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Power, Eileen Edna / Medieval People
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Distributed Proofreading Team.

Medieval People


M.A., D.Lit.

_Late Reader in History in the University of
London and sometime Fellow and Lecturer of
Girton College, Cambridge_

'I counsel thee, shut not thy heart nor thy library'


_First published, 1924

Published in 1963

Eighth Printing, 1969_
my colleagues and students
at Girton College, Cambridge


For if heuene be on this erthe . and ese to any soule,
It is in cloistere or in scole . by many skilles I fynde;
For in cloistre cometh no man . to chide ne to fizte,
But alle is buxomnesse there and bokes . to rede and to lerne,
In scole there is scorne . but if a clerke wil lerne,
And grete loue and lykynge . for eche of hem loueth other.

--LANGLAND, _Piers Plowman_

_Author's Preface_

Social history sometimes suffers from the reproach that it is vague and
general, unable to compete with the attractions of political history
either for the student or for the general reader, because of its lack of
outstanding personalities. In point of fact there is often as much
material for reconstructing the life of some quite ordinary person as
there is for writing a history of Robert of Normandy or of Philippa of
Hainault; and the lives of ordinary people so reconstructed are, if less
spectacular, certainly not less interesting. I believe that social
history lends itself particularly to what may be called a personal
treatment, and that the past may be made to live again for the general
reader more effectively by personifying it than by presenting it in the
form of learned treatises on the development of the manor or on medieval
trade, essential as these are to the specialist. For history, after all,
is valuable only in so far as it lives, and Maeterlinck's cry, 'There
are no dead', should always be the historian's motto. It is the idea
that history is about dead people, or, worse still, about movements and
conditions which seem but vaguely related to the labours and passions of
flesh and blood, which has driven history from bookshelves where the
historical novel still finds a welcome place.

In the following series of sketches I have tried to illustrate at the
same time various aspects of social life in the Middle Ages and various
classes of historical material. Thus Bodo illustrates peasant life, and
an early phase of a typical medieval estate; Marco Polo, Venetian trade
with the East; Madame Eglentyne, monastic life; the Ménagier's wife,
domestic life in a middle-class home, and medieval ideas about women;
Thomas Betson, the wool trade, and the activities of the great English
trading company of Merchants of the Staple; and Thomas Paycocke, the
cloth industry in East Anglia. They are all quite ordinary people and
unknown to fame, with the exception of Marco Polo. The types of
historical evidence illustrated are the estate book of a manorial lord,
the chronicle and traveller's tale, the bishop's register, the didactic
treatise in household management, the collection of family letters, and
houses, brasses, and wills. At the end of the book I have added a
bibliography of the sources which form the raw material for my
reconstructions, and a few additional notes and references. I hope that
this modest attempt to bring to life again some of 'our fathers that
begat us', may perhaps interest for an hour or two the general reader,
or the teacher, who wishes to make more concrete by personification some
of the general facts of medieval social and economic history.

My thanks are due to my publishers, Messrs. Methuen and Co., for
allowing me to incorporate in Chapter VI the greater part of a chapter
in my book 'The Paycockes of Coggeshall', and to the Cambridge
University Press for similarly allowing me to repeat in Chapter III a
few sentences from my study of 'Medieval English Nunneries'. I have also
to thank my friends Miss M.G. Jones and Miss H.M.R. Murray of Girton
College, Cambridge, for various suggestions and criticisms, and my
sister Miss Rhoda Power for making the index.

_London School of Economics and Political Science
University of London_

_Preface to the Tenth Edition_

For years after the first edition of _Medieval People_ had come out,
Eileen Power collected notes and made plans for several essays to be
included in an enlarged edition of the book. Of these essays only one,
"The Precursors", had been written out in full before she died; and it
has now been added to the present edition. In its published form it is
not in every respect identical with the author's original text.

