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- The Coming of the Friars - 10/38 -


before he was taken, and murder any one who stood in the way of his escape. Hanging went on at a pace which we cannot conceive, for in those days the criminal law of the land was not, as it is now, a strangely devised machinery for protecting the wrongdoer, but it was an awful and tremendous power for slaying all who were dangerous to the persons or the property of the community.

The law of the Church, on the other hand, was much more lenient. To hurry a man to death with his sins and crimes fresh upon him, to slaughter men wholesale for acts that could not be regarded as enormously wicked, shocked those who had learnt that the Gospel taught such virtues as mercy and longsuffering, and gave men hopes of forgiveness on repentance. The Church set itself against the atrocious mangling, and branding, and hanging that was being dealt out blindly, hastily, and indiscriminately, to every kind of transgressor; and inasmuch as the Church law and the law of the land six hundred years ago were often in conflict, the Church law acted to a great extent as a check upon the shocking ferocity of the criminal code. And this is how the check was exercised.

A man who was a _cleric_ was only half amenable to the law of the land. He was a citizen of the realm, and a subject of the king, but he was _more_; he owed allegiance to the Church, and claimed the Church's protection also. Accordingly, whenever a _cleric_ got into trouble, and there was only too good cause to believe that if he were brought to his trial he would have a short shrift and no favour, scant justice and the inevitable gallows within twenty-four hours at the longest, he proclaimed himself a _cleric_, and demanded the protection of the Church, and was forthwith handed over to the custody of the ordinary or bishop. The process was a clumsy one, and led, of course, to great abuses, but it had a good side. As a natural and inevitable consequence of such a privilege accorded to a class, there was a very strong inducement to become a member of that class; and as the Church made it easy for any fairly educated man to be admitted at any rate to the lower orders of the ministry, any one who preferred a professional career, or desired to give himself up to a life of study, enrolled himself among the _clerics_, and was henceforth reckoned as belonging to the clergy.

The country swarmed with these _clerics_. Only a small proportion of them ever became ministers of religion; they were lawyers, or even lawyers' clerks; they were secretaries; some few were quacks with nostrums; and these all were just as much _clerics_ as the chaplains, who occupied pretty much the same position as our curates do now--clergymen, strictly so called, who were on the look out for employment, and who earned a very precarious livelihood--or the rectors and vicars who were the beneficed clergy, and who were the parsons of parishes occupying almost exactly the same position that they do at this moment, and who were almost exactly in the same social position as they are now. Six hundred years ago there were at least seven of these _clerics_ in Rougham, all living in the place at the same time besides John of Thyrsford, the vicar. Five of them were chaplains, two were merely _clerics_. If there were seven of these clerical gentlemen whom I happen to have met with in my examination of the Rougham Charters, there must have been others who were not people of sufficient note to witness the execution of important legal instruments, nor with the means to buy land or houses in the parish. It can hardly be putting the number too high if we allow that there must have been at least ten or a dozen _clerics_ of one sort or another in Rougham six hundred years ago.

How did they all get a livelihood? is a question not easy to answer; but there were many ways of picking up a livelihood by these gentlemen. To begin with, they could take an engagement as tutor in a gentleman's family; or they could keep a small school; or earn a trifle by drawing up conveyances, or by keeping the accounts of the lord of the manor. In some cases they acted as private chaplains, getting their victuals for their remuneration, and sometimes they were merely loafing about, and living upon their friends, and taking the place of the country parson if he were sick or past work. Then, too, the smaller monasteries had one or more chaplains, and I suspect that the canons at Castle Acre always would keep two or three chaplains in their pay, and it is not unlikely that as long as Archdeacon Middleton kept on his big house at Rougham he would have a chaplain, who would be attached to the place, and bound to perform the service in the great man's chapel.

But besides the clerics and the chaplains and the rector or vicar, there was another class, the members of which just at this time were playing a very important part indeed in the religious life of the people, and not in the religious life alone; these were the Friars. If the monks looked down upon the parsons, and stole their endowments from them whenever they could, and if in return the parsons hated the monks and regarded them with profound suspicion and jealousy, both parsons and monks were united in their common dislike of the Friars.

Six hundred years ago the Friars had been established in England about sixty years, and they were now by far the most influential Religionists in the country. The Friars, though always stationed in the towns, and by this time occupying large establishments which were built for them in Lynn, Yarmouth, Norwich, and elsewhere, were always acting the part of itinerant preachers, and travelled their circuits on foot, supported by alms. Sometimes the parson lent them the church, sometimes they held a camp meeting in spite of him, and just as often as not they left behind them a feeling of great soreness, irritation, and discontent; but six hundred years ago the preaching of the Friars was an immense and incalculable blessing to the country, and if it had not been for the wonderful reformation wrought by their activity and burning enthusiasm, it is difficult to see what we should have come to or what corruption might have prevailed in Church and State.

