Medieval People
by Eileen Edna Power
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Medieval People



Late Reader in History in the University of London and sometime Fellow and Lecturer of Girton College, Cambridge

'I counsel thee, shut not thy heart nor thy library'


_First published, 1924

Published in 1963

Eighth Printing, 1969 To my colleagues and students at Girton College, Cambridge


For if heuene be on this erthe . and ese to any soule, It is in cloistere or in scole . by many skilles I fynde; For in cloistre cometh no man . to chide ne to fizte, But alle is buxomnesse there and bokes . to rede and to lerne, In scole there is scorne . but if a clerke wil lerne, And grete loue and lykynge . for eche of hem loueth other.

—LANGLAND, Piers Plowman

Author's Preface

Social history sometimes suffers from the reproach that it is vague and general, unable to compete with the attractions of political history either for the student or for the general reader, because of its lack of outstanding personalities. In point of fact there is often as much material for reconstructing the life of some quite ordinary person as there is for writing a history of Robert of Normandy or of Philippa of Hainault; and the lives of ordinary people so reconstructed are, if less spectacular, certainly not less interesting. I believe that social history lends itself particularly to what may be called a personal treatment, and that the past may be made to live again for the general reader more effectively by personifying it than by presenting it in the form of learned treatises on the development of the manor or on medieval trade, essential as these are to the specialist. For history, after all, is valuable only in so far as it lives, and Maeterlinck's cry, 'There are no dead', should always be the historian's motto. It is the idea that history is about dead people, or, worse still, about movements and conditions which seem but vaguely related to the labours and passions of flesh and blood, which has driven history from bookshelves where the historical novel still finds a welcome place.

In the following series of sketches I have tried to illustrate at the same time various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages and various classes of historical material. Thus Bodo illustrates peasant life, and an early phase of a typical medieval estate; Marco Polo, Venetian trade with the East; Madame Eglentyne, monastic life; the Menagier's wife, domestic life in a middle-class home, and medieval ideas about women; Thomas Betson, the wool trade, and the activities of the great English trading company of Merchants of the Staple; and Thomas Paycocke, the cloth industry in East Anglia. They are all quite ordinary people and unknown to fame, with the exception of Marco Polo. The types of historical evidence illustrated are the estate book of a manorial lord, the chronicle and traveller's tale, the bishop's register, the didactic treatise in household management, the collection of family letters, and houses, brasses, and wills. At the end of the book I have added a bibliography of the sources which form the raw material for my reconstructions, and a few additional notes and references. I hope that this modest attempt to bring to life again some of 'our fathers that begat us', may perhaps interest for an hour or two the general reader, or the teacher, who wishes to make more concrete by personification some of the general facts of medieval social and economic history.

My thanks are due to my publishers, Messrs. Methuen and Co., for allowing me to incorporate in Chapter VI the greater part of a chapter in my book 'The Paycockes of Coggeshall', and to the Cambridge University Press for similarly allowing me to repeat in Chapter III a few sentences from my study of 'Medieval English Nunneries'. I have also to thank my friends Miss M.G. Jones and Miss H.M.R. Murray of Girton College, Cambridge, for various suggestions and criticisms, and my sister Miss Rhoda Power for making the index.

May 1924 EILEEN POWER London School of Economics and Political Science University of London

Preface to the Tenth Edition

For years after the first edition of Medieval People had come out, Eileen Power collected notes and made plans for several essays to be included in an enlarged edition of the book. Of these essays only one, "The Precursors", had been written out in full before she died; and it has now been added to the present edition. In its published form it is not in every respect identical with the author's original text.

The essay was taking shape as Munich came and went and as the war itself was drawing near. No historian writing at that time about Rome menaced by the barbarians—and least of all an historian as sensitive to the extra-mural world as Eileen Power was—could have helped noting the similarities between the Roman Empire in the fifth or sixth centuries and Europe in the nineteen-thirties. In the end, having finished the essay, she decided to withold it from publication for the time being and to present it instead to a friendly audience as a tract for the times. This she did at a meeting of the Cambridge History Club in the winter of 1938: and for that occasion she replaced the opening and concluding pages of the original essay with passages, or rather notes for passages, more suited to the purpose.

I am sure that she never intended these passages to be perpetuated in her Medieval People and I have therefore done what I could to replace them with a reconstructed version of her first draft. The reconstruction had to be done from somewhat disjointed notes and cannot therefore be word-faithful. The readers must therefore bear in mind that the first two and the last page of the essay are mere approximations to what Eileen Power in fact wrote.

April, 1963 M.M. POSTAN Peterhouse, Cambridge.












List of Illustrations

I BODO AT HIS WORK 20 From MS. Tit. B.V., Pt. I. British Museum


III PART OF A LANDSCAPE BY CHAO MENG-FU 52 From the original in the British Museum

IV MADAME EGLENTYNE AT HOME 53 From MS. Add. 39843. British Museum

V THE MENAGIER'S WIFE HAS A GARDEN PARTY 116 From Harl. MS. 4425. British Museum


VII CALAIS ABOUT THE TIME OF THOMAS BETSON 148 From Cott. MS. Aug. i, Vol. II. British Museum

VIII THOMAS PAYCOCKE'S HOUSE AT COGGESHALL 149 From The Paycockes of Coggeshall by Eileen Power (Methuen & Co. Ltd.)


Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us....

There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.

Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.



The Precursors


Every schoolboy knows that the Middle Ages arose on the ruins of the Roman Empire. The decline of Rome preceded and in some ways prepared the rise of the kingdoms and cultures which composed the medieval system. Yet in spite of the self-evident truth of this historical preposition we know little about life and thought in the watershed years when Europe was ceasing to be Roman but was not yet medieval. We do not know how it felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the world was to take in later centuries.

Yet the tragic story, its main themes and protagonists were for all to see. No observer should have failed to notice that the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries was no longer the Roman Empire of the great Antonine and Augustan age; that it had lost its hold over its territories and its economic cohesion and was menaced by the barbarians who were in the end to overwhelm it. The territory of the Roman Empire had at its height stretched from the lands bordering the North Sea to the lands on the northern fringes of the Sahara, and from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the central Asiatic Steppes; it comprised most of the regions of the former Hellenic, Iranian, and Phoenician empires, and it either ruled or kept in check great clusters of peoples and principalities beyond its Gallic and north African frontiers. From these farthest frontiers Rome of the fourth century had retreated and was still retreating.

Within its frontiers great currents of inter-regional commerce had in earlier centuries flowed along the routes which bound all the provinces of the Empire to Rome and most of the provinces to each other. But from the third century onwards the economic unity of the Empire was in dissolution, and by the fifth century most of the great currents of inter-regional trade had ceased to flow, and provinces and districts had been thrown upon themselves and their own resources. And with the wealth of the provinces reduced, their commerce restricted, the great provincial cities also declined in population, wealth, political power.

Yet to its very last days the Empire endeavoured to defend its frontiers against the converging barbarians. Not only did the Barbarian Conquests, like all conquests, threaten destruction and ruin, but the way of life the barbarians stood for was the very denial of what Roman civilization had been, though alas, was gradually ceasing to be.

However, it was not in material things, that the contemporaries found, or should have found the sharpest conflict between Rome and the barbarian prospects before it. Above all Roman civilization was a civilization of the mind. It had behind it a long tradition of thought and of intellectual achievement, the legacy of Greece, to which it had in turn made its own contribution. The Roman world was a world of schools and universities, writers, and builders. The barbarian world was a world in which mind was in its infancy and its infancy was long. The battle sagas of the race, which have all but disappeared or have survived only as legends worked up in a later age; the few rude laws which were needed to regulate personal relationships, this was hardly civilization in the Roman sense. King Chilperic, trying to make verses in the style of Sedulius, though he could not distinguish between a long foot and a short and they all hobbled; Charlemagne himself, going to bed with his slate under his pillow in order to practice in the watches of the night that art of writing which he never mastered; what have they in common with Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius and that great Julian called the Apostate? They sum up in their very persons the whole wide gulf that yawned between Germany and Rome.

Rome and the barbarians were thus not only protagonists but two different attitudes to life, civilization and barbarism. We cannot here discuss in detail the question as to why, in the clash between the two, it was civilization which perished and barbarism which prevailed. But it is important to remember that while the Empire tried to defend its frontiers against the barbarian hosts, it gradually opened them to barbarian settlers.

