Read CHAPTER VII of History of the Intellectual Development of Europe‚ Volume II, free online book, by John William Draper, on



 Arrived at the commencement of the Age of Reason, we might profitably examine the social condition of those countries destined to become conspicuous in the new order of things. I have not space to present such an examination as extensively as it deserves, and must limit my remarks to that nation which, of all others, is most interesting to the English or American reader that England which we picture to ourselves as foremost in civilization, her universities dating back for many centuries; her charters and laws, on which individual, and therefore social, liberty rests, spoken of as the ancient privileges of the realm; her people a clear-headed race, lovers and stout defenders of freedom. During by far the greater part of the past period she had been Catholic, but she had also been Reformed ever, as she will always be, religious. A correct estimate of her national and individual life will point out to us all that had been done in the Age of Faith. From her condition we may gather what is the progress made by man when guided by such theological ideas as those which had been her rule of life.

The following paragraphs convey an instructive lesson. They dissipate some romantic errors; they are a verdict on a political system from its practical results. What a contrast with the prodigious advancement made within a few years when the Age of Reason had set in! How strikingly are we reminded of the inconsequential, the fruitless actions of youth, and the deliberate, the durable undertakings of manhood!

For many of the facts I have now to mention the reader will find authorities in the works of Lord Macaulay and Mr. Froude on English history. My own reading in other directions satisfies me that the picture here offered represents the actual condition of things.

Our estimate of the influence of the system under which men were thus living as a regulator of their passions may at this point derive much exactness from incidents such as those offered by the history of syphilis and the usages of war. For this purpose we may for a moment glance at the Continent.

If thus the sins man practises in privacy became suddenly and accidentally exposed, that exposure showing how weak is the control that any system can exercise over human passions, we are brought to the same melancholy conclusion when we turn to those crimes that may be perpetrated in the face of day. The usages of war in the civil contests of the fifteenth century, or in the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth, are perfectly appalling; the annals of those evil days are full of wanton and objectless barbarities, refusal of quarter, murder in cold blood, killing of peasants. Invading armies burnt and destroyed everything in their way; the taking of plunder and ransom of prisoners were recognized sources of wealth. Prosperous countries were made “a sea of fire;” the horrible atrocities of the Spaniards in America were rivalled by those practised in Europe; deliberate directions were given to make whole tracts “a desert.” Attempts had been made to introduce some amelioration into warfare again and again, either by forbidding hostilities at certain times, as was the object of the “truces of God,” repeatedly enforced by ecclesiastical authority, or by establishing between the combatants themselves courtesies which are at once the chief grace and glory of chivalry; but, to judge by the result as offered, even so late as the eighteenth century, those attempts must be regarded as having proved altogether abortive.

These are serious charges; they imply that the Church had degenerated into a contrivance for the extortion of money. The House of Commons petitioned the king to make such laws as should furnish a remedy. The king submitted the petition to the bishops, and required of them an answer.

Only a few years before the period under consideration Parliament had resolved that “all pictures in the royal collection which contained representations of Jesus or the Virgin Mother should be burnt; Greek statues were delivered over to Puritan stone-masons to be made decent.” A little earlier, Lewis Muggleton had given himself out as the last and greatest of the prophets, having power to save or damn whom he pleased. It had been revealed to him that God is only six feet high, and the sun only four miles off. The country beyond the Trent was still in a state of barbarism, and near the sources of the Tyne there were people scarcely less savage than American Indians, their “half-naked women chanting a wild measure, while the men, with brandished dirks, danced a war-dance.”

The clergy, however, had not fallen into this condition without in a measure deserving it. Their time had been too much occupied in persecuting Puritans and other sectaries, with whom they would have gladly dealt in the same manner as they had dealt with the Jews, who, from the thirteenth century till Cromwell, were altogether interdicted from public worship. The University of Oxford had ordered the political works of Buchanan, Milton, and Baxter to be publicly burnt in the court of the schools. The immortal vagabond, Bunyan, had been committed to jail for preaching the way of salvation to the common people, and had remained there twelve years, the stout old man refusing to give his promise not to offend in that manner again. The great doctrine inculcated from the pulpit was submission to temporal power. Men were taught that rebellion is a sin not less deadly than witchcraft. On a community thirsting after the waters of life were still inflicted wearisome sermons respecting “the wearing of surplices, position at the Eucharist, or the sign of the cross at baptism,” things that were a stench in the nostrils of the lank-haired Puritan, who, with his hands clasped on his bosom, his face corrugated with religious astringency, the whites of his eyes turned upward to heaven, rocking himself alternately on his heels and the tips of his toes, delivered, in a savoury prayer uttered through his nose, all such abominations of the Babylonish harlot to the Devil, whose affairs they were.

As late as the sixteenth century they were the only means of mental access to the public, and we should find, if we were to enter on a detailed examination of either one or the other, that they furnish a vivid reflexion of the popular intellectual condition. Leaving to others such interesting researches into the comparative anatomy of the English pulpit, I may, for a moment, direct attention to theatrical exhibitions.

With peculiar facility we may, therefore, through an examination of the state of the drama, determine national mental condition. The same may be done by a like examination of the state of the pulpit. Whoever will take the trouble to compare the results cannot fail to observe how remarkably they correspond.

Such was the state of the literature of amusement; as to political literature, even at the close of the period we are considering, it could not be expected to flourish after the judges had declared that no man could publish political news except he had been duly authorized by the crown. Newspapers were, however, beginning to be periodically issued, and, if occasion called for it, broadsides, as they were termed were added. In addition, newsletters were written by enterprising individuals in the metropolis, and sent to rich persons who subscribed for them; they then circulated from family to family, and doubtless enjoyed a privilege which has not descended to their printed contemporary, the newspaper, of never becoming stale. Their authors compiled them from materials picked up in the gossip of the coffee-houses. The coffee-houses, in a non-reading community, were quite an important political as well as social institution. They were of every kind, prelatical, popish, Puritan, scientific, literary, Whig, Tory. Whatever a man’s notions might be, he could find in London, in a double sense, a coffee-house to his taste. In towns of considerable importance the literary demand was insignificant; thus it is said that the father of Dr. Johnson, the lexicographer, peddled books from town to town, and was accustomed to open a stall in Birmingham on market-days, and it is added that this supply of literature was equal to the demand.