Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The great mistress of yon princely shrine

I am not overjoyed to discover that the latest version of Firefox and Blogger do not seem to get on: I have swapped templates, but none of them make post-titles visible except when you click through to the individual post rather than the blog as a whole; settings to alter type-colours are all defunct. All seems to be well for Internet Explorer, though.

Anyway, on my way to give a talk at the Merchant Taylors’ School this last week, I got lucky and coincided at Hatfield Church with a local historical society, who had one of the churchwardens opening up what would otherwise have been a locked building.

The church features in Simon Jenkins’ indispensable guide to the thousand best churches for its array of family monuments: largely from the Newdigate family, but at the right of the altar is this flamboyant tomb of Milton’s ‘rural queen’, Alice Spencer, Countess of Derby.

This lady’s long, and socially eminent life (1559-1637) had so many literary connections that you could shape an M.A. course or a doctorate about her. Her first husband was Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, patron of Nashe and of the Lord Strange’s Men: there’s your Shakespeare connection. Through her second husband, Lord Chancellor Egerton, and her middle and youngest daughters, Frances Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (1583–1636) and Lady Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (bap. 1587, d. 1633), there were links to John Donne.

But her strongest connections were of course with Milton: she was the focus of compliment in ‘Arcades’ (‘kiss her sacred vesture’s hem’, the masquers are enjoined), and her second daughter, Frances, as Countess of Bridgewater, presided in 1634 over the first performance of ‘Comus’, watching three of her children in the main roles.

But ‘Comus’ brings us to the thought of Anne, the eldest daughter (1580–1647). The tomb of her mother mentions that Anne first married the splendidly named Grey Bridges, Earl of Chandos, and so was Anne Bridges, Lady Chandos, but after his death in 1621 she then in 1624 she made what the ODNB tends to understate as “a disastrous marriage” with Mervin Touchet, second Earl of Castlehaven (1593–1631).

We all know why the tomb does not advertise this second marriage: from the very start of the marriage Lord Castlehaven set about her sexual corruption, and then that of her daughter by her first marriage, the thirteen year old Elizabeth (1614/15–1679), who was married to Castlehaven’s son James in 1628. Castlehaven’s insane hostility to his own heir saw him contrive to have Elizabeth debauched by his servants, so that his son’s heir might be fathered by another man (and so be ‘the spurious seed of a varlet’).
(Anne, Frances and Elizabeth, left to right, beneath their mother's bier)

Louis A. Knafla sums up Alice Spencer’s life rather mildly as that of “an independent woman who dedicated her life to bringing up her children and grandchildren, often in tragic circumstances, the countess pursued the cultural life with zest, striving to attain the highest standards of an Elizabethan woman in an age of declining moral values.” On the other hand, writing the ODNB life of Egerton, J. H. Baker writes that his marriage to “the beautiful and wealthy dowager countess of Derby must have seemed a good match …However, she was haughty, profligate, greedy, and ill-tempered, and added greatly to her husband's burdens for the last seventeen years of his life. ‘I thank God I never desired long life’, wrote Egerton in 1610, ‘nor ever had less cause to desire it than since this, my last marriage, for before I was never acquainted with such tempests and storms.’ ”

Leaving aside this disagreement about the Countess’s personality and spending habits, in Hatfield Church, you look at the (yes, rather lavish) final resting place of a very cultured woman whose daughter and grand-daughter were subjected to appalling sexual abuse. I wondered what could be read in the monument, if anything.

The first obvious thing is that Alice is alone. Of her unhappy second marriage there is a mention on a back wall, possible added later by one of the locally swarming Newdigates, for it emphasises Egerton’s connection to that family. But she had long survived him, and there is no side-by-side fiction of their union. In ‘Arcades’, she is more or less represented as a still-surviving version of Queen Elizabeth (‘Mark what radiant state she spreads, / In circle round her shining throne’), and her image here takes the 75 year old female aristocrat back to her prime. I think that her costuming is also ‘historical’: that farthingale cart wheel is very 16th century. Her hair is worn undressed, copious in length and waves (Milton would have approved). I understand this as the style allowed to the unmarried woman, to the virgin. Queen Elizabeth apparently would appear with her hair down, even in her later years, as an intermittent reminder of her very special status. On the side of the tomb, Elizabeth, Frances, and, poignantly perhaps only to our eyes, Anne, share their mother’s style, each in their arched alcove with streaming hair.

None of this explains the real mystery about the monument: that the baldachin, with its splendid tied-back drapery, looks to have been designed as a canopy for a kneeling effigy. But the Countess lies at full length, her feet projecting out towards the altar, with the arcaded catafalque beneath. I could not see any evidence of two parties to the design having failed to communicate: it rather seems just to have been a design compromise prompted by the proximity of the altar.

The unresolved problem with the design imparts a kind of tension to the structure as a whole, a grand design not quite achieved, the medieval colliding with the baroque. The main source of tension, though, is that regular feature of these composite monuments: the presence of lots of stone that is just that, stone, used architecturally, and stone which has been carved to represent soft and yielding things: skin, hair, cushions, drapery, clothes, ermine. The yielding, represented by the (or as) unyielding. The elderly woman, and her married daughters, either those dynastically triumphant or blighted by a man’s corruption, all as virgins. A devout prone posture which lingers on in a design which really invites the Countess to raise herself at least part way up. The catafalque, with its black drapes and canopy, is like a state bed, with the Countess’s feet jutting towards the altar. I know I am over-reading this, but mutely, it looks as though the lower body seeks its blessing.

