Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Two broadside ballads, 1652

It is always stimulating to come across an early modern text that feels (as we say) transgressive. In the mid-seventeenth century, press censorship temporarily lapsed, and the printing presses were numerous and nimble enough to let all sorts of voices speak. Broadside ballads had always allowed a broad range of robust sentiment, these two texts both have a transgressive spirit, stronger and truer than in most of the elite writing from which we so carefully refine it these days.

The Last News From France purports to tell a story of how the future Charles II escaped after the Battle of Worcester. The gender switchings are harder to keep in mind than those in As You Like It: in the main, Charles dresses as a servingman, whose Lady, ‘Mistress Ann’, is actually a young gentleman in disguise. You only learn this fact from the ballad’s heading: in the ballad itself, the speaker has effectively become female. At one point in the ballad a maximum of reversal is enjoyed: ‘He of me a service did crave / and often-times to me stood beare / In womans apparel he was most brave / and on his chin he had no hare’. First, the ‘King of Scots’ stands bare-headed to his Master-Mistress, the next moment, he is dressed as a woman. That ‘Womans’ adds such confusion that one half wonders if it was a misprint (but, say, a ‘servingman’ could not dress up ‘most brave’ without Charles starting to look like himself again, even if without a Cavalier’s Van Dyke beard). During the historical Charles's escape, the main problem was his distinctive height: forces were searching for 'a tall black man, over two yards high'. But the ballad writer isn't troubled by plausibilities of disguise, and pops him into 'womans apparel'.

Anyway, in the ballad, the two pass (most implausibly) through London, visit (and weep at) the place of the execution of Charles’s father, take a boat from Queenhithe, and reach France. And all the way through, the refrain line is ‘And the King himself did wait on me’. The ballad ends with the speaker wishing well to the King, who has (the ballad blithely announces) been invited to Denmark to take up the throne there: and the little flurry of subversion ends with a perfect example of ‘containment’: ‘But as for my part / I’m glad with all me heart / That my man must now my master be’. In a different country, everything will be as it should be.

But even so, in this defiantly, even cockily Royalist ballad (it was written to be sung to the tune ‘When the King enjoys his own again’, Matthew Parker’s definitive ballad for the Stuart cause), there is this heady, even sexy pleasure in the King becoming a servingman. During the romance of escape, he even becomes a woman. See, though, a kind of delicacy: to enjoy this kind of royal servitude to him, the speaker has had to become ‘Mistress Ann’. As the son of his courtly father, Charles can (it seems) with more seemliness ‘serve’ a woman. ‘Where ever I came / My speeches did frame / So well my Waiting man to free’: if, as a necessity to set the King ‘free’, the King has to be made subject, and ordered around, well, a woman can just about permissibly do this.

The Wanton Wife of BATH is an absolute ripper: ‘In Bath a wanton wife did dwell / As Caucer she doth write’ (it begins). And you might think that, once you have got over this casual re-gendering of Chaucer, things will settle down a bit. In fact, they get wilder and wilder. The Wife of Bath dies, and her soul goes a knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door. The first to answer is Adam, who tells her that there is no place for a sinner like her there. She gives it to him straight: ‘Thou wast the causer of our woe / our pain and misery / And first broke Gods commandements / in pleasure of thy wife’. Adam reels away, and in comes Jacob to tell her to go to Hell: she tells him he was a ‘false deceiver’. Lot tries, and is roundly told off for his drunkenness and incest, Judith arrives to see if she can do any better, is denounced as a murderess, and departs blushing, King David had adultery and trouble-making hurled at him, while King Solomon, in the Wife’s unflinching view a whoremaster and idolater, never stood a chance. Jonah, Thomas and Mary Magdalen are scolded away for their various turpitudes, nor has she forgotten the persecutions of Paul, ‘Then up starts Peter at the last / and to the gate he hies / Fond fool, quoth he / knock not so fast / thou weariest Christ with cries’, but this gets a searing rejoinder about her never having denied Christ ‘as thou thy self hast done.’

I suppose that only in bits of medieval drama do you hear this voice of outrageous commonsense response to the Bible and its gallery of doubtful customers. It has been biting pretty close to the bone: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is fighting her corner all too well, establishing herself as the moral equal or superior to a mixture of patriarchs, biblical kings, and disciples. The raunchiest voice in the Canterbury Tales seems ready to instate the text from which she comes - when it comes to teaching morality - ahead of the Bible.

Of course, all this subversion ends with containment, in its perfect form: Christ himself comes to hear what the fuss is about. Of him, she craves mercy, she repents, agrees humbly to all his charges about her lewd life and not living to his teachings, but still has the courage to cite the precedents: the thief on the cross, the prodigal son forgiven, the strayed sheep. And Christ forgives her soul, and lets her enter into joy.

