Friday, January 30, 2009

'I'le believe my speckled friend' - falling in John Abbott.

J. A. Rivers, who wrote Devout rhapsodies and published it in 1647, was not an anomalous 17th century man with two Christian names, but a Catholic priest and one time Jesuit, John Abbott, who had operated (among other aliases) as John Rivers.

As the ODNB entry on him says, “Abbot is best-known today for his poems about the war in heaven and the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve contained in his Devout Rhapsodies … poems which have been seen as significant contemporary English anticipations of Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

The biographer here refers to plural ‘poems’, as does Abbott’s title, but Abbott also writes about the 1647 publication as ‘this poeme’. ‘Rhapsodies’ points to the digressive and genre-blurring manner of the nine verse ‘sermons’ which make up the work, as Abbott switches between a double fall narrative (Lucifer and mankind), passages of dialogue, moral reflection, satire, and bitter personal experience.

The intermittent resemblances to Milton are indeed surprising. Here, Lucifer tells Eve that she just has to eat the forbidden fruit:

“Behold that goodly Apple, take and eat,
‘The choice of Paradise, delicious meat;
‘This will bestow an immortality,
‘And make you sharers in the Deity.
‘God knows this well, therefore least you should be,
‘Partners with him, he has forbid this Tree.”

The liquorish Woman eyes, and eyes again
The Apple; sees it lovely and would fain
Pluck it, but fears: at last demurreth so;

“If not for use, why did this apple grow?
‘What Aromatic smell? how smooth the skin,
‘And gay? Can any poison lurk within?
‘No sure: God in forbidding has some end,
‘That’s envious, I’le believe my speckled friend;
‘Who gives the world to roam in, and excludes
‘But the least corner, all his gifts deludes,
‘And pens you in a prison. All the trees
‘Of Eden are but toys; forbidding these
‘Choice fruits, what gave God when he gave command,
‘Ore fishes, fouls of th’air, beasts of the land?
‘And then forsooth to say, dare not once touch
‘This Apple; bounty is not valued much,
‘Hedg’d in with limits: I had rather have,
‘What he exempts, then all the rest he gave,

‘Had it not been forbid, it might have past,
‘Not car’d for, now I must needs, and will taste.
‘Be it what it will, I’ll by experience try,
‘If it bring death, or immortality.”

I love her comment about going along with the snake, “I’le believe my speckled friend” – and exactly like Milton is the ready supply of cogent reasons for eating the forbidden fruit that Eve produces, with her the fatal assertion that true liberty admits no restriction: “Who gives the world to roam in, and excludes / But the least corner, all his gifts deludes, / And pens you in a prison”.

Eden becoming a prison because it has just the one restriction touches on Abbott’s most heartfelt subject. Imprisoned in 1637, Abbott spent the last thirteen years of his life in Newgate, dying there in 1650. His poem was written in prison, as he explains in the address to the reader:

“Being for many yeares detained in a miserable and chargable Prison, to divert my minde from too serious thoughts of publick and private calamities, made me undertake this imployment.”

In prison, Abbott had books and any small comforts stolen from him by his captors, cruelties that remind him, in both this epistle and the poem, of the Biblical prohibition against boiling a lamb in its own mother’s milk: there have to be limits to outrage. In a passage which contains a certain amount of inherent tension, Lucifer being placed in Hell after his rebellion against God leads Abbott on to general reflections on prison always corrupting its miserable inhabitants, and how any prison is an image of hell:

But that grand Traitor, Lucifer, what’s done
With him? doe not the conquerors sit upon
The manner of his chastisement? who lead
The dance in this Rebellion, was the head
Plotter, and actor in the treason, shall
Be more severely punished then all
The minor Devils; and one clause they add
To th’rest of’s torments, that makes him stark mad:
Namely, that he who would so high have flown,
With wings of pride, even to Jehovah’s throne,
In a deep dungeon, shut eternally,
Shall a confined slave and prisoner lye.

