CHARLES DICKENS, in one of his tales, fancifully imagines a certain street so full of the echoes of passing footsteps, that the sound of them, forcing itself constantly into the thoughts of the dwellers there, caused them to weave theories respecting them into the individual experiences of their lives. They seemed the tumultuous rush of a great multitude, confusedly running hither and thither different ways, and affecting the ear somewhat as a family of ants affects the eye, among which there is vast bustle and hurry with little or no perceptible result. The footsteps in the tale were to those that heard them terrifying; they said with the satirist "me vestigia terrent." The footsteps which I have been thinking about are as confusedly intermingled and involved, and are more conducive even than these to reverie, but they happily have nothing terrifying about them; it is not possible that they can influence our actual lives further than by enabling us perhaps to pass a pleasant hour, or, at the most, it may be to increase a little in us that gracious love of our kind, the expression of which, in the mouth of the Roman player, called down the applause of the listening theatre so long ago.
Accompanying, and yet apart from, the stately march of history is a rushing sound of thousands of footsteps hurrying to and fro, like the throng of the noisy and unheeded populace following and surrounding the tramp of the military in some triumphal progress through a city. History cannot notice them except here and there, and when it does they lose half their meaning and interest when brought into presence of the great events of the world, and of the stately pageant of the collective acts of nations. They lie hidden in books which are not upon our tables every day; sometimes they seem to vanish altogether out of sight, and many folio pages must be turned to find one of them; at other times they come thronging in upon us like the footsteps in the tale, till we almost think that the past is present with us, and that it is possible to be on familiar terms with our ancestors, partake of their life, and live in their homes from day to day.
There is a certain hour in the summer day which always seems to me, fancifully enough, to be to the eye and the senses what the familiar life of past generations of our countrymen is to the senses and mind. When noon is past and the afternoon not quite begun, between two and three o'clock, there is a time when the brilliancy of the morning is not lost in, but softened by, the golden haze of the afternoon. There is a hush over Nature not so oppressive as that in the hottest part of the day, yet still calm and dreamlike.
The shadow of the trees is light, not darkly defined like noon, nor gloomy as in the evening. The breeze that an hour ago was still is now whispering in the grass; the dead sleep is wakened by a lovely dream; the light over the distant landscape and on the fleecy clouds has neither the glare of the noonday nor the sleepy glow of the afternoon, but conveys a sense of life and action, chastened and calmed with what soon may be repose. With something of this form and gesture come before us those portions of our past into the details of which we are able to penetrate with in some degree a familiar eye--as in the blue landscape "distance lends enchantment," a golden sunshine lightens upon it, most of what is unpleasant and painful passes away, the summer sun shines on quaint and gabled houses and churches, on prim garden walks and smooth bowling-greens, on an Arcadian country, and verdant woods swarming with life, and untainted, as is the blue sky over them, with a trace or wreath of smoke. And the simile, though fanciful, will hold still farther. At these spell-laden moments of the summer day the eye may glance at different objects, over each of which the genius of the hour casts its charm. At one time perhaps we gaze upon the distant view of a fair city, with its towered cathedral, its winding river and stately bridge, and the flat meadows around it edged with trees; over the long bridges and through the winding streets, we see the throng pressing in and out, emmet-like, yet plainly seen. This is human life as seen perhaps most picturesquely, all the pain and squalor and misery done away; but next time we have another scene.
Far away from any houses or homes of men a green field stretches up, crowned at the top against the sky with a tiny village church; beyond and far below the blue expanse of sea, right and left the white headlands stretching out; within the girdle of the churchyard wall the green hillocks, over which the fresh breeze blows briskly, bending down the scarlet poppy and the blue thistle flowers, that raise their heads again jauntily as it passes by. So inexpressibly sweet and tender, so perfect in its calm, so holy in its purity, that you think nothing but an eternal Sabbath day can ever exist in such a spot. The dead all around you, the air itself laden with the sighing and the voices of the past, surely nothing of week-day or common life can ever intrude into so calm a scene. So in these dim old days, embalmed in musty books, you may see and mingle as you please in the gay festival, or busy town, or in the shock of the battlefield; or you may retire to the plain country-home of the philosopher or divine. You may sit in his study, with the latticed garden window, and the sunlight through the jessamine leaves gilding the fruit and flowers on the bookcase, or the brown gold-lettered calf of his volumes, his only wealth; or you may walk by his side in his garden by the trimmed yew-hedges, and whether in the garden or the study, listen to such high and noble discourse as perhaps you never heard before, clothed in English words of such majestic rhythm and perfect cadence as certainly English words have never since been set to.
