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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 2 Chapter 8: The Election

Accordingly our Prior assembles us in Chapter; and, we adjuring him before God to do justly, nominates, not by our selection, yet with our assent, Twelve Monks, moderately satisfactory. Of whom are Hugo Third-Prior, Brother Dennis a venerable man, Walter the Medicus, Samson SubSacrista, and other esteemed characters, -- though Willelmus Sacrista, of the red nose, too is one. These shall proceed straightway to Waltham; elect the Abbot as they may or can. Monks are sworn to obedience; must not speak too loud, under penalty of foot-gyves, limbo, and bread and water: yet monks too would know what it is they are obeying. The St. Edmundsbury Community has no hustings, ballot-box, indeed no open voting: yet by various vague manipulations, pulse-feelings, we struggle to ascertain what its virtual aim is, and succeed better or worse.

This question, however, rises; alas, a quite preliminary question: Will the Dominus Rex allow us to choose freely? It is to be hoped! Well, if so, we agree to choose one of our own Convent. If not, if the Dominus Rex will force a stranger on us, we decide on demurring, the Prior and his Twelve shall demur: we can appeal, plead, remonstrate: appeal even to the Pope, but trust it will not be necessary. Then there is this other question, raised by Brother Samson: What if the Thirteen should not themselves be able to agree? Brother Samson SubSacrista, one remarks, is ready oftenest with some question, some suggestion, that has wisdom in it. Though a servant of servants, and saying little, his words all tell, having sense in them; it seems by his light mainly that we steer ourselves in this great dimness.

What if the Thirteen should not themselves be able to agree? Speak, Samson, and advise. -- Could not, hints Samson, Six of our venerablest elders be chosen by us, a kind of electoral committee, here and now: of these, ‘with their hand on the Gospels, with their eye on the Sacrosancta,’ we take oath that they will do faithfully; let these, in secret and as before God, agree on Three whom they reckon fittest; write their names in a Paper, and deliver the same sealed, forthwith, to the Thirteen: one of those Three the Thirteen shall fix on, if permitted. If not permitted, that is to say, if the Dominus Rex force us to demur, -- the Paper shall be brought back unopened, and publicly burned, that no man’s secret bring him into trouble.

So Samson advises, so we act; wisely, in this and in other crises of the business. Our electoral committee, its eye on the Sacrosancta, is soon named, soon sworn; and we striking up the Fifth Psalm, ‘Verba mea,

‘Give ear unto my words, O Lord,
My meditation weigh,’

march out chanting, and leave the Six to their work in the Chapter here. Their work, before long, they announce as finished: they, with their eye on the Sacrosancta, imprecating the Lord to weigh and witness their meditation, have fixed on Three Names, and written them in this Sealed Paper. Let Samson SubSacrista, general servant of the party, take charge of it. On the morrow morning, our Prior and his Twelve will be ready to get under way.

This then is the ballot-box and electoral winnowing-machine they have at St. Edmundsbury; a mind fixed on the Thrice Holy, an appeal to God on high to witness their meditation: by far the best, and indeed the only good electoral winnowing-machine, -- if men have souls in them. Totally worthless, it is true, and even hideous and poisonous, if men have no souls. But without soul, alas what winnowing-machine in human elections, can be of avail? We cannot get along without soul; we stick fast, the mournfullest spectacle; and salt itself will not save us!

On the morrow morning, accordingly, our Thirteen set forth; or rather our Prior and Eleven; for Samson, as general servant of the party, has to linger, settling many things. At length he too gets upon the road: and, ‘carrying the sealed Paper in a ‘leather pouch hung round his neck; and froccum bajulans in ulnis’ (thanks to thee Bozzy Jocelin), ‘his frock-skirts looped over his elbow,’ shewing substantial stern-works, tramps stoutly along. Away across the Heath, not yet of Newmarket and horse-jockeying; across your Fleam-dike and Devil’s-dike, no longer, useful as a Mercian East-Anglian boundary or bulwark: continually towards Waltham, and the Bishop of Winchester’s House there, for his Majesty is in that. Brother Samson, as purse-bearer, has the reckoning always, when there is one, to pay; ‘delays are numerous,’ progress none of the swiftest.