A hole his goal furthest from Heaven to show,
That as transgressions so must penance go.
The other Fiends have the vast Air and Seas,
And land to range in whensoere they please:
But their great Monarch must in fetters tied,
In lowest Hell perpetually abide.
And this was the first prison made for sin,
A pattern to torment Delinquents in:
Yet no confinements, Fetters, Bolts, and Gives,
Can make the damned wretches mend their lives.
Sure the strange qualities of Alpheus streams,
Are idle Poets or Historians dreams.
How he though disemboguing in the Maine,
Yet midst the brine his sweetness can retain;
Debt, and transgression are conducent gins,
To Prisons, Prisons Colleges of sins.
The noble Sciences profest, and chief
Arts taught, are of the Drunkard, Whore and Thief,
Who were in knavery Freshmen, coming here,
Shall proceed learned Graduates in one year.
Behold the Galleys, and a Prison view,
And they shall fully represent to you
What’s done in Hell; blaspheming every where,
Continual torments, yet they curse and swear
Amidst those torments: Boat-swains, Goalers are,
The Furies that torment 'em and their fare,
Biscuit, Tobacco; trickling tears must serve
To make their meat go down: else let 'em sterve,
What then? too many care no more when half
Are starv’d then Butchers when they kill a Calf.
A Prison’s like the cruel Martichore,
Or Hell it self, still seeking to devour,
It’s always taking, the least favour must
Be dearly bought, nor can you go on trust.
Sweat, labour, for some Goalers, a good turn,
Is never thought of in the following morn.
Best courtesy’s done to them are but their due,
And what’s their Office must be sold to you

French imposts, Spanish taxes are not hard,
If to th’exactions of a Goal compar’d.
Yet heavens forbid all Keepers should be such,
I know some gently bred, who will not grutch
To doe a favour gratis, know the same
Fortune that oretakes others, is not lame,
But may oretake themselves, and they may be,
Their fellow-prisoners in Captivity:
Know what a sin it is, to boil the lamb,
Ith’ milk and sight of the afflicted dam…

Poor Abbott, having to pull himself up short, and put in a passage about the gentler prison keepers, who show some fellow feeling with their captives! Prison as a University where vice is learned was a moral or satiric topic before Abbott. The ever-insensitive John Taylor, writing a mock-encomium that appears to be serious about the benefits of prison alludes to the notion as a false one:

That Jails should be, there is Law, sense and reason,
To punish Bawdry, Cheating, Theft and Treason,

Though some against them have invective bin,
And cal’d a Jail a magazine of sin,
An University of Villainy,
An Academy of foul blasphemy,
A sink of drunkenness, a den of Thieves,
A Treasury for Sergeants and for Shreeves,
A Mint for Bailiffs, Marshall’s men and Jailors,
Who live by losses of captiv’d bewailers:
A Nurse of Roguery, and an earthly hell,
Where Devils or Jailers in men’s shapes doe dwell:
But I am quite contrary to all this…

(The praise and vertue of a iayle, and iaylers With the most excellent mysterie, and necessary vse of all sorts of hanging 1623)

I must check Milton editors on Alpheus, here a river not turned brackish when it flows into the sea, a miraculous resistance to losing purity. I wonder what poor Abbott wasn’t saying explicitly about himself?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The research assistant

(Ah well, it makes a change from writing crap on my computer.)
It is suggested that he looks like a webcam, connected (of course) by a USBeak cable.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Peeter and the wolf

The pamphlet A true discourse. Declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, a most wicked sorcerer who in the likenes of a woolfe, committed many murders

(1590) is relatively well known, and can be found faithfully transcribed in various places on the darker side of the internet. Stubbe (or Stumpf?) was in all likelihood a mass murderer, though the Wikipedia entry suggests the chance that he was victim of what has to be conceded would have amounted to an energetic smear campaign mounted by the new Catholic authorities, which represented a solid Protestant citizen as a mass-murderer, werewolf, cannibal, as infanticidal, and as a perpetrator of double incest and demoniality.

The full title places his killings near Cologne, and is interestingly informative about the transmission into England of this lurid narrative (and it is apparently only this English version that survives, the German original has been lost):

A true discourse. Declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, a most wicked sorcerer who in the likenes of a woolfe, committed many murders, continuing this diuelish practise 25. yeeres, killing and deuouring men, woomen, and children. Who for the same fact was taken and executed the 31. of October last past in the towne of Bedbur neer the cittie of Collin in Germany. Trulye translated out of the high Duch, according to the copie printed in Collin, brought ouer into England by George Bores ordinary poste, the xi. daye of this present moneth of Iune 1590. who did both see and heare the same.

