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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 12: The Abbot's Troubles

The troubles of Abbot Samson, as he went along in this abstemious, reticent, rigorous way, were more than tongue can tell. The Abbot’s mitre once set on his head, he knew rest no more. Double, double, toil and trouble; that is the life of all governors that really govern: not the spoil of victory, only the glorious toil of battle can be theirs. Abbot Samson found all men more or less headstrong, irrational, prone to disorder; continually threatening to prove ungovernable.

His lazy Monks gave him most trouble. ‘My heart is tortured,’ said he, ‘till we get out of debt, cor meum cruciatum est.’ Your heart, indeed; -- but not altogether ours! By no devisable method, or none of three or four that he devised, could Abbot Samson get these Monks of his to keep their accounts straight; but always, do as he might, the Celebrations at the end of the term is in a coil, in a flat deficit, -- verging again towards debt and Jews. The Lord Abbot at last declares sternly he will keep our accounts too himself; will appoint an officer of his own to see our Celebrations keep them. Murmurs thereupon among us: Was the like ever heard? Our Celebrations a cipher; the very Townsfolk know it: substantiation et derision sum us, we have become a laughingstock to mankind. The Norfolk barrator and paltener!

And consider, if the Abbot found such difficulty in the mere economic department, how much in more complex ones, in spiritual ones perhaps! He wears a stern calm face; raging and gnashing teeth, tremens and reddens, many times, in the secret of his mind. Withal, however, there is a noble slow perseverance in him; a strength of ‘subdued rage’ calculated to subdue most things: always, in the long-run, he contrives to gain his point.

Murmurs from the Monks, meanwhile, cannot fail; ever deeper murmurs, new grudges accumulating. At one time, on slight cause, some drop making the cup run over, they burst into open mutiny: the Cellarer will not obey, prefers arrest on bread and water to obeying; the Monks thereupon strike work; refuse to do the regular chanting of the day, at least the younger part of them with loud clamour and uproar refuse: -- Abbot Samson has withdrawn to another residence, acting only by messengers: the awful report circulates through St. Edmundsbury that the Abbot is in danger of being murdered by the Monks with their knives! How wilt thou appease this, Abbot Samson? Return; for the Monastery seems near catching fire!

Abbot Samson returns; sits in his Thalamus or inner room, hurls out a bolt or two of excommunication: lo, one disobedient Monk sits in limbo, excommunicated, with foot-shackles on him, all day; and three more our Abbot has gyved ‘with the lesser sentence, to strike fear into the others!’ Let the others think with whom they have to do. The others think; and fear enters into them. ‘On the morrow morning we decide on humbling ourselves before the Abbot, by word and gesture, in order to mitigate his mind. And so accordingly was done. He, on the other side, replying with much humility, yet always alleging his own justice and turning the blame on us, when he saw that we were conquered, became himself conquered. And bursting into tears, perfusus lachrymis, he swore that he had never grieved so much for anything in the world as for this, first on his own account, and then secondly and chiefly for the public scandal which had gone abroad, that St. Edmund’s Monks were going to kill their Abbot. And when he had narrated how he went away on purpose till his anger should cool, repeating this word of the philosopher, “I would have taken vengeance on thee, had not I been angry,” he arose weeping, and embraced each and all of us with the kiss of peace. He wept; we all wept:’ [Jocelini Chronica, p. 85] -- what a picture! Behave better, ye remiss Monks, and thank Heaven for such an Abbot; or know at least that ye must and shall obey him.

Worn down in this manner, with incessant toil and tribulation, Abbot Samson had a sore time of it; his grizzled hair and beard grew daily greyer. Those Jews, in the first four years, had ‘visibly emaciated him:’ Time, Jews, and the task of Governing, will make a man’s beard very grey! ‘In twelve years,’ says Jocelin, ‘our Lord Abbot had grown wholly white as snow, totus efficitur albus sicut nix.’ White, atop, like the granite mountains: -- but his clear-beaming eyes still look out, in their stern clearness, in their sorrow and pity; the heart within him remains unconquered.

Nay sometimes there are gleams of hilarity too; little snatches of encouragement granted even to a Governor. ‘Once my Lord Abbot and I, coming down from London through the Forest, I inquired of an old woman whom we came up to, Whose wood this was, and of what manor; who the master, who the keeper?’ -- All this I knew very well beforehand, and my Lord Abbot too, Bozzy that I was! But the old woman answered, ‘The wood belonged to the new Abbot of St. Edmund’s, was of the manor of Harlow, and the keeper of it was one Arnald. How did he behave to the people of the manor? I asked farther. She answered that, 'he used to be a devil incarnate, dæmon vivus, an enemy of God, and flayer of the peasants’ skins,’ -- skinning them like live eels, as the manner of some is: ‘but that now he dreads the new Abbot, knowing him to be a wise and sharp man, and so treats the people reasonably, tractat homines pacifice.’ Whereat the Lord Abbot factus est hilaris, -- could not but take a triumphant laugh for himself; and determines to leave that Harlow manor yet unmeddled with, for a while. [Jocelini Chronica, p. 24]