But, in the solitude of the Convent, Destiny thus big and in her birthtime, what gossiping, what babbling, what dreaming of dreams! The secret of the Three our electoral elders alone know: some Abbot we shall have to govern us; but which Abbot, O which! One Monk discerns in a vision of the night-watches, that we shall get an Abbot of our own body, without needing to demur: a prophet appeared to him clad all in white, and said, “Ye shall have one of yours, and he will rage among you like a wolf, sæviet ut lupus.” Verily! -- then which of ours? Another Monk now dreams: he has seen clearly which; a certain Figure taller by head and shoulders than the other two, dressed in alb and pallium, and with the attitude of one about to fight; -- which tall Figure a wise Editor would rather not name at this stage of the business? Enough that the vision is true: that Saint Edmund himself, pale and awful, seemed to rise from his Shrine, with naked feet, and say audibly, “He, ille, shall veil my feet;” which part of the vision also proves true. Such guessing, visioning, dim perscrutation of the momentous future: the very clothmakers, old women, all townsfolk speak of it, ‘and ‘more than once it is reported in St. Edmundsbury, This one is elected; and then, This one and That other.’ Who knows?

But now, sure enough, at Waltham ‘on the Second Sunday of Quadragesima,’ which Dryasdust declares to mean the 22d day of February, year 1182, Thirteen St. Edmundsbury Monks are, at last, seen processioning towards the Winchester Manorhouse; and in some high Presence-chamber, and Hall of State, get access to Henry II in all his glory. What a Hall, -- not imaginary in the least, but entirely real and indisputable, though so extremely dim to us; sunk in the deep distances of Night! The Winchester Manorhouse has fled bodily, like a Dream of the old Night; not Dryasdust himself can show a wreck of it. House and people, royal and episcopal, lords and varlets, where are they? Why there, I say, Seven Centuries off; sunk so far in the Night, there they are; peep through the blankets of the old Night, and thou wilt see! King Henry himself is visibly there, a vivid, noble-looking man, with grizzled beard, in glittering uncertain costume; with earls round him, and bishops and dignitaries, in the like. The Hall is large, and has for one thing an altar near it, -- chapel and altar adjoining it; but what gilt seats, carved tables, carpeting of rush-cloth, what arras-hangings, and a huge fire of logs: -- alas, it has Human Life in it; and is not that the grand miracle, in what hangings or costume soever? --

The Dominus Rex, benignantly receiving our Thirteen with ‘their obeisance, and graciously declaring that he will strive to act for God’s honour, and the Church’s good, commands, ‘by the Bishop of Winchester and Geoffrey the Chancellor,’ -- Galfridus Cancellarius, Henry’s and the Fair Rosamond’s authentic Son present here! -- commands, “That they, the said Thirteen, do now withdraw, and fix upon Three from their own Monastery.” A work soon done; the Three hanging ready round Samson’s neck, in that leather pouch of his. Breaking the seal, we find the names, -- what think ye of it, ye higher dignitaries, thou indolent Prior, thou Willelmus Sacrista with the red bottle-nose? -- the names, in this order: of Samson SubSacrista, of Roger the distressed Cellarer, of Hugo Tertius-Prior.

The higher dignitaries, all omitted here, ‘flush suddenly red in the face;’ but have nothing to say. One curious fact and question certainly is, How Hugo Third-Prior, who was of the electoral committee, came to nominate himself as one of the Three! A curious fact, which Hugo Third-Prior has never yet entirely explained, that I know of! -- However, we return, and report to the King our Three names; merely altering the order; putting Samson last, as lowest of all. The King, at recitation of our Three, asks us; “Who are they? Were they born in my domain? Totally unknown to me? You must nominate three others.” Whereupon Willelmus Sacrista says, “Our Prior must be named, quia caput nostrum est, being already our head.” And the Prior responds, “Willelmus Sacrista is a fit man, bonus vir est,” -- for all his red nose. Tickle me Toby, and I’ll tickle thee! Venerable Dennis too is named; none in his conscience can say nay. There are now Six on our List. “Well,” said the King, “they have done it swiftly they! Deus est cum eis.” The Monks withdraw again; and Majesty revolves, for a little, with his Pares and Episcopi, Lords or ‘Law-wards’ and Soul-Overseers, the thoughts of the royal breast. The Monks wait silent in an outer room.

