Editor’s note: This is the eighth of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).
LECTURE VIII: THE CLERGY AND THE HEATHEN
I asked in my first lecture, ‘What would become of the forest children, unless some kind saint or hermit took pity on them?’
I used the words saint and hermit with a special purpose. It was by the influence, actual or imaginary, of such, that the Teutons, after the destruction of the Roman empire, were saved from becoming hordes of savages, destroying each other by continual warfare.
What our race owes, for good and for evil, to the Roman clergy, I shall now try to set before you.
To mete out to them their due share of praise and blame is, I confess, a very difficult task. It can only be fulfilled by putting oneself, as far as possible, in their place, and making human allowance for the circumstances, utterly novel and unexpected, in which they found themselves during the Teutonic invasions. Thus, perhaps, we may find it true of some of them, as of others, that ‘Wisdom is justified of all her children.’
That is a hard saying for human nature. Justified of her children she may be, after we have settled which are to be her children and which not: but of all her children? That is a hard saying. And yet was not every man from the beginning of the world, who tried with his whole soul to be right, and to do good, a child of wisdom, of whom she at least will be justified, whether he is justified or not? He may have had his ignorances, follies, weaknesses, possibly crimes: but he served the purpose of his mighty mother. He did, even by his follies, just what she wanted done; and she is justified of all her children.
This may sound like optimism: but it also sounds like truth to any one who has fairly studied that fantastic page of history, the contrast between the old monks and our own heathen forefathers. The more one studies the facts, the less one is inclined to ask, ‘Why was it not done better?’—the more inclined to ask, ‘Could it have been done better?’ Were not the celibate clergy, from the fifth to the eighth centuries, exceptional agents fitted for an exceptional time, and set to do a work which in the then state of the European races, none else could have done? At least, so one suspects, after experience of their chronicles and legends, sufficient to make one thoroughly detest the evil which was in their system: but sufficient also to make one thoroughly love many of the men themselves.
A few desultory sketches, some carefully historical, the rest as carefully compiled from common facts, may serve best to illustrate my meaning.
The monk and clergyman, whether celibate or not, worked on the heathen generally in one of three capacities: As tribune of the people; as hermit or solitary prophet; as colonizer; and in all three worked as well as frail human beings are wont to do, in this most piecemeal world.
Let us look first at the Hermits. All know what an important part they play in old romances and ballads. All are not aware that they played as important a part in actual history. Scattered through all wildernesses from the cliffs of the Hebrides to the Sclavonian marches, they put forth a power, uniformly, it must be said, for good.
Every one knows how they appear in the old romances.—How some Sir Bertrand or other, wearied with the burden of his sins, stumbles on one of these Einsiedler, ‘settlers alone,’ and talks with him; and goes on a wiser and a better man. How he crawls, perhaps, out of some wild scuffle, ‘all-to bebled,’ and reeling to his saddlebow; and ‘ever he went through a waste land, and rocks rough and strait, so that it him seemed he must surely starve; and anon he heard a little bell, whereat he marvelled; and betwixt the water and the wood he was aware of a chapel, and an hermitage; and there a holy man said mass, for he was a priest, and a great leech, and cunning withal. And Sir Bertrand went in to him and told him all his case—how he fought Sir Marculf for love of the fair Ellinore, and how the king bade part them, and how Marculf did him open shame at the wineboard, and how he went about to have slain him privily, but could not; and then how he went and wasted Marculf’s lands, house with byre, kine with corn, till a strong woman smote him over the head with a quern-stone, and all-to broke his brain-pan;’ and so forth—the usual story of mad passion, drink, pride, revenge.
‘And there the holy man a-read him right godly doctrine, and shrived him, and gave him an oath upon the blessed Gospels, that fight he should not, save in his liege lord’s quarrel, for a year and a day. And there he abode till he was well healed, he and his horse.’
Must not that wild fighting Bertrand have gone away from that place a wiser and a better man? Is it a matter to be regretted, or otherwise, that such men as the hermit were to be found in that forest, to mend Bertrand’s head and his morals, at the same time? Is it a matter to be regretted, or otherwise, that after twenty or thirty years more of fighting and quarrelling and drinking, this same Sir Bertrand—finding that on the whole the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, were poor paymasters, and having very sufficient proof, in the ends of many a friend and foe, that the wages of sin are death—‘fell to religion likewise, and was a hermit in that same place, after the holy man was dead; and was made priest of that same chapel; and died in honour, having succoured many good knights, and wayfaring men’?
One knows very well that it would not be right now; that it is not needed now. It is childish to repeat that, when the question is, was it right then—or, at least, as right as was possible then? Was it needed then—or, at least, the nearest thing to that which was needed?
If it was, why should not wisdom be justified of all her children?