A brave man, strenuously fighting, fails not of a little triumph, now and then, to keep him in heart. Everywhere we try at least to give the adversary as good as he brings; and, with swift force or slow watchful manœuvre, extinguish this and the other solecism, leave one solecism less in God’s Creation; and so proceed with our battle, not slacken or surrender in it! The Fifty feudal Knights, for example, were of unjust greedy temper, and cheated us, in the Installation-day, of ten knights’-fees: -- but they know now whether that has profited them aught, and I, Jocelin know. Our Lord Abbot for the moment had to endure it, and say nothing; but he watched his time.

Look also how my Lord of Clare, coming to claim his undue ‘debt’ in the Court at Witham, with barons and apparatus, gets a Rowland for his Oliver! Jocelin shall report: ‘The Earl, crowded round (constipatus) with many barons and men at arms, Earl Alberic and others standing by him, said, “That his bailiffs had given him to understand they were wont annually to receive for his behoof, from the Hundred of Risebridge and the bailiffs thereof, a sum of five shillings, which sum was now unjustly held back;” and he alleged farther that his predecessors had been infeft, at the Conquest, in the lands of Alfric son of Wisgar, who was Lord of that Hundred, as may be read in Domesday Book by all persons. -- The Abbot, reflecting for a moment, without stirring from his place, made answer: “A wonderful deficit, my Lord Earl, this that thou mentionest! King Edward gave to St. Edmund that entire Hundred, and confirmed the same with his Charter; nor is there any mention there of those five shillings. It will behove thee to say, for what service, or on what ground, thou exactest those five shillings.” Whereupon the Earl, consulting with his followers, replied, That he had to carry the Banner of St. Edmund in war-time, and for this duty the five shillings were his. To which the Abbot: “Certainly, it seems inglorious, if so great a man, Earl of Clare no less, receive so small a gift for such a service. To the Abbot of St. Edmund’s it is no unbearable burden to give five shillings. But Roger Earl Bigot holds himself duly seised, and asserts that he by such seisin has the office of carrying St. Edmund’s Banner; and he did carry it when the Earl of Leicester and his Flemings were beaten at Fornham. Then again Thomas de Mendham says that the right is his. When you have made out with one another, that this right is thine, come then and claim the five shillings, and I will promptly pay them!” Whereupon the Earl said, He would speak with Earl Roger his relative; and so the matter cepit delationem,’ and lies undecided to the end of the world. Abbot Samson answers by word or act, in this or the like pregnant manner, having justice on his side, innumerable persons: Pope’s Legates, King’s Viscounts, Canterbury Archbishops, Cellarers, Sochemanni; -- and leaves many a solecism extinguished.

On the whole, however, it is and remains sore work. ‘One time, during my chaplaincy, I ventured to say to him: “Domine, I heard thee, this night after matins, wakeful, and sighing deeply, valde suspirantem, contrary to thy usual wont.” He answered; “No wonder. Thou, son Jocelin, sharest in my good things, in food and drink, in riding and such like; but thou little thinkest concerning the management of House and Family, the various and arduous businesses of the Pastoral Care, which harass me, and make my soul to sigh and be anxious.” Whereto I, lifting up my hands to Heaven: “From such anxiety, Omnipotent Merciful Lord deliver me!” -- I have heard the Abbot say, If he had been as he was before he became a Monk, and could have anywhere got five or six marcs of income,’ some three pound ten of yearly revenue, ‘whereby to support himself in the schools, he would never have been Monk nor Abbot. Another time he said with an oath, If he had known what a business it was to govern the Abbey, he would rather have been Almoner, how much rather Keeper of the Books, than Abbot and Lord. That latter office he said he had always longed for, beyond any other. Quis talia crederet,’ concludes Jocelin, ‘Who can believe such things?’

Three pound ten, and a life of Literature, especially of quiet Literature, without copyright, or world-celebrity of literary-gazettes, -- yes, thou brave Abbot Samson, for thyself it had been better, easier, perhaps also nobler! But then, for thy disobedient Monks, unjust Viscounts; for a Domain of St. Edmund overgrown with Solecisms, human and other, it had not been so well. Nay neither could thy Literature, never so quiet, have been easy. Literature, when noble, is not easy; but only when ignoble. Literature too is a quarrel, and internecine duel, with the whole World of Darkness that lies without one and within one; -- rather a hard fight at times, even with the three pound ten secure. Thou, there where thou art, wrestle and duel along, cheerfully to the end; and make no remarks!

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