This peaceful infiltration of barbarians which altered the whole character of the society which it invaded would have been impossible, of course, if that society had not been stricken by disease. The disease is plain enough to see by the third century. It shows itself in those internecine civil wars in which civilization rends itself, province against province and army against army. It shows itself in the great inflationary crisis from about 268 and in the taxation which gradually crushed out the smaller bourgeoisie while the fortunes of the rich escaped its net. It shows itself in the gradual sinking back of an economy based upon free exchange into more and more primitive conditions when every province seeks to be self-sufficient and barter takes the place of trade. It shows itself in the decline of farming and in the workless city population kept quiet by their dole of bread and their circuses, whose life contrasted so dramatically, so terribly with that of the haughty senatorial families and the great landowners in their palatial villas and town houses. It shows itself in the rise of mystical faiths on the ruins of philosophy, and of superstition (more especially astrology) on the ruins of reason. One religion in particular grew mighty, by clasping its sacred book and addressing itself with words of hope to the victims of social injustice, but although it was able to bring comfort to individuals it could do nothing, indeed it did not try, to give new strength or inspiration to the embattled civilization. True to its own ethos it was impartial as between Barbarian and Roman, or between the Romans who prospered and ruled and those outside the pale.

The most obvious manifestation of Roman society in decline was the dwindling numbers of Roman citizens. The Empire was being depopulated long before the end of the period of peace and prosperity which stretched from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Does not Augustus himself summon the poor man of Fiesole who has a family of eight children, thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren, and organize in his honour a fete in the Capitol, accompanied by a great deal of publicity? Does not Tacitus, half-anthropologist and half-Rousseau, describing the noble savage with his eye on fellow citizens, remark that among the Germans it is accounted a shameful thing to limit the number of your children? The long duration of Augustus's legislation to raise the birthrate is significant; successful it was not, but the fact that it was maintained on the statute book and systematically revised and developed for three centuries shows that it was at least accounted necessary. It is true of course that the mortality rate was a far more important factor in those days than it is in our own, and the mortality from pestilence and civil war from Marcus Aurelius onwards was exceptional. And it is plain that the proportion of celibates was high in the Roman empire and that the fall in the fertility of marriages was going on. It is the childless marriage, the small family system that contemporary writers deplore. In Seeley's striking phrase: 'The human harvest was bad,' It was bad in all classes, but the decline was most marked in the upper ranks, the most educated, the most civilized, the potential leaders of the race. In the terrible words of Swift, facing his own madness, the Roman Empire might have cried: 'I shall die like a tree—from the top downwards.'

Why (the insistent question forces itself) did this civilization lose the power to reproduce itself? Was it, as Polybius said, because people preferred amusements to children or wished to bring their children up in comfort? Hardly, for it is more marked among the rich than the poor and the rich can have the best of both worlds. Was it because people had grown discouraged and disheartened, no longer believing in their own civilization and loath to bring children into the darkness and disaster of their war-shattered world? We do not know. But we can see the connection of the falling population with the other evils of the empire—the heavy cost of administration relatively heavier when the density of the population is low; the empty fields, the dwindling legions which did not suffice to guard the frontier.

To cure this sickness of population the Roman rulers knew no other way than to dose it with barbarian vigour. Just a small injection to begin with and then more and more till in the end the blood that flowed in its veins was not Roman but barbarian. In came the Germans to settle the frontier, to till the fields, to enlist first in the auxiliaries and then in the legions, to fill the great offices of state. The army is barbarized, and a modern writer, Mr Moss, has quoted most effectively the complaint of the Egyptian mother clamouring to get back her son who (as she says) has gone off with the barbarians—he means that he has enlisted in the Roman legions. The legions are barbarized and they barbarize the Emperor. For them he is no longer the majestic embodiment of law, he is their leader, their Fuehrer, and they raise him on their shields. And side by side with the barbarization of the army goes the barbarization of civil manners too. In 397 Honorius has to pass an edict forbidding the wearing of German fashions within the precincts of Rome. And in the end, half barbarian themselves, they have only barbarians to defend them against barbarism.

Such was the general picture of the great ruin of civilization amidst which the Romans of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries lived. What then did it feel like to live at a time when civilization was going down before the forces of barbarism? Did people realize what was happening? Did the gloom of the Dark Ages cast its shadow before? It so happens that we can answer these questions very clearly if we fix our eyes on one particular part of the Empire, the famous and highly civilized province of Gaul. We can catch the decline at three points because in three consecutive centuries, Gallo-Roman writers have left us a picture of their life and times. In the fourth century we have Ausonius, in the fifth Sidonius Apollinarius, in the sixth Gregory of Tours and Fortunatus, a stranger from Italy, who made his home in Poitiers. They show us Auvergne and the Bordelais in the evening light. The fourth, the fifth, and the sixth centuries—going, going, gone!


Going! This is the world of Ausonius, south-western France in the latter half of the fourth century, 'an Indian summer between ages of storm and wreckage'. Ausonius himself is a scholar and a gentleman, the friend alike of the pagan Symmachus and of St Paulinus of Nela. He is for thirty years professor of rhetoric in the university of Bordeaux, for some time tutor to a prince, praetorian prefect of Gaul, consul, and in his last years just an old man contentedly living on his estates. His most famous poem is a description of the Moselle, which for all its literary affectations evokes most magically the smiling countryside which was the background of his life. High above the river on either bank stand the villas and country houses, with their courts and lawns and pillared porticos, and the hot baths from which, if you will, you can plunge into the stream. The sunny hillside is covered with vines, and from slope to hill-top the husbandmen call to each other and the wayfarer on the towpath or the bargemen floating by, shout their rude jests to the loitering vinedressers. Far out in midstream the fisherman trails his dripping net and on a rock by the shore the angler plies his rod. And, as twilight falls, the deepening shadow of the green hillside is reflected in the water and gazing downward the boatman can almost count the trembling vines and almost see the swelling of the grapes.

Equally peaceful, equally pleasant is life on Ausonius' own estate in the Bordelais, his little patrimony (he calls it) although he had a thousand acres of vineyard and tillage and wood. Miss Waddell has reminded us, on the authority of Saintsbury (whom else?) that 'to this day it boasts itself as Chateau-Ausone, one of the two best of the St Emilion clarets.' Here he tends his roses and sends his boy round to the neighbours to bid them to luncheon, while he interviews the cook. Six, including the host, is the right number—if more it is not a meal but a melee. Then there are all his relatives to be commemorated in verse, his grandfather and his grandmother and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts (especially his aunts).

And when the family circle palls there is the senior common room to fall back upon and the professors of Bordeaux to be celebrated in their turn. Professors were important people in the empire of the fourth century; Symmachus says that it is the mark of a flourishing state that good salaries should be paid to professors; though what exactly we are to deduce from that in the light of history I should hesitate to say. So Ausonius writes a collection of poems about the professors of Bordeaux. There are thirty-two of them and all are celebrated. There is Minervius the orator, who had a prodigious memory and after a game of backgammon was wont to conduct a post-mortem over every move. There is Anastasius the grammarian, who was so foolish as to leave Bordeaux for a provincial university and thenceforth languished in well-merited obscurity. There is Attius Tiro Delphidius, who retired from a legal career into the professorial chair, but could never be got to take any trouble with his men, to the disappointment of their parents. There is Jocundus the grammarian, who did not really deserve his title, but was such a kind man that we will commemorate him among men of worth, although he was, strictly speaking, unequal to the job. There is Exuperius, who was very good-looking and whose eloquence sounded superb until you examined it and found that it meant nothing. There is Dynamius, who slipped from the paths of virtue with a married lady in Bordeaux and left the place rather hastily, but fortunately fell on his feet in Spain. There is Victorius the usher, who liked only the most abstruse historical problems, such as what the pedigree of the sacrificial priest at Cureo was long before Numa's day, or what Castor had to say on all the shadowy kings, and who never got up as far as Tully or Virgil, though he might have done so if he had gone on reading long enough, but death cut him off too soon. They seem oddly familiar figures (except of course, Dynamius) and their chronicler contrives to make them live.

Such is the world depicted for us by Ausonius. But while this pleasant country house and senior common room life was going calmly on, what do we find happening in the history books? Ausonius was a man of nearly fifty when the Germans swarmed across the Rhine in 357, pillaging forty-five flourishing cities, and pitching their camps on the banks of the Moselle. He had seen the great Julian take up arms ('O Plato, Plato, what a task for a philosopher') and in a series of brilliant campaigns drive them out again. Ten years later when he was tutor to Gratian he had himself accompanied the emperor Valentinian on another campaign against the same foes. While he was preening himself on his consulship ten years later still, he must have heard of the disastrous battle of Adrianople in the east, when the Goths defeated a Roman army and slew an emperor. He died in 395 and within twelve years of his death the host of Germans had burst across the Rhine, 'all Gaul was a smoking funeral pyre', and the Goths were at the gates of Rome. And what have Ausonius and his correspondents to say about this? Not a word. Ausonius and Symmachus and their set ignore the barbarians as completely as the novels of Jane Austen ignore the Napoleonic wars.