The essay was taking shape as Munich came and went and as the war itself
was drawing near. No historian writing at that time about Rome menaced
by the barbarians--and least of all an historian as sensitive to the
extra-mural world as Eileen Power was--could have helped noting the
similarities between the Roman Empire in the fifth or sixth centuries
and Europe in the nineteen-thirties. In the end, having finished the
essay, she decided to withold it from publication for the time being and
to present it instead to a friendly audience as a tract for the times.
This she did at a meeting of the Cambridge History Club in the winter of
1938: and for that occasion she replaced the opening and concluding
pages of the original essay with passages, or rather notes for passages,
more suited to the purpose.

I am sure that she never intended these passages to be perpetuated in
her _Medieval People_ and I have therefore done what I could to replace
them with a reconstructed version of her first draft. The reconstruction
had to be done from somewhat disjointed notes and cannot therefore be
word-faithful. The readers must therefore bear in mind that the first
two and the last page of the essay are mere approximations to what
Eileen Power in fact wrote.

_April_, 1963 M.M. POSTAN _Peterhouse, Cambridge_.












_List of Illustrations_

From _MS. Tit. B.V., Pt. I_. British Museum

From _Bodleian MS. 264_. Oxford

From the original in the British Museum

From _MS. Add. 39843_. British Museum

From _Harl. MS. 4425_. British Museum

From _MS. Royal, 15 D. i_. British Museum

From _Cott. MS. Aug. i, Vol. II_. British Museum

From _The Paycockes of Coggeshall_ by Eileen Power
(Methuen & Co. Ltd.)


Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us....

There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises
might be reported.

And some there be which have no memorial; who are perished, as though
they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born;
and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been

With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their
children are within the covenant.

Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.



_The Precursors_


Every schoolboy knows that the Middle Ages arose on the ruins of the
Roman Empire. The decline of Rome preceded and in some ways prepared the
rise of the kingdoms and cultures which composed the medieval system.
Yet in spite of the self-evident truth of this historical preposition we
know little about life and thought in the watershed years when Europe
was ceasing to be Roman but was not yet medieval. We do not know how it
felt to watch the decline of Rome; we do not even know whether the men
who watched it knew what they saw, though we can be quite certain that
none of them foretold, indeed could have foreseen, the shape which the
world was to take in later centuries.

Yet the tragic story, its main themes and protagonists were for all to
see. No observer should have failed to notice that the Roman Empire of
the fourth and fifth centuries was no longer the Roman Empire of the
great Antonine and Augustan age; that it had lost its hold over its
territories and its economic cohesion and was menaced by the barbarians
who were in the end to overwhelm it. The territory of the Roman Empire
had at its height stretched from the lands bordering the North Sea to
the lands on the northern fringes of the Sahara, and from the Atlantic
coast of Europe to the central Asiatic Steppes; it comprised most of the
regions of the former Hellenic, Iranian, and Phoenician empires, and it
either ruled or kept in check great clusters of peoples and
principalities beyond its Gallic and north African frontiers. From these
farthest frontiers Rome of the fourth century had retreated and was
still retreating.

Within its frontiers great currents of inter-regional commerce had in
earlier centuries flowed along the routes which bound all the provinces
of the Empire to Rome and most of the provinces to each other. But from
the third century onwards the economic unity of the Empire was in
dissolution, and by the fifth century most of the great currents of
inter-regional trade had ceased to flow, and provinces and districts had
been thrown upon themselves and their own resources. And with the wealth
of the provinces reduced, their commerce restricted, the great
provincial cities also declined in population, wealth, political power.

Yet to its very last days the Empire endeavoured to defend its frontiers
against the converging barbarians. Not only did the Barbarian Conquests,
like all conquests, threaten destruction and ruin, but the way of life
the barbarians stood for was the very denial of what Roman civilization
had been, though alas, was gradually ceasing to be.

