« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
into the midst of them, was more absolute than the feudal lord, whose authority rested on no patriarchal fiction. Add to all this, that the Anglo-Norman who did not belong to some lord or some community was an outlaw; that the community to which he did belong, however innocent of his crimes, were responsible for them; that the feudal oath, in the casuistry of the times, outweighed the marriage oath, although marriage was a sacrament; and that all the links of the system were interdependent, so that none could be severed or drop,-and the tremendous comprehensiveness of the system will be understood. Never did man enter upon life under more stringent pledges to society than the English peasant who was born a royal subject, the member of a tithing, a feudal vassal, and the son of the Church.
Neither must it be supposed that even the least of these obligations could be easily shaken off. The network of a police system, compared with which Austrian passports and Aufenthalts-scheine are a flimsy cobweb, extended over the whole country. The fugitive from a village was like a runaway slave in the southern states of the Union; from the moment he stepped out of his tithing he could not be harboured for more than a night; he must enter and leave his host's house by daylight; and whenever the next county-court was held, once a year at least, he must evade the periodical visitation, by which the influx of new-comers was ascertained; if his presence were known to the men in power, he would be at once imprisoned and sent back to his lord. His best chance of escape was by taking refuge in a town. There, if he could only lurk undenounced for a year and a day, he was safe within the civic sanctuary and no longer a serf. But neither was he a freeman, at a time when libertas only meant privilege; he was the pariah of the streets; all around him were possessed of some franchise or members of some guild, occupying the quarters of trade, meeting in the town-hall, and insured by mutual contributions against poverty, fire, or the expenses of law. New-comers might struggle upwards into this class, but they did not naturally belong to it. They herded “in wooden sheds, rudely plastered or whitewashed, on the edge of the town-ditch:" in the eloquent language of Professor Brewer, “a mixed race, of whom little inquiry was made ; tolerated, not acknowledged; of all blood, all diseases, and all religions; permitted to live or die as it pleased God or themselves.-provided only that they yielded due obedience to the proper civic authorities.” Of course the measure of bondage differed at various epochs. As early as the fourteenth century the humane subtlety of English law," a free father, iv free son," had emancipated a numerous class ; many had been freed by the foreign wars, and probably a still larger class had
been evicted, and therefore freed, as the trade in wool increased, that their holdings might be turned into pasture. But the legislators were not disposed to relax their hold upon labour. The famous statutes of labourers under Edward III. and Richard II. are singular instances of an attempt by the governing landowners to procure the peasant's work at their own price, at a time when he was no longer bound to them by any tie of dependence, and when he owed them neither protection nor support. Probably he gained on the whole, for he was free to change his residence, and might choose his masters at the statute fair; but he could not decline to offer himself for hire at the rate which the law had fixed.
Another notable feature in English life was the moral censorship exercised by local courts of law. The mere application of any system in its rigour is sufficiently grievous; and the first efficient organisation of justice under Edward I. kept the country in a state of suppressed rebellion; not so much because the judges were corrupt, though even that was true, but because small offences were punished with pitiless severity. As a song of the time complains, a respectable man might be ruined for chastising his apprentice with the hand. It will be remembered that the inob under Wat Tyler burned the Temple to the ground, and proposed the extermination of all lawyers as an article in the first people's charter. But the numerous Bishop's Courts were the ulcer that eat deepest into the land. Every offence against faith or morals had its penalty-the man who eat meat on a fast-day and the shameless debauchee alike fell under the archdeacon; and the zealous clergy, who wished to reform their flock, and the covetous, who, like Chaucer's Sompnour, thought that a man's soul was in his purse, were almost equally fatal to the poor. The revival of this system by Laud was probably one of the main causes of the Rebellion; and yet Laud's commissioners were men of sense and character. À court of inquisition administered by the immoral English clergy of the fourteenth century had wider power and was less restrained by opinion. Men said that a rich man might at any time be licensed by the consistory to part from his own wife and to take his neighbour's. Oppression drove the weak into secret vice or perjury, and the trade in crime sent out branches on every side.
It must not be supposed, however, that either State or Church were exceptionally bad; the fault lay in the ideas of the time. Those centuries which we are apt to consider lawless were really sinking under the burden of self-imposed laws; and the terrible words of Tacitus, corruptissimá republicâ plurimæ leges, would serve, if inverted, for the best motto of the times. A strong government was the great cry of the people, and the great ideal of the cities in their stern self-rule. Præcepta regis sunt nobis vincula legis, said a poet of the people; and generations of tradesmen, in their little way, built up such a fabric of restrictive despotisms in the towns as the world has never witnessed before or since. The Liber Albus, admirably edited by Mr. Riley, contains the principal regulations of trade in London. Those relating to the baking of bread will give an idea of the spirit of the general code. No bread might be brought into London from the country. There were public places for rolling flour; the loaves were marked when made with the baker's seal; and they might only be sold in the market, or by privileged hucksters. The oven was not to be heated with fern, straw, stubble, or reeds ; fountain-water might not be used for kneading; the same man might not deal in bread of bolted and of unbolted meal; and no loaves might be made above a certain quality. The weight and price of every kind was fixed by law; inspectors visited the ovens from time to time to enforce the legal standard; and at last, as mere fines proved insufficient for the stringent jealousy of the laws, the sheriffs were ordered to punish all offenders with the pillory. For a third conviction the culprit lost the right to trade. These are merely samples of the minute and systematic network of enactments which made every man a public servant, and opened every house to the public gaze. Privacy in a wardmote was far less possible then than it is in the days of journalism; and a man lived in terrible dependence on the good-will of his neighbours. Little offences against travle or police might ruin him; the slight charge of having bathed in the Thames at a certain spot; the accident that a beggar-woman had died of hunger near bis door; or the suspicion of having tampered with a fearfullybad coinage,-might all cause him to stand his trial for life or death. In his trial there would be no nice sifting of evidence, no charge in favour of mercy from the bench; the extreme penalties of the law would be pressed against him; and the jury would only speak to his previous character. The surly, peevish, or unprotected man was crushed; money and friends were the sure means by which the strong man of those times broke through the meshes of legality.