When the Friars came into a village, and it was known that they were going to preach, you may be sure that the whole population would turn out to listen. Sermons in those days in the country were very rarely delivered. As I have said, there were no pulpits in the churches then. A parson might hold a benefice for fifty years, and never once have written or composed a sermon. A preaching parson, one who regularly exhorted his people or expounded to them the Scriptures, would have been a wonder indeed, and thus the coming of the Friars and the revival of pulpit oratory was all the more welcome because the people had not become wearied by the too frequent iteration of truths which may be repeated so frequently as to lose their vital force. A sermon was an event in those days, and a preacher with any real gifts of oratory was looked upon as a prophet sent by God. Never was there a time when the people needed more to be taught the very rudiments of morality. Never had there been a time when people cared less whether their acts and words were right or wrong, true or false. It had almost come to this, that what a man thought would be to his profit, that was good; what would entail upon him a loss, that was evil.

And this brings me to another point, viz., the lawlessness and crime in country villages six hundred years ago. But before I can speak on that subject it is necessary that I should first try to give you some idea of the every-day life of your forefathers. What did they eat and drink? what did they wear? what did they do from day to day? Were they happy? content? prosperous? or was their lot a hard and bitter one? For according to the answer we get to questions such as these, so shall we be the better prepared to expect the people to have been peaceable citizens, or sullen, miserable, and dangerous ruffians, goaded to frequent outbursts of ferocious savagedom by hunger, oppression, hatred, and despair.

Six hundred years ago no parish in Norfolk had more than a part of its land under tillage. As a rule, the town or village, with its houses, great and small, consisted of a long street, the church and parsonage being situated about the middle of the parish. Not far off stood the manor house, with its hall where the manor courts were held, and its farm-buildings, dovecote, and usually its mill for grinding the corn of the tenants. No tenant of the manor might take his corn to be ground anywhere except at the lord's mill; and it is easy to see what a grievance this would be felt to be at times, and how the lord of the manor, if he were needy, unscrupulous, or extortionate, might grind the faces of the poor while he ground their corn. Behind most of the houses in the village might be seen a croft or paddock, an orchard or a small garden. But the contents of the gardens were very different from the vegetables we see now; there were, perhaps, a few cabbages, onions, parsnips, or carrots, and apparently some kind of beet or turnip. The potato had never been heard of.

As for the houses themselves, they were squalid enough for the most part. The manor house was often built of stone, when stone was to be had, or where, as in Norfolk, no stone was to be had, then of flint, as in so many of our church towers. Usually, however, the manor house was built in great part of timber. The poorer houses were dirty hovels, run up "anyhow," sometimes covered with turf, sometimes with thatch. None of them had chimneys. Six hundred years ago houses with chimneys were at least as rare as houses heated by hot-water pipes are now. Moreover, there were no brick houses. It is a curious fact that the art of making bricks seems to have been lost in England for some hundreds of years. The labourer's dwelling had no windows; the hole in the roof which let out the smoke rendered windows unnecessary, and, even in the houses of the well-to-do, glass windows were rare. In many cases oiled linen cloth served to admit a feeble semblance of light, and to keep out the rain. The labourer's fire was in the middle of his house; he and his wife and children huddled round it, sometimes grovelling in the ashes; and going to bed meant flinging themselves down upon the straw which served them as mattress and feather bed, exactly as it does to the present day in the gipsy's tent in our byways. The labourer's only light by night was the smouldering fire. Why should he burn a rushlight when there was nothing to look at? and reading was an accomplishment which few labouring men were masters of.

As to the food of the majority, it was of the coarsest. The fathers of many a man and woman in every village in Norfolk can remember the time when the labourer looked upon wheat-bread as a rare delicacy; and those legacies which were left by kindly people a century or two ago, providing for the weekly distribution of so many _white_ loaves to the poor, tell us of a time when the poor man's loaf was as dark as mud, and as tough as his shoe-leather. In the winter-time things went very hard indeed with all classes. There was no lack of fuel, for the brakes and waste afforded turf which all might cut, and kindling which all had a right to carry away; but the poor horses and sheep and cattle were half starved for at least four months in the year, and one and all were much smaller than they are now. I doubt whether people ever fatted their hogs as we do. When the corn was reaped, the swine were turned into the stubble and roamed about the underwood; and when they had increased their weight by the feast of roots and mast and acorns, they were slaughtered and salted for the winter fare, only so many being kept alive as might not prove burdensome to the scanty resources of the people. Salting down the animals for the winter consumption was a very serious expense. All the salt used was produced by evaporation in _pans_ near the seaside, and a couple of bushels of salt often cost as much as a sheep. This must have compelled the people to spare the salt as much


The Coming of the Friars - 10/38

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