Believe whatever you will, but never speak to anyone about something that can't be measured.
~ Mircea Popescu

Author: stjohn_piano
Published: 2017-12-26
Datafeed Article 25
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To be entirely just in our estimate of other ages is not difficult - it is impossible. Even what is passing in our presence we see but through a glass darkly. The mind as well as the eye adds something of its own, before an image, even of the clearest object, can be painted upon it.

And in historical enquiries, the most instructed thinkers have but a limited advantage over the most illiterate. Those who know the most, approach least to agreement. The most careful investigations are diverging roads - the further men travel upon them, the greater the interval by which they are divided.


If we are wise, the differences in other men's judgments will teach us to be diffident. The more distinctly we have made history bear witness in favour of our particular opinions, the more we have multiplied the chances against the truth of our own theory.


Eras, like individuals, differ from one another in the species of virtue which they encourage. In one age, we find the virtues of the warrior; in the next, of the saint. The ascetic and the soldier in their turn disappear; an industrial era succeeds, bringing with it the virtues of common sense, of grace, and refinement. There is the virtue of energy and command, there is the virtue of humility and patient suffering. All these are different, and all are, or may be, of equal moral value; yet, from the constitution of our minds, we are so framed that we cannot equally appreciate all; we sympathise instinctively with the person who most represents our own ideal - with the period when the graces which most harmonise with our own tempers have been especially cultivated.


Persons who live beyond our own circle, and, still more, persons who have lived in another age, receive what is called justice, not charity; and justice is supposed to consist in due allotments of censure for each special act of misconduct, leaving merit unrecognized. There are many reasons for this harsh method of judging. We must decide of men by what we know, and it is easier to know faults than to know virtues. Faults are specific, easily described, easily appreciated, easily remembered. And again, there is, or may be, hypocrisy in virtue; but no one pretends to vice who is not vicious. The bad things which can be proved of a man we know to be genuine. He was a spendthrift, he was an adulterer, he gambled, he equivocated. These are blots positive, unless untrue, and when they stand alone, tinge the whole character.

This also is to be observed in historical criticism. All men feel a necessity of being on some terms with their conscience, at their own expense or at another's. If they cannot part with their faults, they will at least call them by their right name when they meet with such faults elsewhere; and thus, when they find accounts of deeds of violence or sensuality, of tyranny, of injustice of man to man, of great and extensive suffering, or any of those other misfortunes which the selfishness of men has at various times occasioned, they will vituperate the doers of such things, and the age which has permitted them to be done, with the full emphasis of virtuous indignation, while all the time they are themselves doing things which will be described, with no less justice, in the same colours, by an equally virtuous posterity.


Our knowledge of any man is always inadequate - even of the unit which each of us calls himself; and the first condition under which we can know a man at all is, that he be in essentials something like ourselves; that our own experience be an interpreter which shall open the secrets of his experience; and it often happens, even among our contemporaries, that we are altogether baffled. The Englishman and the Italian may understand each other's speech, but the language of each other's ideas has still to be learnt. Our long failures in Ireland have risen from a radical incongruity of character which has divided the Celt from the Saxon. And again, in the same country, the Catholic will be a mystery to the Protestant, and the Protestant to the Catholic. Their intellects have been shaped in opposite moulds; they are like instruments which cannot be played in concert. In the same way, but in a far higher degree, we are divided from the generations which have preceded us in this planet - we try to comprehend a Pericles or a C├Žsar - an image rises before us which we seem to recognize as belonging to our common humanity. There is this feature which is familiar to us - and this - and this. We are full of hope; the lineaments, one by one, pass into clearness; when suddenly the figure becomes enveloped in a cloud - some perplexity crosses our analysis, baffling it utterly; the phantom which we have evoked dies away before our eyes, scornfully mocking our incapacity to master it.

