Saturday, June 17, 2006

Early Modern Nakedness

I’ve been unable to get on-line, my ISP having problems. I’ve anyway been reasonably busy with the effort to get degree results out after the lifting of the industrial action. My image is taken from a painting by Jordaens, because in this hot weather, I am offering you two passages concerning early modern nakedness.

“The same day sevennight he [Prince Henry] died, there fell out a very ridiculous accident. A very handsome young fellow, much about his age and not altogether unlike him, came stark naked to St. James’s whiles they were at supper, saying he was the Prince’s ghost come from heaven with a message to the King. But by no manner of examination or threatening could they get any more out of him, or who set him to work. Some say he is simple, others mad. He belongs to one of the Chancery. All the penance they gave him was two or three lashes, which he endured as it seemed without sense, and keeping him naked as he was all night and the next day in the Porter’s lodge, where thousands came to see him. The King sent to have him dismissed without more ado or enquiry.”

Diary of John Chamberlain, 19th November, 1612

“And in the mean while went the Lord Frederick secretly away, and came into the chamber, where she did unclothe her all naked saving a cloth before her members, and then came into the hall before the king and all his lords, and before all the other persons there being present, all naked, save that she had a kercher of silk before her members. And when she was come in, she went to the king and did him reverence. And when the king and his lords saw her, they marvelled greatly, wherefore that that fair woman came in naked before them… and therefore said the king to her, ‘Show you us what ye be and wherefore that ye come in here before us all naked in this manner.’ Then answered the woman to the king and said ‘I am the same person Lord Frederick that you spake on…’ ”

This second passage is from the narrative called Frederyke of Jennen (1518, 1520, 1560). It is the source narrative that you will find in the back of any decent edition of Cymbeline – the tale of the good wife whose partner has wagered on her virtue, who over-trustingly takes a trunk into her bedroom, from which a villain emerges to gather evidence that will win his bet that she can be proved lacking in virtue, the wife who then disguises as a man until the time comes for her dramatic way of revealing her true gender. A pity Shakespeare’s theatre prevented him from having Imogen cease to be ‘Fidele’ in this way (it would have done something for the popularity of the play). The theatrical conventions of the self-regendering moment are interesting – Luce in Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsden stops being Jack the lad with this concise action and question to the bewildered man she is claiming as her husband: ‘She scatters her hair. What say you now?’

The first passage is an incident at the Jacobean court, rather well handled by King James, considering the offence he could have taken at this impersonation of his dead son. I suppose that at an early modern court, you had to do something to fix royal attention on you, and get them to listen to your petition. I like the way word gets out, and thousands go to take a look at the offender, though that he felt punished by this is perhaps open to doubt.

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