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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 5: Twelfth Century

Our Abbot being dead, the Dominus Rex, Henry II., or Ranulf de Glanvill Justiciarius of England for him, set Inspectors or Custodiars over us; -- not in any breathless haste to appoint a new Abbot, our revenues coming into his own Scaccarium, or royal Exchequer, in the meanwhile. They proceeded with some rigour, these Custodiars; took written inventories, clapt-on seals, exacted everywhere strict tale and measure: but wherefore should a living monk complain? The living monk has to do his devotional drill-exercise; consume his allotted pitantia, what we call pittance, or ration of victual; and possess his soul in patience.

Dim, as through a long vista of Seven Centuries, dim and very strange looks that monk-life to us; the ever-surprising circumstance this, That it is a fact and no dream, that we see it there, and gaze into the very eyes of it! Smoke rises daily from those culinary chimney-throats; there are living human beings there, who chant, loud-braying, their matins, nones, vespers; awakening echoes, not to the bodily ear alone. St. Edmund’s Shrine, perpetually illuminated, glows ruddy through the Night, and through the Night of Centuries withal; St. Edmundsbury Town paying yearly Forty pounds for that express end. Bells clang out; on great occasions, all the bells. We have Processions, Preachings, Festivals, Christmas Plays, Mysteries shewn in the Churchyard, at which latter the Townsfolk sometimes quarrel. Time was, Time is, as Friar Bacon’s Bass Head [Brass Head?] remarked; and withal Time will be. There are three Tenses, Tempora, or Times; and there is one Eternity; and as for us,

We are such stuff as Dreams are made of!

Indisputable, though very dim to modern vision, rests on its hill-slope that same Bury, Stow, or Town of St. Edmund; already a considerable place, not without traffic, nay manufactures, would Jocelin only tell us what. Jocelin is totally careless of telling: but, through dim fitful apertures, we can see Fullones, ‘Fullers,’ see cloth-making; looms dimly going, dye-vats, and old women spinning yarn. We have Fairs too, Nundinæ, in due course; and the Londoners give us much trouble, pretending that they, as a metropolitan people, are exempt from toll. Besides there is Field-husbandry, with perplexed settlement of Convent rents: corn-ricks pile themselves within burgh, in their season; and cattle depart and enter; and even the poor weaver has his cow, -- ‘dungheaps’ lying quiet at most doors (ante foras, says the incidental Jocelin), for the Town has yet no improved police. Watch and ward nevertheless we do keep, and have Gates, -- as what Town must not; thieves so abounding; war, werra, such a frequent thing! Our thieves, at the Abbot’s judgment bar, deny; claim wager of battle; fight, are beaten, and then hanged. ‘Ketel, the thief,’ took this course; and it did nothing for him, -- merely brought us, and indeed himself, new trouble!

Every way a most foreign Time. What difficulty, for example, has our Cellerarius to collect the repselver, ‘reaping silver,’ or penny, which each householder is by law bound to pay for cutting down the Convent grain! Richer people pretend that it is commuted, that it is this and the other; that, in short, they will not pay it. Our Cellerarius gives up calling on the rich. In the houses of the poor, our Cellerarius finding, in like manner, neither penny nor good promise, snatches, without ceremony, what vadium (pledge, wad) he can come at: a joint-stool, kettle, nay the very house-door, ‘hostium;’ and old women, thus exposed to the unfeeling gaze of the public, rush out after him with their distaffs and the angriest shrieks: ‘vetulæ exibant cum colis suis,’ says Jocelin, ‘minantes et exprobrantes.’

What a historical picture, glowing visible, as St. Edmund’s Shrine by night, after Seven long Centuries or so! Vetulæ cum colis: My venerable ancient spinning grandmothers, -- ah, and ye too have to shriek, and rush out with your distaffs; and become Female Chartists, and scold all evening with void doorway; -- and in old Saxon, as we in modern, would fain demand some Five-point Charter, could it be fallen in with, the Earth being too tyrannous! -- Wise Lord Abbots, hearing of such phenomena, did in time abolish or commute the reap-penny, and one nuisance was abated. But the image of these justly offended old women, in their old wool costumes, with their angry features, and spindles brandished, lives forever in the historical memory. Thanks to thee, Jocelin Boswell. Jerusalem was taken by the Crusaders, and again lost by them; and Richard Cœur-de-Lion ‘veiled his face’ as he passed in sight of it: but how many other things went on, the while!

Thus, too, our trouble with the Lakenheath eels is very great. King Knut, namely, or rather his Queen who also did herself honour by honouring St. Edmund, decreed by authentic deed yet extant on parchment, that the Holders of the Town Fields, once Beodric’s, should, for one thing, go yearly and catch us four thousand eels in the marsh-pools of Lakenheath. Well, they went, they continued to go; but, in later times, got into the way of returning with a most short account of eels. Not the due six-score apiece; no, Here are two-score, Here are twenty, ten, -- sometimes, Here are none at all; Heaven help us, we could catch no more, they were not there! What is a distressed Cellerarius to do? We agree that each Holder of so many acres shall pay one penny yearly, and let go the eels as too slippery. But alas, neither is this quite effectual: the Fields, in my time, have got divided among so many hands, there is no catching of them either; I have known our Cellarer get seven and twenty pence formerly, and now it is much if he get ten pence farthing (vix decem denarios et obolum.) And then their sheep, which they are bound to fold nightly in our pens, for the manure’s sake; and, I fear, do not always fold: and their aver-pennies, and their avragiums, and their foder-corns, and mill-and-market dues! Thus, in its undeniable but dim manner, does old St. Edmundsbury spin and till, and laboriously keep its pot boiling, and St. Edmund’s Shrine lighted, under such conditions and averages as it can.

How much is still alive in England; how much has not yet come into life! A Feudal Aristocracy is still alive, in the prime of life; superintending the cultivation of the land, and less consciously the distribution of the produce of the land, the adjustment of the quarrels of the land; judging, soldiering, adjusting; everywhere governing the people, -- so that even a Gurth born thrall of Cedric lacks not his due parings of the pigs he tends. Governing; -- and, alas, also game-preserving, so that a Robert Hood, a William Scarlet and others have, in these days, put on Lincoln coats, and taken to living, in some universal-suffrage manner, under the greenwood tree!

How silent, on the other hand, lie all Cotton-trades and such like; not a steeple-chimney yet got on end from sea to sea! North of the Humber, a stern Willelmus Conquestor burnt the Country, finding it unruly, into very stern repose. Wild fowl scream in those ancient silences, wild cattle roam in those ancient solitudes; the scanty sulky Norse-bred population all coerced into silence, -- feeling that, under these new Norman Governors, their history has probably as good as ended. Men and Northumbrian Norse populations know little what has ended, what is but beginning! The Ribble and the Aire roll down, as yet unpolluted by dyers’ chemistry; tenanted by merry trouts and piscatory otters; the sunbeam and the vacant wind’s-blast alone traversing those moors. Side by side sleep the coal-strata and the iron-strata for so many ages; no Steam-Demon has yet risen smoking into being. Saint Mungo rules in Glasgow; James Watt still slumbering in the deep of Time. Mancunium, Manceaster, what we now call Manchester, spins no cotton, -- if it be not wool ‘cottons,’ clipped from the backs of mountain sheep. The Creek of the Mersey gurgles, twice in the four-and-twenty hours, with eddying brine, clangorous with sea-fowl; and is a Lither-Pool, a lazy or sullen Pool, no monstrous pitchy City, and Seahaven of the world! The Centuries are big; and the birth-hour is coming, not yet come. Tempus ferax, tempus edax rerum.

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