Sunday, October 28, 2007

A talk with Mr Mazda

Off to another 'Rock, Gem and Mineral Fair', and here's my prime acquisition, from my favourite dealer, Mr R D Mazda.

These are little turrets of pale green chalcedony, mingled with pale pink quartz and a single bright green chrystal of apophyllite. The source (Mr Mazda is punctiliously correct about provenance) is a place called Jalgaon, which is in Mahavashtva state, a day's drive north east of Bombay.

My photograph has lost much of the beauty of the piece: the chalcedony is in the subtlest of grey-greens. It reminded me of the 'Rain Flower Pebbles' and other landscape stones the Chinese avidly collected (and I am sorry that so aesthetically and intellectually enriching a blog as 'misteraitch' has run is now brought to an end):

I bought other smaller things, including a dangerous lump of native cinnabar - sealed in a plastic box. I acquired this late acquisitiveness around 2002. As these objects pile up in the house, I tell myself that having an enjoyment of ownership is one thing that distinguishes us from animals...

But, speaking of enriching people, I had a long talk with Mr Mazda, who collects books by the poets of the 1890's. We talked about Swinburne, and Dowson, back to Tennyson, and on to Masefield. And he recited for me a poem by Masefield which I did not know, 'A Creed', and politely indicated that its forthright account of reincarnation was more or less what he himself believed. He also said that Masefield's first line was toned down, under pressure, to the faintly absurd 'I held that' (which would undermine the very title - if you have renounced the idea, it hardly qualifies as much of a creed, does it?). The version on LION does indeed have that diluted past tense. I read David Gervais's life of Masefield on ODNB, which has no indication about Masefield's leaning to Buddhism. Here, Masefield seems so happy with Samsara, that it comes across as a kind of Buddhist Browning, all heartiness and vigour. But here it is, as a thanks to my educator and purveyor of fine rocks:

'A creed'
I hold that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise
Another mother gives him birth.
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the road again.

Such is my own belief and trust;
This hand, this hand that holds the pen,
Has many a hundred times been dust
And turned, as dust, to dust again;
These eyes of mine have blinked and shown
In Thebes, in Troy, in Babylon.

All that I rightly think or do,
Or make, or spoil, or bless, or blast,
Is curse or blessing justly due
For sloth or effort in the past.
My life's a statement of the sum
Of vice indulged, or overcome.

I know that in my lives to be
My sorry heart will ache and burn,
And worship, unavailingly,
The woman whom I used to spurn,
And shake to see another have
The love I spurned, the love she gave.

And I shall know, in angry words,
In gibes, and mocks, and many a tear,
A carrion flock of homing-birds,
The gibes and scorns I uttered here.
The brave word that I failed to speak
Will brand me dastard on the cheek.

And as I wander on the roads
I shall be helped and healed and blessed;
Dear words shall cheer and be as goads
To urge to heights before unguessed.
My road shall be the road I made;
All that I gave shall be repaid.

So shall I fight, so shall I tread,
In this long war beneath the stars;
So shall a glory wreathe my head,
So shall I faint and show the scars,
Until this case, this clogging mould,
Be smithied all to kingly gold.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

'The Steem of Mad Doggs': Renfrewshire, 1698.

I am working rather too hard for the extra investigations required by the tangential investigations of this blog. But my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course has come round again, spurring me to read some of those pamphlets I have previously missed. My latest has been that by Sir Francis Grant, Lord Cullen, about the Renfrewshire witch scare:

A true narrative of the sufferings and relief of a young girle; strangely molested, by evil spirits and their instruments, in the west collected from authentick testimonies there-anent. With a preface and post-script containing reflections on what is most material or curious; either in the history, or trial of the seven witches who were condemn'd to be execute in that countrey. This comes in as late as 1698, and its interest made me reflect that we tend to read earlier works, and so miss out on highly evolved demonological discourses from the very end of that lamentable tradition. It also prompts me to consider that, in scholarship about the witchcraft panic, the general focus is awry, and should always be on the accusers, not the accused.

Grant is fascinating. He was a very devout lawyer, an intelligent and informed man who will deploy the discoveries of the dawning Enlightenment to reinforce the assertions of Enlightenment’s very opposite:

“there needs not so much Metaphysicks to unriddle the Appearance of Witches as Beasts, and the like: Since their reall persons may be covered with a Vehicle; which by dispersal of the Rays coming therefrom, may fascinate the Eyes by the same Impressions that come from the true sight of such”.

