An Old Book
IN these days of cheap books and free libraries it is difficult to realize the status of books seven or eight hundred years ago. Copies of wills and deeds of gift in the record office, the muniments of monasteries, and old charters of all sorts bear witness that books were very real property, were regarded as precious bequests, and as such secured with all the stringency that law could enforce.
The tide of time, which sweeps away so many treasures, has left in the safe harbor of the British Museum a single book from one of the most ancient libraries in London. Four other volumes of the library of the Priory of St. Bartholomew, in Smithfield, are on record (three of them are mentioned in a deed now in St. Paul’s Cathedral), but the manuscript before us is the only book known to be extant of that twelfthcentury library. It has just appeared in modern type, and its title-page runs thus : “ The Book of the Foundation of St. Bartholomew’s Church in London, sometime belonging to the Priory of the same, in West Smithfield. Edited from the Original Manuscript by Norman Moore, M. D., F. R. C. P., and Assistant Physician to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. 1886.” The editor tells us in his introduction that the manuscript contains two versions of the same work, the first in Latin, the second in English (which he has carefully collated) ; and though there is no colophon, giving names and dates of author or transcriber, he has found it possible to determine, by internal evidence, both the composer and the period of the composition, as well as the proximate date of the English version, which coincides with that of the present copy of the original work.
The author was one of the thirty-five canons of the Augustinian order who formed the community of the Priory of St. Bartholomew. It appears that he was living in the reign of Henry II., during the priorate of Thomas, successor to Rahere, the founder. Rahere died in 1143, Thomas in 1174. These dates, and those furnished by ecclesiastical chronology of the popes mentioned in the work as donors of privileges to the priory, completely authenticate the period in which this pious canon wrote his history.
As the first stone arrowhead picked up in the valley of the Somme pointed to the prehistoric harvest which has yielded such wonderful fruits, so this old manuscript survival of a stratum of human life (not yet quite submerged) in monastic days points to some of the noblest and holiest features of those grand old foundations to which the culture and civilization of Europe are so deeply indebted. The incidental allusions which throw light on the conditions of life in London in the reign of Henry II. are of genuine historical interest.
The editor thus sums up his researches respecting the author and his book : —
“ It was composed in the Priory of St. Bartholomew, in West Smithfield, between the death of Prior Thomas and that of King Henry II., that is, between the years 1174 and 1189, and its author was an Augustinian canon of the priory. He wore a white rochet with a great black cloak and hood, like those upon the effigy on Rahere’s tomb, and he kept the canonical hours in the beautiful Norman church which is all that is now left of his beloved priory. He was as familiar with our hospital as we are, and the first reports of cases admitted into it are contained in his pages. Adwyne was the name of the first of these reported patients, and he seems to have suffered from long-continued muscular debility, such as is sometimes seen in patients after a long-continued acute illness. The canon wrote in Latin, in a good twelfthcentury style. He had read but little of the poets, but had St. Jerome’s version of the Bible at his finger ends. He uses its phrases on every possible occasion, and seems as much at home in the Minor Prophets as in the Psalms.
“ It is only the Latin life which can have been composed in the reign of Henry II. The English version, which contains a few amplifications, is proved by its language to be of later date, and since the existing Latin manuscript and the English were clearly written on parchment at the same period, the date of the English version fixes that of the manuscript as it stands. The language is Middle English, and the character that of about the year 1400. . . . This life of Rahere is now published in full for the first time. I have chosen the English version because it has an interest as an example of our prose literature soon after the time of Chaucer. In the text I have expanded the contractions, which are very few, and so often repeated as to present no difficulties ; and I have otherwise printed the words exactly as they are in the manuscript, adding a few notes solely with a view to making the perusal easy to a general reader. There are very few words which are not easily intelligible when sound and not spelling is regarded.”
Before giving a summary of this remarkable old book, we must not fail to recognize the care that has been bestowed upon his work by the editor in expanding the contractions, supplying a glossary when needed, at the foot of each page, with the Latin equivalents of the archaic words, and in elucidating the text by chronological and other notes, all which aids give a literary value to the work in addition to its archæological and historical interest.
