Saturday, May 13, 2006

Early Modern Pets

I was thinking again about Sir Thomas More and his household: that grave company of clever adults (two or three of the young women present do seem to be pregnant, but no actual children intrude on the scene). Instead, three honorary children appear, supplying an unexpectedly frivolous shrub-layer to this forest canopy of mature intellects: the animals, two dogs, and tucked away in the right hand corner, like a marginal antic-work in an illuminated manuscript, an ape.

Early modern pets always included exotics – those delightful and faintly subversive popinjays! – but I want to post today about the wider range of native animals people kept as pets. Charles Cotton (1630-87), gentleman poet and angler, who lived on the Staffordshire side of the Peak District, had a pet pine marten, which he wrote about in a set of verses, ‘On My Pretty Marten’.

The poem seems to have a twofold purpose: a self-indulgent burbling about the merits of the animal, and an attempt to convince a woman partner that this is an acceptable animal to have around. Towards the end of the poem:

Here sweet beauty is a creature

Purposely ordained by Nature,

Both for cleanness and for shape

Worthy a fair lady’s lap;

Not her bosom would disgrace,

Nor a more beloved place.

As you see, the poem is familiar to the point of being cheeky, provoking her with the inevitable and immemorial associations of small furry animals.

Cotton commends his marten as a courtly animal, superior to other favoured pets:

Then for fashion and for mien,

Matty’s fit to court a Queen;

All his motions graceful are …

Which should ladies see, they sure

Other beasts would ne’er endure;

Then no more they would make suit

For an ugly pissing-coat

Rammish cat, nor make a pet

Of a bawdy marmoset.

Nay, the squirrel, though it is

Pretti’st creature next to this,

Would henceforward be discarded,

And in woods live unregarded.

I wonder when the squirrel ceased to be a house-pet? Did it lose that ancillary role as it lost its wild territory to the grey squirrel? Marjorie Pinchwife (‘The Country Wife’) complaining that her jealous husband has threatened ‘to kill my squirrel’ comes to mind. Pine martens themselves have long disappeared from the Peak District, to survive only in Scotland and the very north of England.

The greater part of Cotton’s poem simply commends ‘Pretty Matty’:

And for beauty, Nature too

Here would show what she can do;

Finer creature ne’er was seen,

Half so pretty, half so clean.

Eyes as round and black as sloe,

Teeth as white as morning snow;

Breath as sweet as blowing roses …

Next his feet my praise commands,

Which methinks we should call hands,

Which so finely they are shap’d,

And for any use so apt,

Nothing can so dextrous be,

Nor fine handed near as he.

These, without though black as jet,

Within are soft and supple yet

As virgin’s palm …

He somehow omits the claws, doesn't he? One senses that there was a sceptical first audience, someone who had to be persuaded of the merits of this animal, when he goes out of his way to commend its smell:

Back and belly soft as down …

And of such a rich perfume,

As, to say I dare presume,

Will out-ravish and out-wear

That of the fulsome milliner.

I’ve taken my pine marten image from this website

and, in asking permission to use the photograph, drawn attention to this post about a marten as a pet. Maybe an expert will know if a marten smells pleasant at close quarters.

If Cotton’s first reader was an acute reader of poetry and men, she might have been struck by the facility with contemporary love poetry adapts to blazoning the looks of a small mammal. In the middle of the poem, Cotton praises the masculine virtues of his ‘little Cavalier’, and these tend to be its inner merits: Matty’s courage, constancy, chastity, justice, and judgment. He is

with such virtue bless’d,

That he chooses still the best,

And wants nothing of a wit

But a tongue to utter it:

Yet with that we may dispense,

For his signs are eloquence…

It doesn’t have the power of Smart’s ‘I will consider my cat Jeffrey’, or the pathos of Marvell’s ‘Nymph Complaining’. Cotton isn’t in the league of either of those poets. As a pet, a pine marten isn’t really as odd as those pet toads that seem to crop up in witchcraft pamphlets. But ‘Star Wars Galaxies’ has just popped through the door, and my son is pressing to get it installed. I have to give way to superior force. But I wonder if Cotton persuaded the lady to take to his pet?


phoenix said...

