Editor’s note: This is the ninth of twelve lectures by Charles Kingsley, published as The Roman and the Teuton (1889).
Historians are often blamed for writing as if the History of Kings and Princes were the whole history of the world. ‘Why do you tell us,’ is said, ‘of nothing but the marriages, successions, wars, characters, of a few Royal Races? We want to know what the people, and not the princes, were like. History ought to be the history of the masses, and not of kings.’
The only answer to this complaint seems to be, that the defect is unavoidable. The history of the masses cannot be written, while they have no history; and none will they have, as long as they remain a mass; ere their history begins, individuals, few at first, and more and more numerous as they progress, must rise out of the mass, and become persons, with fixed ideas, determination, conscience, more or less different from their fellows, and thereby leavening and elevating their fellows, that they too may become persons, and men indeed. Then they will begin to have a common history, issuing out of each man’s struggle to assert his own personality and his own convictions. Till that point is reached, the history of the masses will be mere statistic concerning their physical well-being or ill-being, which (for the early ages of our race) is unwritten, and therefore undiscoverable.
The early history of the Teutonic race, therefore, is, and must always remain, simply the history of a few great figures. Of the many of the masses, nothing is said; because there was nothing to say. They all ate, drank, married, tilled, fought, and died, not altogether brutally, we will hope, but still in a dull monotony, unbroken by any struggle of principles or ideas. We know that large masses of human beings have so lived in every age, and are living so now—the Tartar hordes, for instance, or the thriving negroes of central Africa: comfortable folk, getting a tolerable living, son after father, for many generations, but certainly not developed enough, or afflicted enough, to have any history.
I believe that the masses, during the early middle age, were very well off; quite as well off as they deserved; that is, earned for themselves. They lived in a rough way, certainly: but roughness is not discomfort, where the taste has not been educated. A Red Indian sleeps as well in a wigwam as we in a spring bed; and the Irish babies thrive as well among the peat ashes as on a Brussels carpet. Man is a very well constructed being, and can live and multiply anywhere, provided he can keep warm, and get pure water and enough to eat. Indeed, our Teutonic fathers must have been comfortably off, or they could not have multiplied as they did. Even though their numbers may have been overstated, the fact is patent, that howsoever they were slaughtered down, by the Romans or by each other, they rose again as out of the soil, more numerous than ever. Again and again you read of a tribe being all but exterminated by the Romans, and in a few years find it bursting over the Pfalzgrab or the Danube, more numerous and terrible than before. Never believe that a people deprest by cold, ill-feeding, and ill-training, could have conquered Europe in the face of centuries of destructive war. Those very wars, again, may have helped in the long run the increase of population, and for a reason simple enough, though often overlooked. War throws land out of cultivation; and when peace returns, the new settlers find the land fallow, and more or less restored to its original fertility; and so begins a period of rapid and prosperous increase. In no other way can I explain the rate at which nations after the most desolating wars spring up, young and strong again, like the phoenix, from their own funeral pile. They begin afresh as the tillers of a virgin soil, fattened too often with the ashes of burnt homesteads, and the blood of the slain.
Another element of comfort may have been the fact, that in the rough education of the forest, only the strong and healthy children lived, while the weakly died off young, and so the labour-market, as we should say now, was never overstocked. This is the case with our own gipsies, and with many savage tribes—the Red Indians, for instance—and accounts for their general healthiness: the unhealthy being all dead, in the first struggle for existence. But then these gipsies, and the Red Indians, do not increase in numbers, but the contrary; while our forefathers increased rapidly. On the other hand, we have, at least throughout the middle ages, accounts of such swarms of cripples, lepers, deformed, and other incapable persons, as to make some men believe that there were more of them, in proportion to the population, than there are now. And it may have been so. The strongest and healthiest men always going off to be killed in war, the weakliest only would be left at home to breed; and so an unhealthy population might spring up. And again—and this is a curious fact—as law and order enter a country, so will the proportion of incapables, in body and mind, increase. In times of war and anarchy, when every one is shifting for himself, only the strongest and shrewdest can stand. Woe to those who cannot take care of themselves. The fools and cowards, the weakly and sickly, are killed, starved, neglected, or in other ways brought to grief. But when law and order come, they protect those who cannot protect themselves, and the fools and cowards, the weakly and sickly, are supported at the public expense, and allowed to increase and multiply as public burdens. I do not say that this is wrong, Heaven forbid! I only state the fact. A government is quite right in defending all alike from the brute competition of nature, whose motto is—Woe to the weak. To the Church of the middle age is due the preaching and the practice of the great Christian doctrine, that society is bound to protect the weak. So far the middle age saw: but no further. For our own times has been reserved the higher and deeper doctrine, that it is the duty of society to make the weak strong; to reform, to cure, and above all, to prevent by education, by sanitary science, by all and every means, the necessity of reforming and of curing.
Science could not do that in the middle age. But if Science could not do it, Religion would at least try to do the next best thing to it. The monasteries were the refuges, whither the weak escaped from the competition of the strong. Thither flocked the poor, the crippled, the orphan, and the widow, all, in fact, who could not fight for themselves. There they found something like justice, order, pity, help. Even the fool and the coward, when they went to the convent-door, were not turned away. The poor half-witted rascal, who had not sense enough to serve the king, might still serve the abbot. He would be set to drive, plough, or hew wood—possibly by the side of a gentleman, a nobleman, or even a prince—and live under equal law with them; and under, too, a discipline more strict than that of any modern army; and if he would not hew the wood, or drive the bullocks, as he ought, then the abbot would have him flogged soundly till he did; which was better for him, after all, than wandering about to be hooted by the boys, and dying in a ditch at last.
