Thursday, April 27, 2006

Oh my Africa, my new-found land?

This is a very offensive image, and I curtail my parody of Donne before I make things worse. The artist is Christiaen van Couwenbergh, and the date 1632. What was going on in his little head when he painted this?

Rape has always been a subject for art, in its most imperially sanctioned form in the various handlings of the Rape of the Sabine women. Lucrece next, and you can add all the mythological victims – Proserpina, Europa, Dejanira, the daughters of Leucippus, Helen, the struggles of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The handling tends towards the queasily sumptuous, even sometimes, with Lucrece, to the tragic.

In the early 17th century poetry of England, interracial love poems (of sorts) get written, they develop a popular motif of dissimilar or unequal lovers (more commonly love across the generations). Cleveland has ‘A faire nymph scorning a black boy courting her’. This is Henry Reynolds turning a lyric:

Stay lovely Boy, why fly'st thou mee
That languish in these flames for thee?
I'm black 'tis true: why so is Night,
And Love doth in dark Shades delight.
The whole World, do but close thine eye,
Will seem to thee as black as I;
Or op't, and see what a black shade
Is by thine own fair body made,
That follows thee where e're thou go;
(O who allow'd would not do so?)
Let me for ever dwell so nigh,
And thou shalt need no other shade than I.

Such poems go into the song books of Henry Lawes, with answer poems of the same kind. Rather more substantially, this is John Collop, ‘On an Ethiopian beauty, in Poesis Rediviva (1656)

Black specks for beauty spots white faces need:
How fair are you whose face is black indeed?
See how in hoods and masks some faces hide,
As if asham'd the white should be espi'd.
View how a blacker veil o'respreads the skies,
And a black scarf on earth's rich bosome lies.
When worth is dead, all do their blacks put on,
As if they would revive the worth that's gone.
Surely in black Divinity doth dwell;
By th' black garb only we Divines can tell.
Devils ne're take this shape, but shapes of light;
Devils which mankind hurt, appear in white,
When Natures riches in one masse was hurl'd,
Thus black was th' face of all the infant world.
What th' world calls fair is foolish, 'tis allow'd,
That you who are so black, be justly proud.

It was the mention of black patches that set me off on this train of thought. Collop’s poem perhaps develops all the poetry about (native English) women who had the non-regulation black hair, with perhaps a touch of ‘The Song of Songs’ stirring in the writer’s memory.

But Couwenbergh’s painting! I do not think that he was a Dutch Goya, recording horror. He is at best a lumpen type of dauber. The Web Gallery of Art offers his aggressive and beefy Adonis with Frau Venus, and a bad costume drama ‘Samson and Delilah’. His mythological and biblical subjects all look so stereotypically Dutch that he might as well have given them clogs. If he had any aesthetic intention here, it was perhaps a desire to contrast black skin and white, and if this were the case, then he failed his own challenge. Maybe the painting is damaged and overpainted, but the modeling on the black girl fails completely, large parts of her are two dimensional. Her upper body writhes in a horrified attempt to escape, her lower body sits inert. The younger man who has (perhaps) betrayed her to this attack gazes slavishly for approval at the older man, who gloats on behalf of the viewer. The clothed man at the rear is there, it seems, to emphasise that her Nubian or Nigerian blackness is at once funny, and shocking.

The Dutch were building an empire, and this is what empire means: human beings to degrade in play. She is, I take it, a servant (I think she is wearing a maid’s cap). Her unheeded cry of distress will be in the pidgin she has learned to use when meeting other Africans or Asians when out on her errands, a funny Portuguese-Dutch that also makes her suitable for this maltreatment, this palaver.

Who owned this painting, and where did they hang it? How could it have survived so long after its pornographic moment?

It is in the Strasbourg Musee des Beaux Arts, though their website does not draw any attention to it. One of my favourite pictures hangs there:
Nicolas de Largillière, La Belle Strasbourgeoise (1703). Only a small image, there is a better one at:

Monday, April 24, 2006

I will not live to regret that gooseberry fool…

2. By eating a pound of Red Cherries upon a wager

11. By eating a Cucumber

12. By a Melon

13. By Redishes

14. By Drinking Water

23. By a dinner of Soales in Fish Street

26. By a Codling Tart and Cream

27. By a dish of French beanes

28. By Cabbages

29. By Turneps and Carrets

30. By eating the Fat near the Rump of a Loyne of Mutton

41. By an immoderate eating of Caveare and Anchovies

42. By a gooseberry fool

43. By a rotten Shoulder of Mutton

44. By a dish of Eels

49. By dead Beer

51. By eating Pork and Bacon

57. By the crudities of plentiful meals

60. By eating of Quinces

62. By Pompions, Musmillions, and Cucumbers…

Have you got it yet? I have culled from the complete list the dietary causes to which sufferers assigned their miserable condition. Others, however, blamed a variety of animals:

18. By a Cat in Catter wouling

19. By a Spaniel

17. By drying of Cloathes before the door

52. By Tame Pigeons that flew up and down an Alley…

With what we would consider greater plausibility, human agents were seen by some as involved in the etiology of their problem, both individuals, and groups held under some social prejudice:

15. By a Tanker bearer

16. By a Chair woman

47. By idle Beggars who wandered from place to place

54. By the Rakers or Ragg women…

Others were categorical about place:

8. By an infected Hackney Coach

9. By an infected Sedan

10. By an infected Cushion whereon the Waterman confessed there sate a woman that within two houres after died suddenly

37. By wetting the Feet in a slip out of a Boat by the Water side

We are in the year 1665: and there were some who were self-critical enough to place the blame for their woe on their own moral failings as Christians:

46. By an undue and immoderate venery

48. By frequenting scurvy Tipling houses and Bowling allies

A large group of sufferers followed a medical orthodoxy, and blamed various forms of bad air, mal aria:

4. By a Sink shut up by reason of the Waters not running in their backside

5. By the opening of a vault that had been many years shut

39. By a house of Office near a Man’s Window

40. By close Chambers nastily kept, and looking southward

53. By the fumes of Church Vaults, slaughter houses, and shallow graves

64. By conversing with a man of stinking breath

67. By standing fasting before an infected house

73. By an Eastern Window

Others saw the contagion as having spread to them on some other medical basis:

22. By opening the pores, and excessive sweat in walking

32. By a Cold which turned first into a putrid Fever, and last into the Plague

33. By si(t)ting up too late, and so drying and inflaming the Blood, and weakening Nature

35. By neglecting to let blood at the usual time

56. By the stopping of the monthly courses

68. By a letter received from an infected person

63. By festered Wounds and Sores

70. By an infected Pair of gloves…

And one or two made guesses about their misery that perhaps had more than a little truth, as the fatal vector of the disease got close to their bodies:

3. By a coat one bought of a Broker behind St Clements Church

38. By a burden of Linnen carried from St Giles to Chelsey

55. By entertaining all sorts of comers, as brokers, and particularly by buying bed clothes and hangings.

These are all taken from The shutting up of houses as it is practised in England soberly debated (1665), a tract like the exactly contemporary Golgotha …with an humble witness against the Cruel Advice and Practice of Shutting-up, arguing against the forcible incarceration of everyone in any household that had been ‘visited’ by the plague. The anonymous author reports this survey, taken from the reports of any surviving witnesses, of what the plague-stricken assigned their infection to: and none of these causes are there to be debunked, rather their variety is there to show that the means of transmission are so various, that the standard means of preventing the spread of plague has no merit. He rather proposes that the practice of shutting up is counter-productive: fastening people in their homes with the sick and dying promotes melancholy, which leads to fever, and then triggers the plague itself.

The tract is voiced for the afflicted, denied ‘the freedom of the Ayre’ and the visits from genuinely skilful doctors and concerned and kind family (the author inveighs against the nurses appointed by the city authorities as the ‘off-scouring of the City’ and ‘dirty, ugly and unwholesome Haggs’, who watched for the moment to ransack the houses).

Both of these tracts recommend the practices of the Dutch authorities, who allowed the sick out at appointed times (wearing marks to identify their condition), though the author of Golgotha strongly commends the healthful properties of tobacco smoke.

My colleague, Professor Justin Champion, mentioned this 17th century vox pop. survey in passing, while lamenting the fact that he is called on a weekly basis by the media to supply a quote or a context every time the word ‘plague’ comes up.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Proposition: and a woman's reply

As we are interested in the notion of women using art to reply to a male exponent of the art form, this painting by Judith Leyster of 1631, ‘The Proposition’. It took me a while to re-find it on the invaluable Web Gallery of Art, and all I know (and vaguely remembered) about it and how it has been interpreted comes from there, where it says (with my italics):

“An intriguing painting … offers a view of an old man displaying coins to a dramatically lit young woman sewing by lamplight. His hand resting on her shoulder suggests that he is not offering payment for her labour as a seamstress. Is he making a proposition for sex which she virtuously ignores? This interpretation has been offered, and with good reason. The theme had been used by northern artists since the Renaissance … To be sure, Leyster's young woman has nothing in common with the readily seductable recipients of offers of purchased love depicted by earlier artists. Leyster's young woman steadfastly remains occupied with her sewing, a model of domestic virtue. If this reading of the subject is accepted, the painting can be viewed as Leyster's critical response to the salacious treatment of the subject by male artists who demean woman by representing them as sex objects exploited by men. It also would qualify the picture as Leyster's only painting that treats a feminist issue.”