Going, going.... Some thirty-five years after the death of Ausonius, in the midst of the disastrous sixth century, was born Sidonius Apollinaris, Gallo-Roman aristocrat, father-in-law of an emperor, sometime prefect of Rome and in the end Bishop of Clermont. Sidonius Apollinaris, 431 (or thereabouts) to 479 or perhaps a few years later. Much had happened between the death of Ausonius and his birth. The lights were going out all over Europe. Barbarian kingdoms had been planted in Gaul and Spain, Rome herself had been sacked by the Goths; and in his lifetime the collapse went on, ever more swiftly. He was a young man of twenty when the ultimate horror broke upon the West, the inroad of Attila and the Huns. That passed away, but when he was twenty-four the Vandals sacked Rome. He saw the terrible German king-maker Ricimer throne and unthrone a series of puppet emperors, he saw the last remnant of Gallic independence thrown away and himself become a barbarian subject, and he saw a few years before he died the fall of the empire in the west.

They cannot, Sidonius and his friends, ignore as Ausonius and his friends did, that something is happening to the empire. The men of the fifth century are concerned at these disasters and they console themselves, each according to his kind. There are some who think it cannot last. After all, they say, the empire has been in a tight place before and has always got out of it in the end and risen supreme over its enemies. Thus Sidonius himself, the very year after they sacked the city; Rome has endured as much before—there was Porsenna, there was Brennus, there was Hannibal.... Only that time Rome did not get over it. Others tried to use the disasters to castigate the sins of society. Thus Salvian of Marseilles who would no doubt have been called the gloomy dean if he had not been a bishop. For him all that the decadent Roman civilization needs is to copy some of the virtues of these fresh young barbarian people. There is the familiar figure of Orosius, defending the barbarians with the argument that when the Roman empire was founded it was founded in blood and conquest and can ill afford to throw stones at the barbarians; and after all the barbarians are not so bad. 'If the unhappy people they have despoiled will content themselves with the little that is left them, their conquerors will cherish them as friends and brothers.' Others, especially the more thoughtful churchmen are much concerned to explain why an empire which had flourished under paganism should be thus beset under Christianity. Others desert the Empire altogether and (like St Augustine) put their hope in a city not made with hands—though Ambrose, it is true, let fall the pregnant observation that it was not the will of God that his people should be saved by logic-chopping. 'It has not pleased God to save his people by dialectic.'

And how were they living? We have only to read the letters written by Sidonius during the period between 460 and 470, when he was living on his estate in Auvergne, to realize that on the surface all is going on exactly as before. Gaul is shrunk, it is true, to a mere remnant between three barbarian kingdoms, but save for that we might be back in the days of Ausonius. There is the luxurious villa, with its hot baths and swimming pool, its suites of rooms, its views over the lake; and there is Sidonius inviting his friends to stay with him or sending round his compositions to the professors and the bishops and the country-gentlemen. Sport and games are very popular—Sidonius rides and swims and hunts and plays tennis. In one letter he tells his correspondent that he has been spending some days in the country with his cousin and an old friend, whose estates adjoin each other. They had sent out scouts to catch him and bring him back for a week and took it in turns to entertain him. There are games of tennis on the lawn before breakfast or backgammon for the older men. There is an hour or two in the library before we sit down to an excellent luncheon followed by a siesta. Then we go out riding and return for a hot bath and a plunge in the river. I should like to describe our luscious dinner parties, he concludes, but I have no more paper. However, come and stay with us and you shall hear all about it. Clearly this is no Britain, where in the sixth century half-barbarian people camped in the abandoned villas and cooked their food on the floors of the principal rooms.

And yet ... it had gone a long way downhill since the days of Ausonius, and Sidonius could not now ignore the very existence of the barbarians. He has indeed left notable protraits of them, especially of the king of the Visigoths and of the Burgundians who ruled Lyons, where he was born. Whenever he went to stay there, he complains, they flocked about him in embarrassing friendliness, breathing leeks and onions and dressing their hair with rancid butter (they were not, it appears, constrained to choose between spears and butter). How can he compose six foot metres, he asks, with so many seven foot patrons around him, all singing and all expecting him to admire their uncouth stream of non-Latin words? The shrug of the shoulder, the genial contempt of one conscious of an infinite superiority—how clear it is. One is reminded of a verse of Verlaine

Je suis l'empire a la fin de la decadence qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs

But Sidonius's good nature was to be rudely shaken. All barbarians were not friendly giants, and the Visigoths next door, under their new king Euric, turned covetous eyes upon Auvergne. Sidonius had not been two years bishop of Clermont before he had to organize the defence of the city against their attack. The Avernians stood out gallantly; they would fight and they would starve, but they would defend this last stronghold of Rome in Gaul. But they were a small people; to resist successfully they must have help from Rome itself. Lest anyone should suspect me of twisting the story, I give it in the words of Sidonius's editor, writing twenty years ago.

Julius Nepos was alive to the danger that Euric might cross the Rhone; but weak as his resources were he could only hope to secure peace by negotiation. The quaestor Licinianus had been sent into Gaul to investigate the condition of affairs on the spot.... He had now returned and it was soon only too clear that hopes based on his intervention were not likely to be fulfilled. We find Sidonius writing for information.... He began to fear that something was going on behind his back, and that the real danger to Auvergne came no longer from determined enemies but from pusillanimous friends. His suspicions were only too well founded. On receipt of the quaestor's report a Council was held to determine the policy of the Empire towards the Visigothic king.... The empire did not feel strong enough to support Auvergne and it was decided to cede the whole territory to Euric, apparently without condition.

The despair of Sidonius knew no bounds and he writes a nobly indignant letter to a bishop who had been concerned in the negotiations:

The state of our unhappy region is miserable indeed. Everyone declares that things were better in wartime than they are now after peace has been concluded. Our enslavement was made the price of security for a third party; the enslavement, ah—the shame of it!, of those Avernians ... who in our own time stood forth alone to stay the advance of the common enemy.... These are the men whose common soldiers were as good as captains, but who never reaped the benefit of their victories: that was handed over for your consolation, while all the crushing burden of defeat they had to bear themselves.... This is to be our reward for braving destitution, fire, sword and pestilence, for fleshing our swords in the enemy's blood and going ourselves starved into battle. This is the famous peace we dreamed of, when we tore the grass from the crannies in the walls to eat.... For all these proofs of our devotion, it would seem that we are to be made a sacrifice. If it be so, may you live to blush for a peace without either honour or advantage.

Auvergne had been sacrificed to save Rome. But Rome was not to enjoy her peace with honour for long. These things took place in 475; and in 476 the last emperor was desposed by his barbarian bear-leader, and the empire in the west came to an end. As for Sidonius, the Goths imprisoned him for a time and before he could recover his estate he had to write a panegyric for King Euric (he who had written panegyrics for three Roman emperors). It is clear that the old country house life went on as before, though the men who exchanged letters and epigrams were now under barbarian rule. But in one letter shortly before his death there breaks from Sidonius a single line in which he unpacks his heart. O neccessitas abjecta nascendi, vivendi misera dura moriendi. 'O humiliating necessity of birth, sad necessity of living, hard necessity of dying.' Shortly after 479 he died and within twenty years Clovis had embarked upon his career of conquest and Theodoric was ruler of Italy.


Going, going, gone.... There is only the time and only the heart to look for a moment at the Frankish kingdom which once was Gaul, and to survey the world of Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours, born both of them just about a century later than Sidonius, in the 530s. For a moment when you look at Fortunatus you think the world of the sixth century is the same world as that in which Sidonius entertained his friends with epigrams and tennis. Fortunatus, that versatile, gentle, genial, boot-licking gourmet, who somehow managed to write two of the most magnificent hymns of the Christian church, came from Italy on a visit to Gaul in 565 and never left it again. He travelled all over the Frankish lands, in what had been Germania as well as in what had been Gaul. From Trier to Toulouse he made his way with ease by river and by road, and it might be Ausonius again. Fortunatus too writes a poem on the Moselle; and there is the same smiling countryside with terraced vineyards sloping down to the quiet stream and the smoke of villas rising from the woods. Fortunatus too made the round of the country houses, especially of the sumptuous villas belonging to Leontius bishop of Bordeaux, a great Gallo-Roman aristocrat, whose grandfather had been a friend of Sidonius. The hot baths, the pillared porticos, the lawns sloping to the river, are all there; the feasts are even more magnificent (they upset Fortunatus's digestion badly) and the talk is still of literature. The more intelligent of the barbarian lords have imitated this refined and luxurious life as best they may. The Franks as well as the Gallo-Romans welcome little eager Fortunatus; every count wants a set of Latin verses dedicated to himself. It is plain that some of the old country house life at least has survived. The Apollinaris set still enjoys its hot baths and its tennis; as Dill puts it, the barbarian might rule the land, but the laws of polite society would be administered as before.

But when you look again you realize that it is not the same. It is not merely because we know that even these remnants of the social and material civilization of Rome would soon themselves die away that the tragedy of the sixth century looms so dark. It is because when we look below the surface we see that the life has gone out of it all, the soul that inflamed it is dead, nothing is now left but the empty shell. These men welcome Fortunatus just because he comes from Italy, where the rot has gone less far, where there still survives some reputation for learning and for culture. They slake their nostalgia a little in the presence of that enfant perdue of a lost civilization.

