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Whitby, 1557+ - A Pig Farmer Musing

A short imagining of a lowly peasant farmer living in Whitby at the time the Abbey was being rebuilt.  We don’t often get to hear about the “common” people, all the written records are about the lords and ladies, royalty and the church.  So what would the common folk be thinking?  This short piece, written specially for Wynd Cottage by Alice Bell, explores the perspective of one who might have lived and worked the land where Wynd Cottage now stands.

Whitby Abbey rebuilt pig farmer on the west cliff

They came preaching again, those folks from the Monastery over the river to the east. It'll be a mighty pretty little thing when it's done, small and compact, a place where those monks can worship in peace. I have to admit, it's quite nice to have religious folks back around here. You know, when you ask 'what can the Normans do for us?' I didn't think that reviving our faith was high on the agenda. Wasn't that long ago the site had been abandoned, all broken fences and rotten wood, barely anything left.

Of course, you can blame those Scandinavians for that- we might take our name from one warrior or another, but that's the only thing they gave us, coming over here with their Pagan gods, praying to Wöden (Or was it Oðinn?) for strength in battle and Þorr for good winds. Didn't nobody tell them that  we haven't followed those kinds of gods in centuries. At least according to my Grandma, she told us that when she was a little girl there were only a few people who remembered the old gods of England, and none who worshipped them. 'Our God is the true god' she'd say, but we must have believed in them once upon a time. Anyway, I suppose us godly folk have the last laugh, there's been whispers from the masons at the monastery that Scandinavia is being converted. Good riddance I say.

Given how little was left of the old Monastery, it's difficult to imagine how it looked- those rotten fences and the indents in the ground weren't exactly revealing. I'd heard that they were pretty self sufficent- And they didn't eat meat apparently! Imagine that, I'd be out of business if I had to rely on monks for custom. Thank the Lord that the Masons eat meat- and more importantly, can afford to eat meat. Labouring is hard work and they're keeping me in business, especially after good King William salted the earth to punish his own knightly rebels. It's one thing punishing rebels, sure, but whenever they punish those higher classes they end up punishing us as well. I can't imagine the old monastery being that much more spectacular than our little shacks. After all, our houses are only meant to be temporary, once a family dies out the land is leased to someone else and pulled down wall by wall. Not like it's hard to do, wood and dung are good for shelter, but not to build a legacy.

As much as I appreciate having staunch worshippers so close by, it's difficult to understand them. Mainly because they preach in that- What is it, Latin? If I could read, I bet I wouldn't be able to understand a word of it. Nah, they say reading the Holy book is for learned folks, and you don't get less learned than a pig farmer. We just have to put faith in the idea that what they translate is the truth, though holy men wouldn't lie, surely? Everything they say seems in line with what we were taught by Grandma, nothing that seems out of character with our Lord- although it does seem a little, I don't know... a tad biased. According to the preachers the Pope himself supported King William against our old King Harold, they say that having the Pope's support is having God's support, that William was divinely appointed to be England's new King. Sounds reasonable enough I suppose, but I still don't think they have to hammer it home with every sermon. It might be blasphemous, but sometimes I think God's appointed ruler can be a bit... well, not ungodly, but ...ungodly. I've told you about destroying the land after a rebellion, but that isn't the worst of it. His punishments can be cruel against us as well, because anything that happens to us is pretty much without consequence. Woe betide us if we have to pay taxes to one Lord or another and tithes to the Parish to the point where we have nothing on the table to feed the children, and it's winter and the stores of grain are running low- You might go out hunting and stumble on crown land, where all you'll get is death for your trouble.

The Preacher who came to see us ambled up a little after dawn, we'd been working fit to break and I was ready for my wife to take over. He was a scrawny thing, wouldn't last a day out here with the pigs. Poor fellow looked exhausted as well. Well, can't say I blame him, wakes up before us, spends all day on his knees  and then he gets sent off, down one hill, across the river, and up another. I enjoyed the stories he told today, talking all about Cædmon, holding him as an example for us, how even the lowliest sheep herder can be risen by God. I can't see how that applies to me, I'm a pig farmer, not a sheep herder, there's a big difference. Still, he sung us a pretty song- And thank the Lord that it was in English rather than that nonsense Latin. It was one of Cædmon's own apparently. Something about the creation, but it made a decent tune for working to. Found myself humming it all day today, and my son, he loves those little verses. Every time he learns a new one he takes it to heart. I love the stories about Cædmon, much more than any of the French or Italian saints, or even some of the one's a little closer to home, other English saints. Cædmon is our saint, Whitbyis born and bred, although I suppose it wasn't called Whitbyis back then. You can't help but feel a little proud whenever the preachers and priests talk about him with such a fire, because he's ours.

The other one I love to hear about is the Abbess Hild, although for slightly different reasons. Where Cædmon is revered (and that's not to say our good Saint Hild isn't), she is funny, unintentionally or no. She has so many tales surrounding her that I just wish to be true, stories that we'd be told before we went to bed as children, and it's funny how those are the ones that always stick, more than who she was and where she came from and who she answered to. Those little details are all background noise with long winding names that get me all confused. Have you heard the one about the plague of snakes? Apparently snakes writhed in the grass where Hild wanted the Abbey, and we all know that snakes are evil creatures, so she called upon the power of God and turned all the snakes into stone. My father took me to see them when I was a boy, and I took my lads to see them years ago. They're all coiled up in the stones, frozen in time- I can't believe that something so small could be a nuisance, but obviously the Abbess knew what she was doing, far be it from me to question a Saint.

But, I'm certainly not above laughing at a saint- There's the one where, when she first stepped ashore, a flock of seagulls swooped down and- how do I say it politely? The amount of dung that we use in our house is nothing compared to the bird dung she was coated with. If nothing else, our local Saint had a fearsome temper, which isn't something I'd expect from a holy woman, so she called upon God, as she did with the snakes, and all the seagulls dropped dead. Shame she didn't get rid of them completely, but I suppose wiping out an entire species would erase some of God's good work. Still, the gulls in Whitby always fly low when passing the old Monastery's site, out of respect for the woman who killed so many of them.

One of my sons, he loves to hear about Cædmon. That tale, it gives him hope. Going into the faith would be good for him, but I doubt he'd get very far. They like to preach that in God's eyes all men are equal, but they'd never let one of us in to learn. They'd make him a priest, lowest you can get in the clergy and not much better read than us- they teach through word of mouth rather than reading from the holy book. Sometimes, I can't help but think that all the faith want out of us is love and taxes. If our lad went up into the faith then that'd be a man they couldn't squeeze any money out of in the future; it'd be like me killing a piglet when I could let it grow into a full birthing sow. They want rich lads in the faith, rich lads with rich fathers who can make rich donations and throw a couple of workers their way. Now, don't you go taking that as speaking against the Lord! It's not my fault that that's the way it is, I love God, but he and the Lord of the land suck us dry between them. Still, I need me son here. I'm getting old now, and someone needs to look after the others.

I know it sounds a bit grim, but it's the truth, I'm in my forties now, my Dad barely made it out of his twenties, and I only know that because my Grandma kept track of it all. Seems a bit daft, counting the years, but then I suppose it gives you some idea of how much longer you have left. I can't have that long to go now, all of the lads I grew up with have long since fallen in the ground- I still can't believe I've lasted this long, what with my pennies running dry and my starving pigs feeding one lord or being sold to pay one priest or another for my little place in heaven. I can only hope that heaven is a little less hard work.


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