It is an interesting painting, its slightly off-balanced quality helping to make it feel to the viewer (too) that the man simply should not be there. He comes from behind her, black to her white, and encroaches. His effrontery is captured in his intrusive stance, the suggestion of his forced smile, his raised eyebrows: he will chink those coins to get her to look at them, a good handful too, he thinks. She has gone rigid, and tries to keep her focus on her work, but into the light of that very naked flame he puts what he thinks will buy her. You can read her tension, her resentment. If she looks at the coins, she is close to the flame; for her virtuous labours are not well paid.

A dear friend of mine told me that once, when she was dancing at a disco, a moneyed fellow student, scarcely known to her, approached her with, as she put it, ‘a straight cash offer’. Of course, I asked her how much it was, but this she was not willing to disclose, whether for fear of creating a bidding war, or because the sum was ultimately unimpressive (for she was a vibrant young woman) I don’t know. Dare I guess that any woman in the position of this eminently respectable, neatly coiffed and immaculate girl will have at least some curiosity as to just what has been offered for her ultimate favours? That is why she must not even look at his hand, for then she is on the way to putting a value on herself, and she knows that she is beyond price. She can smell the drink on his breath. Go away, greasy man!
on the Web Gallery of Art gives Gerard Terborch doing the same kind of theme: though in his picture, the girl is assessing the money offered.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Piety and patches

‘These are the ears which have hearkned to so many base, scurrilous, profane, lust provoking songs’.

A stray comment on my blog repeated the quite frequently made point that it would be interesting to have women’s replies to certain notorious poems by Donne. I was still reflecting on the impossibility of any woman writer in the early 17th century sparring with Donne on his Ovidian home turf (it took Aphra Behn to come along and expose in female-authored Ovidian poetry sexual inadequacies in the male) when I came across William Tipping addressing young women in 1647. He is imagining how the general run of young women will feel on the day of judgment, having listened to sinful poetry and music. And as for their eyes, these women will on that last day say to themselves, ‘These are the eyes which shot forth so many envious, amorous, lascivious glaunces’. All the senses they abused will present to them at the Day of Judgement, Tipping affirms, knowledge of the ‘everlasting woe and sorrow’ they face. It all goes together: poetry provokes lust, and hell beckons for the young woman who listens to it.

Tipping, a Puritan, has been describing, in contrast, an exemplary life and death, that of Apollina Hall, a young widow, who died at the age of just 21. (The Remarkable life and death of the Lady Apollina Hall Widdow, deceased in the 21st year of her age, 1647). Mis-educated by her evidently non-Puritan Grandmother, Apollina lacked proper religious fervour till she was 18. She cannot have had much to repent of, but at that age, repent she did (acknowledging your sins was the required Puritan formula), and she fell into habits of the strictest Protestant observance, writing up her spiritual balance sheet at the end of every day. I think I have seen cited before somewhere her particular triumph of austerity and emotional self-denial, as faithfully recorded by Tipping:

‘She was exceeding solicitous and fearfull over her self, least any created comforts (the Danaes of corrupt men) should creep into, and take possession of her heart, as appeared by this; that being moved by a certain person about her, to send for her childe, in which she was much delighted; she durst not, she answered, trust her deceitfull heart, lest it should be immoderately let out upon her childe, as formerly it had been upon her dear husband.’

In her mortal illness, she fell into what Tipping can stretch to oxymoron to term ‘holy repining’ at the medical fees she has had to pay, the money being merely ‘cost and charge … upon a rotten carcass (that was her own expression)’ - even Tipping blenches a little at this, and has to make it clear in his parenthesis that he is just reporting her words. The money she has spent on herself, she said, ‘might have comforted many a poor christian’.

She duly died with a number of appropriate utterances, which Tipping has to record: ‘finding death to approach; this is the joyfullest day (saith she) that ever mine eyes beheld.’ She comes through a bout of ‘extream convulsions’, and of course regrets survival: ‘I had I thought I should have been with my Saviour before this time’ she says.

‘My joyes are unspeakable’, she says, as death comes close. ‘In this her last and extream struggling with death, she often cried out, Come Lord, come Lord, when Lord, how long Lord’.

Not all of this is to our taste, of course: refusing to indulge your carnal nature by seeing your own child makes the Puritan lady set on meeting her saviour look entirely self-focussed; her faith has circumscribed her emotional life. Yet for a very young woman to die with such acceptance is impressive in its own way.

