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AN ESSAY on the Spiritual Life of Mediaeval England
IT is only very gradually that we are obtaining a real knowledge of the Middle Ages. Hitherto it has been one of those subjects which no one could approach without getting into a passion. Just as no one can talk soberly of Mary, Queen of Scots, so it would appear as if few could keep their tempers in speaking or writing of the mediaeval time. The fact is that it is only by little that we can understand a period so very different from our own. A chaotic time is always a time of great contrasts, when profound ignorance exists side by side with considerable learning in individual instances, when heresies are wild and monstrous, while faith is touchingly simple and devoted. The real difficulty is to estimate the condition of the masses. It requires a patient spirit of research into minute details and dry statistics, united with a reverential admiration, a sifting criticism as well as a devout imagination, to avoid overweighing isolated instances and attaching undue importance to outstanding and striking features. I am not going to enter upon this dangerous ground. My only anxiety is to protest against what I cannot but consider a great error, both historically and ecclesiastically, the assumption that the Middle Ages are the model time of Christianity. It matters little what a man thinks about mediaeval architecture, vestments and embroidery, but it does matter a good deal what principles a man holds as to what may be called the philosophy of Church History. If he conceives the grand story of God’s Church as though it were a pyramid, the apex of which is formed by the Middle Ages, while modern Christendom is on the downward side, then his whole view of Christianity is wrong. The Church never grows old, and it has advantages in the nineteenth century which it had not in the thirteenth. What, however, strikes a student of history most forcibly is that the more minutely we know the ages which are past, the more we learn the oneness of the spirit amidst all outward differences of form. We are every day obtaining more knowledge about the Middle Ages. Much has come to light since, thirty years ago, I wrote some “Lives of English Mediaeval Saints” at Littlemore, and, little as I have been able to follow the progress of history since then, I have seen enough to acknowledge that recent publications have brought with them the conviction that there was far more interior and mystical life amongst our ancestors than appeared at first sight.
Very much has been done for us by such learned bodies as the Early English Text Society, and by such men as Pfeiffer in Germany and Lecoy de la Marche in France. Now we not only possess sermons like those of St Bernard addressed to monks in the cloister, but we have the identical vernacular sermon which roused to passionate grief the mediaeval sinner, and drew tears of sweet devotion from the eyes of the citizens of Cologne, Paris and London, or the peasants of country parishes in the Black Forest or the Weald of Kent. We have the English prayers which were said before the Rosary was invented, and the devotions which touched the hearts of men and women living in the midst of that world which seems so strange and so far off to us. I must confess that without any depreciation of our grand old Cathedrals, “The Wooing of our Lord” and “The Ancren Riwle” have more charms for me than a thousand painted windows. I know the thoughts which flowed from hearts which have long since ceased to beat, and I can understand, as I never did before, the grim old warriors and their wives who look so unearthly side by side upon their tombs. One touch of grace makes me feel akin to them.
The perusal of this literature has, however, far more than a sentimental interest. It has now become simply ludicrous to look upon the devotional ideas of the Middle Ages as made up of indulgences and gifts to monasteries. These, of course, had their right place, as they have now; but, if ever it was doubtful, no one now can doubt that the mediaeval sinner knew quite as well as the gentleman of the nineteenth century that if he offended God and did not resolve never to offend Him again, he would infallibly be lost, though he left all his lands to the neighbouring convent. Priests might sing Requiems, and nuns might recite their Office, but nought could avail the impenitent before the judgement seat of Christ. If any man doubt it, let him read a sermon preached by Berthold of Regensburg, somewhere near Toggenburg or Sargans, not far from where the railway now skirts the lovely lake of Wallen. The barefooted Franciscan introduces, in his dramatic way, a man who had kept possession of ill-gotten gains rising up in the midst of the congregation, and saying: “Ho! Brother Berthold, I have done good to the brotherhood, and I make my confession every year; I have often entertained you at my house; I am in the confraternity, and have besought your prayers, that when I am dead you may watch over my body with song and lections.” “Thou hast done well,” is the Brother’s answer, “and as soon as thou art dead we will sing for thee, and read long vigils, and chant beautiful Masses for thy soul, and loud Requiems, and bring thee in procession from thy parish church into our minster, and lay thee before the altar. But, I tell thee, if thou hast not restored what thou hast robbed, then, if all the tears and the raindrops which were ever shed or rained since the world began were turned into monks and brothers, grey monks and black, Preachers and Minorites—yea, into patriarchs and prophets, martyrs and confessors, widows and virgins, and if they were to read and to sing and weep tears of blood before God for thee to the day of judgement, they would do thee no more good than if they did all this for the foul fiend.” Such was mediaeval doctrine in the year 1256. Moreover, it results from many hitherto unknown documents, that there was much more of what we should now call spirituality everywhere in the Middle Ages than even Catholics were disposed to think. It is even plain that nations were not reduced to one uniform standard. There was, for instance, a type of devotion which was peculiarly English, and the object of the present essay is to point this out. Of course, I can only treat the subject cursorily, for want of space, and I will confine myself to one portion of mediaeval life intimately connected with the book which is here presented to the reader.
Very little is known of Walter Hilton, the author of the “Scale or Ladder of Perfection.” It is very likely that more might be known if any one took the trouble to search the manuscripts of the British Museum. Something perhaps also might be done towards amending the text of this book if the edition of 1659, of which this is a reprint, were compared with the old black letter of Wynkyn de Worde. The present edition,11 It should be remembered that the book was written in the fourteenth century, and the reader must expect inaccuracies which would not be tolerated now. For instance, I would mention the author’s views about the sins of heathens, and inadequate notions of the Sacrament of Penance. however, has solely a spiritual, not a critical object, and, therefore, I confine myself to the little which lies on the surface of history about this mystical writer, without inquiring further. Fortunately, Father Guy has lately, in his excellent edition of “The Scale of Perfection,” thrown light on the life of Walter Hilton, by proving that he did not belong to the Carthusian Order, but was a Canon of Thurgarton, in Nottinghamshire. Tanner had already published an extract from a manuscript, which gave 1395 as the year of his death. No one, however, had as yet perceived that this fact disproves the ordinary account of his having been a member of Henry VI’s Carthusian monastery at Sheen, since that house was not founded till several years later. It might still be argued that he belonged to some other house of the Order. As, however, there is no authority for his having been a Carthusian except the erroneous account of his having belonged to Sheen, and as the passage quoted by Tanner distinctly affirms him to have died at Thurgarton, Father Guy seems to me to have sufficiently proved his point. It is not hard to see how the mistake arose. Walter Hilton had evidently a great devotion to the Carthusian Order, and there is still extant in manuscript a panegyric of it, addressed to Adam Horsley, an officer of the King’s Exchequer, who by his advice became a disciple of St Bruno.22 This treatise exists in manuscript in the library of Merton College. Mr Bliss, one of the librarians of the Bodleian, has kindly examined it, and assures me that it nowhere implies that Hilton himself belonged to the Order. On the other hand, we shall presently see abundant proof that the devotion of the Carthusians to Walter Hilton was no less great. There was something in the “Scale of Perfection” which attracted the monks whom the Christian instincts of Henry VI planted in the neighbourhood of his palace of Richmond, as well as their brethren of the Charterhouse, who kept up a witness for God in the heart of London.
There is, however, an especial reason why the book should have found its way to Sheen. We know from Dugdale that a benefactor of the monastery had assigned out of the manors of Lewisham and Greenwich twenty marks a year for the maintenance of an anchoret, whose cell was in its precincts. Thus there dwelt in the midst of the Carthusians one of those recluses to whose instruction the book is dedicated, and a description of whom will form a considerable part of this essay.