Yet again, there are places in England--fewer, perhaps, year by year, but still there are places where there is nothing but what, should one of our forefathers revisit it, would strike upon his eye with a familiar sense--the footbridge across the stream, the old mill, the black-timbered houses, the gabled hall, the shadowed church. This last, indeed, is the closest tie we possess in country or in town to the seventeenth century. There are churches in England in which no single change has been made for two hundred years; in every church so little that our awakened ancestor, were he to enter, would feel among familiar things. It is not in books alone that the life and the England of the past must be studied, but in the life and the England of the present. The seventeenth century may be said to be the key of the nineteenth; and, in more things than many would believe, our thoughts and actions and disputes are but a repetition of the thoughts and actions and disputes of two hundred years ago. We shall best understand our forefathers by standing in their footsteps, and by remembering that nothing happened to them but also is common to us: that they were touched by the same affections that we are, hoped the same things, and tried, many of them, to serve the same Master, and to do something to benefit that fellowship of humanity to which we and they alike belong.
I do not offer myself as a guide to this familiar intercourse: I am only a seeker needing help myself. The path is only just opening to me, and I am not sure of the way; many times I shall fail; many times tire those who may listen to me; many will leave us and go somewhere else. No doubt it would be much better if we had a practised guide; nevertheless, there is some pleasure in finding out the path for ourselves. In some great houses and gardens is not the cicerone, though learned, sometimes a bore? Is not every little discovery, in itself perhaps not of much worth, pleasant to us because we found it unassisted? Shall we try?
"Our fathers find their graves in our short memories," writes Sir Thomas Browne; "gravestones tell truth scarce forty years. To be read by bare inscriptions like many in Grueter . . . and to have new names given us like many of the mummies, are cold consolations unto the students of perpetuity." The story of the past, always vague and dim, grows dimmer and more vague when we attempt to read it in detail in the inscriptions and on the tombstones of the dead. For some few decades of years, perhaps, the story may be clear and easily read; then the writing becomes confused and defaced, and we go on but uncertainly and make frequent mistakes. Inscriptions themselves are often mistaken, and, as Sir Thomas Browne hints, a stone sometimes covers a grave wherein lies a new tenant, himself calmly regardless of the false title by which he is remembered in the world which he has left. In the next degree of antiquity, the inscription is entirely effaced, and the stately, though perhaps broken, effigy lies silently from year to year, passed by and gazed upon by thousands, sullenly refusing to tell the story it was erected to relate. But far off as the life once recorded on this silent tomb may seem, there are lives still farther off. In the forgotten pages of some old chronicler is set down that in some still older book, now lost for ever, is the description of a tomb, even then destroyed, erected to the memory of some one even then unknown. What a long vista of forgotten existence does such a thought as this suggest! What a pathos of forgotten memories, of long-buried hopes, the never-ceasing monotone of the old story, always with the same beginning and the invariable end! The dry and gloomy pages of heraldry and of pedigree catch something of the mellow light of the human pity that springs in our hearts at this voiceless, yet eloquent, pleading from the dust. Lists of names and titles assume somewhat of reality, and what the great essayist found among the tombs of the abbey we find in them.
Sir Thomas Browne refers to one of these writers, James Grueter, who is worthy of a few words.
