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This pusillanimity bringeth forth, by the night's fear, a very timorous daughter, a silly wretched girl and ever whining, who is called Scrupulosity, or a scrupulous conscience.

This girl is a good enough maidservant in a house, never idle but ever occupied and busy. But albeit she hath a very gentle mistress who loveth her well and is well content with what she doth—or, if all be not well (as all cannot always be well), is content to pardon her as she doth others of her fellows, and letteth her know that she will do so—yet can this peevish girl never cease whining and puling for fear lest her mistress be always angry with her and she shall severely be chidden. Would her mistress, think you, be likely to be content with this condition? Nay, surely not.

I knew such a one myself, whose mistress was a very wise woman and (a thing which is in women very rare) very mild also and meek, and liked very well such service as she did her in the house. But she so much misliked this continual discomfortable fashion of hers that she would sometimes say, "Eh, what aileth this girl? The elvish urchin thinketh I were a devil, I do believe. Surely if she did me ten times better service than she doth, yet with this fantastical fear of hers I would be loth to have her in mine house."

Thus fareth, lo, the scrupulous person, who frameth himself many times double the fear that he hath cause, and many times a great fear where there is no cause at all. And of that which is indeed no sin, he maketh a venial one. And that which is venial, he imagineth to be deadly—and yet, for all that, he falleth into them, since they are of their nature such as no man long liveth without. And then he feareth that he is never fully confessed nor fully contrite, and then that his sins be never fully forgiven him. And then he confesseth and confesseth again, and cumbereth himself and his confessor both. And then every prayer that he saith, though he say it as well as the frail infirmity of the man will suffer, yet he is not satisfied unless he say it again, and yet after that again. And when he hath said the same thing thrice, as little is he satisfied with the last time as the first. And then is his heart evermore in heaviness, unquiet, and fear, full of doubt and dullness, without comfort or spiritual consolation.

With this night's fear the devil sore troubleth the mind of many a right good man, and that doth he to bring him to some great evil. For he will, if he can, drive him so much to the fearful minding of God's rigorous justice, that he will keep him from the comfortable remembrance of God's great mighty mercy, and so make him do all his good works wearily and without consolation or quickness.

Moreover, he maketh him take for a sin something that is not one, and for a deadly sin one that is but venial, to the intent that when he shall fall into them he shall, by reason of his scruple, sin where otherwise he would not, or sin mortally (because his conscience, in doing the deed, so told him) where otherwise indeed he would have offended only venially.

Yes, and further, the devil longeth to make all his good works and spiritual exercises so painful and so tedious to him, that, with some other subtle suggestion or false wily doctrine of a false spiritual liberty, he should be easily conveyed from that evil fault into one much worse, for the false ease and pleasure that he should suddenly find therein. And then should he have his conscience as wide and large afterward as ever it was narrow and straight before. For better is yet, of truth, a conscience a little too narrow than a little too large.

My mother had, when I was a little boy, a good old woman who took care of her children. They called her Mother Maud—I daresay you have heard of her?

VINCENT: Yea, yea, very much.

ANTHONY: She was wont, when she sat by the fire with us, to tell us who were children many childish tales. But as Pliny saith that there is no book lightly so bad but that a man may pick some good thing out of it, so think I that there is almost no tale so foolish but that yet in one matter or another, it may hap to serve to some purpose.

For I remember me that among others of her foolish tales, she told us once that the ass and the wolf came upon a time to confession to the fox. The poor ass came to shrift in Shrovetide, a day or two before Ash Wednesday. But the wolf would not come to confession till he saw first Palm Sunday past, and then he put it off yet further until Good Friday.

The fox asked the ass, before he began "Benedicite," wherefore he came to confession so soon, before Lent began. The poor beast answered him that it was for fear of deadly sin, if he should lose his part of any of those prayers that the priests in the cleansing days pray for them who are then confessed already. Then in his shrift he had a marvellous grudge in his inward conscience, that he had one day given his master a cause of anger in that, with his rude roaring before his master arose, he had wakened him out of his sleep and bereaved him of his rest. The fox, for that fault, like a good discreet confessor, charged him to do so no more, but to lie still and sleep like a good son himself until his master were up and ready to go to work, and so should he be sure that he should wake him no more.

To tell you all the poor ass's confession, it would be a long work. For everything that he did was deadly sin with him, the poor soul was so scrupulous. But his wise wily confessor accounted them for trifles (as they were) and swore afterward to the badger that he was so weary to sit so long and hear him that, saving for the sake of manners, he had rather have sat all that time at breakfast with a good fat goose. But when it came to the giving of the penance, the fox found that the most weighty sin in all his shrift was gluttony. And therefore he discreetly gave him in penance that he should never for greediness of his food do any other beast any harm or hindrance. And then he should eat his food and worry no more.

