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WHAT some ignorance and superstition existed, every part
when the reformation began, must be admitted. But there is more ground, than is usually supposed, for believing, I. That neither ignorance, II. nor superstition, prevailed in it at any time, to the extent, which has been generally imagined; III. And that a much earlier period, than is usually assigned, ought to be affixed to the revival of learning.
Probable exaggeration of the Ignorance of the
IF any person were required to mention the time, in which, during the middle ages, the arts, and sciences, were at their lowest ebb in Europe, he would, probably, fix on the period, which elapsed between the death of Charlemagne, and the accession of the Capetian dynasty. Now, an excellent dissertation by the abbé le Bæuf, on the state of the sciences in the Gauls, from the death of Charlemagne, till the reign of Robert king of France *, seems to establish, by very strong proofs, that, during the whole of this period, both sacred, and profane literature, the civil and canon law, and the sciences of arithmetic, astronomy, geography, music and medicine, were extensively cultivated. It is true, that many instances of gross and risible ignorance may be produced : but, at a time, when there was so little intercourse, either between countries, or individuals, it would easily happen, that learning might exist, where ignorance was not distant. Even, in the present state of society, when roads and posts have rendered every kind of intercourse so easy, a single family, cultivating, in a provincial town, the elegant arts, with distinction, will make it a seat of polite literature; and give its inhabitants a general taste for learning, which no
* Receuil des divers Ecrits pour servir d'eclaircissement a l'Histoire de France, 2 vols. Paris, 1738.
neighbouring place will possess. How much more frequently, must something of this nature have taken place, when communication of every kind was so difficult! In such times, it might often happen, that the arts would abound in one monastery, or in one town; and be altogether neglected in the adjacent. — This seems to shew satisfactorily, that, when we peruse the histories of the times, to which we are alluding, we should not hastily conclude, from particular instances of ignorance in some places, that a considerable portion of learning did not exist, in others.
Another argument against such a conclusion may, perhaps, be drawn from the state of architecture, and its ornamental appendages, throughout this period. No intellectual eye can behold our antient cathedrals, without being struck with the sublime science and learned labour, which their construction must have required. Our ablest architects confess their ignorance of the means, by which several of their elevated parts were raised, or continue to be supported. To these, we must add the works of gold, silver and bronze, with which, in a less or greater degree, all of them abounded. When we survey these splendid exertions of art and science; and then consider the share of knowledge which they pre-suppose and imply, it is impossible to deny to the ages, which produced them, a high degree of cultivation ; and, when we consider their number, it is equally impossible to imagine, that the knowledge, which raised or ornamented them, was not extensively disseminated.