Monday, March 03, 2014

At the Harry Price Library

Karen Attar expounds

Images of a visit with a group of my students to look at early printed books about witchcraft in the 
Harry Price Library, Senate House (London University).

Thanks to the curator, Karen Attar, we were allowed to look at 24 select items from the collection: a couple of copies of the Malleus Maleficarum, all three early editions of Reginald Scot, a Johan Weyer, a Bodin, Peter Binsfield the malefitzmeister, King James's Demonologie, works by John Webster, Glanvill, Francis Hutchinson, the pamphlet about the 1682 witches executed at Exeter, even a copy of the English translation of that mocking novel, Monsieur Oufle. A work I'd wanted to see was elsewhere on display, and as a late substitute I picked William Lilly's Christian Astrology, 1647. I'd seen some of these books before, but by no means all of them. As Karen said, once you see a compact edition of the Malleus, printed in as cheap as style as possible, then you realise the reach of that awful book.

An early owner annotates his (or her) text, happy to live in more enlightened times.

Getting used to book cushions.

Communication technologies meet as Natalie H photographs one of the engravings in Scot.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Maledictions of Mary Smith, 1616

Alexander Roberts, ‘Preacher of God’s word at Kings Lynn in Norfolk’ produced his A treatise of witchcraft Wherein sundry propositions are laid downe, plainely discovering the wickednesse of that damnable art …With a true narration of the witchcrafts which Mary Smith, wife of Henry Smith glover, did practise: of her contract vocally made between the Deuill and her, in solemne termes, by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied (etc) in 1616. It is an interesting composite of brief demonological treatise and a reportorial pamphlet occasioned by a particular case in which he had had a personal involvement.

The work is not, of course, ‘original’; it offers no new opinions; Roberts is doctrinaire rather than insightful. But as he was a conscientious and learned man, he wrote a highly symptomatic book. In the first place, it is the form of his treatise that is indicative. Any demonological tract, when written with application, tended to be a text surrounded by side-notes. Roberts has not reached the condition of some of the more massive works, where a window of authorial text sits inside a square fortress of citation.

But his annotation is thorough enough to be eloquent of a text made out of derived opinions, an argument sustained by its sources.

The overall structure is also one of an enwrapped account: the disaster which overtook the quarrelsome and needle-tongued Mary Smith is told in a set of plain text pages, preceded by seven lengthily expounded and much-annotated ‘propositions’ about witchcraft advanced by Roberts, and followed by two more ‘propositions or corollaries’. Any witchcraft tract is made up by accretion: confirmatory opinions, various witnesses, individually incredible stories that, together, confirm an unlikely truth. One of demonology’s enfolded narratives was its own counter-discourse, and here, though Reginald Scot is either not known to Roberts or was avoided, Johan Weyer pops up repeatedly. He’s there to be confuted, of course, a voice of unreason amongst so many witnesses to the truth. But then, what curious witnesses they are! Roberts naturally uses first the standard bible texts, but (as a learned man of his age would do), he then multiplies examples from what he calls the ‘gentiles’ – a whole anthology of enchantresses in the classical world from Homer’s Circe onwards. Roberts means to reinforce his opinion about the veracity of witchcraft by the unstated ‘no smoke without fire’ tactic behind this and all such accumulations. But assembling the kind of stories people have told one another merely witnesses the general way in which people like stories. Such fictionality witnesses something in us, not in reality. Roberts, a bookish man, clearly cannot resist books: they have an authenticity to him, an authority worth repeating no matter (in the end) what they are, provided they are revered enough.

Out of the usual defensive welter of the demonologist (for witchcraft belief was always sandbagging itself against disbelief, and this work is just a conspicuous example of that) emerges the unlucky Mary Smith, a shrewd and shrewish woman with ‘a tongue like a tang’. She was perhaps smart enough to spot the symptoms of conditions that the people she cursed so accurately were concealing from themselves. In a later age she might have been a brilliant diagnostician, or at the least an astute health visitor. Anyway, if the people she crosses are starting to show their age or fray in health, she voices it sharply, her malediction foresees the worst possible outcome for the sufferer.

A sailor, John Orkton, struck her son, so she “wished in a most earnest and bitter manner, that his fingers might rotte off”. Whatever symptom of disease she had noted and used to give force to her curse, after nine months, “his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as also his toes putrefied & consumed in a very strange and admirable manner”. Mary Smith then took pleasure, it seems, in her astute observation: the “malitious woman, who long before openly in the streets, (whenas yet the neighbours knew of no such thing) rejoicing at the calamity, said, Orkton now lieth a rotting”.

A similar victim was Cicely Bailey, who provoked Mary Smith by sweeping in a manner Smith considered offensive to her (I should imagine that the direction in which the dirt was flicked was involved): “Mary Smith began to pick a quarrel … and said unto her she was a great fat-tailed sow, but that fatness should shortly be pulled down and abated. And the next night being Sunday immediately following, a Cat came unto her, sat upon her breast, with which she was grievously tormented, and so oppressed, that she could not without great difficulty draw her breath, and at the same instant did perfectly see the said Mary in the chamber where she lay, who (as she conceived) set that Cat upon her, and immediately after fell sick, languished, and grew exceeding lean; and so continued for the space of half a year together…”

