Saturday, November 29, 2008

The demoniac's jet ring

I have been re-reading Samuel Harsnett’s famous Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). For all that he somehow became a bishop in the 17th century English church, Harsnett writes like a good modern journalist: worldly, scathing, and unhampered by piety in giving his astute account of just who was possessed, and by what unworthy feelings, amid the overheated goings-on in Denham, Buckinghamshire.

As Jesuits (and a fellow ‘demoniac’) circle – with very mixed motives - around poor abused Sara Williams (who is just 15), the man she actually seems to want in her life gets a surprise mention:

“Whilst she was in the priests hands at Denham, one Haines was suter unto her, and although Ma: Dibdale commaunded her in no sort to entertaine him, yet her sister bringing unto her a blacke Iet ring from him, as a token, she put the same upon her little finger, which being some-what too little, caused her finger to swell, as she now beleeveth: And there-upon this exam(inate) in her confession acknowledging that she had received that ring from Haines contrary to Ma: Dibdales commaundment they said it was the devil under the ring, that caused her finger to swell: and wetting her finger, and making crosses upon it, they pulled of(f) the ring little by little, and said, that it came of(f) by virtue of those crosses, the devil having no longer power to keepe it on” (pp. 186-7).

Sara Williams is one of the few 17th century recipients of a jet ring who seem happy to wear it without mocking comment on the poverty of the gift. Hopelessly trapped by Weston, Dibdale and the rest (when she says she wants to go home, they explain that her words are just the devil talking), Sara defiantly jams the undersized ring on her smallest finger. Perhaps it was spotted by the jealous Dibdale, who is so unhealthily preoccupied with the demon Maho and his residence in Sara’s ‘secretest parts’, and can’t bear to share her, or Sara herself was troubled by the finger swelling up. At confession, the full story of the jet ring comes out, and the priests manage to get it back off her finger, and then ignore their physical difficulties and practical solutions in doing so, to attribute this victory over the devil to the power of prayer.

Rings are so pervasively sexualized in 17th century literature that the episode seems expressive of the unacknowledged sexual rivalry between the exorcist and the suitor.

When Stephen loses his purse in Every Man in his Humour, he regrets the loss of just such a small token with callow bawdy:
Stephen. Oh, it's here: no, and it had beene lost, I had not car'd, but for a jet ring mistris Mary sent me.
Edward Knowell. A jet ring? oh, the poesie , the poesie ?
Stephen. Fine, ifaith! ‘Though fancie sleep, my loue is deepe’. Meaning that though I did not fancie her, yet shee loued me dearely.
Edward Knowell. Most excellent!
Stephen. And then, I sent her another, and my poesie was: ‘The deeper, the sweeter, Ile be iudg'd by St. Peter’.

The Duke of Newcastle’s play, The Triumphant Widow, has a scene modeled on the Autolycus scenes in The Winter’s Tale, in which jet rings are part of a pedlar’s pack, and are snapped up by country folk:
1 Man. Come, honest Pedler, up with your Pack, and follow us, we'l make you welcome i'faith. Gervas. We'l buy all his Trinkets to the last Jet Ring, or inch of Incle, we'l hamper him i'faith, we'l leave him nothing.
Footpad. Bless you, bless you till I complain.

I don’t think that, when I was annotating Donne, I had realized just how often jet rings had a ‘poesie’ inscribed; Donne’s speaker interrogates the meaning of the ring, and finds it in the shape and nature of the material, not in any engraved distich (‘A Jet Ring Sent’):

Thou art not so black, as my heart,
Nor halfe so brittle, as her heart, thou art;
What would'st thou say? shall both our properties by thee bee spoke,
Nothing more endlesse, nothing sooner broke?

Marriage rings are not of this stuffe;
Oh, why should ought lesse precious, or lesse tough
Figure our loves? Except in thy name thou have bid it say
I'am cheap, & nought but fashion, fling me'away.

Yet stay with mee since thou art come,
Circle this fingers top, which did'st her thombe.
Be justly proud, and gladly safe, that thou dost dwell with me,
She that, Oh, broke her faith, would soon breake thee.

How poignantly charged is that use of the ring as a measure of their different physical sizes! But, petite as she is, she has vanquished him.

My image is lifted from: I was told years ago that the residual veins of Whitby jet are all too thin to support production of any more jet rings, which have to be cut across the fine laminar grain to have any strength at all. These people own perhaps one of the last pieces thick enough to work that way. That's a pound coin in front of the sample: I'd measure one now, but happen to be light of purse. The vein looks to be about 3-4cms thick. What would a jet ring cost you now?

Jet rings do not seem to have survived very well, but this antique jewelry dealer recently sold a Victorian example:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Robert Crofts cites Donne as he gives up on love, 1641

My down-time reading this week has been Robert Crofts’ The way to happinesse on earth concerning riches, honour, conjugall love, eating, drinking / by R.C. (1641). I suppose I was interested in how this author would present his message in his puritanical times.

