Medieval Europe entertained more thirst for knowledge than is usually credited to them, but they lacked the scientific background with which knowledge is correlated. Sagas were sung of the exploits, and a few returning Gaels spread the news through Ireland and Scotland that there was land beyond the ocean--that they were not the farthest west of peoples after all. But any results which might have come from the Norse expeditions were halted by one of the curious accidents which from time to time have helped to change the whole course of history.
In 1047, Adam of Bremen, one of the genuine geographers of his time, took the trouble to visit Denmark in order that he might inquire from the king of that country about the strange rumors drifting over Europe. The king told him almost exactly what Leif Ericson had said, and expatiated upon the beauties of Wineland, adding that the description was not fabulous, but a trustworthy account. For some reason, when Adam came to write down the report he located the new country beyond the Arctic, "all those regions which are beyond are filled with insupportable ice and boundless gloom." No wonder medieval Europe was unimpressed!
The mistake was the more unfortunate because already Europe was suffering from overpopulation. Younger sons, crowded from their ancestral estates, needed room in which to show their valor. The Northerners, under the same conditions had sailed west; but the southern Europeans turned their eyes in a different direction, and with Bibles as guidebooks and banners fluttering over their heads began to march eastward on a Holy War. They accomplished little, but for the first time in centuries, the scholars were given a chance to lay their hands on Arabic books.
Maps were in great demand during the crusades. Faulty, drawn with too much logic and too little knowledge, the maps of the crusaders were less dependable than any since Babylonian times. No doubt it looked fine when you started out from home to show a map drawn like a circle, with the river Hellespont bisecting the whole, and a radius at right angles for the Mediterranean. All you had to do was travel southward, past the big castle in the illustration, and then take a boat along the Mediterranean, sailing due east until you reached the Holy Land, which was (quite properly) in the center of the world. There were no islands, no reefs to get in your way.
Only when you had started, things were somehow quite different. The islands were plentiful and, if you followed along the coast, you found that it was far from straight. There were mountains. Entirely new maps had to be designed, and these were as complicated as the others were simple. By the third crusade the compass points were marked all over the maps, each sending out radial lines. Directions between any two places could be found by moving a parallel ruler from the line joining them to the nearest central compass point. They were frightfully complicated but a big improvement.
The change was coming. William of Wykeham, the founder of Winchester College and of New College Oxford, directed the Fellows and Scholars of the latter to occupy themselves during the long winter evenings with "singing or reciting poetry, or with the chronicles of the different kingdoms, or with the wonders of the world." The Renaissance was in the air.
The Universities furnished the nucleus from which the Renaissance grew. They were not monasteries, but were founded because the monastic environment was unsuitable to the new methods of teaching and the new source of material which began to seep in from Arabia. Oxford claims its foundation from a bright point in the darkest period of all--869--the reign of Alfred the Great, but the additional colleges came after the first introduction of new thought. When John de Balliol (who claimed to be King of Scotland until Robert the Bruce outwitted him) insulted an English Bishop in 1263, the King of England demanded as penalty the foundation of a college at Oxford. It was not the demand of a king who despised education. In France a little after 1100 so many scholars stormed the walls, that the great and persuasive Abélard was forced to move his school to the open air of Mount Saint Genevieve because there was no hall in Paris large enough to hold his pupils.
The first public school in England was Winchester, founded by William of Wykeham in 1393. The name "public" had and still has a very different meaning in England from the popular use in America. It signified a school which was not a church school and not run for profit. A "public school" in England receives no support from taxation and regular rates have to be paid for attending. At Winchester all "men" must board at the school--a necessary precautions in my time when, most of the year, classes started at 7:00 A.M.
Education was being freed from the control of the church (and this important development was due to a man who was later Bishop of Winchester). It flourished in the freer atmosphere and paved the way for the explorations and developments of succeeding centuries.