Thursday, April 22, 2010

Swan-songing: Thomas Sheafe defends old age, at least in men

Thomas Sheafe’s Vindiciae senectutis, or, A plea for old-age which is senis cujusdam Cygnea cantio (1639) is in some ways a charming work. The very distinguished William Gouge explains in his generous address to the “Courteous Reader, Young or old, Here is presented to thee by an Old-Man past his great climactericall yeare, a Treatise of OLD AGE, indited and penned by one who hath attained to those yeares whereunto hee who attaineth is accounted Wondrous old, and dedicated to him that hath almost attained to those yeares beyond which there is no ordinary reckoning.” 

Gouge has entered into the foot-notey spirit of the whole work, and his notes on the passage just cited explain that he is himself past 63 (he was 64), that Sheafe the author was prebendary of Windsor and rector of Welford, and 80 years old, while his dedicatee, Dr Laurence Chaderton was a centenarian (his dates in his ODNB entry are given as 1536?–1640).

Gouge commends Sheafe’s choice of dedicatee as highly appropriate: “most wisely hath he made choice of a very fit Patron, who notwithstanding his exceeding great Old-Age, and the small characters in which this Treatise was written, read it without spectacles, and with no lesse perspicacie of judgement then of sight, gave his approbation thereof.” And he adds a graceful note of his own: “I heartily thanke the Author (my Ancient good Tutor, to whom for all the good I received in Kings College Cambridge, under God, I owe all the praise) this Author I heartily thanke for vouchsafing to communicate to his unworthy Pupill these his labours.”

Gouge is aware that his old tutor had a particularly hard act to follow: “There is a Treatise of OLD-AGE of old time written by the purest Latinist that ever spake, or wrote: for the elegancy of stile, for the solid matter of that Treatise, and for many other ornaments wherewith it is decked, it hath ever beene highly accounted of, and learned in most Grammar schooles.” He refers to Cicero’s de senectute, but he makes the point that Sheafe has at least the advantage of being a Christian minister: “yet as farre as divine learning excells humane, as farre as a judicious Divine may goe before a learned Philosopher, so farre is this Treatise here tendred to thee, to be preferred before that”.

Gouge treats Sheafe gently: it was apparently his former tutor’s only publication. But it’s not a very remarkable book, in truth. There’s the odd striking citation: “Socrates was wont to say, that to Old-men death stands before them continually in their sight; but to young- men hee lurks behind, that unawares he may come upon them, as an enemy that lies in ambush.”

Sheafe deals with the main downside to old age, proximity to death, by referring that proximity to prior intemperance:
“The third part of my answer remaines: which retorts the fault (if it be one) of Old-ages being so neere to death, upon the true cause of it: viz. mens intemperance, and disorder in the former part of their life.”

Here’s presbyopia moralised:

“An Old-man sees better a farre off then a younger. So by the inward eyes of his minde, he reaches further then the other, both backward through experience, and forward by providence and forecast.”

Largely, it’s written in a vein of unexceptionable piety:

“Againe, touching our apprehension of Gods promises, which concerne our salvation, is it not most eager and ardent, most hungring and thirsting in elder yeares, when the good fight is fought, and the race neere runne? yes certainely. Wee may have an eye before to the promised inheritance, and to the recompence of reward with Moses: but then, in Old-age, obuijs ulvis, with reached forth armes we embrace it. Then, Come Lord Jesu: then our hand is on it, as it were: then we say with aged St. Paul, Now hence forth is layed up for mee, &c. Then we earnestly endeavour to that which is before us, and more neere us, pressing hard towards the marke: then with old Simeon, we resigne our selves to God, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart, &c.”

