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astonishing similarities, particularly in the terseness of the style and the depth of worldly wisdom which they display. For Bacon also was an ironic observer of men and manners, who sought to express the wisdom of a lifetime in apothegms.
The essay as the written word made its earliest appearance not as a single effort, but as a passage interpolated in a larger work, as a reflection, or side remark, of the author upon the events which he has been narrating Instances of this may be found in all the Greek or Roman historians. Many of the speeches which Thucydides attributes to his orators if divorced from their setting and given a title, such as, "On Patriotism," "On a Soldier's Death," etc., would be excellent essays. Pericles' speech at the funeral of the Athenians who fell in the first campaign of the Peloponnesian War might well pass for a modern essay, entitled, “The Athenian Ideal.” “We aim," Thucydides makes him say, “at a life beautiful without extravagance, and contemplative without unmanliness; wealth is in our eyes a thing not for ostentation, but for reasonable use; and it is not the acknowledgment of poverty we think disgraceful, but the want of endeavour to avoid it.” In this and many similar passages we have a form of literature that suggests the essay while preserving the unmistakable note of oratory
Gradually, however, we find this oratorical note declining, in the degree that the essay vindicates itself as a separate and recognised form of literary expression, until in Cicero we come to the greatest of ancient essayists. We have already seen (vide Great English Letter-Writers, vol. i, p. 14) that Cicero was a pioneer in the art of letter-writing, who set the standard of form and excellence for all future ages. As an essayist his work is even more remarkable. His De Amicitia, De Senectute, De Officiis, De Finibus, and
De Natura Deorum are productions so admirable in style and so perfect in method that they created the pattern which all succeeding generations of scholars have sought to emulate and imitate. But the day was yet far distant when the essay and the oration were to be finally separated. During the medieval period of European history the extreme costliness of books made oral instruction the only available method of literary publication for the vast majority of men. It must be remembered also that culture was very largely confined to ecclesiastics, who naturally found the spoken word the most convenient vehicle for imparting ideas. One of the few blessings which Christendom derived from the Crusades was the creation of universities throughout Europe. A new passion for learning, a mediæval renaissance, sprang up in the West as a direct result of its contact with the wisdom of the East. The natural mother and protector of this movement was the Church; she alone of all feudal institutions had created and preserved cloisters and quiet places in the midst of baronial contentions, where men might seek other than material gains, and have the “ leisure to grow wise, the shelter to grow ripe." Such men were Lanfranc, and Anselm, his pupil and successor at the Abbey of Bec. Such an
one was Abelard, the most famous teacher of his generation, the mere whisper of whose name stirred the pulse of intellectual Europe, and made Paris for a brief space as conspicuous a seat of wisdom as Bologna, the most renowned of all medieval universities.
It is extremely interesting to remark this vast influence which the Church has exercised on the growth of literature, and the more so because the more common temper has been to fix the attention upon certain instances in which the Church displayed hostility to new knowledge. The general
reprehension of these errors ought not to blind us to the fact that throughout the mediæval period the Church was not only the generous and almost sole patron of art, but was equally the foster-mother of literature. Learning lived in monasteries, and the universities which presently sprang up beside the monasteries were themselves ecclesiastical institutions. The same hand which dispensed the bread of eternal life held in jealous custody the pearl of earthly wisdom; within the same walls the priest practised the mysteries of his religion and inculcated the rudiments of literature; and to these centres of "light and leading” the whole studious youth of Europe flocked. That same noble curiosity and spirit of inquiry into the traditions of mankind which had hurried Christendom across the breadth of a continent, armed and militant, sceptical or penitent, to the sepulchre of its Lord, now crowded the highways and the forests with thousands of eager students, who had forsaken all at the sound of the whispered fame of some far-distant scholar. The romance and hardship of this strange quest are both undeniable. In a day when society was sharply territorialised, and any man found beyond the boundaries of his own district without authentic credentials was regarded as a possible criminal, the Church alone stood for a larger and more liberal cosmogony. Feudal law presented a thousand hindrances to the poor scholar. He often had to beg his way from city to city. His sole defence against interference and exaction was a letter given him by the chancellor of a university, proving his identity, and differentiating him from the ordinary beggar, who was regarded as a criminal. One of the enactments regulating the student's status in England as distinct from the beggar's reads "and that the scholars of the universities that go so begging have letters of testimonial of their chancellor upon the same
"pain"_i.e., the penalty inflicted on the vagrant. Books the student could rarely possess, for this was a day when, as Carlyle says, “a man, for a single book, had to give an estate of land.” But his destitution of books was atoned for by the eloquence and learning of a great race of scholars, who made the spoken word the vehicle for every form of literary expression.
It will be readily perceived that the lectures of these mediæval teachers must have borne a strong resemblance to the essay, and were indeed spoken essays. The teachers themselves belonged for the most part to some religious order; they were preachers, and their utterances naturally bore the stamp of the sermonic mind. Here, again, is a point in the history of the essay which is worthy of careful note. If we find that the essay is still sermonic in form, that it is in the nature of a secular homily or dissertation, the reason is obvious; the essay in its European development has been closely associated with the pulpit. Had books been never so accessible in mediæval times, they would have been of no value to the bulk of society, among whom very few could read or write. The man was the authority, not the book, and the clerk with his sermon in the neighbouring church was the utmost culture which most men could either attain or afford. It must be remembered, also, that the mediæval sermon was a creation of much more generous proportions than the pulpit discourse of our own day. It was a medium of singular elasticity, and capable of the widest variation. The scholar delivered a learned disquisition, seeking to reconcile the teachings of some great pagan like Aristotle with the teachings of Christ. The enthusiast uttered an impassioned appeal, rebuking men for their sins, and calling on them to repent. The com
1 12. Rich. II, cap. vii.
fortable parish priest or jolly travelling friar,' anxious to gain the good-will of his hearers, that he might be the more generously entertained, often told a short story, relating some fanciful legend, or described some scandalous temptation of the Saints, the whole wittily touched and virile with broad humour. Sometimes the discourse was in reality a racy fable, rich in local allusion, and excusable only by
1 The Friars first landed in England in 1221. The two most important orders were the Black Friars of Dominic and the Gray Friars of Francis. They were pledged to perpetual poverty, that so they might live more close to the common people. They often chose the site of their homes among the lepers. At London they established themselves in the noisome shambles of Newgate; at Oxford on the swampy land between the Thames and the city's walls. As time went on, their outward profession of poverty made them a conspicuous object of munificent benefaction, enabling them to acquire wealth; riches led to frequent hypocrisy. Thus we find Chaucer portraying the Friar of his day as a fore-runner of Falstaff, clad in a disguise of religion:
“A Frere ther was, a wantoun and a merye
Ful sweetly herde he confessioun,
He knew wel the tavernes in every toun,
And every ostiller or gay tapstere.” Such an one was the teller of the ribald jest and scandalous legend at street-corners, in the market-place, and in church portals; he was the forerunner of the short-story essayist. But others there were, more important and more typical of their order; the John Bulls of history, who, out of a full knowledge of the misery of the villeins, had grown fanatic and preached with indignant compassion a social message. These honourably belong to the class of originators of the spoken impassioned essay. (For a fuller treatment of this subject, vide Part III. of J. J. Jusserand's masterly book on English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages.)