Grant is not a man to give any ground at all – all demonology is true, with no concessions. Thus, though he admires “our Famous K. Ja. 6th” (King James) as an unimpeachable author, it clearly bothered him that James had given some ground to scepticism in the Daemonologie. Addressing the transvection of witches, James had produced a canny limitation on this power: in his view, witches can fly, “but in this violent forme they cannot be carried, but a shorte boundes, agreeing with the space that they may reteine their breath: for if it were longer, their breath could not remaine unextinguished, their bodie being carried in such a violent & forcible maner”. King James backs this up with the amazing assertion that when people fall from very high places, they are asphyxiated before they hit the ground: “as is oft seen by experience”. Grant will have none of this: “As it’s easy for [the devil] to Condense a part of the Vechicle: which may protect the Breathing and yet cutt the Air, like the Fence of Dyvers, & beak of a Sloop”. Again, the quasi-scientific language, deployed to argue that the devil contrives face masks for his aerial passengers. So the King was right, but wrong, as satan had a way round the brathing problem. When arguing that Satan can also create a ‘Vehicle’ of condensed air behind which the real form of the witch is hidden, and a “dispersal of Rays” to deceive the eye, Grant was also silently correcting the King’s theories: James did not think that witches could take the form of smaller animals: it would be just too painful to be so compacted. Grant has a particular need to establish this point, for his eleven year old informant lets it be known at one point that “M.M. … had appeared to her, and pincht her leg in the likeness of a Bumbee”.

The afflicted child that Grant found so convincing that he was among those who had seven people hanged as a consequence of her accusations was Christian Shaw, of Bargarran House, a “smart lively Girl”, who snitched to her mother that the housemaid Catherine Campbell was illicitly drinking the household milk, and got the fiery response from ‘Katie’: “The Devil harle your soul thorow Hell”. Campbell was unlucky: I suppose that the kindest construction on what followed is that Christian Shaw then succumbed to a mild attack of tetanus -

(“her Body was often bent & rigid, as she stood like a Bow on her Feet and Neck at once” – just look at that 1809 painting of a sufferer). But Christian had an available range of metaphysical explanations for her distressing symptoms: she was, of course, bewitched. At some point, her subsiding symptoms would have been overtaken by the necessity to sustain the accusations she had made, and she became an adept and dangerously manipulative fraud (for the best possible motives, of course). In her later life, she would make a major advance in the spinning of fine linen yarn:

This clever girl could therefore contrive such staggering proofs as her glove, dropped in public view as she attended Kirk, levitating back to her hand. I suspect a minor magic trick involving a very fine thread. Christian was embarked on a course she had to see through. Her piety sustained her, as she effectively set about purging the parish of everyone that she had heard spoken ill of by those adults she respected. The number of her persecutors increased alarmingly, as the intrepid Christian fingered anyone with a bad local reputation. Those who cursed were a particular target, she also named a local crippled man, and of course swept up anyone previously suspected of witchcraft. But she is a child, and can be alarmingly arbitrary: an “Old Highland fellow” unluckily arrived at the house, weary from journeying, and sought shelter. Christian took an instant dislike to him, and he joined her other victims.

With these young accusers, there is always the possibility that an adult was colluding with or directing the ‘demoniack’ or child witness, as happened with Anne Gunter, or Edmund Robinson. I don’t think this was the case here. ‘M.M.’, who wickedly took the shape of a bumble bee to sting Christian, was a local gentlewoman. My illustration is the final page of this pamphlet, where the author complains about ‘M.M.’ having used legal redress against his pamphlet, reducing her name to the initials. Galling for the lawyer author to have the law turned against him, and this avenue of escape was not available to the seven who were found guilty of the persecution of Christian Shaw, and hanged. But that anyone can use the law as a positive defence is a sign of better times to come – in cases like that of the Throckmorton children, those accused seem to have no notion of any legal assistance, of habeas corpus, nothing: they are helpless as doom engulfs them.

Christian duly recovered after a satisfactory number of deaths, her case won by her fantastic ingenuity and persistence in her visitations, and her occasional spectaculars (she could move along without her feet seeming to touch the floor, I think especially when there was a stair hand rail to help things along). She was also backed up by three who had the wit and unscrupulousness to turn ‘confessing witch’, and escape the gallows by collaborating the child’s story against their fellow accused.