I can only imagine a clergyman biting his lip at this gleeful invention, in which the unruliest woman in an English book denounces the Bible as a rogues’ gallery, and makes an unanswerable case for mercy based on precedents, not morality. Maybe quite a few copies of both these ballads were torn up by vexed readers, but it is pleasant to imagine a folded up copy being taken out of an apron pocket, and somebody starting to sing either ballad to listeners that she knew would approve.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Two Interiors

Two interiors by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), one a kitchen scene, the other, witches preparing for a sabbath. What amuses me is, which is the scene of horror? Mrs Teniers sitting peeling apples among a hecatomb of slaughtered animals, or Mrs Teniers getting ready to meet Satan? The swan pie, decorated with a floral crown and (I think) with the bird’s beak gilded (for that was the classy way to serve swan) is scarcely less grotesque than any of the zoomorphs and serras in the witchcraft picture. The dead things hanging overhead are merely brought back to life as transitional beings in the sabbath scene, the hag making witches’ brew is just another cook preparing soup, in both interiors, the chimney has prime importance: wide enough to roast birds on spits six in a row, or to fly up, preceded by a spirit in animal form. And Mrs Teniers, demurely looking round in both pictures: is that her husband arriving, or is it the Devil?

That the ‘embarrassment of riches’ looks so like the chaotic accumulations of witchcraft perhaps indicates that Teniers was doing these pictures rapidly, reproducing poses that he knew, quoting himself. I see that he is the 9th ‘most stolen’ painter in a list inevitably headed by Picasso: lots of minor, ill-guarded galleries must have pictures by this indefatigable and long-lived artist. What he lacked in outright quality, he made up for in quantity. Yet Teniers could be subversive: another kitchen scene is populated solely by macaques, as if he did see the strangeness of ordinary things, and then the ordinariness of the strange.

The town of Reading still has a proper game butcher, Vicars: not everybody is affronted by meat still in its fur, or feathers. Black blood shows at the nostrils of hares, sometimes a few redder drops show in the sawdust. Tell me, I say to my students, lecturing on Hero and Leander (‘Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring / Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing…’ – that most subversive appeal to common experience, as Leander finally gets his way with Hero), has anyone here ever had to kill an animal to eat? And sometimes, someone has had to do that, in the normal course of things on the farm. That kitchen, in the painting, is so close to the exterior world - in through the open door and onto the spit it goes. In supermarkets, the meat counter is always far from the daylight, the rain and the wind.

(The Teniers picture of the kitchen and that of the apes are at

if you enter 'Teniers' in the 'Author' search box.)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Oh, Mr Porta, what shall I do?

This is me all over: because I once supervised a postgraduate working on cosmetics in English Renaissance Drama, and because I can do anybody’s work but my own (and then only years after it would have been useful) some more cosmetic practices. These are from the English translation of Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick (1658) an encyclopaedia of wonders (he claims he wrote the first of its many editions when he was 15), with a ninth book ‘How to adorn Women, and Make them Beautiful.’ This was not a book aimed solely at women – the cosmetics chapter ends with a section on how to play jokes on women who have been painting themselves (see below). Della Porta had once fallen foul of the demonologists, who accused him of being a magician and conjurer. Much of the cosmetics section has a resemblance to the grimoires, books of spells, which often seem to me to have been self-validating by means of specifying unobtainable ingredients or unendurable processes. For instance, if something like the Petit Albert tells you that to procure impotence in a man, as your first ingredient you need the foreskin of a freshly-killed wolf, the spell makes itself un-falsifiable, safe in the realm of ‘it might work’. A mystique is preserved, the crucial gosh-wow factor for your reader. Meanwhile, any potential user of a book like this thinks, ‘Leeches steeped in red wine for 60 days might do the job very well, but I want to get rid of these grey hairs I’ve just noticed right now’, and opts for something that comes to hand.

Conversely, serious suffering to be beautiful clearly did occur. Maybe Della Porta’s wildly hazardous remedies spring from their belief that God created everything for human use, so, as even poisons are there for some good purpose, you just have to use them wisely. You see glimpses too of that profuse natural world, where getting hold of lots of leeches, for instance, might not be the stumbling block to a remedy (I think of Wordsworth’s ‘Leech-Gatherer’ struggling to collect his stock-in-trade). Here, that early modern world, thick with flora and fauna, is slowly being replaced by our world, rich in substances. The alchemists are turning up elements and compounds, new materials are coming in from observation of medical practices in the New World: the modern pharmacopia is starting to overtake the natural cornucopia; 'Art' on that engraved title page is starting to usurp the multi-breasted 'Nature'. But to such as Porta it is still all to be called ‘Natural Magic’, benign to mankind, its hazards foggily conceived and side-lined. A dream of beneficial results still tends to occlude even known hazards (rub oil of vitriol on your teeth, and they will be very white, but so will your gums be if you rub too far).