Concentration, interdependence, solidity, a belief in systems and hierarchies as counterparts of a divine order, an assumption that human reason can devise the most efficient restraints upon passion and lawlessness, these are the chief features of the most artificial state-polity that has existed in the European family of nations. It is easy to trace the more prominent causes that coalesced in these results. We can if we choose derive the feudal
system from the necessities of a conquering caste; the village organisation was certainly in its beginnings the result of a natural instinct among the weak to preserve life and property from the strong. Christianity and Roman law completed the stately building for which these foundations had been marked out. It would be absurd to depreciate these influences. The more we study history, the more clearly will the continuity of European civilisation stand out, and institutions which it has been the fashion to consider an heirloom from our Saxon forefathers—the framework of royalty, the rights of the individual over property, even our boasted distinction of judge and jury-will be found to own a more civilised parentage than the sons of Odin. And the warmest apologist of the mediaval Church may admit that it is no mere development of the faith preached by the apostles: its priests were penetrated with Judaism; its philosophers had caught the mantle of Plato; its canons were an offshoot from the Pandects; and its solemn rites and festivals had been baptised into the Church from a strange faith. Its strength lay precisely in this connection with the past; it was wide and deep as human nature itself. Nevertheless there is a subtle something which we feel underlies these old traditions, and which gives to the Middle Ages a character of their own. Whatever they received was transmuted and worked up into something new: Plato became the corner-stone of Christianity, Alexander the type of knight-errants, and Virgil a necromancer. Their own heroes have a special character, and the mere word "saints” transports us at once into a world of which Aristotle and Lucretius knew nothing. What, then, were the conditions of thought which determined these changes, and gave society its new structure ?
The answer will be apparent to any man who considers the circumstances of the Germanic conquerors of Europe. They had the passions and daring of men with the mind of children ; the capacity to conquer and command, without the power or knowledge to systematise. Full of wonder and simple reverence at the civilisation they overthrew, they preferred to consider themselves the inheritors rather than the conquerors of the Roman Empire: the Saxon king styled himself basileus' or 'imperator,' and copied Byzantine ceremonial in his court. Both from the rudeness of their society, which favoured the strong hand rather than the clear mind, and because, by the laws of our physical nature, thought cannot be developed per saltum, the intellect of these men was rather of the shrewd and practical than of the subtle and speculative type; their sympathies were narrow, their power of analysis deficient, and their imaginative productivity small. They appreciated results and
systems as a whole, with a childish love for the miraculous, and an utter incapacity to conceive contradictions or limitations of thought. All that they did accept must be massed together into one great logical system; the poem, so to speak, of society, which they added to and remodelled continually. The pathos and beauty of the Christian story first passed into their native mythology, and were then accepted as exhaustively true. They took the new religion, not only as a satisfaction for certain questionings of their moral nature, or as matter of thought on a few days in the year, but as the groundwork of the State. They
, inyented a Christian theory and found out Christian occasions
And by a reflex process of thought they made God in the image of man, and transferred feudalism, with its degrees and duties, to the divine order of the world. Modern theologians, if they rise above the most vulgar type of Spurgeonism, are painfully conscious of their inability to conceive or describe the invisible world. The greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages had no such misgivings. They even seemed to know it better than the world in which they lived, and they perpetually appeal to the nature of God and His angels to explain the facts of human psychology or the laws of motion. It followed, almost of necessity, that in its contests with the State the Church had all the advantage of theory, and drew the most consequent minds into its service, Perpetually it seemed as if a Hildebrand or an Innocent, a Dunstan or a Thomas à Becket, would establish a vast ecclesiastical fabric on the ruins of civic life. But the facts of human nature have a stronger logic than any theory can control. Perpetually, at the very moment when the hierarchy was preparing to enter in and possess
, some deliverer for the oppressed people was found; some iron lawgiver, like Edward I., strong in the prestige of a crusade, consolidated a system of mortmain laws, or some spontaneous concert of statesmen destroyed the Templars, at once Janizaries and Jesuits. The great idea which animated the Middle Ages, and which threw out so many wonderful forms of life, did not therefore, as in fact it could not, find any complete expression. Society was distracted between two antitheses : a logical ideal of all oriler based upon God, and God understood by the thought of man; a practical necessity for little local systems and liberties. Church and empire against nationality, feudalism, and municipal life, he would have been indeed a bold prophet who at the beginning of the contest could have foretold victory to the people against the priest.
But to appreciate Greek life without any knowledge of Socrates and Plato, would be as easy as to understand the Middle Ages without a knowledge of the schoolmen. They are pro