He was the son of a burgomaster of Antwerp, one of the signers of that famous petition to the Duchess of Parma, to whom the not less famous nickname of Guenx was given. His mother was one of those educated Englishwomen of that time, and herself taught him Latin and the classic authors. He was a man of strong, conscientious feeling, and left the chair of Professor of History at Wittenberg, and refused one at Padua, on account of religion. He became professor at the University of Heidelberg, of what chair does not appear, but he must have lived there from 1602, as in that year he published from thence the two last folios of his great book of inscriptions and epitaphs, Inscriptiones Antiquae totius orbis Romanit which he dedicated to the Emperor Rudolf the Second. Besides this book, he was a most voluminous author, one of those painstaking and unwearied scholars who adorned that age. It is related of him that he studied standing all day and the greater part of the night. At the siege of Heidelberg by Tilly in 1622, he lost his library, which had cost him 1200 golden crowns, and which his knowledge of bibliography had enabled him to collect. After the taking of the city he made great efforts to recover it, but, pitiful to relate, without success. The remaining five years of his life he passed in the pleasant neighbourhood of Heidelberg, amid the vineyards of the Neckar and the waving slopes of the Odinwald, among which, going out one day to visit his son-in-law, he was taken ill and died. His book was republished in 1707 by John George Grevius, another great scholar, professor of eloquence, politics, and history at Deventer, and the author of Thesaurus Antiquitatum Romanorum in twelve folio volumes, and Thesaurus Antiquitatum et Historiae Italiae in three.
We will leave these foreign places and come home to England.
On the 28th of May 1631, John Weever, an English scholar, a native of Lancaster and a Cambridge man, was writing his epistle to the reader in his house in Clerkenwell Close.
Clerkenwell Close was then a pleasant place of residence in the fields, formed out of the cloisters and buildings of the old Priory of St. John of Jerusalem and the adjoining nunnery of Clerkenwell, which had been saved from destruction in Henry the Eighth's time for the singular reason that he wanted them to keep his tents and toils for the chase. The place, as is well known, received the name it now bears from a well near it, where the parish clerks of London were wont to meet to perform miracle plays. John Strype, the author of the Lives of the Archbishops, says that he had drunk of this well and found the water excellently clear, sweet, and well-tasted; and Weever himself, in a passage which is curious when we think of what the place is now (speaking of an equally celebrated well in the next parish), calls it "a certain sweet, wholesome, and cleare fountaine or well which, for the virtue of the water, has amongst the common people been reputed and called holy. It is now decayed and indeed quite spoiled with soile, dung, and other filthinesse, purposely there laid, for the heightening of the ground for garden plots." During the whole of the seventeenth century the buildings at Clerkenwell were the residence of noblemen and gentlemen. They had lost much of the ancient state and beauty they possessed before the Reformation, even when Weever lived there. He tells us of the great Bell Tower, "a most curious piece of workmanship, graven, gilt, and enameld, to the great beautifying of the Citie," and which had been destroyed in the reign of Edward the Sixth. There had been also tables in the church, on which were "depensild the donations and gifts of the founders" as far back as the eleventh century, which Weever could remember reading, but which perished in the fall of the steeple in 1623. The nunnery had become the residence of Sir William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, and within the Close "Sir Thomas Challoner, Knight, deceased," had built "of late a faire spacious house, upon the frontispiece of which these verses were depensild, now altogether obliterated." (These Latin verses were to the effect that, though the veiled sisters were driven away, Chaste Fidelity remained behind, and honoured Hymen there preserved the marriage vows, and studied in his heart to keep alive the fire on the domestic hearth.) On the other side of the nunnery was the house afterwards occupied for a time by Cromwell. Both these houses were standing at the end of the last century, and Pennant saw them.
Of John Weever himself very little is known besides what he tells us in his book. Fuller knew nothing of him except that he was born somewhere in Lancashire, and educated at Queen's College, Cambridge, where his tutor was Dr. John Person. His native country is known both by the Epitaph he wrote for himself and also from a curious passage in his book, where, speaking of a miracle play, performed in 1409, which lasted eight days, he says, "The subject of this play was the sacred Scriptures from the creation of the world. They call this Corpus Christi play in my country, which I have seen acted at Preston and Lancaster, and last of all at Kendall, in the beginning of the reigne of King James" (he was then a young man of two-and-twenty), "for which the townsmen were sore troubled, and, upon good reasons, the play was finally suppressed not only there but in all other towns of the Kingdoms."
