Saturday, October 31, 2009

A misprint in a lost book

Thomas Webbe, Parson and Ranter, is fairly well known, with his own brief ODNB entry and having featured in Christopher Hill’s World Upside Down. I have been looking at the book by one of his antagonists, Edward Stokes’ The Wiltshire Rant (sic), 1653.

Webbe’s uneven career went through several phases of wild unconformity in thought and action, interspersed with spells when, for very understandable reasons, he chose to repent and conform. He was one of those people prosecuted under the May 1650 act which had made adultery a felony punishable by death. The jury, like sensible folk, had found him not guilty despite convincing testimony against him. From time to time, Webbe had to appear to have renounced his sins; but he went back to them as soon as he safely could.

The same resilience would have been manifest (I think) in his lost work, The Masse of Malice, where he seems to have chosen attack - without any scruple as to honesty - as the best way to defend himself. Edward Stokes was the local J.P., who had heard and believed one of Webbe’s repentances, but became his target in The Masse of Malice. Muddying the waters as much as possible, Webbe invented for Stokes a scatological blasphemy. This is Stokes’ report of what Webbe alleged in print, which was that:

“Finding a bottle he [Stokes] filled it with his Urine and set it by his Filth. He used the gesture of kneeling. And expressed himself in this abominable and blasphemous language to me, [Webbe] That I should kneel down and partake the Communion. Saith he, pointing to his dung, Here is the body of Christ. Pointing to his urine, saith he, Here is the bloud of Christ.”

Stokes could hardly let this go unchallenged. His account of Webbe’s talk and behaviour is fascinating for what it tells us about the ‘ranters’, and as a self-defence it is quite convincing. As Stokes points out, in his role as parson, Webbe (if he were as he claims to be, an innocent man reviled in a ‘mass of malice’) should not have let such blasphemy go unreported:

“The Libidinous Parson saith himself, That he made no words of the businesse till now, concealing it till now from all people, wherefore if M. Stokes were guilty, must not the Parson be as far forth guilty as himself; Is a man of his Coat and Calling to conceal a blasphemy of that nature, without check to the blasphemer or complaint to the Magistrate for two years together?”

But one thing particularly cheers Stokes – the intervention of the hand of God in the printing house, which subverted Webbe’s lies:

“Yet M. Stokes is beholding to the Christian moel-Parson, not for creating a most cursed and detestable blasphemy and fastening it upon him, but for weakning his own evidence, giving himself the lye, and clearing the accused, for so he doth in the 20th line of the aforesaid 55. pag. in these words, Blasphemy that I never heard in my life. If he had said That he had never heard the like in his life, or never heard before, it might have been otherwise understood: But to conclude, after he hath filled up with most accursed circumstance a self-invented blasphemy, he clearly acquits the accused, and saith, blasphemy that I never heard in my life. Lord how good thou art? this is thy hand and thy doing! Thou hast made the Author of the Masse of malice to acquit the innocent, in the middest of his fierce and foul Charge, To thy name be all the glory.”

I think that ‘moel-Parson’ is an antedating of the OED’s ‘moil’ n. 1: so it means a tainted, besmeared parson. It’s a regional usage.

Webbe did cause a stir in Wiltshire. He’s mentioned in this webpage for Langley Burrell:

After remarrying locally when he took up the living (Webbe, whose qualifications were his own invention, got the preferment by promising to take no tithes), Webbe rewarded his patron, Henry White, by starting an adulterous affair with the patron’s wife, Mistress Mary White, ‘the little gentlewoman’, as Stokes calls her. When they were charged with ‘the felonious committing of the horrible and crying sin of adultery’ together, Mistress White got her husband to stand surety for her lover, rather than him go to jail. Webbe had been persuasive enough for the evidently not-that-injured husband allow Webbe to move into the disrupted marital home. Meanwhile, Webbe had arranged the seduction of his own wife, also Mary, artfully caught by him at the compromising moment, to allay her jealous protests at his own affair.

More sensationally still, Webbe took John Organ as his ‘man-wife’:

“Wherefore note that Webbs most principall favourite, and greatest choicest associate in the whole Country; for one of his own Sex, was one J O. a comely young man, and a man of a seeming sober behaviour, even as Webbe himself, of whom a stranger cannot but say, or at least think, that butter would not melt in his mouth (as we use to say) yet here you will perceive, as the Proverb is, The still Sow eats all the draught. This man with his Cob-webb seeming sobriety, and unclean inside, is taken by Tho. Webbe, as men use to take their wives, For better for worse: So I say, this man is honoured with the title of Webbs wife, for so he cals him, My wife O; and O owns Webb for a husband; and now where ever they come, 'tis my wife O, and my husband Webb. True it is, Webb is become a great lover of Musick, which to prophane hearts is an in-let to lust: but whether ever he plaied any hellish tune with his Organ or Church musick yea or no, is not yet discovered…”

Stokes, who tells all this, attempts from time to time a wavering irony and uneasy humour: the jokes on the names ‘Webbe’ and ‘Organ’ are typical. He is restrained here: he seems capable of thinking that ‘ranters’ might just pretend love for their (male) ‘fellow creature’ as part of their general effrontery.

