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Ch. 13: St. Guthlac

Hermits dwelling in the wilderness, as far as I am aware, were to be seen only in the northern and western parts of the island, where not only did the forest afford concealment, but the crags and caves shelter. The southern and eastern English seldom possess the vivid imagination of the Briton, the Northumbrian, and the Scot; while the rich lowlands of central, southern, and eastern England, well peopled and well tilled, offered few spots lonely enough for the hermit's cell.

One district only was desolate enough to attract those who wished to be free from the world,--namely, the great fens north of Cambridge; and there, accordingly, as early as the seventh century, hermits settled in morasses now so utterly transformed that it is difficult to restore in one's imagination the original scenery.

The fens in the seventh century were probably very like the forests at the mouth of the Mississippi, or the swampy shores of the Carolinas. Their vast plain is now, in summer, one sea of golden corn; in winter, a black dreary fallow, cut into squares by stagnant dykes, and broken only by unsightly pumping mills and doleful lines of poplar-trees. Of old it was a labyrinth of black wandering streams; broad lagoons; morasses submerged every spring-tide; vast beds of reed and sedge and fern; vast copses of willow, alder, and grey poplar, rooted in the floating peat, which was swallowing up slowly, all-devouring, yet all-preserving, the forests of fir and oak, ash and poplar, hazel and yew, which had once grown on that low, rank soil, sinking slowly (so geologists assure us) beneath the sea from age to age. Trees, torn down by flood and storm, floated and lodged in rafts, damming the waters back upon the land. Streams, bewildered in the flats, changed their channels, mingling silt and sand with the peat moss. Nature, left to herself, ran into wild riot and chaos more and more, till the whole fen became one "Dismal Swamp," in which, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the "Last of the English," like Dred in Mrs. Stowe's tale, took refuge from their tyrants, and lived, like him, a free and joyous life awhile.

For there are islands in the sea which have escaped the destroying deluge of peat-moss,--outcrops of firm and fertile land, which in the early Middle Age were so many natural parks, covered with richest grass and stateliest trees, swarming with deer and roe, goat and boar, as the streams around swarmed with otter and beaver, and with fowl of every feather, and fish of every scale.

Beautiful after their kind were those far isles in the eyes of the monks who were the first settlers in the wilderness. The author of the "History of Ramsey" grows enthusiastic, and somewhat bombastic also, as he describes the lovely isle, which got its name from the solitary ram who had wandered thither, either in extreme drought or over the winter ice, and, never able to return, was found feeding among the wild deer, fat beyond the wont of rams. He tells of the stately ashes, most of them cut in his time, to furnish mighty beams for the church roof; of the rich pastures painted with all gay flowers in spring; of the "green crown" of reed and alder which encircled the isle; of the fair wide mere (now drained) with its "sandy beach" along the forest side; "a delight," he says, "to all who look thereon."

In like humour William of Malmesbury, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, speaks of Thorney Abbey and its isle. "It represents," says he, "a very paradise; for that in pleasure and delight it resembles heaven itself. These marshes abound in trees, whose length, without a knot, doth emulate the stars. The plain there is as level as the sea, alluring the eye with its green grass, and so smooth that there is nought to trip the foot of him who runs through it. Neither is there any waste place; for in some parts are apples, in others vines, which are either spread on the ground, or raised on poles. A mutual strife there is between Nature and Art; so that what one produces not the other supplies. What shall I say of those fair buildings, which 'tis so wonderful to see the ground among those fens upbear?"

So wrote William of Malmesbury, after the industry and wisdom of the monks, for more than four centuries, had been at work to civilize and cultivate the wilderness. Yet even then there was another side to the picture; and Thorney, Ramsey, or Crowland would have seemed, for nine months every year, sad places enough to us comfortable folk of the nineteenth century. But men lived hard in those days, even the most high-born and luxurious nobles and ladies; under dark skies, in houses which we should think, from darkness, draught, and want of space, unfit for felons' cells. Hardly they lived; and easily were they pleased; and thanked God for the least gleam of sunshine, the least patch of green, after the terrible and long winters of the Middle Ages. And ugly enough those winters must have been, what with snow and darkness, flood and ice, ague and rheumatism; while through the dreary winter's night the whistle of the wind and the wild cries of the waterfowl were translated into the howls of witches and daemons; and (as in St. Guthlac's case), the delirious fancies of marsh fever made those fiends take hideous shapes before the inner eye, and act fantastic horrors round the fen-man's bed of sedge.

Concerning this St. Guthlac full details remain, both in Latin and Anglo-Saxon; the author of the original document professing to be one Felix, a monk of Ramsey near by, who wrote possibly as early as the eighth century. {303}

There we may read how the young warrior-noble Guthlac ("The Battle- Play," the "Sport of War"), tired of slaying and sinning, bethought him to fulfil the prodigies seen at his birth; how he wandered into the fen, where one Tatwin (who after became a saint likewise) took him in his canoe to a spot so lonely as to be almost unknown, buried in reeds and alders, and how he found among the trees nought but an old "law," as the Scots still call a mound, which men of old had broken into seeking for treasure, and a little pond; and how he built himself a hermit's cell thereon, and saw visions and wrought miracles; and how men came to him, as to a fakir or shaman of the East; notably one Beccel, who acted as his servant; and how as Beccel was shaving the saint one day there fell on him a great temptation: Why should he not cut St. Guthlac's throat, and instal himself in his cell, that he might have the honour and glory of sainthood? But St. Guthlac perceived the inward temptation (which is told with the naive honesty of those half-savage times), and rebuked the offender into confession, and all went well to the end.

