ePub 版

unknown waters. In 1492 Columbus discovered America; and six years later Vasca da Gama, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, sailed across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta. Voyages of discovery followed in rapid succession, new continents were added to the map, and the general store of knowledge was greatly increased.

The greatest event in history since the advent of Christ is the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was essentially a religious movement which sought to correct the errors in doctrine and practice that had crept into the church and long given rise to deep dissatisfaction. In connection with the co-operating influences spoken of in the preceding paragraphs, the Reformation began a new stage in human progress, marking the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era. There is scarcely an important interest that it did not touch.

It secured greater purity and spirituality in religion, contributed much to the elevation of the laity and the advancement of woman, confirmed the separation of the secular and the ecclesiastical power, established the right of liberty of conscience, gave an extraordinary impulse to literature and science, and, in a word, promoted all that distinguishes and ennobles our modern civilization.

When the reformatory movement, which began with Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, extended to England, it found a receptive soil. Traditions of Wycliffe still survived; the new learning was friendly to reform; and men of high civil and ecclesiastical rank had inveighed against existing abuses. Though Henry VIII. at first remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church, and even wrote. a book against the German reformer, he afterwards, for personal and selfish reasons, withdrew his support, and

encouraged the reformatory work of his ministers and of Parliament. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed, by which the king was made the supreme head of the Church of England, and empowered to "repress and amend all such errors and heresies as, by any manner of spiritual jurisdiction, might and ought to be lawfully reformed."

Without attempting to trace the general effects of the Reformation in England - a factor that enters with a moulding influence into all the subsequent history of the country some of its immediate results upon English literature are briefly indicated. In 1526 Tyndale published his translation of the New Testament, which was followed soon afterwards by other portions of the Bible. Nearly every year, for half a century, saw a new edition issue from the press. Tyndale's translation was made with great ability, and served as the basis of subsequent versions until, in 1611, King James's version, embodying all the excellences of previous efforts, gained general accept


The Scriptures in English were seized upon with great avidity by the common people. The results were farreaching and salutary. The study of the Bible stimulated mental activity; its precepts ennobled character and governed conduct; its language improved the common speech; and its treasures of history and poetry added to the popular intelligence. It gave an impulse to general education; and it became at once, what it has since remained, the occasion of high scholarship and of a considerable body of literature. Latimer, whose vigorous sermons advanced the cause of the Reformation in different parts of England, is a type of the unbroken line of able preachers whose influence since upon the social, moral, and

intellectual life of the English people cannot be estimated. Religious services were conducted in English; and in 1549 the "Book of Common Prayer," which has been absorbed into the life of succeeding generations, was published, and its use, to the exclusion of all other forms, prescribed by law.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, the fortunes of England were at a low ebb. The people were exasperated by Mary's misgovernment and persecution, and the bitter animosity between Protestants and Catholics was apparently beyond reconciliation. Humiliated by defeat in France, the country was threatened with invasion. There was neither army nor navy. "If God start not forth to the helm," wrote the Council in an appeal to the country, "we be at the point of greatest misery that can happen to any people, which is to become thrall to a foreign nation." By the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the dauphin of France, Scotland became a new menace. These were some of the difficulties Elizabeth encountered on assuming the sovereignty. In dealing with them she showed extraordinary courage and wisdom; and in a long reign of forty-five years, she raised England to the front rank among European nations, and awakened in the English people an aggressive and dauntless spirit.

As a woman, the character of Elizabeth is far from admirable. She was vain, coarse, haughty, vindictive, profane, mendacious. But as a queen, she in large measure justified the esteem in which she has been generally held. She was earnest, prudent, far-seeing, wise, and, above all, unselfishly devoted to the interests of her realm. She surrounded herself with able counsellors; and, as a

rule, her administration was characterized by a spirit of moderation. She extinguished the fires of persecution that had been lighted under Mary; and, though exacting outward conformity to the established religion, she made no inquisition into the private opinions of her people.

England gradually became Protestant in spirit, and the head of the Protestant movement in Europe. The successive dangers arising from fanatical conspiracies were happily averted. The papal bull of excommunication, which absolved the English people from their allegiance to the queen, came to nothing; the Jesuit emissaries. failed in their attempt to incite a revolt; and finally the combined efforts of the Papacy and of Spain to subdue England and re-establish Catholicism by force were frustrated by the destruction of the Armada. With these triumphs over foes at home and abroad, England acquired a new self-respect and confidence, and entered upon her career of maritime and commercial pre-eminence.

In spite of the difficulties and dangers belonging to the earlier years of Elizabeth's reign, the interests of the people were wisely cared for. When coming into conflict with Parliament, the queen gracefully surrendered her despotic tendencies. She abolished monopolies, which had abused their privileges and become oppressive. Salutary laws were passed for the employment of the mendicant classes, which the cruel policy of preceding reigns had left as a residuum of discontent and menace to the


The condition of the middle class was greatly improved. Better methods of tilling the soil gave a new impetus to agriculture. The growth of manufactures was rapid. Instead of sending her fleeces to Holland,

[ocr errors]

England developed every department of woollen manufacture. The mineral products of the country-iron, coal, tin were increased. With the wars in the Netherlands, which destroyed for a time the trade of Antwerp and Bruges, London became the commercial centre of Europe. At her wharves were found the gold and sugar of the New World, the cotton of India, and the silk of the East. English vessels made their way everywhere -catching cod at Newfoundland, seeking new trade centres in the Baltic, and extending commerce in the Mediter


This activity in agriculture, manufacture, and commerce brought wealth and comfort. The dwellings were improved. Carpets took the place of rushes; the introduction of chimneys brought the pleasures of the fireside; gloomy castles, built for military strength, gave place to elegant palaces, surrounded by Italian gardens. Grammar schools and colleges were established; and the printingpress, freely used for the promulgation and defence of facts and opinions, advanced the general intelligence. A learned woman herself, Elizabeth lent her influence and that of her court to the cause of letters. While the dungeon and the stake were crushing out intellectual freedom in Italy and Spain; while France was distracted by internal religious dissension; while foreign oppression was destroying the trade of the Netherlands, England, under the prosperous reign of Elizabeth, was constantly gaining in wealth, intelligence, and power.

These outward conditions could not fail to have an influence upon the thought and feeling of the English nation, and to manifest themselves in the literary productions of the time. The proud success achieved by England in

« 上一頁繼續 »