English Literature

Our Little Lady by Emily Sarah Holt

Our Little Lady by Emily Sarah Holt

Chapter One.

Six Hundred Years ago—What things were like.

The afternoon service was over in Lincoln Cathedral, and the congregation were slowly filing out of the great west door. But that afternoon service was six hundred years ago, and both the Cathedral and the congregation would look very strange to us if we saw them now. Those days were well called the Dark Ages, and how dark they were we can scarcely realise in the present day. Let us fancy ourselves coming out of that west door, and try to picture what we should have seen there, six hundred years ago.

The Cathedral itself is hardly to be known. It is crowded with painted images and embroidered banners, and filled with the smoke and scent of burning incense. The clergy are habited, not in white surplices or in black gowns, but in large stiff cloaks—copes they are called—of scarlet silk, heavy with gold embroidery. The Bishop, who is in the pulpit, wears a cope of white, thick with masses of gold, and on his head is a white and gold mitre. How unlike that upper chamber, where the disciples gathered together after the crucifixion of their Master! Is it better or worse, do you ask? Well, I think if the Master were to come in, it would be easier to see Him in the quiet upper chamber, where there was nothing else to see, than in the perfumed and decorated Cathedral where there was so much else!

But now let us look at the congregation as they pass out. Are they all women? for all alike seem to wear long skirts and thick hoods: there are neither trousers, nor hats, nor bonnets. No, there is a fair sprinkling of men; but men and women dressed more alike then than they do now. You will see, if you look, that some of these long skirts are open in front, and you may catch a glimpse of a beard here and there under the hood. This is a poor woman who comes now: she wears a serge dress which has cost her about three-halfpence a yard, and a threadbare hood for which she may have given sixpence.

Are things so cheap, then? No, just the other way about; money is so dear. The wages of a mason or a bricklayer are about sixpence a week; haymakers have the same; reapers get from a shilling to half-a-crown, and mowers one and ninepence. The gentlemen who wait on the King himself only receive a shilling a day.

Here comes one of them, in a long green robe of shining silky stuff, which is called samite; round his neck is a curiously cut collar of dark red cloth, and in his hand he carries a white hood. Men do not confine themselves to the quiet, sober colours that we are accustomed to see; they are smarter than the ladies themselves. This knight, as he passes out, throws his gown back, before mounting his horse, and you see his yellow hose striped with black—trousers and stockings all in a piece, as it were—with low black shoes, and gilt spurs.

But who follows him?—this superbly dressed woman in rich blue glistening samite, with a black and gold hood, under which we see her hair bound with a golden fillet, and a necklace of costly pearls clasped round her throat—for it is a warm day, and she has not tied her hood. She must be somebody of consequence, for a smart gentleman leads her by the hand, and one with a long staff walks in front, to keep the people from pressing too close on her. She is indeed somebody of consequence—the Countess of Lincoln herself, by birth an Italian Princess; and she is so grand, and so rich, and so beautiful and stately—and I am sorry to add, so proud—that people call her the Queen of Lincoln. She has not far to go home—only through the archway, and past Saint Michael’s Church and the Bull Gate, and then the great portcullis of the grim old Castle lifts its head to receive its lady, and she disappears from our sight.

Do you notice that carpets are spread along the streets for her?—not carpets like ours, but the only sort they have, which are a kind of rough matting. And indeed she needs them, if those purple velvet shoes of hers are not to be quite ruined by the time she reaches home. For there are no pavements, and the streets are almost ankle-deep in mud, and worse than mud. Dead cats, rotten vegetables, animal refuse, and every kind of abominable thing that you could see or think of, all lie about in heaps, in these narrow, narrow streets, where the sun can hardly get down to the ground, and two people might sometimes shake hands from opposite windows in the upper stories, for they come farther out than the lower ones. Everybody throws all his rubbish into the street; all his slops, all his ashes, all his everything of which he wants to get rid. The smells are something dreadful, as soon as you come out of the perfumed churches. It is pleasanter to have the churches perfumed, undoubtedly; but it would be a good deal healthier if they kept the streets clean.

