Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen


When I am down in the country, I am sometimes taken to see castles, and I want to make a confession about them. I look about their walls, I mark portcullis and moat, newel stair and keep, I enter into the central court, a green space surrounded by walls half-whole, half-broken — and I cannot form the faintest conception of what these great places were like when they were inhabited; for, it must be remembered, what we see when we admire a ruined castle is a house without a roof, generally without floors or ceilings, always without woodwork of any kind or sort. Take the roof off Smith’s villa at Surbiton. Burn every beam in the house, break in all the windows, make the kitchen and back garden a heap of confused stones overgrown with grass and weeds. Knock down every door and every party wall, blow up the stairs, smash the floors, make Smith’s potting-shed and his fowl-house in the back garden into beautiful green mounds, turf-covered; and then bring along your post-historic New Zealander, and ask him to tell you what Laburnum Villa was like in the days of its pride, and what manner of life the Smiths led there. I don’t believe the New Zealander would make much of the job; and so I make very little of the job when I pass into a twelfth century castle. I can see that those high outer walls, sloping outward to the ground (“battered”) for greater strength, were meant to keep people out; I conjecture that those windows, a narrow slit outside, a broad splay within, were handy for shooting without much chance of being shot; I have been told that the keep, or central tower, with walls six, eight, ten feet thick, was the last refuge of the De Somethings when a breach had been made in the outer defence; and that is about all. “The great hall,” says somebody, pointing to a large space, where an inner wall half-stands, half-falls. It may be so; but it may be the chapel, or the great kitchen; all is so broken, so uncertain. And then: “Secret passage, communicating with the Abbey, five miles away,” and “The black dungeon under the keep, where the objects of feudal oppression pined away.” It may be so, or it may be the mere apparatus of drainage.

And as to how the De Somethings lived, where they slept, at what time they had their meals, what they ate at their meals, how they spent their days when the foe were not battering at the outer bailey, I have hardly the faintest notion. I except a few items of the castle bill of fare: a great deal of salt cod, a great deal of salt beef, a great deal of salt herring, venison pies, roast game, peacock and swan occasionally, buttered eggs, richly spiced dishes from the east, dishes in which meat, raisins, and currants were mingled — the mince-pie is the only modern survivor of this school of cookery — pike and other fish from the castle pond; abundance of strong, thick ale — there were no clarifying hops then — and liberal Gascon wine; we may make out a fairly satisfactory bill for the table of our great lord. But that is about all, so far as I am concerned. Indeed, I once asked a man deeply learned in antiquity, a famous herald, to tell me what it was like, generally speaking, to pay a visit to a thirteenth century lord at his castle. “For example,” I said, “when a Barry of Manorbier went to stay for a few weeks with a Bohun of Caldicot, how did the castle party begin the day? Was the Barry called for breakfast?”

He considered the question, and finally declared that in his opinion there was no formal beginning of the day: “I believe they all woke up like animals, and shook themselves.” It may be: but I would rather incline to think that a bell at six o’clock in the morning roused everybody for Mass in the chapel, and that afterwards people strolled to the buttery-hatch and broke their fast, lunching-in the proper sense of the word “lunch”— on hunks of bread and chunks of salt beef or pasty, with quarts of ale for the simple and quarts of red wine for the gentle. And then to the stables, quite in the manner of a modern country house in the hunting shires, and a long discussion there as to the horses. And then, perhaps, a little tennis, the court being the castle court-yard with its lean-to wooden buildings (the penthouse of the game) the opening now called the grille — then the buttery-hatch aforesaid — and the odd projection of one wall which tennis players call the tambour. And so to a mighty dinner at ten, with a very honest appetite, and a strong thirst. Of course, knight errantry in the sense of the romances never existed; nothing at all like it ever existed. The romances of chivalry that is, do not picture the thirteenth century as Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope between them very fairly pictured the earlier and middle nineteenth century. The romances are pure fantasies of the imagination: nothing more. I have just been reading a curious document which bears on this point. It is a contract, and is as formal and business-like a document as any contract between manager and actor, or between author and publisher. It was executed in the year 1297. It begins:

“An du rengne le Roy Edward fiz le Roy Hen’ vintenne et quint ssi accoumto p’entr Sire Johan Bluet Chevaler et Wylliame Martel.”

Or in English:

“In the year of the reign of King Edward, the son of King Henry, one score and five, it was thus agreed between Sir John Bluet, Knight, and William Martel.”

The fact was that the stout knight — to use the later Gothic manner — Sir John Bluet, wanted a courtly squire. William Martel applied for the engagement, and got it. A contract was then drawn up, and duly sealed: it was a contract valid during the life of William Martel, and it was binding on the heirs of Sir John Bluet. And the said Sir John was to pay William sixty pence of silver yearly; payments due at Hockday (Eastertide) and Michaelmas. Provision is made for default on the part of tenants who paid the rents from which William was to draw his salary: it is expressly stipulated that the squire or his solicitor may put an execution into the house of any such defaulting tenant. Besides the money payment, the chivalrous (though businesslike) squire was to have a robe at Christmas and another robe at Easter; the value of each to be ten pence. Furthermore, William was to be maintained as long as he lived in sufficient meat and drink as a gentleman ought to have —“E a sustenir le devauntdit Wyll’ taunt come il vivera en manger e en beovere avenauntement come a gental homme a peut.” And his two servants are also to have their board and lodging, and his two horses are to be found in hay and oats and shoes; the two horses to have between them 46 bushels of oats a year. And, on his side, the gentle William engaged himself well and faithfully to serve Sir John Bluet as an esquire ought to do “in the war now wageing between the King of England and the King of France; and also in England if war should break out there, which God forbid; and in Wales and all other lands on this side the sea, or beyond the sea wherever the said John may be (except the Holy Land), and in tournaments in time of peace with a great war horse — en tens de pees od en graunt chevall de armes — which the said John will find him and suitable armour without any default on his part.”

The gentle, the chivalrous William! He had evidently heard a thing or two about crusading; and I seem to hear a more modern voice speaking to much the same effect:

“No, dear old chap, I’m afraid we’ll have to cut that clause about the Eastern Tour. I don’t mind the Welsh smalls or the Scotch fitups, and I’m quite willing to go to South Africa or the States; but I’ve made up my mind I’ll never play juvenile leads in the East again. You see, old man, if you come to cues, there’s no bunce in it.”

Such was the actual Age of Chivalry. A little on the practical side, perhaps. Don Quixote would have been disgusted by the document which I have quoted; and, indeed, when Sancho Panza asked for a fixed salary — Teresa urging him — the Knight said there was no precedent in the books for such an arrangement. Not in Amadis of Gaul or in Tirante lo Blanch, perhaps, but we see how it was in actual life.

It is clear that Sancho knew more about Chivalry than his master.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38