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:

1 comment:

chris hale said...

I came across your blog quite by chance whilst researching the folklore surrounding the wishbone (or Merry-thought, as John Aubrey would have it). May I congratulate you upon the fascinating information contained therein. I shall certainly be dropping by regularly!