Saturday, September 30, 2006

Comenius in English

I have been clearing from my son’s room the books he has now outgrown – down to the Amnesty International bookshop with them all. Children (I was reminded while doing this) are still given encyclopedias when young, books that offer to tell them everything about the world before them.

Thinking about such books led me to Jan Amos Komensky, ‘Comenius’, the Czech pansophist and ‘Father of Education’. Between 1650 and 1654, working in Transylvania, he produced his enormously successful Orbus Sensualium Pictus, which appeared in English editions in 1659, 1664, 1685, 1689 and 1700 as: Joh. Amos Commenius's Visible world. Or, a picture and nomenclature of all the chief things that are in the world; and of mens employments therein. A work newly written by the author in Latine, and High-Dutch (being one of his last essays, and the most suitable to childrens capacities of any that he hath hitherto made) and translated into English, by Charles Hoole, M.A. for the use of young Latine scholars.

It is the first illustrated encyclopedia for children, simultaneously giving a huge push to their Latin vocabulary. It sets off with a bizarre alphabet, in which every letter is alleged to be pronounced by a suitable animal. Thus fired to surpass the mere animal kingdom, the child is led into the word clusters and basic concepts associated with God, The World, Heaven, Fire, Air, Water, and onwards to the things in the earth: its fruits, metals, gems, flowers, animals, and then into the human world, with its life stages, trades, activities, amusements. It is strictly Eurocentric, with one brisk account of Mohammadism. The ‘visible world’ notion does not stop the book from discussing moral concepts.

And every page is illustrated, with a woodcut, many of them highly engaging. I imagine that the text was tinkered with in transmission. Comenius advocated such advanced notions as universal education (both sexes equally, and for all abilities), minimal rote learning, and regarded corporal punishment in schools as inevitably counter-productive. When the Orbuscomes to describing all aspects of a school, it is in a section which must have been adapted to local and normal conditions during the book’s progression across Europe: “Some talk together, and behave themselves wantonly, and carelessly; these are chastised with a Ferrula and a Rod’ (concludes section XCVII).

This link below is to an essay on Comenius which I recommend: it is rather moving to hear of such amazingly advanced notions being put forward by a man whose life was one of harrowing sequential exile and loss. No wonder the Czechs are proud of him:

I have put together in a single image the intriguing way the woodcut artist chose to depict the soul; the seven ages of man (and woman); the picture of domestic pets (“The Dormouse and other greater Mice, as the Weesel, The Martin and the Ferret, trouble the house” explains the text); and a depiction of a domestic amenity I did not know early modern Europe had, the ‘Stove’ room, designed to be warm and cosy. It is depicted adjacent to a bedroom, complete with chamber pot. I doubt many 17th century children needed to be told its function (“A chamber pot is for making water in”), but the Latin word ‘Matula’ can’t have cropped up that often.

Alongside, I’ve put most of the double page about marriage, as a specimen, and because it appealed to me (“After this they are called Husband and Wife; when she is dead, he becometh a widower”).

Supposing Comenius’s project had triumphed… He was a Bishop in the Moravian Brethren, a Christian Church that did NOT teach that only its adherents were the saved. Suppose Comenius had managed to teach such tolerance, alongside the vital importance of a universal education based always on practice and encouragement. Suppose his vision of Europe as a Utopia had somehow taken hold...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Two lost daughters, Sonning Church

"Here lyeth Elizabeth Chute, Daughter of George Chute Knight and Dame Anne his wife, whoe lived 3 yeares and 6 monthes and dyed the 18th of May Anno 1627.

What Beauty wold have lovely stild
What manners sweet what nature mild
What wonder perfect All were fild
Upon record, in this one child
And, till the coming of the Soule
To call the flesh, wee keep ye Roule."

This miniature version, amateur and heartfelt, of Donne's Anniversaries on Elizabeth Drury, is complemented by the memorial brass, showing a very adult-looking Elizabeth Chute.

Outside, another set of parents, in 1940, somehow mastered their grief to create a very moving grave for their daughter. The inscription, on the top face of the end stones, is almost effaced, as the stones were laid flat. It is worth recording:

'With sweet memories of our darling daughter Emerald Green, [ ]- 1940',
and at the foot of the grave, the text (a version of Matthew 10, 16), 'And he took little children into his arms and blessed them'.

