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Mediaeval Byways

70 pages
Library of Alexandria
Original research amongst the legal and other documents preserved in the Public Record Office, and similar depositories of ancient archives is a pursuit which our friends politely assume ‘must be very interesting,' chiefly because they cannot believe that any one would undertake so dull an occupation if it were not interesting. And it must be admitted that there are grounds for looking askance at such work. To begin with, the financial results of historical research are usually negligible or even negative, and it is therefore clearly an undesirable, if not positively reprehensible, employment. Then it is perfectly true that the vast majority of these records are as dry as the dust which accumulates upon them, and that in many cases such interest as they possess is adventitious, being due to their association with some particular person or place whose identity appeals to us. Thus even the most trivial technical details of a suit by William S. against Francis B. for forging his signature would become of absorbing interest if S. stood for Shakespeare and B. for Bacon, but the chances are a hundred to one that S. will stand for Smith and B. for Brown. At the same time the thoroughly unpractical searcher, who allows his attention to be distracted and does not confine himself to the strict object of his search, is constantly rewarded by the discovery of entries, quaint, amusing, or grimly significant, throwing a light upon the lives of men and women whose very names perished out of memory centuries ago. Dim the light may be, but yet it is an illumination not to be got elsewhere, for the writers of History, with a big H, are concerned only with the doings of kings and statesmen, and other people of importance, while these records tell us something of the life of those who in their day, like most of us, were each the centre of their own microcosm but made no figure in the eyes of the world. It is, I think, not too much to claim that only through intimacy with the nation's records, and I would use the word in the widest sense to include also the records written on the face of our land in stone and timber and even in earthen bank and hedgerow, that some conception can be obtained of the mediaeval spirit. That same spirit is so subtle a thing, though one of its leading characteristics is an extraordinary directness and simplicity, that it is more easily understood than explained. But even if it were an easy matter to dissect and analyse the mediaeval spirit, ticketing so much as simplicity, such a percentage as humour, so many parts as fear of God, and so many as fear of the Devil, and so forth, it should not be done here. For though this book was written with a purpose, that purpose was not to instruct and edify, but rather to interest and amuse, which is a far higher mission, and if the reader on laying it down feels that he has acquired knowledge it will probably be due in a large measure to the work of the artist, who has translated into line something more than the material details of the incidents which the writer has strung together.