Saturday, January 26, 2008

Homo (non-) ludens: a 17th century preacher renounces chess.

I find myself with a lecture to refresh on Women beware Women. The famous chess-playing scene, II ii, led me into a scamper round EEBO looking at early books on chess, and so to reading a highly moral broadsheet: A letter from a minister to his friend concerning the game of chesse (1680).

As ever, what I feel in this publication is its poignantly compressed record of a life otherwise disappeared. As point after morally urgent point is made by this recovering chess addict, in its candour and the methodical breadth of its self-criticism, the unknown writer comes alive: the intellectual passion of his life, his self-indulgence, his Christian self-criticism, the thoughts of his acquaintances, his reading, his very physique. I liked especially his confession to thinking about chess problems while in the pulpit (like John Donne’s confession to suffering easy distractions when at prayer):

SIR, I here send you my Reasons for my disusing and declining the Game of Chess …

1. It is a great Time-waster: How many precious hours (which can never be recall’d) have I profusely spent in this Game? O Chesse, I’le be aveng’d of thee for the loss of my Time. 'Tis a true saying, That it is more necessary thriftiness to be sparing and saving of Time than of Money. One offered on his Death-bed a World of Wealth, for an Inch of Time; and another with great earnestness, cryed out, when she lay dying; Call Time again! Call time again! This I heard, says a worthy Minister, and I think the sound of it will be in my ears so long as I live.

2. It hath had with me a fascinating property: I have been bewitched by it; and when I have begun, I have not had the power to give over. Though a thing be never so lawfull yet I ought not to suffer my self to be brought under the power of it. I’le not use it, till I find I can refuse it. Reason and Religion shall order my Recreation.

3. It hath not done with me when I have done with it. It hath followed me into my Study, into my Pulpit; when I have been Praying, or Preaching, I have (in my thoughts) been playing at Chess; then have I had it as were a Chess-board before my eyes; and I have been thinking how I might have obtained the stratagems of my Antagonist, or make such motions to his disadvantage; nay, I have heard of one who was playing at Chess in his thoughts (as appear’d by his words) when he lay a dying.

4. It hath caus’d me to break many solemn Resolutions, nay Vows and promises. Sometimes I have oblig’d my self in the most solemn manner, to play but so many Mates at a time, or with any one person, and anon I have broken these obligations and promises, and after Vows of that kind I have made inquiry how I might evade them; and have sinfully prevaricated in that matter; and that not only once, but often.

5. It hath wounded my Conscience, and broken my peace. I have had sad reflections upon it when I have been most serious. I find if I were now to dye, the remembrance of this Game would greatly trouble me, and stare me in the face. I have read in the life of the famous John Husse, how he was greatly troubled for using this game, a little before his death.

6. My using it hath been scandalous and offensive to others. Some godly friends (as I have understood) have been grieved by it; and others (as I have reason to fear) have been hardned by it. Great inconveniences have arisen from the places where, and the persons with whom I have used this game.

7. My using of it hath occasion’d much sin, as passion, strife, idle (if not lying) words, in my self or my Antagonist, or both. It hath caused the neglect of many duties both to God and Man.

8. My using of it doth evince, I have little self-denial in me. If I can’t deny my self in a foolish Game, how can I think I either do or shall deny my self in greater matters? How shall I forsake all for Christ, when I can’t forsake a Recreation for him.

9. My using it is altogether needless and unnecessary to me. As it hinders my Souls health, so it doth not further my bodily health. Such is my constitution (being corpulent and Phlegmatic) that if I need any exercise, it is that which is stirring and labouring. I can’t propound any end to my self in the use of it, but the pleasing of my flesh.

The poor man even ends with the thought of the money he has wasted on chess, and a then a quotation from “Mr B’s Christian Direct.”: “… when I observe how far the temper and life of Christ and his best servants was from such recreations, I avoid them with the more suspicion. And I see but few but distaste it in Ministers (even Shooting, Bowling, and such more healthfull Games) … That Student that needeth Chess or Cards to please his mind, I doubt hath a Carnal empty mind…”

I pursued ‘Mr B’s Christian Direct’: the reference is that inexhaustible index to the average 17th century English religious mind, Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory. Baxter’s book harasses its reader with unforgiving moral admonitions about every aspect of life, what a Christian may and (more often) may not do. In books like this, Christian recreations are a major topic. Even as I steered (however) towards the page the repentant chess player indicates, p.464, I found myself distracted by Baxter’s general inveighing against ‘inward filthy lusts’, so perhaps the book could have been read to enjoy the denunciation of the sins of others.

Baxter’s book is long enough to ensure its diligent reader many weeks free of sin. My other casting around was rewarded by finding in Thomas Gouge’s much reprinted Christian directions, shewing how to walk with God all the day long (1661) the following succinct thoughts against football matches and blood sports:

Unlawful Sports and Recreations may bee brought to these Heads.

