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The close of the Middle Ages has been placed by the general consent of historians at the end of the fifteenth century after Christ, with which the narrative portion of this concluding volume mainly deals. Although this date is arbitrary and conventional, and suggests a sudden transformation remote from reality, it is yet the fittest at which to make one of the artificial divisions between the great periods of history, for it was the eve of the religious disruption, the conscious rivalry of national States, the complete supremacy of the State within its boundaries, the enfranchisement of capitalism, the enlargement of the known world, the accompanying translation of commerce into its “oceanic” stage, the diffusion and amplification of learning, the awakening of critical induction and scientific investigation—those potent forces which were to be the mainsprings of the modern age. That the date, however, with all its importance, is artificial is shewn on the one hand by the slowness with which medieval conditions, ideas, and preoccupations faded from Europe after it, and on the other by the long period of preparation for change before it, in which the fifteenth century, perhaps, holds the most significant place.

With but few exceptions, indeed, and those mainly in Italy, the men of the fifteenth century by no means appeared to themselves the harbingers of revolution. They were so, not so much because they invented new things, as because they failed in maintaining and revivifying the old and resigned themselves discontentedly to their failure. They hardly recognised that, beside the ideals they accepted and betrayed, other instincts and motives were leading them towards fresh modes of thought, a fresh outlook on life, and a fresh direction of society. In reality, in the very attempt at defence and conservation the fifteenth century was full of marked changes, which undermined the social structure and the dominant ideas inherited from earlier times and fostered the development of younger conceptions which were to replace them.

First among the older ideals we may take that of the unity of Christendom derived from classical times, made for a moment a physical reality by Charlemagne, and brought to some degree of permanence and organisation by the spiritual autocracy of the Papacy. But the unity of Western Christendom had not only always been a shell for incessant feudal and local anarchy, it was rent more and more by the swelling force of national union and national aversions within it, and, more than all, had been weakened and deprived of its spiritual appeal by the cumbrous, unhealthy functioning and frequent corruption, both increasing with the years, of the ecclesiastical hierarchy on which it depended. The Great Schism made apparent to all men that the government and system of the Church were out of gear. The Councils were the conscientious endeavour of the piety of Europe to restore that system of unity, to reform and lead back to efficient working Papacy and hierarchy together. But the Councils strove to restore more than had ever existed, to give the unity achieved by papal autocracy what was in fact a new basis in a representative synod, and they forgot, as reformers forget, that the vices they attacked were due in large measure to natural human tendencies which were ingrained in the Church’s system. The champions of unity at Constance and Basle entered on a duel with centralisation; those foes of autocracy attempted to stereotype thought and institutions in a partly bygone, partly imaginary mould. Themselves both conservative and revolutionary, they dreaded revolution.

Thus the Conciliar Movement hoped to keep the Pope, a permanent monarch, subject to an intermittent assembly of shifting, jarring individuals, to keep a bureaucracy while abolishing taxation, to prevent the diversion of uncoordinated local endowments from local needs to that maintenance of learning, eminence, and favouritism to which each single member owed his livelihood. The task was formidable from its inherent contradictions, and to them were added the incalculable influence of personality and the steady current of nationalism. The Council of Constance ended in separate national Concordats. Pope Martin V, strong in the prestige, the authority, and the organisation of his office, embedded in law and habit, naturally yielded no foot of defensible ground, and was also determined to fortify the Papacy, threatened in revenue and independence, by the secular rule of the Papal States which in law belonged to him. He bequeathed to his successors the stubborn retention of profitable abuses and the purely worldly policy of an Italian prince denuded of scruples. The Popes were aided not only by the inevitable dissensions of moderates and extremists, doctrinaires and self-seekers, in the Council of Basle, but also by the facts that the Conciliar Fathers were drawn from different nations, unsympathetic and often hostile to one another, and that national and State governments were at the same time playing for their own ends not for those of the universal Church. France and England were at grips in the Hundred Years’ War; the German princes and the Spanish monarchs were all engrossed by problems of their lands. The mastery over the Church in their own dominions was their only real aim in matters ecclesiastical. That it was then impossible to segregate effective Church Reform from national self-assertion and policy was shewn by the extraordinary strength and theological innovation of the Hussite movement which broke the unity of the Church throughout the fifteenth century. In Hussitism the vivid national consciousness of the Czechs and their hatred of their German neighbours found their outlet and expression in religious revolution which practically broke with the idea of the Universal Church. It was a true transition, hybrid because transitional, from the medieval towards the modern age. Religion in this isolated territory of Bohemia behind the rampart of its mountains and its language became the badge of a nation; and in the shelter of the alliance novelty of thought, once the singularity of stray thinkers and scanty, surreptitious communities, could take firm root and grow.

