An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 6
AS the manor-house with its hall was the centre of the organization for civil purposes, so was the Church the religious centre of the parish. In a considerable number of cases it certainly occupies the place of the older temple, in which the thane or chief was godi or priest as well as law-man in his hall.
This was not always the case; a good many of our churches are of later and exclusively Christian foundation, and were then planted in such place as was determined by quite other considerations.
The parish church is full of interest connected with the parish, it has been built and decorated by the ancestors of the humble inhabitants of the place, the yard about it contains their dust; in it they have left something of their very best—to be swept away by the modern restorer to put in his own stuff, manufactured at a distance, the whole executed by a strange contractor employing strange workmen. The village people have done nothing towards it, but have looked on to see the monumental slabs of their forefathers torn up, some sawn in half and employed to line drains, the frescoes that their forbears had painted scraped away, the Jacobean altar rails turned by ancient carpenters of the village thrown forth to rot, and their place supplied by some painted and gilt stuff, procured from Messrs. This and That, near Covent Garden, chosen from an illustrated catalogue.
Some wiseacres cry out because antiquaries complain at this devastation, but have not these latter a right to complain when parochial history written in the parish church is being obliterated? And is it not better to leave things alone, than put them into the hands of strangers? In my own neighbourhood is a church, Bridestowe, that had a beautiful wood screen. An incumbent gave up this church to a restorer. He cut down the screen, took the tracery of the screen-windows, sawed it in half, turned it upside down, and employed it to glue on to some wretched deal bench-ends, and to a breastwork screen to the chancel, and to ornament a deal door.
At Sheepstor was a gorgeous screen, rich with gold and colour. I remember it well. The church was delivered over to a local builder to be made neat, and cheaply—above all, cheaply. He destroyed the entire screen, and left the church a horror to behold. Now the present rector has recovered a few poor fragments of the screen and has stuck them up, attached to a pillar with a box beneath, pleading for subscriptions for the reconstruction of what was wantonly destroyed fourteen years ago.In the year 1851, when I was a boy of seventeen, I went a walking tour in Devonshire, and halted one day at Kenton to see the church. I found in it not only one of the finest screens in the county, but also the very finest carved oak pulpit, richly coloured
the old pulpit, kenton
Years passed away, and not till 1882 did I revisit the church—when, judge my distress. It had been put into the hands of an architect to "restore," and he had restored the pulpit out of existence, and replaced it by the thing represented on the next page.
I at once asked the rector what had become of the old pulpit, which, by the way, had been hewn out of the trunk of an enormous oak tree. He replied that he knew nothing about it—except that he thought some scraps of the carving were in the National School. I then went to the school-house and questioned the master about it. He said that he believed there was some old carving in a cupboard—and there we found it, with dusters, old reading books, a dirty sponge, and any amount of cobwebs and filth. The rector kindly allowed me to carry away the scraps, and with them and my working drawing taken thirty-one years before we found that it was possible to reconstruct the old pulpit, and now—thanks to my cousin, who has illustrated this book, and the zeal of the new rector of Kenton—this splendid pulpit has been restored—really restored this time.
THE MODERN-GOTHIC PULPIT, KENTON
Let this be a lesson to rectors and others who put their poor churches into the hands of architects.
I do not know that human perversity is more conspicuous in anything than in the monstrous Belgian carved wooden pulpits, that are the admiration of visitors and the pride of sacristans. They are enormous erections of oak, marvellously pieced together, and carved to represent various sacred scenes, the figures being life-sized.
The pulpit in Antwerp Cathedral represents Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, in half-draped allegorical figures; above whose heads trees intertwine, with birds among the branches, and amidst leaves and beetles and lizards and snails appears the preacher as another lusus naturæ.
A good number of ancient pulpits remain in English churches, some of oak, others of stone. A pulpit of iron is said to have existed formerly in the Cathedral at Durham; and I have seen one such of very elaborate character at Feldkirchen, in the Vorarlberg.
Who can say but that we shall be having them in aluminium before long! There is a fashion in these things, and we are at the dawn of an aluminium age. That will have one advantage; it will see the close of the epoch of Bath-stone and marble pulpits, all ugly and unsuitable, in our cold northern climate, where the pulpit should be calculated to warm, not to chill.
There is a fashion not only in the material of which pulpits are made, but also in their structure. At one time they were very high up above the heads of the congregation, then they were let down very low, so that the preacher was scarce raised at all, and now they are pushed a little further up. In a church I know the central stem of the pulpit is of stout oak. When the fancy was that the preacher should be high up, then the end of the post was planted on the ground. Then came the fashion that it should be low, accordingly a deep hole was sunk with a pick under the base, and the post lowered into it. Presently it was considered that the lowness of the pulpit was too considerable, the preacher was inaudible at the end of the church; accordingly pick and spade were engaged again, and the post pulled half-height up again and there wedged. Here is a suggestion for future use. Why not have the stem telescopic? Then the whole body of the pulpit can be made to go up or come down, as suits the preacher's voice.