Quietly following the grand young Countess, at a respectful distance, come two women who are evidently mother and daughter. Their dress shows that they are not absolutely poor, but it tells at least as plainly that they are not at all rich. Just as they reach the west door, a little girl of ten comes quickly after them, dressed just like themselves, a woman in miniature.

“Why, Avice, where hast thou been?” says the elder of the two women.

“I was coming, Grandmother,” explains little Avice, “and Father Thomas called me, and bade me tell you that the holy Bishop would come to see you this afternoon, and sup his four-hours with you.”

Four-hours, taken as its name shows at four o’clock, was the meal which answered to our tea. Bishops do not often drink tea with women of this class, but this was a peculiar Bishop, and the woman to whom he sent this message was his own foster-sister.

“Truly, and I shall be glad to see him,” says the Grandmother; and on they go out of the west door.

The carpets which were spread for the Countess have been rolled away, and our three humble friends pick their steps as best they may among the dirt-heaps, occasionally slipping into a puddle—I am afraid Avice now and then walks into it deliberately for the fun of the splash!—and following the road taken by the Countess as far as the Bull Gate, they then turn to the left, leaving the frowning Castle on their right, and begin to descend the steep slope well named Steephill.

They have not gone many yards when two people overtake them—a man and a woman. The man stops to speak: the woman marches on with her arms folded and her head in the air, as if they were invisible.

“Good morrow, Dan,” says the old lady.

“Good morrow, Mother,” answers Dan.

“What’s the matter with Filomena?”

“A touch of the old complaint, that’s all,” answers Dan drily. “We’d a few words o’ th’ road a-coming—leastwise she had, for she got it pretty much to herself—and for th’ next twelve hours or so she’ll not be able to see anybody under a squire.”

“Is she often like that, Dan?”

“Well, it doesn’t come more days than seven i’ th’ week.”

“Why, you don’t mean to say it’s so every day?” said Agnes, the younger woman of our trio.

Dan shook his head. “Happen there’s an odd un now and then as gets let off,” said he. “But I must after her, or there’ll be more hot water. And it comes to table boilin’, I can tell you. Good morrow!”

Dan runs rather heavily after his incensed spouse, and our friends continue to pick their way down Steephill. For rather more than half the way they go, and when just past the Church of Saint Lawrence, they turn into a narrow street on the left, and in a few yards more they are at home.

Home is one of the smallest houses you ever saw. It has only two rooms, one above the other; but they are a fair size, being about twenty-five feet by sixteen. The upper, of course, is the bedroom; the lower one is kitchen and parlour; and a ladder leads from one to the other. The upper chamber holds a bed, which is like a box out of which the bottom has been taken, filled with straw, and on that is a hard straw mattress, two excessively coarse blankets, and a thick, shaggy, woollen rug for a counterpane. There are not any sheets or pillow-cases; but a thick, hard bolster, stuffed like the mattress with straw, serves for a pillow.

At the foot of the oak bedstead is a large oak chest, big enough to hold a man, in which the owners keep all their small property of any value. There are no chairs, but the deep windows have wooden seats, and two wooden stools are in the corners. As to wardrobes, chests of drawers, dressing-tables, and washstands, nobody knows of such things at that day. The chest serves the purpose of all except the washstand, and they find that (as much as they have of it) at the draw-well in the little back yard. The window is just a square hole in the wall, closed with a wooden shutter, so that light and air—if not wind and rain—come in together. A looking-glass they have, but a poor makeshift it is, being of metal and rounded; and those who know what a comical aspect your face takes when you see it in a metal teapot, can guess how far anybody could see himself rightly in it. It is nailed up, too, so high on the wall that it is not easy to see anything. This is all the furniture of the bedroom.