Cicely Bailey did finally escape, and back at work in service to a master who lives outside Mary’s operating radius, recovered (one can imagine) her comfortably fat tail. The cat is the interesting thing here. All too clearly Mary Smith found her neighbours intolerably irksome. But she loved her cat, in a way we’d all recognize and understand. But in the age of demonology, part of the evidence against her was her victim Cicely’s account (and 17th century building standards feature here) of peeping through a crack in the partition between the house she inhabited and Mary Smith’s bedroom. The cat, off duty from oppressing plethoric Cicely (“the Divel being willing to apprehend and take hold upon such an occasion, that so he might do some pleasing office his bond-slave”) is being caressed: “whom she adored in submiss manner, upon her knees, with strange gestures, uttering many murmuring, broken, and imperfect speeches, as this Cicely did both hear and see, there being no other partition between the chamber wherein she performed these rites, and the house of her master with whom she then dwelt, but only a thin seeling of board, through a cranny or rift whereof she looked, listened attentively unto her words, and beheld diligently her behaviour, and might have seen and heard much more, but that she was with the present spectacle so affrighted, that she hastened down in much fear and distemper.”

The cat, identified by Roberts with the devil, was attacked by a neighbour with sword and pikestaff. It still managed, maimed, to get away and die somewhere. Mary Smith subsequently accuses the neighbour of having killed her cat, but Roberts opts to ignore her knowledge of its death to play up the supernatural quality of its apparent survival: “a great Cat which kept with this Witch (of whose infernal both purposes and practises wee now speak) frequented their house; and upon doing some scathe, her husband moved therewith, thrust it twice through with his sword: which notwithstanding those wounds received, ran away: then he stroke it with all his force upon the head with a great pike staff, yet could not kill her; but she leapt after this upward almost a yard from the boards of that chamber where she now was, and crept down: which he perceiving, willed his lad (a boy of fourteen years) to drag her to the muck-hill, but was not able; and therefore put her into a sack, and being in the same, still moved and stirred. Whereupon they put her out again, and cast her under a pair of stairs, purposing in the morning, to get more help, and carry her away; but then could not be found, though all the doors that night were locked, and never heard what afterward became thereof.”

A silkman, John Mason, tried to call in a debt from Mary’s husband. After “some execrations and curses being wished unto him, within three or foure days (being then gone to Yarmouth in Norfolk upon necessary business) there fell sick, and was tortured with exceeding and massacring griefs”. Mary has managed to trigger stress enough to affect him. We are told that his condition did finally improve when “this mischievous woman was committed to prison … at which time (so near as he could conjecture) he then received some release of his former pains, though at the present when he made this relation, which was at Candlemas last past, had not perfectly recovered his wonted strength: for his left hand remained lame, and without use.” So Mason sounds like a slowly-recovering stroke victim, a man who’d been in a poor state of health and who had just needed agitated alarm.

I know that I am sounding like Edward Bever on the efficacy of witchcraft, and maybe this post can be thought of as a response to his book, which I had out of the library just long enough to gallop through perhaps a third of the work before some other reader requisitioned the work. But one Elizabeth Hancock, after a quarrel about a hen, goes the same way as Mason, Mary triggers a psychosomatic collapse: “whereupon, breaking forth in some violence, she wished the pox to light upon her, and named her proud [h]inny, prowde flurts, and shaking the hand, bade her go in, for she should repent it; and the same night, within three or foure hours after these curses and imprecations uttered, she was taken and pinched at the heart.”

Elizabeth Hancock suffers a ‘sodaine weaknesse in all the parts of her body’, but with no loss of appetite. Every time she feels a little better, she gets some fresh air by leaning on the open-air stall in her house and shop. And, every time she is seen there, Mary Smith puts more the pressure on her: “whom this Marie Smith seeing, did ever ban, adding the former curse, the pox light upon you, can you yet come to the door?” After three weeks of this, there’s a climactic episode:

“and at the end of these three weeks, being but very weak, came forth as she used to do, to take the ayre, this mischievous woman most bitterly cursed her again, whereupon she went into the house, fell into such a torturing fit, and nipping at the heart, that she fainted, hardly recoverable for the space of half an hour, and so grievously racked and tormented through all parts of her body, as if the very flesh had been torn from the bones, by the violent pain whereof she could not refrain, but tore the hair from off her head.”

Elizabeth, convinced that she is the victim of Mary Smith’s effective curse, plays the part of witch’s victim with great energy. One doubts that there was much wrong with her, her appetite remained good. But she is getting three weeks in bed, lots of attention, and if she can get Mary Smith incriminated for witchcraft, then convicted and hanged, the witch will lose her power, and Elizabeth wins the quarrel.

With this forceful and unpleasant personality, and victims either willing to act out the part assigned them or exhibiting symptoms of a more advanced stage of their illness, it was in the end easy enough for Mary to believe in her own malign powers.

Roberts as minister got to know her in her last days, and says he will be “sparing by anie amplification to enlarge this” but will “nakedly rehearse the truth, and number of her own words unto me.”

From Roberts, Smith learned how to analyse her experience in the right demonological way: her first surrender to the devil, who “appeared unto her amidst these discontentments, in the shape of a black man, and willed that she should continue in her malice, envy, hatred, banning and cursing; and then he would be revenged for her upon all those to whom she wished evil: and this promise was uttered in a low murmuring and hissing voice” (Roberts makes a point of this, that the devil "cannot so perfectly represent the fashion of a man's body, but that there is some sensible deformity, by which he bewrayeth himself ... as in his body assumed, so in his speech there is a defect, for it is weak, small, whispering, imperfect."

Mary was executed on January 12th, 1616, in very “distemperate” weather. They clearly wanted to postpone the business to a better day, offering up as an excuse the notion that she might be brought to acknowledge more of her crimes, but Mary was not minded to oblige them “which she in no wise would condescend unto should be deferred”.

