Friday, July 01, 2011

Little Charles and Big Charles, 1679

Just to keep the blog going (for I am soon slipping away from the computer on a week’s break), I expeditiously lift from EEBO Strange and wonderful news, or, The Full and true relation of the miraculous inspiration of Charles Bennet, born at Manchester in Lancashire (1679)

“Who being but THREE Years of Age, Speaks without the Least Instruction: English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; so Perfect and Authentickly, the like thereof hath not been heard of in any Age.”

The inspired little Charles is described in a pamphlet which is partly a description of a portent or prodigy, but mainly an advert, for he was “now to be Seen & Discoursed withal at the Bear-Inn in West-Smithfield.

He was the son of a Lancashire linen weaver, “a Man of mean Education and Fortune”, and was born “on or near the 17th. of June, in the year of Mans Redemption, 1676”. Charles was when very young “often observed by his Parents to be more serious and considerate then appertained to one of his age, many times musing, and seeming to deliberate with himself; the which at first they did not so fully regard, but after he could go alone, and began to speak, (the which he exercised sooner then usual) many grave Sentences were observed to proceed from him…”

Here’s the early modern gifted child then: not rattling through calculations in his head, but solemnly emulating his only likely intellectual role-model, by reproducing the ‘grave sentences’ of a preacher.

The moment when his parents realised what their son was capable of was also religious in nature: “the first Discovery of the profound Knowledge that for a long time had absconded in his Microcosnick structure, was about a month or Six Weeks since: his Father after Divine Service taking a Bible, and reading a certain Chapter in one of the Evangelists, by accident, or through ignorance omitted, or preposterously read a certain Verse or Sentence: the Child aforesaid being present, reproved him of his error, and told him there was no such sentence in the Scripture, or Word of God: at which his Father being in a consternation, casting his eyes upon the Text where he had read, found himself mistaken, whereupon he examined him how he knew, having never seen nor known the Scriptures as to the Practick part: to whom the aforesaid Charles most discreetly replied; That he could, and in his conceit had often conversed therein, and if occasion required, could Read them in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

The child’s words about the scriptures are enigmatic: “in his conceit had often conversed therein”, “and if occasion required, could Read them in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew”. The first part floats between young Charles being, in his fancy, conversant with the scriptures and a sense that he projected himself into the bible passages he heard, inventing his own replies to the words of biblical personages. The claim that he could read the scriptures in the learned tongues seems a firmer affirmation, but is still connected syntactically to Charles’ conceit, his fancy that he could do such reading.

But his unique selling point was not his precocious learning, but his very lack of instruction: that he could only say these things, and read these languages, through inspiration. His parents acted swiftly: “This raised the primal Character of the Child’s more then ordinary perfection, sent his fame abroad, so that many hundreds from Towns and Villages adjacent to the place of his Nativity, came flocking to take a view of him, and to discourse in all the Tongues premissed, who did as freely Answer, to the great astonishment of all that heard: for many Ministers and Learned Men were likewise curious to satisfy themselves in the certainty hereof, and when they had beheld and found it true, they went away with admiration.”

Those ‘Ministers and Learned Men’ who talked to Charles discoursed ‘in all the tongues premissed’. He either understood, and answered in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, or he convinced them that he had understood. Perhaps Charles already knew his New Testament closely enough to pick up the thread of a bible-based discourse when he heard names in the text.

When he is exhibited in London, we get more detail on what he could do, and there’s more suggestion here that the boy had an idetic memory, and could call up images of a bilingual dictionary (if any such had passed through his little hands):

“After some time his Fame was noised in the great Metropolis of London, to which by the advice and persuasion of some of their Friends, his Parents brought him about Five days since; and coming up by the Warwick-shire-Carrier, they Inned or took up their lodging at the Bear-Inn in West-smith-field: where no sooner was the rumour of their being there spread abroad, but numbers flock’d to see a wonder they had heard of some time since: he being accompanied with his Parents in a very spacious Room on the left hand going into the Inn aforesaid, where many Ministers and others discoursed and questioned with him on Saturday the 28th. of which this Deponent was one who did both reason with him in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; to which he soon answered, and rightly expounded and Interpret each Word a Sentence; the truth of which, this Deponent is ready to Justify upon Oath if need requireth: Some of which Words I shall here (for the more perfect satisfaction of the Reader) Insert, Imprimis, he was asked Latin, Greek, and Hebrew for a Man, to which he as readily Replied, Vir, Inthropos, Addam; For a Woman, Mulier, Genue, Eveve; For Boy, Pueri, A Girl, Puella; his Fore-head, Fronte, A Hat, Gallerus. As likewise many other words and Propositions, too tedious here to Insert.”

Charles very carefully avoided cheapening himself. His parents gratefully accepted donations from visitors who were convinced that they had seen a prodigy, but Charles preserved his other-worldly mystique by spurning gifts:

“His Parents take no Money at the Door, but are willing to accept the free Benevolence of Gentlemen: The Child will not accept any Gift, be it Money or any other Present; but if it be forced upon him, he will absolutely refuse and throw it away, showing how little he regards such transitory Trash, the which is no ways permanent.”

For he had a mission in mind, a purpose for his inspiration. Somehow he had been led to seeing himself as oracular, and that the most impressive thing he could do would be to speak privately to the King – and then expire!

“The Child had, as his Parents report, an earnest desire many weeks before he came to London, to speak with his Majesty, and that he had some business of Importance to declare to his Sacred self: the which they much Noted by his earnest and often repeating the same desire, the which was, as some report, to speak Three Words, and after the deliverance of which, he Prophetically foretells his Dissolution as to this life.”

Whether the child got his meeting with his royal namesake is something the reporter avoids positively affirming. He is himself sure the meeting happened. Others affirm that little Charles repeated his usual display for the King. It doesn’t seem that Charles II gave the infant a private audience, but, if little Charles did get so quickly to Whitehall, took a passing amusement amidst his court. The phrasing lets the reader hope that the child delivered a message from heaven:

“In the space of Nine days, but this is not certainly known, but sure I am, that upon Notice of the said Child’s being in Smithfield, his Majesty was graciously pleased to send for him to his royal Palace of White-Hall, on Monday the 30th. of this instant June, 79; who in a Coach waits His Majesties good pleasure: and as it is credibly reported, most fluently answered to several Questions, to the great admiration of all that were present; but what was there said it not as yet precisely known.”

The title page was less cautious, for the pamphlet had to be made to sell. That Charles’ wish to speak with the king came true is asserted, with half a suggestion that the reader will get an account of the special message he had brought from heaven and Lancashire:

“As also the Account of his Earnest Desire to Speak with HIS MAJESTY: The which he Effected, and some Words he Spake, on Munday the 30th. of June 1679. Being brought into the ROYAL PRESENCE.”

If big Charles met little Charles, I am sure it would have been done more in the spirit of the Royal Society than from a sense of the boy as heaven-sent prodigy. If little Charles spoke to his King, I imagine it would have been to whisper a choice bible text. For Charles II, it must then have been as if the boy was a voice from the past, an earlier 17th century England where inspired reading of the testament was everything. In my fancy, I picture the King dividing his attention between the solemn and tiny child and one of his spaniels: “All I observed there was the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business”, as Pepys once put about a meeting of the royal council.

My image is a portrait of a boy by Jan Van Bijlert.

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