But the thing which I just knew was going to happen in this little work duly did: here’s an extract from the index:

  • Great things done by Old-men, p 13.
  • Old-men must thinke of their former failings, p. 208.
  • Old-mens abilities in the graces of the mind, p. 19.
  • Old men of best use in peace, p. 29.
  • Old-men best Generalls in warre, page 31.
  • Old-men best counsellors for warre, p. 32.
  • Old men not so fit for the Pulpit as young, page 37.
  • Old men worthy Governors of families, p 45
  • Old-men best furnished for writing, p 41.
  • Old-men fittest to cast up their accounts, p 48
  • Old-men best apprehend Gods promises, p. 49
  • Old mens motion to heaven the strongest, p. 50
  • Old-mens care for others good, p. 106.
  • Old-men best use wealth, p. 108.
  • Old-men not covetous, p. 110.
  • The ground of Old-mens parsimony, p. 111.
  • Old-men warre, p. 112.
  • Old-men long for better times, p. 112.
  • Old-men why hard to please. p. 113.
  • Old-men praisers of former times, p. 113.
  • Old-men just reprovers, p. 113.
  • Old-men most think of their former failings, page 208.
  • Old men see how former yeares might have beene better imployed, p. 203.
  • Old-men must looke backe to their former passages, p. 206.
And entries for ‘old women’? None, of course none. This game, well-meaning, and devout little book completely ignores their existence. Completely: old age can be commended in men, it seems, but not in women.

Younger women do feature, and again, to predictable effect in our old moralist:
“The most delightfull object of the eye, to a voluptuous man, is the favour and beauty of a woeman, a peece of well fashioned and coloured clay. Yet is favour deceitfull and beauty vanity. which caused Job to make a covenant with his eyes, to bind him not to thinke of a maide. And David prayes, Psal. 119. 37. That his eyes may be turned away from beholding vanity. The eye to many is a very Pandor.”

Though he so resoundingly ignores women, Sheafe does at one point digress onto the topic of breast-feeding:

“I cannot but blame the indiscreet peremptorinesse of some, who doubt not to make this a generall rule or Maxim, that God never makes the wombe fruitfull, and the brest barren: and thereupon stick not to conclude, that no woman may put forth her childe to nurse …

… Yet it cannot be denied, that there are many cases in which the mother not onely may refuse this office (which in it selfe is most naturall, I confesse, and lies neerely upon her) but is a cruell mother to her child (to say nothing of her selfe) if shee doe otherwise: for what weaknesse, and how many deseases may bee derived from a mother (in some cases, I say, and of some constitutions) to the child, to its utter overthrow, and undoing? and besides, it is not true that the mothers breasts are never dry: nor that there can be no other thing, that may justly excuse her refusing to be a nurse. But I leave the digression, having but occasionally and by the way fallen upon it.”

But actually, the old dear is taking a pop at the writer of that letter of commendation in his own work, William Gouge, and his Of domestical duties (1622-27-34). Gouge weighed up the evidence, and was quite firm in his decision:
“God hath giuen to women two breasts fit to containe and hold milke: and nipples unto them fit to haue milke drawne from them. Why are these thus giuen? to lay them forrth for ostentation?”

But this was not a matter two senior Presbyterians could fall out about (for I assume that Sheafe would have shared a view of the church with Chaderton and Gouge).

Gouge was a far, far superior writer and moral thinker about human life. In his introduction here, Gouge does rather adroitly note that God, after all, is old, and white-haired:
“For God himselfe is stiled (Dan. 7. 9.) the Ancient of daies, and the haire of his head is said to be like pure wooll, that is white, not spotted, not stained, not soiled: such as the haire of Old-men useth to be. In allusion hereunto, S. Hierom saith, that the haire of the Ancient of daies is described to bee white, that length of daies may be declared thereby.”

Gouge is known these days to the social historians. Here’s his prime argument in relation to whether husbands may beat their wives:
Quest. May not then an husband beat his wife?
Answ. With submission to better judgements, I thinke he may not: my reasons are these.
1. There is no warrant thorowout the whole Scripture.”

