Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jenner's Stages of Sin, 1635

These admonitory images are from Thomas Jenner's The ages of sin, or Sinnes birth & groweth With the stepps, and degrees of sin, from thought to finall impenitencie.  

The book appeared in 1635, and seems to have been popular enough for two further editions to appear in 1655, and what appears on EEBO to be a single sheet version in 1675, suitable for pasting up to edify the godly members of your godly household while they are in your godly privy.

It looks as if the woodcuts were local versions of a continental emblem book. The final image is signed with 'Ja. v. L. fecit'. Jan van Leyden came to mind, though 1635 seems to be rather early for the marine artist. A Dutch name anyway.

The book takes a seven ages of man format, and re-applies it to illustrate seven ages, or rather steps of sin, progressing from sinful thoughts to the sinful act, and so onwards to the latter stages of decline into a permanent sinful state.

My interest was fired by a student, who is going to be working on personifications of Thought in Shakespeare. Taking the subject quite literally, I reflected that the poet often writes about his or her thoughts in Petrachistic poetry, thoughts being apostrophised as unquiet, restless, etc. Then Sidney's pastoral lyric "My sheep are thoughts, which I both guide and serve" came to mind, and so to this set of images, where sinful thoughts are personified, or embodied, as various kinds of animals.

1 Suggestion.

Original-Concupiscence doth make 
Our Nature like a foul great-Bellied Snake: 
For, were not Sathan apt to tempt to Sin; 
Yet, Lustful-Thoughts would breed & brood, within: 
But, happy he, that takes these Little-Ones, 
To dash their Brains (Soon) 'gainst repentant-Stones. 

So, in this cheering opening image and verse about 'Suggestion' (we'd use 'Temptation'), original sin makes us like a pregnant viper, a snake of the non-oviparous kind. We hardly need Satan tempting us,because we breed sins within, like baby snakes (not the tinned pasta kind). Well, we must dash their brains out, before they grow up to be dangerous.

2. Rumination.
When Lust hath (thus) conceived, it brings forth Sin, 
And ruminating-thoughts its Shape begin. 
Like as the Bears oft-licking of her whelps. 
That foul deformed Creatures shape much helps. 
The dangers great, our Sinful thoughts to Cherish, 
Stop their growth, or thy poor Soul will perish.

Here we are like mother bears,in the Plinian natural history of the day, licking our newly arrived sinful thought into shape, maybe planning how we will not just covet our neighbour's ass, or his wife, but actually carry out some theft or abduction.

Here's a picture of me in the former church at Castle Richard in Shropshire, thinking penitently about how often I have indeed coveted my neighbour's ass, and trying to resolve to do better:

If Sinful Thoughts (once) nestle in man’s heart, 
The Sluice is ope, Delight (then) plays its part: 
Then, like the old-Ape hugging in his arms, 
His apish-young-ones, sin the Soul becharms: 
And, when our apish impious-thoughts delight us, 
Oh, then, (alas) most mortally they bite us. 

Here we are, then, our sin resolved upon, our scheme to carry it out fully formed. Now we are like an old ape hugging its offspring, delighted with it. (But we will get bitten.)

For, where Sin works Content, Consent will follow; 
And, this, the Soul, into Sin’s Gulf, doth swallow. 
For, as two rav'ning Wolves (for, tis their kind) 
To suck Lambs-blood, do hunt with equal-mind: 
Even so, the Soul & Sin Consent, in One, 
Till, Soul & Body be quite overthrown. 

Pleased with the sin we contemplate, we give in to it. Content and Consent are two wolves ravening a lamb. Jenner does concede that to do such a thing is only natural to wolves. This whole publication does quite ruthlessly treat animals as merely present to be moral examples to human beings, making them embody sinful human thoughts which of course, as Jenner concedes here, they simply do not have.

5 Act.
Sin and the Soul (thus) having stricken Hands, 
The Sinner (now) for Action ready stands; 
And Tyger-like swallows-up, at one-bit, 
Whatever impious Prey his Heart doth fit: 
Committing Sin, with eager greediness, 
Selling his Soul to work all wickedness. 

Sin in action is this splendid 'Tyger' (I suppose Blake scholars might have put the point that Blake might have seen this engraving), gobbling down its prey, boots, spurs and all.

Iteration. 6
From eager-acting Sin, comes Iteration, 
Or, frequent Custom of Sins perpetration; 
Which, like great Flesh-Flies' lighting on raw-Flesh, 
Though oft beat-off, (if not killed) come afresh: 
Hence, Be'lzebub is termed Prince of flesh-flies, 
'Cause Sin, still Acts, until (by Grace) It Dies. 

This unsavoury image of a menace to public health is a butcher trying to keep flies off his meat with a fly-flap. Our sins are now like flies, they will not go away, but, chased off, come buzzing right back.


Custom in Sin takes Sense of Sin away, 
This makes All-Sin seem but a Sport, a play: 
Yea, like a rampant-Lyon, proud and Stout, 
Insulting  o're his Prey, stalking about, 
The Saucy-Sinner boasts & brags of Sin. 
As One (oh woe) that doth a City win. 

'Gloriation', rare or obsolete says the OED, a splendid word meaning, or course, boasting of our actions, proud as a lion over what we have done.

8 Obduration.

When Sin brings Sinners to this fearful pass, 
What follows, but a hard heart, brow of brass· 
A Heart (I say) more hard then Tortoise-back; 
Which, nether Sword nor Axe can hew or hack; 
Judgements nor mercies, treats nor threats can cause 
To leave-off Sin, to love or fear Gods Laws. 

Oh dear, now we are hardened in sin. Like a tortoise, nothing can get through to us, we are obdurated in it (OED says 'obdurate' was a word to express hardening of the soul before it had anything to do with anything merely material in nature simply being made harder).

And (now, alas) what is Sins last Extent? 
A hard-Heart makes a Heart impenitent. 
For, can a Leopard change his Spotted Skin? 
No, nor a Heart accustomed (thus), his Sin. 
Then, Conscience, headlong, casts impenitence, 
With horrid frights of Hellish Recompense.

Can a leopard change his spots? Neither can a sinner. The leopard/sinner is I think meant to be committing suicide, driven by conscience into a final sin.

Setting off with original sin, and ending with conscience leading us to kill ourselves, 'The stages of sin' has little space for positives (but it does manage to mention repentance and grace). The animals are, however, quite jolly in some of the illustrations, and are generally doing what's natural to them

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