Page images

of Theodoric, King of the Goths, in the first book, is one of the most elaborate miniatures that has ever been drawn in words. So too the delightful account Sidonius gives of a visit he had paid to a friend's house near Nîmes, and the sketch he gives of the way in which a rich country gentleman kept up hospitality in the fifth century is invaluable. We talk about our luxurious way of living. Let a man read some of Sidonius's letters, and he will see that 1,400 years ago, down in the South of France, people had a rather exalted notion of grand and capacious amusement. Indeed, the impression we get from these letters of the prodigality and luxury of the times is almost dreadful. There is one letter taken up with the description of the dresses and appearance of a young bridegroom's retinue on his wedding morning. There is another with very valuable details on the plan of a large villa, apparently at Clermont; and there are up and down the letter all sorts of odd hints and notes which only a letter-writer could have inserted.

But what is especially valuable in this correspondence of Sidonius is the fact that in it we seem to be taking a farewell of heathendom, as it was concerned with the life of the upper classes in Roman society, and find ourselves moving now in a world that has, if not yet become Christianised, yet has become profoundly modified in its habits of thought, and even in its moral tone, by the influence of Christianity. Between the letters of Symmachus, the pagan gentleman, and those of Sidonius, the Christian bishop, one would expect to find a great gulf fixed. There is no gulf at all; Sidonius, the Christian gentleman, bridges it over, and by the time that Sidonius has taken his place as the bishop of his diocese, and begins to write letters to other bishops and to the Pope and the clergy round him, we feel that we have stepped with him into the Christian world, and are not surprised to find that in this valuable correspondence we are brought face to face with that not always very edifying form of composition, to wit, religious letter-writing.

Here I am touching upon a branch of our subject which requires such very delicate handling that I feel I had better pass it by with a very few words. This, however, must be said, that religious letters were things unknown till the Gospel made its way in the world. Not till the tendency had been at work to a very dangerous extent whereby people were urged to aim at being Christians first and men and women afterwards-not till unanimity in opinion on matters of faith had become the idol which all professing Christians were taught to bow down to, and till a wave of fierce and intolerant asceticism had swept over the Christian world, and men and women had been taught the duty of self-examination and self-contemplation to an extent which made their own dreams and moods and emotional condition appear to them the only realities, and God’s beautiful world that with its glories was appealing to them on every side was getting to seem the only dreamland—not till then did people begin to write religious letters, detailing their own experiences, telling of their own or others' visions, or temptations, or ecstasies; and at the best occupied with discussions on the interpretation of sacred Scripture, or the writer's views on theology, the beatific vision, counsels of perfection, and those tempestuous emotional paroxysms which are called conflicts of the soul.

s Lib. ii. 9.

I am not at all sure that such letters as these when they abound (as they have abounded at times) indicate that religion is in a flourishing condition in the Church, or in a healthy condition for the individual. But with such letters I feel that it would be unwise to meddle now. The fourth century saw the beginning of what may be called religious letter-writing. The three largest collections of these letters are those of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Basil. St. Augustine's letters can really hardly be called letters at all; they are for the most part treatises on the interpretation of sacred Scripture, or on theological or philosophical questions. The human element, and even the moral element, is conspicuously absent. I can think of only a single instance in all this collection of 263 epistles which I could describe as a graceful or affecting letter; I mean that one in which the writer accepts the present of a tunic which a young lady had prayed him as a special favour to wear. Sapidia—that was her name—had made the tunic for her brother with her own hand. Her brother had died-suddenly, we may infer: would Augustine wear the tunic as a memento of the dear lost one, as a token of regard and confidence from the sorrowing sister? Augustine writes that he was actually wearing the tunic at the moment that he was replying to the letter of the poor girl.

In the letters of St. Jerome, which number one with another just 150, we have some valuable notices of the religious life of the time, and we get a most curious impression of the awfully high pressure at which devout people were living at the close of the fourth century. So far St. Jerome's letters are invaluable, but there is an unreality about them. I do not mean insincerity. The men and women are not men and women, but creatures who are trying to be something else, and who believe themselves to be something else. Jerome's letters are, with, I think, a single exception, eminently and glaringly unpractical. Jerome himself is up in a balloon, and he seems to assume that everybody else is, or ought to be, or wishes to be, or is trying to be up in a balloon too. The single exception (which, however, you must take for what it is worth) is the letter to Læta, in which he gives advice on the education of a young lady whose mother was very anxious to bring her up religiously. The rules are almost amusing. The girl is not to mince her words as the fashion is; she is not to paint; not to have ber ears bored ; not to dye her hair red; not to dine with her parents lest she should learn to be greedy; not to allow any young gentleman with curly hair to smile at her; she is to learn to spin, and she is by no means to learn dancing or fancy work.

I think we have met with this kind of advice in more modern times than St. Jerome's, but a letter like this is noteworthy because it shows us how there is really nothing new under the sun; and this, perhaps, is one of the most useful lessons which familiar letters read us—they hold the mirror not up to nature, but they hold it up to society, and remind us that the manners of one age are not so very different from those of another.

St. Basil's letters are very much less known than those of his two great contemporaries, but they are far more real, genuine, human, and interesting than those of Augustine and Jerome. Basil's letters have a wide range of subjects, and his correspondents were people of all ranks and classes and opinions-pagan philosophers and professors, governors of provinces, ladies in distress, rogues who had tried to take him in, and of course a host of bishops and clergy. There are going on for four hundred of St. Basil's letters which have come down to us, and therefore they must have been very popular once. Certainly nobody reads them now. Yet as letters—as natural, graceful, gentlemanly letters—they are incomparably superior to those of Augustine or Jeromethese are always dreadfully grim. But Basil can laugh and can be playful—witness his letter to the Governor of Cappadocia, who had cured himself of an illness by dieting himself on pickled cabbage. My dear sir,' says Basil, “I am delighted at the news.