Despite the weather, a large crowd gathered, and Mary took control of the proceedings. As before, when she was considered to be an associate of the devil, she’d thoroughly convinced people that such were her real powers, so at the end she managed to play up to their ideology forcefully enough to give the impression that she was, despite everything, on her way to heaven:
“she in particular manner confessed openly at the place of execution, in the audience of multitudes of people gathered together (as is usual at such times) to be beholders of her death. And made there also profession of her faith, and hope of a better life hereafter; and the means whereby she trusted to obtain the same, as before, hath been specified. And being asked, if she would be contented to have a Psalm sung, answered willingly that she desired the same, and appointed it herself, The Lamentation of a Sinner, whose beginning is, Lord turn not away thy face, &c. And after the ending thereof thus finished her life: So that in the judgment of charity we are to conceive the best, and think she resteth in peace, notwithstanding her heinous transgressions formerly committed.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lady Margaret Savile's monument, Hurst.

Back in September, because of one of those days where people cycle to raise money for charity round as many churches as they can, I was able at last to get inside a church I have ridden or driven past many times, the Church of St Nicholas in Hurst, Berkshire, just to the east of Reading. I must have had a notion that a church so consistently locked might have something inside worth seeing, and so it proved, a sensational set of monuments.

Chief among them is this extravaganza commemorating Lady Margaret Savile, who died at the age of 73 in 1631. She is in the centre, facing her third and most distinguished husband, Sir Henry Savile, Mathematician, Astronomer, Historian of Science, translator (in his lodgings at Merton, the '5th committee', responsible for the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelations in the King James Bible met, Savile's knowledge of Greek making him the only layman involved in the translation).

We can perhaps imagine the two of them are praying over open copies of the text he helped produce. Savile had died in 1622, Margaret had erected a monument to him in Merton College Chapel. The brochure available in the church cites Elias Ashmole as saying that there was formerly an infant in a cradle in front of them. The monument says she had two sons by Savile, who both died young.

To the left in this matriachal frieze are the figures on two of Margaret's daughters: Lady Anne Carleton (from her first marriage to George Garrard) and Lady Elizabeth Sidley, her daughter by Savile.

To the right are the figures of Lady Francis Harison, youngest of her daughters by her first husband, and her husband Sir Richard Harison of Hurst. The whole monument is here because Margaret wanted 'to deposite her body in the place where living she had found soe much content & soe sweet a repose in her age' - she had lived with this couple in Hurst in her final years.

The solidity of these figures, their prayerful calm, is offset by a great swagger of marble drapery, with angels and cherubs pulling aside or lifting the curtains to disclose this undramatic scene of family prayer:

Studded here and there are the shields that spell out the dynastic stuff, and further cartouches crown the whole structure, this monument that is almost a building

Urns, shields, tassels, strapwork, fringes, inscriptions, curlicues, ribbonwork, scrolls, swags: it is the very height of early 17th century taste, that taste for which the quip that 'less is more' never had any meaning: more is more.

It is Lady Margaret's own monument. It commemorates her three husbands, but depicts just the last (I guess it must be the case that while men can freely have themselves depicted between wives, a widow could not have a line-up of her late spouses without some indecorum of effect). Sir George Savile is not here given any particular allusions to point to his achievements in learning, the angels are not indicated to be allegorical. This stony splendour is a fossil of her taste. The impression one has of matrilineage is perhaps wrong: three daughters are indeed present, but we should remember that the top order of the monument did originally commemorate one of the lost infant sons, and the remaining five of Margaret's nine children (two male, three female) are in smaller and now headless effigies below the rank of inscriptions:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Early Modern Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Roger Crab, the Uxbridge hermit, 1655

“Had my parents been so innocent as to have taught me this Doctrine in the time of my youth, I had saved my skull from being cloven to the brain in the late War for the Parliament against the King” …

The doctrine was that of Isaiah 21, 2: “A grievous vision was showed unto me, the transgressor against the transgressor, and the destroyer against the destroyer, and the wounded man was Roger Crab, who (in what is for him an unusually rational response) decided that he had seen enough of killing, and then extended this revulsion against slaughter to a radical vegetarianism, in which he imagined that the last days might arrive if predatory birds and animals gave up their evil ways, and if men imitated Christ in their lives, rather than the devil Mars:

“If all birds would take the Dove for an example, and all beasts take the Lamb for their example, and all men take Christ for their example, then Mars and Saturn, the two chief Devils would be trampled under feet. Such a time is promised, but not yet.”

That a strict and restricted vegetarian diet is a Christian obligation is evident to Crab from the way the Fall of Man came about:

“If natural Adam had kept to his single natural fruits of Gods appointment, namely fruits and herbs, we had not been corrupted. Thus we see that by eating and drinking we are swallowed up in corruption”

Like other traumatized veterans of war, Roger Crab took himself to intense study of the Bible, and to a hermit’s existence. Society at large he simply sees as a latter-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah, or a Jerusalem given over to abomination, as Ezekiel saw it. He had owned a hat shop in Chesham: this he wound up, gave away to the poor the greater part of his worldly goods and vigorously set about a course of life designed to subdue the Old Adam. In the words of his publisher, he
“now liveth at Icknam, near Uxbridge, one a small Rood of ground, for which he payeth fifty shillings a year and hath a mean Cottage of his own building to it; but that which is most strange and most to be admired, is his strange reserved, and Hermetical kind of life, in refusing to eat any sort of flesh, and saith it is a sin against his body and soul to eat flesh, or to drink any Beer, Ale, or Wine; his diet is only such poor homely food as his own Rood of ground beareth, as Corn, Bread, and bran, Herbs, Roots, Dock-leaves, Mallows, and grass, his drink is water, his apparel is as mean also, he wears a sackcloth frock, and no band on his neck: and this he saith is out of conscience, and in obedience to that command of Christ”