The author begins with the usual quasi-moral rationale for actually allowing cosmetics:

“When God, the Author of all things, would have the Natures of all things to continue, he created Male and Female, that by fruitful Procreation, they might never want Children: and to make Man in love with his Wife, he made her soft, delicate and fair, to entice man to embrace her. We therefore, that Women might be pleasing to their Husbands, and that their Husbands might not be offended at their deformities, and turn into other womens chambers, have taught Women, how, by the Art of Decking themselves and Painting, if they be ashamed of their foul and swart Complexions, they may make themselves fair and Beautiful.”

Here’s the recipe for ‘hoary hairs’ (there's a way to make going grey sound even worse!):

“It is worth the while, to shew such as are ashamed to seem old, how to dye their hoary Hairs black. How Gray Hairs are dyed Black. Anoynt your Hair in the Sun with Leeches that have lain to corrupt in the blackest Wine sixty daies, and they will become very black. Or else, Let a sextary of Leeches stand in two sextaries of Vinegar in a Leaden Vessell to corrupt, for sixty daies; and as I said, anoint your Hair. Pliny saith, It will dye so stongly, that unless they hold Oyl in their mouths, when they dye the hair, it will make their Teeth black also…”

~ I like the way Porta just leaves that problem mentioned by Pliny hanging: just imagine, you have had your leeches rotting in red wine for sixty days, you are ready to rediscover that younger you – but do you or do you not have to have a mouthful of oil while you apply?

Here’s a gem for the dissatisfied new mother: you’ve had a baby with staring blue eyes, when you wanted a baby with nice dark ones:

“But if you would Change the colour of childrens Eyes, You shall do thus: anoint the fore part of their Heads with the Ashes of the shells of Hazel-nuts and Oyl…There are many experiments to make white and gray Eyes black, and alter the colours. But I shall let them pass, because those that want them will not so lightly endanger their Eyes…”

~ again, his non committal way of dropping a question (just how dangerous is this?)

As in my previous posting on cosmetics, the helpless squalor of early modern life sometimes speaks loudly:

“Ringworms will so deform the face, that nothing can do it more: sometimes, they run upon other parts of the Body, as the Arm-pits and Thighs: there drops forth of them, a stinking water that will foul the cloths.”

And, again, he gives only recipes to minimise breast growth, none to maximise it:

“Chapter XXVI To hinder the breasts from augmenting Amongst the Ornaments of women, this is chief, to have after Child-bearing, round, small, solid, and not sagging or wrinkled Brests. Bruise hemlock, and lay a Cataplasm thereof with Vinegar to womens brests, and it will stay them that they shall not increase; especially, in virgins.”

~ I like the way that the remedy sets off with its usefulness after childbearing, and ends by saying that this works very well in virgins.

But it is the slopping around of hazardous chemicals that amazes. Here’s the start of a recipe for spots: To take spots from the Face Put Quick-Lime into hot water; mingle them, and stir them for ten days…” ~ I promise I have not altered that quotation.

Or: A common Depilatory, Which men use commonly in Baths. It consists of Quick-Lime, four parts made into Powder, Orpiment one part: boyl them. Try with a Hens Feather; when that is made bare with it, it is boyl’d: take heed you boyl it not too much, or that it stay not too long upon you skin, for it will burn.”

~ yes, it would, wouldn’t it?

Della Porta is keen on quicksilver:

“I said, that there was nothing better than quick-silver for womens paints, and to cleanse their faces, and make them shine. Wherefore, I shall set down many ways to prepare it, that you may have the use of it to your desire. Take one ounce and half of pure quick-silver, not falsified with lead: for if there be lead mingled with it, all Your labour is lost…"

But some will not away with quick-silver, by reason of the hurt it commonly doth to the teeth: but use other water. Yet there is no better water … and the face anointed with it, shines like silver: it draws the skin handsome, and makes it soft.”

~ But can this be the same writer who lets slip this in giving his list of dentifrices?

“There is nothing held more ugly then for a woman to laugh or speak, and thereby to shew their rugged, rusty, and spotted teeth: for they all almost, by using Mercury sublimate, have their teeth black or yellow.”

His book concludes with ‘Some sports against women’: jokes to play on women. They include sub-Middletonian tricks that will let you know if a woman has been painting on her ‘complexion’ or not. This one relies on her face having ended up being so chemically primed, that you can trigger a precipitating reaction on it:

“If you would know a painted Face, do thus: Burn Brimstone in the room where she is: for if there be Ceruse or Mercury sublimate on her Face, the smoak will make her brown, or black.”

I can imagine the chemistry working, but doubt if anyone ever pulled off this stunt - it has to be a joke, derived from an observed process, solemnly reported. Nice idea, though.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bird Brains

Are you desperate to find an unrecognised significance in an early modern text?
New Age Practitioner!
Do you want some suggestions to help keep you ahead of the pack?

Find your fortune here:


John Gaule, A Collection out of the best approved authors (running title, ‘the Mag-Astro-Mancer posed and puzzl’d’ (1657), pp. 165-6.

