201. FALSE ALARM AT OXFORD
A merry and pleasant narration, touching a false fearful imagination of .fire, raised among the doctors and masters of Orford, in St. Mary's church, at the recantation of Master Malary, master of arts of Cambridge.ITHERTO, gentle reader, we have remembered a great number of lamentable and bloody tragedies of such as have been slain through extreme cruelty: now I will here set before thee again a merry and comical spectacle, whereat thou mayest now laugh and refresh thyself, which, forasmuch as it did neccessarily accord with our present enterprise, I have not thought it good to pass it over with silence. For God hath oftentimes, by divers manifest means, deluded the craft and subtlety of the bishops and their vain hypocrisy; as, for example, in Joan of Mentz, who, being a woman, and secretly concealing her sex, ruled the bishopric of Rome; but, by being delivered of a child before her time, even in the midst of open procession, she defiled that see, that the note or blot thereof will never be wiped out again. Besides that, how great reproach and derision, even of children, was in that pompous and ridiculous ambassade of Thomas Wolsey and Lawrence the cardinal, whereof we have before spoken. And now again the Divine wisdom deluded the cruel toils of the bishops; for this recantation of Master Barber aforesaid, in the university of Oxford, bringeth me in remembrance of another recantation likewise, happening not long before in the said university, which I thought here not to overpass.
There was one Master Malary, master of arts of Cambridge, scholar of Christ's College, who, for the like opinions to those above rehearsed, holden contrary to the catholic determination of holy mother church of Rome, that is, for the right truth of Christ's gospel, was convented before the bishops, and, in the end, sent to Oxford, there openly to recant, and to bear his faggot, to the terror of the students of that university. The time and place were appointed, that he should be brought solemnly into St. Mary's church upon a Sunday; where a great number of the head doctors and divines, and others of the university, were together assembled, besides a great multitude of citizens and town-dwellers, which came to behold the sight. Furthermore, because that solemnity should not pass without some effectual sermon for the holding up of the mother church of Rome, Dr. Smith, reader then of the divinity lecture, was appointed to make the sermon at this recantation. Briefly, at the preaching of this sermon there was assembled a mighty audience of all sorts and degrees, as well of students as others. Few almost were absent which loved to hear or see any news; insomuch that there was no place almost in the whole church, which was not fully replenished with concourse and throng of people.
All things being thus prepared and set in readiness, cometh forth poor Malary with his faggot upon his shoulder. Not long after, also, proceedeth the doctor into the pulpit, to make his sermon, the purpose and argument whereof was wholly upon the sacrament; the which doctor, for the more confirmation and credit to his words, had provided the holy catholic cake, and the sacrament of the altar, there to hang by a string before him in the pulpit. Thus the doctor, with his god-almighty, entering his godly sermon, had scarce proceeded into the midst thereof, the people giving great silence with all reverence unto his doctrine, but suddenly was heard into the church the voice of one crying in the street, "Fire, fire!" The party who thus cried first in the street was called Heuster. This Heuster coming from Allhallows parish saw the chimney on fire, and so passing through the street by St. Mary's church, cried "Fire, fire!" as the fashion is; meaning no hurt.
This sound of fire being heard in the church, first of them that stood outermost next to the church door, so increased and went from one to another, that at length it came unto the ears of the doctors, and at last to the preacher himself; who, as soon as they heard the matter, being amazed with sudden fear, and marvelling what the matter should mean, began to look up into the top of the church, and to behold the walls. The residue seeing them look up, looked up also. Then began they, in the midst of the audience, to cry out with a loud voice, "Fire, fire!" "Where?" saith one; "Where?" saith another. "In the church!" saith one. The mention of the church was scarcely pronounced, when, as in one moment, there was a common cry amongst them, The church is on fire! the church is set on fire by heretics!" &c. And, albeit no man did see any fire at all, yet, forasmuch as all men cried out so, every man thought it true that they heard. Then was there such fear, concourse, and tumult of people, through the whole church, that it cannot be declared in words as it was indeed.
