chapter
11 Pages

England in Embryo

All the oppressions that were then done under the sun, and the tears of such as were oppressed, show very small in the sum-total of things; the ancient tale of wrong has little meaning to us who repose so far above it all; the real landmarks are the great men who for a moment moulded the world to their own will, or those still greater who kept themselves altogether unspotted from it. Human nature gives the lie direct to Mark Antony's bitter rhetoric: it is rather the good that lives after a man, and the evil that is oft interred with his bones. The balance may not be very heavy, but it is on the right side; man's insatiable curiosity about his fellow-men is as natural as his appetite for food, which may on the whole be trusted to refuse the evil and choose the good;. and, in both cases, his taste is, within obvious limits, a true guide. It is a healthy instinct which prompts us to dwell on the beauties of an ancient timber-built house, or on the gorgeous pageantry of the Middle Ages, without a too curious scrutiny of what may lie under the surface; and at this distance the 14th century stands out to the modern eye with a clearness and brilliancy which few men can see in their own age, or even in that immediate past which must always be partially dimmed with the dust of present-day conflicts. Those who were separated by only a few generations from the Middle Ages could seldom judge them with sufficient sympathy. Even two hundred years ago, most Englishmen thought of that time as a great forest from which we had not long emerged; they looked back and saw it in imagination as Dante saw the dark wood of his own wanderingsbitter as death, cruel as the perilous sea from which a spent swimmer has just struggled out upon the shore. Then, with Goethe and Scott, came the Romantic Revival; and these men showed us the Middle Ages peopled with living creatures-beasts of prey, indeed, in very many cases, but always bright and swift and attractive, as wild beasts are in comparison with the

commonplace stock of our fields and farmyards-bright in themselves, and heightened in colour by the artificial brilliancy which perspective gives to all that we see through the wrong 'end of a telescope. Smce then men have turned the other end of the telescope on medieval society, and now, in due course, the microscope, with many curious results. But it is always good to balance our too detailed impressions with a general survey, and to take a brief holiday, of set purpose, from the world m which our own daily work has to be done, into a race of men so unlike our own even amid all their general resemblance.