For this is the world of Gregory of Tours, of which you may read in his History of the Franks. The rule under which it lives is the rule of the horrible Merovingian kings. Side by side with the villas barbarism spreads and flourishes like a jungle growth. Learning is dying—hardly the ghost of a university is left—and Gregory himself who came of a great Gallo-Roman family and was a bishop bewails his ignorance of grammar. The towns are shrinking, crouched behind their defences. The synagogues are flaming, and the first step has been taken in that tragic tale of proscription and tallage, tallage and expulsion which (it seems) must never end. As to politics, the will of the leader and his retinue is the rule of the Franks, and purge and bloodbath mark every stage in the rivalry of the Merovingian princes. The worst of them are devils like Chilperic and Fredegond, the best of them are still barbarians like that King Guntram, who fills so many indulgent pages in Gregory of Tours. He is a vaguely contemporary figure, a fat, voluble man, now purring with jovial good nature, now bursting into explosions of wrath and violence, a strange mixture of bonhomie and brutality. It is an ironic commentary on what has happened to civilization that Gregory should regard him with affection, that he should be known as 'Good King Guntram' and that the church should actually have canonized him after his death. Good King Guntram; Michelet has summed him up in a phrase 'Ce bon roi a qui on ne reprochait que deux ou trois meurtres.'


These were the men who lived through the centuries of Roman fall and Barbarian triumph, and who by virtue of their elevated position, their learning, and talents, should have seen, if not foretold, the course of events. And yet as one contemplates the world of Ausonius and Sidonius (for by the time of Gregory of Tours it was already dead) one is, I think, impelled to ask oneself the question why they were apparently so blind to what was happening. The big country houses go on having their luncheon and tennis parties, the little professors in the universities go on giving their lectures and writing their books; games are increasingly popular and the theatres are always full. Ausonius has seen the Germans overrun Gaul once, but he never speaks of a danger that may recur. Sidonius lives in a world already half barbarian, yet in the year before the Western Empire falls he is still dreaming of the consulship for his son. Why did they not realize the magnitude of the disaster that was befalling them? This is indeed a question almost as absorbing as the question why their civilization fell, for au fond it is perhaps the same question. Several answers may be suggested in explanation.

In the first place the process of disintegration was a slow one, for the whole tempo of life was slow and what might take decades in our own time took centuries then. It is only because we can look back from the vantage point of a much later age that we can see the inexorable pattern which events are forming, so that we long to cry to these dead people down the corridor of the ages, warning them to make a stand before it is too late, hearing no answering echo, 'Physician, heal thyself!' They suffered from the fatal myopia of contemporaries. It was the affairs of the moment that occupied them; for them it was the danger of the moment that must be averted and they did not recognize that each compromise and each defeat was a link in the chain dragging them over the abyss.

At what point did barbarism within become a wasting disease? Yet from the first skinclad German taken into a legion to the great barbarian patricians of Italy, making and unmaking emperors, the chain is unbroken. At what point in the assault from without did the attack become fatal? Was it the withdrawal from Dacia in 270—allow the barbarians their sphere of influence in the east of Europe, fling them the last-won recruit to Romania and they will be satiated and leave the west alone? Was it the settlement of the Goths as foederati within the Empire in 382 and the beginning of that compromise between the Roman empire and the Germans which, as Bury says, masked the transition from the rule of one to the rule of the other, from federate states within the Empire to independent states replacing it? Was this policy of appeasement the fatal error? Was it the removal of the legions from Britain, a distant people (as a Roman senator might have said) of whom we know nothing? Or was it that fatal combination of Spain and Africa, when the Vandals ensconced themselves in both provinces by 428 and the Vandal fleet (with Majorca and the islands for its bases) cut off Rome from her corn supplies and broke the backbone of ancient civilization, which was the Mediterranean sea? Not once alone in the history of Europe has the triumph of a hostile rule in Africa and Spain spelt disaster to our civilization.

But if the gradualness of this process misled the Romans there were other and equally potent reasons for their blindness. Most potent of all was the fact that they mistook entirely the very nature of civilization itself. All of them were making the same mistake. People who thought that Rome could swallow barbarism and absorb it into her life without diluting her own civilization; the people who ran about busily saying that the barbarians were not such bad fellows after all, finding good points in their regime with which to castigate the Romans and crying that except ye become as little barbarians ye shall not attain salvation; the people who did not observe in 476 that one half of the Respublica Romanorum had ceased to exist and nourished themselves on the fiction that the barbarian kings were exercising a power delegated from the Emperor. All these people were deluded by the same error, the belief that Rome (the civilization of their age) was not a mere historical fact with a beginning and an end, but a condition of nature like the air they breathed and the earth they tread Ave Roma immortalis, most magnificent most disastrous of creeds!

The fact is that the Romans were blinded to what was happening to them by the very perfection of the material culture which they had created. All around them was solidity and comfort, a material existence which was the very antithesis of barbarism. How could they foresee the day when the Norman chronicler would marvel over the broken hypocausts of Caerleon? How could they imagine that anything so solid might conceivably disappear? Their roads grew better as their statesmanship grew worse and central heating triumphed as civilization fell.

But still more responsible for their unawareness was the educational system in which they were reared. Ausonius and Sidonius and their friends were highly educated men and Gaul was famous for its schools and universities. The education which these gave consisted in the study of grammar and rhetoric, which was necessary alike for the civil service and for polite society; and it would be difficult to imagine an education more entirely out of touch with contemporary life, or less suited to inculcate the qualities which might have enabled men to deal with it. The fatal study of rhetoric, its links with reality long since severed, concentrated the whole attention of men of intellect on form rather than on matter. The things they learned in their schools had no relation to the things that were going on in the world outside and bred in them the fatal illusion that tomorrow would be as yesterday, that everything was the same, whereas everything was different.

So we take our leave of them. Going ... going ... gone! Gone altogether? Perhaps not. Hundreds of years of barbarism were to elapse before a new society arose capable of matching or even excelling Rome in material wealth, in arts, in sciences, and in gentler modes of existence—the douceur de la vie. We cannot say what date marked the moment of final recovery, or who were the men who were to represent advancing civilization as fully as Ausonius or Gregory of Tours represented civilization in retreat: Dante, Shakespeare, Capernicus, Newton? But for many centuries, perhaps a whole millennium, before western Europe scaled the heights on which these men now stood, it had been gradually raising itself from the depths of post-Roman decline. The ascent was not only slow but also discontinuous, yet it was sufficient to establish within a few centuries of Gregory of Tours a social order different from Rome and less glorious to behold across a thousand years of history, but nevertheless sufficiently exalted to draw the interest, and even to command the admiration of other still later ages. In that culture and in that social order much of what Ausonius and Sidonius and even Fortunatus represented was brought to life again, albeit in a form they would not always have recognized as their own. To this extent, at least, they were not only the epigones of Rome but the true precursors of the Middle Ages.




Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow's dug into the pail; the slender blade of green corn upon the ground; the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.

Three sounds of increase: the lowing of a cow in milk; the din of a smithy; the swish of a plough.

—From The Triads of Ireland (9th century)

Economic history, as we know it, is the newest of all the branches of history. Up to the middle of the last century the chief interest of the historian and of the public alike lay in political and constitutional history, in political events, wars, dynasties, and in political institutions and their development. Substantially, therefore, history concerned itself with the ruling classes. 'Let us now praise famous men,' was the historian's motto. He forgot to add 'and our fathers that begat us'. He did not care to probe the obscure lives and activities of the great mass of humanity, upon whose slow toil was built up the prosperity of the world and who were the hidden foundation of the political and constitutional edifice reared by the famous men he praised. To speak of ordinary people would have been beneath the dignity of history. Carlyle struck a significant note of revolt: 'The thing I want to see,' he said, 'is not Red-book lists and Court Calendars and Parliamentary Registers, but the Life of Man in England: what men did, thought, suffered, enjoyed.... Mournful, in truth, it is to behold what the business called "History" in these so enlightened and illuminated times still continues to be. Can you gather from it, read till your eyes go out, any dimmest shadow of an answer to that great question: How men lived and had their being; were it but economically, as, what wages they got and what they bought with these? Unhappily you cannot.... History, as it stands all bound up in gilt volumes, is but a shade more instructive than the wooden volumes of a backgammon-board.'

Carlyle was a voice crying in the wilderness. Today the new history, whose way he prepared, has come. The present age differs from the centuries before it in its vivid realization of that much-neglected person the man in the street; or (as it was more often in the earliest ages) the man with the hoe. Today the historian is interested in the social life of the past and not only in the wars and intrigues of princes. To the modern writer, the fourteenth century, for instance, is not merely the century of the Hundred Years' War and of the Black Prince and Edward III; more significantly it is for him the era of the slow decay of villeinage in England, a fact more epoch-making, in the long run, than the struggle over our French provinces. We still praise famous men, for he would be a poor historian who could spare one of the great figures who have shed glory or romance upon the page of history; but we praise them with due recognition of the fact that not only great individuals, but people as a whole, unnamed and undistinguished masses of people, now sleeping in unknown graves, have also been concerned in the story. Our fathers that begat us have come to their own at last. As Acton put it, 'The great historian now takes his meals in the kitchen.'