To sum up, the fathers of Constance and Basle typify the failure to maintain and reinspire older conceptions which is one mark of the fifteenth century. Throughout they strove for fixity of doctrine, for ecumenic Christendom, and for co-operative government by discussion. Yet these things were then incompatibles. Only the papal autocracy had held the Catholic Church in some sort together. It was still a living force allied to the contemporary trend towards despotism. Conciliar government was growing steadily obsolete in secular life, and in the Church gave a field for the separatist, national impulse. Allied with monarchs, rigid against heresy, the Councils provided a stage for national dissidence, and yet— for they represented Western Christendom—naturally shunned the separatist thought of individuals which found its home in nationalism. They cut themselves off from the growing life their efforts nourished. Their failure to produce conservative reform was the prelude to later revolution. Small bands of fiery innovators were to be given their opportunity by the tepid inertia of the existing order.

It is something of a paradox to introduce here the increasing persecution of the Jews, which began and was in theory justified by the fact that they were the enemies of Christianity, an excrescence in Christian society. Yet hatred of the Jews had always largely been a racial hatred of aliens in manners and in laws, and it took on a more national complexion as the nations formed. Mere segregation, prescribed by the Church, and fanatical massacres were succeeded by systematic expulsion in the interests of national uniformity in the several States. Edward I drove the Jews from England in 1290, Philip the Fair from most of France in 1306, the Germati towns and nobles with more prolonged and terrible violence from Germany. Finally, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492 with the definite aim of national consolidation. It is significant that the persecuted race found refuge in the loosely constructed teiTitories of Poland and the Ottoman Empire1. Thus what seemed to be an effort of the expiring unity of Christendom was really a symptom of a new exclusive force—nationality.

As the efforts of united Christendom came to open failure in the attempt at the reform and reorganisation of the Church, so did they in the latter Crusades, the defence of Europe against Asia and Islam. Those efforts were at times serious enough, yet they were always sporadic, partial, and halting. The Papacy made the Crusade against the Ottoman Turks a permanent policy, but among other policies and more heartfelt objects nearer home; it was only the superfluous energies of Western knights which were spent in the defeats of Nicopolis and Varna; even Hungary, Venice, and Genoa, whose vital interests were at stake, seldom if ever flung their whole weight into the war; the pathetic fiasco of Pius II at Ancona was an emblem of the impotence of Europe in face of the common peril; and the fall of the Roman Empire of the East published the collapse of the Crusading ideal1. When the Catholic Kings unified Spain by the conquest of Granada from the Moors, it was the triumph of a nation, not of Christendom.

In the preceding volume of this history it has been seen that Western Europe, most especially France and England, in the fourteenth century reached the last stage of feudal monarchy as a political system. A centralised government by the king and his bureaucracy was superimposed on a class of feudal nobles great and small, who either as in France still retained in large measure their feudal franchises or as in England were no less powerful by reason of their armed retinues and their influence on the royal administration. Beside the nobles two other strata of society possessed political importance, the clergy held separate by their celibacy, their unique privileges, and their international organisation, and the bourgeoisie characterised by their trading vocation and their town-dwelling communities. By these classes of men and their rights, by the representative assemblies of them which met round the king for consent and counsel, and by the law or custom handed down from the past and inherent in each human society, the kingship was limited and controlled. Government might be monarchic, yet the king’s powers were circumscribed and shared; he was fettered by hereditary or official counsellors, by local privileged potentates and corporations. Similarly, in Germany the Emperor was but the chief of the teeming members of the Empire, and the princes were themselves limited by the Estates of their subjects. The republican towns of Germany and Italy were ruled by an entangled federation of unequal gilds, like their less autonomous congeners elsewhere. Even in the Church the “parliamentary” collective conception of government had its place and was gaining ground for a time in the Conciliar Movement. Rule under law and by consent was the reigning belief and the partial practice, founded on rights descended from the feudal, contractual, decentralised past.

In the fifteenth century this intricate, motley system of co-operative, diversely federated government was brought to moral bankruptcy by its failure to meet the needs or redress the evils of the times well as by its inability to adapt itself to the changing conditions of the society which had given it birth. Feudal armies failed to defend France from the English invasions; barons, clergy, and towns equally failed to present a united front or to pursue a consistent policy; the mere maintenance of order and security was beyond their capacity and even alien to their desires. In England feud and faction, greed and misgovernment ran riot in the Wars of the Roses. The over-mighty subjects failed to give either victory or peace or justice. Like the French States General the English Parliament had proved unequal to its own aims. The same failure in a more veiled form was to be seen in the lands of the Empire. The feudal constitution of Germany meant in practice unremitting private war amid princes and cities, and this disorder was equally or more apparent within the princes’ territories and the self-governing towns themselves. Feudal jurisdiction seemed to mean anarchy and brigandage; town autonomy a simmering class-war. In North Italy, again, with the exception of Venice, republican government had meant the exploitation of one class by another and the furious short-sighted rivalry of wealthy families. These defects were not new, but in the new conditions of larger units and problems wider and more complex they were far less tolerable and more obstructive. A curious inability to make any real sacrifice of personal and family immediate advantage to secure the working and profit of the State jeopardised the existence of that system of contract, co-operation, and consent in both lands of the Empire.