I never believed in cabbage before, still less in pickled cabbage; but now I shall praise it as something superior to the lotus that Homer talks of-yea, not inferior to the very ambrosia that served as the food of the gods!' The Governor answered that letter very briefly, and his answer has been preserved. "My right rev. brother,' says the Governor, ‘you are right, there's nothing like pickled cabbage ! Twice to cabbage kills—so the saying has it. I find many times to cabbage cures. Come and try. Dine with me to-morrow on pickled cabbage--that and nothing more!' I think the Governor had the Bishop there. I suppose he felt compelled to go, but I can't be quite sure. Think of a saint solemnly dining on pickled cabbage!

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that after St. Basil's time, after St. Augustine's time, the art of writing letters in an easy, familiar, frank, and unconstrained way died out for more than a thousand

years. I do not mean that no letters have come down to us; they swarm in mediæval literature; the eleventh and twelfth centuries are especially rich in Epistles, for that is a better name for the missives which the prominent personages of those centuries issued. But these epistles have all the appearance of being made by machinery. To begin with, they are almost always written by men in office, either in the State or the Church, by bishops or archdeacons, or kings or nobles, or abbots or priors. One never hears the prattle of a child, or the sob of the widow, or the laughter of a friend. The letter-writers never unbend. Even in St. Bernard's letters we hear little about common affairs. I remember one of them in which St. Bernard, being away from Clairvaux, and either at Rome or on his way to Rome, gets tidings that a certain landed proprietor in the neighbourhood had swooped down upon a herd of swine which belonged to St. Bernard and his monks. The letter is a short one, and it bluntly tells the offending marauder that on the receipt of this letter he shall straightway send back the pigs without an hour's delay. If not,' says St. Bernard, 'I will beyond a doubt excommunicate thee for thine evil doings. It was no light offence to drive off the pigs of a holy abbot! But the point is that the abbot was writing and not the man, and it is so, as far as I have observed, through all the correspondence of these ages. The people whose letters were thought worth preserving were all personages, they are players in the drama of their time, and they all have their stage dresses on-nay, they have all broken with anything like the family life and the sympathies and affections which flourish round the domestic hearth. The official life has swallowed up the personal.

If you ask how and why this was, I should be disposed to assign more than one cause for the phenomenon. But certainly the most powerful and most crushing influence which produced this effect was that which was furnished by the almost universal intolerance of anything that bordered on freedom of thought and freedom of speech during the long period to which I have referred. Do not commit the mistake of assuming that this intolerance was only in matters of theology. It was in everything. The bitterest and narrowest intolerance that ever was displayed was not greater in the domain of theology proper than in the domain of philosophy. Abelard was no ecclesiastic, and the party strifes between Nominalists and Realists had only a remote bearing upon religious belief. When Vacarius, the greatest lawyer of the twelfth century, began to lecture at Oxford, and was gathering crowds round him in his lecture-room, the king, Stephen, drove him away from England because he would have no new-fangled science of law. Heresy as late as the fourteenth century did not mean only theological heresy, it meant any novelty in physical science, politics, law, even art. For a thousand years people were afraid of expressing their real sentiments, they were afraid of one another, orthodoxy was the one thing needful, and any revolt from the tyranny of the dominant authorities was visited upon the rebel with no sparing hand. How could people write freely as friend to friend with a halter round their necks? It was not till the time of the Renaissance that men began to unbosom themselves again. In speaking thus I must be understood to speak with special reference to England and Englishmen, for the intellectual awakening of Italy in the fourteenth century had characteristics peculiar to itself, and the letters of Petrarch are wholly unlike anything which we have to produce in our literature of the same age.

But when the fifteenth century dawns, then we come upon what, I think, may fairly be called the incomparable collection which goes by the name of the Paston letters, and which, I think, stands quite alone in literature as an assemblage of the private letters addressed by members of a family of distinction to one another during a period of eighty-seven years, and which includes more than a thousand letters, the earliest of the date of 1422, the latest written in 1509. The minuteness of detail, the naturalness, the outspokenness of this correspondence, the way in which by its help we are plunged into the family life and social habits and political schemes and conflicts of this period of our history, are so wonderful and so thoroughly unreserved that an attempt was made about twenty years ago by the late Mr. Herman Merivale to show that they were and must be a forgery. The attempt was triumphantly scattered to the winds. Mr. Merivale was smitten hip and thigh, the original letters were actually produced, and are now deposited in the National Archives. We are not likely to hear any further doubts of their genuineness.

One of the arguments that Mr. Merivale brought forward to prove his point was that, on a comparison of these compositions with the published works of the time, and especially with what might be called the professional English of the bookmakers, the Paston letters were incomparably more simple and modern in their language, incomparably more intelligible and readable than the books were. The fact is undeniable, and it is a very significant fact too. Familiar letters, if they are not lucid and unaffected in style, if they are pretentious and stilted, are worthless. Fine wsiting is bad enough anywhere; it is detestable in a letter. If a man is paid by the page for his writing, and has to live by it, we may pity him for his hard fate; and if he spins off his periods with a view to covering so much space in a given time, it is partly his fault and partly the fault of his unhappy circumstances; but if a man writes pages upon pages of commonplace in a bombastic and inflated style to a relation or a friend it is all his fault. He at any rate might have let it alone.

When we conue to the sixteenth century we come to a very curious condition of affairs. As far as the quantity of letters is concerned, the sixteenth century has perhaps the largest assemblage of letters to produce of any period in English history. The letters and papers (for the most part letters in form) of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which have already been calendared, count by VOL. XX.-No. 114.


« PreviousContinue »