Now it is not a little strange that a large portion of English vernacular literature has direct reference to this form of the solitary life. We possess, besides Hilton’s “Scale of Perfection,” two other most remarkable books, addressed to or written by anchoresses. They will serve as specimens of the spiritual life of our ancestors at several very striking periods.
It is very remarkable that the most startling form of the life of the desert saints should have continued in England up to the very moment of the Reformation. The Anchorets or Anchoresses (for there were solitaries of both sexes) were more lonely than hermits in the sense that they were far more of recluses. The hermit lived, it is true, in an out of the way place, in a forest, or in one of those many uncultivated spots of which an English common or down are the sole relics, but which were easily to be found in a country not yet entirely cultivated; while the anchorets were commonly attached to a church, and were thus not far from their fellowmen. They were, however, immured within the four walls of their habitation, while the hermit was a free denizen of the woods. As we know from St Godric, he might have his garden and his cow. The anchorets, on the contrary, were strictly confined to their cells. They were the descendants of solitaries like St Thais and those other recluses of whom we read in the annals of the Nile desert, who were strictly shut up in their hut and only held conversation with others through a window, which also served as a passage for their food. This sort of life, then, was by no means peculiar to the Oriental contemplative who fled from the old worn-out world of a decrepit civilization. The same taste for solitude in its most extreme form was a part of the young and vigorous life of those Teutonic nations whom Christianity converted after the Roman and Hellenic culture had disappeared. While the blood of the old Vikings was still fresh in their veins, men and women left the brilliant and varied world of the Middle Ages, which was still full of life and movement, to shut themselves in a cell, with no prospect but the black yews and crosses of the church-yard. This was a solitude far deeper than that of the great monasteries, each of which was a little world. It is evident that these recluses were by no means rare. There is many a foundation on record for the perpetual entertainment of a recluse.33 Many of these particulars are taken from the very interesting account of the Anchorets in Dr Rock’s “Church of our Fathers.” Several Pontificals contain a regular office for these enclosures. Very often the anchoret was a chaplain attached to a church, who said Mass in his cell. The anchoress was more commonly near a church, into which she could look through a window, and thus take part in its holy ceremonies. Incidental mention is often made of such recluses in the troubled history of the times. Two anchorets were burned in the church at Mantes, when William the Conqueror set fire to the town. Richard II, before setting out on his dangerous encounter with Wat Tyler, went to confession to the anchoret in Westminster Abbey. It is probable that these holy men were often spiritual directors, while, as we shall presently see, many souls in sorrow and trouble, came to the window of the maiden anchoress for advice and consolation. It is true that from their very position the recluses were exposed to great temptations. Sometimes hypocrites were to be found among them, as is known from the life of St Stephen of Obazine, where we hear of a pretended anchoret who decamped with sums of money entrusted to him. The life is more intelligible in the case of a priest who had the adorable Sacrifice to offer up, confessions to hear, and Office to recite; but what would be the occupation of the hearts and brains of many an English maiden during the long days and nights which she thus spent in the narrow circle of the four walls which thus encaged her? What spells did she use to cool the restless fever in her veins? This is revealed to us by those treatises which we are now to consider.
The first is the “Ancren Riwle,” a book for anchoresses, first published by the Camden Society. The authorship of this remarkable book is very uncertain, or rather it is unknown. There is not a vestige of evidence to connect it with St Richard of Chichester, to whom it has been ascribed. On the faith of a manuscript, it has been assigned to Simon of Ghent Bishop of Salisbury, and supposed to have been written by him for some sisters living at Tarant in Dorsetshire. It has also been contended that Richard Poore, Bishop of the same See, was its author. The only thing that is certain is that it was written by a Dominican, for the list of prayers which the writer enumerates as having been in use among the lay brothers of his Order, are nearly identical with those ordered in the Rule of St Dominic.44 Compare “Ancren Riwle,” p. 24, with Brockie, tom. IV, 121. It is also plain, from p. 38 of the Riwle, that the author did not believe the Immaculate Conception. As the Black Friars did not come to England till 1221, the book could not have been originally written for the sisters at Tarant, who before that date are known to have been Cistercian and not recluses; nor can one of the above-named prelates be its author, for they never belonged to the Order. Whoever was its author, it is evident that it must have been written before French had penetrated to any great extent into the English tongue. A few such expressions as Deulefet (Dieu le fait) and “sot” (foolish), show the presence of the Norman; and “annui” proves how early an importation from France was weariness of spirit in England. But the newness of words of French origin proves how little two centuries of Norman rule had succeeded in Romanizing the old language of the Saxon. Though the recluses to whom the book is addressed evidently could read French, yet the whole language and tone of thought is essentially English. The anchoresses, then, were English girls, in the thirteenth century. Their very names are unknown, though at that time, probably in the reign of our Henry III, their renunciation of the world was much spoken of among our ancestors. “Much word is of you, how gentle women ye be, for godliness and for nobleness yearned after by many, sisters of one father and one mother, in the blossom of your youth having forsaken all the world’s blisses, and become anchoresses.” A rich neighbour sent them all necessaries “from his hall.” They had maidens to wait upon them, and to provide all that they wanted from without. They themselves, however, never stepped beyond the threshold of their hermitage. One window looked into the church, and from thence they assisted at the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At another window, answering to the grill of an enclosed convent, they gave audience to visitors; but from the moment of their seclusion they never left their house, till they were carried out for burial.
What could be the meaning of this apparition in the bustling times of the thirteenth century. Though society was gradually settling down, yet it was a restless age. Men did not travel for pleasure, nor were there yearly migrations to the seaside; yet there was still a good deal of wandering. The great migrations of nations were over long before, and the majority of the agricultural population was still practically tied to the soil; yet crusades and pilgrimages often drew men to the far East and across the Alps. The scholar wandered from university to university for knowledge; the merchant was not tied to his desk, but travelled from fair to fair with all his precious wares; the minstrel disseminated news, and sung his ballads. There was a world then, with pomps and vanities, as there is now; a gay, parti-coloured, motley world, at which the Church frowned and preached. The eternal war between God and the world was going on. It is quite true there was less of the chronic excitement which is now wearing the strength of souls with its wasting fever. Pleasures were intermittent, and life more even.55 Chaire Française au Moyen Age, 414. Balls were few, and generally took place in the daytime; public tournaments were few and far between. Yet society was still heaving with conflicting elements. Archbishops were often in exile, Emperors were under the ban of the Church; the Pope himself oftener in Viterbo than in Rome. English barons were harassing their king with Oxford Provisions; Simon de Montfort was devising a real English Parliament where the middle classes were represented. All the while these maidens of the period were praying to God day and night.
This is the secret of their life. Wherever men believe in prayer, you are sure to have the monastic life in some shape or other. If they have none, they will soon cease to believe in prayer, as is fast becoming the case in all Protestant countries. Wherever the Christian idea is strong, men who are by their position necessarily involved in the strife of the world will be glad to know that men and women who are separated from its turmoils and its sins are offering prayers to God for them.
It is plain that such was the occupation, and such the idea of the anchoress. It is also true that they did a great deal more than pray. The very dangers against which the author of her rule warns her are a proof that all had many visitors. He warns her against becoming a “babbling” or “gossiping anchoress,” a variety of the species evidently drawn from the life; a recluse whose cell was the depository of all the news of the neighbourhood at a time when newspapers did not exist. Her habitation is not to be the storehouse where the neighbours placed objects of value, that they might be safe from the robber’s hand. All this proves that the good anchoress had means of exercising charity towards her fellow creatures. Many a sorrowing soul came to the window, and received balm for her wounded spirit from behind the black curtain and the white cross which hung there. Through her servants she might even practise hospitality to those who wanted it, and they might act as schoolmistresses to little girls who otherwise would frequent schools where boys were taught. All this is quite true, yet it is plain that the chief business of the anchoress was prayer.
