Friday, March 28, 2008

Mount Etna moralised, 1670

My illustrations are from Heneage Finch, Earl of Winchilsea’s A true and exact relation of the late prodigious earthquake & eruption of Mount AEtna, or, Monte-Gibello (1669) and from a ballad, Mount AEtna's flames, or, The Sicilian wonder (also 1669) written to tell the same marvels to a less polite audience, where I believe that we can see the woodcut engraver doing a down-market version of the Earl’s woodcut (just as the ballad itself is entirely indebted to the illustrated pamphlet). Finch had gone to some trouble to get the original drawing done, as his pamphlet explains: “As Your Majesty will see by the draught that I take the boldness to send herewith; it was the best I could get, but hath nothing of the Progress into the Sea [he means, the sight of the lava flowing into the sea itself]; the confusion was so great in the City, which is almost surrounded with Mountains of Fire, that I could not get any to draw one…”

Heneage Finch was Ambassador to Constantinople (where he got on terrifically well), his poor wife bore him 27 children, and, as the ODNB life says, “his correspondence breathes trenchant common sense”. About the eruption Finch, who was actually in Catania, gathered all the information he could, and his account sticks to the facts. Altogether he writes to Charles II in the spirit of the Royal Society.

I was therefore interested to find Thomas Vincent’s Fire and brimstone from heaven, from earth, in hell, or, Three discourses I. Concerning the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah formerly, II. Concerning the burning of AEetna, or Mount Gibel more lately, III. Concerning the burning of the wicked eternally, with fire and brimstone (1670). Vincent was a compulsive publisher of his own sermons and moral discourses (here’s a pot calling the kettle black, eh?). He takes Finch’s pamphlet, with its forward-looking discourse, and exploits it for hell-fire and brimstone. He says he was actually prompted by what Finch didn’t say: “The occasion of my Writting these few Sheets concerning these three great Burnings, was the breaking forth of such Flames and Streams of Fire the last Year at the Mouth and sides of Aetna, or Mount Gibel; being willing to take hold of any occasion, especially so sutable as this, to awaken Sinners, that they might endeavour their escape from the future and everlasting burnings of Hell; and this I thought the rather to do, because in the Relation given us of those stupendous burnings of Aetna, the hand of the Lord was not in the least minded, his Name not once mentioned, and no improvement thereof at all attempted by him, or them that drew up the Narrative; which to me seemed a shame, and quickned me (when others who might have done it better were silent) in my endeavours to make some advantage of this Providence for the good of Souls.”

A section like this one following is mainly directly lifted from Finch, with a few biblical references (which might remind us of Milton’s conspicuously volcanic hell): “But that which was most notable in these eruptions, was the stream and flood of fire, which in liqued melted matter, gushed forth at the breaches. We read Isa. 30. 33. Of a stream of Brimstone kindled by the breath of God, which runneth in burning Tophet: Such was the stream of Fire and Brimstone which came forth of this burning Mountain, the flames of it were blew like burning brimstone, the coulour of it fiery red, like melted brasse, the motion of it like Quick-silver; this stream (wherein great stones were seem to swim of the bigness of an ordinary Table) coming forth at the sides of the Mountain, ran down like a mighty torrent, and meeting with a Hill devided it self into two currents, which spread themselves, one of them in some places at least six miles in breadth, and was judged to be fifteen yards in depth. In its progresse this stream ran in, upon a Lake of four fathem Water, and four miles in compass, which it both filled up, and raised a Hill of ragged Stones and Rocks upon it. The composition of this fiery stream was judged to be Sulphur, Nitre, Sal Armoniac, Lead, Iron, Brass, and other Metals, melted with the vehement heat of the fire.”

