« AnteriorContinuar »
MIDDLE AND WORKING CLASSES.
STATE OF SOCIETY UNDER THE ANGLO-SAXONS.
THE Conquest forms the historical horizon which marks the boundaries of authentic, and, at most, dubious history. All records antecedent to William I. comprise so much of the marvellous and improbable, that doubt is thrown over the entire narrative of the Saxon chroniclers. The most singular trait of this remote period is the slow march of improvement. The interval, from the invasion of the Romans to that of the Normans, exceeds considerably the eight centuries which have elapsed from the latter era to the present; yet what a contrast of events in the two historical terms. Science, laws, and institu
tions have been almost created within the last 300 years; while the long nignt of darkness that preceded them presents only fitful gleams of social amelioration through a chaos of bondage and error. It shows how much the progress of nations depends on the uncertain gifts of nature, the appearance of men of genius, some useful discovery, or the ascendancy of enlightened government.
The era of the Anglo-Saxons has been mostly reerred to as the dawn of civilization in this country: but recent inquiries have tended to lower the previous estimate of the attainments of this period of our annals. It is true, we may trace up to the Teutonic invaders the germ of our language, our laws and local divisions; but could we accurately compare the seed with the produce, it is probable the disparity would not be less great than that which subsists between many of the wild fruits and flowers of the wilderness and the perfection to which they are brought by the arts of horticulture.
Untutored man is only a child in habits, the crea ture of impulse; and philosophy rejects, as illusions sacred to poetry, representations which would endow the savage with virtues inseparable from refinement. Except so far as they had been reclaimed by Chris tianity, the Anglo-Saxons continued in a state of comparative barbarism. Their institutions discover few signs of superior intelligence, and are only analogous to the attempts of all communities entering on the early stages of civilization. Neither per sons nor property were secure from violence; and rob
bery, from the absence of police, was tolerated as a legitimate vocation. So little delicacy was there in the relations of the sexes, that arreoy societies, for promiscuous intercourse, of the nature of those in the Polynesian islands, were common, and the utility of the marriage institute scarcely recognised, The code of laws ascribed to Alfred has been extolled as an extraordinary instance of legislative aptitude; but it appears to have been little more than a compilation of the decalogue, and the provisions of the Mosaic dispensation.
But what exemplifies most strongly the spirit of the Saxon institutions is, the civil inequality among different classes. Two-thirds of the people were either absolute slaves, or in an intermediate state of bondage to the remaining third. They might be put in bonds and whipped: they might be branded; and on one occasion are spoken of as if actually yoked: "Let every man know his team of men, of horses and oxen."* Cattle and slaves formed in truth the "live money" of the Anglo-Saxons, and were the medium of exchange by which the value of commodities was measured.
The predominant crimes of the age were of an atrocious character. Assassinations, female viola tions, the plundering of whole towns and districts, and barefaced perjuries, were offences of ordinary occurrence by persons of condition. The punishment of delinquents was either shockingly cruel, or
Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons, vol. iii. p. 91,