Fecunda ratis

The mediaeval peasant had a worldview — a response to the universe around him — more thoughtful and much deeper than our urbanized peasants of today. And this, notwithstanding few could read. All but the deafmutes could hear, however, and all but the blind could see, and there were many other senses to support or compensate for these — more than our urbane would acknowledge.

Things are as they are: this, one might say, is a beginning to wisdom. In our modern desire for change, we never make a start. Take the indissolubility of marriage, for example. There is a work-around, through sin, as every peasant knows, but the fact of marriage is ineluctable. (Here I am using that vexatious word “fact” properly, for a change.) One may pretend to escape it, but one can’t escape vows witnessed by God and one’s neighbours. It is a contract, perhaps enforceable by law, but more than a legal contract when the two are made one.

I give this as the sort of thing a mediaeval peasant could understand, but his distant descendant has trouble mastering. To us, romance comes into the bargain. To them, it was hardly unknown, but could be dismissed as “feelings.” A man governed by his feelings is a proper idiot. A woman governed by her feelings is downright scary.

Now, let us consider the Ten Commandments, briefly in the news this week. In my olden days, when I was youngen, I used to visit churches. This was part of walks, across England, and Europe, where by rights-of-way established in the far past it is possible to walk for hundreds of miles, away from paved highways. My fascination in those days was not with prayer, at first, rather with art and architecture. Give me the remains of an ancient parish church and I was all eyes.

In England, I noticed that the Anglican Protestants, and even the non-conforming ones, would hang tablets of the Commandments on pillars or on walls. I did not then quite realize that this was a mediaeval custom, which had survived alterations of regime. (How often what seems most Protestant turns out to be most Catholic!)

Ditto, on the Continent.

My modern, arithmetical mind, aware that the Commandments numbered ten, expected five and five on the facing tablets. Instead, they were almost invariably arranged three on the left, and seven on the right, with variations in wording to make them fit comfortably. A little prolix on the left, but on the right, tight concision. “Must be a reason,” I guessed.

And yes, through the generations, there had been. The first three Commandments expound our duties to God; the last seven our duties to our neighbour. An illiterate might need a literate to read them out, but he knew what they were, and why so divided. The tablets were mnemonic: and more a picture than a text. They would be absorbed, in a pictorial way, along with the stained glass, the icons and the murals — things we moderns progressively tune out. But this mediaeval peasant could not do that.

Three Commandments on the left board corresponding, if one thinks them through in the Christian manner, to God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. To see that is already to penetrate beneath the words. It is to grasp that this is no mere recital; that there is Mystery.

The point is brought home to me by Egbert of Liege. His book, The Well-Laden Ship (Fecunda ratis) is a collection of proverbs, folk tales, little homilies and words to the wise, all arranged in dactylic hexameters; with plenty of light humour mixed in. It was written almost precisely one thousand years ago, and a clean copy found in the cathedral library at Cologne.

Now dactyls — hard to sustain in English, but natural to Latin or Greek — are quite memorable, and one notices that these include a boat-load of little sayings that come down to us in one form or another. For, “the apple falls not far from the tree,” et cetera. The book was for the teaching of children, and simple souls; and designed to help them remember what I’ll call “the facts of life.” (How seldom we realize that the deepest things are also the simplest.)

It was republished (Babcock, editor) in 2013. So now it is in the hands of “mediaeval specialists.” Which is good, but better were it in our nurseries, to teach the children of our urban peasants a thing or two. And then they could teach their parents.