Vanishing England eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 374 pages of information about Vanishing England.

Near the village cross almost invariably stood the parish stocks, instruments of rude justice, the use of which has only just passed away.  The “oldest inhabitant” can remember well the old stocks standing in the village green and can tell of the men who suffered in them.  Many of these instruments of torture still remain, silent witnesses of old-time ways.  You can find them in multitudes of remote villages in all parts of the country, and vastly uncomfortable it must have been to have one’s “feet set in the stocks.”  A well-known artist who delights in painting monks a few years ago placed the portly model who usually “sat” for him in the village stocks of Sulham, Berkshire, and painted a picture of the monk in disgrace.  The model declared that he was never so uncomfortable in his life and his legs and back ached for weeks afterwards.  To make the penalty more realistic the artist might have prevailed upon some village urchins to torment the sufferer by throwing stones, refuse, or garbage at him, some village maids to mock and jeer at him, and some mischievous men to distract his ears with inharmonious sounds.  In an old print of two men in the stocks I have seen a malicious wretch scraping piercing noises out of a fiddle and the victims trying to drown the hideous sounds by putting their fingers into their ears.  A few hours in the stocks was no light penalty.

These stocks have a venerable history.  They date back to Saxon times and appear in drawings of that period.  It is a pity that they should be destroyed; but borough corporations decide that they interfere with the traffic of a utilitarian age and relegate them to a museum or doom them to be cut up as faggots.  Country folk think nothing of antiquities, and a local estate agent or the village publican will make away with this relic of antiquity and give the “old rubbish” to Widow Smith for firing.  Hence a large number have disappeared, and it is wonderful that so many have hitherto escaped.  Let the eyes of squires and local antiquaries be ever on the watch lest those that remain are allowed to vanish.

By ancient law[50] every town or village was bound to provide a pair of stocks.  It was a sign of dignity, and if the village had this seat for malefactors, a constable, and a pound for stray cattle, it could not be mistaken for a mere hamlet.  The stocks have left their mark on English literature.  Shakespeare frequently alludes to them.  Falstaff, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, says that but for his “admirable dexterity of wit the knave constable had set me i’ the stocks, i’ the common stocks.”  “What needs all that and a pair of stocks in the town,” says Luce in the Comedy of Errors.  “Like silly beggars, who sitting in stocks refuge their shame,” occurs in Richard II; and in King Lear Cornwall exclaims—­

        “Fetch forth the stocks! 
        You stubborn ancient knave.”

  [50] Act of Parliament, 1405.

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Vanishing England from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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