My post title comes from Grant’s heated argument that “The confederated Devil may, upon the Witches desire, infuse poisonous Humours, extracted from Herbs, of the same invisible Operation with the Steem of Madd dogs, or the Pestilence” to inflict such awful sufferings on his victims.

I will next read Grant’s Sadducimus debellatus: or, a true narrative of the sorceries and witchcrafts exercis'd by the devil and his instruments upon Mrs. Christian Shaw, daughter of Mr. John Shaw, of Bargarran in the County of Renfrew in the West of Scotland, from Aug. 1696 to Apr. 1697. I expect more of the same, meanwhile, the case has a book about it now:

The Kirk, Satan and Salem: A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire, by Hugh V. McLachlan, which I will have bought into my college library. But while the title, as I imply, may help the book find its audience, the real focus ought to be on the perpetrator, the self-fancied demoniack, young Christian Shaw.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mooning the moon in early modern Brazil

Because I have a postgraduate student working in this area, I have been reading a racy piece of serio-comic writing, the undeniably learned wit of George Rogers’ The horn exalted or Roome for cuckolds. Being a treatise concerning the reason and original of the word cuckold, and why such are said to wear horns. Very proper for these times, when men are butting, and pushing, and goring, and horning one another. Also an appendix concerning women and jealousie, [1660].

George Rogers was a 17th century medical man ambitious enough to have trained in Padua. He then went into practice in London, and eventually became the president of the College of Physicians. To celebrate the restoration of the monarchy (and in an act of remarkable prescience about what would notoriously prove to be one of the major preoccupations of that new anti-puritan era, he sent to the press this disquisition on a horny issue, seeing ‘the general verge of the people to merryment’, and expressing the hope that ‘this piece of drollery’ might therefore prove ‘acceptable’

The account of the mysterious origins of the ‘cuckold’ and of his imaginary horns is appropriately gamey: Rogers writes with an amused tolerance about erring wives, and urges any offended husbands to keep quiet - they should never blow their own horn and so draw attention to it. Rogers delivers a staggering range of arcane lore, much of it collected from (it seems) an array of Italian sources theorizing about cuckoldry and horns (‘these pleasant Seignieurs’, he calls them).

He outlines all the relevant cuckoo lore, and then gets onto the cuckold’s imputed horns, and their possible origins: Seignieur Trifone (apparently) alleged that it was because, of all male animals, only the billy-goat never shows signs of jealousy (an opinion conclusively refuted with a garish anecdote about a he-goat with a very particular reason for fatally attacking a man). Seignieur Cesario, Rogers tells us, derived Beccho from the horned Bacchus (and drunkards do get to be cuckolds), Seignieur Raineri argued the relevance of the horns of the moon, while Signieur Marmitta referred the fabulous horns of the cuckold to a story that, among Indian women, custom held that ‘when any lover presented their Mistress with an Elephant, she might permit him the joyes of her beauty’. There’s a pleasant side argument touched upon on whether an elephant has horns or just big teeth.

Other sources help Rogers range over the cornucopia, ‘the horn of plenty and abundance, which kind dames bring their husbands’, and an astronomical reason for the cuckold’s horns, obscurely based on which side of their wife a husband ought to lie when they are in bed together. The constellation of the Ram is on the right side of the sun, while women ‘would have their husbands still to lie on the left side, as being more dextrous for embraces’. So those that sullenly insist on lying on the right of their wives, making themselves less available for their marital embraces by doing so, ‘they call rams’.

All this is agreeably knock-about: Laurence Sterne would have loved it. Or rather, Laurence Sterne would have plundered it. To the latterday pedant, Rogers offers the stuff of a hundred footnotes. Here, in a single sentence, we get a possible light on the proper costuming of Edgar when he impersonates ‘Poor Tom’ in King Lear, and a splendid menstruation-ritual from Brazil which involved mooning the Moon:

“Lunacy for certain comes and goes with the Syzigy

[syzygy, that perfect word for the game of Scrabble, means coupling or conjunction]

of the star; from the Moon sure enough we become horn-mad, and hence our Tom-a-bedlams wear horns about them, perhaps by way of jeer and reproach to her, just as the women in Braseile at Monomatopa go up to the mountains at a new moon, and turn up their half-moons or backsides in defiance of her, because the causer of their monethly tribute.”