Where Heneage made no comment, Thomas makes propaganda: “Yea, the Image of the blessed Lady of the Annunciata, (so highly reverenced by the Superstitious Papists, unto which many resorted in Pilgrimage from remote parts) was not spared, whatever power the Intercession of that Virgin Lady hath with her Son in Heaven, for persons here upon the Earth, (as the Papists ridiculously fancy) yet nothing could now avail to secure her Image from being swallowed up by this devouring fiery stream; whereby all may see that there was no difference between the stones of that Image, and those of the other buildings in that place which equally felt the force of the fire.”

Despite making some allusions to the dismay and panic in London at the 1666 great fire, Thomas feels a Protestant population would have coped better: “Had the Christian religion taken place there in the purity and power thereof, it might have born up the spirits of the sincere, and established Christians against overwhelming fear and amazement in all those storms and danger; no wonder if the blind Superstitious Papists, whose worship is mingled with such vanity and Indolatry, be filled with such dread and horrour, especially the more notorious Sinners amongst them.”

Soon he is ranting away (I suspect a certain disappointment with God for making all this smoke without carbonizing a suitable number of sinners): Sicily hath drunk deep of the Cup of Fornication, which is in the hand of the Romish Whore, and God made some of them drink something of the Cup of his Wrath and Indignation: yea, Sodomy it self is of frequent practice in those parts, and God brings ruine like unto that of Sodom upon their houses by Streams of Fire and Brimstone, though through infinite patience their persons were preserved.”

Thomas Vincent does half know that Athanasius Kirchner and Nicholas Steno are establishing what would become geology, but he is having none of it: “Some are of the opinion that there are Fountains of Fire under ground as well as of Water; and that in the bosom and bowels of the Earth, God hath layd up Treasures of this Element, enclosing it in vast Caverns, as in so many Store-houses; which Subterranean Fire they assign to be the cause of hot Bathes, and that Mount Aetna, as also Vesuvius with other flaming Mountains, which Geographers and Travellers tell us are to be seen in all the parts of the World, are the breathing holes of this Fire: but the Scripture is wholly silent of any such work of God there; we read of the Earth, and the gathering together of the waters, and the Fountains of the great deep, but nothing of any Fountains of Fire mingled with either of these Elements; and the laying up of this Element in store, in a place so low, when naturally it tendeth upwards, is not easie to conceive; besides who ever hath descended into the depths of the Earth, to search and find out these depths of Fire?”

Vincent’s main purpose was to expound the Christian message of the eruption. His whole book develops a religious pyromania. The Great Fire of London is strongly on his mind; and for him, the Western world seems to be going up in flames: “These late dreadful Eruptions of Fire and Brimstone from Mount Aetna, should carry our eyes upward unto God the Author hereof. The Lord hath been lately upon the Earth, he hath shown himself in great Majesty; a Fire hath devoured before him, and it hath been very tempestuous round about; a smoke hath gone out of his mouth and Coals have been under his feet; he hath clothed himself with flames, and of late appeared very terribly in these Europaean parts; he hath not only kindled fires in houses and Cities, turning them into ashes and ruinous heaps, but he hath also kindled a fire in a great Mountain, which hath broken forth with a great flame.”

His eagerness to seize on the eruption, and other parts of his book about whether the flames of hell are metaphorical or not, suggest that he is concerned by questioning or outright denial of the existence of hell. Samuel Richardson’s A discourse of the torments of hell: The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end (anonymous in 1658, over Richardson’s own name in 1660) may have come his way. Etna, thoroughly supernatural in Vincent’s account, helps him reinforce belief in the other supernatural flames: his 3rd chapter explains ‘That Hell is a place of Fire and Brimstone’, then follow the categorical pronouncements of chapter 4:

Concerning the properties of Hell-fire.

There are seven properties of Hell-fire.

  • First, It will be a great Fire.
  • Secondly, It will be a dark fire.
  • Thirdly, It will be a feirce fire.
  • Fourthly, It will be an irresistible fire.
  • Fifthly, It will be a continual fire.
  • Sixthly, It will be an unquenchable fire.
  • Seventhly, It will be an everlasting fire.”