The guide does not specify when the monument was so exuberantly re-painted and gilded.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Kannus and quobdas: with the Lapland witches

‘Nor uglier follow the Night-Hag, when call'd
In secret, riding through the Air she comes
Lur'd with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland Witches, while the labouring Moon
Eclipses at thir charms…’

‘Then to work,
To work, my pretty Laplands: pinch, here scratch,
Do that within, without we’ll keep the watch…’

From high literature, and from a popular theatre entertainment, two examples of the many references to ‘Lapland witches’ in early modern English literature. These are from Paradise Lost, and The Late Lancashire Witches. I have finally got round to looking at the 1658 translation of Olaus Magnus, and the later, and far more sober account in Johannes Scheffer’s The History of Lapland in its 1674 translation, so as to see what those Lapland ‘witches’ were up to.

My two images, as Scheffer expounds, are actually of the same basic scene. In the 1555 woodcut (the whole splendid array of cuts in the original edition are web-posted here
the shaman (‘magician’, or ‘witch’) lies on his back on the floor. Behind him, a metalworker’s hammer and anvil can be discerned. It has a serpent wrapped round it, or just struck by the hammer, against it is what is meant to be a frog. A woman who is probably meant to be the shaman’s wife presides: Schaffer explains that once a magician has gone into his trance, those accompanying him will not let even a fly or gnat land upon him. The shaman can be understood to be travelling in spirit to another country, and his trance will go on correspondingly longer, according to the distance from which news is sought. He will bring back some small items that validate his having genuinely been elsewhere.

When we turn to the excellent images in Scheffer (and the images in the book are to a very high standard), we have the same kind of séance represented, but in a way a modern anthropologist would applaud. Scheffer was sent from Sweden to report on the Laps, and not come back with any hearsay and old tales. The shaman or witch is shown on the right beating his divinatory ‘kannus’ or ‘drum’ (Olaus Magnus termed it an anvil) with a little hammer of reindeer horn. The rune drum was not played for music, but tapped to set into motion a ‘quobdas’ or ‘arpa’, an ‘index’ – it is translated. This is a ring or other shape of copper or other metal, which moves by the vibrations from one of a selection of starting points on the drum head. For instance, a reading for the success of a hunt would set off with the index placed over the sun symbol. The course it takes (in directions which are themselves significant) leads to it passing over the many images painted in alder bark dye (or blood) on the skin. It is the same principle as the planchette or ouija board. A rightwards vibratory rotation of the ring was a good omen, while from the overall movement of the index, the shaman might deduce which direction game may best be found on a hunt, and from the symbols it crosses as it moves, discover the outcomes of illnesses, and the most acceptable sacrifice to the god who is causing a difficulty. From these observations, action can be taken to promote a cure or some other remedy. Schaffer gives several examples of the symbolic designs: a lateral division will separate off the gods (Thor, Storjanker and their attendants) from the world, with maybe a lesser rank for the Christian God and his son. Other aerial things occupy this celestial upper portion, below are terrestrial things: symbols of different nations, geographical features, various animals, always with a lot of reindeer.

At some point, the shaman, assisted by those chanting around him, entered a trance state. No hallucinogens are mentioned in the text. He then arranged himself face down, with his drum drawn up near his head, while assistants kept up their chant, and looked after his physical body. The early woodcut gets the posture for trance wrong, and literalised the variety of animal names which were apparently given to the moving quobdas: serpent, frog, toad, etc, for it was symbolic of one of a set of animals thought auspicious for divination.

The divinatory instrument and its ancillary equipment was very carefully made and looked after. For the hollowed wood, the root stem of a tree with a right to left spiral up its bark was chosen. The finished item was, when not in use, kept wrapped up in the skin of a loon, and was never to be approached or touched by (particularly) any unmarried woman. To let such a thing happen risked the operator’s health. It would even be carried along paths such women were meant never to take, unless they appeased the rune drum with a gift. Scheffer is frustrated that he has not been able to discover the particular designs and ceremonies for malignant magic: “Impairing mens health, or depriving them of their lives; which is frequently enough practised among them, tho not so publicly as heretofore”. He says that contemporary shamans now considered this the only unlawful use of their magical method; no-one will disclose to him how they operated to hurt or kill.

Scheffer was reporting on a very old, and dying tradition: “In these latter times they do not so frequently practise this, and dare not profess it so publicly as before, being severely prohibited by the King of Sweden”. We can see how witch stereotypes were imposed on the Sami practices: Schaffer says spirit familiars were bequeathed to children, the earlier woodcut is decorated with zoomorphs out of depictions of pacted witches.

