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SIX HALF.CENTURIES OF EPITAPHS.
[Read December 10, 1877]
ITHIN the last three-quarters of a century literature has witnessed the birth and growth of a new historical method. Never again will the mere annalist be honoured with the title of historian. Livy, Herodotus, William of Malmesbury, Froissart, believed that they had fulfilled their office when they had collected industriously, examined more or less carefully, and written down the picturesque details they had observed or read or heard reported. But when this work has been performed the task of the modern historian is but fairly begun. We have learnt that no development of human history can take place except as the result of causes existing in previous conditions, and moving forward to new issues in the future. Whatever may be the fate of the doctrine of evolution in physical science—a matter on which I have not a word to say, for I have scarcely a single qualification for the enquiry-it is the only principle which can convert historical research from the mere accumulation of a mass of empirical details into a science; it is the only key which unlocks the problems presented to us by each successive epoch; it affords the only means by which we can forecast the future. And the writer who would win and keep the name of historian now, must show not merely what has happened in bygone years, but how the conditions and the events that he describes have come about, and what are the principles that bind the whole into an unbroken chain of cause and effect. In the middle of the last century the history of Greece was a collection of scraps about the quarrels of Athens, Sparta, Thebes. For English readers
Grote finished that. The history of Rome was a long tale in which a succession of soldiers with short swords and long spears won no end of battles, and then gave the conquered codes of inexorable law. Gibbon and Mommsen have finished that. The history of England, barring a tale about Alfred tetting some cakes burn, began with the landing of William of Normandy, passed into darkness again, and made a fresh start when Henry VIII. and the Reformation brought in the New Era, Freeman and Froude have finished that.
In these provinces we have learnt the lesson that evolution is the key to human history. I am to-night to make a humble attempt to apply it to one small, very small, department, I scarcely dare say of literature, but of human thought and feeling.
In the long review of successive generations, no phenomena are more striking than the vast changes in the ideals, the way of regarding the objects of life, the aspirations and the strivings of men of the same country at different epochs. It may be true that the materia prima of humanity is the same at all times and everywhere; it is equally true that the impulses which give form and colour to its outward life exhibit differences incalculably varied and incalculably removed. Not to compare differences more extreme, our own country has seen strange 'changes in all these particulars. For somewhere about a century, Englishmen in numbers were ready to sacrifice ease, friends, money, life, to rescue the Holy Land from the Turk. Two centuries later, and that motive would not extract a groat from an English pocket, would not keep and English head awake an hour at night. Later again came a time when the absorbing end of life seemed to be to fight the Spaniard and the Pope; again, when it was to drown all serious political or religious thoughts in sensual enjoyments, and to sneer at them as the care only of fools; again, when dread of a future judgment moved every rank of society to think of Heaven and Hell, and vast numbers of men to alter their ways accordingly; again, when the accumulation of money has been regarded as the only aim of a sensible man. Each of these epochs had its special literature; and, as the tide that fills the estuary of some great river with the rushing sea, flushes also the shallows of each tiny creek, and is felt amongst the sedges and the willows that grow too far inland for any drop of salt water
ever to reach them, the spirit of the time reaches even the obscurest department of thought. Each of these epochs has its special epitaph! And, as an accomplished bibliographer has no difficulty in fixing within a reasonable number of years the date of a book from internal evidence, as a student of architecture has no difficulty in dating a town hall or a cathedral, so a student of history in its wider sense has no difficulty in ascertaining when an epitaph has been written, and in showing that the same spirit of the time which determined the tone of its poetry, the motives appealed to in its political speeches, the character of its plays, the treatment of its literary topics, has determined the inscriptions on its tombstones too. Within the compass allotted me, I can only indicate and suggest. The application of the principle involved when once perceived is easy enough.
The forms of epitaph to which I propose to apply these principles correspond, speaking broadly, and with the exception of the first form, to six half centuries. I have named them for con
The Dog-Latin, or Medieval, Period. Middle Ages to nearly 1570.
The Renaissance-from 1570 to 1630.
The Puritan-from 1630 to nearly 1700.
The Methodist-from 1770 to 1820.
The Suppressed-from 1820 to present date.
These dates, of course, are approximate only. No year can be named as an exact demarcating line. It must further be borne in mind that a difference of from twenty-five to forty years is evident between the epitaphs of a remote country village and those of a metropolis. London, Bristol, York, Oxford, Cambridge, furnish the dates of earliest change. A churchyard in Westmoreland or Derbyshire will furnish amongst the latest. Between the two ar all the gradations in proportion to the intercourse of the place with some greater centre, in epitaphs as in all forms of changing expression besides.
During the long intellectual night that followed the breakup of the Roman Empire, when the universal language of the learned
was Latin of the canine type, the epitaph was often a fearful and wonderful affair. But it is, I regret to say, vain to attempt to reproduce in English the elaborate encomiums of dead abbots and priors which, couched in their strange jargon of medieval latin, the monks were fond of spending their ingenuity upon. Their Dog-latin Form is of their essence. What is usually taken for granted in them is that the world was made for priests, and that virtue consists in living in a damp cell, in singing endless psalms, and in obeying spiritual superiors; and the epitaph shows the ideal plainly enough. Any man who can read Dog-latin with ease can easily recognize the epitaph.
But the Renaissance came, and with it came the longsmouldering revolt against the rule of the priests. The Humanists, nowhere so vividly called up before us as in Friedrich Strauss' Life of Ulrich von Hütten, brought into letters the new spirit of freedom which they had imbibed from the recovered literature of, Greece and classic Rome. Erasmus, Dean Colet, von Hütten,
and men of the type of Browning's Grammarian, who
Settled Hoti's business-let it be
Properly based Oun,
Gave us the doctrine of the Enclitic De.,
Dead from the waist down,
brought in the new impulses in letters, as Luther did in religion. In architecture, Gothic was dead-had died in Tudor-and had left no child behind. The old heathen temples and basilicas furnished the new models. Wren built St. Paul's, and gave to Byzantine the grandest of Renaissance cathedrals this side the Alps; Michael Angelo St. Peter's, the grandest on the other. But it suffices to indicate this magnificent burst of intellect when one names Michael Angelo, Shakspere, Columbus. The epitaph is no longer a mere piece of monkish adulation of the churchman and of the virtues of the cloister. Men, it recognizes, were made for the great world of action and suffering, for love and marriage, for travel and for trade; not sent here to mumble prayers at shrines of dubious saints. In Worcester Cathedral is a tablet of the Renaissance period inscribed :
Depositu Roberti Luddington generosi hic prope
Obiit Aug. 4 A.D. 1625.
Etat suæ 76.
How many grains of salt must be taken with this marvellous
Mane, hospes, et lege. Magr Henricus Bright Celeberri-
4 Martis suaviter requievit in Domino.
In the same cathedral, in quaint capitals, is a memorial of an early Protestant bishop:
IN • GODES
NICHOLAUS EPIS WIGORN HERE BORNE HERE BISHOP'
CHANGED THIS LIFE FOR
18 APRILIS 1576.