Saturday, March 15, 2008

Giant Noah and fossil teeth

Term ends this coming week, and my students are finishing work on Milton with brief presentations on aspects of Books XI and 12 of Paradise Lost. One trio is looking at the account of Noah’s flood in Book XI, where God ‘late repenting him of man depraved’ decides to drown humankind like kittens in a bucket. That’s line 886, by the way, based on Genesis 6; 6 “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart”, but worked into the narrative as tactfully as Milton could manage. Michael says it to Adam after the vision of the deluge, as Milton’s version of God doesn’t do repentances for things which He must always have foreseen. Milton doesn’t suppress such a salient biblical line, but smuggles it into a conversation.

EEBO did not fail me on Noah. I hadn’t anticipated a point which is obvious when you think about it: Noah was a genealogical pinch-point. As such, the proudly Welsh author George Owen Harry got quickly into print in 1604 with The genealogy of the high and mighty monarch, James, by the grace of God, king of great Brittayne, &c. with his lineall descent from Noah, by diuers direct lynes to Brutus, first inhabiter of this ile of Brittayne ... wherein is playnly shewed his rightfull title. Well, they had such a truncated view of time that such a genealogy isn't entirely a mad enterprise. My image for this post is one page from this bizarre genealogy, where the various lines of descent from Noah are testing early 17th century printing layouts to the limit. As Harry traces the bifurcating lineages, you can maybe see Uther Pendragon squeezed into a column, and reported to be buried at Stonehenge. At the start of this book, Noah is “the first monarch of the World”, and his sons divide up Asia and Europe between them (George Owen Harry tactfully forgets that America exists, so as not to have to account for its population).

Harry’s book resembles and perhaps (apart from its own Celtic bias) owes something to Giovanni Nanni’s An historical treatise of the travels of Noah into Europe: containing the first inhabitation and peopling thereof. As also a breefe recapitulation of the kings, gouernors, and rulers commanding in the same, euen vntill the first building of Troy by Dardanus. / done into English by Richard Lynche, Gent. (1602). A curious production by a fabulist in the Spenserian style of lofty mythic genealogies, The travels of Noah into Europe surprised me by asserting that Noah was a giant: ‘good giant Noe’ dies in Tuscany (quite nice for your retirement after a stressful career) 346 years after the deluge in 1967 BC, and aged 950, as the Bible specifies in Genesis 9; 29. The progress from Noah and his sons down to what was the present includes in both these odd books a large emphasis on Hercules.

Nanni has a deal to say about giants. I have always been interested in early modern interpretations of fossil remains, and Nanni repeats a story from ‘Boccaccio’ (Johannes Boccatius, author of a work De Montibus et Fluuiis) of how “there was found under the foot and hollow caverne of a mountaine, not far from the citie of Deprana, in the Isle of Sicilia, the bodie of a marvelous, huge, and strangely proportioned Gyant, which seemed to hold in one of his hands a mightie long peece of wood like unto the bodie of a young tree, or the mast of a ship, which so soone as it was touched, fell all into ashes and dust, but it was all garnisht & wrought about with lead, which remained sound and firm, & it was found to weigh five hundred pound weight: his bodie also being touched, consumed, and became pouder and ashes, except certain of his bones, and three of his teeth, which were also peized, and every tooth weighed fortie ounces. For the height and full stature of his bodie, it was conjectures by the people of that countrey, to be two hundred cubits long. And the same author sayth, That his teeth were afterwards hanged up in our ladies church of Deprana, for a straunge monument, and a thing of wonderfull admiration. In many other places are the bones of gyants that lived in those daies, kept and preserved for wonders…”

I wonder what they did find in that cave. One of these?

But I’ve met the fossil tooth before in other sources, and chasing it up led me agreeably to Sir Hans Sloane’s article in Philosophical Transactions, 35 (1727) – it's now on JSTOR! – ‘Of fossile teeth and bones of elephants' where it is noted along with a whole array of elephant bones and teeth (as Sloane considers them to be) misidentified as the remains of giants (some of them quasi-biblical).

Noah as a giant, though – how did they ever arrive at that? Their general view of mankind as diminished in lifespan and size is familar from Donne's 'Anniversaries'. But surely problems getting everything plausibly aboard the ark might have made them hold back on Noah? I was thinking about Gulliver's Travels recently, and how a belief in the degeneration of humankind would have gone along with odd notions about human stature.


Maningo said...

The phenomenon of inexorably increasing numbers of mutations ("mutational load") in the genome of not just humans but all organisms inescapably indicates that our ancestors were less degenerate than us. This is highly consistent with the biblical account of degeneration, following the Fall, from an original 'very good' (Genesis 1:31) state. Slews of research papers have been published on this phenomenon, including many with titles that allude in a most lurid way to the great problem for the future posed by accumulation of genetic defects, for example ‘Risk of population extinction from fixation of new deleterious mutations’, and ‘Contamination of the genomes by very slightly deleterious mutations: Why have we not died 100 times over?’

George Owen Harry did not concoct his genealogy of King James. He relied on earlier historical records, perhaps Welsh Middle Ages chronicles such as the Peniarth Manuscript or the Llanstephan Manuscript. Several of the major Royal Houses of Europe can likewise trace their ancestry back to Noah through ancient records. These independent European records intersect/synchronise in places, due to political marriages etc., effectively corroborating each other – see the Appendices in “After the Flood” by Bill Cooper.

Giants went out of fashion around the turn of the 20th century. In our subsequent ‘more sophisticated’ era, sundry fossil teeth and elephant remains tend to get turned not into giants but into new genera and species of hominids – for examples see “Southwest Colorado Man and the Year of the One-Tooth Wonders”.


DrRoy said...

Gracious! I must confess I wrote this post because I hadn't found much else to write about, and yet here's Maningo, somehow finding their way to these obscure shores, for whom it is a matter of intense concern. 'Why have we not died 100 times over?' - because most genetically damaged foetuses spontaneously abort?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thomas Urquhart, better known as the translator of Rabelais, traced his own genealogy (on both mother's and father's sides) to Adam and Eve, in his Pantochronocanon (1652). There are notes on all intermediaries: Noah, Japhet, Javan, Penuel, Tycheros, Pasiteles, Esormon, down to Zeron, Polyteles, Vocompos, and so on.

DrRoy said...

So he could be red-hot on orginal and universal languages because it just came down to him via the family tree?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Something like that; though of course he did get the whole thing out of his arse--ek-skubal-auron indeed!