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The English Hesiod Post by :JoeKumar Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2901

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The English Hesiod

Now for Tusser, whom I feel that I belittled in the last Essay in order to make a point for the Boeotian.

"Five Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry United to as Many of Good Huswifery" was the sixth edition in twenty years of a book which that fact alone proves to have been a power in its day. It was indeed more lasting than that, for it had twenty editions between 1557, when it began with a modest "Hundreth Pointes," and 1692, when the black-letter quartos ended. Thomas Tusser, the author of it, was a gentleman-farmer and had the education of one. He began as a singing-boy at Wallingford, went next to St. Paul's, then to Eton, where Nicholas Udall gave him once fifty-three strokes, "for fault but small or none at all"; presently to Cambridge, where Trinity Hall had him at nurse. All that done, he settled as a farmer under the Lord Paget in Suffolk; and there it was that in 1557 he published his notable book. Taking the months seriatim, beginning, as he should, in September, he runs through the whole round of work with an exhaustiveness and accuracy which could hardly be bettered to-day. Given a holding of the sort he had, a man might do much worse than obey old Tusser from point to point.

He wrote in verse, a verse which is not often much better than those rustic runes which still survive, wherein weather-lore and suchlike sometimes prompt and sometimes are prompted by a rhyme. The best of these semi-proverbial maxims are recalled by the best of Tusser. Take this of the autumn winds as an example:


The West, as a father, all goodness doth bring,
The East, a forbearer, no manner of thing;
The South, as unkind, draweth sickness too near,
The North, as a friend, maketh all again clear.


But he can be more pointed than that and no less just--as when he is telling the maids how to wash linen:


"Go wash well," saith Summer, "with sun I shall dry."
"Go wring well," saith Winter, "with wind so shall I."


He is never dull if he is never eloquent; he is always wise if he is seldom witty. Among the Elizabethan poets there will have been many of a lowlier quality, many who could not have reached the piety and sweet humour of "My friend if cause doth wrest thee," which, with its happy close of "And sit down, Robin, and rest thee," is the best known of all his rhymes. As a verbal acrobat I don't suppose any of them could approach him. His greatest feat in that kind was his "Brief Conclusion" in twelve lines, every word in every line of which began with T. Thus:


The thrifty that teacheth the thriving to thrive,
Teach timely to traverse the thing that thou 'trive,


and so on. If Peter Piper dates so early, Tusser beats it handsomely.

For the rest, he writes doggerel, and has no other pretensions that I can see. All the Elizabethans did, Shakespeare among the best of them. And I don't know that Shakespeare's doggerel is much better than Tusser's doggerel. It is something that, swimming in such a brave company, he should keep his head above water; and something more that in one other point Tusser can vie with the foremost. His knack of christening his personages with ad hoc names recalls Shakespeare's, which, with its Dick the Carter and Marian's nose, was of the same kind and degree. Here is an example, where he wishes to instil the value of hedge-mending. If you let your fences down, he says:


At noon, if it bloweth, at night if it shine,
Out trudgeth Hew Makeshift with hook and with line;
While Gillet his blowse is a milking thy cow,
Sir Hew is a rigging thy gate, or thy plow.


Autolycus sang like that. Now take an allusive couplet addressed to the house-mistress, that she by all means see the lights out:


Fear candle in hay-loft, in barn, and in shed,
Fear Flea-smock and Mend-breech for burning their bed.


Right Shakespearian direction: few words and to the mark. But Tusser is seldom up to that level, and never on it long.

We may as well be clear about the kind of farmer Tusser was before we go any further. A farmer, indeed, he happens to have been; but he was also a husbandman. A farmer in his day was a man who paid a yearly rent for something, by no means necessarily land. To farm a thing was to pay a rent for it. You could farm the tithe, or the King's taxes; you could farm a landlord's rent-roll, a corporation's market-dues, the profits of a bridge or of a highway. The first farmers of land were the men who took over all the estates of a monastery, paying the holy men a sufficiency, and making what they could over and above. In Elizabeth's time the great landlords had taken a leaf out of the monks' book, and the farmer of land was becoming more common. There were yet, however, many husbandmen who were not farmers at all: yeomen of soccage tenure, and tenants by copy of court-roll. That class was probably the most numerous of all, and Tusser, though he objected to its common fields, or "champion land," as he calls it, had plenty to tell them. He must, I think, himself have been a copyholder in his day, so feelingly does he deal with the detriments of a champion-holding. The need, for example, of watching the beasts straying at will over the open fields!


