Thursday, August 21, 2008

The early modern dormouse

Nicolas Culpeper made me think about early modern small domestic animals again. He is reflecting on the way repugnance for snakes proves God’s curse on the serpent:

“For men though they keep beasts for their profit, and birds for their pleasure, and dormice for their ease, as to make themselves sleep, or the like: yet a man when he meets with an Adder, gives him no quarter, but is sure to die for it…”

One of the small creatures (number 9, if you can see it) in the illustration from Comenius (above) is supposed to be a dormouse, but labeled as troubling the house, rather than usefully somniferous.

Edward Topsell’s The historie of foure-footed beastes (1607) has a profusion of medical uses for dormice, but unaccountably, none of them are to do with sleep disorders:

The medicines of the Dormouse.

Dormyse being taken in meat, doe much profit against the Bulimon [word not in OED]; The powder of Dormyse mixed with oil, doth heal those which are scalded with any hot licker. A live Dormouse doth presently take away all warts being bound thereupon. Dormyse, and field-mice being burnt, and their dust mingled with honey, will profit those which desire the clearness of the eyes, if they doe take thereof some small quantitie every morning. The powder of a Dormouse, or field mouse rubbed upon the eyes helpeth the aforesaid disease. A Dormouse being flayed, roasted and anointed with oil, and salt, being given in meat, is an excellent cure for those that are short winded. The same also doth very effectually heal those that spit out filthy matter or corruption. Powder of Dormice, or field-mice, or young worms, being mixed with oil doth heal those that have kibes on their heels, or chilblains on their hands. The fatte of a Dormouse, the fatte of a hen, and the marrow of an Ox melted together, and being hot, infused into the ears, doth very much profit both the pains and deafeness thereof.

The fatte of Dormice being boiled, as also of field-mice, are delivered to be most profitable for the eschewing of the palsie. That fat of a Dormouse is also very excellent for those which are troubled with a palsie or shaking of the joints. The skin and inward parts of a Dormouse being taken forth, and boiled with honey in a new vessel, and afterwards poured into an other vessel, will very effectually heal all diseases which are incident to the ears, being anointed thereupon. The skin of a Dormouse or a silk worm being pulled off, and the inward parts thereof being boiled in a new brasen vessel with honey, from the quantitie of 27. ounces even to three, and so kept, that when there is need of a certain bathing vessel, the medicine being made warm and powred into the ears, doth help all pains, deafness, or inflammation of the ears. The fat of a Dormouse is commended to be very medicinable for the aforenamed diseases. The same is profitable for all pains, aches, or griefs in the belly. The urine of a Dormouse is an excellent remedy against the palsie, And thus much shall suffice concerning the medicinal virtues of the Dormouse.

Thomas Lupton in his A thousand notable things, of sundry sortes Wherof some are wonderfull, some straunge, some pleasant, diuers necessary, a great sort profitable and many very precious (1579) goes the more obvious route: the dormouse obviously promotes what it is notably good at itself, sleeping: “The soles of the feete annoynted with the fatte of a Dormouse, doth procure sleepe. As Actius doth saye.”

John Swan notes that the dormouse has, despite its drowsy image, been taken as having a very positive spiritual symbolism: “the Dormouse is a beast which endeth his old age every winter, and when summer cometh, reviveth again: which some have therefore made an emblem of the resurrection. They are exceeding sleepie, and fatted with it. Their hair is short, and in colour variable, only their bellie is always white: and for mine own part, I ever thought them to be no bigger then an ordinary mouse, but in Gesner and Topsell they are said to be greater in quantitie then a squirrel”. Speculum mundi· Or A glasse representing the face of the world shewing both that it did begin, and must also end (1635)

Jean Baptiste van Helmont believed that dormice and rabbits could mate and produce young (no surprise when he also believed he had evidence a man and a pig could produce ‘a sodomitical monster’). He thought transgenic animals were all: “more like the Mother than the Father. So of a sheep the mother, and a He goat the Father, a Lamb comes forth, which besides Wool and tail, hath his other parts like a sheep. So a Mule, his Father being an Ass, and his Mother a Mare. And so a Horse of a Bull and a Mare. Lastly, in seven Coneys, from their Father a Dormouse, and their mother a Coney, nothing besides their tail was like unto the latter

Robert Mandevill modestly disagreed with him: “And as for those Creatures whose producers are of two different sorts, as a Mule bred of an Ass and a Horse, and another Creature bred of a Cony and a Dormouse; all which your Author thinks do take more after their mother then their father, more after the breeder then the begetter; I will not eagerly affirm the contrary, although it seems to me more probable: But this I can say, that I have observed by experience, that Fauns and Foals have taken more after the Male then after the Female; for amongst many several colour’d Deer, I have seen but one milk white Doe; and she never brought forth a white Faun, when as I have seen a white Buck beget white and speckled Fauns of black and several coloured Does. (Timothies taske: or a Christian sea-card guiding through the coastes of a peaceable conscience to a peace constant, and a crowne immortall, 1619).

The Duchess of Newcastle was clearly very interested in this debate about whether inter-species offspring more resembled their mother or their father. In one of her typical anti-feminine moments, she sees the father as dominant.

Bishop Joseph Hall meditated on the dormouse (he is interested in the idea that dormice woke from their long sleep fatter than they began it, and so must be living and thriving on air, like chameleons):

Upon the sight of a Dormouse.

At how easy a rate doe these Creatures live that are fed with rest; So the Bear and the Hedge-hog (they say) spend their whole winter in sleep, and rise up fatter then they lay down; How oft have I envied the thriving drowsiness of these Beasts; When the toil of thoughts hath bereaved me of but one hours sleep; and left me languishing to a new task; and yet, when I have well digested the comparison of both these conditions, I must needs say, I had rather waste with work, then batten with ease; & would rather choose a life profitably painful, then uselessly dull and delicate. I cannot tell whether I should say those Creatures live, which doth nothing; since we are wont ever to notifie life by motion; Sure I am their life is not vital; For me, Let me rather complain of a mind that will not let me be idle, then of a body that will not let me work.
Occasionall meditations by Ios. Exon ; set forth by R.H. (1631)

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