Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A bad start to 1609 at the Sign of the Firebrand

A bloudy new-yeares gift, or A true declaration of the most cruell and bloudy murther, of maister Robert Heath, in his owne house at high Holbourne, being the signe of the fire-brand (1609) is a typical murder pamphlet: heavy on the moralizing, slow to probe motive, and generally content that someone has been made an example of on the gallows.

What is rather thrilling about the little book is the intense domestic detail the anonymous author supplies: read it, and you are back there in the early morning of January 1st 1609, in a crowded house that is utterly dark, utterly cold, and murderously divided.

Master Robert Heath was a cook, Rowland Cramphorne was his tapster, so the business obviously extended to a complete catering in food and drink. It is clear that Master Heath drank: he was one that ‘kept much companie’, and on the fatal night, he came home at about 9pm ‘somwhat disguised in drinke’ and fell asleep in front of the kitchen fire. His wife is all too used to this, and always has her maid put a table against their bedroom door. She tells the court that this would alert her to her husband coming into the room late at night, but it sounds more like her regular way of keeping him downstairs. Upstairs, at midnight, a gentleman lodger wakes up both cold and thirsty. He calls for Rowland, who alleges that there are no faggots left in the house. Briefly, they contemplate going out, even at this late hour, to find drink and a fire, but in the end the gentleman decides to make do and shiver on through the night.

At 2am, the maid retired upstairs to her mistress’s room, leaving Rowland and her master below. Rowland shares a bed in the house with a boy. The narrative asserts that he had made this boy drunk with ale and sack, the boy certainly doesn’t seem to know when Rowland retired or got up again. But in this chilly and drink-stupefied household, at some point in the night, ‘the devil prevailed so farre with him, to doe that horrible deed of darkness'. A candle the maid had left by her master was a quarter burned at the time of the murder, and extinguished upside down its holder.

Next door, a joiner, his wife and their lodger are huddled in one chamber: between two or three in the morning, they hear ‘a great noise in Master Heaths house, as it were the fall of stooles or Chaires’. Nobody in the Heath household seems to have heard this, and next door, they just decide that their neighbours are making an early start on their pie making for New Year’s Day. The room they are in is adjacent to Rowland’s, and the partition so thin that the late night opening and closing of his door shakes their bed.

At five am, a barber’s maid comes to the house for fire, but finds the main door shut, at 6am the maid descends, gropes about in the dark till she finds the candle on the dresser (how did she know that it had not burned down and gone out?) relights it, and discovers the body. She goes and wakes Rowland with the news that ‘he knew too well’.

The ‘outcry of this murder being made’, the Joiner, even then on his way to a morning lecture at Christs-Church (a sermon, of course), diverts into the house. Heath was not quite dead, but dies as they try to lift him upstairs.

Rowland, Heath’s wife and the maid all assert that they have no idea who did the murder: the house doors, they say, had been left wide open in the morning, as if the murderer had departed that way (they clearly hope to incriminate either the drinking companions who had returned to the house with Heath, or others who had been upstairs with the gentleman).

Under examination, though, Rowland is found to have in his pocket money with blood upon it. He claims that he was bloodied in lifting his master, but the pious joiner from next door denies that Rowland had helped. A ‘fire fork’ is found to have a drop of blood upon it (Rowland later confesses, rather, that he had hit his master with a 'double jug').

The narrative now shifts to immediate motive: the day before, Heath, out drinking, had sent home for more beer: but each time he asked, his tapster had denied him. Heath had even sent money back home to pay for the beer from his own business: Rowland had still refused. Rowland had reportedly been struck by his returning master (this would be on the morning of New Year’s Eve), and dismissed.

The Jury finds all this enough, Rowland was convicted, drawn on a hurdle to his own street, and hanged on a gibbet ‘set up at Graies-Inne lane end, somewhat neeere unto the house where the murder was committed’ (this was on the 21st February 1609).

