ONCE UPON A TIME
By ROBERT LYND
ACCORDING to William of Malmesbury, the day on which the Battle of Hastings was fought was a “fatal day to England.” One does not gather, however, that when the Normans landed at Pevensey they broke in upon an earthly Paradise. The English during this part of the Middle Ages seem to have been, in the disparaging sense of the word, exceedingly mediaeval. They were drinkers all and no scholars, and lacked the business virtues. “A person who understood grammar,” we are told, “was an object of wonder and astonishment.” The people in the mass ” were accustomed to eat till they became surfeited and to drink till they were sick. These latter qualities,” the record goes on, “they imparted to their conquerors.” The upper classes appear to have been especially corrupt. “The nobility, given up to luxury and wantonness, went not to church in the morning after the manner of Christians, but merely, in a careless manner, heard matins and masses amid the blandishments of their wives.” One of the important results of the Norman Conquest was undoubtedly to transform the English into the church-going people which they have remained, in theory, ever since. “You might see churches rise in every village,” writes William of Malmesbury. And on the ex-pirates who built these churches he adds the unforgettable comment that “each wealthy man accounted that day lost to him which he had neglected to signalise by some magnificent action.” Here in this sentence, I think, we have one clue to the fascination of the Middle Ages. It was a period of action, of drama, of life lived according to a ritual. Perhaps it was a good deal less so than some of us like to imagine. But it was certainly a good deal more so than what we used to call the modern period—the period that came to an end in 1914.
Even where there was no ritual, medieval life was distinguished by an amazing individualism of violence which appeals to the dramatic, if not to the moral, sense. The policeman had not yet become the universal arbiter. Words turned to blows with a readiness for which there is noparallel in modem society except in the slums on a Saturday night. “Physical violence,” as Mr. Coulton says, “is taken for granted almost everywhere in the Middle Ages, and in all classes of society.” As an example of this he quotes a pretty story about “a gentille woman that was weddid to a squier, and she loved hym so moch that she was jelous over alle women that he spake with.” She was especially jealous of one lady “that hadd a gret and an highe harte” and she made no scruple about informing the lady of her suspicions:
And she saide she saide not true; and the wiff saide she lied. . . . And she that was accused, caught a staffe, and smote the wiff on the nose such a stroke that she brake her nose; and that al her lyff after she hadd her nose al croked, the whyche was a foule mayme and blemesshing of her visage; for it is the fairest membre that man or woman hathe, and sittithe in the middille of the visage. And so was the wiff fouled and maymed alle her lyff, and her husbonde said ofte to her, that it hadde be beter that she had not be jelous, thanne forto have undone her visage as she hadd.
The husband, it is added, was so alienated by the injury to his wife’s nose that he never loved her again. One cannot help suspecting the story of being a moral tale for women written by a man. That it is interesting to us nowadays is due to its fantastic spelling and to the picture it gives us of the violence of mediaeval manners even in genteel society.
It is worth remembering that the violence of the English in the Middle Ages, especially their violence in crime and rebellion, was held up by Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in the reign of Henry VI., as evidence of their superior virtue. In The Governance of England he scornfully denies any sort of merit to the more peaceable habits of the French. “Only lak off harte and cowardisse,” he declares, “kepen the Ffrenchemen from rysynge”:
Poverte is not the cause, which the commons off France rise not agen their soverayn lorde, . . . but it is cowardisse and lakke off harte and corage, wich no Ffrenchman hath like unto a Englyshman. It hath ben offten tymes sene in Englande, that iij or iiij theves ffor poverte have sett apon vj or vlj trewe men and robbed them all. But It hath not bene sene in Ffraunce, that vj or vij theves have been harde to robbe iij or iiij trewe men. Wherefore it is right selde that Ffrenchmen be hanged ffor robbery, ffor thei have no harte to do so tereble an acte.
And this famous judge goes on to boast that the English are greater robbers, and consequently greater heroes, than the Scots as well as the French:
There bith ther fore mo men hanged in Englande in a yere ffor robbery and manslaughter, than ther be hanged in Ffraunce ffor such maner of crime in vij yeres. There is no man hanged in Scotlande in vij yere togedur ffor robbery. And yet thei ben often tymes hanged ffor larceny, and stelynge off good in the absence of the owner theroff. But ther hartes serve them not to take a manys gode, while he is present, and will defende It; wich maner of takynge is called robbery. But the Englysh man is of another corage. Ffor yff he be pouere, and see another man havynge rychesse, wich may be taken ffrom hym be myght, he will not spare to do so, but yff that pouere man be right trewe whereffore it is not poverte, but it is lakke off harte and cowardisse that kepith the Ffrenchmen ffro rysynge.
It is difficult not to suspect Fortescue of satire in this elaborate piece of casuistry. Apparently, however, he is writing merely as an honest patriot.
