I am currently reading "A Shortened History of England" by G.M. Trevelyan. There are some words/phrases I do not understand. If anyone can explain them to me, I would highly appreciate it.

It is indeed in the Middle Ages that we must seek the origin of Parliament, and of the English Common Law which the ultimate victory of Parliament over the Royal power has made supreme in all English-speaking lands. The political merit of the Medieval period lay in its dislike of absolutism in the Temporal sphere, its elaborate distribution of power, its sense of corporate life, and its consultation of the various corporate interests through their representatives. (p. 13–14)

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. A Shortened History of England. 1942. London: Penguin, 1959.

What does "Temporal sphere" in the last sentence mean? Is it a period in history?

Whatever, then, be our chief interest in the past—whether material progress and racial expansion, the growth of political and social institutions, or pure intellect and letters—it is the last four hundred years in British History which stand out. (p. 14)

In the third sentence, it says "or pure intellect and letters". I know the word unlettered means poorly educated or illiterate. But the dictionary didn't define letters other than mail and the alphabet. So I'm guessing it just means the opposite of unlettered and means someone who is well educated and can read?

  • 2
    Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange! Could you provide at least the end of the sentence for the first quote? The context of the full sentence will probably be helpful to understanding what "Temporal sphere" means. Also, could you provide an indication of where in the book these quotes are from?
    – bobble
    Jan 8, 2021 at 4:02

1 Answer 1

  1. Temporal sphere means secular matters as opposed to the spiritual sphere, which concerns religious ones. Trevelyan is contrasting the absolutist spiritual sphere, where the Roman Catholic church was the only dogma and the Pope the highest authority, with the relativist temporal one. In medieval England, the monarchy was not absolute. The barons had asserted their power and forced King John to sign of the Magna Carta in 1215. The balance of power between the king and the barons asserted in the Magna Carta meant that the king could not, for example, levy taxes against the barons without their consent, and in turn the barons were obligated to support the king. Unlike in the spiritual sphere, temporal power was thus distributed over the kingdom, with the king's court and various barons exercising it.

  2. You are on the right track with letters, but it means more than just the ability to read. It involves a literary education and encompasses all the liberal arts: philosophy, history, and rhetoric, for example. Many universities in the US, such as University of Notre Dame, San Diego State University, and Michigan State University have a College of Arts and Letters. Arts and Letters would typically cover the studio and performing arts as well as the humanities—anything other than social sciences, pure sciences, mathematics, engineering, or medicine. So when Trevelyan references pure intellect and letters, he is speaking of what we would call an intellectual history, studying either the state of the arts and sciences within a particular historical period or their evolution over time.

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