This website has other contemporary engravings, at least as vivid as that in Finch, of the 1669 eruption:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

'Comus' in the West Country, 1642

These are fairly full excerpts from the little pamphlet, A blazing starre seen in the west at Totneis in Devonshire, on the foureteenth of this instant November, 1642. VVherin is manifested how master Ralph Ashley, a deboyst cavalier, attemted to ravish a young virgin, the daughter of Mr. Adam Fisher, inhabiting neare the said towne. Also how at that instant, a fearefull comet appeared, to the terrour and amazment of all the country thereabouts. Likewise declaring how he persisting in his damnable attemt, was struck with a flaming-sword, which issued from the comet, so that he dyed a fearefull example to al his fellow cavaliers.

Our Alice Egerton is a ‘young Virgine, Daughter to Master Adam Fisher’. Young Mistress Fisher lived a mile outside Totnes, and on Monday 14th November 1642 she went into the town, ‘where being busied, partly about her occasions, and partly in visiting some Friends and Kinsfolkes, she was belated’.

But she was determined to head home, rather than be out without her Father’s leave, and ‘the times being so dangerous, and so many Cavaliers abroad’. The relatives try to dissuade her, saying the ‘deboyst Cavaliers’ make it dangerous enough trying to travel by day, still worse at night. But she says ‘God was above the Devill, and that she feared not, but that God which she trusted in, could, and would defend her from all her Enemies.

So we enter on her scene of nocturnal trial: ‘before she could get the halfe of the way to her fathers house it grew very darke, so that she could scarce discerne her hand, thus she went on, sometimes listening whether she could heare any Body … on a sudden she heard the noyse of a Horse galloping towards her, at which she beganne to be afraid. But at last she plucked up a good heart…’

She has met Ralph Ashley, ‘a Gentleman which knew her well, and she knew him…’ Notice that the narrative shuffles a little here: the villain will be firmly cast as a Cavalier in our author’s polemic. He is actually a local gentleman, and not one of the Ralph Hopton’s cavalier soldiery in the West Country, but his status makes him a near enough match for propaganda purposes. They are in the dark, so he cannot recognize her outright, and has to call to mind rather than see her youthful prettiness: ‘he asked her whether she was going so late, she told him home to her fathers, he demanded who that was, she told him Master Adam Fisher, with that he called to mind her beauty, and the Devill strait furnished him with a device to obtain his wicked purpose.’

As in Comus, the wicked tempter at first pretends friendship and assistance: ‘Sweet heart quoth he I know thy father well, and for his sake I will see thee safe at thy fathers House, for the times are dangerous, and but a little before there are soldiers which I have cause to suspect, will do the some outrage.’

All is set for the central scene of the drama, and for heaven’s intervention: trusting him at first, she gets up behind him on the horse, but he then goes off the way, claiming it is to avoid the soldiers. Feigning an excuse, he then dismounts, and lays hands on her:

‘and began to woo her to grant his desire, but she denying him with unlimited resolution, he went about to ravish her, taking a grievous oath that no power in heaven or earth could save her from his lust, with that the poore virgin, with pittious shrikes and cries spake these words O lord God of Hosts, tis in thy power to deliver me, help Lord or I perish, in the meane time he continued cursing and swearing that her prayers were in vaine, for there was no power could redeeme her, these words were no sooner uttered, but immediately a fearefull Commet burst out in the ayre, so that it was as light as at high noone, this sudden apparition struck him and all the inhabitants into a great feare, and the poore virgin was intranced, the wretch casting his eye about and seeing her lye upon the ground as if he had meant to dare damnation tooke a great oath swearing God damme-him, alive or dead he would injoy her.

And as he was going about to lay hands of (sic) her intranced Body, A streame of fire strucke from the Comet, in the perfect shape and exact resemblance of a flaming Sword, so that he fell downe staggering, severall poore shepherds which were in the field, foulding their flockes, these being amazed, seeing the flame of the Comet strike at the Earth, as they conceived, made to the place as neere as they could, where they heard a man blaspheming, and belching forth many damnable imprecations, and coming to the place, demanded how he came so wounded, he voluntarily related his intention, and what had happened to him by the perverseness of that Round-headed-whore, so he died raving and blaspheming to the terrour and amazement of the beholders.

