BEING SUNDRY PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS OF NO IMPORTANCE
Original research amongst the legal and other documents preserved in the Public Record Office, and similar depositories of ancient archives is a pursuit which our friends politely assume "must be very interesting," chiefly because they cannot believe that anyone would undertake so dull an occupation if it were not interesting. And it must be admitted that there are grounds for looking askance at such work. To begin with, the financial results of historical research are usually negligible or even negative, and it is therefore clearly an undesirable, if not positively reprehensible, employment. Then it is perfectly true that the vast majority of these records are as dry as the dust which accumulates upon them, and that in many cases such interest as they possess is adventitious, being due to their association with some particular person or place whose identity appeals to us. Thus even the most trivial technical details of a suit by William S. against Francis B. for forging his signature would become of absorbing interest if S. stood for Shakespeare and B. for Bacon, but the chances are a hundred to one that S. will stand for Smith and B. for Brown. At the same time the thoroughly unpractical searcher, who allows his attention to be distracted and does not confine himself to the strict object of his search, is constantly rewarded by the discovery of entries, quaint, amusing, or grimly significant, throwing a light upon the lives of men and women whose very names perished out of memory centuries ago. Dim the light may be, but yet it is an illumination not to be got elsewhere, for the writers of History, with a big H, are concerned only with the doings of kings and statesmen, and other people of importance, while these records tell us something of the life of those who in their day, like most of us, were each the centre of their own microcosm but made no figure in the eyes of the world. It is, I think, not too much to claim that only through intimacy with the nation's records, and I would use the word in the widest sense to include also the records written on the face of our land in stone and timber and even in earthen bank and hedge-row, that some conception can be obtained of the mediæval spirit. That same spirit is so subtle a thing, though one of its leading characteristics is an extraordinary directness and simplicity, that it is more easily understood than explained. But even if it were an easy matter to dissect and analyse the mediæval spirit, ticketing so much as simplicity, such a percentage as humour, so many parts as fear of God, and so many as fear of the Devil, and so forth, it should not be done here. For though this book was written with a purpose, that purpose was not to instruct and edify, but rather to interest and amuse, which is a far higher mission, and if the reader on laying it down feels that he has acquired knowledge it will probably be due in a large measure to the work of the artist, who has translated into line something more than the material details of the incidents which the writer has strung together.
So far as the half-dozen essays which follow are concerned their origin was almost as spontaneous as Topsy's; like her, they grew. It has been my fortune to spend much time searching ancient documents of every kind, and indeed there is probably hardly a single class of pre-Reformation records preserved between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane into which I have not delved. Being, moreover, of an unmethodical nature it has been my practice, even when hard pressed for time, to allow my eye to be caught by any strange or unusual entry which had nothing to do with the object of my search; – I may admit in passing that I can rarely look up a word in the New English Dictionary, because there are so many more interesting words on the other pages. In this way my notebooks became full of queer and fascinating little bits of ancientry, many of them clad in that quaint garb of archaic English which lends a piquancy, and occasionally a touch of unintentional humour, to their presentment. Feeling that it was a pity that such treasures should continue in concealment I strung some of them together, amplifying my material with parallel passages from some of the less known Chronicles and other printed sources. The resulting essays were published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, and, I believe, gave a certain amount of pleasure to some of their readers. At any rate I was urged to republish them in book form, which I had all along intended to do, and the editor-proprietor of the Oxford and Cambridge Review kindly gave me not only permission but even encouragement. I decided to have the book illustrated, and one or two attempts to procure the services of various artists having providentially failed I was introduced in a fortunate hour to Mr. George Kruger, whose work it would be superfluous for me to praise.