Webbe’s lasting sexual affair was with Mary White. It all began jovially enough, with arguments from nature:

“this Deponent did then and oftentimes since bear the said M. Webb say, That he did live above Ordinances, and that it was lawfull for him to lye with any woman. And at one time above the rest, the said M. Webb, Mistress White, this Deponent, and divers others sitting in the Gate-house of the dwelling-house of the said Mistress White (there being tame Pidgeons in the Court) the said M. Webb observing a great Cock Pidgeon to tread divers of the Hen Pidgeons there, said unto those that were there present, that it was lawfull for every man and woman, and that they ought to take that liberty and freedom one with the other, as those Pidgeons did, although they were not married the one to the other.”

But the affair led to serious quarrels, with Mary White sometimes willing to proceed and testify against Webbe (perhaps after he gave her the French pox), at other times wearing him when they were finally imprisoned together, when Webbe, the man beaten at his own game:

“was exceedingly wearied and tired out with Mistress Whites company in Goal, that she by her flatteries and frowns still indeavoured to keep him in his evil and unclean courses with her, whose provocations and temptations gave him no rest; and therefore he humbly desires to be removed into any other prison out of her company, where he might be at rest.”

Webbe finally “earnestly desired M. Stokes his assistance to work a separation between him and Mistress White, in putting of them to severall Goales.”

My image of Ranters enjoying the company of the 'fellow creature' is from The Ranters Declaration, 1650.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

England as Polynesia: the strange allegations of Chalcondylus

As a spin-off from preparing a lecture on Lucrece, I found myself looking at Thomas Edgar’s The law’s resolutions of women’s rights: or, The law’s provision for women. A methodical collection of such statutes and customs, with the cases, opinions, arguments and points of learning in the law, as doe properly concern women (1632), to look at rape law in the period for myself. Edgar seems complacent about the state of the law, especially crediting Queen Elizabeth for tightening up the law to the effect that convicted rapists could not, on a first offence, escape punishment for their felony by pleading ‘benefit of clergy’ (and so have the noose taken from round your neck after your recitation of Psalm 51).

The hideous misprision enshrined in the law at this time that any pregnancy after an alleged rape indicated that the sex had been consensual drew groans of disbelief in the lecture audience. Edgar merely cites this without comment: he expounds the law as it stands, and regards the state of the law as good. He’s a stodgy read, unable to escape his legalese even though he is trying to explain the state of the law to a female readership who would not be legally trained. I was also struck by his book being black letter. By 1632, that’s a real sign of a text produced in a low-grade printing house, to sell cheaply.

But a passage that struck me was the one cited in full below (I have modernized the text). What seems to be going on here is that Edgar is generally concerned to show his readers that he is on their side (as well as how much the law has been improved, etc, as it appertains to women). He’s indicating that he is aware that the moral behaviour of English women is generally far superior to how it sometimes gets represented.

So he dredges up from somewhere a reference to Laonicus Chalcondyles, (c. 1423 – 1490) a Byzantine Greek scholar, whose Proofs of Histories apparently ‘sketches other manners and civilization of England, France and Germany’. ‘Chalcondylus’ just pops up occasionally in other works on EEBO’s full text database: his work was evidently fairly recondite.

However, his sketch of England and the English was evidently a lively one, representing England pretty much as Margaret Mead represented Samoa:

“These are the Laws, whereby rapes and ravishments of women are repressed, which if they be well looked unto, will prove that there is now no cause, why lying Laonicus Chalcondilus should be believed, who writing of Englishmen, affirmeth that we have no care what becomes of our wives and children; That in our peregrinations and travels we interchange and use one the others wives mutually: That we count it no reproach by whomsoever our wives or daughters be got with child; That (with us) if a man come to his friends house, he must lye with his wife the first thing that he doth, ut deinde benigne hospitio accipiatur. And though some of the last recited Laws were unmade, when Chalcondilus did write, above one hundred years since, yet there were then Laws enough to prove him a deep liar; and had he been in England, to have trussed him up too perhaps for lechery, had his learning steaded him no better than his honesty; this is no less cause, why I should be thus bitter against Chalcondilus a dead man, for that it may seem he wrote by hearsay, nullo odio gentis: and in other matters he reporteth honourably of us.

