THE AGE OF EXPRESSION
THE PEOPLE BEGAN TO FEEL THE NEED OF GIVING EXPRESSION TO THEIR NEWLY DISCOVERED JOY OF LIVING. THEY EXPRESSED THEIR HAPPINESS IN POETRY AND IN SCULPTURE AND IN ARCHITECTURE AND IN PAINTING AND IN THE BOOKS THEY PRINTED
 IN the year 1471 there died a pious old man who had spent
seventy-two of his ninety-one years behind the sheltering walls
of the cloister of Mount St. Agnes near the good town of
Zwolle, the old Dutch Hanseatic city on the river Ysel. He
was known as Brother Thomas and because he had been born
in the village of Kempen, he was called Thomas à Kempis.
At the age of twelve he had been sent to Deventer, where
Gerhard Groot, a brilliant graduate of the universities of
Paris, Cologne and Prague, and famous as a wandering
preacher, had founded the Society of the Brothers of the
Common Life. The good brothers were humble laymen who
tried to live the simple life of the early Apostles of Christ
while working at their regular jobs as carpenters and
house-painters and stone masons. They maintained an excellent
school, that deserving boys of poor parents might be taught
the wisdom of the Fathers of the church. At this school,
little Thomas had learned how to conjugate Latin verbs and
how to copy manuscripts. Then he had taken his vows, had
 put his little bundle of books upon his back, had wandered to
Zwolle and with a sigh of relief he had closed the door upon a
turbulent world which did not attract him.
Thomas lived in an age of turmoil, pestilence and sudden
death. In central Europe, in Bohemia, the devoted disciples of
Johannes Huss, the friend and follower of John Wycliffe, the
English reformer, were avenging with a terrible warfare the death
of their beloved leader who had been burned at the stake by order of
that same Council of Constance, which had promised him a safe-conduct
if he would come to Switzerland and explain his doctrines to the Pope,
the Emperor, twenty-three cardinals, thirty-three archbishops and bishops,
one hundred and fifty abbots and more than a hundred princes and
dukes who had gathered together to reform their church.
In the west, France had been fighting for a hundred years that
she might drive the English from her territories and just then was
saved from utter defeat by the fortunate appearance of Joan of Arc.
And no sooner had this struggle come to an end than France and Burgundy
were at each other's throats, engaged upon a struggle of life and death
for the supremacy of western Europe.
In the south, a Pope at Rome was calling the curses of
Heaven down upon a second Pope who resided at Avignon,
in southern France, and who retaliated in kind. In the
far east the Turks were destroying the last remnants of the
Roman Empire and the Russians had started upon a final
crusade to crush the power of their Tartar masters.
 But of all this, Brother Thomas in his quiet cell never
heard. He had his manuscripts and his own thoughts and
he was contented. He poured his love of God into a little
volume. He called it the Imitation of Christ. It has since
been translated into more languages than any other book
save the Bible. It has been read by quite as many people
as ever studied the Holy Scriptures. It has influenced the
lives of countless millions. And it was the work of a man
whose highest ideal of existence was expressed in the simple
wish that "he might quietly spend his days sitting in a little
corner with a little book."
Good Brother Thomas represented the purest ideals of the
Middle Ages. Surrounded on all sides by the forces of the
victorious Renaissance, with the humanists loudly proclaiming
the coming of modern times, the Middle Ages gathered
strength for a last sally. Monasteries were reformed. Monks
gave up the habits of riches and vice. Simple, straightforward
and honest men, by the example of their blameless
and devout lives, tried to bring the people back to the ways of
righteousness and humble resignation to the will of God. But
all to no avail. The new world rushed past these good people.
The days of quiet meditation were gone. The great era of
"expression" had begun.
Here and now let me say that I am sorry that I must use
so many "big words." I wish that I could write this history in
words of one syllable. But it cannot be done. You cannot
write a text-book of geometry without reference to a hypotenuse
and triangles and a rectangular parallelopiped. You
simply have to learn what those words mean or do without
mathematics. In history (and in all life) you will eventually
be obliged to learn the meaning of many strange words of
Latin and Greek origin. Why not do it now?
When I say that the Renaissance was an era of expression,
I mean this: People were no longer contented to be the
audience and sit still while the emperor and the pope told
them what to do and what to think. They wanted to be actors
 upon the stage of life. They insisted upon giving "expression"
to their own individual ideas. If a man happened to be interested
in statesmanship like the Florentine historian, Niccolo
Macchiavelli, then he "expressed" himself in his books which
revealed his own idea of a successful state and an efficient
ruler. If on the other hand he had a liking for painting, he
"expressed" his love for beautiful lines and lovely colours in
the pictures which have made the names of Giotto, Fra Angelico,
Rafael and a thousand others household words wherever
people have learned to care for those things which express
a true and lasting beauty.
THE MANUSCRIPT AND THE PRINTED BOOK
If this love for colour and line happened to be combined with
an interest in mechanics and hydraulics, the result was a Leonardo
da Vinci, who painted his pictures, experimented with
his balloons and flying machines, drained the marshes of the
Lombardian plains and "expressed" his joy and interest in all
 things between Heaven and Earth in prose, in painting, in
sculpture and in curiously conceived engines. When a man of
gigantic strength, like Michael Angelo, found the brush and
the palette too soft for his strong hands, he turned to sculpture
and to architecture, and hacked the most terrific creatures out
of heavy blocks of marble and drew the plans for the church
of St. Peter, the most concrete "expression" of the glories
of the triumphant church. And so it went.
All Italy (and very soon all of Europe) was filled with
men and women who lived that they might add their mite to
the sum total of our accumulated treasures of knowledge and
beauty and wisdom. In Germany, in the city of Mainz, Johann
zum Gänsefleisch, commonly known as Johann Gutenberg, had
just invented a new method of copying books. He had studied
the old woodcuts and had perfected a system by which individual
letters of soft lead could be placed in such a way that
they formed words and whole pages. It is true, he soon lost
all his money in a law-suit which had to do with the original
invention of the press. He died in poverty, but the "expression"
of his particular inventive genius lived after him.
Soon Aldus in Venice and Etienne in Paris and Plantin in
Antwerp and Froben in Basel were flooding the world with
carefully edited editions of the classics printed in the Gothic
letters of the Gutenberg Bible, or printed in the Italian type
which we use in this book, or printed in Greek letters, or in
Then the whole world became the eager audience of those
who had something to say. The day when learning had been
a monopoly of a privileged few came to an end. And the
last excuse for ignorance was removed from this world, when
Elzevier of Haarlem began to print his cheap and popular
editions. Then Aristotle and Plato, Virgil and Horace and
Pliny, all the goodly company of the ancient authors and
philosophers and scientists, offered to become man's faithful
friend in exchange for a few paltry pennies. Humanism had
made all men free and equal before the printed word.