A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 4

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Circa 597—1066


"Post Tenebras Lux."

MIGHTY and momentous were the changes that now swept over the lives of our forefathers, still torn with those tribal controversies which are inevitable in any great settlement of people in a new-found land. But great as was the revolution which changed the tribal chief into the national king and developed the germ of feudalism by turning the freeman into a serf, yet still greater and more far-reaching was that moral revolution which was effected by the triumph of Christianity over the fierce worshippers of Woden. This is no place to retell the charming story of the little band of Benedictine monks who so successfully organised that Christianity in England which had already taken root among the Celts. The strenuous opposition with which the Saxons greeted the new faith is comprehensible, when we consider their point of view. Not only was it the religion of their foes, the Celts, but it taught men to forgive injuries, which seemed to the stout pagan warriors a religion only fit for cowards, while a faith that held the highest life to be that of the cloistered monk was impossible to one whose only hope of eternity lay in a glorious death by battle.

But the time was ripening for a fuller conception of the responsibilities of life, when the mere gratification of passion and greed as well as the very material future offered by the Northern mythology was becoming totally inadequate.

The dawning change is so beautifully illustrated by the world-worn parable uttered by an old pagan chieftain in the North of England that we venture to repeat it, for the speaker voiced the feelings of his brethren when he exclaimed: "O King, often in winter when men are sitting at meat in your hall and the warm fire is lighted on your hearth, while the rain storm beats without, a sparrow flieth in at the door, tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the fire, and then goeth out by another door into the wintry darkness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in this world; what has gone before and what will come after, none can say. If this new teaching can tell us aught of this, let us follow it"

The answer of Paulinus, the Roman teacher, must have been reassuring, for the pagan chieftain sprang on his horse, rode straight to the temple of his gods, and hurled a spear through the idols worshipped by his ancestors.

Slowly and painfully, through toil and tribulation, the persistent teachers made their way through the length and breadth of the land, followed closely in thought and prayer by Pope Gregory in distant Rome, till Christianity finally triumphed over heathendom. The liberal way in which the changes were effected is evident to-day. Thus, the heathen festival hitherto dedicated to Eostra, the goddess of the spring, became the Christian festival of the Resurrection, while the great Yuletide feast held in the winter solstice became our Christmas Day.

Little thick-walled churches, touching in their extreme simplicity, arose from out the townships scattered through the land. For the first time Pater Noster and Creed, Te Deum and Magnificat were sung by English lips from English hearts, while the now familiar church bell called all alike to prayer across marshy meadow and lonely moor.

Accustomed to music and singing, our ancestors seem to have joined somewhat too eagerly in the solemn Latin chanting of the priests, for we find a law ordering those who sang out of time or tune to be turned out of church. Possibly the uniformity secured in Church music by the introduction of Gregorian chants in the eighth century affected the Anglo-Saxon enthusiast. A difference of opinion also took place between priest and people owing to the determination of the latter to bring dogs, hawks, and pigs to church with them.

Not only in church, but by moor and river, on the hillside and in the valley, the new faith was diligently preached to the men of England. While the new Walhalla was depicted in glowing terms as a place where there would be "peace without sorrow, light without darkness and joys without end," the alternative was relentlessly painted for those who fell short in obeying the Divine call. "Gold and silver cannot save us from those grim and cruel torments," cried the preacher of a thousand years ago to a congregation of Englishmen, "from those flames that will never be extinguished, from those serpents that never die. There they are whetting their bloody teeth to wound and tear our bodies without mercy; there, beaten and bound, the afflicted soul will hang over hot flames, till thrown into the blackest place below."

Ecclesiastical organisation immediately followed the establishment of the Church in England, and a new social order arose. Bishops, priests, clergy, monks, forming a distinct class, required new legislation. By various stages the old township passed into the parish, with the church as the centre of village life, as it practically is in country districts to-day.

