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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 6: Monk Samson

Within doors, down at the hill-foot, in our Convent here, we are a peculiar people, -- hardly conceivable in the Arkwright Corn-Law ages, of mere Spinning-Mills and Joe-Mantons! There is yet no Methodism among us, and we speak much of Secularities: no Methodism; our Religion is not yet a horrible restless Doubt, still less a far horribler composed Cant; but a great heaven-high Unquestionability, encompassing, interpenetrating the whole of Life. Imperfect as we may be, we are here, with our litanies, shaven crowns, vows of poverty, to testify incessantly and indisputably to every heart, That this Earthly Life, and its riches and possessions, and good and evil hap, are not intrinsically a reality at all, but are a shadow of realities eternal, infinite; that this Time-world, as an air-image, fearfully emblematic, plays and flickers in the grand still mirror of Eternity; and man’s little Life has Duties that are great, that are alone great, and go up to Heaven and down to Hell. This, with our poor litanies, we testify and struggle to testify.

Which, testified or not, remembered by all men, or forgotten by all men, does verily remain the fact, even in Arkwright Joe-Manton ages! But it is incalculable, when litanies have grown obsolete; when fodercorns, avragiums, and all human dues and reciprocities have been fully changed into one great due of cash payment; and man’s duty to man reduces itself to handing him certain metal coins, or covenanted money-wages, and then shoving him out of doors; and man’s duty to God becomes a cant, a doubt, a dim inanity, a ‘pleasure of virtue’ or such like; and the thing a man does infinitely fear (the real Hell of a man) is ‘that he do not make money and advance himself,’ -- I say, it is incalculable what a change has introduced itself everywhere into human affairs! How human affairs shall now circulate everywhere not healthy life-blood in them, but, as it were, a detestable copperas banker’s ink; and all is grown acrid, divisive, threatening dissolution; and the huge tumultuous Life of Society is galvanic, devil-ridden, too truly possessed by a devil! For, in short, Mammon is not a god at all; but a devil, and even a very despicable devil. Follow the Devil faithfully, you are sure enough to go to the Devil: whither else can you go? -- In such situations, men look back with a kind of mournful recognition even on poor limited Monk-figures, with their poor litanies; and reflect, with Ben Jonson, that soul is indispensable, some degree of soul, even to save you the expense of salt! --

For the rest, it must be owned, we Monks of St. Edmundsbury are but a limited class of creatures, and seem to have a somewhat dull life of it. Much given to idle gossip; having indeed no other work, when our chanting is over. Listless gossip, for most part, and a mitigated slander; the fruit of idleness, not of spleen. We are dull, insipid men, many of us; easy-minded; whom prayer and digestion of food will avail for a life. We have to receive all strangers in our Convent, and lodge them gratis; such and such sorts go by rule to the Lord Abbot and his special revenues; such and such to us and our poor Cellarer, however straitened. Jews themselves send their wives and little ones hither in war-time, into our Pitanceria; where they abide safe, with due pittances, -- for a consideration. We have the fairest chances for collecting news. Some of us have a turn for reading Books; for meditation, silence; at times we even write Books. Some of us can preach, in English-Saxon, in Norman French, and even in Monk-Latin; others cannot in any language or jargon, being stupid.

Failing all else, what gossip about one another! This is a perennial resource. How one hooded head applies itself to the ear of another, and whispers -- tacenda. Willelmus Sacrista, for instance, what does he nightly, over in that Sacristry of his? Frequent bibations, ‘frequentes bibationes et quædam tacenda,’ -- eheu! We have ‘tempora minutionis,’ stated seasons of blood-letting, when we are all let blood together; and then there is a general free-conference, a sanhedrim of clatter. For all our vow of poverty, we can by rule amass to the extent of ‘two shillings;’ but it is to be given to our necessitous kindred, or in charity. Poor Monks! Thus too a certain Canterbury Monk was in the habit of ‘slipping, clanculo from his sleeve,’ five shillings into the hand of his mother, when she came to see him, at the divine offices, every two months. Once, slipping the money clandestinely, just in the act of taking leave, he slipt it not into her hand but on the floor, and another had it; whereupon the poor Monk, coming to know it, looked mere despair for some days; till Lanfranc the noble Archbishop, questioning his secret from him, nobly made the sum seven shillings, [Eadmeri Hist. 8] and said, Never mind!