After this painful account, Tipping then turns to admonish other young women, who are in the main racketing along the way to hell-fire and damnation. As usual with a seventeenth century man, the effort of praising one individual woman will be compensated for by an eloquent attack on women in general. Suddenly, he sounds like Tertullian, and his particular bugbear happens to be face patches:

‘Away with your base and lustfull baits, those black and infamous patches in your faces, which render you odious and scandalous in the world, and in every wise mans eye disfigure you’. He offers the piously sarcastic thought: ‘Should the Lord in the naturall composure of their faces, have ingraven such black spots in them, as now their fancies adde, surely they would have looked on themselves as monsters.’ I doubt whether any woman could have replied that if the Lord had thought fit to engrave her face with the pits left by smallpox, and she reserved the right to make the best of things.

He indignantly adds that ‘ the very Indians (amongst whom the Lord hath lately vouchsafed some dawning of the Gospel) do so abhor the naked brests of women, and hair hanging loose, or cut as mens hair is, that they have made some Laws against them. Oh that our English Ladies should grow so bold, as to practice that which Indians abhor, which miserable heathens count their shame.’

In part, the author can be excused by historical circumstance: he regularly refers to the recent civil war, and clearly feels that everyone should be as self-mortifying as poor Apollina Hall had been.

As with earlier Protestants like Phillip Stubbes, the denunciation tends to betray his horrified fascination, an obsessiveness. Look at that expression about ‘created comforts’: ‘the Danaes of corrupt men’. The classical allusion shouldn’t really be there, and it doesn’t fit his argument. Danae was seduced by gold, rather than being a seducer. But Tipping is so very over alert to female allurement. By the end of his account, he is thundering damnation, but he does at least imagine and formulate a reply, making the girls in their wicked face patches sound like one of the more jaunty passages of the Bible:

'Now if any of this sex to whom I direct this discourse shall reply and say, I will walk in the wayes of my heart, and light of my eyes; I will rejoice in my youth, and my heart shall clear me in my youth: I will say no more but this; Thou that art filthy, be thou filthy still; thou that art profane, be profane still … but take the close, hear thy doom, know thou assuredly, that for all these things God will bring thee to judgement.’

The rather charming assemblage of lore republished on the web at

asserts that the earliest mention of face patches is in ‘Bulwer’s Artificial Changeling’, of 1653.

This reference is to the splendidly titled Anthropometamorphosis, man transform'd, or, The artificial changeling historically presented in the mad and cruel gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy finenesse, and loathsome lovelinesse of most nations, fashioning & altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature : with a vindication of the regular beauty and honesty of nature and an appendix of the pedigree of the English gallant / by J.B.

This was John Bulwer’s suitably demented account of the way humankind has decorated (or mutilated) bodies (“the eye-browes abused contary to nature”, etc), and from that source I take his image of face decorations. It is interesting that, like the Puritan Tipping, Bulwer uses native cultures as a form of perspective on his own, though Tipping makes his native people into moralists, Bulwer merely has them as equally mad.

But as for the mention of face patches, the Puritan beats the ethnographer-satirist by a matter of some years, Puritans being such devout followers of fashion.

gives a picture of a surviving contemporary box used to keep your face patches in (the Pitts Rivers Museum, Oxford).

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?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

To find the mind's construction in the face

Richard Saunders was one of those astrologers who published an annual almanac, and I suppose that back in those days of almanac buying, you found a style of almanac that suited you, in the range between the dryly factual and the apocalyptic, and stuck with the writer, or his ghost writers, year after year.
Saunders had a side line in palmistry and physiognomy (metoposcopy is his favoured term for what he does), and between 1663 and 1676, his major work in this area acquired increasing numbers of illustrations. I have grouped seven of them into the two jpegs above. The semiotics of the face can read simplistically: straight lines across the forehead meaning plain and honest, oblique lines in an asymmetrical countenance, bad behaviour. If you have wavy lines, fear death by drowning, and a cross in your forehead gives you the Tyburn mark, and your destiny is to be hanged. Others are quite capricious and opaque - a line with a wart predicting dangerous falls (plural!) from high places.
My puzzle for anyone looking at this posting, is who was the man at the bottom right? Here, Saunders shifts from invention of typical faces to including the face of a real man: 'an excellent man' but 'mightily tost on the waves of misfortune' 'When by the Divine Grace and favour, he seemed to arrive safe at his haven of rest ... he was beyond expectation, by the contrary tempest of adverse fortune, again hurried into the depth of perplexities'. Clicking on the image gives a larger jpeg, of course.
Saunders added 'A Treatise of the moles of the body of man and woman', offering 'Rational Judgements by the moles of the body'. The discussion begins with a facial chart, for Saunders asserts that (something like acupuncture or reflexology), a mole in a particular part of the face will always have a corresponding mole on some part of the body. According to the places, Saunders lets his reader know which star governs the person so marked; while the shape and colours of the mole add levels of meaning. As ever, men have more forms of destiny open to them, while the female destiny often comes down to her marriage, chastity, and the like. Thus, a mole in the middle of the forehead under the lines of the sun (formula 18) 'shews a man to have a great voice, to be a good Oratour, yet luxurious and addicted to gluttony' while in a woman the same mole 'denotes a woman given to lust and lascivious courses'. As with any fortune-telling, predictions of wealth and status are important. A mole on the right side on the end of the line of Mars 'prenotes a man to thrive by Playes' - unless it happens to be black, when 'let him avoid Playes'. Nothing so complicated for women: 'it signifies Inheritance from Parents.'
All bizarre and arbitrary, but I can imagine his system being revived tomorrow. All this talk of moles reminds me of Donne, in Elegy 18:

her Chin

Ore past; and the streight Hellespont betweene

The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts,

(Not of two lovers, but two loves the nests)

Succeeds a boundless sea, but yet thine eye

Some Island moles may scattered there descry...

No amount of anguishing about woman as territory, reification and the rest, will ever quite get me to relinquish these lines as true to erotic experience. Saunders sticks chastely to the face, and simply says that a mole on the body will be present if there is one in some part of the face. Where would romance plots have been without these 'blots of Nature's hand', which individuate and indentify people as securely as fingerprints. Iachimo spies Innogen's 'mole cinque-spotted', and tortures Posthumus with the lie that 'By my life, / I kiss'd it', as the little mark of melanin hovers between embellishment and blemish. But I am wandering from my subject.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Titus Andronicus in Egham

The anonymous Three Bloody Murders (1613) deals with three savage murders which offer little purchase for a satisfactory Christian moral. The main business of the pamphlet is to defend the character of William Storre, a Parish minister at Market Raisin, hacked to pieces by a young man from a wealthy family angered by his siding with the townsfolk in a dispute over the ownership of common land. The assailant succeeded in getting bail, absconded abroad, then his connections seem to have launched a sustained attack on the character of the murdered minister. He returned to London where his victim’s wife and children were living on charity, and tried to buy her off from an appeal against him, then slipped back abroad. This grim account, and the solemn reprinting of testimonies to the victim’s character, is the major business of the publication.

But it is the section
‘The Cruell Murder of a yong Maiden, committed by Elizabeth James, of the Parish of Egham in
Surrey, most strangely revealed by a dogge, and a dumb-woman’
that has long interested me. Years ago in the Bodleian Library, I did the kind of thing that you do on Google these days, and looked up my then partner’s name in the Bodley catalogue. My idle curiosity, scanning the early printed book, was quickened when I saw the full title page, for having got my teaching job at Royal Holloway, I was just about to move to Egham to live there with a young woman also called Elizabeth James. 20th century
Elizabeth was really rather unhappy with this coincidence. As I read quite regularly Sharon Howard’s excellent and hugely inclusive Early Modern Notes blog, this crime pamphlet recently came back to mind.

‘Let us look with wet eyes, and heavy hearts, upon the cruelty of Elizabeth James, a keepers wife of the Parish of Egham in Surrey…’

Elizabeth James’s victim apparently arrived at her house by chance: a pretty young wench, and handsomely apparreled’. This girl, never named, was possibly running away from home: the author reports nothing about her or where she came from. She begs to be taken in as a kind of working lodger till she finds service in the vicinity. The gamekeeper’s wife agrees to this, and is all kindness to her lodger at first. But the girl has a store of money with her, and bit by bit, Mistress James borrows from her, and gets the fine clothes too, and will make no restoration. The girl complains to the husband, who has an argument with his wife, and forces his wife to return all the money and goods. The next day, the pamphlet tells us, Mistress James dragged her maid by the hair into an inner room,drew her knife, and told her that now shee would be soundly revenged upon her for the hard words, and blowes, that she had received from her husband’. The girl begs for mercy, and says that she will leave without saying a word, but the other woman cuts her throat, cuts off her head with a hatchet, ‘then by the divell prompted still, to the very utmost of this most horrid impiety, she cut her poore wounded body into many small peeces, some of which she burnt, some broild, and some in the dead time of night, she buried in her garden.

The narrative says that when her husband returned, he just assumed that the girl had moved on of her own accord. Something like a Shakespearean ‘double time’ has operated, allowing Mistress James plenty of time for her dismembering, broiling, and the burial of body parts by night, before her husband returns. And life goes on, Mistress James preventing her husband from gardening in one particular bed, or it would have done so – but here the narrative has a surprise:

Thus, for a time, this bloody murther lay concealed, though to reveale it a poore dumb woman, that saw the cruelty acted, many times, and to many persons, by her signes, and dumb shews, so well as she could did labour her best to bewray it. But from all her signes, as pulling her selfe by the haire, drawing her hand ore her throate, stabbing her selfe (as it were) upon the breast, wringing her hands, weeping or any thing that she could doe, they could not gather any thing that they knew how to make any matter of’

