Page images



to be established, a man calling in his friends to share his penances. Penitence in the criminal was the condition of acceptance for these good offices; but the contrite rich man, who could purchase the services of eight hundred and fifty-two assistants, might in three days accomplish the penance of seven years. It is clear that some divines of the Anglo-Saxon church had nothing to learn from Escobar. It can scarcely be accident that this system was elaborated in the time of Dunstan, whom it probably did not survive. The great churchman, distracted between his desire of enforcing discipline, and the impossibility of constraining an unruly court to obedience, may well have hit upon a compromise, which satisfied all the logical conditions of theory, and produced a quantitative equation between sin and its satisfaction.

The two principal points in which the Christianity of the early middle ages surpassed the moral ideal, under the Roman empire, of respectable men who were not philosophers, were the doctrine of forgiveness of injuries, and a greater purity of life. The command to pardon enemies was understood and acted on by the early church with a literalness of application which would now be considered extravagant. Not only was private feud forbidden, but the evident tendency of the seventh and eighth centuries in England was to regard public war, even if defensive, as carrying with it some guilt. In fact, the plain teaching of the gospel, "not to resist evil," and to "do good to them that hate you," was received without casuistry by an intensely Biblical age; and however the practice of early converts might fall short of this ideal standard, the church steadily preached peace, canonized the kings who deserted the duties of generalship for the cloister, and abstained from consecrating the service of arms. That this theory might ultimately, as in fact it did, leave Christendom at the mercy of the heathen, would not have been regarded by the monk as any argument against it. His kingdom was not of this world; his favourite conception of Christian life was opposed to the con

1 Of Powerful Men: A. S. Laws, vol. ii., pp. 287-289.



tinuance of human society; and he cared the less for possible casualties as he looked forward to the approaching end of the world. But this moral exaltation of a few enthusiasts could only dominate society in peaceable times; the Danish invasion made war a duty to the mass of men, who were not prepared for martyrdom, and who could only defend their faith, let alone their wives and children, by taking up arms against the heathen. All England again became warlike, as in the old times, to resist the Danes; the strife was a crusade; the clergy followed its progress with their prayers; they at last learned to baptize the warfare on the success of which society depended, and the knight was initiated with a solemn ritual to service in the field. The effeminate Syrian element had been overpowered by the stern necessities of life. What was good

in the doctrine remained, often indeed obscured by human passions, but none the less re-asserting its rights when the din of battle was hushed. The confessor at Shrove-tide was enjoined to refuse absolution to any man who was at feud, and who would not make peace with his enemy. Even in the more difficult question of church and state, it was constantly the priest, Alcuin or Frederic, who protested against persecution, and the layman who was over-zealous for God. No contest was more bitter than that between Edwi and Dunstan. Yet the same chronicler who relates with evident satisfaction the barbarous mutilation of Edwi's queen, delights to record how the king's soul was saved, by Dunstan's prayers, from the devils who carried it off. Where no political purpose was to be achieved, it seemed more glorious that the saint should forgive, than that his enemy should perish.

Strangely enough, it is almost impossible to decide how far Christianity promoted purity of life. The true social history of the ancient Greek and Roman world can never be written: it is too bad; and Tertullian and Augustine might well

1 Ingulf, Gale, vol. i., p. 70. The Normans, among whom war had not taken the form of a crusade against heathendom, despised the Saxons for receiving benediction from a priest.

2 Eccles. Institutes, xxxvi.; A. S. Laws, vol. ii., pp. 433-435.




exalt the practice of the primitive Christian communities in contrast with the corruption that reigned around them. But it is a question still undecided whether the good effects of the doctrine that the body was the temple of the Holy Ghost, and ought to be kept sacred, were not more than neutralized in the early Christian church by the backslidings from a life of sworn celibacy. Boniface distinctly states that the impure practice of Christians in the eighth century was far below the level of the pagan Saxons and Wends. More fearful evidence is given by the Penitentials of Theodore, in which a variety of sins of the flesh are specified, to which the depravity of all known ages of the world could scarcely furnish a parallel. The testiis not, indeed, sufficient for general application, as Theodore was an Italian, and may have had his own countrymen in view; or his catalogue, and others like it, are perhaps exhaustive lists of sins that only existed in the morbid fancy of a confessor. Yet it is probable, as Mr. Allen puts it, that where there was much smoke there was some fire. The question still remains, were they worse than their forefathers? Tacitus, who could not think calmly over the infamies of his own countrymen, must be taken with caution when he praises Germanic purity; the Norse mythology is far from decent; and that adultery was punished with death, may only have been due to the low value set upon woman's life, and to the high regard for property which. seems innate in the race. But it is not unlikely that the vices of a barbarous and those of a semi-civilized people may have differed somewhat in kind; that the hardy savages, whose lives were spent in the open air and in the chase, were mostly addicted to drunkenness and gluttony; while their sons, who lived in ceiled houses, and frequented the bath, inclined to the most passionate and least brutal of the sins of the flesh. This will mitigate the difficulty of supposing that the Christian generations, which believed purity to be the crown of earthly virtues, fell immeasurably below the practice of their pagan ancestors, who were moral from instinct or habit. And this