Later on in the pamphlet, there’s the same desire to attest to the truth of this incredible and hideous story: a girl who survived one of Stubbe’s last attacks (in werewolf form) was saved by the high stiff collar of the coat she was wearing: “And that this thing is true, Maister Tice Artine a Brewer dwelling at Puddlewharfe, in London, being a man of that Country borne, and one of good reputation and account, is able to justify, who is near Kinsman to this Childe, and hath from thence twice received Letters concerning the same.”


Though I had seen references to the pamphlet, what I hadn’t gathered was that it is such a striking Faustus-variant: Peter Stubbe had sold his soul to the devil, in his case in exchange for the ability to kill with impunity. In his negotiation with the devil:

“this vile wretch neither desired riches nor promotion, nor was his fancy satisfied with any external or outward pleasure, but having a tyrannous hart, and a most cruel bloody mind, he only requested that at his pleasure he might work his malice on men, Women, and children, in the shape of some beast, whereby he might live without dread or danger of life, and unknown to be the executor of any bloody enterprise, which he meant to commit· The Devil who saw him a fit instrument to perform mischief as a wicked fiend pleased with the desire of wrong and destruction, gave unto him a girdle which being put about him, he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy devouring Wolf.”

Stubbe, at his arrest, and threatened by torture, was led into a double confession – a combination of the witch’s pact, and having been a werewolf as the benefit of that pact. His coerced story (and whatever was subsequently added to it by the pamphlet’s author) mixes two story types. I have not read Montague Summers’ werewolf book, but I am stuck by the way that in these German stories of such creatures, transformation from human to animal form is not under the influence of the moon, but by use of a diabolic girdle, a ‘wolf-strap’, or belt:

The werewolf has full volition, chooses when to take that shape and kill.

It also interests me that in this pamphlet of 1590, two years before the English Faust book, and four years before Roma Gill’s suggested first performance of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, what seems to be Marlovian language is being used. In the following extracts I highlight the ‘surfeit’ of sin, the ‘heavenly Helen’ who becomes his concubine – and it is also very striking that this sexual companion is so definitively explained as a ‘she devil’.

Stubbe Peeter, who from his youth was greatly inclined to evil, and the practising of wicked Arts even from twelve years of age till twenty, and so forwards till his dying day, insomuch that surfeiting in the Damnable desire of magic, negromancy, and sorcery, acquainting him self with many infernal spirits and fiends, insomuch that forgetting ye God that made him, and that Saviour that shed his blood for mans redemption: In the end, careless of salvation gave both soul and body to the devil for ever, for small carnal pleasure in this life, that he might be famous and spoken of on earth, though he lost heaven thereby…

… he so won the woman by his faire and flattering speech, and so much prevailed, yt ere he departed the house: he lay by her, and ever after had her company at his command, this woman had to name Katherine Trompin, a woman of tall and comely stature of exceeding good favour and one that was well esteemed among her neighbours. But his lewd and inordinate lust being not satisfied with the company of many Concubines, nor his wicked fancy contented with the beauty of any woman, at length the devil sent unto him a wicked spirit in the similitude and likeness of a woman, so faire of face and comely of personage, that she resembled rather some heavenly Hellin then any mortal creature, so far her beauty exceeded the cheifest sort of women, and with her as with his harts delight, he kept company the space of seven years, though in the end she proved and was found indeed no other then a she Devil.”

This unequivocally diabolic bedfellow, that resembles ‘some heavenly Helen’, perhaps shows how the Faustus story began to gravitate quickly towards the demonological witch paradigm. In the Faust book, Helen is a spirit conjured up by Faustus “which near had inflamed the hearts of the students, but that they persuaded themselves she was a Spirit, wherefore such fantasies passed away lightly with them” (Chapter 45). The author’s moralizing comment then points towards the concealed nature of this simulacrum: “Wherefore a man may see that the Divel blindeth and enflameth the heart with lust oftentimes, that men fall in love with Harlots, nay even with Furies, which afterward cannot lightly be removed”, but even in Chapter 55, where Faustus brings her back in the 23rd year of his pact, she is still not explicitly a devil. In this Faustus variant, Stubbe has to have committed demoniality like a witch, and in describing the beauty of the wicked spirit the devil sends him, the author thinks back to what was a latent meaning in the Faust book – and, perhaps, though the resemblances are not extensive or exceptionally idiosyncratic, recalls a portion of the play Christopher Marlowe was just maybe then writing piecemeal and showing around.