The diminutive grave employs a 17th century 'conceit': for their brilliantly named daughter, a visual pun, in which the stones define a gem in the grass. The parents must have been remarkable people; it is not often that the product of mourning is a work of art.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Miraculous swarms of flies, 1675

I missed my favourite, large-size teacup this morning, and eventually found it upside down on my son's desk, imprisoning a wretched crane fly that had been blundering around in his room in the night.

They are currently swarming, not to any Biblical extent, but enough to keep popping up in the news:,,1876307,00.html

This took my thoughts to this, well, 'flyer' would be the appropriate term, of 1675, when London was hit by a genuinely prodigious swarm of insects: 'they seemed to be descending like Showers of Rain, to the great Wonder and Admiration of several Spectators, who for some considerable time stood to behold them as a great Prodigy'.

The main body seems to have drifted around London: 'this wonderful sight continued up and down from one Place to another till Night' ... 'These Insects fell down in such great Numbers in Southwark that in the Borough the Market people swept them off their Fruits, Meat, and other Commodities, by whole handfuls ... in the Gardens, at Sir John Oldcastle's near Islington, and the Long-Field, near Blooms-bury, the Flies fell down there in such swarms, that they swept them up by Pecks'.

The sheet unfortunately gives very little entomological detail: the flies, or their wings, were white, they made 'a great sort of Buzzing', the insects' wings were 'very long'. Perhaps the mention of the 'strange appearance' of the flies might refer to both their individual unfamiliarity as well as their numbers: 'the General Consternation they have put the Town in, has made the Prodigy the only Talk and Discourse of all People both in City, Town and Country.'

It doesn't sound much like a stray swarm of locusts, swept by some freak of the weather across Europe. The news sheet has no room for speculation, and is almost surprisingly un-apocalyptic, no obvious Biblical identification is made. Locusts would surely have prompted some remark about the size of the insect; these suggested rain and snow, and were swept up in handfuls. A 'Prodigy', but, by this date, nothing to suggest that heaven is sending a message, it is just one of those odd things that happen. These days, we would be in a pother about it as a sign of global warming, 'apocalypse-nouveau'.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Possess yourself with an amorous humour, Phillis!

There's lots of effort being made at approaching the erotics of early modern culture, with literary texts being picked over, and the small corpus of Elizabethan pornography given much attention. I am as amused as anyone by Nashe's 'Choice of Valentines' - who could fail to respond to a poem which starts by invoking, pricelessly, 'the merry month of February'?

But the culture was one that generally hid it all well. If we don't look for it in music, we are not looking in the right place. This is John Ward, in 1613, a madrigal setting of a quatrain. 'Phillis' is always a dubious character, and 'frankly' is a code word for 'the opposite of chaste':

Phyllis the bright, when frankly she desired
Thyrsis her sweet heart to have expired,
'Sweet', thus fell she a-crying,
'Die for I am a-dying.'

'That strain again! It had a dying fall!' ~ Phillis asks Thyrsis to join her in her approaching climax, and Ward's madrigal shudders sweetly at its close. I have posted, outside 'Blogger', the Consort of Musicke's 1981 performance, for purposes of comment etc (I cannot see that this music is still available anyway).

Here goes Phillis again, surrendering to pleasure after a bit of persuasion:

Phillis, I fain would die now,
I fain would die now.
O to die what should move thee?
For that you do not love me.
I love thee, but plain to make it,
Ask what thou wilt and take it.
O sweet, then this I crave thee,
Since you to love will have me,
Give me in my tormenting,
One kiss for my contenting.
This unawares doth daunt me,
Else what thou wilt I grant thee.
Ah, Phillis, well I see then,
My death thy joy will be then.
O, no, no, no, I request thee
To tarry but some fitter time and leisure.
Alas, death will arrest me,
You know, before I shall possess this treasure.
No, no, no, dear
No, no, no, no, dear
No, no, no, no, dear, do not languish,
Temper this sadness,
For time and love with gladness,
Once ere long will provide for this our anguish.

Once again, a link to where I have posted a 1983 performance by the Consort of Musicke, and once again, for purposes of comment, and music that does not seem to be available commercially any more:

What Thomas Morley audaciously did here was score for three women to sing 'She' (aka 'Phyllis'), four men as unnamed 'He'. Amateur performance of this song must have been as intimate as a session of 'dauncing signifying matrimony', especially in that responsive interlacing of the voices on 'no, no, no, no, dear'.