Common to all Europe, almost, save England, was the depression of the peasants. As the elan of increasing population, the cultivation of waste lands, and the need of a greater food-supply died down after the Plague became a regular visitation in Europe, the ruling classes became more apt to reimpose or increase old exactions on their rustic dependants. The more rapid intellectual progress of the upper classes gave them a fresh advantage over the more primitive lower. The North Italian town-dwelling landlord knew, indeed, that it was bad business to make his terms too hard for his tenants—the mezzadria worked for content and stability—but he kept them in firm subjection. The northern noble was both harsher and more extortionate in his narrower feudal outlook. Thus, in Germany the fifteenth century is an age of peasant discontent and revolt1. It is an age of disillusion and deadlock, when the old ways seem void of hope and profit.

In these circumstances the growth of untrammelled monarchy almost everywhere met a public need, and was to find its consummation in the early modern age. In France especially the kingship stood forth as the saviour of the country from foreign conquest, as the centre of unity and the expression of nationality, which was now become in the Hundred Years’ War acutely self-conscious and a deciding factor in history. The continual inter-communication between European communities made the smaller differences between allied districts seem less and the great divergences between distant countries more severing and alien. Monarchy was the only force which could compel order and give security, which stood above the strife of classes and personal ambitions, which could foster internal and external expansion. A public opinion rapidly formed which lifted the king, in spite of individual defects and particular oppressions, into unchallenged supremacy. In Spain, and in a more tempered shape in England, the same irresistible process was seen. Nobles and local powers, after the heyday of their uncurbed development, seemed smitten with paralysis before the advance of the central kingship directed with resolution and consistent purpose. Even in Germany and Italy the same phenomenon was clear. If the Emperor had too long been the chief of a loose federation to take effective advantage of it, the greater princes were able to master their nobles and towns in their own lands. Territorialism was but a fractional kind of monarchy. In Italy, with Venice as the only important exception, class disunion and city rivalry had produced the despot; and even in the splintered Papal States there were signs that despotism would be provincial as in Lombardy, and not a mere form of a city-autonomy, now out-of-date in a more interconnected world.

The general appearance of the despot, exalted above all competing authorities, was made possible by the decay of the nobles in independent military power and, again especially in France, in material wealth. The feudal noble as such had become an amateur in war; his inefficiency was shown at Agincourt; he was outclassed by the professional soldier, who was very usually himself under new conditions of discipline and wholetime training. Now the maintenance of even a small regular army was beyond the resources of a feudal estate for any length of time. Only the kings, who could draw from every kind of wealth over a large territory, could achieve this. Only they could amass the artillery, which besides its growing importance in the field could shatter the once secure stronghold of the feudal castle and the fortified autonomous town. Only they could levy for long periods the large numbers of foot, pikemen and archers, who were indispensable in a campaign, and who could repel the wildest charge of feudal knights. Forethought, co-ordination, system, and routine, which the Middle Ages had slowly brought forth, were all available to the new resolute monarchy, not to the disunited feudal survival with its purblind counsels. Ability gravitated to the king’s service with its wide sphere, its wide outlook, and its manifold activities. In France, too, feudal independence had been sapped by the impoverishment of the nobles. Its origins lay far back. The nobles were unproductive; chivalry was a costly and wasteful mode of life; the strenuous noble stocks were prolific. From the time of the later Crusades all save the wealthy and the eldest sons found it steadily harder to live the life of their class in feudal society. The king’s service became more and more their chief resource. As his officials, his troopers, and his pensioners, provided with posts and Church benefices misemployed, they could gain an honourable livelihood. The devotion of the lesser nobles as a whole to their sovereign, fortified by chivalry and loyalty, became a characteristic of the fifteenth century.