I remember some years ago hearing that Bishop Wilberforce when he ruled the See of Oxford was once, and once only, disconcerted in the pulpit. This was the occasion. He had gone to preach at the opening of a new church, or the restoration of an old one, I cannot recall which. Now one of the great improvements introduced was that the floor of the pulpit was so contrived as to work upon a screw to adapt the height within the pulpit to the occupant. The pulpit was circular internally, and as the screw turned it turned the floor round. The parish clerk was vastly pleased at the ingenuity and convenience of this arrangement, and considered that the re-opening of the church demanded imperatively the exhibition of the new mechanism. He waited till the bishop was in the pulpit, and had said, "Let us pray," when he went to the vestry and began to work the crank. To his inexpressible surprise Bishop Wilberforce found the book-board slipping from before his face, and that he was revolving, and facing in quite a different direction from that which he had taken up when he called for the prayers of the congregation.
Presently the red face of the clerk appeared looking approvingly through the vestry-door, to see how the mechanism worked, and then with renewed energy he fell to at the crank, and round went the prelate again, and his face to his great puzzlement was brought back to the book-board.
He got through the collect somehow, rose to his feet, and gave out the text.
To his infinite concern and perplexity he began his text facing the congregation, and ended it presenting his back to them. Not only so, but he was obviously rising out of his pulpit, or rising higher in it as he rotated on his axis.
It was in vain that he tried to begin his sermon, and shuffled into suitable position, the floor revolved under him, and the book-board and sides of the pulpit seemed to be sinking away from him. A sense of nausea, of sea-sickness, came over the right reverend father, and he feared that in another turn his knees would be level with the edge of the pulpit. He became giddy.
By this time the incumbent of the church had discovered what was in process, and precipitated himself into the vestry, threw himself on the crank, and worked it backwards with a vigour truly admirable, but with the result that he spun the bishop round in reverse order to that in which he had gone up, as he let him down to a suitable level.
As I heard the story, I learned that on this occasion the eloquence of Samuel Wilberforce deserted him.
How far the tale is true, I am not in a position to say. I tell the tale as it was current at the time.
A certain fluent pulpit orator, a great luminary in his theological school, had a spring contrivance at the back of his pulpit, into which he could throw himself, and in which he could sway his body from side to side.
The trumpet mouths in connection with tubes that are carried into pews occupied by deaf persons have given rise to mistakes.
One preacher, who was short-sighted, and who always harangued extempore, on entering the pulpit took off his spectacles, and, seeing something circular beside the desk, supposed it to be a shelf or bracket, and put the glasses on it, whereupon down shot the spectacles and blocked the tube. Another, who had been provided with a glass of water, emptied the vessel into the receiver, and the deaf old lady at the end of the tube received into her ear—not a gush of oratory, but a jet of water.
One hot summer's day my wife and I happened to be at Eichstätt, in Bavaria; the day was Whitsun Eve. We tried the doors of a large church, and found them locked, with the exception of one small side door that opened out of a cloister, and we entered the church by that.
To my great surprise I heard a voice high pitched and ringing through the spacious vaults in earnest pastoral address. I thought this very odd, as no one was in the church save an old sacristan, who was dusting and decorating the side altars previous to the ceremonies of Whit-Sunday.
My wife and I strolled down the side aisle, looking at the pictures, and still the impassioned harangue pealed through the church. As we passed the sacristan he began to laugh. We went further, and, having seen all that was to be seen in the north aisle, emerged into the nave, with the purpose of crossing the church to look at the pictures in the south aisle, when we saw a young curé in the pulpit, gesticulating, pouring forth a fervid address to his dearly beloved brethren—who were conspicuously absent. Suddenly the preacher was aware of an English gentleman and lady as audience. He paused, lost the thread of his discourse, put his hand into his pocket for the MS., found it, but could not find his place; made a new rush at a sentence; his voice gave way, and, turning tail, he ran down the pulpit stairs, and darted out of the church in confusion. He was a young priest, recently ordained, practising his first sermon which he was to deliver on the morrow.
I have seen what is not often seen—women occupying a pulpit, and that in a Roman Catholic church. It came about in this way. I was at Innsbrück when the marriage took place of the daughter of the Governor of Tyrol, Count Taaffe, with some distinguished nobleman.
The cathedral was crammed with all the élite of the place, and there was no seeing the blush on the cheek of the bride, for there was no seeing the bride at all for the crowd. Beside me were two very well-dressed ladies who were extremely troubled at this. I believe, however, they were more anxious to have a good sight of the bridegroom than of the bride.
"My dear Ottilie," whispered one to the other, "this will never do. I must, I positively must see them."
"But how, Nottburg, sweetest, is that to be done? We cannot get into the gallery, that is packed."
"My angel! packed or not packed, I simply must see the ceremony. I shall die if I don't."
"What can be done? There are women standing on the rails of the side altars."
"My Ottilie, it is a matter of life or death. I must see."