And as in a great fire, (where fire is indeed,) we see many times how one little spark giveth matter of a mighty flame, setting whole stacks and piles a-burning; so here, upon a small occasion of one man's word, kindled first a general cry, then a strong opinion, running in every man's head within the church, thinking the church to be on fire, where no fire was at all. Thus it pleased Almighty God to delude these deluders; that is, that these great doctors and wise men of the schools, who think themselves so wise in God's matters as though they could not err, should see, by their own senses and judgments, how blinded and infatuated they were, in these so small matters and sensible trifles.
Thus this strong imagination of fire being fixed in their heads, as nothing could remove them to think contrary but that the church was on fire, so every thing that they saw or heard increased this suspicion in them, to make it seem most true, which was indeed most false. The first and chiefest occasion that augmented this suspicion, was the heretic there bearing his faggot, which gave them to imagine that all other heretics had conspired with him, to set the church on fire.
After this, through the rage of the people, and running to and fro, the dust was so raised, that it showed as it had been the smoke of fire; which thing, together with the outcry of the people, made all men so afraid, that, leaving the sermon, they began all together to run away. But such was the press of the multitude, running in heaps together, that the more they laboured, the less they could get out. For, while they ran all headlong unto the doors, every man striving to get out first, they thrust one another in such sort, and stuck so fast, that neither they that were without could get into the church again, neither they that were within could get out by any means. So then, one door being stopped, they ran to another little wicket on the north side, toward the college called Brasennose, thinking so to pass out. But there again was the like or greater throng. So the people, clustering and thronging together, it put many in danger, and brought many unto their end, by bruising of their bones or sides. There was yet another door towards the west, which albeit it was shut and seldom opened, yet now ran they to it with such sway, that the great bar of iron (which is incredible to be spoken) being pulled out and broken by force of men's hands, the door, notwithstanding, could not be opened for the press or multitude of people.
At last, when they were there also past all hope to get out, then they were all exceedingly amazed, and ran up and down, crying out upon the heretics who had conspired their death. The more they ran about and cried out, the more smoke and dust rose in the church, even as though all things had now been on a flaming fire. I think there was never such a tumultuous hurly-burly rising so of nothing beard of before, nor so great a fear where was no cause to fear, nor peril at all: so that if Democritus, the merry philosopher, sitting in the top of the church, and seeing all things in such safety as they were, had looked down upon the multitude, and beholden so great a number, some howling and weeping, running up and down, and playing the mad-men, now hither, now thither, as being tossed to and fro with waves or tempests; trembling and quaking, raging and fuming, without any manifest cause; especially if he had seen those great rabbins, the doctors, laden with so many badges or cognisances of wisdom, so foolishly and ridiculously seeking holes and corners to hide themselves in; gasping, breathing, and sweating,and for very horror being almost beside themselves; I think he would have satisfied himself with this one laughter for all his life-time; or else rather would have laughed his heart out of his belly, whilst one said, that he plainly heard the noise of the fire, another affirmed, that he saw it with his eyes, and another sware that he felt the molten lead dropping down upon his head and shoulders. Such is the force of imagination, when it is once grafted in men's hearts through fear. In all the whole company, there was none that behaved himself more modestly than the heretic that was there to do penance; who, casting his faggot off from his shoulders upon a monk's head that stood by, kept himself quiet, minding to take such part as the others did.