Scheffer reports of Lapland that “Diverse of the Inhabitants are almost naturally Magicians”, but like J K Rowling’s ‘squibs’, not all could practise with any success: “The Laplanders do not all agree in the same disposition, so neither do they arrive to the same perfection in this art. For some are so stupid and dull, that howsoever they may seem qualified for other employments, they prove altogether unfit for this.”

“Here it is indeed, where, rather than in America, we have a new World discovered”, says the preface to the 1674 translation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Exorcisms and conjuring tricks: Lancashire, c.1650

Seventeenth century Lancashire seems to have been regarded as a reliable source of supernatural follies. Ben Jonson has Satan tell the naïve devil Pug (in The Devil is an Ass) that he might cope adequately with being the diabolic familiar of some Lancashire witch, but street-wise London is out of the question.

I have been looking at Zachary Taylor’s The devil turn'd casuist, or, The cheats of Rome laid open (1696), obviously a late 17th century text, but it contains an anecdote dated back by the author to the mid-century. It concerns that time-honoured device for high-pressure proselytizing, an exorcism. The Catholic priest conducting the exorcism wanted to put on a good show, and seems to have been willing to help things along a little: it came down to a conjuring trick, with misdirection of the audience, and an accomplice.

Who bungled it:

“Between 30 and 40 years ago I am told there was another Exorcism as this, in the same place, for it is a Nest of Papists. And when the Devil was to go out, he said he would have a living soul with him, which frighted the poor People sadly, and made them Sweat and Sigh, not knowing whom he would have. But the Priest manfully withstood him, and would not suffer him to touch any Soul there. This was a little comfort to them. Then the Devil would have some other living Creature, a Cock or Hen, &. But the Priest thought that too good a Morsel for the Devil, and would not allow it him. In short the Priest would allow him nothing but three broken pieces of a Tobaco-pipe, which he laid upon a Trencher on the Table, and when he went, he was to take them, as a sign of his Departure. When the minute was at hand, the Priest makes a bustle, and cries out now He comes, He comes, He comes, &c. and by this means (which is right Leger-de-main) calls the People’s eyes from off the Trencher to the Demoniack, and an hand came behind over the Table, and catch’d at the pieces of the Pipe, but unluckily got but two, the third slipping off the Trencher, which a Protestant took up. And when the Priest told them that they might know by what they saw that the Devil was gone out. Yes saith the Protestant perhaps he is, but he is better than his word, for he hath left one piece of his pipe behind him, and here it is. This I had from a neighbouring Clergy-man, who is rector of the Parish where the person lived that took up the Pipe, and who had it from his own Mouth.”

The set-up here was to have the fragments of pipe stem seem to have disappeared as evidence of the departure of the exorcised devil. There’s a parallel in the exorcisms reported from 1696. The demoniac is named as Thomas Ashton, a weaver from the parish of Wigan. In his case, the signal of the devil’s departure was that one of the diamond-shaped panes of glass (a ‘quarrel’) in the window would vanish. But the exorcists realise that they have too much attention fixed on the window from the very people they want to convert, the local Protestants. Nor do they seem to have a notion of misdirecting attention at the crucial instant, so they abandon the plan:

All the People, especially the Protestants cast their eyes upon the Window, and the Quarrel out of which he was to go, and take it with him. But whether the peoples eyes being fixt upon the Quarrel might make them apprehensive, that they would discover the Trick by discerning how the quarrel was conveyed away (for the priests Elbows were often very near it: but whether it was this or something else I know not; but neither the Devil nor the quarrel went.”

This particular exorcism did not run smoothly: the weaver Ashton had been primed with some Latin, but the attempted impressive execration of the devil in the learned tongue faltered when the priest himself forgot the Latin for a toad, and had to be prompted by a spectator, while another Protestant observer, getting drawn in, enthusiastically joined in with speaking to the devil in Latin: he wanted to see the devil’s tongue (actually blackened either by dye or thumb pressure, says Taylor), and cried out ‘Verte ad me’, ‘Turn towards me!’, which Ashton did not understand, and ignored.

The pamphlet runs together various follies of this kind. In this final story, a Mrs Ditchfield is the target for conversion, and the fake demoniac is a maid servant called Alice Pennington, a convert and a willing (if rather giggly and transparent) accomplice. A ‘good understanding Protestant’, William Smith, sets about demonstrating that what seems wonderful in the possessed maid is less remarkable when performed with equal aptitude by himself:

“in a little time they gained upon her (Mrs Ditchfield), and she began to tell Mr Smith of the virtue of the Holy-Water, and what strange effects it wrought on the Demoniack, of which she could desire that he might be a witness; and so to the Maid they went, and she sprinkled Holy-Water in her face, and the Maid spit at her, Oh (saith she) do not you see what a strange power is in the Holy-Water? Yes (saith Mr. Smith) and pray will you try it upon me; and with some persuasions she was prevail’d with to make the Experiment on him, and she flung Holy-Water on his face, and he spit in her face; and she flung again, and he spit again, what do you mean saith she; O what Strange power saith he, is there in this Holy-Water, but Dear Mrs, saith he, do you not plainly see that all this is only to delude and abuse you, I am heartily sorry for you; she made him no reply, for they had now prevail’d upon her.”

(Image from Histoires prodigieuses et memorables, 1598Slide 64)