Now the pulpit was a gorgeous affair of marble and gilding, and was accessible only by means of a little door in the wall. It was very high. At once Nottburg and Ottilie, clinging to each other, worked a way for themselves with their elbows, using them like fins, through the crowd towards this particular door. I watched them. No one else had thought of invading the pulpit. Through the door they went, and they bolted it behind them, and in another moment there they were, bonnets and feathers and smiles, in the pulpit, and no one could dislodge them, as they had secured the door behind.
I have said there is a fashion in pulpits, and there is caprice as well. A very eloquent preacher I know entertains the idea of having space in which to stride about. Accordingly he set up in his new church an oblong platform, measuring 10 ft. by 5 ft., and he enclosed it with a plain deal railing, 3 ft. 6 in. high. He himself being a very tall man, this suited him admirably. He would place both his hands on the rail, and swing the upper portion of his body over when he sought to be impressive. Unhappily, for a great festival, he invited by letter a stranger, whom he had never seen, to preach for him. On the arrival of the strange preacher, he proved to be a very small man indeed. Still, I do not think it occurred to the incumbent to make provision, nor did he realize what the result would be, till the Preacher of the Day ascended the pulpit, when, at once, by rector, by choir, by the entire congregation, it was seen that the sermon could, would, must be nothing but a farce. The preacher was visible in the pulpit—and looked for all the world like a white rabbit hopping about in a cage, his head could hardly be seen over the top.
At once vergers were sent with hassocks, and two of these were placed in the pulpit, one balanced on top of the other, and on this the little man had to maintain his equilibrium—or seek to maintain it, not always successfully, as at intervals one hassock would slip away, whereupon the preacher's head disappeared, and the sermon was interrupted while he chased the evading hassock and replaced it as a footstool.
When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge there was a very little man incumbent of a certain church, and not only was he little, but there was something indescribably comical in his appearance. The only occasion on which I went to service there this odd little man mounted the pulpit with great solemnity and gave out as his text: "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." I can remember nothing of his sermon, but the sight of the droll little object in the pulpit giving out this text is ineffaceable in my memory.
There is one feature of the ancient pulpit which is not now reproduced. This is the sounding-board. No sounding-boards were employed to assist the voice in mediæval churches, but then such churches were built in proportions acoustically suitable, and it is hard to find an ancient church in which the voice does not travel easily. The forming of square and high pews no doubt did much to interfere with ease in preaching, as every such pew became a trap for catching the waves of sound. Consequently the device of a sounding-board was introduced when churches were chopped up into boxes, and the voice needed concentration and assistance. When the pews disappeared, the need for the sounding-board ceased and it has disappeared likewise.
In one of the groups of islands in the South Pacific where the Wesleyan missionaries have succeeded in converting the natives, a friend of mine was desirous of doing something as a recognition of much kindness which he had received from the chief, and before leaving the island he asked the chief what he could let him have as a token of his regard. The native replied that there was one thing he and his people craved for with all the ardour of their fiery tropical blood—and this was a pulpit. In the island of Rumtifoo visible in the offing, the converts had a very fine pulpit in their chapel, but here in this island was none; would Mr. X—— give him a pulpit? The Englishman pondered. He had never in his life made a pulpit, and he had never accurately observed the organic structure of a pulpit, so as to know how to set about to make one. However, in his desire to oblige, he took counsel with an English sailor, and these two set to work to design and execute a pulpit.
Their initial difficulty was, however, how to get the proper material. No wood boards were to be had except some old champagne cases. These cases were knocked to pieces, and out of the boards an octagonal pulpit was reared.
When got into shape the two Englishmen walked round it, eyed it, and agreed that something was wanting to complete it, and that was a book-desk. Accordingly this was fashioned out of some more pieces of the champagne cases and fastened to the pulpit, which was now removed to the chapel and set in position.
The English makers of the pulpit next seated themselves in front of it and studied with a critical and, as far as possible, an impartial eye. Both agreed that it would not quite do as it was, for on the boards composing the sides were drawn in black large champagne bottles, and there were fragments of the inscription, "This side up," worked into the structure.
"It must be painted," said my friend.
"It must—certainly," responded the sailor. "It don't look quite as it ort."
But no paint was procurable in the island. However, it was discovered that a pot of Aspinall's enamel was in the island of Rumtifoo, and the chief managed to negotiate an exchange—whether an ox, or so many cocoa-nuts, or a wife was given for the enamel pot I cannot remember.
The pot, when procured, proved to be one of emerald-green. The brighter the better, thought my friend; and he and the sailor proceeded to paint the pulpit, and cover over the inscription and the bottles.
Great was the eagerness of the native chief to have the pulpit opened, and he sent to the island of Kokabundi for a native evangelist to occupy the pulpit for the first time, and sanctify it.
The evangelist came. The chapel was crammed with native Christians, and the preacher ascended the emerald-green pulpit.
All went well for a while, all went very well till the preacher warmed to his subject, and then he laid hold of the book-desk and swung himself about, and banged on it with his sable fists, till—crack, smash!—the book-desk went to pieces.