Weever's portrait was published with his book, representing a grave elderly man in a silk cap, with his hand upon a skull. This portrait is rare, most of the copies of the first edition having lost it. He tells us in his "epistle" that he had seen in other countries how carefully the monuments of the dead had been preserved, and had read the epitaphs of Italy, France, Germany, and other nations collected in print "by the paines of Schraderus, Chytraeus, Swertius, and other foreign writers." (Of these old-world and forgotten authors, I am totally ignorant of the first, Schraderus; the second, Chytraeus, is not to be confounded with David Chytraeus, an eminent Lutheran divine, but was named Nathan, and published many books, and among them Variorum in Europa Itinerum deliciae, seu Inscriptionum Monumenta, published in 1599; the third, Swertius, I suppose, was Francis Swert, a Flemish historian and antiquary, born at Antwerp 1567 and died 1629.) He had also seen how in England monuments and tombs were, to the shame of his time, "broken downe and utterly almost all ruinated, their brazen inscriptions erased, torne away, and pilfered, and that, grieving at this onsufferable injurie offered as well to the living as the dead, out of the respect I bore to venerable Antiquity and the due regard to continue the remembrance of the defunct to future posteritie, I determined with myself to collect such memorials of the deceased as were remaining as yet unde-faced, and to retain the memories of eminent worthy persons entombed or interred within Parish or Abbey Churches; however some of their sepulchres are at this day nowhere to be discerned, neither the bones and ashie remains in any place to be gathered. Whereupon with paine-full expenses (which might have been well spared, perhaps you will say) I travelled over the most parts of all England and some part of Scotland." He goes on to tell how much discouragement he met with. How, "having found one or two ancient funerall inscriptions or obliterated Sepulchres in this or that parish church, I have ridden to ten Parish Churches distant from that and found not one. Besides, I have been taken up in divers Churches by the Church wardens of the Parish and not suffered to write the Epitaphs or to take view of the monuments as I much desired; for that I wanted a commission which would greatly have encouraged me (and it still would) as that of Henry the Eighth did John Leyland."
Everywhere was he distressed almost to despair by.the wholesale destruction of monuments which had taken place in the last two reigns, in spite of the proclamations of Queen Elizabeth and King James,--"time, the malignity of wicked people, and our English profane tenacitie having quite taken them away for lucre's sake" (this seems rather hard on poor old Time). Nor, when his book was finished, was he safe. He apologises for speaking too well of the monastic institutions, and for " concluding the Epitaphs and Funeral inscriptions as I find them engraven with a ' cujus animam propitietur Deus,' or with God pardon his soule; which some may say might have beene as well left out of my book, as they are in many cases scraped out of the brasse." It is true he met with pleasures and encouragements. His delight is pleasant to see when he had discovered some fine monument and was able to trace something of its occupant. All antiquities were welcome to him.
Who would not see (he says), if he could with conveniencie, the situation of Silcester in Hampshire, having read in our ancient Historiographers how famous it was in the time of Constantius, the sonne of the great Constantine, and how that our first Christian, worthy King Arthur, was there invested with the Royal Diadem? Howsoever, no marks are at this day remaining to show that ever it was a citie, save a wall of two miles in compasse, containing within fourscore acres of ground divided into seven Corn-fields. . . . The seeing of places we know to have been frequented or inhabited by men whose memory is esteemed or mentioned in Stories doth move and stirr us up as much or more than the hearing of their noble deeds, or reading of their compositions. . . . Considering, then, that the most of men do earnestly desire, Ulysses-like, "Qui mores hominum multorum vidit et urbes," so all men are as greedily affected to view the sacred sepulchres of worthie famous personages, yea, and the very places where such have been interred, although no Funerall Monument at all be there remaining to continue their memories. . . . What a concourse of people come daily, to view the lively statues and stately monuments in Westminster Abbey, wherein the sacred ashes of the Lord's Anointed, besides other great potentates, are entombed, a sight which brings delight and admiration, and strikes a religious apprehension into the minds of the beholders.
. . . What numbers of Citizens and others at this very time go to Lesnes Abbey in Kent to see some few coffins there lately found in her ruins, wherein are the remaines of such as have been there anciently interred.
Often too he met with unexpected pleasure. Riding along the dull roads, some chance fellow-traveller would prove a delightful and intelligent companion, and relate curious anecdotes and old-world stories, with which he was more pleased than if he had found a pot of gold.