One hopes that she was; for certainly, if any men ever needed to be in the right, lest they should be of all men most miserable, it was these same old hermits. Praying and preaching continually, they lived on food which dogs would not eat, in dens in which dogs ought not to live. They had their reasons. Possibly they knew their own business best. Possibly also they knew their neighbour’s business somewhat; they knew that such generations as they lived in could not be taught, save by some extravagant example of this kind, some caricature, as it were, of the doctrines which were to be enforced. Nothing less startling, perhaps, could have touched the dull hearts, have convinced the dull brains, of fierce, ignorant, and unreasoning men.
Ferocity, lawlessness, rapine, cruelty, and—when they were glutted and debauched by the spoils of the Roman empire—sensuality, were the evils which were making Europe uninhabitable for decent folk, and history—as Milton called it—a mere battle of kites and crows. What less than the example of the hermit—especially when that hermit was a delicate and high-born woman—could have taught men the absolute superiority of soul to body, of spiritual to physical force, of spiritual to physical pleasure, and have said to them, not in vain words, but solid acts—‘All that you follow is not the way of life. The very opposite to it is the way of life. The wages of sin are death; and you will find them so,—in this life the victims of your own passions, and of the foes whom your crimes arouse, and in life to come of hell for ever. But I tell you I have no mind to go to hell. I have a mind to go to heaven; and I know my mind right well. If the world is to be such as this, and the rulers thereof such as you, I will flee from you. I will not enter into the congregation of sinners, neither will I cast in my lot with the bloodthirsty. I will be alone with God and His universe. I will go to the mountain cave or to the ocean cliff, and there, while the salt wind whistles through my hair, I will be stronger than you, safer than you, richer than you, happier than you. Richer than you, for I shall have for my companion the beatific vision of God, and of all things and beings God-like, fair, noble, just, and merciful. Stronger than you, because virtue will give me a power over the hearts of men such as your force cannot give you; and you will have to come to my lonely cell, and ask me to advise you, and teach you, and help you against the consequences of your own sins. Safer than you, because God in whom I trust will protect me: and if not, I have still the everlasting life of heaven, which this world cannot give or take away. So go your ways, fight and devour one another, the victims of your own lusts. I am minded to be a good man; and to be that, I will give up—as you have made all other methods impossible for me—all which seems to make life worth having’? Oh! instead of finding fault with such men; instead of, with vulturine beak, picking out the elements of Manichæism, of conceit, of discontent, of what not human frailty and ignorance, which may have been in them, let us honour the enormous moral force which enabled them so to bear witness that not the mortal animal, but the immortal spirit, is the Man; and that when all which outward circumstance can give is cast away, the Man still lives for ever, by God, and in God.
And they did teach that lesson. They were good, while other men were bad; and men saw the beauty of goodness, and felt the strength of it, and worshipped it in blind savage admiration. Read Roswede’s Vitæ Patrum Eremiticorum; read the legends of the hermits of the German forests; read Colgan’s Lives of the Irish Saints; and see whether, amid all fantastic, incredible, sometimes immoral myths, the goodness of life of some one or other is not the historic nucleus, round which the myths, and the worship of the saint, have crystallized and developed.
Take, for instance, the exquisite hymn of St. Bridget, which Colgan attributes to the sixth century: though it is probably much later; that has nothing to do with the argument:—
‘Bridget, the victorious, she loved not the world;
She sat on it as a gull sits on the ocean;
She slept the sleep of a captive mother,
Mourning after her absent child.
She suffered not much from evil tongues;
She held the blessed faith of the Trinity;
Bridget, the mother of my Lord of Heaven,
The best among the sons of the Lord.
She was not querulous, nor malevolent;
She loved not the fierce wrangling of women;
She was not a backbiting serpent, or a liar;
She sold not the Son of God for that which passes away.
She was not greedy of the goods of this life;
She gave away without gall, without slackness;
She was not rough to wayfaring men;
She handled gently the wretched lepers.
She built her a town in the plains (of Kildare);
And dead, she is the patroness of many peoples.’
I might comment much on this quotation. I might point out how St. Bridget is called the mother of the Lord, and by others, the Mary of the Irish, the ‘Automata coeli regina,’ and seems to have been considered at times as an avatar or incarnation of the blessed Virgin. I might more than hint how that appellation, as well as the calling of Christ ‘the best of the sons of the Lord,’ in an orthodox Catholic hymn, seems to point to the remnants of an older creed, possibly Buddhist, the transition whence towards Catholic Christianity was slow and imperfect. I might make merry over the fact that there are many Bridgets, some say eleven; even as there are three or four St. Patricks; and raise learned doubts as to whether such persons ever existed, after that Straussian method of pseudo-criticism which cometh not from above, from the Spirit of God, nor yet indeed from below, from the sound region of fact, but from within, out of the naughtiness of the heart, defiling a man. I might weaken, too, the effect of the hymn by going on with the rest of it, and making you smile at its childish miracles and portents; but I should only do a foolish thing, by turning your minds away from the broad fact that St. Bridget, or various persons who got, in the lapse of time, massed together under the name of St. Bridget, were eminently good women.
