Sunday, December 15, 2013

Early Modern Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Roger Crab, the Uxbridge hermit, 1655

“Had my parents been so innocent as to have taught me this Doctrine in the time of my youth, I had saved my skull from being cloven to the brain in the late War for the Parliament against the King” …

The doctrine was that of Isaiah 21, 2: “A grievous vision was showed unto me, the transgressor against the transgressor, and the destroyer against the destroyer, and the wounded man was Roger Crab, who (in what is for him an unusually rational response) decided that he had seen enough of killing, and then extended this revulsion against slaughter to a radical vegetarianism, in which he imagined that the last days might arrive if predatory birds and animals gave up their evil ways, and if men imitated Christ in their lives, rather than the devil Mars:

“If all birds would take the Dove for an example, and all beasts take the Lamb for their example, and all men take Christ for their example, then Mars and Saturn, the two chief Devils would be trampled under feet. Such a time is promised, but not yet.”

That a strict and restricted vegetarian diet is a Christian obligation is evident to Crab from the way the Fall of Man came about:

“If natural Adam had kept to his single natural fruits of Gods appointment, namely fruits and herbs, we had not been corrupted. Thus we see that by eating and drinking we are swallowed up in corruption”

Like other traumatized veterans of war, Roger Crab took himself to intense study of the Bible, and to a hermit’s existence. Society at large he simply sees as a latter-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah, or a Jerusalem given over to abomination, as Ezekiel saw it. He had owned a hat shop in Chesham: this he wound up, gave away to the poor the greater part of his worldly goods and vigorously set about a course of life designed to subdue the Old Adam. In the words of his publisher, he
“now liveth at Icknam, near Uxbridge, one a small Rood of ground, for which he payeth fifty shillings a year and hath a mean Cottage of his own building to it; but that which is most strange and most to be admired, is his strange reserved, and Hermetical kind of life, in refusing to eat any sort of flesh, and saith it is a sin against his body and soul to eat flesh, or to drink any Beer, Ale, or Wine; his diet is only such poor homely food as his own Rood of ground beareth, as Corn, Bread, and bran, Herbs, Roots, Dock-leaves, Mallows, and grass, his drink is water, his apparel is as mean also, he wears a sackcloth frock, and no band on his neck: and this he saith is out of conscience, and in obedience to that command of Christ”

Resolved to kill no more, Crab set about killing ‘himself’, as the unregenerate Old Adam, though he indeed also seems to have gone close to death by malnutrition – in his own words:

“instead of strong drinks and wines, I give the old man a cup of water; and instead of roast Mutton, and Rabbets, and other dainty dishes, I gave him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran, & Turnip leaves chopped together, and grass; at which the Old man (meaning my body) being moved, would know what he had done, that I used him so hardly; then I showed him his transgression as aforesaid: so the wars began, The law of the old man in my fleshly members rebelled against the law of my mind, and had a shrewd skirmish; but the mind being well enlightened, held it, so that the old man grew sick and weak with the flux, like to fall to the dust; but the wonderful love of God well pleased with the Battle, raised him up again, and filled him full of love, peace, and content in mind, and is now become more humble; for now he will eat Dock-leaves, Mallows, or Grass, and yields that he ought to give God more thanks for it, then formerly for roast flesh and wines”. He seems to have had a small group of adherents, who he would later refer to as ‘the Rationals’, quite a misnomer, for Captain Robert Norwood “began to follow the same poor diet till it cost him his life”.

Poor Crab had suffered a severe head injury, he had then worked as a hatter, and hatters seem to have exposed themselves while working with felt to lots of mercury, and were proverbially mad. Self-imposed privation would not have helped a desperate situation – and, even if he was abstaining from strong drink, he was still consuming quantities of the 100% proof madness that is the book of Ezekiel.

It is not surprising to read that he took comfort when he discovered that the birds were giving him messages direct from God:
“the most high was pleased to convince me with natural forms, namely birds of the Air, which every day brought me intelligence according to my worldly occasions; for almost three years space I have observed them, for they would foretell me of any danger or cross, or any joy from friends”.

Crab’s publisher admits that he was a man of “strange opinions”, but, as he is trying to exploit Crab and sell as many pamphlets about this hermit to the curious as possible, the publisher tries to keep the focus on Crab’s ‘harmless’ opinions about eating. But when one looks closer at what Crab says: “eating of flesh is an absolute enemy to pure nature; pure nature being the workmanship of a pure God, and corrupt nature under the custody of the Devil” one can sense in him a early modern, home counties, version of the Catharist ‘pure’ – a dualist who believes that the flesh must be held in contempt and defiled to demonstrate that contempt.