It is very difficult for men living in the modern world to understand a life of prayer; yet they must accept it as a real fact. Thousands of Christians have lived such a life without becoming either praying machines like the Buddhists or fakirs like the Brahmins. The principle of Christian asceticism is as far apart from Manicheism as possible. It is simply the principle of expiatory suffering and prayer involved in the very idea of the sacrifice of Christ. The gulf which separates the anchoress from the fanatic is the love of Jesus. Of course this is nothing new to Catholics. Yet I think that even Catholics are not aware to what extent this is true of mediaeval devotion, and above all of England. Looking at the England of to-day it is very difficult to realize the fact that, whilst such a feeling towards our Lord is the very foundation of all Christian devotion, there is undoubtedly a kind of tender, pathetic love which is to be found in old English writers, and which is peculiarly their own. If I were asked to select the grace which is prominent in their writings, I should say that it was piety in the sense in which the word is applied to the gift of the Holy Ghost. The literature which is now before us is an excellent specimen of this spirit, because of the great interior freedom which was allowed to anchorets. They were less liturgical, and had fewer regulations than the religious Orders. “In this wise,” says the Rule, “answer to him that asketh you of your Order, and whether it is white or black; say that ye are both, through the grace of God, of St James’s order, about which he wrote, Immaculatum se custodire ab hoc saeculo, that is, as I said before, ‘From the world to keep himself clean and unstained.’ Herein is religion, and not in the white hood nor in the black, nor in the white nor in the grey cowl. Thus it is in a convent; but wherever woman liveth or man liveth by himself alone, eremite or anchoret, on outward things whereof no scandal cometh, he need lay little stress.”66 Ancren Riwle, p. 13. The anchoress had no peculiar habit, and her office was, as has been said, not that of the choir, but that of the lay brothers. She is encouraged to say English prayers.77 P. 291. At midday she made a meditation on the crucifix. Holy meditations are especially recommended to her.88 P. 241. Though, according to the practice of the Church at the time, she made only fifteen Communions a year, yet there is a marked devotion to the Blessed Sacrament throughout the treatise. Its perpetual presence in the church is held out as a refuge against temptation, and it is plain that from the window which looked into the church, the anchoress often knelt in prayer, with her eyes fixed upon the altar where Jesus lay in the Sacrament of His love. Let me give a few specimens of these meditations of the thirteenth century. These then were the veritable thoughts which went through the hearts of English anchoresses as they knelt before the crucifix five hundred years ago:
“Jesus; true God! God’s Son! Jesus, true God, true Man! Man, maiden-born! Jesus, my holy love, my own sweetness! Jesus, mine heart, my joy, my soul’s health! Jesus, sweet! Jesus, my love, my light, my healing oil, my honey-drop! Thou all that I hope in! Jesus, my weal, my winsomeness, blithe bliss of my breast! Jesus, teach me that Thou art so soft, and so sweet, yet, too, so lovely and so lovesome that the Angels ever behold Thee, and yet are never full of looking on Thee! Jesus, all fair, before whom the sun is but a shadow, for she loseth her light and becometh ashamed of her darkness before Thy bright face. Thou that givest her light, and whose is all that brightness, enlighten my dark heart. Give brightness to Thy bower, even my soul that is sooty. Make her worthy to be Thy sweet abode. Kindle me with the blaze of Thy enlightening love. Let me be Thy bride, and learn me to love Thee, the loving Lord! Wo that I am so strange with Thee; but as Thou hast bodily separated me from the world, separate me eke in heart; turn me altogether to Thee, with true love and belief.”99 This interpretation is rather different from that of the learned translator of the “Riwle.”
In another place, after a beautiful and minute description of the crucifixion, and how the “hellbairns” betrayed and crucified Him, she breaks out: “Ah! Jesus, my life’s love, what heart is there that will not break when he thinketh hereof; how Thou, that art the Saviour of mankind, and the remedy for all bales, didst thole such shame for the honour of mankind. Men speak oft of wonders and of strange things divers and manifold that have befallen, but this was the greatest wonder that ever befell upon earth. Yea, wonder above wonders that that renowned Kaiser, crowned in Heaven, maker of all that is made, to honour His foes would hang between two thieves. Ah, how can I live for ruth that see my darling on the rood, and His limbs so drawn that I may tell each bone in His body! Ah, how do they now drive the iron nails through Thy fair hands into the hard rood and through Thy noble feet! Ah, now from those hands and feet so lovely streams the blood so ruefully! Ah, now they offer to my love, who says He thirsts, two evil drinks in His blood-letting, vinegar, sourest of all drinks, mingled with gall, that is the bitterest of all things! Ah, now, sweet Jesus, yet besides all Thy woe, to eke it out with shame and mockery, they laugh Thee to scorn when Thou hangest on the rood! Ah that lovely body that hangs so ruefully, so bloody, and so cold! Ah, how shall I live, for now dies my love for me on the dear rood, hangs down His head, and sends forth His soul? But it seems to them that He is not yet fully tormented, nor will they let the pitiful body rest in peace. They bring forth Longinus with the broad sharp spear. He pierces His side, cleaves the heart, and there come flowing out of that wide wound the Blood that bought us, the water that washes the world of guilt and sin. Ah, sweet Jesus, Thou openest for me Thy heart, that I may know Thee truly, for there I may openly see how much Thou lovedst me. With wrong should I refuse Thee my heart, since Thou hast bought heart for heart. Jesus, sweet Jesus, thus Thou foughtest for me against my soul’s foes. Thou didst settle the contest for me with Thy body, and hast made of me, a wretch, Thy beloved and Thy spouse. Brought Thou hast me from the world to Thy bower. I may there so sweetly kiss Thee, and embrace Thee, and of Thy love have ghostly liking. What may I suffer for Thee for all that Thou didst thole (endure) for me? But it is well for me that Thou be easy to satisfy. A wretched body and a weak I bear upon earth, and that, such as it is, I have given Thee and will give Thee to Thy service. Let my body hang with Thy body nailed on the rood, and enclosed within four walls, and hang I Will with Thee, and never more leave my cross till that I die.”
These extracts suffice to give us an insight into the inner life of the anchoresses of the thirteenth century. They were supported in their long imprisonment by the love of our Lord. Their thoughts were fed by the image of Jesus. This is expressed in characteristic words: “After the death of an earnest knight man hangeth high in church his shield to his memory. All so is this shield, that is, the crucifix, set in church in such place that it may soonest be seen, for to think thereby on the knightship of Jesus Christ which He did on the rood.” Here is evidently a passionate, chivalrous love of our Lord. The Rule is very full of child-like piety, and at the same time of shrewd common sense. Its whole tone is as different as possible from that of the hermit of modern fancy. There are no images of Alexandrian orgies, no hobgoblins worse than the anchoress’s cat, which is especially exempt from the ban which proscribes pet animals.1010 P. 417. She is nothing but a simple girl, who has given up the free life of English country maidens for the love of Christ.
Very different is the next anchoress who comes under our consideration. One of the most remarkable books of the Middle Ages is the hitherto almost unknown work called “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love made to a devout servant of our Lord, called Mother Juliana, an Anchoress of Norwich.”1111 Blomfield, in his History of Norfolk, p. 546, mentions a MS., apparently existing in his day, and belonging to a clergyman of the name of Peck, author of “The Antiquities of Stamford.” The book was first published by Cressy in 1670, and reprinted in 1843. It contains visions and passages of such beauty as to rival the revelations of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. We shall find it well worth studying.