Resolved to kill no more, Crab set about killing ‘himself’, as the unregenerate Old Adam, though he indeed also seems to have gone close to death by malnutrition – in his own words:

“instead of strong drinks and wines, I give the old man a cup of water; and instead of roast Mutton, and Rabbets, and other dainty dishes, I gave him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnip leaves chopped together, and grass; at which the Old man (meaning my body) being moved, would know what he had done, that I used him so hardly; then I showed him his transgression as aforesaid: so the wars began, The law of the old man in my fleshly members rebelled against the law of my mind, and had a shrewd skirmish; but the mind being well enlightened, held it, so that the old man grew sick and weak with the flux, like to fall to the dust; but the wonderful love of God well pleased with the Battle, raised him up again, and filled him full of love, peace, and content in mind, and is now become more humble; for now he will eat Dock-leaves, Mallows, or Grass, and yields that he ought to give God more thanks for it, then formerly for roast flesh and wines”. He seems to have had a small group of adherents, who he would later refer to as ‘the Rationals’, quite a misnomer, for Captain Robert Norwood “began to follow the same poor diet till it cost him his life”.

Poor Crab had suffered a severe head injury, he had then worked as a hatter, and hatters seem to have exposed themselves while working with felt to lots of mercury, and were proverbially mad. Self-imposed privation would not have helped a desperate situation – and, even if he was abstaining from strong drink, he was still consuming quantities of the 100% proof madness that is the book of Ezekiel.

It is not surprising to read that he took comfort when he discovered that the birds were giving him messages direct from God:
“the most high was pleased to convince me with natural forms, namely birds of the Air, which every day brought me intelligence according to my worldly occasions; for almost three years space I have observed them, for they would foretell me of any danger or cross, or any joy from friends”.

Crab’s publisher admits that he was a man of “strange opinions”, but, as he is trying to exploit Crab and sell as many pamphlets about this hermit to the curious as possible, the publisher tries to keep the focus on Crab’s ‘harmless’ opinions about eating. But when one looks closer at what Crab says: “eating of flesh is an absolute enemy to pure nature; pure nature being the workmanship of a pure God, and corrupt nature under the custody of the Devil” one can sense in him a early modern, home counties, version of the Catharist ‘pure’ – a dualist who believes that the flesh must be held in contempt and defiled to demonstrate that contempt.

Crab was believed to have denied the immortality of the soul (the ODNB life cites Thomas Edwards’ Gangraena): but, really, he seems to express a notion that living too fleshly a life will doom us to reincarnation in another low form of body “he that dyeth with fleshly desires, fleshly inclinations, and fleshly satisfactions; this being a composure of the spirits of darkness in this body, must rise again in the same nature, and must be taken into the centre of Mars, the god of flesh, blood, and fire”. Unless he can eliminate the Old Adam, he will be born again into the Civil War. Satan has no role here, but is superseded by ‘Mars’, who rules over the hell that Crab has already experienced once, the hell he must do everything to avoid going back to.

Crab was impossible to deal with: he was “well read in the Scriptures, he hath argued strongly with several Ministers in the Country, about this and other strange opinions which he holds”. Beneficed ministers – ‘hirelings’ as he calls them - were most at risk. For Crab had actually followed some of Christ’s more radical injunctions, especially Matthew 19:21. His publisher had tried one of the interpretations that might be used to give a swerve to this tricky issue: “I reasoned the case with him, & told him that I conceived Christ’s meaning when he bade the young man sell all he had and give to the poor, was, that he should part with all his dearest Sins, that were as dear to him as his possessions”.

Not that Crab, as much as a beneficed clergyman, wasn’t himself faced by difficult texts that evidently contradicted his ideas – but he can prove with confident bluster that an awkward text somehow means the exact opposite of what it apparently says:

“Now for the objection in 1 Tim. 4. v. 3. where it saith thus; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created, to be received with giving thanks of them which believe and know the truth: And verse 4. it saith; For every creature of God is good, and nothing ought to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving. This Scripture being very useful for the purpose, and will give much light to the adhearers to this opinion, and conform them of sound principles within themselves; for whosoever shall forbear marrying, or abstain from meat, from the commandment of men which pretends his commands to be of God, all that are obedient hereunto will serve the Devil, and must needs be without the spirit of sanctification; neither are they believers, neither obey the Truth.”

He refutes another objection to his principles about the evil of ingestion, based on another Gospel verse, by a category switch:

“Another Objection is alleged from that Scripture in Matthew 15. 11. where he saith these words: That which goeth into the mouth defileth not the man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, that defileth the man, which is murthers, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, slanders, &c. If this be meant that any thing put into the mouth cannot defile the body, then no man can be poisoned.”

Crab considers what Jesus actually chose to purvey by way of food as a most significant example, while when Christ attended feasts and weddings, what He actually ate and drank can be inferred: “let us see what Christ had at his feast with the people, he being able to command stones to be bread, or water to be wine, was also able to command roast Beef or pig: but he was to be exemplary to all people on earth, in all his actions and doctrine, made an innocent feast for the people with barley loaves and fishes … we never find that ever he was drunk, or eat bit of flesh at any of their Feasts, or Wedding”.

