Sunday, 19 April 2009

The miller's tale - Middenshire version

I have been very remiss. In italics.

For months now we have been conversing, over our virtual garden wall, as it were, beneath a banner proclaiming this blog to be 'The Middenshire Chronicles'. And over these few months of getting to know each other, I have made the odd tantalising reference to the (sadly) lost County of Middenshire, but without elaborating or, indeed, regaling you with any of the fascinating tales of that County from the hoard of manuscripts, unearthed in curious circumstances a few years ago, and in the process of being co-edited by the worthy Stevyn Colgan and myself. The time to reveal something of their wonders is long overdue. So, today being the feast day of Middenshire’s Saint Gug, what better way to introduce you to the County than to recall the tale of that holy man’s life.

'What’s the bravest thing in the world?' This question is the feed line of what is probably the oldest recorded joke. The punch line, surprisingly, is not a lion or tiger, but 'a miller’s shirt, for it grasps a rogue by the throat every day.' This would hardly leave modern day audiences rolling in the aisles, but in the middle ages just about everyone would have understood the joke, painful though it was, For the truth is that medieval millers were the byword for dishonesty.

I have already explained elsewhere that peasants were expected to pay their lord for the privilege of doing almost everything except being born. And, as they eked out an existence on their little strips of land, hoping for a decent harvest that would sustain them through the winter, the peasantry knew that, come harvest time, they would have to take their corn to the lord’s mill for grinding. Not only would they have to hand over a portion of the resulting flour to the miller for the lord of the manor‘s table, but they could be sure that the miller would ‘load’ his scales in order to take more flour than necessary and keep the excess for himself.

In the year 1100, the miller of the manor of Pendlebury was one Gug. This particular grinder of corn was unusual for Middenshire in that he was regarded as a fair and honest man. He was scrupulous in weighing the peasants’ flour, keeping nothing for himself. Because of this he became known by the somewhat literal-minded villeins as ‘Gug the Honest Miller’. As a result, Gug would often find small gifts of flour, bread or root vegetables upon his doorstep in the morning; tokens of esteem from the local populace, who could ill-afford them, but nevertheless believed that Gug’s honesty should be rewarded.

The fair-minded Gug’s behaviour did not sit well with the other millers of the Shire. Peasants from neighbouring manors started to grumble about their own corrupt millers, and some secretly acquired their own quern-stones and begun to grind corn at home under the cover of darkness. The millers banded together and paid one Wat of Winkwood Pisham, a noted ruffian, to be ‘le gryndour fyndere’. Wat would creep about the villages at night, listening for the tell-tale sound of mill-wheels grinding together. He would then report back to his collective masters, who would arrange for the quern to be confiscated and the house of the offending villein to be torched.

The seizings and burnings continued, but so did civil disobedience, so the Shire’s millers decided to deal with the problem once and for all, by killing Gug. Late one night, armed with flaming torches and mud-pitches, they broke down the door of his mill, and found Gug in an attitude of prayer, asking God to deliver his fellow-peasants from the rapacity of those in authority. Four of the largest millers held Gug down on the floor, whilst another half-dozen manhandled his mill-wheel from its spindle. At a given signal, they dropped the heavy gritstone wheel upon Gug’s head…and it bounced harmlessly off Gug’s bald pate, landing on the feet of the miller of Middenbury, crushing his toes. They tried several more times to end Gug’s life, but each time the wheel failed to do him any harm. They then hit upon a plan to suffocate him by filling his nose and mouth with flour, but every time Gug let out a mighty sneeze that propelled the flour into the faces of his attackers, blinding and choking them and rendering them powerless.

The noise and commotion roused Gug’s neighbours, who banded together to investigate. Although not usually given to direct action, the peasants managed to drive off the millers using bill-hooks and fierce ducks. Thus, Gug escaped death at the hands of his dishonest brethren, who returned to their respective manors, vowing to make a further attempt upon Gug’s life at a later date. However, each of them found, on returning to his respective mill, that his own grind-stone had unaccountably returned to the material from which it was made. In place of their mill-wheels, they found nothing but a pile of sand. As news of these happenings spread from miller to miller, a great sense of fear prevailed, and the millers decided to leave Gug be, believing that the disintegration of their wheels must have been some kind of divine punishment for their actions.

Gug lived to a ripe old age, eventually choking on a single crumb from a stale bun he had just enjoyed, given him by a near neighbour. His fellow-villagers each donated a portion of flour for his funeral, and Gug became unique as the first and only miller ever to be buried in a pastry coffin.

