Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Wind in your Teeth, and other Ills

Back from a stay with my sister. Being praised for eating well is something (lucky) children often experience: my sister always reinstates me in that juvenile role. A near continuous supply of delicious and rich food challenges you to do justice to it. Here at home, mealtimes tend to be interruptions to the business of the day. Particularly under the stimulus of Christmas, my sister makes mealtimes the main daily activity.

I fled (in a way) back here, and soon found myself reading A New and Needful TREATISE of Wind Offending Mans Body (1676, William Rowland’s translation of Jean Feyens’ de Flatibus of 1582). Talk about the hopeless patients of mad doctors! If you tend to wonder whether it is theologians or doctors that have perpetrated the greater accumulation of imposture on humankind, here is the madhouse half way between the two. Via a pervasive confusion about pneumatology, Feyens and his translator confidently treat the wind (flatulence) as a spirit. The wind can therefore be accounted a master explanation for all kinds of physical ills: for instance, toothache is the wind in your teeth; tinnitus is (Chapter XV) when ‘wind gets into the organ of hearing, and sticks there strongly (as by the ringing, hissing, rustling, crackling and murmur is gathered).’ Makes sense to you? A sufferer yourself? Then why not take the cure? ‘Castor and Spike Oyls with Vinegar and Oyl of Roses, do wonders, dropt into the ears, and juice of Leeks with Breast-milk’.

If we can put aside puzzlement about how even the human brain could come up such a concoction as leeks in breast milk, the most invigoratingly bizarre chapter concerns what happens when wind invades the penis. This is Chapter XXVII, ‘Of Priaprismus’. Feyens turns to Galen for clinical experience:

“It chiefly comes to such as dream of Venereal fancies, and the pain is like the Cramp; for the Yard is as in a convulsion, being pufft up and stretched, and they dye suddenly except cured.’

As this is a condition of acute emergency, and if we do not have Shakespeare’s Marina around to radiate a quenching chastity (‘Shee’s able to freeze the god Priapus, and vndoe a whole generation’), then we must undergo the cure:

“Therefore against the pain and inflammation, presently open a Vein, and use a small Diet three dayes, and foment the parts about, and the Yard, with Wool dipt in Wine and Oyl: give a gentle Clyster not sharp and feed him with a little Corn and Water. If it last long, cup and scarifie: if there be much blood, use leeches to the part, and cataplasms of Barley flour: loosen the belly with Beets, Mallows, and Mercury boiled … Lay Coolers to the Loyns, as Nightshade, Purslane, Houseleek, Henbane. Let the space between the Fundament and the Yard be cooled with Litharge of Silver, Fullers Earth, Ceruss, Vinegar and Water … He must lye upon one side, and lay under him things against the emission of Sperm: And he must see no Venereal pictures, nor hear no wanton discourse”.

I’d think a medley of boiled mercury, hallucinogenic plants and applied leeches would more than do the job. Pursuing these inquiries into past delusions, I didn’t know whether I was pleased or alarmed to find myself working the same side of the street as the doctissima Professor Steven Connor, who here writes with a broad imaginative vision of the body, including his own, envisaged as a series of (windy) vacuities:

The never-failing internet allows you to peruse a 1592 copy of de flatibus humanum corpus molestantibus (I guess that my learned colleague found the shorter title, de Flatibus, irresistibly Rabelaisian). The images 200-202 give the pages concerned with priapism, and demonstrate that Rowland’s translation was very close.

I was interested to see that the publishers of Rowland's translation end the volume with a list of the texts Billingsley has for sale and the salves, pills, elixirs and sympathetic powder he also kept in stock. I am going to tell my pharmacist friend that he must negotiate a commercial tie-in, sharing premises with Waterstones.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Our stomacks are strengthened ...

“As for our Plum-Pottage, and Minc’d Pies, stand off, and doe not let them trouble you, we dare eat, making no question for conscience, because our stomacks are strengthened by that forecited piece of invitation, Nehem. 8,10, Eat the fat, and drink the sweete’ … As for our Baies and Rosemary, and other green trimmings of our Churches and Houses, truly Brethren, we doe, and may doe it, by the same warrant that the Israelites doe it in the Feast of Tabernacles, Nehem. 8, 16. ”

I have been reading Commonwealth-era pamphlets for and against the celebration of Christmas, and so offer (in this posting) a seasonally-themed spasm of self-edification. This is an instance where New Historicism’s central claim for significance comes undone: modern consciousness is not to be seen developing, rather the winning side in this 17th century controversy managed to preserve and transmit medieval norms and practices.

The seriousness of the Puritan assault on Christmas should not be underestimated: the title Certain quaeries touching the rise and observation of Christmas; propounded to the consideration of all such as are zealously (but blindly) affected towards the observation of it. To which an answer is desired and expected by Joseph Heming (1648) captures the confidence that the case against celebration of Christmas is unanswerable: Heming offers sixteen trenchant questions about whether the observances made have ‘sure footing on the Word of God’. ‘The Observation of this Feast hath no warrant in the holy Scriptures’, begins Mercurius religiosus: faithfully communicating to the whole nation, the vanity of Christmas (1651): and that’s really both the beginning and the end of the author’s argument.

My image – which we might see as a 17th century English anticipation of a Christmas card – comes from Edward Fisher’s learned The feast of feasts. Or, The celebration of the sacred nativity of our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; grounded upon the Scriptures, and confirmed by the practice of the Christian Church in all ages (1644).

Perhaps more interesting as a writer is the persistent – and finally triumphant - Allan Blayney, author of my opening quotation. His Festorum metropolis: The metropolitan feast. Or the birthday of our Saviour Jesus Christ, annually to be kept holy, by them that call upon him in all nations looks in its first printing (1652) almost like one of those fugitive pamphlets about religious matters the Jesuits or defenders of John Darrel put out: poorly impressed, its author operating under the pseudonym of ‘Poor Pastor Fido’ (‘exiled a while agoe’), signing his dedication only with a ‘B’.

‘Come zealous Lovers, solemnize with me,

The despis’d day of Christs Nativity.

Wake lungs, wake Heart, wake Tongue, and let us sing,

The glorious praises of our now-borne King.

Sing, sing aloud, feare noe Timeservers Rod,

Let them serve Hogs, Themselves, while we serve God…’

Subsequent (and expanded) editions are less embattled. Blayney, a clergyman excluded from his parish, has to be Christmas’s main defender in the century, and in keeping with his pious purpose, he lifts sections (more or less acknowledged) from Fisher’s shorter tract. In the second edition he notes that the first was ‘fearfull’. Writing pseudonymously, he didn’t hold back: ‘alas, I find of late, Jewes in England, to whom Christ came and they received him not John 1. 11. Who unlesse they see signs and Wonders, they will not believe … let them know, that divers and sundry Miracles have been wrought in divers Nations, upon the twenty fifth day of December, to confirme it to have been the very day of our Saviours Birth, as the Fountaine of Oyle breaking out in Rome, the tongue-tying of the Devils Oracles, the amity of the Beasts, and many more’.

Blayney has at this point done a thorough job on the biblical precedents (the angel’s command to the shepherds and the rest), and the opinions of the assembled church fathers. He even cites two Arabic manuscripts in the Bodleian, transcribed and Englished by ‘painful Mr. Gregory’, which relate to the dating of the nativity. Like Fisher, but more categorically, he has dismissed the Puritan’s connection between the ‘–mas’ of Christmas and the mass itself. Rival dates for Christ’s birth have been mentioned and dismissed (they included my own birthday, September 24th), and every symbolic value for a midwinter, nocturnal birth of the saviour expounded.

And after all this, he surrenders to miracles. I don’t know anything about a fountain of oil in Rome; Blayney cannot resist a sacred oak tree in the New Forest, with, ‘on this very day, new and greene leaves upon it’, and, still more extraordinarily, the Glastonbury thorn tree, which he can’t bear to let go: ‘But whether that be true or no, I know not, it may be; this I am certaine, that the whole Countrey cryes it up for a truth, and a knowne one, that time out of mind, even to this day, it hath every year blossom’d in full measure upon the 25 day’ (p.75).

