Page images
PDF
EPUB

ilization, and leaving behind it a long and dreary track of desolation, ignorance and misrule. But even this visitation, disastrous as it at first seemed for the cause of human improvement, and vast as was the amount of misery and suffering inflicted upon the conquered people, yet, says a modern writer, " that chaotic mass which then constituted society, contained the elements of modern European civilization; and in proportion to that very confusion, to the number and heterogeneous character of the component elements of that chaos, are the richness and completeness of the civilization which has been the result of them.”

The free and wild barbarians, who, rushing from the forests of the north, in the sixth century, overthrew the Roman power, brought with them the germs of institutions which have in their developement proved themselves immeasurably superior to those which they superseded. Long before this event the ancient civilization had reached its culminating point; for centuries it had been declining, and in its decrepitude had entirely ceased to afford mankind the means of advancement. This apparent destruction then may be viewed as one of those awful lessons, by which Providence is ever instructing the human race, and should teach us that with nations as with individuals, adversity generates progress, and the greatest evils seem to give birth to the most important benefits.

Under the Saxon rule the people were divided into four classes. First, the class from which their kings were taken; for although their monarchs were to a certain degree elective, yet they were generally chosen from a particular family supposed to be descended from Odin, the great war god of the northern tribes. The second class were the nobility, or thanes: third the ceorls, who

were partially free, but bound to the land upon which they were born; and fourth, the theowes, or slaves, whose condition was one of absolute servitude. From the second of these classes, the ceorls, the great body of their operatives probably came; gradually winning for themselves additional privileges, until we shall find them under the Norman rule entirely emancipated, and making common cause with the aristocracy, against the first convulsive efforts for freedom which were made by the agricultural laborers.

Incorporations of trades or guilds existed among their operatives as in Roman times; and it will be interesting for us to know that one principal object of these guilds was to provide for “ the honorable interment of deceased brethren. A fine paid in honey was inflicted upon any brother for non-attendance at the funeral, and the guild were to provide half the provisions for the funeral entertainment,” at which, says the history, “all who were present gave two pence for alms. If a member died or fell sick out of his own district, the rest were to fetch him back, according to his will, under the same penalty.”

We have evidence that in the Saxon period certain handicrafts had arrived at considerable perfection : English works in gold and silver were famous upon the Continent as early as the eighth century. Domestic industry was carefully inculcated, and females of the highest rank employed themselves in household avocations: the daughters of king Edward the elder did not disdain the labors of the distaff, the loom and the needle; and in the will of king Alfred, the female part of his family is designated as the spindle side.

The most able artificers were attached to the monasteries; and we find in their service, architects, illuminators of manuscripts, and workers in gold and silver, as

W

well as carpenters, smiths, masons, &c. “The process of tanning was well understood, and leather was much used as an article of clothing; the tanner himself worked up the material which he had prepared into shoes, hose, &c.; he made also a variety of articles which are now obtained from the saddle and harness maker. The crafts of the blacksmith and carpenter, at all times so important, were of course doubly prized in those rude times; and we learn that there were six smiths' forges in Gloucester, as early as the reign of Edward the Confessor, in the twelfth century. Iron was dug and melted, casting in brass and other metals was understood, and all those arts so necessary even to the appearance of civilization, were known and practiced among them, rudely to be sure, yet in sufficient perfection for their simple wants; although the dress, houses, and domestic accommodations of the people were still miserable in the extreme; and learning became so nearly extinguished, that when the Normans came in, but “very few of the English clergy could so much as read the church service; and if any one among them understood grammar, he was looked upon as a prodigy."

Commerce had before this sprung into being, and an ordinance of king Athelstan, in the second quarter of the tenth century, enacts that every merchant who shall have made three voyages over the sea with a ship and cargo of his own, shall have the rank of thane, or nobleman.

Slaves seem to have been at this period one of the chief articles of export, and the introduction of christianity into the country dates from the memorable fact, that the exposure of some beautiful Saxon children in the slave market at Rome, so excited the sympathy of Gregory, who afterwards became pope, that when this event gave

him the power, it was by his orders that Augustin, prior of St. Andrews, at Rome, undertook the mission to Britain, and the conversion of the whole Saxon nation was the result. This odious traffic however was deeply rooted in the national habits, and William of Malmsbury, who wrote nearly a century after the Norman conquest, declares that within his remembrance the people of Northumberland were in the habit of selling even their nearest relatives. A cotemporary writer states that in the town of Bristol, opposite to Ireland, the people were in the habit of buying men and women in all parts of England, and exporting them to Ireland for sale. “You might have seen with sorrow," says he, “long ranks of young persons of both sexes, and of the greatest beauty, tied together with ropes, and daily exposed for sale; nor were these men ashamed, O horrid wickedness! to give up their nearest relations, nay their own children, to slavery." The chronicle goes on to relate that after great pains, Saint Wulfstan succeeded in persuading these people to abandon “that wicked trade, and set an example to all the rest of England to do the same.” But for this remarkable passage,” says a modern historian, “it would scarcely have been suspected that there ever was a time when the natives of England were regularly exported to be sold as slaves to the Irish."

The internal trade of Saxon England must have been very small; we infer this from the fact that no person was allowed to buy anything above the value of twenty pennies, except within a town and in presence of the chief magistrate, or of two or more witnesses. But notwithstanding all discouragements, the useful arts had doubtless improved under the Saxon monarchs; so slow however was their progress, that the last fifty years has unquestionably witnessed a far greater advance than

[ocr errors]

was achieved during the whole Saxon period of five centuries.

We owe therefore to our Saxon ancestors, no improvement in art, science or literature; but we owe them, says a late history, “what is far better than any literary civilization; the elementary forms at least of a system of political arrangements, founded upon larger and juster views of human rights and duties, of personal security, the rights of property, and individual happiness generally, than anything which antiquity had imagined.”

The Norman conquest brought no amelioration to the condition of the common people; on the contrary, the ceorls and the theowes of the Saxon times became the villains and serfs of the Norman; and their privileges, if any they had, were at first extinguished under the crushing despotism of the monarchs, and the unchecked oppression of the nobles: still society advanced, for advancement is God's law, and man must bend to it.

The social condition of England under the Norman monarchs, is to our ideas a very strange one; the extreme insecurity of person and property is the first fact which strikes us, and the preamble to the statute of Winchester, passed in the reign of Edward I. in 1285, avers that “murders, robberies and thefts be more used than they have been heretofore:" and many singular enactments follow for preserving the public peace. All persons were enjoined to provide themselves with arms, according to their condition, as set forth by the statute. In another clause it goes on to say, that “owing to the partiality of jurors, who would rather suffer strangers to be robbed, than have the offenders punished when they were of the same county with themselves, great difficulty was found in obtaining the conviction of felons." In consequence, it orders that the hundred, or parish,

« PreviousContinue »