J. R. GREEN'S CENTENARY A Champion Of The Friars
By W. J. BLYTON One hundred years ago there was horn at Oxford John Richard Green, who, as he grew up discovered that too many histories had merely echoed their predecessors, not least in regard to what he calls " the English Terror" under Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, under which the people were robbed of communion with the Chair of Peter, and then, bit by bit, of their faith; and also in regard to the conduct of jealous traders and their political tools toward Ireland from Queen Anne's time to Queen Victoria's. He gradually decided to write a history of the English people, their moods and movements, risings and unions, products and tastes, It is true we have found out a few illuminating things since his time; but he did what he could to break up the frost of pompous prejudice and the easy conclusions of the vested interests. He was particularly effective on the civilising power of Saints Patrick, David, Augustine, Cuthbert, Aidati; of the Venerable Bede, Anselm, Lanfranc: of St. Thomas More, Warham, Colet. The exquisite beauty of the lives and wanderings of the missionaries of the Faith loses nothing in his telling. Something in him chimes with their almost Franciscan mysticism and charm. And, as no historian had done before. he found pages for men like St. Edmund Rich (later Archbishop) who went as " pore scholar " to Oxford when aged twelve, from the little lane at Abingdon that still bears his name, and tells how the boy stood before an image of the Virgin in S. Mary's and placing a ring of gold symbolically on her finger took Our Lady for his bride.
The Appeal to Facts
Green shook many a somnolent old prejudice by dint of facts. Thus he shows' how it was in the begging, teaching Friars, of whom the scientific pioneer Roger Bacon was one, that " the intellectual progress of the Universities found its highest representatives."
Bacon's opus majus was " at once the encyclopedia and the Novum Organum of the thirteenth century," Nobody more
clearly proved the principal Churchmen's role in extorting the Charter and its reaffirmations from the tyrannical kings, and " the death of Archbishop Langton proved a heavy blow to English freedom," for monarchs steadily disregarded their promises and, while protesting against tithes to Rome, went in for spoliation themselves.
"From the tedious record of misgovernment over forty years," he says, " we turn with relief to the story of the Friars." And again:
" The life of Fraucis fells like a stream of tender light across the dark TLO.Sr■ of the time. In the frescoes of Giotto or the verse of Dante we see ham take Peverty for his bride. Strangely as the two men, Dominic and loraucie, differ, thole aim was the same—to eonvert the heathen, to extirpate heresy, to reconcile knowledge with orthodoxy. to earn,' the Cospel to the j,serr. The begging preachers. clad to theft euaree frock or serge, with a girdle of rope round their waist, wandered barefooted as missionaries over Asiu, battled with heresy in Hely rind Gael, lectured in the Universities, and preached and toiled among the poor."
This was a comparatively new note in modern chronicling then. Macaulay had celebrated in sounding rhetoric " the unsinkable Church " and her repeated battles with evil and secular free-thought or atheism, and her repeated victories. But he did not see much further than the mystic externals. Green goes further:
" The work of the Friars was physical as well as moral. It was among the lepers and plague-stricken that they onnutonly chose their home. At London they settled in the ehamblee of INlewgate; at Oxford they made their way to the swampy ground between the walls and the stream of Thames. • None but
sick went shod. The Franciscan se,honl at Oxford attained a reputation throughout Christendom. Lyons, Paris and Cologne borrowed from it their professors. The three most profound and original of the schoolmen —Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and William of ()exam—were among its scholars!'
What they did "was to insist on the necessity of rigid demonstration and a
more exact use of words, and to introduce clear and methodical treatment of all subjects," without which the human mind
could never have coped with later discoveries nor profited by them.
Another novelty : he gave many pages to Chaucer, Piers Plowman, the jongleurs, Spenser and Shakespeare, and he does not forget the pious many because of the faithless few.
He has to speak plainly about some pre-Reformation happenings, indeed, as plainly as Catholic historians like Lingard, Acton and Bello(; as for Wycliff, he was exploited, and Green argues " how different his aims really were from the selfish aims of the men with whom he acted."
Issues and parties were far from simple and clear-cut. One town would be against another. Nobles would change sides. Kings altered their minds: and so on. At last. says Green, once started, " Wyclif's mind worked fast in its career of scepticism."
It was in the preaching of John Ball the priest, he says later, " that England first listened to a declaration of natural equality and the rights of man. In the jingle of his rimes began for England the literature of political controversy," for the grievances of the people were " mainly political." The breach of their promises to the people by the kings and nobles, like the betrayal later of the Catholic Pilgrims of Grace with dishonoured pardons, has a lesson for later times.
As for St. Thomas More, this historian accords him seven full pages for his "farreaching originality : in some points, as the treatment of labour, he still remains far in advance of current opinion." All the people should be freely educated, found work and food, and be consulted in the making of laws— strong doctrine for his day, with the ogre Henry and his jackals looking on.
Justice for Wolsey Justice is even done to Wolsey, who "knelt before Henry, sometimes for three hours together, to persuade him from his appetite." And then, at his fall when Henry could not get his divorce sanctioned, " a reign of terror, organised with consummate and merciless skill, held England panic-stricken at Henry's feet. The noblest heads rolled on the block. Nothing was too sacred for his appetite." Thomas Cromwell, his tool, was " a ruffian; as he afterwards owned to Cranmer, in the most unscrupulous school the world contained," the foreign wars.