1 Malmesbury, vol. i., pp. 112-114.



explanation is confirmed by all the experiences of later centuries. The monastic ideal was lofty and grand, but it was attempted by men whose natures were still half-animal, and who had abundant means of sinning secretly, if they were ever disposed to yield to temptation. It is impossible not to believe that they lapsed repeatedly in corrupt and degenerate periods. Perpetual revivals were their one condition of


It would be unjust to expect the experiences or thoughts of our own self-conscious times from men whose training was rather to act than to reason. The Saxon mind was not analytical; it took no pleasure in self-questionings; its conception of the unseen world was vivid and palpable, rather than spiritual it had dreams and visions, but not the ecstacies of the mystic. Hence, there is an undoubted tendency in its teaching to exalt the practical aspects of religion over the contemplative. Next to abstinence from the sins of the flesh, it especially recommended charity. "Mercy," says Elfric, "is the medicine of sins: it redeems from eternal death, and allows us not to come to perdition. Mercy alone will be our guardian at the great doom, if in the present life we show it to other men." "As mercy extinguisheth fire, so do alms extinguish sins." The context abundantly shows that he took charity in the largest sense: the kind thought, the cup of cold water, as well as the costly gifts thrown into the treasury; it was therefore no mechanical substitute for spiritual faith, but the virtue of which the land stood most in need, when it swarmed with the leper and the slave, the orphan and the oppressed. Similar tendencies of thought may be traced in the Saxon conception of future life. To know something of what lies above birth and beyond death, had been the great attraction of their new faith; texts of Scripture, passages of the Fathers, were all woven up into one poetical whole, enlarged by the visions of convent brothers. The world was peopled with spiritual existences; a good angel and a spirit of darkness at

1 Elfric's Homilies, vol. ii., pp. 103-107.

[blocks in formation]

tended every man from his cradle, and contended for his soul; at his death, the record of his works was read out, and heaven claimed or resigned him, as the good of his life outweighed the evil, or was itself overbalanced." The war of good and evil was so unremitting that the soul needed the escort of armed angels to reach its home safely. The devils, who in Cadmon are still angelic, with "faded splendour wan," were gradually confounded in popular belief with the monstrous forms of the old gods, under whose shape it was thought they had deceived the world; like the Slavonic Zernebog, like Mahomet himself at a later date, Odin and Freia became fiends in the Christian mythology. Nor was this a

mere confusion of traditions: it rested upon a profound horror of sin, which refused to recognize the deep-seated excuses of error in human weakness; and shrunk from painting crime as anything but loathsome. The popular hell, which at first had been only the valley of Hinnom, with its corpses fed on by worms, and with lurid funeral flames, was transformed into a fathomless abyss, in which four vast fires glowed that were one day to burn the world: in the first, liars were consumed; in the second, the covetous; in the third, those who had stirred up strife; while the fourth was reserved for the impious. This distinction of punishment was presently completed by a discrimination of the places of final torture; and hell was conceived after the fashion of a Roman amphitheatre, which the dreamer no doubt remembered, as a spiral coil of platforms winding down into utter darkness.3 The Elysian fields of Roman mythology, with their pleasant glades and holy light, were the resting-place of the souls of just men, not yet made

1 "For about him (ie., man) go two spirits-the one teacheth him to hold love the other accuseth him and teacheth him astray, until he turneth to the worser side by devil's deeds; then weeping, departeth the angel to his home."Kemble's Salomon and Saturn, p. 175. Bede, H. E., lib. v., c. 13.

2 See the vision of Fursay.-Bede, H. E., lib. iii., c. 19.

3 Wendover, vol. iii., pp. 204, 205. The resemblance of Turkill's vision to the structure of Dante's Inferno, has been pointed out by Mr. Wright, in a paper on "St. Alban's."-Archæologia, vol. 33.

« PreviousContinue »