History of Literature






English literature

 

CONTENTS:

The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century

 


 



English literature

 


The early Middle English period
 

Lawamon
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Robert Mannyng
John of Salisbury
Walter Map

Richard Rolle
Walter Hilton
Julian of Norwich
Roger Bacon
William of Ockham

 

 



Poetry

The Norman Conquest worked no immediate transformation on either the language or the literature of the English. Older poetry continued to be copied during the last half of the 11th century; two poems of the early 12th century—Durham, which praises that city’s cathedral and its relics, and Instructions for Christians, a didactic piece—show that correct alliterative verse could be composed well after 1066. But even before the conquest, rhyme had begun to supplant rather than supplement alliteration in some poems, which continued to use the older four-stress line, although their rhythms varied from the set types used in classical Old English verse. A postconquest example is The Grave, which contains several rhyming lines; a poem from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of William the Conqueror, lamenting his cruelty and greed, has more rhyme than alliteration.
 



Influence of French poetry

By the end of the 12th century, English poetry had been so heavily influenced by French models that such a work as the long epic Brut (c. 1200) by Lawamon, a Worcestershire priest, seems archaic for mixing alliterative lines with rhyming couplets while generally eschewing French vocabulary. The Brut draws mainly upon Wace’s Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (1155; based in turn upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain]), but in Lawamon’s hands the Arthurian story takes on a Germanic and heroic flavour largely missing in Wace. The Brut exists in two manuscripts, one written shortly after 1200 and the other some 50 years later.
 


Lawamon

flourished 12th century

early Middle English poet, author of the romance-chronicle the Brut (c. 1200), one of the most notable English poems of the 12th century. It is the first work in English to treat of the “matter of Britain”—i.e., the legends surrounding Arthur and the knights of the Round Table—and was written at a time when English was nearly eclipsed by French and Latin as a literary language.

Lawamon describes himself as a priest living at Arley Kings in Worcestershire. His source was the Roman de Brut by Wace, an Anglo-Norman verse adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. In about 16,000 long alliterative lines (often broken into short couplets by rhyme), the Brut relates the legendary history of Britain from the landing of Brutus, great-grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, to the final Saxon victory over the Britons in 689. One-third of the poem deals with Arthurian matter, but Lawamon’s is not a high chivalric treatment: mass war is the staple, with Arthur the splendid war leader of Germanic tradition.
 

 

 


Geoffrey of Monmouth




died 1155

medieval English chronicler and bishop of St. Asaph (1152), whose major work, the Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), brought the figure of Arthur into European literature.

In three passages of the Historia Geoffrey describes himself as “Galfridus Monemutensis,” an indication that he probably came from Monmouth. Possibly of Breton descent, he appeared as witness to a number of documents in Oxford during the period 1129–51. Geoffrey alleges that the Historia was translated from a “very old book in the British tongue” brought by Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, from Brittany. This seems a pure fabrication, but it is clear that Geoffrey was for most of his life an Oxford cleric, closely connected with Walter and sharing with him a taste for letters. He may have been an Augustinian canon in the secular college of St. George, Oxford, of which Walter was provost.

The Historia regum Britanniae, published sometime between 1135 and 1139, was one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages, although its historical value is almost nil. The story begins with the settlement of Britain by Brutus the Trojan, great-grandson of Aeneas, and by the Trojan Corineus, the eponymous founder of Cornwall, who exterminate giants inhabiting Britain. Then follow the reigns of the early kings down to the Roman conquest; here are found such well-known episodes as those of Locrine and Sabrina, the founding of Bath by Bladud and of Leicester by Leir (Lear), and the division of Leir’s kingdom between the two ungrateful daughters. The story of the Saxon infiltration during the reign of the wicked usurper Vortigern, of the successful resistance of the Saxons by Vortimer, and of the restoration of the rightful line, followed by the great reigns of Aurelius and his brother Uther Pendragon, leads up to the account of Arthur’s conquests, the culminating point of the work. Chapters 106–111 introduce the enchanter Merlin, who predicts, in an obscure and apocalyptic manner, the future political history of Britain. These chapters were first published separately, before 1136, and dedicated to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. They gave rise to the genre of political prophecies attributed to Merlin. Probably between 1148 and 1151, Geoffrey produced a poem in ornate Latin hexameters, the Vita Merlini, which portrays a Merlin whose adventures are based on genuine Celtic material about a madman with a gift for divination.