But little is known of Mother Juliana. Her very name has been hitherto unnoticed. It appears, however, most probable that she is the Juliana Lampit to whom a knight, Shakespeare’s “good Sir Thomas Erpingham,”1212 Sir Thomas Erpingham has the credit of having been a partisan of Wycliffe. That for twenty-eight years before his death he was a good Catholic is certain. From the year 1400 he was an intimate friend of the Bishop of Norwich, the great enemy of the Lollards. He is said to have built a gate at the west end of the Cathedral as an atonement for his errors. In the same will there is a legacy for Masses for his soul, and special bequests to each Monk.—Blomfield, 372, 526. who commanded the English archers at Agincourt, left a legacy in his will in 1424. Her cell was at the east end of the church-yard of St Julian’s Church at Norwich.1313 It is true that Juliana Lampit is there said to be the recluse of Carrow (v. Blomfield, p 515). The church of St Julian, however, belonged to the nunnery of Carrow, and therefore the recluse might very well have been called by that name.—Pp. 545, 546, 862, where 1528 is evidently a misprint for l428. She was thirty years old and a half in May, 1373, and, as she appears to have died in 1443, she must have lived to be a hundred. She thus lived through some of the most stirring times of English history. She saw Poitiers and Agincourt, and the death of Joan of Arc.
Nothing can show more forcibly how profoundly the minds of men in the fourteenth century were stirred down to their lowest depths than the appearance in an obscure anchoress of those fundamental questions concerning good and evil, which, however laid to rest in times of peaceful faith, are sure to start up afresh whenever the minds of men are strongly moved. We know that the time was marked by an outburst of mystical life in Germany, and that Eckhart, Tauler and the Blessed Henry Suso are proofs of the existence of a deeply speculative as well as religious spirit; but we were not prepared to find it in England. This is the more remarkable because there is no trace of any connexion between the German and English movement. In one short passage alone, Juliana, in the crude English expression, “unmade kind is God,”1414 P. 157. might seem to give utterance to the doctrine so prominent in Eckhart that creatures, considered as eternally present to God’s mind, are identical with God. It was such expressions as these which drew upon the Dominican the censure of the Church, which, after his submission, he modified, and which reappear in writers of his school, such as the Blessed Henry Suso, but with explanations which render them harmless. Their occurrence in Mother Juliana is very remarkable. We might be tempted to suppose that they were an importation into Norwich through the immigration of Flemish weavers. We must, however, remember that this school of mysticism, represented by Ruysbrock, appeared later in Flanders than in the Rhineland. These views, then, are only another proof, among many, of the simultaneous appearance of ideas in places unconnected with each other. Like volcanoes, distant from each other, bursting out into flame at one and the same moment, they reveal the existence of some fiery depths at work in the very heart of Christendom. In Juliana’s mind, however, this view of creation is only subordinate to that which absorbs and agonizes her whole being—the mystery of the existence of sin. Like the faces of fiends which grin in stone down upon us from the roof of a Gothic cathedral, the thought haunted her cell and mocked her at her prayers. In her mind it does not take the shape of the modern difficulty of the existence of suffering, eternal or temporal. It is true that even in this shape the difficulty was not entirely unknown to the Middle Ages. In Dante’s great poem, for instance, the question of the eternal destiny of the heathen is treated with a freedom which we should not have expected. Even in the preceding century Brother Berthold is obliged to answer both popular and learned objections to the doctrine of everlasting punishment.1515 Pfeiffer, p. 386. This, however, is never doubted by Mother Juliana. With her the difficulty is the possibility of the existence of such a horror as sin in creatures, which, even in the natural order, are so connected with God that in Him they “move and have their being.” Above all, in the supernatural order, how could there be sin in souls predestinated to heaven? “How may this be? For I know by the common teaching of holy Church, and by mine own feeling, that the blame of our sins continually hangeth upon us from the first man unto the time when we come up into Heaven. And between these two contraries my reason was greatly troubled by my blindness, and could have no rest, for dread that His blissful presence should pass from my sight, and I to be left in unknowing how He beheld us in our sin. My longing endured, Him continually beholding; and yet I could have no patience in great fear and perplexity.” Her mind is torn because she must hate sin, “as holy Church teacheth,” yet that hateful thing exists in the predestinate.1616 P. 110. In vain she takes refuge in the views of the schoolmen that sin has “no manner of substance, ne no part of being, ne it might not be known but by the pain thereof.”1717 P. 62. It was but poor comfort that sin, being a defect and therefore a negation, can be no object of cognition. The fiend was too powerful to be laid by metaphysical distinctions. Conscience and “the doom of the Church” alike cried out that it was a horrid fact, an “ugly sight,” and that many creatures “shall he damned to Hell without aid, as holy Church teacheth me to believe.”1818 P. 71. The agony of soul still continued: “I cried inwardly with all my might, seeking unto God for help, moaning thus: ‘Ah! Lord Jesus, King of bliss, how shall I be eased?’”1919 P. 111.
This is very different from the “Ancren Riwle.” There we saw none but the ordinary temptations of the soul, “the world and the flesh.” Here is a soul racked by the agony of perplexity, torn by the throes of doubt. It is not the fruit of modern scepticism, “the spirit which always contradicts.” She takes for granted all the grand mysteries of Heaven and earth. It is this very certainty which causes intolerable pain. This soul has a tremendous grasp of the reality of God, which she expresses with terse energy. “The Trinitie is God,” she exclaims, “God is the Trinitie, the Trinitie is our maker, the Trinitie is our keeper, the Trinitie is our everlasting lover, the Trinitie is our endless joy and our blisse, by our Lord Jesus Christ, and in our Lord Jesus Christ; and this was showed in the first sight (vision) and in all. For when Jesus appeareth, the Blessed Trinity is understood as unto my sight.”2020 P. 9. Yet with all this, there was that “ugly sight” of sin, obscuring the very face of God, shaking “the holy Church in sorrow and anguish and tribulation, as men shaketh a cloth in the wind,”2121 P. 63. coming like a dark cloud between her and the crucifix. Truly here is an anchoress worth studying, if only because it gives us a new and unexpected insight into the mediaeval time.