And here’s Gouge on abusive parenting, speaking first to the prejudices of his own age, but then bravely saying the unsayable:

“When parents bring vp their children in vnwarrantable and vnlawfull callings, as to be of popish and idolatrous orders; to attend vpon papists; to be stage-plaiers, keepers of dice-houses, &c. Some (which is horrible to thinke of) traine vp their daughters to be common strumpets: and some (which is yet more horrible) traine vp their children to be sorcerers and witches …

… But what may be said of those that are so hellishly enamoured with their children as to commit incest or buggery with them?”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the beauty of the lilies

No, not Updike's novel, but yesterday I went in search, very locally, of the Loddon Lilly or, more commonly, 'Summer Snowflake'. Flora Britannica describes the quest exactly: "South of Sandford Mill, the river-edge (i.e., of the Loddon) grows wilder. There are bigger, taller stands of snowflake growing among marsh marigolds under the trees. Follow their trail through the dark alders and nettles, and you enter a quite different habitat, a shifting, humid swamp, caked with a flood wrack of willow branches and leaf litter. And amongst this debris are sheaves upon sheaves of snowflakes, in patches sometimes hundreds of yards square. It is an astonishing sight, but an inhospitable place, and not one likely to tempt an early botanist (Richard Mabey means here, 'one of the early botanists') in a wet April".

This in the context of a dispute as to how such a eye-catching flower escaped all notice until the late 18th century, when it seems to have been described by William Curtis: is it native, or a garden escape? Mabey thinks that the plant is native, and highly particular in its natural habitat (though it is now a common garden plant able to put up with more or less anything).

All I can say is that these stands of the Loddon Lily are protected by outerworks of fast growing stinging nettles, full of spring potency. In a few days from now, I would not have been able to see them in number, unless I had Wellington boots on against the mud and nettles.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Those pistol-packing Romans: Richards' "Messalina", 1640

Some work by one of my postgraduate students led me to read Nathaneal Richards’s The tragedy of Messallina the Roman emperesse, 1640. The passage in the page image above is the most rewarding moment. Our author ushers his text to the press with an array of dedicatory poems complimenting him on successfully writing such a chaste and inoffensive play about such an unchaste woman. Throughout his text, the author supplies footnote quotations, often for the naughtier moments of his play, deploying pieces of choice Latinity as a fig-leaf for his own inevitable sensationalism. So, the empress’s context with a prostitute as to who can take on most men in a night features in the play (Messalina winning her bet with a total of 25, to the disgust of the bawd Veneria, whose contestant Calphurnia has lost her 10,000 sesterces), and it gets its substantiating quotation from Pliny.

But here Richards manages in a single opening to quote Tacitus (bottom right), and yet have his Roman empress enter with a pistol to threaten Silius (top left). The situation is that Silius opened the play as a virtuous-minded man (he was even reading a book, not itself an entirely Roman moment ). However, as soon as he sees Messalina, he succumbs. She is forcing him to kill his wife:

Silius kneels.
Desist faire beauties abstract, I implore;
Spur me not on to murders horrid act
Which I shall ever rue; let it suffice,
I’m only yours, never Syllana’s more;
Sworn a perpetual exile from her bed.
Exit Messalina.
Vanished so soon, how wondrous strange seems this?

Enter Messallina with a Pistol.

Death and destruction satisfy my will
Or take’t in thy bosom, I’m intemperate
Briefly resolve.
But I protract delay, there’s danger in’t;
Video meliora, proboque, deteriora Sequor.
Never was man so infinitely
Bewitcht; charm’d, and inchanted as is Caius
Silius, to leave a constant wife; farewell,
We must part…

The Latin tag is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Richards has his pistol-toting Romans occasionally given to using a bit of Latin. The effect is disconcerting:

What saies our Roman phrase,
Si non letaris vivens laetabere nanquam?

Of course, hunting out anachronisms in a 16th-17th century play is always easy (Richard’s Romans also play tennis). These dramatists did not worry about such things. But a pistol is so egregious an error, in an age which considered the printing press and gunpowder to be two great inventions that distinguished their time from the past, that I wondered what led Richards so far.