However, it was not in material things, that the contemporaries found,
or should have found the sharpest conflict between Rome and the
barbarian prospects before it. Above all Roman civilization was a
civilization of the mind. It had behind it a long tradition of thought
and of intellectual achievement, the legacy of Greece, to which it had
in turn made its own contribution. The Roman world was a world of
schools and universities, writers, and builders. The barbarian world was
a world in which mind was in its infancy and its infancy was long. The
battle sagas of the race, which have all but disappeared or have
survived only as legends worked up in a later age; the few rude laws
which were needed to regulate personal relationships, this was hardly
civilization in the Roman sense. King Chilperic, trying to make verses
in the style of Sedulius, though he could not distinguish between a long
foot and a short and they all hobbled; Charlemagne himself, going to bed
with his slate under his pillow in order to practice in the watches of
the night that art of writing which he never mastered; what have they in
common with Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius and that great Julian
called the Apostate? They sum up in their very persons the whole wide
gulf that yawned between Germany and Rome.

Rome and the barbarians were thus not only protagonists but two
different attitudes to life, civilization and barbarism. We cannot here
discuss in detail the question as to why, in the clash between the two,
it was civilization which perished and barbarism which prevailed. But it
is important to remember that while the Empire tried to defend its
frontiers against the barbarian hosts, it gradually opened them to
barbarian settlers.

This peaceful infiltration of barbarians which altered the whole
character of the society which it invaded would have been impossible, of
course, if that society had not been stricken by disease. The disease is
plain enough to see by the third century. It shows itself in those
internecine civil wars in which civilization rends itself, province
against province and army against army. It shows itself in the great
inflationary crisis from about 268 and in the taxation which gradually
crushed out the smaller bourgeoisie while the fortunes of the rich
escaped its net. It shows itself in the gradual sinking back of an
economy based upon free exchange into more and more primitive conditions
when every province seeks to be self-sufficient and barter takes the
place of trade. It shows itself in the decline of farming and in the
workless city population kept quiet by their dole of bread and their
circuses, whose life contrasted so dramatically, so terribly with that
of the haughty senatorial families and the great landowners in their
palatial villas and town houses. It shows itself in the rise of mystical
faiths on the ruins of philosophy, and of superstition (more especially
astrology) on the ruins of reason. One religion in particular grew
mighty, by clasping its sacred book and addressing itself with words of
hope to the victims of social injustice, but although it was able to
bring comfort to individuals it could do nothing, indeed it did not try,
to give new strength or inspiration to the embattled civilization. True
to its own ethos it was impartial as between Barbarian and Roman, or
between the Romans who prospered and ruled and those outside the pale.

The most obvious manifestation of Roman society in decline was the
dwindling numbers of Roman citizens. The Empire was being depopulated
long before the end of the period of peace and prosperity which
stretched from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Does not Augustus himself
summon the poor man of Fiesole who has a family of eight children,
thirty-six grandchildren and eighteen great grandchildren, and organize
in his honour a fête in the Capitol, accompanied by a great deal of
publicity? Does not Tacitus, half-anthropologist and half-Rousseau,
describing the noble savage with his eye on fellow citizens, remark that
among the Germans it is accounted a shameful thing to limit the number
of your children? The long duration of Augustus's legislation to raise
the birthrate is significant; successful it was not, but the fact that
it was maintained on the statute book and systematically revised and
developed for three centuries shows that it was at least accounted
necessary. It is true of course that the mortality rate was a far more
important factor in those days than it is in our own, and the mortality
from pestilence and civil war from Marcus Aurelius onwards was
exceptional. And it is plain that the proportion of celibates was high
in the Roman empire and that the fall in the fertility of marriages was
going on. It is the childless marriage, the small family system that
contemporary writers deplore. In Seeley's striking phrase: 'The human
harvest was bad,' It was bad in all classes, but the decline was most
marked in the upper ranks, the most educated, the most civilized, the
potential leaders of the race. In the terrible words of Swift, facing
his own madness, the Roman Empire might have cried: 'I shall die like a
tree--from the top downwards.'