Book First begins like the Gospel of St. Luke : “ For as mooche that the meritory and notable operacyons of famose goode and devoute faders yn God, sholde be remembred for instrucion of aftyr cummers to theyr consolacion, & encres [increase] of devocion thys Abbrevyat Tretesse shall compendiously expresse and declare the wondreful and of celestial concel, gracious fundacion of oure hoely placys callyd the Priory of seynt Bartholomew yn Smithfield and of the hospitall of olde tyme longyng [belonging] to the same with other notabiliteis expediently to be knowyn,” and so on. The titles of the chapters are in red, and the text begins with a large and beautifully illuminated initial letter. The first chapter is in loving testimony to the saintly character of Rahere. It must be given word for word, if only for its simple beauty. The quaint and picturesque Chaucerian words have all the charm that the early English of a two-year-old affords to his admiring parents.
Cap. I. Ffirst shal be shewyd who was ffunder of owere hoely places, and howh by grace, he was ffyrst pryor of our priory ; and by howh longe tyme that he contynued yn the same.
“ Thys chirche yn the honoure of most blessid Bartholomew apostle, fundid Rayer, of goode remembraunce and theryn to serve God, aftir the rewle of the moost holy fader Austin, aggregat to gidir [aggregated together] religiouse men, and to them was prelate xxii yere, usynge the office and dignite of a priore : not havynge cunnynge of liberal science, but that, that is more emynente than all cunnynge, ffor he was richid yn puryte of conscience ; ayenste [towards] God by divocyon, ayenst his brethryn by liumylite, ayenste his enenyes with a benyvolence. And thus hym self he exercised them paciently sufferynge, whoose provyd puryte of soule, bryght maners with honeste probyte, experte diligence yn dyvyne servyce, prudent busynes yn temperalle mynystracyun, in hym were gretely to prayse and commendable. In festis [feasts] he was sobir, and namely the folowere of hospitalite, tribulacions of wretchis, and necessiteys of the pauer peple oportunyly admyttyng, paciently supportyng, competently spedynge. In prosperite not ynprided [elated] ; in adversite paciente; and what sumevere unfortune ranne ageyn hym, he restid hymself undir the schadowe of his patron, that he worshippid, whom he clippid [embraced] to hym, within the bowell of his soule. In whose helpe for all perelles he was sekyr [safe] and preservye. Thus he subjett to the kynge of bliss with alle mekenesse, prevydyd with alle dilegence, that were necessarie to his subjectys, and so provydynge he encresid dayly to himself, before God and man grace, to the place reverence, to his frendes gladnesse, to his enemyes peyne, to his aftircummers joye. And suche certeyn was the lyef of hym aftir his conversyon bettyr than hit was beforn, in goodnes ever more encresid. And yn what ordir he sette the fundament of this temple, yn fewe wordys lette us shewe, as they testified to us that sey him [saw him,] herd hym, and were presente yn his werkys and dedis, of the whiche summe have take ther slepe yn Cryste, and summe of them be zitte [yet] a lyve and wytnesseth of that whiche we shall aftir say.”
In the second chapter we are told that Rahere was “boryn of lowe lynage, and whan he attayned the floure of yougth, he began to haunte the householdys of noble men and the palices of prynces,” where he laid himself out to find favor, and to “ drawe to hym ther frendschippes.” He made it the business of his life to ingratiate himself with the king and great men, “ gentylls and court-yours,” in order to obtain his desire of them. “ Thiswyse he became famyliar and felowly [social] and y knowen to them.” But the tune came when “ the inwarde seer and mercifull God of all, convertid this man fro the erroure of hys way and addid to hym so convertid many giftys of virtu for why : They that are founysche [foolish] and febill in the worldys reputacion oure Lorde chesith [chooseth] to confounde the myghte of the world.”
In those days a pilgrimage to Rome was at once the sign and seal of a change of life. Thither went Rahere, and “ he wepynge his dedis and reducyng to mynde the scapis [delicta] of hys yougth and ignoraunces, prayd to oure Lorde for remyssion of them behestynge [promising] furthermore, noon [none] like to do, but thyes utterly to forsake ever devoutly his will promyttyng to obeye.”
