Sunday, January 27, 2013

Data mining for witches with Ngrams

So, the blog got neglected. I have been too busy at work, and following my vitrectomy at the end of last February, I slowly developed a dense post-operative cataract in my eye. This seemed to cause me eye-strain, as though I was over-taxing the properly functioning eye. Reading in the evening became very restricted, and so gratuitously working through texts on EEBO fell from my list of priorities.

Frustrated by this, and facing more months of the cataract getting worse before the NHS could schedule me, last Tuesday I had the procedure done privately, at Reading's weirdly luxurious new Circle Hospital. This has the ambience of a brand new hotel, an illusion only spoiled by the occasional medico shuffling past in ward pyjamas and plastic clogs. Art works are everywhere, and, astonishingly, a young woman with a concert harp was playing to relax those in the lounge area. At no point was she summoned up the lift into theatre to assist in giving a client-customer a reassuring departure, but it seemed a disturbing possibility ("Emergency, harpist to theatre 4, please!"). I had my original operation wearing beneath my plastic shroud my jacket, shirt and tie as usual; for this far less major procedure, Circle had me don a 'Patient Dignity Gown'. I thought this suited me a lot, and I will take to wearing it round my department, especially if the same suppliers can set me up with a 'Wounded Dignity Gown' to alternate it with.

But the chart above is nothing to do with my well-being. It's a Google Ngram, off Google Books. I just discovered these last week, when following an OED request for information into user responses. Someone had tracked a pre-dating (I think it might have been for 'Ironman Triathlon') using Ngrams, and I followed that up, not having heard of them.

Ngrams use the corpus of digitised books, and will plot you a graph for frequency of occurence of one word against another within the corpus. As all graphs would otherwise just show a fierce left to right ascent, the plotting is made proportional to the number of books being published within the period.

The results become more convincing if one plots related words in different graphs. My first effort, above, plotted 'witch' against 'conjurer', 1600 to 1800. It seems to indicate some quiet years after 1610, with not much chatter in print about the topic, and then, towards the end of that decade, a peaking concern (I wondered if it might be reflecting the Overbury case). Then, irregular peaks of concern between 1630 and 1650. There's a late 17th century minor peak (I wondered if one might see in that the late flurry of people like Glanville asserting the existence of witchcraft). Then a splendidly rational 18th century, before Gothic Romanticism brings it all back in.

These tentative results look a bit more convincing when a related graph looks quite similar. Here's 'witchcraft' plotted against 'magic':
Somehow, and perhaps it isn't entirely an artefact from the sample, the quiet years after 1610 show up, then the late decade rise, things going quiet after King James' death, until the 1630's take off again (Lancashire? Loudon?). Irregular peaks thereafter, the 1670's and 1680's still quite strong, an enlightened 18th century, and then Gothicism.

My third try just plotted 'witch' against 'devil': it merely shows the predominance of devil talk over witch talk:

Maybe the late 17th century peak in devil talk is as dissenting literature gets more widely published...?

The Renaissance course I teach on is called 'Love, Honour, Obey: Literature 1525-1660'. So I ran the key terms, this time between 1600 and 2000, with this result:

'Love', we see, goes up and down ("the way it does", as a colleague wittily remarked when I was showing this round). There may be a Cavalier peak, and a Restoration one. 'Honour' does well through the Stuart years, and then shows very solidly as the novel gets going in the late 18th century (a range established around the Richardson peak, as it were). 'Obey' is the interesting line. It's far less common as a word, but there just may be a peak around the end of the Civil War. Gradually, society loses interest in the idea, as people also did with 'honour'.

Are the results of this data-mining real? One obviously has to be cautious. I do not know if Google have had access to the work of the digital text creation partnership that's working through EEBO. When this happens, and also when all texts have been digitised, then the true detail will emerge. But this looks completely convincing to me:

This is 'prophecy' plotted against 'throne'. I couldn't use 'king', as that word appears so often that 'prophecy' gets flattened out. Anyway, just look at the peak in 'prophecy' before the Restoration, and the steep drop-off in interest once Charles II is installed. That looks like a very plausible result to me.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Zachary the slacker

Zachary Bogan, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was a consumptive (he lived to be just 34), and seems to have been subject to depression; “I have been in a manner buried alive in melancholy, and spent my dayes in vanity. My distemper was such, as did not onely render me indisposed, by study to gather more knowledge then I had before (being not able for whole moneths together, to perswade my selfe to take a booke in hand…” (One has to sympathise, even if only as a blogger who has neglected his blog for months.)