The dumb woman vividly enacts the murder she has witnessed, but the stolid burghers of Egham ignore her. Either she only does this in Mistress James’s absence, or she ignores her too. Heavens only knows what they were thinking, if anything. Maybe the dumb woman was simply very bad at her ghastly charades, or had mental problems that made them accustomed to ignoring her strangenesses. In the end, heaven, trusty old heaven, intervenes, and a dog, digging in the garden for something to eat, one day comes into the house with the severed head, and deposits it in front of Goodman James, Mistress James, and some of the neighbours. It is hard not to think of this as the ultimate Egham dinner party, ‘most admired disorder’ in its suburban form. Prompted by this, the dumb woman falls back into her Lavinia act, and indicates where in the garden more remains can be found, the slowly-revolving mind of Goodman James at last delivers a thought, when he remembers how his wife had stopped him digging there, and they excavate the rest. The neighbours take Mistress James off to the Justice, and her trial follows swiftly, but not her execution, as she is pregnant, and must await her delivery before facing the gallows.

Taking this extraordinary story at face value, what we have is a report without any curiosity, into a community of oblivious inhabitants, who insist on living normal lives despite having the adverse evidence shrieking at them. Nobody asks any questions, nor does the narrative anticipate its readers having any questions about who heard and reported the words it assigns to the murderess and her victim. The dumb witness to the crime is locked up behind illiteracy and an astonishing lack of initiative. Whether the husband did or didn’t beat his wife hangs unresolved, is something of no importance. Did Elizabeth James act alone – a pregnant woman murder and dismember a younger woman old enough to be out in the world on her own seeking work? It is hard to imagine that the dumb woman hadn’t in fact assisted Mistress James in her butchery of the corpse, and the husband may have had a larger knowledge and role than his wooden behaviour suggests. What really drove Elizabeth James to her desperate crime?

This narrative seems to remind the writer of another 'dog finding a corpse' story, when a courting couple in Finchley, with another hungry dog in their company, find that the dog has discovered a corpse: ‘the eyes pickt cleane out of their places, and (as some say) the empty holes, were fill’d up with the dung of birds’. (‘Those are pearls, that were his eyes…’) Nobody can bear to approach the corpse because of the smell, and, because of its condition, mutilated before death and corrupted since, no-one can identify the victim as he lies for four days by the roadway. He is finally buried where he was found. ‘But here see the certainty of the sacred word of the Almighty; which says, that he that smites a man that he die, shall die for it, Exod. 21’, our author had reflected, when God sent that hungry dog digging in the Egham garden. But the author is stretching a thin membrane of piety over injustice, brutality, and horror, and it takes more than a divinely-directed dog or two to mitigate their unmistakeable forms.

At the end of his pamphlet, the author rallies after contemplating this murder of an unidentified victim by persons unknown: 'howsoever they do yet ly hidden from the eyes of men, from the all-seeing eye of the almighty God, they do not.' Citing a 'Reverend Doctor', the author affirms that 'there is an eye above us, that sees all we doe, an eare that heares all we say, and a booke, in which all our words and deeds are written'. Impeccably orthodox - but, heavenly records aside, when God is leaving hungry dogs to find corpses, the author has started, here and there, to write that book himself, telling us what Mistress James and her victim said to one another, categorically making her solely responsible: the insidious tropes of the omniscient author doing the work of the omniscient being.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The early modern fossil-collector: 'proselites to Nature's wonders'

William Simpson's book (1679, 1680) is mainly concerned to boost Scarborough as a spa town, but once you had recovered your health, then Scarborough had to offer something to see, and, at the very end of his book, p. 123 onwards, Simpson is game to tell his readers of its natural wonders, the 'The Rarities at Scarbrough'.

In the following passage, Simpson wonders at belemnites, which, as calcitic fossils, always stand out strikingly against their (commonly) mudstone matrix. The common local explanation he relegates to a parenthesis, though he half-retains in his language an idea that they are some kind of projectile:

To see some Pyrites or fire-stones (some call thunderbolts) inclosed in other textured rocky stones, so shaped and figured as if shot in by some unseen hand, as well as invisible bow; which (although both are Stone) yet the former as much differs from the stony soyl of the latter they are planted or grow in, as a vegitable plant differs from the earth is springs from, such an object I say can beget no less than wonder.

A belemnite is a most un-organic looking fossil. But other things to be seen in the foreshore rocks look like petrefactions of living things. So he tries to account for the other common fossils, the pectens and ammonites of the Yorkshire coast, attempting to imagine how the rock containing these things was formed:

To see (by viewing again) Cockle or Muscle-shells inclosed in great bulky stones … To see others, viz. Cockles in their intire form inclosed in and perfectly walled about which (sic) lesser stones like as if involved in stony bags or petrifick cases. Also to view other stones (there found) like boulders to inclose the perfectly wrought bodies of Snakes and Serpents Spirally wrought up in a small compass, where the Snake stone has left such an impression upon its case or print as if it had been the mould, about which clay or some succulent stone had been so wrought and then hardned or petrified by the Salt-water and nitreous air.

