« PreviousContinue »
across the broad quadrangle, through a smaller door into the arched, and pillared cloister, where draughts are not unfrequent invaders through the unglazed loop-holes, and the green damp has traced its grotesque velvet-work upon the cold stone walls. A few sombre figures glide silently through the shadowy stillness; but we linger not here. Up a narrow stair of winding stone into a higher room, arched and pillared too, but lighter, and dotted with long-robed monks, all intent upon real and useful workdoing that service to our literature for which the mediæval monastery deserves our warmest gratitude. We have reached the Scriptorium; and its chilly bareness certainly presents a striking contrast to the snug, carpeted, and thick-curtained libraries, in which modern clergymen pen their weekly sermons, or their occasional essays and reviews. Round the naked stone walls wooden chests are ranged, heaped with the precious manuscripts, to multiply and adorn which is the task of those cowled and dark-skirted men who toil in that work-room of the Abbey. And over the rude desks and tables of the time heads of many hues are bending-choirboys with locks of curly flax; grave-browed men, whose ring of raven hair, surrounding the shaven crown, proclaims the noon of life; and the thinly silvered scalp of weak old age-all intent upon their work. Now and then a novice, to whom a common work, or some much-used Service-book for the choir, has been intrusted, crosses to the side of that keen-eyed, wrinkled monk, who has power in his very glance, and humbly begs advice as to the form of a letter or the colouring of a design. And ever and anon the grave tone of this same instructor checks with a few calm words the buzz that sometimes rises from the boyish monks whom he guides. There are things in that Scriptorium which we miss in our writing-desks and on our study-tables. Besides the quills and coloured inks, there are reed-pers, pots of brilliant paint, phials of gold and silver size, hair pencils of various shapes and, kinds : for the work of the copyist-monks is rather that of the artist than of the mere penman; and although the figures, which adorn the brilliant illuminations of those Missals and Psalters that preserve in the nineteenth century the arts of dead ages,
THE COPYIST AT WORK.
much of the stiffness of all mediæval drawing, yet, for beauty of design and richness of colouring, many productions of the quiet Scriptorium remain unsurpassed by modern pencils.
Let us draw near to this cowled transcriber-evidently a monk of note from his solitary state—who sits apart on his straightbacked wooden chair, and note the progress of his work. He is copying the Gospels upon vellum, and has just put the finishing touches to a painting, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue lace-work, fantastically formed of intermingled flowers and birds, which has occupied the hot noontide hours of a full week. The brilliant tracery forms the initial letter of a chapter. This done, he takes the pen, and rapidly, with practised hand, traces in black ink the thick perpendicular strokes of that old English text-hand, which has given their name to our black-letter manuscripts. While the right hand guides the pen, the left holds a knife, whose point, pressed upon the quickly blackening vellum, is ever ready to shape a clumsy line or erase a wrong word.
There are no capitals except the brilliant and fanciful initials; nor any points except a slight dash, occasionally used to divide the sentences. When the book is finished, which may be the work of years if the decorations are minute and profuse, the title will probably be painted in red ink (hence the word Rubric); and the name of the copyist, with date and place of completion, will also shine in brilliant scarlet or other coloured ink at the foot of the last page. The headings of the various chapters are also written for the most part in red ink.
Perhaps the richest specimens of the ancient manuscript are those copies of the Gospels on purple vellum, written in silver letters with the sacred names in gold, which were favourite productions of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. These, however, were not originally of English growth, but were the offspring of Greek luxury.
It was upon the initial letters and the marginal ornaments, with which the pages of these mediæval manuscripts were adorned, that the taste and labour of the illuminators were chiefly bestowed. Angelic and human figures, birds, beasts, and fishes, flowers, shells,
SPLENDOURS OF ILLUMINATION.
and leaves, were all pressed into the service of the patient monks. Rare and exquisite patterns grew under their unwearying pencils in the still Scriptorium, until each page of the Missal or Servicebook presented an embroidery of gorgeous colouring, resembling nothing so much as the many-hued splendours of a great cathedral window, through which the rays of the setting sun stream in a flood of rainbow glory.