"Stareomancy, or Divining by the elements; Aeromancy, or Divining by the air; Pyromancy, by Fire; Hydromancy, by water; Geomancy, by earth; Theomancy, pretending to divine by revelation of the Spirit, and by the Scriptures, or word of God; Daemonomancy, by the suggestion of evill daemons or Devills; Idolomancy, by Idolls, Images, Figures; Psychomancy, by mens souls, affections, wills, religious or moral dispositions; Antinotomancy, by the entrails of men, women or children; Theriomancy, by Beasts; Ornithomancy, by Birds; Icthyomancy, by Fishes; Botanomancy, by herbs; Lithomancy, by Stones; Cleromancy, by lotts; Oniromancy, by dreams; Onomatomancy, by Names; Arithmancy, by numbers; Logarithmancy, by Logarithmes; Strenomancy, from the breast to the belly; Gastromancy, by the sound of, or signes upon the belly; Omphelomancy, by the navell; Chiromancy, by the hands; Paedomancy, by the feet; Onychomancy, by the nailes; Chephaleomancy, by the braysing of an Asses head; Tuphramancy, by ashes; Capromancy, by smoak; Livanomancy, by the burning of Frankincence; Carromancy, by melting of Wax; Lecanomancy, by a basin of water; Catoxtromancy, by looking-glasses; Cartomancy, by writing in papers; Macharomancy, by knives or swords; Chrystallomancy, by glasses; Dactylomancy, by rings; Coseinomancy, by seives; Axinomancy, by sawes; Cattabomancy, by vessells of brasse, or other metal; Roadomancy, by starres; Spatalamancy, by skins, bones, excrements; Sciomancy, by shadowes; Astragalamancy, by dice; Osnomancy, by wine; Sycomancy, by figgs; Typomancy, by the coagulation of cheese; Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or branne; Crithomancy, by grain, or corn; Alectromancy, by Cocks, or Pullen; Gyromancy, by rounds or circles; Lampadomancy, by candles and Lamps; And in one word for all, Negromancy, or Necromancy, by inspecting, consulting or divining by, with or from the dead."

'Gastromancy' by the sound of the stomach strikes me as being as good a means to foretell the future as any, in a strictly local kind of way. But 'by the coagulation of cheese'? Some of these John Gaule, a writer given to a rhetorical display of 'copia', may be making up. Others are still known about, and practised.

~ All this reminded me that long ago, in the days of the football pools, we tried ‘alectromancy’, using the family budgerigar. The ‘pools’ involved selecting 16 teams out of the English and Scottish leagues, and each Saturday, you hoped that your selected team numbers would include, ideally, just the 8 scoring draws of that day (for an optimal win). So I wrote 92 numbers on pieces of paper, screwed them up into balls, set the bird in their midst, and we all waited until Bobby pecked at 16. Unfurled, these were our set numbers, for years. They never came up.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Doctor Lamb's Darling

I read a lot of scholarship about the witch scares of early modern Europe; I also read lots of the source texts. What bemuses me is the distance between the description given by the historians and the nature of the sources they are describing. The historian, of course, works to extract the general pattern, to systematise, and (that most seductive of projects) to explain. Texts are minced into thousands of footnotes to a well-ordered illustrative account (step forward, Keith Thomas), an overall argument smoothes out the anomalous. But if you go back to the sources, some of them can reinstate a sense of irreducible oddity and utter unaccountability. The most responsive historical scholarship is in books like James Sharpe’s The Bewitching of Anne Gunter, where a single case is opened out and displayed at length, as a complementary study to his more synoptic Instruments of Darkness.

I introduce my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course with a lecture on the Throckmorton children (The most strange and admirable discovery of the three witches of Warboys,1593), and ask my students for their responses (how did three teenage sisters, aided by their younger siblings, come to destroy the Samuels family, mother, father and daughter, by pressing an accusation of witchcraft with such pertinacity?). They are fascinated, but baffled.

I’ve recently been reading Edmond Bower’s Dr Lambe Revived, Or, Witchcraft Condemned in Anne Bodenham (1653). The booklet poses the usual reading challenge: the author has an absolutely settled opinion, and fits the events into a master narrative – but it is one that we repudiate entirely. So we try to read through his representation, and penetrate into the opacity behind a report which was a clear case to him.

The accused was the local ‘wise’ or ‘cunning’ woman. She is reported to have been 80 (‘80’ often seems to be used as a vaguely suitable assigned age, in these reports). A Catholic, a great gossip and teller of tall tales, alcohol dependent, and capable of enhancing her ‘cures’ and predictions with props sufficient to impress a servant girl, Anne Styles.

