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And indeed Norman may very properly be called a learned language in England, where it is no where spoke, but acquired at the Inns of Court, and is a great ingredient in the law. In short, English is now composed of derivatives from the Greek and Latin ; and what Saxon words are left, they have purged of the gutteral consonants, and it is become a very rich and soft language.
Dr. Tillotson, late Archbishop of Canterbury, hath very much improved it; as Sir Roger Lestrange and Mr. Dryden did very much in the reign of King Charles the Second, which was an age of wit, as that of King William was of learning; and both those reigns have much improved the language.
Mr. Addison and Sir Richard Steelė's works have also spread the language abroad; for the great Le Clerc at Amsterdam, Leibnitz and the other learned men at the Universities abroad, study it. An extract from Dr. Ayloffe’s communication to the above-mentioned gentleman, relating to the University of Oxford, is much to my present purpose. But, relying on the best authorities, we shall only find King Alfred to have been the restorer of learning here: for national affairs in his reign being reduced to a peaceable state and condition, he, promoting all things that might either tend to the honour and advantage of his subjects, proceeded to many regulations; and,
notwithstanding letters were at so low an ebb in the kingdom, that few on the South side of the Humber could read English, and scarce a priest understood the Latin tongue, he ordered Gregory's Pastoral to be translated into English, and sent a copy of it to every bishop; and, for the further advancement of knowledge, sent into France, for Grimbald and John the Monk, whom he placed at Oxford, restoring this University to its pristine glory; for, by the heavy and continual wars of the Romans, Danes, and Saxons, learning was almost abolished and destroyed in Britain.”
The vicissitudes of learning, the encouragement and debasement of this noble improvement of the human mind, have been so numerous, that I must beg leave to refer the reader for further and more minute information to those authors who had more space to enlarge on the subject.
Nothing is known of the collections formed by the learned in the earliest stages of our history, The discoveries at Herculaneum and other places, overwhelmed by the ashes of Vesuvius, incontestably demonstrate, that the natives of Italy, contemporary with the Roman invaders of England, had depositaries of manuscripts. Therefore, whatever was the custom previous to their arrival in this country, the inhabitants of it must have known from them the necessity and convenience of collections for reference or amusement.
Immediately after the establishment of religious societies, they had their muniment rooms; and the monks, having little employment, soon added to their contents legends, chronicles, and leiger books. As the former and other subjects multiplied, they spread abroad, and kings, princes, and barons, may have had collections from the
pens of the indefatigable members of monasteries, independent of the later supplies by professed clerks
or scribes. The readers of my history of London will recollect, that I have given a catalogue of the MSS. in the library of Elsynge Spital in the reign of Henry VI. consisting of sixty-two articles ; upon referring to which a tolerable estimate may be formed of the nature of most of our antient libraries.
It has been my fate on other occasions to lament the indiscriminate destruction of manuscripts, when our religion was reformed. To that cause is partly to be attributed the paucity of materials for compiling a satisfactory sketch under this head; as to the collections in temporal hands, they were comparatively few, and constantly liable to destruction or dispersion through the endless disputes of our feudal lords. In the sacking of a castle, manuscripts seldom found protectors through a partiality for learning; and such as did escape and reach the time of Henry VIII. and the next following reigns, were generally destroyed, because most of them related to subjects either remotely or intimately connected with the Roman catholic faith. Unfortunately, we had but one Cotton to rescue literature from the wretched state to which bigotry had reduced her.
The reader of this work will perceive the necessity I am under of being concise as to private libraries before the invention of printing. After the encouragement of that art had rendered books
sufficiently moderate in their price, many publi libraries were founded, which might be mentioned, with their contents chained to the desks-a custom universal in churches, and which ceased when books became numerous. The reign of James I. has generally been termed a pedantic period. It is, however, certain, that the example of the monarch was of infinite service to literature; and libraries, both public and private, increased in a far greater proportion than the unhappy reign of his son permitted in his age.
The profligate conduct of Charles II., and the infatuation of his brother, prevented the publick from turning their attention this way; but after the Revolution of 1688, the people at large had time, security, and property, to indulge safely in their propensities for learning; and we find the following collections made subsequent to that period, noticed in a MS. preserved in the British Museum,
The person to whom we are indebted for this information observes, that libraries might be collected without difficulty by societies of men, each presenting to a common stock “one hook of a sort, in five years it would be a good library; and half a dozen of all the pamphlets that come out weekly, for the use of such as wanted them, and would present bound books for them, but still to keep one for the use of the library. One Mr.