The fact is hers was a dismal age. The more we study history, the more preposterous it seems to lump together into one the whole of those ages commonly called the Ages of Faith. There is as much difference between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries as between the fourteenth and the nineteenth. The power of the Church throughout the Middle Ages has certainly been much exaggerated. There were continual fluctuations of victory and defeat. Even in the thirteenth century she was by no means omnipotent; certainly at the beginning of the fourteenth her influence was sensibly growing less. I wish, however, just now especially to point out that, simultaneously with the fierce attack of Europe on the Papacy, of which the treatment of Boniface VIII by Philip the Fair was the beginning, there came an undoubted outburst of sin, a marked progress in vice. It is absurd to look for the cause of this enmity in the Papacy itself. Boniface laid claim to nothing whatsoever which was not successfully claimed by Innocent III. The causes were to be found in society itself, in profound social changes which were bringing on political revolutions. The unchristian principles which from the first were contained in chivalry, its courts of love, and its impure literature, were now getting entirely the upper hand over its high and virtuous ideal. The germ of all this wickedness had been at an early period brought over to England by the Queen of Henry II, the Eleanor of the South of France. Since John England had been ruled by men who, with all their faults, were good and religious—Henry, Dante’s “king of simple life,”2222 Purg. vii. and the noble Edward, his son; but the brilliancy of Cressy and Poitiers cannot blind us to the licentiousness of the court of Edward III, even though we disbelieve the common story of his affection for the Countess of Salisbury. Minute details on the subject of dress and manners, from contemporaries of Mother Juliana, come to us from too many sources to leave a doubt on the degeneracy of the times. The dress and demeanour of the ladies of the upper classes scandalized the people, and were a distinct change for the worse. “In these days,” says Knighton, “arose a murmur and clamour among the people, that whenever there was a tournament, there came a great concourse of ladies of the court, costly and beautiful, but not of the best of the kingdom, in divers and wonderful rich apparel, in divided tunics, one part of one colour and one of another, with short caps and bands in the manner of cords wound round the head, and zones well bound round with gold or silver, and in pouches across their bodies knives called daggers, and thus they proceeded on chosen coursers or well-governed horses to the place of tournament; and so expended and devastated their goods, and vexed their bodies with scurrilous wantonness, that the murmurs of the people sounded everywhere; and thus they neither feared God nor blushed at the chaste voice of the people.”2323 Quoted in Longman’s Edward, i, 295. Evidently these ladies of the period were worse than their grandmothers. Let any one call to mind the Parson’s sermon in the “Canterbury Tales,” and he will see that this immodesty continued in the reign of Richard II. This change of manners was, however, by no means confined to England. Loud complaints arose from every land in Europe. Dante’s sad and beautiful description of the simplicity of the old Florentine life which he had known in his early years, and his indignant lines against the low dresses introduced among the Florentine ladies of the fourteenth century,2424 Compare Purg. 23 and Par. 15, 16. are too precise to allow us to suppose them to be the product of a morbid mind. The sober prose of the chronicle bears out the language of the poet. “People at this time,” says the Roman author of Rienzi’s life, “began to change much in their habits, both in dress and conduct.” Documents from Pavia, Piacenza and Milan bear witness to the same change for the worse, especially in the modesty of the young.2525 Cantù, Histoire des Italiens, tom. 7, c. 123. As for France, the universal voice accuses it of being the centre of corruption and vice. Already, at the end of the preceding century, a preacher of the south of France attacks customs which only appeared later elsewhere.2626 Chaire Française au Moyen Age. P. 409. Villani traces Florentine degeneracy to the visit of the French in 1384.2727 Cantù, Ibid. The same degeneracy appears in Germany. Landino, a commentator on Dante, mentions a circumstance of German life which resembles St Chrysostom’s invectives against the public baths of the Eastern Empire. The whole subject is thus summed up by a competent writer2828 Schwab, Johannes Gerson, p. 38. : “Since the end of the thirteenth century the comfort and material prosperity of all classes in Italy, the Netherlands, France and Germany were much greater owing to the spread of commerce and intercourse. On all sides are seen a tendency to luxury and a rapid change of fashion which already, under Philip IV, called forth a formal sumptuary ordinance for the nobility, clergy and citizens.” It was just one of those periods in which the heart of Christians like Mother Juliana are profoundly stirred by the sight of the increasing wickedness of mankind.
Nor need we wonder that the knowledge of the wickedness of the world should have reached the cell of the recluse. It so happens that the anchoress lived in the centre of these political revolutions, which were the result of this very degeneracy of chivalry. Norwich, with its 60,000 inhabitants, was the second city in the kingdom, and represented more interests than even London. No one can fail to have been struck with the prominence of financial details in the annals of the reign of Edward III. The great conqueror is forced to leave his great crown and his little crown and his Queen’s crown in pledge, and his nobles as hostages for his debts, before he can set sail from the continent and return to his own kingdom. A great part of his revenues came from taxes on wool, and as Norwich was the great seat of woollen manufactures, it acquired an immense preponderance in an age when almost daily alternations between protectionist and free-trade principles prove the attention paid to its peculiar branch of commerce. The city was therefore always profoundly stirred by England’s revolutions, and wild storms surged up to the very doors of the cell of the Anchoress of Carrow. Every party in the realm was represented there. About seventy years before Juliana’s birth there had been fighting in the streets between the partisans of the Abbey and the citizens. The old-world privileges of the Church, given in times when the monks were almost the only agriculturists, became galling to the rich wool-merchants of Norwich, and a bloody fight had been the result. The agitation had, however, worked deeper down; and a lower stratum of society was in process of upheaval. In the great insurrection of 1381 the French Revolution had been well-nigh anticipated. Two elements of strife were at work, and each affected Norwich. First there was the rebellion of labour against property. The awful visitation of the Black Death had carried off a vast proportion of the ill-fed, comfortless villains. The result was a great rise in wages, which Parliament attempted to keep down by legislation. This produced a long strike among the labourers, who fled from the uncultivated fields and flocked into the towns. From one single manor, that of Cossey, no fewer than eighteen villains in one year fled to Norwich; out of these eight received their freedom on the plea of their having had a domicile for a year and a day. This occurred earlier in the century, but by Juliana’s time hundreds must thus have been turned into free manufacturers instead of serfs. In that one city there were congregated all the conflicting elements of society—the rich Abbey, the wealthy merchant, the Flemish manufacturer and the freed serf. This of itself, however, might have been insufficient to raise the storm if it had not been for a cause to which I have adverted. The increasing and ruinous luxury of the nobles produced a grinding oppression of the poor. This had always been contained in the bosom of feudalism. In that system those who were not possessors of land, the villains and the serfs, had but little to trust to but the conscience of their lord and the customs which regulated their services. As long as the lord had comparatively simple wants, the serf was less oppressed. But when a licentious court showed an example of prodigality, the infection spread through the whole of the feudal hierarchy. The knight still swore to defend the poor and the oppressed, but when he wanted money for his multiplied needs, the temptation to wring it out of the vassal was too strong to be resisted. Here again we have a cloud of witnesses from all sides. The evil had begun earlier in France. “The order of knighthood,” says James of Vitry in a sermon, “is now-a-days in many cases corrupt; they use their strength like furious madmen. Many harry their vassals by corvŽes, as they are called, and give them no bread to eat.”2929 Chaire Française, 357. “Let the serf be too happy that I have left him his calf and spared his life,” said a nobleman, who had carried off a poor man’s cow. Matters had become ten times worse at the period of which we are writing. The world had less conscience, and there are fewer stories on record of the signal punishment of the oppressor. “Jacques Bonhomme will not pull out his purse unless you beat him, but Jacques Bonhomme will pull out his purse because he will be beaten,” was the common talk. 3030 Longman’s Life of Edward III, ii, 24. Jacques Bonhomme took a fearful revenge. The horrible rebellion of the Jacquerie was the result. In England it took a longer time to stir up these elements of horror. There was a better feeling amongst us, and the Commons in the Good Parliament presented a petition for a law to forbid the lords of the demesnes to exercise sovereign authority by taxing the villain.3131 Ibid., 259. The king answered that he would act as seemed good to him. The answer cost England a civil war. Six years later London was in the hands of Wat Tyler at the head of the Kentish serfs, and the blood of the Archbishop of Canterbury stained the streets of the city. Men perpetrated horrible crimes, but they were maddened by an unjust tax, levied by officials who insulted the honour of those who were nearest and dearest to them. Here again Norwich was in the midst of the fight. A dyer of Norwich was at the head of the peasants, and its Bishop, of the noble house of Spencer, in full armour, with a few lancers, rode and hewed down the insurgents, and arrested their leader. While all these horrors were enacted at the city gates, Juliana was leading her life of miraculous prayer. Amidst decaying chivalry and chaotic revolt the saints of God were suffering. It is remarkable that on the same blood-stained flats of Norfolk, over which formerly, in quieter times, St Walstan, of the royal house of Cedric, had driven the plough as a poor labourer, now in this most troubled century, an English peasant maiden, Jane the Meatless, was adoring and loving the Blessed Sacrament, which for many years was almost her only food.