All the others, being careful for themselves, never made an end of running up and down and crying out. None cried out more earnestly than the doctor that preached, (who was, as I said, Dr. Smith,) who, in manner first of all, cried out in the pulpit, saying, "These are the trains and subtleties of the heretics against me: Lord have mercy upon me! Lord have mercy upon me!" But might not God, as it had been (to speak with Job) out of a whirlwind, have answered again unto this preacher thus: "Thou dost now implore my mercy, but thou thyself showest no mercy unto thy fellows and brethren! How doth thy flesh tremble now at the mention of fire! But you think it a sport to burn other simple innocents, neither do ye any thing at all regard it. If burning and to suffer a torment of fire seem so grievous a matter unto you, then you should also have the like consideration in other men's perils and dangers, when you do burn your fellows and brethren! Or, if you think it but a light and trifling matter in them, go to now, do you also, with like courage, contemn, and, with like patience, suffer now, the same torments yourselves. And if so be I should now suffer you, with the whole church, to be burned to ashes, what other thing should I do unto you, than you do daily unto your fellows and brethren? Wherefore, since you so little esteem the death of others, be now content that other men should also little regard the death of you." With this, I say, or with some other like answer, if that either God, or human charity, in the common sense of nature would expostulate with them, yea, if there had been a fire indeed, (as they were more feared than hurt,) who would have doubted, but that it had happened unto them according to their deserts? But now, worthy it is the noting, how the vain fear and folly of those Catholics either were deluded, or how their cruelty was reproved, whereby they, being better taught by their own example, might hereafter learn what it is to put other poor men to the fire, which they themselves here so much abhorred.
But, to return again to the description of this pageant, wherein (as I said before) there was no danger at all, yet were they all in such fear, as if present death had been over their heads. In all this great maze and garboil, there was nothing more feared than the melting of the lead, which many affirmed that they felt dropping upon their bodies. Now in this sudden terror and fear, which took from them all reason and counsel out of their minds, to behold what practices and sundry shifts every man made for himself, it would make not only Democritus and Heraclitus also to laugh, but rather a horse well near to break his halter. But none used themselves more ridiculously, than such as seemed greatest wise men, saving that in one or two, peradventure, somewhat more quietness of mind appeared; among whom was one Claymund, president of Corpus Christi College, (whom, for reverence, and learning's sake, I do here name,) and a few other aged persons with him, who, for their age and weakness, durst not thrust themselves into the throng amongst the rest, but kneeled down quietly before the high altar, committing themselves and their lives unto the sacrament. The others, who were younger and stronger, ran up and down through the press, marvelling at the incivility of men, and waxed angry with the unmannerly multitude that would give no room unto the doctors, bachelors, masters, and other graduates and regent-masters. But, as the terror and fear was common unto all men, so was there no difference made of persons or degrees, every man scrambling for himself. The violet cap, or purple gown, did there nothing avail the doctor; neither the master's hood, nor the monk's cowl, was there respected.
Yea, if the king or queen had been there at that present, and in that perplexity, they had been no better than a common man. After they had long striven and assayed all manner of ways, and saw no remedy, neither by force nor authority to prevail, they fell to entreating and offering of rewards; one offering twenty pounds of good money, another his scarlet gown, so that any man would pull him out, though it were by the ears!
Some stood close unto the pillars, thinking themselves safe under the vaults of stone from the dropping of the lead: others, being without money, and unprovided of all shifts, knew not which way to turn them. One, being a president of a certain college, (whose name I need not here to utter,) pulling a board out from the pews, covered his head and shoulders therewith against the scalding lead, which they feared much more than the fall of the church. Now what a laughter would this have adnistered unto Democritus amongst other things, to behold there a certain grand paunch, who, seeing the doors stopped, and every way closed up, thought, by another compendious means, to get out through a glass window, if it might be by any shift? But here the iron grates letted him; notwithstanding his greedy mind would needs attempt, if he could haply bring his purpose to pass. When he had broken the glass, and was come to the space between the grates where he should creep out, first he thrust in his head with the one shoulder, and it went through well enough. Then he laboured to get the other shoulder after; but there was a great labour about that, and long he stuck by the shoulders with much ado; for what doth not importune labour overcome? Thus far forth he was now gotten; but, by what part of his body he did stick fast, I am not certain, neither may I feign, forasmuch as there be yet witnesses who did see these things, who would correct me, if I should so do. Notwithstanding, this is most certain, that he did stick fast between the grates, and could neither get out nor in.