Meanwhile (and here I plunge into conjecture), in the Goddard household, an intense power struggle has developed. The central figure is Mistress Goddard. On one side are her household servants, led by Mistress Elizabeth Rosewel; and on the other side, her daughters-in-law. Mistress Goddard sometimes laughs at the idea, but does seem to be troubled by fears that someone was trying to poison her. One assumes she was ill in some undiagnosed way. The servants, if they are not actually poisoning their mistress themselves and aiming to pin the blame on the daughters-in-law, certainly advance a long way towards poisoning those daughters-in-law. This plot the servants seem to represent as a way of delivering the exemplary punishment that will reveal to the world the corruption of their mistress’s relatives.

The dupe, the step-and-fetch-it, is Anne Styles, who goes backwards and forwards between the busily conspiring servants and the oracular Anne Bodenham. The latter only had to perform a bit of mumbo-jumbo to set the girl’s imagination off: Anne Styles comes back with breathless accounts of Mistress Bodenham’s supernatural CCTV into the Goddard household, spirit boys dancing with cat and dog familiars and the rest. Illiterate herself, she excitedly reported that Mistress Bodenham conjured out of books: one seemed to have a picture of the devil in it. Among the things she reports seeing in Mistress Bodenham’s green scrying glass, is her mistress’s bedchamber, and poison under the bed bolster. But Mistress Rosewel will not investigate this.

Mistress Bodenham next foretells that an attempt will be made to poison Mistress Goddard when a cup of sage ale is served to her. (Visit
for a work in progress on every folk remedy using sage - including sage ale, a health drink of the period.)

The ale is prepared on the day foretold. Rosewel gets Styles to check it: to her, it looks contaminated. But Rosewel carries it to her mistress. Styles asks if Rosewel duly told their mistress, but only gets the enigmatic reply: ‘her Mistris knew well enough of it by her looks’.

What was going on? I assume that Mistress Bodenham knows all about the sage ale because she has herself prescribed it, for whatever symptoms Mistress Goddard manifested. (Like everyone in the household, she sent Styles to consult the ‘witch’ on her behalf.) The cure was not working. The servants want to represent this cure as containing poison, put in it by the daughters-in-law. Why Rosewel cannot voice her suspicions to her mistress is unexplained. She was either poisoning her mistress, and wanting to incriminate the relatives, or had to deliver the sage ale under surveillance by the daughters-in-law, and can only mime her suspicions. The response from the servants to this confusion is muddled and callous: Anne is sent to procure a powder to put (as retaliation) in the broth of Mistresses Sarah and (another) Anne, the two daughters-in-law. It then proves that they cannot administer the powder, so Anne is sent again to Bodenham, for some other way to ‘make the young Gentlewomen exemplary’.

At this dangerous moment, Mistresses Sarah and Anne counter attack with all the effectiveness granted to rank against mere servants. Having heard a story that they are mentioned as purchasers of poison in nearby Sarum, they set about finding out just who has been buying poison. In the Goddard household, the servants see that they have over-reached, and are compromised. Mistress Rosewel and another maid persuade Anne Styles that she must flee to London. Easily imposed upon, Anne consults the ‘witch’ about transportation, refuses an offer that would have got her there by supernatural flight in less than two hours, and ends up being intercepted en route (as Mistress Bodenham predicted). Anne at least has the wit to fall into paroxysms of terror. Her fits (which were perhaps encouraged and covertly supported by Rosewel and the rest) serve as the buffer between any investigation and the activities of the servants operating behind this pawn.

Not that investigation seems to have happened, for Edmond Bower is entirely prepared to locate the evil in Anne Bodenham. Anne Styles’s horror that she might have sold her soul to the devil during one of her consultations with Bodenham is the drama that flamboyantly occupies all the foreground. Bower’s way of thinking is perhaps best revealed by the moment when he suddenly remembers from reading Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft that one way to find out a witch is to bring the suspect into the presence of the person she is afflicting. Anne Styles (of course without having the chance to see Anne Bodenham being ushered into the room) of course falls quiet on cue. But that Bower only recalls from Scot’s withering attack on the credibility of the ‘witchmongers’ a piece of the witchmonger’s glib and easily falsified lore betrays what he is.

His investigation, such as it is, of Anne Bodenham, duly turns up her books, which prove to have nothing at all to do with magical practice (though he still hopes that a more incriminating text remains to be found). Bower plies Mistress Bodenham with ale, and to get that small solace, she plays along with him to an extent, offering to find lost treasure for him. Bower wants her ‘to confesse other Witches, and to tell things they had done’: he is starting to witchhunt, in the manner of Hopkins or the continental inquisitors. He reports confirmation of Jean Bodin’s cruel imputation about accused witches pretending to cry: Bodenham was ‘never seen to let fall a tear; but yet many times she would make such an artificiall noyse, that one would have thought she wept’. The great revelation is that Bodenham confesses that she was formerly a servant to Dr. Lambe’: the astrologer, hated as the client of the Duke of Buckingham, had been beaten to death by the London mob back in 1628. This becomes the main sensation in Bower’s account: the Sarum witch was what a chapbook plagiarising this pamphlet later in the same year would inventively call Doctor Lambe’s darling. (Bodenham in Bowers, who can only produce quite irrelevant books, asserts that her grimoire, as yet unrevealed, came to her from a ‘Doctor Johnson’). The accused is searched by three women, who judge her to have two supernumery teats, then a talisman is found round her neck at her trial (perhaps the strongest proof in the story that Anne Bodenham believed in her own nonsense). Found guilty, her end is pathetic in the extreme. She denies her guilt, and wants to die drunk. On her way to the gallows, she asks for, and also offers to buy ale at every house she passes, but everyone she solicits refuses it to her. On the scaffold, she tries to speed up her execution, while they are anxious to delay her until the pious formalities have been properly gone through. Finally, the hangman asks her forgiveness, but with a pithy ‘Forgive thee? A pox on thee, turn me off’, she leaps off the scaffold to her death.