Crab is mainly pitiable – as in his closing rhymes:

If any would know who is the Author, 
Or ask whose lines are these: 
I answer, one that drinketh water, 
And now a liver at ease. 
In drinking cannot be drunk, 
Nor am I moved to swear: 
And from wenching am I sunk, 
My bones are kept so bare. 
For it is the grossness of the flesh 
That makes the soul to smart …

But as the gross flesh withers away, the waistline of Crab’s ego expands – he is shaping up to be a prophet, to be the Ezekiel England needs:

O England then repent 
For the misery thou art in! 
Which have all by consent, 
Lived on each others sin. 

To do him justice, Crab had worried about what would happen to the economy if everyone ceased to ask for superfluous luxuries – nice hats, roast beef, etc – wouldn’t a market collapse reduce tradesmen to being paupers? But the moral imperative pushed him to the decision he made. Crab cites in crazy fashion from Ezekiel’s crazy book: “Ezekiel took of wheat, barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in a vessel, and made bread thereof; and instead of butter and spice, he was to take cows dung, instead of men’s dung, to prepare his bread with, and he was to have his portion by weight, Ezek. 4. 9.” Ezekiel is at this point preparing his credentials as denouncer of sin in Jerusalem by lying on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right for 40 more. In the midst of these demanding stipulations God tells him to bake his barley cakes using human dung, Ezekiel protests that he has never eaten defiled food, and God concedes that he may cook using dried cow dung instead. In Crab’s truncated version, Ezekiel seems to use cow dung to spice the bread. I suspect Crab may have had a go at coprophagy, on the grounds that if it was good enough for God’s prophet, it was good enough for him.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Adam, Eve, and the young female artist

I was asking my students to point out for me, or find for me if they could, depictions of Adam and Eve by women artists prior to the nineteenth century (I’d thought of Suzanne Valadon). My notion was that the subject was perhaps one that involved too much naked man to be quite feasible for the woman artist to undertake, at least until the 19th century.

But I failed completely to think of one special category of female artist that valiantly, methodically and with epic concentration undertook the subject time and again: little girls working their samplers.

Why Adam and Eve were so favoured as a design element in the sampler is worth pondering. Paradise allowed lots of attendant animals, and they were fun to stitch. Adam and Eve were part of children’s iconography – in part because their homes might not feature much pictorial material (a less pious household might have some ballad sheets with woodblock prints pasted up on the privy walls). But Adam and Eve popped up everywhere – often they appear on title pages of Bibles. For the German market at least, cut out and paste Genesis I-III pictures were available.

One could take a grave view of this, that the little daughters of Eve were being made to focus on her role in bringing sin into the world. It is possible that some of the earlier women writers about Adam and Eve – I am thinking of Lucy Aitken, and possibly further back to women of the 17th century like Lucy Hutchinson and Ester Sowernam - may have had to demonstrate their skill with the needle in working Eve and her husband , and what they slowly worked onto the linen they also stitched into their minds as a subject they’d want to return to and say more about.

But there may have been, short of effects of indoctrination, some fun to be had in working these figures. It was probably fun to be judicious about doing the naked figures with suitable decency, and the serpent was a joy to work, wriggling in the tree.

On the wonderful Google Art Project, several such samplers can be seen. On the 18th of April 1737 Margaret Grant began her work, aged just nine. Perhaps the materials for making her sampler were a birthday present. She will use silk and linen threads in many colours, it’s a big project, with an outlay involved. It’s easy to imagine that work on the sampler inaugurated the girl’s own sewing box, and her mother passing on some material, but also buying new to set the project off to a good start.

But Margaret, obviously a painstaking child, went far beyond the usual proof of being able to read in displaying the conventional elements in a sampler of an alphabet and her name: she included a whole poem

Neither the Google Art Project nor the Museum that holds the item seems to have identified the poem, but it is easily found, being Francis Quarles’ ‘On Adam’: 

How soon, poore Adam, was thy Freedome lost!
Forfeit to death ere thou hadst time to boast;
Before thy Triumph, was thy Glory done,
Betwixt a rising and a setting Sun:
How soon that ends, that should have ended never!
Thine eyes nere slept, untill they slept for ever.

The poem was first published in Quarles’ Divine Fancies in 1632, but that was an astonishingly popular work, going through edition after edition. (On EEBO I see 1632, 33, 41, 52, 53, 57, 58, 60, 64, 65, 71, 75, there might have been more, clearly if a 17th century household had a book of verse, it was quite likely to be this). Resonantly gloomy, the poem briefly expresses (and finds relish in expressing) the commonly agreed view that Adam and Eve fell on their first day in Paradise. It’s not a view that enhances anyone’s sense of God’s sense of proportion, but it seems as though anxiety about Adam and Eve sleeping together, and immediately conceiving a child while sinless, alarmed everyone to thinking it was all over between 9am and 3pm (or similar). There was also that inveterate desire to read the Old Testament typologically, so the sequence of events in the original sin must match the time taken for Christ to die on the Cross, in redeeming that sin.

Lord; if our Father Adam could not stay 
In his upright perfection, one poor day; 
How can it be expected, we have power 
To hold out Siege, one scruple of an hour …

exclaims Quarles in his Meditation 21 (“See, how the crafty Serpent, twists and windes / Into the brest of man!”, etc).

 A nine year old slowly stitches out this horrible ‘wisdom’, product of so much hard-driven extrapolation from the Bible. Quarles, wanting a strongly conclusive final couplet, leaves Adam dead and unredeemed, a first man who lost his freedom before he could formulate an appreciation of it, and who never knew any triumph.

