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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 15: Practical-Devotional

Here indeed, perhaps, by rule of antagonisms, may be the place to mention that, after King Richard’s return, there was a liberty of tourneying given to the fighting men of England: that a Tournament was proclaimed in the Abbot’s domain, ‘between Thetford and St. Edmundsbury,’ -- perhaps in the Euston region, on Fakenham Heights, midway between these two localities: that it was publicly prohibited by our Lord Abbot; and nevertheless was held in spite of him, -- and by the parties, as would seem, considered ‘a gentle and free passage of arms.’

Nay, next year, there came to the same spot four-and-twenty young men, sons of Nobles, for another passage of arms; who, having completed the same, all rode into St. Edmundsbury to lodge for the night. Here is modesty! Our Lord Abbot being instructed of it, ordered the Gates to be closed; the whole party shut in. The morrow was the Vigil of the Apostles Peter and Paul ; no outgate on the morrow. Giving their promise not to depart without permission, those four-and-twenty young bloods dieted all that day (manducaverunt) with the Lord Abbot, waiting for trial on the morrow. ‘But after dinner,’ -- mark it, posterity! -- ‘the Lord Abbot retiring into his Thalamus, they all started up, and began carolling and singing (carolare et cantare); sending into the Town for wine; drinking, and afterwards howling (ululantes); -- totally depriving the Abbot and Convent of their afternoon’s nap; doing all this in derision of the Lord Abbot, and spending in such fashion the whole day till evening, nor would they desist at the Lord Abbot’s order! Night coming on, they broke the bolts of the Town-Gates, and went off by violence!’[Jocelini Chronica, p. 40] Was the like ever heard of? The roysterous young dogs; carolling, howling, breaking the Lord Abbot’s sleep; -- after that sinful chivalry cock-fight of theirs! They too are a feature of distant centuries, as of near ones. St. Edmund on the edge of your horizon, or whatever else there, young scamps, in the dandy state, whether cased in iron or in whalebone, begin to caper and carol on the green Earth! Our Lord Abbot excommunicated most of them; and they gradually came in for repentance.

Excommunication is a great recipe with our Lord Abbot; the prevailing purifier in those ages. Thus when the Townsfolk and Monks-menials quarrelled once at the Christmas Mysteries in St. Edmund’s Churchyard, and ‘from words it came to cuffs, and from cuffs to cuttings and the effusion of blood,’ -- our Lord Abbot excommunicates sixty of the rioters, with bell, book and candle (accensis candelis), at one stroke [Ibid. p. 68]. Whereupon they all come suppliant, indeed nearly naked, ‘nothing on but their breeches, omnino nudi præter femoralia, and prostrate themselves at the Church-door.’ Figure that!

In fact, by excommunication or persuasion, by impetuosity of driving or adroitness in leading, this Abbot, it is now becoming plain everywhere, is a man that generally remains master at last. He tempers his medicine to the malady, now hot, now cool; prudent though fiery, an eminently practical man. Nay sometimes in his adroit practice there are swift turns almost of a surprising nature! Once, for example, it chanced that Geoffrey Riddell Bishop of Ely, a Prelate rather troublesome to our Abbot, made a request of him for timber from his woods towards certain edifices going on at Glemsford. The Abbot, a great builder himself, disliked the request; could not however give it a negative. While he lay, therefore, at his Manorhouse of Melford not long after, there comes to him one of the Lord Bishop’s men or monks, with a message from his Lordship, “That he now begged permission to cut down the requisite trees in Elmswell Wood,” -- so said the monk: Elmswell, where there are no trees but scrubs and shrubs, instead of Elmset, our true nemus, and high-towering oak-wood, here on Melford Manor! Elmswell? The Lord Abbot, in surprise, inquires privily of Richard his Forester; Richard answers that my Lord of Ely has already had his carpentarii in Elmset, and marked out for his own use all the best trees in the compass of it. Abbot Samson thereupon answers the monk: “Elmswell? Yes surely, be it as my Lord Bishop wishes.” The successful monk, on the morrow morning, hastens home to Ely; but, on the morrow morning, ‘directly after mass,’ Abbot Samson too was busy! The successful monk, arriving at Ely, is rated for a goose and an owl; is ordered back to say that Elmset was the place meant. Alas, on arriving at Elmset, he finds the Bishop’s trees, they ‘and a hundred more,’ all felled and piled, and the stamp of St. Edmund’s Monastery burnt into them, -- for roofing of the great tower we are building there! Your importunate Bishop must seek wood for Glemsford edifices in some other nemus than this. A practical Abbot!