In this next extract, he skitters from consideration of the meaning present in the precise ordering of the Ten Commandments, into a consideration whether it ought to be the adulterer that gets the horns, and then leaps on to considering the devil’s horns:

“Adultery is both murder and theft, and therefore 'tis placed in the Ten Commandements twixt both: for as that steals the pleasures of another mans property, so (as Chaucer speaks) it Kerves in two and breaks asunder those that were one flesh. Well do then adulterers deserve horns: for since like pampered horses they run neighing after others wives and lye at rack and manger with them, 'tis fit they should have the bitter cup, and be drenched with the horn. The devil too is pictured with horns. He was the old serpent 'tis true, but whether Cerastes or the horn-snake, 'tis unknown. The Women they’l say he is horned, because he beats his dame when rain and sunshine meet together; so in revenge she turns succuba to others, just as he uses to lye with Witches and impure persons in dreams by creeping into their bodie.”

‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’, is Macbeth’s enigmatic first line: I have now seen two 17th century sources that indicate a belief existed that if the sun was shining while it rained, the devil and his dam were falling out. Diabolic marital disputes! Now, who has written on the weather in Shakespeare?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Set my fancy on a fire!

I always welcome (I suppose) all Hollywood revisits to the 16th century, in the faint hope that things Elizabethan might suddenly seem modish to my students. I am told by those same students that The Golden Age opens here today. So here is Cate Blanchett in a publicity still giving it her maximum Gloriana, while Clive Owen is her 'Sweet Sir Walter'. Ratings over on the IMDB are good:
I suppose I am looking forward, with temperate expectation, to seeing it.

The same kind of conversation led me to mentioning a piece of Elizabethan Petrarchising to a student who knows the originals far, far better than I ever will, and who is (astonishing though it may seem that such people exist) a latterday member of the Petrarchisti, keen to keep Petrarch's wreath of laurel, bay and myrtle in a suitably flourishing state.

The poem I had in mind was a sonnet published in The Phoenix Nest, 1593. Here it is:

Those eyes which set my fancy on a fire,
Those crisped hairs which hold my heart in chains,
Those dainty hands which conquered my desire,
That wit which of my thoughts doth hold the reins!
Those eyes, for clearness do the stars surpass,
Those hairs obscure the brightness of the sun,
Those hands, more white than ever ivory was,
That wit, even to the skies hath glory won!
O eyes that pierce our hearts without remorse,
O hairs of right that wear a royal crown,
O hands that conquer more than Caesar's force,
O wit that turns huge kingdoms upside down!
Then Love be judge, what heart may thee withstand,
Such eyes, such hair, such wit, and such a hand.

The thing that has always struck me about this sonnet is way we react as we read through it. The octave grinds through the conventional rota of compliments in a way that triggers instant impatience. ('Oh, good grief, not another one.') And, as we drag our weary eyes down into the sestet, we stir back awake, even though that tiresome correlative structure is still unfolding. It is addressed to someone that wears a royal crown by right, whose wit 'turns huge kingdoms upside down'. There's only one person fits the bill, and there's Cate Blanchett above impersonating her.

Agnes Latham, editing Ralegh, saw this as a Ralegh-circle poem. He might have had it ghosted, for it is more mechanical than Ralegh's usual wavering line. But more likely, he wrote it himself. Emrys Jones doesn't discount the possibility in his brief note on the poem in his Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse.

Suddenly the cardboard petrarchisms shift aside, and we half glimpse no less a man than Ralegh addressing Elizabeth I. The conventional lover's deference in the poem is the court favourite to the woman whose favour lifted him from being an obscure gentleman-swordsman, hardened in vicious campaigning in Ireland, to what he became ('the best-hated man in England', and other attendant benefits).

So the amusement of it all is, can we possibly imagine a more fantastically boring poem being transacted between two more fantastically interesting people?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Plague prediction from the behaviour of children, and coffee as a remedy, 1665

In sprucing up a lecture I came across the little pamphlet The prophecie of one of His Maiesties chaplains, concerning the plague and black-patches with Mr. Gadburies happy and joyful predictions, for the decrease of the plague both in the city and suburbs; the time when; the manner how; by God's permission, and according to natural causes; the effects and motion of the planets, and what every week may produce for the thrice-happy and welcome abatement of this sad and dismal pestilence; and the city of London to be wholly acquit thereof about (or before) Christmas (1665).