Rowland’s behaviour at the gallows was interesting, to say the least: “where being by good and godly preachers dealt withal, to cleare his own conscience, & deliver the truth in so doubtfull a case, whether any other had hand or no with him in the action: he would heare no speeches concerning his mist[ress] or the maid, but cleared them [as?] much as he could, taking al upon himself: & loath to hear any further admonishment, which with love and much charity was laboured unto him: when he was willed to make no haste, but take time to his own liking, putting one legge beside the ladder, and they calling him yet to stay, yea, the hangman offering to holde him by the choler of his doublet, he desperately threw himselfe off, not willing to listen to any further good counsel.”

I take it that these suspicions were basically correct. A tapster surely would not have refused his own master drink, even with money offered, unless put up to it by his mistress. Heath and his cronies were drinking the profits, his wife was sick of his drunken returns to their bedroom. When the maid looks for and lights the candle she had left burning by her master the night before, she finds what she had half expected from the bangs in the night they had been careful not to hear, and knows who to go to. I suspect, too, that the two women distanced themselves from the man who had carried out the murder and took all the blame (even to the point of speeding his own death for fear that he might blab something out). For the little pamphlet begins with an odd, and unsubstantiated account of Rowland Cramphorne’s bad character, a tale of a girl (anonymous in an otherwise quite specific text) he had seduced and deserted, who had predicted that he would come to a bad end. ‘All these imputations now dye with him’ says the pamphleteer, who might just be trying to signal that there’s another story beside the officially accepted one, mentioning in passing ‘what hath bin said concerning his Mistresse’…

But cold, dark, crowded early modern London!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Francis Quarles and the nappy of his saviour.

Francis Quarles, who was (just about) the most popular poet of the first half of 17th century, and his wife Ursula Woodgate had eighteen children together. So when he came to write ‘On the Infancie of our Saviour’ in his Divine Fancies (1632), he knew a thing or two about babies and infants, and it is clear that he loved them:

Hayle blessed Virgin, full of heavenly Grace,
Blest above all that sprang from humane race;
Whose Heav’n-saluted Womb brought forth in One,
A blessed Saviour, and a blessed Son:
O! what a ravishment t’had beene, to see
Thy little Saviour perking on thy Knee!
To see him nuzzle in thy Virgin Brest!
His milke white body all unclad, undrest;

To see thy busie Fingers cloathe and wrappe
His spradling Limbs in thy indulgent Lappe!
To see his desprate Eyes, with Childish grace,
Smiling upon his smiling Mothers face!
And, when his forward strength began to bloome,
To see him diddle up and downe the Roome!
O, who would thinke, so sweet a Babe as this,
Should ere be slaine by a false-hearted kisse!
Had I a Ragge, if sure thy Body wore it,
Pardon sweet Babe, I thinke I should adore it,
Till then, O grant this Boone, (a boone far dearer)
The Weed not being, I may adore the Wearer.

The infant saviour perking, nuzzling, spradling and (best of all) diddling up and down the room isn’t without parallel, of course, in accentuating the word made flesh: but two of these words are first occurrences in the OED (‘diddle’ and ‘spradling’ under ‘spraddle’). Quarles is letting us in to see a baby-related vocabulary previously excluded from more restrained literature.

But, more radically still, it’s hard to avoid the thought that, when Quarles expresses the wish for one of the rags the baby Jesus had once worn, he really does mean one of the baby Jesus’ ‘tail clouts’, one of the divine nappies. Americans would say diaper.

I can imagine purported relics of the saviour’s infant clothes existed in the medieval period. Quarles writes, though, as a doting sentimentalist, and was far from being a Catholic. In a related poem in the same collection, he explains the curing of the woman with the issue of blood as a product of faith, not as coming from any miraculous property in the garment she touched:

‘On the Woman with the Issue.’