Ryding from Raleigh to Rochford (he says), I happened to have the good companie of a gentleman of the country, who by the way showed me a little hill, and told me of a strange Customerie Court and of long continuance, then yearly kept the next Wednesday after Michaelmas Day, in the night, upon the first cock-crowing, without any kind of light save such as the Heavens will afford. The Steward of the Court writes only with coales, and calleth all such as are bound to appear with as low a voice as possible he may, giving no notice when he goeth to execute his office. Howsoever, he that gives not an answer is deeply amerced; which servile attendance (said he) was imposed at the first upon certain Tenants of divers manors hereabouts, for conspiring in this place and at such unseasonable time to raise a commotion. The title of the Entrie of the Court he had in memory, and writ it down for me when we came to Rochford.
Finally, through all these pleasures and troubles, having brought his work as far towards completion as he ever brought it, he published it from his house in the old Close at Clerkenwell, where was a sun-dial with the motto--
Non aliter pereo species quam futilis Umbrae;
and dying there three years afterwards, was himself taken to a grave in the church there, where a poetical epitaph of twenty-two lines was placed over him, together with one written by his own hand, and where we will leave him, though perhaps not his book, hoping that the last two lines of his own epitaph were indeed true:
And Christ to me hath given A home with Him in heaven.
Amid the confused throng of footsteps which crowd the alleys of the past, and amid the maze of forgotten and faded, yet still active existence which fills its long avenues, it is very difficult to find a clue, or to decide which path to take, or which "line of life" to follow first. Centuries of time crowded with individual actions, each individual a life, each life, if we knew it, full of distinct incidents, do indeed open a wide and difficult world of thought and search; and although only some few fragments comparatively are within our reach, yet these are enough to make the task of selection no easy one, and the path we would follow very difficult to find. It would therefore not perhaps seem unwise, seeing that we have stumbled almost unconsciously upon a clue of some sort in old John Weever's book, that we should follow it for a time, and trust that, though but a by-path, it will in time lead us into some more beaten road, if not into the king's highway itself.
But indeed in some respects this old book is not the worst of guides, especially for us who are seeking to know something of our ancestors personally, and if may be to look them in the face; for from the first page to the last it is full of the names and titles of dead men; and though, in many cases, it is only the names and titles which are actually read in it, yet even these are some tangible realities to grasp, and afford in many ways materials for further inquiry and acquaintance. Nor is it unsuitable, for another reason, for it carries us back as far into the dim distance of our country's history as we shall care to go. We are led back into that woodland England of so many centuries ago which is so different from ours and yet so strangely like--different in so much of exterior life and trappings, like in the familiar and kindred people we find there, and in that " res angusta domi" which occupied men as much then as now. We never realise this enough. In imagining the life of the Middle Ages we err two ways: we think of it as too unreal, and yet strangely we do not make sufficient allowance for its romance. On the one side we imagine gloomy and bare castles, wiih impossible knights, in theatrical attitudes, living the most uncomfortable lives; on the other, it is hard for us to conceive the real romance--romance in its highest sense--which grew up like wild-flowers along the everyday path. In the first case we deceive ourselves in thinking that the past was more unlike our own times than it really was. For instance, we shall probably find nothing more confidently asserted in popular histories than that there was no middle class of society in the medieval ages. I can think of no sense in which this is anything like the truth. Except perhaps at some short transition periods of convulsion which are not to be taken into the general view, the class which inhabited the towns, and by which even in the darkest times the necessary handiwork is carried on--the learned classes, the clergy, the physicians, chemists, and lawyers, and a very large portion of the country-gentry and yeomen--formed together a class which exactly corresponded to the middle class now. Indeed, no country could exist as the popular theory asserts was the case in the Middle Ages--that is, without some such class. Impossible nobles grouped about with imaginary peasantry never existed anywhere but on the stage and in some popular histories (these remarks apply particularly to England, but they are true to a great extent of all countries--even of France); and accordingly, when we come really face to face with these times, we find this class in full activity, and find the old familiar ideas and incidents occurring in all ages--not an uninteresting instance of which we find in an early page of Weever's book, where we are reminded that in early times the graveyards and cemeteries were always outside the towns or villages, partly--and here is shown our forefathers' likeness to us --for the greater healthiness, partly--and here is shown their romance, which we have lost--in realisation that all men are strangers and pilgrims upon earth, and because of the great sacrifice "offered without the camp."