The men presently tooke up the Maid supposing she had been dead, and carried her home to her fathers House, where they were entertained though with great sorrow for their daughters supposed death, the maid having continued intranced thus almost all that night, at length she began to draw her breath, and when she came to her selfe, the very first words that she spake were these, Lord thou art Just in thy Judgments and mercifull in the midst of they justice, wherefore beseech thee let not this sinne be imputed to his Charge, in the day of Judgment.’

Our author has no doubt what happened, and what it means: ‘Reader heare is a president for all those that are customary blasphemers, and live after the lusts of their flesh, especially all those Cavaliers which esteem murder & rapine the chiefe Principalls of their religion.

But what did happen? “Let not this sin be imputed to his Charge”, says our heroine when she decides the time is right to come out of her trance. I think it is quite likely that there was a ‘comet’. The night of November 14th is right for the Leonids, and the dark night offered perfect viewing conditions. There was a bright light in the sky, and a descending fireball. In that moment of consternation, Mistress Fisher manages to strike Master Ashley with something sharp. He had maybe taken off his sword ready for untrussing himself (as they used to say). She wounds him mortally (dying, he blames her), and is overcome, or resumes her faint. Her religious schooling provides her with the full alternate narrative, for it was a kind of sword from heaven, after all. By the time she emerged from her trance at home, a thrilling confrontation between a blasphemer and herself as virtuous and God-fearing maid was ready for consumption, and found a ready audience.

I do not mean to be cynical about this: he was about to rape her. It is just about conceivable that he was the one human casualty of a meteor strike ever recorded, but it is likelier that he died another way.

Devon was not royalist. Ending the 1642 campaigning season, the battle of Turnham Green had been fought west of London on the day before Mistress Fisher fought off Master Ashley. Ralph Hopton’s men in the West Country would not have known it, but the King’s best chance to end the war with a speedy victory had just gone.

Image source:

Friday, March 21, 2008

How could a parrot NOT love the Baroness of Grosbeke?

My parrot, Barney, alongside the parrot from Jan Steen’s ‘The Effects of Intemperance’ (who is being given a sip of wine: a beaker full of the warm south, as Keats would say). Barney turned up at the local pet-shop, an exile from his first home, and in need of a new owner. He is reportedly six or seven, and, yes, he talks: a bird-brained tape of his first household ‘Get out the way!’ ‘Come on!’ and the like, and in his repertoire of noises, their telephone and the growling of their dog, his old enemy.

In early modern terms he appears to be:

“VII. Aldrovandus his ash-coloured or bluish Parrot.

This according to Aldrovandus is ten inches long: Of the bigness of a tame Pigeon, or the common green Parrot. The Bill is black: The Nosthrils near to one another, in the upper part of the Bill next to the Head; which part is covered with a naked white skin [we afterwards observed the same figure and situation of the Nosthrils in all other Parrots.] The whole body is of an uniform colour, viz. a dark cinereous: Yet the lower part of the Back and Belly and the Rump are paler than the rest of the body, and almost white. The Tail is red of a Vermilion colour, very short, and scarce reaching further than the ends of the Wings. The region of the Eyes [sides of the head round the Eyes] is white and bare of feathers. The feathers of the Head and Neck are shorter than the others. They say that all of this kind are brought from Mina, an Indian City of St. Georges. We have seen many of them at London.

