Saturday, January 27, 2007

A like work never before in the English tongue

The bibliography to end all bibliographies! Citations for Orpheus, Zoroaster, Cleopatra, Ovid, Cato, Hermes Tresmegistus, Albertus Magnus, jostling with Hobbes, Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne, Fallopius and William Harvey. The contemporary women included in the list (the Countess of Kent, Lady Howard) have, it seems from the text, lent their own manuscript collections of remedies and cosmetic preparations to the assiduous compiler.

It is from one of the great mad books, Johann Jacob Wecker’s Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art & Nature (1660), a junk shop of arcane and preposterous lore. You want to ensure that your children never come to have beards or pubic hair? It’s in here (an early anointing of the areas of concern with tuna oil, if you want to know). Dye your hair green? Be able to breathe on a woman’s face and prompt an all-revealing chemical reaction if she is wearing face paint? Change the colour of your children's eyes? This is the book you had to have.

Among my favourites, the suggested potions for improving the memory (a monthly anointing of the forehead with the gall of a partridge, or wearing a ‘Lapwing’s heart, or eye, or brain about your neck’), which the author puts in twice within thirty pages, obviously not having followed his own prescribed regime.

But, as usual with this type of collection, would anybody? While one can imagine that fear and desperation might make you concoct any of the many preventatives against the plague, did anyone ever try to improve their memory by swallowing ‘a Lapwings heart, or a swallows, or Wesils, or Moles, whilst it yet pants and lives’? Even for a credulous age, there must always have been a ‘gosh-wow’ aspect of idle entertainment in such a book.

Wecker’s treatise gets cited for its virginity tests (p. 104: grind up jet beads from a rosary, put the powder in the lady’s drink, and only a virgin will be able to resist urinating immediately) – these in the context of Middleton’s The Changeling. In relation to that, post-marriage to your accredited and proven virgin:

‘Whether a woman be chast’

To try whether a woman be chast, you shall do thus. The Loadstone will try it, and discover it. I have a long time made diligent search, and find that some experiments are true of stones, which I have often wondred and laught at. If the Loadstone be put under the head of a wife whilst she sleeps, if she be chast she will embrace her Husband, if not, she will as it were with her hand thrust him out of the Chamber. Albert.

~ This ‘Albert’ being not the name of the worried husband, but the source, the legendary Albertus Magnus, reputed author of two of the grimoires Wecker is citing. The 'I know it sounds unlikely and risible but it turns out to be true' note is characteristic. But the thought that any couple’s domestic harmony should ever have depended on such proof by analogous thinking is a faintly worrying one.

Anyway, if you feel your family is large enough, here’s the word on how to make a fertile woman barren:

‘If childrens teeth when they fall, be hanged up before they come to touch the ground, and be set in a plate of silver, and hanged over women, this will hinder them to conceive, and to bring forth.’

I must say this seems to me perfectly plausible: to have a constant reminder of the sheer amount of bother and vexation a child’s teeth alone can bring into a relationship dangling above the marital bed might indeed contribute significantly to making both partners more risk-adverse.

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