But the change that came over the individual was yet more startling. The new faith demanded a radical change of life. It forced on the Englishman not only new laws, new manners, new customs, but an altogether new conception of life and duty. There was no respite. The change must begin with babyhood and last to the grave. No infanticide was permitted, but the rites of baptism were ordained to be accomplished within thirty days of birth. Godparents appear for the first time in England, with more elaborate duties than they are called on to perform to-day. A more systematic naming of children now came into existence, their names for the most part denoting some personal characteristic. Thus we have Arnold (eagle strength), Alfred (noble peace), Godwine (friend of God), while among girls there is Edith (happy gift), Ellen (the excellent), and so forth. Of surnames there were none as yet, though to avoid confusion we hear of Ethelred the Unready, Edmund Ironside, &c. But these, it would seem, ranked only as nicknames, which our ancestors loved. Thus we get a glimpse of Tata (the lively one), Enede (the duck), and Elfgifu (the gift of the fairies).

Marriage now became a religious ceremony, performed at the church door and sanctioned by the blessing of the priest, while cremation in any form was forbidden, and burial took place in consecrated ground. Men's eyes were opened for the first time to the evils of slavery. Though there were different degrees at this time, yet all slaves alike were the property of a master, against whose cruelty there was no redress, neither had they any kinsmen to avenge their wrongs. They were bought and sold with the land as if they had been sheep or cattle. Now it was ordained that they, with the rest of humanity, should rest on Sundays and feast days, and further, that their lives should be protected, in so much as a man who slew his slave was to do penance for two years, and the woman who, in a rage, beat her slave to death should do penance for seven years.

These penances, or fasts, played a very large part in the social life of this period. They must have been a very real trial to the Anglo-Saxon community, whose old ideal of material enjoyment can hardly have passed entirely. Severe indeed sounds the penance ordered to such as these. Each clause seems intended to mortify to the full the peculiar vanities of these men of old. To expiate sin, they must lay aside all weapons and walk bare-foot, nor must they take shelter at nightfall. They must fast and watch and pray day and night, weary though they be. They must take no warm bath, cut no hair or nails, touch no flesh, drink no ale or mead, enter no church, but just grieve continually for sin.

The possibility of redeeming these penances was one of the first abuses that shadowed the purity of the movement By building a church or bridging a river, by helping the widow or fatherless or freeing a slave, wealthy men could redeem their punishments.

It is illuminating to look at the capital sins that demanded these fasts in greater or less degree. They were pride, vainglory, envy, anger, despondency, avarice, greediness and luxury. Perhaps the quaintest is the fifth on the list, by which a man who permitted his want of liveliness to damp the cheerfulness of another was ordered to fast for a day on bread and water, though, be it noted, even this small penance was redeemable by the payment of a silver penny or the hurried repetition of many psalms!

But perhaps one of the strangest phases that passed over the social life of the English people at this time was the renunciation of the world for monastic life as an expression of the highest Christian obedience, a phase so important in its results that it requires some attention. Long ago the Celtic population had realised the value of the monastery. On storm-beaten shores and wind-swept islands little settlements had arisen, in which many a devoted monk had spent his self-denying life of prayer and meditation. But it was not till the Benedictine monks had won over the main body of English by their example of high living, as much as by their teaching, that monastic life became at all universal in England.

To the monks of early England we owe all our most precious treasures in literature as well as in art. Can our country ever forget the old monk of Jarrow, the father of English learning, and the ideal of the divinity of work which he put before his people? Who but the monks translated the Latin prayers into Saxon and illuminated the Saxon Gospels, adorning the margins with virgins and apostles in Anglo-Saxon dress playing on Anglo-Saxon instruments? They were our keenest agriculturists, our most skilful fishermen, our best informed gardeners, our earliest doctors. They reclaimed the waste land, they cut the virgin forests: no labour was too hard, no toil too rough for these servants of God. The monastery was not only a school of learning: it was at once a shelter for the destitute and a refuge for the sick, from whose hospitable doors no stranger was ever turned away. The monks were the only doctors in the land, but unhappily their knowledge was not equal to their enthusiasm. Hitherto the people had trusted to charms and incantations, magic and witchcraft, to cure them of their ills. A strange mingling of monkish knowledge and superstition now took place. Here is an early prescription for the cure of consumption:—"Take thrift-grass, betony, penny-grass, fane, fennel, Christmas wort and borage, and make them into a potion with clear ale. Sing seven Masses over the plants daily, add holy water, and drink the draught out of the church bell, while the priest sings: 'Domini sancti Pater omnipotens.'"