Nothing disconcerted, rather roused to more vehement action and harangue, the evangelist now laid hold of the sides of the pulpit, he dashed himself from side to side, he almost precipitated himself over the edge, he grappled with the flanks, and pulled this way, that way, till—crack! smash!—the sides began to gape like a tulip that is going off bloom, and presently away went one side, then another, and the whole pulpit was a wreck.
But this was not all; the paint had not been given time thoroughly to dry; the hands of the orator were moist, not to say sticky, and the paint came off on his fingers and palms, and as he wiped his face, dripping with perspiration, he left on it great smears of emerald enamel on nose and eyebrows, cheek and chin.
The congregation was worked up as by a magnetic influence: it sighed, allelujahed, groaned, swayed, the women laid hold of each other's tresses and pulled as they rocked themselves, and when the preacher banged on the desk, the native males in sympathy banged on each other's pates as well. Some screamed, some fell on their backs and kicked. Indeed, never since the conversion of the island had there been known such a rousing revival as on this occasion; and great was the exultation of the natives to think that one of their own preachers by his fervour had "busted up" an English-made pulpit.
And now a few words on the old gallery at the west end of the church, at present disappearing everywhere.
In every man's life there have been mistakes upon which he looks back with self-reproach. Such a mistake was that which I made on entering on the incumbency of East Mersea, in Essex.
A deputation waited on me, consisting of labourers, who asked that I would restore the old instrumental music in the church, which had been abolished by my predecessor.
Now my predecessor had provided a costly harmonium, of the best procurable quality. I had to consider this. I considered, moreover, the agonies I had endured as a boy from the performance of a west gallery orchestra; so I declined to entertain the project.
Next Sunday was windy. There was in the church a stove, and to the stove-pipe outside a cowl. In the wind the cowl twisted and groaned. Afterwards I learned from a superior farmer's wife, that, having heard of the purpose of the deputation to call on me, at the first groan of the cowl her blood ran cold; with horror in all her nerves she thought—"He has given way. Here is the orchestra tuning up!"
I regret, however, that I did not yield, for I believe now that no old institution should be abolished that is capable of improvement. It is quite true that the performances were torturing to the ear that was educated, nevertheless they were the best that the village musicians could produce, and therefore ought not to have been rejected. There was in them an element of life, they were capable of improvement, and they were homegrown.
The harmonium was a new instrument, it had to be played by the schoolmistress, an importation; and, after all, a harmonium is an odious instrument, only a degree better than the old village orchestra.
But I think that it was not merely the painfulness of the performances of the old orchestra that caused their abolition. I am sure that many a parson would have gone on enduring, having his ears tortured and his teeth set on edge, had it not been for the discords in the instrumentalists, as well as in the instruments.
The quarrels in the west gallery were proverbial. Strikes had begun there long before they began in factories and coal-mines. Sometimes the strikes were against the parson, if he interfered with the orchestra for intemperate proceedings—leaving bottles of ale and spirits, or rather leaving bottles that had contained these liquors—in the gallery after practice night. Sometimes the strikes were against the conductor, or the first violin, and I have a recollection of one of the strikes being an emphatic one, when the fiddle-stick performed its part on the head of the flute, and the flute on the head of the fiddle.
There was a dear old rector I remember, who said once: "I never can be brought to believe that there will be music in heaven, for if there be music there, there must be choirs and orchestra; and if choirs and orchestra, then there can be no harmony."
The bickerings, the heart-burnings, in the west gallery were a constant source of trouble to the parson, and if he seized on a means of establishing peace by abolishing the orchestra, he was not altogether to blame.
The first stage in getting rid of the village orchestra was taken by the introduction of the barrel-organ. I can well recall that stage.
Now the barrel-organ had but a limited range of tunes. Our organ had a vein of lightness and wantonness in it. How this came about I do not know. But one of the tunes ground out on it was "The Devil's Hop." This would never do. There were two elements of difficulty in it. In the first place, if this tune were not turned on we would be one tune the poorer in divine service. But it was intolerable that any psalm should be sung to "The Devil's Hop." After much consideration the difficulty was solved in this way. On the organ the title "The Devil's Hop" was altered into "De Ville's Hope," and instructions were issued to the grinder to grind slowly and solemnly. By this means the air served for an Easter psalm.
I possess a very interesting manuscript. A great-uncle of mine, the late Sir Edward Sabine, when a youth, was on one of the early Polar expeditions. Whilst he was absent, a cousin kept a diary of the daily doings at home, for his entertainment on his return. This was in 1819. I believe my great-uncle never read the MS., but I have done so with great delight.
Now in it occurs this entry:
"To-day—walked to South Mimms Church where a novelty has been introduced—a barrel-organ in the west gallery, in place of the old orchestra. I listened and thought it very beautiful, but I do not approve of these changes in divine service. To what will they lead? Where will be the end?"
My dear relative who penned these words is long since dead. What would she have said had she lived to the present day?
The barrel-organ is gone now. It is a thing of the past. The next stage was a little wheezing organ that cost about £20, sometimes even less. Horrible little things they were, broken-winded, giving out squeaks and puffs, and with no bass notes at all. Moreover, they were always getting out of order.
