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Cathalonye and were norysshed there, and in alle the good townes of Cathalonie and of the reaume of Valence whatso ever seemed to them choyce and faire langage, they dyd their endeavoure to learne the same. And so eche of hem was a more parfyt Cathalonian than alle other, and spake the fayrest Cathalan."*
The systematic cultivation of the modern Continental languages began much earlier than that of English. They had generally advanced to a high degree of development, and acquired the characteristic grammatical features which now distinguish them, at a period when even the most polished of the English dialects was but a patois. Several of them indeed had produced original works in both poetry and prose, which still rank among the master-pieces of modern genius, before Anglo-Norman England had given birth to a single composition which yet maintains an acknowledged place in the literature of the nation. Although the Icelandic can hardly be called a modern language, yet it possesses, besides the poems and traditions of the heathen era, an original modern literature modified by the same general Christian influences which have colored all the recent mental efforts of Europe. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries produced in that remote island poems of remarkable merit, and prose compositions which have no superiors in the narrative literature of any age. The Nibelungen Lied, the great epic of Ger
* “E aquest en Corral Llança exi hu dells bells homens del mon, e mills parlant e pus saui, si que en aquell temps se deya, quel pus bell cathalaneseb del mon era dell e del dit en Roger de Luria; e no era marauella, que ells, axi com dauant vos he dit, vengren molt fadrins en Cathalunya, e nudrirense de cascun lloch de Cathalunya e del regne de Valencia tot ço que bo ne bell parlar los paria ells aprengueren. E axi cascu dells fo lo pus perfet Cathala que negun altre, e ab pus bell cathalanesch.”—Ramon Muntaner, 1562, cap. xviii.
many, dates probably as far back as the year twelve hundred. Castilian, Catalan, Provenzal and French genius had already embodied themselves in poetic forms, which determined the character of the subsequent literatures of those languages, before the close of the thirteenth century, and the commencement of the fourteenth was marked by the appearance of Dante's great work, which still stands almost alone in the poetry, not of Italy only, but of modern Europe.
The later origin of English literature is to be ascribed partly to the fact that England, from its insular position, was less open to the exciting causes which roused to action the intellect of the continent, but chiefly, no doubt, to the condition of the language itself. The tongues of Iceland, of Germany, of Italy, of Spain, and in a less degree of France also, were substantially homogeneous in their etymology and structure, and the separate dialects of each stock, Gothic and Romance, were closely enough allied to facilitate the study of all of them to those to whom any one was vernacular, and thus to secure to them a great reciprocal philological and literary influence. The countries to which they belonged were also territorially and politically more or less connected, and thus an unbroken chain of social and literary action and reaction extended from the Arctic ocean to the Mediterranean,
English, on the contrary, was not only a composite speech, but built up of very discordant ingredients, and spoken in an isolated locality. The British islands had no relations of commerce or politics with any country but Northern and Western France, and the comparatively unimportant Netherland provinces. A longer period was naturally required for the assimilation of the constituents of the language, and for the action of the influences which, before that assimilation was completed, had already created the literatures of the Continental nations. In a country ruled by Norman princes, all governmental and aristocratic influences were unfavorable to the cultivation of the native speech, and the growth of a national literature. The Romish church, too, in England, as everywhere else, was hostile to all intellectual effort which in any degree diverged from the path marked out by ecclesiastical habit and tradition, and very many important English benefices were held by foreign priests quite ignorant of the English tongue. Robert of Gloucester, who flourished about two hundred years after the conquest, says:
Wyllam, þys noble duc, po he adde ydo al þys,
And in the following century, as we learn from an old chronicler, “ John Cornewaile, a maister of grammar, changed the lore in grammar scole, and construction, of Frenche into Englische: so that now, the year of our Lord a thousand three hundred and 4 score and five, and of the seconde Kyng Richard after the conquest nyne, in alle the grammar scoles of Engelond children leveth Frensche, and construeth and lerneth on Englische.”
* Robert of Gloucester, p. 364.
Under such circumstances, it is by no means strange, that the progress of the language and literature of England should have been slow, and it is rather matter of surprise that the fourteenth century should have left so noble monuments of English genius, than that the literary memorials of that era should be so few. But, although the long reign of Edward III. was as remarkable for the splendid first-fruits of a great national literature as for its political and martial triumphs and reverses, the language was not at that time sufficiently cleared of dialectic confusion, and sufficiently settled in its forms and syntax, to admit of grammatical and critical treatment, as a distinctly organized speech. While, therefore, the thirteenth century produced in Iceland a learned and complete treatise on the poetic art as suited to the genius of the Old-Northern tongue,* and Jacme March, a contemporary of Chaucer, had composed a Catalan vocabulary and dictionary of rhymes, with metrical precepts and examples, the English had not even a dictionary or grammar, still less critical treatises, until a much later period. It will be evident from all this, that the remains of the English speech, in its earliest forms, as a literary medium, must be relatively few, and that it is by no means easy to trace the progress of changes which ended in the substitution of our present piebald dialect for the comparatively homogeneous and consistent Saxon tongue. A language which exists, for centuries, only as the jargon of an unlettered peasantry and a despised race, will preserve but few memorials of its ages of humiliation, and as I have before noticed, the indifference with which English philology
* The prose Edda, or Edda of Snorri Sturluson.
has been hitherto too generally regarded has suffered to perish, or still withholds from the public eye, a vast amount of material which mnight have been employed for the elucidation of many points of great historical, literary, and linguistic interest. Halliwell's Dictionary, containing more than fifty thousand archaic and provincial words and obsolete forms, is illustrated with citations drawn in the largest proportion from unpublished manuscript authorities, and it is evident from the titles of the works quoted and the character of the extracts, as well as from the testimony of scholars, that many of them must be of very great philological value.*
* Until very lately, the modernization of every reprint of an English classic was almost as much a settled practice as the adoption of a fashionable style of binding. Dryden, Pope, and Wordsworth have not scrupled to lay a profane hand upon Chaucer, a mightier genius than either, and Milton is not allowed to appear in the orthography which he deliberately and systematically employed. Archbishop Parker was so zealous for the preservation, or rather the restoration, of ancient forms, that he printed even the Latin of Asser's life of Alfred in the Anglo-Saxon character. The association which takes its name from Parker, in republishing the English theological writings of the sixteenth century, a series extending to more than fifty volumes, and which, unmutilated, would have been invaluable as a treasure of genuine, primitive, nervous English, has clipped and restamped the whole in such a manner as to deprive these works of all their interest, except for professional theological inquirers, and very greatly to diminish their value even for them. The recently-discovered manuscript of the Farl of Devonshire's translation of Paleario's Treatise on the Benefits of Christ's Death is evidently a copy made by an ignorant transcriber, and its orthography is extremely incorrect and variable. In preparing it for the press, it was, unfortunately, deemed expedient to reform the spelling, for the sake of making it more uniform and intelligible, as well as correct, and the task has been executed with great care, and in as good faith as the erroneous principle adopted would admit of. As a frontispiece, a fac-simile of one of the very small pages of the manuscript is given, containing eighteen lines, or about one hundred and twenty-five words. In printing the text of this page, the editor has omitted a comma in the seventh line, and thereby changed, or, at least, obscured, the meaning of a very important and very clear passage, which contained the marrow of the whole treatise. Of course, any departure from the letter in a weighty period, unless it is supposed to be a mere typographical accident, destroys the confidence of critical readers in the edition, and the book, in a grammatical point of view, becomes worthless. The manuscript in question is