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Medieval People by Eileen Edna Power

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Medieval People


M.A., D.Lit.

_Late Reader in History in the University of
London and sometime Fellow and Lecturer of
Girton College, Cambridge_

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


_First published, 1924

Published in 1963

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


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

--LANGLAND, _Piers Plowman_

_Author's Preface_

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

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

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

_London School of Economics and Political Science
University of London_

_Preface to the Tenth Edition_

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

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

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

_April_, 1963 M.M. POSTAN _Peterhouse, Cambridge_.












_List of Illustrations_

From _MS. Tit. B.V., Pt. I_. British Museum

From _Bodleian MS. 264_. Oxford

From the original in the British Museum

From _MS. Add. 39843_. British Museum

From _Harl. MS. 4425_. British Museum

From _MS. Royal, 15 D. i_. British Museum

From _Cott. MS. Aug. i, Vol. II_. British Museum

From _The Paycockes of Coggeshall_ by Eileen Power
(Methuen & Co. Ltd.)


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

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

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

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been

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

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

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

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



_The Precursors_


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

--From _The Triads of Ireland_ (9th century)

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

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

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

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

[Illustration: _January--Ploughing_]

[Illustration: _March--Breaking Clods_]

[Illustration: _August--Reaping_]

[Illustration: _December--Threshing and Winnowing_]



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he would drive his plough through the acre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


_Marco Polo_


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


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


Let us go back in mind--as would that we could go back in body--to the
year 1268. It is a year which makes no great stir in the history books,
but it will serve us well. In those days, as in our own, Venice lay upon
her lagoons, a city (as Cassiodurus long ago saw her[B]) like a
sea-bird's nest afloat on the shallow waves, a city like a ship, moored
to the land but only at home upon the seas, the proudest city in all the
Western world. For only consider her position. Lying at the head of the
Adriatic, half-way between East and West, on the one great sea
thoroughfare of medieval commerce, a Mediterranean seaport, yet set so
far north that she was almost in the heart of Europe, Venice gathered
into her harbour all the trade routes overland and overseas, on which
pack-horses could travel or ships sail. Merchants bringing silk and
spices, camphor and ivory, pearls and scents and carpets from the Levant
and from the hot lands beyond it, all came to port in Venice. For
whether they came by way of Egypt sailing between the low banks of the
Nile and jolting on camels to Alexandria, or whether they came through
the rich and pleasant land of Persia and the Syrian desert to Antioch
and Tyre, or whether they slowly pushed their way in a long, thin
caravan across the highlands of Central Asia, and south of the Caspian
Sea to Trebizond, and so sailed through the Black Sea and the
Dardanelles, Venice was their natural focus. Only Constantinople might
have rivalled her, and Constantinople she conquered. To Venice,
therefore, as if drawn by a magnet, came the spoils of the East, and
from Venice they went by horse across the Alps by the Brenner and St
Gothard passes to Germany and France, or in galleys by way of the
Straits of Gibraltar to England and Flanders;[1] and the galleys and
pack-horses came back again to Venice, laden with the metals of Germany,
the furs of Scandinavia, the fine wools of England, the cloth of
Flanders, and the wine of France.

[Footnote B: 'Hic vobis, aquatilium avium more, domus est.']

But if geography gave Venice an unrivalled site, the Venetians did the
rest. Through all the early years of their history they defied
Constantinople to the east of them, and Pope and Holy Roman Emperor to
the west; sometimes turning to one, sometimes to the other, but
stubbornly bent all the while upon independence, replying, when invited
to become subjects: 'God, Who is our help and protector has saved us to
dwell upon these waters. This Venice, which we have raised in the
lagoons, is our mighty habitation, no power of emperor or of prince can
touch us'; apt, if threatened, to retire to their islands and derisively
to fire cannon balls of bread into the mainland force, which sought to
starve them out.[2] Always they were conscious that their future lay
upon the waters, and in that East, whose colour had crept into their
civilization and warmed their blood. They were eastern and western both,
the Venetians, hot hearts for loving and conquering, icy heads for
scheming and ruling. Bit by bit they secured the ring of mainland behind
them, all the while keeping at bay the Saracen and Slav sea rovers,
whose ships were the terror of the Mediterranean. Then they descended
upon the pirates of Dalmatia, who thus harassed their trading vessels,
and took all the Dalmatian coast. The Doge of Venice became Duke of
Dalmatia. 'True it is,' says their chronicles, 'that the Adriatic Sea is
in the duchy of Venice,'[3] and they called it the 'Gulf of Venice'. Now
it was that there was first instituted the magnificent symbolical
ceremony of wedding the sea, with the proud words 'Desponsamus te mare
in signum veri perpetuique domini'![4]

