Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
John Leland (c. 1506–1552)
 
[Leland, the antiquary, was born in London about 1500, and educated at St. Paul’s School, at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and at All Souls, Oxford. He spent several years in France and Italy, and returned to England a prodigy of learning. Taking orders, he was appointed a Royal Chaplain and King’s Antiquary, with a commission (dated 1533) to examine the antiquities of the whole country, and with this end to search the libraries of all colleges and religious houses. The moment was opportune, as the dissolution of the monasteries was near at hand. After six years of travel and inquiry he settled in London to digest his materials. But before he could do more than put his vast accumulations in order, his reason became impaired, and he died in 1552. Most of his papers are preserved in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum. They were printed in many volumes in the eighteenth century.]  1
 
LELAND belongs to the useful class of writers who are pioneers. They observe, collect and prepare the material with which the man of historical or scientific genius builds. Leland, whom Antony Wood calls facile princeps of English antiquaries, was almost incredibly laborious, with a faculty of intelligent observation which made him the idol of those who followed in his track. Here is an entry culled at random from his Itinerary:—“Aldborough is about a quarter of a mile from Borough Bridge. This was in the Romans’ time a great city on Watling Street called Isuria Brigantum, and was walled, whereof I saw vestigia quædam sed tenuia.” Hundreds of pages are crammed with similar records of fact, and interspersed here and there are copies of old documents and queries for future consideration. Turning over a volume of his Collectanea, we notice in succession a list of Welsh words with their Latin equivalents, catalogues of manuscripts in various monasteries and colleges, a genealogy of the Earls of Warwick—in short an infinite medley of miscellaneous information. He thus performed single-handed, for the reign of Henry VIII., the task which various learned societies and Royal Commissions endeavour to overtake in our own day. But it would be unfair to call Leland a mere compiler of notes, although his notes, as it happens, are his best memorial. His “New Year’s Gift” shows him to have been a man of large conceptions, full of plans for future work. A reference to his Latin commentaries De Scriptoribus Britannicis enables us to guess how he would have accomplished his projected magnum opus—a Civilis Historia or treatise in fifty books on British antiquities—had his mind not given way. Amid a wilderness of legendary bards and forgotten scholastics it is interesting to find perfectly readable essays on Wycliffe and Chaucer. The sketch of Wycliffe ends with a remark which brings home to us the feelings of the time when Leland wrote:—“Long as it is,” he says (we paraphrase from his Latin) “since Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and burned, our age has not yet seen the conclusion of that tragedy—what it will be, God only knows, to Whose judgment Wycliffe may be left.” The essay on Chaucer is singularly modern in its structure. Commencing with a paragraph on the poet’s birth and education, it proceeds to trace his connection with the contemporary poetry of Italy and France; claims for him that he brought “our tongue to such a pitch of purity and eloquence, of brevity and grace, that it could at last be reckoned one of the languages of civilisation”; quotes various laudatory verses; praises Caxton for his edition of the poet; gives a list of Chaucer’s works; and ends, in the most approved style, with his epitaph. Leland’s Latin style is fluent and copious, but not elegant. Of his English there is little to be said, except that it is clear and straightforward.  2
 
 
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