Friday, October 17, 2008

Strange sights appearing sensibly unto men, 1605

I have been reading, as Shakespeare probably did in 1605, the anonymous translation of the first book of Pierre de Loyer’s A treatise of specters or straunge sights, visions and apparitions appearing sensibly vnto men. Well, Shakespeare got ideas for Macbeth out of it, while I get an obscure blog posting.

De Loyer’s main argument is about the power of the devil to delude: witches do not fly to sabbaths, nor do they transmute into animal form, the devil merely sends them into an ecstasy in which they believe these things have happened. Book one is a long lead-in to de Loyer’s main argument, and he scours all his considerable learning to come up with all kinds of examples of delusions and successful frauds upon the credulous (though he will insist that the devil is genuinely present and operating the most serious delusional states suffered by confessed witches).

But in this lighter part of his book, de Loyer is almost a sceptic, so many stories does he tell of merely human illusions which look like apparitions. I liked his story of how boys in France would fix candles to the backs of tortoises or crayfish, and set them staggering round graveyards to alarm the locals:

“It is a common trick of unhappy boyes to make especiall choice of Churchyardes, there to terrifie others … in those places they will sometimes set Crevises alive or Tortoyses, and putte a burning candle on their backes: and after will let them go, to the intent those that shall see them slowly marching or creeping neere about the sepulchers, may suppose them to be the soules of dead men” [sig. x1v].

A couple of pages later (sig. x3), Loyer gets onto other ‘haunted’ places:

“Next after Sepulchers and Churchyardes, the Gibets or common places of executions, are greatly feared of the vulgar sort, who do thinke, that spirits do haunt and frequent there also. And for that cause, such fooles doe never cease haunting such places, of purpose to feare and terrifie such as passe neere unto the same.

I remember me of a good jest which was once told me ….”

Loyer’s story following this promising start is of a ‘notorious thief and murderer’ who was hanged and gibbeted near Le Mans. Then, some days afterwards:

“a certaine man travelling that way … laid him down to rest under a tree not far from the Gibbet. But he was scarse well settled to his ease, when sodainly behold there commeth by, another traveler … and as he was right over against the gallowes where the dead body hanged, (whom the partie knew well when he was alive,) he called him by his name, and demanded of him, with an high and loud voice, (as jesting at him) if he would go with him to Mauns. The man that lay under the tree to rest him selfe, being to go to Mauns likewise, was very glad that he had found companie, and said unto the other; Stay for me a little, and I will goe with you. The other to whom he spake, thinking it was the dead theefe that spoke unto him, hasted him away as fast as he could possible. The man under the tree arising up, ran after him as fast, with a desire to overtake him, and still he cried, Stay for mee, stay for mee”.

A seventeenth century reader before me thought that this was a good one. My image is a composite of the two page images from the EEBO microfilm images. The early reader made a synoptic note of this. It has been cropped by some careless piece of re-binding, and I can only get the general drift by reconstructing (if I use lucuna marks, blogger goes crazy, taking them for html tags):

m?an by night under a gibbet, a traveler friend? of the man hang?ed and he jested(?) wheth?er he would go? with him …

But this reader obviously meant to fix so capital a story into his mind, so as to regale his friends with it later on. It would have made a good scene in a comedy (at least, to the robust taste of the time, when a dead body on a gibbet was just one of those things you saw). I wonder how Shakespeare failed to pick up on it. Macbeth really does lack for laughs, doesn’t it?


bdh said...

Wasn't Zachary Jones the translator (and adder-of-diverse-local-tidbits)?

DrRoy said...

It was, Brett. I'd not followed up on this assiduously enough. There's an epistle to the reader, unsigned, which mentions a translation of 'Epirot', and that should have led me through. I was rather distracted by considering the anonymity of this text: very flattering dedication to King James, but unsigned, which seemed self-defeating. I imagined a personally autographed presentation copy, etc.