In my photograph he is eating his chief gustatory delight, a piece of a digestive biscuit. Here is John Ray’s edition of The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq, fellow of the Royal Society in three books (1678) discussing those clever parrot feet:

“The Feet are of a singular fashion, for they have not three Toes standing forward and one backward, but two each way, like Woodpeckers. Jo. Faber, in his Expositions of Nardi Antonio Recchi his Animals found in New Spain, hath noted and observed concerning the Toes of Parrots something not mentioned by any Author, viz. That when they walk, climb up, or descend down the sides of their Cages, they stretch two of their Toes forward, and two backward; but when they take their meat, and bring it to their mouths, they make use of three Toes to hold it till they have eaten it up. Yea, (which may seem wonderful) they do so dexterously and nimbly turn the greater hind-toe forward and backward, that on sight of it you would confess your self not to know, whether it were given them by Nature to be used as a fore-toe in feeding, or a back-toe in walking.”

It is the happiness of the parrot to be, like small children or drunks, the regular source of a fund of anecdote:

“They do not only imitate mans voice, but in wit excell all other birds, as Aldrovandus proves by many Histories and examples. I shall not think much to set down one very pleasant story, which Gesner saith was told him by a certain friend, of a Parrot, which fell out of King Henry VIII. his Palace at Westminster into the River of Thames that runs by, and then very seasonably remembring the words it had often heard some whether in danger or in jest use, cried out amain, A Boat, a Boat, for twenty pound. A certain experienced Boatman made thither presently, took up the Bird, and restored it to the King, to whom he knew it belonged, hoping for as great a reward as the Bird had promised. The King agreed with the Boatman that he should have as the Bird being asked anew should say: And the Bird answers, Give the Knave a Groat.

CHAP. V. * Clusius his Discourse and Account of Parrots.

The Noble Philip Marnixius of St. Aldegond had a Parrot, whom I have oft heard laugh like a man, when he was by the by-standers bidden so to do in the French Tongue, in these words: Riez, Perroquet, riez; that is, Laugh, Parrot, laugh. Yea, which was more wonderful, it would presently add in the French Tongue, as if it had been endued with reason, but doubtless so taught, O le grand sot, qui me faict rire; that is, O great fool, who makes me laugh: And was wont to repeat those words twice or thrice. But among others I saw one of those great ones in the house of the illustrious Lady, Mary of Bremeu, Dutchess of Croy and Areschot, of happy memory, before she went out of Holland, the like whereto for variety and elegancy of colours, I do not remember to have ever seen. For though almost all the feathers covering the body were red, yet the feathers of the Tail (which were very long) were partly red, and partly blue; but those on the Back and Wings particoloured of yellow, red, and green, with a mixture also of blue. Its Head about the Eyes was white and varied with waved black lines, like the Head of the Canida. I do not remember the like Parrot described in any Author. Moreover, this Bird was so in love with Anna the Dutchesses Neece, now Countess of Meghen, and Baroness of Grosbeke, that where ever she walked about the Room it would follow her, and if it saw any one touch her cloaths, would strike at him with its Bill; so that it seemed to be possessed with a spirit of jealousie.”

As we all like to tell a story (at least, we will do until the ubiquity of the video camera and YouTube makes the anecdote an obsolete form), parrots have always been prized and transacted across continents. Dutch painters loved them: Jan Breughel paints the garden of Eden with an orthnithological slant, as he loves those bright colours. Or parrots riot through still-lives, the exotic bird about to attack the exotic fruits the painter has piled up.

“But that the price of those birds there was very great; so that they were not rated at less than eight or ten German Dollars. Linscotius writes, that the Portugues had often made trial to bring over of them to Lisbon, but could never effect it, because they were too tender and delicate. But the Hollanders with a great deal of care and industry brought one alive as far as Amsterdam, which though it were not of the choicest, yet might have been sold for one hundred and seventy Florens or Gilders of that Province, that is somewhat more than seventy Dollars, as I find recorded in the Diary of that Voyage. That bird by the way had learned to pronounce many Holland words, which it had heard of the Mariners, and its Master had made it so tame, that it would put its Bill into his Mouth and Ears without doing him any harm, and would put in order the hairs of his beard if discomposed: And if any one else offered to touch him, it would presently snap or peck at him, as if it had been some Dog. "