One had been introduced into a neighbouring church in place of the discarded barrel-organ, and the neighbourhood was invited to be present on the Sunday in which it was to be "opened." But alas! It had opened itself in an unexpected and irremediable manner—irremediable on the spur of the moment, and by inexperienced persons. There had been damp weather, and the leather of the bellows had become unglued.
The blower bowed to his work when the organ voluntary was to begin. "Hussh-h-h!" a puff. The keys were struck, with more vigour the blower laboured, and louder sounded the puffs—and nothing was heard save the puffs. Then the clerk left his desk and went to the gallery to open an inquiry. Presently, after much whispering and knocking about of seats in the gallery, the clerk came to the front, with a red face, and announced ore rotundo, "This here be to give notice. This here dratted orging ain't going to play this here Sunday. 'Cos hers busted her belleys."
When there had been a fracas among the instrumentalists, or when the organ had "busted," then the choir had to sustain the burden of the singing unsupported. And sometimes when the organ or organist was unequal to some new anthem on a high festival, the choir had to perform by itself.
I recollect one notable occasion. It was Christmas. The village choir was intent on performing the Hallelujah Chorus from the "Messiah." Bless you, my dear readers! they were not timorous and hesitating in those days any more than in these, when only quite recently a young village carpenter proposed for a rustic parish entertainment a piece out of "Lohengrin."
To return to the Hallelujah Chorus. Unhappily the organist was bowled over by a severe cold and could not attend. The soprano was cook at the rectory, and the plum-pudding had somehow gone wrong and must be attended to. So she did not attend. The alto had been invited "with her young man" to a friend's at a distance, therefore she could not attend, and the bass had been out carolling all night and drinking ale, and was hoarse and—well, indisposed. Accordingly, nothing daunted, our tenor gave us the Hallelujah Chorus as a solo, without accompaniment at all, and without the other parts. That was a wonderful performance—never to be forgotten.
The other day I was in a restored church, with stained glass windows, with brass candelabra, with velvet and gold hangings, with carved oak bench-ends, and encaustic tiled floors, and—I could not help myself—I laughed; for I saw in the side chapel a huge organ, elaborately painted and gilt. It had three key-boards, and I could not count all the stops. Nothing to laugh at in that; no: but there was, in the contrast between the church as it is now and what it was fifty years ago, as I remember it. I was then in it on a Sunday. There were no carved benches then, but tall deal pews. There was no organ: there was an orchestra in the west gallery, and the clerk was first violin therein. But his duties required that he should sit near the reading-desk at the chancel arch. Now, when it came to the giving out a psalm, the old fellow stood up and announced: "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the ——— Psalm." Having done this, he left his desk and strode down the nave whistling the tune very shrilly, till he reached the west gallery, where he took his place at the music-stand, and drew the bow across his fiddle, tuned it, and the whole orchestra broke out into music—or, to be more exact, uproar.
In small country parishes it was by no means infrequent that the clerk alone could read, and he had to do all the responses. When it came to the psalm, he read out two lines audibly. Whereupon choir and congregation sang those two lines. Then he gave out two more lines, and those were sung. So on to the end. This was not very musical; but what else could be done, when the power to read print was not present in the congregation?
I do not think that the true history of the west end gallery in a parish church is properly known. In mediæval churches there was a very rich and elaborately carved wood screen between the chancel and the body of the church. The screen had several purposes to serve, some symbolical, some liturgical, some practical.
In the first place it was symbolical of death. In the Tabernacle and Temple a veil hid the Holy of Holies; but on the death of Christ the veil was rent asunder from the top to the bottom, and this signified that the way into the Holiest Place was open to all, and that death ceased to be the impenetrable mystery it had been; since Christ, by His death, had overcome death, it was possible to look beyond the veil and see the glorious place where is the Mercy-Seat and the Altar-Throne, and where our Great High Priest standeth, ever making intercession for us.
Now, in the mediæval churches, the chancel represented the Holiest Place, or heaven, and the nave was the figure of the Church on earth. Consequently the screen, dividing the nave from the chancel, was a figure of death. But inasmuch as by faith we can look through and beyond the barrier of death, the screens were made of carved work pierced through, so that the chancel with the altar might be perfectly visible beyond the screen. And inasmuch as death was overcome by Christ, the crucifix stood above the screen, a figure that proclaimed that it was through the cross of Christ alone, that the kingdom of heaven was opened to all believers, and that death was swallowed up in victory.So much for the symbolic meaning of the screen. And yet, no—one word more must be added. Last summer I was walking along
As I was admiring the screen, the old man, who was dusting in the church, came up to me and said: "Please, your honour, have y' ever heard tell why the screen-doors niver shut?"
I expressed my doubt that this was so.
"Now, do y' go and look at ivery old church screen you seez," said the clerk. "If it ho'n't been meddled wi' by them blessed restorers, you'll find for sure sartain that the oak doors won't shut. Zur, see here. Here be the doors. Try 'em; they can't be made to shut."
I answered that the wood had swelled, and the joinery was imperfect.
