RENAISSANCE means rebirth, and to make you understand something
of what the word means in our literature I must take you a long
way. You have been told that the fifteenth century was a dull
time in English literature, but that it was also a time of new
action and new life, for the discovery of new worlds and the
discovery of printing had opened men's eyes and minds to new
wonders. There was a third event which added to this new life by
bringing new thought and new learning to England. That was the
taking of Constantinople by the Turks.
It seems difficult to understand how the taking of Constantinople
could have any effect on our literature. I will try to explain,
but in order to do so clearly I must go back to the time of the
All of you have read English history, and there you read of the
Romans. You know what a clever and conquering people they were,
and how they subdued all the wild tribes who lived in the
countries around them. Besides conquering all the barbarians
around them, the Romans conquered another people who were not
barbarians, but who were in some ways more civilized than
themselves. These were the Greeks. They had a great literature,
they were more learned and quite as skilled in the arts of peace
as the Romans. Yet in 146 B.C., long before the Romans came to
our little island, Greece became a Roman province.
Nearly five hundred years later there sat upon the
 throne an
Emperor named Constantine. And he, although Rome was still
pagan, became a Christian. He was, besides, a great and powerful
ruler. His court was brilliant, glittering with all the golden
splendor of those far-off times. But although Rome was still
pagan, Greece, a Roman province, had become Christian. And in
this Christian province Constantine made up his mind to build a
In those days the boundaries of Greece stretched far further than
they do now, and it was upon the shores of the Bosphorus that
Constantine built his new capital. There was already an ancient
town there named Byzantium, but he transformed it into a new and
splendid city. The Emperor willed it to be called New Rome, but
instead the people called it the city of Constantine, and we know
it now as Constantinople.
When Constantinople was founded it was a Roman city. All the
rulers were Roman, all the high posts were filled by Romans, and
Latin was the speech of the people. But in Constantinople it
happened as it had happened in England after the Conquest. In
England, for a time after the Conquest, the rulers were French
and the language was French, but gradually all that passed away,
and the language and the rulers became English once more. So it
was in Constantinople. By degrees it became a Greek city, the
rulers became Greek, and Greek was the language spoken.
In building a second capital Constantine had weakened his Empire.
Soon it was split in two, and there arose a western and an
eastern Empire. As time went on the Western Empire with Rome at
its head declined and fell, while the Eastern Empire with
Constantinople as its capital grew great. But it grew into a
Greek Empire. Even very clever people cannot tell the exact date
at which the Roman Empire came to an end and the Greek or
 Byzantine Empire, as it is called, began. So we need not trouble
about that. All that is needful for us to understand now it that
Constantinople was a Christian city, a Greek city, and a
treasure-house of Greek learning and literature.
Thus Constantinople was the Christian outpost of Europe. For
hundred of year the Byzantine Empire stood as a barrier against
the Saracen hosts of Asia. It might have stood still longer, but
sad to say, this barrier was first broken down by the Christians
themselves. For in 1204 the armies of the fourth Crusade, which
had gathered to fight the heathen, turned their swords, to their
shame be it said, against the Christian people of the Greek
Empire. Constantinople was taken, plundered, and destroyed by
these "pious brigands,"
and the last of the Byzantine Emperors
was first blinded and then flung from a high tower, so that his
body fell shattered to pieces on the paving-stones of his own
Baldwin, Count of Flanders, one of the great leaders of the
Crusade, was then crowned by his followers and acknowledged
Emperor of the East. But the once great Empire was now broken
up, and out of it three lesser Empires, as well as many smaller
states, were formed.
Baldwin did not long rule as Emperor of the East, and the Greeks
after a time succeeded in regaining Constantinople from the
western Christians. But although for nearly two hundred years
longer they kept it, the Empire was dying and lifeless. And by
degrees, as the power of Greece grew less, the power of Turkey
grew greater. At length in 1453 the Sultan Mohammed II attacked
Constantinople. Then the Cross, which for a thousand years and
more had stood upon the ramparts of Christendom, went down before
Constantine XI, the last of the Greek Emperors, knelt
 in the
great church of St. Sophia to receive for the last time the Holy
Sacrament. Then mounting his horse he rode forth to battle.
Fighting for his kingdom and his faith he fell, and over his dead
body the young Sultan and his soldiers rode into the ruined city.
Then in the church, where but a few hours before the fallen
Emperor had knelt and prayed to Christ, the Sultan bowed himself
in thanks and praise to Allah and Mohammed.
And now we come to the point where the taking of Constantinople
and the fall of the Greek Empire touches our literature.
In Constantinople the ancient learning and literature of the
Greeks had lived on year after year. The city was full of
scholars who knew, and loved, and studied the Greek authors. But
now, before the terror of the Turk, driven forth by the fear of
slavery and disgrace, these Greek scholars fled. They fled to
Italy. And although in their flight they had to leave goods and
wealth behind, the came laden with precious manuscripts from the
libraries of Constantinople.
These fugitive Greeks brought to the Italians a learning which
was to them new and strange. Soon all over Europe the news of
the New Learning spread. Then across the Alps scholars thronged
from every country in Europe to listen and to learn.
I do not think I can quite make you understand what this New
Learning was. It was indeed but the old learning of Greece. Yet
there was in it something that can never grow old, for it was
human. It made men turn away from idle dreaming and begin to
learn that the world we live in is real. They began to realize
that there was something more than a past and a future. There
was the present. So, instead of giving all their time to vague
wonderings of what might be, of what never had been, and what
never could be, they began to take an interest in life
 as it was
and in man as he was. They began to see that human life with all
its joys and sorrows was, after all, the most interesting thing
It was a New Birth, and men called it so. For that is the
meaning of Renaissance. Many things besides the fall of
Constantinople helped towards this New Birth. The discovery of
new worlds by daring sailors like Columbus and Cabot, and the
discovery of printing were among them. But the touchstone of the
New Learning was the knowledge of Greek, which had been to the
greater part of Europe a lost tongue. On this side of the Alps
there was not a school or college in which it could be learned.
So to Italy, where the Greek scholars had found a refuge, those
who wished to learn flocked.
Among them were some Oxford scholars. Chief of these were three,
whose names you will learn to know well when you come to read
more about this time. They were William Grocyn, "the most
upright and best of all Britons,"
Thomas Linacre, and John
Colet. These men, returning from Italy full of the New Learning,
began to teach Greek at Oxford. And it is strange now to think
that there were many then who were bitterly against such
teaching. The students even formed themselves into two parties,
for and against. They were called Greeks and Trojans, and
between these two parties man a fierce fight took place, for the
quarrel did not end in words, but often in blows.
The New Learning, however, conquered. And so keenly did men feel
the human interests of such things as were now taught, that we
have come to call grammar, rhetoric, poetry, Greek and Latin the
Humanities, and the professor who teaches these thing the
professor of Humanity.