Why (the insistent question forces itself) did this civilization lose
the power to reproduce itself? Was it, as Polybius said, because people
preferred amusements to children or wished to bring their children up in
comfort? Hardly, for it is more marked among the rich than the poor and
the rich can have the best of both worlds. Was it because people had
grown discouraged and disheartened, no longer believing in their own
civilization and loath to bring children into the darkness and disaster
of their war-shattered world? We do not know. But we can see the
connection of the falling population with the other evils of the
empire--the heavy cost of administration relatively heavier when the
density of the population is low; the empty fields, the dwindling
legions which did not suffice to guard the frontier.

To cure this sickness of population the Roman rulers knew no other way
than to dose it with barbarian vigour. Just a small injection to begin
with and then more and more till in the end the blood that flowed in its
veins was not Roman but barbarian. In came the Germans to settle the
frontier, to till the fields, to enlist first in the auxiliaries and
then in the legions, to fill the great offices of state. The army is
barbarized, and a modern writer, Mr Moss, has quoted most effectively
the complaint of the Egyptian mother clamouring to get back her son who
(as she says) has gone off with the barbarians--he means that he has
enlisted in the Roman legions. The legions are barbarized and they
barbarize the Emperor. For them he is no longer the majestic embodiment
of law, he is their leader, their Führer, and they raise him on their
shields. And side by side with the barbarization of the army goes the
barbarization of civil manners too. In 397 Honorius has to pass an edict
forbidding the wearing of German fashions within the precincts of Rome.
And in the end, half barbarian themselves, they have only barbarians to
defend them against barbarism.

Such was the general picture of the great ruin of civilization amidst
which the Romans of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries lived. What
then did it feel like to live at a time when civilization was going down
before the forces of barbarism? Did people realize what was happening?
Did the gloom of the Dark Ages cast its shadow before? It so happens
that we can answer these questions very clearly if we fix our eyes on
one particular part of the Empire, the famous and highly civilized
province of Gaul. We can catch the decline at three points because in
three consecutive centuries, Gallo-Roman writers have left us a picture
of their life and times. In the fourth century we have Ausonius, in the
fifth Sidonius Apollinarius, in the sixth Gregory of Tours and
Fortunatus, a stranger from Italy, who made his home in Poitiers. They
show us Auvergne and the Bordelais in the evening light. The fourth, the
fifth, and the sixth centuries--going, going, gone!


Going! This is the world of Ausonius, south-western France in the latter
half of the fourth century, 'an Indian summer between ages of storm and
wreckage'. Ausonius himself is a scholar and a gentleman, the friend
alike of the pagan Symmachus and of St Paulinus of Nela. He is for
thirty years professor of rhetoric in the university of Bordeaux, for
some time tutor to a prince, praetorian prefect of Gaul, consul, and in
his last years just an old man contentedly living on his estates. His
most famous poem is a description of the Moselle, which for all its
literary affectations evokes most magically the smiling countryside
which was the background of his life. High above the river on either
bank stand the villas and country houses, with their courts and lawns
and pillared porticos, and the hot baths from which, if you will, you
can plunge into the stream. The sunny hillside is covered with vines,
and from slope to hill-top the husbandmen call to each other and the
wayfarer on the towpath or the bargemen floating by, shout their rude
jests to the loitering vinedressers. Far out in midstream the fisherman
trails his dripping net and on a rock by the shore the angler plies his
rod. And, as twilight falls, the deepening shadow of the green hillside
is reflected in the water and gazing downward the boatman can almost
count the trembling vines and almost see the swelling of the grapes.

Equally peaceful, equally pleasant is life on Ausonius' own estate in
the Bordelais, his little patrimony (he calls it) although he had a
thousand acres of vineyard and tillage and wood. Miss Waddell has
reminded us, on the authority of Saintsbury (whom else?) that 'to this
day it boasts itself as Château-Ausone, one of the two best of the St
Emilion clarets.' Here he tends his roses and sends his boy round to the
neighbours to bid them to luncheon, while he interviews the cook. Six,
including the host, is the right number--if more it is not a meal but a
melée. Then there are all his relatives to be commemorated in verse, his
grandfather and his grandmother and his sisters and his cousins and his
aunts (especially his aunts).