Now, as good Mother Maud told us, when the wolf came to Father Reynard (that was, she said, the fox's name) to confession upon Good Friday, his confessor shook his great pair of beads at him, almost as big as bowling balls, and asked him wherefore he came so late. "Forsooth, Father Reynard," quoth he, "I must needs tell you the truth—I come, you know, for that. I dared not come sooner for fear lest you would, for my gluttony, have given me in penance to fast some part of this Lent." "Nay, nay," quoth Father Fox, "I am not so unreasonable, for I fast none of it myself. For I may say to thee, son, between us twain here in confession, it is no commandment of God, this fasting, but an invention of man. The priests make folk fast, and then put them to trouble about the moonshine in the water, and do but make folk fools. But they shall make me no such fool, I warrant thee, son, for I ate flesh all this Lent, myself. Howbeit indeed, because I will not be occasion of slander, I ate it secretly in my chamber, out of sight of all such foolish brethren as for their weak scrupulous conscience would wax offended by it. And so would I counsel you to do." "Forsooth, Father Fox," quoth the wolf, "and so, thank God, I do, as near as I can. For when I go to my meal, I take no other company with me but such sure brethren as are of mine own nature, whose consciences are not weak, I warrant you, but their stomachs are as strong as mine." "Well, then, no matter," quoth Father Fox. But when he heard afterward, by his confession, that he was so great a ravener that he devoured and spent sometimes so much victuals at a meal that the price of them would well keep some poor man with his wife and children almost all the week, then he prudently reproved that point in him, and preached him a sermon of his own temperance. For he never used, he said, to pass the value of sixpence at a meal—no, nor even that much, "For when I bring home a goose," quoth he, "it is not out of the poulterer's shop, where folk find them with their feathers ready plucked and see which is the fattest, and yet for sixpence buy and choose the best; but out of the housewife's house, at first hand, which can supply them somewhat cheaper, you know, than the poulterer can. Nor yet can I be suffered to see them plucked, and stand and choose them by day, but am fain by night to take one at adventure. And when I come home, I am fain to do the labour to pluck it myself too. Yet, for all this, though it be but lean and, I know, not well worth a groat, it serveth me sometimes both for dinner and for supper too. As for the fact that you live of ravine, I can find no fault in that. You have used it so long that I think you can do no otherwise, and therefore it would be folly to forbid it to you—and, to say the truth, against good conscience too. For live you must, I know, and other craft know you none, and therefore, as reason is, must you live by that. But yet, you know, too much is too much, and measure is a merry mean, which I perceive by your shrift you have never used to keep. And therefore surely this shall be your penance, that you shall all this year never pass the price of sixpence at a meal, as near as your conscience can guess the price."

Their shrift have I told you, as Mother Maud told it to us. But now serveth for our matter the conscience of them both in the true performing of their penance. The poor ass after his shrift, when he waxed an-hungered, saw a sow lie with her pigs, well lapped in new straw. And he drew near and thought to have eaten of the straw, but anon his scrupulous conscience began therein to grudge him. For since his penance was that, for greediness of his good, he should do nobody else any harm, he thought he might not eat one straw there lest, for lack of that straw, some of those pigs might hap to die for cold. So he held still his hunger until someone brought him food. But when he was about to fall to it, then fell he yet into a far further scruple. For then it came in his mind that he should yet break his penance if he should eat any of that either, since he was commanded by his ghostly father that he should not, for his own food, hinder any other beast. For he thought that if he ate not that food, some other beast might hap to have it. And so should he, by the eating of it, peradventure hinder another. And thus stayed he still fasting till, when he told the cause, his ghostly father came and informed him better, and then he cast off that scruple and fell mannerly to his meal, and was a right honest ass many a fair day after.

The wolf now, coming from shrift clean absolved from his sins, went about to do as a certain shrewish wife once told her husband that she would do, when she came from shrift. "Be merry, man," quoth she now, "for this day, I thank God, I was well shriven. And I purpose now therefore to leave off all mine old shrewishness and begin even afresh!"

VINCENT: Ah, well, uncle, can you report her so? That word I heard her speak, but she said it in sport to make her goodman laugh.

ANTHONY: Indeed, it seemed she spoke it half in sport. For in that she said she would cast away all her old shrewishness, therein I daresay she sported. But in that she said she would begin it all afresh, her husband found that in good earnest!

VINCENT: Well, I shall tell her what you say, I warrant you.

ANTHONY: Then will you make me make my word good!

But whatsoever she did, at least so fared now this wolf, who had cast out in confession all his old ravine. For then hunger pricked him forward so that, as the shrewish wife said, he should begin all afresh. But yet the prick of conscience withdrew him and held him back, because he would not, for breaking of his penance, take any prey for his mealtide that should pass the price of sixpence.

