R ENAISSANCE means rebirth, and to make you understand something of what the word means in our literature I must take you a long way. You have been told that the fifteenth century was a dull time in English literature, but that it was also a time of new action and new life, for the discovery of new worlds and the discovery of printing had opened men's eyes and minds to new wonders. There was a third event which added to this new life by bringing new thought and new learning to England. That was the taking of Constantinople by the Turks.
It seems difficult to understand how the taking of Constantinople could have any effect on our literature. I will try to explain, but in order to do so clearly I must go back to the time of the Romans.
All of you have read English history, and there you read of the
Romans. You know what a clever and conquering people they were,
and how they subdued all the wild tribes who lived in the
countries around them. Besides conquering all the barbarians
around them, the Romans conquered another people who were not
barbarians, but who were in some ways more civilized than
themselves. These were the Greeks. They had a great literature,
they were more learned and quite as skilled in the arts of peace
as the Romans. Yet in
Nearly five hundred years later there sat upon the
Emperor named Constantine. And he, although Rome was still
pagan, became a Christian. He was, besides, a great and powerful
ruler. His court was brilliant, glittering with all the golden
splendor of those
In those days the boundaries of Greece stretched far further than they do now, and it was upon the shores of the Bosphorus that Constantine built his new capital. There was already an ancient town there named Byzantium, but he transformed it into a new and splendid city. The Emperor willed it to be called New Rome, but instead the people called it the city of Constantine, and we know it now as Constantinople.
When Constantinople was founded it was a Roman city. All the rulers were Roman, all the high posts were filled by Romans, and Latin was the speech of the people. But in Constantinople it happened as it had happened in England after the Conquest. In England, for a time after the Conquest, the rulers were French and the language was French, but gradually all that passed away, and the language and the rulers became English once more. So it was in Constantinople. By degrees it became a Greek city, the rulers became Greek, and Greek was the language spoken.
In building a second capital Constantine had weakened his Empire. Soon it was split in two, and there arose a western and an eastern Empire. As time went on the Western Empire with Rome at its head declined and fell, while the Eastern Empire with Constantinople as its capital grew great. But it grew into a Greek Empire. Even very clever people cannot tell the exact date at which the Roman Empire came to an end and the Greek or Byzantine Empire, as it is called, began. So we need not trouble about that. All that is needful for us to understand now is that Constantinople was a Christian city, a Greek city, and a treasure-house of Greek learning and literature.
Thus Constantinople was the Christian outpost of Europe. For hundreds of years the Byzantine Empire stood as a barrier against the Saracen hosts of Asia. It might have stood still longer, but sad to say, this barrier was first broken down by the Christians themselves. For in 1204 the armies of the fourth Crusade, which had gathered to fight the heathen, turned their swords, to their shame be it said, against the Christian people of the Greek Empire. Constantinople was taken, plundered, and destroyed by these "pious brigands," and the last of the Byzantine Emperors was first blinded and then flung from a high tower, so that his body fell shattered to pieces on the paving-stones of his own capital.
Baldwin, Count of Flanders, one of the great leaders of the Crusade, was then crowned by his followers and acknowledged Emperor of the East. But the once great Empire was now broken up, and out of it three lesser Empires, as well as many smaller states, were formed.
Baldwin did not long rule as Emperor of the East, and the Greeks after a time succeeded in regaining Constantinople from the western Christians. But although for nearly two hundred years longer they kept it, the Empire was dying and lifeless. And by degrees, as the power of Greece grew less, the power of Turkey grew greater. At length in 1453 the Sultan Mohammed II attacked Constantinople. Then the Cross, which for a thousand years and more had stood upon the ramparts of Christendom, went down before the Crescent.
Constantine XI, the last of the Greek Emperors, knelt in the great church of St. Sophia to receive for the last time the Holy Sacrament. Then mounting his horse he rode forth to battle. Fighting for his kingdom and his faith he fell, and over his dead body the young Sultan and his soldiers rode into the ruined city. Then in the church, where but a few hours before the fallen Emperor had knelt and prayed to Christ, the Sultan bowed himself in thanks and praise to Allah and Mohammed.
And now we come to the point where the taking of Constantinople and the fall of the Greek Empire touches our literature.
In Constantinople the ancient learning and literature of the Greeks had lived on year after year. The city was full of scholars who knew, and loved, and studied the Greek authors. But now, before the terror of the Turk, driven forth by the fear of slavery and disgrace, these Greek scholars fled. They fled to Italy. And although in their flight they had to leave goods and wealth behind, they came laden with precious manuscripts from the libraries of Constantinople.
These fugitive Greeks brought to the Italians a learning which was to them new and strange. Soon all over Europe the news of the New Learning spread. Then across the Alps scholars thronged from every country in Europe to listen and to learn.
I do not think I can quite make you understand what this New Learning was. It was indeed but the old learning of Greece. Yet there was in it something that can never grow old, for it was human. It made men turn away from idle dreaming and begin to learn that the world we live in is real. They began to realize that there was something more than a past and a future. There was the present. So, instead of giving all their time to vague wonderings of what might be, of what never had been, and what never could be, they began to take an interest in life as it was and in man as he was. They began to see that human life with all its joys and sorrows was, after all, the most interesting thing to man.
It was a New Birth, and men called it so. For that is the meaning of Renaissance. Many things besides the fall of Constantinople helped towards this New Birth. The discovery of new worlds by daring sailors like Columbus and Cabot, and the discovery of printing were among them. But the touchstone of the New Learning was the knowledge of Greek, which had been to the greater part of Europe a lost tongue. On this side of the Alps there was not a school or college in which it could be learned. So to Italy, where the Greek scholars had found a refuge, those who wished to learn flocked.
Among them were some Oxford scholars. Chief of these were three, whose names you will learn to know well when you come to read more about this time. They were William Grocyn, "the most upright and best of all Britons," Thomas Linacre, and John Colet. These men, returning from Italy full of the New Learning, began to teach Greek at Oxford. And it is strange now to think that there were many then who were bitterly against such teaching. The students even formed themselves into two parties, for and against. They were called Greeks and Trojans, and between these two parties many a fierce fight took place, for the quarrel did not end in words, but often in blows.
The New Learning, however, conquered. And so keenly did men feel the human interests of such things as were now taught, that we have come to call grammar, rhetoric, poetry, Greek and Latin the Humanities, and the professor who teaches these things the professor of Humanity.