It matters little whether these legends are historically correct. Their value lies in the moral of them. And as for their real historical correctness, the Straussian argument that no such persons existed, because lies are told of them, is, I hold, most irrational. The falsehood would not have been invented unless it had started in a truth. The high moral character ascribed to them would never have been dreamed of by persons who had not seen living instances of that character. Man’s imagination does not create; it only reproduces and recombines its own experience. It does so in dreams. It does so, as far as the moral character of the saint is concerned, in the legend; and if there had not been persons like St. Bridget in Ireland, the wild Irish could never have imagined them.
Therefore it matters little to a wise man, standing on the top of Croagh Patrick, the grandest mountain perhaps, with the grandest outlook, in these British isles, as he looks on the wild Irish there on pattern days, up among the Atlantic clouds, crawling on bare and bleeding knees round St. Patrick’s cell,—it matters little, I say, to the wise man, whether St. Patrick himself owned the ancient image which is worshipped on that mountain peak, or the ancient bell which till late years hung in the sanctuary,—such a strange oblong bell as the Irish saints carried with them to keep off the demons—the magic bells which appear (as far as I am aware) in the legends of no country till you get to Tartary and the Buddhists;—such a bell as came (or did not come) down from heaven to St. Senan; such a bell as St. Fursey sent flying through the air to greet St. Cuanady at his devotions when he could not come himself; such a bell as another saint, wandering in the woods, rang till a stag came out of the covert, and carried his burden for him on his horns. It matters as little to the wise man whether that bell belonged to St. Patrick, as whether all these child’s dreams are dreams. It matters little to him, too, whether St. Patrick did, or did not stand on that mountain peak, ‘in the spirit and power of Elias’ (after whom it was long named), fasting, like Elias, forty days and forty nights, wrestling with the demons of the storm, and the snakes of the fen, and the Peishta-more (the monstrous Python of the lakes), which assembled at the magic ringing of his bell, till he conquered not by the brute force of a Hercules and Theseus, and the monster-quellers of old Greece, but by the spiritual force of which (so the text was then applied) it is written, ‘This kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting,’ till he smote the evil things with ‘the golden rod of Jesus,’ and they rolled over the cliff, in hideous rout, and perished in the Atlantic far below. But it matters much to a wise man that under all these symbols (not childish at all, but most grand, to the man who knows the grand place of which they are told), there is set forth the victory of a good and beneficent man over evil, whether of matter or of spirit. It matters much to him that that cell, that bell, that image are tokens that if not St. Patrick, some one else, at least, did live and worship on that mountain top, in remote primæval times, in a place in which we would not, perhaps could not, endure life a week. It matters much to him that the man who so dwelt there, gained such a power over the minds of the heathen round him, that five millions of their Christian descendants worship him, and God on account of him, at this day.
St. Ita, again. It matters little that she did not—because she could not—perform the miracles imputed to her. It matters little whether she had or not—as I do not believe her to have had—a regularly organized convent of nuns in Ireland during the sixth century. It matters little if the story which follows is a mere invention of the nuns in some after-century, in order to make a good title for the lands which they held—a trick but too common in those days. But it matters much that she should have been such a person, that such a story as this, when told of her, should have gained belief:—How the tribes of Hy-Connell, hearing of her great holiness, came to her with their chiefs, and offered her all the land about her cell. But she, not wishing to be entangled with earthly cares, accepted but four acres round her cell, for a garden of herbs for her and her nuns. And the simple wild Irish were sad and angry, and said, ‘If thou wilt not take it alive, thou shalt take it when thou art dead. So they chose her then and there for their patroness, and she blessed them with many blessings, which are fulfilled unto this day; and when she migrated to the Lord they gave her all the land, and her nuns hold it to this day, the land of Hy-Connell on the east Shannon bank, at the roots of Luachra mountain.’
What a picture! One hopes that it may be true, for the sake of its beauty and its pathos. The poor, savage, half-naked, and, I fear, on the authority of St. Jerome and others, now and then cannibal Celts, with their saffron scarfs, and skenes, and darts, and glibs of long hair hanging over their hypo-gorillaceous visages, coming to the prophet maiden, and asking her to take their land, for they could make no decent use of it themselves; and look after them, body and soul, for they could not look after themselves; and pray for them to her God, for they did not know how to pray to Him themselves. If any man shall regret that such an event happened to any savages on this earth, I am, I confess, sorry for him.
St. Severinus, again, whom I have mentioned to you more than once:—none of us can believe that he made a dead corpse (Silvinus the priest, by name) sit up and talk with him on its road to burial. None of us need believe that he stopped the plague at Vienna by his prayers. None of us need attribute to anything but his sagacity the Divine revelations whereby he predicted the destruction of a town for its wickedness, and escaped thence, like Lot, alone; or by which he discovered, during the famine of Vienna, that a certain rich widow had much corn hidden in her cellars: but there are facts enough, credible and undoubted, concerning St. Severinus, the apostle of Austria, to make us trust that in him, too, wisdom was justified of all her children.
