Page images
PDF
EPUB

RESULTS OF DISCARDING ANCIENT THOUGHT.

231

perfect. But the beatific vision of heaven transcended the gaze of any Saxon saint; Greek mysticism first described it; and the genius of the great Florentine poet explored it to the feet of God himself.

This fondness for the supernatural appears more fully in the childish love of miracles, which the lives of the early English saints display. We are startled by the contrast of an advance in moral practice over any but the most exalted philosophy, and a retrogression in the critical powers of the intellect. The discrepancy would not appear so great if the lesser names of Roman literature were more currently known. There is abundant evidence that the middle classes of the empire believed in omens, in witches, and in tricks of thaumaturgy; philosophical paganism was an exotic confined to the highest classes of a few capital cities. Nevertheless, it is certain, and the fact cannot be too carefully borne in mind, that the thought of the early Christian ages was far inferior to that of the heathen times preceding; partly because the upper classes had been destroyed and the schools of learning closed by the inroad of barbarians, but partly also because the Christian church, mainly recruited from the middle and lower classes, disliked and proscribed the teaching of the schools. The experiment was then tried how far the world could dispense with its past, and disown any portion of itself; and in the interests of truth, we may trust that no generation of men will ever again make a holocaust of old history at the shrine of a new faith. The Keltic and Germanic tribes who embraced Christianity, received it on a low level of civilization; their gods were not an abstract expression of natural laws, or of moral attributes; they were real beings, wonder-workers, who brought pestilence, guided the shock of war, or blessed the cattle with increase. Loose thinkers of our own times class causes which they cannot understand under the general head of forces, to escape the necessity

1 Bede's description in the vision of Dryhthelm, "Campus latissimus ac lætissimus fragrantia vernantium flosculorum plenus,” recals the "locos lætos et amona vireta" of Virgil.-Æneid., lib. vi., 1. 638.

2 Horace, Epodes., v.; Apuleii Metamorphoses, libs. i. and ii., &c.

232

MYTHOLOGICAL PHASE OF INTELLECT.

of definition; it is the homage of ignorance to that belief in law which science has rendered popular. The Anglo-Saxon was in a lower circle of thought. He was unable to suppose that the facts of his daily life, or which he could himself produce, the rising of the sun, or the melting of iron, were only the simplest expression of a natural order, which embraced equally what was occasional, the appearance of comets or a sudden death. Knowing that in his own household, the water-mill worked without intermission, while children required the constant care of their parents, he assumed, naturally enough, that for little things the world was left to itself, but that anything out of the common was due to the intervention of a deity. Christianity intensified the feeling of this supernatural order, interwoven with the course of the world. But as the one God of the Christians was too great to be introduced on trivial occasions without irreverence, it was not unnatural to suppose that the angels and saints, who as disembodied spirits could be present everywhere, would guard the interests of their worshippers. Every village and every craft, came accordingly to have its special patron, connected with it by some incident in his life. Against these, the spirits of evil were waging war incessantly. While modern thought, therefore, has a tendency to conceive the world as a complicated mechanism, in which an exquisite adjustment of springs produces a constant balance amid constant variety, the Anglo-Saxon regarded it as a Greek theatre, with artificial thunder and lightning, and other such stage accessories, but where all the action was carried on by gods, and heroes, and men.

The miracles of the Anglo-Saxon church are often very childish, but they have a truthfulness of character which speaks well for the people; stripped of the little exaggerations to which all stories handed down orally are liable, they may constantly be explained and believed. In this respect they differ creditably from the Welsh and continental legends, and from those which were most popular after the Norman conquest. Stories of raising the dead to life are extremely rare. The miracles of St. Germanus come to us on the authority of a tradition so distant

SOME EARLY MIRACLES EXPLAINED.

233

that no man would trust it in his own affairs; the cure of a blind man, which St. Augustine performed, produced no effect on the convictions of those who witnessed it.1 St. Wilfrid's success with the baby is unaccountable, and may fairly be left so, in the absence of more precise details. In minor cases of sickness, St. Cuthbert's cure is a good specimen of a numerous class. He was lamed by a swelling in his thigh, and was sitting at the door of his father's house, when a stranger who passed by dismounted to learn the cause of the boy's illness, examined the swelling, and recommended that it should be poulticed. The remedy proved efficacious, and Cuthbert then knew that he had been visited by an angel. At a later period in life, the same saint, traversing the Northumbrian wilds, was in want of shelter and food; he suddenly saw a shepherd's hut, found it deserted, and discovered some meat and half a hot loaf hidden in the thatch. The parallel of Elijah and the ravens seems to have secured him from any scruple as to the lawfulness of taking his neighbour's goods; he could not doubt that the supply was miraculous. Here the event would no doubt be classed by some modern religionists under the head of special providences. Often the miracles of the gospel were the model of Saxon experiences. When Athelstane paid a visit to his kinswoman, the abbess of Glastonbury, she obtained by her prayers that the mead in the house should increase so as to suffice the king's retinue; the remembrance of the marriage-feast at Cana had no doubt suggested the propriety of applying to God for help. Often the sacraments of the church appear invested with a magical efficacy. Bede tells a story of a thane who was taken prisoner in battle. His brother, a priest, believing him to be slain, said masses, for his soul; their efficacy in delivering was

1 Bede, H. E., lib. ii., cap. 2. It is clear that miracles lost half their value as evidence, when they were supposed to be ordinary events.