She was a maiden city, bright and free,
No guile seduced, no force could violate,
And when she took unto herself a mate
She must espouse the everlasting sea.

And truly it seemed as though the very sea had sworn to honour and obey

Then came the Crusades, when Europe forgot its differences and threw
itself upon the paynim who held the holy places of its faith, when men
from all lands marched behind the banner of the Cross and the towers of
Jerusalem were more real than the Tower of Babel. Now, at last, Venice
saw her dream within her hand. It was Venice who provided galleys and
Venice who provided convoys and commissariat and soldiers, at a good
round sum; and when time came for the division of the spoil, Venice
demanded in every captured town of Palestine and Syria a church, a
counting-house and the right to trade without tolls. Her great chance
came in the Fourth Crusade, when her old blind Doge Enrico Dandolo
(whose blindness had the Nelson touch) upon the pretext that the
Crusaders could not pay the transport fees agreed upon, turned the whole
Crusade to the use of Venice, and conquered first Zara, which had dared
to revolt from her, and then her ancient--her only--rival, the immortal
Byzantium itself. It is true that the Pope excommunicated the Venetians
when they first turned the armies against Zara, but what matter? They
looted Constantinople and brought back the four great gilded horses to
St Mark's--St Mark's, which has been compared to a robbers' cave crowded
with the booty of the Levant, and which held the sacred body of the
saint, stolen from Alexandria by the Venetians, nearly four centuries
before, concealed in a tub of pickled pork, in order to elude the
Moslems. A Venetian patriarch now said Mass in St Sophia. Venice
received the proud title of 'Ruler of a half and a quarter of the Roman
Empire,' ('quartae partis et dimidiae totius imperii Romaniae'--the words
have a ring of trumpets), and the Doge, buskined in scarlet like the
ancient Roman emperors, now ruled supreme over four seas--the Adriatic,
the Aegean, the Sea of Marmora, and the Black Sea. Venetian factories
studded all the Levantine coasts, in Tripoli and Tyre, Salonica,
Adrianople, and Constantinople, in Trebizond on the Black Sea, even at
Caffa in the far Crimea, whence ran the mysterious road into Russia.
Crete and Rhodes and Cyprus were hers; her galleys swept the pirates
from the seas and brooked no rivals; all trade with the East must pass
through Venice, and Venice only. The other trading cities of Italy
struggled against her, and Genoa came near to rivalling her, but in
1258, and again in 1284, she utterly defeated the Genoese fleet. Not for
the city of 'sea without fish, mountains without woods, men without
faith, and women without shame' was it to bit the horses on St
Mark's.[5] In 1268 Venice seemed supreme. Byzantium was her washpot and
over the Levant she had cast her shoe. Truly her chronicler might
write of her:

Dalmatia, Albania, Rumania, Greece, Trebizond, Syria, Armenia, Egypt,
Cyprus, Candia, Apulia, Sicily, and other countries, kingdoms and
islands were the fruitful gardens, the proud castles of our people,
where they found again pleasure, profit, and security.... The Venetians
went about the sea, here and there and across the sea, and in all places
wheresoever water runs, and bought merchandise and brought it to Venice
from every side. Then there came to Venice Germans and Bavarians, French
and Lombards, Tuscans and Hungarians, and every people that lives by
merchandise and they took it to their countries.

Small wonder that (as a later traveller observed) the Venetians were
proud of their great rule, and when a son was born to a Venetian were
wont to say among themselves, 'A Signor is born into the world.'