You may remark, among the few words which have been as yet said of St. Severinus, a destruction, a plague, and a famine. Those words are a fair sample of St. Severinus’s times, and of the circumstances into which he voluntarily threw himself. About the middle of the fifth century there appears in the dying Roman province of Noricum (Austria we now call it) a strange gentleman, eloquent and learned beyond all, and with the strangest power of melting and ruling the hearts of men. Who he is he will not tell, save that his name is Severinus, a right noble name without doubt. Gradually it oozes out that he has been in the far East, through long travels and strange dangers, through many cities and many lands; but he will tell nothing. He is the servant of God, come hither to try to be of use. He certainly could have come for no other reason, unless to buy slaves; for Austria was at that time the very highway of the nations, the centre of the human Mâhlstrom, in which Huns, Gepiden, Allmannen, Rugen, and a dozen wild tribes more, wrestled up and down round the starving and beleaguered Roman towns of that once fertile and happy province. A man who went there for his own pleasure, or even devotion, would have been as wise as one who had built himself last summer a villa on the Rappahannock, or retired for private meditation to the orchard of Hougoumont during the battle of Waterloo.
Nevertheless, there Severinus stayed till men began to appreciate him; and called him, and not unjustly, Saint. Why not? He preached, he taught, he succoured, he advised, he fed, he governed; he turned aside the raids of the wild German kings; he gained a divine power over their hearts; he taught them something of God and of Christ, something of justice and mercy; something of peace and unity among themselves; till the fame ran through all the Alps, and far away into the Hungarian marches, that there was a prophet of God arisen in the land; and before the unarmed man, fasting and praying in his solitary cell on the mountain above Vienna, ten thousand knights and champions trembled, who never had trembled at the sight of armed hosts.
Who would deny that man the name of saint? And who, if by that sagacity which comes from the combination of intellect and virtue, he sometimes seemed miraculously to foretell coming events, would deny him the name of prophet also?
If St. Severinus be the type of the monk as prophet, St. Columba may stand as the type of the missionary monk; the good man strengthened by lonely meditation; but using that strength not for selfish fanaticism, but for the good of men; going forth unwillingly out of his beloved solitude, that he may save souls. Round him, too, cluster the usual myths. He drives away with the sign of the cross a monster which attacks him at a ford. He expels from a fountain the devils who smote with palsy and madness all who bathed therein. He sees by a prophetic spirit, he sitting in his cell in Ireland, a great Italian town destroyed by a volcano. His friends behold a column of light rising from his head as he celebrates mass. Yes; but they also tell of him, ‘that he was angelical in look, brilliant in speech, holy in work, clear in intellect, great in council.’ That he ‘never passed an hour without prayer, or a holy deed, or reading of the Scriptures (for these old monks had Bibles, and knew them by heart too, in spite of all that has been written to the contrary), that he was of so excellent a humility and charity, bathing his disciples’ feet when they came home from labour, and carrying corn from the mill on his own back, that he fulfilled the precept of his Master, ‘He that will be the greatest among you, let him be as your servant.’
They also tell of him (and this is fact and history) how he left his monastery of Derm Each, ‘the field of oaks,’ which we call Derry, and went away at the risk of his life to preach to the wild Picts of Galloway, and founded the great monastery of Iona, and that succession of abbots from whom Christianity spread over the south of Scotland and north of England, under his great successor Aidan.
Aidan has his myths likewise. They tell of him how he stilled the sea-waves with holy oil; how he turned back on Penda and his Saxons the flames with which the heathen king was trying to burn down Bamborough walls. But they tell, too (and Bede had heard it from those who had known Aidan in the flesh) of ‘his love of peace and charity, his purity and humility, his mind superior to avarice or pride, his authority, becoming a minister of Christ, in reproving the haughty and powerful, and his tenderness in relieving the afflicted, and defending the poor.’ Who, save one who rejoiceth in evil, instead of rejoicing in the truth, will care to fix his eyes for a moment upon the fairy tales which surround such a story, as long as there shines out from among them clear and pure, in spite of all doctrinal errors, the grace of God, the likeness of Jesus Christ our Lord?
Let us look next at the priest as Tribune of the people, supported usually by the invisible, but most potent presence of the saint, whose relics he kept. One may see that side of his power in Raphael’s immortal design of Attila’s meeting with the Pope at the gates of Rome, and recoiling as he sees St. Peter and St. Paul floating terrible and threatening above the Holy City. Is it a myth, a falsehood? Not altogether. Such a man as Attila probably would have seen them, with his strong savage imagination, as incapable as that of a child from distinguishing between dreams and facts, between the subjective and the objective world. And it was on the whole well for him and for mankind, that he should think that he saw them, and tremble before the spiritual and the invisible; confessing a higher law than that of his own ambition and self-will; a higher power than that of his brute Tartar hordes.
Raphael’s design is but a famous instance of an influence which wrought through the length and breadth of the down-trodden and dying Roman Empire, through the four fearful centuries which followed the battle of Adrianople. The wild licence, the boyish audacity, of the invading Teutons was never really checked, save by the priest and the monk who worshipped over the bones of some old saint or martyr, whose name the Teutons had never heard.