This ill-founded announcement of hopeful news ( the pamphlet gives both the astrological reasons for the outbreak, and repeats the hopes Gadbury had raised for an amelioration in August when ‘the fortunate Planet Venus … may so happily contemper the fury of it’ by entering into ‘a Trine of the Sun’ – no such luck, of course) brings together several oddities. Taking me back to some of my earliest postings on the fashion for black face patches, the pamphlet mentions a royal chaplain denouncing them as connected to, and in some sense responsible for, outbreaks of plague:

“And 'tis worthy of serious consideration, that about 20 years ago, one of the Chaplains of his late Majesty King Charles the First of ever blessed memory, did preach at Bristol upon this Text out of Gen 4.15 (‘And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him’) And in his Sermon did speak often against black patches and beauty-spots; and, among other things, said they were Fore runners of other Spots, and Marks of the Plague; and presently, within a very little while after, the Plague broke out among them, and all those persons that did wear them, fled the Town.”

If fashion can be connected to the plague, so can all kinds of behaviours. Arguing rather unconvincingly that God in His infinite mercy (!) sends warning signs (but the plague nevertheless tends to arrive ‘unawares’), the author runs through a few of the bad signs to look out for:

“Though the Plague cometh unawares, and seizeth upon a man on a suddain, yet such is the infinite mercy of God, and the providence of Nature, that it giveth always warning enough to any one that will diligently observe it …

… First the Reader may be pleased to observe, the Signs immanent and approaching of great Mortality; Mr Kelway in the third Chapter of his Treatise of the Plague printed at London 1593 hath these words: When we see young Children flocke them selues together in companyes, and then will faine some one of their company to be dead amongst them and so will solemnize the buriall in a mournefull sorte, this is a token which hath bene well obserued in our age, to foreshew great mortallitie at hand.

The allusion is to Simon Kellwaye’s A defensatiue against the plague contayning two partes or treatises: the first, shewing the meanes how to preserue vs from the dangerous contagion thereof: the second, how to cure those that are infected therewith. I in fact had to fill out the faintly-inked quotation in the 1665 text from the 1593 source.

So, it’s a bad sign if you see the children out playing at funerals. I find this interesting, and, I must confess, to have a faint possibility of plausibility, like those stories of animals predicting disasters. William Lilly, in his manuscript ‘History of his Life and Times’ (I read the 1822 printing of this fascinating work) firmly believed in this indication of bad times ahead. (I concede that Lilly firmly believed in all kinds of indications of bad times ahead – that was his stock-in-trade.) But here he is on the 1625 outbreak (and, at first, on what has to be a smaller outbreak from his earlier London years, 1620 onwards):

“I will relate what I observed the spring before it broke forth. Against our house every night there would come down, about five or six of the Clock, some hundred or more boys, some playing, others as if in serious discourse, and just as it grew dark would all be gone home; many succeeding years there was no such, or any concourse, usually no more than four or five in a company. In the spring of 1625, the boys and youths of several parishes in like number appeared again, which I beheld, called Thomas Sanders, my landlord, and told him, that the youth and young boys of several parishes did in that nature assemble and play, in the beginning of the year 1625 ‘God bless us’, quoth I, ‘from a plague this year’.

Was there some unrecorded lore among 17th century children, some observation they had made? Boys were perhaps close observers of the behaviour of rats, as a source of sport. Had they noticed (as used to be the case with local tribes when the plague was still confined to the steppes) that the population of rodents was diminishing? Before the plague got out of central Asia, the people there knew that if the marmots were sick, you stayed well away. I read somewhere that the Chagatai horde led by Timur-i-Leng (Tamburlaine) swept through, knowing nothing of this, and freed the bacillus into circulation across the hemisphere.

The 1665 pamphlet offers the usual desperate remedies – wood fires, dosing yourself with vinegar, and coffee. Yes, coffee.

“Kindle a wood-fire in the Chimney, to consume and destroy all the infectious vapours… Venice-Treacle, Vinegar is a most excellent Antidote against the Plague, and to drink 2 or 3 Spoonfuls in a Morning is very good … Coffee is commended against the Contagion.”

What a pitiable life they led!