Where champion wanteth a swineherd for hog
There many complaineth of naughty man's dog.
Where each his own keeper appoints without care,
There corn is destroyed ere men be aware

And again more bitterly:

Some pester the commons with jades and with geese,
With hog without ring, and with sheep without fleece.
Some lose a day's labour with seeking their own,
Some meet with a booty they would not have known.
Great troubles and losses the champion sees,
And even in brawling, as wasps among bees:
As charity that way appeareth but small;
So less be their winnings, or nothing at all.


The probabilities are that he was quite right; but so long as copyhold endured so long lasted the open fields.

Tusser's holding, and that of every husbandman in England in his time, was self-sufficient. Not only did you eat your own mutton, make your own souse, your own beer, cheese, butter, wine, cordials, and physic; you built your own house, made your own roads, fenced your own lands, contrived your own plows, wains, wagons, wheelbarrows, and all manner of tools. But much more than that. You grew your own hemp, had your own ropewalk, twisted your own twine; you grew your flax and wove your linen; you tanned and dressed your own leather, cut and spun your own wool, made, no doubt, your own clothes. Indeed, you stood four-square to fate in Tusser's time; and in that particular, as well as in another which I must speak of next, you were much nearer to Hesiod's farmer than to ours. This precept of his upon the uses of your woodland recalls Hesiod directly:


Save elm, ash and crabtree for cart and for plow;
Save step for a stile of the crotch of the bough;
Save hazel for forks, save sallow for rake;
Save hulver and thorn, whereof flail to make.


Hulver is holly. In the same section (April) he has a verse about stone-picking which will show his encyclopædic grip of his matter:


Where stones be too many, annoying thy land,
Make servant come home with a stone in his hand:
By daily so doing, have plenty ye shall,
Both handsome for paving and good for a wall.


He bought little or nothing, trafficked very much by barter, and had scarcely any need for money. His men and maids lived in the house, and if they were paid anything, he does not say so. I suppose they were paid something, those of them who were not apprentices, bound for a seven years' term. They stood to his wife and himself as children, had their keep, learned their business, married each other by and by, and probably set up for themselves with a pig and a cock and hen on a pightle of land of the master's. It was a family relationship well into the eighteenth century. Horace Walpole used to call his servants his family. With the privilege of parenthood went the power of the rod. There's no doubt about that: maid and man had it if it was earned. In his dairy instruction Tusser gives us a list of "ten topping guests unsent for," whose presence in the cheese will cause Cicely to rue it. There are:


Gehazi, Lot's wife, and Argus his eyes,
Tom Piper, poor Cobler, and Lazarus's thighs:
Rough Esau, with Maudlin, and gentles that scrawl,
With Bishop that burneth--ye thus know them all.


Gehazi the leper is in cheese when it is white and dry; Lot's wife when it is too salt; Argus's eyes are obvious:

Tom Piper hath hoven and puffed up cheeks;

poor Cobler is there when it is leathery; Esau betrays himself by hairs, Maudlin by weeping; and as for the "Bishop that burneth" the explanation is complicated. It seems that Cicely would run after the bishop for his blessing, and leave the milk on the fire to burn.(A) For all these ill-timed guests you are to baste Cicely, or "tug her a crash," or "make her seek creeks"; you "call her a slut," or "dress her down." But you encourage her at the end with this quatrain:


"If thou, so oft beaten,
Amendest by this,
I will no more threaten,
I promise thee, Cis."


(Footnote A: A correspondent from Yorkshire gives me a better explanation. In that county burnt milk is still said to be "bishoped." The bishop's power of the keys is thought to be hinted.)

Fizgig, too, which is his lively name for the kitchen knave, gets the holly-wand across his quarters when he deserves it; but Tusser seems to feel that discipline may be overdone. It may be waste of good stick and good pains, for:


As rod little mendeth where manners be spilt,
So naught will be naught, say and do what thou wilt;


and he is careful to remind you in concluding his chapter of Huswifely Admonitions that you had always better smile than scold:


Much brawling with servant, what man can abide?
Pay home when thou fightest, but love not to chide.


The whole matter of servants is amusing or rueful study nowadays, accordingly as one looks at servants. Their treatment under Tusser's handling brings the husbandman poet very near to Hesiod, in whose time servitude was not called by any other name. Tusser's huswife, warned by the matin cock, called up her maids and men at four in the summer, at five in the winter. She packed them off to bed at ten or nine at night, according to the season, and, it would appear, to bed in the dark. She made her own candles, and feared also a fire, which will account for that. There was no early tea for Mistress Tusser's maids, let me tell you:


Some slovens from sleeping no sooner get up
But hand is in aumbry and nose is in cup.