This book is chiefly concerned with the kitchens of History, and the first which we shall visit is a country estate at the beginning of the ninth century. It so happens that we know a surprising amount about such an estate, partly because Charlemagne himself issued a set of orders instructing the Royal stewards how to manage his own lands, telling them everything it was necessary for them to know, down to the vegetables which they were to plant in the garden. But our chief source of knowledge is a wonderful estate book which Irminon, the Abbot of St Germain des Pres near Paris, drew up so that the abbey might know exactly what lands belonged to it and who lived on those lands, very much as William I drew up an estate book of his whole kingdom and called it Domesday Book. In this estate book is set down the name of every little estate (or fisc as it was called) belonging to the abbey, with a description of the land which was worked under its steward to its own profit, and the land which was held by tenants, and the names of those tenants and of their wives and of their children, and the exact services and rents, down to a plank and an egg, which they had to do for their land. We know today the name of almost every man, woman, and child who was living on those little fiscs in the time of Charlemagne, and a great deal about their daily lives.

Consider for a moment how the estate upon which they lived was organized. The lands of the Abbey of St Germain were divided into a number of estates, called fiscs, each of a convenient size to be administered by a steward. On each of these fiscs the land was divided into seigniorial and tributary lands; the first administered by the monks through a steward or some other officer, and the second possessed by various tenants, who received and held them from the abbey. These tributary lands were divided into numbers of little farms, called manses, each occupied by one or more families. If you had paid a visit to the chief or seigniorial manse, which the monks kept in their own hands, you would have found a little house, with three or four rooms, probably built of stone, facing an inner court, and on one side of it you would have seen a special group of houses hedged round, where the women serfs belonging to the house lived and did their work; all round you would also have seen little wooden houses, where the household serfs lived, workrooms, a kitchen, a bakehouse, barns, stables, and other farm buildings, and round the whole a hedge carefully planted with trees, so as to make a kind of enclosure or court. Attached to this central manse was a considerable amount of land—ploughland, meadows, vineyards, orchards, and almost all the woods or forests on the estate. Clearly a great deal of labour would be needed to cultivate all these lands. Some of that labour was provided by servile workers who were attached to the chief manse and lived in the court. But these household serfs were not nearly enough to do all the work upon the monks' land, and far the greater part of it had to be done by services paid by the other landowners on the estate.


Beside the seigniorial manse, there were a number of little dependent manses. These belonged to men and women who were in various stages of freedom, except for the fact that all had to do work on the land of the chief manse. There is no need to trouble with the different classes, for in practice there was very little difference between them, and in a couple of centuries they were all merged into one common class of medieval villeins. The most important people were those called coloni, who were personally free (that is to say, counted as free men by the law), but bound to the soil, so that they could never leave their farms and were sold with the estate, if it were sold. Each of the dependent manses was held either by one family or by two or three families which clubbed together to do the work; it consisted of a house or houses, and farm buildings, like those of the chief manse, only poorer and made of wood, with ploughland and a meadow and perhaps a little piece of vineyard attached to it. In return for these holdings the owner or joint owners of every manse had to do work on the land of the chief manse for about three days in the week. The steward's chief business was to see that they did their work properly, and from every one he had the right to demand two kinds of labour. The first was field work: every year each man was bound to do a fixed amount of ploughing on the domain land (as it was called later on), and also to give what was called a corvee, that is to say, an unfixed amount of ploughing, which the steward could demand every week when it was needed; the distinction corresponds to the distinction between week work and boon work in the later Middle Ages. The second kind of labour which every owner of a farm had to do on the monks' land was called handwork, that is to say, he had to help repair buildings, or cut down trees, or gather fruit, or make ale, or carry loads—anything, in fact, which wanted doing and which the steward told him to do. It was by these services that the monks got their own seigniorial farm cultivated. On all the other days of the week these hard-worked tenants were free to cultivate their own little farms, and we may be sure that they put twice as much elbow grease into the business.

But their obligation did not end here, for not only had they to pay services, they also had to pay certain rents to the big house. There were no State taxes in those days, but every man had to pay an army due, which Charlemagne exacted from the abbey, and which the abbey exacted from its tenants; this took the form of an ox and a certain number of sheep, or the equivalent in money: 'He pays to the host two shillings of silver' comes first on every freeman's list of obligations. The farmers also had to pay in return for any special privileges granted to them by the monks; they had to carry a load of wood to the big house, in return for being allowed to gather firewood in the woods, which were jealously preserved for the use of the abbey; they had to pay some hogsheads of wine for the right to pasture their pigs in the same precious woods; every third year they had to give up one of their sheep for the right to graze upon the fields of the chief manse; they had to pay a sort of poll-tax of 4d. a head. In addition to these special rents every farmer had also to pay other rents in produce; every year he owed the big house three chickens and fifteen eggs and a large number of planks, to repair its buildings; often he had to give it a couple of pigs; sometimes corn, wine, honey, wax, soap, or oil. If the farmer were also an artisan and made things, he had to pay the produce of his craft; a smith would have to make lances for the abbey's contingent to the army, a carpenter had to make barrels and hoops and vine props, a wheelwright had to make a cart. Even the wives of the farmers were kept busy, if they happened to be serfs; for the servile women were obliged to spin cloth or to make a garment for the big house every year.

All these things were exacted and collected by the steward, whom they called Villicus, or Major (Mayor). He was a very hard-worked man, and when one reads the seventy separate and particular injunctions which Charlemagne addressed to his stewards one cannot help feeling sorry for him. He had to get all the right services out of the tenants, and tell them what to do each week and see that they did it; he had to be careful that they brought the right number of eggs and pigs up to the house, and did not foist off warped or badly planed planks upon him. He had to look after the household serfs too, and set them to work. He had to see about storing, or selling, or sending off to the monastery the produce of the estate and of the tenants' rents; and every year he had to present a full and detailed account of his stewardship to the abbot. He had a manse of his own, with services and rents due from it, and Charlemagne exhorted his stewards to be prompt in their payments, so as to set a good example. Probably his official duties left him very little time to work on his own farm, and he would have to put in a man to work it for him, as Charlemagne bade his stewards do. Often, however, he had subordinate officials called deans under him, and sometimes the work of receiving and looking after the stores in the big house was done by a special cellarer.

That, in a few words, is the way in which the monks of St Germain and the other Frankish landowners of the time of Charlemagne managed their estates. Let us try, now, to look at those estates from a more human point of view and see what life was like to a farmer who lived upon them. The abbey possessed a little estate called Villaris, near Paris, in the place now occupied by the park of Saint Cloud. When we turn up the pages in the estate book dealing with Villaris, we find that there was a man called Bodo living there.[1] He had a wife called Ermentrude and three children called Wido and Gerbert and Hildegard; and he owned a little farm of arable and meadow land, with a few vines. And we know very nearly as much about Bodo's work as we know about that of a smallholder in France today. Let us try and imagine a day in his life. On a fine spring morning towards the end of Charlemagne's reign Bodo gets up early, because it is his day to go and work on the monks' farm, and he does not dare to be late, for fear of the steward. To be sure, he has probably given the steward a present of eggs and vegetables the week before, to keep him in a good temper; but the monks will not allow their stewards to take big bribes (as is sometimes done on other estates), and Bodo knows that he will not be allowed to go late to work. It is his day to plough, so he takes his big ox with him and little Wido to run by its side with a goad, and he joins his friends from some of the farms near by, who are going to work at the big house too. They all assemble, some with horses and oxen, some with mattocks and hoes and spades and axes and scythes, and go off in gangs to work upon the fields and meadows and woods of the seigniorial manse, according as the steward orders them. The manse next door to Bodo is held by a group of families: Frambert and Ermoin and Ragenold, with their wives and children. Bodo bids them good morning as he passes. Frambert is going to make a fence round the wood, to prevent the rabbits from coming out and eating the young crops; Ermoin has been told off to cart a great load of firewood up to the house; and Ragenold is mending a hole in the roof of a barn. Bodo goes whistling off in the cold with his oxen and his little boy; and it is no use to follow him farther, because he ploughs all day and eats his meal under a tree with the other ploughmen, and it is very monotonous.