The coward, too—the abbot could make him of use, even though the king could not. There were, no doubt, in those days, though fewer in number than now, men who could not face physical danger, and the storm of the evil world,—delicate, nervous, imaginative, feminine characters; who, when sent out to battle, would be very likely to run away. Our forefathers, having no use for such persons, used to put such into a bog-hole, and lay a hurdle over them, in the belief that they would sink to the lowest pool of Hela for ever more. But the abbot had great use for such. They could learn to read, write, sing, think; they were often very clever; they might make great scholars; at all events they might make saints. Whatever they could not do, they could pray. And the united prayer of those monks, it was then believed, could take heaven by storm, alter the course of the elements, overcome Divine justice, avert from mankind the anger of an offended God. Whether that belief were right or wrong, people held it; and the man who could not fight with carnal weapons, regained his self-respect, and therefore his virtue, when he found himself fighting, as he held, with spiritual weapons against all the powers of darkness. The first light in which I wish you to look at the old monasteries, is as defences for the weak against the strong.
But what has this to do with what I said at first, as to the masses having no history? This:—that through these monasteries the masses began first to have a history; because through them they ceased to be masses, and became first, persons and men, and then, gradually, a people. That last the monasteries could not make them: but they educated them for becoming a people; and in this way. They brought out, in each man, the sense of individual responsibility. They taught him, whether warrior or cripple, prince or beggar, that he had an immortal soul, for which each must give like account to God.
Do you not see the effect of that new thought? Treated as slaves, as things and animals, the many had learnt to consider themselves as things and animals. And so they had become ‘a mass,’ that is, a mere heap of inorganic units, each of which has no spring of life in itself as distinguished from a whole, a people, which has one bond, uniting each to all. The ‘masses’ of the French had fallen into that state, before the Revolution of 1793. The ‘masses’ of our agricultural labourers,—the ‘masses’ of our manufacturing workmen, were fast falling into that state in the days of our grandfathers. Whether the French masses have risen out of it, remains to be seen. The English masses, thanks to Almighty God, have risen out of it; and by the very same factor by which the middle-age masses rose—by Religion. The great Methodist movement of the last century did for our masses, what the monks did for our forefathers in the middle age. Wesley and Whitfield, and many another noble soul, said to Nailsea colliers, Cornish miners, and all manner of drunken brutalized fellows, living like the beasts that perish,—‘Each of you—thou—and thou—and thou—stand apart and alone before God. Each has an immortal soul in him, which will be happy or miserable for ever, according to the deeds done in the body. A whole eternity of shame or of glory lies in you—and you are living like a beast.’ And in proportion as each man heard that word, and took it home to himself, he became a new man, and a true man. The preachers may have mixed up words with their message with which we may disagree, have appealed to low hopes and fears which we should be ashamed to bring into our calculations;—so did the monks: but they got their work done somehow; and let us thank them, and the old Methodists, and any man who will tell men, in whatever clumsy and rough fashion, that they are not things, and pieces of a mass, but persons, with an everlasting duty, an everlasting right and wrong, an everlasting God in whose presence they stand, and who will judge them according to their works. True, that is not all that men need to learn. After they are taught, each apart, that he is a man, they must be taught, how to be an united people: but the individual teaching must come first; and before we hastily blame the individualizing tendencies of the old Evangelical movement, or that of the middle-age monks, let us remember, that if they had not laid the foundation, others could not build thereon.
Besides, they built themselves, as well as they could, on their own foundation. As soon as men begin to be really men, the desire of corporate life springs up in them. They must unite; they must organize themselves. If they possess duties, they must be duties to their fellow-men; if they possess virtues and graces, they must mix with their fellow-men in order to exercise them.
The solitaries of the Thebaid found that they became selfish wild beasts, or went mad, if they remained alone; and they formed themselves into lauras, ‘lanes’ of huts, convents, under a common abbot or father. The evangelical converts of the last century formed themselves into powerful and highly organized sects. The middle-age monasteries organized themselves into highly artificial communities round some sacred spot, generally under the supposed protection of some saint or martyr, whose bones lay there. Each method was good, though not the highest. None of them rises to the idea of a people, having one national life, under one monarch, the representative to each and all of that national life, and the dispenser and executor of its laws. Indeed, the artificial organization, whether monastic or sectarian, may become so strong as to interfere with national life, and make men forget their real duty to their king and country, in their self-imposed duty to the sect or order to which they belong. The monastic organization indeed had to die, in many countries, in order that national life might develop itself; and the dissolution of the monasteries marks the birth of an united and powerful England. They or Britain must have died. An imperium in imperio—much more many separate imperia—was an element of national weakness, which might be allowed in times of peace and safety, but not in times of convulsion and of danger.
You may ask, however, how these monasteries became so powerful, if they were merely refuges for the weak? Even if they were (and they were) the homes of an equal justice and order, mercy and beneficence, which had few or no standing-places outside their walls, still, how, if governed by weak men, could they survive in the great battle of life? The sheep would have but a poor life of it, if they set up hurdles against the wolves, and agreed at all events not to eat each other.
