And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 11. mars 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 3 - Jocelin's Chronicle

Such one king Edmond, but was rent for gaine
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

Jocelin of Brakelond (fl.1173-c.1215) was a monk at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and his chronicle is an interesting work, motley in the best sense of the word and a must-read for any anglophile medievalist. Unlike so many chronicles or gestae of the Middle Ages the scope of Jocelin's opus is unambitious and succinct, focussing primarily on the career of Abbot Samson (1135-1211) rather than attempting a broad historical narrative of either a geographical area, an institution or even a person's life, which were common scopes of Medieval histories. Throughout his chronicle Jocelin describes events and individuals with striking intimacy and a keen alertness to human nature, and as such it can be appreciated as History's own version of Ken Follett's modern classic Pillars of the Earth.

Through Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers' well-wrought translation and explanatory notes the reader is allowed a clear - but limited - view of the complex worlds of Medieval monasticism, jurisprudence and history, following Jocelin's account of the various battles lost and won by Samson in his various struggles with king and fellow ecclesiastics. Since Jocelin wrote for an audience familiar with the various details of Medieval life - details that to us are strange and arcane - the reader him- or herself is introduced to a multitude of quotidien and extraordinary aspects as ingrained in a larger narrative. The consequence is that the reader will eventually become used to these details and absorb them - aided, of course, by the very comprehensive notes - and thus learn them more easily than would otherwise be the case.

The greatest asset of the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, however, is Jocelin's frankness when depicting himself and fellow monks, a feature that makes this book all the more accessible even to the modern reader. Eager to see the best in people Jocelin is sometimes forced to admit and portray the darker side of humanity, and even Abbot Samson - the "protagonist" - is allotted a chapter recounting his sundry faults. Perhaps the most poignant example of this can be found when Jocelin describes the state of the abbey in the reign of Samson's predecessor, the old and easily manipulated Abbot Hugh:

This is the hour of darkness. This is the hour in which flatterers prevail and are believed: their might is increased and we can do nothing against it. For the time being we must ignore these things. Let the Lord look down and judge.
- Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Jocelin of Brakelond (translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers)

A similar comment can be found concerning the division of the monks during the election of a new abbott in 1182. Jocelin states "Many opposed him [i.e. Samson] in those days, though later they became his flatterers."

The appeal of Jocelin's account lies, as stated, to a great extent in the various details - sometimes of a very intimate and even personal nature - that appear throughout the pages. Sometimes we may even catch a glimpse of various prejudices, either held by Jocelin or the people he describes:

He [i.e. Samson] confirmed only one manor by charter: that was Thorpe, held by an Englishman, a free man, though tied to the soil, of whose loyalty he was confident, because he was a good farmer and could not speak French.

Or better still, we are treated to an anecdote told by Samson about how, when he travelled to Rome and back during the schism of Alexander III and Victor IV, he avoided being mistaken for an Englishman:

But I pretended to be a Scotsman, wearing Scottish dress and behaving like a Scot. To drive off those who jeered at me, I brandished my stick as if it were a type of spear known as a "gaveloc" [javelina], and used threatening language as Scotsmen do.

On other occasions these personal details are of a more sombre nature. Particularly striking is a passage where Samson, obviously weary of the way of the world,

(...) swore that if he could have foreseen the nature and scope of the abbot's duties, rather than be abbot and lord, he would have been master of the aumbry and librarian, which was the office he had wanted above all others.

A similar weariness can be found in Jocelin himself in this very lamentable and poetic passage:

But the good fortune that had smiled on him [i.e. Henry of Essex, constable-turned-monk] in these and similar activities now intervened to bring him unending tribulation, and behind the illusion of a happy beginning worked out a sorrofwul end for him. Fortune has a habit of smiling as a prelude to becoming enraged, of caressing only to deceive, and of praising in order to disparage.

The tale of Henry of Essex also highlights Jocelin's approach to history, namely to provide examples for posterity to emulate or avoid, an approach that informs much of Medieval historiography and hagiography:

It is essential to have an understanding of evil in order to avoid it, and for that reason it is worth recording the actions and aberrations of Henry and Essex, not as a model, but as a cautionary tale. To persuade by example is a helpful and painless way of correcting faults.
Jocelin's alertness to human nature together with a sometimes very terse, almost resigned prose often result in very beautiful passages. One example is a dispute between Samson and his prior:

(...) the abbot said several things that should not have been said, and swore that he would be master as long as he lived. But with the evening approaching, he spoke more mildly with the prior.

Jocelin also shows resignation over monastic politics and after having discussed an election he utters this passage, a particular favourite of mine:

Spare your praises of the new man, because high office changes a man's character, or rather demonstrates its true nature. First take note of which advisers he has, and what they are like and in whom he trusts, because like naturally attracts like.

Jocelin's chronicle reads partly as a contemporary history of Bury St Edmunds, partly as a biography of Abbot Samson and partly as a cautionary tale where Samson's virtues and faults are highlighted for the sake of edification. This is a common and almost ubiquitous feature of Medieval historiography, but rarely is it given such an intimate tinge as that of Jocelin's account.

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