Bower pauses once in his narrative to consider the people whose murky manoeuvres led to Bodenham’s death and Anne Styles’ distress: he says he only names these people, who are doubtless very sorry for repeatedly consulting a witch, as incidentals necessary to his 'discovery' of the witch. In his epilogue, he says in more general terms that the purpose of the work is to show people the evil consequences of consulting 'wise-women'.

The enigmatic figure is Elizabeth Rosewel. What was she up to? She is glimpsed by Styles in Bodenham's scrying glass ‘standing in her Mistriss Chamber, looking out of the Window with her hands in her sleeves’. She consults Bodenham (by proxy) ‘to enquire concerning sweet-hearts, when she should be marryed, and how she should dis-ingage her self from her sweet-hearts that formerly had solicited her in way of marriage’. That first detail looks subversive to me, in a way Bower has not recognised: in Styles's dream image lurks a recognition: Elizabeth looks like she has supplanted her mistress: she isn’t at work in that room, but watching. Her ambition might be one to be achieved erotically: she wants to get clear of suitors that were acceptable enough to her earlier. I jump to the conclusion, you see, that she was beginning to see herself in her mistress’ place. Working at second hand, she was (perhaps) on the way to getting the obvious impediment to her ambitions out of the way, and suspects for the death already lined up. She didn’t succeed; her instruments failed her, but she got away unscathed. Anne Bodenham was foolish enough to play along boastfully with someone who was (like Frances Howard before her) determined to gamble very seriously. The man in this fraught household emerges as a little more than a cipher, and may not have been party to Elizabeth Rosewel’s scheme. Which might not have existed...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blood of Bat: 17th century cosmetic preparations

I’ve been reading Cosmeticks, or the beautifying Part of Physick (1660), which claims to have been written by John Jeams Wecker, with its translation into English at the behest of the herbalist Culpepper. These seventeenth century cosmetic preparations are addressed by its author to ‘Ladies’. Its lotions and remedies fall within in a triangular field defined by Body Shop style herbal placebos, magic, and the downright dangerous.

The majority are preparations for the hair: getting it growing, stopping it growing, changing its colour, improving its condition. The reader is expected to have a go at concocting these remedies for herself, as the title page says 'Being familiar remedies, for which every one may be his (sic) own Apothecary'. You were not expected to be squeamish in your determined pursuit of beauty: ‘the oyl of earth-worms doth increase the hair’ (p. 55). A water against shedding the hair (p. 9) reads in full: ‘Take of pure honey, candy wine, a boyes urine, milk, each one pint, and distil a water, with which you must wash the places from whence the hairs fall’.

Some of the preparations sound amazingly like a witches’ brew: Of ointments that hinder the growth of hair (p. 70) ‘Take the blood of Bats, the juice of Ivy, the juice of radish, Goat’s suet, each a sufficient quantity, mix them, and make an ointment’. This one is a depilatory: ‘Take of Ants Eggs, Juice of Henbane, hemlock, seeds of Fleawort, the blood of a Bat, of a Tortoise, each a sufficient quantity, mix them and anoint the place’ (p. 77). Anointing yourself in a hairy place with henbane and hemlock probably did have quite an effect. Just the occasional note like ‘another free from all danger’ suggests that not all the recipes are to be applied carelessly.

The 17th century pharmacy must have been an interesting place to work. Animal testing wasn’t in, but animal products certainly were: ‘Take a live green lizard, boil it in wine and oil’ (the start of a preparation against ringworm). Or you are told to take ‘earth snails fifty, bruise them all’ (p.18) – quite a messy job. A water to make the face very fair begins more like a stew: ‘Take two young pigeons, two pound of veal…’ Quicksilver, mouse turds - the ingredients are baffling in their variety, their arbitrariness.

As there always are in 17th century books, there are delights of language usage ‘an ointment to illustrate the face’ (p.102) is rather wonderful. There’s An ointment for clefts of the Nibbles…(we would say, dully, ‘cracked nipples’).

