Curious Myths of the Middle Ages By S. Baring-Gould, review in The Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts 1866
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IN a dozen chapters, in which there is somewhat too much both of fine and flippant writing, Mr. Gould treats, and, if we may take his word for it, disposes of, or demolishes, various traditionary stories, touching the truth or falsehood of some of which the world had come to a sensible decision before he was born. The subjects which he brings before us are the Wandering Jew, Prester John, the Divining Rod, the Seven Sleepers, William Tell, the Dog Gellert, Tailed Men, Antichrist and Pope Joan, the Man in the Moon, the Mountain of Venus, Fatality of Numbers, and the Terrestrial Paradise.
With respect to the story of the Wandering Jew, Mr. Gould asks, “Who can say for certain that it is not true?” and he asserts that “no myth is wholly without foundation.” He quotes Our Lord's words, “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the kingdom of God;” “and there is no improbability,” he adds, “in Our Lord's words being fulfilled to the letter.” A thousand years elapsed before one of these deathless Jews appeared in the world. There were various assumers of the character, with various stories of their own. One had bidden Jesus go “quicker!” on His way to Calvary, and another had refused Him water, as He paused on His road to the Cross, and to each had been said, “Tarry thou till I come!” When it is remembered that these Wandering Jews were received at great men's tables and were kept as guests as long as they had any wild story to tell (they all grew old till they were a hundred, and then began again, at the age at which Christ found them), it is simply astonishing that we do not hear more of these clever and erratic parasites. Mr. Gould has his finger on a good many of them, but he has overlooked the last on the mysterious roll. From the year 1818 (perhaps earlier) to about 1830, a handsomely-featured Jew, in semi-eastern costume, fair-haired, bare-headed, his eyes intently fixed on a little ancient book he held in both hands, might be seen gliding through the streets of London, but was never seen to issue from or to enter a house, or to pause upon his way. He was popularly known as “the Wandering Jew,” but there was something so dignified anxious in his look, that he was never known to suffer the slightest molestation. Young and old looked silently on him as he passed, and shook their heads pitifully when he gone by. He disappeared, was seen again in London some ten years later, still young, fair-haired, bare-headed, his eyes bent on his book, his feet going steadily forward as he went straight on; and men again whispered as he glided through our streets for the last time, “The Wandering Jew!” There were many who believed that he was the very man to whom had been uttered the awful words, “Tarry thou till I come!”
The tradition of this errant Jew was little more than a century old when a rumour spread over Europe that there existed a powerful Christian priest and emperor in Asia who had broken the power of those whom Mr. Gould styles “Mussulmen,” and was coming to the assistance of the Crusaders. The latter were in such need of the help, that the report was probably first started by the promoters of Crusades, whose business it was to raise men and subscriptions of money. It was a bit of Stock Exchange or Limited Liability rascality of that day. A thundering letter from Prester John himself, bristling with mendacity and denouncing lying as a baseness worthy of death, was circulated throughout Europe. At various times, various names were assigned to this pseudo-being, and various localities as his seat of empire. He is sometimes, and not without some reason perhaps, identified with a conquering Tartar Khan, who was not under Moslem influences; but Mr. Gould has perhaps hit the right nail on the head when he assigns the Prester John myth to the “wonderful successes of Nestorianism in the East,” which doubtless gave rise to a marvellous amount of lying. Something resembling the character of Prester John may, however, be seen in a sacerdotal monarch such as the King of Abyssinia.
The Divining Rods employed in charms, if not older than the Jews, were well known and in use long before the Wandering Jew began to walk, or Prester John kept his stationary state in Cloudland. The rod,as a special means for divining the hidden presence of water, metals, and criminals, was not much known in Europe before the fifteenth century. The most wonderful feats were performed by it, in presence of unbiassed and scrutinizing persons; yet the performers invariably broke down under continued supervision. Nevertheless, undeniably wonderful feats were performed by the alleged agency of the rod. These were really so full of wonder, that it would be matter for greater wonder still to find them attributed to the rod if they might be more truly ascribed to any other means, whereby the result would be equally miraculous. Some of the stories cited by Mr. Gould are nothing less than astounding: there is enough evidence to convince one of the efficacy of the rod in properly endowed hands, and quite enough also to satisfy us that the ablest of diviners by the rod were, if not absolute rogues, utterly without power under stringent tests. Mr. Gould states that in Wiltshire the rod “is still employed for the purpose of detecting water,”—the rod bending or turning in the hand of the bearer, to indicate that there is water beneath the soil. It is even said that there are persons who cannot pass over hidden water or metals without a painful sensation, which enables them to assert the presence below of what is concealed from all other persons.
The story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Christian men who fell asleep under Decius (AD 250) and awoke under Theodosius (479), is really of older birth than any of the myths we have been considering. Endymion, Epimenides, and others, slept before the Ephesian sleepers, and since them others have not lacked, including Rip van Winkle. Mr. Gould asserts that Napoleon Bonaparte is still believed by the French peasantry to be sleeping somewhere, like Charlemagne, ready when “time and the hour” arrive for his mission. This is an echo of Béranger’s song; the French peasantry can hardly believe in a returning Napoleon the First when they see on the throne an abiding Napoleon the Third; and if the first could awake and come back, how unwelcome he would be, and what pretty work he would make of it!