But, during his stay in the holy city, we learn that “ he began to be vexed with grevous sykeness,” Thinking that he “ drewe to the extremitie of lyfe,” he made a vow that if he were restored to health, and returned to his country, " he wolde make and hospitale yn recreacion of poure men, and to them, so there y gaderid [gathered] necessaries mynystir aftir his power, and so of his sykenesse recoveryd he was, and in short tyme hole y maade, began homewarde to come, his vow to fulfille that lie hadde made.”
As each generation takes its tone, more or less, according to individual aptitude, from the prevailing literature, so, when the Bible was mainly the mental food of the unlearned, we find “ Rahere in a certayne nyght saw a vision full of drede and swetnesse.” He dreamed that he was “bore up on hye by a certeyn beiste havynge viii. feete and ii. winges, and beholde a horrible pytte into which he was aboute to slyde when S. Bartholomew appeared, to socoure him in his angwysshe, and revealed to him that a place had been chosyn, in the subbarbes (suburbs) of London at Smythfield wheryn to founde a chirche that shall be the house of God,” with abundant promise of comfort and blessing to every soul converted, penitent of his sin, in that place praying.
The modest pilgrim was at first inclined to take this vision for a “ fantastykke illusyon,” deeming himself unworthy of sucn grace. But recalling the visions of Holy Writ, he concludes that “ trewly by dremys many secretis of Godde’s Wille hath come to the knowleche of men.” And so he models his interpretation on the vision of Ezekiel: the monstrous beast is the devil, and all the horrors he beheld are typical of the snares of the evil one, and the sins into which men are made to fall.
Arriving in London, Rahere was warmly welcomed by his friends, and began at once to consult them about the fulfillment of his vow. By their advice he addressed tlie king, to whom the land pointed out in the vision belonged. Royal authority having been obtained, the buildings were begun, and the church of St. Bartholomew was consecrated A. D. 1123. “ Regnyng the vonger son of William Nothy, firste kynge of Englischemen yn the North, Herry the firste.”
The eighth chapter relates that Edward the Confessor, “ the blessid Kynge replete with many-folde bewte of vertu,” had been forewarned in a dream that in this very place God had chosen his name to be put and set, and had prophesied the same. Rahere’s biographer rejoices in the fulfillment of tlie prophecy.
A like prevision was vouchsafed to three Greeks of noble lineage, who came on pilgrimage to England. Prostrating themselves in Smithfield, they turned to the astonished people and said : —
“ Wonder not ye, us here to worshipp God where a full acceptable temple to him shall be bylid ffor the high Maker of all thyng wylles that it be bylded and the fame of his place schall attayn from the spryng of the sunne to the goying downe.”
In chapter ten we learn that the place (now in the centre of London) thus preordained to holy use had hitherto been a waste marsh of fenny ground, where a gallows stood, and thieves and others “ dampnyd [condemned] by judicialle auctoryte ” were relegated. Rahere applied himself to its purgation. “ Truly in playnge wise and maner he drewe to hym the felischip of children and servantes, assemblynge hymself as one of them, and with ther use and helpe stonys and othir thynges profitable to the bylynge [building], lightly he gaderid to gedir, he played with them from day to day, made hym-self moore vile in his own yese in so mykill [much] that he plesid the apostle of Cryiste, to whom he had provyd hymself. Thorowgh whom is grace and helpe whan all thynge was redy that semyd necessarie he reysid [raised] uppe a grete frame [house].”
One is reminded of St. John of Beverley, who, some centuries earlier, colonized that waste Beavers-lair in Yorkshire, and attracted the wild people to him, now by music, now by gentle ministerings and persuasive preaching, till by their aid the desert blossomed like the rose, with human life and work. Rahere’s simple style and gentle words, cunning of truth enforced by practical work, converted that “ Golgotha of opyn abhominacion into a seyntwary [sanctuary] of prayer.”
The community being now duly installed, and Rahere appointed prior, we are told how troubles began.
Beset by envy and jealousy as he was, Rahere had many faithful friends who took his part. Finally he appealed to the king, who forthwith granted him a charter, dated ten years after the foundation of the priory, to “ free it from all erthly servyce, power and subjecion, adjuryuge also all his heyres and successoures yn name of the Holy Trinite that this place with royall auctorite, they upholde and defende and the libertees of hym y grauntid they shulde graunte and confirme.” As to Rahere, “ glad he wente owte from the face of the kynge.” There were still some difficulties for the prior to settle, between the regular canons of his order and the secular clergy. These he meant to lay before the Holy See, but more immediate cares prevented him, and his biographer touchingly adds that “ the last lettyng [hindrance] was the article of deith and that he wold lie had fulfilled he myght not, and so only the rewarde of good wylle he deservyd.”