"No, your honour," said the old man. "If you look close, you'll see it was made on purpose not to fit."
On examination it certainly did appear that the doors in question never could have been fastened. I admitted this, but doubted whether it was the same with all screen-gates.
"It's the same wi' all," said the old man.
"I've looked at scores, and they was all made just the same, on purpose not to fit."
"That is very odd," said I, still incredulous.
"It was done on purpose," said the old man.
Then he came out with his explanation.
"Doant y' see, your honour. Them old men as made the screens weren't bad joiners, and they weren't fules neither. They was a sight better joiners than we be now. The reason they did it was this. For sure sartain the chancel means heaven, and the body of the church means airth. And then, doan't it say in Scriptur, 'The gates shall not be shut at all?' Very well, if the chancel be meant to tell o' the heavenly Jerusalem, then the screen gates must be made not to fit, that never nobody may never be able to fasten 'em no more. The old men weren't bad joiners, nor fules—not they."
And now—to the liturgical significance of the screen. As already said, it supported the crucifix, and the rule was that during Lent all images were to be veiled or covered with wraps. Accordingly, on the top of the screens were galleries by means of which the crucifix could be reached for the veiling on Shrove Tuesday, and the unveiling on Easter Eve.
But the screen served a third purpose, and that was eminently practical. On it sat the orchestra and choir. The gallery was made broad and solid to support them, and was furnished with a back to the west, against which the performers might lean, and which concealed them from the congregation in the nave. These backs have for the most part disappeared; nevertheless, several remain. They naturally were the first part of a screen to give way through the pressure of somnolent human beings against it.
The choir and instrumentalists sat on the rood-screen, where they could see every movement of the priest at the altar, and so take their cues for singing and playing. It was essential that they should be in this position. In Continental churches, where in many places the screens have been mutilated or removed, the choirs still occupy their old places. For instance, at Bruges, where the screen in the cathedral is reduced to a mere block of black and white marble beside the chancel steps, the musicians remain perched at the top. At Freiburg, where the screen and gallery have been erected in one of the transepts, quite out of sight of the altar, the singers and orchestra are on it.
At the Reformation, when the crucifix was torn away, a great ugly gap was left in the gallery-back above the screen. In cathedrals this gap was filled up with the organ. And in cathedrals and large churches the organ displaced the instrumentalists.
In many churches the screen itself was destroyed or allowed to fall into decay. But the use of the gallery was not forgotten. The priest now occupied the reading-desk, and as this was very generally in the body of the church, something had to be done to bring the choir and orchestra into a suitable position facing him.
Accordingly, in a great number of cases the gallery was removed to the west end of the church, and those who rendered the musical portion of divine service moved with it. Hence it came about that in a vast majority of cases the gallery at the west end, under the tower arch, came to be the great focus and centre of music and discord.
Now the fashion has set in everywhere to pull down the west gallery and open out the tower arch. But when the west gallery is gone, whither is the organ to go? Where is the choir to be put? The choirs are now very generally accommodated in the chancel, but the organ has been moved about into various places more or less unsuitable.
At one time the fashion was to build out a sort of chapel on the north side and to fit the organ into it; boxing it up on all sides but one. Naturally, the organ objected to this treatment. It was made to occupy an open space: it demanded circulation of air. In the pocket into which it was thrust it became damp, and went out of tune.
Nothing could have been designed more senseless than these cramped chapels for organs. The organ sets waves of air in motion, and the walls boxing in the pipes prevented the waves from flowing. It was found that organs in this position did not give forth a volume of sound commensurate with their cost and size, and they were pulled out, and stuck in side aisles, and painted and gilt, and an attempt made to render an unsightly object comely by flourish of decoration.
But again difficulties and objections became evident. An organ ought not to be on the damp floor, and it ought to be well elevated. Moreover, planted at the east end of an aisle, it did not support the congregation in their singing. It roared and boomed in the ears of the choir; and if the service is to be an elaborate performance, in which the congregation takes the part of audience only, then it is in the right place. But if the divine worship is to be congregational, if all are to be encouraged to sing, then the organ is out of place.
Consequently in a good many cases there is a talk of moving back the organ into a west gallery.
Unhappily, an organ is a very expensive traveller. An individual can tour round the globe at about the same cost that will move an organ from one end of a church to another. Hundreds on hundreds of pounds have been spent in marching the unhappy organ about; and we cannot be sure that its wanderings are over yet.
In these restless and impatient days, when everyone has a theory and a scheme, and desires to do what is contrary to what has been done, the hardest of lessons to acquire, and that entailing most self-restraint, but that which is least costly, and most calculated to give a man peace at the last, is to let well alone.
And now before we leave the old church, something must be said about the tower and bells.
On the Continent there is absolutely no art in bell-ringing—it is what any fool can do; the bells are clashed together, there is no sequence of notes, no changes in succession, there is noise, not melody. I remember many years ago passing through the queer little village with a queerer name, Corpsnuds, in the French Landes, on Midsummer-day. From the quaint church-tower sounded the most extraordinary clatter of bells, without sequence and without harmony. Moreover, from the top of the tower fluttered an equally extraordinary flag. On more attentive examination of the latter, when the wind was sufficiently strong to unfurl and expand it, it became obvious that this flag was nothing more nor less than a pair of dingy black trousers split at the seam, and reseated with a dingy navy-blue patch.