It was a kind of apotheosis. The nobles for honour and support, the townsmen for wealth and safety, the peasants for protection to live and labour, all looked to the national or territorial ruler by right divine, the embodiment of law, of order, of justice, and ancient right. The very advance in individual initiative and freedom which was taking place as the sequel of organised civilisation made the older forms of group and class life not only inefficient for men’s growing needs but also fetters to their action and self-help. The single master who gave them security and opportunity was himself the representative individual in the State. Under him the individual could move more freely. Thus the political ideals of Western Europe were being transformed in correspondence with contemporary practice. The concerted action of Christendom under the leadership of the visionary Empire and the spiritual Papacy, always since the latter thirteenth century at least more a sentiment than a reality, lost its appeal with the defeat of the Council of Basle and the fall of Constantinople. So did the ideal of a graded government partitioned down among a feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchy co-operating with their chiefs in matters of general concern. This, too, had been diseased or moribund in practice, as Pope and kings centralised their dominion, long before feudalist and prelate by their own behaviour seemed to make its pretensions hollow. With comparatively few exceptions the most respectable bishops appeared, not as guides to holiness, but as shrewd men of affairs administering an extortionate and rigidly technical business and legal system. Chivalry appeared to have become in like manner a matter of parade and convention cloaking reckless greed and callous brutality. The discredit was not wholly just, for the solid achievements of churchman and knight in the past had created a more civilised world by which their successors were judged. Ancient faults became more glaring with a higher standard more diffused. None the less there had been a degeneracy in morale, as the first enthusiasms died down, and men discovered that the mere machinery for improvement did not necessarily imply a renovation in human nature. They grasped at the untried remedy of national or territorial monarchy.

Another facet of the same process was apparent in the obsolescence of the feudal tie of homage and fealty. Time had been when this contractual bond had constituted the suzerain’s principal hold on his feudal inferiors; it was by means of it and the rights it conferred that he had fortified and given reality to the infant and shadowy conception of sovereignty and the State. In the fifteenth century, become complicated, inconsistent, and artificial, it exercised less and less moral compulsion on the vassal conscience. But it was replaced by the yet stronger charm of the allegiance of the subject to his natural lord, the sovereign of the State. Herein the continuous study of the Roman Civil Law produced its full effect. From the legal theorists and the lawyers in the king’s service the belief in absolute monarchic power spread to the theologians and infiltrated into the general thought. The community no longer appeared as an association of grades and diverse functions but as a mass of individuals bound together in the State, whose concentrated powers resided in its head—“amat enim unitatem suprema potestas.” The Roman Law had partly shaped the history of the later Middle Ages by its direct influence, but that influence grew more potent as the times became more apt for the reception of its maxims and conceptions. When despotism was men’s refuge, its doctrine of the omnicompetent State and the absolute monarch took effect. Even if in Germany the Reception of Roman Law in 1495 did not benefit the Emperor, it strengthened the territorial princes. Yet the fifteenth century is still preparatory; the older notions still lived and struggled; the new were not fully accepted for many years, and were never the one temporal creed of Christendom.

Something of the same bankruptcy of older ideals, the same changing of conditions, and the same emergence of new impulses which blindly created the revolutionary future was to be seen in the economic aspects of fifteenth-century society. Roughly speaking, the two preceding centuries had seen the growth of capitalism in long-distance trading and in large-scale manufacture for export. But that capitalism had had its chief home in a certain number of great towns situated on the main routes of traffic, and in those towns it was regimented in wealthy gilds which controlled to some extent the individual capitalist. Not only that: the local retail trade was organised in its own gilds, all on the lines of strict regulation and of restraint of undercutting competition. Among the employees of the rich manufacturers, too, the revolutionary movements in the Low Countries, Italy, and Germany tended to introduce similar gilds, which in their turn worked for regulation and protection from native employers and outside rivals. In short, trade, even in its most capitalistic form, was subject to the local group system rooted in the older towns and by consequence was fettered by the narrow local spirit of monopoly which did not transcend its town of origin. Trade was being choked by the multitude of restrictions imposed by concerted action. But a change was coming in conditions. As the stretch of territory under a single monarchical authority widened, as for instance in the Low Countries under the house of Burgundy, it became impossible for the towns and the classes within them to play the dog-in-the-manger to the country round them. While the Flemish towns saw their carefully regulated cloth manufacture dwindle, a new race of capitalists employed the villagers without restrictions or traditions, pliant to changes of demand and supply, and captured the European market. In like manner the new free port of Antwerp drew to itself the international merchant and banker by the liberty he had there, unhindered by meddling, local greed, to manage business sensitive to far-off and uncontrollable events. How much this freedom meant can be seen later even in the older Flemish towns, where certain industries prospered because they were new and had no gild. To sum up, the tide of individualism, in the shape of the single person or private firm, whether in the Netherlands, France1, South Germany, or Italy, was more and more eluding and undermining the joint control of the group. This, too, meant a decline at least in old ideals: the theory of the “just price”, according to which a fair reward apportioned to his status and need could be dealt out by authority in due shares to each who was concerned in the production; the condemnation of interest on moral grounds; the duty of maintaining a joint control of quality, of product, of work, and of play. But the loss was less than it seems. Minute, vexatious regulations, incessantly and hypocritically evaded, were after all a nuisance and a clog; in spite of the very real decay of scruple, honesty and fairness could and did survive. Individual responsibility in the wider world that fostered it was a dynamic, creative force; it supplied a public need, and in the long run submitted to the sway of a public conscience.