We said withal there was a terrible flash of anger in him: witness his address to old Herbert the Dean, who in a too thrifty manner has erected a windmill for himself on his glebe-lands at Haberdon. On the morrow, after mass, our Lord Abbot orders the Cellerarius to send off his carpenters to demolish the said structure brevi manu, and lay up the wood in safe keeping. Old Dean Herbert, hearing what was toward, comes tottering along hither, to plead humbly for himself and his mill. The Abbot answers: “I am obliged to thee as if thou hadst cut off both my feet! By God’s face, per os Dei, I will not eat bread till that fabric be torn in pieces. Thou art an old man, and shouldst have known that neither the King nor his Justiciary dare change aught within the Liberties, without consent of Abbot and Convent; and thou hast presumed on such a thing? I tell thee, it will not be without damage to my mills; for the Townsfolk will go to thy mill, and grind their corn (bladum suum) at their own good pleasure; nor can I hinder them, since they are free men. I will allow no new mills on such principle. Away, away; before thou gettest home again, thou wilt see what thy mill has grown to!” [Jocelini Chronica, p. 43] -- The very reverend, the old Dean totters home again, in all haste; tears the mill in pieces by his own carpentarii, to save at least the timber; and Abbot Samson’s workmen, coming up, find the ground already clear of it.

Easy to bully down poor old rural Deans, and blow their windmills away: but who is the man that dare abide King Richard’s anger; cross the Lion in his path, and take him by the whiskers! Abbot Samson too; he is that man, with justice on his side. The case was this. Adam de Cokefield, one of the chief feudatories of St. Edmund, and a principal man in the Eastern Counties, died, leaving large possessions, and for heiress a daughter of three months; who by clear law, as all men know, became thus Abbot Samson’s ward; whom accordingly he proceeded to dispose of to such person as seemed fittest. But now King Richard has another person in view, to whom the little ward and her great possessions were a suitable thing. He, by letter, requests that Abbot Samson will have the goodness to give her to this person. Abbot Samson, with deep humility, replies that she is already given. New letters from Richard, of severer tenor; answered with new deep humilities, with gifts and entreaties, with no promise of obedience. Kind Richard’s ire is kindled; messengers arrive at St. Edmundsbury, with emphatic message to obey or tremble! Abbot Samson, wisely silent as to the King’s threats, makes answer: “The King can send if he will, and seize the ward: force and power he has to do his pleasure, and abolish the whole Abbey. I never can be bent to wish this that he seeks, nor shall it by me be ever done. For there is danger lest such things be made a precedent of, to the prejudice of my successors. Videat Altissimus, Let the Most High look on it. Whatsoever thing shall befall I will patiently endure.”

Such was Abbot Samson’s deliberate decision. Why not? Cœur-de-Lion is very dreadful, but not the dreadfulest. Videat Altissimus. I reverence Cœur-de-Lion to the marrow of my bones, and will in all right things be homo suus; but it is not, properly speaking, with terror, with any fear at all. On the whole, have I not looked on the face of ‘Satan with outspread wings;’ steadily into Hellfire these seven-and-forty years; -- and was not melted into terror even at that, such the Lord’s goodness to me? Cœur-de-Lion!

Richard swore tornado oaths, worse than our armies in Flanders, To be revenged on that proud Priest. But in the end he discovered that the Priest was right; and forgave him, and even loved him. ‘King Richard wrote, soon after, to Abbot Samson, That he wanted one or two of the St. Edmundsbury dogs, which he heard were good.’ Abbot Samson sent him dogs of the best; Richard replied by the present of a ring, which Pope Innocent the Third had given him. Thou brave Richard, thou brave Samson! Richard too, I suppose, ‘loved a man,’ and knew one when he saw him.

No one will accuse our Lord Abbot of wanting worldly wisdom, due interest in worldly things. A skilful man; full of cunning insight, lively interests; always discerning the road to his object, be it circuit, be it short-cut, and victoriously travelling forward thereon. Nay rather it might seem, from Jocelin’s Narrative, as if he had his eye all but exclusively directed on terrestrial matters, and was much too secular for a devout man. But this too, if we examine it, was right. For it is in the world that a man, devout or other, has his life to lead, his work waiting to be done. The basis of Abbot Samson’s, we shall discover, was truly religion, after all. Returning from his dusty pilgrimage, with such welcome as we saw, ‘he sat down at the foot of St. Edmund’s Shrine.’ Not a talking theory that; no, a silent practice: Thou St. Edmund with what lies in thee, thou now must help me, or none will!