Denounced from the first by sober historians, Geoffrey’s fictional history nevertheless had an enormous influence on later chroniclers. Romanticized versions in the vernacular, the so-called Bruts, were in circulation from about 1150. Writers of the later Middle Ages gave the material a wide currency; and indeed Geoffrey’s influence was at its greatest after the accession of the Tudors. The text, with an English translation, was published in 1929 by Acton Griscom and Robert Ellis Jones. J.J. Parry produced an edition of the Vita Merlini in 1925.
 


That the later version has been extensively modernized and somewhat abridged suggests the speed with which English language and literary tastes were changing in this period. The Proverbs of Alfred was written somewhat earlier, in the late 12th century; these proverbs deliver conventional wisdom in a mixture of rhymed couplets and alliterative lines, and it is hardly likely that any of the material they contain actually originated with the king whose wisdom they celebrate. The early 13th-century Bestiary mixes alliterative lines, three- and four-stress couplets, and septenary (heptameter) lines, but the logic behind this mix is more obvious than in the Brut and the Proverbs, for the poet was imitating the varied metres of his Latin source. More regular in form than these poems is the anonymous Poema morale in septenary couplets, in which an old man delivers a dose of moral advice to his presumably younger audience.

By far the most brilliant poem of this period is The Owl and the Nightingale (written after 1189), an example of the popular debate genre. The two birds argue topics ranging from their hygienic habits, looks, and songs to marriage, prognostication, and the proper modes of worship. The nightingale stands for the joyous aspects of life, the owl for the sombre; there is no clear winner, but the debate ends as the birds go off to state their cases to one Nicholas of Guildford, a wise man. The poem is learned in the clerical tradition but wears its learning lightly as the disputants speak in colloquial and sometimes earthy language. Like the Poema morale, The Owl and the Nightingale is metrically regular (octosyllabic couplets), but it uses the French metre with an assurance unusual in so early a poem.


Didactic poetry

The 13th century saw a rise in the popularity of long didactic poems presenting biblical narrative, saints’ lives, or moral instruction for those untutored in Latin or French. The most idiosyncratic of these is the Ormulum by Orm, an Augustinian canon in the north of England. Written in some 20,000 lines arranged in unrhymed but metrically rigid couplets, the work is interesting mainly in that the manuscript that preserves it is Orm’s autograph and shows his somewhat fussy efforts to reform and regularize English spelling. Other biblical paraphrases are Genesis and Exodus, Jacob and Joseph, and the vast Cursor mundi, whose subject, as its title suggests, is the history of the world. An especially popular work was the South English Legendary, which began as a miscellaneous collection of saints’ lives but was expanded by later redactors and rearranged in the order of the church calendar. The didactic tradition continued into the 14th century with Robert Mannyng’s Handling Sin, a confessional manual whose expected dryness is relieved by the insertion of lively narratives, and the Prick of Conscience, a popular summary of theology sometimes attributed to the mystic Richard Rolle.
 


Robert Mannyng



in full Robert Mannyng of Brunne

flourished c. 1330

early English poet and author of Handlyng Synne, a confessional manual, and of the chronicle Story of England. The works are preserved independently in several manuscripts, none of certain provenance.

The author is probably to be identified with a Sir Robert de Brunne, chaplain, named as executor in a Lincoln will of 1327; apart from this mention, his biography can be reconstructed only from his writings. He was at the University of Cambridge around 1300. For 15 years (c. 1302–c. 1317) Mannyng was a Gilbertine canon at Sempringham priory, Lincolnshire, where in 1303 he began Handlyng Synne and was still working at it after 1307. For many years he was engaged on the Story of England, which, he relates, was finished between 3 and 4 o’clock, on Friday, May 15, 1338.

Handlyng Synne is an adaptation in about 13,000 lines, in short couplets poorly versified, of the Manuel des Péchés (“Handbook of Sins”), which is usually ascribed to William of Waddington (or Widdington), an Englishman, probably a Yorkshireman, writing in Anglo-Norman between 1250 and 1270. Like Waddington, Mannyng aimed to provide a handbook intended to stimulate careful self-examination as preparation for confession.

Mannyng deals in turn with the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins and the sin of sacrilege, the seven sacraments, the 12 requisites of confession, and the 12 graces of confession. There is much direct instruction, exhortation, and didactic comment; each of the topics is illustrated by one or more tales. These exempla have sometimes been considered to provide the particular interest of the work. The whole work is designed for oral delivery. Mannyng’s merit as a storyteller lies in his apt management of material and in his lucid, direct narration. Otherwise the literary merits of Handlyng Synne are negligible, although its documentary value for social history is great. It illustrates clearly the attitudes and values of the English minor clergy and peasantry in the early 14th century; throughout there is much comment on the social, domestic, parochial, and commercial scene.

