It is not true to assert, as some writers have asserted, that before the Reformation England was a land shrouded in the mists of ignorance; that there were no schools or colleges for imparting secular education till the days of Edward VI.; that apart from practices such as pilgrimages, indulgences, and invocation of the saints, there was no real religion among the masses; that both secular and regular clergy lived after a manner more likely to scandalise than to edify the faithful; that the people were up in arms against the exactions and privileges of the clergy, and that all parties only awaited the advent of a strong leader to throw off the yoke of Rome. These are sweeping generalisations based upon isolated abuses put forward merely to discredit the English mediaeval Church, but wholly unacceptable to those who are best acquainted with the history of the period. On the other side it would be equally wrong to state that everything was so perfect in England that no reforms were required. Many abuses, undoubtedly, had arisen in various departments of religious life, but these abuses were of such a kind that they might have been removed had the Convocations of the clergy been free to pursue their course, nor do they justify an indiscriminate condemnation of the entire ecclesiastical body.
It is true that the Renaissance movement had made great progress on the other side of the Alps before its influence could be felt even in educated circles in England, but once the attention of the English scholars was drawn to the revival of classical studies many of them made their way to the great masters of Italy, and returned to utilise the knowledge they had acquired for the improvement of the educational system of their country. Selling and Hadley, both monks, Linacre, one of the leaders of medical science in his own time, Dean Colet of Westminster whose direction of St. Paul's College did so much to improve the curriculum of the schools, Bishop Fisher of Rochester described by Erasmus as "a man without equal at this time both as to integrity of life, learning, or broadminded sympathies" with the possible exception of Archbishop Warham of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and one of the earliest martyrs for the faith in the reign of Henry VIII., were but a few of the prominent men in a movement that made itself felt throughout the entire country. Nowhere did Erasmus find a more enthusiastic welcome or more generous patrons and nowhere were his writings more thoroughly appreciated than in England.
Nor is it true to say that the advocates of classical learning were animated by hostility to the Catholic Church in their demand for an improvement in educational methods. Some murmurs were, indeed, heard in certain quarters, and charges of unorthodoxy were formulated vaguely against Colet and others of his party, but these were but the criticisms levelled in all ages against those who are in advance of their time, nor do they require serious refutation. The English Humanists had nothing in common with the neo-pagan writers of the Italian Renaissance as regards religion, and they gave no indication of hostility to Rome. Whatever other influences may have contributed to bring about the religious revolution in England, it was certainly not due to the Renaissance, for to a man its disciples were as loyal to the Catholic Church as were their two greatest leaders Fisher and More, who laid down their lives rather than prove disloyal to the successor of St. Peter.
Nor was education generally neglected in the country. The lists of students attending Oxford and Cambridge in so far as they have been preserved point to the fact that in the days immediately preceding the Reformation these great seats of learning were in a most flourishing condition, and that for them the religious revolt fell little short of proving disastrous. The explanation of the sudden drop in the number of students attending the universities is to be found partially at least in the disturbed condition of the country, but more particularly in the destruction of the religious houses, which sent up many of their members to Oxford and Cambridge, and which prepared a great number of pupils in their schools for university matriculation, as well as in the confiscation of the funds out of which bishops, chapters, monasteries, religious confraternities, and religious guilds, presented exhibitions to enable the children of the poor to avail themselves of the advantages of higher education. Nor was England of the fifteenth century without a good system of secondary schools. It is a common belief that Edward VI. was the founder of English secondary colleges, and that during the first fifty years after the Reformation more was done for this department of education than had been done in the preceding three hundred years. That such a belief is entirely erroneous may be proved from the records of the commissions held in the reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI., from which it appears that there were close on three hundred secondary schools in England before 1549, and that Henry VIII. and particularly Edward VI. ought to be regarded as the despoilers rather than as the patrons of the English colleges. Distinct from the universities and from the mere primary schools there were in existence at the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. seven classes of educational establishments, namely, cathedral, collegiate, and monastic colleges, colleges in connexion with hospitals, guilds, chantries, and independent institutions. These were worked in perfect co-ordination with the universities, and in most cases exhibitions were provided for the poorer scholars. "The Grammar Schools which existed," says a reliable authority, "were not mere monkish schools or choristers' schools or elementary schools. Many of them were the same schools which now live and thrive. All were schools of exactly the same type, and performing precisely the same sort of functions as the public schools and grammar schools of to-day. There were indeed also choristers' schools and elementary schools. There were scholarships at schools and exhibitions thence to the universities, and the whole paraphernalia of secondary education. Nor was secondary education understood in any different sense to that in which it was understood up to fifty years ago. It was conducted on the same lines and in the main by instruments of the same kind, if not identically the same, as those in use till the present generation."