The answer is, that the monasteries were not altogether tenanted by incapables. The same causes which brought the low-born into the monasteries, brought the high-born, many of the very highest. The same cause which brought the weak into the monasteries, brought the strong, many of the very strongest.
The middle-age records give us a long list of kings, princes, nobles, who having done (as they held) their work in the world outside, went into those convents to try their hands at what seemed to them (and often was) better work than the perpetual coil of war, intrigue, and ambition, which was not the crime, but the necessary fate, of a ruler in the middle ages. Tired of work, and tired of life; tired too, of vain luxury and vain wealth, they fled to the convent, as to the only place where a man could get a little peace, and think of God, and his own soul; and recollected, as they worked with their own hands by the side of the lowest-born of their subjects, that they had a human flesh and blood, a human immortal soul, like those whom they had ruled. Thank God that the great have other methods now of learning that great truth; that the work of life, if but well done, will teach it to them: but those were hard times, and wild times; and fighting men could hardly learn, save in the convent, that there was a God above who watched the widows’ and the orphans’ tears, and when he made inquisition for blood, forgot not the cause of the poor.
Such men and women of rank brought into the convent, meanwhile, all the prestige of their rank, all their superior knowledge of the world; and became the patrons and protectors of the society; while they submitted, generally with peculiar humility and devotion, to its most severe and degrading rules. Their higher sensibilities, instead of making them shrink from hardship, made them strong to endure self-sacrifices, and often self-tortures, which seem to us all but incredible; and the lives, or rather living deaths, of the noble and princely penitents of the early middle age, are among the most beautiful tragedies of humanity.
To these monasteries, too, came the men of the very highest intellect, of whatsoever class. I say, of the very highest intellect. Tolerably talented men might find it worth while to stay in the world, and use their wits in struggling upward there. The most talented of all would be the very men to see a better ‘carrière ouverte aux talens’ than the world could give; to long for deeper and loftier meditation than could be found in the court; for a more divine life, a more blessed death, than could be found in the camp and the battle-field.
And so it befals, that in the early middle age the cleverest men were generally inside the convent, trying, by moral influence and superior intellect, to keep those outside from tearing each other to pieces.
But these intellects could not remain locked up in the monasteries. The daily routine of devotion, even of silent study and contemplation, was not sufficient for them, as it was for the average monk. There was still a reserve of force in them, which must be up and doing; and which, in a man inspired by that Spirit which is the Spirit of love to man as well as to God, must needs expand outwards in all directions, to Christianize, to civilize, to colonize.
To colonize. When people talk loosely of founding an abbey for superstitious uses, they cannot surely be aware of the state of the countries in which those abbeys were founded; either primæval forest, hardly-tilled common, or to be described by that terrible epithet of Domesday-book, ‘wasta’—wasted by war. A knowledge of that fact would lead them to guess that there were almost certainly uses for the abbey which had nothing to do with superstition; which were as thoroughly practical as those of a company for draining the bog of Allen, or running a railroad through an American forest. Such, at least, was the case, at least for the first seven centuries after the fall of Rome; and to these missionary colonizers Europe owes, I verily believe, among a hundred benefits, this which all Englishmen will appreciate; that Roman agriculture not only revived in the countries which were once the Empire, but spread from thence eastward and northward, into the principal wilderness of the Teuton and Sclavonic races.
I cannot, I think, shew you better what manner of men these monk-colonizers were, and what sort of work they did, than by giving you the biography of one of them; and out of many I have chosen that of St. Sturmi, founder whilome of the great abbey of Fulda, which lies on the central watershed of Germany, about equidistant, to speak roughly, from Frankfort, Cassel, Gotha, and Coburg.
His life is matter of history, written by one Eigils (sainted like himself), who was his disciple and his friend. Naturally told it is, and lovingly; but if I recollect right, without a single miracle or myth; the living contemporaneous picture of such a man, living in such a state of society, as we shall never (and happily need never) see again, but which is for that very reason worthy to be preserved, for a token that wisdom is justified of all her children.
It stands at length in Pertz’s admirable ‘Monumenta Historica,’ among many another like biography, and if I tell it here somewhat at length, readers must forgive me.
Every one has heard of little king Pepin, and many may have heard also how he was a mighty man of valour, and cut off a lion’s head at one blow; and how he was a crafty statesman, and first consolidated the temporal power of the Popes, and helped them in that detestable crime of overthrowing the noble Lombard kingdom, which cost Italy centuries of slavery and shame, and which has to be expiated even yet, it would seem, by some fearful punishment.
But every one may not know that Pepin had great excuses—if not for helping to destroy the Lombards—yet still for supporting the power of the Popes. It seemed to him—and perhaps it was—the only practical method of uniting the German tribes into one common people, and stopping the internecine wars by which they were tearing themselves to pieces. It seemed to him—and perhaps it was—the only practical method for civilizing and Christianizing the still wild tribes, Frisians, Saxons, and Sclaves, who pressed upon the German marches, from the mouth of the Elbe to the very Alps. Be that as it may, he began the work; and his son Charlemagne finished it; somewhat well, and again somewhat ill—as most work, alas! is done on earth. Now in the days of little king Pepin there was a nobleman of Bavaria, and his wife, who had a son called Sturmi; and they brought him to St. Boniface, that he might make him a priest. And the child loved St. Boniface’s noble English face, and went with him willingly, and was to him as a son. And who was St. Boniface? That is a long story. Suffice it that he was a man of Devon, brought up in a cloister at Exeter; and that he had crossed over into Frankenland, upon the lower Rhine, and become a missionary of the widest and loftiest aims; not merely a preacher and winner of souls, though that, it is said, in perfection; but a civilizer, a colonizer, a statesman. He, and many another noble Englishman and Scot (whether Irish or Caledonian) were working under the Frank kings to convert the heathens of the marches, and carry the Cross into the far East. They led lives of poverty and danger; they were martyred, half of them, as St. Boniface was at last. But they did their work; and doubtless they have their reward. They did their best, according to their light. God grant that we, to whom so much more light has been given, may do our best likewise. Under this great genius was young Sturmi trained. Trained (as was perhaps needed for those who had to do such work in such a time) to have neither wife, nor child, nor home, nor penny in his purse; but to do all that he was bid, learn all that he could, and work for his living with his own hands; a life of bitter self-sacrifice. Such a life is not needed now. Possibly, nevertheless, it was needed then.
So St. Boniface took Sturmi about with him in his travels, and at last handed him over to Wigbert, the priest, to prepare him for the ministry. ‘Under whom,’ says his old chronicler, ‘the boy began to know the Psalms thoroughly by heart; to understand the Holy Scriptures of Christ with spiritual sense; took care to learn most studiously the mysteries of the four Gospels, and to bury in his heart, by assiduous reading, the treasures of the Old and New Testament. For his meditation was in the Law of the Lord day and night; profound in understanding, shrewd of thought, prudent of speech, fair of face, sober of carriage, honourable in morals, spotless in life, by sweetness, humility, and alacrity, he drew to him the love of all.’
He grew to be a man; and in due time he was ordained priest, ‘by the will and consent of all;’ and he ‘began to preach the words of Christ earnestly to the people;’ and his preaching wrought wonders among them.
Three years he preached in his Rhineland parish, winning love from all. But in the third year ‘a heavenly thought’ came into his mind that he would turn hermit and dwell in the wild forest. And why? Who can tell? He may, likely enough, have found celibacy a fearful temptation for a young and eloquent man, and longed to flee from the sight of that which must not be his. And that, in his circumstances, was not a foolish wish. He may have wished to escape, if but once, from the noise and crowd of outward things, and be alone with God and Christ, and his own soul. And that was not a foolish wish. John Bunyan so longed, and found what he wanted in Bedford Jail, and set it down and printed it in a Pilgrim’s Progress, which will live as long as man is man. George Fox longed for it, and made himself clothes of leather which would not wear out, and lived in a hollow tree, till he, too, set down the fruit of his solitude in a diary which will live likewise as long as man is man. Perhaps, again, young Sturmi longed to try for once in a way what he was worth upon God’s earth; how much he could endure; what power he had of helping himself, what courage to live by his own wits, and God’s mercy, on roots and fruits, as wild things live. And surely that was not altogether a foolish wish. At least, he longed to be a hermit; but he kept his longing to himself, however, till St. Boniface, his bishop, appeared; and then he told him all his heart.
And St. Boniface said: ‘Go; in the name of God;’ and gave him two comrades, and sent him into ‘the wilderness which is called Buchonia, the Beech Forest, to find a place fit for the servants of the Lord to dwell in. For the Lord is able to provide his people a home in the desert.’
So those three went into the wild forest. And ‘for three days they saw nought but earth and sky and mighty trees. And they went on, praying Christ that He would guide their feet into the way of peace. And on the third day they came to the place which is called Hersfelt (the hart’s down?), and searched it round, and prayed that Christ would bless the place for them to dwell in; and then they built themselves little huts of beech-bark, and abode there many days, serving God with holy fastings, and watchings, and prayers.’
Is it not a strange story? so utterly unlike anything which we see now;—so utterly unlike anything which we ought to see now? And yet it may have been good in its time. It looks out on us from the dim ages, like the fossil bone of some old monster cropping out of a quarry. But the old monster was good in his place and time. God made him and had need of him. It may be that God made those three poor monks, and had need of them likewise.
As for their purposes being superstitious, we shall be better able to judge of that when we have seen what they were—what sort of a house they meant to build to God. As for their having self-interest in view, no doubt they thought that they should benefit their own souls in this life, and in the life to come. But one would hardly blame them for that, surely?
One would not blame them as selfish and sordid if they had gone out on a commercial speculation? Why, then, if on a religious one? The merchant adventurer is often a noble type of man, and one to whom the world owes much, though his hands are not always clean, nor his eye single. The monk adventurer of the middle age is, perhaps, a still nobler type of man, and one to whom the world owes more, though his eye, too, was not always single, nor his hands clean.