Is it not true to say that Venice was the proudest city on earth, _la
noble cite que l'en apele Venise, qui est orendroit la plus bele dou
siecle_?[6] Life was a fair and splendid thing for those merchant
princes, who held the gorgeous East in fee in the year of grace 1268. In
that year traders in great stone counting-houses, lapped by the waters
of the canals, were checking, book in hand, their sacks of cloves, mace
and nutmegs, cinnamon and ginger from the Indies, ebony chessmen from
Indo China, ambergris from Madagascar, and musk from Tibet. In that year
the dealers in jewels were setting prices upon diamonds from Golconda,
rubies and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, and pearls from the fisheries
of Ceylon; and the silk merchants were stacking up bales of silk and
muslin and brocade from Bagdad and Yezd and Malabar and China. In that
year young gallants on the Rialto (scented gallants, but each, like
Shakespeare's Antonio, with a ship venturing into port somewhere in the
Levant) rubbed elbows with men of all nations, heard travellers' tales
of all lands, and at dawn slipped along the canals in gondolas (not
black in those days, but painted and hung with silk), saluting the
morning with songs; and the red-haired ladies of Venice whom centuries
later Titian loved to paint, went trailing up and down the marble steps
of their palaces, with all the brocades of Persia on their backs and all
the perfumes of Arabia to sweeten their little hands.

It was in that year, too, that one Martino da Canale, a clerk in the
customs house, began to busy himself (like Chaucer after him) less with
his accounts than with writing in the delectable French language ('por
ce que lengue franceise cort parmi le monde, et est la plus delitable a
lire et a oir que nule autre') a chronicle of Venice. It is of the
water, watery, Canale's chronicle, like Ariel's dirge; he has indeed,
'that intenseness of feeling which seems to resolve itself into the
elements which it contemplates.' Here is nothing indeed, of 'the surge
and thunder of the Odyssey', but the lovely words sparkle like the sun
on the waters of the Mediterranean, and like a refrain, singing itself
in and out of the narrative, the phrase recurs, 'Li tens estoit clers et
biaus ... et lors quant il furent en mer, li mariniers drecerent les
voiles au vent, et lesserent core a ploine voiles les mes parmi la mer a
la force dou vent';[7] for so much of the history of Venice was enacted
upon deck. It is a passing proud chronicle, too, for Canale was, and
well he knew it, a citizen of no mean city.

'Now would I,' he says, 'that every one and all know for ever
the works of the Venetians, who they were and whence they
came and what they are, and how they made the noble city
which is called Venice, which is this day the fairest in the
world. And I would that all those who are now living and
those who are to come know how the noble city is builded and
how all good things abound in her, and how the sire of the
Venetians, the noble Doge, is powerful, and what nobility is
found therein and the prowess of the Venetian people, and how
they are all perfect in the faith of Jesu Christ and obedient
to holy Church, and how they never disobey the commandment of
holy Church. Within this noble Venice there dares to dwell
neither heretic, nor usurer, murderer, thief nor robber. And
I will tell you the names of all the Doges that have been in
Venice, one after the other, and what they did to the honour
of holy Church and of their noble City. And I will tell you
the names of the noble captains whom the noble Doges sent in
their time to lay low their enemies, and concerning the
victories that they won I will have you know, for it is
fitting.... In the year of the incarnation of our Lord Jesu
Christ MCCLXVII years, in the time of Milord Renier Zeno, the
high Doge of Venice, I laboured and strove until I found the
ancient history of the Venetians, whence they came first and
how they builded the noble city called Venice, which is today
the fairest and the pleasantest in the world, full of beauty
and of all good things. Merchandise flows through this noble
city even as water flows from the fountains, and the salt
water runs through it and round it and in all places save in
the houses and the streets; and when the citizens go abroad
they can return to their houses by land or by water, as they
will. From all parts there come merchandise and merchants,
who buy merchandise as they will and take it back to their
own countries. Within this town is found food in great
plenty, bread and wine, land fowl and river fowl, fresh meat
and salt, and sea fish and river fish.... You may find within
this fair town many men of gentle birth, both old men and
young _damoisaus_ in plenty, and merchants with them, who buy
and sell, and money changers and citizens of all crafts, and
therewith mariners of all sorts, and ships to carry them to
all lands and galleys to lay low their enemies. And in this
fair town is also great plenty of ladies and damsels and
maidens, very richly apparelled.'[8]

It happened that there was a new Doge that year, our year
1268, Lorenzo Tiepolo by name, and a great procession of the
gilds took place before the palace on the Piazza of St Mark
to welcome his accession. Martino da Canale was watching it
and wrote it all down in his chronicle. First came the navy
sailing past in the harbour, fifty galleys and other ships,
with their crews cheering and shouting on deck. Then came the
gilds on foot: first the master smiths, with garlands on
their heads and banners and trumpets; then the furriers
apparelled in samite and scarlet silk, with mantles of ermine
and vair; then the weavers richly bedight, and the ten master
tailors in white with crimson stars. Then the master
clothworkers passed, carrying boughs of olive and wearing
crowns of olive on their heads; then the fustian makers in
furred robes of their own weaving, and the quilt makers with
garlands of gilt beads and white cloaks sewn with
fleurs-de-lis, marching two by two, with little children
singing _chansonettes_ and _cobles_ before them. Then came
the makers of cloth of gold, all in cloth of gold, and their
servants in cloth of gold or of purple, followed by the
mercers in silk and the butchers in scarlet, the fish sellers
robed and furred and garlanded, and the master barbers,
having with them two riders attired as knights-errant, and
four captive damsels, strangely garbed. Then came the
glass-workers in scarlet furred with vair, and gold-fringed
hoods, and rich garlands of pearls, carrying flasks and
goblets of the famous Venetian glass before them, and the
comb and lantern makers, with a lantern full of birds to let
loose in the Doge's presence, and the goldsmiths wearing
wreaths and necklaces of gold and silver beads and sapphires,
emeralds, diamonds, topazes, jacinths, amethysts, rubies,
jasper, and carbuncles. Master and servants alike were
sumptuously clad, and almost all wore gold fringes on their
hoods, and garlands of gilded beads. Each craft was
accompanied by its band of divers instruments, and bore with
it silver cups and flagons of wine, and all marched in fair
order, singing ballads and songs of greeting, and saluted the
Doge and Dogaressa in turn, crying 'Long live our lord, the
noble Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo!' Gild after gild they marched in
their splendour, lovely alike to ear and eye; and a week fled
before the rejoicings were ended and all had passed in
procession. Canale surpasses himself here, for he loved State
ceremonies; he gives a paragraph to the advance of each gild,
its salutation and withdrawal, and the cumulative effect of
all the paragraphs is enchanting, like a prose ballade, with
a repeated refrain at the end of every verse.[9]

What, they lived once thus in Venice, where the merchants were the
Where St Mark's is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?

Listening to the magnificent salutation of the Doge by the
priests of St Mark's, 'Criste, vince, Criste regne, Criste
inpere. Notre signor Laurens Teuples, Des gracie, inclit Dus
de Venise, Dalmace atque Groace, et dominator de la quarte
partie et demi de tot l'enmire de Romanie, sauvement, honor,
vie, et victoire. Saint Marc, tu le aie,'[10] who, hearing,
could have doubted that Venice, defier of Rome and conqueror
of Constantinople, was the finest, richest, most beautiful,
and most powerful city in the world?

But was she? Listen and judge. Thousands of miles away from
Venice, across the lands and seas of Asia, a little south of
the Yangtze River and close to the sea stood the city of
Kinsai or Hangchow, the capital of the Sung emperors, who
ruled Southern China, not yet (in 1268) conquered by the
Tartars.[11] Like Venice, Kinsai stood upon lagoons of water
and was intersected by innumerable canals. It was a hundred
miles in circuit, not counting the suburbs which stretched
round it, and there was not a span of ground which was not
well peopled. It had twelve great gates, and each of the
twelve quarters which lay within the gates was greater than
the whole of Venice. Its main street was two hundred feet
wide, and ran from end to end of the city, broken every four
miles by a great square, lined with houses, gardens, palaces,
and the shops of the artisans, who were ruled by its twelve
great craft gilds. Parallel with the main street was the
chief canal, beside which stood the stone warehouses of the
merchants who traded with India. Twelve thousand stone
bridges spanned its waterways, and those over the principal
canals were high enough to allow ships with their tapering
masts to pass below, while the carts and horses passed
overhead. In its market-places men chaffered for game and
peaches, sea-fish, and wine made of rice and spices; and in
the lower part of the surrounding houses were shops, where
spices and drugs and silk, pearls and every sort of
manufactured article were sold. Up and down the streets of
Kinsai moved lords and merchants clad in silk, and the most
beautiful ladies in the world swayed languidly past in
embroidered litters, with jade pins in their black hair and
jewelled earrings swinging against their smooth cheeks.[12]

On one side of this city lay a beautiful lake (famous in
Chinese history, and still one of the fairest prospects upon
earth), studded with wooded islands, on which stood pavilions
with charming names: 'Lake Prospect', 'Bamboo Chambers', 'The
House of the Eight Genii', and 'Pure Delight'. Here, like the
Venetians, the men of Kinsai came for pleasure parties in
barges, nobly hung and furnished, the cabins painted with
flowers and mountain landscapes, and looking out they saw on
one side the whole expanse of the city, its palaces, temples,
convents, and gardens, and on the other the stretch of clear
water, crowded with coloured pleasure boats, over which came
echoing the high, clear voices and the tinkling instruments
of the revellers. There is no space in which to tell of the
King's palace, with its gardens and orchards, its painted
pavilions, and the groves where the palace ladies coursed the
game with dogs, and, tired of the pastime, flung off their
robes and ran to the lake, where they disported themselves
like a shoal of silver fishes. But a word must be said of the
junks, which came sailing into the harbour four and twenty
miles away, and up the river to the city; and of the great
concourse of ships which came to Zaiton (perhaps the modern
Amoy), the port of the province. Here every year came a
hundred times more pepper than came to the whole of
Christendom through the Levantine ports. Here from Indo China
and the Indies came spices and aloes and sandalwood, nutmegs,
spikenard and ebony, and riches beyond mention. Big junks
laded these things, together with musk from Tibet, and bales
of silk from all the cities of Mansi[C], and sailed away in
and out of the East India Archipelago, with its spice-laden
breezes billowing their sails, to Ceylon. There merchants
from Malabar and the great trading cities of southern India
took aboard their cargoes and sold them in turn to Arab
merchants, who in their turn sold them to the Venetians in
one or other of the Levantine ports. Europeans who saw Zaiton
and the other Chinese seaports in after years were wont to
say that no one, not even a Venetian, could picture to
himself the multitude of trading vessels which sailed upon
those eastern seas and crowded into those Chinese harbours.
They said also with one accord that Kinsai was without doubt
the finest and richest and noblest city in the world. To the
men of Kinsai, Venice would have been a little suburb and the
Levant a backyard. The whole of the east was their trading
field, and their wealth and civilization were already old
when Venice was a handful of mud huts peopled by fishermen.

[Footnote C: Mansi or Manji was southern China and Cathay was
northern China, the boundary between them lying along the
River Hoang-Ho on the east and the southern boundary of
Shensi on the west.]

Nor was Kinsai alone and unmatched in all its wonder and
beauty, for a three days' journey from it stood Sugui, which
today we call Suchow, lying also on the great canal, with its
circumference of twenty miles, its prodigious multitudes
swarming the streets, its physicians, philosophers, and
magicians; Sugui, with the ginger which was so common that
forty pounds of it might be bought for the price of a
Venetian silver groat, the silk which was manufactured in
such vast quantities that all the citizens were dressed in it
and still ships laden with it sailed away; Sugui under whose
jurisdiction were sixteen wealthy cities, where trade and the
arts flourished. If you had not seen Hangchow, you would have
said that there was no city in the world, not Venice nor
Constantinople nor another worthy to be named in the same
breath with Sugui. The Chinese indeed, seeing the riches and
beauty of these two cities, doubted whether even the pleasant
courts of heaven could show their equal and proudly quoted
the proverb:

_Shang yeu t'ien t'ang,
Hia yeu Su Hang_.

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