Having made the observation, I entered the belfry, to ascertain what produced the clatter among the bells.
There I discovered the sexton, in his blouse, very hot, very red, profusely perspiring, racing about the interior swinging the end of a single bell-rope.
On seeing me he halted, and wiped his brow on his sleeve. I asked him how it was that he alone was able to ring a peal of bells.
"Mais!" he answered, "C'est bien possible. I have tied a broomstick in a knot of the rope, among the bells, and as I whisk the rope about, the stick rattles this bell, that bell, all of them. Voila tout!"
"And the banner waving augustly above the tower?" I further inquired.
"Bien simple," was his answer. "An old pair of my patched pantaloons. My wife slit them; we have no parish flag, so I said—allons! mes pantalons. There they are: aloft! One must do what one can in honour of the bon Saint Jean."
It is in England alone that bell-ringing is an art, and oh! how lovely an art it is—to those far away who hear the swell and fall of the bells, the music always having a certain sadness in it. But it has its sordid side, as has all art, and the sordid side is the interior of the belfry; or, let us say, was, before reform pushed its way there.
There was some excuse for the ringers to conduct themselves in a free and easy manner in the belfry when it was shut off from the body of the church by a screen of boards against which the west gallery was erected. Then the belfry was so much apart from the church that it ceased to be regarded as pertaining to it, or being included within its sacred atmosphere. Accordingly the ringers conducted themselves in the belfry as they saw fit. They introduced pipes, also a barrel of beer. They sketched each other on the boards, never in complimentary style. They wrote scurrilous verses on the screen, and sometimes conducted there all kinds of buffoon games, and played practical jokes on each other.
Not only did they consider that they might do as they liked in the belfry, but that they might have access to it when they liked, and ring on whatever occasion they pleased.
Another abuse crept in. The ringers considered that they had done quite sufficient when they had rung a peal before Divine Service. Their ringing ended, they would withdraw to the road or loiter about the churchyard, talking and smoking, whilst worship proceeded within the church.
In a certain place that I know the ringers had been allowed their own way under an indifferent rector, and the worst possible condition of affairs had resulted. Then came a new rector with the reforming spirit in him, and he resolved to put matters to right. Hitherto the belfry key had been retained by the sexton, a prime offender. The parson demanded it. The sexton refused to surrender it. Then the rector went with a blacksmith to the tower door, broke it open, and affixed a new lock to it with a key that he retained for himself.
Great was the indignation among the ringers, and an anonymous letter was received by the rector:
"This be to giv Nottis. If you pass'n doant mind wot your about and let we ring the bells as plazes we, then us wull knock your little 'ed off."
The rector was not to be intimidated. That night he went to the belfry and locked himself in.
At the usual time for the practice to begin the ringers arrived, and he heard them discuss him and his doings in the churchyard. That he did not mind.
"I say," remarked the sexton, "ain't he the minister? Wot do that mean but that he's sent by the bishop to minister to us and do jist as us likes?"
"Shure, b'aint no meanin' in words if that ain't it," responded another.
"Us won't be pass'n-ridden," said a third.
"Us'll break open the door," said a fourth.
"And if he interferes, us'll scatt his little head open," said a fifth, "as us wrote he—you knaws."
Then came a bang against the tower door.
Now there happened to be a little window close to the door, just large enough for a man to put his head, but not his shoulders, through.
"I put on the lock, and I'll have it off," said the blacksmith. "I've brought a bar o' iron on purpose."
Then the rector put his head through the window, and said, "Will you? Here's my little head, scatt that first."
The men drew back disconcerted.
He had gained the day, and established his authority over the ringers, and control of the belfry door.
And now, in the same place, there is as well-conducted a set of ringers as may be found anywhere, and some of the old lot are still there. The first step in the reform of the belfry was that of obtaining mastery over the key.
A second step was taken when the west gallery was demolished and the tower-arch thrown open, so that the bell-ringers were visibly in the church, and so came to feel that they were in a sacred building in which there must be no profanity.
In several instances much good has been done by the rector or the curate becoming himself a ringer, or, if not that, taking a lively interest in the ringing, and being present in the belfry, or visiting it, on practising nights.
Some curious customs remain connected with bell-ringing. In Yorkshire it is customary when there occurs a death in the parish to toll the bell. Three strokes thrice repeated signify an adult male; three strokes twice repeated signify an adult female; two, two, three, a male infant; two, two, two, a female child. These strokes are then followed by as many as there were years in the age of the deceased. At Dewsbury and at Horbury, near Wakefield, on Christmas Eve, at midnight, the devil's knell is rung. When I was curate at the latter place, at first I knew nothing of this singular knell. On my first Christmas Eve I had retired to bed, when at midnight I heard the bell toll.