It would be vain to attempt a description of these beautiful works. Many pages of this book might be filled with a mere enumeration of the various figures and colours combined in one of the splendid designs. How hard and how long the monks must have worked at their copying-desks can only be judged by those who have turned over the leaves of an illuminated Missal, executed in the Scriptorium of some old abbey.
The earliest writer of English prose, whose work survives, was Sir John de Mandeville.
He was born at St. Albans in Hertfordshire about the year 1300. Educated for the medical profession, he had scarcely finished his studies when, impelled by the irresistible desire of change, or, perhaps, by some deeper motive of which we know nothing, he set out at the age of twenty-two to travel in distant lands. He joined a Mahometan army in Palestine. some service under the Sultan of Egypt. He penetrated even as far as Cathay (China), where, we are told, he lived for three years at Pekin. Turkey, Persia, Armenia, India, Ethiopia, Libya, and many other places, were also visited by him. His knowledge of medicine often stood his friend, no doubt, among the rude tribes with whom he met. For thirty-four years Mandeville roved over the wildest regions of the Old World, looked upon as lost and dead by all his friends at home. And when he came back a worn greybeard, he found, instead of the many fresh cheeks and bright eyes of the friends from whom he had parted so long ago,
only the grave welcome of a few thin and withered men. 1356 In or about the year 1356, immediately after his return,
he wrote in Latin a Narrative of his Travels. This work
was afterwards translated by himself into French, and thence into English.
Mandeville's great fault as a writer was, that he loaded his pages with the wildest and most absurd stories, picked up by the way, and admitted upon the shallowest testimony—often, indeed, upon none at all.
The most extravagant offshoots of the chival
EXTRAVAGANT STORIES OF OLD TRAVEL.
rous Romance find a parallel in many passages of the oldest work of English prose, in which monsters, giants, and demons are found to swarm. Such stories as of men with tails, and of a bird native to Madagascar that could carry an elephant in its talons, are given with the greatest seriousness. Much, however, as we may laugh at the extravagant tone of the work, it possesses for us a deep interest, both as a remarkable monument of our noble old speech in its infancy, and as a specimen of the style of thought common in an unripe age.
Mandeville, roving again from England, died and was buried at Liège in 1372.
The following extract is from the seventh chapter of his Travels, entitled, “Of the Pilgrimages in Jerusalem, and of the Holy Places thereaboute :" —
And zee schull undirstonde that whan men comen to Jerusalem her first pilgrymage is to the chirche of the Holy Sepulcr wher oure Lord was buryed, that is withoute the cytee on the north syde. But it is now enclosed in with the ton wall. And there is a full fair chirche all rownd, and open above, and covered with leed. And on the west syde is a fair tour and an high for belles strongly made. And in the myddes of the chirche is a tabernacle as it wer a lytyll hows, made with a low lityll dore; and that tabernacle is made in maner of a half a com pas right curiousely and richely made of gold and azure and othere riche coloures, full nobelyche made. And in the ryght side of that tabernacle is the sepulcre of oure Lord. And the tabernacle is viij fote long and v fote wide, and xj fote in heghte. And it is not longe sithe the sepulcre was all open, that men myghte kisse it and touche it. But for pilgrymes that comen thider peyned hem to breke the ston in peces, or in poudr; therefore the Soudan (Sultan] hath do make a wall aboute the sepulcr that no man may towche it. But in the left syde of the wall of the tabernacle is well the heighte of a man, is a gret ston, to the quantytee of a mannes hed, that was of the holy sepulcr, and that ston kissen the pilgrymes that comen thider. In that tabernacle ben no wyndowes, but it is all made light with lampes that hangen befor the sepulcr. And there is a lampe that hongeth befor the sepulcr that brenneth light, and on the Gode ffryday it goth out be him self, at that hour that our Lord roos fro deth to lyve. Also within the chirche at the right syde besyde the queer of the churche is the Mount of Calvarye, wher our Lord was don on the cros. And it is a roche of white coloure and a lytill medled with red. And the cros was set in a morteys in the same roche, and on that roche dropped the woundes of our Lord, whan be was pyned on the cros, and that is cleped [called] Golgatha. And men gon up to that Golgatha be degrees (steps]. And in the place of that morteys was Adames hed found after Noes flode, in tokene that the synnes of Adam echolde ben bought in that same place. And upon that roche made Abraham sacrifise to our Lord.