Friday, September 25, 2009

Bishop Foxe's 'Ding-dong the witch is dead' moment

I am swapping my ISP at the moment, and my access to Blogger here has been patchy. A scholar called Sue Ward sent me an interesting comment on a posting I did about William Lilly. I can’t get it out of my old inbox into ‘Blogger’ at the moment, I’d be grateful for the chance of another try now I have changed my primary email (and Blogger seems to know who I am again).

Amidst all this, a short post: an anecdote about John Foxe, the martyrologist, being tipped off by the Holy Spirit that his exile is over, Mary Tudor having died. It must be 1558, and (if this ever did take place), it might have happened in Basle. Foxe got home in 1559. Atwell says:

‘Whether is it possible or whether is it lawful for one to tell of one that died this very hour 100 miles off. This is not a foretelling, but an aftertelling, but such a one as exceeds the common apprehension of man. If you say it is impossible, I prove it thus, I teaching a School at Hitchin in Hartfordshere, about anno 1634 where amongst others, I teaching three of one Mr. Christopher Butlers children of Stapleford near Hartford, who inviting me to keep my Christmas with them, I being there discoursing with his wife, a godly Gentlewoman, she told me she was the famous Doctor Foxes grand-child, that wrote the Book of Martyrs, and withal told me this story of him, that he being beyond Sea at the time of the death of Queen Mary as he was preaching, about the midst of his Sermon he stood still a pretty while and paused, insomuch that the people marveled, by and by he stands up, and utters these words: My Brethren, I can do no less then impart unto you what the Spirit of God hath now revealed to me, that this very hour Queen Mary is dead in England, and so it proved.’

George Atwell, An apology, or, Defence of the divine art of natural astrologie (1652)

It’s like John Donne in Paris, knowing that his child has died. I suppose Foxe would have been kept apprised of the state of Bloody Mary’s health. Perhaps one day he did suddenly become convinced that the nightmare was all over.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Holy Shittlington! Great ball of fire, 1628

The following rather spectacular anecdote of ball lightning occurs in An apology, or, Defence of the divine art of natural astrologie being an answer to a sermon preached in Cambridge, July 25, 1652. ... / written by the learned and ingenious mathematician, Mr. George Atwell; and now published by a friend (1660).

Atwell is answering the objection made to astrology to the effect that the stars were simply made by God as an ornament. He confutes this idea by telling the story of what he clearly believes to be a star – a fiery sphere – let loose for some inscrutable diving purpose in Bedfordshire, in the village of Shithlington (it used to be Shittington, and has become present-day Shillington):

“Or was that Star of fiery Foot-ball what to call it I know not, that came July the 25, 1628 to Shithington in Bedfordshire, the young men having appointed a Match at Foot-ball with Luton, and to meet in the midway to get together, they goe to ring, in the midst of their zeale comes this Star, first up a narrow lane to the Churchyard, where it overthrew a little Maid named Hester, but did her no harm: it comes unto the Churchporch where it overthrows on Mr. Malineux, and took the ring off his finger, it goes into the Church where Mr. Parrat the Minister was praying at the corner of the Mid-alley, it past him and did him no harm, it goes into the Belfree, layes dead every one of the Ringers, it strikes against the wall and breakes to pieces, whereon fell such thunder, rain, and lightning as I never heard before: the first that came to live again, was one Kitchiner a Shoemaker & kindsman of mine, all recovered save one Deare that made the Foot-ball, who never revived, was this Star an ornament either to heaven or earth. I think all the paper in the town will not hold what I can say for it, if time and meanes would serve.”

The event did not go without other notice:

“I heare of two barnes fired by lightning, and burned down, near wetherfield; as also a confirmation of ye miraculous lightning in Shithlington, in Bedfordshire, and ye consequents thereof, which you have ere this heard of.” This was the pro-astrology divine Robert Gell, writing from Christ’s College. August 9, 1628 to Sir Martyn Stuteville, in a letter preserved in The Autobiography and correspondence of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Bart. The editor, J. O. Halliwell, refers to a ballad about the event, which I haven’t myself seen: ‘In the Bodleian Library is a curious contemporary ballad, entitles ‘Strange and wonderful news from Bedfordshire, being a true relation of the wonderful judgement of God shown at Shithington, &c’

Ann Geneva, without quoting the whole passage, makes a joke about it in a footnote to her book on Lilly, along the lines of the star being sent by God to uphold ‘The Booke of Sports’. But there is nothing here to indicate that it was a Sunday, and

indicates that 25th July 1628 was a Friday. The ball lightning doesn’t harm the footballers, floats off towards the church, knocking over the little girl and Mr Malineux, leaving the minister unscathed as he prays, but then in the belfry, causes all the bell-ringers to fall down as if dead, and one of them apparently does not recover. That he was the man who made the football takes us back to the first sighting. But it hardly makes an argument for divine pleasure or displeasure at football. It was certainly more hazardous to be in church than in the ‘ring’ (interesting expression) for football.