We agree with Mr. Gould in the probability of the story of the Seven Sleepers being founded on the possible fact of their having suffered under Decius and of their remains having been discovered under Theodosius. But having allowed thus much, he overturns the theory by expressing his own belief that the myth of the Seven Sleepers is only "a Christianized myth of Paganism." While inferring that these Ephesians never slept, he turns to the most sacred page in Swiss history to maintain that William Tell was never awake! “I can show,” he says, “that the story of William Tell is as fabulous as—what shall I say?—any other historical event.” His method of arriving at such end is to point to various similar stories in the history of many nations far and near; and some of these are of the utmost singularity. But Gessler may have heard of any one of them; and because Tell was an expert archer and had a son, he may have resorted to the same means of punishing him for disrespect to the Austrian symbol of power. However this may be, the author annihilates the personality of the Swiss patriot, on the ground of the universality of the legend with its various heroes, and he commences his attack on the next myth, “The Dog Gellert,” with the self-complacent remark, “Having demolished William Tell, I proceed to the destruction of another article of popular belief.” He does not allude to the adverse sifting of the story by learned German critics who are expert at making facts agree with their theory, and who have exasperated all Switzerland accordingly; not that the Swiss have treated their demi-god with much more real respect. The statue they have erected to him in the market-place of his native town of Altorf is certainly the most hideous idol before which “popular belief" ever performed an act of worship.
The Ancient Britons of the present time will be as little grateful as the Swiss for the demolition of one of their favourite stories. Here, Mr. Gould is really a demolisher. The story of the hound which was slain by its knightly master, who supposed it had killed his child, whereas Gellert had really preserved its life by slaying the wolf who would have destroyed it, is not Welsh. It comes from the East, and was told in Sanscrit story-books before the first Welshman breathed, which was pretty early, if “Taffy’s” own word is to be taken for it.
Mr. Gould is as successful with the old legend of men with tails pendent from the os sacrum. He does not believe in them either in Kent or Cornwall. The men of Strood may be examined with the most curious eyes, but no trace will be detected of the punishment inflicted on them for pulling the tail of a’ Becket's horse as the prelate crossed Rochester Bridge. Besides, Mr. Gould settles the whole matter by declaring that “it is impossible that a human being can have a tail; for the spinal vertebrae in men do not admit of elongation, as in many animals.” But this does not settle the matter; for men would not have been affrighted at tails growing from them, if they had been naturally prepared for such an appendage.
If Mr. Gould’s chapter on “Antichrist” and “Pope Joan” be the most amusing in his book, it is in some respects the most unsatisfactory and contradictory. The myths themselves, springing out of the opinions held by the early and medieval Church, are contradictory too. In some, the great Adversary is to come with such signs of power that it would seem folly to deny his credentials. In others, he is a mere Moslem destroyer, who will leave nothing upright in the world, except Mecca an other holy cities of the Turks. In the seventeenth century the Knights of St. John had their spies in the East, looking out for the birth of the unwelcome stranger, and they gravely announced to the world that they had at last come upon him in the person of a baby, born near Babylon, who “incontinent on his birth walked and talked perfectly well, . . admonishing the people that he is the true Messiah an the Son of God, and that in him all must believe.” Mr. Gould's opinion, if we understand him rightly, is that Antichrist will be found amongst those naughty people who hold cheap the “millinery” and "pernicious nonsense,” as those sad persons call certain costumings and performances of the exclusively good and true children of the Church as its Founder meant it.
We need not dwell on “Pope Joan,” but we may all be forgiven for a reasonable amount of curiosity to ascertain whence that circumstantial story sprang. Mr. Gould leads us about in all directions, and lands us nowhere. He names Marianus Scotus as "perhaps the earliest writer to mention Pope Joan.” Scotus died in 1086. De Gemblours, Mr. Gould says, repeated the story, and he died in 1112. A page or two later, after saying that the legend is fabulous, void of all historical foundation, he tells us that “even Martin Polonus (A.D. 1282), who is the first to give the details, does so merely on popular report.” A couple of pages later he again says, “Marianus Scotus, the first to relate the story, died in 1088.” Then he is as unfair with regard to Mosheim as he is careless in his arrangement of dates and authorities. “A melancholy example of the blindness of party feeling and prejudice is seen in Mosheim, who assumes the truth of the ridiculous story.” But when Mr. Gould quotes Mosheim, we find that the statement of the latter is qualified by an all-important “It is said” at the beginning of the narrative; and speaking of the abundant testimony, so called, offered in support of the myth, Mosheim concludes by stating that “prior to the time of Luther the alleged fact was not regarded as incredible or disgraceful to the Church.” So far from this being, as Mr. Gould considers it, “malignity,” or “a disregard for truth," it seems to be but a fair statement, in which Mosheim assumes nothing, but that the story was told, and that it was not accounted incredible.
Of the story of the Man in the Moon, founded on that of the luckless Hebrew who gathered sticks on the Sabbath, for which he was stoned to death outside the camp, Mr. Gould has much pleasant illustration. The legend is universal and everywhere modified. In Scandinavia in, Mani, the Moon, steals two children, an these, Hjiuki and Bil, are now seen in their shadows on the moon’s surface. These two children Mr. Gould detects in the verse—
Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
“This verse I have no hesitation in saying has a high antiquity,”—so it may have, but it illustrates the old Church and King sentiment;— implying safety in union, and teaching that if the crown-be cast down, the church will soon go “tumbling after."
We pass the “Fatality of Numbers” and the “Mountain of Venus” as samples of “make-weight,” and notice the “Terrestrial Paradise” as an amusing paper, showing how mortals have presumed to fix its locality and to perplex honest folk who read the details. Dr. Cumming, we believe, if he has not settled that the future paradise of the few chosen shall be in Scotland, has conjectured that it must resemble Caledonia in its general features and characteristics. The Bruges Catechism has, with equal precision, set down the exact distance (to a centimetre) of the gates of Hell from the school-doors of Bruges. This leads us from Mr. Gould’s very agreeable volume, the shortcomings of which require but brief notice at our hands, to the second work named above, a work which shows that the mediaeval myth-manufacturing is in as full activity now as when in bygone days it supplied the appetite which it could hardly satisfy.