Morley himself (well he would, wouldn't he?) represents being able to take your part more or less impromptu as a necessary social grace. Morley's A plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke, 1597, is dialogue form, and it opens with one of the dialogists scurrying off to put right his own ignorance after experiencing social disgrace:
"But supper being ended, and Musick books, according to the custom, being brought to the table, the mistress of the house presented me with a part, earnestly requesting me to sing. But when after many excuses, I protested unfainedly that I could not, every one began to wonder. Yea, some whispered to others, demanding how I was brought up: so that upon shame of mine ignorance I go now to seek out mine old friend master Gnorimus, to make myself his scholar..."

When you consider just how amorous this otherwise sexually restrained culture seemed prepared to allow its private music to be, you can see the social advantages in being able to perform. Yet, speaking officially, Morley toes the moral line. This is what he says about naughty music (like some madrigals): first he lays the blame on the poets who have written the words, but then insists that once it comes to the musical setting, you have to write as expressively as possible:

"This kind of musicke were not so much disallowable if the Poets who compose the ditties would abstain from some obscenities, which all honest ears abhor ... If therefore you will compose in this kind you must possess your self with an amorous humor (for in no composition shall you prove admirable except you put on, and possess your self wholly with that vein wherein you compose) so that you must in your musicke be wavering like the wind, sometime wanton, sometime drooping, sometime grave and staid, otherwhile effeminate..."

And so he is free to score something as erotically descriptive as he can make it be.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Fruyte and ofspring, 1567

I went out cycling late on Friday afternoon, and was across to Shottesbrooke, a few miles east of Reading, in time to pick up the key to Shottesbrooke Church from the Landmark Trust office on the estate. It is a notable example of a 'Decorated' style Church, still consecrated, but with most of the pews removed. Among the brasses this left completely clear of the usual lengths of carpet, was this one, to Thomas Noke.

"Here lyeth buried Thomas Noke who for his great age and vertuous lief was reverenced of all men and com(m)enly called Father Noke created Esquier by King Henry VIII he was of stature high + comely and for his Excellencie in artilarie made y(e)omen of the crowne of England which had in his lief there (three) wifes and by every of them com fruyte + of(f)spring and deceased the 21st day of August 1567 in the year of his age 88, leaving behynde hym Julian his last wief, two of his brotherne one sister one only sonne and ii daughters living"

I suppose that the surviving wife, Julian, had herself depicted alone on her late husband's right, her two predecessors on his left. Nothing distinguishes their ages or costumes. Thomas Noke himself has a crown with a Tudor rose on his left shoulder, as a mark of his Royal service, and is well dressed, with fur linings to his robes and ornamental sleeves. There's a stylised flower between his feet. Facing us full-frontally, with his wives orientated to three-quarter face around him, he is made central to the otherwise inevitably assymetrical design.

The hieratic image, static and pious, makes the hazardous career Nokes somehow survived come as a surprise. I suppose that the memorial means 'artilarie' as in guns (the 'great artillery', properly), and so we have to imagine the old blue powder burns on his praying hands, and the ringing in his ears he'd probably have lived with for many years.

It is a dignified memorial, though perhaps faintly conveying (by that redundancy, in an otherwise breathlessly terse summary, about "fruyte and ofspring") the last Mistress Nokes' appreciation of her late husband as a potent man, whose various talents satisfied a King and three wives.

Friday, September 15, 2006


I have more or less given up on the National Trust: a visit to one of their historical properties feels to me increasingly like a visit to a Departmental store. Everything is tasteful, quite beautifully presented, and an attentive staff will keep you from straying, and tell you everything you want to know. So I'm increasingly getting my jolts of less mediated history from local churches. You may not be able to get in, there's often no way of knowing what you will see there, and you never quite know whether to believe what the (quite frequently admirably learned) church guide says.

The font above is in Bramley Church: Norman, in that Purbeck marble that is full of fossils of the snail Viviparus. The wooden lid is very old, and seems to be a rare survival of a 12th century edict that fonts, with their contents of Holy Water, should be locked. Here, the hasp for the padlock survives, to retro-fit this, the Norman font was crudely hacked down to shape.

This was to prevent the theft of Holy Water. Obviously, the Holy Water was invested with a lot of mana. Prior to baptism, the child might go to hell, after it, the child could be among the blessed. So one can readily imagine that people would think that something that can deliver you from eternal death might be quite curative: 'I'll get some and pour it on my gammy leg...'

Magical medicine is one step to what could be construed as witchcraft. The church guide at Bramley alleges that the 12th century edict was to prevent witches stealing Holy Water to use in their spells. In terms of chronology, this looks to me like a later development, when a slippage from semi-religious healing to deliberate desecration could be imagined. Even so, the Medieval mind was determined to keep Holy Water where it should be.