As far as I can tell, that great bell-ringer and pious man of Bedfordshire, John Bunyan, does not mention this. It happened in the year of his birth, but the story might have cropped up locally, as Bunyan debated with his newly tender conscience whether bell-ringing was a vain activity (Grace Abounding, paragraphs 33 and 34).

Nor do any of the many sites about ball lightning discuss this early exam, though they do get the disaster in the church at Widecombe, discussed by me here at:,_Bedfordshire

My image is of the overthrow of Professor Tarragon in the Tintin adventure, The Seven Crystal Balls. My resident authority points out to me that Hergé used this motif twice, here extensively, but as a wild deus ex machina in the earlier adventure, The Broken Ear (where one comes down the chimney and blasts a bound-up Tintin out of a window just as he is about to be shot).

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.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A London marriage gone sour, 1652

My anecdote for the week comes from a newsletter, Thomas White’s Mercurius Heraclitus, or, The weeping philosopher, sadly bemoaning the distractions of the times 28th June 1652, pp. 4-5. I do not think it has come to the notice of the social historians, but is a salient example of an early modern marriage quickly going sour, and the misery of the ‘cuckold’ husband in that society. White is of course engaged in deploring the state of things, in a tattling kind of way.

We are in that insalubrious London suburb of ‘Pickt-Hatch’:

“at the signe of the Blue-Bottle a Pastry-Cooks, where James Jeanes, a Wine-Cooper, whose wife drew the Beer, desperately hang’d himself in the Cellar; the reason of it being the evil of his wife, who lov’d a Souldier that would upbraid him to his face, That he had as much use of his wife as he himself, which thing being known and reported abroad, made some scoffers to jear and point at him, which infamy he could not well bear, therefore he took upon him a deep melancholy, which for want of a true fear of God, brought him to desperation: The day before he did this ungodly deed, he walkt out all day, but could not find opportunity to do it (as being asham’d the light should behold so black a deed) till at night coming home late, he deferred his going to bed, and in the morning early was found hanging in the Cellar not then cold; his wife being called, and told that her husband had hanged himself, made answer, That he should hang long enough there before she would come to cut him downe, and lay still, but which was most observable; she passed by [ ] he hung in the Cellar all the day long to draw Beer without any the least sign of sorrow.

Not above seven or eight weeks before, she buried her husband, one Thomas Lee; he coming home one day sick, she would needs turn Doctor, and made him such a Potion as sent him the next day to his grave, and within a short time after she married this Jeanes which hath since hang’d himself for the reasons before mentioned.”

That’s a pretty high turnover of husbands – one more or less accidentally poisoned, and his successor treated with contempt after the suicide she has caused, and all within a couple of months.

Pickt Hatch is mentioned everywhere in early modern texts as a locale where brothels were situated. In Robert Davenport’s A new tricke to cheat the Divell, 1639, Slightall, a lecherous young man given to reciting chunks of Ovid lists the usual places to find a prostitute:

Slightall. Roger?

Roger. Sir.

Sightall. Provide me a good lusty Lasse to night,
I purpose to be merry.
Roger. Sir, not I.

Slightall. I care not of what humour, face, or feature,
So thou canst find one impudent enough;
Search all the Allyes, Spittle, or Pickt-hatch,
Turnball, the Banke side, or the Minories,
White Fryers, St. Peters Street, and Mutton Lane,
So thou canst find one to disgrace her sexe,
She best shall please my Pallat.

Returning to the callous Mistress Jeanes, my maternal grandmother, Jenny Mather, had relatives who lived at Spring Bank Row, Unstone, near Sheffield. The husband drank, and came to the point when he said that he was going to hang himself in the barn. His wife stood outside the barn with a shotgun, to prevent anyone interfering with this admirable endeavour on his part. But when she finally allowed entry, thinking the deed must have been done, he was merely dead drunk on the floor.

My image is a view of London rather unfamiliar to me, from Giles Godet, The city of London, as it was before the burning of St. Pauls ste[eple] 1565