Crab was believed to have denied the immortality of the soul (the ODNB life cites Thomas Edwards’ Gangraena): but, really, he seems to express a notion that living too fleshly a life will doom us to reincarnation in another low form of body “he that dyeth with fleshly desires, fleshly inclinations, and fleshly satisfactions; this being a composure of the spirits of darkness in this body, must rise again in the same nature, and must be taken into the centre of Mars, the god of flesh, blood, and fire”. Unless he can eliminate the Old Adam, he will be born again into the Civil War. Satan has no role here, but is superseded by ‘Mars’, who rules over the hell that Crab has already experienced once, the hell he must do everything to avoid going back to.

Crab was impossible to deal with: he was “well read in the Scriptures, he hath argued strongly with several Ministers in the Country, about this and other strange opinions which he holds”. Beneficed ministers – ‘hirelings’ as he calls them - were most at risk. For Crab had actually followed some of Christ’s more radical injunctions, especially Matthew 19:21. His publisher had tried one of the interpretations that might be used to give a swerve to this tricky issue: “I reasoned the case with him, & told him that I conceived Christ’s meaning when he bade the young man sell all he had and give to the poor, was, that he should part with all his dearest Sins, that were as dear to him as his possessions”.

Not that Crab, as much as a beneficed clergyman, wasn’t himself faced by difficult texts that evidently contradicted his ideas – but he can prove with confident bluster that an awkward text somehow means the exact opposite of what it apparently says:

“Now for the objection in 1 Tim. 4. v. 3. where it saith thus; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God hath created, to be received with giving thanks of them which believe and know the truth: And verse 4. it saith; For every creature of God is good, and nothing ought to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving. This Scripture being very useful for the purpose, and will give much light to the adhearers to this opinion, and conform them of sound principles within themselves; for whosoever shall forbear marrying, or abstain from meat, from the commandment of men which pretends his commands to be of God, all that are obedient hereunto will serve the Devil, and must needs be without the spirit of sanctification; neither are they believers, neither obey the Truth.”

He refutes another objection to his principles about the evil of ingestion, based on another Gospel verse, by a category switch:

“Another Objection is alleged from that Scripture in Matthew 15. 11. where he saith these words: That which goeth into the mouth defileth not the man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, that defileth the man, which is murthers, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, slanders, &c. If this be meant that any thing put into the mouth cannot defile the body, then no man can be poisoned.”

Crab considers what Jesus actually chose to purvey by way of food as a most significant example, while when Christ attended feasts and weddings, what He actually ate and drank can be inferred: “let us see what Christ had at his feast with the people, he being able to command stones to be bread, or water to be wine, was also able to command roast Beef or pig: but he was to be exemplary to all people on earth, in all his actions and doctrine, made an innocent feast for the people with barley loaves and fishes … we never find that ever he was drunk, or eat bit of flesh at any of their Feasts, or Wedding”.

Crab is mainly pitiable – as in his closing rhymes:

If any would know who is the Author, 
Or ask whose lines are these: 
I answer, one that drinketh water, 
And now a liver at ease. 
In drinking cannot be drunk, 
Nor am I moved to swear: 
And from wenching am I sunk, 
My bones are kept so bare. 
For it is the grossness of the flesh 
That makes the soul to smart …

But as the gross flesh withers away, the waistline of Crab’s ego expands – he is shaping up to be a prophet, to be the Ezekiel England needs:

O England then repent 
For the misery thou art in! 
Which have all by consent, 
Lived on each others sin. 

To do him justice, Crab had worried about what would happen to the economy if everyone ceased to ask for superfluous luxuries – nice hats, roast beef, etc – wouldn’t a market collapse reduce tradesmen to being paupers? But the moral imperative pushed him to the decision he made. Crab cites in crazy fashion from Ezekiel’s crazy book: “Ezekiel took of wheat, barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in a vessel, and made bread thereof; and instead of butter and spice, he was to take cows dung, instead of men’s dung, to prepare his bread with, and he was to have his portion by weight, Ezek. 4. 9.” Ezekiel is at this point preparing his credentials as denouncer of sin in Jerusalem by lying on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right for 40 more. In the midst of these demanding stipulations God tells him to bake his barley cakes using human dung, Ezekiel protests that he has never eaten defiled food, and God concedes that he may cook using dried cow dung instead. In Crab’s truncated version, Ezekiel seems to use cow dung to spice the bread. I suspect Crab may have had a go at coprophagy, on the grounds that if it was good enough for God’s prophet, it was good enough for him.

1 comment:

Pigrogromitus said...

Great blog! I'm not much of a blog reader, but I wish I'd found this one sooner. Many thanks.