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Alfred J. Church

Of My Friendship with John Eliot

I doubt me much whether there be anywhere in the world friendship so fast and so little marred by strife or jealousy or any such thing as that which doth sometimes spring up between young men that, being under the roof of one college, do follow in company both study and sport. Nor is it of necessity for such friendship that the two should be altogether like in temper and liking and manner of life. Thus there was between John Eliot and me something of difference, notably in this that he was of a fiercer temper and was over-ready with his hands when there was any occasion of strife. Very stalwart was he and strong, standing, like Saul the son of Kish, by head and shoulders above the people, for he had six feet and inches as many of stature, and a mighty boxer withal, having both strength and skill, so that I was wont to say not Castor himself, whom the ancients fabled to be prince of boxers, could have surpassed him. Now there were in the days of which I write such strifes and disputings, yea and such riots and tumults, as had scarce before been known since King Alfred of pious memory first did erect his University at Oxford. The place is always somewhat unquiet, ay and always will be, so long as the blood of youth shall be hot. But now not only were there the accustomed feuds, the Northern men contending with the Southern men, and the Welshmen, of whom there were many in the University, with the English, but the strife which was even then beginning to divide this whole realm, if I may so speak, into two armies did rage furiously, some following the House of York and some the House of Lancaster, so that not only were colleges divided against colleges, but often times a college would be divided against itself. Verily I have seen blood flowing and heads broken, and battles that but for the intervening of the older and wiser sort had ended in death, in the very quadrangle and hall of our college.

I do remember that there was a great fight between the scholars of Peckwater Hall and the scholars of Merton College, which fell out, if my memory serveth me well, after dark in the month of November. Of this, indeed, the first cause and beginning was no great matter, but a thing altogether mean and trifling. For nation did not rise against nation, nor they that favoured the white rose contend with them that loved rather the red; but a certain scholar of Merton did in a frolic snatch a can of beer which a citizen was carrying to his home. Of this a scholar of Peckwater, being his acquaintance that was robbed of the beer, took note. And so both parties crying "Rescue," there was within a short space of time a mighty uproar; and this all the more because it chanced to be a feast-day, and the hearts of some were lifted up within them with strong drink. For first the men of Merton drave back the men of Peckwater to their gate, so that they were fain to shut themselves within it. Then again these, having gathered their strength together, issued forth, and, taking their adversaries unaware, put them to flight, being not a little helped therein by the strong arm of John Eliot. For it so chanced that he and I had that day walked abroad, it being, as I have written, a holiday, and were now returning later than was our wont. So as we came up the street which is called High Street, returning towards our college from the village of Cumnor, we heard a great shouting. And when John Eliot discerned in this, for there was indeed a very Babel of voices, the cry "Peckwater," nothing would content him but he take his part in the fray, having been, as I have written before, at the first a scholar of this said hall. So he ran down the lane that is called Oriel Lane, I following him, for though I loved not his more turbulent mood; I would not leave him. And when we came to the space that is between Peckwater and Merton it was a very field of battle, into which straightway plungeth Master John, having no arms but those which nature provideth—for so far he was law abiding—but using these with all his might. And in a short space he came to the gate of Merton, which was now open to receive them that fled, and he would fain—so carried away was he by the fury of battle—have entered therein, even as Turnus in Virgil's "Æneid" entereth alone into the camp of Trojans, but that I caught him by the doublet, and besought him that he would take heed. "For this," I said, "is no quarrel of thine; and they that meddle with strife that concerneth them not will verily repent them of their foolishness. Think too," I said, "of the good Bishop, thy patron." When he heard this he held his hand, and stood aside from the fray. Thereupon the men of Merton recovered their ground, even as did the Trojans when Achilles came no longer into the battle. Then I said, "Shall we not depart, for surely they that make so great an uproar will answer for it." Nor did he refuse to listen to me. So we departed, very much to our profit, for we had scarce gone when came the Southern Proctor with his company and ran between the combatants to part them. But they, so eager were they for the battle, took no heed of him, yea and wounded him, smiting him with a stone upon the cheek so that his jaw was well-nigh broken, and with a staff upon the right arm so that he could not use it for the space of three months. After this came a great posse of masters whom the Chancellor's deputies had gathered together with the constables of the town and laid hands upon all whom they found. On every one of these, and also on all whom by inquisition held they could learn to have taken part in this uproar, was there laid a fine of three shillings. Out of this there was paid to the Proctor six marks for the solacing of his hurt and for the payment of the physician that did wait upon him. And as for the student that by his frolic did first give occasion for strife, he was banished from the University for the space of one whole year. As for John Eliot, he escaped without fine or censure, for all that he was known to many on either side.