As for selfishness, one must really bear in mind that men who walked away into that doleful ‘urwarld’ had need to pray very literally ‘that Christ would guide their feet into the way of peace;’ and must have cared as much for their wordly interests as those who march up to the cannon’s mouth. Their lives in that forest were not worth twenty-four hours’ purchase, and they knew it. It is an ugly thing for an unarmed man, without a compass, to traverse the bush of Australia or New Zealand, where there are no wild beasts. But it was uglier still to start out under the dark roof of that primæval wood. Knights, when they rode it, went armed cap-à-pie, like Sintram through the dark valley, trusting in God and their good sword. Chapmen and merchants stole through it by a few tracks in great companies, armed with bill and bow. Peasants ventured into it a few miles, to cut timber, and find pannage for their swine, and whispered wild legends of the ugly things therein—and sometimes, too, never came home. Away it stretched from the fair Rhineland, wave after wave of oak and alder, beech and pine, God alone knew how far, into the land of night and wonder, and the infinite unknown; full of elk and bison, bear and wolf, lynx and glutton, and perhaps of worse beasts still. Worse beasts, certainly, Sturmi and his comrades would have met, if they had met them in human form. For there were waifs and strays of barbarism there, uglier far than any waif and stray of civilization, border ruffian of the far west, buccaneer of the Tropic keys, Cimaroon of the Panama forests; men verbiesterte, turned into the likeness of beasts, wildfanger, hüner, ogres, wehr-wolves, strong thieves and outlaws, many of them possibly mere brutal maniacs; naked, living in caves and coverts, knowing no law but their own hunger, rage, and lust; feeding often on human flesh; and woe to the woman or child or unarmed man who fell into their ruthless clutch. Orson, and such like human brutes of the wilderness, serve now to amuse children in fairy tales; they were then ugly facts of flesh and blood. There were heathens there, too, in small colonies: heathen Saxons, cruelest of all the tribes; who worshipped at the Irmensul, and had an old blood-feud against the Franks; heathen Thuringer, who had murdered St. Kilian the Irishman at Wurzburg; heathen Slaves, of different tribes, who had introduced into Europe the custom of impaling their captives: and woe to the Christian priest who fell into any of their hands. To be knocked on the head before some ugly idol was the gentlest death which they were like to have. They would have called that martyrdom, and the gate of eternal bliss; but they were none the less brave men for going out to face it.
And beside all these, and worse than all these, there were the terrors of the unseen world; very real in those poor monks’ eyes, though not in ours. There were Nixes in the streams, and Kobolds in the caves, and Tannhäuser in the dark pine-glades, who hated the Christian man, and would lure him to his death. There were fair swan-maidens and elf-maidens; nay, dame Venus herself, and Herodias the dancer, with all their rout of revellers; who would tempt him to sin, and having made him sell his soul, destroy both body and soul in hell. There was Satan and all the devils, too, plotting to stop the Christian man from building the house of the Lord, and preaching the gospel to the heathen; ready to call up storms, and floods, and forest fires; to hurl the crag down from the cliffs, or drop the rotting tree on their defenceless heads—all real and terrible in those poor monks’ eyes, as they walked on, singing their psalms, and reading their Gospels, and praying to God to save them, for they could not save themselves; and to guide them, for they knew not, like Abraham, whither they went; and to show them the place where they should build the house of the Lord, and preach righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit to the heathen round. We talk still, thank heaven, of heroes, and understand what that great word should mean. But were not these poor monks heroes? Knights-errant of God, doing his work as they best knew how. We have a purer gospel than they: we understand our Bibles better. But if they had not done what they did, where would have been now our gospel, and our Bible? We cannot tell. It was a wise old saw of our forefathers—‘Do not speak ill of the bridge which carries you over.’
If Sturmi had had a ‘holy longing’ to get into the wild wood, now he had a ‘holy longing’ to go back; and to find St. Boniface, and tell him what a pleasant place Hersfelt was, and the quality of the soil, and the direction of the watershed, and the meadows, and springs, and so forth, in a very practical way. And St. Boniface answered, that the place seemed good enough; but that he was afraid for them, on account of the savage heathen Saxons. They must go deeper into the forest, and then they would be safe. So he went back to his fellow-hermits, and they made to themselves a canoe; and went paddling up and down the Fulda stream, beneath the alder boughs, ‘trying the mouths of the mountain-streams, and landing to survey the hills and ridges,’—pioneers of civilization none the less because they pioneered in the name of Him who made earth and heaven: but they found nothing which they thought would suit the blessed St. Boniface, save that they stayed a little at the place which is called Ruohen-bah, ‘the rough brook,’ to see if it would suit; but it would not. So they went back to their birch huts to fast and pray once more.
St. Boniface sent for Sturmi after awhile, probably to Maintz, to ask of his success; and Sturmi threw himself on his face before him; and Boniface raised him up, and kissed him, and made him sit by his side—which was a mighty honour; for St. Boniface, the penniless monk, was at that moment one of the most powerful men of Europe; and he gave Sturmi a good dinner, of which, no doubt, he stood in need; and bade him keep up heart, and seek again for the place which God had surely prepared, and would reveal in His good time.
And this time Sturmi, probably wiser from experience, determined to go alone; but not on foot. So he took to him a trusty ass, and as much food as he could pack on it; and, axe in hand, rode away into the wild wood, singing his psalms. And every night, before he lay down to sleep, he cut boughs, and stuck them up for a ring fence round him and the ass, to the discomfiture of the wolves, which had, and have still, a great hankering after asses’ flesh. It is a quaint picture, no doubt; but let us respect it, while we smile at it; if we, too, be brave men.
Then one day he fell into a great peril. He came to the old road (a Roman one, I presume; for the Teutons, whether in England or elsewhere, never dreamed of making roads till three hundred years ago, but used the old Roman ones), which led out of the Thuringen land to Maintz. And at the ford over the Fulda he met a great multitude bathing, of Sclavonian heathens, going to the fair at Maintz. And they smelt so strong, the foul miscreants, that Sturmi’s donkey backed, and refused to face them; and Sturmi himself was much of the donkey’s mind, for they began to mock him (possibly he nearly went over the donkey’s head), and went about to hurt him.