There were, fortunately or unfortunately, other violent persons in the Middle Ages besides robbers and angry ladies. Disorder and indiscipline were commonplaces of the time even in the Church and the Universities. The famous quarrel for precedence between the Archbishop of Canterbury and York (in the course of which York, finding Canterbury on one occasion in the seat of honour at a synod held at Westminster, “fairly sits him down in Canterbury’s lap,” till Canterbury’s servants “plucked him thence, and buffeted him to purpose,”) may have been an exceptional and astonishing thing even during the general misrule of the twelfth century. But it is one of those incidents which help us to realise the difference between the manners and behaviour of the Middle Ages and of modern times. The brawling and bloodshed which were common at the Universities are equally significant of the manners of the time. At Oxford there was a standing feud between north and south, in the course of which, as Mr. Coulton relates, there was in 1888 a students’ fight “which lasted three days and cost much bloodshed.” An elaborate system of fines was established to put an end to violence of this kind, on the ground that, “in these days of ours, a money-fine is more feared than any other penalty.” In practice, however, according to a passage quoted from Dr. Rashdall, “nothing worse happened to [the majority of these Oxford homicides] than being compelled to go to Cambridge.” It may seem surprising that disorder should have been all but universal in the Middle Ages, seeing that the ideal of repression was so much stronger in Church, home and State than it is in our own timw. The father was still regarded as the natural repressor of his child. “The father,” according to the recommendation of one moralist on the treatment of the child, “sheweth him no gladde chere, leste he waxe prowde.” And another advises parents concerning their children: “Dandell them not to derelie, lest follie fasten on them.” The spirit of punishment, unfortunately for those who believe in it, has never been an effective substitute for the spirit of order. Indeed, it is only the spirit of violence in the hands of authority. Tyranny on the one side was, in the Middle Ages, answered by rebellion on the other. Probably Western Europe was never so rebelliously anti-Clerical, for instance, as in those days when it was entirely under the sway of the Church. Pope Boniface VIII. In 1296 issued a Bull beginning: “That the laity are bitterly hostile to the clergy is a matter of ancient tradition which is plainly confirmed by the experience of modern times also.” One gathers with what angry reluctance many of the people paid their tithes from a passage quoted from the thirteenth century Bishop Quivil’s Exeter Constitutions:
Again, seeing that certain persons, for their tithe of milk (which hath hitherto been given in cheese . . .) maliciously bring the milk itself to church, and—what is more wicked still—finding there no men to receive it, pour it out before the altar in contumely to God and His Church. . . .
One gets a prettier picture of a mediaeval bishop’s troubles with his unruly children in the injunctions sent by Bishop Wykeham to the three great nunneries of Romsey, Sherwell, and St. Mary’s, Winchester, after his visitation in 1387:
Item—whereas we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, hounds, and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed than to the offices of the Church . . .—therefore we strictly forbid you all and several, in virtue of the obedience due unto Us, that ye presume henceforward to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits, or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline.
One might go on almost indefinitely quoting from Mr. Coulton’s unrivalled selection of documents, and it would be easy to found on one’s quotations either an indictment or a glorification of mediaeval England. On the whole, Mr. Coulton would incline one to take the darker view. We get a stronger impression of superstition than of holiness, for instance, from the passages which refer to mediaeval religion. One of the most remarkable of these passages tells the story of a Cornishman named Ailsi, who, having prayed in vain to St. Stephen to cure his sore eye, reviled the saint so bitterly and angrily that the latter visited him the same night, “rebuking him mildly and gently for his evil words, and bringing him solace with full health of body; for he touched his eye and blessed it.” In a footnote Mr. Coulton compares this treatment of the saints to Gervase of Canterbury’s account of the fire at the Cathedral in 1174, when the crowd, in its rage at the disaster, “hurled grisly curses against God and His Saints, the patrons of that edifice.” We feel, again, that Mr. Coulton takes a certain controversial pleasure in quoting for us Peter of Blois’s disparaging account of the knights of the twelfth century. If this account is true, the knights appear to have been the only people in the Middle Ages whose reputation for violence and bloodshed has been exaggerated. According to Peter of Blois (who was Archdeacon of London):
If these knights of ours are sometimes constrained to take the field, then their sumpter-beasts are laden not with steel but with wine, not with spears but with cheeses, not with swords but with wine-skins, not with javelins but with spits. . . . They bear shields bright with beaten gold, as who should hope rather for finery than for hard fighting; and in truth these same shields (if I may so say) come back intact in their virginity.
What does this suggest, however, but that in some respects the mediaeval knight was an anticipation of Mr. Bernard Shaw’s “chocolate soldier”? And, indeed, there are few aspects of human nature mentioned in these mediaeval records to which we cannot find a counterpart in the Europe of our own time. Profiteers are here, and anaesthetics, and Roger Bacon’s forecast of the coming of motor-cars and aeroplanes, and even the education question. As regards the last of these, we find in the Middle Ages the same hatred of education as exists to-day among many of the poor and many of the masters of the poor. According to one authority, Wat Tyler and his fellow-rebels “compelled masters of grammar schools to swear that they would never again teach grammar to children.” The attitude of the masters we find elsewhere in the appeal of the Commons to the King in 1391 “that no serf or villein henceforward put his children to school, in order to procure their advancement by clergy.” On the whole, I fancy there is more of the everyday human nature of the Middle Ages in this appeal of the Commons than in the story of St. Francis of Assisi, or Rudel and his love for the Lady of Tripoli, or the terrible revenge that the relations of Eloise took on Abelard. When we think of the Middle Ages we unconsciously concentrate our imaginations on a few magnificently-coloured personalities and incidents. This is the “once upon a time ” method. It is the most amusing way to read history, and is probably a way of getting at at least half of the truth. The other half of the truth is that human nature was even in the Middle Ages largely occupied with questions of food, and safety, and affection, and self-love, and getting the better of one’s neighbour in the struggle for a few luxuries.