And when the family circle palls there is the senior common room to fall
back upon and the professors of Bordeaux to be celebrated in their turn.
Professors were important people in the empire of the fourth century;
Symmachus says that it is the mark of a flourishing state that good
salaries should be paid to professors; though what exactly we are to
deduce from that in the light of history I should hesitate to say. So
Ausonius writes a collection of poems about the professors of Bordeaux.
There are thirty-two of them and all are celebrated. There is Minervius
the orator, who had a prodigious memory and after a game of backgammon
was wont to conduct a post-mortem over every move. There is Anastasius
the grammarian, who was so foolish as to leave Bordeaux for a provincial
university and thenceforth languished in well-merited obscurity. There
is Attius Tiro Delphidius, who retired from a legal career into the
professorial chair, but could never be got to take any trouble with his
men, to the disappointment of their parents. There is Jocundus the
grammarian, who did not really deserve his title, but was such a kind
man that we will commemorate him among men of worth, although he was,
strictly speaking, unequal to the job. There is Exuperius, who was very
good-looking and whose eloquence sounded superb until you examined it
and found that it meant nothing. There is Dynamius, who slipped from the
paths of virtue with a married lady in Bordeaux and left the place
rather hastily, but fortunately fell on his feet in Spain. There is
Victorius the usher, who liked only the most abstruse historical
problems, such as what the pedigree of the sacrificial priest at Cureo
was long before Numa's day, or what Castor had to say on all the shadowy
kings, and who never got up as far as Tully or Virgil, though he might
have done so if he had gone on reading long enough, but death cut him
off too soon. They seem oddly familiar figures (except of course,
Dynamius) and their chronicler contrives to make them live.

Such is the world depicted for us by Ausonius. But while this pleasant
country house and senior common room life was going calmly on, what do
we find happening in the history books? Ausonius was a man of nearly
fifty when the Germans swarmed across the Rhine in 357, pillaging
forty-five flourishing cities, and pitching their camps on the banks of
the Moselle. He had seen the great Julian take up arms ('O Plato, Plato,
what a task for a philosopher') and in a series of brilliant campaigns
drive them out again. Ten years later when he was tutor to Gratian he
had himself accompanied the emperor Valentinian on another campaign
against the same foes. While he was preening himself on his consulship
ten years later still, he must have heard of the disastrous battle of
Adrianople in the east, when the Goths defeated a Roman army and slew an
emperor. He died in 395 and within twelve years of his death the host of
Germans had burst across the Rhine, 'all Gaul was a smoking funeral
pyre', and the Goths were at the gates of Rome. And what have Ausonius
and his correspondents to say about this? Not a word. Ausonius and
Symmachus and their set ignore the barbarians as completely as the
novels of Jane Austen ignore the Napoleonic wars.


Going, going.... Some thirty-five years after the death of Ausonius, in
the midst of the disastrous sixth century, was born Sidonius
Apollinaris, Gallo-Roman aristocrat, father-in-law of an emperor,
sometime prefect of Rome and in the end Bishop of Clermont. Sidonius
Apollinaris, 431 (or thereabouts) to 479 or perhaps a few years later.
Much had happened between the death of Ausonius and his birth. The
lights were going out all over Europe. Barbarian kingdoms had been
planted in Gaul and Spain, Rome herself had been sacked by the Goths;
and in his lifetime the collapse went on, ever more swiftly. He was a
young man of twenty when the ultimate horror broke upon the West, the
inroad of Attila and the Huns. That passed away, but when he was
twenty-four the Vandals sacked Rome. He saw the terrible German
king-maker Ricimer throne and unthrone a series of puppet emperors, he
saw the last remnant of Gallic independence thrown away and himself
become a barbarian subject, and he saw a few years before he died the
fall of the empire in the west.