How could thy Soule, fond Woman, be assur’d
Thy long disease could be so eas’ly cur’d?
What? couldst thou think the touch of cloth was good
To dry the Fountaine of thy flowing Blood?
Or was't because our blessed Saviour wore it?
Or why? I read not, that thou didst adore it:
He nere so much as ownd thee, Woman: Sure,
Thy Faith, and not his Garments wrought the Cure.

‘Divine Fancies’ is entirely appropriate to Quarles’ religious poems: like ‘French Fancies’, they are sweet light cakes of poems, iced all over with fanciful designs, words and thoughts. Here he starts off on the Day of Judgement:

O When shall that time come, when the loud Trump
Shall wake my sleeping Ashes from the Dump
Of their sad Urne! That blessed Day, wherein
My glorifi’d, my metamorphiz’d Skin
Shall circumplexe and terminate that fresh
And new refined substance of this flesh!
When my transparent Flesh, dischargd from groans,
And paynes, shall hang upon new polisht Bones!
When as my Body shall re-entertaine
Her cleansed Soule, and never part againe! …

Who could resist the thought of resurrecting with newly polished bones? No wonder readers liked him: only Quarles could think of comparing the various kinds of sin to England’s various types of bad weather:

On severall Sinnes.

Grosse Sinne.

Is like a Show'r, which ere we can get in
Into our Conscience, wets us to the skin:

Sin of Infirmity.

Is like the falling of an April Shower;
'Tis often Raine, and Sun-shine, in an hower.

Sin of Custome.

Is a long Showre, beginning with the Light
Oft-times continuing till the Dead of Night.

Sin of Ignorance.

It is a hideous Mist, that wetts amaine,
Though it appeare not in the forme of Raine.

Crying Sin.

It is a sudden Showre, that teares in sunder
The Cope of Heav'n, & alway comes with Thunder.

Sin of Delight.

Is like a fethered showre of Snow, not felt,
But soakes to th' very skin, when ere it melt:

Sin of Presumption.

Does like a Showre of Hayle, both wet and wound
With sudden Death: or strikes us to the Ground.

The Sin of Sinnes.

It is a sulph'rous Shower, such as fell

On Sodom, strikes, and strikes to th' Pit of Hell.

My nativity scene is from Jeremy Taylor’s Antiquitates christianae, or, The history of the life and death of the holy Jesus (1675).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Herbert's dolphin

“O what a sight were Man, if his attires
Did alter with his minde;
And like a Dolphins skinne, his clothes combin'd
With his desires!”

A quatrain from George Herbert’s ‘Giddinesse’ which recently brought me to a halt. Editors rely on F E Hutchinson’s 1941 text, and the magisterial but un-footnoted footnote, “like a Dolphin skinne. Not the mammal like a porpoise, but the dorado (Coryphaena hippuris), popularly called a dolphin, a fish like a mackerel; its metallic colours undergo rapid changes on its being taken out of the water and about to die, but it cannot be inferred that the changes have any relation to its desires.”

Here’s a 17th century source to substantiate Hutchinson: “The Dorado, which the English confound with the Dolphin, is much like a Salmon, but incomparably more delicate, and hath smaller Scales”. This is from Adam Olearius, The voyages and travells of the ambassadors sent by Frederick, Duke of Holstein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia begun in the year M.DC.XXXIII. … Whereto are added the Travels of John Albert de Mandelslo (a gentleman belonging to the embassy) from Persia into the East-Indies ... in III. books ... / written originally by Adam Olearius, secretary to the embassy ; faithfully rendered into English, by John Davies (1669).

But for all I know Hutchinson might have been, or talked to, a game-fisherman, for the dorado is still apparently referred to as the ‘dolphin fish’:

Henry Vaughan can be tracked tracking Herbert, in the characteristically more diffuse reference in his poem, ‘The World’, where he scorns the world by telling it:

Thou art not Truth; for he that tries
Shall find thee all deceit and lyes …
… And when not so, then always 'tis
A fadeing paint; the short-liv’d bliss
Of air and Humour: out and in
Like Colours in a Dolphin’s skin.
But must not live beyond one day,
Or Convenience; then away.