The English antecedent to the Reformation are nearer to us than Greeks or Romans; and yet there is a large interval between the baron who fought at Barnet field, and his polished descendant in a modern drawing-room. The scale of appreciation and the rule of judgment - the habits, the hopes, the fears, the emotions - have utterly changed.

In perusing modern histories, the present writer has been struck dumb with wonder at the facility with which men will fill in chasms in their information with conjecture; will guess at the motives which have prompted actions; will pass their censures, as if all secrets of the past lay out on an open scroll before them. He is obliged to say for himself that, wherever he has been fortunate enough to discover authentic explanations of English historical difficulties, it is rare indeed that he has found any conjecture, either of his own or of any other modern writer, confirmed. The true motive has almost invariably been of a kind which no modern experience could have suggested.

Thoughts such as these form a hesitating prelude to an expression of opinion on a controverted question. They will serve, however, to indicate the limits within which the said opinion is supposed to be hazarded. And in fact, neither in this nor in any historical subject is the conclusion so clear that it can be enunciated in a definite form. The utmost which can be safely hazarded with history is to relate honestly ascertained facts, with only such indications of a judicial sentence upon them as may be suggested in the form in which the story is arranged.

Whether the monastic bodies of England, at the time of their dissolution, were really in that condition of moral corruption which is laid to their charge in the Act of Parliament by which they were dissolved, is a point which it seems hopeless to argue. Roman Catholic, and indeed almost all English, writers who are not committed to an unfavourable opinion by the ultra-Protestantism of their doctrines, seem to have agreed of late years that the accusations, if not false, were enormously exaggerated. The dissolution, we are told, was a predetermined act of violence and rapacity; and when the reports and the letters of the visitors are quoted in justification of the Government, the discussion is closed with the dismissal of every unfavourable witness from the court, as venal, corrupt, calumnious - in fact, as a suborned liar. Upon these terms the argument is easily disposed of; and if it were not that truth is in all matters better than falsehood, it would be idle to reopen a question which cannot be justly dealt with. No evidence can affect convictions which have been arrived at without evidence - and why should we attempt a task which it is hopeless to accomplish? It seems necessary, however, to reassert the actual state of the surviving testimony from time to time, if it be only to sustain the links of the old traditions; and the present paper will contain one or two pictures of a peculiar kind, exhibiting the life and habits of those institutions, which have been lately met with chiefly among the unprinted Records. In anticipation of any possible charge of unfairness in judging from isolated instances, we disclaim simply all desire to judge - all wish to do anything beyond relating certain ascertained stories. Let it remain, to those who are perverse enough to insist upon it, an open question whether the monasteries were more corrupt under Henry the Eighth than they had been four hundred years earlier. The dissolution would have been equally a necessity; for no reasonable person would desire that bodies of men should have been maintained for the only business of singing masses, when the efficacy of masses was no longer believed. Our present desire is merely this - to satisfy ourselves whether the Government, in discharging a duty which could not be dispensed with, condescended to falsehood in seeking a vindication for themselves which they did not require; or whether they had cause really to believe the majority of the monastic bodies to be as they affirmed - whether, that is to say, there really were such cases either of flagrant immorality, neglect of discipline, or careless waste and prodigality, as to justify the general censure which was pronounced against the system by the Parliament and the Privy Council.


The official letters which reveal the condition into which the monastic establishments had degenerated, are chiefly in the Cotton Library, and a large number of them have been published by the Camden Society. Besides these, however, there are in the Rolls House many other documents which confirm and complete the statements of the writers of those letters. There is a part of what seems to have been a digest of the 'Black Book' - an epitome of iniquities, under the title of the 'Compendium Compertorum'. There are also reports from private persons, private entreaties for inquiry, depositions of monks in official examinations, and other similar papers, which, in many instances, are too offensive to be produced, and may rest in obscurity, unless contentious persons compel us to bring them forward. Some of these, however, throw curious light on the habits of the time, and on the collateral disorders which accompanied the more gross enormities. They show us, too, that although the dark tints predominate, the picture was not wholly black; that as just Lot was in the midst of Sodom, yet was unable by his single presence to save the guilty city from destruction, so in the latest era of monasticism there were types yet lingering of an older and fairer age, who, nevertheless, were not delivered, like the patriarch, but perished most of them with the institution to which they belonged. The hideous exposure is not untinted with fairer lines; and we see traits here and there of true devotion, mistaken but heroic.

