Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Jocelin of Brakelond
By Thomas Carlyle (17951881)
From Past and Present
WE have heard so much of monks; everywhere, in real and fictitious history, from Muratori Annals to Radcliffe Romances, these singular two-legged animals, with their rosaries and breviaries, with their shaven crowns, hair cilices, and vows of poverty, masquerade so strangely through our fancy; and they are in fact so very strange an extinct species of the human family,a veritable Monk of Bury St. Edmunds is worth attending to, if by chance made visible and audible. Here he is; and in his hand a magical speculum, much gone to rust indeed, yet in fragments still clear; wherein the marvellous image of his existence does still shadow itself, though fitfully and as with an intermittent light! Will not the reader peep with us into this singular camera lucida, where an extinct species, though fitfully, can still be seen alive? Extinct species, we say; for the live specimens which still go about under that character are too evidently to be classed as spurious in Natural History: the Gospel of Richard Arkwright once promulgated, no Monk of the old sort is any longer possible in this world. But fancy a deep-buried Mastodon, some fossil Megatherion, Ichthyosaurus, were to begin to speak from amid its rock-swathings, never so indistinctly! The most extinct fossil species of Men or Monks can do, and does, this miracle,thanks to the Letters of the Alphabet, Good for so many things.
Jocelin, we said, was somewhat of a Boswell; but unfortunately, by Nature, he is none of the largest, and distance has now dwarfed him to an extreme degree. His light is most feeble, intermittent, and requires the intensest kindest inspection; otherwise it will disclose mere vacant haze. It must be owned, the good Jocelin, spite of his beautiful child-like character, is but an altogether imperfect mirror of these old-world things! The good man, he looks on us so clear and cheery, and in his neighbourly soft-smiling eyes we see so well our own shadow,we have a longing always to cross-question him, to force from him an explanation of much. But no; Jocelin, though he talks with such clear familiarity, like a next-door neighbour, will not answer any question: that is the peculiarity of him, dead these six hundred and fifty years, and quite deaf to us, though still so audible! The good man, he cannot help it, nor can we.
But truly it is a strange consideration this simple one, as we go on with him, or indeed with any lucid simple-hearted soul like him: Behold therefore, this England of the year 1200 was no chimerical vacuity or dreamland, peopled with mere vaporous fantasms, Rymers Fdera, and Doctrines of the Constitution; but a green solid place, that grew corn and several other things. The Sun shone on it; the vicissitude of seasons and human fortunes. Cloth was woven and worn; ditches were dug, furrow fields ploughed, and houses built. Day by day all men and cattle rose to labour, and night by night returned home weary to their several lairs. In wondrous Dualism, then as now, lived nations of breathing men; alternating in all ways, between Light and Dark; between joy and sorrow, between rest and toil,between hope, hope reaching high as Heaven, and fear deep as very Hell. Not vapour Fantasms, Rymers Fdera at all! Cur-de-Lion was not a theatrical popinjay with greaves and steel cap on it, but a man living upon victuals,not imported by Peels Tariff. Cur-de-Lion came palpably athwart this Jocelin at St. Edmundsbury; and had almost peeled the sacred gold Feretrum, or St. Edmund Shrine itself, to ransom him out of the Danube Jail.
These clear eyes of neighbour Jocelin looked on the bodily presence of King John; the very John Sansterre, or Lackland, who signed Magna Carta afterwards in Runnymead. Lackland, with a great retinue, boarded once for a matter of a fortnight, in St. Edmundsbury Convent; daily in the very eyesight, palpable to the very fingers of our Jocelin: O Jocelin, what did he say, what did he do; how looked he, lived he;at the very lowest, what coat or breeches had he on? Jocelin is obstinately silent. Jocelin marks down what interests him; entirely deaf to us. With Jocelins eyes we discern almost nothing of John Lackland. As through a glass darkly, we with our own eyes and appliances, intensely looking, discern at most: A blustering, dissipated human figure, with a kind of blackguard quality air, in cramoisy velvet, or other uncertain texture, uncertain cut, with much plumage and fringing; amid numerous other human figures of the like; riding abroad with hawks; talking noisy nonsense;tearing out the bowels of St. Edmundsbury convent, its larders namely and cellars, in the most ruinous way, by living at rack and manger there. Jocelin notes only, with a slight subacidity of manner, that the Kings Majesty, Dominus Rex, did leave, as a gift for our St. Edmund Shrine, a handsome enough silk cloak,or rather pretended to leave, for one of his retinue borrowed it of us, and we never got sight of it again; and, on the whole, that the Dominus Rex, at departing, gave us thirteen sterlingii, one shilling and one penny, to say a mass for him; and so departed,like a shabby Lackland as he was! Thirteen pence sterling, this was what the Convent got from Lackland, for all the victuals he and his had made away with. We of course said our mass for him, having covenanted to do it,but let impartial posterity judge with what degree of fervour!
And in this manner vanishes King Lackland; traverses swiftly our strange intermittent magic mirror, jingling the shabby thirteen pence merely; and rides with his hawks into Egyptian night again. It is Jocelins manner with all things; and it is mens manner and mens necessity. How intermittent is our good Jocelin; marking down, without eye to us, what he finds interesting! How much in Jocelin, as in all History, and indeed in all Nature, is at once inscrutable and certain; so dim, yet so indubitable; exciting us to endless considerations. For King Lackland was there, verily he; and did leave these tredecim sterlingii, if nothing more, and did live and look in one way or the other, and a whole world was living and looking along with him! There we say is the grand peculiarity; the immeasurable one distinguishing to a really infinite degree, the poorest historical Fact from all Fiction whatsoever. Fiction, Imagination, Imaginative Poetry, etc. etc., except as the vehicle for truth, or fact of some sort,which surely a man should first try various other ways of vehiculating, and conveying safe,what is it? Let the Minerva and other Presses respond!