Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/607

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page needs to be proofread.


The more popular writings of Erasmus had a circulation throughout Europe which even now would be considered enormous. When it was rumoured that the Sorbonne intended to brand his Colloquia as heretical, a Paris bookseller deemed it well to hurry through the press an edition of 24,000 copies. We hear that in 1527 a Spanish version of his Encheiridion (a manual of Christian ethics) could be found in many country-inns throughout Spain. It would probably be difficult to name an author whose writings were so often reprinted in his lifetime as were those of Erasmus. He was not, indeed, a Scaliger, a Casaubon, or a Bentley. He -did not contribute, in the same sense or in a similar degree, to the progress of scientific scholarship. But no one else so effectively propagated the influence of humanism. Of all scholars who have popularised scholarly literature Erasmus was the most brilliant, the man whose aims were loftiest, and who produced lasting effects over the widest area. His work was done, too, at the right moment for the North. A genial power was needed to thaw the frost-bound soil, and to prepare those fruits which each land was to bring forth in its own way.

The energies of the Italian Renaissance had been concentrated on the literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome. The Italian mind had a native and intimate sympathy with classical antiquity. For Italy, the whole movement of the Renaissance is virtually identical with the restoration of classical learning. It is otherwise when we follow that movement into northern Europe. Humanism is still, indeed, the principal organ through which the new spirit works; but the operations of the spirit itself become larger and more varied. The history of the Classical Revival passes, on one side, into that of the Reformation; on another, into provinces which belong to modern literature. It might be said that the close of the Italian Renaissance is also, in strictness, the close of the process by which a knowledge of classical antiquity was restored: what remained, was to diffuse the results throughout Europe, and to give them a riper development. But it is desirable to indicate, at least in outline, the general conditions under which humanism first entered the countries of the North. We may begin with Germany.

In the course of the fifteenth century, some German students had resorted to teachers of the New Learning at various Italian centres. Among the earliest of these was Johann Müller (1436-76), born at Königsberg near Coburg, and hence known as Regiomontanus. He was the first who made humanism the handmaid of science. After working at Vienna under the astronomer Purbach, he went with Cardinal Bessarion to Italy, where he spent several years in studying Greek (1462-70). He translated into Latin the works of Ptolemy, the Conics of Apollonius of Perga, and other scientific treatises. Settling at Nürnberg in 1471, he founded an observatory, and made several improvements in practical astronomy. His Ephemerides, the precursors of nautical almanacs, helped the Spanish and Portuguese explorers to