Let us go back and see what Bodo's wife, Ermentrude, is doing. She is busy too; it is the day on which the chicken-rent is due—a fat pullet and five eggs in all. She leaves her second son, aged nine, to look after the baby Hildegard and calls on one of her neighbours, who has to go up to the big house too. The neighbour is a serf and she has to take the steward a piece of woollen cloth, which will be sent away to St Germain to make a habit for a monk. Her husband is working all day in the lord's vineyards, for on this estate the serfs generally tend the vines, while the freemen do most of the ploughing. Ermentrude and the serf's wife go together up to the house. There all is busy. In the men's workshop are several clever workmen—a shoemaker, a carpenter, a blacksmith, and two silversmiths; there are not more, because the best artisans on the estates of St Germain live by the walls of the abbey, so that they can work for the monks on the spot and save the labour of carriage. But there were always some craftsmen on every estate, either attached as serfs to the big house, or living on manses of their own, and good landowners tried to have as many clever craftsmen as possible. Charlemagne ordered his stewards each to have in his district 'good workmen, namely, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, shoemakers, turners, carpenters, swordmakers, fishermen, foilers, soapmakers, men who know how to make beer, cider, perry, and all other kinds of beverages, bakers to make pasty for our table, netmakers who know how to make nets for hunting, fishing, and fowling, and others too many to be named'.[2] And some of these workmen are to be found working for the monks in the estate of Villaris.

But Ermentrude does not stop at the men's workshop. She finds the steward, bobs her curtsy to him, and gives up her fowl and eggs, and then she hurries off to the women's part of the house, to gossip with the serfs there. The Franks used at this time to keep the women of their household in a separate quarter, where they did the work which was considered suitable for women, very much as the Greeks of antiquity used to do. If a Frankish noble had lived at the big house, his wife would have looked after their work, but as no one lived in the stone house at Villaris, the steward had to oversee the women. Their quarter consisted of a little group of houses, with a workroom, the whole surrounded by a thick hedge with a strong bolted gate, like a harem, so that no one could come in without leave. Their workrooms were comfortable places, warmed by stoves, and there Ermentrude (who, being a woman, was allowed to go in) found about a dozen servile women spinning and dyeing cloth and sewing garments. Every week the harassed steward brought them the raw materials for their work and took away what they made. Charlemagne gives his stewards several instructions about the women attached to his manses, and we may be sure that the monks of St Germain did the same on their model estates. 'For our women's work,' says Charlemagne, 'they are to give at the proper time the materials, that is linen, wool, woad, vermilion, madder, wool combs, teasels, soap, grease, vessels, and other objects which are necessary. And let our women's quarters be well looked after, furnished with houses and rooms with stoves and cellars, and let them be surrounded by a good hedge, and let the doors be strong, so that the women can do our work properly.'[3] Ermentrude, however, has to hurry away after her gossip, and so must we. She goes back to her own farm and sets to work in the little vineyard; then after an hour or two goes back to get the children's meal and to spend the rest of the day in weaving warm woollen clothes for them. All her friends are either working in the fields on their husbands' farms or else looking after the poultry, or the vegetables, or sewing at home; for the women have to work just as hard as the men on a country farm. In Charlemagne's time (for instance) they did nearly all the sheep shearing. Then at last Bodo comes back for his supper, and as soon as the sun goes down they go to bed; for their hand-made candle gives only a flicker of light, and they both have to be up early in the morning. De Quincey once pointed out, in his inimitable manner, how the ancients everywhere went to bed, 'like good boys, from seven to nine o'clock'. 'Man went to bed early in those ages simply because his worthy mother earth could not afford him candles. She, good old lady ... would certainly have shuddered to hear of any of her nations asking for candles. "Candles indeed!" she would have said; "who ever heard of such a thing? and with so much excellent daylight running to waste, as I have provided gratis! What will the wretches want next?"'[4] Something of the same situation prevailed even in Bodo's time.

This, then, is how Bodo and Ermentrude usually passed their working day. But, it may be complained, this is all very well. We know about the estates on which these peasants lived and about the rents which they had to pay, and the services which they had to do. But how did they feel and think and amuse themselves when they were not working? Rents and services are only outside things; an estate book only describes routine. It would be idle to try to picture the life of a university from a study of its lecture list, and it is equally idle to try and describe the life of Bodo from the estate book of his masters. It is no good taking your meals in the kitchen if you never talk to the servants. This is true, and to arrive at Bodo's thoughts and feelings and holiday amusements we must bid goodbye to Abbot Irminon's estate book, and peer into some very dark corners indeed; for though by the aid of Chaucer and Langland and a few Court Rolls it is possible to know a great deal about the feelings of a peasant six centuries later, material is scarce in the ninth century, and it is all the more necessary to remember the secret of the invisible ink.

Bodo certainly had plenty of feelings, and very strong ones. When he got up in the frost on a cold morning to drive the plough over the abbot's acres, when his own were calling out for work, he often shivered and shook the rime from his beard, and wished that the big house and all its land were at the bottom of the sea (which, as a matter of fact, he had never seen and could not imagine). Or else he wished he were the abbot's huntsman, hunting in the forest; or a monk of St Germain, singing sweetly in the abbey church; or a merchant, taking bales of cloaks and girdles along the high road to Paris; anything, in fact, but a poor ploughman ploughing other people's land. An Anglo-Saxon writer has imagined a dialogue with him:

'Well, ploughman, how do you do your work?' 'Oh, sir, I work very hard. I go out in the dawning, driving the oxen to the field and I yoke them to the plough. Be the winter never so stark, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; but every day I must plough a full acre or more, after having yoked the oxen and fastened the share and coulter to the plough!' 'Have you any mate?' 'I have a boy, who drives the oxen with a goad, who is now hoarse from cold and shouting,' (Poor little Wido!) 'Well, well, it is very hard work?' 'Yes, indeed it is very hard work.'[5]

Nevertheless, hard as the work was, Bodo sang lustily to cheer himself and Wido; for is it not related that once, when a clerk was singing the 'Allelulia' in the emperor's presence, Charles turned to one of the bishops, saying, 'My clerk is singing very well,' whereat the rude bishop replied, 'Any clown in our countryside drones as well as that to his oxen at their ploughing'?[6] It is certain too that Bodo agreed with the names which the great Charles gave to the months of the year in his own Frankish tongue; for he called January 'Winter-month', February 'Mud-month', March 'Spring-month', April 'Easter-month', May 'Joy-month', June 'Plough-month', July 'Hay-month', August 'Harvest-month', September 'Wind-month', October 'Vintage-month', November 'Autumn-month', and December 'Holy-month'.[7]

And Bodo was a superstitious creature. The Franks had been Christian now for many years, but Christian though they were, the peasants clung to old beliefs and superstitions. On the estates of the holy monks of St Germain you would have found the country people saying charms which were hoary with age, parts of the lay sung by the Frankish ploughman over his bewitched land long before he marched southwards into the Roman Empire, or parts of the spell which the bee-master performed when he swarmed his bees on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Christianity has coloured these charms, but it has not effaced their heathen origin; and because the tilling of the soil is the oldest and most unchanging of human occupations, old beliefs and superstitions cling to it and the old gods stalk up and down the brown furrows, when they have long vanished from houses and roads. So on Abbot Irminon's estates the peasant-farmers muttered charms over their sick cattle (and over their sick children too) and said incantations over the fields to make them fertile. If you had followed behind Bodo when he broke his first furrow you would have probably seen him take out of his jerkin a little cake, baked for him by Ermentrude out of different kinds of meal, and you would have seen him stoop and lay it under the furrow and sing:

Earth, Earth, Earth! O Earth, our mother! May the All-Wielder, Ever-Lord grant thee Acres a-waxing, upwards a-growing, Pregnant with corn and plenteous in strength; Hosts of grain shafts and of glittering plants! Of broad barley the blossoms, And of white wheat ears waxing, Of the whole land the harvest....

Acre, full-fed, bring forth fodder for men! Blossoming brightly, blessed become! And the God who wrought with earth grant us gift of growing That each of all the corns may come unto our need.[8]

Then he would drive his plough through the acre.

The Church wisely did not interfere with these old rites. It taught Bodo to pray to the Ever-Lord instead of to Father Heaven, and to the Virgin Mary instead of to Mother Earth, and with these changes let the old spell he had learned from his ancestors serve him still. It taught him, for instance, to call on Christ and Mary in his charm for bees. When Ermentrude heard her bees swarming, she stood outside her cottage and said this little charm over them:

Christ, there is a swarm of bees outside, Fly hither, my little cattle, In blest peace, in God's protection, Come home safe and sound. Sit down, sit down, bee, St Mary commanded thee.