1 All such wherein neither wit of mind, nor exercise of body is used, as Dice-play, and some Games at Cards, for in them is nothing but an expectation of an uncertain event, wherein neither wit of mind, nor exercise of body is used…

2 Such as bring danger to men, as of old was fighting with Beasts, and now Matches at Foot-bal, fighting at Cudgels, especially fighting with sharp Weapons…

3 Such as declare Gods punishment on the Creatures for mans Sin, as Bear-baiting, Cock-fighting, and the like; the enmity that is in one Creature against another, is a punishment on the poor Creatures for mans Sin, and therefore ought not to bee a ground or matter of sport and rejoycing unto us, but rather of sorrow and humiliation.

My image is from one of the editions of Arthur Saul's guide to playing chess, with D's in the corner of the board rather than R's: 'Here's a Duke will make a sure stroke for the game anon', as Livia says.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Early Modern Zebras!

I am a little under siege with work, but return to my post at this weblog with this strangely tentative and incredulous early picture of a zebra, from A report of the kingdome of Congo, a region of Africa And of the countries that border rounde about the same …Besides the description of divers plants, fishes and beastes, that are found in those countries. Drawen out of the writinges and discourses of Odoardo Lopez a Portingall, by Philippo Pigafetta. Translated out of Italian by Abraham Hartwell, London: Printed by John Wolfe, 1597.

And here is the accompanying text. It describes the zebra as having stripes in three colours, and is typically enthusiastic about Nature having provided everywhere for man, and how the zebra might be put to god use in war:

“There breedeth likewise in this Countrey another Creature, which they call a Zebra, commonly found also in certain Provinces of Barbary and Africa: which although it be altogether made like a great Mule, yet is not a Mule indeed, for it beareth young ones. It hath a most singular skin, and peculiar from all other creatures. For from the ridge of the chine down towards the bellie, it is straked with rows of three colours, black, white, and brown Bay, about the breadth of three fingers a peece, and so meet again together in a circle, every row, with his own colour. So that the neck, and the head; and the Mane (which is not great) and the ears, and all the legs are so interchaunged with these colours, and in such manner and order, as without all fail, if the first strake begin with white, then followeth the second with black, & in the third place the Bay: & so another course beginning in white endeth still in Bay. And this rule is generally and infallibly observed over all the body. The tayle is like the tayle of a Mule, of a Morell colour, but yet it is well coloured, and hath a glistring gloss. The feet like the feet of a Mule, and so are the hooffes. But touching the rest of her carriage and qualities, she is very lusty and pleasaunt as a horse: and specially in going, and in running she is so light & so swift that it is admirable. In somuch as in Portingale and in Castile also, it is commonly used (as it were for a proverb) As swift as a Zebra, when they will signifie an exceeding quickness. These creatures are all wild, they breede every year, and are there in such aboundance that they are innumerable. If they were made tame, they would serve to run and to draw for the wars, and for many other good uses, as well as the best horses that are. So that Mother Nature seemeth to have sufficiently provided in every country for the commodity and necessity of man, with divers sorts of Creatures, of nourishments, and temperature of ayre, to the end he should want nothing. And therefore they having no horses at all in the whole Kingdome of Congo, nor any skill to use their oxen to the yoke, or to the packsaddle, that they might eyther be drawen or carryed, nor to tame their Zebraes with bridle and saddle, or any other way to take the benefite of their beastes, that might transport them from place to place.”

This is in a very modest way an OED antedating, for the great dictionary’s first citation for ‘Zebra’ is from 1600. This passage is cited (I have expanded it a little):

“The Zebra or Zabra of this countrey being about the bignes of a mule, is a beast of incomparable swiftnes, straked about the body, legges, eares, and other parts, with blacke, white and browne circles of three fingers broad; which do make a pleasant shew.”

The source being Leo Africanus, A geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, borne in Granada, and brought up in Barbarie. Translated and collected by John Pory (1600).

I pursued the swift zebra into other early modern appearances. There’s one in a strange symbolic eclogue by Edward Fairfax (a fox is shearing and corruptly re-clothing a lamb):

Her silver rug from her soft hide he clipt,
And on her body knit a canvas thin,
With twenty-party-colours evenly stript,
And guarded like the Zebra's rain-bow skin,

In a play I might one day read, John Wilson’s The Projectors (1665), the cheating projector tries to recommend a clockwork horse as a speedier mount than any other. Zebras feature in the lively list:

Driver. Here 'tis--- A thing shall bring you in a vast deal of money without any charge,---besides the primary charge.

Suckdry. As what, good Mr. Driver? What?