The pamphlet is completely vague about just how Stubbe’s third female companion was “proved and was found indeed no other then a she Devil”. I suppose that if it came up in his trial, it would have been a proof based on confession under threat. Supernatural things can be assumed to disappear readily enough: Stubbe’s girdle that allowed him to transform to animal shape (itself so like the magical bridle in The Late Lancashire Witches) is something he can’t show (or demonstrate!) in court, and that does get explained away: “which Girdle at his apprehension he confessed he cast it off in a certain Valley and there left it, which when the Magistrates heard, they sent to the Valley for it, but at their coming found nothing at all, for it may be supposed that it was gone to the devil from whence it came, so that it was not to be found. For the Devil having brought the wretch to al the shame he could, left him to endure the torments which his deeds deserved.”

My image comes from the Wikipedia, where members of the ‘Serial Killer Task Force’ are in dispute about this precise entry:

It shows the horrible mutilation, breaking on the wheel and beheading of Stubbe, his last attack (on the little girl in the high-collared coat), along with his daughter (partner in his alleged incest) and human mistress being burned alive. There is also a view of the special totem put up, with Stubbe’s head, his werewolf shape, the wheel on which he was broken, and sixteen pieces of wood dangling from in commemoration of his known victims.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sion's downfallen breaches

I have been reading Joanereidos, or, Feminine valour eminently discovered in western women, at the seige of Lyme, as well by defying the merciless enemy at the face abroad, as by fighting against them in Garrison towns, sometimes carrying stones, anon tumbling of stones over the works on the enemy, when they have been scaling them, some carrying powder, other charging of pieces to ease the souldiers, constantly resolved for generality, not to think any ones life dear, to maintain that Christian quarrel for the long Parliament : whereby, as they deserve commendations in themselves so they are proposed as example unto others : with marginal notes on the work, and several copies of verses by a club of gentlemen on this authors year and half work / by James Strong.

This poem in commemoration of the courage of the women of Lyme [Regis] during the royalist siege of the town in 1644 eventually got to the press thirty years later.

It has to be said that James Strong was a very bad poet. Here, he describes how the women in the godly town undergoing siege rebuilt the defences, if a breach was made in the fortifications:

“This Amazon-like train vows ne’r to stoop
Being fled from Venus unto Mars his troop,
Where they with tumors, tost, Truths standard bear,
And Sions downfaln breaches strive to rear:
They stop the gap themselves…”

His religious enthusiasm is very apparent (and his Dorset accent):

“A saint-like sort of Females as before,
Earths broad Horrison till now ne’re bore.
From heaven are fallen, O let’s not be dull
To write their worth whereof the West is full.
New natur’d are they and their grace divine,
Come let’s embalm their faces, and eke enshrine
Their worth with honour…”

By 1674, Strong was safely established as having been on the wrong side. The volume in which his wretched poem appeared is extraordinary, as it is prefixed by a long series of savage mock-commendatory poems, vilifying the godly versifier (in detail) as a wife-beater, and for his ignorance, ingratitude, smelly feet, etc. He is represented as a writer who “with a mouth brim-full / Of spumy froth spits praises on that sex”.

The mock-commendations appear in a full comedy of macaronic language: burlesque Chaucerian and parody medieval French, take-offs of West Country dialect, Scots, obscene Welsh, and Latin. In several places, the gentlemen poets are reminded of the fun that was had when Thomas Coriat was being ragged for his Crudities, which supplies the model for extensive mock-encomiastic verse about a text considered badly written, but this time round carried out with an odium heightened by Strong’s politics, and because his praise was directed at the courage of lower class women.