Into this witch’s cauldron was thrown another ingredient. Up to this time Europe can hardly be said to have given birth to an indigenous heresy. Such errors as those of Berengarius and Gilbert de la PorŽe were chiefly confined to the schools, and only affected the laity in a comparatively small degree. Heresies of the Albigensian class were the descendants of Gnostics and Manichees.3232 It is true that Malespina mentions Epicureans (Muratori, 8, 933), even in the Countess Matilda’s time, but there seem to have been heretics of an older type to whom Malespina gives a name more familiar to himself. Public opinion was against them, and the very jongleurs in their songs satirized the Vaudois. We find, however, in the fourteenth century the beginning of a distinct revolt of the cultivated class against Christianity. They are already numerous enough to fill the sixth circle of Dante’s Hell. In the case of Fredrick II it was still possible to refer his scepticism to what has been well called Ghibelline culture. But now out of the dismal tombs arise at once spirits who belonged to both the great parties of the time. Farinata was a Ghibelline, Cavalcante was a Guelph. Hitherto England had been singularly free from intellectual revolts against the Church. The Dominican author of the “Ancren Riwle” thanks God that England is free from heresy. In Mother Juliana’s time, however, the land was stained with native error. It is to the disgrace of Wycliffe that while he taught doctrines which, notwithstanding his disclaimers, struck at the root of all property, he played into the hands of the party of the rapacious nobles, headed by the Duke of Lancaster. The citizens of London rose in disgust against the priest who insulted their bishop and was protected by the man who was the defender of abuses, which the Black Prince rose from his bed of death to oppose in his place in Parliament. We have not, however, anything to do with Wycliffe’s social views. I must advert to the speculative part of his system in order to contrast it with that of the recluse of Norwich, for there is sometimes a coincidence of language which might deceive the unwary. Little do they know of Wycliffe who look upon him as a sort of modern Evangelical because he translated the bible and abused the mendicant Orders. That he was a morning-star of the Reformation we have no difficulty in allowing, a fitting Lucifer for such a day. Some writers have connected him with Ockham, because Merton College had the honour of producing both. In point of fact, the two doctors were at the very opposite extremes of the poles of scholastic thought. Wycliffe identifies nominalism with heresy and held realism in its most intrepid form. “We meet in him,” says a Protestant writer, “with elements which in their logical evolution would have led to Pantheism.” What they did lead to, according to the same authority, was “a denial of free-will” in God and man. So thoroughly and absolutely did he identify in God the idea and the fact, the order of thought and the order of being, that he denies to God the conception of any possible things beyond what is or will be actual. Thus creation, present or future, is the measure of God’s omnipotence. The old metaphysical bull-dog of the North country, the “quidam Borealis” of Walsingham, hung on with all his teeth to his premisses, in spite of the immorality of the conclusion. God, according to him, was neither more nor less free in the creation of the world than in the generation of the Son. I need not say that this is direct Pantheism, since it makes the universe a necessary part of God. Wycliffe saw and was not scared by the fearful danger of throwing the causality of evil upon God. He tries to escape from it, indeed, by the scholastic view that sin is but a negation, and therefore cannot be the object of the Divine ideas. But he did not fear to say that all things happen by absolute necessity.3333 Neander, vol. ix, p. 241, Bohn’s edition. He appends the following note, “Among the forty-five articles attributed to Wycliffe, the proposition, ‘Omnia de necessitate absolute eveniunt,’ might justly be condemned as one actually belonging to him.” Neander is my authority throughout, for I am not acquainted with Wycliffe’s writings. “Accordingly all sin appears to him a necessary thing; all is required in order to the beauty of the universe.” This might have appeared at first sight as unintelligible nonsense, but it has borne a most bitter fruit. Unfortunately a good deal of what some are inclined to dismiss as metaphysical subtlety leads to endless misery, and turns to very intelligible blasphemy. The slightest acquaintance with the schoolmen will enable us to see that Wycliffe’s views are an audacious perversion of scholastic principles. His denial of possible things in God is a shameless use of St Thomas’s “Actus Purus,” and his theory of evil a still more shameless abuse of the view that sin is a defect not a substance.
We are now in a condition to show how groundless is the notion that Mother Juliana’s expressions in the least imply a tendency to the errors of Wycliffe. Both fact and doctrine render such a notion preposterous. It so happens that we have Walsingham’s testimony that “Faith and religion remained inviolate in the diocese of Norwich.” The martial prelate whom we met just now threatened to burn any Lollard whom he caught, and would, without doubt, have kept his word. The recluse was under ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and was too marked a person to escape if her works had had a really Wycliffite tendency. Furthermore, her tender devotion to our Lady, her reverence for the saints, her very mode of life rendered it impossible. Wycliffe denied the necessity of confession, calls the canonization of saints blasphemous, and enclosure within stone walls a result of “the cursed spirit of falsehood.” The only passages which would lend a colour to such an imputation on the recluse are those which we have already quoted, and others3434 For instance, p. 131. which imply strong views about predestination, the impossibility of the ultimate fall of the elect, and the loving care of God for the souls of the elect if they fall into sin. All these coincidences only show how deeply the minds of men were stirred, since we find views on these subjects in the very cell of the recluse. It would be simple ignorance to suppose that such thoughts were confined to Wycliffe, and could only be derived from him. Bradwardine had already made them familiar. How far even the popular mind was tossed about by questions of free-will and grace is plain from the fact that in Chaucer the Nun’s Priest mentions Bradwardine’s book; and the existence of these disputes is thus referred to as well-known to an assembly such as that which composed the Canterbury Pilgrims, to mine host of the Tabard, to the miller and the reeve.