The desired privileges were, however, afterwards obtained, by three members of the community, from three successive popes, 1153-1181.
The good work of Rahere being thus secured to “ aftyrcunimers ” (to whom it has continued both helpful and profitable down to our own day), secured both by church and state, the chronicler concludes this important chapter triumphantly, thus: “ Nowe beholde that prophsye of the blessid Kynge and confessoure Seynt Edwarde, that beforn tyme had prophesyed and seyn by revelacion of this place, of grete party is seyn fulfilled. Beholde trewly that this holy chirche and chosen to God, schyneth with manyfolde bewte, ffowndid, and endewid with hevenly answer, y sublymate with many privylegies of notable men, and to a summe of laude and glorie rychessid with many relikys of seyntes, and bewtyfied with hawntid (frequent) and usuall tokenys of celestiall virtu, this not unprofitably by fore tastid, let us draw nere to the narracion of myraeles.”
In reading the narration which follows one is strongly tempted to institute comparisons, by way of historical parallels, between the miracles of mediæval tradition and the mind-cure and faithhealing of our own times, but such a presentation of the subject is beyond the scope of this article.
Instead, let us glance at these simple relations, gathered up from hearsay by the good canon, and piously recorded in full faith, for the glory of God and the honor of St. Bartholomew, as well as for the edification of " aftyrcummers.” We shall thus obtain some interesting glimpses of English life in the olden time.
When Rahere returned from Rome, Geoffrey of Monmouth was engaged on his chronicle of the History of the Britons, of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, derived from Welsh or Armoric legends.
Geoffrey, the Norman schoolmaster of Dunstable, afterwards abbot of St. Alban’s, had written for his boys the Miracle Play of St. Catherine, said to be the oldest acting drama of modern Europe on record; for the plays of Roswitha, the Saxon nun, though of an earlier date, are not known to have been acted. We are told that the kindly sacristan of St. Alban’s lent copes, from the abbey, to furnish forth the unprovided young actors in performing this first of the Miracle Plays.
A contemporary of Rahore’s biographer was Jocelin of St. Edmundsbury, who was writing his chronicle, De Rebus Gestis Samsonis Abbatis Monasterii Sancti Edmundi (printed by the Camden Society in 1840), the hero of which Carlyle so vividly reanimated for us in Past and Present, with a higher moral than is always to be found in his ethics of Might.
Of course all these chronicles were in Latin. English literature did not exist in Rahere’s time, and the English language was only in the making. Ballads and romances were all in French, which was the language of the court and the camp, and even of the burgher class. Saxon English was spoken by the people. As in Wales, at the present day, the first thing a peasant child is taught is to speak English, so, under the Norman kings, the key to all school instruction was the French tongue ; Latin came afterwards, for the more advanced scholars.
It is a curious fact that neither William the Conqueror, his son Rufus, nor his granddaughter Maud could speak English. William, it is said, valiantly began to learn it, when first he came over; but the exigencies of his other conquests obliged him to relinquish this enterprise, and we have the evidence of charters still extant that the king used a ˟ for his signature. At a still later date, Richard I. and his prime minister, William Longchamps, Bishop of Ely, were both ignorant of English.
With poetical significance the first miracle at the Priory of St. Bartholomew was “ of a hevenly light sent owte.” “ On a day at Evensong time there was seyn a light from hevyn sent schynynge on this chirche, abidynge there, uppon the space of an howre. Howe grete a tokyn this was of pite and grace hevynly, opynly afterwards was schewid by multitude of tokyns yn the same place.”
Then we have cases of cure, the majority being of cripples, resembling the modern instances of the like reported from Lourdes.
Adwyne, a carpenter from the quaint old town of Dunwioh, in Suffolk, whence he came by sea, having lost all power of his limbs by contraction of the sinews, was carried to the hospital. By virtue of the apostle he was restored, and began to work at his trade, at which he produced some things now out of date. " At first his handys were crokyd and he dyd make only smale workys as distafes and autells [ pensa, weights, or whorls], and other wommenys instrumentys.” He soon was able to wield the axe, and exercised the full craft of carpentry, as it had been taught him in his childhood, in the church and in the city of London.