Two pages later, Simpson gives what may be the first account on record of people beachcombing for these ‘rarities’, but is now retreating from speculation into the neutral (and issue-avoiding) view that these are 'sports of nature':

To see each Proselite to Natures Wonders searching for Rarities upon the Sea-shore … either some curious stones, or some Marcasite with a Cockle or Serpent wrapt therein, which when the petrifick shell is broke, appear plain to view in their intire and curious form, or some pretty Sea-Plant; for after every flood, a new scene of Rarities in one sort or other appears, where are to be seen those Ludicra Naturae, in which Nature sports her self in great variety.

In his closing remarks, Simpson wraps up the matter with reference to God. He advances a point of view in which the Creator is (perhaps strangely) more obvious in these 'petrified' rarities than in other things:

Whose Superscription is upon it, or whose Image doth it bear? … that of the great King of Heaven and Earth; who as he hath stamped the character of his Wisdom and power upon every visible created object, so more particularly some things seem to bear bolder shadows of the Divine Pencil, and to retain more vigorous impressions and lively drafts of the Image thereof.

Simpson was writing in the age of the first geological publications - Thomas Lawrence, friend of Sir Thomas Browne, is just about the earliest in English, in his brief
Mercurius centralis, or, A discourse of subterraneal cockle, muscle and oyster-shels found in the digging of a well at Sir William Doylie's in Norfolk many foot under ground and at considerable distance from the sea / sent in a letter to Thomas Brown by Tho. Lawrence. (London, 1664).

So, which comes first, the publications, or the presence of 'proselites to Nature's wonders' on the Yorkshire coast? Do publications prompt the search, or vice versa? Really, what comes first is there in Simpson's title: a Spa, the quest for health, when a largely urban elite find a reason to go somewhere where people had always known that there were strange things to be seen in the rocks. And once the chattering classes find something to talk about, there will soon be rival theories.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Operator for the Teeth

I went to the dentist today. A rear top molar broke last Sunday. I was expecting that the dentist would tidy up the hole with amalgam, but out it had to come. This took three sessions, with ten minute breaks for the dentist's grip to recover its strength. Of course, I had had an injection, but if pain had gone, there was plenty of sensation as root by root it surrendered. In between wrenchings, he explained the alternatives: a denture at £250, and insert at £1,500, or nothing, which would cost me nothing. I went for the nothing option, there being no cosmetic or very practical reason to do otherwise.

Back in the 17th century, however:

Besides this artificial way of repairing the loss of Teeth, there is another which may be called the natural, which is done by taking out the rotten Teeth or stumps, and putting in their places sound ones, drawn immediately after out of some poore body's head: which thing (though difficult) I know to be feasible enough ... However, I do not like that method of drawing teeth out of some folks heads, to put them into others, both for its being too inhumane, and attended with too many difficulties, and then neither could this be called the Restauration of Teeth, since the reparation of one, is the ruine of another; it is only robbing Peter to pay Paul ... And that I may contribute something towards the improvement of so useful and invention, I think one is, to proceed with it somewhat after this manner. First, I would choose an Animal whose Teeth should come nearest to those of the Patient; as a Dog, a Sheep, a Goat, or a Baboon &c...

From Charles Allen, Curious observations in that difficult part of chirurgery, relating to the teeth (running title, 'The Operator for the Teeth'), Dublin, 1687, pp. 20-1.

I suspect that even though Allen cautions he would only have 'the thing be undertaken and carried on by one that at least knows something of
Anatomy' he has neither tried this, nor had looked in the mouth of any of these animals.

This is not making me feel better. The image at the top is a pelican, appropriated off
though Allen, being Irish, calls it a 'polican' in his book. The slightly dissimilar arms with the semi-circles, the bolsters, and the slightly dissimilar lengths of the rotating double-ended claw gives you four different closing widths. I think that then you put the last straight part of the bolster (outside the semi-circle) on a sound tooth,
trapped the outside of the tooth to be pulled with the part of the bolster that turns at an angle at the extremity, then clinched the claw up tight against the inside of the tooth to be pulled, then levered out the tooth using the sound tooth as your fulcrum.

... Then Allen would have you do the same on a suitable looking tooth in the mouth of the baboon which you have strapped down ready for that purpose, and insert it into the hole you have just made in your patient's dentition.

