Thursday, September 10, 2009

Of widow's peaks

I was reading Sir John Melton’s Astrologaster, or, The figure-caster (1620) – a very peculiar generic mash-up, an attack on astrology cast in the form of a semi-fictionalised narrative, with lengthy pro et contra orations. At one point, Melton’s narrative is suspended for ‘A Catalogue of many superstitious Ceremonies, especially old men and women hold, which were first found out and invented by Figure-Casters, Cunning Men and Women in former ages, yet to this day are held for certaine and true observations’ – a list of familiar superstitions, but including this one:

“That by a certaine tuft of haire gowing on the foremost part of a mans forehead, it may be knowne whether he shall bee a widower or no.”

~ A widow’s peak! My father had a very prominent one, and it always used to puzzle me as a child when my mother referred to it in such terms. Internet sources on ‘widow’s peaks’ do not go very far back beyond the 19th century for origins, but clearly the idea was around far earlier. Nor is the OED is not terribly helpful about when the expression came into use: under ‘widow’, they offer on ‘widow’s locks’:

a1540 J. LONDON in Ellis Orig. Lett. Ser. III. III. 132 Suche as..hadde any slottiche wydowes lockes, viz. here growen to gether in a tufte. 1896 G. F. NORTHALL Warw. Word-bk., Widow’s-lock, a small lock or fringe growing apart from the hair above the forehead. Credulous persons believe that a girl so distinguished will become a widow soon after marriage.”

The OED’s entry under ‘peak’ does give support for the notion that the expression for this particular type of hair line was based on the shape of widow’s hoods, worn in the Renaissance (as in my example above):

“Originally: the projecting front of a headdress, esp. of a widow’s hood. Later more generally: any more or less pointed projecting part of a garment or costume. 1530 J. PALSGRAVE Lesclarcissement 253/1 Peake of a ladyes mourning heed1706 J. ADDISON Rosamond III. iv, Widow Trusty, why so Fine? Why dost thou thus in Colours shine? Thou should’st thy husband’s death bewail In Sable vesture, Peak and Veil.”

I searched EEBO for other examples of the ‘widow’s peak’ as a recognizable shape for headgear or hair line, and was rewarded by two similes in Nehemiah Grew’s Musaeum regalis societatis, or, A catalogue and description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham Colledge made by Nehemiah Grew; whereunto is subjoyned The comparative anatomy of stomachs and guts by the same author (1685).

The first is in the description of what might be a form of nautilus (Grew is moving irregularly between species of sea creatures). He might be describing a suture line or the keel of the coiled shell:

‘The MAILED SAILER. Nauticlus Laminatus. I meet with it no where. Both within, and especially without, of the colour of the richest Pearl. It is composed of a considerable number of Plates, as if in Armor. Yet the Plates continuous; furrow’d along the middle, and produced with a blunt Angle, almost like a Widows-Peak. From under each of which, emergeth a kind of little Tongue, like that of a Shoo-Buckle.

The second item in the Royal Society’s collection that reminded him in part of the headgear of widows was, rather charmingly, a Native American’s cache-sexe:

“An APRON for the Pudenda of a Woman. A ¼ of a yard deep, and shaped like a Widows Peak. Hath two transverse Labels, with several small Tassel’d Strings, to tie it about her middle; and a great one hanging down before. Made of Rushes, and other Plants. The out-side of several colours, sc. white, yellow, red, tawny, and brown; as flexible as any Thread. Woven in several Squares, and ½ Squares in a most exact and geometrick Order. The inside of smaller Rushes, all of one colour, and the Weaving uniform: as some Silks are plain on one side, and flowered on the other. A piece of Work, which an European could hardly imitate with all her Art.”

(They also had the male equivalent: “An Indian PURSE or CASE for the Pudenda of a Man. 'Tis a foot long, and closed at the bottom. Made of small Reeds woven together after the manner of course Linnen.”)

I can shed no light at all on the entry in A new dictionary of the canting crew in its several tribes of gypsies, beggers [sic], thieves, cheats &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches &c. : useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives ; besides very diverting and entertaining being wholly new / by B.E. (1699).

(and I add a few more entries just for the joy):

Bill-of sale, a Bandore, or Widow’s Peak.

Bing awast, c. get you hence. Bing'd awast in

a Darkmans, c. stole away in the Night-time.

Bing we to Rume vile. c go we to London.

Bingo, c. Brandy.

Bingo-boy, c. a great Drinker or Lover thereof.”

I glanced into a few early books about phisiognomy, but did not come across any further references. Those I did look at seemed surprisingly uninterested in hair-lines as denoting character; they were anyway perhaps unlikely to retail a superstition like this.

The portrait bust of a widow in her peaked veil is by Alessandro Algardi, ‘Donna Olimpia Maidalchini’, carved in 1646-47.


Editorial said...

Love this! I realize that I never had wondered where the term comes from. Thanks!

All best, Holly

Adam Roberts said...

Lovely stuff, Roy.

You say "I can shed no light at all on the entry in A new dictionary of the canting crew ... Bill-of sale, a Bandore, or Widow’s Peak.'

Aha, but OED can.

In addition to being an early mode of guitar, Bandore, they say, is a corrpution of Fr. bandeau, and means 'a widow's headdress'. 'Bill-of-sale': obviously takes the same as a mode of advertising that the lady is on the husband-market again. Or did you mean 'shed no light' in the sense of '...beyond the obvious, OED stuff'?

DrRoy said...

Sleeping on the job! Thanks for the nudge awake. I'd vaguely sensed the apposite nature of the 'bill of sale' connection, but was thrown by the musical instrument. Good for the OED, and Good for you, Sir!