Driver. Why 'tis a Wooden-Horse, so contriv'd with Screws and devices, that he shall out-travel a Dromedary, carry the burden of fifteen Camels, run you a thousand mile without drawing bit, and which is more then all this; not cost you two pence a year the keeping. Suck. Ha, Ha, He---y'faith---y'faith! prythee on,--- Is there no difficulty in the work?

Driver. The greatest, will be to set him a going: But I think I have sufficientlie provided for that:---I'll tell you how I have order'd it:---Turn one Pin, he shall Trot, another Amble, a third Gallop; a fourth, Flie; And all this perform'd by Germane Clock-Work:--- Don Quixotes Rosinante , was an Asse; Reynaldo 's Bayart , a meer Slugge; and Clavellino the swift, a very Cow to him;---I might mention Alexander Beucephalus , the Cid's Bajeca , the Moores Zebra, Rogero's Frontino, Astolpho's Hippogryphon, Orlando's Briliadoro ; The Muses Pegase , the Suns Horses , and Zancho's Dapple ,---But they are not to be nam'd the same day together…

Zebras can be counted to crop up, it seems, in unlikely yarns: the aerialist flying with the assistance of his bird-powered kite in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638) also mentions the zebra as the speediest of animals: “Being thus lightned I bid them such a base, as had they been all upon the backes of so many Zebra's , they could never have overtaken me.”

But my favourite allusion to what I take to be a zebra in the Tower of London zoo occurs in one of the letters that make up Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker (1771). The lion is, however, more amusing:

“O Molly! what shall I say of London? All the towns that ever I beheld in my born-days, are no more than Welsh barrows and crumblecks to this wonderful sitty! Even Bath itself is put a fillitch, in the naam of God---One would think there's no end of the streets, but the land's end, Then there's such a power of people, going hurry skurry! Such a racket of coxes! Such a noise, and hali-balloo! So many strangers sites to be seen! O gracious! my poor Welsh brain has been spinning like a top ever since I came hither! And I have seen the Park, and the paleass of Saint Gimses, and the king's and the queen's magisterial pursing, and the sweet young princes, and the hillyfents, and pyebald ass, and all the rest of the royal family.

Last week I went with mistress to the Tower, to see the crowns and wild beastis; and there was a monstracious lion, which teeth half a quarter long; and a gentleman bid me not to go near him, if I wasn't a maid; being as how he would roar, and tear, and play the dickens---Now I had no mind to go near him; for I cannot abide such dangerous honeymils, not I---but, mistress would go; and the beast kept such a roaring and bouncing, that I tho't he would have broke his cage and devoured us all; and the gentleman titered forsooth.”

I recall that John Wesley took his flute to the Tower of London zoo, to play to the lions, as a way of investigating whether animals had souls. But I did not recall that, like unicorns, they would defer to virgins. How hazardous zoo visits could be!

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Slice of Lark Pie

“And, though fowle, now, be scarce, yet there are clarks,
The skie not falling, think we may have larks …”

Lines from Ben Jonson’s ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’, that wisely epicurean poem, which I was working through with a group of students. I had the idea that I should look out a recipe for serving lark, and soon found one in Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent’s book of potions and recipes, A choice manual (1687):

A Lark Pie.

Take three dozen of Larks, season them with Nutmegs, and half an ounce of Pepper, a quarter of an ounce of mace beaten, then take the Lumber pye-meat [I think she means loin], and fill their bellies, if you will; if not, take half a pound of suet, and one pound of Mutton minced, half a pound of Raisins of the Sun, and six Apples minced all together very small, then season it with a Nutmeg, pepper and salt, and one spoonful of sweet Herbs, and a Lemon peel minced, one penny loaf grated, a quarter of a pint of Cream, two or three spoonfuls of Rose-water, three spoonfuls of Sugar, one or two spoonfuls of Verjuice; then make this in boles, and put it in three bellies, and put your Larks in your Pie, then put your marrow rouled in yolks of Eggs upon the Larks, and large mace, and sliced Lemon, and fresh butter, let it stand in the Oven an hour, when you take it out, make your caudle of Butter, Sugar, and White-wine Vinegar, put it into the Pie.

But Jonson also alludes to an ancient joke, so hoary as to have acquired proverbial force. Here it is (with an added rider) in James Howell’s Paroimiographia Proverbs, or, Old sayed savves & adages in English (or the Saxon toung), Italian, French, and Spanish, whereunto the British for their great antiquity and weight are added (1659)

“If the Sky fall we shall have Larks; But who will catch them?

I have tried to trace this joke back, and got no further than Rabelais, who alludes to it when leading up to describing the unexpected death of Aeschylus, who, warned by a soothsayer of the danger that day that something would fall on him “stay'd in a large field, trusting himself to the open Sky, there very secure as he thought, unless indeed the Sky should happen to fall, which he held to be impossible. Yet they say that the Larks are much afraid of it, for if it should fall, they must all be taken.”