Downstairs there is more though there are no chairs and tables, unless a leaf-table in the wall, which lets down, can go by that name. There are two or three long settles stretching across the wall—the settle was called a bench when it had a back to it, and a form if it had not. There is a large bake-stone in one corner; the bread is put on the top to bake, with the fire underneath, and when there is no fire, the top can be used as a table, a moulding board, or in many other ways. But it must not be supposed that such bread is in large square or cottage loaves like ours. It is made in flat cakes, large or small, thick or thin. By the side of the bake-stone is the sink, or rather that which answers to one, being a rough brick basin, with a plug in the bottom, and just beneath it is a little channel in the brick floor, by which, when the plug is pulled up, the dirty water finds its way out into the street under the house door. People who live in this way need—and wear—short gowns and stout shoes.

The opposite corner holds the pine-torches and chips; they burn nothing but wood, for though coal is known, it is very little used. This is partly because it is expensive; but also because it is considered shockingly unhealthy. The smoke from wood or turf is thought very wholesome; but that from coal is just the reverse. Opposite the bake-stone is the window; a very little one, much wider than it is high, and rilled with exceedingly small diamond-shaped panes of very poor greenish glass set in lead, there being so much lead and so little glass that the room is but dark in the brightest sunshine. Indeed, it is decidedly a sign of gentility that the house has any window at all, beyond the square hole with the wooden shutter.

Up and down the room there are several stools, high and low; the high ones serve when wanted as little movable tables. In the third corner is a bread-rack, filled with hard oat-cake above, and the soft flat cakes of wheat flour below; in the fourth stand several large barrels containing salt fish, salt meat, flour, meal, and ale. From the top of the room hang hams, herbs in canvas bags, strings of smoked fish, a few empty baskets and pails, and anything else which can be hung up. The rafters are so low that when the inmates move about they have every now and then to courtesy to a ham or a pail, which would otherwise hit them on the head. A door by the window leads into the street, and another beyond the barrels gives access to the back yard.

How would you like to go back, gentle reader, to this style of life? This was the way in which your forefathers lived, six hundred years ago—unless they were very grand people indeed. Then they lived in a big castle with walls two or three feet thick, and ate from gold or silver plates, and had the luxury of a chimney in their dining-rooms. But even then, there were a good many little matters in respect of which I do not fancy you would quite like to change with them! Would you like to eat with your fingers, and to find creeping creatures everywhere, and to have no books and newspapers, and no letters, and no shops except in great towns, and no way of getting about except on foot or horseback, and no lamps, candles, clocks or watches, china, spectacles, nor carpets on the floor? Yet this was the way in which kings and queens lived, six hundred years ago.

In respect of clothes, people were much better off. They dressed far more warmly than we do, and used a great deal of fur, not only for trimming or out-door wear, but to line their clothes in winter. But their furs comprised much commoner and cheaper skins than we use; ordinary people wore lambskins, with the fur of cats, hares, and squirrels. Such furs as ermine and miniver were kept for the great people; for there were curious rules and laws about dress in those days. It was not, as it is now, a question of what you could afford to buy, but of what rank you were. You could not wear ermine or samite unless you were an earl at the lowest; nor must you sleep on a feather bed unless you were a knight; nor might you eat your dinner from a metal plate, if you were not a gentleman. Such notions may sound ridiculous to us; but they were serious earnest, six hundred years ago. We should not like to find that we had to go before a magistrate and pay a fine, if our shoes were a trifle too long, or our trimmings an inch too wide. But in the time of which I am writing, this was an every-day affair.

In the house, women wore an odd sort of head-dress called a wimple, which came down to the eyebrows, and was fastened by pins above the ears. When they went out of doors, they tied on a fur or woollen hood above it. The gown was very loose, and had no particular waist; the sleeves were excessively wide and long. But when women were at work, they had a way of tucking up their dresses at the bottom, so as to keep them out of the perpetual slop of the stone or brick floor. Rich people put rushes on their floors except in winter, and as these were only moved once a year, all manner of unspeakable abominations were harboured underneath. In this respect the poor were the best off, since they could have their brick floors as clean as they chose: as, even yet, there are points in which they have the advantage of richer people—if they only knew it!