Of similar literary quality is Mannyng’s later work, the Story of England, but the basis of the Story of England is fiction. As history it is almost worthless. The work falls into two parts. The first tells the story from the biblical Noah to the death of the British king Caedwalla in 689. In the second part, he takes the story to the death of Edward I (1307).

Of particular interest is his incorporation of elements of popular romance, such as the story of Guy of Warwick’s encounter with the giant Colbrand, which he inserts into his account of Athelstan. He works into his narrative several topical songs, mainly on the Scottish wars of Edward I’s time.
 



Verse romance

The earliest examples of verse romance, a genre that would remain popular through the Middle Ages, appeared in the 13th century. King Horn and Floris and Blauncheflour both are preserved in a manuscript of about 1250. King Horn, oddly written in short two- and three-stress lines, is a vigorous tale of a kingdom lost and regained, with a subplot concerning Horn’s love for Princess Rymenhild. Floris and Blauncheflour is more exotic, being the tale of a pair of royal lovers who become separated and, after various adventures in eastern lands, reunited. Not much later than these is The Lay of Havelok the Dane, a tale of princely love and adventure similar to King Horn but more competently executed. Many more such romances were produced in the 14th century. Popular subgenres were “the matter of Britain” (Arthurian romances such as Of Arthour and of Merlin and Ywain and Gawain), “the matter of Troy” (tales of antiquity such as The Siege of Troy and King Alisaunder), and the English Breton lays (stories of otherworldly magic, such as Lai le Freine and Sir Orfeo, modeled after those of professional Breton storytellers). These relatively unsophisticated works were written for a bourgeois audience, and the manuscripts that preserve them are early examples of commercial book production. The humorous beast epic makes its first appearance in Britain in the 13th century with The Fox and the Wolf, taken indirectly from the Old French Roman de Renart. In the same manuscript with this work is Dame Sirith, the earliest English fabliau. Another sort of humour is found in The Land of Cockaygne, which depicts a utopia better than heaven, where rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.
 

The lyric

The lyric was virtually unknown to Old English poets. Poems such as Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer, which have been called lyrics, are thematically different from those that began to circulate orally in the 12th century and to be written down in great numbers in the 13th; these Old English poems also have a stronger narrative component than the later productions. The most frequent topics in the Middle English secular lyric are springtime and romantic love; many rework such themes tediously, but some, such as Foweles in the frith (13th century) and Ich am of Irlaunde (14th century), convey strong emotions in a few lines. Two lyrics of the early 13th century, Mirie it is while sumer ilast and Sumer is icumen in, are preserved with musical settings, and probably most of the others were meant to be sung. The dominant mood of the religious lyrics is passionate: the poets sorrow for Christ on the cross and for the Virgin Mary, celebrate the “five joys” of Mary, and import language from love poetry to express religious devotion. Excellent early examples are Nou goth sonne under wod and Stond wel, moder, ounder rode. Many of the lyrics are preserved in manuscript anthologies, of which the best is British Library manuscript Harley 2253 from the early 14th century. In this collection, known as the Harley Lyrics, the love poems, such as Alysoun and Blow, Northern Wind, take after the poems of the Provençal troubadours but are less formal, less abstract, and more lively. The religious lyrics also are of high quality; but the most remarkable of the Harley Lyrics, The Man in the Moon, far from being about love or religion, imagines the man in the Moon as a simple peasant, sympathizes with his hard life, and offers him some useful advice on how to best the village hayward (a local officer in charge of a town’s common herd of cattle).

A poem such as The Man in the Moon serves as a reminder that, although the poetry of the early Middle English period was increasingly influenced by the Anglo-Norman literature produced for the courts, it is seldom “courtly.” Most English poets, whether writing about kings or peasants, looked at life from a bourgeois perspective. If their work sometimes lacks sophistication, it nevertheless has a vitality that comes from preoccupation with daily affairs.

 


Prose Old English prose texts were copied for more than a century after the Norman Conquest; the homilies of Aelfric were especially popular, and King Alfred’s translations of Boethius and Augustine survive only in 12th-century manuscripts. In the early 13th century an anonymous worker at Worcester supplied glosses to certain words in a number of Old English manuscripts, which demonstrates that by this time the older language was beginning to pose difficulties for readers.

