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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 16: St Edmund

Abbot Samson built many useful, many pious edifices; human dwellings, churches, church-steeples, barns; -- all fallen now and vanished, but useful while they stood. He built and endowed ‘the Hospital of Babwell;’ built ‘fit houses for the St. Edmundsbury Schools.’ Many are the roofs once ‘thatched with reeds’ which he ‘caused to be covered with tiles;’ or if they were churches, probably ‘with lead.’ For all ruinous incomplete things, buildings or other, were an eye-sorrow to the man. We saw his ‘great tower of St. Edmund’s;’ or at least the roof-timbers of it, lying cut and stamped in Elmset Wood. To change combustible decaying reed-thatch into tile or lead, and material, still more, moral wreck into rain-tight order, what a comfort to Samson!

One of the things he could not in any wise but rebuild was the great Altar, aloft on which stood the Shrine itself; the great Altar, which had been damaged by fire, by the careless rubbish and careless candle of two somnolent Monks, one night, -- the Shrine escaping almost as if by miracle! Abbot Samson read his Monks a severe lecture: “A Dream one of us had, that he saw St. Edmund naked and in lamentable plight. Know ye the interpretation of that Dream? St. Edmund proclaims himself naked, because ye defraud the naked Poor of your old clothes, and give with reluctance what ye are bound to give them of meat and drink: the idleness moreover and negligence of the Sacristan and his people is too evident from the late misfortune by fire. Well might our Holy Martyr seem to lie cast out from his Shrine, and say with groans that he was stript of his garments, and wasted with hunger and thirst!”

This is Abbot Samson’s interpretation of the Dream; -- diametrically the reverse of that given by the Monks themselves, who scruple not to say privily, “It is we that are the naked and famished limbs of the Martyr; we whom the Abbot curtails of all our privileges, setting his own official to control our very Cellarer!” Abbot Samson adds, that this judgment by fire has fallen upon them for murmuring about their meat and drink.

Clearly enough, meanwhile, the Altar, whatever the burning of it mean or foreshadow, must needs be re-edified. Abbot Samson re-edifies it, all of polished marble; with the highest stretch of art and sumptuosity, reembellishes the Shrine for which it is to serve as pediment. Nay farther, as had ever been among his prayers, he enjoys, he sinner, a glimpse of the glorious Martyr’s very Body in the process; having solemnly opened the Loculus, Chest or sacred Coffin, for that purpose. It is the culminating moment of Abbot Samson’s life. Bozzy Jocelin himself rises into a kind of Psalmist solemnity on this occasion; the laziest monk ‘weeps’ warm tears, as Te Deum is sung.

Very strange; -- how far vanished from us in these unworshipping ages of ours! The Patriot Hampden, best beatified man we have, had lain in like manner some two centuries in his narrow home, when certain dignitaries of us, ‘and twelve grave-diggers with pulleys,’ raised him also up, under cloud of night; cut off his arm with penknives, pulled the scalp off his head, -- and otherwise worshipped our Hero Saint in the most amazing manner! [Annual Register (year 1828, Chronicle, p. 93), Gentleman’s Magazine, &c. &c.] Let the modern eye look earnestly on that old midnight hour in St. Edmundsbury Church, shining yet on us, ruddy-bright, through the depths of seven hundred years; and consider mournfully what our Hero-worship once was, and what it now is! We translate with all the fidelity we can:

The Festival of St. Edmund now approaching, the marble blocks are polished, and all things are in readiness for lifting of the Shrine to its new place. A fast of three days was held by all the people, the cause and meaning thereof being publicly set forth to them. The Abbot announces to the Convent that all must prepare themselves for transferring of the Shrine, and appoints time and way for the work. Coming therefore that night to matins, we found the great Shrine (feretrum magnum) raised upon the Altar, but empty; covered all over with white doeskin leather, fixed to the wood with silver nails; but one pannel of the Shrine was left down below, and resting thereon, beside its old column of the Church, the Loculus with the Sacred Body yet lay where it was wont. Praises being sung, we all proceeded to commence our disciplines (ad disciplinas suscipiendas). These finished, the Abbot and certain with him are clothed in their albs; and, approaching reverently, set about uncovering the Loculus. There was an outer cloth of linen, enwrapping the Loculus and all; this we found tied on the upper side with strings of its own: within this was a cloth of silk, and then another linen cloth, and then a third; and so at last the Loculus was uncovered, and seen resting on a little tray of wood, that the bottom of it might not be injured by the stone. Over the breast of the Martyr, there lay, fixed to the surface of the Loculus, a Golden Angel about the length of a human foot; holding in one hand a golden sword, and in the other a banner: under this there was a hole in the lid of the Loculus, on which the ancient servants of the Martyr had been wont to lay their hands for touching the Sacred Body. And over the figure of the Angel was this verse inscribed:

Martiris ecce zoma servat Michaelis agalma’. [This is the Martyr’s Garment, which Michael’s Image guards]

At the head and foot of the Loculus were iron rings whereby it could be lifted.