The whole left side of my head is hurting.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The D'Oyley Tomb, Hambleden

With Spring finally arrived, out for a walk near Henley on Thames, watching red kites playing in the wind above Fawley, and then descending down to Hambleden. Here the stream, confidently shown on the OS map, has not run for two years; a local told me that two years of significant rainfall was needed for the stream to run again, so low has the water-table in the Chilterns sunk.

In the church at Hambleden, a monument to Sir Cope D’Oyley (1571-1633) and his wife Martha, ‘who received the crown of glory in the year of Grace 1618’. She died shortly after the birth of their 10th child, and 5th little girl: for they had ‘lived together in inviolated bands of Holy Wedlock 22 years, and multiplied themselves into five sons and five daughters, viz. John, James, Robert, Charles, Frances, Martha, Mary, Dorothie, Elizabeth & Joan.’

As is usual, the boys kneel in front of their Father, the girls in front of their mother, both sets facing one another, as the parents face one another in prayer.

Here are the verses beneath, first for Sir Cope:

Ask me not who’s buried here

Goe ask the commons, ask the Shire

Goe ask the Church, they’l tell thee who

As well as blubbered eyes can doe

Goe, ask the Heraulds, ask the poore

Thine ears shall heare enough to ask no more

Then – if thine eye bedew this sacred urne

Each drop a pearle will turne

T’adorne his Tombe, of if thou canst not vent

Thou bringst more marble to his Monument.

And again, for Martha:

Woulds’t thou, reader, draw to life

The perfect copy of a Wife

Read on, & then redeeme from shame

That lost, that honourable name

This Dust was once in spirit a Jael

Rebecca’in grace, in heart an Abigail

In works, a Dorcas: to the church, a Hanna

And to her spouse, Susanna

Prudently simple, providently wary

To the world a Martha, to heav’n, a Mary.

This was a family with connections to literature: Martha was the sister of the poet Francis Quarles. The verses might be locally written – that sounds to me like a South Oxfordshire rhyme of ‘here’ and ‘shire’. But the last lines of the Sir Cope epitaph, that rebuke to the stony-hearted reader who fails to weep, are very well turned. It could be his brother in law writing, but it is not among Quarles’s published works (Quarles is fond of 'marble' conceits, and has a striking Martha and Mary poem). Then Martha: five couplets matched to his five, but suddenly the poet had recourse to that all too ready cultural despair about women. Sir Cope is just a good man, prompting no need to make general reflections about men. Martha, however, gets praised in the usual way the 17th century could praise a woman, as a glorious exception to a general rottenness. Conversely, you could say, look how high the bar was raised. Sir Cope is an individual who can call on the testimony of everyone locally, from all ranks of society, to witness his virtues. But Martha is measured against, first, other wives, and she surpasses them, to be ranked with eight women from the Bible. Her achievements as a person are at once resonant, and beyond normal reality, so she is placed among a Biblical elect, just as their virtues had been alive on earth in her. It is the man who is wept for, the woman who is admired (that Sir Cope's was the recent death influences this). Once again, our poet knows how to end a set of verses, with that flash of wit in the play between her earthly and heavenly identity. Can personality emerge from this pageant of Bible heroines? ‘In spirit a Jael’ – could that allusion to the Bible’s fiery murderess have been welcomed as an excellent way to convey what her real temper was like? Is ‘Susanna’ totally inseparable from a faintest suggestion of one of the Bible’s sexier women?

They had 10 children, four of them dying young. John, the eldest boy, was a royalist, while Charles, the fourth son, fought for the other side, commanding Lord Fairfax’s Life Guard at the Battle of Naseby, where he offered the bare-headed Fairfax – a wildly courageous man from a military family – his own helmet in the midst of the battle. The two brothers seem to have come close to fighting one another in smaller local actions, but both survived the war.

I post an image of the elder sons. The Church guide asserts that John, the eldest, and James, the second brother, are dressed as Cavaliers, while the three younger sons are dressed as Puritan roundheads. The first thing about John is that he is a mature man, scaled at two thirds the size of his father, that was the conventional way to sculpt a tomb like this. He is barbered and dressed for court, his next brother ‘died young’, but was presumably intended for the army, for he is in 17th plate armour. The last three boys are indeed in plainer attire, the simple linen flap falling down square over the shoulders, and in two shorter lozenge shapes at the open front. But how was this done? How could a monumental mason carve in alabaster in 1633 the outward form of the boys’ political persuasions in the 1640’s? No, the three younger sons are just in the neutral attire of younger sons of an Oxfordshire gentleman, their careers neither settled nor projected.

I usually tell my students – the young women at least – what their reproductive career might have been had they been born 400 years before. None of them remotely contemplates that 5-7 children average. Martha came from a Puritan family of 8 children, her brother Francis and his wife managed 18. What nets of kinship they must have had!