Then, as the wild King, Earl, or Comes, with his wild reiters at his heels, galloped through the land, fighting indiscriminately his Roman enemies, and his Teutonic rivals—harrying, slaughtering, burning by field and wild—he was aware at last of something which made him pause. Some little walled town, built on the ruins of a great Roman city, with its Byzantine minster towering over the thatched roofs, sheltering them as the oak shelters the last night’s fungus at its base. More than once in the last century or two, has that same town been sacked. More than once has the surviving priest crawled out of his hiding-place when the sound of war was past, called the surviving poor around him, dug the dead out of the burning ruins for Christian burial, built up a few sheds, fed a few widows and orphans, organized some form of orderly life out of the chaos of blood and ashes, in the name of God and St. Quemdeusvult whose bones he guards; and so he has established a temporary theocracy, and become a sort of tribune of the people, magistrate and father—the only one they have. And now he will try the might of St. Quemdeusvult against the wild king, and see if he can save the town from being sacked once more. So out he comes—a bishop perhaps, with priests, monks, crucifixes, banners, litanies. The wild king must come no further. That land belongs to no mortal man, but to St. Quemdeusvult, martyred here by the heathen five hundred years ago. Some old Kaiser of Rome, or it may be some former Gothic king, gave that place to the saint for ever, and the saint will avenge his rights. He is very merciful to those who duly honour him: but very terrible in his wrath if he be aroused. Has not the king heard how the Count of such a place, only forty years before, would have carried off a maiden from St. Quemdeusvult’s town; and when the bishop withstood him, he answered that he cared no more for the relics of the saint than for the relics of a dead ass, and so took the maiden and went? But within a year and a day, he fell down dead in his drink, and when they came to lay out the corpse, behold the devils had carried it away, and put a dead ass in its place.
All which the bishop would fully believe. Why not? He had no physical science to tell him that it was impossible. Morally, it was in his eyes just, and therefore probable; while as for testimony, men were content with very little in those days, simply because they could get very little. News progressed slowly in countries desolate and roadless, and grew as it passed from mouth to mouth, as it did in the Highlands a century ago, as it did but lately in the Indian Mutiny; till after a fact had taken ten years in crossing a few mountains and forests, it had assumed proportions utterly fantastic and gigantic.
So the wild king and his wild knights pause. They can face flesh and blood: but who can face the quite infinite terrors of an unseen world? They are men of blood too, men of evil lives; and conscience makes them cowards. They begin to think that they have gone too far. Could they see the saint, and make it up with him somewhat?
No. The saint they cannot see. To open his shrine would be to commit the sin of Uzzah. Palsy and blindness would be the least that would follow. But the dome under which he lies all men may see; and perhaps the saint may listen, if they speak him fair.
They feel more and more uncomfortable. This saint, in heaven at God’s right hand, and yet there in the dom-church—is clearly a mysterious, ubiquitous person, who may take them in the rear very unexpectedly. And his priests, with their book-learning, and their sciences, and their strange dresses and chants—who knows what secret powers, magical or other, they may not possess?
They bluster at first: being (as I have said) much of the temper and habits, for good and evil, of English navvies. But they grow more and more uneasy, full of childish curiosity, and undefined dread. So into the town they go, on promise (which they will honourably keep, being German men) of doing no harm to the plebs, the half Roman artisans and burghers who are keeping themselves alive here—the last dying remnants of the civilization, and luxury, and cruelty, and wickedness, of a great Roman colonial city; and they stare at arts and handicrafts new to them; and are hospitably fed by bishops and priests; and then they go, trembling and awkward, into the great dom-church; and gaze wondering at the frescoes, and the carvings of the arcades—marbles from Italy, porphyries from Egypt, all patched together out of the ruins of Roman baths, and temples, and theatres; and at last they arrive at the saint’s shrine itself—some marble sarcophagus, most probably covered with vine and ivy leaves, with nymphs and satyrs, long since consecrated with holy water to a new and better use. Inside that lies the saint, asleep, yet ever awake. So they had best consider in whose presence they are, and fear God and St. Quemdeusvult, and cast away the seven deadly sins wherewith they are defiled; for the saint is a righteous man, and died for righteousness’ sake; and those who rob the orphan and the widow, and put the fatherless to death, them he cannot abide; and them he will watch like an eagle of the sky, and track like a wolf of the wood, fill he punishes them with a great destruction. In short, the bishop preaches to the king and his men a right noble and valiant sermon, calling things by their true names without fear or favour, and assuming, on the mere strength of being in the right, a tone of calm superiority which makes the strong armed men blush and tremble before the weak and helpless one.
Yes. Spirit is stronger than flesh. ‘Meekly bend thy neck, Sicamber!’ said St. Remigius to the great conquering King Clovis, when he stept into the baptismal font—(not ‘Most Gracious Majesty,’ or ‘Illustrious Cæsar,’ or ‘by the grace of God Lord of the Franks,’ but Sicamber, as a missionary might now say Maori, or Caffre,—and yet St. Remigius’s life was in Clovis’s hand then and always),—‘Burn what thou hast adored, and adore what thou hast burned!’ And the terrible Clovis trembled and obeyed.
