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COUNTRY LIFE IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY.
Norfolk were derided for not knowing wheat when they saw it, and the worst loaf baked, "fourths," would barely sustain life.1 The police regulations of London, and the stories and proverbs in which millers figure, prove that adulteration was usual. Butcher's meat cannot have been common, when markets were scarce; when meat was salted for winter in default of stallfeeding, and when cottagers looked chiefly to their own pigs. and poultry for a supply. But the real evil with respect to food lay in the constant fluctuations of price. The mean price of the quarter of wheat was about £2 6s. 3d. during the twelfth century; in 1196 A.D. it rose to £32 1s. 3d.; and in the next year to nearly £44. What misery these fluctuations represent, may be fairly guessed by those who have seen what the country endures with a rise of one hundred per cent. Dysentery and "black deaths" swept off their thousands in the middle ages, or left them with weak constitutions to battle against scrofula and leprosy. These evils were increased by the people's mode of life. The frequent fires, and such words as "bower" and "lobby," show that wood was the common material of houses. The enactment of the council of Northampton, that heretics' houses should be carried out of town and burned, is a picture in itself of the low booths in which peasants' families herded. A settle and a pot were in all likelihood its only furniture. The chimney, the window, were unknown; woven fabrics were too costly for common use; and even the palace of Becket was strewn with rushes. The river's edge, with typhus and ague flitting like pale ghosts along its banks, was the natural place where the poor, wanting water and without fountains, would build. Poisoned by marsh exhalations, huddled together in cabins, smoke-dried, gross eaters and uncleanly livers, the peasants were those on whom disease fell heaviest. That a nation thus circumstanced should have been able to perpetuate itself seems wonderful. The reason no doubt lies partly in that strange reparative power of nature, which meets a sudden
1 Liber Albus, pp. 349-359; Wright's Early Mysteries, pp. 82, 93, 94. 2 An Inquiry into the Price of Wheat, &c., p. 8. I have multiplied the nominal prices by fifteen.
MODERN SENSE OF COMFORT.
drain by increased fertility, and partly in the fact that only the healthy and vigorous lived to become parents. The puny, scrofulous child had little chance of growing up. Famine took the weak man, and the strong struggled through it. The imperfect science of the times did not help the sickly to lengthen out life, or transmit it through a series of wretched generations.
These facts point to the conclusion that the domestic habits of our ancestors were more like our own than is commonly supposed, but that they were far below us in material comfort and the enjoyment of health. The introduction of cotton, the substitution of sugar for honey, even of lucifer-matches for flint and steel, are additions to general well-being, which no sensible man will undervalue. Still they do not make up the sum of life. To a certain extent, the growth of comfort has thriven upon the decay of art. The ostentation of wealth, which once decorated a house with carved oriels or a stately porch, is now diverted to dress, furniture, and dinner-parties. The public spirit which built a guildhall or a church, is as unselfishly employed on soup-kitchens and model lodging-houses. The scientific tendencies of our time have substituted a vivid appreciation of material wants for medieval idealism, and chemists, engineers, and astronomers have replaced the metaphysicians and artists of the middle ages. In a certain sense, no real progress can be one-sided. But a generation, or even a century, may attach itself so exclusively to facts as to lose its sense of a spiritual life. The very perfection of our mechanical arts absorbs the faculties and stunts the nature of those who work at them. A man who labours his ten hours a day at making the head of a pin is likely to be less educated, even though he can read or write, than the medieval peasant, who was forced to ply several trades from the want of skilled craftsmen, who might serve as a soldier in Normandy or Ireland, who was bound to understand something of the subtle laws under which he lived, and whom the influences of his church trained to a sense of colour, music, and architecture. The great principle, that in proportion as society is simple the individual will be many-sided, is truest of the higher classes.
AND ANCIENT SENSE OF BEAUTY.
a bishop as Roger of Salisbury, who fought in the field, acted as justiciary, was architect and engineer, and administered a diocese, was assuredly the more capable man, if he was not the better churchman, for these qualifications. Pass to thought, and the same fact repeats itself. All knowledge in the middle ages was encyclopædic. It started from a few principles, it embraced comparatively few facts, and a single lifetime was sufficient to comprehend it. Scholars in special sciences have replaced the universal monarchs of learning. The belief that all knowledge is connected by certain first principles is still possible. But no man now can believe in his own power to codify all thought and harmonize the contradictions of facts. We are richer by solid experience, and only poorer by a dream, but it was a dream that gave beauty and dignity to the life of Roger Bacon.