For a conscientious believer of the mid 17th century, a depressed state must have been heightened by their sense of Christian duty, of how vital it was to use your God-given talents (and Bogan, a probationary fellow at Oxford , was undoubtedly learned): “It was one of those things, which in my melancholy, my dejected spirit dwelt longest upon, that I had done God, and my brethren no service, having lived so long. 

His first attempt at what we would regard as pious self-therapy came after “a year or two” of depression: “It pleased the Lord (who, I cannot say, did ever hide himselfe in my trouble, or despise my affliction; but was ready to know me in all my adversity) to set me in a way, wherein I might spend my time better, and passe thorow with more ease, some of the rest of those wearisome dayes, which he had appointed for me.” So Bogan, suffering malignant sadness, wrote his first tract, Meditations of the Mirth of a Christian Life (1653).

These meditations his mother asked him to put into print, and he dedicated them to her. In his own rather ingenuous account, in the course of seeing the work through the press, he got talking to his bookseller while looking at a book about God’s promises (possibly The Saints legacies, or, A collection of certain promises out of the word of God collected for private use, but published for the comfort of God’s people, by A.F.), and “I asked the Bookeseller, whether he knew of any Treatise of his Threats. Being answered (contrary to my expectation) that he knew of none; I was the more earnest to inquire further. And so I did; but could heare of none. Whereupon I told my Bookeseller, that I resolved forthwith to read over the Bible, and make a collection of them my selfe; and, if it pleased God to incourage me in it, to print them.”

The work poor Bogan was inspired to write would appear in print, very rapidly, as A view of the threats and punishments recorded in the Scriptures, alphabetically composed (also 1653). Once started, he seems to have worked with manic intensity: “in very little more then a fortnight’s time, that by the help of God I read the Bible over: and reduced every thing that I observed, to a certaine head, in Alphabeticall order. After this, I examined every place of Scripture, by the Originall, and the most noted Translations.” 

He records for his general reader the “marvellous encouragement, which it pleased God to afford me all along in this worke”. While, in his sickness, he had barely been able to read for a quarter of an hour, now he found himself “supplyed with a constant delight in what I did, and a desire to goe further. If at any time I was weary (as sometimes I was quite tired, through infirmities of body, and want of spirits) as soone as I had but turned aside, but a few minutes, I found a sudden supply of desire to follow my businesse againe, as fresh as ever.”

Bogan’s book is interestingly unreflective. He does not make any explicit connection between his own situation and his subject; he does not consider what he might be being punished for. Here he is on what he, if pressed, might have considered his own sin, ‘Unfruitfulness’, and it serves as a typical entry from the treatise. Under the heading (‘Unfruitfulness’), he makes a list of how “God punisheth men for it”. The divine punishment for unfruitfulness proves to be just an infliction of more of the same:

1. With leaving them to the wide world. ‘What could I have done more to my vinyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? and now goe to, I will tell you what I will doe to my vinyard, I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up, and break downe the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden downe’ Isa. 5. 4, 5.
2. Taking away the means of making them fruitfull. I’t shall not be pruned nor digged: but there shall come up briars and thornes, I will also command the cloudes that they raine no raine upon it’, ib. v. 6.
3. Taking away the power and meanes of being fruitfull (gifts and talents.) ‘Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him that hath ten talents’, Mat. 25. 28. So that for unfruitfullnesse the sinne, they have unfruitfullnesse the punishment; ‘When he saw a fig-tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only: and said unto it, let no fruit grow on thee hence forward for ever and presently the figtree withered away’ Mat. 21 19.
4. Cutting downe, as trees that have left bearing. It was John the Baptist’s doctrine, ‘every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewen downe and cast into the fire’, Mat. 3. 10. And it was our Saviours too, in the same wordes, chap. 7. 19. Luk 13. 7. He that had hid his talent in the ground, had his doome to be cast into outer darknesse, Mat. 25. 30.

I have said that the book is unreflective, from a modern point of view, in Bogan not seeing the connection between what he is doing, and his own condition as a man. He just doesn’t ask himself why he is suddenly energized by just this topic. A pious-minded consumptive and depressive somehow cannot see a connection between his list of God’s punishments and his own situation.

But the other unreflectiveness about the book is that Bogan does not seem to have considered the overall effect his work would have. From the point of view of any conventional piety, the book is crassly conceived (if we take the notion that ‘God is Love’ as the basic persuasion of the ordinarily pious). Bogan blithely ploughs on, assembling God’s punishments for the various failings of His accursed creation. (Maybe I am the naive one here, and that Bogan's work was at some level a subtle striking back at God.)