In English, the allusion crops up in every conceivable kind of context.

1. Religious:

“Now these defendours of mere necessitie, whyche they do mysvnderstandynge predestinacion, they handell all these general places of scrypture, as though the speache of God were lyke the common prouerbe, when the skye fall we shall haue larkes. Vnderstandynge all suche condycyons as impossyble.” (Stephen Gardiner, A declaration of suche true articles as George Ioye hath gone about to confute as false, 1546)

2. Political: “But first, this is a mischief so unlike ever to happen, that one need almost as little fear it, as the Skie falling to kill all the Larks.” (Denzil Holles, The case stated concerning the judicature of the House of Peers in the point of appeals, 1675)

3. Geographical (here describing a Jamaican hurricane): “Then fell such an excessive Rain, that as we had one Sea under us, we feard another had been tumbling upon our Heads; for my part, I fear'd the very Falling of the Skie, and thought of nothing but Catching of Larks.” (Edward Ward, A trip to Jamaica with a true character of the people and island, 1698)

These beside the dozens of allusions in poems, plays and prose works. It’s one of those dead proverbs (how could the English language ever have lost ‘Better a snotty child than his nose wiped off’?). Maybe it could only exist while people were still eating larks, and aware of what a fine consolation for the apocalyptic falling of the sky a profusion of free larks would be.

For Birds Britannica gives the awful toll: 400,000 larks a year went through the Leadenhall Market in early Victorian times, and there were 20 to 40 thousand larks a day arriving in sacks in train trucks for Leadenhall in the 1890’s.

But look back at that recipe. From what I have seen of early cookbooks, the smaller birds were roughly plucked, and their legs cut off: but in went everything. I turned this up from a mid-19th century medical textbook. Overdoing it on the larks was no fun at all (and talking about the intestinal disorders of a ‘lady of title’ produces some weird prose too!):

“Dr Prout told me, that he was sent for to see a lady from whom some odd things had come away. She had suffered excruciating pain: and it turned out to be from larks’ bones. This lady had been in the habit of eating larks, of which some ladies are fond; and she munched the bones. She was a lady of title; but, inconsequence of this lark-eating, she suffered great pain. The substances discharged were sent to a celebrated chemist; - in order that he might ascertain what they were. He first discovered them to be bones; and afterwards, from their figure, they were ascertained to be the bones of larks.” The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1844).

Saturday, January 05, 2008

An alchemical coin: the rose noble of Edward III

I am to lecture, for the first time in some years, on Ben Jonson. Starting to think about The Alchemist made me think of one of the coins I would dearly love to own, but could never afford, an Edward III rose noble.

William Camden mentions this about the reputation of this wonderful medieval coin in the early modern period:

“The first gold that K(ing) Edw. 3. coyned, was in the yeare 1343, and the peeces were called Florences, because Florentines were the coyners, as Easterlings of Sterling money: Shortly after he coyned Nobles, of noble, faire & fine gold, the penny of gold; afterward the Rose Noble then current for 6, shillings 8. pence, & which our Alchimists do affirme (as an unwritten verity) was made by projection or multiplication Alchimicall of Raymond Lully in the Tower of London, who wold prove it as Alchmically, beside the tradition of the Rabbies in that faculty, by the inscription; for as upon the one side there is the kings image, in a shippe to notifie that he was Lord of the seas, with his titles, set upon the reverse a crosse floury with Lioneux, inscribed Jeus autem transiens per medium eorum ibat. Which they profoundly expound, as Jesus passed invisible & in most secret manner by the middest of Pharisees, so that gold was made by invisible and secret art amidst the ignorant. But other say that text was the onely Amulet used in that credulous warfaring age to escape dangers in battailes.”

Remaines concerning Britaine (1636), p.187.

The inscription on the edge of the reverse does indeed spell out:


which is from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

28. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath. 29. And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. 30. But he passing through the midst of them went his way.

No wonder this mysterious inscription caused the coin to acquire a magical aura, as amulet or product of transmutation. Thomas Warton in his The History of English Poetry touches on the alchemical poetry of the period, and mentions Lully as having used false promises to Edward III: “Norton's heroes in the occult sciences are Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and Raymond Lully, to whose specious promises of supplying the coinage of England with inexhaustible mines of philosophical gold, king Edward the third became an illustrious dupe.”

Jonson knows about Lully: Nano’s song in Volpone contains an allusion to his ownership of the elixir (though nothing compared to Scoto’s oil):

Had old Hippocrates, or Galen,
That to their books put med'cines all in,
But known this secret, they had never
(Of which they will be guilty ever)
Been murderers of so much paper,
Or wasted many a hurtless taper;
No Indian drug had e'er been famed,
Tabacco, sassafras not named;
Ne yet, of guacum one small stick, sir,
Nor Raymund Lully's great elixir.