Thus this good man, being indeed a monk, and having but short hose, by the which way he supposed soonest to escape, by the same he fell into further inconvenience, making of one danger two. For, if the fire or lead had fallen on the outside, those parts which did hang out of the window had been in danger; and, contrariwise, if the flame had raged within the church, all his other parts had lien open to the fire. And as this man did stick fast in the window, so did the rest stick as fast in the doors, that sooner they might have been burned, than they could once stir or move one foot: through the which press, at last, there was a way found, that some, going over their heads, gat out.
Here also happened another pageant in a certain monk (if I be not misadvised) of Gloucester College, whereat Calphurnius might well laugh with an open mouth. So it happened, that there was a young lad in this tumult, who, seeing the doors fast stopped with the press or multitude, and that he had not way to get out, climbed up upon the door; and there, staying upon the top of the door, was forced to tarry still: for, to come down into the church again he durst not for fear of the fire, and to leap down toward the street he could not without danger of falling. When he had tarried there awhile, he advised himself what to do; neither did occasion want to serve his purpose: for, by chance, amongst them that got out over men's heads, he saw a monk, coming towards him, who had a great wide cowl hanging at his back. This the boy thought to be a good occasion for him to escape by. When the monk came near unto him, the boy, who was on the top of the door, came down, and prettily conveyed himself into the monk's cowl; thinking (as it came to pass indeed) that if the monk did escape, he should also get out with him. To be brief, at last the monk gat out over men's heads, with the boy in his cowl, and, for a great while, felt no weight or burden.
At last, when he was somewhat more come to himself, and did shake his shoulders, feeling his cowl heavier than it was accustomed to be, and also hearing the voice of one speaking behind in his cowl, he was more afraid than he was before when he was in the throng, thinking, in very deed, that the evil spirit which had set the church on fire had flien into his cowl By and by he began to play the exorcist: "In the name of God," said he, "and all saints, I command thee to declare what thou art, that art behind at my back!" To whom the boy answered, "I am Bertram's boy," said he; for that was his name. "But I," said the monk, "adjure thee, in the name of the unseparable Trinity, that thou, wicked spirit! do tell me who thou art, from whence thou earnest, and that thou get thee hence." "I am Bertram's boy," said he, "good master! let me go:" and with that his cowl began, with the weight, to crack upon his shoulders. The monk, when he perceived the matter, took the boy out, and discharged his cowl. The boy took to his legs, and ran away as fast as he could.
Among others, one wiser than the rest ran with the church door key, beating upon the stone walls, thinking therewith to break a hole through to escape out.
In the mean time those that were in the street, looking diligently about them, and perceiving all things to be without fear, marvelled at this sudden outrage, and made signs and tokens to them that were in the church to keep themselves quiet, crying to them that there was no danger.
But, forasmuch as no word could be heard by reason of the noise that was within the church, those signs made them much more afraid than they were before, interpreting the matter as though all had been on fire without the church; and for the dropping of the lead and falling of other things, they should rather tarry still within the church, and not to venture out This trouble continued in this manner by the space of certain hours.
The next day. and also all the week following, there was an incredible number of bills set upon the church doors, to inquire for the things that were lost, in such variety and number, as Democritus might here again have had just cause to laugh. "If any man have found a pair of shoes yesterday in St. Mary's church, or knoweth any man that hath found them," &c. Another bill was set up for a gown that was lost. Another entreated to have his cap restored. One lost his purse and girdle, with certain money; another his sword. One inquired for a ring, and one for one thing, another for another. To be short, there were few in this garboil, but that either through negligence lost, or through oblivion left, something behind them.
Thus have you heard a tragical story of a terrible fire, which did no hurt; the description whereof, although it be not so perfectly expressed according to the worthiness of the matter, yet because it was not to be passed with silence, we have superficially set forth some shadow thereof, whereby the wise and discreet may sufficiently consider the rest, if any thing else be lacking in setting forth the full narration thereof. As touching the heretic, because he had not done his sufficient penance there by occasion of this hurly-burly, therefore the next day following he was reclaimed into the church of St. Frideswide, where he supplied the rest that lacked of his plenary penance.