Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Walking Trees in an Early Modern Poem

I somehow found my way to William Basse’s Spenserian eclogue, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Walnut Tree of Borestall’. It involves a number of trees withdrawing their roots, stirring their stumps, and setting off across the south of England to be present at a final tribute to a fallen walnut tree at Boarstall House. Here’s a walnut tree at Thame setting off (each tree is rather reluctant to move, but the walnut is encouraged by the Muse herself playing her harp):

The Wallnut tree so ravish’d with the charmes
Proceeding from these mystique ayres of hers
That dive his darke foundation, spreads his armes,
His curled corpes and crisped shoulders stirs,
And teares his russet bootes and crooked spurres
Out of the dungeon of their earthly layre,
Into the lightsome freedome of the ayre.

gives us a history of Thame Park, with a separate web page on Basse’s patrons, the Wenham family.

Here, a chestnut tree and a filbert, having met the walnut tree, cross the Thames:

Then through the Towne that stands on flowing Thame,
And o’re his bridge, they did next morning goe,
The Wallnut leading way (who knew the same)
So early, that but few could see or know,
More then the Muse who would not leave them so
But with them went, out of the Fryth to call
The Hazle last; and then to Borestall all.

Finding the number gathered to commemorate their fallen friend deficient, the trees first of all debate whether an oak counts as a nut-bearing tree, and, rather swayed by the 300 year old raven who acts as their messenger, invite an oak from Rycote to join them. He too crosses the Thames at Ickford near Thame:

Tow’rds the brode mouth of roreing Thame, affrayd
When as the trembling bridge of Ickford swet
Under his pond’rous steps, and all that met
Or saw this huge & wond’rous pilgrim walke,
Through the vast country caus’d as vast a talke.

The following web pages show Rycote Chapel, and explain what became of the palace that once stood there:

And here is Boarstall Tower, where the trees meet to mourn:

The local historian’s website has a late 17th century engraving of the house that stood behind the imposing gatehouse which survives, and I have borrowed his Victorian re-cutting of the 17th century print, which he wants to keep copyright. It is too late to have the walnut tree, which must have fallen between 1646 and the elderly Basse’s effort to get his Pastorals published, brought to nothing by his death in 1653.

I can trace the notion of perambulating trees back to Mark 8:

22 And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. 24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. 25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.

There must be more in tree mythologies. But I can well imagine C S Lewis enjoying this poem, and transmitting the notion behind the ents of Lord of the Rings to his friend Tolkien.

Basse’s charming poem was obviously written to commemorate and condole the loss of a tree that must have provided the owners of Boarstall year after year of fresh or pickled walnuts. Once the trees have laboriously gathered, they decide they must have their fallen friend anatomized, to see what he died of: the raven, however, mishears, and (as the poem veers out of its gentle fantasy into reality) brings two sawyers, not two surgeons:

But they (now come) upon their scaffold layd
The naked cors, and thereunto applyed
Th’indented razour, and by mutuall ayd
Of eithers hands th’anatomy divide;
Wherein the mourning standers-by descryed
No blemishes of age, nor surfeit found,
But heart & all intestines fayre & sound.

‘The indented razor’ having revealed sound wood throughout, the fallen tree becomes his own commemoration, as some fine walnut wainscoting:

The freinds gave order to the men that wrought,
His body sound in Wainscot to dissect,
And then the Lady of the place besought
Therewith to trim some gallery select,
And cause his limbes with pictures to be dect
Of the Nut-trees, the Raven, and the Muse,
Who did their parts herein so freindly use.

Here’s a Google map: Rycote is just south of Shabbington, Thame a couple of miles east, and Boarstall north, a couple of miles west of Brill, two clicks upwards on this scale:,+Aylesbury,+Buckinghamshire,+UK&ll=51.727028,-1.058807&spn=0.085488,0.230713&z=12

Saturday, April 26, 2008

'Knubby knuckles rusty rough' and early modern ring wearing

I have spent the week reading a doctoral thesis, a task from which almost anything could distract me, even the extreme ineptitude of the madly obscure and oddly named C.Thimelthorpe, who in 1581 published what he himself describes as a ‘hotpotch’ (and even this is perhaps immodest), to which he gave the floundering title, A short inventory of certayne idle inventions the fruites of a close and secret garden of great ease, and litle pleasure.

It mainly consists of a dialogue between Idleness, and a Student (the idea is more winning than its execution), introduced like this:

The friendly greeting and comminge together betweene Idlenes, & a student

The godly & wel disposed man, satlinge hymselfe both in body and mynd, (bowing as faithfully the knees of his hart, as many do faynedly in most dissemblyinge manner the knees of their outward bodyes) unto his devoute meditations, & prayers, is very sensibly to his feeling as he certaynlye thinkes, pulled oftentimes by the head oftimes by the legg, and some tyme by other parts of the body…”

I doubt that Thimelthorpe really meant the innuendo, as he isn’t that sharp. Such talents as he was persuaded he had also extended to versing, and here he is on the subject of ring wearing. He can’t quite make his mind up whether it’s a good or bad thing, but as (to his regret) every man wears rings, he is eager to propound a small restoration of social distinction, by laying down some rules about what finger it is proper to wear a ring upon, according to your status:

For wearing of rings

For that it is a proverbe olde,

the winners may best weare the gold

We knubby knuckles rusty rough

do see more fit to lead the plough,

Which fond to see their fingers shine,

in steede of fatt, with golden mine


But wisely wayed it is most vayne

and brings such thinges in great disdayne,

When ringes be knackes for every knave

for then no wiseman wil them crave


But were it trim to ring the nose

I thinke I might soone fynd out those

That would to please their dainty gyrles

rend that with ringe and pretious pearles


Disorder marreth every thinge

so doth miswearing of your ringe,


Cost is comly wher order is

good order therefore should not misse

And such as weare them as they ought

the worthier then shall they be thought


But some men thinke and so do I

that natures flesh when it is bare,

Without such pearles or paultery

if fayre, is fittest for the glare.


For when dame Venus plainly shows

her selfe in natures naked weed

Your eyes then flye not after crows,

but stayes to feede your wanton neede


To this the wisest men of all

as we see dayly they be thrall


But as for pearles, of precious stones

they passe not for they be but toyes

And gaudy geaugawes for the nones

which they accompt as childish joyes


But since they have bene greatly usd

though much perhappes by some abusd

It is not good to take awaye

such comly costly gold array


But who so useth it aright

reserves the thumbe as for the knight

And here in order as they lye

your finger rynges you may apply.


Miles, Marcator, Stultus, nuptie, & amator


To weare the ringe upon the thum is for the Knight


The forefinger for the Marchaunt.


The middle finger for the Foole


The third finger for the maried man


The little finger for the Lover


My first image is Rogeir van der Weyden’s portrait of Francesco d’Este, of c.1460. The Web Gallery of Art commentary suggests thatthe ring and hammer he holds may be emblems of office or tournament prizes’. That looks like a goldsmith’s hammer, type of tool wielded in Niklaus Manuel’s ‘St Eligius in the Workshop’. Francesco wears a ring on his little finger, and has a ruby set in a ring of gold to offer. He is half St Eligius, the saint who could fashion, and then scorn such worldly things, and half the wooer who has an ultimatum: ‘accept it this instant, or I put it under the hammer’.

The second is a composite of ringed fingers from Renaissance portraits (Weyden, Memling, Lotto), just for fun. Two more ring poems, both sexual, neither as good as Donne’s ‘A Jet Ring Sent’:

Richard Lovelace, from Lucasta

Depose your finger of that Ring,
And Crowne mine wi
th't a while
Now I res
tor't---Pray do's it bring
Back wi
th it more of soile?
Or shines i
t not as innocent,
As hones
t, as before 'twas lent?

then inrich me with that Treasure,
Will bu
t increase your store,
And please me (faire one) wi
th that pleasure
t please you still the more:
t to save others is a curse
The blackes
t, when y'are ne're the worse.

Sir John Harington, ‘In Cornutum’ (1618)

What curld-pate youth is he that sitteth there
So neere
thy wife, and whispers in her eare,
takes her hand in his, and soft doth wring her,
Sliding his ring s
till vp and downe her finger?
tis a Proctor, seene in both the Lawes,
tain'd by her, in some important cause;
t and discreet both in his speech and action,
And do
th her busines with great satisfaction.
thinkest thou so? a horne-plague on thy head:
t thou so like a foole, and wittoll led,
thinke he doth the businesse of thy wife?
He do
th thy businesse, I dare lay my life.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Wise Virgin: Martha Hatfield, 1652

James Fisher’s The wise virgin, or, A wonderfull narration of the hand of God wherein his severity and goodnesse hath appeared in afflicting a childe of eleven years of age, when stricken dumb, deaf and blinde through the prevalence of her disease, yet upon her wonderfull recovery was heard at severall times to utter many glorious truths concerning Christ, faith, and other subjects: to the wonderment of many that came far and neer to see and hear her (1653) is partly a narrative of the illness endured by Martha Hatfield of Leighton, Yorkshire, from April 1652 through to December of that year (the child turned 12 years old during her illness). The greater part of the work, however, consists of a journal of the edifying things said by this extraordinarily devout child (“piously principled even from her Cradle, the Spirit blossoming in her in the very Spring of her age) in various stages of her afflictions. When she was able to, Martha fell into a pattern for her utterance of the things she had been thinking about on her sickbed: “she continued speaking from May the 19, until June the 21, 1652: beginning usually about eight of the clock at night, and so continued with some little intermission between every sentence to speak for two houres or more, and then ceased until the next night about the same time”.

But she was undoubtedly ill, and was mute for long spells (June 21st till July 29th, then till August 11th). Martha’s words were carefully recorded, and Fisher annotated them with references to the Bible passages to which she was apparently alluding (I give a page image above). At her most ecstatic, Martha sounds like Thomas Traherne at his woosiest. Like Traherne, she tends to repeat favoured formulae, as Fisher himself notes: “the next thing she spake (after such frowning fits) was alwayes something against Satan that roaring lurking lion”, and he has her delivering almost forty variations on “Christ hath pulled back Satan that roaring lurking lion, that would destroy my poor soul”.

Here’s a sample passage, but one where I have intervened in the text with some modernizing (mainly of punctuation). It shows the child under some strain, perhaps in delivering a more spontaneous thought in a suitable form:

“Oh let us suck sweetness from Jesus Christ, as the childe sucks milk from the mother’s breast; the harder we draw, the more we shall get; the childe wrangles and wrangles till the mother give it the pap in the mouth, and then it’s quiet and satisfied: so…” and there she stayed a good space, going oft over with the word “so” before she could get any more words; at last, she said, “so a poor soul seeks, and knows not what it wants, and wrangles, and wrangles till it get Christ; all the world will not satisfy it, but -” (and then she lifted up her self, and struck with her hand upon her thighs with much fervour of spirit) “- when it gets Christ, then it is satisfied” (and then using the same actions again, said) “when it gets Christ, then it’s abundantly satisfied; all the world will not satisfy him, but Christ will give him full satisfaction.”

I’d really like a medical practitioner to read this pamphlet for a verdict on the symptomology. I think she was suffering from tetanus. The diagnosis in Fisher is of “Spleen-wind”. When they were able to feed her at the start of the illness, poor Martha vomits up food (“and that which she vomited was like gall or soot, and bloud”), she would lie with her head, leg or arm at an odd angle, and her limbs would remain in whatever position they are placed. By September, she had the full symptoms of what seems to be lockjaw: “September the 8th.This day a Physician came to visit her, being sent for by her parents; they desiring to use what means could be procured for her: and it pleased God (whilest the Physician was there with her) to shut up her mouth, her teeth being set in her head, so as they could not open them; her upper teeth were drawn somewhat over her nether teeth; and so they continued (save onely that the workings of the Convulsions opened them sometimes, & drew her tongue out of her mouth. I say, so they continued) until the seventh of December following”.

The next bit of the quotation reminds me of the Throckmorton children (one of whom could only be fed through a straw through the gap a merciful providence had contrived by ordaining her to have lost a tooth): “all which time she lived with the least quantity of food that could be for they put milk into her lips, and how any should go into her stomack we know not except some of it passed at each side of her mouth, where one tooth was wanting, and yet in this time she grew very fat, and her flesh very firm and solid, and she did look very fair and fresh.”

17th century medicine being what it was (Martha herself, embracing her imminent arrival in Christ’s company, brushes off the physician as irrelevant), we get the full details of her excrement: “Whereas you might rather apprehend that she was a lean, dried, and withered Anatomy; and yet we conceiv’d, she did take down something; though before the setting of her teeth, we could not perceive that she took any thing down, but spurted it out presently; onely by the effects, we gathered that she did receive some nourishment, because she had the benefit of nature; but her stools were such, as all that behold them admire: they are round, of the quantity of a Nutmeg, very hard, and like a piece of earth rolled in lime, and they have no smell.”

But I am writing about this case very much in the context indicated by my reference to the Throckmorton children. What is remarkable in Martha’s case is that she did not account for her condition by reference to witchcraft (as the Throckmorton children so fatally did - surrounded by equally helpless adults, 17th century children did sometimes seem to have to come to their own diagnoses). It was touch-and-go, and Fisher is anxious about this other possible interpretation: “6 These wonderfull providentiall allurances some have sinisterously interpreted surmizing, nay, some speaking that she was bewitched, possessed, &c. and that Satan did speak in her, and that it was not her voice, but a voice in her…”

Martha herself, even in her illness, is acute enough to head off any suggestion that she is a demoniac: “when some rashly affirmed, that she was acted by Satan, they judging according to carnall reason; at the next extasie which was the onely time of her speaking) she uttered thus, I am not in the hands of Satan, but in the hands of my God: when some pretenders to Revelations, (as these times are full of such) visited her, at that very time, she was carried out to say, Take heed you sowe not tares; for if you sowe tares, you shall reap tares”. Fisher, defending his little heroine, also turns on those who imputed her plight to diabolic possession: “to whom God shall give an answer from Heaven in his late dealings and gracious dispensations towards her … this childe never spake of her temptations, or uttered any of Satans language in those her times of speaking, but all her speeches were sweet and gracious, much of Christ and Faith, and against Satan; and against many Errours of the present times, both in judgement and practice, but nothing that might tend to promote Satans Kingdome, and I cannot think that Satan would have bin a mid-wife to help to the birth so many masculine sentences, and high-born truths, as this childe hath uttered…”

As always in pamphlets like this, the response of the community to the sick child in their midst is interesting. The 9th of November was “a Day was fixed to be set apart for Humiliation, of which many precious servants of God had notice”. In this, people were behaving in a way not unlike the days of general prayer at the bedside that served as Anglicanism’s substitute for exorcism.

Those that had been close to death were expected to come back with details of what they had seen and, better still, deliver prophesies. One thing that makes Fisher’s account so persuasive is his insistence that Martha simply didn’t utter any such prophecies either during her illness or after her recovery:

“Some have said, that she prophesied, and no such passages are here related; to which I answer, there is no ground for such a report: there is one passage related in one of her Speeches, October the 19th. (in the end of page 107, and beginning of page 108.) about, Raising of the Maid; unlesse they fancie this to be a Prophetick foretelling of her Recovery, I know not any thing uttered by her, nor could upon enquiry hear of any thing that might give ground for such a report; but the truth is, such Reporters (I hear) do some of them expect to have the gift of Miracles, and it may be of prophesying, and seemed to be much taken with Gods dispensations to this Childe, hoping it would have conduced something to the promoting of their cause, but are disappointed; for God hath opened the mouth of a dumb childe to confute their follies. It may be they prophesied that she would prophesie, and so have proved themselves to be false prophets.”

Finally, on the 7th of December, Martha’s jaw was released from spasm, and she yawned. She ate, and recognized her little sister and her mother. A fortnight later, her lower limbs are clearing, and she is able to stand: “21th. of December, which day she being in bed about 9 a clock at night, her Father being in the room, she told him, she felt strength come into her legs: he asked her, How? she said, It trickled down, and came into her thighs, knees, and ancles, like warm water, and so continued a quarter of an hour: and after that working was past, her Sister Hannah took her up, and set her upon her feet, and she stood by her self without holding, which she had not done for three quarters of a year before.”

One final detail about this self-consciously pious child. We have seen that she had no truck with those who wanted to account her a demoniac. That role may have suited the spiteful Throckmorton girls, but she distanced herself from it firmly. But she also knows that she has been speaking when the spirit moved her, and she is equally keen not to be co-opted by the Quakers: “One night when they were undressing of her, one told her, she had no shoes, (for they had given all her clothes and wearing things to some poor children, not expecting her life) and her Father said, there was a Shoe-maker in the Town, but he was a Quaker; she asked, what that was? it was answered, he was one that sleights Ministers, and Gods Ordinances: She replied, she would have no Quakers Shoes then … Another hearing of this discourse, did ask her why she would have no Quakers shoes, did she think there was any errours sewed up in the seames of the shoes? she answered, No, but (saith she) they say I am a Quaker, and to convince them, that I am not, I will have no dealings with them.”

Monday, April 14, 2008

'What God Will', born 12th Night

A most straunge, and true discourse, of the wonderfull iudgement of God. Of a monstrous, deformed infant, begotten by incestuous copulation, betweene the brothers sonne and the sisters daughter, being both vnmarried persons. Which childe was borne at Colwall, in the country and diocesse of Hereford, vpon the sixt day of Ianuary last, being the feast of the Epiphany, commonly called Twelfth day. A notable and most terrible example against incest and whoredome (1600)

Most early modernists will have read, at some time or other, one of these monstrous birth pamphlets. This example, attributed to ‘I. R’, comes from a man who believes in the moral efficacy of certain books: the Bible (obviously), but after that, Phillip Stubbs’ Anatomie of Abuses, William Hergest’s The Right Rule of Christian Chastity and the Theatre of Gods Judgments (which he seems to think was by Stephen Batman, rather than Thomas Beard). And he has one further book recommendation: “Reade I pray you Thomas Nashes booke, entituled, The Teares of Christ over Jerusalem: which books, if you have any grace in you, will make you shed teares for your sinnes: I thinke it is the only best booke that ever hee made.”

Interesting to see Nashe amongst this devout company - when Nashe wrote Christs Tears, he too was slipping into the vein of Puritan hysteria that marks Stubbs’ book, denunciation that seems fascinated by the vices under condemnation. R. J. has the same tonal uneasiness, as when he says late in his pamphlet that “every young man after sixteen or seaventeen yeares oulde, and everie mayden of fourteene or fifteene (say what they will to the contrarie) hath motion to lust and fleshy delights”.

R. J. was alert enough to be troubled: “It might be doubted, as master Latymer said once in a sermon, that sin is good merchandise”. He spells out his misgivings at the very opening: “Good Reader, when this matter was brought to me, to consider of, that it might be drawne into some forme for the Printers presse, I was partly unwilling to meddle with it, that the sinnes of Incest, Onanisme, Whoredome, Adulterie & Fornication, with other Sodomiticall sinnes of uncleanesse & pollutions, do so outrageously raign, and are in these dayes used in many places…”

If he had qualms about writing, R. J. ends his pamphlet by “Wishing, that one or two of these bookes (as they are) might be given into ye hands of the wicked Father and Mother of this monster; to terrifie them withal.”

The story he had to tell is grim, and it is hard to imagine that the wretched parents needed any more horror than they had already undergone. A Hereford yeoman’s daughter (she isn’t named) was betroathed to a man who was “None of the bravest nor jolliest, yet a man of competent wealth, and of good name and fame in the place.” The banns were heard three times in church, “But Sathan, the enemie of all goodness, by his instigations and instruments, wrought so in the minde of the maiden; that shortly after this, she fell into a mislike with the man, to shunne his honest company, and in the ende wholly to breake off the match.”

J.R. disapproves mightily: this was an action “Whereof any maid indewed with modesty, would have beene greatly ashamed, and unwilling unto” and he stresses that “no just cause” had been given her by the young man. His account then slips into Nashe-like raciness: “But such is the lightnesse and inconstancy of a great number of this sexe, that true meaning men cannot tell where to finde them”. The maiden turns into a “slipperie Eele” that “had made a shift to winde away from this man”.

She then took residence as a servant in the Worcestershire house of her uncle, on her mother’s side. We can imagine that there had been trouble back at home after the broken-off marriage, and that this was the best solution they could find. But the uncle has three sons ‘at mans estate’, and worse, far worse, followed: “One of these yong men, her cousins, and she fell a lusting …They lay together, & she was gotten with child by him; and God in his judgment… made this proud, this scornfull & unconstant wench, the mother of a monster, and not of an orderly birth…” Even after the incest, R. J. still finds the inconstancy to her first vows worth mentioning again as the originatory sin.

The poor creature born to the cousins had catastrophic genetic problems: no hard palate, its facial features all hideously deformed, “the hands had no thumbs at all, nor any outward partition of fingers; yet it had fingers covered all over with one only skinne, as with a mitten”; it was hermaphroditic, and its tucked up legs were fastened by webs of skin to its body.

The three midwives attending had set it aside ‘on a few bents’, thinking it was a still birth, but after half an hour, it cried, so they clothed it, and “thinking it would not live to be brought to the Church to bee baptized, they sent for the Minister and Pastour of Colwall (within whose charge it was borne) to Christen it: who being a zealous man, and a learned Preacher, repaired thither with all speede: and finding by his owne inspection, and due examination of the persons present at the birth of the saide childe, that it was straungely formed and fingured, and being accompanied with competent witnesses, he baptised the said child; naming it, What god will

What God Will lived for two days.

What God Will, born on twelfth night, 1600, and Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will, composed 1600-1 make an ironic coincidence: transgression as catastrophic in its consequences, with inconstancy as the prelude to sin, as against playful transgressiveness and inconstancy as a source of delight and wonder.