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legend and anecdote, clustering about it, was eminently fitted to shine in the Middle Ages. In periods of transition, while institutions are yet in infancy or in embryo, and the jarring elements of society have not merged their independent action in general harmony, the main subjects of history are necessarily the words and deeds of men. Abstract ideas and systems have not yet come to birth. History itself is little more than a series of episodes and scenes, suggestive, indeed, of much reflection, but chiefly personal in their interest and picturesque in their dress, and hardly capable of being marshalled into the philosophical arrangements of later times. Principles and powers being thus incarnated and personified, the importance of individuals becomes very great ; and there is danger, - a danger, indeed, which more or less attends all history, — that they will be invested with the dignity of the cause or order which they represent. And yet, he who stands for an age must be, if not a great, at least a considerable, man. Becket would have been a remarkable personage at any time ; but we doubt whether he could have played in the sixteenth or eighteenth century so distinguished a part as he did in the twelfth. A personal quarrel between a prelate and a king, on vital points of ecclesiastical discipline and civil right, would now be centuries out of time. The struggle would be between the institutions of church and state. History would array the two interests or parties against each other, and relate the vicissitudes, and note the issue, of the conflict. Of the individuals engaged in the controversy it would make small account. It is this tendency of modern history to become the history of civilization, which makes biography and romance so necessary as its complement. We want something to awaken and keep alive our sympathy with the great actors on the great stage of affairs. We hurry from the torrid zone of arid abstractions, and plunge into the more temperate native air of humanity. The history of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, is itself in great part biography, and many of its materials have the air of romance. The Merovingian Times, of Thierry, for instance, one reads like a novel ; and but for the author's careful citation of his authorities, we should be sometimes tempted to suspect him of drawing upon his imagination. Still, the essential distinction between history and biography does not wholly disappear in the case of such men as Becket, and the other leading persons of those distant days. History, though it opens, does not ex. haust, their biography. And where, as in Becket's case, we have copious personal notices, there is something to be gleaned after the best reapers.
The character of the great chancellor and archbishop has, of course, been often brought up for judgment. But the most discordant verdicts have been returned. Not long after his death, the question was discussed in the schools of Paris, " Whether Thomas à Becket was saved or damned.” The controversy has been kept up, not only by ecclesiastical, but by civil, historians. Lord Lyttleton, for example, can hardly pardon the intruder, whose shadow so often strikes across the path of his royal hero. Dr. Lingard feels a natural sympathy for a suffering brother. Thierry rejoices in the tilt between men whom he chooses to regard as the champions of two hostile races. Michelet wastes no love on the Norman Henry, and leans with a hospitable French politeness to the side of the guest of King Louis. But Becket has been strangely neglected by biographers, though not, surely, for the want of adequate materials. Above a score of narratives of his life and passion appeared shortly after his death, several of which were composed by his friends and dependents. Some of these are still extant, in manuscript or in print. There are, besides, three valuable collections of letters, written by Becket himself
, by his friend John of Salisbury, the first scholar of his age, and by his steady foe, Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, a man of no contemptible powers.
Becket has suffered somewhat from the company he has kept. The Lives of the Saints were in good repute, so long as the saints themselves were in vogue.
The gift of working miracles being inherent in their bones, a new edition of wonders became from time to time necessary, to keep up with the age. But when beatified dust became cheap, and calendared names a byword and a reproach, this sort of reading went out of fashion. The name of saint would not go half so far to recommend a book as that of sinner. But all saints are not alike, any more than all sinners. The life of a great and good man is instructive and interesting, though he be a saint. We much need a few good biographies of those men who owed their place in the calendar not merely to Roman policy, but to their great gifts and shining virtues. To plod through
the year, as Alban Butler has done, in order to impound every stray saint, would be a most thankless task; but it would be difficult to name a more admirable subject than the life of St. Bernard, or of St. Dominic.
The saint, however, was the least part of Becket. Miracles and virtues were the normal requisites for canonization; and a rigorous inquiry was instituted on both points, as to the claim of a candidate for the highest honor the church could bestow. Martyrdom, indeed, if suffered solely for the cause of Christ, afforded a sufficient presumption of virtue. “The cause of Christ" was a phrase which, in the hands of plenipotentiary interpreters, was likely to be conveniently malleable. There was a postern-gate to the calendar, which was opened by a golden key. We do not mean to deny the policy of the elevation of Thomas à Becket, but there is room to doubt if, without the convenient title of martyrdom, his virtues would have earned it for him. Nor would we insinuate, that in his case the dignity of saint was bought ; for the court of Rome needed no great bribe to sharpen its clear perception of the vast advantages to be gained from the measure.