So does the wild king at the shrine of St. Quemdeusvult. He takes his bracelet, or his jewel, and offers it civilly enough. Will the bishop be so good as to inform the great Earl St. Quemdeusvult, that he was not aware of his rights, or even of his name; that perhaps he will deign to accept this jewel, which he took off the neck of a Roman General—that—that on the whole he is willing to make the amende honorable, as far as is consistent with the feelings of a nobleman; and trusts that the saint, being a nobleman too, will be satisfied therewith.
After which, probably, it will appear to the wild king that this bishop is the very man that he wants, the very opposite to himself and his wild riders; a man pure, peaceable, just, and brave; possessed, too, of boundless learning; who can read, write, cipher, and cast nativities; who has a whole room full of books and parchments, and a map of the whole world; who can talk Latin, and perhaps Greek, as well as one of those accursed man-eating Grendels, a Roman lawyer, or a logothete from Ravenna; possessed, too, of boundless supernatural power;—Would the bishop be so good as to help him in his dispute with the Count Boso, about their respective marches in such and such a forest? If the bishop could only settle that without more fighting, of course he should have his reward. He would confirm to the saint and his burg all the rights granted by Constantine the Kaiser; and give him moreover all the meadow land in such and such a place, with the mills and fisheries, on service of a dish of trout from the bishop and his successors, whenever he came that way: for the trout there were exceeding good, that he knew. And so a bargain would be struck, and one of those curious compromises between the spiritual and temporal authorities take root, of which one may read at length in the pages of M. Guizot, or Sir James Stephen.
And after a few years, most probably, the king would express a wish to be baptized, at the instance of his queen who had been won over by the bishop, and had gone down into the font some years before; and he would bid his riders be baptized also; and they would obey, seeing that it could do them no harm, and might do them some good; and they would agree to live more or less according to the laws of God and common humanity; and so one more Christian state would be formed; one more living stone (as it was phrased in those days) built into the great temple of God which was called Christendom.
So the work was done. Can we devise any better method of doing it? If not, let us be content that it was done somehow, and believe that wisdom is justified of all her children.
We may object to the fact, that the dom-church and its organization grew up (as was the case in the vast majority of instances) round the body of a saint or martyr; we may smile at the notion of an invisible owner and protector of the soil: but we must not overlook the broad fact, that without that prestige the barbarians would never have been awed into humanity; without that prestige the place would have been swept off the face of the earth, till not one stone stood on another: and he who does not see what a disaster for humanity that would have been, must be ignorant that the civilization of Europe is the child of the towns; and also that our Teutonic forefathers were by profession destroyers of towns, and settlers apart from each other on country freeholds. Lonely barbarism would have been the fate of Europe, but for the monk who guarded the relics of the saint within the walled burg.
This good work of the Church, in the preservation and even resuscitation of the municipal institutions of the towns, has been discust so well and fully by M. Guizot, M. Sismondi, and Sir James Stephen, that I shall say no more about it, save to recommend you to read what they have written. I go on to point out to you some other very important facts, which my ideal sketch exemplifies.
The difference between the Clergy and the Teuton conquerors was more than a difference of creed, or of civilization. It was an actual difference of race. They were Romans, to whom the Teuton was a savage, speaking a different tongue, obeying different laws, his whole theory of the universe different from the Roman. And he was, moreover, an enemy and a destroyer. The Teuton was to them as a Hindoo is to us, with the terrible exception, that the positions were reversed; that the Teuton was not the conquered, but the conqueror. It is easy for us to feel humanity and Christian charity toward races which we have mastered. It was not so easy for the Roman priest to feel them toward a race which had mastered him. His repugnance to the ‘Barbarian’ must have been at first intense. He never would have conquered it; he never would have become the willing converter of the heathen, had there not been in him the Spirit of God, and firm belief in a Catholic Church, to which all men of all races ought alike to belong. This true and glorious idea, the only one which has ever been or ever will be able to break down the barriers of race, and the animal antipathy which the natural man has to all who are not of his own kin: this idea was the sole possession of the Roman clergy; and by it they conquered, because it was true, and came from God.
But this very difference of race exposed the clergy to great temptations. They were the only civilized men left, west of Constantinople. They looked on the Teuton not as a man, but as a child; to be ruled; to be petted when he did right, punished when he did wrong; and too often cajoled into doing right, and avoiding wrong. Craft became more and more their usual weapon. There were great excuses for them. Their lives and property were in continual danger. Craft is the natural weapon of the weak against the strong. It seemed to them, too often, to be not only natural, but spiritual also, and therefore just and right.