Crofts has the (admittedly faint) merits of being without any exceptional qualities as a writer. What he thinks, he gets from the culture round him. As he compiles his ‘own’ opinions, he gets into the usual difficulties of the 17th century minor writer who follows and diligently reproduces the diversity of views he finds available: that veering round from pro to contra, the uneasiness as, for instance, he expounds the merits of being in love, for fear that this section of the discourse might be taken for his settled opinion. “I could willingly turne backe, and teare those former Love discourses out of my booke, in contempt of your frailties and vanities, were it not for their sakes, who are indeed true-lovers”, he says to women at p.247, when he has completed the transition into the thundering denunciation of marriage and women that he was evidently itching to write all through his earlier section in praise of honest love and conjugality.

Those love discourses are interesting: for Crofts sketches out the type of thing he thinks his decent male wooers ought to say to their ladies. Anticipating Dryden on Donne, he thinks it “folly to study, sing and talke to them in high straines of wit, and figurative exornations, lest they be not understood, and so perchance laughed at. But in this respect a plaine, yet artificiall, pleasing, materiall, moving, and convincing way is best”. Having said that the male wooer must not ‘study’, within a few pages Crofts expounds on how his sex must “by often and serious meditation to imprint into our minds, the grounds and heads thereof, As Numbers, Particulars, Observations, Arguments, Examples, Comparisons, Contrarieties, Similitudes, Effects, Appendances, Circumstances, and the like, as perfectly as we doe our A, B, C … as Preachers doe especially take notice, and imprint into their minds, the heads, divisions, and grounds of their Sermons” (p.208).

This sounds like badly over-egging the cake, as the training of the University and Inn of Court is laboriously deployed to win fair Lady. Now Crofts tends to write as though he is happy just to keep on covering the pages, so there may not be much in it, but if you think of all those plays in which a male wooer is ridiculed either for being tongue-tied, or speaking in a manner that lacks decorum (fitness to the person addressed), well, maybe the pressure was on men to develop a wooing discourse – ‘and as for the form, in some form’, as the clown puts it in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Perhaps women too, starved of education, took some pleasure in being the recipients of such studied and rehearsed addresses, the compliment of a higher style.

Crofts offers the kind of reheated material he thinks suitable for when the lover gets onto the topic of time: “He tells her, that to enjoy such pleasure but one hour or a day, were enough to possess the heart with marvelous joy; yea, although that houre or day were halfe a yeare hence, yet the imagination of it in the meane time, is sufficient to possesse us with very sweet pleasures till then.”

Crofts, in writing his section on love discourse, often seems to have poems somewhere in the back of his mind. He quotes quite a few pieces of verse. I could not locate sources on LION, and didn’t look very hard, because I suspect that in most cases Crofts either quotes from memory or has rewritten the poem in simpler terms. On p. 107 he says how ‘the Poet hath a Song in his Comedy, which with some alteration of words, and to another tune thus it goes’: I think he offers his own very watered-down version of the song in Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass: “So soft, so delicious, / So dainty, so sweet, so fine, / As the honey from the Bee, / is not halfe so sweet to me, / As is one sweet kisse of thine”.

But Crofts makes just one attributed quotation, and it pleased me to find it, as I have just gone through my annual tangle with John Donne as a subject for undergraduate lectures. Crofts at this point is about to switch onto the boundless topic of misogamy, how it is ‘observable that many men are commonly more sullen, dull, sad, and pensive after marriage than they were before”, and say much about the joys of “we Batchelours” (p.219). In this context, at this very point of transition, he quotes Donne’s ‘The Triple Foole’. I have it in the page image above, but he says that he knows “some very wise men indeed have confessed it to be a folly to love, and to write thereof, &c. As one of the most famous of them saith in one of his Poems,

I am two fooles I know,

For loving, and for saying so,

In whining Poetry;

But where’s the wise man

That would not be I,

If she would not deny, &c”

And, to the side of the passage, “D. I. Donne”. It's interesting that Donne crops up here. The poet might, of course, have provided material for the discourse of love, or been cited against women, but Crofts places him just on the cusp, rueful self-reproach, an admission of still having a yearning.

After this, Crofts, up and running, denounces women and marriage, until the point when he gets onto ale-house libertines (who essentially have a cruder version of the same discourse, in a language of cuckoldry and cuckold-making) of which he then lengthily disapproves.

Maybe one day I will return to Crofts for his similarly mingled praise and dispraise of drinking, a precarious attempt to find a point of balance between condemnation and indulgence. And in the end, that's his interest to the reader: in 1641, a not very talented man felt impelled to try to argue for a middle way, a tempered epicureanism. But even as he does so, he ventures to all extremes.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess the phase of the moon from your cat's eyebrows...

‘Receit’ number XXXVII in John White’s A rich cabinet (1651, see my prior post), How to know both the Increase and Decrease of the Moone’.