Thou shalt not have leave, Thou shalt not fly to the wood. Thou shalt not escape me, Nor go away from me. Sit very still, Wait God's will![9]

And if Bodo on his way home saw one of his bees caught in a brier bush, he immediately stood still and wished—as some people wish today when they go under a ladder. It was the Church, too, which taught Bodo to add 'So be it, Lord', to the end of his charm against pain. Now, his ancestors for generations behind him had believed that if you had a stitch in your side, or a bad pain anywhere, it came from a worm in the marrow of your bones, which was eating you up, and that the only way to get rid of that worm was to put a knife, or an arrow-head, or some other piece of metal to the sore place, and then wheedle the worm out on to the blade by saying a charm. And this was the charm which Bodo's heathen ancestors had always said and which Bodo went on saying when little Wido had a pain: 'Come out, worm, with nine little worms, out from the marrow into the bone, from the bone into the flesh, from the flesh into the skin, from the skin into this arrow.' And then (in obedience to the Church) he added 'So be it, Lord'.[10] But sometimes it was not possible to read a Christian meaning into Bodo's doings. Sometimes he paid visits to some man who was thought to have a wizard's powers, or superstitiously reverenced some twisted tree, about which there hung old stories never quite forgotten. Then the Church was stern. When he went to confession the priest would ask him: 'Have you consulted magicians and enchanters, have you made vows to trees and fountains, have you drunk any magic philtre?'[11] And he would have to confess what he did last time his cow was sick. But the Church was kind as well as stern. 'When serfs come to you,' we find one bishop telling his priests, 'you must not give them as many fasts to perform as rich men. Put upon them only half the penance.'[12] The Church knew well enough that Bodo could not drive his plough all day upon an empty stomach. The hunting, drinking, feasting Frankish nobles could afford to lose a meal.

It was from this stern and yet kind Church that Bodo got his holidays. For the Church made the pious emperor decree that on Sundays and saints' days no servile or other works should be done. Charlemagne's son repeated his decree in 827. It runs thus:

We ordain according to the law of God and to the command of our father of blessed memory in his edicts, that no servile works shall be done on Sundays, neither shall men perform their rustic labours, tending vines, ploughing fields, reaping corn and mowing hay, setting up hedges or fencing woods, cutting trees, or working in quarries or building houses; nor shall they work in the garden, nor come to the law courts, nor follow the chase. But three carrying-services it is lawful to do on Sunday, to wit carrying for the army, carrying food, or carrying (if need be) the body of a lord to its grave. Item, women shall not do their textile works, nor cut out clothes, nor stitch them together with the needle, nor card wool, nor beat hemp, nor wash clothes in public, nor shear sheep: so that there may be rest on the Lord's day. But let them come together from all sides to Mass in the Church and praise God for all the good things He did for us on that day![13]

Unfortunately, however, Bodo and Ermentrude and their friends were not content to go quietly to church on saints' days and quietly home again. They used to spend their holidays in dancing and singing and buffoonery, as country folk have always done until our own gloomier, more self-conscious age. They were very merry and not at all refined, and the place they always chose for their dances was the churchyard; and unluckily the songs they sang as they danced in a ring were old pagan songs of their forefathers, left over from old Mayday festivities, which they could not forget, or ribald love-songs which the Church disliked. Over and over again we find the Church councils complaining that the peasants (and sometimes the priests too) were singing 'wicked songs with a chorus of dancing women,' or holding 'ballads and dancings and evil and wanton songs and such-like lures of the devil';[14] over and over again the bishops forbade these songs and dances; but in vain. In every country in Europe, right through the Middle Ages to the time of the Reformation, and after it, country folk continued to sing and dance in the churchyard. Two hundred years after Charlemagne's death there grew up the legend of the dancers of Koelbigk, who danced on Christmas Eve in the churchyard, in spite of the warning of the priest, and all got rooted to the spot for a year, till the Archbishop of Cologne released them. Some men say that they were not rooted standing to the spot, but that they had to go on dancing for the whole year; and that before they were released they had danced themselves waist-deep into the ground. People used to repeat the little Latin verse which they were singing:

Equitabat Bovo per silvam frondosam Ducebat sibi Merswindem formosam. Quid stamus? Cur non imus?[15]

Through the leafy forest, Bovo went a-riding And his pretty Merswind trotted on beside him— Why are we standing still? Why can't we go away?

Another later story still is told about a priest in Worcestershire who was kept awake all night by the people dancing in his churchyard and singing a song with the refrain 'Sweetheart have pity', so that he could not get it out of his head, and the next morning at Mass, instead of saying 'Dominus vobiscum', he said 'Sweetheart have pity', and there was a dreadful scandal which got into a chronicle.[16]

Sometimes our Bodo did not dance himself, but listened to the songs of wandering minstrels. The priests did not at all approve of these minstrels, who (they said) would certainly go to hell for singing profane secular songs, all about the great deeds of heathen heroes of the Frankish race, instead of Christian hymns. But Bodo loved them, and so did Bodo's betters; the Church councils had sometimes even to rebuke abbots and abbesses for listening to their songs. And the worst of it was that the great emperor himself, the good Charlemagne, loved them too. He would always listen to a minstrel, and his biographer, Einhard, tells us that 'He wrote out the barbarous and ancient songs, in which the acts of the kings and their wars were sung, and committed them to memory';[17] and one at least of those old sagas, which he liked men to write down, has been preserved on the cover of a Latin manuscript, where a monk scribbled it in his spare time. His son, Louis the Pious, was very different; he rejected the national poems, which he had learnt in his youth, and would not have them read or recited or taught; he would not allow minstrels to have justice in the law courts, and he forbade idle dances and songs and tales in public places on Sundays; but then he also dragged down his father's kingdom into disgrace and ruin. The minstrels repaid Charlemagne for his kindness to them. They gave him everlasting fame; for all through the Middle Ages the legend of Charlemagne grew, and he shares with our King Arthur the honour of being the hero of one of the greatest romance-cycles of the Middle Ages. Every different century clad him anew in its own dress and sang new lays about him. What the monkish chroniclers in their cells could never do for Charlemagne, these despised and accursed minstrels did for him: they gave him what is perhaps more desirable and more lasting than a place in history-they gave him a place in legend. It is not every emperor who rules in those realms of gold of which Keats spoke, as well as in the kingdoms of the world; and in the realms of gold Charlemagne reigns with King Arthur, and his peers joust with the Knights of the Round Table. Bodo, at any rate, benefited by Charles's love of minstrels, and it is probable that he heard in the lifetime of the emperor himself the first beginnings of those legends which afterwards clung to the name of Charlemagne. One can imagine him round-eyed in the churchyard, listening to fabulous stories of Charles's Iron March to Pavia, such as a gossiping old monk of St Gall afterwards wrote down in his chronicle.[18]

It is likely enough that such legends were the nearest Bodo ever came to seeing the emperor, of whom even the poor serfs who never followed him to court or camp were proud. But Charles was a great traveller: like all the monarchs of the early Middle Ages he spent the time, when he was not warring, in trekking round his kingdom, staying at one of his estates, until he and his household had literally eaten their way through it, and then passing on to another. And sometimes he varied the procedure by paying a visit to the estates of his bishops or nobles, who entertained him royally. It may be that one day he came on a visit to Bodo's masters and stopped at the big house on his way to Paris, and then Bodo saw him plain; for Charlemagne would come riding along the road in his jerkin of otter skin, and his plain blue cloak (Einhard tells us that he hated grand clothes and on ordinary days dressed like the common people);[19] and after him would come his three sons and his bodyguard, and then his five daughters. Einhard has also told us that:

He had such care of the upbringing of his sons and daughters that he never dined without them when he was at home and never travelled without them. His sons rode along with him and his daughters followed in the rear. Some of his guards, chosen for this very purpose, watched the end of the line of march where his daughters travelled. They were very beautiful and much beloved by their father, and, therefore, it is strange that he would give them in marriage to no one, either among his own people or of a foreign state. But up to his death he kept them all at home saying he could not forgo their society.[20]

Then, with luck, Bodo, quaking at the knees, might even behold a portent new to his experience, the emperor's elephant. Haroun El Raschid, the great Sultan of the 'Arabian Nights' had sent it to Charles, and it accompanied him on all his progresses. Its name was 'Abu-Lubabah', which is an Arabic word and means 'the father of intelligence[A]', and it died a hero's death on an expedition against the Danes in 810.[21] It is certain that ever afterwards Ermentrude quelled little Gerbert, when he was naughty, with the threat, 'Abu-Lubabah will come with his long nose and carry you off.' But Wido, being aged eight and a bread-winner, professed to have felt no fear on being confronted with the elephant; but admitted when pressed, that he greatly preferred Haroun El Raschid's other present to the emperor, the friendly dog, who answered to the name of 'Becerillo'.

[Footnote A: Abu-Lubabah.—It is remarkable that the name should have suffered no corruption in the chronicles.]

