Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mooning the moon in early modern Brazil

Because I have a postgraduate student working in this area, I have been reading a racy piece of serio-comic writing, the undeniably learned wit of George Rogers’ The horn exalted or Roome for cuckolds. Being a treatise concerning the reason and original of the word cuckold, and why such are said to wear horns. Very proper for these times, when men are butting, and pushing, and goring, and horning one another. Also an appendix concerning women and jealousie, [1660].

George Rogers was a 17th century medical man ambitious enough to have trained in Padua. He then went into practice in London, and eventually became the president of the College of Physicians. To celebrate the restoration of the monarchy (and in an act of remarkable prescience about what would notoriously prove to be one of the major preoccupations of that new anti-puritan era, he sent to the press this disquisition on a horny issue, seeing ‘the general verge of the people to merryment’, and expressing the hope that ‘this piece of drollery’ might therefore prove ‘acceptable’

The account of the mysterious origins of the ‘cuckold’ and of his imaginary horns is appropriately gamey: Rogers writes with an amused tolerance about erring wives, and urges any offended husbands to keep quiet - they should never blow their own horn and so draw attention to it. Rogers delivers a staggering range of arcane lore, much of it collected from (it seems) an array of Italian sources theorizing about cuckoldry and horns (‘these pleasant Seignieurs’, he calls them).

He outlines all the relevant cuckoo lore, and then gets onto the cuckold’s imputed horns, and their possible origins: Seignieur Trifone (apparently) alleged that it was because, of all male animals, only the billy-goat never shows signs of jealousy (an opinion conclusively refuted with a garish anecdote about a he-goat with a very particular reason for fatally attacking a man). Seignieur Cesario, Rogers tells us, derived Beccho from the horned Bacchus (and drunkards do get to be cuckolds), Seignieur Raineri argued the relevance of the horns of the moon, while Signieur Marmitta referred the fabulous horns of the cuckold to a story that, among Indian women, custom held that ‘when any lover presented their Mistress with an Elephant, she might permit him the joyes of her beauty’. There’s a pleasant side argument touched upon on whether an elephant has horns or just big teeth.

Other sources help Rogers range over the cornucopia, ‘the horn of plenty and abundance, which kind dames bring their husbands’, and an astronomical reason for the cuckold’s horns, obscurely based on which side of their wife a husband ought to lie when they are in bed together. The constellation of the Ram is on the right side of the sun, while women ‘would have their husbands still to lie on the left side, as being more dextrous for embraces’. So those that sullenly insist on lying on the right of their wives, making themselves less available for their marital embraces by doing so, ‘they call rams’.

All this is agreeably knock-about: Laurence Sterne would have loved it. Or rather, Laurence Sterne would have plundered it. To the latterday pedant, Rogers offers the stuff of a hundred footnotes. Here, in a single sentence, we get a possible light on the proper costuming of Edgar when he impersonates ‘Poor Tom’ in King Lear, and a splendid menstruation-ritual from Brazil which involved mooning the Moon:

“Lunacy for certain comes and goes with the Syzigy

[syzygy, that perfect word for the game of Scrabble, means coupling or conjunction]

of the star; from the Moon sure enough we become horn-mad, and hence our Tom-a-bedlams wear horns about them, perhaps by way of jeer and reproach to her, just as the women in Braseile at Monomatopa go up to the mountains at a new moon, and turn up their half-moons or backsides in defiance of her, because the causer of their monethly tribute.”

In this next extract, he skitters from consideration of the meaning present in the precise ordering of the Ten Commandments, into a consideration whether it ought to be the adulterer that gets the horns, and then leaps on to considering the devil’s horns:

“Adultery is both murder and theft, and therefore 'tis placed in the Ten Commandements twixt both: for as that steals the pleasures of another mans property, so (as Chaucer speaks) it Kerves in two and breaks asunder those that were one flesh. Well do then adulterers deserve horns: for since like pampered horses they run neighing after others wives and lye at rack and manger with them, 'tis fit they should have the bitter cup, and be drenched with the horn. The devil too is pictured with horns. He was the old serpent 'tis true, but whether Cerastes or the horn-snake, 'tis unknown. The Women they’l say he is horned, because he beats his dame when rain and sunshine meet together; so in revenge she turns succuba to others, just as he uses to lye with Witches and impure persons in dreams by creeping into their bodie.”

‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’, is Macbeth’s enigmatic first line: I have now seen two 17th century sources that indicate a belief existed that if the sun was shining while it rained, the devil and his dam were falling out. Diabolic marital disputes! Now, who has written on the weather in Shakespeare?

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