They cannot, Sidonius and his friends, ignore as Ausonius and his
friends did, that something is happening to the empire. The men of the
fifth century are concerned at these disasters and they console
themselves, each according to his kind. There are some who think it
cannot last. After all, they say, the empire has been in a tight place
before and has always got out of it in the end and risen supreme over
its enemies. Thus Sidonius himself, the very year after they sacked the
city; Rome has endured as much before--there was Porsenna, there was
Brennus, there was Hannibal.... Only that time Rome did not get over it.
Others tried to use the disasters to castigate the sins of society. Thus
Salvian of Marseilles who would no doubt have been called the gloomy
dean if he had not been a bishop. For him all that the decadent Roman
civilization needs is to copy some of the virtues of these fresh young
barbarian people. There is the familiar figure of Orosius, defending the
barbarians with the argument that when the Roman empire was founded it
was founded in blood and conquest and can ill afford to throw stones at
the barbarians; and after all the barbarians are not so bad. 'If the
unhappy people they have despoiled will content themselves with the
little that is left them, their conquerors will cherish them as friends
and brothers.' Others, especially the more thoughtful churchmen are much
concerned to explain why an empire which had flourished under paganism
should be thus beset under Christianity. Others desert the Empire
altogether and (like St Augustine) put their hope in a city not made
with hands--though Ambrose, it is true, let fall the pregnant
observation that it was not the will of God that his people should be
saved by logic-chopping. 'It has not pleased God to save his people by

And how were they living? We have only to read the letters written by
Sidonius during the period between 460 and 470, when he was living on
his estate in Auvergne, to realize that on the surface all is going on
exactly as before. Gaul is shrunk, it is true, to a mere remnant between
three barbarian kingdoms, but save for that we might be back in the days
of Ausonius. There is the luxurious villa, with its hot baths and
swimming pool, its suites of rooms, its views over the lake; and there
is Sidonius inviting his friends to stay with him or sending
round his compositions to the professors and the bishops and the
country-gentlemen. Sport and games are very popular--Sidonius rides and
swims and hunts and plays tennis. In one letter he tells his
correspondent that he has been spending some days in the country with
his cousin and an old friend, whose estates adjoin each other. They had
sent out scouts to catch him and bring him back for a week and took it
in turns to entertain him. There are games of tennis on the lawn before
breakfast or backgammon for the older men. There is an hour or two in
the library before we sit down to an excellent luncheon followed by a
siesta. Then we go out riding and return for a hot bath and a plunge in
the river. I should like to describe our luscious dinner parties, he
concludes, but I have no more paper. However, come and stay with us and
you shall hear all about it. Clearly this is no Britain, where in the
sixth century half-barbarian people camped in the abandoned villas and
cooked their food on the floors of the principal rooms.

And yet ... it had gone a long way downhill since the days of Ausonius,
and Sidonius could not now ignore the very existence of the barbarians.
He has indeed left notable protraits of them, especially of the king of
the Visigoths and of the Burgundians who ruled Lyons, where he was born.
Whenever he went to stay there, he complains, they flocked about him in
embarrassing friendliness, breathing leeks and onions and dressing their
hair with rancid butter (they were not, it appears, constrained to
choose between spears and butter). How can he compose six foot metres,
he asks, with so many seven foot patrons around him, all singing and all
expecting him to admire their uncouth stream of non-Latin words? The
shrug of the shoulder, the genial contempt of one conscious of an
infinite superiority--how clear it is. One is reminded of a verse
of Verlaine

Je suis l'empire a la fin de la decadence
qui regarde passer les grands barbares blancs

But Sidonius's good nature was to be rudely shaken. All barbarians were
not friendly giants, and the Visigoths next door, under their new king
Euric, turned covetous eyes upon Auvergne. Sidonius had not been two
years bishop of Clermont before he had to organize the defence of the
city against their attack. The Avernians stood out gallantly; they would
fight and they would starve, but they would defend this last stronghold
of Rome in Gaul. But they were a small people; to resist successfully
they must have help from Rome itself. Lest anyone should suspect me of
twisting the story, I give it in the words of Sidonius's editor, writing
twenty years ago.