The composition of English prose also continued without interruption. Two manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exhibit very strong prose for years after the conquest, and one of these, the Peterborough Chronicle, continues to 1154. Two manuscripts of about 1200 contain 12th-century sermons, and another has the workmanlike compilation Vices and Virtues, composed about 1200. But the English language faced stiff competition from both Anglo-Norman (the insular dialect of French being used increasingly in the monasteries) and Latin, a language intelligible to speakers of both English and French. It was inevitable, then, that the production of English prose should decline in quantity, if not in quality. The great prose works of this period were composed mainly for those who could read only English—women especially. In the West Midlands the Old English alliterative prose tradition remained very much alive into the 13th century, when the several texts known collectively as the Katherine Group were written. St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. Juliana, found together in a single manuscript, have rhythms strongly reminiscent of those of Aelfric and Wulfstan. So to a lesser extent do Hali Meithhad (“Holy Maidenhood”) and Sawles Warde (“The Guardianship of the Soul”) from the same book, but newer influences can be seen in these works as well: as the title of another devotional piece, The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), suggests, the prose of this time often has a rapturous, even sensual flavour, and, like the poetry, it frequently employs the language of love to express religious fervour.

Further removed from the Old English prose tradition, though often associated with the Katherine Group, is the Ancrene Wisse (“Guide for Anchoresses,” also known as the Ancrene Riwle, or “Rule for Anchoresses”), a manual for the guidance of women recluses outside the regular orders. This anonymous work, which was translated into French and Latin and remained popular until the 16th century, is notable for its humanity, practicality, and insight into human nature but even more for its brilliant style. Like the other prose of its time, it uses alliteration as ornament, but it is more indebted to new fashions in preaching, which had originated in the universities, than to native traditions. With its richly figurative language, rhetorically crafted sentences, and carefully logical divisions and subdivisions, it manages to achieve in English the effects that such contemporary writers as John of Salisbury and Walter Map were striving for in Latin.

Little noteworthy prose was written in the late 13th century. In the early 14th century Dan Michel of Northgate produced in Kentish the Ayenbite of Inwit (“Prick of Conscience”), a translation from French. But the best prose of this time is by the mystic Richard Rolle, the hermit of Hampole, whose English tracts include The Commandment, Meditations on the Passion, and The Form of Perfect Living, among others. His intense and stylized prose was among the most popular of the 14th century and inspired such later works as Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, Julian of Norwich’s Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing.

Peter S. Baker

 


John of Salisbury



English scholar

born 1115/20, Salisbury, Wiltshire, Eng.
died Oct. 25, 1180, probably at Chartres, France

Main
one of the best Latinists of his age, who was secretary to Theobald and Thomas Becket, archbishops of Canterbury, and who became bishop of Chartres.

After 1135 he attended cathedral schools in France for 12 years and studied under Peter Abelard (1136). He was a clerk in Theobald’s household in 1148 and during the next five years was mainly employed by the archbishop on missions to the Roman Curia. His Historia pontificalis (c. 1163) gives a vivid description of the papal court during this period, partly through its character sketches. From 1153 John’s main duty was to draft the archbishopric’s official correspondence with the Curia, especially in connection with appeals. In the late summer of 1156 this activity angered King Henry II, who regarded him as a champion of ecclesiastical independence.

The crisis passed, but to some extent it influenced John’s two books, the Policraticus and the Metalogicon (both 1159), in which his general intention was to show his contemporaries that in their thought and actions they were defecting from the true task of humanity. His work represented a protest against the professional specialization slowly developing in royal and papal administration and in the universities. He unfavourably contrasted the way of life followed by courtiers and administrators with an ideal practice derived from Latin poets and from classical and patristic writers.

Out of favour with Henry, John was exiled to France (1163) shortly before Becket was exiled. From his refuge in the monastery of Saint-Rémi at Reims, John wrote many letters assessing the prospects of the Canterbury case. After the reconciliation of Henry and Becket, he returned to England (1170) and was in Canterbury Cathedral when Becket was assassinated (Dec. 29, 1170). Thereafter, John was occupied with collecting Becket’s correspondence and preparing a biographical introduction. He became bishop of Chartres in 1176 and took an active part in the third Lateran Council (March 1179). He was buried at Chartres.

 

 

 


Walter Map



born c. 1140, Hereford?, England
died c. 1209

English churchman and writer whose work helps to illuminate the society and religious issues of his era.