A deficient sense of beauty cannot exist in a nation without a marked effect upon its literature and moral tone. The excessive legislation of church and state in the middle ages produced a harvest of rank and habitual crime, which can only be paralleled in a few exceptional epochs of modern history. But the generations who created the idea of a gentleman, and clung to their faith in good in spite of what they saw around them, were surely nobler in themselves than those who waste their tolerance upon the excuses of crime, and their criticism on the exposure of "shams." There was scavenger work to be done in the middle ages, but it was left to the vultures and carrion-crows of society; Dante judges, pities, and condemns, but he does not dissect the corpse and confound disease with life. If Giotto and the Dutch school, the Divina Commedia and Rousseau's Confessions were exceptional phenomena of their times, discussion would be unnecessary. But they represent the real strength of the medieval, and the weakest side of the modern, world. Our fathers were artists in thought as well as stone, and their very constructive power made them slow to analyse, and unready to doubt. We carry the scalpel and testing tube into the region of ideas, destroy the idol, and think we have disproved the god.
ANCIENT AND MODERN SUPERSTITION.
Even our advance in science, real and great though it be, is not absolute. Superstition and intolerance are as enduring as human weakness. Those who have watched the monstrous developement of Mormonism, and know that the population of Utah is chiefly recruited from England, Wales, and America, may be pardoned if, for a moment, they envy the uncritical faith that never wandered out of its immature Christianity. Those who see the upper classes, the contemporaries of Mill and Faraday, believing by thousands in spirit-rapping and table-moving, may well turn reverently to the Acta Sanctorum. Often puerile, sometimes gross, sometimes even un-Christian, the legends of the medieval saints are only illustrations of a rational faith in God's personal character and intervention: they do not contradict the philosophy of their times. The laws of causation and gravitation had not then been developed by an illustrious line of thinkers. Yet, although a contrast like this may teach us to boast less confidently of progress, it is really in our favour. The master of ancient thinkers was as credulous in the region of the supernatural as his pupils. Among ourselves there is a constantly-widening circle of the enlightened, which restrains the half-educated world from relapsing into barbarism. The same argument applies to toleration. The spirit that branded Bishop Butler and Burke as concealed papists; that instigated the burning of Priestley's house, and deprived Shelley of his children, is not less deplorable in itself than the violence that massacred Jews or headed a crusade against the Albigenses. But the belief that persecution is the witness of earthly power to God's truth, unhappily darkened the noblest minds of the middle ages. A few, chiefly among the clergy, protested against it, but the greatest kings of Europe, St. Louis and Edward I., thought it right to anticipate future judgement upon earth. Among ourselves there is still, no doubt, a torpid mass of bigotry, but it is restrained from all but occasional outbursts by the righteous principles that long experience has worked into the public sense of Europe. The few active fanatics that still exist within the four seas number not a single statesman or man of learning in their ranks, and
SUPPOSED DECAY OF INDIVIDUALITY.
owe their power of annoyance to unscrupulous slander and immoral political partizanship. The fact that the most conservative of nations has gradually expunged almost every penal enactment from its statute-book, is a splendid landmark in our progress towards liberty.
One of the ablest thinkers of this or any age, has lamented the tendency of civilization to destroy individuality. The reproach that
"The individual withers, and the world is more and more,"
has in it something of evident truth. It is one of those uneasy convictions that at times force themselves on a self-satisfied generation, and constrain it to doubt its own perfection. The journals that supply criticism on every event of life, the railroads and public meetings that bring men together, the societies founded to force opinions upon the world, are influences which tend fatally to limit freedom of thought and originality of character. The democrat, who bows to the will of the people, and the gentleman, who is careful to think and pray with good society, have alike sacrificed their sense of truth to intellectual cowardice or good fellowship. But causes similar to these have always been in operation. The stringent legal systems of the middle ages, the absence of critical thought, the comparative meagreness of science, and the influence of sudden impulse over a half-cducated people, who moved altogether if they moved at all, must be set off against the greater variety of occupation forced upon individuals, and the less despotic organization of public opinion on minor matters. A wise man will commonly conform, on unimportant points, to the customs of his neighbours; and if he chooses to deviate, his sense ought to preserve him from attaching undue importance to petty criticisms. It is undoubtedly an evil if he is restrained by fear of the world from expressing unpopular convictions on great subjects, and if the courtesy, commonly shown to sects and parties is not extended to individuals. But the evil lies rather in the present tone of society than in
1 Mill, Essay on Liberty, chap. iii.