‘But,’ says the chronicler, ‘the power of the Lord held them back.’
Then he went on, right thankful at having escaped with his life, up and down, round and round, exploring and surveying—for what purpose we shall see hereafter. And at last he lost himself in the place which is called Aihen-loh, ‘the glade of oaks;’ and at night-fall he heard the plash of water, and knew not whether man or wild beast made it. And not daring to call out, he tapped a tree-trunk with his axe (some backwoodsman’s sign of those days, we may presume), and he was answered. And a forester came to him, leading his lord’s horse; a man from the Wetterau, who knew the woods far and wide, and told him all that he wanted to know. And they slept side by side that night; and in the morning they blest each other, and each went his way.
Yes, there were not merely kings and wars, popes and councils, in those old days;—there were real human beings, just such as we might meet by the wayside any hour, with human hearts and histories within them. And we will be thankful if but one of them, now and then, starts up out of the darkness of twelve hundred years, like that good forester, and looks at us with human eyes, and goes his way again, blessing, and not unblest.
And now Sturmi knew all that he needed to know; and after awhile, following the counsel of the forester, he came to ‘the blessed place, long ago prepared of the Lord. And when he saw it, he was filled with immense joy, and went on exulting; for he felt that by the merits and prayers of the holy Bishop Boniface that place had been revealed to him. And he went about it, and about it, half the day; and the more he looked on it the more he gave God thanks;’ and those who know Fulda say, that Sturmi had reason to give God thanks, and must have had a keen eye, moreover, for that which man needs for wealth and prosperity, in soil and water, meadow and wood. So he blessed the place, and signed it with the sign of the Cross (in token that it belonged thenceforth neither to devils nor fairies, but to his rightful Lord and Maker), and went back to his cell, and thence a weary journey to St. Boniface, to tell him of the fair place which he had found at last.
And St. Boniface went his weary way, either to Paris or to Aix, to Pepin and Carloman, kings of the Franks; and begged of them a grant of the Aihen-loh, and all the land for four miles round, and had it. And the nobles about gave up to him their rights of venison, and vert, and pasture, and pannage of swine; and Sturmi and seven brethren set out thither, ‘in the year of our Lord 744, in the first month (April, presumably), in the twelfth day of the month, unto the place prepared of the Lord,’ that they might do what?
That they might build an abbey. Yes; but the question is, what building an abbey meant, not three hundred, nor five hundred, but eleven hundred years ago—for centuries are long matters, and men and their works change in them.
And then it meant this: Clearing the back woods for a Christian settlement; an industrial colony, in which every man was expected to spend his life in doing good—all and every good which he could for his fellow-men. Whatever talent he had he threw into the common stock; and worked, as he was found fit to work, at farming, gardening, carpentering, writing, doctoring, teaching in the schools, or preaching to the heathen round. In their common church they met to worship God; but also to ask for grace and strength to do their work, as Christianizers and civilizers of mankind. What Christianity and civilization they knew (and they knew more than we are apt now to believe) they taught it freely; and therefore they were loved, and looked up to as superior beings, as modern missionaries, wherever they do their work even decently well, are looked up to now.
So because the work could be done in that way, and (as far as men then, or now, can see) in no other way, Pepin and Carloman gave Boniface the glade of oaks, that they might clear the virgin forest, and extend cultivation, and win fresh souls to Christ, instead of fighting, like the kings of this world, for the land which was already cleared, and the people who were already Christian.
In two months’ time they had cut down much of the forest; and then came St. Boniface himself to see them, and with him a great company of workmen, and chose a place for a church. And St. Boniface went up to the hill which is yet called Bishop’s Mount, that he might read his Bible in peace, away from kings and courts, and the noise of the wicked world; and his workmen felled trees innumerable, and dug peat to burn lime withal; and then all went back again, and left the settlers to thrive and work.
And thrive and work they did, clearing more land, building their church, ploughing up their farm, drawing to them more and more heathen converts, more and more heathen school-children; and St. Boniface came to see them from time to time, whenever he could get a holiday, and spent happy days in prayer and study, with his pupil and friend. And ten years after, when St. Boniface was martyred at last by the Friesland heathens, and died, as he had lived, like an apostle of God, then all the folk of Maintz wanted to bring his corpse home to their town, because he had been Archbishop there. But he ‘appeared in a dream to a certain deacon, and said: “Why delay ye to take me home to Fulda, to my rest in the wilderness which God bath prepared for me?”’
So St. Boniface sleeps at Fulda,—unless the French Republican armies dug up his bones, and scattered them, as they scattered holier things, to the winds of heaven. And all men came to worship at his tomb, after the fashion of those days. And Fulda became a noble abbey, with its dom-church, library, schools, workshops, farmsteads, almshouses, and all the appanages of such a place, in the days when monks were monks indeed. And Sturmi became a great man, and went through many troubles and slanders, and conquered in them all, because there was no fault found in him, as in Daniel of old; and died in a good old age, bewept by thousands, who, but for him, would have been heathens still. And the Aihen-loh became rich corn-land and garden, and Fulda an abbey borough and a principality, where men lived in peace under mild rule, while the feudal princes quarrelled and fought outside; and a great literary centre, whose old records are now precious to the diggers among the bones of bygone times; and at last St. Sturmi and the Aihen-lob had so developed themselves, that the latest record of the Abbots of Fulda which I have seen is this, bearing date about 1710:—
‘The arms of the most illustrious Lord and Prince, Abbot of Fulda, Archchancellor of the most Serene Empress, Primate of all Germany and Gaul, and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.’ Developed, certainly: and not altogether in the right direction. For instead of the small beer, which they had promised St. Boniface to drink to the end of the world, the abbots of Fulda had the best wine in Germany, and the best table too. Be that as it may, to have cleared the timber off the Aihen-lob, and planted a Christian colony instead, was enough to make St. Sturmi hope that he had not read his Bible altogether in vain.
