The Cambridge Modern History - Vol. 2

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER XIX. TENDENCIES OF EUROPEAN THOUGHT IN THE AGE OF THE REFORMATION.

WHEN the sixteenth century opens, the West, with the exception of Italy, is still medieval, distinguished by a superficial uniformity of mind, thinking ideas which it has ceased to believe and using a learned tongue which it can hardly be said to understand. When the century closes, the West, with the possible exception of Italy, now fallen as far to the rear as she once stood in the van, has become modern; its States have developed what we may term a personal consciousness and an individual character, have created a vernacular literature and a native art, and have faced new problems which they seek by the help of their new tongues to state and to solve. In Spain, the land of ancestral and undying pride, the humours of a decayed chivalry have been embodied in a tale which moves to laughter without ever provoking to contempt. In Portugal the navigators have created afresh the epic feeling; a new Iliad has been begotten, where swifter ships plough a vaster sea than was known to the ancient Greeks, where braver heroes than Agamemnon do battle against a mightier Troy, while travellers fare to remoter and stranger lands than those visited by Odysseus. In France, where the passion for unity is beginning to work like madness in the brain, Rabelais speaks in his mother tongue the praises of the new learning; Montaigne makes it the vehicle of the new temper and its cultured doubt; Clement Marot uses it to sing the Psalms of the ancient Hebrew race; John Calvin to defend and commend his strenuous faith; while Descartes, born in this century though writing in the next, states his method, defines his problem, and determines the evolution of modern philosophy, in the language of the people as well as in that of the learned. In England the century began in literary poverty, but it ended in the unapproached wealth of the Elizabethan age. In Germany, where the main intellectual interest was theological and confessional, Martin Luther gave the people hymns that often sound like echoes of the Hebrew Psalter; Kepler, listening to the music which nature reserves for the devout ear, discovered the unity which moves through her apparent disorder; and Jakob Boehme, though but a cobbler, had visions of higher mysteries than the proud can see. The Netherlands proved

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