Of these documents two specimens shall be given in this place, one of either kind; and both, so far as we know, new to modern history. The first is so singular, that we print it as it is found - a genuine antique, fished up, in perfect preservation, out of the wreck of the old world.

About eight miles from Ludlow, in the county of Herefordshire, once stood the Abbey of Wigmore. There was Wigmore Castle, a stronghold of the Welsh Marches, now, we believe, a modern, well-conditioned mansion; and Wigmore Abbey, of which we do not hear that there are any remaining traces. Though now vanished, however, like so many of its kind, the house was three hundred years ago in vigorous existence; and when the stir commenced for an inquiry, the proceedings of the Abbot of this place gave occasion to a memorial which stands in the Rolls collection as follows: - [0]

Articles to be objected against John Smart, Abbot of the Monastery of Wigmore, in the county of Hereford, to be exhibited to the Right Honourable Lord Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent to the King's Majesty.

1. The said abbot is to be accused of simony, as well for taking money for advocation and putations of benefices, as for giving of orders, or more truly, selling them, and that to such persons which have been rejected elsewhere, and of little learning and light consideration.

2. The said abbot hath promoted to orders many scholars when all other bishops did refrain to give such orders on account of certain ordinances devised by the King's Majesty and his Council for the common weal of this realm. Then resorted to the said abbot scholars out of all parts, whom he would promote to orders by sixty at a time, and sometimes more, and otherwhiles less. And sometimes the said abbot would give orders by night within his chamber, and otherwise in the church early in the morning, and now and then at a chapel out of the abbey. So that there be many unlearned and light priests made by the said abbot, and in the diocese of Llandaff, and in the places aforenamed - a thousand, as it is esteemed, by the space of this seven years he hath made priests, and received not so little money of them as a thousand pounds for their orders.

3. Item, that the said abbot now of late, when he could not be suffered to give general orders, for the most part doth give orders by pretence of dispensation; and by that colour he promoteth them to orders by two and three, and takes much money of them, both for their orders and for to purchase their dispensations after the time he hath promoted them to their orders.

4. Item, the said abbot hath hurt and dismayed his tenants by putting them from their leases, and by enclosing their commons from them, and selling and utter wasting of the woods that were wont to relieve and succour them.

5. Item, the said abbot hath sold corradyes, to the damage of the said monastery.

6. Item, the said abbot hath alienated and sold the jewels and plate of the monastery, to the value of five hundred marks, to purchase of the Bishop of Rome his bulls to be a bishop, and to annex the said abbey to his bishopric, to that intent that he should not for his misdeeds be punished, or deprived from his said abbey.

7. Item, that the said abbot, long after that other bishops had renounced the Bishop of Rome, and professed them to the King's Majesty, did use, but more verily usurped, the office of a bishop by virtue of his first bulls purchased from Rome, till now of late, as it will appear by the date of his confirmation, if he have any.

8. Item, that he the said abbot hath lived viciously, and kept to concubines divers and many women that is openly known.

9. Item, that the said abbot doth yet continue his vicious living, as it is known, openly.

10. Item, that the said abbot hath spent and wasted much of the goods of the said monastery upon the aforesaid women.

11. Item, that the said abbot is malicious and very wrathful, not regarding what he saith or doeth in his fury or anger.

12. Item, that one Richard Gyles bought of the abbot and convent of Wigmore a corradye, and a chamber for him and his wife for term of their lives; and when the said Richard Gyles was aged and was very weak, he disposed his goods, and made executors to execute his will. And when the said abbot now being - perceived that the said Richard Gyles was rich, and had not bequested so much of his goods to him as he would have had, the said abbot then came to the chamber of the said Richard Gyles, and put out thence all his friends and kinsfolk that kept him in his sickness; and then the said abbot set his brother and other of his servants to keep the sick man; and the night next coming after the said Richard Gyles's coffer was broken, and thence taken all that was in the same, to the value of forty marks; and long after the said abbot confessed, before the executors of the said Richard Gyles, that it was his deed.