But the present generation cares little about Becket's claim to be considered as a saint; the interest we now take in his life and character arises chiefly from their Protean variety. He figures in every shape. From the accountant, we follow him through the successive stages of scholar, diplomatist, divine, judge, statesman, courtier, warrior, hierarch, exile, and martyr, up to the posthumous eminence of saint. How so promising a case as this has escaped the hero-mongers, we have often wondered; the more, as his career was not without its dubious passages. To a class of writers, who find in every divergence of practice from profession only fresh evidence of a higher law of consistency, of which these aberrations are the effect, there are tempting opportunities in Becket's life. We cannot call him a bad man. certainly no hypocrite in the worst sense, perhaps in any sense; and yet, without the aid of a comfortable theory, it is troublesome to get over one or two of his actions. We are sure, at all events, that it must be easier to bring him out of the fire unsinged, than to whitewash the soul of Mirabeau, or to swallow the cant of Cromwell. To make him a hero, you will need but a drop of that elixir which has virtue enough to prove the scribes and Pharisees no hypocrites, and
to convict the father of lies himself of hatred to his own offspring.
The work of Dr. Giles, which stands at the head of our article, professes to be “ gathered from the contemporary historians.” It accordingly bears the character of a compilation or collection, and does not pretend to be a finished work
a of art. It is cumulative, rather than constructive, in its execution. The author has not aimed at success in that most difficult part of a biographer's task, which is wholly posterior to the collection of materials ; we mean, what the French call the rédaction. To combine and group one's mate
ials so skilfully as to present a full portrait of a great man of former times, and to define his comparative brightness among the other luminaries of his age, is one of the rarest, as it is one of the highest, of literary achievements. Dr. Giles is fully aware of the “patchwork nature ” of his work, and humbly disclaims more than the name of a faithful compiler or epitomist. His modesty, we think, need not have asked so little. Yet when he hopes that he has succeeded in giving us “ a portrait of the great man whose life is the subject of the narrative,” we should rather say, that he has done a great deal to smooth the way for a more ambitious attempt by another. An inventory of mouth, nose, and eyes is no portrait ; nor is even such a description of a thief as would betray him to a sharp police-man a portrait. We find in Dr. Giles's work enough to recognize Becket by ; but much more is wanting to present him in all his lineaments to the imagination. We have certainly no wish to detract from our author's real merit. He has shown great diligence in searching out, among the English and Continental collections, all manuscripts and notices of manuscripts relating to his subject. He has taken great pains to translate from the Latin the narratives and letters which compose the bulk of his book, and, to the best of our judgment, with general correctness ; though not always with perfect accuracy or the utmost simplicity, and with an occasional fastidiousness quite fragrant of the delicacy of a boarding-school. Though we do not wish to contest his profession of an entire love of truth, his book betrays his cloth, and an unconscious leaning to the side of the churchman, martyr, and saint is quite apparent. His remarks, too, though often judicious and instructive, are sometimes tinctured with that professional instinct to “ im
prove an event, which is called “ preaching." Yet, on the whole, the work is well arranged, and is a valuable contribution to bistorical and biographical literature. We hope that some one will take these scattered rays and collect them into a focus. The epistolary collections above named, which Dr. Giles is about to republish, and to which we hope he will add the letters of Peter of Blois, will be of great assistance to the future biographer of Becket. Our purpose, at present, in a very cursory review of the leading incidents in the life of this extraordinary man, is chiefly to indicate the richness of a mine which has been less explored by the biographer and the dramatist than it merits.
The life of Thomas à Becket may be divided into three parts,
- the first period ending with his elevation to the chancel. lorship, — the second, with his election to the primacy,-- and the last, with his death ; though the biography of every saint has also a sort of post mortem chapter, to record his miracles, his honors, and his receipts. His parents, Gilbert and Matilda by name, have been raised to a distinction which the worthy pair could never have dreamed of. But they were needed to shore up a theory. There was some ground for supposing Gilbert to be a Saxon, and Matilda a Saracen or Syrian. Such data needed only the aid of a fertile brain, to be made to bear much fruit. From his father's race, it seems, Thomas à Becket inherited a necessary hostility to the Norman Henry, and from his Saracen mother, an impetuous temper. His Saxon birth, it is said, made him the man of the people ; his infidel origin made him odious in the eyes of supplanted ecclesiastics, who were as tenacious of Christian as of Norman blood. Granting for a moment the hybrid origin of our hero, it will account but poorly for his quarrel with his master, who, though untainted by Eastern parentage, had more of other blood than of Norman in the mixed current that flowed in his veins. As to Oriental impetuosity, the anger of Henry was a tempest; and if violence comes from the maternal side, his mother was half Norman and half Saxon.
But, after all, Becket's Saxon descent is questionable. There is some positive evidence to the contrary. Fitzstephen, his friend and biographer, expressly calls his father Gilbert “ a Norman by origin” (oriu Normannus); and another of Dr. Giles's authorities reckons Gilbert and his wife (whom, however, he calls Rose) among the emigrants