How wonderful that there existed a gentleman who was so fond of his pet that he felt obliged to write a poem - thus immortalising the creature. Perhaps Cotton did persuade the lady to accept his pet. She may have found the animal lover quite endearing. Save the perilous looking claws this little fellow does look quite amiable!

bdh said...

Speaking of 'Cavaliers', you might be interested in another pamphlet I've recently been looking at lamenting the death of Prince Rupert's white poodle "Boye" – A Dog's Elegy or Rvpert's Tears (London, 1644). The pamphlet claims that Boye (who had been shot and killed at the battle of Marston Moor) was killed by a "Valiant Souldier, who had skill in Necromancy" (titlepage). The frontispiece includes the following verse:
Sad Cavaliers, Rupert invites you all
That doe survive, to his Dogs Funerall.
Close-mourners are the Witch, Pope, & devill
That much lament yo'r late befallen evill.

The first line of the elegy itself:
Lament poor Cavaliers, cry, howl and yelp
For the great losse of your Malignant Whelp,
Hee's dead! Hee's dead? No more alas can he
Protect you Dammes, or get Victorie. (sig. A2r)

James Serpell, in his "Guardian Spirits or Demonic Pets: The Concept of the Witch's Familiar in Early Modern England, 1530-1712," suggests that "during the Civil War, Boye became a sort of Royalist mascot, a lucky charm who bounded along beside the dashing young prince as he rode at the head of the Royalist army," and that since Boye was "viewed as the embodiment of Royalist success" rumours soon "began to circulate that the dog was a familiar with supernatural powers" (165).

I think you'd enjoy Serpell's chapter – he offers a taxonomy of the different species of familiars from the Hopkins and Stearne witchcraft trials (among others), as well as tables of the names given to them. I had a quick check – no explicit mention of any pine martens... : )

DrRoy said...

I will indeed get a copy of Serpell's book, bdh, and thank you very much for the reference. Interesting example of 'witchcraft' as an attempted slur (though it is hard not to imagine that the pamphleteer got it wrong, and that his readers weren't in fact sorrier for the dog than stirred against the prince).

bdh said...

Sorry if I was unclear – Serpell's chapter is from an edited volume: James Serpell, Guardian Spirits or Demonic Pets: The Concept of the Witch's Familiar in Early Modern England, 1530-1712," in The Animal/Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives, ed. Angela Creager & William Chester Jordan (Rochester: U of Rochester P, 2002), 157-90.

polyhymnia said...

Wonderful info on early modern pets! I am just starting some research into the lore surrounding various animals (specifically dogs)in early modern culture. Any suggestions where to start? Thanks.

DrRoy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bdh said...

@liane -- Erica Fudge at Middlesex is another scholar you might wish to contact. She's written some wonderfully erudite material on perceptions of animals in early modern Europe.

More directly related to your topic is the research being done by Ian MacInnes at Albion College on "Animals and National Identity in Early Modern England". Part of this work has been published in Textual Practice, looking at the mastiff and spaniel.

polyhymnia said...

Just an update in case anyone else out there is interested in this kind of research:
It isn't Erica Sheen, but rather Erica Fudge at Middlesex University. She has quite a few publications on animals and early modern culture. I've posted the links to amazon for her books on my blog.
Thanks for the starting point though!

DrRoy said...

(I've withdrawn my mistaken suggestion: oh dear, how memory fails! Sorry Liane, and thanks again, bdh.)

DrRoy said...

I am thrilled to discover from Tim Radford's review of Luca Turin's 'The Secret of Scent' (Guardian, Saturday 27th May) that musk can be extracted from the faeces of pine martens. Probably not something you would want to do on the kitchen table, but it maybe does show that Cotton had a point about Matty smelling nice.

JayBee203 said...

As an owner of Ferrets, one of the same family - mustelidae - I can tell you that the perfume from these animals gets a mixed response. Many people who love animals like their smell, more women than men dislike the smell. It is definitely not something I would consider extracting and wearing as a cologne though.