These changes were being effected not only by the growth of wider areas under a single monarch who could bring peace and loosen restrictions, but also by changes in the trade-routes and in the commercial centres along those trade-routes. No little of the prosperity of Nuremberg and the Swabian and Rhine towns was due to the disorder of France in the Hundred Years’ War. That England in the fifteenth century increasingly exported rough cloth instead of wool helped in the decay of Ghent and Bruges. Similar causes were beginning to destroy the cloth-trade of Florence. In the middle of the century the decay of the Scanian herring fisheries and the development of those of the North Sea were diminishing the prosperity of the Hansa towns of the Baltic and enhancing that of Holland and the English eastern coasts. Large-scale industry, in fact, was becoming diffused over Europe amid political changes which steadily weakened the predominance of the old autonomous towns with their unyielding traditions. The Hansa were worsted in their long contest with the Duke of Burgundy, against whose wide lands their commercial boycott was inefficient. The subjection of the Teutonic Order to Poland depressed their Prussian allies; that of Novgorod to the Great Prince of Muscovy left them helpless in the Russian trade. They could no longer insist on their methods and monopoly. In like manner the advance of the Ottoman Turks was depriving Venice and Genoa of their central position in European commerce and of their eastern outlets. The fall of Constantinople meant the loss of the Black Sea trade and most of that of the Aegean. Only the route to Alexandria, whither the spices came from India, remained to enrich Venice, and this was costly and precarious. The diminution of the papal income from beyond the Alps after the Great Schism prevented the return of the Papacy to Rome from being a sufficient makeweight, and Italy was becoming merely the source of a few expensive luxuries, spices, armour, glass, and silk, while the volume of European trade was moving north. Even in the Mediterranean, unified France and Spain were too powerful rivals for the city States. The country States, too, secure in their wide home market, could deliberately exclude foreign imports which competed with their own productions, whereas the retaliatory protection instituted by the autonomous Italian towns was useless as a weapon and a miserable compensation for a once European trade. A rapid decline in the cloth-making firms was visible. North Italy was beginning to live on stored-up wealth, and her unrivalled skill in banking. It is no wonder that investment in land was becoming the fashion in Florence and Venice, and that Venice turned to territorial ambitions both for their own sake and to secure her route to Germany. Over all the West the star of the city State was paling before the formation and cultural advance of the country State with its varied and abundant resources.

By a fatal coincidence the westerly countries, too, were enlarging both their products and their enterprise. As the shifting of the herring fisheries stimulated Dutch and English shipping, so had the multiplication of Spanish flocks, a new source of wool, and their share of the Bay salt of the Loire mouth profited both Spain and the Low Countries. The Portuguese, already active by sea as far as England and Flanders, were turning to the exploration of the African coast. The art of ship-building was advancing by slow experience among the westerly nations on their varied ocean coasts rather than in the limited, monotonous Mediterranean. It was the learned Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, himself no seaman, who planned and directed the enterprise in the spirit of a crusader: so might the Muslims of Morocco be evaded and the distant, legendary heathen be converted, and even the fabulous Prester John and his Christians be reached in the East. Continual expeditions crept slowly along the North African coast line. The difficult navigation round Cape Bojador was accomplished in 1434, and the immediate objective, the heathen negro population in fertile lands round the River Senegal, within twenty years. The progress was slow, but the profits in the trade in gold and ivory and the swarms of negro slaves were great. It was still in the Middle Ages when in 1486 Bartholomew Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened the route, soon to be traversed, to India. With that discovery the Italian transit trade to the East, cumbrous, scanty, and costly, rapidly became insignificant. It was a discovery made in the open sea away from routine by a nation State under a despotic king. So, too, was the expedition of Columbus which intended, like the Portuguese, to reach the Spice Islands, and in fact unveiled the New World. The “oceanic” period of commerce, thus begun, when the main route and centre of wealth were in the countries of the Atlantic coast, belongs to modem times, but that revolution, which reduced the Mediterranean and Italy to a side artery, had taken its first steps earlier with the formation of national kingdoms in the West and the restriction of papal authority and revenue in the fifteenth century.