Surely such men as St. Sturmi were children of wisdom, put what sense on the word you will. In a dark, confused, lawless, cut-throat age, while everything was decided by the sword, they found that they could do no good to themselves, or any man, by throwing their swords into either scale. They would be men of peace, and see what could be done so. Was that not wise? So they set to work. They feared God exceedingly, and walked with God. Was not that wise? They wrought righteousness, and were merciful and kind, while kings and nobles were murdering around them; pure and temperate, while other men were lustful and drunken; just and equal in all their ways, while other men were unjust and capricious; serving God faithfully, according to their light, while the people round them were half or wholly heathen; content to do their work well on earth, and look for their reward in heaven, while the kings and nobles, the holders of the land, were full of insane ambition, every man trying to seize a scrap of ground from his neighbour, as if that would make them happier. Was that not wise? Which was the wiser, the chief killing human beings, to take from them some few square miles which men had brought into cultivation already, or the monk, leaving the cultivated land, and going out into the backwoods to clear the forest, and till the virgin soil? Which was the child of wisdom, I ask again? And do not tell me that the old monk worked only for fanatical and superstitious ends. It is not so. I know well his fanaticism and his superstition, and the depths of its ignorance and silliness: but he had more in him than that. Had he not, he would have worked no lasting work. He was not only the pioneer of civilization, but he knew that he was such. He believed that all knowledge came from God, even that which taught a man to clear the forest, and plant corn instead; and he determined to spread such knowledge as he had wherever he could. He was a wiser man than the heathen Saxons, even than the Christian Franks, around him; a better scholar, a better thinker, better handicraftsman, better farmer; and he did not keep his knowledge to himself. He did not, as some tell you, keep the Bible to himself. It is not so; and those who say so, in this generation, ought to be ashamed of themselves. The monk knew his Bible well himself, and he taught it. Those who learnt from him to read, learnt to read their Bibles. Those who did not learn (of course the vast majority, in days when there was no printing), he taught by sermons, by pictures, afterward by mystery and miracle plays. The Bible was not forbidden to the laity till centuries afterwards—and forbidden then, why? Because the laity throughout Europe knew too much about the Bible, and not too little. Because the early monks had so ingrained the mind of the masses, throughout Christendom, with Bible stories, Bible personages, the great facts, and the great doctrines, of our Lord’s life, that the masses knew too much; that they could contrast too easily, and too freely, the fallen and profligate monks of the 15th and 16th centuries, with those Bible examples, which the old monks of centuries before had taught their forefathers. Then the clergy tried to keep from the laity, because it testified against themselves, the very book which centuries before they had taught them to love and know too well. In a word, the old monk missionary taught all he knew to all who would learn, just as our best modern missionaries do; and was loved, and obeyed, and looked on as a superior being, as they are.
Of course he did not know how far civilization would extend. He could not foretell railroads and electric telegraphs, any more than he could political economy, or sanitary science. But the best that he knew, he taught—and did also, working with his own hands. He was faithful in a few things, and God made him ruler over many things. For out of those monasteries sprang—what did not spring? They restored again and again sound law and just government, when the good old Teutonic laws, and the Roman law also, was trampled underfoot amid the lawless strife of ambition and fury. Under their shadow sprang up the towns with their corporate rights, their middle classes, their artizan classes. They were the physicians, the alms-givers, the relieving officers, the schoolmasters of the middle-age world. They first taught us the great principle of the division of labour, to which we owe, at this moment, that England is what she is, instead of being covered with a horde of peasants, each making and producing everything for himself, and starving each upon his rood of ground. They transcribed or composed all the books of the then world; many of them spent their lives in doing nothing but writing; and the number of books, even of those to be found in single monasteries, considering the tedious labour of copying, is altogether astonishing. They preserved to us the treasures of classical antiquity. They discovered for us the germs of all our modern inventions. They brought in from abroad arts and new knowledge; and while they taught men to know that they had a common humanity, a common Father in heaven taught them also to profit by each other’s wisdom instead of remaining in isolated ignorance. They, too, were the great witnesses against feudal caste. With them was neither high-born nor low-born, rich nor poor: worth was their only test; the meanest serf entering there might become the lord of knights and vassals, the counsellor of kings and princes. Men may talk of democracy—those old monasteries were the most democratic institutions the world had ever till then seen. ‘A man’s a man for a’ that,’ was not only talked of in them, but carried out in practice—only not in anarchy, and as a cloak for licentiousness: but under those safeguards of strict discipline, and almost military order, without which men may call themselves free, and yet be really only slaves to their own passions. Yes, paradoxical as it may seem, in those monasteries was preserved the sacred fire of modern liberty, through those feudal centuries when all the outside world was doing its best to trample it out. Remember, as a single instance, that in the Abbot’s lodging at Bury St. Edmunds, the Magna Charta was drawn out, before being presented to John at Runymede. I know what they became afterwards, better than most do here; too well to defile my lips, or your ears, with tales too true. They had done their work, and they went. Like all things born in time, they died; and decayed in time; and the old order changed, giving place to the new; and God fulfilled himself in many ways. But in them, too, he fulfilled himself. They were the best things the world had seen; the only method of Christianizing and civilizing semi-barbarous Europe. Like all human plans and conceptions, they contained in themselves original sin; idolatry, celibacy, inhuman fanaticism; these were their three roots of bitterness; and when they bore the natural fruit of immorality, the monasteries fell with a great and just destruction. But had not those monasteries been good at first, and noble at first; had not the men in them been better and more useful men than the men outside, do you think they would have endured for centuries? They would not even have established themselves at all. They would soon, in those stormy times, have been swept off the face of the earth. Ill used they often were, plundered and burnt down. But men found that they were good. Their own plunderers found that they could not do without them; and repented, and humbled themselves, and built them up again, to be centres of justice and mercy and peace, amid the wild weltering sea of war and misery. For all things endure, even for a generation, only by virtue of the good which is in them. By the Spirit of God in them they live, as do all created things; and when he taketh away their breath they die, and return again to their dust.