2 Bede, Vita S. Cudbercti, caps. 2, 5. That remarkable book, "Some account the Lord's Dealings with George Müller," abounds in cases of divine intervention to relieve one who, in the nineteenth century, has founded and conducted a large institution on the principle of taking no thought for the morrow.

3 Wendover, vol. i., pp. 387, 388.

234

RESULTS OF AN UNCRITICAL FAITH.

transferred to his body, and no chains being able to bind the prisoner, his captor was at last glad to ransom him on his own terms. This story is elucidated by an event in St. Wilfrid's life. He had been thrown into prison and was to be manacled, but no fetters could be made that were not either too small or too loose for him. The imperfect art of the smith became material for faith to feed upon. It is clear that this habit of mind, which looked for the perpetual intervention of God in the events of life, could not exist in any society without notable effects. In the cases of a few men, it no doubt raised the moral tone. The monk went out to colonize the wilderness or reclaim the heathen, believing that the powers of darkness were thwarting his efforts, scoffing him, seeking to destroy him, but believing also that he would overcome in the end. It was thus that St. Gall, when he was out fishing, heard spirit crying to spirit, "Come over and help us, for a stranger is spoiling our heritage," and the saint made the sign of the cross, and the fiends fled wailing. But the same belief led men of baser mould to accept the results of their own cowardice as the special judgement of God; this it was unnerved the Saxons in their wars with the Danes and Normans; the same thought inspired the system of the ordeal, in which innocence and guilt were determined by chance or imposture. Lastly, men who see visions are a little unfitted for dealing with realities. The Saxon's faith in the supernatural world was no separate part of his mind; and the predominance of the precise and dogmatical over the critical element in his religion, disqualified him for exploring nature or weighing evidence. All learning took the form of a poem, into which fresh facts were woven up more or less artistically; but there were no separate sciences, and no part of knowledge which was not more or less a mystery or a miracle. This feature, however, was more largely developed in Norman times, when the study of the early fathers was revived.

1

Bede, H. E., lib. iv., cap. 22. Vita S. Wilfridi, Gale, vol. iii., p. 70.

2 Vita S. Galli; Vita S. Sturmi; Pertz. Mon. German., vol. ii., pp. 7, 8, 367-370.

CHRISTIANITY ENFORCED BY LAW.

235

It is important to observe that the profession of Christianity was not optional in England. Paganism and witchcraft were proscribed under heavy penalties. Parents were bound to see that their children were baptized. The penalties imposed on guilt probably needed no other enforcement, with the people at large, than a spiritual censure suspended over their heads; in the case of powerful criminals, the king interposed to carry out the sentence of the church. There were even stringent laws for the observance of the Lord's day, and of festivals. How far this was carried, is a little difficult to decide. The great Gregory had protested strongly against anything like a Jewish sabbath ;* we find Dunstan delaying mass on Sunday till Edgar shall return from the chase; and Elfric even praises a man who works seven days in the week. Probably the general principle was that all profitable and all engrossing labour should be suspended, and that nothing should interfere with attendance upon the church ordinances.

1 Laws of Ine, 2; A. S. Laws, vol. i., p. 102.

2 "Pervenit ad me quosdam perversi spiritus homines prava inter vos aliqua et sanctæ fidei adversa seminâsse, ita ut in die sabbati aliquid operari prohibeant. Quos quid aliud nisi Anti-Christi prædicatores dixerim."-Greg.

Epist., lib. xiii., 1.

3 Eccl. Inst., 24; A. S. Laws, vol. ii., p. 421, forbid all work except preparing meat or necessary travelling. Sunday was kept from the noon of Saturday till the dawn of Monday.-Elfric's Canons, 36; A. S. Laws, vol. ii., p. 363. Eadmer, Vita S. Dunstan, Ang. Sac., vol. ii., p. 217. The angels, however, interposed to celebrate mass on this occasion, and Dunstan, corrected by the miracle, forbade the king to hunt any more on Sunday.-Elfric's Homilies, vol. ii., p. 357.

« PreviousContinue »