Probably of Welsh descent, Map studied at the University of Paris from about 1154 to 1160. He took holy orders and became a clerk in the household of Henry II, and he served the king as an itinerant judge and represented him at the third Lateran Council (1179). After holding various church positions, he became archdeacon of Oxford in 1197.

It was as a writer rather than an ecclesiastic, however, that Map came to be remembered. Between 1181 and 1192 he composed De nugis curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). A miscellany written in Latin, it contains legends, folklore, and tales as well as gossip, observations, and reflections, and it reveals the author to have been knowledgeable and shrewd and a man of considerable wit. Perhaps the best-known item is the letter from Valerius to Rufinus on the folly of marrying that is referred to in the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The book also includes valuable histories of Christian heretical sects of the period and of the Anglo-Norman kings. Other works once attributed to Map, including Arthurian romances and goliardic satires against the clergy, are no longer thought to be his work.
 

 

 


Richard Rolle



born c. 1300, Thornton, Yorkshire [now in North Yorkshire] Eng.
died Sept. 29, 1349, Hampole, Yorkshire [now in South Yorkshire]

English mystic and author of mystical and ascetic tracts.

Rolle attended the University of Oxford but, dissatisfied with the subjects of study and the disputatiousness there, left without a degree. He established himself as a hermit on the estate of John Dalton of Pickering, but he later moved to other hermitages and probably always led a wandering life, rousing some opposition but winning much admiration. He kept in touch with a number of religious communities in the north and seems to have become spiritual adviser to the nuns at Hampole, in south Yorkshire, before his death there.

Rolle’s importance lies in the devotional prose he composed in the vernacular for women readers. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish his writings from those of his followers and imitators. Those English or Latin epistles and treatises that have definitely been attributed to Rolle, however, reflect his fervent devotion and his emphasis on a rapturous mystical union with God. Throughout his writings the life of contemplation and solitude is exalted. Rolle’s writings in Latin are overly rhetorical, but his English prose style is lively, flexible, and persuasive. His influence and reputation lasted until the Protestant Reformation.
 





 

Walter Hilton, Scala Perfectionis, London 1533

 


Walter Hilton



born c. 1340
died March 24, 1396, Thurgarton Priory, Nottinghamshire, Eng.

devotional writer, one of the greatest English mystics of the 14th century.

Hilton studied at the University of Cambridge before becoming a hermit and later joined the Augustinians at Thurgarton Priory, where he remained for the rest of his life. His major work was The Scale [or Ladder] of Perfection, written separately in two books. The first teaches the means by which a soul may advance toward perfection by destroying the image of sin and forming the image of Christ through the practice of virtue. The second distinguishes between the active, ascetic life and the contemplative, mystical life and describes the early stages of mystical contemplation, apparently from Hilton’s own experience. Because of its sober and methodical character, The Scale became and remained a popular devotional classic through the 15th and early 16th centuries and is regarded as the finest treatise on contemplation written in the late European Middle Ages.
 

 

 


Julian of Norwich




born 1342, probably Norwich, Norfolk, Eng.
died after 1416

celebrated mystic whose Revelations of Divine Love (or Showings) is generally considered one of the most remarkable documents of medieval religious experience. She spent the latter part of her life as a recluse at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich.

On May 13, 1373, Julian was healed of a serious illness after experiencing a series of visions of Christ’s suffering and of the Blessed Virgin, about which she wrote two accounts; the second, longer version was composed 20 or 30 years after the first. Unparalleled in English religious literature, Revelations spans the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith—such as the problems of predestination, the foreknowledge of God, and the existence of evil. The clarity and depth of her perception, the precision and accuracy of her theological presentation, and the sincerity and beauty of her expression reveal a mind and personality of exceptional strength and charm. Never beatified, Julian is honoured on the unofficial feast day of May 13. A modern chapel in the Church of St. Julian has been dedicated to her memory. A critical edition in Middle English of both the short and long versions of her account is A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh in 2 vol. (1978); Colledge and Walsh also published an English translation, Showings, in the same year.
 

 

      
    
APPENDIX
 


Roger Bacon




English philosopher and scientist
byname Doctor Mirabilis (Latin: “Wonderful Teacher”)
born c. 1220, Ilchester, Somerset, or Bisley, Gloucester?, Eng.
died 1292, Oxford?

Main
English Franciscan philosopher and educational reformer who was a major medieval proponent of experimental science. Bacon studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages. He was the first European to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder, and he proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages. Bacon (as he himself complacently remarked) displayed a prodigious energy and zeal in the pursuit of experimental science; indeed, his studies were talked about everywhere and eventually won him a place in popular literature as a kind of wonder worker. Bacon therefore represents a historically precocious expression of the empirical spirit of experimental science, even though his actual practice of it seems to have been exaggerated.

