the fifteenth century, and often repeated.
Such comedies proved so popular that a large number of imitations of them were composed, and Pope Leo X was one of their most ardent patrons. His intimate friend Cardinal Bibbiena (who had his bathroom frescoed as the bedroom walls of houses of love in Paris today) wrote some of the most lascivious, and Cardinal Cibo took leading parts in them. Ariosto, Michiavelli, and others contributed to this kind of literature, and it went all over Europe. Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” is directly inspired by the “Menaechmi” of Plautus.
Here the Renaissance found a material implement of an importance that cannot be exaggerated: the printed book. Artless pictures of the monks of the Middle Ages copying and preserving the classics for us no longer move us when we know that Moorish rulers had libraries of half a million manuscript volumes, and when we read what infinite trouble the Humanists of Christendom had to get the classics together in the fifteenth century. Yet it was a revolutionary advance in the education of the world when paper and printing came into use. I am a quick writer, yet find eight thousand words — not of original composition, but of copying or translating — a day, too severe a task to contemplate daily. A monk would take a lifetime to make, at the rate of one per week, a thousand copies of this one chapter. A machine can produce them at the rate of five thousand or more an hour.
Paper had been introduced from China by the Mohammedans, and Christendom very slowly and reluctantly borrowed it from the Moors. Printing also should be traced back along the same route, for the Chinese had for ages been accustomed to block printing. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the turning point of the Renaissance, this led to the invention of printing by separate letter blocks, and before the end of the century there were twenty two master printers in Cologne and a number in each of the German cities. By 1465 there was a press in Italy, five years later one in France, and in 1476 the Caxton Press was established in England.
Although printing was at first necessarily very slow, there can be no doubt that the multiplication and cheapening of books would soon have led to an extension of culture to the more thoughtful workers if the normal course of events had not been broken by the Reformation. The works of Erasmus, in particular, were read far beyond the circle of the cultivated few. In the main, however, as we should expect at so early a date, the efforts of the Humanists were directed to the improvement of such education as already existed. Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino in Italy, Johannes von Sturm and W. Ratke in Germany, Comenius in Moravia, Roger Ascham in England, opened model schools, and forced the introduction of the “humanities” into education. Rabelais has many ideas for the reform of education in his extraordinary work, and Montaigne gave currency to them in a more respectable medium.
The effect of Humanism upon the study of science, which was at once seen in the work of Francis Bacon, is too important to be discussed in a few lines. We must, however, note here that the critical spirit, which is the essence of science and of all discovery of truth, was at once aroused by the classical Renaissance. The Italian critic Lorenzo Valla, in fact, better deserves a place in the memory of our age than most of the monarchs and Popes of the Middle Ages. A fierce critic of Scholasticism, an avowed follower of Epicurus, he was the first man in Christendom to examine fearlessly the bases of the Papal power and expose the forgeries. In 1440 he published a short study of the supposed Donation of Constantine which opened the eyes of many to the real character of the Papacy, and he was the first to apply criticism to the New Testament. Naturally, the Inquisition sought to make his acquaintance, and he earned the protection of the Popes by abjuring his wicked habit of telling the truth and devoting his genius to such innocent subjects as “Elegancies of the Latin Tongue.” A century later the power of the Vatican was shattered over half of Europe, and a complete edition of Valla’s works helped to lay the foundation of modern critical history.
Geographical circumstances account for the original development of civilization, not in what we call the Great White Race, but in Crete, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The same geographical circumstances explain the Rebirth of civilization in Italy, as we have already explained. Germany had had its hour of hope under Charlemagne, and its period of achievement when it developed the Romanesque architecture. France had had a promising civilization, inspired by the Moors, in its southern provinces, had taken the lead in the revival of schools, and had given the world the Gothic architecture. But religious reaction and political vicissitudes had brought these efforts to an end, and it was the breathing of the spirit of the old world, through Moors and Byzantines, upon the nearest country, Italy, that effected the real and lasting awakening.
From Italy “the new learning” naturally passed at once to France, and as early as 1458 Greeks were teaching Greek in Paris University. The French, like the Spaniards and Rumanians, flatter themselves that they are a Latin nation — strange how persistently Christian nations have claimed affinity with the wicked old pagan civilization — and they had a temperamental inclination to a classical revival. In the south, moreover, they had, like Italy, beautiful and impressive remains of Roman days. In point of historical fact, the Renaissance did not at once conquer France. Until the French invaded southern Italy in 1494 there was little effect of the revival except a group of students of Greek literature.
After 1500 the new spirit gained ground. From the court downward manners were refined, and from the university downward education was reformed. Men of great and real learning like Scaliger and Casaubon arose; Rabelais put his remarkable erudition and his skeptical and stimulating ideas in a form which appealed to the lingering grossness of Christian taste; and at length Montaigne (1532-92) formulated the new spirit with an elegance and sobriety of taste which commended it to all who could read. The great age of Richelieu and the Academy, of Moliere (a complete skeptic), Racine, and Corneille soon followed, and prepared the way for Voltaire and Rousseau.
But Paris rendered one early service for which it thought nothing at the time, It taught Erasmus Greek. Erasmus, the man who “laid the egg which Luther hatched,” did more than any other single Humanist to spread and deepen the influence of the Renaissance. A traveler in Spain in 1527 found in almost every country inn in that reactionary land a translation of the “Encheiridion” (or moral treatise) of Erasmus. Another and bolder work of his, the “Colloquia,” was brought under the grave consideration of the Sorbonne at Paris, and it was expected that it would be condemned. A Paris printer hastily brought out and distributed an edition of twenty-four thousand copies of it; and this, even in our time, is a larger circulation than a serious work of any price could hope to attain. It is a measure of what the modern world owes to Erasmus, and should be carefully considered by those who, not living in the days of the Inquisition, lightly blame him for not joining the Reformers or even heading a pronounced Rationalist movement. His works were eagerly read all over Europe, and had a remarkable influence in spreading the critical and humanitarian spirit.
Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutchman, born in Rotterdam in 1467, the illegitimate son of a doctor’s daughter. Gheraerd was his father’s name, which he Latinized as Erasmus. He became a monk, for the convenience of his guardians, and had a wicked eye on monks ever afterwards. “They are called fathers,” he says of the friars, “and they often are.” He became a priest and went to study theology and Greek at Paris and in Italy. His wit and brilliant talent opened every door to him, but he migrated to England, where he gave powerful assistance to the little group of Humanists, and pointed the true moral of the new learning by publishing his “Encomium Moriae” (Praise of Folly), a mirror of the folly of Christendom in tolerating such priests and Popes as it had. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in southern Germany, where his works did much to prepare the way for the Reformation.
Known in four countries, indeed in the whole of civilized Europe, as the most brilliant man of his time, Erasmus had a thousand readers for the reader of any other serious writer of the seventeenth century. And he did not hesitate to season his work with, not only his pungent wit, but passages which show how entirely free his mind was. His most effective work was his “Colloquia” (Conversations), a familiar and mirthful indictment of the religious comedy of Christendom. It is, says a recent writer, “a masterpiece,” but “disfigured by lewd and unchaste passages.” That was why Christians read it in the tens of thousands, and had their eyes opened. It was condemned by the Sorbonne, and burned in Spain, not for its “lewdness,” but for its scorching exposure of religion. Erasmus knew that the world was not ripe for a powerful movement on the lines of his own intimate ideas, and be remained a nominal Christian, stimulating people to think by attacking plain abuses. He refused, when pressed, to join Luther precisely because he did not believe the Christianity of Luther any more than the Christianity of Thomas Aquinas. He did a mighty work for modernism, and that is enough for us.
In Germany the work of the Renaissance was brief because it was soon lost in the roar and chaos of the Reformation. Erasmus was not the first to teach Greek and translate Greek books there. Johann Maller and Rudolph Agricola had been to Italy to study Greek early in the sixteenth century, and they prepared the way for Erasmus in Germany. Johann Reuchlin, the first great German Humanist, studied Greek at Paris and in Italy, and he revived the study of Hebrew (hitherto almost confined to the rabbis) which would in time, in a freer age, inspire the beginning of biblical criticism. Reuchlin was summoned before the Inquisition at Cologne, a dense center of reaction, and although a representative of the Pope saved him, the friars persevered and induced Rome later to condemn him. He inspired Melanchthon and worked with Ulrich von Hutten. But there was formidable opposition in Germany to the Renaissance.
In England the service of the classical Renaissance in guiding and confirming a native development, or broader Renaissance, is particularly clear. Early in the days of Humanism a few English scholars had gone to Italy to study Greek. They were “monks of Canterbury,” and on their return they taught at Canterbury. The news slowly spread, and Oxford University, and later Cambridge University, started chairs of Greek. Erasmus went to England first in 1498, and he taught there from 1510 to 1513. He does not say so, but the heavy piety of the English Hellenists — one hesitates to call them Humanists — cannot have been entirely to his taste. It was a church group. Grocyn was a conservative Doctor of Divinity. Colet was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and an early Protestant in his zeal for pure and primitive Christianity. Linacre was a royal physician, but ended his days as a priest. Sir Thomas More, the wit and scholar and Utopianist, was the only real Humanist; and he must have astonished, if not pained, Erasmus by eventually suffering the removal of his head for the Catholic faith.
Even in the sixteenth century, says Sir Richard Jebb, “Britain produced no scholar of the first rank,” and “the British press sent forth few books which advanced Greek or Latin learning.” A painful confession for an academic Englishman, but, as all the world knows, England produced something of infinitely greater value than commentaries on Tacitus or new editions of Ovid. It not only reformed education in the classical sense, and produced some great early educators, but it gave birth to Shakespeare and the Elizabethan drama, to Francis Bacon and the new zeal for science, to a literature which would not shrink, as the Italian did, but remain fertile in great productions down to the nineteenth century. It adopted the classic model in architecture, started a new school of painting, joined with great effect in the conquest of the seas, brought about a general refinement of manners (compared with the Middle Ages), and founded “the Mother of Parliaments.”
That in all this we have to see the quickening of a native development by putting into it the ferment of the classical spirit needs no proof. Shakespeare teems with evidence. Even his early comedies are inspired by Plautus and the Italian imitators of Plautus, his tragedies often turn to pagan themes, and his language is one of the most singular mixtures of exquisite imagery in pure English and long Latin words which many of his hearers can hardly have understood. Francis Bacon is heavily indebted to early Greek science. Thomas More is equally indebted to Plato.
The political and economic conditions were at the time favoring a revival of civilization in England, but the effect of the Renaissance, in the narrower sense, is obvious. Men caught its spirit even when they ignored its scholarship. The standard of conduct remained gross, both before and after the Reformation. The life of the mass of the people — “the clowns,” in Shakespearean language was so coarse and stupid that we can hardly imagine it. The idea that Elizabethan days had more sexual license than earlier days can only occur to people who do not know the Middle Ages. But this freedom, as I said in speaking of Christendom generally, became more deliberate and respectable. It was not a sneaking infringement of a divine law. Man had a sense of mastery. Life and love were his possessions. The soft touch of silk, the perfume of flowers, the thrill of happy music and dancing, the flash of gold and jewels, were good things; and if they did quicken the pulse, well … Men were not yet quite clear how they stood with the Almighty in such matters, but they were vaguely asserting that human right to all knowledge, power, and pleasure, which our age is at length formulating in incontrovertible terms.