It happed him then, as he walked prowling for his gear about, that he came where a man had, a few days before, cast off two old lean and lame horses, so sick that no flesh was there left upon them. And the one, when the wolf came by, could scant stand on his legs, and the other was already dead and his skin ripped off and carried away. And as he looked upon them suddenly, he was first about to feed upon them and whet his teeth upon their bones. But as he looked aside, he spied a fair cow in an enclosure, walking with her young calf by her side. And as soon as he saw them, his conscience began to grudge him against both those two horses. And then he sighed and said to himself, "Alas, wicked wretch that I am, I had almost broken my penance ere I was aware! For yonder dead horse, because I never sad a dead horse sold in the market, even if I should die for it, I cannot guess, to save my sinful soul, what price I should set on him. But in my conscience I set him far above sixpence, and therefore I dare not meddle with him. Now, then, yonder live horse is in all likelihood worth a great deal of money. For horses are dear in this country—especially such soft amblers, for I see by his pace he trotteth not, nor can scant shift a foot. And therefore I may not meddle with him, for he very far passeth my sixpence. But cows this country hath enough, while money have they very little. And therefore, considering the plenty of the cows and the scarcity of the money, yonder foolish cow seemeth unto me, in my conscience, worth not past a groat, if she be worth so much. Now then, her calf is not so much as she, by half. And therefore, since the cow is in my conscience worth but fourpence, my conscience cannot serve me, for sin of my soul, to appraise her calf above twopence. And so pass they not sixpence between them both. And therefore may I well eat them twain at this one meal and break not my penance at all." And so thereupon he did, without any scruple of conscience.

If such beasts could speak now, as Mother Maud said they could then, some of them would, I daresay, tell a tale almost as wise as this! Save for the diminishing of old Mother Maud's tale, a shorter sermon would have served. But yet, as childish as the parable is, in this it serveth for our purpose: that the night's fear of a somewhat scrupulous conscience, though it be painful and troublous to him who hath it, as this poor ass had here, is yet less harm than a conscience that is over-large. And less harm is it than a conscience such as a man pleases to frame himself for his own fancy—now drawing it narrow, now stretching it in breadth, after the manner of a leather thong—to serve on every side for his own commodity, as did here the wily wolf.

But such folk are out of tribulation, and comfort need they none, and therefore are they out of our matter. But he who is in the night's fear of his own scrupulous conscience, let him well beware, as I said, that the devil draw him not, for weariness of the one, into the other, and while he would fly from Scilla draw him into Charibdis. He must do as doth a ship coming into a haven in the mouth of which lie secret rocks under the water on both sides. If by mishap he be entered in among them that are on the one side, and cannot tell how to get out, he must get a substantial clever pilot who can so conduct him from the rocks on that side that yet he bring him not into those that are on the other side, but can guide him in the mid way. Let them, I say therefore, who are in the troublous fear of heir own scrupulous conscience, submit the rule of their conscience to the counsel of some other good man, who after the variety and the nature of the scruples may temper his advice.

Yea, although a man be very well learned himself, yet if he be in this state let him learn the custom used among physicians. For if one of them be never so learned, yet in his own disease and sickness he never useth to trust all to himself, but sendeth for such of his fellows as he knoweth to be able, and putteth himself in their hands. This he doth for many considerations, and one of the causes is fear. For upon some tokens in his own sickness he may conceive a great deal more fear than needeth, and then it would be good for his health if for the time he knew no such thing at all.

I knew once in this town one of the most learned men in that profession and the most expert, and the most famous too, and him who did the greatest cures upon other men. And yet when he was himself once very sore sick, I heard his fellows who then took care of him—every one of whom would, in his own disease, have used his help before that of any other man—wish that yet, while his own sickness was so sore, he had known no physic at all. He took so great heed unto every suspicious token, and feared so far the worst, that his fear did him sometimes much more harm than the sickness gave him cause.

And therefore, as I say, whosoever hath such a trouble of his scrupulous conscience, let him for a while forbear the judgment of himself, and follow the counsel of some other man whom he knoweth for well learned and virtuous. And especially in the place of confession, for these is God specially present with his grace assisting the sacrament. And let him not doubt to quiet his mind and follow what he is there bidden, and think for a while less of the fear of God's justice, and be more merry in remembrance of his mercy, and persevere in prayer for grace, and abide and dwell faithfully in the sure hope of his help. And then shall he find, without any doubt, that the shield of God's truth shall, as the prophet saith, so compass him about, that he shall not dread this night's fear of scrupulosity, but shall have afterward his conscience established in good quiet and rest.

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