Friendly, communicative and bright, the parrot was a kind of middle-class hawk. As Ray/Willoughby notes, it shares the same shape of beak as the ‘rapacious birds’, but it is domestic and funny. In portrait paintings of the period, young men often have their hawk (difficult, expensive both in itself and for your bets on its performance), but the parrot is the subversive companion of women. Here’s an early modern version of the celebrated Einstein the parrot:

“He (Clusius) adds further, that a certain Brasilian woman, living in a Village two miles distant from the Island, in which he with other Frenchmen dwelt, had a Parrot of this kind, which she made much of; which seemed to be endued with that understanding and reason, that it could discern and comprehend whatever she said who brought it up. For, saith he, walking forth sometimes to refresh our selves as far as that Village, when we passed by that womans house, she was wont to call upon us in these words, Will you give me a Comb, or a Looking-glass, and I will presently make my Parrot sing and dance before you? If we agreed to her request, as soon as she had pronounced some words to the Bird, it began not only to leap upon the Perch on which it stood, but also to talk and whistle, and imitate the shoutings and exclamations of the Brasilians, when they prepare themselves for the battel. In brief when it came into its Dames mind to bid it sing, it sang, to bid it leap, it leapt: But if taking it ill, that she had not obtained what she asked, she said to the bird Auge, that is, be still or silent: It stood still, and held its peace; neither could we by any means provoke it to move either foot or tongue.”

Here’s Einstein (Barney has some way to go):

and here’s Ruby, the swearing parrot (a likelier outcome):

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Giant Noah and fossil teeth

Term ends this coming week, and my students are finishing work on Milton with brief presentations on aspects of Books XI and 12 of Paradise Lost. One trio is looking at the account of Noah’s flood in Book XI, where God ‘late repenting him of man depraved’ decides to drown humankind like kittens in a bucket. That’s line 886, by the way, based on Genesis 6; 6 “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart”, but worked into the narrative as tactfully as Milton could manage. Michael says it to Adam after the vision of the deluge, as Milton’s version of God doesn’t do repentances for things which He must always have foreseen. Milton doesn’t suppress such a salient biblical line, but smuggles it into a conversation.

EEBO did not fail me on Noah. I hadn’t anticipated a point which is obvious when you think about it: Noah was a genealogical pinch-point. As such, the proudly Welsh author George Owen Harry got quickly into print in 1604 with The genealogy of the high and mighty monarch, James, by the grace of God, king of great Brittayne, &c. with his lineall descent from Noah, by diuers direct lynes to Brutus, first inhabiter of this ile of Brittayne ... wherein is playnly shewed his rightfull title. Well, they had such a truncated view of time that such a genealogy isn't entirely a mad enterprise. My image for this post is one page from this bizarre genealogy, where the various lines of descent from Noah are testing early 17th century printing layouts to the limit. As Harry traces the bifurcating lineages, you can maybe see Uther Pendragon squeezed into a column, and reported to be buried at Stonehenge. At the start of this book, Noah is “the first monarch of the World”, and his sons divide up Asia and Europe between them (George Owen Harry tactfully forgets that America exists, so as not to have to account for its population).

Harry’s book resembles and perhaps (apart from its own Celtic bias) owes something to Giovanni Nanni’s An historical treatise of the travels of Noah into Europe: containing the first inhabitation and peopling thereof. As also a breefe recapitulation of the kings, gouernors, and rulers commanding in the same, euen vntill the first building of Troy by Dardanus. / done into English by Richard Lynche, Gent. (1602). A curious production by a fabulist in the Spenserian style of lofty mythic genealogies, The travels of Noah into Europe surprised me by asserting that Noah was a giant: ‘good giant Noe’ dies in Tuscany (quite nice for your retirement after a stressful career) 346 years after the deluge in 1967 BC, and aged 950, as the Bible specifies in Genesis 9; 29. The progress from Noah and his sons down to what was the present includes in both these odd books a large emphasis on Hercules.