Vaughan makes the idea of rapidity of change more explicit than Herbert. Hutchinson says of these rapid alterations “it cannot be inferred that the changes have any relation to its desires.” The hidden relation, if we have to find one, must be that these changes are linked to death: the dorado loses its gilded coloration when hauled out of the water. Herbert’s perpetually altering humanity, pursuing desires so fatal to salvation, needs God to intervene to escape death. ‘Giddinesse’ ends with the prayer:

“Lord, mend or rather make us: one creation
Will not suffice our turn:
Except thou make us dayly, we shall spurn
Our own salvation.”

But I always tend to read Herbert looking for the satanic verses, for the poetry which responds secretly to the pleasures he spurns so dutifully. Dolphins and pleasures in such proximity suggest an echo of a far-greater piece of poetry, one in which the dolphin features as an ecstatic animal:

“His delights
Were dolphin like; they shew’d his back above
The element they liv’d in.”

Cleopatra’s tribute to Mark Anthony, humping along in the ocean of merriment: “O, such another sleep, that I might see / But such another man!” Her inimitable celebration of a man as ‘nature’s piece’ is the ideological opposite to Herbert’s principles. Anthony as marvelously unrestrained brings me to the source of my woodcut image, Thomas Combe’s, The Theater of Fine Devices (1614)] (Combe was translating Guillaume de La Perrière).

The emblem here is of intractability, and applied to women this time: dolphins are as unhappy about being taken from the water as women are if deprived of their will:

A wanton woman and a light,
Will not be tam'd by art nor might.

With greater ease the Dolphin is restrained,
Then wanton women bridled of their will,
Who from their purpose cannot be constrained.
They are so full of craft and subtle skill:
Well may they boast what guerdon they have gained,
That can subject their wives unto their will;
For oft the air of a woman’s smock,
Withstands alone the bonds of chaste wedlock.

This said, the last couple seems to circle back round to the intractability of male desires (a smell-smock seeks out other women: Platonick love! Say Plato kept a whore, / And lost his smell-smock nose by th' French disease” scoffed Nicholas Hooke).

But, revenons à nos moutons, that ‘dolphin’ in the woodcut looks far more fish than mammal, and illustrates the initial confusion of creatures. But I still wonder if the skin of the (mammalian) dolphin doesn’t change when it dies? Is George Barker really talking about a dorado here, for instance?

What I see, then, with
that cloud my witness is
not shapes of the mind or wind
like the slow rainbowings
of the dolphin’s skin as it dies
but, as though from the cloud
I saw my bone walk the shore,
the theology of all things.

George Barker, from ‘In Memory of David Archer’ (1973)

My photograph of the cruelly gaffed dorado comes from

Monday, December 08, 2008

Two dangerous pets from 'Zeno'

The last week of my teaching term, and while I have launched myself half-heartedly at EEBO’s selection of the pamphlets of Cotton Mather, I have no real zest to write anything about that strange and conflicted man.

But I did come across the German site,, with its many, many online, large format, images from early modern art. I have been looking at more graphic works by Hans Baldung Grien than I’d ever seen before. As parrot owner, I have selected his African Grey. With it, a very dangerous ‘cryptid’, as the always fascinating ‘TetZoo’ would call it:

a kind of walrus/iguana mashup, here ridden by an intrepid putto. Here's the TetZoo's closest match:

Hans Baldung drew just about anything: seals, armour, landscapes, post-coital lovers, and many studies of heads and faces. I was interested by the way that his children’s faces could have been drawn in the 20th century, yesterday really, while his studies of adult faces all seem to be of recognizably Northern Renaissance people.

Back to the point, which is to recommend the Zeno site: