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.

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