When we turn to the intellectual preoccupations of men, apart from them social or economic activity, we find even more the evidence of the sterility and decay of those leading ideas which had once been so fecund. The whole fabric of scholastic thought seemed to be smitten by a secret sense of failure. It had aspired to formulate a system of the philosophic explanation of the universe, where reason should be the loyal ally of faith and revelation, and “justify the ways of God to men”. Its purpose had been religious and even devotional, yet it rested on a conviction not only of man’s potential capacity to understand the reality of the spiritual and material world but also that man had discovered the infallible recipe to achieve that understanding. Shred by shred by the fourteenth-century thinkers that certitude was stripped away from scholasticism. The “sons of Ockham,” the “moderni,” denied the possibility of proving by reason any part of the Christian verity, or even of metaphysical verity. They were Christians by an act of theological faith alone. The “antiqui,” the realist opponents of the new nominalists, could only reply by a lifeless adherence to Aquinas, a petrified repetition on all essentials. This agnosticism, which so severely limited the province of reason and was answered inadequately, produced its slow disintegrating effects on a study which thus renounced its own goal. When nothing great could be proved, men spent themselves on verbal subtleties. It was good to know how to reason, it was the avenue to promotion in the universities and the clerical career; so there flourished the compendium, the explanation of former explanations, the barren exploitation of method and teaching of dexterity, the alleviated path to a degree. The names of “antiqui” and “moderni” became badges of factions in the universities, indeed of universities themselves, changing sides at the order of their sovereign, and now numerous and no longer international as Paris had been. When Nicholas of Cusa attempted a system of compromise and contradiction, he bound it together by the tenet of intuition of the incomprehensible, indescribable infinite. But this intuition, vouchsafed to the individual mystic, was hardly of service to a common effort of mankind to grasp a coherent scheme of things. The same paralysis of will rather than of thought seemed to strike the consideration of those single sensible impressions, which to the Ockhamists appeared to give some secure foothold. In induction from them, as some fourteenth-century thinkers saw, lay the hope of advance, but the true “modernus,” Cardinal d’Ailly, was “palsied with a doubt” here too: God might give the illusion of a sensible impression without the external object to make it. A preference for the arbitrary aspect of omnipotence—not alien to earthly despotism—grew stronger: it was open to God to make evil good and good evil.

It was, perhaps, a natural concomitant of this disbelief in the validity of reason that led to the more pronounced belief in the crude, age-long superstitions handed down among the masses from a prehistoric past. They had always been there; they were, indeed, allied to the belief in stellar influences, in the mysterious properties of stones and times, in charms and spells, which had been part of the matrix of infant science; they were fostered by the ignorant panic roused to fever by the Black Death; now they became prominent and, so to say, official. The “ witchcraft delusion,” with its accompanying horrors, was a not unnatural vagary of educated men to whom anything was possible because nothing was disprovable. The extremes of scepticism and credulity met in that circle.

Yet the decadence of the great edifice of thought raised by the Middle Ages helped to clear the way for a fresh advance unhindered by its prepossessions of doctrine, aim, and method. The stress laid upon sensible experience by the Ockhamists not only anticipated a distant future, it also expressed the less conscious mental orientation of men who were not schoolmen. The home of this new direction of thought and interest lay in Italy. It took its start from the solid acquisitions in knowledge and culture of earlier times, but it was fired by the appetite for more and wider-based knowledge, for which an unexhausted source lay open in the writings of classical antiquity. One constant feature of medieval development had been a slow approximation, however partial, towards the cultural standard of the ancients. As men became more literate and civilised, they became more capable of appreciating the higher civilisation of the past. They progressively absorbed what they became fit to realise. In Italy, with its classic temper, this particular evolution grew speedier in the fourteenth century. Dante still regarded Virgil as a sage of the undifferentiated former time, not essentially strange to his own; just as his contemporaries looked on Aristotle. With Petrarch and Boccaccio, and far more with their successors, the Latin classics seemed the relics of a nobler age, a greater race of men. True knowledge, true insight, and instructed modes of thought were there, to be learnt and imitated by their devotees. The humanist enthusiasm was afoot. It was clear from their Latin oracles that the yet unknown Greek literature was the fount and the main current of this dimly descried sea. Virgil pointed the way to Homer. The disasters of the time themselves were auspicious, for the Byzantine Empire in its struggle for existence against the Ottoman Turks was painfully for the first half of the fifteenth century courting the West and ready to give what the Italians had grown to wish; and the Byzantines in the long ebb of their culture and in the antiquarian passion for their greater past were at last in real mental contact with the West, which had grown literate as they grew “medieval.” The coming of Chrysoloras and his foundation of Greek studies in Italy marks an epoch.