Well, at least it wasn’t a verse about Eve…

Monday, September 23, 2013

'My worst of fates attends me in my grave': joining Lord Rochester at Spelsbury

An interesting weekend for me: on Saturday, I was one of the group of old members of the college had taken up the invitation to return to Jesus College on (just about) the 40th anniversary of our matriculation.

Here I am at breakfast: 'Self portrait in a convex teapot':

On Sunday morning, despite feeling that port has yet to have its moment as an energy drink, I drove out to Eynsham, got my second best bicycle out of the car, and headed off to Chastleton House (NT). It's a lovely old place, and my sister last year was re-gilding the clock face from the courtyard, so I was minded to see that back in place. But I got there early, and was going to have to wait three-quarters of an hour with a dreadful thirst, so I switched to Chipping Norton, where I felt sure there would be a cafe, and where I was minded to see the Rickards tomb in the church:

It is beautifully done, though like many of these things, it has attracted the graffiti of idling youths with knives in their pockets. I wonder if it were fully restored, would a restorer have to leave the incised graffiti, which have become a kind of town record?

The tomb side tells us that Thomas Rickards had died in 1579. Elizabeth Rickards, nee Fiennes, lived until 1603, but was still living when the monument was erected, and they never got round to filling in the blanks - but that she would not outlive the millenium had occurred to the person doing the lettering:

As usual, the drapery on the recumbent figures does not hang, and I can only suppose that this shows the strength of conventional depiction: whoever executed this fine piece of sculpture would have been able to render hanging drapery, but somehow that would not have done. Elizabethans liked the starchy look. This is the mastiff at Elizabeth's feet.

I then decided to loop back to Spelsbury, where John Wilmot, Lord Rochester is buried. I didn't know if there would be a ledger slab, or a wall memorial. In fact, neither: Rochester was placed in a vault under the church. This had been opened back in the 1960's or 70's, and the coffin lid's brass plate, a memorial plate from the coffin, and a lead tablet from his wife's grave were taken and put on display inside the church:

The vault was entered from the north side of the church: I went to have a look, and noticed that the cement holding the quite ordinary garden centre paving slabs that covered the vault entrance was completely loose, and the slabs cracked. I lifted two pieces aside:

Below, I could see that an iron grating was propped against the passageway into the vault underneath the church:

And at this moment, common sense prevailed: if I squeezed into this narrow gap, and got stuck down there, nobody knew where I was, there was no mobile phone signal even at ground level, I had no torch, and why on earth did I think that visiting Milord's pocky bones was a good idea?

 ... Dead, we become the Lumber of the World,  
And to that Mass of matter shall be swept,  
Where things destroy'd, with things unborn, are kept. 
Devouring time, swallows us whole  
Impartial Death, confounds, Body, and Soul.

It would, arguably, have been a suitable end for a literary scholar ('After a long search, Dr Booth's remains were found in the vault where the libertine poet, John Wilmot, had been buried in 1680. He was still clutching Rochester's pelvis.') 


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Old Nick and Young Nick in Paradise: Nicholas Billingsley’s 'The Infancy of the World' (1658)


Nicholas Billingsley began working on his The Infancy of the World (1658) when he was only fifteen. It had probably been set aside for some while when, gratified by the reception of his work, Brachy-martyrologia, or, A breviary of all the greatest persecutions which have befallen the saints and people of God from the creation to our present times paraphras'd by Nicholas Billingsly (a versification of Foxe full of hideous relish for suffering, and for divine retributions on the tormentors), Billingsley realized he could delight his new readers with a swift return to the press if he finished his poem on the Creation. I doubt that he did much re-working, he more probably looked back over his early work to check it was clear of unwise theological speculations or lines that might be misconstrued.


As a literary work, it has some interest, mainly negative. There was nothing here for Milton to learn from, but the outputs of eager and pious poetasters like Peyton and Billingsley do remind us that Milton was going to enter quite a crowded literary field. The generation brought up on du Bartas would naturally think of Genesis as a poetic subject. We can learn too from what Billingsley doesn’t do with his creation narrative: the direction he took was towards the pious encyclopaedia, rather than entering into the intellectual drama of the Fall.


The main part of the work consists, perhaps surprisingly, of eight sections – one would have expected six, as he is dealing with the six days’ labours from Genesis I. His sections consist of the start of creation (as in Milton, apparently not ex nihilo, but order created out of a material chaos), and the separation of the waters, corresponding to verses 1-9. Then, furnishing the earth with trees and flowers (Genesis I, 11-13); section 3, the heavens (I 14-5); the sun and moon (I 16-9); the waters populated with fish occupies his fifth section, and the birds in his sixth – the material for both sections comes from Genesis I 20-3. The seventh section is the creation of the animals, and the eighth, of course, Adam and Eve.


To round off what he had achieved, Billingsley ventured into the Fall itself:

An Appendix 
Of God’s resting day. 
Of Eden garden. 
Of Man’s happiness before his fall. 
Of Man’s misery after his fall.


His treatment of the fall borders on the cursory: this is the Fall of Adam. Eve is talking


… What? frownes my Adam ? wilt thou not draw nearer, 
And taste my love, then whom my life’s not dearer 
For Eves sake eat, and know both good and ill. 
Seeing thou invit’st me eat, my joy, I will. 
Ah! we have sin’d in medling with this Tree, 
This cursed Tree; Oh whither shall we flee? 