What has already been proved contrary to fact can still be shown to be impossible by a comparison of doctrine. The few coincidences between Mother Juliana and Wycliffe are among the many proofs that the same speculative view often means different things in different systems. Both St Augustine, Calvin and Mahomet believe in Predestination, yet an Augustinian is something utterly different from a Scotch Cameronian or a Mahometan. The same words mean different things in the mouths of different people. The idea which runs through the whole of Mother Juliana is the very contradictory of Wycliffe’s Pantheistic Necesitanarianism, The moment that a man believes in any real sense in a loving God he ceases to be a Pantheist. It is not enough to believe in a beneficent spirit, for universal benevolence may be a blind impulse, but since love is a free gift of self, a spirit who can love is free, and a being who is free is at once personal.3535 “We premise this, that when we attribute Personality to God, we intend to asseverate of Him nothing else than that He is a Being (Wesen) separated from all other existence (Sein), self-subsisting, self-conscious, and free.”—Kleutgen, Theologie, i, 229. In other words, though freedom does not constitute Personality, yet every free intellectual being must be personal. Thus, because the Sacred Humanity was free, it must ipso facto have possessed a personality, i.e., since it had none of its own, that of the Divine Word. The very basis, however, and the essence of Mother Juliana’s views are her belief in the lovingness of God. Few since the beginning of Christianity have spoken of the love of God like this English recluse. After the agony of the black night of sin, her only consolation is to plunge into the great abyss of God’s love. “Thus Jesus Christ, that does good again evil, is our very Mother. We have our being of Him, where the ground of Motherhood beginneth, with all the sweet keeping of love that endlessly followeth. As verily as God is our Father, as verily is God our Mother; and that showeth He in all; and namely in these sweet words there He saith, ‘I it am,’ that is to say, ‘I it am, the might and the goodness of the Fatherhead; I it am, the wisdom and the kindness of the Motherhead; I it am, the light and the grace that is all blessed love; I it am, the Trinity; I it am, the Unity; I it am, the high sovereign goodness of all manner things; I it am that maketh thee to long; I it am, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.’ Our high Father, Almighty God, which is being, He knoweth us and loved us from before any time. Of which knowing in His full deep marvellous charity, by the far-seeing endless counsel of all the blessed Trinity, He would that the Second Person should become our Mother, our Brother, and our Saviour. Whereof it followeth that as verily as God is our Father, verily God is our Mother.” In a perfect rapture of love, she goes on, “Our kind Mother, our gracious Mother, for He would all whole become our Mother in all things; He took the ground of His work full low and full mildly in the maiden’s womb. In this low place He arrayed Him, and dight Him all ready in our poor flesh, Himself to do the service and the office of Motherhead in all things. We wit that all our mothers bear us to pain and to dying, what is that but our very Mother Jesus? He alone beareth us to joy and to endless living, blessed mote He be. Thus He sustained us with Him, in pain and travail, unto the full time that He would suffer the sharpest thorns and grievous pains that ever were or shall be, and died at the last. And when He had done and so borne us to bliss, yet might not all this suffice to His marvellous love. And that He showed in these high ever-passing words of love, ‘If I might suffer more, I would suffer more.’ He might no more die, but He would not stint working. Wherefore Him behoveth to feed us, for the dear-worthy love of motherhood hath made Him debtor to us. The mother may give her child to suck her milk; but our precious Mother Jesus, He may feed us with Himself and doth full continuously and tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament. This is precious food of very life, and with all the sweet sacrament He sustaineth us full mercifully and graciously. And so He meant in these blessed words, when He said, ‘I it am that Holy Church preacheth thee and teacheth thee.’ That is to say, all the health and life of the sacraments, all the virtue and the grace of my word, all the goodness that is ordained in Holy Church to thee, I it am.’ The mother may lay her child tenderly to her breast; but our tender Mother Jesus He may homely lead us into His blessed by His sweet open side, and show us there in party of the Godhead. And that showeth He in the ninth Revelation, giving the same understanding in His sweet word when He saith, ‘Lo how I love thee.’”3636 P. 149. This is the key-note of her whole book, the solution of all her doubts. She attempts no reasoning, and has no logical answer to her difficulties. She simply plunges into the depths of God’s love. “There I was learned that I should only enjoy in our blessed Saviour Jesus, and trust in Him for all things. And thus our good Lord answered to all questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: ’ I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well.” This, after all, is the sole refuge of poor humanity. Yet it is not a mere sentiment. It is based on a deep view of God’s great attributes. God is not merely a benevolent being. She distinguishes His pity from His love. Down in the depths of His eternity there has been a longing, which she calls “a ghostly thirst,” a “love-longing.”3737 P. 67. “For as truly as there is a property (attribute) in God of ruth and pity, as verily there is a property in God of thirst and longing. And this property of longing and thirst cometh of the endless goodness of God; right as the property of pity cometh of His endless goodness; and though He have longing and pity, they are sundry properties (different attributes) as to my sight.”
Put this side by side with Wycliffe’s deep growl at abuses rather than sin, his heaven of brass, and his iron destiny; it looks like and is a different religion. Not only the feeling which actuates, but the intellectual basis which animates it is the direct contradiction of his whole system. She belongs to the genuine school of English mystics which we have pointed out. Her love for Jesus is of the same kind as that found in the “Ancren Riwle.” The supernatural events of her life remind us of what has been often thought to be peculiar to Continental devotion. Here is a poor English recluse, who has visions not unworthy of being read by the side of those of her great contemporary, St Catherine of Siena. This is a phase of English mediaeval life which we little suspected. Juliana is a recluse very different from the creatures of the imagination of writers on comparative morals. So far from being cut off from sympathy with her kind, her mind is tenderly and delicately alive to every change in the spiritual atmosphere of England. Every storm was felt with an electric shock through her inmost being. The earthquake council made the cell of the poor recluse rock to and fro as violently as the stones of old St Paul’s. The four walls of her narrow home seem to be rent and torn asunder, and not only England, but Christendom appears before her view.3838 How accessible were anchoresses to the influence of the outer world is proved by the curious fact that the last anchoress of Carrow was actually perverted by Bilney, and turned Protestant in 1530.—Blomfield, p. 145. It was not the crucifix which came before her in her visions, but the very form of the crucified Jesus, “with the plenteous bleeding of the head, the great drops of blood falling down from under the garland of thorns.” And this was seen at Norwich, the English Manchester of the fourteenth century, when Cressy and Poitiers were still fresh in men’s minds, and the Black Prince was lying sick at Berkhampstead. At that time England had not separated itself from the great stream of Christian life.
A further proof the intimate connection between the spiritual and social life of England is furnished us by the history of the remarkable treatise to which this Essay serves as an introduction. The precise time when it was actually written is unknown; all that is certain is that the “Scale of Perfection” must have been written before 1395, when its author died. As Juliana’s book was written in 1370, it is plain that there cannot have been any great difference in date between the composition of the two works. It tells much for the spiritual life of England that in the fourteenth century such a treatise as the “Scale of Perfection” should have been written. It is, however, to the subsequent history of the book that I wish to point rather than to its origin; it so happens that the period assigned for the commencement of Walter Hilton’s influence coincides with that of the close of Mother Juliana’s life.3939 Blomfield, 546. All that is known is that she was alive in 1443, but was a hundred years old. She had two servants to wait upon her. Unlike Mother Juliana’s book, which remained comparatively unknown, Walter Hilton’s treatise evidently had a wide circulation. The number of existing manuscripts scattered through various cathedral and other libraries bear witness to its popularity. It was translated into Latin by a Carmelite early in the fifteenth century. It was high in repute with the Carthusians, and this in itself is a guarantee of its being extensively read. No order was so respected in England and other Teutonic countries as the Carthusian. Those who speak most mournfully of the bad state of Christendom just before the Reformation, always make an honourable exception of the sons of St Bruno. They were spiritual directors of Gerard Groot in the Low Countries, and of Colet, More and Fisher in England. One of their especial employments was the translation and propagation of good spiritual books, as we know from Surius, through whom Tauler and Henry Suso were made known to the Church in a Latin dress. Walter Hilton was the favourite author of Margaret, Countess of Richmond, the spiritual child of Fisher. The art of printing was as yet in its infancy when the “Scale of Perfection” was at once printed in black letter by Wynkyn de Worde, and other editions rapidly appeared. This, then, is the remarkable fate of this book. A treatise on the spiritual life, originally written by an obscure author in a small house of Augustinian Canons in Nottinghamshire and addressed to the most solitary of all the varieties of monastic life, is chosen to be the guide of good Christians in the courts of kings and in the world. Throughout the dismal wars of the Roses, and the more dismal reign of Henry VIII, many a heart was strengthened and consoled by Walter Hilton. The very copy still exists which must have been in the hands of the martyred Carthusians, the glow from whose pallid faces lit up the cell of Sir Thomas More as he gazed down at them as they were dragged on the hurdle to execution. The selfsame book was to be found in the palace of the mother of Henry VII. How she loved it, the rude lines in Wynkyn de Worde’s edition will testify:
This heavenly book more precious than gold,
Was lately directed with great humility,
For godly pleasure therein to behold
Unto the right, noble Margaret, as ye see,
The King’s Mother of excellent bounty,
Harry the Seventh, that Jesus him preserve,
This mighty Princess hath commanded me
T’ imprint this book her grace for to deserve.