The other, chalice-like object is at Crondall church. Again, something that I'd never heard of nor seen before: it is 1648, and the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The object does not express fear that the Holy Water in the font might be contaminated, but rather fear of contamination by that Holy Water: this is a font to fit inside the font, a new Puritan font untainted by any residues left by Catholic ceremony: who knows, there might be specks of chrism blessed by a Catholic Bishop floating around in there!

The wikipedia entry on baptism looks good (and if you can find a citation on a baptism using antifreeze being accepted as valid, the author would clearly be pleased to have it)

As usual, the 1912 Catholic Encyclopaedia has the authoritative word on the minutiae on what is vaid and what is not: beer will just not do, it seems.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

To his Coy Wife...?

I have been off-line, waiting fairly patiently for BT's server to go back up, unaware that Lupin the rabbit had wandered in out of the garden, found the door she always wants to get through open, and had abstractedly bitten through the cable running from the wall socket to the wireless router.

While Lupin was disconnecting, I was unearthing the career of Thomas Jordan. His name pops up when the first woman actress, in the 1660 Othello, gets mentioned, as he wrote a genial Prologue and Epilogue to the production, which asks the audience to agree that she was far more authentically female than anything they have been used to seeing, but firmly points out that just because she has appeared on stage, it does not mean that they can have her (just what kind of women on-stage shows had these 17th century gentlemen been frequenting?). It's all rather graceful of Jordan, for he too had played female roles during his stage career.

Jordan does seem to have been everything an actor ought to be. These days, every shouty old hack seems to become a knight, but back in the days of burial at the crossroads (and quite right too), Jordan was a grade one scamp. I've read his poems, which are amateur, and very enthusiastic about women and sex. His various lady friends get their dedications, but would have found themselves (perhaps disconcertingly) not alone in being honoured by their poet - there's quite a room-full, including an Avisa Booth, and Susannah Blunt, who would be his wife. I surmise that Jordan was both pretty (playing all those girls), and a convincing performer. Thomas Randolph, in his 'Ad Lesbiam, et histrionem' makes a spicy allegation about why 'Lesbia' pays for her actor toy-boy's gambling:

you'd know the reason why
Lesbia does this, guesse you as well as I;
Then this I can no better reason tell,
'Tis 'cause he playes the womans part so well.

A performer like Jordan could deliver a best-of-both-worlds experience, it seems. Scrupulous behaviour does not appear in Jordan's history of publication. He pulled every trick: blank spaces in dedications, old volumes reprinted entire with new titles ... and how can the author of such highly sexed poetry claim this?

You wanton Lads, that spend your winged time,
And chant your eares, in reading lustfull rime,
Who like transform'd Acteon range about,
And beate the woods to finde Diana out,
I'st this you'ld have? then hence: here's no content
For you, my Muse ne're knew what Venus meant...

This is the first authorial poem in his Divine Raptures of 1646 (the same year that he had his Poeticall varieties of 1637 reprinted with the new title Loves Dialect). Well, it was easy enough for him to make that claim, for the whole of Divine Raptures is a plagiary of the obscure James Day's sole publication, A New Spring of Divine Poetry (also 1637). There's chutzpah for you! (Someone Else's Divine Raptures just wouldn't have sold, would it?).

Anyway, this appealingly lairy boy had the excruciating lack of taste to publish the poem below. It is, essentially, 'To his coy wife'. The scenario he imagines with such undisguised salaciousness may be imaginary, but the impression from the rest of the volume is that Jordan, barely past 20 when he married, had form with the ladies. I am pretty much convinced that Jordan has Donne's Elegy XIX in his mind as he perpetrates this set of rhymes, and this reminds me of Germaine Greer's unforgettable and somehow convincing argument that Donne's Elegy XIX should be read as a matrimonial poem (in Michael Hattaway's Blackwell Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, 2001).