In short while, they are next ordered, To add yet another three; but not from their own Convent; from other Convents, “for the honour of my kingdom.” Here, -- what is to be done here? We will demur, if need be! We do name three, however, for the nonce: the Prior of St. Faith’s, a good Monk of St. Neot’s, a good Monk of St. Alban’s; good men all; all made abbots and dignitaries since, at this hour. There are now Nine upon our List. What the thoughts of the Dominus Rex may be farther? The Dominus Rex, thanking graciously, sends out word that we shall now strike off three. The three strangers are instantly struck off. Willelmus Sacrista adds, that he will of his own accord decline, -- a touch of grace and respect for the Sacrosancta, even in Willelmus! The King then orders us to strike off a couple more; then yet one more: Hugo Third-Prior goes, and Roger Cellerarius, and venerable Monk Dennis; -- and now there remain on our List two only, Samson SubSacrista and the Prior.

Which of these two? It were hard to say, -- by Monks who may get themselves foot-gyved and thrown into limbo, for speaking! We humbly request that the Bishop of Winchester and Geoffrey the Chancellor may again enter, and help us to decide. “Which do you want?” asks the Bishop. Venerable Dennis made a speech, ‘commending the persons of the Prior and Samson; but always in the corner of his discourse, in angulo sui sermonis, brought Samson in.’ “I see!” said the Bishop: “We are to understand that your Prior is somewhat remiss; that you want to have him you call Samson for Abbot.” “Either of them is good,” said venerable Dennis, almost trembling; “but we would have the better, if it pleased God.” “Which of the two do you want?” inquires the Bishop pointedly. “Samson!” answered Dennis; “Samson!” echoed all of the rest that durst speak or echo anything: and Samson is reported to the King accordingly. His Majesty, advising of it for a moment, orders that Samson be brought in with the other Twelve.

The King’s Majesty, looking at us somewhat sternly, then says: “You present to me Samson; I do not know him: had it been your Prior, whom I do know, I should have accepted him: however, I will now do as you wish. But have a care of yourselves. By the true eyes of God, per veros oculos Dei, if you manage badly, I will be upon you!” Samson, therefore, steps forward, kisses the King’s feet; but swiftly rises erect again, swiftly turns towards the altar, uplifting with the other Twelve, in clear tenor-note, the Fifty-first Psalm, ‘Miserere mei Deus,

‘After thy loving kindness, Lord,
Have mercy upon me;’

with firm voice, firm step and head, no change in his countenance whatever. “By God’s eyes,” said the King, “that one, I think, will govern the Abbey well.” By the same oath (charged to your Majesty’s account), I too am precisely of that opinion! It is somewhile since I fell in with a likelier man anywhere than this new Abbot Samson. Long life to him, and may the Lord have mercy on him as Abbot!

Thus, then, have the St. Edmundsbury Monks, without express ballot-box or other good winnowing-machine, contrived to accomplish the most important social feat a body of men can do, to winnow out the man that is to govern them: and truly one sees not that, by any winnowing-machine whatever, they could have done it better. O ye kind Heavens, there is in every Nation and Community a fittest, a wisest, bravest, best; whom could we find and make King over us, all were in very truth well; -- the best that God and Nature had permitted us to make it! By what art discover him? Will the Heavens in their pity teach us no art; for our need of him is great!

Ballot-boxes, Reform Bills, winnowing-machines: all these are good, or are not so good; -- alas, brethren, how can these, I say, be other than inadequate, be other than failures, melancholy to behold? Dim all souls of men to the divine, the high and awful meaning of Human Worth and Truth, we shall never, by all the machinery in Birmingham, discover the True and Worthy. It is written, ‘if we are ourselves valets, there shall ‘exist no hero for us; we shall not know the hero when we see him;’ -- we shall take the quack for a hero; and cry, audibly through all ballot-boxes and machinery whatsoever, Thou art he; be thou King over us!

What boots it? Seek only deceitful Speciosity, money with gilt carriages, ‘fame’ with newspaper paragraphs, whatever name it bear, you will find only deceitful Speciosity; godlike Reality will be forever far from you. The Quack shall be legitimate inevitable King of you; no earthly machinery able to exclude the Quack. Ye shall be born thralls of the Quack, and suffer under him, till your hearts are near broken, and no French Revolution or Manchester Insurrection, or partial or universal volcanic combustions and explosions, never so many, can do more than ‘change the figure of your Quack;’ the essence of him remaining, for a time and times. -- “How long, O Prophet?” say some, with a rather melancholy sneer. Alas, ye unprophetic, ever till this come about: Till deep misery, if nothing softer will, have driven you out of your Speciosities into your Sincerities; and you find that there either is a Godlike in the world, or else ye are an unintelligible madness; that there is a God, as well as a Mammon and a Devil, and a Genius of Luxuries and canting Dilettantisms and Vain Shows! How long that will be, compute for yourselves. My unhappy brothers! --

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