Wednesday, December 19, 2007

“The understanding being a most subtile fire”: the 'virtuosi of France' talk

I have been reading A general collection of discourses of the virtuosi of France, upon questions of all sorts of philosophy, and other natural knowledg made in the assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the most ingenious persons of that nation, render'd into English by G. Havers, Gent. (1664). (Usual early modern title: inviting a coffee break after reading it all, only 500-odd pages to go…)

The introduction, which explains that the ‘virtuosi of France’ demanded anonymity in the record made of their debates, is signed ‘Eusebius Renaudot’, so a very little poking around discovers that the original compiler was Théophraste Renaudot (c.1586-1653). I assume it was his son who ushered the English translation into print. As the brief Wikipedia entry says of the very considerable figure of Théophraste: “French physician, philanthropist, and journalist”. Renaudot invented the recruitment agency (the ‘bureau d'adresse et de rencontre’), published the first weekly newspaper in France, and, the Wikipedia entry says, ‘starting in 1633, he organized weekly public conferences on subjects of interest and published the proceedings; the conferences were discontinued in 1642, when Richelieu died. About 240 conference proceedings were translated into English and published in London in 1664 and 1665’.

The translation’s other introductory material briefly points out the merits of the work: the original penseurs were committed to the vernacular language for their discussion, and, seeking brevity, omitted all parading of authorities. And (most politely), these ‘French Gentlemen’ have left “the Determination of each Question to the judgement of the Reader, who is made the Arbiter of the Dispute, and may, in the grateful Variety of Opinions, freely give his suffrage to That which shall seem to him founded upon the most convincing Reasons; or else having them all before him, establish a better of his own.”

So we have here the discussions of an earlier and more public (French) Royal Society, ranging over all kinds of topics, expressing viewpoints that fluctuate unpredictably between the Cartesian and the credulous, and generally opening out the kunstkammer of the early modern mind.

Here are discussions of women, the soul, sorcerers, the senses, the arts, codes, sleep-walking, fossilia, and all kinds of matters medical. As ever, the incidentals amaze: the early 17th century apparently saw the first self-winding watch (they are discussing – what else? - perpetual motion): “his Invention who exactly fastned a Girdle to his skin, which rising and falling as he took his breath, serv'd for a perpetual spring to a Watch that hung at it, (which by that means needed not winding up) was not the Perpetual Motion which we mean...”

Or here, in a discussion of feigned diseases, one of the most hazardous ways of earning a living in early modern showbiz I have ever come across:

“One of the hardest cheats to be discover'd was that of a Jugler of Flanders, who every morning, having first stopp'd his fundament very exactly, swallow'd down half a pound of Butter and some Quicksilver after it: which put him into such hideous motions and gestures, that every one judg'd him possest. At night he unstop'd himself, and voided his Devil backwards.”

I can’t think that the performer would have lasted long, but his trick seems to have been feigning a very convincing diabolic possession by inducing symptoms he simply couldn’t control. A pair of Siamese twins (revealingly discussed as just a singular ‘monster’) whose speciality act was singing are remembered as: “mention'd by Buchanan in the fifteenth Book of his History, born in Northumberland with two heads, four armes, two breasts, and onely two leggs; It was instructed in Musick, so that each head sung its part melodiously, and discours'd together pertinently.” This made me think of Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban.

Perhaps appropriately, considering the nationality of these thinkers, the sections on eating and fasting are good. Here are two terms very familiar to our culture, which I did not expect to see in an early 17th century text:

“Amongst which we should speed ill if we look'd for abstinence in those who have a Boulimie, or Canine Hunger, proceeding either from the too great suction of the Mesaraick Veins, of which the Stomack is made sensible by the Nerves of the sixth Conjugation; or because the Melancholy humour design'd to stimulate the stomack, and provoke Appetite by its acrimony, continually flows thither, and not after the concoction is perfected: The cure of which Malady consists in eating, and chiefly in drinking pure Wine, which is distributed more speedily then any nourishment. But when those Mesaraick Veins suck no more Chyle, either because their passages are stop'd, or for that the above mentioned acide liquor is diverted elsewhere, then ariseth a disease call'd Anorexie, or Nausea, whereunto the abstinence of those must be referr'd who have continu'd some weeks, yea moneths, and years, without eating and drinking.”

But I was, as ever, ignorant, and find that both are named disorders well before this date. Here are the OED’s earliest entries:

1398 TREVISA Barth. de. P.R. VII. xlv. (1495) 258 Bolismus is inmoderate and vnmesurable as it were an houndes appetyte. Ibid. XVIII. xxvii. 786 Houndes haue contynuall Bolisme, that is inmoderat appetyte. 1598 SYLVESTER Du Bartas (1608) 210 One while the boulime, then the anorexie…rage with monstrous ryot. 1651 FULLER Abel Rediv. (1867) I. 222 He fell into a most devouring and unsatiable bulimy. 1661 LOVELL Hist. Anim. & Min. 365 The boulimos and dog like appetite.

1598 SYLVESTER Furies 450 (D.) Then the Anorexie, Then the Dog-hunger or the Bradypepsie. 1650 BAXTER Saints Rest IV. vi, These are sick of the anorexia, and apepsy, they have neither appetite nor digestion.

And, oh dear, this naturally sent me off to Joseph Sylvester’s translation of du Bartas, and the grim relish of his account of ‘The Furies’ who assail Adam after the fall of man. Unsurprisingly (considering the nature of the sin he committed) Adam and his descendents get afflicted by eating disorders:

Now, the third Regiment with stormy stours
Sets-on the Squadron of our Naturall Powers,
Which happily maintain us (duly) both
With needfull food, and with sufficient growth.
One-while the Boulime, then the Anorexie,
Then the Dog-hunger, or the Bradypepsie,
And childe-great Pica (of prodigious diet)
In straightest stomacks rage with monstrous ryot…

Close to this passage, either Du Bartus or his translator interjects a personal note about the horror of fever, and the effect of fours years of illness on his mental capacities. But I have no time to pursue that secondary question, my subject here was ‘the virtuosi of France’, and this informal and yet highly committed book, one that makes them look like proto-bloggers.

My image is Annibale Carracci's astonishingly modern 'The Bean Eater'. Not exactly 'the Dog-hunger', but a marvellous picture.


Simon said...

Please can you help as I am looking for the poem in its entirety The Furies by Joshua Sylvester.
Many thanks

DrRoy said...

If you do not have access to the LION database, I could lift a text from there for you. That will be quite a chunk of text. E-mail me,