Like Stanley Holloway’s lion, Wallace, swallowing Albert, ‘ ’E were sorry the moment   ’e’d done it’. Maybe Billingsley had seen one of those depictions of the temptation where Adam turns away, clutching at his throat after his first bite.


As you will have noticed, Billingsley adopted loose rhymed couplets. Here are some examples of him at work:


An authorial interjection (he has just mentioned dolphins):


“Sweet Jesu! beare me to the Port of Sion, 
Be thou my Dolphin, I’ll be thy Arion.” 

Enumerating the varieties of fish:


“A world of Paper, and a Sea of Ink, 
Would scarce suffice to hold them all I think.” 


Some fish are tasty, others are large:


“Are you a hungry, go and catch a Conger 
What fish is larger then the Whale or longer?” 


God himself speaks to Adam:


“Be thou obsequious, thou shalt finde me mild, 
I’ll be thy father, thou shalt be my child.”



The vocabulary has its freakish moments too:


“Under him Scorpio exporrected lies” (a Latinism, ‘stretched out’). 


Phæbus his refulgent face, 
The upper and the lower world doth grace, 
With equal splendor; his irradient beams 
Refresheth all things; his ignivomous teams 

Run restless races…”


(another Latinism, and altogether a typical 17th century English word, well-evidenced in the OED: ‘fire-vomiting’)



That God should address Eve as ‘nefarious woman’ now sounds odd to us, as the word has become comic, but the basic sense of ‘offending against the moral law’ makes perfect sense: 
Nefarious woman, ah! what hast thou done, 
That thus my awful presence thou dost shun?

Billingsley’s mind moves instantly from the examples of God’s profuse creation to the wondrous behaviours these animals exhibit in the postlapsarian world. He isn’t troubled about what the birds, fish and beasts did, behaviourally speaking, prior to the Fall. The author himself had experienced desperate ill-health when young, and is recurrently emphatic of the curative things a provident God has placed in His creation: the congregation of the waters leads Billingsley rapidly onto an enumeration of the curative wells, and it rather sounds as though he had spent his time at Tunbridge and Bath taking the waters, and the herbs are all orientated to cures


Of Tunbridg famous in our Kentish county, 
For casting up their subterraneous bounty, 
Which relishing of Iron, and sulph’ry veines 
Cures well nigh all infirmities and paines, 
Nay lengthens life causing the fates t’unspin 
Lifes drawn out thred, hath any got the spleen? 
The dropsie? the vertigo? or the stone? 
These waters will yield remedy alone. 
Suppose th’art Lunatick, or Planet struck, 
Hear’s that will help thee, if thou hast the luck 
To come and take it …


Gouts, schyaticas, the French-mans pox, 
And what flows from Pandora’s opened box 
These Springs resist…



Here jaundis-cureing, Horehound, which is good 
Against the Asthma; heer is Southern-wood 
Good against Feavours; here the Worm-wood eases 
All Surfeits, drunk’ness, Cholerick Diseases. 
Cough-chasing Rocket, Rue-expelling vapors, 
Which dim the sight …


One thing that had not struck me before about these minor hexameral works – though it’s obvious enough – in both Peyton and Billingsley, their subject allows, even requires, the author to say his piece about Sabbath observance – and they both take a very insistent attitude about the sanctity of the holy day of rest. Milton doesn’t do this. At the end of His week of creation, God returns to elaborate praise in Heaven:


So sung they, and the Empyrean rung,               VII 633
With Hallelujahs: Thus was Sabbath kept.
And thy request think now fulfill’d, that ask’d 
How first this World and face of things began…


And there it is where it should be, biblically speaking, but Milton certainly doesn’t use this as a soap-box to insist on Sabbath observance. Not that this is a surprise in Milton.


Among Billingsley’s lines about the subject of the Sabbath day are these odd couplets – he is describing the waters of the world, and among the rivers, he gets to the Thames. He praises the watermen shooting London Bridge, and then says:


Great London is the Bow, the Thames the string 
The Boats are arrows which about do spring 
The Streams Sabbatical do rest and stay. 
In observation of the Sabbath day. 


He couldn’t really have thought that the tides in London stopped for the Sabbath, could he? Maybe - Billingsley was very pious (he would go on, as a clergyman, to have a lot of trouble conforming to the Church of England), and seems credulous of wonders he had picked up from books.


The largest portion of this whole work consists of a series of rhymed lists of the things and beings God has created. Dealing with the waters, Billingsley compiles seas, rivers, wells, until he admits his reading can carry him no further, and it’s time for him to turn in anyway:

My Muse hath touch’d the chiefest she hath read, 
And tir’d with search, discretion calls to bed. 

Next section, he busily lists trees, herbs and flowers, then on to the constellations and planets, section 5 has a long list of fish, 6, birds, 7, beasts. About all these aspects of creation, Billingsley is fideistic:

Look here, look there, nay turne I where I will 
I see Gods greatness and his goodness still. 

and willing therefore to believe any kind of wonders about whatever aspect it is of God’s mysterious design:


The envious Peacock hideth out of spight 
His med’cinable dung from humane sight: 
Treads softly like a theif, but from his throat 
Yels out a horible Tartarian note …


Pliny asserted that the peacock deliberately devoured its own dung; dried dung of peacocks seems to appear in most of the pharmacopeias. It was more effective if it was white, apparently. (I have a notion that bird poo contains vitamin B12, but this is not an idea on which I am prepared to act.)