It is not here in question to narrate the bitter war between humanists and scholastic theologians, the strife and the compromise between the classical and the ascetic ideals of life, the long survival of medieval traditions, the contest between the outworn subtleties of the Schools and the pretentious rival imaginings of the Italian Neo-Platonists. But it is essential to remark that the humanists were engaged in afresh and fervid study of facts, a method of experience. They were exploring Latin and Greek as concrete languages, learning the arts of expression and taste from ancient masters, finding out what they had thought and felt, seeing the world through their eyes, replacing the monotonous web of an a priori metaphysic by a variegated display of life and nature. Here lay their achievement; they were discoverers and cartographers of new lands of intellectual wealth and inspiration. That their own first efforts at rivalry might be vapid in style and shallow in thought was of little account: by the close of the fifteenth century their successors, steeped in the classics, were creating thought solid and profound, literature that with exquisite or reckless touch ran through the gamut of life itself.

The humanistic movement, in fact, did eminently in its sphere of learning with revolutionary consequences what others tended to do with reluctant or blindfold steps. The appreciation of the multitudinous direct facts of the visible, audible world, the joy in this life, the absorbing interest in man in his concrete variety, in his passions and capacities, replaced exhausted schemes of the unseen, supersensible universe, of refinements of the theory of knowledge, which were ending in questioning its possibility. In a time of failure and disillusion it brought triumphant hope, a boundless employment of man’s faculties with a boundless reward. The earth renewed “ its winter weeds outworn.” If it seems strange that a tribe of pedantic grammarians should so exalt themselves, it is to be remembered that the ancient authors they idolised covered the whole field of knowledge and literature and gave the outlook, the freedom of spirit, and the new programme the age was seeking.

It was only slowly that the new humanism spread beyond the Alps, although the inclination towards scientific knowledge was early obvious, but the practical invention which was to have so great an influence in the diffusion of both was made in Germany on the Rhine. Printing by movable type, following, it seems, on some obscure preludes in Holland, was made into a workable method of reproducing books by John Gutenberg at Mayence round about the year 1450. In some ten years, by him and his allies Fust, the necromancer Faust of the legend, and Schoeffer, the new art had been proved capable of rivalling manuscripts in its beauty and accuracy, and far surpassing them in prolificness and accessibility. Journeymen and pupils carried it rapidly over Germany, Italy, and France; it entered England with Caxton; by 1500 tens of thousands of editions of books had been published in Western Europe. The humanists had sought far and wide for the rare manuscripts of long neglected classic works. Now those works were multiplied beyond the risk of destruction or of seclusion in a few libraries. New works shared the fortune of the old. The extension of literacy and education had been one of the achievements of the Middle Ages, and this invention at their close not only immensely widened the reading public but allowed the rapid participation and secure possession of learning, literature, and thought. It made indestructible the gains amassed by the effort of seven hundred years.

The same zeal to know and admiration for the visible, multifarious world and man, its denizen, which were vocal in the humanists, inspired also the plastic and pictorial art of the Italian Renaissance. The Italians from Giotto onwards shared in the general advance in artistic technique which was being made all through the West, and in the fifteenth century they were discoverers in perspective, in anatomy, in psychologic insight. Whatever ideal or religious forms it took, at the foundation of this art lay the instinct for reality: to represent men in their fashion as they lived, the earth as the eye might see it, heaven and hell as the abodes of verifiable human emotion and desire. But the passion for the beauty of what the natural existing world presented them was no less strong; Italian quattrocento art is filled with the delight in life, and the conscious mastery of the skill to express it. In nothing was the classic nature, akin to humanism, of this mastery displayed more than in the native Italian aptitude for form and composition. The picture becomes a harmonious whole, not a mere collection of observations however exact, skilled, and poignant. Not only in the formal arrangement of what they chose to shew but in grading the spiritual significance, in the choice of emphasis in their representations, the Italians excelled. In this lucidity in the world of fact, unhampered by metaphysical questioning, in the will to grasp and control it for human exploitation, they knew themselves like the ancients whose civilisation they emulated. There was an element of classical revival and imitation in their work which grew with the years and acted for long, though not permanently, as an inspiration and not a chilling fetter. For their art, like humanism, was home-grown and a true development from the later Middle Ages.

But if we can only speak of the fifteenth-century Renaissance in respect of Italian ait, the essential realism, the sense of the individual, external fact, from which it grew, was rife in Europe, and so was the technical proficiency which was its condition. The portraiture, the scenes of devotion or homely life, the exquisiteness in minute, exact detail of the Flemings give the elements of the new mentality without their fusion in a new artistic creed. In architecture the builders seem to disguise the monotony of purpose they habitually revere, in the English perpendicular by the multitudinous, gorgeous incidents of the stained windows, in French flamboyant by the inexhaustible wealth of tracery and fretted stone. The decoration drew more interest than the design. Strong and full of vitality as the art remained, virtuosity in detail appealed most to its practitioners and accorded with the temper of the age. Romanesque and then Gothic art in its prime had revealed its structure, its details had a confessed architectural purpose; just as the design of its churches responded to doctrinal, ceremonial, or social needs—we see the uplifted presbytery of the Hildebrandine age, when the priesthood were the mediators between God and man, the processional, monastic church with its many altars for the unending opus Dei, the open-spaced church of the Friars built for preaching to the city throng. But flamboyant art conceals its essential functions with functionless decoration; the pillar can be twined with wreaths, the keystone apes a stalactite, even the vaulting which is visible may be merely a painted design; exquisite monuments and private chapels break up the unity of the whole. It was a fit emblem of a time when men led by personal or national instinct still subscribed mechanically to the formulae of Catholic Christendom.