13. Item, that the said abbot, after he had taken away the goods of the said Richard Gyles, used daily to reprove and check the said Richard Gyles, and inquire of him where was more of his coin and money; and at the last the said abbot thought he lived too long, and made the sick man, after much sorry keeping, to be taken from his feather-bed, and laid upon a cold mattress, and kept his friends from him to his death.

15. Item, that the said abbot consented to the death and murdering of one John Tichkill, that was slain at his procuring, at the said monastery, by Sir Richard Cubley, canon and chaplain to the said abbot; which canon is and ever hath been since that time chief of the said abbot's council; and is supported to carry crossbowes, and to go whither he lusteth at any time, to fishing and hunting in the king's forests, parks, and chases; but little or nothing serving the quire, as other brethren do, neither corrected of the abbot for any trespass he doth commit.

16. Item, that the said abbot hath been perjured oft, as is to be proved and is proved; and as it is supposed, did not make a true inventory of the goods, chattels, and jewels of his monastery to the King's Majesty and his Council.

17. Item, that the said abbot hath infringed all the king's injunctions which were given him by Doctor Cave to observe and keep; and when he was denounced in pleno capitulo to have broken the same, he would have put in prison the brother as did denounce him to have broken the same injunctions, save that he was let by the convent there.

18. Item, that the said abbot hath openly preached against the doctrine of Christ, saying he ought not to love his enemy, but as he loves the devil; and that he should love his enemy's soul, but not his body.

19. Item, that the said abbot hath taken but small regard to the good-living of his household.

20. Item, that the said abbot hath had and hath yet a special favour to misdoers and manquellers, thieves, deceivers of their neighbours, and by them [is] most ruled and counselled.

21. Item, that the said abbot hath granted leases of farms and advocations first to one man, and took his fine, and also hath granted the same lease to another man for more money; and then would make to the last taker a lease or writing, with an antedate of the first lease, which hath bred great dissension among gentlemen - as Master Blunt and Master Moysey, and other takers of such leases - and that often.

22. Item, the said abbot having the contrepaynes of leases in his keeping, hath, for money, rased out the number of years mentioned in the said leases, and writ a fresh number in the former taker's lease, and in the contrepayne thereof, to the intent to defraud the taker or buyer of the residue of such leases, of whom he hath received the money.

23. Item, the said abbot hath not, according to the foundation of his monastery, admitted freely tenants into certain alms-houses belonging to the said monastery; but of them he hath taken large fines, and some of them he hath put away that would not give him fines: whither poor, aged, and impotent people were wont to be freely admitted, and [to] receive the founder's alms that of the old customs [were] limited to the same - which alms is also diminished by the said abbot.

24. Item, that the said abbot did not deliver the bulls of his bishopric, that he purchased from Rome, to our sovereign lord the king's council till long after the time he had delivered and exhibited the bulls of his monastery to them.

25. Item, that the said abbot hath detained and yet doth detain servants' wages; and often when the said servants hath asked their wages, the said abbot hath put them into the stocks, and beat them.

26. Item, the said abbot, in times past, hath had a great devotion to ride to Llangarvan, in Wales, upon Lammas-day, to receive pardon there; and on the even he would visit one Mary Hawle, an old acquaintance of his, at the Welsh Poole, and on the morrow ride to the foresaid Llangarvan, to be confessed and absolved, and the same night return to company with the said Mary Hawle, at the Welsh Poole aforesaid, and Kateryn, the said Mary Hawle her first daughter, whom the said abbot long hath kept to concubine, and had children by her, that he lately married at Ludlow. And [there be] others that have been taken out of his chamber and put in the stocks within the said abbey, and others that have complained upon him to the king's council of the Marches of Wales; and the woman that dashed out his teeth, that he would have had by violence, I will not name now, nor other men's wives, lest it would offend your good lordship to read or hear the same.