Again, the clergy were the only organic remnants of the Roman Empire. They claimed their privileges and lands as granted to them by past Roman Emperors, under the Roman law. This fact made it their interest, of course, to perpetuate that Roman law, and to introduce it as far as they could among their conquerors, to the expulsion of the old Teutonic laws; and they succeeded on the whole. Of that more hereafter. Observe now, that as their rights dated from times which to the Teutons were pre-historic, their statements could not be checked by conquerors who could not even read. Thence rose the temptation to forge; to forge legends, charters, dotations, ecclesiastical history of all kinds—an ugly and world-famous instance of which you will hear of hereafter. To that temptation they yielded more and more as the years rolled on, till their statements on ecclesiastical history became such as no historian can trust, without the most plentiful corroboration.
There were great excuses for them, in this matter, as in others. They could not but look on the Teuton as—what in fact and law he was—an unjust and intrusive usurper. They could not but look on their Roman congregations, and on themselves, as what in fact and law they were, the rightful owners of the soil. They were but defending or recovering their original rights. Would not the end justify the means?
But more. Out of this singular position grew a doctrine, which looks to us irrational now, but was by no means so then. If the Church derived her rights from the extinct Roman Cæsars, how could the Teuton conquerors interfere with those rights? If she had owed allegiance to Constantine or Theodosius, she certainly owed none to Dietrich, Alboin, or Clovis. She did not hold their lands of them; and would pay them, if she could avoid it, neither tax nor toll. She did not recognize the sovereignty of these Teutons as ‘ordained by God.’
Out of this simple political fact grew up vast consequences. The Teuton king was a heathen or Arian usurper. He was not a king de jure, in the eyes of the clergy, till he was baptized into the Church, and then lawfully anointed king by the clergy. Thus the clergy gradually became the makers of kings; and the power of making involved a corresponding power of unmaking, if the king rebelled against the Church, and so cut himself off from Christendom. At best, he was one of ‘the Princes of this world,’ from whom the Church was free, absolutely in spiritual matters, and in temporal matters, also de jure, and therefore de facto as far as she could be made free. To keep the possessions of the Church from being touched by profane hands, even that they might contribute to the common needs of the nation, became a sacred duty, a fixed idea, for which the clergy must struggle, anathematize, forge if need be: but also—to do them justice—die if need be as martyrs. The nations of this world were nothing to them. The wars of the nations were nothing. They were the people of God, ‘who dwelt alone, and were not reckoned among the nations;’ their possessions were the inheritance of God: and from this idea, growing (as I have shewn) out of a political fact, arose the extra-national, and too often anti-national position, which the Roman clergy held for many ages, and of which the instinct, at least, lingers among them in many countries. Out of it arose, too, all after struggles between the temporal and ecclesiastical powers. Becket, fighting to the death against Henry II., was not, as M. Thierry thinks, the Anglo-Saxon defying the Norman. He was the representative of the Christian Roman defying the Teuton, on the ground of rights which he believed to have existed while the Teuton was a heathen in the German forests. Gradually, as the nations of Europe became really nations, within fixed boundaries, and separate Christian organizations, these demands of the Church became intolerable in reason, because unnecessary in fact. But had there not been in them at the first an instinct of right and justice, they would never have become the fixed idea of the clerical mind; the violation of them the one inexpiable sin; and the defence of them (as may be seen by looking through the Romish Calendar) the most potent qualification for saintship.
Yes. The clergy believed that idea deeply enough to die for it. St. Alphege at Canterbury had been, it is said, one of the first advisers of the ignominious payment of the Danegeld: but there was one thing which he would not do. He would advise the giving up of the money of the nation: but the money of his church he would not give up. The Danes might thrust him into a filthy dungeon: he would not take the children’s bread and cast it unto the dogs. They might drag him out into their husting, and threaten him with torture: but to the drunken cry of ‘Gold! Bishop! Gold!’ his only answer would be—Not a penny. He could not rob the poor of Christ. And when he fell, beaten to death with the bones and horns of the slaughtered oxen, he died in faith; a martyr to the great idea of that day, that the gold of the Church did not belong to the conquerors of this world.
But St. Alphege was an Englishman, and not a Roman. True in the letter: but not in the spirit. The priest or monk, by becoming such, more or less renounced his nationality. It was the object of the Church to make him renounce it utterly; to make him regard himself no longer as Englishman, Frank, Lombard, or Goth: but as the representatives by an hereditary descent, considered all the more real because it was spiritual and not carnal, of the Roman Church; to prevent his being entangled, whether by marriage or otherwise, in the business of this life; out of which would flow nepotism, Simony, and Erastian submission to those sovereigns who ought to be the servants, not the lords of the Church. For this end no means were too costly. St. Dunstan, in order to expel the married secular priests, and replace them by Benedictine monks of the Italian order of Monte Casino, convulsed England, drove her into civil war, paralysed her monarchs one after the other, and finally left her exhausted and imbecile, a prey to the invading Northmen: but he had at least done his best to make the royal House of Cerdic, and the nations which obeyed that House, understand that the Church derived its rights not from them, but from Rome.