The thing about Blayney, is that he has a poetic imagination. Literature does seem to be on the side of Christmas. Blayney sounds exactly like he would, a man who has read Herbert, and maybe Vaughan. A long verse translation of a ‘divine hymn’ by Prudentius occupies a number of his pages: it is a bit stumbling in places, and I have tried to clarify the punctuation

…O noble Virgin do’st not see

(Made pregnant by humility)

The Honour of thy chastity

By him enhaunc’d, that’s born of thee.

O how great joyes themselves entomb:

Of things below in thy chast womb,

Out of which, this day came in sight

A new age and a golden light.

The crying of thy Babe began

The worlds spring; before the Sun,

For then the world made new that day

Her old foul coat did cast away…

In these ways, Blayney defended ‘the day of his power … in the morning whereof, his power was manifested in breaking open the gates of MARIES Wombe’. And with that odd piece of thinking through, I will leave the topic. Merry Christmas (and no small thanks to the Reverend Blayney for that).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Exit Term, and 'Exit Tyrannus'

Term at last over, and my sense of being left physically out-of-sorts was not lifted by a meeting with a consultant on the penultimate day of term, whose appointed mission seems to be to get the Department teaching more students more economically.

I’ve since been reading John Man’s book Alpha Beta: How our alphabet shaped the western world, which taught me plenty (I’d no idea that the Korean alphabet was so cleverly invented), but thought that in describing the beginnings of writing systems in record keeping, he neglected the desire to record proper names, of gods, and kings - and your business partners.

Imagining statues with and without inscriptions (‘My name is Ozymandias…’), I fetched up recollecting the ‘talking statues’: the statues of ‘Pasquin’ and ‘Marforius’ in Rome, to which it became traditional to affix stinging epigrams, or satiric questions and answers.

They knew all about Pasquin in early modern London: R.W. published his anti-Catholic A recantation of famous Pasquin of Rome in 1570, explaining that “Pasquin is the Image of Herculus the sonne of Iupiter, and is commonly vsed in Rome for to set writinges vppon: the which writinges hath so disclosed the abuses of the Pope and his College of Cardinalls”. The real flurry of English Pasquin publications came in the late 17th century, with pamphlets like Pasquin risen from the dead, or, His own relation of a late voyage he made to the other world in a discourse with his friend Marforio (1674), A Dialogue between Pasquin and Morforio two statues in Rome (1681?), and An extraordinary express sent from Pasquin at Rome, to all the princes and potentates of Europe (1690). “I am a Man, no Statue, / No Pasquin, only to hang Libels on”, says a Duke, denying that he would be stoic about being defamed, in John Crown’s play, The Ambitious Statesman (1679). Henry Fielding would later write a political farce simply called Pasquin.

Roman remains were too deeply buried in early modern London for there to be pasquinades centered on grotesquely battered statuary, and there was probably a general dearth of accessible public statues. Andrew Marvell (if it is him), half in mockery of Waller’s poem about the equestrian statue of Charles I, produced his ‘Dialogue between two horses’ satire, in which the brass and the marble nags bestridden by Charles I and his son meet to make pointed contrast of their riders, and to reminisce subversively about the merits of ‘Old Nol’. But I have not found anyone following where this poem led.

The big moment for inscriptions on (or around) royal statues had come in 1659: two broadsheets and a pamphlet celebrate the moment when, with the Rump parliament failing, a painter took a ladder and obliterated with black paint the golden letters the Commonwealth had inscribed on a wall plaque above the location of a statue of Charles I in the Royal Exchange: News from the Royal Exchange, or Gold Turned into Mourning. What had read (most stirringly) ‘Exit Tyrannus Regum Ultimus Anno Libertatis Angliae Restitutae primo' (translated as ‘The last tyrant of Kings died in the first year of the liberty of England restored’) was now construed as a message of mourning black. Samuel Pepys mentions the event:

The broadside An Exit to the Exit Tyrannus is transcribed in this fine collection of texts about the Restoration:

The pamphlet The Loyal Subjects Teares for the sufferings and absence of their SOVEREIGN, Charles II, asserts that General Monk ordered the painting-out to be done, which looks like hopeful rumour-mongering.

