Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Thomas Nashe learns to read fortunes in faces

I had forgotten, in posting last about Richard Saunders and his systematic account of foretelling fortunes from the face, this passage in Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night, where Nashe talks about some of the superstitions that he heard as a child. He would have been a wildly imaginative vicar's son in Norfolk:

I have heard aged mumping beldams as they sat warming their knees over a coal scratch over the argument very curiously, and they would bid young folks beware on what day they pared their nails, tell what luck everyone should have by the day of the week he was born on; show how many years a man should live by the number of wrinkles on his forehead, and stand descanting not a little of the difference in fortune when they are turned upward and when they are bent downward; 'him that had a wart on his chin', they would confidently ascertain he should 'have no need of any of his kin'; marry, they would likewise distinguish between the standing of the wart on the right side and on the left. When I was a little child, I was a great auditor of theirs, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers' ends, as perfect as good-morrow and good-even.

That Nashe didn't have autobiography as a form in which to work is one of the great regrets in 16th century English Literature (if only we had his account of his acquaintance and co-author, Marlowe!). Here, the stray reminiscence makes it clear that a book like the one Saunders wrote just adds astrology to existing superstitions - presumably Saunders had heard this type of thing himself. What does anyone know about Shakespeare's Grandmother?

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