J.A. Froude on the Coming of Modernity

James Anthony Froude (1818–1894) was an English historian whose work has been somewhat neglected in our time.  This excerpt demonstrates his power as a writer and his respect for past ages – something rather rare in the Victorian era:

A change was coming upon the world, the meaning and direction of which even still is hidden from us, a change from era to era. The paths trodden by the footsteps of ages were broken up; old things were passing away, and the faith and the life of ten centuries were dissolving like a dream. Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing way, never to return. A new continent had risen up beyond the western sea. The floor of heaven, inlaid with stars, had sunk back into an infinite abyss of immeasurable space; and the firm earth itself unfixed from its foundations, was seen to be but a small atom in the awful vastness of the universe. In the fabric of habit in which they had so laboriously built for themselves, mankind were to remain no longer.

“And now it all gone – like an unsubstantial pageant faded; and between us and the old English there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of medieval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world.”

SOURCE: J.A. Froude, History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 12 volumes (revised edition, 1893).

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Brian Coman

A former research biologist, I returned to the Academy after retirement to take up postgraduate studies in the humanities. I am interested in most aspects of the Western Tradition but, in particular, I have focused on that grey area between philosophy and religion.

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