Strong’s poem, when you finally reach the text, is also given a facetious annotation:

“Doth noble Portia or Lucretia* strive
For chastity this praise us to deprive…

*A Popish Roman Dame that stabd her self for one Raph. See The Knight of the burning Pestle.

I quite like Lucrece as ‘Popish’ (because Roman), and the mock-reference to Beaumont’s comedy. Strong saw the besieged in Lyme as resisting the forces of the whore of Babylon, and annotator comments archly on his typically ill-considered phrasing:

“Who though the crimson whore** seek to deflowr,
And spoyl this Virgin vertue every hour.
Let each day testifie how they refuse
Her whorlsh proffers, and do rather choose

To sacrifice their blood to Christ their Bride,
Then with Romes Idols to be stuprifide.
This makes Romes beasts to foam with rage
'Cause we hold fast that knot of Marriage
With Christ our Husband, and will not defile
Our milk-white garments with his whoredoms vile.

** It seems this whore is an Hermophrodite else the feat could not be done.”

The courtier poet Sir Aston Cokain, in his A chain of golden poems embellished with wit, mirth, and eloquence : together with two most excellent comedies (1658) also has another stray mock commendation, very much in the same vein:

“As Coriate did exceed for writing Prose;
So thou for penning an Heroick Song
Dost all surpass; In meeter being James Strong...

Friday, January 09, 2009

Squandering the philosopher's stone

Searching EEBO for something else, I recently came back across Johann Joachim Becher’s Magnalia naturae, or, The philosophers-stone lately exposed to public sight and sale being a true and exact account of the manner how Wenceslaus Seilerus, the late famous projection-maker at the emperours court at Vienna, came by and made away with a very great quantity of pouder of projection by projecting with it before the emperour and a great many witnesses, selling it &c. for some years past / by John Joachim Becher : published at the request, and for the satisfaction of several curious, especially of Mr. Boyl &c. (1680).

Re-reading this work, purportedly written to gratify the interest of Robert Boyle (no less), I was again struck by its indeterminate genre. The ‘true and exact account’ reads truly and exactly like a tale of Baron Munchausen, or a winning entry in a lying contest. A fraudulent narrative from an author tainted with fraudulence, Magnalia naturae purports to be a narrative both from personal witness and personal inquiry, but has every air of a free-wheeling invention.

As the narrative tells it, the subject (or rather hero of this fiction), Friar Wenceslaus, was forced into the monastic life, and was determined to buy his way out. He hears his fellow monks speak of a treasure buried their monastery, learns the magic art from a cow-keeper’s wife, and acquires a magical ball of wax (which will roll towards any buried treasure) from a woman who doesn’t herself seem to have made any use of it. Wenceslaus recruits an older monk, already a cabalist, to help him try its effectiveness. When the magical ball of wax finally activates, it runs to a particular pillar. Well, they cannot demolish the church, but their luck holds, because an opportune tempest does. Inside the wrecked pillar they find a copper box, which they secretly carry away. To Wenceslaus’s disappointment, it only holds papers and four boxes of red powder. The narrator (whom we have to assume is Becher testifying to all this), intervenes at this point:
“he found a piece of Parchment, on which there was some Inscription and Writing: I once had a Copy of it, but I lost it amongst my other Letters … I do also remember, That amongst other Writings, there was this Motto, AMICE, TIBI SOLI, which I English thus, Friend, to thy self alone. Under this Parchment there were other Letters laid, marked with Characters, which contained Directions how to multiply the Powder, as the Inscription shewed: and under them there were four Boxes full of a red Powder.”

(He used to have a copy, but lost it! This careless narrator will soon forget that instructions for making more of the powder were included in the box, the rest of the story depends on Wenceslaus’ inability to produce any more.)

At the opening of the copper box, Wenceslaus does not himself recognize that this is the philosopher’s stone, something which was expected by alchemists to be a heavy and fragrant red powder, but the older monk does. To test it, a pewter plate is folded into a crucible, then a knife’s point of the powder added: “As soon as ever the Powder was cast in, the Pewter stood still, came to a suddain Congelation. Then the Fire was suffered to go out, and the Crucible to wax cold, which being broken, there was found a ponderous mass of Metals, very yellow and variegated with red lines”. A goldsmith later re-melts the mixture, and produces a small gold ingot, which he gladly buys for £20.