In the autumn following his death there was an exceptionally good harvest, which the good people of Middenshire saw as a miracle and attributed it to Gug. Although his beatification was never referred to, or ratified by, Rome, Gug was regarded as a saint by all in the shire, and became the patron of honest millers, pastry cases (often referred to as 'coffins'), bald men and, somewhat unaccountably, rheumatism.

There is a curious post-script to this story. More than three centuries later, Gug was accidentally disinterred by a sexton and his 'coffin' was miraculously found to be intact. The priest gave permission for Gug’s body to be viewed, and the lid of the pastry coffin was duly opened. Even more miraculously, Gug’s body was found to be completely incorrupt, but the previously dry interior of the coffin contained, in the words of the priest, ‘a darke liccour wch lookyd and dyd tast lyke unto a riche sawce’.(the modern equivalent would be gravy). At this point one should, perhaps, ask two questions. Firstly, how did Pendlebury church acquire a literate priest? And secondly, what manner of man tastes the contents of a coffin?

It would appear that the priest was not alone in sampling the dubious delights of what is often referred to as ‘coffin liquor’. Antiquarian John Aubrey recounts the following story of an incident that occurred in 1666, just after the Great Fire of London:

‘John Colet, D.D., Deane of St. Paule’s, London. After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ‘twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast. The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the wall about 2 foot½ above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps; perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chinke, like boyld Brawne.’

William Thuck, the chronicler of Middenshire, records that St. Gug’s body likewise seemed to have been pickled or cooked by the liquor in which it was steeped. If one may be allowed a little humour in speaking of this pious miller, it seems he was both braised and praised in equal measure.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Nicely edited my sociohistorical friend. It will be wonderful to share our find with the world. Middenshire deserves a wider circulation.

chris hale said...

Thanks Stevyn.

I think Middenshire's just the thing to lift the gloom caused by the current economic downturn, proving there's always someone (in this case, an entire County) worse off than yourself! said...

Enjoyed the story immensely. Will celebrate by baking something using flour.

chris hale said...

Gardendreamer - I'm glad you liked it. Middenshire's saints are an interesting bunch.

Enjoy your flour-based baked goods, and do call again!

Derrick said...

You nearly had me there, Chris! Especially as I have been reading about Henry VI body being found to be incorrupt. No mention of gravy though! Now, when was this exactly?

Madame DeFarge said...

You continue to be a source of historical gems for us all. My world remains a better place for knowing these facts. I await the tie-break question in the Civil Service Sports and Social annual quiz that hinges upon the life of St Gug. I shall triumph.

Anonymous said...

Great story, enjoyed immensely. You talk of Middenshire saints in the plural, I take it St Gug wasn't alone, I look forward to being further enlightened...


mo.stoneskin said...

So what you are really trying to say is that you are the miller of the manor of Pendlebury, and are making a mint from the poor peasants?

chris hale said...

Derrick - are you trying to tell me that the two weeks I've spent translating Res Gestae Sancti Gugi have been a waste of time, and that St. Gug is a fake? Please say it aint so!
Oh, and the year was 1100, as far as we can tell from the Latin document.

MDF - These quizzes are so hard these days, I wouldn't be at all surprised if our miller put in an appearance!

AV - Thank you. Middenshire, rather like Cornwall, had many saints. We've barely begun...

Mo - not me, guv! In the Saxon v Norman debate, I'd be on the side of the former!

Vodka Mom said...

don't have time to read it ALL- I am off to school.
Just wanted to say GOod morning!!

Comedy Goddess said...

I can't wait for the DVD version of this post to be released.

Are you going to be acting in the role as St. Gug?

chris hale said...

Hi VM.

Sun's over the yard-arm...time for a little snifter, I think. Make mine a double.


No, I don't think I'd make a very good St. Gug. I need to be fatter, more pious, and with a lot less hair. Danny de Vito could play the part if he managed to get rid of his apparent anger management issues. But I really need someone Shakespearian.

willow said...

That that is an entirely new taste test! And I'm curious, is it pronounced "goog" or "gug"?

One little tidbit of Miller trivia is that WT and I both have gg grandmothers with the maiden name Miller.

chris hale said...

Willow - The Middenshire accent was very like that of Dorset. The pronunciation was probably close to Gurg.

So, there are Millers in your family? It doesn't necessarily mean that your ancestors were misely old curmudgeons...they may have been related to the good St. Gug!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

How amazing! I like the bit where the grind stones were miraculously returned to sand!!