And there are the differences of expectation. The author finally comes to a section Of ointments that adorn the breast. All of these preparations, all of them, are concerned to make the breasts smaller. It can’t just be the author having a thing about small breasts, a cultural expectation speaks, and woman are expected to be doing something about themselves. Remedy (as he sees it) after remedy is a recipe 'To keep the breasts small' or 'To make the Brests decrease or grow less' (‘The juice of hemlock mixt with Camphure layd on, makes them less’), or ointments to inhibit breast growth ‘to hinder the growth of the breasts, to make the breasts less, and hard. Not a single one on augmentation, the modern mania.

Occasionally, how hard and squalid people's lives could be strikes the reader, as in a series of remedies to get rid of Lice in the eyebrows.

The ointments to take away the marks of small pox remind us of the horrors from which we have been delivered. This is the poet Richard Corbett, writing about small pox in his poem on the death of Lady Haddington:

Oh thou deformed unwoman-like Disease,

That plowst up flesh and blood, & sowest pease

And leaves such prints on Beauty, that dost come

As clouted shoes do on a floor of loam

Thou that of faces honey-combs dost make.

And of two breasts, two colanders, forsake

Thy deadly trade...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Early Modern Zoophilia

I was trying to knot my shoelaces yesterday without getting Lupin the rabbit's whiskers caught in the bow: she was, as ever, right up there with the action, working out what was going on at a hazardous proximity. Then my son and I had to run back from the bus-stop, having seen a red kite circling right over our back garden, where Lupin was roaming around chomping the scenery, as ever (and, we assumed, representing to a kite the living equivalent of a hot pie on a plate). Whether she has enough instinct left after generations of captive breeding to scan the skies for trouble I really doubted. No harm was done.

This sense of stupidity in your pet made me think of a lurid 17th century pamphlet I had come across, A true narrative of the proceedings at the sessions-house in the Old-Baily (1677), in which a married woman in her thirties, 'a person of lewd conversation', is charged that 'having not the fear of God before her eyes, nor regarding the order of Nature ... to the disgrace of womankind, did commit ******* with a certain Mungril Dog.' The witnesses against her are two women who are (reading between the lines) quite accustomed to spying her extra-marital adventures through holes in the wall that divides their insalubrious-sounding lodgings. The woman denies it, and with her husband, alleges malice on the part of the witnesses. So the dog is brought into court: 'and being set on the Bar before the Prisoner, owned her by wagging his tail, and making motions as it were to kiss her.' The dog having so completely done the wrong thing, silly boy, she is found guilty. 'Yet cannot the Bearded Sex, though pretending to a stronger reason, justle on this unhappy President upbraid the Weaker Vessels' (the pamphlet continues, rather oddly, but the intended sense is clear enough), as the next case involves a man charged with a similar offence against two mares in a field. He gets off, as the witnesses were 60 yards away, even though he says something highly self-incriminating about having meant no harm. The mares were not brought into court against the man (one supposes that, as females, they would have had to shun their abuser to secure his conviction, while the dog only had to behave like a dog does to convict the woman).

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A Young Lady Makes an Decision

For reasons obscure even to myself, I have started to collect old postcards of people with their bicycles. There are hundreds and thousands of these, dating from a time when a bicycle was a prestigious possession, one that indicated independence, modernity, fashion. People had their photographs taken in studios, with a backdrop, or outside, standing with their machine. The photograph taken would often by printed on a postcard, which the subject could keep, or send to a friend. Occasionally the cards are adapted with some form of seasonal greeting.

Many of these date from years when the postal service in Britain was at its highest point of excellence, with three or four deliveries and collections a day. In some of my postcards, people are using a card to announce a safe arrival, or arrange a ride together, confident that the addressee would have it in their hands later the same day.

But look at this young lady. I think her dress dates the card around 1910 (for obvious reasons, the card was not stamped and addressed, but must have been put in an envelope and sent). She isn't wearing the mutton-leg sleeves of earlier Edwardian fashion, but a short jacket, double skirt, high-necked blouse, white gloves, and a large straw hat with a band. She stands, slim and erect, beside her bicycle, looking to the photographer's left. As often with these images, the bicycle looks as though it may be brand new.

On the reverse, the message that must have thrilled the recipient when he opened the envelope: 'I have decided to sleep with you tonight'. Nothing else. No, 'Dear ****', no 'love', no signature: she just announces the decision she has come to, without any fuss. What a story! How Lawrentian! It is easy to imagine their discussions, their meetings, how she would go away and think about it, how they knew what they would do if she did. He doesn't have to be told where (one will, I imagine, be cycling to meet the other for their tryst).

The photographer was 'Parr', based at Hamstead Marshall, near Newbury. The social history of cycling stresses, as in H G Wells' novels, the bicycle as creating social mixing. It reputedly rescued deepest Norfolk from generations of catastrophic inbreeding. But rarely is the bicycle as an instrument of personal, sexual liberation so directly caught.