Bleeding was the favourite remedy for most disorders, but generally so clumsily performed as to be more dangerous than the disease itself. Its efficacy was supposed to depend on the day of the month on which it was performed, and was prohibited "when the light of the moon and the tide of the ocean were increasing."

Such very briefly was the state of things in England, when once again—so strangely does history repeat itself—a pagan population of sea-loving men poured themselves over our islands from beyond the wild North Sea From Scandinavia and Iceland and the Baltic shores they came, and, emerging from a background of wild legend and grim saga, we recognise their kinship with the Angles and Saxons. Call them Vikings or Northmen, Norsemen or Danes, they have practically the same manners and customs, the same language and social order, the same gods, the same Walhalla and Hel, as those tribes which had peopled the island some three hundred years before them. Perhaps their strenuous struggle for bare existence and the uncompromising climate of their northern homes made them appear even more fierce, more sturdy, and more relentless than their predecessors in the land. Through the long dim ages of a thousand years we see again the famous black raven ensigns flying from their long narrow galleys, their weather-beaten faces of stern determination as they catch sight of the shores of England; again we hear snatches of their native sagas and their shouts of victory as they return successful from their wild plunder parties, leaving devastated lands and blackened ruins behind them.

"Let all folk do general penance," cried the distracted priests, "for three days on bread and water; let every man come barefoot to church without ornament, and at eventide let all the assembly on bended knees before God's altar sing the third Psalm, till the Almighty pity us and grant us to overcome our enemy. God help us." But in their enthusiasm the Christian teachers had implored the English to abstain from that ceaseless warfare that had characterised them of old, till they had lost much of their skill. In addition to this, though alarm-fires blazed from every hill to summon the village fyrd to war, yet the freemen of England were now agriculturists and not warriors, and they regretfully passed from their newly turned furrows to grasp the unfamiliar spear and shield as they hastened—an undisciplined force—to meet the foe.

Armed from head to foot were the Danes, every man of them a well-drilled soldier, a fierce fighter, and thirsting for the blood of his enemy. Merciless but well ordered were their attacks, aimed more especially against the wealthy monasteries of the land. Priests were slain as they knelt at prayer, monks and nuns were pitilessly slaughtered, children were torn from their mothers to be tortured and killed. Never were the Danes more elated than when they were sacking a rich religious house or burning a little church. At last England lay disheartened, dreary, devastated, and the Danes triumphantly possessed themselves of their new homes. Then, as the clash of battle died away, once more a new country arose on the blackened ruins of the past. Though the outer semblances of Christianity had been swept away, the new faith was strong enough to produce martyrs, such as St. Edmund, as well as to hold the new-comers within its almighty grip. When the storm clouds had been dispelled, behold "England was England still; the conquerors sank quietly into the mass of those around them, and Woden yielded without a struggle to Christ."

New churches arose, important monasteries were founded, a reconstruction of the army took place, a new impulse was given to learning; but what transcends all else in the material importance of the moment was the inauguration of the British navy. Whether that love of the sea has come to Englishmen through Saxon or Dane is ever a matter of mild dispute. Most of the effects of the Danish settlement in England have been merely the accentuation of those already existing characteristics bequeathed by their predecessors. If family life had been cherished by the Anglo-Saxon people, it was yet more closely united by bonds of blood among the Danes; if freedom had been the watchword of the first comers, intensely free was the existence of the liberty loving Scandinavian; if devotion to Woden insisted on human sacrifice under the old régime, yet more persistently bloodthirsty were the pagan hordes of the ninth century.

But the inhuman and pitiless brutality of the age was now illumined for ever by the radiance of that light shed over England by her newly found Christianity, under whose startling régime Vengeance gave way to Forgiveness, Cruelty to Mercy, Pride to Humility, and the love of Family life to the larger Brotherhood which the dust of ages has proved powerless to dim, and the centuries, as they roll onward, have strengthened with indestructible unity.