This hereditary sense of superiority on the part of the clergy may explain and excuse much of their seeming flattery. The most vicious kings are lauded, if only they have been ‘erga servos Dei benevoli;’ if they have founded monasteries; if they have respected the rights of the Church. The clergy too often looked on the secular princes as more or less wild beasts, of whom neither common decency, justice, or mercy was to be expected; and they had too often reason enough to do so. All that could be expected of the kings was, that if they would not regard man, they should at least fear God; which if they did, the proof of ‘divine grace’ on their part was so unexpected, as well as important, that the monk chroniclers praised them heartily and honestly, judging them by what they had, not by what they had not.
Thus alone can one explain such a case as that of the monastic opinion of Dagobert the Second, king of the Franks. We are told in the same narrative, seemingly without any great sense of incongruity, how he murdered his own relations and guests, and who not?—how he massacred 9000 Bulgars to whom he had given hospitality; how he kept a harem of three queens, and other women so numerous that Fredegarius cannot mention them; and also how, accompanied by his harem, he chanted among the monks of St. Denis; how he founded many rich convents; how he was the friend, or rather pupil, of St. Arnulf of Metz, St. Omer, and above all of St. Eloi—whose story I recommend you to read, charmingly told, in Mr. Maitland’s ‘Dark Ages,’ pp. 81-122. The three saints were no hypocrites—God forbid! They were good men and true, to whom had been entrusted the keeping of a wild beast, to be petted and praised whenever it shewed any signs of humanity or obedience.
But woe to the prince, however useful or virtuous in other respects, who laid sacrilegious hands on the goods of the Church. He might, like Charles Martel, have delivered France from the Pagans on the east, and from the Mussulmen on the south, and have saved Christendom once and for all from the dominion of the Crescent, in that great battle on the plains of Poitiers, where the Arab cavalry (says Isidore of Beja) broke against the immoveable line of Franks, like ‘waves against a wall of ice.’
But if, like Charles Martel, he had dared to demand of the Church taxes and contributions toward the support of his troops, and the salvation both of Church and commonweal, then all his prowess was in vain. Some monk would surely see him in a vision, as St. Eucherius, Bishop of Orleans, saw Charles Martel (according to the Council of Kiersy), ‘with Cain, Judas, and Caiaphas, thrust into the Stygian whirlpools and Acherontic combustion of the sempiternal Tartarus.’
Those words, which, with slight variations, are a common formula of cursing appended to monastic charters against all who should infringe them, remind us rather of the sixth book of Virgil’s Æneid than of the Holy Scriptures; and explain why Dante naturally chooses that poet as a guide through his Inferno.
The cosmogony from which such an idea was derived was simple enough. I give, of course, no theological opinion on its correctness: but as professor of Modern History, I am bound to set before you opinions which had the most enormous influence on the history of early Europe. Unless you keep them in mind, as the fixed and absolute background of all human thought and action for more than 1000 years, you will never be able to understand the doings of European men.
This earth, then, or at least the habitable part of it, was considered as most probably a flat plane. Below that plane, or in the centre of the earth, was the realm of endless fire. It could be entered (as by the Welsh knight who went down into St. Patrick’s Purgatory) by certain caves. By listening at the craters of volcanoes, which were its mouths, the cries of the tortured might be heard in the depths of the earth.
In that ‘Tartarus’ every human being born into the world was doomed to be endlessly burnt alive: only in the Church, ‘extra quam nulla salus,’ was there escape from the common doom. But to that doom, excommunication, which thrust a man from the pale of the Church, condemned the sinner afresh, with curses the most explicit and most horrible.
The superior clergy, therefore, with whom the anathematizing power lay, believed firmly that they could, proprio motu, upon due cause shewn, cause any man or woman to be burned alive through endless ages. And what was more, the Teutonic laity, with that intense awe of the unseen which they had brought with them out of the wilderness, believed it likewise, and trembled. It paralysed the wisest, as well as the fiercest, that belief. Instead of disgusting the kings of the earth, it gave them over, bound hand and foot by their own guilty consciences, into the dominion of the clergy; and the belief that Charles Martel was damned, only knit (as M. Sismondi well remarks) his descendants the Carlovingians more closely to the Church which possest so terrible a weapon. Whether they were right or wrong in these beliefs is a question not to be discussed in this chair. My duty is only to point out to you the universal existence of those beliefs, and the historic fact that they gave the clergy a character supernatural, magical, divine, with a reserve of power before which all trembled, from the beggar to the king; and also, that all struggles between the temporal and spiritual powers, like that between Henry and Becket, can only be seen justly in the light of the practical meaning of that excommunication which Becket so freely employed. I must also point out to you that so enormous a power (too great for the shoulders of mortal man) was certain to be, and actually was, fearfully abused, not only by its direct exercise, but also by bargaining with men, through indulgences and otherwise, for the remission of that punishment, which the clergy could, if they would, inflict; and worst of all, that out of the whole theory sprang up that system of persecution, in which the worst cruelties of heathen Rome were imitated by Christian priests, on the seemingly irrefragable ground that it was merciful to offenders to save them, or, if not, at least to save others through them, by making them feel for a few hours in this world what they would feel for endless ages in the next.