Here he retails, quite uncritically, all the old lore about hyenas:


Alternately his sex Hyæna changes, 
His eyes assume all colours which as strange is; 
Such Dogs as on his shadow light grow dumb: 
His feet stick fast whoever sees him come; 
Calling the shepherds from their thatched bowers, 
He slayes them, and their slautered Corps devours… 


The elephant, meanwhile, understands human language, has its own elephantine faith, and is a royalist:


The Elephant next claimeth excellence, 
This beast comes nearest unto humane sense; 
He knows his country speech, he’s us’d in warrs, 
He worshipeth the Sun, the Moon, the Starrs. 
The greatest of all beasts the earth doth hold, 
He’s proud of trappings wrought with burnish’d gold 
Adores the King, his most ambitious spirit 
Aspires to glory, glory to inherit. 


Maybe I am being severe on Billingsley. If Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published in 1646, does not seem to have come his way, even if Browne dismisses the nonsense about the elephant’s legs having no joints, he was himself willing to credit elephants as writers and speakers, as they enjoy a ‘proximity of reason’:

“That some Elephants have not only written whose sentences, as Aelian ocularly testifieth, but have also spoken, as Oppianus delivereth, and Christophorus a Costa particularly relateth … we doe not conceive impossible; nor beside the affinity of reason in this Animall any such intolerable incapacity in the organs of divers other Quadrupedes, whereby they might not be taught to speake, or become imitators of speech like birds; and indeed strange it is how the curiosity of men that have been active in the instruction of beasts, have never fallen upon this artifice, and among those many paradoxicall and unheard of imitations, should not attempt to make one speak; the Serpent that spake unto Eve, the Dogs & Cats, that usually speak unto Witches, might afford some encouragement, and since broad and thick chops are required in birds that speake, since lips and teeth are also organs of speech; from these there is also an advantage in quadrupedes, and a proximity of reason in Elephants and Apes above them all.”

But occasionally Billingsley the fifteen year old appears in his verse:


“The Stockfish is a fish that wil not boyl 
Unless you beat it with a stick a while


Billingsley does not seem to have registered that dried cod needs to be tenderized before cooking, that you can’t just boil it without doing this first seems to have stuck in his mind as a miraculous property of something called a ‘stockfish’.


As I said, Billingsley added an appendix about the Fall to his poem about the Creation. here, he daringly ventures into dialogue.


God and Adam he treats using a figure of the two as landlord and tenant:

Of all the trees that in the Orchard be 
I set them for thy use, one only tree 
Shall be my rent; that tree thou shalt not tast, 
Which in the center of the garden’s plac’d 
The rest are freely thine, by my permission, 
Rent-free: but yet on an imply’d condition: 
What I injoyne be studious to fulfill, 
Touch not the tree of knowledg, good, and ill; 
For by my sacred majesty, I vow, 
And by my venerable name, if thou 
Break but thy Lease, “thy very lips that shall 
“Let in this fruit, shall let in death withal. 
But if thou please me well, this tree shal be 
A sacred pledg between thy God, and thee. 


Adam replies in kind, and sounds up-to-date on property law


                        shall I fail 
To keep from thee thy right? shall my transgression 
Displease the Landlord of my free possession. 
O no, I will obey …


Adam then produces a series of impossibility tropes, including some that show him creditably knowledgeable about the world he has so recently entered:

Sooner shall sun-burnt India grow cold, 
And Icy Zealand hot, and heav’ns grow old. 
E’re I from my first principles retreat, 
And disobey my God, so good, so great… 

But Satan does his thing:

(His) plot the better to accomplish, he 
Goes wriggling up on the forbidden tree: 
Assaults the woman, with his baited gin, 
And thus he drawes the silly woman in:

Great Empress of the world: I humbly sue 
To be resolved of a doubt, which you 
Can satisfie me in: have you indeed 
Your appetite restrain’d? what, mayn’t you feed    
On evr’y pleasant fruit? why so? doth God 
Limit your pow’r? if so, 'tis very odd.


At this point, Billingsley opts to make Satan into a bad Cavalier poet:

Coy woman tast, behold their beautiful 
And cherry cheeks, coy woman do but pull. 
Cannot those mellow-delicates, invite 
Your wat’ring palate, to an appetite? 
Methinkes they should, taste, and you shall have skil, 
To know the diference 'twixt good, and ill. 
Why draw’st thou back?

                                    To the possessed Snake, 
The cred’lous woman this reply did make. 
Wisest of beasts, all that you speak is true, 
You counsel for the best, all thanks be due, 
For your great love your love which doth transcend 
All merit of mine, thanks to my loyal friend: 
My life’s to small to hazard for your ease, 
Friend I could give’t, your speeches doe so please. 
This fruit is marv’lous pleasing to the eye; 
And questionless, 'tis to the taste: I’ll try. 
And eat thereof and give my husband Adam . 
They bow to serve you, at your pleasure, Madam. 
Ah! how delitious is this fruit, how sweet! 
A finer Apple I did never eat …

The commendatory verses Billingsley solicited from fellow students and relatives are kind, and lay judicious stress on his youth. If we made him touch Josuah Sylvester’s corpse, asks William Jacob, would it cry out ‘murder!’? No, not a bit of it. John Swan notes that
Whiles others of thine age mispent their  times
In toys and pastimes, thou in sacred Rhimes
Applied thy self …
D.R. of Merton College says that this ‘accurate’ poem that it confutes Epicurean atomism.

My illustration, of an Adam reacting instantly to the ‘bad fruit of knowledge’, comes from a Book of Hours, Use of Rome, French, first quarter of the16th century