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The Discriminating Reeve

By Anthony Madrid


I’ll close with one choice item from my stash of non-poetry poetry. A block of medieval prose I find exquisitely moving. You have to read it outloud, though.

I found it in a paperback called Anglo-Saxon Prose, a collection of interesting specimens selected and translated by Michael Swanton (Everyman, 1993). Swanton calls the piece “The Discriminating Reeve,” and dates it tenth or eleventh century. Here is the finale

[…] He can always find something to repair on the manor—he need never be idle when he is in it: put the house in good order, set to rights and make it clean, and fence drains, repair breaches in the dykes, make good the fences, root out weeds, make walk-ways between the houses, make tables and benches, provide horse-stalls, maintain the flooring, or such things as may be profitable.

¶ He must provide many tools for the manor, and keep many implements for the buildings: axe, adze, bill, awl, plane, saw, spoke-shave, tie hook, auger, mattock, crow-bar, share, coulter; and also goad-iron, scythe, sickle, hoe, spade, shovel, woad-trowel, barrow, broom, mallet, rake, fork, ladder, curry-comb and shears, fire-tongs, steelyard; and many cloth-working tools: flax-lines, spindle, reel, yarn-winder, stoddle, beams, press, comb, card, weft, woof, wool-comb, roller, slay, crank, shuttle, seam-pegs, shears, needle, beater.

¶ And if he has skilled workmen, he must assist them with tools: miller, shoe-maker, lead-founder, and other workers—each occupation will itself show what pertains to it; there is no man that can enumerate all the tools which one must have.

¶ One must have: wagon covers, ploughing gear, harrowing tackle and many things which I cannot now name, as well as: a measure, awl, threshing-floor flail, and many utensils: cauldron, leaden vessel, kettle, ladle, pans, pots, fire-dog, dishes, skillets, tubs, bucket, churn, cheese-vat, bags, punnets, bushels, sieves, seed-basket, riddle, hair-sieve, sieve-rack, fans, troughs, ash-wood pails, hives, honey bins, beer-barrels, bath-tub, dishes, flasks, bowls, basins, cups, strainers, candlesticks, salt-cellar, spoon-case, pepper-horn, chests, coffers, yeast-boxes, seats, stools, chairs, bowls, lamp, lantern, leather bottles, resin-box, comb, cattle bin, manger, fire-screen, meal-store, eel-tank, oven-rake, dung-shovel.

¶ It is difficult to tell all that he who looks after the administration must think of. He must neglect nothing that might ever prove useful: not even a mousetrap therefore, or what is still more trivial, a hasp-peg. Many things are necessary for the faithful reeve of a household and a frugal governor of men. I have set out what I know; let him who is better informed explain it more fully.

I want to mention: I don’t fully understand this, but when the reeve pauses to say “There is no man that can enumerate all the tools which one must have”—and then resumes: “One must have…,”—when he does that, I cry. Tears come out of my eyes. The last paragraph is moving, too, heaven knows, but there is something special about that middle moment. I perceive a beautiful stoic dignity in the estate manager’s attempt to row upstream against that avalanche of any-angled objects.

The clean, cataloguing mind facing down the impossible task—and the storm of stuff.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Anthony Madrid.