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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 11: The Abbot's Ways

Abbot Samson shewed no extraordinary favour to the Monks who had been his familiars of old; did not promote them to offices, -- nisi essent idonei, unless they chanced to be fit men! Whence great discontent among certain of these, who had contributed to make him Abbot: reproaches, open and secret, of his being ‘ungrateful, hard-tempered, unsocial, a Norfolk barrator and paltenerius.’

Indeed, except it were for idonei, ‘fit men,’ in all kinds, it was hard to say for whom Abbot Samson had much favour. He loved his kindred well, and tenderly enough acknowledged the poor part of them; with the rich part, who in old days had never acknowledged him, he totally refused to have any business. But even the former he did not promote into offices; finding none of them idonei. ‘Some whom he thought suitable he put into situations in his own household, or made keepers of his country places: if they behaved ill, he dismissed them without hope of return.’ In his promotions, nay almost in his benefits, you would have said there was a certain impartiality. ‘The official person who had, by Abbot Hugo’s order, put the fetters on him at his return from Italy, was now supported with food and clothes to the end of his days at Abbot Samson’s expense.’

Yet he did not forget benefits: far the reverse, when an opportunity occurred of paying them at his own cost. How pay them at the public cost; -- how, above all, by setting fire to the public, as we said; clapping ‘conflagrations’ on the public, which the services of blockheads, non-idonei, intrinsically are! He was right willing to remember friends, when it could be done. Take these instances: ‘A certain chaplain who had maintained him at ‘the Schools of Paris by the sale of holy water, quæstu aquæ benedictæ; -- to this good chaplain he did give a vicarage, adequate to the comfortable sustenance of him.’ ‘The Son of Elias, too, that is, of old Abbot Hugo’s Cupbearer, coming to do homage for his Father’s land, our Lord Abbot said to him in full court: “I have, for these seven years, put off taking thy homage for the land which Abbot Hugo gave thy Father, because that gift was to the damage of Elmswell, and a questionable one: but now I must profess myself overcome; mindful of the kindness thy Father did me when I was in bonds; because he sent me a cup of the very wine his master had been drinking, and bade me be comforted in God.”’

To Magister Walter, son of Magister William de Dice, who wanted the vicarage of Chevington, he answered: “Thy Father was Master of the Schools; and when I was an indigent clericus, he granted me freely and in charity an entrance to his School, and opportunity of learning; wherefore I now, for the sake of God, grant to thee what thou askest.”’ Or lastly, take this good instance, -- and a glimpse, along with it, into long-obsolete times: ‘Two Milites of Risby, Willelm and Norman, being adjudged in Court to come under his mercy, in misericordia ejus,’ for a certain very considerable fine of twenty shillings, ‘he thus addressed them publicly on the spot: “When I was a Cloister-monk, I was once sent to Durham on business of our Church; and coming home again, the dark night caught me at Risby, and I had to beg a lodging there. I went to Dominus Norman’s, and he gave me a flat refusal. Going then to Dominus Willelm’s, and begging hospitality, I was by him honourably received. The twenty shillings therefore of mercy, I, without mercy, will exact from Dominus Norman; to Dominus Willelm, on the other hand, I, with thanks, will wholly remit the said sum.”’ Men know not always to whom they refuse lodgings; men have lodged Angels unawares! --

It is clear Abbot Samson had a talent; he had learned to judge better than Lawyers, to manage better than bred Bailiffs: -- a talent shining out indisputable, on whatever side you took him. ‘An eloquent man he was,’ says Jocelin, ‘both in French and Latin; but intent more on the substance and method of what was to be said, than on the ornamental way of saying it. He could read English Manuscripts very elegantly, elegantissime: he was wont to preach to the people in the English tongue, though according to the dialect of Norfolk, where he had been brought up; wherefore indeed he had caused a Pulpit to be erected in our Church both for ornament of the same, and for the use of his audiences.’ There preached he, according to the dialect of Norfolk: a man worth going to hear.

That he was a just clear-hearted man, this, as the basis of all true talent, is presupposed. How can a man, without clear vision in his heart first of all, have any clear vision in the head? It is impossible! Abbot Samson was one of the justest of judges; insisted on understanding the case to the bottom, and then swiftly decided without feud or favour. For which reason, indeed, the Dominus Rex, searching for such men, as for hidden treasure and healing to his distressed realm, had made him one of the new Itinerant Judges, -- such as continue to this day. “My curse on that Abbot’s court,” a suitor was heard imprecating, “Maledicta sit curia istius Abbatis, where neither gold nor silver can help me to confound my enemy!” And old friendships and all connexions forgotten, when you go to seek an office from him! “A kinless loon,” as the Scotch said of Cromwell’s new judges, -- intent on mere indifferent fair-play!