One Monk of a taciturn nature distinguishes himself among these babbling ones: the name of him Samson; he that answered Jocelin, “Fili mi, a burnt child shuns the fire.” They call him ‘Norfolk Barrator,’ or litigious person; for indeed, being of grave taciturn ways, he is not universally a favourite; he has been in trouble more than once. The reader is desired to mark this Monk. A personable man of seven-and-forty; stout-made, stands erect as a pillar; with bushy eyebrows, the eyes of him beaming into you in a really strange way; the face massive, grave, with ‘a very eminent nose;’ his head almost bald, its auburn remnants of hair, and the copious ruddy beard, getting slightly streaked with grey. This is Brother Samson; a man worth looking at.

He is from Norfolk, as the nickname indicates; from Tottington in Norfolk, as we guess; the son of poor parents there. He has told me, Jocelin, for I loved him much, That once in his ninth year he had an alarming dream; -- as indeed we are all somewhat given to dreaming here. Little Samson, lying uneasily in his crib at Tottington, dreamed that he saw the Arch Enemy in person, just alighted in front of some grand building, with outspread bat-wings, and stretching forth detestable clawed hands to grip him, little Samson, and fly off with him: whereupon the little dreamer shrieked desperate to St. Edmund for help, shrieked and again shrieked; and St. Edmund, a reverend heavenly figure, did come, -- and indeed poor little Samson’s mother, awakened by his shrieking, did come; and the Devil and the Dream both fled away fruitless. On the morrow, his mother, pondering such an awful dream, thought it were good to take him over to St. Edmund’s own Shrine, and pray with him there. See, said little Samson at sight of the Abbey-Gate; see, mother, this is the building I dreamed of! His poor mother dedicated him to St. Edmund, -- left him there with prayers and tears: what better could she do? The exposition of the dream, Brother Samson used to say, was this: Diabolus with outspread bat-wings shadowed forth the pleasures of this world, voluptates hujus sæculi, which were about to snatch and fly away with me, had not St. Edmund flung his arms round me, that is to say, made me a monk of his. A monk, accordingly, Brother Samson is; and here to this day where his mother left him. A learned man, of devout grave nature; has studied at Paris, has taught in the Town Schools here, and done much else; can preach in three languages, and, like Dr. Caius, ‘has had losses’ in his time. [1] A thoughtful, firm-standing man; much loved by some, not loved by all; his clear eyes flashing into you, in an almost inconvenient way!

Abbot Hugo, as we said, had his own difficulties with him; Abbot Hugo had him in prison once, to teach him what authority was, and how to dread the fire in future. For Brother Samson, in the time of the Antipopes, had been sent to Rome on business; and, returning successful, was too late, -- the business had all misgone in the interim! As tours to Rome are still frequent with us English, perhaps the reader will not grudge to look at the method of travelling thither in those remote ages. We happily have, in small compass, a personal narrative of it. Through the clear eyes and memory of Brother Samson, one peeps direct into the very bosom of that Twelfth Century, and finds it rather curious. The actual Papa, Father, or universal President of Christendom, as yet not grown chimerical, sat there; think of that only! Brother Samson went to Rome as to the real Light-fountain of this lower world; we now -- ? -- But let us hear Brother Samson, as to his mode of travelling:

‘You know what trouble I had for that Church of Woolpit; how I was despatched to Rome in the time of the Schism between Pope Alexander and Octavian; and passed through Italy at that season, when all clergy carrying letters for our Lord Pope Alexander were laid hold of, and some were clapt in prison, some hanged; and some, with nose and lips cut off, were sent forward to our Lord the Pope, for the disgrace and confusion of him (in dedecus et confusionem ejus). I, however, pretended to be Scotch, and putting on the garb of a Scotchman, and taking the gesture of one, walked along; and when anybody mocked at me, I would brandish my staff in the manner of that weapon they call gaveloc,[2] uttering comminatory words after the way of the Scotch. To those that met and questioned me who I was, I made no answer but: Ride, ride Rome; turne Cantwereberei. [3] Thus did I, to conceal myself and my errand, and get safer to Rome under the guise of a Scotchman.