In idly fitting these things together, I came across this interesting but frustrating site, of odd civic statues around the world. Instead of affixing scurrilities to the real objects (and most of them seem well suited to that purpose), browsers add their comments to the post – and add some of the information the compiler left out

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Supernatural Reading with Mr Blagrave and Mr Morro

A couple of hours ago, I was cycling back through the Reading town centre along Blagrave Street; since then, I’ve been looking at a work written by one of the Blagraves (he passes among local historians as a famous resident), the book being [Joseph] Blagraves astrological practice of physick discovering the true way to cure all kinds of diseases and infirmities ... being performed by such herbs and plants which grow within our own nation ... : also a discovery of some notable phylosophical secrets worthy our knowledge, relating to a discovery of all kinds of evils, whether natural or ... from sorcery or witchcraft, or by being possessed of an evil spirit, directing how to cast forth the said evil spirit out of any one which is possessed, with sundry examples thereof (1671).

One reads in Hugh Trevor-Roper and the rest about the intellectual reasons for the decline in the belief in witchcraft - that orderly Cartesian universe (and the rest). Operating in Berkshire in the later 17th century, Blagrave was as remote from these developments as he could be. His book is garrulous, boastful, repetitious (and poorly printed by his nephew Obidiah), while his opinions date from the previous century. Joseph Blagrave was, essentially, a cunning man, who practiced herbal medicine, and whose cures often involved him in discovering that the afflicted person had suffered a ‘take’ inflicted upon them by a witch. He conceals from himself what he really is, by a fussy piety (patients under his care will be found to have neglected their morning prayers on the day of the first supernatural attack), and by a pompous astrological methodology (“how can any Doctor cure such distempers, when they are ignorant of the cause, for Witchcraft or Sorcery can no way be discovered, nor yet cured, but by the way of Astrology, except a Miracle be wrought’).

The typical anecdote in Blagrave tells of an afflicted person (fits, chronic obesity, dumbness, paralysis), unrelieved by a long regime of medical attention. A family member turns to Blagrave, who will work on a no-win no-fee basis. He erects a figure which points to witchcraft as the cause, and to a suspect witch. Counter-measures are launched: ‘Here followeth some experimental Rules, whereby to afflict the Witch, causing the evil to return back upon them’ – reads a section heading: and what follows is: ‘One way is by watching the suspected party when they go out of their house, and then presentlyto take some thatch from over the door, or a tile, if the house be tyled; if it be thatch you must wet and sprinkle it over with the patients water, and likewise with white salt, then let it burn or smoke through a trivet, or the frame of a skillet: you must bury the ashes that way, which the suspected Witch liveth. Its best done either at the change, full, or quarters of the Moon: or otherwise, when the Witches significator is in Square or Opposition to the Moon.’

He explains that ‘The reason why the Witch is tormented, when the blood or urine of the patient is burned, is because there is part of the vital spirit of the patient in it, for such is the subtlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poisonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it.’

Blagrave tends to see the Devil as working to secure the exposure of the witch; the Devil sucks the blood of the witch so as to be able to place some of it in any veneficial potion they make, rendering them liable to exposure by such sage practitioners as Blagrave: they suffer agony as the thatch is burned or tile is heated red-hot, because their vital spirits are in the urine of the person they have afflicted.

I am rather shocked by all this: Blagrave, cobbling together astrology, herbalism, demonology and sympathetic magic, goes around accusing people (including a local clergyman) of witchcraft, practicing exorcisms, and apparently gets away with it.

He knew he was among the last of his kind: in the Preface, he comments ‘I find that many being unsatisfied concerning the legality of my way of Cure, have refused to come or send unto me for help to cure their infirmities: and many of those who did come, came for the most part privately, fearing either loss of reputation or reproaches from their Neighbours, and other unsatisfied people; and also fearing that what I did, was either Diabolical, or by unlawful means.’ This in a book where he publishes ‘a wonderful Oyntment for Wounds’ made up from ‘the Moss of a dead Mans Scull… Mans Grease … Mummy…Mans Blood’, linseed oil, oil of roses and ‘Bolcarmeniack’.

No one stops him, but no-one he has accused seems to get arrested, tried and executed. Rather, he seems to counsel against prosecution of the witch exposed by his methods. They tend, in Blagrave’s tales, interestingly, either to be reported to have to run away, or to end up in prison on other charges.

Blagraves astrological practice might in the end be seen as an account of someone’s odd fantasy life. No doubt many potential patients shunned him, and that, on many, his odd methods had no effect, but he can write up his best cases, no doubt with improvements.

