History of English Humour, Vol. 1 (of 2) eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 248 pages of information about History of English Humour, Vol. 1 (of 2).

ENGLISH HUMOUR.

CHAPTER I.

MIDDLE AGES.

Relapse of Civilization in the Middle Ages—­Stagnation of Mind—­Scarcity
  of Books—­Character of reviving Literature—­Religious
  Writings—­Fantastic Legends—­Influence of the Crusades—­Romances—­Sir
  Bevis of Hamptoun—­Prominence of the Lower Animals—­Allegories.

Those ancient philosophers who believed in a mundane year and a periodical repetition of the world’s history, would have found a remarkable corroboration of their theory in the retrogression of learning during the middle ages, and its subsequent gradual revival.  This re-birth contained all the leading characteristics of the original development of thought, although, amid the darkness, the torch handed down from the past afforded occasionally some flickering light.  The great cause of the disappearance of literature and civilization was, of course, the sword of the Goths, which made the rich countries of Southern Europe, a wilderness and desolation.  A lesser cause was the intolerance of the ecclesiastics, who, in their detestation of Pagan superstition and immorality endeavoured to destroy all classical writings which touched upon mythological subjects, or contained unseemly allusions.  But, although we regret its action in this respect, and the intellectual stagnation thus generally produced, we must admit that we are indebted to the Church for the preservation of many valuable works.  There were many men of learning in the monasteries, and some of sufficient enlightenment to be able to venerate the relics of Greek and Latin literature.  We find that in the East the works of Aristophanes were so much admired by St. Chrysostom that he slept with them under his pillow.  Perhaps the Saint enjoyed the reflections of the comedian upon the superstitions of his day, or he may have had a secret liking for the drama, and in one place he observes how much the world resembles a stage.  There seems to have been a conflict in his breast, as no doubt there was in many at the time, between love of the classics and religious scruples; he tells us that he dreamed one night that he was being whipped by the devil for reading Cicero.

We may observe that the Eastern world was not at this time in such a benighted state.  Theodosius the younger founded in A.D. 425, an academy and library at Constantinople, which, when it was destroyed by the Turks contained 120,000 volumes.  Nothing brings before us more forcibly the state of ignorance in which the Western world was now sunk than the scarcity of books.  The price of them in the middle ages was so great that a man who presented one to a monastery, thought he merited eternal salvation.  Documents were drawn up and duly signed when a book passed from one person to another—­and in the eighth century a library of 150 volumes was regarded as something magnificent.[33]

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History of English Humour, Vol. 1 (of 2) from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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