In periods like the present, when knowledge is every day extending, and the habits and thoughts of mankind are perpetually changing under the influence of new discoveries, it is no easy matter to throw ourselves back into a time in which for centuries the European world grew upon a single type, in which the forms of the father’s thoughts were the forms of the son’s, and the late descendant was occupied in treading into paths the footprints of his distant ancestors. So absolutely has change become the law of our present condition, that it is identified with energy and moral health; to cease to change is to lose place in the great race; and to pass away from off the earth with the same convictions which we found when we entered it, is to have missed the best object for which we now seem to exist.
It has been, however, with the race of men as it has been with the planet which they inhabit. As we look back over history, we see times of change and progress alternating with other times when life and thought have settled into permanent forms; when mankind, as if by common consent, have ceased to seek for increase of knowledge, and, contented with what they possess, have endeavoured to make use of it for purposes of moral cultivation. Such was the condition of the Greeks through many ages before the Persian war; such was that of the Romans till the world revenged itself upon its conquerors by the introduction among them of the habits of the conquered; and such again became the condition of Europe when the Northern nations grafted the religion and the laws of the Western empire on their own hardy natures, and shaped out that wonderful spiritual and political organisation which remained unshaken for a thousand years.
The aspirant after sanctity in the fifteenth century of the Christian era found a model which he could imitate in detail in the saint of the fifth. The gentleman at the court of Edward IV. or Charles of Burgundy could imagine no nobler type of heroism than he found in the stories of King Arthur’s knights. The forms of life had become more elaborate—the surface of it more polished—but the life itself remained essentially the same; it was the development of the same conception of human excellence; just as the last orders of Gothic architecture were the development of the first, from which the idea had worked its way till the force of it was exhausted.
A condition of things differing alike both outwardly and inwardly from that into which a happier fortune has introduced ourselves, is necessarily obscure to us. In the alteration of our own character, we have lost the key which would interpret the characters of our fathers, and the great men even of our own English history before the Reformation seem to us almost like the fossil skeletons of another order of beings. Some broad conclusions as to what they were are at least possible to us, however; and we are able to determine, with tolerable certainty, the social condition of the people of this country, such as it was before the movements of the sixteenth century, and during the process of those movements.