27. Item, the said abbot doth daily embezzle, sell, and convey the goods and chattels, and jewels of the said monastery, having no need so to do; for it is thought that he hath a thousand marks or two thousand lying by him that he hath gotten by selling of orders, and the jewels and plate of the monastery and corradyes; and it is to be feared that he will alienate all the rest, unless your good lordship speedily make redress and provision to let the same.

28. Item, the said abbot was accustomed yearly to preach at Leyntwarden on the Festival of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, where and when the people were wont to offer to an image there, and to the same the said abbot in his sermons would exhort them and encourage them. But now the oblations be decayed, the abbot, espying the image then to have a cote of silver plate and gilt, hath taken away of his own authority the said image, and the plate turned to his own use; and left his preaching there, saying it is no manner of profit to any man, and the plate that was about the said image was named to be worth forty pounds.

29. Item, the said abbot hath ever nourished enmity and discord among his brethren; and hath not encouraged them to learn the laws and the mystery of Christ. But he that least knew was most cherished by him; and he hath been highly displeased and [hath] disdained when his brothers would say that 'it is God's precept and doctrine that ye ought to prefer before your ceremonies and vain constitutions'. This saying was high disobedient, and should be grievously punished; when that lying, obloquy, flattery, ignorance, derision, contumely, discord, great swearing, drinking, hypocrisy, fraud, superstition, deceit, conspiracy to wrong their neighbour, and other of that kind, was had in special favour and regard. Laud and praise be to God that hath sent us the true knowledge. Honour and long prosperity to our sovereign lord and his noble council, that teaches to advance the same. Amen.

By John Lee, your faithful bedeman, and canon of the said monastery of Wigmore.

Postscript. - My good lord, there is in the said abbey a cross of fine gold and precious stones, whereof one diamond was esteemed by Doctor Booth, Bishop of Hereford, worth a hundred marks. In that cross is enclosed a piece of wood, named to be of the cross that Christ died upon, and to the same hath been offering. And when it should be brought down to the church from the treasury, it was brought down with lights, and like reverence as should have been done to Christ himself. I fear lest the abbot upon Sunday next, when he may enter the treasury, will take away the said cross and break it, or turn it to his own use, with many other precious jewels that be there.

All these articles afore written be true as to the substance and true meaning of them, though peradventure for haste and lack of counsel, some words be set amiss or out of their place. That I will be ready to prove forasmuch as lies in me, when it shall like your honourable lordship to direct your commission to men (or any man) that will be indifferent and not corrupt to sit upon the same, at the said abbey, where the witnesses and proofs be most ready and the truth is best known, or at any other place where it shall be thought most convenient by your high discretion and authority.

[start of notes]

I have in my possession a paper copy of Short Studies on Great Subjects (Volume 1), written by J A Froude, which contains the essay The Dissolution of the Monasteries. I have treated this as the authoritative version.

Details from the first few pages:
- Short Studies on Great Subjects
- By James Anthony Froude, M.A., the Late Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford.
- Printed in 1903 by
Longmans, Green, and Co.
39 Paternoster Row, London
and Bombay
- First issued in the Silver Library, Nov. 1890.
- Reprinted, Sep. 1892, June 1894, June 1895, April 1897, June 1898, January 1901, and January 1903.

In this book, The Dissolution of the Monasteries is found on pages 401-442. A footnote indicates that it was originally published in Fraser's Magazine, 1857.

I downloaded a text version of this book from Project Gutenberg [link], which I used as my starting text. The text claims that it was produced by Suzanne Lybarger and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at www.pgdp.net from images made available by The Internet Archive / Canadian Libraries.