The older monk then becomes the first of a series of convenient deaths which enable the feckless Wenceslaus to get away from intellectually superior operators. He ends up being chased from state to state by princes who are each keen to secure permanently the cooperation of this veritable gold-egg-laying goose, by imprisonment if needs be. Though he is capable of using the powder to project gold, Wenceslaus cannot manage to augment his stock of the powder (despite the instructions on how to do just this), and is determined to hang on to what he has. At one point, a pushy crony he has acquired proposes that they feign inability to project gold so as to keep all the powder for themselves: “we may both be sheltred under the Continuance of the Emperors Protection, and yet we may keep the Tincture; And after the time designed for its augmentation is elapsed, we will easily devise some colorable Excuse, to evade it; as, That the Glass was broken, or some Error committed in the Operation. For, the Truth is, (said he) The Emperours Court is not worthy so great a Treasure; it will be Prostituted there and made common.”

This co-conspirator also dies, and so Wenceslaus does put himself under the protection of the Emperor (meant to be Leopold I). But he proves a troublesome artist-in-residence, and, having made a pest of himself, maneuvers to get his own separate quarters:

“In the mean time he both desired to be acquainted with some noted Chymists and eminent Artists, and several Imposters and Sophisters intruded themselves into his acquaintance, so that from thence resulted very frequent junketings, drinkings and merry meetings, and many foolish trifling Processes wrought by him; from whence F. Wenceslaus learned rather several cunning and subtil Impostures, than any real augmentation of his Pouder: But the noise & multitude of so many Importunate Visitants, being cumbersom at Court, where F. Wenceslaus had his Diet, under the severe inspection of Count Wallestein, he thereupon pretended, that he had occasion to make some sorts of Aqua Forts and other Menstruums, which would be dangerous to the whole Court, and cause such noysom Fumes and odious Smells, that they could not safely be prepared in that place; therefore a Laboratory was built for him, in the Carinthian Fort.”

For a while, Wenceslaus has it made, but he is spending lavishly, and his philosopher’s stone doesn’t seem to be capable of curing the venereal disease he also acquires:

“Fr. Wenceslaus being linked by Marriage into such a Family, did then fancy for a time, That all the Elements did conspire together to make him happy: for why? he was visited by Persons of the highest Rank, and withal was mightily respected by the most eminent Ladies, Countesses and Princesses: As for me, as Spectator of this Scene, I considered him in this Fools Paradise: Whilst it put me in mind of Cornelius Agrippa, who, in his Book of the Vanity of Sciences, under the Title of Alchymy, sayes, That if ever he should be Master of the Tincture, he would spend it all in nothing but in Whoring; for women being naturally covetous, he could thereby easily make them to prostitute themselves, and to yield unto his Lust. And it seems that not only F. Wenceslaus was so mighty a Proficient and so stout a Souldier in the School of VENUS, That he was brought very low by the French Disease, but also that his Wife Angerlee dyed of it. After whose decease Fr. Wenceslaus exceeded all Bounds of honest Modesty, and dayly let loose the Reins to all sinful and voluptuous excesses: for from that time he had obtained the Tincture, he spent in two or three years time more than Ten Myriads of Crowns, in all manner of Luxury: and he foresaw well enough, that it could not last and subsist long at that rate: for the Tincture would not maintain him. And to turn it into Gold, or sell it for a small price would turn to no Account, as he had alwaies hoped it would by Augmentation, and thereby to gain an inexhaustible Treasure.”

Still incapable of augmenting his powder, and running through his money, Wenceslaus ends up selling counterfeited versions. So, what is this work? It appears to be an entertaining fiction, pranked out with a collection of recognizable names. If Becher was really behind it, it might be an indirect explanation of how you might actually possess the philosopher’s stone, but still end up behaving like a charlatan and a trickster. This might have been a point Becher himself was sometimes pressed by circumstances to argue.

What is interesting is the close adjacency here of racy fiction: Wenceslaus is a picaro, a scapegrace hero always motivated by profit or women. He has no expertise, he is just a survivor. Like Epicure Mammon, possession of the long sought philosopher’s stone means only augmented power to buy sex.