Lifting the Loculus and Body, therefore, they carried it to the Altar; and I put-to my sinful hand to help in carrying, though the Abbot had commanded that none should approach except called. And the Loculus was placed in the Shrine; and the pannel it had stood on was put in its place, and the Shrine for the present closed. We all thought that the Abbot would shew the Loculus to the people; and bring out the Sacred Body again, at a certain period of the Festival. But in this we were wofully mistaken, as the sequel shews. For in the fourth holiday of the Festival, while the Convent were all singing Completorium, our Lord Abbot spoke privily with the Sacristan and Walter the Medicus; and order was taken that twelve of the Brethren should be appointed against midnight, who were strong for carrying the pannel-planks of the Shrine, and skilful in unfixing them, and putting them together again. The Abbot then said that it was among his prayers to look once upon the Body of his Patron; and that he wished the Sacristan and Walter the Medicus to be with him. The Twelve appointed Brethren were these: The Abbot’s two Chaplains, the two Keepers of the Shrine, the two Masters of the Vestry; and six more, namely, the Sacristan Hugo, Walter the Medicus, Augustin, William of Dice, Robert, and Richard. I, alas, was not of the number.

The Convent therefore being all asleep, these Twelve, clothed in their albs, with the Abbot, assembled at the Altar; and opening a pannel of the Shrine, they took out the Loculus; laid it on a table, near where the Shrine used to be; and made ready for unfastening the lid, which was joined and fixed to the Loculus with sixteen very long nails. Which when, with difficulty, they had done, all except the two forenamed associates are ordered to draw back. The Abbot and they two were alone privileged to look in. The Loculus was so filled with the Sacred Body that you could scarcely put a needle between the head and the wood, or between the feet and the wood: the head lay united to the body, a little raised with a small pillow. But the Abbot, looking close, found now a silk cloth veiling the whole Body, and then a linen cloth of wondrous whiteness; and upon the head was spread a small linen cloth, and then another small and most fine silk cloth, as if it were the veil of a nun. These coverings being lifted off, they found now the Sacred Body all wrapt in linen; and so at length the lineaments of the same appeared. But here the Abbot stopped; saying he durst not proceed farther, or look at the sacred flesh naked. Taking the head between his hands, he thus spake groaning: “Glorious Martyr, holy Edmund, blessed be the hour when thou wert born. Glorious Martyr, turn it not to my perdition that I have so dared to touch thee, I miserable and sinful; thou knowest my devout love, and the intention of my mind.” And proceeding, he touched the eyes; and the nose, which was very massive and prominent (valde grossum et valde eminentem); and then he touched the breast and arms; and raising the left arm he touched the fingers, and placed his own fingers between the sacred fingers. And proceeding he found the feet standing stiff up, like the feet of a man dead yesterday; and he touched the toes, and counted them (tangendo numeravit).

And now it was agreed that the other Brethren should be called forward to see the miracles; and accordingly those ten now advanced, and along with them six others who had stolen in without the Abbot’s assent, namely, Walter of St. Alban’s, Hugh the Infirmirarius, Gilbert brother of the Prior, Richard of Henham, Jocellus our Cellarer, and Turstan the Little; and all these saw the Sacred Body, but Turstan alone of them put forth his hand, and touched the Saint’s knees and feet. And that there might be abundance of witnesses, one of our Brethren, John of Dice, sitting on the roof of the Church, with the servants of the Vestry, and looking through, clearly saw all these things.

What a scene; shining luminous effulgent, as the lamps of St. Edmund do, through the dark Night; John of Dice, with vestrymen, clambering on the roof to look through; the Convent all asleep, and the Earth all asleep, -- and since then, Seven Centuries of Time mostly gone to sleep! Yes, there, sure enough, is the martyred Body of Edmund landlord of the Eastern Counties, who, nobly doing what he liked with his own, was slain three hundred years ago: and a noble awe surrounds the memory of him, symbol and promoter of many other right noble things. Have not we now advanced to strange new stages of Hero-worship, now in the little Church of Hampden, with our penknives out, and twelve grave-diggers with pulleys? The manner of men’s Hero-worship, verily it is the innermost fact of their existence, and determines all the rest, -- at public hustings, in private drawing-rooms, in church, in market, and wherever else. Have true reverence, and what indeed is inseparable therefrom, reverence the right man, all is well; have sham-reverence, and what also follows, greet with it the wrong man, then all is ill, and there is nothing well. Alas, if Hero-worship become Dilettantism, and all except Mammonism be a vain grimace, how much, in this most earnest Earth, has gone and is evermore going to fatal destruction, and lies wasting in quiet lazy ruin, no man regarding it! Till at length no heavenly Ism any longer coming down upon us, Isms from the other quarter have to mount up. For the Earth, I say, is an earnest place; Life is no grimace, but a most serious fact. And so, under universal Dilettantism much having been stript bare, not the souls of men only, but their very bodies and bread-cupboards having been stript bare, and life now no longer possible, -- all is reduced to desperation, to the iron law of Necessity and very Fact again; and to temper Dilettantism, and astonish it, and burn it up with infernal fire, arises Chartism, Bare-back-ism, Sansculottism so-called! May the gods, and what of unworshipped heroes still remain among us, avert the omen. --