But our picture is not quite finished yet. Look out of the little window, and notice what you see. Can this be Sunday afternoon in a good street? for every shop is open, and in the doorways stand young men calling out to the passers-by to come in and look at their goods. “What lack you? what lack you?”

“Cherry ripe!”

“Buy my fine kerchiefs!”

“Any thimbles would you, maids?” Such cries as these ring on every side.

Yes, it is Sunday afternoon—“the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord.” But look where you will, you can see no rest. Everywhere the rich are at play, and the poor are at work. What does this mean?

Think seriously of it, friends; for it will be no light matter if England return to such ways as these again, and there are plenty of people who are trying to bring them back. What it means is that if holiness be lost from the Sabbath, rest will never stay behind. Play for the few means work for the many. And let play get its head in, and work will soon follow.

If you want to walk the road of happiness, and to arrive at the home of heaven, you must follow after God, for any other guide will lead in the opposite direction. The people who tell you that religion is a gloomy thing are always the people who have not any themselves. And things are very different, according to whether you look at them from inside or outside. How can you tell what there may be inside a house, so long as all you know of it is walking past a shut door?

Ever since Adam hid himself from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden, men and women have been prone to fancy that God likes best to see them unhappy. The old heathen always used to suppose that their gods were jealous of them, and they were afraid to be too happy, lest the gods should be vexed! But the real God “takes pleasure in the prosperity of His people,” and “godliness hath the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.”

What language are our three friends talking? It sounds very odd. It is English, and yet it is not. Yes, it is what learned men call “Middle English”—because it stands midway between the very oldest English, or Anglo-saxon, and the modern English which we speak now. It is about as much like our English as broad Scotch is. A few words and expressions through the story will give an idea how different it is; but if I were to write exactly as they would have spoken, nobody would understand it now.

And how do they live inside this tiny house? Well, in some respects, in a poorer and meaner way than the very poorest would live now. Look up, and you will see that there is no chimney, but the smoke finds its way out through a hole above the fire, and when it is wet the rain comes in and puts the fire out. They know nothing about candles, but burn long shafts of pine-wood instead. There are such things as wax candles, indeed, but they are only used in church; nobody dreams of burning them in houses. And there are lamps, but they are made of gold and silver, and are never seen except in the big castles. There is no crockery; and metal plates, as I said, are only for the grand people. The middle classes use wooden trenchers—our friends have two—hollowed out to keep the gravy in; and the poor have no plates at all beyond a cake of bread. Their drinking-glasses are just cows’ horns, with the tip cut off and a wooden bottom put in. They have also a few wooden bowls, and one precious brass pot; half a dozen knives, rough unwieldy things, and four wooden spoons; one horn spoon is kept for best. Forks? Oh dear, no; nobody knows anything about forks, except a pitchfork. Table-linen? No, nor body-linen; those luxuries are only in the big castles. Let us watch Avice’s mother as she sets the table for four-hours, remembering that they are going to have company, and therefore will try to make things a little more comfortable than usual.

In the first place, there will be a table to set. If they were alone, they would use one or two of the high stools. But Agnes goes out into the little yard, and brings back two boards and a couple of trestles, which she sets up in the middle of the room. This is the table—rather a rickety affair, you may say; and it will be quite as well that nobody should lean his elbow on it. Next, she puts on the boards four of the cows’ horns, and the two trenchers, with one bowl. She then serves out a knife and spoon for each of four people, putting the horn spoon for the Bishop. Her preparations are now complete, with the addition of one thing which is never forgotten—a very large wooden salt-cellar, which she puts almost at one end, for where that stands is a matter of importance. Great people—and the Bishop is a very great person—must sit above the salt, and small insignificant folks are put below. We may also notice that the Bishop is honoured with a horn and a trencher to himself. This is an unusual distinction. Husband and wife always share the same plate, and other relatives very frequently. As to Avice, we see that nothing is set for her. The child will share her mother’s spoon and horn; and if the Bishop brings his chaplain, he will have a spoon and horn for himself, but will eat off the Grandmother’s plate.

Our picture is finished, and now the story may begin.


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