This article has been on my candidate list for some time. The articles to be objected against the abbot always make me laugh [1] and Froude's thoughts about the study of history are interesting.

As I re-read it now before publishing, I am struck by another consideration: Froude's descriptions of the difficulties of seeing history clearly (or at all) are very similar to my experiences of trying to get software to do something useful. Like a historian, I search various archives to acquire source texts, and then attempt to decipher them and see if they can shed any light on the problems I am trying to solve and the questions I am trying to answer. I also weigh the sources against each other - some are more trustworthy or more accurate than others.

A historian cannot view the past directly, so he must rely on second-hand sources and archaeological remains. A student of software has a significant advantage over the historian: It is in theory possible to read and study the original source code, unchanged since it was written. However, this can be extremely time-intensive, often taking much more time than was used to write the code in the first place. From an economic point of view, it is usually better to carefully choose a trusted source and run its code in the way it recommends. Often, then, the student of software finds himself in practice to be in exactly the same position as the historian: He must weigh the sources against each other and endlessly re-evaluate their credibility and usefulness as he works, producing results and opinions that in the future may be studied by others in the same way.

Note: I am unconvinced that a piece of historical source code can actually be considered as an item separate and distinct from the computer platform (the hardware and software underneath the source code) that it ran on. If the source code can't be considered as a separate item, then as soon as the computer platform for which it was written changes significantly or falls out of use, it becomes an archaeological remnant, which can be studied for interest and inspiration, and perhaps with some effort can be made to work again, but which is not a ready-to-use tool that can be placed immediately into a production system.

Changes from the original text:
- I have removed word-breaking hyphens.
- I have not preserved the original line breaks. I treat each paragraph as a single line.
- I have not preserved page divisions or page numbers.
- I have replaced the original indentation at the start of each paragraph with an empty line after each paragraph.
- I have embedded the footnotes into the text.
- I have replaced double spaces after a period with a single space.
- I have substituted a hyphen with a space either side of it ( - ) for the em dash used in the original text. I have also made this substitution for every double em dash.
- In the original text, the single and double quotation marks were curled to indicate whether they were positioned at the start or end of a phrase/sentence/sentence_group. I have replaced them with straight quotation marks.
- In the original text, colons and semicolons are preceded by a space (which appears to be one-half the size of the default space), which I have not preserved.
- I have replaced curled apostrophes with straight single quotation marks.
- I have moved punctuation out from between quotation marks if it is not relevant to the text within those quotation marks.
- If I begin a quoted section in the middle of a sentence, I capitalise the first letter of the first word in the sentence fragment.
- The articles to be objected against the abbot were originally set in a smaller size than the default font size. Instead of using a smaller font size, I have blockquoted this section.
- I have added a comma after the phrase "There was Wigmore Castle".
- I have replaced a period that followed the phrase "So that there be many unlearned and light priests made by the said abbot" with a comma.
- In this phrase "Item, the said abbot hath not, according to the foundation of his monastery, admitted freely tenants", the word "freely" was originally "reely". Later in the same paragraph the words "freely admitted" appear, used in the same situation, indicating that "reely" is a typo and not a word. I searched for "reely" in a dictionary and online and found nothing that persuaded me that in this essay it was a real word. I found another scanned version of the essay which used "freely", which confirmed to my satisfaction that it was a typo.
-- Note: "typo" is short for "typographical error".

[end of notes]

[start of footnotes]

Rolls House MS., Miscellaneous Papers, First Series. 356.

[return to main text]

I think that people usually care about having plausible deniability for their crimes or misdemeanours. They're worried about what other people might think about them and about whether there might be consequences later. It's rare and entertaining to read an account of a man who was so thoroughly disinterested in any and all future consequences and in anyone else's opinion of him, especially as related by someone who made detailed, outraged notes on the matter.

[return to main text]

[end of footnotes]