There we may read, too, a detailed account of the Fauna now happily extinct in the fens; of the creatures who used to hale St. Guthlac out of his hut, drag him through the bogs, carry him aloft through frost and fire--"Develen and luther gostes"--such as tormented in like wise St. Botolph (from whom Botulfston = Boston, has its name), and who were supposed to haunt the meres and fens, and to have an especial fondness for old heathen barrows with their fancied treasure-hoards: how they "filled the house with their coming, and poured in on every side, from above, and from beneath, and everywhere. They were in countenance horrible, and they had great heads, and a long neck, and a lean visage; they were filthy and squalid in their beards, and they had rough ears, and crooked 'nebs,' and fierce eyes, and foul mouths; and their teeth were like horses' tusks; and their throats were filled with flame, and they were grating in their voice; they had crooked shanks, and knees big and great behind, and distorted toes, and cried hoarsely with their voices; and they came with immoderate noise and immense horror, that he thought that all between, heaven and earth resounded with their voices. . . . And they tugged and led him out of the cot, and led him to the swart fen, and threw and sunk him in the muddy waters. After that they brought him into the wild places of the wilderness, among the thick beds of brambles, that all his body was torn. . . . After that they took him and beat him with iron whips, and after that they brought him on their creaking wings between the cold regions of the air."

But there are gentler and more human touches in that old legend. You may read in it how all the wild birds of the fen came to St. Guthlac, and he fed them after their kind; how the ravens tormented him, stealing letters, gloves, and what not, from his visitors; and then, seized with compunction at his reproofs, brought them back, or hanged them on the reeds; and how, as Wilfrid, a holy visitant, was sitting with him, discoursing of the contemplative life, two swallows came flying in, and lifted up their song, sitting now on the saint's hand, now on his shoulder, now on his knee; and how, when Wilfrid wondered thereat, Guthlac made answer, "Know you not that he who hath led his life according to God's will, to him the wild beasts and the wild birds draw the more near?"

After fifteen years of such a life, in fever, ague, and starvation, no wonder if St. Guthlac died. They buried him in a leaden coffin (a grand and expensive luxury in the seventh century) which had been sent to him during his life by a Saxon princess; and then, over his sacred and wonder-working corpse, as over that of a Buddhist saint, there arose a chapel, with a community of monks, companies of pilgrims who came to worship, sick who came to be healed; till at last, founded on great piles driven into the bog, arose the lofty wooden Abbey of Crowland; in "sanctuary of the four rivers," with its dykes, parks, vineyards, orchards, rich ploughlands, from which, in time of famine, the monks of Crowland fed all people of the neighbouring fens; with its tower with seven bells, which had not their like in England; its twelve altars rich with the gifts of Danish vikings and princes, and even with twelve white bear-skins, the gift of Canute's self; while all around were the cottages of the corrodiers, or folk who, for a corrody, or life pittance from the abbey, had given away their lands, to the wrong and detriment of their heirs.

But within those four rivers, at least, were neither tyranny nor slavery. Those who took refuge in St Guthlac's place from cruel lords must keep his peace toward each other, and earn their living like honest men, safe while they so did: for between those four rivers St. Guthlac and his abbot were the only lords; and neither summoner, nor sheriff of the king, nor armed force of knight or earl, could enter--"the inheritance of the Lord, the soil of St. Mary and St. Bartholomew, the most holy sanctuary of St. Guthlac and his monks; the minister free from worldly servitude; the special almshouse of most illustrious kings; the sole refuge of any one in worldly tribulation; the perpetual abode of the saints; the possession of religious men, specially set apart by the common council of the realm; by reason of the frequent miracles of the holy confessor St. Guthlac, an ever-fruitful mother of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi; and, by reason of the privileges granted by the kings, a city of grace and safety to all who repent."

Does not all this sound like a voice from another planet? It is all gone; and it was good and right that it should go when it had done its work, and that the civilization of the fen should be taken up and carried out by men like the good knight, Richard of Rulos, who, two generations after the Conquest, marrying Hereward's grand- daughter, and becoming Lord of Deeping (the deep meadow), thought that he could do the same work from the hall of Bourne as the monks did from their cloisters; got permission from the Crowland monks, for twenty marks of silver, to drain as much as he could of the common marshes; and then shut out the Welland by strong dykes, built cottages, marked out gardens, and tilled fields, till "out of slough and bogs accursed he made a garden of pleasure."

Yet one lasting work those monks of Crowland seem to have done, besides those firm dykes and rich corn-lands of the Porsand, which endure unto this day. For within two generations of the Norman conquest, while the old wooden abbey, destroyed by fire, was being replaced by that noble pile of stone whose ruins are still standing, the French abbot of Crowland (so runs the legend) sent French monks to open a school under the new French donjon, in the little Roman town of Grante-brigge; whereby--so does all earnest work, however mistaken, grow and spread in this world, infinitely and for ever-- St. Guthlac, by his canoe-voyage into Crowland Island, became the spiritual father of the University of Cambridge in the old world; and therefore of her noble daughter, the University of Cambridge, in the new world which fen-men sailing from Boston deeps colonized and Christianized 800 years after St. Guthlac's death.

Charles Kingsley