I hope they were happy. The young lady had courage and passion. How strange that the passional moment of a lost life survives, and is so eloquent.
has some really fine old photographs of late 19th century cyclists.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Between Two Worlds

I have become interested in early advertising materials. I have posted about some early single sheet ‘bills’, including some by doctors. As the 17th century advanced, doctors began to produce quite lengthy pamphlets which described their diagnostic skills and curative regimes. I have a professional interest in materials related to witchcraft. Yesterday, I came across a pamphlet which, remarkably, combines the two, and which stands as a bridge between two worlds, the early modern, and a world that is something recognisably like our own.

It is by Dr John Skinner, who describes himself as a ‘Student in Physick and Astrology’. ‘Astrology’ is perhaps as far as he dare go in advertising his real skills, as a private exorcist (as well as a being a doctor). The date is 1681. By this date, belief in witchcraft was well on the wane, at least in educated circles, but Margaret Gurr (his main subject, of Tunbridge in Kent, a servant) was accosted by two devils, who tempted her to commit suicide. This was quite a normal way for people to rationalise their worst impulses; to externalise them as diabolic in nature. One devil wants her to hang herself from the ‘Clock-Lines’ in the room (I’m not sure what they can be), while the other prompts her to thrust knitting needles into her ears. This was on the 19th July; on the 4th August, one of the devils enters into her, followed by a witch who also possesses her, saying: ‘Do as I say, and do as I would have you, and (be) as I am, for I am a Witch, a Witch, I am a Witch, do as I say and be as I am, and you shall be well.’

So far, so vivid, and plausible in its kind. The material consists, purportedly, of words ‘taken from her mouth Verbatim as she spake them’. But Skinner’s guiding hand appears when the witch says ‘I would not have you go to Doctor Skinner that Devil for help’. Poor Margaret gets worse, being tempted to curse at prayer time, and acquiring a rictus. On August 6th, as she is fetching pails of water. The devils abduct her aerially: ‘I was catcht up with the Devils, and was carried about with them, flying in the air’. This is a surprisingly normal symptom: it was the 17th century version of alien abduction. Skinner has clearly been consulted, and has told her to pray whenever she is tempted (it seems, tempted to yield to the Devil in another episode of flying). The Witch speaks from inside her again: ‘Go you not to that Devil Doctor Skinner for help, for if you do, I am utterly undone.’ (The forces of evil do not seem very subtle!)

Unassisted prayers do no good, the voices inside get more incessant, and she is ‘carried up and down with the Devils’ in perhaps further episodes of what she experiences as flight. Then, suddenly: ‘But with the Blessing and help of God, Doctor Skinner cast out the Devils and Witch out of my body, and also Cured me of the scurvy and Gout, and all within the compass of twelve days’. Furthermore, with her cure has come a spiritual benefit: ‘I knew not any Letters in the Bible or Testament, but since my enduring this heavy punishment … I can now learn my Book, and am wonderfully delighted in Reading and spending all my spare time in Prayers.’

Between two worlds: in this grubby little pamphlet, the world of Institoris and Sprenger is breathing its last: devils, witches, aerial abduction. A self-appointed expert leads on the simple and afflicted woman, coaxing her to say the words he wants her to say: but not to get her to confess to her pact with the devil, so as to burn her as a witch, but (and here the modern world appears) rather to secure a testimonial from her, so that he can start to make some real money. Two devils and a witch exorcised, scurvy and gout cured, and (no doubt with heaven’s help), a miraculous attainment of adult literacy: what more could anyone want from a doctor?

In the rest of the pamphlet, Skinner deals with another case of possession, and two more purely medical emergencies. The other possession case is almost as interesting as Margaret Gurr’s: a pious 17 year old servant boy, to whom the devil appears and astonishes him with the dire words: ‘You must go into Virginia.’ The devil tempting you to go to America probably made a lot of sense – he was ‘led on and tempted to strange things, as to go to sea, and matters that he was not able to mention’: a bored and disturbed adolescent might well have put such impulses as a diabolical visitation. With the boy’s concerned master paying half up front, and the rest on the completion of the cure (for Skinner cleverly insinuates how he expects to be paid), the boy is delivered from all diabolical urgings to go to America within eighteen days.

Skinner has been adroit enough to see that if he dresses up his advertising material as a case of witchcraft and possession, it will be read more avidly. In this horror movie of his own directing, he is himself the product placement. Four witnesses sign to Margaret Gurr’s testimony, exactly as would be done in those adverts based on ‘unsolicited testimonials’. But if the suicidal Margaret was restored to physical and mental help, Skinner’s odd mix of ‘Physick’ and exorcism wasn’t solely exploitative.

In Edward Ravenscroft’s play, Dame Dobson; or the Cunning Woman (1684), a servant girl, after much cajoling, finally manages to get out that she would like the cunning woman to create a magic potion that will enlarge her ‘bubbies’.

I always enjoy seeing these odd reflections of the present in these old and tarnished mirrors.