Again, we talk as though men's minds had never known a "march of intellect" before our day, and as though no discoveries had ever been made before our modern ones,--as though formerly no great intellectual emotions ever stirred men's minds, nor humanity ever advanced step by step on great truths and heart-stirring beliefs. What is our " march of intellect" compared to the excitement of those days when the Story of the Cross spread from one end of England to the other like the news of a great victory,--when Paulinus, Bishop of York, baptized in one day ten thousand men, besides women and little children, in the river Swale, by Richmond, the memory of which day caused the stream to be held sacred for ages by the ancient English,--when the effect produced by these great tidings was so great that its influence pervaded all ranks of life;
so that whenever any of the Clergy or religious person came, he was joyfully received of all men like the servant of God; his benediction by hand or mouth gladly desired and his admonition gladly hearkened to; for the clergy used not to come forth but only to preach, to baptize, or to visit the sick; nor had they any money but cattle, for if they took any money of rich men by and bye they gave it to poor people; neither was it needful that either money should be gathered or houses provided for the receiving and entertaining of the worshipful and wealthy, who never came then to church but onely to pray and heare the word of God. The King himself, when occasion served to come thither, came accompanied onely with five or sixe persons, and after prayer ended, departed. But if by chance it fortuned that any of the nobilitie or worshipfull refreshed themselves in the Monasteries, they contented themselves with the religious men's fare and poore pittens, looking for no other cates above the ordinary and daily diet. For then those learned men and rulers of the Church sought not to pamper the paunch but to save the soule; not to please the world, but to serve God . . . who also at this time were so farre from the infection of covetousnesse and ambition, that they would not take territories and possessions towards the building of Monasteries and erecting of Churches, but through the earnest suite, and almost forced thereunto by noble and wealthy men of the World; which custome in all points hath remained a long time after in the clergy of Northumberland.
But if we leave behind these beatific seasons, which were indeed of too short continuance, were not the great discoveries of chemistry, the recovery of learning, and of the languages of the forgotten classic world, worthy of comparison with the discovery of steam and of the telegraph? and whatever may be said of the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, and Descartes, they were at least equal in proof and interest to the geologic theories of our day. The pursuit of alchemy, with its dreams of another and higher world, and of a common and refining spirit, and of ministering beings, pervading earthly things; the romance of travel, which might then truly be so called; the intense belief of past ages,--surely left the mind but little want of training, nor the soul without the highest intellectual food. The highest truths were familiar, everyday occurrences. The spiritual world, which is so far from us--farther seemingly year by year--was close to them in their very path. What we should call the most romantic things they saw every day, riding by the woodland roads:
A light before me swims,
Between dark stems the forest glows,
I hear a noise of hymns.
Then, by some secret shrine I ride,
My knees are bowed in faith and prayer.
I hear a voice--the doors are wide,
The tapers burning fair,
Fair gleams the snowy altar-cloth,
The silver vessels sparkle clean,
The shrill bell rings, the censer swings,
And solemn chants resound between.
Nothing was commoner than these woodland chapels in solitary places, whence the matin and vesper prayer resounded over the swelling tracts of moor and forest, and if the Sancgreal was not there literally, it was there in fact, and many devout eyes saw it to their endless good.
It is this mingling of familiar and domestic things with what we call romantic which is the life of true romance--the life, that is, of everything that is noble and disinterested as opposed to all that is sordid and mean. All past ages possessed it. I do not mean to assert but that we also may possess it, though it is perhaps more rare now than of yore. Certainly it has been growing rarer every century. In thinking about it, I am encountered with this difficulty. The seventeenth century, though possessing it very much more than the nineteenth does, certainly possessed it very much less than the fourteenth; and yet most persons, and I among them, would consider the seventeenth century infinitely nobler than the fourteenth. Again, there is no doubt that, as we possess it much less than the seventeenth century did, so there are not wanting thinkers who maintain (as I think mistakenly, but who still maintain) that our century is a nobler one than the seventeenth. We are then reduced to one of these two conclusions--either that the more a man is removed from mean and sordid objects and pursuits, and the more he is placed among beautiful and noble ones, the worse he is; or that I and many others are as much mistaken in believing the seventeenth century nobler than the fourteenth as we believe others to be who assert that our century is nobler than any which have preceded it.