And what was the original sin of them? We can hardly say that it was their superstitious and partially false creed: because that they held in common with all Europe. It was rather that they had identified themselves with, and tried to realize on earth, one of the worst falsehoods of that creed—celibacy. Not being founded on the true and only ground of all society, family life, they were merely artificial and self-willed arrangements of man’s invention, which could not develop to any higher form. And when the sanctity of marriage was revindicated at the Reformation, the monasteries, having identified themselves with celibacy, naturally fell. They could not partake in the Reformation movement, and rise with it into some higher form of life, as the laity outside did. I say, they were altogether artificial things. The Abbot might be called the Abba, Father, of his monks: but he was not their father—just as when young ladies now play at being nuns, they call their superior, Mother: but all the calling in the world will not make that sacred name a fact and a reality, as they too often find out.
And celibacy brought serious evils from the first. It induced an excited, hysterical tone of mind, which is most remarkable in the best men; violent, querulous, suspicious, irritable, credulous, visionary; at best more womanly than manly; alternately in tears and in raptures. You never get in their writings anything of that manly calmness, which we so deservedly honour, and at which we all aim for ourselves. They are bombastic; excited; perpetually mistaking virulence for strength, putting us in mind for ever of the allocutions of the Popes. Read the writings of one of the best of monks, and of men, who ever lived, the great St. Bernard, and you will be painfully struck by this hysterical element. The fact is, that their rule of life, from the earliest to the latest,—from that of St. Benedict of Casino, ‘father of all monks,’ to that of Loyola the Jesuit, was pitched not too low, but too high. It was an ideal which, for good or for evil, could only be carried out by new converts, by people in a state of high religious excitement, and therefore the history of the monastic orders is just that of the protestant sects. We hear of continual fallings off from their first purity; of continual excitements, revivals, and startings of new orders, which hoped to realize the perfection which the old orders could not. You must bear this in mind, as you read mediæval history. You will be puzzled to know why continual new rules and new orders sprung up. They were so many revivals, so many purist attempts at new sects. You will see this very clearly in the three great revivals which exercised such enormous influence on the history of the 13th, the 16th and the 17th centuries,—I mean the rise first of the Franciscans and Dominicans, next of the Jesuits, and lastly of the Port Royalists. They each professed to restore monachism to what it had been at first; to realize the unnatural and impossible ideal.
Another serious fault of these monasteries may be traced to their artificial celibate system. I mean their avarice. Only one generation after St. Sturmi, Charlemagne had to make indignant laws against Abbots who tried to get into their hands the property of everybody around them: but in vain. The Abbots became more and more the great landholders, till their power was intolerable. The reasons are simple enough. An abbey had no children between whom to divide its wealth, and therefore more land was always flowing in and concentrating, and never breaking up again; while almost every Abbot left his personalities, all his private savings and purchases, to his successor.
Then again, in an unhappy hour, they discovered that the easiest way of getting rich was by persuading sinners, and weak persons, to secure the safety of their souls by leaving land to the Church, in return for the prayers and masses of monks; and that shameful mine of wealth was worked by them for centuries, in spite of statutes of mortmain, and other checks which the civil power laid on them, very often by most detestable means. One is shocked to find good men lending themselves to such base tricks: but we must recollect, that there has always been among men a public and a private conscience, and that these two, alas! have generally been very different. It is an old saying, that ‘committees have no consciences;’ and it is too true. A body of men acting in concert for a public purpose will do things which they would shrink from with disgust, if the same trick would merely put money into their private purses; and this is too often the case when the public object is a good one. Then the end seems to sanctify the means, to almost any amount of chicanery.
So it was with those old monks. An abbey had no conscience. An order of monks had no conscience. A Benedictine, a Dominican, a Franciscan, who had not himself a penny in the world, and never intended to have one, would play tricks, lie, cheat, slander, forge, for the honour and the wealth of his order; when for himself, and in himself, he may have been an honest God-fearing man enough. So it was; one more ugly fruit of an unnatural attempt to be not good men, but something more than men; by trying to be more than men, they ended by being less than men. That was their sin, and that sin, when it had conceived, brought forth death.
Continue to Lecture X: The Lombard Laws