In preparing for my paper for the Anglo-American conference in July, I thought it would be worthwhile looking at the seventeenth century debate of the same name as the conference: the Battle between the Ancients and the Moderns.  Although such a title sounds more like a plot from a Hollywood film, the reality is somewhat dryer, though, perhaps, more intellectually satisfying.  I think what grabbed me most about that debate was something that Joseph M. Levine wrote in his 1981 article ‘Ancients and Moderns Reconsidered’:

“the ancients were not simply defenders of tradition against the new, they had in fact come onto the European scene in England as elsewhere as innovators, humanists, in revolt against the culture of their own (late medieval) times.  Thus, paradoxically, an ancient could in certain circumstances appear to be a modern, as we shall see the moderns, more closely examined, could sometimes turn out to be ancients.  In the battle of the books the ancients were the self-conscious continuators of the Renaissance and were determined like their predecessors to exalt and to imitate the past – but not any past and certainly not that medieval past which was to them all Gothic and barbarous – rather that special corner of the past which they demarked as classical antiquity and to which they attached a peculiarly practical value.” 

          Joseph M. Levine (p. 78)

Woodcut from Jonathan Swift’s

Battle of the Books (1704) which

vividly discussed the contention

between ‘Moderns’ and ‘Ancients’

It is certainly true that many learned men who wrote in the final decades of the sixteenth century saw themselves as humanist scholars.  It is also true that all of them, pretty much without exception, looked back to classical authors to support their arguments.  For those who wrote histories it was to the likes of Livy that they turned to in their prefaces to exclaim truth, honesty and approval.  Religion, which of course was at the height of contention in this century, had already become a scholarly battleground where the veracity of which doctrine was correct largely rested upon dim recollections and fragmentary evidence of a mythical pristine early church.  Did the true church lie with the Pope and the Roman Catholics, or, as the Elizabethan regime in England argued, did it lie elsewhere, in a church that has ever since its inception, been a persecuted church?  The answer did not lie in what we would now call the medieval period, although some, like John Foxe, did make strenuous use of that period of time.  The truth, they believed lay in the times of the ancients.

Nevertheless Foxe’s focus on the medieval centuries as well as the ancient Roman times may well have incidentally helped to pave the way for seventeenth century scholars to make their debate upon those seeking knowledge from the ancients and those seeing knowledge as yet to be discovered.  Rosemond Tuve, for example noted in 1939 how the vernacular, and in particular the re-discovery of Old English, helped to shape the quarrel between ancients and moderns:

“The commonplaces of the position taken by the Moderns against the pretended decay of Nature are belief in the superiority of a Christian culture, in the progressive unveiling of Truth, defence of the indigenous and English as against the classical Ancient, confidence in the improvements of Modern knowledge and the methods of critical scholarship, and a constantly growing faith in the almost infinite possibilities opened up by these new approaches and concepts.  ‘Saxonist’ endeavours established connection with these modern axioms at almost all points”

          Rosemond Tuve, (p. 178)

Saxon study therefore provided the Moderns with a non-Latin heritage and enabled them to distance themselves from the pagan learning’s of the ancients through the means of language and religious culture.  A more recent study by Wyman H. Heredeen on the early seventeenth-century scholar William Camden makes use of a similar argument:

“With new theories about language and education, as well as with the intensification of nationalistic sentiment across Europe, a new Hellenism emerged that recognized that the ancients were once the moderns, that the true spirit of classical writers was to be found in the cultivation of the vernacular.  The price of the success, or partial success, of the humanist’s educational agenda, then, was being superseded by a Hellenism less dependent on narrowly defined ideas of imitation.”

          Wyman H. Herendeen (p. 110)

Two divergent viewpoints had therefore emerged.  The first was the very same that Foxe had believed in his own century; that all truth and knowledge could be found through study of the classical past.  His use of the medieval was largely to show how the papacy and Christian culture in general had fallen from that initial purity over many centuries.  The rise of humanist learning and a reformed religion was therefore necessary to put the human race back on track.  Half a century later however, the seeds sown by Foxe and his colleagues in the study of the Anglo-Saxons as well as in later medieval history to show that decline, were re-identified as a method for breaking away from the classical inheritance.

Further Reading

Wyman H. Herendeen, William Camden: A life in context (2007).

Joseph M. Levine, ‘Ancients and Moderns Reconsidered’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 15:1 (Autumn 1981), pp. 72-89.

Rosemond Tuve, ‘Ancients, Moderns and Saxons’, English Literary History 6:3 (Sept. 1939), pp. 165-190.


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