There may be found an analogy to this phase of the plastic and pictorial arts in the vernacular literature of the fifteenth century, which, like them, appealed to the wider public. A tedious conventionality enwrapped the tale of chivalry and the moral allegory. In the lyrics, technique, ever more elaborated, replaces in general both genuine feeling and poetic inspiration. It was an age of the pedantic manufacture of literature on bygone themes under set rules. Yet here too men’s real interests found expression and gave life. An unforced characterisation of his personages pervades the Mort Darthur of Malory. Historians, like Chastellain and Commynes, could draw portraits—realism is their true bent. Villon made the elaborate ballade vibrate with as poignant a personal truth as Dante’s. Even the endless mysteries, allegoric and religious plays, awake to drama when they treat of persons, passions, and the absurdities of mankind. The living theme was what men felt and did. To this the new humanism arising in Italy brought a kind of consecration, and in its development it brought more tangible gains, form and plan and coherence, the rationality of the classics.

It is curious to see how the reforming, yet conservative endeavour to revivify asceticism and the monastic life, in its attempt to be both reactionary towards ancient prescriptions and appropriate to new needs, admitted the dangerous ally of humanism within the cloister. The Brethren of the Common Life were scribes, educators, and grammarians. The reformed Benedictines, renewing the long-forgotten manual labour of the Order, zealously copied and bound manuscripts. Both furthered, first unconsciously, then consciously, the new learning of humanism. In both, perhaps, the individual mystic was harboured. That the pen of the copyists might be snatched from their hands by Gutenberg’s invention, that the scholar might stray from accepted solutions and ideals to new interpretations, that collective asceticism might prove an unequal rival to individual freedom and unalluring to the majority of fifteenth-century monks, however old-fashioned, may be claimed as signs that changes in men themselves and their surroundings were outrunning changes in their scheme of life.

The growing unreality of its professed aims was perhaps the source of the decadent aspect of the fifteenth century. The Church, feudalism, chivalry, the crusade, asceticism received a formal homage, less and less sincere. But beside them was the vivid desire of men to know, to dominate, and to possess, the intense interest inhuman capacity and human fate. Hence came that appetite for personal fame, for an immortality among future men, which was stimulated by the humanists. They could not really wish for a personality submerged in the undifferentiated blessedness of heaven. For the expression of personality, of all that a man embodied of talent and strength, the Italians used their untranslatable word, virtù; he should be assessed not by the group or institution to which he belonged, but by himself, on his naked merits. The century was full of the evils and the triumphs of this rampant individualism, the crumbling of a social system on its way to transformation. It is, perhaps, too easy to forget that these years also produced heroic patriotism, as in Joan of Arc, and unselfish devotion to secular and Christian learning. These, too, instances as they are of liberated personality, had their share in the coming of a new age.

In closing the survey of a wide historical period such as the Middle Ages, the student must inevitably be impressed by the relativity of history, and be conscious that he looks at the past through the medium of his own time, that contemporary perplexities and dominant factors will appear to him in higher relief among the bygone events he considers. And he will see that this, too, characterised history as seen by his predecessors. Democratic nationalism colours the spectacles of one generation, economic problems those of another, the cataclysm of war those of a third. Then, too, there is the influence of his personal temperament and prepossessions. The high lights of interest will fall on different aspects of the panorama. To one it will seem the jostling of an illimitable throng of men, a profusion of greater and lesser and indistinguishable stars; to another an almost impersonal conflict and consent of forces, material or spiritual, themselves diversely perceived and appraised by his kindred thinkers; to one a catalogue of single things, to another a vast, dim pattern working itself out with resistless impetus always unforeseen, whose unending variety is never staled. To different onlookers the same scene will be sombre or sunlit, the same sound may come plangent or muffled to the ear. For, had we the precise knowledge, history, which is mankind and all its fortunes, is too vast to be held in one view and subjected, as a medieval thinker would have done, to one simple interpretation. We take narrow views of a world of which each-one of us is an infinitesimal part, secluded within a straitened limit. Perhaps only one general impression is universal—the turbulent movement, the infinite perspective and variety, in great things and in small, of that unfathomed sea.