Early life
Bacon was born into a wealthy family; he was well-versed in the classics and enjoyed the advantages of an early training in geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Inasmuch as he later lectured at Paris, it is probable that his master of arts degree was conferred there, presumably not before 1241—a date in keeping with his claim that he saw the Franciscan professor Alexander of Hales (who died in 1245) with his own eyes and that he heard the master scholar William of Auvergne (d. 1249) dispute twice in the presence of the whole university.


University and scientific career.
In the earlier part of his career, Bacon lectured in the faculty of arts on Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian treatises, displaying no indication of his later preoccupation with science. His Paris lectures, important in enabling scholars to form some idea of the work done by one who was a pioneer in introducing the works of Aristotle into western Europe, reveal an Aristotelianism strongly marked by Neoplatonist elements stemming from many different sources. The influence of Avicenna on Bacon has been exaggerated.

About 1247 a considerable change took place in Bacon’s intellectual development. From that date forward he expended much time and energy and huge sums of money in experimental research, in acquiring “secret” books, in the construction of instruments and of tables, in the training of assistants, and in seeking the friendship of savants—activities that marked a definite departure from the usual routine of the faculty of arts. The change was probably caused by his return to Oxford and the influence there of the great scholar Robert Grosseteste, a leader in introducing Greek learning to the West, and his student Adam de Marisco, as well as that of Thomas Wallensis, the bishop of St. David’s. From 1247 to 1257 Bacon devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cultivation of those new branches of learning to which he was introduced at Oxford—languages, optics, and alchemy—and to further studies in astronomy and mathematics. It is true that Bacon was more skeptical of hearsay claims than were his contemporaries, that he suspected rational deductions (holding to the superior dependability of confirming experiences), and that he extolled experimentation so ardently that he has often been viewed as a harbinger of modern science more than 300 years before it came to bloom. Yet research on Bacon suggests that his characterization as an experimenter may be overwrought. His originality lay not so much in any positive contribution to the sum of knowledge as in his insistence on fruitful lines of research and methods of experimental study. As for actual experiments performed, he deferred to a certain Master Peter de Maricourt (Maharn-Curia), a Picard, who alone, he wrote, understood the method of experiment and whom he called dominus experimentorum (“master of experiments”). Bacon, to be sure, did have a sort of laboratory for alchemical experiments and carried out some systematic observations with lenses and mirrors. His studies on the nature of light and on the rainbow are especially noteworthy, and he seems to have planned and interpreted these experiments carefully. But his most notable “experiments” seem never to have been actually performed; they were merely described. He suggested, for example, that a balloon of thin copper sheet be made and filled with “liquid fire”; he felt that it would float in the air as many light objects do in water. He seriously studied the problem of flying in a machine with flapping wings. He was the first person in the West to give exact directions for making gunpowder (1242); and, though he knew that, if confined, it would have great power and might be useful in war, he failed to speculate further. (Its use in guns arose early in the following century.) Bacon described spectacles (which also soon came into use); elucidated the principles of reflection, refraction, and spherical aberration; and proposed mechanically propelled ships and carriages. He used a camera obscura (which projects an image through a pinhole) to observe eclipses of the Sun.

Career as a friar.
In 1257 another marked change took place in Bacon’s life. Because of ill health and his entry into the Order of Friars Minor, Bacon felt (as he wrote) forgotten by everyone and all but buried. His university and literary careers seemed finished. His feverish activity, his amazing credulity, his superstition, and his vocal contempt for those not sharing his interests displeased his superiors in the order and brought him under severe discipline. He decided to appeal to Pope Clement IV, whom he may have known when the latter was (before his election to the papacy) in the service of the Capetian kings of France. In a letter (1266) the pope referred to letters received from Bacon, who had come forward with certain proposals covering the natural world, mathematics, languages, perspective, and astrology. Bacon had argued that a more accurate experimental knowledge of nature would be of great value in confirming the Christian faith, and he felt that his proposals would be of great importance for the welfare of the church and of the universities. The pope desired to become more fully informed of these projects and commanded Bacon to send him the work. But Bacon had had in mind a vast encyclopaedia of all the known sciences, requiring many collaborators, the organization and administration of which would be coordinated by a papal institute. The work, then, was merely projected when the pope thought that it already existed. In obedience to the pope’s command, however, Bacon set to work and in a remarkably short time had dispatched the Opus majus (“Great Work”), the Opus minus (“Lesser Work”), and the Opus tertium (“Third Work”). He had to do this secretly and notwithstanding any command of his superiors to the contrary; and even when the irregularity of his conduct attracted their attention and the terrible weapons of spiritual coercion were brought to bear upon him, he was deterred from explaining his position by the papal command of secrecy. Under the circumstances, his achievement was truly astounding. He reminded the pope that, like the leaders of the schools with their commentaries and scholarly summaries, he could have covered quires of vellum with “puerilities” and vain speculations. Instead, he aspired to penetrate realms undreamed of in the schools at Paris and to lay bare the secrets of nature by positive study. The Opus majus was an effort to persuade the pope of the urgent necessity and manifold utility of the reforms that he proposed. But the death of Clement in 1268 extinguished Bacon’s dreams of gaining for the sciences their rightful place in the curriculum of university studies.