'Having at last obtained a Letter from our Lord the Pope according to my wishes, I turned homewards again. I had to pass through a certain strong town on my road; and lo, the soldiers thereof surrounded me, seizing me, and saying: “This vagabond (iste solivagus), who pretends to be Scotch, is either a spy, or has Letters from the false Pope Alexander.” And whilst they examined every stitch and rag of me, my leggings (caligas), breeches, and even the old shoes that I carried over my shoulder in the way of the Scotch, -- I put my hand into the leather scrip I wore, wherein our Lord the Pope’s Letter lay, close by a little jug (ciffus) I had for drinking out of; and the Lord God so pleasing, and St. Edmund, I got out both the Letter and the jug together; in such a way that, extending my arm aloft, I held the Letter hidden between jug and hand: they saw the jug, but the Letter they saw not. And thus I escaped out of their hands in the name of the Lord. Whatever money I had they took from me; wherefore I had to beg from door to door, without any payment (sine omni expensa) till I came to England again. But hearing that the Woolpit Church was already given to Geoffry Ridell, my soul was struck with sorrow because I had laboured in vain. Coming home, therefore, I sat me down secretly under the Shrine of St. Edmund, fearing lest our Lord Abbot should seize and imprison me, though I had done no mischief; nor was there a monk who durst speak to me, nor a laic who durst bring me food except by stealth.’ [Jocelini Chronica, p. 36.]

Such resting and welcoming found Brother Samson, with his worn soles, and strong heart! He sits silent, revolving many thoughts, at the foot of St. Edmund’s Shrine. In the wide Earth, if it be not Saint Edmund, what friend or refuge has he? Our Lord Abbot, hearing of him, sent the proper officer to lead him down to prison, clap ‘foot-gyves on him’ there. Another poor official furtively brought him a cup of wine; bade him “be comforted in the Lord.” Samson utters no complaint; obeys in silence. ‘Our Lord Abbot, taking counsel of it, banished me to ‘Acre, and there I had to stay long.’

Our Lord Abbot next tried Samson with promotions; made him Subsacristan, made him Librarian, which he liked best of all, being passionately fond of Books: Samson, with many thoughts in him, again obeyed in silence; discharged his offices to perfection, but never thanked our Lord Abbot, -- seemed rather as if looking into him, with those clear eyes of his. Whereupon Abbot Hugo said, Se nunquam vidisse, he had never seen such a man; whom no severity would break to complain, and no kindness soften into smiles or thanks: -- a questionable kind of man!

In this way, not without troubles, but still in an erect clear-standing manner, has Brother Samson reached his forty-seventh year; and his ruddy beard is getting slightly grizzled. He is endeavouring, in these days, to have various broken things thatched in; nay perhaps to have the Choir itself completed, for he can bear nothing ruinous. He has gathered ‘heaps of lime and sand;’ has masons, slaters working, he and Warinus monachus noster, who are joint keepers of the Shrine; paying out the money duly, -- furnished by charitable burghers of St. Edmundsbury, they say. Charitable burghers of St. Edmundsbury? To me Jocelin it seems rather, Samson and Warinus, whom he leads, have privily hoarded the oblations at the Shrine itself, in these late years of indolent dilapidation, while Abbot Hugo sat wrapt inaccessible; and are struggling, in this prudent way, to have the rain kept out! [Jocelini Chronica, p. 7] -- Under what conditions, sometimes, has Wisdom to struggle with Folly; get Folly persuaded to so much as thatch out the rain from itself! For, indeed, if the Infant govern the Nurse, what dexterous practice on the Nurse’s part will not be necessary!

It is a new regret to us that, in these circumstances, our Lord the King’s Custodiars, interfering, prohibited all building or thatching from whatever source; and no Choir shall be completed, and Rain and Time, for the present, shall have their way. Willelmus Sacrista, he of ‘the frequent bibations and some things not to be spoken of;’ he, with his red nose, I am of opinion, had made complaint to the Custodiars; wishing to do Samson an ill turn: -- Samson his Sub-sacristan, with those clear eyes, could not be a prime favourite of his! Samson again obeys in silence.

[1]Is this Dr. Caius in the Merry Wives of Windsor? I do not recollect that anything is said about his having had losses. This is what Dogberry says of himself in Much Ado About Nothing. [back]

[2] Javelin, missile pike. Gaveloc is still the Scotch name for crowbar.[back]

[3] Does this mean, “Rome forever; Canterbury not” (which claims an unjust Supremacy over us)! Mr. Rokewood is silent. Dryasdust would perhaps explain it, -- in the course of a week or two of talking; did one dare to question him![back]

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