As to the particular sources from which my tales are drawn, they range wide, but it may interest the curious to know that the proceedings of the Court of Chancery, which at a later date, in re Jarndyce and Jarndyce, afforded Dickens material for Bleak House, proved the most fruitful class for my purposes. This is due to the fact that in this class of records, more than in any other of equally early date, the vernacular is of common occurrence, and it must be admitted that many incidents which would read but dully in formal Latin or in that atrocious language legal French, acquire merit by being told in the vulgar tongue and eccentric orthography of the fifteenth or sixteenth century. From a historical point of view there is one great thing to be said for legal records of this type: – they are completely free from unprejudice. No one expects a plaintiff or defendant to be impartial. And there is nothing so hopelessly misleading, speaking historically, as impartiality. For one thing the unprejudiced historian is practically bound to be uninteresting; the works of the most judicially impartial historian of the present time – so far as English history goes – are unreadable. Moreover, although he is carefully accurate and painstaking, they give a totally wrong impression so far as they give any at all. A "History of the Reformation," were such to be written by him, would be infinitely farther from the truth than one by Froude or Gasquet. To illustrate my meaning from contemporary events: some future historian will undoubtedly write fairly and impartially about Tariff Reform, Women's Suffrage, and National Insurance. He will thereby completely miss the significance of those movements; for the propaganda and personalities of Mr. Lloyd George, Mrs. Pankhurst, and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain are not matters for cool and impartial consideration. and it will only be by the blessed gift of prejudice that the future historian will be able to enter into the feelings of the present generation and obtain the true neo-Georgian atmosphere.
Death and Doctors
To read a medical dictionary is to marvel that any man should enjoy even brief intervals of health, there are so many delicate organs in the body and so many diseases lying in wait for them. Read the pronouncements of specialists on diet and the dangers which attend the eating of any food or the drinking of any liquid, and the marvel grows. Add the extraordinary facility with which accidents occur, and the margin between life and death becomes surprisingly narrow. The crew of a destroyer are habitually separated from the other world by about a quarter of an inch of steel. With most of us the partition is less obvious, less constant and uniform, but very nearly as thin in places. For any but the most hardened there must always be a feeling of pleased surprise upon emerging safely on the other side of Piccadilly Circus or the Embankment by Blackfriars. (It is true that in the latter case a paternal, not to say grandmotherly, Council has provided the unexciting alternative of a subway, but only leisurely athletes have the time or energy to descend and re-ascend those stairs.) The average City man is within inches and seconds of death every day, and it is only when the inches and seconds become fractional that he realises for the moment his insecurity of tenure. Which is just as well. Every age has its own dangers: we have the motor car, unwitting apostle of socialism in its brutal, individualistic disregard for the rights of others; mediæval man, I am inclined to think, ran most risk from the quick temper of his fellows.
From time to time, when some undesirable alien is arrested for stabbing an enemy or chance acquaintance who has annoyed him, the police-court magistrate before whom he is brought will comment, with patriotic pride, on the "un-English" nature of the offence. And it is true that at the present time the Englishman as a rule emphasises his disagreement with his opponent by means of fist or hob-nailed boot rather than with a knife, but this was certainly not so in mediæval times. Call a man "a boor" nowadays and your may get a black eye, but the results were more disastrous in the thirteenth century, as John Marsh found when he applied that opprobrious term to Richard Fraunkfee as they were walking back from church at Doncaster, for Richard promptly knifed him. Every man in those days carried a knife, dagger, anelace, or baselard, and produced it without hesitation if angered. Needless to say, the knife was much in evidence after harvest feasts, wakes, and especially visits to the tavern, for drunkenness has been an English vice since Fitz Stephen, in the twelfth century, spoke of "the inordinate drinking of fools" as one of the two plagues of London. How far this failing was common to both sexes I do not know; casual references to women in taverns occur occasionally, but they might have been there as blamelessly as their descendants in a modern tea-shop, and, so far as I can remember, I have only come across one woman who met her death when drunk – a Yorkshire woman who fell down a well. At the same time, seeing that "the good wyf taugte hir dougter" in the fifteenth century that "if thou be ofte drunke it falle thee to schame," it looks as if occasional excess might have been condoned. With the exception of drunkeness, the moving cause of the innumerable murderous assaults is rarely given, and it is rather curious that the only two cases which I have found of men quarrelling, with fatal results, over a woman both occurred at iron-works in Yorkshire in 1266.