My first thought was that he was being deliberately anachronistic, to trigger the audience into seeing his play in contemporary terms. I thought of Richard Brathwait’s verse attack on Frances Howard, Countess of Essex:


‘Upon our Ages Messalina, insatiat Madona, the matchless English Corombona’

Here lies Lust,
Revenge, Defame.
Woe to man, to woman shame;
Faire and false, as great as ill,
Weake in Grace, but strong in Will.
Honours blemish, Hymens stayne,
Virtues poyson, Beauties baine,
Albions -Siren, tyrant-woman,
Faith-infringer, true to no man;
Femall-Divell, plots-contriver,
Worths-tormenter, lifes depriver;
Tragick actor, blood effuser,
Times corrupter, States-abuser;
Brothel-Turner, virgin-Trader,
Husband-hater, Lusts-perswader;
Ages-monster, youths-deflourer …

- there’s plenty more of this outpouring; it appeared in his The honest ghost (1658). Was a Messalina play always going to be a Frances Howard play in Roman dress? The play forcing the audience, at pistol-point, to see the depravity of the present in that of the past?


But reading the play shows what the form is: Richards was a highly derivative writer. His work contains many moments of plagiary; half-quotation, half-imitation:

‘The thanks 'mong Princes of ignoble brain / That shines like rotten wood…’ uses a famous line from Ralegh’s anti-court poem, ‘The Lie’.

An asseveration about having your ‘eye-balls to drop out’ rather than see something unwelcome is Tourneur’s Damville: “Drop out mine eye-balls, and let envious Fortune play at tennis with’em”. “A drab, /  Of state, a cloth of Silver slut” is a direct lift from The Revenger’s Tragedy, where Vindice gets indignant about Castiza his sister might become ‘The duke’s son’s great Concubine: / A drab of State, a cloth a’silver slut, / To have her train borne up, and her soul trail i'th dirt.”

Richards’ Messalina threatens Silius with a pistol because Richards was thinking only of the scene in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi when Julia enters to court Bosola at pistol-point. Julia charges Bosola with having put a love-potion in her drink: it is almost as if Richards wants us to be as attuned as him to Webster, as he barely explains that Silius is also dosed with a love potion, and so loses his head.

The ‘drab of state’ phrase also appears in Richards’ commendatory verse to Women beware Women:

‘UPON The Tragedy of My Familiar Acquaintance, THO. MIDDLETON.

Women beware Women”! 'tis a true Text
Never to be forgot: Drabs of State vext,
Have Plots, Poisons, Mischeifs that seldom miss,
To murther Virtue with a venom kiss.
Witness this worthy Tragedy, exprest
By him that well deserv’d among the best
Of Poets in his time: He knew the rage,
Madness of Women crossed; and for the Stage
Fitted their humors, Hell-bred Malice, Strife
Acted in State, presented to the life.
I that have seen’t, can say, having just cause,
Never came Tragedy off with more applause. 

Richards commends Middleton for having written such a rattling good anti-feminist play, accurately capturing the immorality of great women. His own play follows the model, and incorporates the same sentiment:


Weake mindes of men they are, fit to be fool’d,
Slighted, add scorn’d, whose dull ignorance
Knowes not that women in their height of ill,
Who barres them their delight, delight to kill.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Alton Church: a door with a past

A cycle ride down to Alton, and a visit to the church there, which like the churches at Burford and Painswick, was the scene of fighting during the Civil War. My picture is of the church door. If you click to see it at full size, the old scars of its history can be seen: musket ball holes are evident, what is thought to be a loophole like a vertical slot for defenders in the church to fire out, and a ragged cross-shaped hole perhaps made by a pike.

The door has been patched with old metal surrounds for key-holes; one of the rings is a medieval sanctuary ring. But sanctuary counted for little in 1643, when the established, tithe-supported church would have been just another building held by the enemy for the parliamentary soldiers.

The desperate struggle at this church is partly told in the brief pamphlet published in London three days after the fighting, A narration of the great victory, (through Gods providence) obtained by the Parliaments forces under Sir William Waller, at Alton in Surrey the 13. of this instant December, 1643. Against the cavaliers: where were taken neer a thousand prisoners, a thousand arms, two hundred horse, with divers officers of great quality. As it was delivered by a messenger sent by Sir William Waller, to the committee for safety of the kingdom, and divers of the house of Commons, and approved by them appointed to be forthwith printed and published. Printed for Edw. Husbands, Dec. 16 1643.