But enough chat, here it is, 'To Leda his Coy Bride, on the Bridal Night'

Why art thou coy (my Leda) ar’t not mine?
Hath not the holy Hymeneal twine
Power to contract our Natures? must I be
Still interpos’d with needless Modesty?
What though my former passions made me vow
You were an Angel; be a Mortal now.
The bride-maids all are vanish’d, and the crew
Of Virgin Ladies that did wait on you,
Have left us to our selves; as loath to be
Injurious to our loves wish’d privacie.
Come then undress; why blush you, prithee smile;
Faith I’le disrobe ye, nay I will not spoil
Your Necklace, or your Gorget; Here’s a Pin
Pricks you (faire Leda) twere a cruel sin
Not to remove it; Oh how many gates
Are to Elizium? (yet the sweetest Straits
That e’re made voyage happy) here’s a Lace
Me thinks should stifle you; it doth embrace
Your body too severely, take a knife,
Tis tedious to undo it; By my life,
It shall be cut. Let your Carnation gown
Be pull’d off (too) and next let me pull down
This Rosy Petticoat; What is this cloud
That keeps the day light from us, and’s allow’d
More privilege then I? (Though it be white)
Tis not the white I aim at (by this light)
It shall go off (too) No? then let’t alone,
Come, let’s to bed, why look you so? Here’s none
Sees you, but I; be quick or (by this hand)
I’le lay you down my self; you make me stand
Too long I’th cold; Why doe you lie so far?
I’le follow you, this distance shall not bar
Your body from me; Oh, tis well, and now
I’le let thy Virgin innocence know how
Kings propagate young Princes, marriage beds
Never destroy, but erect maiden-heads:
Faire Virgins, fairly wedded, but repair
Declining beauty in a prosperous heir.
Come then, let’s kiss, let us embrace each other,
Till we have found a babe, faire (like the mother.)
Such face, breasts, waste, soft belly, such a---why
Doe you thrust back my hand so scornfully?
You’le make me strive (I think) Leda, you know,
I have a warrant for what ere I doe,
And can commit no trespass; therefore come
Make me believe theirs no Elizium
Sweeter then these embraces---Now ye are kind,
(My gentle Leda) since you have resign’d,
I’le leave my talking (too) lovers grow mutes
When Amorous Ladies grant such pretty sutes.

I think that I may have, at last, found something to rescue Donne's poem from its critical obloquy ('You found that offensive?! Let me show you offensive...'). But maybe Jordan's poem is just so funny and recognisable - that male impatience with female garments so well captured in this very 'hands-on' account - that the pasha-like dictating in the Donne poem ('off with' this and that) just looks worse.

The picture is a detail from a painting by Jan de Bray, who seems, oddly, to have painted his Mum and Dad as Antony and Cleopatra. We won't go into that now, I just like the old-fashioned look she gives her partner as he plays the voluptuary.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Actually, I'll gather the roses later on, thanks.

I have to write a first year lecture on 'To His Coy Mistress', and this made me start thinking about 'carpe diem' and 'carpere flores' poems. This (of course) is the quintessential version of the theme:

Robert Herrick, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time.

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
The higher he's a getting;
The sooner will his Race be run,
And nearer he's to Setting.

That Age is best, which is the first,
When Youth and Blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times, still succeed the former.

My doctoral dissertation was about misogamistic sentiment in the literature of early modern England - all those versions of Beatrice and Benedick, expressing their morbid aversion from marriage. This was fun (and therapeutic) to write, and from that accumulated expertise, I post this (I think little known) answer poem to Herrick's classic lyric:

'The contented Batchelor'

Rose-buds that's gather'd in the Spring,
Can't be preserv'd from dying,
And though you'enjoy the wisht for thing,
The pleasure will be flying;

The glorious Lamp that mounteth high,
And to his Noon arriving,
Must not stay there continually,
But downwards must be driving.

The last is best, for though that time
With Age and Sickness seise us;
Yet on our Crutches do we climbe
Until a light shall ease us:

Then though I may, yet will I not
Possess me of't, but tarry;
He lives the best that hath forgot,
What means the word ‘Go Marry’.

It appeared in John Gamble's Ayres and dialogues (1659), and was obviously intended to be sung to the same simple strophic setting that had served for Herrick's poem. Songs and answer songs were popular at the time, though this is male voice answering male voice. Gamble's books of music are full throughout with 'seize the day' sentiments, but his circumambient culture readily supplied corresponding 'I don't want to pluck the roses' sentiments to his unknown lyricist. The basic Epicurean sentiment gets countered by a re-emerging Christian consolatio.

The painting - thanks again to the Web Gallery of Art - is by Bernardo Strozzi, from about 1615. She's meant to be an example of growing old disgracefully, but can be imagined - if you focus on the rose which she still holds - as a Beatrice who held on to her first principles. 'Contented spinsters' are inevitably a little harder to document. For all the feathers, mirror, and suggestions of (horror!) cosmetics, the picture isn't totally fierce: at least the lady is being dressed by young women rather than demons. The kind of scene you can get ground floor in any branch of John Lewis, in fact. Go it, girl.