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- Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus - 1/22 -
[Illustration: Philosophers on Mount Olympus.]
MEDIAEVAL LORE FROM BARTHOLOMEW ANGLICUS
BY ROBERT STEELE
WITH PREFACE BY WILLIAM MORRIS
"WHEN HOLY WERE THE HAUNTED FOREST BOUGHS, HOLY THE AIR, THE WATER, AND THE FIRE." KEATS.
It is not long since the Middle Ages, of the literature of which this book gives us such curious examples, were supposed to be an unaccountable phenomenon accidentally thrust in betwixt the two periods of civilisation, the classical and the modern, and forming a period without growth or meaning--a period which began about the time of the decay of the Roman Empire, and ended suddenly, and more or less unaccountably, at the time of the Reformation. The society of this period was supposed to be lawless and chaotic; its ethics a mere conscious hypocrisy; its art gloomy and barbarous fanaticism only; its literature the formless jargon of savages; and as to its science, that side of human intelligence was supposed to be an invention of the time when the Middle Ages had been dead two hundred years.
The light which the researches of modern historians, archaeologists, bibliographers, and others, have let in on our view of the Middle Ages has dispersed the cloud of ignorance on this subject which was one of the natural defects of the qualities of the learned men and keen critics of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. The Middle-class or Whig theory of life is failing us in all branches of human intelligence. Ethics, Politics, Art, and Literature are more than beginning to be regarded from a wider point of view than that from which our fathers and grandfathers could see them.
For many years there has been a growing reaction against the dull "grey" narrowness of the eighteenth century, which looked on Europe during the last thousand years as but a riotous, hopeless, and stupid prison. It is true that it was on the side of Art alone that this enlightenment began, and that even on that side it progressed slowly enough at first--_e.g._ Sir Walter Scott feels himself obliged, as in the _Antiquary_, to apologize to pedantry for his instinctive love of Gothic architecture. And no less true is it that follies enough were mingled with the really useful and healthful birth of romanticism in Art and Literature. But at last the study of facts by men who were neither artistic nor sentimental came to the help of that first glimmer of instinct, and gradually something like a true insight into the life of the Middle Ages was gained; and we see that the world of Europe was no more running round in a circle then than now, but was developing, sometimes with stupendous speed, into something as different from itself as the age which succeeds this will be different from that wherein we live. The men of those times are no longer puzzles to us; we can understand their aspirations, and sympathise with their lives, while at the same time we have no wish (not to say hope) to put back the clock, and start from the position which they held. For, indeed, it is characteristic of the times in which we live, that whereas in the beginning of the romantic reaction, its supporters were for the most part mere _laudatores temporis acti_, at the present time those who take pleasure in studying the life of the Middle Ages are more commonly to be found in the ranks of those who are pledged to the forward movement of modern life; while those who are vainly striving to stem the progress of the world are as careless of the past as they are fearful of the future. In short, history, the new sense of modern times, the great compensation for the losses of the centuries, is now teaching us worthily, and making us feel that the past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
To my mind, therefore, no excuse is needful for the attempt made in the following pages to familiarise the reading public with what was once a famous knowledge-book of the Middle Ages. But the reader, before he can enjoy it, must cast away the exploded theory of the invincible and wilful ignorance of the days when it was written; the people of that time were eagerly desirous for knowledge, and their teachers were mostly single-hearted and intelligent men, of a diligence and laboriousness almost past belief. The "Properties of Things" of Bartholomew the Englishman is but one of the huge encyclopaedias written in the early Middle Age for the instruction of those who wished to learn, and the reputation of it and its fellows shows how much the science of the day was appreciated by the public at large, how many there were who wished to learn. Even apart from its interest as showing the tendency of men's minds in days when Science did actually tell them "fairy tales," the book is a delightful one in its English garb; for the language is as simple as if the author were speaking by word of mouth, and at the same time is pleasant, and not lacking a certain quaint floweriness, which makes it all the easier to retain the subject-matter of the book.
Altogether, this introduction to the study of the Mediaeval Encyclopaedia, and the insight which such works give us into the thought of the past and its desire for knowledge, make a book at once agreeable and useful; and I repeat that it is a hopeful sign of the times when students of science find themselves drawn towards the historical aspect of the world of men, and show that their minds have been enlarged, and not narrowed, by their special studies--a defect which was too apt to mar the qualities of the seekers into natural facts in what must now, I would hope, be called the just-passed epoch of intelligence dominated by Whig politics, and the self-sufficiency of empirical science.
THE PROLOGUE OF THE TRANSLATOR
MEDIAEVAL NATURAL HISTORY--TREES
MEDIAEVAL NATURAL HISTORY--BIRDS AND FISHES
MEDIAEVAL NATURAL HISTORY--ANIMALS
THE SOURCES OF THE BOOK
THE BOOK AND ITS OBJECT.--The book which we offer to the public of to- day is drawn from one of the most widely read books of mediaeval times. Written by an English Franciscan, Bartholomew, in the middle of the thirteenth century, probably before 1260, it speedily travelled over Europe. It was translated into French by order of Charles V. (1364-81) in 1372, into Spanish, into Dutch, and into English in 1397. Its popularity, almost unexampled, is explained by the scope of the work, as stated in the translator's prologue (p. 9). It was written to explain the allusions to natural objects met with in the Scriptures or in the Gloss. It was, in fact, an account of the properties of things in general; an encyclopaedia of similes for the benefit of the village preaching friar, written for men without deep--sometimes without any-- learning. Assuming no previous information, and giving a fairly clear statement of the state of the knowledge of the time, the book was readily welcomed by the class for which it was designed, and by the small nucleus of an educated class which was slowly forming. Its popularity remained in full vigour after the invention of printing, no less than ten editions being published in the fifteenth century of the Latin copy alone, with four French translations, a Dutch, a Spanish, and an English one.
The first years of the modern commercial system gave its death-blow to the popularity of this characteristically mediaeval work, and though an effort was made in 1582 to revive it, the attempt was unsuccessful--quite naturally so, since the book was written for men desirous to hear of the wonders of strange lands, and did not give an accurate account of anything. The man who bought cinnamon at Stourbridge Fair in 1380 would have felt poorer if any one had told him that it was not shot from the phoenix' nest with leaden arrows, while the merchant of 1580 wished to know where it was grown, and how much he would pay a pound for it if he bought it at first hand. Any attempt to reconcile these frames of mind was foredoomed to failure.
THE INTEREST OF BARTHOLOMEW'S WORK.--The interest of Bartholomew's work to modern readers is twofold: it has its value as literature pure and simple, and it is one of the most important of the documents by the help of which we rebuild for ourselves the fabric of mediaeval life. The charm of its style lies in its simple forcible language, and its simplicity suits its matter well. On the one hand, we cannot forget it is a translation, but the translation, on the other hand, is from the mediaeval Latin of an Englishman into English.
One of the greatest difficulties in the way of a student is to place himself in the mental attitude of a man of the Middle Ages towards nature; yet only by so doing can he appreciate the solutions that the philosophers of the time offered of the problems of nature. Our author affords perhaps the simplest way of learning what Chaucer and perhaps Shakespeare knew and believed of their surroundings--earth, air, and sea. The plan on which his work was constructed led Bartholomew in order over the universe from God and the angels--through fire, water, air, to earth and all that therein is. We thus obtain a succinct account of the popular mediaeval theories in Astronomy, Physiology, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, and Natural History, all but unattainable otherwise. The aim of our chapter on Science has been to give sufficient extracts to mark the theories on which mediaeval
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