Edgar, rather conscious of having dragged Chalcondilus up from a hundred years before, next seems to express his detestation of a more current satirist (I can’t think who he means, anyone writing after the manner of Juvenal seems likely):

“But it is strange that a man writing, not a great while since, but even the other day, not at Athens, neither at Rome, or Reams, where they use to belie us head and foot, but here at London should be bold to write and put in print matter to this effect, That beggers and the poorest sort of our women, we doe use to punish and to whip them, when they are taken for lechers and dishonest livers, But Gentlewomen and Ladies of honour and worship, they are never punished for incontinency, but rather for their amorous wantonness, and lubricity the more esteemed and magnified.”

“This fellow deserveth plainly better to be hanged, than to be believed. For neither is it true that any woman with us can better her reputation by dissolute life and manners; Neither can any woman learn a more devilish lesson, than so to be persuaded. And seeing the Laws themselves declare what detestation they have of brutish concupiscence, by punishing consent, with loss of inheritance; I would I could persuade all women to eschew, not only these gulfs, but also the ecclesiastical Censures, (which I meddle not with) together with the infamy, which they purchase sometime with outward lasciviousness, from the report of them, which judge a careless liberty in behaviour, an infallible argument of sensuality whereby some men have been emboldened to offer force, because they thought it was expected.”

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"this Monster eating beast"

After a frustrating few weeks with, initially, a failing broadband connection, and then all the chores of getting started with a new ISP, I can at last return to my neglected blog.

I was reading Robert Baron’s An apologie for Paris for rejecting of Juno and Pallas, and presenting of Ate’s golden ball to Venus (1649). This fawning, over-written and highly derivative book re-tells the story of the Judgment of Paris. I was initially interested in how Venus is described, for instance in getting Paris’s full attention with a timely wardrobe malfunction:

“faire Aphrodite approached with a world of winning majesty in her looks; and as the Elixar turneth all things into gold, so the Sunny beames of this illustrious Deities eyes, (whose every motion shot ten thousand Cupids into the hot Phrygians soule) reflecting upon his, soon affected him with her passion, and made him ready to prostrate (without further cunctation) the Ball, with his glowing heart, at her feet. First she slipt downe her loose flower-embroydered mantle, and inriched his gullon eyes with the wealth of her lovely breasts, those nectar running fountaines, as farre excelling those two Pallaces of pleasure which Juno even now promised, as they did the humble colleges that were the mothers of the Capitoll; and before she opened the cherry of her lips, she emparadised him with a winning smile…”

Prior to this, Minerva had told Paris that, if he awarded the ball to her, he would as a reward:

“make a new edition of, and addition to, Arithmeticke, and compleate her with numbers enow to count those many Atomes whose accidentall concourse made this big-bellied earth, and how many minutes have thrust out one another since that accident happened”.

Not exactly tempting, so when Venus offers Paris a ravishingly beautiful partner (Helen of Troy, of course), it’s a done deal that she gets the golden ball. She entices him with these reflections: “Tell me for Loves sake, is it not more lovely to lie intwined in her foulding armes, like a Lilly imprisoned in a Jaile of snow, or Ivory in a band of Alablaster, than to sit muffled in furres like a bedrid Miser?” - where of course Baron is having his goddess quote Shakespeare’s poem about her -

(“Full gently now she takes him by the Hand,
A Lilly prison’d in a Jayl of Snow,
Or Ivory in an Alabaster Band,
So white a Friend ingirts so white a Foe…”)

But Baron writes by assembling poeticisms. A more original expression struck me: I was interested by how Venus “inriched his gullon eyes with the wealth of her lovely breasts”: what does ‘gullon’ mean?

The OED is not immediately helpful, but rooting around with the stem of the word gets you to the animal depicted above in Topsell’s The history of four-footed beasts (1658 edition, p.205), the ‘Gulon’.

Baron is simply transferring the nature of this beast to Paris’s eyes, which are greedy, or gluttonous. But Robert Baron’s prim excursions into erotica lack all interest compared to the ‘gulon’ itself. We call it a wolverine,

but Topsell’s account of it largely ignores the real animal, and embroiders upon the ‘gulon’ as a signal instance of four-footed beastliness: it has been ordained by God to typify the gluttony of the men in Russia, Lithuania, and other intemperate zones.

In the illustration, the gulon is performing its unpleasant and signature habit of squeezing its fully-gorged body between two closely adjacent trees, so that it excretes copiously (as shown), and is able to resume eating. In case this seems at all implausible, Topsell goes into the details of what happens if the creature can’t find trees close enough together.

