WHILE adventurers were facing death on new oceans and on the coasts of fabulous new continents, another kind of adventure and exploration was going on in Europe, where scholars sailed uncharted seas of learning. There were two sides to the New Learning of the fifteenth century, or Rennaissance of intellectual life: the spread of scholarship and art, and the Reformation movement in religion.
There was, first, the progress which European civilisation always makes in more or less settled times. Towns, superb cathedrals, and universities had grown up. Modem literature began in the fourteenth century with Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Froissart, and Chaucer. Two significant inventions had been made; gunpowder and printing. Crude cannon were in use, and in 1454, Gutenberg, a German, first cut wooden types for printing. Caxton brought printing to England in 1476. During the fourteenth century there lived Giotto, the first great modern painter, and Donatello, the first great modern sculptor. Italy had a radiant climate, relics of the wonderful Roman world, the capital of a Western Christendom still owing allegiance to the Pope, and contact with Byzantium and the cultured Moslem of the Near East.
It was in Italy, too, that there began the revival of the study of Greek and classical Latin. Mediaeval scholars used Latin familiarly, but it was not very good Latin, and the only great work of classical Latin that they had was Virgil's Sneid. Greek had survived only at Byzantium, as Constantinople
was called, the capital of the eastern half of the old Roman Empire. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, one Chrysoloras came to Italy to teach Greek. Other Greeks followed with manuscript books. In 1453 Byzantium was at last captured by the encroaching Turks, and more of its scholars took refuge in Italy. Thanks to Gutenberg, their Greek books could now be copied in great numbers.
Europe's native literature included a few good English, French, and Italian poems, some good Latin lyrics and hymns, many old knightly romances of some merit, and an arid mass of theology. To such a Europe, eager but intellectually starved, the refugee scholars brought the literature of the Greeks: Homer, in poetry; in history, Thucydides and Herodotus; in drama, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; in oratory, Demosthenes; in philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. The New Learning overwhelmed the men who received it.
It is perhaps hard for us to understand the really passionate enthusiasm with which scholars strove to master Greek, and correct the readings of the rediscovered classical manuscripts. Grammars and dictionaries were very crude, and much was obscure in the ancient writings even to the Byzantine Greeks. Lifetimes of toil completed the work. Browning has given us a living picture of a Grammarian:
"So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar;
Still, thro' the rattle, parts of speech were rife;
While he could stammer He settled Hoti's business-let it be!-
Properly based Oun- Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
Dead from the waist down."