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BOOK

II.

A. D.

669.

They also cultivated in this monastery the study of natural philosophy and astronomy. There remain of Beda one entire book, and some scattered essays on these subjects. This book, de Rerum Naturâ, is concise and methodical, and contains no very contemptible abstract of the physicks, which were taught in the decline of the Roman empire. It was somewhat unfortunate, that the infancy of English learning was supported by the dotage of the Roman, and that even the spring-head from whence they drew their instructions was itself corrupted. However, the works of the great masters of the ancient science still remained; but in natural philosophy the worst was the most fashionable. The Epicurean physicks, the most approaching to rational, had long lost all credit by being made the support of an impious theology and a loose morality. The fine visions of Plato fell into some discredit by the abuse, which hereticks had made of them; and the writings of Aristotle seem to have been then the only ones much regarded, even in natural philosophy, in which branch of science alone they are unworthy of him. Beda entirely follows his system. The appearances of Nature are explained by matter and form, and by the four vulgar elements; acted upon by the four supposed qualities of hot, dry, moist, and cold. His astronomy is on the common system of the ancients; sufficient for the few purposes, to which they

applied

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II.

applied it; but otherwise imperfect and grossly er- CHAP. roneous. He makes the moon larger than the earth; though a reflection on the nature of eclipses, which a. D. he understood, might have satisfied him of the con- 669. trary. But he had so much to copy, that he had little time to examine. These speculations, however erroneous, were still useful; for though men err in assigning the causes of natural operations, the works of Nature are by this means brought under their consideration; which cannot be done without enlarging the mind. The science may be false, or frivolous; the improvement will be real. It may here be remarked, that soon afterwards the monks began to apply themselves to astronomy and chronology from the disputes, which were carried on with so much heat, and so little effect, concerning the proper time of celebrating Easter; and the English owed the cultivation of these noble sciences to one of the most trivial controversies of ecclesiastick discipline. Beda did not confine his attention to those superiour sciences. He treated of musick, and of rhetorick, of grammar, and the art of versification, and of arithmetick, both by letters and on the fingers and his work on this last subject is the only one, in which that piece of antique curiosity has been preserved to us. All these are short pieces; some of them are in the catechetical method; and seem designed for the immediate use of the pupils in his monastery, in order to furnish them

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BOOK them with some leading ideas in the rudiments of II. these arts, then newly introduced into his country. A. D. He likewise made, and probably for the same pur669. pose, a very ample and valuable collection of short

philosophical, political, and moral maxims from Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and other sages of heathen antiquity. He made a separate book of shining common-places and remarkable passages, extracted from the works of Cicero; of whom he was a great admirer; though he seems to have been not an happy or diligent imitator in his style. From a view of these pieces, we may form an idea of what stock in the science the English at that time possessed; and what advances they had made. That work of Beda, which is the best known and most esteemed, is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Disgraced by a want of choice, and frequently by a confused ill disposition of his matter, and blemished with a degree of credulity next to infantine, it is still a valuable, and for the time a surprising performance. The book opens with a description of this Island, which would not have disgraced a classical author; and he has prefixed to it a chronological abridgment of sacred and profane history, connected from the beginning of the world; which, though not critically adapted to his main design, is of far more intrinsick value, and indeed displays a vast fund of historical erudition. On the whole, though this father of the

English

English learning seems to have been but a genius CHAP. of the middle class, neither elevated nor subtil, II. and one, who wrote in a low style, simple but not A. D. elegant, yet when we reflect upon the time, in which 669. he lived, the place, in which he spent his whole life, within the walls of a monastery, in so remote and wild a country, it is impossible to refuse him the praise of an incredible industry, and a generous thirst of knowledge.

That a nation, who not fifty years before had but just begun to emerge from a barbarism so perfect, that they were unfurnished even with an alphabet, should, in so short a time, have established so flourishing a seminary of learning, and have produced so eminent a teacher, is a circumstance, which I imagine no other nation besides England can boast.

Hitherto we have spoken only of their Latin and Greek literature. They cultivated also their native language, which, according to the opinions of the most adequate judges, was deficient neither in energy nor beauty, and was possessed of such an happy flexibility, as to be capable of expressing with grace and effect every new technical idea, introduced either by theology or science. They were fond of poetry; they sung at all their feasts; and it was counted extremely disgraceful not to be able to take a part in these performances, even when they challenged each other to a sudden

exertion

BOOK exertion of the poetick spirit. Caedmon, afterII. wards one of the most eminent of their poets, was A. D. disgraced in this manner into an exertion of a 669. latent genius. He was desired in his turn to sing

but, being ignorant, and full of natural sensibility, retired in confusion from the company; and by instant and strenuous application, soon became a distinguished proficient in the art.

CHAP. III.

Series of Anglo-Saxon Kings from Ethelbert to Alfred; with the invasion of the Danes.

HE Christian religion having once taken root

THE

in Kent spread itself with great rapidity throughout all the other Saxon kingdoms in England. The manners of the Saxons underwent a notable alteration by this change in their religion; their ferocity was much abated; they became more mild and sociable; and their laws began to partake of the softness of their manners, every where recommending mercy, and a tenderness for Christian blood. There never was any people, who embraced religion with a more fervent zeal than the Anglo-Saxons, nor with more simplicity of spirit. Their history for a long time shows us a remarkable conflict between their dispositions and their principles. This conflict produced no medium, because they

were

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