This is Topsell's whole entry:

Of the GVLON.

This Beast was not known by the Ancients, but hath been since discovered in the Northern parts of the World, and because of the great voracity thereof, it is called (Gulo) that is, a devourer in imitation of the Germans, who call such devouring creatures Vilsiuss, and the Swedians, Gerff; in Lituania and Muscovia, it is called Rossomokal. It is thought to be engendered by a Hyaena and a Lioness, for in quality it resembleth a Hiaena, and it is the same which is called (Crocuta:) it is a devouring and an unprofitable creature, having sharper teeth then other creatures. Some think it is derived of a Wolf and a Dog, for it is about the bigness of a Dog: it hath the face of a Cat, the body and tail of a Fox; being black of colour: his feet and nails be most sharp, his skin rusty, the hair very sharp, and it feedeth upon dead carkases.

When it hath found a dead carkass he eateth thereof so violently, that his belly standeth out like a bell; then he seeketh for some narrow passage betwixt two trees, and there draweth through his body, by pressing whereof, he driveth out the meat which he had eaten: and being so emptied returneth and devoureth as much as he did before, and goeth again and emptieth himself as in former manner; and so continueth eating and emptying till all be eaten. It may be that God hath ordained such a creature in those Countries, to express the abominable gluttony of the men of that Countrey, that they may know their true deformed nature, and lively ugly figure, represented in this Monster eating beast: for it is the fashion of the Noble men in those parts, to sit from noon till midnight, eating and drinking, and never rise from the table, but to disgorge their stomachs, or ease their bellies: and then return with refreshed appetites to ingurgitate and consume more of Gods creatures: wherein they grow to such a heighth of beastliness, that they lose both sense and reason, and know no difference between head and tail. Such they are in Muscovia, in Lituania, and most shameful of all in Tartaria.

These things are reported by Olaus Magnus, and Mathias Michou; But I would to God that this same (more then beastly intemperate gluttony) had been circumscribed and confined within the limits of those unchristian or heretical-apostatical countries, and had not spread it self and infected our more civil and Christian parts of the World; so should not Nobility, Society, Amity, good fellowship, neighbourhood, and honesty, be ever placed upon drunken or gluttonous companions: or any man be commended for bibbing and sucking in Wine and Beer like a Swine: When in the mean season no spark of grace, or Christianity, appeareth in them: which notwithstanding they take upon them, being herein worse then Beasts, who still reserve the notes of their nature, and preserve their lives; but these lose the markes of humanity, reason, memory and sense, with the conditions of their families, applying themselves to consume both patrimony and pence in this voracity, and forget the Badges of Christians, offering sacrifice to nothing but their bellies. The Church forsaketh them, the spirit accurseth them, the civil world abhorreth them, the Lord condemneth them, the Devil expecteth them, and the fire of Hell it self is prepared for them; and all such devourers of Gods good creature.

To help their digestion, for although the Hiena and Gulon, and some other monsters are subject to this gluttony, yet are there many creatures more in the world, who although they be Beasts and lack reason, yet can they not by any famine, stripes, or provocations be drawn to exceed their natural appetites, or measure in eating or drinking. There are of these Beasts two kindes, distinguished by colour, one black, and the other like a Wolf, they seldom kill a Man, or any live Beasts, but feed upon carrion and dead carkasses, as is before said; yet sometimes when they are hungry, they prey upon Beasts, as Horses, and such like, and then they subtilly ascend up into a tree, and when they see a Beast under the same, they leap down upon him and destroy him. A Bear is afraid to meet them, and unable to match them by reason of their sharp teeth.

This Beast is tamed, and nourished in the Courts of Princes, for no other cause then for an example of incredible voracity. When he hath filled his belly, if he can finde no trees growing so near together, as by sliding betwixt them, he may expel his excrements; then taketh he an Alder-tree, and with his fore-feet rendeth the same asunder, and passeth through the midst of it, for the cause aforesaid. When they are wilde, men kill them with bows and gins, for no other cause than for their skins which are precious and profitable; for they are white spotted, changeably interlined like divers flowers; for which cause the greatest Princes, and richest Nobles use them in garments in the Winter time, such are the Kings of Polonia, Sweveland, Goatland, and the Princes of Germany; neither is their any skin which will sooner take a colour, or more constantly retain it. The outward appearance of the said skin is like to a damaskt garment, and besides this outward part, there is no other memorable thing worthy observation in this ravenous Beast, and therefore in Germany, it is called a four-footed Vulture.