[Illustration: HENRY VIII. GIVING BIBLES TO CLERGY AND LAITY. From frontispiece to Coverdale Bible.]
While this period did not produce a single great poet or a statesman of the first rank, it witnessed the destruction of the majority of the nobility in the Wars of the Roses, the increase of the king’s power, the decline of feudalism, the final overthrow of the knight by the yeoman with his long bow at Agincourt(1415), the freedom of the serf, and the growth of manufactures, especially of wool. English trading vessels began to displace even the ships of Venice.
In spite of the religious persecution with which the period began and ended, there was a remarkable change in religious belief, the dissolution of the monasteries and the subordination of church to state being striking evidences of this change. An event that had far-reaching consequences on literature and life was the act of Henry VIII. in ordering a translation of the Bible to be placed in every parish church in England. The death of Mary may in a measure be said to indicate the beginning of modern times.
Contrast between the Spirit of the Renaissance and of the Middle Ages.—One of the most important intellectual movements of the world is known as the Renaissance or Revival of Learning. This movement began in Italy about the middle of the fourteenth century and spread slowly westward. While Chaucer’s travels in Italy; and his early contact with this new influence are reflected in his work, yet the Renaissance did not reach its zenith in England until the time of Shakespeare. This new epoch followed a long period, known as the Middle ages, when learning was mostly confined to the church, when thousands of the best minds retired to the cloisters, when many questions, like those of the revolution of the sun around the earth or the cause of disease, were determined, not by observation and scientific proof, but by the assertion of those in spiritual authority. Then, scientific investigators, like Roger Bacon, were thought to be in league with the devil and were thrown into prison. In 1258 Dante’s tutor visited Roger Bacon, and, after seeing his experiments with the mariner’s compass, wrote to an Italian friend:—
“This discovery so useful to all who travel by sea, must remain concealed until other times, because no mariner dare use it, lest he fall under imputation of being a magician, nor would sailors put to sea with one who carried an instrument so evidently constructed by the devil.”
Symonds says: “During the Middle Ages, man had lived enveloped in a cowl. He had not seen the beauty of the world, or had seen it only to cross himself and turn aside, to tell his beads and pray.” Before the Renaissance, the tendency was to regard with contempt mere questions of earthly progress and enjoyment, because they were considered unimportant in comparison with the eternal future of the soul. It was not believed that beauty, art, and literature might play a part in saving souls.