Nanni has a deal to say about giants. I have always been interested in early modern interpretations of fossil remains, and Nanni repeats a story from ‘Boccaccio’ (Johannes Boccatius, author of a work De Montibus et Fluuiis) of how “there was found under the foot and hollow caverne of a mountaine, not far from the citie of Deprana, in the Isle of Sicilia, the bodie of a marvelous, huge, and strangely proportioned Gyant, which seemed to hold in one of his hands a mightie long peece of wood like unto the bodie of a young tree, or the mast of a ship, which so soone as it was touched, fell all into ashes and dust, but it was all garnisht & wrought about with lead, which remained sound and firm, & it was found to weigh five hundred pound weight: his bodie also being touched, consumed, and became pouder and ashes, except certain of his bones, and three of his teeth, which were also peized, and every tooth weighed fortie ounces. For the height and full stature of his bodie, it was conjectures by the people of that countrey, to be two hundred cubits long. And the same author sayth, That his teeth were afterwards hanged up in our ladies church of Deprana, for a straunge monument, and a thing of wonderfull admiration. In many other places are the bones of gyants that lived in those daies, kept and preserved for wonders…”

I wonder what they did find in that cave. One of these?

But I’ve met the fossil tooth before in other sources, and chasing it up led me agreeably to Sir Hans Sloane’s article in Philosophical Transactions, 35 (1727) – it's now on JSTOR! – ‘Of fossile teeth and bones of elephants' where it is noted along with a whole array of elephant bones and teeth (as Sloane considers them to be) misidentified as the remains of giants (some of them quasi-biblical).

Noah as a giant, though – how did they ever arrive at that? Their general view of mankind as diminished in lifespan and size is familar from Donne's 'Anniversaries'. But surely problems getting everything plausibly aboard the ark might have made them hold back on Noah? I was thinking about Gulliver's Travels recently, and how a belief in the degeneration of humankind would have gone along with odd notions about human stature.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Eating your husband's toes in Keats and 1607

Years ago I retold the story below in John Keats’ letter of December 1819 to my then colleague Peter Caracciolo, an expert on fable, the Arabian Nights in particular. Peter, knowing that such stories always flow from the sea of stories, wondered where Keats had got it from.

My dear Rice,

As I want the coat on my back mended, I would be obliged if you will send me the one Brown left at your house, by the Bearer … If you do not see me soon it will be from the humour of writing, which I have had for three days, continuing. I must say to the Muses what the maid says to the Man---"take me while the fit is on me."

Would you like a true Story "There was a Man and his Wife who being to go a long journey on foot, in the course of their travels came to a River which rolled knee deep over the pebbles---In these cases the Man generally pulls off his Back. This Man did so; and his Wife being pregnant and troubled, as in such cases is very common, with strange longings, took the strangest that ever was heard of. Seeing her Husband's foot, a handsome one enough, look very clean and tempting in the clear water, on their arrival at the other bank she earnestly demanded a bit of it; he being an affectionate fellow and fearing for the comeliness of his child gave her a bit which he cut off with his Clasp Knife---Not satisfied she asked another morsel---supposing there might be twins he gave her a slice more. Not yet contented she craved another Piece. "You Wretch cries the Man, would you wish me to kill myself? take that!" Upon which he stabb'd her with the knife, cut her open and found three Children in her Belly two of them very comfortable with their mouth's shut, the third with its eyes and mouth stark staring open. "Who would have thought it" cried the Widower, and pursued his journey …

Ever yours sincerely John Keats---

I have just been reading Simon Goulart’s Admirable and memorable histories containing the wonders of our time. Collected into French out of the best authors (1607). What a collection! I must check if Jonathan Sawday found it before writing his study of ‘Renaissance Bodies’, for Goulart was a busy anthologist from all kinds of medical writings. Here are all kinds of horrendous stories of unrecognized pathologies, ghastly injuries, hideous executions, and nightmare pregnancies. It’s a kind of early modern Fortean Times. And, in their place, come his collection of purportedly true stories about pregnant women who just have to eat a part of a man that they happen to see:

Strange Appetites.