We two had other sport also, and of a more laudable kind. Thus John Eliot would take his cross-bow—for which weapon both he and I had no small liking, as being that which at the first had brought us together—and shoot hares and rabbits in Bagley Wood and the fields thereabouts, having first obtained the grace of Master John Dennis, to whom the said wood and its appurtenances belonged. And I would go with him, but the cross-bow I never handled, being better content to see him handle it, which indeed he slid with a skill that was beyond compare. So sure of aim was he, that the keeper of the deer in the park would make request to him that he would kill such as were needed for the table, a thing which may not be done at hazard or by an unskilful hand. Verily the keeper who should lodge a bolt in the haunch of a stag, as is not unlike to happen when it flieth before him, would of a surety lose his place.

Then again I would take my angle, sometimes to Cherwell and sometimes to Thames, for in both of these rivers there is a notable store of fish, if you are content to go somewhat far afield, as to Sandford and Bablock and Islip. And in the matter of angling I did get much instruction from one Master Hevor, Prior of the scholars of the Black Friars at Gloucester Hall. Master Hevor was a monk of St. Albans, and had charge of such scholars as purposed to take the vows in the said Abbey (of which matter I shall say more hereafter). He did lend to me for my reading a certain little book which was written by Dame Juliana Berners, Prioress of the Convent of Sopwell, on this same topic of angling; from which said book I learned many things, especially about the taking of pikes and roaches. And as I would stand by and mark John when he did shoot, so would John stand by when I handled the angle, for which pastime he had small liking, affirming that it needed more patience than he could command. "Of watching the line," he would say, "I weary right soon; but of talking to thee, friend Thomas, I weary not." And I do verily believe that he loved me even as I have ever loved him.

In the year 1459, being the fourth year of my sojourning at Oxford, we two purposed to answer of our degree of Bachelor. And this we did, beginning on the eighth day after Ash-Wednesday, and continuing to answer for nine days (nor was this time beyond that which is customary, and indeed I have heard that the questioning hath been continued even until the end of the term). There are two-and-thirty masters that sit in the schools; and all these have the right to lose, for so the putting of questions is called, but some are content not to exercise it. Also they may put what questions they will, only the Chancellor, or his deputy, or the Proctors, may intervene, if it should seem to them that such questions go beyond fairness and reason. And of this I had myself experience, to my no small thankfulness. For one Master Lawrence, posing in a book of Aristotle, being one that loved the reputation of asking such questions as none could answer, was like to have put me into a sore dilemma. Saith Master Lawrence, "Doth not St. Paul the Apostle commend the virtue of humility as being singularly fitting to a Christian man, and that more than once?" "Yea," answered I, "he doth." "And doth not Aristotle, when he placeth virtue in the mean between two extremes, name humilitas or humility as an extreme which erreth by defect, even as arrogance erreth by excess, greatness of mind being in the mean? How dost thou reconcile these two? Dost thou hold with Aristotle, or with Paul?" And when I knew not what to answer, saith one of the Proctors, "Nay, Master Lawrence, thou dealest with this lad as thou wert a bishop, holding inquisition of a Lollard or other heretic. Why lost thou shut him up to a choice which he may not conveniently make either this way or that?" So did I joyfully escape from the jaws of Master Lawrence.


A Doctor and His Scholars.

Verily I would not praise myself; yet may I say that I answered not without applause, as also did John Eliot, for we were in close company during this whole time. Especially well did we acquit ourselves in the School of Rhetoric, where one Master Butler, a master of Exeter College, did question us about the eighth and ninth book of the Ethica of Aristotle, wherein friendship is treated of. For these books, it so chanced, we had read together with notable care. And when Master Butler asked us of Cicero's treatise on Friendship, commonly called the Laelius, here also he found us well prepared. And when desirous to know whether we knew more of Cicero, it so chanced that he lighted upon his book "Concerning the Orator," which book also we had but lately read. Thus did we gain reputation beyond our deserts, being favoured by Fortune, who though she never helpeth them that are altogether without deserving, doth undoubtedly impart of her favour more liberally to some than to others.

The posing ended, we were admitted to the degree of Bachelor. And after, we that were so admitted gave to the Masters gowns and hoods, or a composition in money to such as chose money; also we gave a feast plentifully furnished both with flesh and fish, though indeed it was the season of Lent, for we had a dispensation.