Bacon projected yet another encyclopaedia, of which only fragments were ever published, namely, the Communia naturalium (“General Principles of Natural Philosophy”) and the Communia mathematica (“General Principles of Mathematical Science”), written about 1268. In 1272 there appeared the Compendium philosophiae (“Compendium of Philosophy”). In philosophy—and even Bacon’s so-called scientific works contain lengthy philosophical digressions—he was the disciple of Aristotle; even though he did incorporate Neoplatonist elements into his philosophy, his thought remains essentially Aristotelian in its main lines.

Sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was condemned to prison by his fellow Franciscans because of certain “suspected novelties” in his teaching. The condemnation was probably issued because of his bitter attacks on the theologians and scholars of his day, his excessive credulity in alchemy and astrology, and his penchant for millenarianism under the influence of the prophecies of Abbot Joachim of Fiore, a mystical philosopher of history. How long he was imprisoned is unknown. His last work (1292), incomplete as so many others, shows him as aggressive as ever.

The Rev. Theodore Crowley, O.F.M.

 

 
 


William of Ockham



English philosopher
also called William Ockham, Ockham also spelled Occam, byname Venerabilis Inceptor (Latin: “Venerable Enterpriser”), or Doctor Invincibilis (“Invincible Doctor”)

born c. 1285, Ockham, Surrey?, Eng.
died 1347/49, Munich, Bavaria [now in Germany]

Main
Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and political writer, a late scholastic thinker regarded as the founder of a form of nominalism—the school of thought that denies that universal concepts such as “father” have any reality apart from the individual things signified by the universal or general term.

Early life
Little is known of Ockham’s childhood. It seems that he was still a youngster when he entered the Franciscan order. At that time a central issue of concern in the order and a main topic of debate in the church was the interpretation of the rule of life composed by St. Francis of Assisi concerning the strictness of the poverty that should be practiced within the order. Ockham’s early schooling in a Franciscan convent concentrated on the study of logic; throughout his career, his interest in logic never waned, because he regarded the science of terms as fundamental and indispensable for practicing all the sciences of things, including God, the world, and ecclesiastical or civil institutions; in all his disputes logic was destined to serve as his chief weapon against adversaries.

After his early training, Ockham took the traditional course of theological studies at the University of Oxford and apparently between 1317 and 1319 lectured on the Sentences of Peter Lombard—a 12th-century theologian whose work was the official textbook of theology in the universities until the 16th century. His lectures were also set down in written commentaries, of which the commentary on Book I of the Sentences (a commentary known as Ordinatio) was actually written by Ockham himself. His opinions aroused strong opposition from members of the theological faculty of Oxford, however, and he left the university without obtaining his master’s degree in theology. Ockham thus remained, academically speaking, an undergraduate—known as an inceptor (“beginner”) in Oxonian language or, to use a Parisian equivalent, a baccalaureus formatus.

Ockham continued his academic career, apparently in English convents, simultaneously studying points of logic in natural philosophy and participating in theological debates. When he left his country for Avignon, Fr., in the autumn of 1324 at the pope’s request, he was acquainted with a university environment shaken not only by disputes but also by the challenging of authority: that of the bishops in doctrinal matters and that of the chancellor of the university, John Lutterell, who was dismissed from his post in 1322 at the demand of the teaching staff.