We have the dumb made to speak and the blind to see, in anticipation of the aural and ophthalmic departments of the present day in the hospital, and we have moreover a curious case of insomnia, showing that that complaint is not peculiar to our nerve-wearing century. There is a cure of a “ childe, faire of forme, whose sinews were dryed up and lacked bowablenesse.” “ When restored,” adds the chronicler, “ the whiche childe abyded ther awhile, in the chirche of the blessed apostle, and servyd the chanons ther, yn ther Kychyn and for the zifte of his helth he gave the servyce of his body.”
But not only by grateful patients was the charity sustained. As the fame of the foundation spread, assistants from without appeared. The great hospital that successive benefactors have made independent of subscription lists, in the present day, and that now counts an income of some £60,000, was glad then to receive contributions in kind from housewives and tradesmen, collected in the manner of the Little Sisters of the Poor in our modern cities. Rahere found a worthy helper and compeer in Alfunyne, the founder of the church of St. Giles in Cripplegate (London). “ Demynge this man profitable to him, Rahere deputyd him as his compayr and that was for to be don, disposed and parffirmed.” The words of the chronicler are so graphic and the English so simple and plain that the account must be continued verbatim ; “ It was manner and custome of this Alfunne, with mynystris of the chirche, to compass and go abowte the nye placys of the chirche, besily to seke and provyde necessaries to the nede of the poer men, that lay in the hospitall, and to them that were hyryd to the makynge up of ther chirche; and that, that was commyttid to hym trewly to bring home and to sundry men as it was nede to devyde. And ther was a certeyn bocheyr [butcher] Goderyke by name a man of grete sharpnesse, more than semyd hym, he was a streyt man, the which not oonly to the asher wold not yeve, but was woonte with scornyng wordes to ynsarot [insult] them.”
Alfunyne pleads hard for his clients with the recalcitrant butcher : “ O thou unhappy, O thou ungentle and unkynde man, to the yever of all goodys, that for the geifte of h hevenly goodnes will not comyn with the poremen of Cryist, I beseche the wrecche, put away a littill and swage the hardnes of that unfeithful soule ; ” and so on, finally promising him a more prosperous trade if he would consider the poor. At length the butcher was moved; he gave, but not with “ the ynstyncte, or ynwarde sterynge of charite, but overcummyn with importunyte of asher,” just to get rid of him. But Alfunyne refused to go till he had seen his own promise fulfilled, as it was presently by increased sales. The news of this was soon “ dyvulgate [divulged] by all the bocherie and from that tyme the trades men were more prompte to yeve ther almes and also fervent in devocion.” On another occasion Alfunyne, seeking the materials to brew ale for the hospital, goes about to " matranys howsis for this same gaderynge.” Coming to the parish of St. Giles, he called upon Eden, the wife of Edred, a devout woman and a well-known donor of the church. It so happened that the good housewife had just begun a brew of ale for her family, and had only enough of malt for her own use. “ Never the less she saide albe that I be certeyn to have damage or harme, yete hadd I lever to suffir harme of meyn ale, than yow to go voyde with awte frute of myn almes.” Accordingly she measures forth the malt, and behold the miracle of the Hebrew housewife’s barrel of meal and cruse of oil is repeated for the benefit of the hospital of St. Bartholomew !
Space will not admit of more than a brief mention of some of the remaining miracles.
“ A deyf mayde, dum, blynde, and contracte,” is restored whole and free from all manner of sickness.
A poor man and his wife, who came to London to buy vitayles, and the latter to receive wagys for that she had sponne, are waylaid, and for false accusation respecting tolls the man is cast into sore bonds hard by the church at which he always paid his devotions. The singing of the Te Deum and the sound of the bells and the melody of the ympnys (hymns) reach him in his prison, the doors of which are miraculously opened to him.
“Shippemen in grete peryl” at sea are saved on promising a little ship of silver as an offering to the church. Again, a man clinging to the mast, the sole survivor of a shipwrecked crew, is saved by the saint who, on another occasion, pulls the drowning man out of the depth of the sea with his own hand, places him on dry land, and disappears.
