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.”



Anonymous said...

Great post as usual. Thanks for bringing Edgar's text to my attention.

I would, though, like to warn against associating black letter fonts (even in 1632) with cheapness and poor production. Certainly a lot of cheap popular pamphlets and texts of the sort discussed in Watt's Cheap Print and Popular Piety were in black letter, but a few classes of books aimed and consumed by "higher" audiences remained such fonts as well.

At the most basic level, the work in question begins with a title page, preface(s) to the reader, and table all in a roman font. These sections indicate that the printer was capable of producing fine roman texts, so he (and/or the publisher) must have thought that producing the bulk of the text in black letter would serve some function for the book's intended audience. As it turns out, books dealing with issues of law remained in black letter much later than those in most other genres. The precise reasons for this are not totally explained, but we can say - based on extant law books - that black letter was associated with law texts by early modern readers . This - not cheapness or an attempt to cater to a "low" audience - explains why Edgar's work is predominantly in black letter.

John More, who published the work in question, was actually the major publisher of law books in the period. On January 19th, 1618, he was granted the patent for printing all books on the Common Law, Statutes, as well as some other texts. In 1629, he transferred this patent to Miles Flesher/Fletcher, who - though not listed on the title page - actually printed Edgar's book. I do not know the specifics of their arrangement, unfortunately. My point, though, is that Edgar's Lawes resolutions of womens rights was produced by two of the major stationers involved with law texts in the period.

For a helpful that surveys the uses of black letter fonts in 17th century texts and that argues for a revision of how we interpret their use in them, see Zachary Lesser's "Typographic Nostalgia: Play-reading, Popularity, and the Meanings of Black Letter," which is in The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England. Ed. Marta Straznicky. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

DrRoy said...

And thank you, Aaron, for this magisterial comment. I wrote in ignorance, and had no idea about any of this. Was the retention of black letter a part of the general preference in the law for antiquity, precedent usage, retaining old types of forms - and formes of type?

Anonymous said...

I just reread my post - Sorry for coming off as a bit snooty!

You and others are likely right to suggest that retaining the "old" font in law texts shows the continuity of their content with the precedent and authority of the past. The same argument has been made for the retention (though not quite as marked as with law texts) of black letter in bibles and proclamations.

Anonymous said...

Ack - just reread my previous post and realized that I was a bit snooty. My apologies.

You're almost certainly right to suggest that retaining black letter in law texts has to do with its association with precedent and the authority that goes along with it. The same is true of bibles (though to a lesser degree) and royal proclamations, other texts that stayed in black letter later than most others.