White first tells us that, if you have one, you can look into a piece of Arabian selenite (‘within the bodie of this Stone the Moon sheweth her selfe’).

Or, more immediately available in the normal household:

“Our common house Cats also have this propertie by the subjection that the Moone hath over them; that their Eie-browes doe increase, or decrease each day, according to the course of the Moone and her aspects; which thing is dailie seene to him that pleaseth to note the experience thereof.”

While you run this fabulous assertion by your own range of experience with felines, my image is a composite one, showing some of the more feasible devices, tricks and gags described by the amiable Mr. White.

White is (rather winningly) interested in lying in bed but being able to know things: a small angled mirror in your window might, for instance, project a sun beam across your ceiling, where you have, by prior observation, drawn a dial of the hours. He thoroughly approved of the way King James (not everyone’s candidate to be quickly out of bed after a particularly heavy masque the night before) had a weathervane on the roof of Whitehall Palace, which connected by a shaft to a pointer that moved on a mariner’s compass rose painted on his royal bedroom ceiling.

The device top left explains itself really: you use a regular candle size and height as your night light, always set in the same place. The shadow it casts on your artful table of the hours up on the wall will give you a good idea of what time of the night it is, should you you wake up and want to know.

Below that, the confounding wonder of the cantilever, and a light lure for nocturnal fishing made with a candle in a floating urinal flask.

On the right hand, the chap in the top picture is able to read the cards he is holding above his hat brim because he has surreptitiously dropped a spot of drink on the table to act as a tiny mirror, and has the candle at the right angle. Than there’s a thermometer with coloured water and a suitably basic calibration of 12 different degrees (the higher up the tube, the colder it is), and a reading light like lace makers used.

A conjuring trick he mentions which you could try involves making the signature you have inked onto a piece of paper that is then burned to ashes reappear on your arm: sign your arm with a fresh pen inked with urine, let it dry, do the paper signing and burning, then rub the ashes on your arm to make the signature seem to reappear. More challenging to undertake is a stunt that involves washing your hands in boiling lead without any risk. Having anointed your hands with an ointment of quicksilver, bol armoniak, camphire and aqua vitae, you can, at the very least, dip your finger in, and no harm done…

There is some jolly early modern sport to be had in tormenting animals (top tricks to play on ducks here folks), and a splendid way to clean up your old oil paintings by bathing them in vinegar, then rubbing them hard with a pad of brick dust tied up in linen, finally leaving them outside in bright sunlight. Brings them up like new, apparently. Must recommend it to the curators of the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries projected for the V and A:

I was recently reading Roy Strong’s descriptions of portraits of Sir Walter Ralegh, where he considers none of the original paint surface to survive at all. No wonder, if this was how they scoured off old varnish.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Early modern fireworks

A composite image from the illustrations in the 1658 edition of John White’s A rich cabinet, with variety of inventions: unlock'd and open'd, for the recreation of ingenious spirits at their vacant hours Being receipts and conceits of several natures, and fit for those who are lovers of natural and artificial conclusions. As also variety of recreative fire-works both for land, air, and water. And fire-works of service for sea and shore. Whereunto is added divers experiments in drawing, painting, arithmetick, geometry, astronomy, and other parts of the mathematicks. Likewise directions for ringing the most usual peals, that belong to that art. Collected by J. W. a lover of artificial conclusions (editions from 1651).

(Who wouldn't be 'a lover of artificial conclusions'?)

These are all from John White's section, ‘The Schoole of Artificial Fire-works’, and show a dragon running along a fixed rope, a burst of silver or golden ‘snakes’ descending from the sky (the explosive mixture for these was packed into the thick end or calamus of goose quills), St George confronting the fiery dragon, a Catherine Wheel that rotates one way, and then the final rocket, on burning out, ignites the rockets on the other side, so that the wheel reverses, a fixed wheel for a mass launch of ‘fisgigs or serpents’, and rocket construction, launcher and payload.

The fireworks sound pretty good: for stars of a blue colour with red descending from your rocket: ‘of Salt-peter four ounces, and of Sulphur vive twelve ounces: meal these very fine, and mix them together with two ounces of Aqua vitae and half an ounce of the Oyl of Spike, and let it be dry before you use it.’ Nut-sized balls of the composition, wrapped in paper, are placed in the top cone of the rocket. Or, ‘If you will have a beautiful white Fire, take four ounces of Powder, twelve ounces of Salt peter, six ounces of Sulphur vive, and half an ounce of Camphire.’

“To make the golden Rain, you must get store of Goose-quils and cut them off next the feathers, and fill these quils hard with the same composition ... If it were possible to put a thousand of these quils upon the head of a Rocket, it were a dainty sight to see how pleasantly they spread themselves in the ayr, and come down like streams of gold much like the falling down of Snow.’

‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaww!’ and ‘My thatched roof!’