Now, my window looked out into the churchyard, and was, in fact, opposite the tower door. I was greatly shocked and distressed, for I had not heard that anyone was ill in the parish, and I feared that the deceased must have passed away without the ministrations of religion.
I threw up my window and leaned out, awaiting the sexton. I counted the strokes—three, three, three: then I counted the ensuing strokes up to one hundred.
Still more astonished, I waited impatiently the appearance of the sexton.
When he issued from the tower, I called to him:
"Joe, who is dead?"
The man sniggered and answered, "T'owd un, they say."
"But who is dead?"
"What old man? He must be very old indeed."
"Ay! he be owd; but for sure he'll give trouble yet."
It was not till next day that my vicar explained the matter to me.
At Dewsbury the devil's knell is thus accounted for. A certain bell there, called Black Tom of Sothill, is said to have been an expiatory gift for a murder, and the tolling is in commemoration of the execution of the murderer. One Thomas Nash, in 1813, bequeathed £50 a year to the ringers of the Abbey Church, Bath, "on condition of their ringing on the whole peal of bells, with clappers muffled, various solemn and doleful changes on the 14th of May in every year, being the anniversary of my wedding-day; and also on the anniversary of my decease, to ring a grand bob-major and merry peals unmuffled, in joyful commemoration of my happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness."
A singular and beautiful custom still subsists in the village of Horningsham, Wilts, where, at the burial of a young maiden, "wedding peals" are rung on muffled bells.
At the induction of a new vicar or rector it is customary for him to lock himself into the church, and then proceed to the belfry and "ring himself in." It is, I believe, universal in England for the parishioners to count the number of strokes he gives, as these are said to indicate the number of years during which he will hold the cure.
There still remain in some places certain forcible evidences that the ringers regaled themselves in the belfries, and these have taken the shape of ale-jugs. At Hadleigh, in Suffolk, is such a pitcher of brown glazed earthenware, that holds sixteen quarts, and bears this inscription:
"We, Thomas Windle, Isaac Bunn, John Mann, Adam Sage, George Bond, Thomas Goldsborough, Robert Smith, Harry West."
and below the names are these lines:
"If you love me doe not lend me,
Use me often and keep me cleanly,
Fill me full, or not at all,
If it be strong, and not with small."
At Hinderclay, a ringer's pitcher is still preserved in the church tower, with the inscription on it:
"From London I was sent,
As plainly doth appear:
It was with this intent,
To be filled with strong beer.
Pray remember the pitchers when empty."
In a closet of the steeple of St. Peter's, Mancroft, Norwich, is another, that holds thirty-five pints. At Clare is a similar jug that holds over seventeen quarts, and one at Beccles that will contain six gallons less one pint.
As already said, the church bells, which the ringers regarded as their own, or as parish property, they chose to ring on the most unsuitable occasions, as when a "long main" at cock-fighting had been won. Church bells were occasionally rung for successful race-horses. In the accounts of St. Edmund's, Salisbury, is this entry:
"1646. Ringing the race-day, that the Earl of Pembroke his horse winne the cuppe———vsh."
At Derby, when the London coach drove through the town in olden times it was usual to announce its arrival by ringing the church bells, that all such as had fish coming might hasten to the coach and secure the fish whilst fairly fresh.
It used to be said that St. Peter's six bells, which first sounded the approach of the London coach, called "Here's fresh fish come to town. Here's fresh fish come to town." Next came All Saints', further up the street, with its peal of ten, "Here's fine fresh fish just come into the town. Here's fine fresh fish just come into the town." Close by All Saints' stood St. Michael's, with but three bells, and one of them cracked, and the strain of this peal was, "They're stinking; they're stinking!" But St. Alkmund replied with his six, a little further on in the street, "Put more salt on 'em, then. Put more salt on 'em, then."
The earliest bells we have are the Celtic bells of hammered bronze, in shape like sheep bells, and riveted on one side. When these bells were first introduced they caused great astonishment, and many stories grew up about them. Thus, in the church of Kelly, in Devon, is an old stained-glass window that represents St. Oudoc, Bishop of Llandaff, with a golden yellow bell at his side. The story is told of him that he was one day thirsty, and passing some women who were washing clothes, he asked of them a draught of water. They answered laughingly that they had no vessel from which he could drink. Then he took a pat of butter, and moulded it into the shape of a cup or bell, and filled it with water, and drank out of it. And this golden bell remained in the church of Llandaff till it was melted up by the commissioners of Henry VIII.
A still more wonderful story was related of St. Keneth, of Gower, who, as a babe, was exposed in an osier coracle to the waves. The seagulls fluttered over him, and bore him to a ledge of rock, where they made a bed for him of the feathers from their breasts. Then they brought him a brazen bell to serve as baby's bottle, and every day the bell was filled with milk by a forest doe.
It is with bells as with all the faculties of man. They are all "very good" when used harmoniously; but the "sweet bells" can be "jangled out of tune" not only by the failure of mental power—as in the case of Hamlet—but by lack of balance and order in the moral sense.