Saturday, January 19, 2008

Early Modern Zebras!

I am a little under siege with work, but return to my post at this weblog with this strangely tentative and incredulous early picture of a zebra, from A report of the kingdome of Congo, a region of Africa And of the countries that border rounde about the same …Besides the description of divers plants, fishes and beastes, that are found in those countries. Drawen out of the writinges and discourses of Odoardo Lopez a Portingall, by Philippo Pigafetta. Translated out of Italian by Abraham Hartwell, London: Printed by John Wolfe, 1597.

And here is the accompanying text. It describes the zebra as having stripes in three colours, and is typically enthusiastic about Nature having provided everywhere for man, and how the zebra might be put to god use in war:

“There breedeth likewise in this Countrey another Creature, which they call a Zebra, commonly found also in certain Provinces of Barbary and Africa: which although it be altogether made like a great Mule, yet is not a Mule indeed, for it beareth young ones. It hath a most singular skin, and peculiar from all other creatures. For from the ridge of the chine down towards the bellie, it is straked with rows of three colours, black, white, and brown Bay, about the breadth of three fingers a peece, and so meet again together in a circle, every row, with his own colour. So that the neck, and the head; and the Mane (which is not great) and the ears, and all the legs are so interchaunged with these colours, and in such manner and order, as without all fail, if the first strake begin with white, then followeth the second with black, & in the third place the Bay: & so another course beginning in white endeth still in Bay. And this rule is generally and infallibly observed over all the body. The tayle is like the tayle of a Mule, of a Morell colour, but yet it is well coloured, and hath a glistring gloss. The feet like the feet of a Mule, and so are the hooffes. But touching the rest of her carriage and qualities, she is very lusty and pleasaunt as a horse: and specially in going, and in running she is so light & so swift that it is admirable. In somuch as in Portingale and in Castile also, it is commonly used (as it were for a proverb) As swift as a Zebra, when they will signifie an exceeding quickness. These creatures are all wild, they breede every year, and are there in such aboundance that they are innumerable. If they were made tame, they would serve to run and to draw for the wars, and for many other good uses, as well as the best horses that are. So that Mother Nature seemeth to have sufficiently provided in every country for the commodity and necessity of man, with divers sorts of Creatures, of nourishments, and temperature of ayre, to the end he should want nothing. And therefore they having no horses at all in the whole Kingdome of Congo, nor any skill to use their oxen to the yoke, or to the packsaddle, that they might eyther be drawen or carryed, nor to tame their Zebraes with bridle and saddle, or any other way to take the benefite of their beastes, that might transport them from place to place.”

This is in a very modest way an OED antedating, for the great dictionary’s first citation for ‘Zebra’ is from 1600. This passage is cited (I have expanded it a little):

“The Zebra or Zabra of this countrey being about the bignes of a mule, is a beast of incomparable swiftnes, straked about the body, legges, eares, and other parts, with blacke, white and browne circles of three fingers broad; which do make a pleasant shew.”

The source being Leo Africanus, A geographical historie of Africa, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo a More, borne in Granada, and brought up in Barbarie. Translated and collected by John Pory (1600).

I pursued the swift zebra into other early modern appearances. There’s one in a strange symbolic eclogue by Edward Fairfax (a fox is shearing and corruptly re-clothing a lamb):

Her silver rug from her soft hide he clipt,
And on her body knit a canvas thin,
With twenty-party-colours evenly stript,
And guarded like the Zebra's rain-bow skin,

In a play I might one day read, John Wilson’s The Projectors (1665), the cheating projector tries to recommend a clockwork horse as a speedier mount than any other. Zebras feature in the lively list:

Driver. Here 'tis--- A thing shall bring you in a vast deal of money without any charge,---besides the primary charge.

Suckdry. As what, good Mr. Driver? What?

Driver. Why 'tis a Wooden-Horse, so contriv'd with Screws and devices, that he shall out-travel a Dromedary, carry the burden of fifteen Camels, run you a thousand mile without drawing bit, and which is more then all this; not cost you two pence a year the keeping. Suck. Ha, Ha, He---y'faith---y'faith! prythee on,--- Is there no difficulty in the work?

Driver. The greatest, will be to set him a going: But I think I have sufficientlie provided for that:---I'll tell you how I have order'd it:---Turn one Pin, he shall Trot, another Amble, a third Gallop; a fourth, Flie; And all this perform'd by Germane Clock-Work:--- Don Quixotes Rosinante , was an Asse; Reynaldo 's Bayart , a meer Slugge; and Clavellino the swift, a very Cow to him;---I might mention Alexander Beucephalus , the Cid's Bajeca , the Moores Zebra, Rogero's Frontino, Astolpho's Hippogryphon, Orlando's Briliadoro ; The Muses Pegase , the Suns Horses , and Zancho's Dapple ,---But they are not to be nam'd the same day together…

Zebras can be counted to crop up, it seems, in unlikely yarns: the aerialist flying with the assistance of his bird-powered kite in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638) also mentions the zebra as the speediest of animals: “Being thus lightned I bid them such a base, as had they been all upon the backes of so many Zebra's , they could never have overtaken me.”

But my favourite allusion to what I take to be a zebra in the Tower of London zoo occurs in one of the letters that make up Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker (1771). The lion is, however, more amusing:

“O Molly! what shall I say of London? All the towns that ever I beheld in my born-days, are no more than Welsh barrows and crumblecks to this wonderful sitty! Even Bath itself is put a fillitch, in the naam of God---One would think there's no end of the streets, but the land's end, Then there's such a power of people, going hurry skurry! Such a racket of coxes! Such a noise, and hali-balloo! So many strangers sites to be seen! O gracious! my poor Welsh brain has been spinning like a top ever since I came hither! And I have seen the Park, and the paleass of Saint Gimses, and the king's and the queen's magisterial pursing, and the sweet young princes, and the hillyfents, and pyebald ass, and all the rest of the royal family.

Last week I went with mistress to the Tower, to see the crowns and wild beastis; and there was a monstracious lion, which teeth half a quarter long; and a gentleman bid me not to go near him, if I wasn't a maid; being as how he would roar, and tear, and play the dickens---Now I had no mind to go near him; for I cannot abide such dangerous honeymils, not I---but, mistress would go; and the beast kept such a roaring and bouncing, that I tho't he would have broke his cage and devoured us all; and the gentleman titered forsooth.”

I recall that John Wesley took his flute to the Tower of London zoo, to play to the lions, as a way of investigating whether animals had souls. But I did not recall that, like unicorns, they would defer to virgins. How hazardous zoo visits could be!

1 comment:

bdh said...

Nice work Roy! Hope your new year has been happy so far, and that your festive season was merry.