However abstract and impersonal the style of Ockham’s writings may be, they reveal at least two aspects of Ockham’s intellectual and spiritual attitude: he was a theologian-logician (theologicus logicus is Luther’s term). On the one hand, with his passion for logic he insisted on evaluations that are severely rational, on distinctions between the necessary and the incidental and differentiation between evidence and degrees of probability—an insistence that places great trust in man’s natural reason and his human nature. On the other hand, as a theologian he referred to the primary importance of the God of the creed whose omnipotence determines the gratuitous salvation of men; God’s saving action consists of giving without any obligation and is already profusely demonstrated in the creation of nature. The medieval rule of economy, that “plurality should not be assumed without necessity,” has come to be known as “Ockham’s razor”; the principle was used by Ockham to eliminate many entities that had been devised, especially by the scholastic philosophers, to explain reality.


Treatise to John XXII
Ockham met John Lutterell again at Avignon; in a treatise addressed to Pope John XXII, the former chancellor of Oxford denounced Ockham’s teaching on the Sentences, extracting from it 56 propositions that he showed to be in serious error. Lutterell then became a member of a committee of six theologians that produced two successive reports based on extracts from Ockham’s commentary, of which the second was more severely critical. Ockham, however, presented to the pope another copy of the Ordinatio in which he had made some corrections. It appeared that he would be condemned for his teaching, but the condemnation never came.

At the convent where he resided in Avignon, Ockham met Bonagratia of Bergamo, a doctor of civil and canon law who was being persecuted for his opposition to John XXII on the problem of Franciscan poverty. On Dec. 1, 1327, the Franciscan general Michael of Cesena arrived in Avignon and stayed at the same convent; he, too, had been summoned by the pope in connection with the dispute over the holding of property. They were at odds over the theoretical problem of whether Christ and his Apostles had owned the goods they used; that is, whether they had renounced all ownership (both private and corporate), the right of property and the right to the use of property. Michael maintained that because Christ and his Apostles had renounced all ownership and all rights to property, the Franciscans were justified in attempting to do the same thing.

The relations between John and Michael grew steadily worse, to such an extent that, on May 26, 1328, Michael fled from Avignon accompanied by Bonagratia and William. Ockham, who was already a witness in an appeal secretly drafted by Michael on April 13, publicly endorsed the appeal in September at Pisa, where the three Franciscans were staying under the protection of Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian, who had been excommunicated in 1324 and proclaimed by John XXII to have forfeited all rights to the empire. They followed him to Munich in 1330, and thereafter Ockham wrote fervently against the papacy in defense of both the strict Franciscan notion of poverty and the empire.

Instructed by his superior general in 1328 to study three papal bulls on poverty, Ockham found that they contained many errors that showed John XXII to be a heretic who had forfeited his mandate by reason of his heresy. His status of pseudo-pope was confirmed in Ockham’s view in 1330–31 by his sermons proposing that the souls of the saved did not enjoy the vision of God immediately after death but only after they were rejoined with the body at the Last Judgment, an opinion that contradicted tradition and was ultimately rejected.

Nevertheless, his principal dispute remained the question of poverty, which he believed was so important for religious perfection that it required the discipline of a theory: whoever chooses to live under the evangelical rule of St. Francis follows in the footsteps of Christ who is God and therefore king of the universe but who appeared as a poor man, renouncing the right of ownership, submitting to the temporal power, and desiring to reign on this earth only through the faith vested in him. This reign expresses itself in the form of a church that is organized but has no infallible authority—either on the part of a pope or a council—and is essentially a community of the faithful that has lasted over the centuries and is sure to last for more, even though temporarily reduced to a few, or even to one; everyone, regardless of status or sex, has to defend in the church the faith that is common to all.

For Ockham the power of the pope is limited by the freedom of Christians that is established by the gospel and the natural law. It is therefore legitimate and in keeping with the gospel to side with the empire against the papacy or to defend, as Ockham did in 1339, the right of the king of England to tax church property. From 1330 to 1338, in the heat of this dispute, Ockham wrote 15 or 16 more or less political works; some of them were written in collaboration, but Opus nonaginta dierum (“Work of 90 Days”), the most voluminous, was written alone.


Excommunication
Excommunicated after his flight from Avignon, Ockham maintained the same basic position after the death of John XXII in 1334, during the reign of Benedict XII (1334–42), and after the election of Clement VI. In these final years he found time to write two treatises on logic, which bear witness to the leading role that he consistently assigned to that discipline, and he discussed the submission procedures proposed to him by Pope Clement. Ockham was long thought to have died at a convent in Munich in 1349 during the Black Death, but he may actually have died there in 1347.

Paul D. Vignaux

 

 

 
     
     
 

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