Julius Nepos was alive to the danger that Euric might cross
the Rhône; but weak as his resources were he could only hope
to secure peace by negotiation. The quaestor Licinianus had
been sent into Gaul to investigate the condition of affairs
on the spot.... He had now returned and it was soon only too
clear that hopes based on his intervention were not likely
to be fulfilled. We find Sidonius writing for information....
He began to fear that something was going on behind his back,
and that the real danger to Auvergne came no longer from
determined enemies but from pusillanimous friends. His
suspicions were only too well founded. On receipt of the
quaestor's report a Council was held to determine the policy
of the Empire towards the Visigothic king.... The empire did
not feel strong enough to support Auvergne and it was decided
to cede the whole territory to Euric, apparently without

The despair of Sidonius knew no bounds and he writes a nobly indignant
letter to a bishop who had been concerned in the negotiations:

The state of our unhappy region is miserable indeed. Everyone
declares that things were better in wartime than they are now
after peace has been concluded. Our enslavement was made the
price of security for a third party; the enslavement, ah--the
shame of it!, of those Avernians ... who in our own time
stood forth alone to stay the advance of the common enemy....
These are the men whose common soldiers were as good as
captains, but who never reaped the benefit of their
victories: that was handed over for your consolation, while
all the crushing burden of defeat they had to bear
themselves.... This is to be our reward for braving
destitution, fire, sword and pestilence, for fleshing our
swords in the enemy's blood and going ourselves starved into
battle. This is the famous peace we dreamed of, when we tore
the grass from the crannies in the walls to eat.... For all
these proofs of our devotion, it would seem that we are to be
made a sacrifice. If it be so, may you live to blush for a
peace without either honour or advantage.

Auvergne had been sacrificed to save Rome. But Rome was not to enjoy her
peace with honour for long. These things took place in 475; and in 476
the last emperor was desposed by his barbarian bear-leader, and the
empire in the west came to an end. As for Sidonius, the Goths imprisoned
him for a time and before he could recover his estate he had to write a
panegyric for King Euric (he who had written panegyrics for three Roman
emperors). It is clear that the old country house life went on as
before, though the men who exchanged letters and epigrams were now under
barbarian rule. But in one letter shortly before his death there breaks
from Sidonius a single line in which he unpacks his heart. _O
neccessitas abjecta nascendi, vivendi misera dura moriendi._ 'O
humiliating necessity of birth, sad necessity of living, hard necessity
of dying.' Shortly after 479 he died and within twenty years Clovis had
embarked upon his career of conquest and Theodoric was ruler of Italy.


Going, going, gone.... There is only the time and only the heart to look
for a moment at the Frankish kingdom which once was Gaul, and to survey
the world of Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours, born both of them just
about a century later than Sidonius, in the 530s. For a moment when you
look at Fortunatus you think the world of the sixth century is the same
world as that in which Sidonius entertained his friends with epigrams
and tennis. Fortunatus, that versatile, gentle, genial, boot-licking
gourmet, who somehow managed to write two of the most magnificent hymns
of the Christian church, came from Italy on a visit to Gaul in 565 and
never left it again. He travelled all over the Frankish lands, in what
had been Germania as well as in what had been Gaul. From Trier to
Toulouse he made his way with ease by river and by road, and it might be
Ausonius again. Fortunatus too writes a poem on the Moselle; and there
is the same smiling countryside with terraced vineyards sloping down to
the quiet stream and the smoke of villas rising from the woods.
Fortunatus too made the round of the country houses, especially of the
sumptuous villas belonging to Leontius bishop of Bordeaux, a great
Gallo-Roman aristocrat, whose grandfather had been a friend of Sidonius.
The hot baths, the pillared porticos, the lawns sloping to the river,
are all there; the feasts are even more magnificent (they upset
Fortunatus's digestion badly) and the talk is still of literature. The
more intelligent of the barbarian lords have imitated this refined and
luxurious life as best they may. The Franks as well as the Gallo-Romans
welcome little eager Fortunatus; every count wants a set of Latin verses
dedicated to himself. It is plain that some of the old country house
life at least has survived. The Apollinaris set still enjoys its hot
baths and its tennis; as Dill puts it, the barbarian might rule the
land, but the laws of polite society would be administered as before.

