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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 11. Secreta Secretorum

Much akin to Gesta was another old classic of the Middle Ages, Secreta Secretorum, three translations of which were executed in the fifteenth century, one, by James Yonge in 1422, hailing from the English Pale in Ireland. It is work which ranks high among medieval forgeries, professing to be no less than an epistle on statesmanship addressed by Aristotle to his pupil Alexander the Great. No doubt the public found its medley of astrological and medical rules and elementary precepts on cleanliness and decency the more impressive for its profound advice to “avoid tyranny,” or to husband resources “as the ampte getys liflode for winter,” or not to trust in one leach alone, for fear of poison, but to have at least ten. The clumsy attempt to express more or less abstract ideas in English is interesting as a sort of foil to Pecock’s achievement. The Anglo-Irish version partakes of the nature of a political appeal. The terror inspired in the Pale by O’Dennis or MacMorough is plainly set forth, as illustration to the original, and the earl of Ormonde is besought to remember Troy when he captures rebels, “trew men quelleris,” and to destroy them “by the thow sharpe eggis of your swerde …rygoure of lawe and dyntes delynge.” Save for the uncouth spelling, the composition is not very different from translations penned in England.

Yonge’s use of modern illustration is but one among many indications of the interest which the middle classes were beginning to feel in the political events of theirown days, and, to satisfy it, a group of contemporary chronicles appeared, more interesting to the historian than to the student of letters.

With the increase of popular agitation, the dull monastic Latin chronicles withered away and were succeeded by a few in the vernacular. Though these, in their earlier portions, are meagre translations from the popular compend um called the Brute (French or Latin or English) or from the Eulogium (Latin), the writers often become individual when dealing with their own times. The restrained indignation of the monk of Malmesbury or Canterbury who made the English Chronicle (1347–1461) at the incompetence which produced the civil war invests his concise record with real dignity, homely as is his vocabulary. But his political judgement does not temper his readiness to accept the circumstantial legends of the day, and two pages of his little work are given to a graphic story of a ghost, futile and homely as only a fifteenth century ghost could be.

In contrast with this, or with the more staid Cronycullys of Englonde may be set the more scholarly composition of the Lancastrian Warkworth, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, who took pains to preserve his chronicle for future readers. His picture of the final loss of the royal cause has the dignity of tragedy. He sees retribution in the falls of princes and points the moral pithily: “suche goodes as were gadirde with synne were loste with sorwe”—“perjury schall nevere have bettere ende withoute grete grace of God.” He is clear in style and a little addicted to the usual pleonasms (“wetynge and supposynge,” “excitynge and sturing,” “a proverb and a seyenge,” etc.).

Some short contemporary accounts bear the character of official reports, or news letters, e.g. The History of the Arrivall (1471), Rebellion in Lincolnshire (1470), Bellum apud Seynt Albons (1455). They are couched in the wearisome formalities of semi-ega documents, like the proclamations of the time. Poor as the expression was, men at least felt it needful to be articulate. The productions of Richard duke of York are probably the worst.