What happened at Alton was that Sir William Waller led one of his speciality night-time troop movements, from Farnham to the east, setting off at seven in the evening (this was on December 13th). I think the idea was to give the impression to any potential informants that he was heading towards the siege at Basing House, but on the way west, turned abruptly south towards Alton, where a substantial royalist force had been billeted since the start of December, and by detaining everybody the force met with, getting within half a mile of the town without being spotted, or having their approach revealed.
Ludovic Lindsay, the 16th Earl of Crawford, was in command of the royalist cavalry forces in the town. Learning that a substantial force was almost upon him, this former mercenary first tried to escape eastwards with most of his cavalry, but ran into parliamentary cavalry deployed on the road towards Winchester, retreated back into the town, then fled south. Waller’s forces were determined to prevent more escapes, closing in on the town from all sides:
“The horse were immediately appointed to make good all passages, so that the enemy could not have the benefit of their accustomed running away, but were taken by our horse, our foot in the meantime behaving themselves like men, with great expedition, beat the enemies out of their workes of the North-west, and East parts of the Towne, and possest themselves thereof, where they displayed their colours in the sight of their Enemies, then our men advanced speedily into the Market-place, and the Enemy being all Musquetiers drew themselves into the works neere the Church, where they had double trenches and a Halfe-Moone, and made the Church and a Barne there their chiefest refuge, here grew then a very hot fight, which was continued neer two houres, by reason of a Malignant, who willingly fired his own Barne, and other houses, thereby to offend our men with the smoake; by reason of which smoake, we lost about three men: the fire and smoak abating, our men fell close to their worke againe, and forced the Enemy to retreat into the said Church, and Barne, where they were all taken prisoners. The Towne thus being taken on all sides, the Enemy desired and obtained quarter…
In this fight were taken prisoners 700 in the Church, neere 100 in the Barne; above 100 in the field, with divers Irish men and women: also neer 200 Horse, 1000 Arms, one Colonell, one Major, one Lieuetenant Colonell, thirteen Captaines, three Coronets, one of which with the Princes Armes, another the Earl of Straffords, with divers other Colours hid in the Church; there were slaine of the Enemie neere 40 amongst which was Colonell Richard Bolles: the Enemies word was (Charls) Ours (Truth and Victory).
The mighty providence of God was seene in this, and as in many other mercies towards us: for in this Fight for a certaine truth, there were not above five of our men slaine, and about six wounded, and about six scorched with powder, by reason of their owne negligence: This done, our worthy Major Generall caused the people of the said Towne to slight the Workes: tooke the Prisoners, and tied them two by two with Match, and are now in Farnham Church and Castle, where they heare better Doctrine then they have heard at Oxford, or amongst the Irish Rebels.”

About what you would expect of propaganda: minimum casualties for the reporting side, disaster for their enemy. In the present-day Church itself, the report is that Colonel Bolles killed seven or eight men himself, before finally being killed in the church pulpit. This too, is too good to be true. Did he have 700 men with him, and do all the fighting himself? The parliamentarian pamphlet claims no more than 40 of the royalists killed in all the fighting. Perhaps it was a pattern of minimal resistance, and successive withdrawal, followed by surrender. I imagine the colonel fighting on at one side of the church, while elsewhere his men were busy laying down their weapons.
The church’s own pamphlet about this fighting supplies a local detail, that the corpses of dead horses were piled in the church porch by the retreating defenders to impede the attackers. That scene of horror around this door gets us close to the reality.
A small defeat for the King’s cause, but dismaying in its totality. Charles, hearing of the death of his Colonel Bolles, apparently said: “Bring me my mourning scarf; I have lost one of the best commanders in this kingdom”. His imprisoned fighters were marched off in cords improvised from musketeers’ slow-matches, for re-indoctrination at Farnham.