This also is a significant fact: the zealous interest our Abbot took in the Crusades. To all noble Christian hearts of that era, what earthly enterprise so noble? ‘When Henry II, having ‘taken the cross, came to St. Edmund’s, to pay his devotions before setting out, the Abbot secretly made for himself a cross of linen cloth: and, holding this in one hand and a threaded needle in the other, asked leave of the King to assume it!’ The King could not spare Samson out of England; -- the King himself indeed never went. But the Abbot’s eye was set on the Holy Sepulchre, as on the spot of this Earth where the true cause of Heaven was deciding itself. ‘At the retaking of Jerusalem by the Pagans, Abbot Samson put on a cilice and hair-shirt, and wore under-garments of hair-cloth ever after; he abstained also from flesh and flesh-meats (carne et carneis) thenceforth to the end of his life.’ Like a dark cloud eclipsing the hopes of Christendom, those tidings cast their shadow over St. Edmundsbury too: Shall Samson Abbas take pleasure while Christ’s Tomb is in the hands of the Infidel? Samson, in pain of body, shall daily be reminded of it, admonished to grieve for it.

The great antique heart: how like a child’s in its simplicity, like a man’s in its earnest solemnity and depth! Heaven lies over him wheresoever he goes or stands on the Earth; making all the Earth a mystic Temple to him, the Earth’s business all a kind of worship. Glimpses of bright creatures flash in the common sunlight; angels yet hover doing God’s messages among men: that rainbow was set in the clouds by the hand of God! Wonder, miracle encompass the man; he lives in an element of miracle; Heaven’s splendour over his head, Hell’s darkness under his feet. A great Law of Duty, high as these two Infinitudes, dwarfing all else, annihilating all else, -- making royal Richard as small as peasant Samson, smaller if need be! -- The ‘imaginative faculties?’ ‘Rude poetic ages?’ The ‘primeval poetic element?’ O for God’s sake, good reader, talk no more of all that! It was not a Dilettantism this of Abbot Samson. It was a Reality, and it is one. The garment only of it is dead; the essence of it lives through all Time and all Eternity! --

And truly, as we said above, is not this comparative silence of Abbot Samson as to his religion, precisely the healthiest sign of him and of it? ‘The Unconscious is the alone Complete.’ Abbot Samson all along a busy working man, as all men are bound to be, his religion, his worship was like his daily bread to him; -- which he did not take the trouble to talk much about; which he merely ate at stated intervals, and lived and did his work upon! This is Abbot Samson’s Catholicism of the Twelfth Century; -- something like the Ism of all true men in all true centuries, I fancy! Alas, compared with any of the Isms current in these poor days, what a thing! Compared with the respectablest, morbid, struggling Methodism, never so earnest; with the respectablest, ghastly, dead or galvanised Dilettantism, never so spasmodic!

Methodism with its eye forever turned on its own navel; asking itself with torturing anxiety of Hope and Fear, “Am I right, am I wrong? Shall I be saved, shall I not be damned?” -- what is this, at bottom, but a new phasis of Egoism, stretched out into the Infinite; not always the heavenlier for its infinitude! Brother, so soon as possible, endeavour to rise above all that. “Thou art wrong; thou art like to be damned:” consider that as the fact, reconcile thyself even to that, if thou be a man; -- then first is the devouring Universe subdued under thee, and from the black murk of midnight and noise of greedy Acheron, dawn as of an everlasting morning, how far above all Hope and all Fear, springs for thee, enlightening thy steep path, awakening in thy heart celestial Memnon’s music!

But of our Dilettantisms, and galvanised Dilettantisms; of Puseyism -- O Heavens, what shall we say of Puseyism, in comparison to Twelfth-Century Catholicism? Little or nothing; for indeed it is a matter to strike one dumb.

The Builder of this Universe was wise,
He plann’d all souls, all systems, planets, particles:
The Plan He shap’d His Worlds and Æons by
Was -- -- Heavens! -- Was thy small Nine-and-thirty Articles?

That certain human souls, living on this practical Earth, should think to save themselves and a ruined world by noisy theoretic demonstrations and laudations of the Church, instead of some unnoisy, unconscious, but practical, total, heart-and-soul demonstration of a Church: this, in the circle of revolving ages, this also was a thing we were to see. A kind of penultimate thing, precursor of very strange consummations; last thing but one? If there is no atmosphere, what will it serve a man to demonstrate the excellence of lungs? How much profitabler when you can, like Abbot Samson, breathe; and go along your way!

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