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“ 'Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours,
And ask them what report they bore to heaven;
LLOWING for the intervening lapse of time, the pages
of the poets, the historians and the scholiasts of the Greek and Roman periods afford us a singularly
instructive insight into the ways and usages of contemporary social life ; so much so, in fact, that though the assertion may appear paradoxical, many educated people possess a far better acquaintance with life and manners in Greece and Italy two thousand years ago than with the habits and usages of their forefathers, only removed from them by the comparatively short period that has elapsed since the press was set up in England. The explanation is probably to be found in the fact that the middle ages, so far as this country is concerned, have no literature to call their own at all resembling that of the ancients, and as to the writings which we must be content to accept as a substitute for it, as giving us an insight into the contemporary features of social life, the items of which those writings are composed are lamentably deficient. The chroniclers of those ages are mostly too intent upon the deeds or aspirations of the great or the ambitious to bestow a passing notice upon the multitude from whom their individuals are selected ; and the legendist, the romancer, and the poet are too busily engaged with the doings and sayings of their saints and their heroes to descend from their elevation to any less holy, less stirring, or less captivating details.
One result of this is that we must either rest contented with the few and transient glimpses of light fitfully thrown upon this interesting subject by the early glossarists—with what we may glean incidentally from the chroniclers—or we must look, of necessity, to other and far different sources for the materials of our social history
-to documents, in fact, which the compilers little dreamt would be turned to such an account, but which atone by their truthfulness and authenticity for their meagreness of diction and their want of embellishment. These documents, fortunately for those who would deplore our social history being swept into oblivion, still lie scattered, in comparatively great abundance, over the length and breadth of the land. It is to our early laws, statutes and enactments, to registers, rentals, rolls, orders and accounts, under their legion of technical appellations, that we must have recourse if we would gain the moderate credit of knowing at least as much about our forefathers as about the populaces that thronged the streets of ancient Athens or Rome. From records such as these we may become intimately acquainted with the early form and subsequent development of our civil and municipal institutions, for there was hardly a dealing or a difference between man and man, however trivial, that was not provided for or regulated by sumptuary laws or by-laws, many of them now regarded as absurd and grotesque: hardly a transaction or existing relation in private life that was not the subject of legal enactment and parochial surveillance. From the recorded proceedings under such laws as these may be seen the growth of taxation upon varying principles and under multiform conditions, the relations of prices and labour, the progress of arts, manufactures and commerce, the gradual expanse of our national wealth or defence, and the manners, usages and habits of our forefathers. A very considerable amount of biographical and genealogical information may also be gathered from such sources, and indications may be derived from them on the various developments of religious opinion and belief, while the philologist, the topographer, and the student of church or parish folk-lore find ample scope for their research.
If the indulgent reader entertain a doubt that such value attaches to the records of a single parish in the great metropolis, he is invited to reserve his judgment until he shall have thoughtfully perused the following pages. That there may be such doubts is not remarkable, for outside the comparatively small circle of those engaged in Local Government* there are few who concern themselves with either the nature or the value of parochial records, or regard the preservation of them as of any importance. This appears to have been so ever since the laity gradually obtained a restoration of their independence in things civil at the Reformation. It is not the object of the present essay, however, to investigate the causes, nor to illustrate the consequences of this indifference ; much less is it proposed to enter upon an academical disquisition upon “records,” and upon the particular classes of books, documents, or instruments which, in the strict sense of the word, come within that category. The existence of the indifference warrants the attempt, however feeble and imperfect, to contribute to the removal of it. The object in view, therefore, in the compilation and issue of the catalogue in the present form, is to kindle such an interest in the subject as will dispel the mists of apathy with which it has all too long been enveloped and, perchance, to afford a passing glimpse at the origin of some of the departments of Local Government and Poor Law Administration which present day "reformers,” forgetful of the unobtrusive labours of their predecessors claim to have introduced :
“All the inventions that the world contains,
Obviously something more than a mere bald, dry-as-dust list of titles, numbers, and dates, however carefully classified, is necessary to stimulate the interest and to reach the end in view The reference to the lack of interest in the conservation of parochial records is by no means intended as a reflection upon those to whose keeping they have been entrusted. The State itself was so careless in relation to its own records that it would have been surprising to find the local powers
* The population of the united parish is, in round figures, 53,000, the number of Vestrymen, 100, or '19 of the whole ; the population of “Greater Westminster” --the new Borough to be formed by the amalgamation of the eleven smaller areas --is 192,072, the number of Vestrymen and District Board Members, 469, or 24 of the whole ; the population of London is 4,230,266, and the number of Vestrymen and District Board Members, 2,956, or 'o6 of the whole.
otherwise. At the restoration of Charles II. documents which we now prize as the very cream and flower of our Constitutional records were in a condition which, in the course of a few years, would have satisfied the most ardent wishes the notorious Hugh Peters could have cherished for their destruction. Prynne's account of the state in which they were then found must be perused in the untranslateable language of his “ epistle dedicatory” to Charles II.:-*
“No sooner received I your royal patent (passed without fees) for the custody of your ancient records in your Tower of London, even in the middest of my parliamentary and disbanding services then monopolising all my time, but I designed and endeavoured the rescue of the greatest part of them from that desolation, corruption and confusion in which (through the negligence, nescience, or sloathfulness of their former keepers) they had for many years bypast layen buried together in one confused chaos, under corroding, putrifying cobwebs, dust and filth, in the darkest corner of Cæsar's Chappel in the White Tower, as mere useless reliques, not worthy to be calendarised or brought down thence into the office amongst other records of use. In order thereunto, I imployed some souldiers and women to remove and cleanse them from their filthynesse, who,soon growing weary of this noysome work, left them almost as foul, dusty and nasty as they found them. Whereupon, immediately after the Parliament's adjournment, I and my clerk, in August and September last, spent many whole dayes and sorting them into distinct confused heaps, in order to their future reducement into method ; the old clerks of the office being unwilling to touch them for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by their cankerous dust and evil scent. In raking up this dungheap (according to my expectation) I found many rare ancient precious pearls and golden records relating to the High Court of Parliament . . . . , all which will require Briareus his hundred hands, Argus his hundred eyes, and Nestor's centuries of years to marshall them into distinct files, and make exact tables of the several things, names and places comprised in them-wherein most Treasuries of Records are very defective, which oft causeth your subjects to make long
* Quarterly Review, vol. 39, p. 65.