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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 7: The Canvassing

Now, however, come great news to St. Edmundsbury: That there is to be an Abbot elected; that our interlunar obscuration is to cease; St. Edmund’s Convent no more to be a doleful widow, but joyous and once again a bride! Often in our widowed state had we prayed to the Lord and St. Edmund, singing weekly a matter of ‘one-and-twenty penitential Psalms, on our knees in the Choir,’ that a fit Pastor might be vouchsafed us. And, says Jocelin, had some known what Abbot we were to get, they had not been so devout, I believe! -- Bozzy Jocelin opens to mankind the floodgates of authentic Convent gossip; we listen, as in a Dionysius’ Ear, to the inanest hubbub, like the voices at Virgil’s Horn-Gate of Dreams. Even gossip, seven centuries off, has significance. List, list, how like men are to one another in all centuries:

Dixit quidam de quodam, A certain person said of a certain person, “He, that Frater, is a good monk, probabilis persona; knows much of the order and customs of the church; and though not so perfect a philosopher as some others, would make a very good Abbot. Old Abbot Ording, still famed among us, knew little of letters. Besides, as we read in Fables, it is better to choose a log for king, than a serpent, never so wise, that will venomously hiss and bite his subjects.” -- “Impossible!” answered the other: “How can such a man make a sermon in the chapter, or to the people on festival days, when he is without letters? How can he have the skill to bind and to loose, he who does not understand the Scriptures? How -- ?”’

And then ‘another said of another, alius de alio, “That Frater is a homo literatus, eloquent, sagacious; vigorous in discipline; loves the Convent much, has suffered much for its sake.” To which a third party answers, “From all your great clerks good Lord deliver us! From Norfolk barrators, and surly persons, That it would please thee to preserve us, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord!”’ Then another quidam said of another quodam, “That Frater is a good manager (husebondus);” but was swiftly answered, “God forbid that a man who can neither read nor chant, nor celebrate the divine offices, an unjust person withal, and grinder of the faces of the poor, should ever be Abbot!”’ One man, it appears, is nice in his victuals. Another is indeed wise; but apt to slight inferiors; hardly at the pains to answer, if they argue with him too foolishly. And so each aliquis concerning his aliquo, -- through whole pages of electioneering babble. ‘For,’ says Jocelin, ‘So many men, as many minds.’ Our Monks ‘at time of blood-letting, tempore minutionis,’ holding their sanhedrim of babble, would talk in this manner: Brother Samson, I remarked, never said anything; sat silent, sometimes smiling; but he took good note of what others said, and would bring it up, on occasion, twenty years after. As for me Jocelin, I was of opinion that ‘some skill in Dialectics, to distinguish true from false,’ would be good in an Abbot. I spake, as a rash Novice in those days, some conscientious words of a certain benefactor of mine; ‘and behold, one of those sons of Belial’ ran and reported them to him, so that he never after looked at me with the same face again! Poor Bozzy! --

Such is the buzz and frothy simmering ferment of the general mind and no-mind; struggling to ‘make itself up,’ as the phrase is, or ascertain what it does really want: no easy matter, in most cases. St. Edmundsbury, in that Candlemas [2 February] season of the year 1182, is a busily fermenting place. The very clothmakers sit meditative at their looms; asking, Who shall be Abbot? The sochemanni speak of it, driving their ox-teams afield; the old women with their spindles: and none yet knows what the days will bring forth.

The Prior, however, as our interim chief, must proceed to work; get ready ‘Twelve Monks,’ and set off with them to his Majesty at Waltham, there shall the election be made. An election, whether managed directly by ballot-box on public hustings, or indirectly by force of public opinion, or were it even by open alehouses, landlords’ coercion, popular club-law, or whatever electoral methods, is always an interesting phenomenon. A mountain tumbling in great travail, throwing up dustclouds and absurd noises, is visibly there; uncertain yet what mouse or monster it will give birth to.

Besides it is a most important social act; nay, at bottom, the one important social act. Given the men a People choose, the People itself, in its exact worth and worthlessness, is given. A heroic people chooses heroes, and is happy; a valet or flunkey people chooses sham-heroes, what are called quacks, thinking them heroes, and is not happy. The grand summary of a man’s spiritual condition, what brings out all his herohood and insight, or all his flunkeyhood and horn-eyed dimness, is this question put to him, What man dost thou honour! Which is thy ideal of a man; or nearest that? So too of a people: for a People too, every People, speaks its choice, -- were it only by silently obeying, and not revolting, -- in the course of a century or so. Nor are electoral methods, Reform Bills and such like, unimportant. A People’s electoral methods are, in the long-run, the express image of its electoral talent; tending and gravitating perpetually, irresistibly, to a conformity with that: and are, at all stages, very significant of the People. Judicious readers, of these times, are not disinclined to see how Monks elect their Abbot in the Twelfth Century: how the St. Edmundsbury mountain manages its midwifery; and what mouse or man the outcome is.

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