But when you look again you realize that it is not the same. It is not
merely because we know that even these remnants of the social and
material civilization of Rome would soon themselves die away that the
tragedy of the sixth century looms so dark. It is because when we look
below the surface we see that the life has gone out of it all, the soul
that inflamed it is dead, nothing is now left but the empty shell. These
men welcome Fortunatus just because he comes from Italy, where the rot
has gone less far, where there still survives some reputation for
learning and for culture. They slake their nostalgia a little in the
presence of that _enfant perdue_ of a lost civilization.

For this is the world of Gregory of Tours, of which you may read in his
_History of the Franks_. The rule under which it lives is the rule of
the horrible Merovingian kings. Side by side with the villas barbarism
spreads and flourishes like a jungle growth. Learning is dying--hardly
the ghost of a university is left--and Gregory himself who came of a
great Gallo-Roman family and was a bishop bewails his ignorance of
grammar. The towns are shrinking, crouched behind their defences. The
synagogues are flaming, and the first step has been taken in that tragic
tale of proscription and tallage, tallage and expulsion which (it seems)
must never end. As to politics, the will of the leader and his retinue
is the rule of the Franks, and purge and bloodbath mark every stage in
the rivalry of the Merovingian princes. The worst of them are devils
like Chilperic and Fredegond, the best of them are still barbarians like
that King Guntram, who fills so many indulgent pages in Gregory of
Tours. He is a vaguely contemporary figure, a fat, voluble man, now
purring with jovial good nature, now bursting into explosions of wrath
and violence, a strange mixture of bonhomie and brutality. It is an
ironic commentary on what has happened to civilization that Gregory
should regard him with affection, that he should be known as 'Good King
Guntram' and that the church should actually have canonized him after
his death. Good King Guntram; Michelet has summed him up in a phrase 'Ce
bon roi à qui on ne reprochait que deux ou trois meurtres.'


These were the men who lived through the centuries of Roman fall and
Barbarian triumph, and who by virtue of their elevated position, their
learning, and talents, should have seen, if not foretold, the course of
events. And yet as one contemplates the world of Ausonius and Sidonius
(for by the time of Gregory of Tours it was already dead) one is, I
think, impelled to ask oneself the question why they were apparently so
blind to what was happening. The big country houses go on having their
luncheon and tennis parties, the little professors in the universities
go on giving their lectures and writing their books; games are
increasingly popular and the theatres are always full. Ausonius has seen
the Germans overrun Gaul once, but he never speaks of a danger that may
recur. Sidonius lives in a world already half barbarian, yet in the year
before the Western Empire falls he is still dreaming of the consulship
for his son. Why did they not realize the magnitude of the disaster that
was befalling them? This is indeed a question almost as absorbing as the
question why their civilization fell, for _au fond_ it is perhaps the
same question. Several answers may be suggested in explanation.

In the first place the process of disintegration was a slow one, for the
whole tempo of life was slow and what might take decades in our own time
took centuries then. It is only because we can look back from the
vantage point of a much later age that we can see the inexorable pattern
which events are forming, so that we long to cry to these dead people
down the corridor of the ages, warning them to make a stand before it is
too late, hearing no answering echo, 'Physician, heal thyself!' They
suffered from the fatal myopia of contemporaries. It was the affairs of
the moment that occupied them; for them it was the danger of the moment
that must be averted and they did not recognize that each compromise and
each defeat was a link in the chain dragging them over the abyss.

At what point did barbarism within become a wasting disease? Yet from
the first skinclad German taken into a legion to the great barbarian
patricians of Italy, making and unmaking emperors, the chain is
unbroken. At what point in the assault from without did the attack
become fatal? Was it the withdrawal from Dacia in 270--allow the
barbarians their sphere of influence in the east of Europe, fling them
the last-won recruit to Romania and they will be satiated and leave the
west alone?

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