But however this may be, St. Edmund’s Loculus, we find, has the veils of silk and linen reverently replaced, the lid fastened down again with its sixteen ancient nails; is wrapt in a new costly covering of silk, the gift of Hubert Archbishop of Canterbury: and through the sky-window John of Dice sees it lifted to its place in the Shrine, the pannels of this latter duly refixed, fit parchment documents being introduced withal: -- and now John and his vestrymen can slide down from the roof, for all is over, and the Convent wholly awakens to matins. ‘When we assembled to sing matins,’ says Jocelin, ‘and understood what had been done, grief took hold of all that had not seen these things, each saying to himself, “Alas, I was deceived.” Matins over, the Abbot called the Convent to the great Altar; and briefly recounting the matter, alleged that it had not been in his power, nor was it permissible or fit, to invite us all to the sight of such things. At hearing of which, we all wept, and with tears sang Te Deum laudamus; and hastened to toll the bells in the Choir.’

Stupid blockheads, to reverence their St. Edmund’s dead Body in this manner? Yes, brother; -- and yet, on the whole, who knows how to reverence the Body of a Man? It is the most reverend phenomenon under this Sun. For the Highest God dwells visible in that mystic unfathomable Visibility, which calls itself “I” on the Earth. ‘Bending before men,’ says Novalis, is a reverence done to this Revelation in the Flesh. We touch Heaven when we lay our hand on a human Body.’ And the Body of one Dead; -- a temple where the Hero-soul once was and now is not: Oh, all mystery, all pity, all mute awe and wonder; Supernaturalism brought home to the very dullest; Eternity laid open, and the nether Darkness and the upper Light-Kingdoms; -- do conjoin there, or exist nowhere! Sauerteig used to say to me, in his peculiar way: “A Chancery Lawsuit; justice, nay justice in mere money, denied a man, for all his pleading, till twenty, till forty years of his Life are gone seeking it: and a Cockney Funeral, Death reverenced by hatchments, horsehair, brass-lacker, and unconcerned bipeds carrying long poles and bags of black silk: -- are not these two reverences, this reverence for Death and that reverence for Life, a notable pair of reverences among you English?”

Abbot Samson, at this culminating point of his existence, may, and indeed must, be left to vanish with his Life-scenery from the eyes of modern men. He had to run into France, to settle with King Richard for the military service there of his St. Edmundsbury Knights; and with great labour got it done. He had to decide on the dilapidated Coventry Monks; and with great labour, and much pleading and journeying, got them reinstated; dined with them all, and with the ‘Masters of the Schools of Oxneford,’ -- the veritable Oxford Caput sitting there at dinner, in a dim but undeniable manner, in the City of Peeping Tom! He had, not without labour, to controvert the intrusive Bishop of Ely, the intrusive Abbot of Cluny. Magnanimous Samson, his life is but a labour and a journey; a bustling and a justling, till the still Night come. He is sent for again, over sea, to advise King Richard touching certain Peers of England, who had taken the Cross, but never followed it to Palestine, whom the Pope is inquiring after. The magnanimous Abbot makes preparation for departure; departs, and -- -- And Jocelin’s Boswellean Narrative, suddenly shorn through by the scissors of Destiny, ends. There are no words more; but a black line, and leaves of blank paper. Irremediable: the miraculous hand that held all this theatric-machinery suddenly quits hold; impenetrable Time-Curtains rush down: in the mind’s eye all is again dark, void; with loud dinning in the mind’s ear, our real-phantasmagory of St. Edmundsbury plunges into the bosom of the Twelfth Century again, and all is over. Monks, Abbot, Hero-worship, Government, Obedience, Cœur-de-Lion and St. Edmund’s Shrine, vanish like Mirza’s Vision; and there is nothing left but a mutilated black Ruin amid green botanic expanses, and oxen, sheep and dilettanti pasturing in their places.

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