Knives were not infrequently responsible for deaths without any evil intent on the part of their owners. In quite a large number of cases when boys were playing together a knife would fall out of its sheath and inflict a mortal wound. And then, if the owner were over twelve, he would have, theoretically, to go to prison and stay there till he received a formal pardon from the king for accidental manslaughter. I say "theoretically" because in practice the culprit usually "fled," which, I suspect, meant that he went round the corner while the village constable carefully looked in the wrong place for him. An unusual incident connected with a knife occurred in Dorset in 1280, when a girl, clearing the table after dinner, picked up the tablecloth with a knife inside, and as she went out of the room tripped and fell so that the knife stuck into her. It was about the same date that a Suffolk peasant, William le Keu, flung a knife against the wall of his house and it bounded off and killed his infant daughter, lying on her mother's lap in front of the fire. Why he should have thrown his knife at the wall does not appear, but people were always throwing things about and hitting inoffensive passers-by. For instance, a man would fling a rake or a flail at some chicken and hit his own child. Children, in fact, had an unhappy knack of coming round the corner with disastrous results to themselves, especially when their elders were playing quoits or pennystone down the village street. One of the most curious cases of what we may call an indirect accident was when two small boys went into an orchard to get apples; one of them threw a stone up into a tree, but instead of bringing down an apple it hit a stone that someone had thrown up long before, and this fell on his cousin's head and killed him.
Fire, the second of Fitz Stephen's "plagues," played its part in preventing over-population, as might be expected when the framework of the huts was of wood, the roof of thatch and the floor covered with straw or rushes. If a woman went to bed leaving a lighted candle stuck on the wall it was hardly surprising if she paid for her carelessness with her life, but as a rule the victims were children or very old people, and as often as not the immediate cause was some chicken, or pig, or calf getting on to the open hearth and scattering the fire on to the straw-covered floor. For the mediæval peasant shared his hut with his live stock, though it would not be often that a man would be called upon to separate two horses fighting in his kitchen; this did actually happen to a man in Winchester, and as usual the peacemaker got the worst of it. Fire, again, acting indirectly through the medium of water, was another frequent cause of disaster, a most astonishing number of cases occurring of persons, usually children, scalded to death, I can only suppose that the cauldrons were large and insecurely balanced; that they were large may be concluded from the frequency with which people fell into them. But cold water was perhaps as deadly an agent as any. In Yorkshire in particular the coroners' rolls suggest that the number of people that fell off bridges and out of boats into streams and down wells must have seriously interfered with the purity of the water supply; but, fortunately, water was very rarely drunk in those days. The most frequent cause of drowning seems to have been falling off a horse, and the mediæval version of the well-known proverb ought to have been "One man can ride a horse to the water, but nine out of ten can't stay on when he drinks." Taking the number of cases in which men watering their horses did get drowned, and allowing that a reasonable percentage of those thrown into the water scrambled out again, the standard of mediæval riding must have been about equal to that of the White Knight, who, when his horse stopped fell over its head, and when it went on again fell over its tail.
There are strange and grim little stories of madmen in some of these old records. One of these, not wanting in pathos in its evidence of good intentions diabolically twisted, tells how Robert de Bramwyk, a lunatic who had some lucid intervals (and was, therefore, probably not so closely guarded), in a fit of frenzy took his sister Denise, who had been deformed and hunchbacked from her birth, and, wishing to make her straight, cast her into a cauldron of hot water, and taking her out of this bath trampled upon her with his feet to straighten her limbs.
Those in Authority
It is a common delusion, or, not to beg the question before producing evidence, a common opinion, that England in olden times, by which I mean that vague period when all words were spelled with an "e" at their end and most with a "y" in the middle, was a "merrie" place. This idea is held not only by the laudatores temporis acti, who find it safer to repine for a past which can never be recovered than to enthuse over a future which may arrive and prove disappointing, but also by those energetic persons who set out to make the world enjoy itself and imagine that their schemes for compulsory happiness will really only restore a lost gaiety to the nation. Life in the Middle Ages was undoubtedly more highly coloured, more varied, more picturesque, but that it was merrier is at least a doubtful assumption. As the life of a people is reflected in their arts, we may compare the life of the Middle Ages to the quaint, irregular lines of some unimproved village street, or to the older parts of such towns as Winchester and Guildford, and contrast it with the mid-Victorian era, the flattest and dullest of all periods, as typified by Brixton, or with the frivolity of the present day, portrayed in the outbreak of terra-cotta and white wood flimsinesses all over the country. But the picture is not complete. In the background, behind the straight sameness of "Alma Terrace," or the quirked and joggled sameness of "Mafeking Avenue," lies nothing more terrible than the "desirable residence" or the "eligible mansion." Behind your picturesque old-world cottages frowns the shadow of the feudal fortress. And, as Huxley remarked to the young man who said that he did not see what difference it would have made to him if his great-grandfather had or had not been a monkey, "it must have made a lot of difference to your great-grandmother."