Eloquence in three languages is good; but it is not the best. To us, as already hinted, the Lord Abbott’s eloquence is less admirable than his ineloquence, his great invaluable ‘talent of silence!’ ‘“Deus, Deus,” said the Lord Abbot to me once, when he heard the Convent were murmuring at some act of his, “I have much need to remember that Dream they had of me, that I was to rage among them like a wolf. Above all earthly things I dread their driving me to do it. How much do I hold in, and wink at: raging and shuddering in my own secret mind, and not outwardly at all!” He would boast to me at other times: “This and that I have seen, this and that I have heard; yet patiently stood it.” He had this way, too, which I have never seen in any other man, that he affectionately loved many persons to whom he never or hardly ever shewed a countenance of love. Once on my venturing to expostulate with him on the subject, he reminded me of Solomon: “Many sons I have; it is not fit that I should smile on them.” He would suffer faults, damage from his servants, and know what he suffered, and not speak of it; but I think the reason was, he waited a good time for speaking of it, and in a wise way amending it. He intimated, openly in chapter to us all, that he would have no eavesdropping: “Let none,” said he, “come to me secretly accusing another, unless he will publicly stand to the same; if he come otherwise, I will openly proclaim the name of him. I wish, too, that every Monk of you have free access to me, to speak of your needs or grievances when you will.”’

The kinds of people Abbot Samson liked worst were these three: ‘Mendaces, ebriosi, verbosi, Liars, drunkards, and wordy or windy persons;’ -- not good kinds, any of them! He also much condemned ‘persons given to murmur at their meat or drink, especially Monks of that disposition.’ We remark, from the very first, his strict anxious order to his servants to provide handsomely for hospitality, to guard ‘above all things that there be no shabbiness in the matter of meat and drink; no look of mean parsimony, in novitate mea, at the beginning of my Abbotship;’ and to the last he maintains a due opulence of table and equipment for others: but he is himself in the highest degree indifferent to all such things.

‘Sweet milk, honey, and other naturally sweet kinds of food, were what he preferred to eat: but he had this virtue,’ says Jocelin, ‘he never changed the dish (ferculum) you set before him, be what it might. Once when I, still a novice, happened to be waiting table in the refectory, it came into my head’ (rogue that I was!) ‘to try if this were true; and I thought I would place before him a ferculum that would have displeased any other person, the very platter being black and broken. But he, seeing it, was as one that saw it not: and now some little delay taking place, my heart smote me that I had done this; and so, snatching up the platter (discus), I changed both it and its contents for a better, and put down that instead; which emendation he was angry at, and rebuked me for,’ -- the stoical monastic man! ‘For the first seven years he had commonly four sorts of dishes on his table; afterwards only three, except it might be presents, or venison from his own parks, or fishes from his ponds. And if, at any time, he had guests living in his house at the request of some great person, or of some friend, or had public messengers, or had harpers (citharœdos), or any one of that sort, he took the first opportunity of shifting to another of his Manor-houses, and so got rid of such superfluous individuals,’ [Jocelini Chronica, p. 31] -- very prudently, I think.

As to his parks, of these, in the general repair of buildings, general improvement and adornment of the St. Edmund Domains, ‘he had laid out several, and stocked them with animals, retaining a proper huntsman with hounds: and, if any guest of great quality were there, our Lord Abbot with his Monks would sit in some opening of the woods, and see the dogs run; but he himself never meddled with hunting, that I saw.’[Jocelini Chronica, p. 21]

‘In an opening of the woods;’ -- for the country was still dark with wood in those days; and Scotland itself still rustled shaggy and leafy, like a damp black American Forest, with cleared spots and spaces here and there. Dryasdust advances several absurd hypotheses as to the insensible but almost total disappearance of these woods; the thick wreck of which now lies as peat, sometimes with huge heart-of-oak timber logs imbedded in it, on many a height and hollow. The simplest reason doubtless is, that by increase of husbandry, there was increase of cattle; increase of hunger for green spring food; and so, more and more, the new seedlings got yearly eaten out in April; and the old trees, having only a certain length of life in them, died gradually, no man heeding it, and disappeared into peat.

A sorrowful waste of noble wood and umbrage! Yes, -- but a very common one; the course of most things in this world. Monachism itself, so rich and fruitful once, is now all rotted into peat; lies sleek and buried, -- and a most feeble bog-grass of Dilettantism all the crop we reap from it! That also was fright ful waste; perhaps among the saddest our England ever saw. Why will men destroy noble Forests, even when in part a nuisance, in such reckless manner; turning loose four-footed cattle and Henry-the-Eighths into them! The fifth part of our English soil, Dryasdust computes, lay consecrated to ‘spiritual uses,’ better or worse: solemnly set apart to foster spiritual growth and culture of the soul, by the methods then known: and now -- it too, like the four-fifths, fosters what? Gentle shepherd, tell me what!

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