Now, all this is very worthy of remark. Here is a book written for a recluse, yet printed and recommended as a book of devotion, not for the cloister, but for good Christians in the world. This is quite a new feature, and points at once to fact that that the interior life was spreading in England. What is the significance of this fact? Enough has been already said to show that the religious life of the Middle Ages was not the formal ritualism which many have supposed. German scholars have done a vast deal to destroy this illusion by the publication of old religious books in the vernacular tongue. We have only got to look at Mone’s collection of mediaeval hymns, and to observe the frequent notices of translations, not only into German, but into French and Italian, to be convinced that the songs of the Church were accessible to the poor, and even in common use amongst them in their own language. Jacopone de Todi’s beautiful hymns are a proof of the popularity of spiritual songs other than the liturgical hymns of the Breviary. There are extant also hymns sung and prayers said in various languages—French, Provençal, German and English—to be used at the Elevation, the Holy Communion, and on various feasts.4040 V. Mone, i, 286, 293, 254, and Ancren Riwle. Didactic books of devotion in the vernacular tongue, such as Tauler’s “Nachfolge,” “L’Internelle Consolation,” and in English the “Ayenbite of Inwit” or Remorse of Conscience prove that spiritual reading was practiced. It is plain then that our mediaeval ancestors were by no means so chained to the letter, so unspiritual as some have supposed. Nevertheless it is true that the “Scale of Perfection” is a step forward, indicating a greater spread of the spiritual life among Christians in the world.
The fact is that there was arising, at the close of the feudal period, a new class, which had to be legislated for. We often use the terms mediaeval and modern without much reflection on the real difference between society as it was constituted then and now. The feudal society was a great hierarchy of duties. Of course, wherever Christianity exists property must involve duties; in the mediaeval time property and duty were absolutely synonymous. Property was held on condition of certain services, and was forfeited when these were withheld. In theory the feudal sovereign was the owner of the soil, and the nobles held their lands of him on a definite tenure. Combined with this was the view that each noble was despotic on his own land, and administered justice to the serfs who lived upon it. Horridly oppressive and tyrannical as the system became in fact, it was founded on the notion of reciprocal obligations. The noble defended and fought for the serf, who in his turn laboured for the lord. The consequence of this state of things was that there did not exist a single man who had nothing to do. Independently of the absence of available wealth and of means of being comfortable, the very fact of possessing something implied that a man must work. Every little lord who possessed as much as a tower was fully occupied in the administration of justice, in the government of his vassals, and in actual war or the keeping himself ready for it. Robbery, injustice and crime were very possible; idleness could not exist. The result of this was that there was no such thing as a class of persons in society who had a great deal of time on their hands and were not compelled to do anything. In times when money was scarce life was a struggle. Ladies took a personal share in the work of the kitchen, and overlooked their servants from the gallery in the hall. Even hunting was an occupation as well as an amusement; men hunted stags for the sake of the venison, instead of foxes for the love of sport. The fish of the stream and the birds which were struck down by the hawk were an object to the lord. Gardens and parks were few, and forests many. The marks of the plough can still be traced close up to the ruined castle wall. Life was a more earnest, personal affair in the Middle Ages than now.
Gradually this state of things passed away. Warwick the King-maker has been rightly called the last of the Barons. In Henry VI we may consider that we have the last of mediaeval kings. The Middle Ages find their euthanasia in this pallid, saintly monarch, just as a former state of things was closed by St Edward the Confessor. Edward IV, the favourite of the citizens of London, brave, but unchivalrous, faithless, irreligious and unchaste, was a king of a far other type. The wars of the Roses utterly destroyed the old feudal baron. Men were hardly conscious of the change, and the Duke of Norfolk might still boast “that he was as good as a king when he was on his own estate at Norwich.” The dream cost him his head. It was only gradually that men became aware of the vast, silent change which had been consummated. The feudal world had passed away, and modern society had taken its place. As far as concerns us, the result is the total disruption of all necessary connection between property and occupation, the creation of a very large class of men and women who can live, if they please, without doing anything at all. I do not mean to say that any man breathing is born without duties; but I mean that there is a very large class of beings who can eat, drink and perform all the functions of life whether they do their duties or not.
It is evident that this state of things requires something peculiar to meet it. What is to be done with all this superfluity of unemployed life? What is a man thus set free from obligation to do with his time? In the Middle Ages life itself imposed an unvarying rule of living. Is man now to live without a rule? A thousand moral and religious questions start up and cry out for an answer. Things have become possible now which were not possible before. Men and women can spend their lives in an unvarying round of amusements and excitements, even without supposing them to seek vicious pleasures. Theatres, operas, balls, novels—things unknown to their ancestors—may make up their life. Is this right? Is it safe? A most momentous question this, which requires an answer. Here is a new thing upon earth, or at least a state of things which has not existed since the Teutonic nations were converted—the upper classes of society able to live in a constant round of amusement, and thinking themselves satisfactorily sure of salvation, because of the hypothetical absence of great sin. Are unlimited balls and unlimited sacraments compatible? Or is a worldly life a perilous one for those who live it? Or rather ought not Christians to spend more time in prayer, in devotion, in voluntary almsgiving and works of charity, in proportion as they are set free from many duties? Is not life more dangerous and salvation more insecure because of this terrible invasion of the world, with audacious requirements and unblushing exigencies? Considering the cool impudence with which the world insists on his own innocence, nay, has even the impertinence to look upon its general mode of life as a duty to society, it does seem as if this new attitude of the world called for new rules and a greater strictness to counteract its dangers.
Now, the “Scale of Perfection” is valuable because it is an English book containing an answer to this question. If not written for, it was at least adopted by an English princess, a king’s mother, living at court in the reign of Henry VII. In fact, it contains the old English Catholic view before Protestantism existed. The answer to the above question is unequivocal, and is contained in the following words:4141 P. 151. “When men and women who are free from worldly businesses if they will, and may have their needful sustenance without much solicitude about it, especially religious men and women—and other men also in secular estate, that have good abilities and understanding, and may, if they will dispose themselves, come to much grace; these men are more to blame than those who are so busied with worldly things which are so needful to be done. Verily it is perilous for a soul not to seek to make any further progress.” The only safe thing is to “set his heart fully to come to more grace and give himself heartily to prayer, meditating and other good wishes.”
Such was the old Catholic life, before we were corrupted by the society of Protestants. The moral of the book is that a supernatural life is common to all Christians, and that there is no such infinite distinction between Christians in the world and religious. Both, in different degrees and modes, are not safe unless they aim at “profiting in grace.” Of course, much in Walter Hilton’s book is inapplicable to us, yet all who are not repelled by the unusual English will find it a very beautiful spiritual treatise. It is not a regimental book, and contains few rules. No one will find in it “a rule of life.” It is simply occupied in laying down principles. A book written in the fourteenth century cannot be expected to establish minute practical rules for the nineteenth. It will, however, be very valuable as a specimen of the old traditional Catholic spiritual life in England. The basis of all spiritual life in all ages must after all be the same; and this book, written so long ago in the forgotten house of Canons at Thurgarton, may help us now in fighting our battle of life in this very different time. In this respect it will be a lesson to us. Rather mystical than ascetical, it contains an antidote to the prevailing tendency to restless activity, even in devotion. Above all, it is remarkable for containing the old English tradition of a most tender, personal love for our blessed Lord.
Now that we are threatened by a great influx of Protestant morals, through the increasing intercourse of Catholics with the world, it will be well if this book reminds us of our past history. The great apostasy of the Reformation could never have been successful if a terrible outbreak of worldliness had not sapped the first principles of Christian life among the nobility and gentry of England. Nothing will save us now in dangerous times but the supernatural principles of our Faith carried out in our lives.4
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