It would be a busy time for Bodo when all these great folk came, for everything would have to be cleaned before their arrival, the pastry cooks and sausage-makers summoned and a great feast prepared; and though the household serfs did most of the work, it is probable that he had to help. The gossipy old monk of St Gall has given us some amusing pictures of the excitement when Charles suddenly paid a visit to his subjects:

There was a certain bishopric which lay full in Charles's path when he journeyed, and which indeed he could hardly avoid: and the bishop of this place, always anxious to give satisfaction, put everything that he had at Charles's disposal. But once the Emperor came quite unexpectedly and the bishop in great anxiety had to fly hither and thither like a swallow, and had not only the palaces and houses but also the courts and squares swept and cleaned: and then, tired and irritated, came to meet him. The most pious Charles noticed this, and after examining all the various details, he said to the bishop: 'My kind host, you always have everything splendidly cleaned for my arrival.' Then the bishop, as if divinely inspired, bowed his head and grasped the king's never-conquered right hand, and hiding his irritation, kissed it and said: 'It is but right, my lord, that, wherever you come, all things should be thoroughly cleansed.' Then Charles, of all kings the wisest, understanding the state of affairs said to him: 'If I empty I can also fill.' And he added: 'You may have that estate which lies close to your bishopric, and all your successors may have it until the end of time.' In the same journey, too, he came to a bishop who lived in a place through which he must needs pass. Now on that day, being the sixth day of the week, he was not willing to eat the flesh of beast or bird; and the bishop, being by reason of the nature of the place unable to procure fish upon the sudden, ordered some excellent cheese, rich and creamy, to be placed before him. And the most self-restrained Charles, with the readiness which he showed everywhere and on all occasions, spared the blushes of the bishop and required no better fare; but taking up his knife cut off the skin, which he thought unsavoury and fell to on the white of the cheese. Thereupon the bishop, who was standing near like a servant, drew closer and said: 'Why do you do that, lord emperor? You are throwing away the very best part.' Then Charles, who deceived no one, and did not believe that anyone would deceive him, on the persuasion of the bishop put a piece of the skin in his mouth, and slowly ate it and swallowed it like butter. Then approving of the advice of the bishop, he said: 'Very true, my good host,' and he added: 'Be sure to send me every year to Aix two cartloads of just such cheeses.' And the bishop was alarmed at the impossibility of the task and, fearful of losing both his rank and his office, he rejoined: 'My lord, I can procure the cheeses, but I cannot tell which are of this quality and which of another. Much I fear lest I fall under your censure.' Then Charles, from whose penetration and skill nothing could escape, however new or strange it might be, spoke thus to the bishop, who from childhood had known such cheeses and yet could not test them: 'Cut them in two,' he said, 'then fasten together with a skewer those that you find to be of the right quality and keep them in your cellar for a time and then send them to me. The rest you may keep for yourself and your clergy and your family.' This was done for two years, and the king ordered the present of cheeses to be taken in without remark: then in the third year the bishop brought in person his laboriously collected cheeses. But the most just Charles pitied his labour and anxiety and added to the bishopric an excellent estate whence he and his successors might provide themselves with corn and wine.[22]

We may feel sorry for the poor flustered bishop collecting his two cartloads of cheeses; but it is possible that our real sympathy ought to go to Bodo, who probably had to pay an extra rent in cheeses to satisfy the emperor's taste, and got no excellent estate to recompense him.

A visit from the emperor, however, would be a rare event in his life, to be talked about for years and told to his grandchildren. But there was one other event, which happened annually, and which was certainly looked for with excitement by Bodo and his friends. For once a year the king's itinerant justices, the Missi Dominici, came round to hold their court and to see if the local counts had been doing justice. Two of them would come, a bishop and a count, and they would perhaps stay a night at the big house as guests of the abbot, and the next day they would go on to Paris, and there they would sit and do justice in the open square before the church and from all the district round great men and small, nobles and freemen and coloni, would bring their grievances and demand redress. Bodo would go too, if anyone had injured or robbed him, and would make his complaint to the judges. But if he were canny he would not go to them empty-handed, trusting to justice alone. Charlemagne was very strict, but unless the missi were exceptionally honest and pious they would not be averse to taking bribes. Theodulf, Bishop of Orleans, who was one of the Emperor's missi, has left us a most entertaining Latin poem, in which he describes the attempts of the clergy and laymen, who flocked to his court, to buy justice.[23] Every one according to his means brought a present; the rich offered money, precious stones, fine materials, and Eastern carpets, arms, horses, antique vases of gold or silver chiselled with representations of the labours of Hercules. The poor brought skins of Cordova leather, tanned and untanned, excellent pieces of cloth and linen (poor Ermentrude must have worked hard for the month before the justices came!), boxes, and wax. 'With this battering-ram,' cries the shocked Bishop Theodulf, 'they hope to break down the wall of my soul. But they would not have thought that they could shake me, if they had not so shaken other judges before,' And indeed, if his picture be true, the royal justices must have been followed about by a regular caravan of carts and horses to carry their presents. Even Theodulf has to admit that, in order not to hurt people's feelings, he was obliged to accept certain unconsidered trifles in the shape of eggs and bread and wine and chickens and little birds, 'whose bodies' (he says, smacking his lips) 'are small, but very good to eat.' One seems to detect the anxious face of Bodo behind those eggs and little birds.

Another treat Bodo had which happened once a year; for regularly on the ninth of October there began the great fair of St Denys, which went on for a whole month, outside the gates of Paris.[24] Then for a week before the fair little booths and sheds sprang up, with open fronts in which the merchants could display their wares, and the Abbey of St Denys, which had the right to take a toll of all the merchants who came there to sell, saw to it that the fair was well enclosed with fences, and that all came in by the gates and paid their money, for wily merchants were sometimes known to burrow under fences or climb over them so as to avoid the toll. Then the streets of Paris were crowded with merchants bringing their goods, packed in carts and upon horses and oxen; and on the opening day all regular trade in Paris stopped for a month, and every Parisian shopkeeper was in a booth somewhere in the fair, exchanging the corn and wine and honey of the district for rarer goods from foreign parts. Bodo's abbey probably had a stall in the fair and sold some of those pieces of cloth woven by the serfs in the women's quarter, or cheeses and salted meat prepared on the estates, or wine paid in rent by Bodo and his fellow-farmers. Bodo would certainly take a holiday and go to the fair. In fact, the steward would probably have great difficulty in keeping his men at work during the month; Charlemagne had to give a special order to his stewards that they should 'be careful that our men do properly the work which it is lawful to exact from them, and that they do not waste their time in running about to markets and fairs'. Bodo and Ermentrude and the three children, all attired in their best, did not consider it waste of time to go to the fair even twice or three times. They pretended that they wanted to buy salt to salt down their winter meat, or some vermilion dye to colour a frock for the baby. What they really wanted was to wander along the little rows of booths and look at all the strange things assembled there; for merchants came to St Denys to sell their rich goods from the distant East to Bodo's betters, and wealthy Frankish nobles bargained there for purple and silken robes with orange borders, stamped leather jerkins, peacock's feathers, and the scarlet plumage of flamingos (which they called 'phoenix skins'), scents and pearls and spices, almonds and raisins, and monkeys for their wives to play with.[25] Sometimes these merchants were Venetians, but more often they were Syrians or crafty Jews, and Bodo and his fellows laughed loudly over the story of how a Jewish merchant had tricked a certain bishop, who craved for all the latest novelties, by stuffing a mouse with spices and offering it for sale to him, saying that 'he had brought this most precious never-before-seen animal from Judea,' and refusing to take less than a whole measure of silver for it.[26] In exchange for their luxuries these merchants took away with them Frisian cloth, which was greatly esteemed, and corn and hunting dogs, and sometimes a piece of fine goldsmith's work, made in a monastic workshop. And Bodo would hear a hundred dialects and tongues, for men of Saxony and Frisia, Spain and Provence, Rouen and Lombardy, and perhaps an Englishman or two, jostled each other in the little streets; and from time to time there came also an Irish scholar with a manuscript to sell, and the strange, sweet songs of Ireland on his lips:

A hedge of trees surrounds me, A blackbird's lay sings to me; Above my lined booklet The thrilling birds chant to me.

In a grey mantle from the top of bushes The cuckoo sings: Verily—may the Lord shield me!— Well do I write under the greenwood.[27]

Then there were always jugglers and tumblers, and men with performing bears, and minstrels to wheedle Bodo's few pence out of his pocket. And it would be a very tired and happy family that trundled home in the cart to bed. For it is not, after all, so dull in the kitchen, and when we have quite finished with the emperor, 'Charlemagne and all his peerage', it is really worth while to spend a few moments with Bodo in his little manse. History is largely made up of Bodos.


Marco Polo


Et por ce, veul ie que un et autre sachent a tos iors mais les euvres des Veneciens, et qui il furent, et dont il vindrent, et qui il sont, et comment il firent la noble Cite que l'en apele Venise, qui est orendroit la plus bele dou siecle.... La place de Monseignor Saint Marc est orendroit la plus bele place qui soit en tot li monde; que de vers li soleil levant est la plus bele yglise qui soit el monde, c'est l'Yglise de Monseignor Saint Marc. Et de les cele Yglise est li paleis de Monseignor li Dus, grant e biaus a mervoilles.


And Kinsai [Hangchow] is the greatest city in the whole world, so great indeed that I should scarcely venture to tell of it, but that I have met at Venice people in plenty who have been there.... And if anyone should desire to tell of all the vastness and great marvels of this city, a good quire of paper would not hold the matter, I trow. For 'tis the greatest and noblest city, and the finest for merchandise, that the whole world containeth.

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