Of course, open the Old Testament at random, and you will generally find a whole lot of smiting going on. Assembled together, the vindictiveness, the indiscriminate retaliations, the irascibility, gross favouritism, the general moral insanity of the Godhead becomes the foreground, the middle, and the background - to say nothing of the continuous recourse of the Almighty to horrible threats.

So here’s a selection of Bogan’s examples. In brackets, I give the sin, and then examples of the punishments Bogan eagerly collected from the Bible:

(Whoremongering) “When the Israelites committed whoredome with the Moabites, God (by a disease, or fire, or some other extraordinary plague) slew no lesse then foure and twenty thousand of them, Num. 25. 1, 9.”

(Adultery) “If those that commit adultery escape death, a thousand to one that they escape these ensuing punishments, viz. 2. Retaliation, or being done to as they have done to others thus David was punished, Thus saith the Lord, behold I will raise up evill against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes and give them unto thy neighbour, And he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of the sun’ 2 Sam: 12. 11.”

(Talkativeness, punished by) “2 Destruction (as by discovery, provocation, & an hundred otherwayes) ‘He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his life but he that openeth wide his lips, shall have destruction’, Prov: 13. 3” 

(Not being improved by the punishment meted out to you) “And I also have given you cleannesse of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: YET have yee not returned unto me saith the Lord.”

(Being a disobedient child, punished by) “Stoning to death. If a man have a stubborne and rebellious sonne, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that when they have chastned him will not harken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him and bring him out unto the Elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place. And they shall say unto the Elders of this city. This our sonne is stubborne and rebellious, he will not obey our voice, he is a glutton, and a drunkard, Being rebellious is the maine crime, and being a glutton and a drunkard, are brought in as evidences, though crimes too) And all the men of his City shall stone him with stones that he die.” 

(Being an enemy to Christ) “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh. The Lord shall have them in derision Ps. 2, 4. Oh fearfull threat! how sad is the condition of those men at whose calamitie God rejoyceth! or at whose wickednesse he laughes! suffering them to run on in their sinnes because he seeth that their day of punishment is coming Ps. 37, 13. Give me any anger, rather then a laughing anger, whether of God, or man. See the threats Ps. 59, 8. Prov: 1, 26.

(Curiosity) “He smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they looked into the Ark of the Lord: even he smote of the people fifty thousand, and threescore & ten men 1 Samuel 6, 19. wicked men commonly are more desirous to know the things of God in a way of curiosity then godly men”

(Murmuring in dissent) “while the flesh was yet in their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague”

(Incest punished) “With Losse of Birth-right. For thus Jacob (as he was dying) cursed Reuben, for lying with (his Concubine onely) Bildad. ‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excell, because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.’ Gen. 49. 4.”

(Mocking of God’s ministers, punished with) “1. With Wrath unappeaseable … 4. Violent death by wild beasts. ‘As Elisha was going up to Bethel, There came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Goe up thou bald head, Goe up thou bald head. And he turned backe, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord, and there came forth two shee beares out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them’, 2 Kings 2. 23, 24”

(Injurious dealing, punished with, number 4) “Destruction of the whole world, (which otherwise perhaps had not come before God, so soone as it did:) ‘The earth is filled with violence through them, and behold I will destroy them with the earth’, Gen: 6. 13.”

Bogan industriously turns a basic tenet of his faith inside-out. God is hate.

We can only imagine what Bogan’s clerical contemporaries might have said about the exercise. His tract found its way into the library of Baron Brooke, among the ‘Divinity English in Octavo’ (Catalogus librorum ex bibliotheca nobilis…). Perhaps people we simply less sensitive – what was in the Bible, after all, was in the Bible, and so beyond question. Maybe it was in fact regarded as a valuable guide: if you wanted to denounce some sin or other from your own pulpit, as must have happened in most parishes on most Sundays, here was a quick route to the relevant divine combination.

And, of course, the Bible is just rather good at these things, infinitely wise, pithy, apt. Just look at the texts cited in this last list of God’s punishments:

Company of any too much keeping it punished with hatred: ‘Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbours house lest he be weary of thee, and so hate thee’ Prov: 25. 17.

Gluttons punished by “Loathing of that which they loved. ‘The full soule loatheth the honey-comb’ Prov: 27. 7.”

The Idle, susceptible to “Continuall desiring, and not having their desire: which must needs be a great punishment, because it is a great vexation. ‘The soule of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing’, Prov. 13. 4.”

Lying, punished by “2 Discovery in a little time. ‘The Lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment’, Prov. 12. 19.”