There is a singular history of a certeyn merchaunte of Colchester, who, when Henry II. was preparing to invade Wales, in 1157, made much money providing things needful for the army, setting the price as he would, as is the wont of such contractors. Returning home by sea, a usual mode of traveling in those days, the merchant was robbed of his money, which was taken from under his head when asleep. St. Bartholomew, to whom he owed a vow, appeared to him in a dream, and reproached him, not only for the unpaid vow, but for having made his money by unrighteous means, “ consummyng othir mennys poochys to fulfill youre pursys.” The merchant humbly acknowledges his sin, and promises restitution to the church. “ O,” says the saint, I nede not thy giftis, it is sufficient to me y nowh (enough) the grace of God for to provyde for the nede of my clerkes, ne I am not unmyghty to yeve foode to them that servyth me.” He roundly rates his suppliant for spoiling the poor, and thinking to appease God by sacrifice. The merchant promises more and better gifts, and the apostle, strange to say, accepts the conditions. The thief is disclosed, and on landing, by the intervention of a priest and the king’s proctor, is brought face to face with the man whom he has robbed. He restores the money, and is let off. The vow to St. Bartholomew is fulfilled by the merchant, who in making his offering declared to the brethren all that had befallen him.
The oratory or Lady chapel, still to be seen in the priory church, to the east of the altar, was the scene of a vision in which “ the schynyng queyn of heven ” appeared to one of the brethren. The pen-picture of this beautiful soul must be given, because it is no doubt typical of many such who, amid the tumult of mediæval times, found their only appropriate sphere in the pious offices of monastic life : —
“ Ther was in the congregation, a certeyn man, Hubert by name, cumme of grete kyn, informed yn liberall science, of goode age and of wonderfull myldenes, that yn his all thyng worldly hadde forsake for the love of Criste, nakidly askapynge the wrake of this worlde. And the habite that he did (take) on of holy religion, with feitlifull maners worshipfully he bewtified, whan he was admyttid in to the feleship of brethren he turned all his study to love God, and to prayer, and redynge (reading) bysyly toke hede, and many that were his elders he passid yn rightwysnes, and trewth.”
In a prologue to the Second Book the chronicler relates that Rahere’s successor was Thomas, a canon of St. Osyth’s, in Essex. He was appointed prior by Robert, Bishop of London, 1141—1151, in the reign of Stephen, king of England, and the primacy of Theobalde, Archbishop of Canterbury.
With the character of Prior Thomas, by the good canon, and bis final flourishing account of the Foundation, the notice of this old book must not inappropriately end : —
“This Thomas, as we have provyd in comyn was a man of jocunde companye and felowly jocundite, of grete eloquence, and of grete cunnynge, instruct in philosophy, and dyvyne bookys exercised, and he hadde yt in prompte, what sumever he wolde uttir, to spoke it metyrly, and he hadde in use every solempne day, whan the ease requyrid, to dispense the worde of God, and flowynge to hym the prees of peple, he zave and so addid to hym glorie utward, that ynward hadde zeve hym tins grace. He was prelate to us mekly almost xxx zere, and in age an hundrid wyntee almost, with hole wyttis, with all crystyn solempnyte, tochynge Crystes grace he decessid, and was put to his faders, the zere of Oure Lorde M. C. lxxiiij, of the papassie of blessid Alexawndir the third, xv. zere, of the coronation of the most unskunfitid (unconquered) kynge of Englonde Henry the seeunde xx zere, the xvij day of the moneth of Janyuer, yn the same zere of the election of lorde Rioharde Archbysshop of Cawntirbery, aforne whom our brethren were put, and sette of his goode grace of hym praynge, whom the grace of God from the foresayed paucite (of xiii canons) encresid yn to xxxvto. Encresyng with them temporall goodes evynly the whiche the zevir of all goodys promysid to be cast to them, that sekith the kyngdome of God, in this manys tyme grewe the plant of this appostolike branche yn glorie, and grace before God, and man, and with moor ampliat bylyng, were the skynnys of oure tabernaculys dylatid, to the laude and glorie of oure lorde Jhu Criste to whom, be honoure and glory, worlde with owtyn ende. Amen.”