Nothing of the kind with Mrs. Tusser. On the other hand, hard work all round: "Sluts' corner" to be ridded; sweeping, dusting, mop-twirling,


Let some to peel hemp, or else rushes to twine,
To spin or to card, to seething of brine;

and as for the men:

Let some about cattle, some pastures to view,
Some malt to be grinding against ye do brew.


And so to breakfast. The morning star was the signal for it; and a hasty meal was expected of you:


Call servants to breakfast, by day-star appear,
A snatch, and to work--fellows tarry not here.


You had porridge and a scrap of meat, and if you laid hands on something sweeter, look out for Mrs. Tusser:


"What tack in a pudding?" saith greedy gut-wringer:
Give such ye wot what, ere a pudding he finger.


And, summarily, of breakfast there is this to be understood, that it is a thing of grace, not of custom:


No breakfast of custom provide for to save,
But only for such as deserveth to have.


Very near Hesiod indeed!

For your dinner at noon you were more hospitably served. First of all, it was ready for you:


By noon see your dinner be ready and neat:
Let meat tarry servant not servant his meat.

And you were to have enough--plain fare, but enough.

Give servants no dainties, but give them enow;
Too many chaps wagging do beggar the plow;


but even here you would get according to your deserts. If you were lazy at your threshing, you would be given a "flap and a trap," whatever those may be. And you were expected to eat the trencher bare:


Some gnaweth and leaveth, some crusts and some crumbs:
Eat such their own leavings, or gnaw their own thumbs.

In the hot weather you had time for sleep allowed you:

From May to mid-August an hour or two
Let Patch sleep a snatch, howsoever ye do.
Though sleeping one hour refresheth his song
Yet trust not Hob Grouthead for sleeping too long.


Then came afternoon work, and at last supper. Here the mistress might unbend somewhat; for, as Tusser puts it:

Whatever God sendeth, be merry withal.
She had still, however, an eye for the servants:


No servant at table use sauc'ly to talk,
Lest tongue set at large out of measure do walk;
No lurching, no snatching, no striving at all,
Lest one go without, and another have all.

And then a final word:

Declare after supper--take heed thereunto--
What work in the morning each servant shall do.


And then--bed!

There were feast days, of course: Christmas to Epiphany was one long feast; then Plow Monday, Shrovetide, Sheep-shearing, Wake-Day, Harvest Home, Seed-Cake--these as the times came round. But there was a weekly regale too, which was known as Twice-a-Week-Roast. On Sundays and Thursdays a hot joint was the custom at supper. Tusser is clear about the value and sanction at once:


Thus doing and keeping such custom and guise,
They call thee good huswife--they love thee likewise.


Those days are past and done, with much to regret and much to be thankful for. You trained good servants that way--but did you make good men and women? Some think so, and I among them; but such training is two-edged, and while I feel sure that the girls and lads were the better for the discipline, I cannot believe that the masters and mistresses were. They nursed arrogance; out of them came the tyrants and gang-drivers of the eighteenth century, Act of Settlement, the Enclosure Acts, Speenhamland, rick-burning, machine-breaking, and the Bloody Assize of 1831. Well, now the reckoning has come, and Hodge will have Farmer Blackacre at his discretion.

One or two variations from modern practice may be noted. The Elizabethan husbandman grew, I have said, his own flax and hemp; he grew his vines too, and Tusser bids him prune them in February. I, who grow mine, call that full early. He does not tell us when he gathered his grapes or (what I very much want to know) how he made his wine--whether with pure fermented grape-juice, which is the French way, or by adding water and sugar to the must, which is our present English fashion. Again, he used sheep's milk both for draught and for butter-making. I wish we had sheep's milk butter. No one who has had it in Greece would be without it at home if he could help it. You weaned the lambs at Philip and Jacob, he says, if you wanted any milk from the ewe. Lastly, he grew saffron, which he pared between the two St. Mary's days. To pare is to strip the soil with a breast-plow. The two St. Mary's days were July 22 and August 15, which would be a pretty good time to plant saffron.

We also, in my country, date our operations by holy days, long after the holy men have ceased to be commemorated. Who knows St. Gregory's Day? It is March 12. Marrowfat peas go into the drill:


Sow runcivals timely, and all that is grey;
But sow not the white till St. Gregory's Day.


I will undertake that half a dozen old hands round about my house follow out this rule in its entirety.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: English Hesiod

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