It was not without reason that such names as Batvilayne, Scorchevilayne, and Maungevilayne are found amongst the landowning classes. There were men who would beat, scorch, or devour their villeins, and some six-and-a-half centuries ago an ancestor of the present Lord Ashburnham could oppress his tenants until they were reduced to literal beggary, and when they complained to the Justices could airily reply that they were his villeins and, short of injury to life and limb, he need not answer them. Such was the position of the bulk of the peasantry, but in practice they did not often suffer by it, for it was obviously to the advantage of the landlord to have prosperous tenants. It was at the hands of the officials, the swarm of stewards, bailiffs, catchpoles, and so forth, that the peasants, yeomen, and smaller gentry suffered. These men, secure in the protection of a chain of superiors reaching back to some great noble, lived on their neighbours, wringing money from them on every, or no, pretext. A favourite weapon was the jury list; the frequency with which juries were summoned and the resulting inconvenience to those called away from their work made the more wealthy willing to pay well for exemption; then money could be obtained by summoning four or five times as many jurors as were required and taking bribes from the superfluous to let them go home again. Another common object of the countryside was the "scotale," which was a kind of bean-feast. No doubt this lent an appearance of merriness to life in the country, just as the wriggling of the worm on the hook lent it a superficial air of gaiety which deceived old Isaak Walton, but it is questionable if the feasters really enjoyed themselves, as they knew that the ale which formed the main feature of the meal was brewed from malt which they had unwillingly contributed, and that they were paying for the (compulsory) privilege of consuming their own produce.
Nor did the townsmen escape entirely; even five hundred years ago the Christmas box was an established extortion, and, in 1419, William Sevenok, Mayor of London, had to forbid the custom of the servants of the mayor, sheriffs, and corporation begging gifts from the tradesmen at Christmas, as it was found that they used threats towards those who would not give and accepted the gifts of others as bribes to overlook their offences against the trading laws. Not only at Christmas did the servants of the city and the court fleece the tradesmen; the doubtful privilege of supplying the royal court with provisions could be, and frequently was, avoided by a gift to the purveyors, and one result was that rogues from time to time went round the breweries pretending to be court purveyors and taking money to leave the ale alone. A rogue of a similar type, with a turn of humour, was William Pykemyle, who in 1379 went to the town house of the Countess of Norfolk, and, pretending to be a royal messenger, left word that she was to dine with the King at Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, next day; having received from her a reward of 3s. 4d. (royal messengers always expecting a substantial tip) he went on to the Countess of Bedford and gave a similar message, only making the place of dining Eltham. Whether the ladies kept their appointments is not recorded, but the gay deceiver was caught and committed to Newgate.
If the men of the Middle Ages had had nothing more to complain of than extortion by threats and trickery they might have been merry enough, but when the bailiffs exercised their powers of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment it was another matter. From the sheriffs downwards those "clothed with a little brief authority" used it unscrupulously to fill their own pockets, dragging men off to prison on false accusations, or on none, and causing convicted felons to accuse the innocent of participation in their crimes. Release from prison depended solely upon the payment of a fine to the officer concerned, and was almost as easily available for the guilty as for the innocent. Upon occasion the powers of the law could be used to assist the criminal and punish his victim. During the misrule of the last years of Henry III, one, Wilkin of Gloseburne, accused Gilbert Wood of killing his son; Gilbert promptly turned the tables by bribing the gaoler of York, who arrested Wilkin on a charge of theft, bound him naked to a post in the prison, and kept him without food until he paid 40s. About the same time, in Suffolk, a man stole six geese belonging to Constance de Barnaucle; possibly he would have argued that they were "barnacle geese," and as this species notoriously grew on trees they were feræ naturæ, in which there could be no property. If so, he must have felt that his case was weak, as he ran away, pursued by the lady's servant. The thief was caught by the bailiffs of Thingoe Hundred, but either they were friends of his or they saw a chance of getting the geese themselves, for they let him go free, and when the pursuer came up they showed half-a-dozen other geese, which he naturally failed to identify; they then talked big about libel actions and false accusations and terrified 4s. out of the unlucky man's pockets.