There is no man almost living, which knoweth not some particular Histories of the extraordinary appetites of certaine women with child, for the which the learned Phisitions give a reason. We will report some Examples, to incite the reader, entring into the consideration of them and others that he shall call to minde, to honor GOD in so many wonders, without naming in particular the divers sorts of these Appetites, which are as variable as the countenances, & conditions of women that be with child. I have seene one who longing to bite a yong man by the nape of the necke, and for that she had forborne a little to satisfie her furious desire, she began to feele gripings and exteame paine in her belly. She therfore like a desperate woman leapes upon this yong man, gets hold of the nape of his necke, and bites him so sore, as he thought to have died of it.
L. Viues, in his Comment vpon the 7. Chap. de Cituit. dei. Chap. 25.

My Mother bearing mee in her wombe: an Appetit tooke her to eate Creveses [crayfish]. She sent sodenly to seeke some, and being impatient to have them washt and made cleane, she began to eate them rawe and alive, until that she had satisfied her desire.
Trincavelle. lib. 7. Chap. 5.
Of the meanes to cure diseases in mans body. A Woman of Nisues, beeing with Child, and seeing a young man, a Fuller of cloth bare legged, shee came so neere him, as with her teeth she laies hold of one of his Legges and carries away a peece of it. He was content shee should use him twise in this sort, but seeking to returne the third time, hee refused her and went his way. This poore woman a while after was brought in bedde of three children whereof two were alive and lusty, and the third dead. An other woman with Child longing for a Bakers shoulder, which carried her bread unto the Oven, she rejected all other meate and drempt onely of that. Her husband desiring to content her, wrought so with the Baker, as for a certaine some of money, he was content his wife should tast of that shoulder shee had so much desired. Hee had endured her teeth twise but she had bitten him of sore, as he would not endure a third charge. The woman Longing still, fell in Labour of three Sonnes, two alive and the third dead.

In a village not farre from Andernac a Towne seated upon the Rhine, belonging to the Bishop of Colleyn, a Country woman being with Child and distasted, did long to eate of her husbands flesh. Her desire was so furious, as she killed him, eate halfe his body, and pouldred up the rest: soone after the rage of her appetite being gon, she confessed the fact willingly unto her husbands friends, that sought for him. At Lymbourg in Silesia, the Towne where I was borne, a man coming out of a Bathe bare Legged, with his pantofles, hee was followed by a woman with Child, who desirous to tast of such meate, gets hold of one of his thighes and with her teeth pulled of a peece of his heele, the man crying out murther, yet would she not leave her hold untill she had done.”

Goulart goes on with more general instances of pica. I was struck by his opening remark that everyone knows a story of this nature. I imagine that this may be one of the many recorded motifs of folk story. Between Goulart and Keats may come somebody like Burton, who may somewhere in his Anatomy of Melancholy recount one of these tales.

Perhaps one can hazard something about the story type. Obviously, it’s about long-suffering men and demanding women, but there’s the myth of Chronos here somewhere: the recurrent feature of the pregnant woman demanding to eat part of the man’s legs, and her unborn child suffering if she doesn’t get it, perhaps speaks of the disabling effect of fatherhood, the man who loses part of his strength to the unborn generation, and has to accept as much.

I have illustrated with a St Christopher by Dieric Bouts. I couldn’t think of a picture, but having looked at the array of St Christophers on the Web Gallery of Art, would now claim that the motif in painting is popular because it taps into the same feeling: the large adult with the weight of the world on his back is a burden of fatherhood idea, dressed up as religious. Mixed in with this is conversion: the giant was pagan or a servant of the devil, until he carried the child, whose preternatural weight and divine nature forced him down and baptised him. The mother is absent, but marriage and fatherhood, sacrifices and responsibilities, reforms the man.