Mr Morro’s flyer came through my letter box a couple of weeks ago. I will urge the students on my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course at least not to consult a man of such uncertain grasp of grammatical agreement over their ‘Academic’ problems. Good name, though.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Early Modern and Modern

I offer one of my favourite poem-pairings. When I happened across the Samuel Rowlands poem I mentioned in my last entry, I was trying to find analogies for William Browne’s famous last line in his epitaph on Mary Sidney – Donne’s ‘Death, thou shalt die’ goes close, but doesn’t have the idea of Time slaying Death with his own weapon of choice. Rowlands’ Death sarcastically offers his dart to Time (‘Why what a bragging and a coile do'st keepe? / Best take my dart, be Time, be Death and all’), but they make up before falling to blows.

This is William Browne of Tavistock:

On the Dowager Countess of Pembroke

UNDERNEATH this sable hearse

Lies the subject of all verse,

Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother;

Death, ere thou hast slain another

Fair and learned and good as she,

Time shall throw a dart at thee.

The ODNB more or less explains that Browne was a kind of elegist-in-residence at Wilton, practicing on every Sidney as they came available, and that practice made perfect in 1621.

Alongside it I put X J Kennedy’s wonderfully adroit neo-Jacobean ‘Little Elegy’

Little Elegy
for a child who skipped rope

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now
And for her sake trip up death.

I can’t think that any 17th century writer used so perfectly a decorum so attuned to a child.

More about X J Kennedy at

The image is the tomb of Elizabeth Nightingale, by Roubiliac (1758 she died, the monument was completed in 1761) – in Westminster Abbey. It strikes me as quite a late appearance for a Holbein-like Death. Mr and Mrs Nightingale – we can imagine them the moment before as a complacent Gainsborough couple - suddenly intruded upon by this impolite and archaic horror from a different style of representation. The modern hospital has (in most cases of mortal illness) robbed Death of his sudden dart, though he remains on his bony feet.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Early Modern Terry Pratchett

Ah, Saturday night, and here I am reading Samuel Rowlands's 'Terrible Battle between Time and Death' (1606). I got there via a series of ambages (nice word, ambages, apparently one that Francis Bacon was rather drawn to). Considering it is Rowlands, this is quite a sprightly poem, a kind of Terry Pratchett narrative for early modern grown-ups.

Time and Death are characterised as a pair of frightful old codgers, who spend the first part of the narrative talking about the high old times they've had in days gone by, prompting one another with memories of opportune and satisfying fatalities they have caused. These include a love poet, who gets his hyperbole taken literally:

Where went we then, dost thou remember, Time?
Yes, very well, we visited a poet ...

... This Poet thus a-sonneting we found,
Riming himself even almost out of breath,
(quoth he) ‘thy cruel Dart doth wound,
Oh graunt me love, or else come gentle Death’:

Death. I heard him say, ‘Come gentle Death’ in Jest;
And in good earnest granted his request.

The ghastly pair then start bickering: Time mentions to Death that whenever someone dies, the mourners tend to say, 'His time had come' - why, asks Time, should I get the blame for your killings? Death answers querulously, and they fall into trying to pull rank on one another ('I have bin Death almost six thousand yeares'), and mutual denigration. Death had commented complacently upon his ubiquitous iconography early on in the poem -

Some make my picture a most common thing,
As if I were continual in their thought,
A Deaths head seale vpon a great gold ring,
And round about Memento Mori wrought...

But now Time reminds him of how over-familiar and vulgar his images can be:

Thy picture stands upon the Ale-house wall,
Not in the credit of an ancient story,
But when the old wives guests begin to braule,
She points, and bids them read Memento mori:
Looke, looke (saies she) what fellow standeth there,
As women do, when crying Babes they feare.

They descend into name-calling, but then recollect that the world would laugh if it were known that Time and Death were falling out, and so they make up, and at the end of the poem are about to embark on another killing spree together:
Our bloody businesse let us go about,
Thousands are now at point of death, breath failes:
To worke, to worke, and lay about thee man,
Let's kill as fast, as for our lives we can.
Harke, listen Time, I pray giue eare,
What bell is that a tolling there?