Thursday, August 14, 2008

Investigating an early modern plagiary

I have been trying to pull together a discussion of the various tracts and parodies prompted by William Lilly’s failed astrological punt on the forthcoming terrors of the ‘Black Monday’ eclipse of 29th March, 1652.

My reading around this led me to a pamphlet attributed on EEBO to Isabel Yeamans, The year of wonders: or, the glorious rising of the fifth monarch (1652), and I was (for such is the way of the academic world) heartened to have a female author, one of those much prized ‘early modern Englishwomen’ apparently on my roster.

Further reading exploded this: the pamphlet attributed to Yeamans is plagiarized from Nicholas Culpepper’s apocalyptic treatise on the same set of eclipses, Catastrophe magnatum, or, The fall of monarchie a caveat to magistrates, deduced from the eclipse of the sunne, March 29, 1652, with a probable conjecture of the determination of the effects.

Maybe ‘plagiary’ is too harsh a word: perhaps the material published as The year of wonders began as a set of extracts from Culpepper’s longer work, cutting out the rather self-important account of what eclipses are and why they are so influential, and getting immediately to his prognostications.

Who compiled these extracts I do not know. Isabel Yeamans herself seems highly unlikely. Until her marriage in 1664 there was no such person: in 1652 she was Isabel Fell. Rather bafflingly, there is in fact no actual indication of authorship in The year of wonders. I will have to try to trace how this attribution - which gave a woman author’s married name to a work compiled prior to her marriage - began, and when.

Could the attribution have any truth to it? Even as a girl of 15 (as she would have been in 1652), Isabel would probably not have lacked the basic ability to make the extracts: she would go on to be a preacher in the Society of Friends, a close ally of George Fox, and an emissary for the Quakers to Germany when they hoped to recruit Princess Elizabeth of the Palatinate to their sect. Her indubitable production is An invitation of love, to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness, to come and take of the water of life freely without money and without price with a word of advice to such as are asking the way to Sion (and are weeping) with their faces thither-ward : together with a faithful warning to the inhabitants of Babylon, to come out of her, lest (partaking of her sins) ye also come to partake of her plagues (1679), and she might have had a hand in A Lively Testimony to the Living Truth Given forth by Robert Jeckell upon his Death-bed (1676). That main surviving work speaks of ‘hoping the ponderous Reader … may not be distasted at the simplicity of the style’ – the amusing usage aside, the style is 17th century Bible-speak.

But in 1652, the young Isabel Fell was at her family home up in Lancashire, Swarthmore Hall, near Ulverston (image of the hall above from the second website at end of this piece). This was the year that George Fox visited the family (in June), and converted her mother, Isabel and her sisters to Quakerism (ODNB). The year of wonders is dated by Thomason to March 21st, 1652, just eight days before the foreboding eclipse. I suppose that Culpeper’s earlier treatise could conceivably have found its way to Lancashire, and a bright 17th century fifteen year old (who we might imagine as already interested in the ideas of those who believed that the prophet Daniel’s Fifth Monarchy was arriving) have summarized it, and her extracts got back down to London in the hands of a traveling Quaker. But that’s quite a long train of possibilities, and it is far more obvious, from the emphasis of the full title, that The year of wonders: or, the glorious rising of the fifth monarch, was compiled in London from Culpeper to encourage those would had recently (from c.1648) been persuaded that the ‘Fifth Monarchy’ was about to begin on earth.

The plagiary (or excerpting) runs in seriatim order:

‘Yeamans’ page 4 is assembled from pages 12 and 18 in Culpeper; page 5 from pages 20 and 24, page 6 from 36 and 37; page 7 extracts Culpeper page 47; 8 from 48; page 9 then picks up Culpeper on page 68; page 10 seems to be part original, and partly from page 70 of Culpeper; 11 is from 70; 12 is 71; 13 comes from page 72, as does 14, and page 15 is page 74 of the original. The final page breaks with this progression, being taken from page 65 of the source (the extract-maker looked back for a passable ending).

The person who assembled The year of wonders does occasionally write their own material: the introductory half page, and part of page10 do not seem to be in Culpeper. If it was a merely fraudulent product, alterations for the first page are what you would expect. One tenuous sign of something like Quaker sensitivities (specifically about equality between the sexes) might be seen in the omission of Culpeper’s brisk urging of Sweden to extirpate its witches (p. 73) as a way of heading off the worst effects of the eclipse (and God’s wrath).

The gender of the author is not apparent (unlike Yeaman’s undoubted work, where she is repeatedly anxious to show the biblical authority for women preachers, writing very much in the spirit of her mother, author herself of Women’s Speaking Justified of 1666). When Culpeper predicts the dire effects of the forthcoming eclipse on pregnant women, he can add “(let them make use of my DIRECTORY for MIDWIVES to prevent it)”, which the plagiarist reduces to a bare prophecy, ‘such of them as are with child shall be too subject to misery’. This probably discounts Culpeper as having been paid to make his own extracts from his longer work.

Extracts from Nicholas Culpeper, then, with a London printing house cashing in on the anxiety about the 1652 eclipse - and pitching also at the Fifth Monarchists. How did it ever get attached to Isabel Yeamans? And why don’t any of these astrologers, doom-mongering about eclipses, admit that when you get a solar eclipse, you always get two lunar eclipses, because that’s just how the heavenly bodies are going to be aligned – three eclipses in a year is normal, and no reason to panic. But that’s another question still.

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