It cannot be said with justice that the English people at the time were either badly instructed in the principles of their religion or indifferent to the practices of the Church to which they belonged. The decrees of the Synod of Oxford (1281), commanding the clergy who had care of souls to explain regularly in simple language, intelligible to their hearers the articles of the creed, the commandments, the sacraments, the seven deadly sins and the seven works of mercy, were renewed more than once, and presumably were enforced by the bishops. The books published for the instruction of the faithful as for example, /The Work for Householders/, /Dives et Pauper/, /The Interpretation and Signification of the Mass/, /The Art of Good Living/, etc., emphasise very strongly the duty of attending the religious instruction given by the clergy, while the manuals written for the guidance of the clergy make it very clear that preaching was a portion of their duties that should not be neglected. The fact that religious books of this kind were multiplied so quickly, once the art of printing had been discovered, affords strong evidence that neither priests nor people were unmindful of the need for a thorough understanding of the truths of their religion. The visitations of the parishes, during which some of the prominent parishioners were summoned to give evidence about the manner in which the priests performed their duty of instructing the people, were in themselves a great safeguard against pastoral negligence, and so far as they have been published they afford no grounds for the statement that the people were left in ignorance regarding the doctrines and practices of their religion. Apart entirely from the work done by the clergy in the pulpits and churches, it should be remembered that in the cities and even in the most remote of the rural parishes religious dramas were staged at regular intervals, and were of the greatest assistance in bringing before the minds even of the most uneducated the leading events of biblical history and the principal truths of Christianity.
That the people of England as a body hearkened to the instructions of their pastors is clear enough from the testimony of foreign visitors, from the records of the episcopal visitations, the pilgrimages to shrines of devotion at home and abroad, from the anxiety for God's honour and glory as shown in the zeal which dictated the building or decoration of so many beautiful cathedrals and churches, the funds for which were provided by rich and poor alike, and from the spirit of charity displayed in the numerous bequests for the relief of the poor and the suffering. The people of England at the beginning of the sixteenth century were neither idol-worshippers nor victims of a blind superstition. They understood just as well as Catholics understand at the present day devotions to Our Lady and to the Saints; Images, Pictures and Statues, Purgatory, Indulgences and the effects of the Mass. Nor were they so ignorant of the Sacred Scriptures as is commonly supposed. The sermons were based upon some Scripture text taken as a rule from the epistle and gospel proper to the Sunday or festival, and were illustrated with a wealth of references and allusions drawn from both the Old and New Testament sufficient to make it clear that the Bible was not a sealed book either for the clergy or laity. The fact that there was such a demand for commentaries on and concordances to the Scriptures makes it clear that the clergy realised sufficiently the importance of Scriptural teaching from the pulpits, and the abundant quotations to be found in the books of popular devotion, not to speak of the religious dramas based upon events in biblical history, go far to show that the needs of the laity in this respect were not overlooked.
It is said, however, that the use of the Scriptures in the vernacular was forbidden to the English people, and a decree of a Synod held at Oxford in 1408 is cited in proof of this statement. The Synod of Oxford did not forbid the use of vernacular versions. It forbade the publication or use of unauthorised translations, and in the circumstances of the time, when the Lollard heretics were strong and were endeavouring to win over the people to their views by disseminating corrupt versions of the Scripture, such a prohibition is not unintelligible. It should be borne in mind that French was the language of the educated and was the official language of the English law courts and of the Parliament till after 1360. The French or Latin versions then current were, therefore, amply sufficient for those who were likely to derive any advantage from the study of the Bible, while at the same time the metrical paraphrases of the important books of the Old Testament and of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, and the English prose translation of the Psalms, went far to meet the wants of the masses. From the clear evidence of writers like Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and one of the best informed men of his time, of Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and of Foxe the author of the so-called Martyrology, it can be established beyond the shadow of a doubt that prior to the Reformation there existed an English Catholic version of the Scriptures, which was approved for use by the ecclesiastical authorities. It is true, indeed, that the bishops of England made extraordinary efforts to prevent the circulation of the versions made by Tyndale and Coverdale, but considering the glosses, the corruptions, and the mis-translations with which these abound no fair-minded person could expect them to have acted otherwise. Their action was not dictated by hostility to the reading of the Scriptures but by their opposition to heretical doctrines, which it was sought to disseminate among the people by means of dishonest versions of the Scriptures. The English bishops were not content merely with prohibiting the use of these works. They were most anxious to bring out a correct translation of the Scriptures for general use, and were prevented from doing so only by the action of Henry VIII. and of the heretical advisers, who urged him to make it impossible for the bishops to carry out their design.
It would, however, be far from the truth to assert that everything was faultless during the years preceding the Reformation, or that all the clergy were as perfect as they might have been. England, like every other country at the same period, was afflicted with the terrible evils resulting from the appropriation of parishes by laymen and by religious establishments, a system which made it impossible for a bishop to govern his diocese properly, from the non-residence of both bishops and higher clergy, and from the plurality of benefices, which meant that a person might be permitted to hold two or more benefices to which the care of souls was attached, thereby rending impossible the proper discharge of pastoral duties. More priests, too, were ordained than could be provided with appointments, and consequently many of the clergy were forced to act as chaplains and tutors in private families, where they were treated as servants rather than as equals, and where it was only too easy for them to lose the sense of respect for their dignity and for themselves, and to sink to the level of those with whom they were obliged to consort. It is not to be wondered at if evidence is forthcoming that in particular cases, more especially in Wales, clerical celibacy was not observed as it should have been, or that in several instances the duty of preaching and instructing the people was not discharged, nor is it surprising to find that men who were comparatively unlearned were promoted over the heads of their more educated companions to the disgust of the universities and of those interested in the better education of the clergy. Considering the fact that so many of the bishops were engaged in the service of the State to the neglect of their duties in their dioceses, and bearing also in mind the selfish use made too frequently of the rights of lay patronage and the disorganisation to which even the most enlightened use of such patronage was likely to lead, it is little less than marvellous that the great body of the clergy were as educated, zealous, and irreproachable as they can be proved to have been.
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