Kindred Spirit

07 10 robert chambersToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Chambers who was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders in 1802. He and his brother William founded W & R Chambers Publishing, who eventually produced Chambers Dictionary. That’s my favourite dictionary, but that’s not why I wanted to tell you about him. I discovered Robert a year ago when I was writing on Tumblr and he has been with me almost every day since. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Both Robert and his brother were born with six fingers and six toes. Both had undergone surgery to remove the extra digits but one of Robert’s operations had left him lame. So he was not an active child, but became instead a great devourer of knowledge. When he found a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in his father’s attic, it kept him entertained for years. His brother later said of him: “the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments.” I have learned so many interesting things whilst researching this blog that I’m inclined to agree.

The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813 and when Robert was sixteen he began to run a second hand book stall on Leith Walk. When his brother William bought a printing press, they began to publish magazines together, with Robert providing the content. In 1832 they began to produce a weekly magazine called ‘The Edinburgh Journal’. It cost one penny and included articles about history, religion, language, and science.

In 1844 he produced a book called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’. It began by explaining the formation of the solar system, continued with the geology of the earth and followed the pattern of increasingly complex lifeforms right the way up to humans. He talked about how one species of creature may have arisen from another. He would have referred to it as the transmutation of species, we would now call it evolution. This was all very controversial and ungodly at the time and Robert went to great lengths to conceal his authorship. He dictated it to his wife, so the manuscript would be in her handwriting and then sent it to a different publisher. It brings together a lot of ideas that were around at the time regarding how our world came to be as it is. Some of the experiments he cites are questionable, such as one which suggests insects can be made to arise spontaneously from electricity. But his examination of fossil records, which points out that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older rocks, is good.

Vestiges quickly became a bestseller. The first edition sold out in only a few days. Over ten years, it sold over 20,000 copies. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln was also impressed by it. Others were not so keen. Such a theory rather cut God out of the equation, which was a pretty shocking claim. Roberts book received a lot of scathing reviews. At least one of his critics thought it was such awful nonsense that it must have been written by a woman. Some of the theories in the book were similar to those being pursued by Charles Darwin. Darwin found some of his explanations a little clunky. He didn’t feel that the, then anonymous, author of Vestiges had really described the environments that caused animals such as a woodpecker to develop in the way it had. But for many years, Vestiges was the only book available in English the explained the theory of evolution. Its reception by its critics may also have been what put Darwin off publishing his ‘Origin of Species’, which appeared fifteen years later. Robert’s authorship of Vestiges was not revealed until 1884, thirteen years after his death.

07 10 chambers book of days Robert Chambers’ last work was ‘Chambers Book of Days’ published in 1864. It was subtitled: ‘A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’. It’s a massive work that runs to two volumes each with more than 840 pages. It contains, for each day of the year, a list of the births and deaths of notable people and a list of the saints associated with that day. Then underneath are a number of short essays about the some of the people, or the events that happened on that date. When I discovered Robert, I was happy to have found a kindred spirit. His undertaking was much larger than my meagre effort. He wrote around two thousand essays for his ‘Book of Days’ and he didn’t even have the internet to help him. It seems his family all thought the huge amount of work he put into his book contributed to his early death in 1871. Despite this warning from history, I have pressed on with my project and now have only twelve days to go.

Robert has helped me out of many a hole in this last year. When Wikipedia failed me, I turned to him. Sometimes, I’ve felt he was up against the same problems as me when seeking something interesting to say about a particular date. But he has also introduced me to some wonderful characters. Without him, I would not know so much about mountebanks, eighteenth century bets and weird burials. You can find Chambers Book of Days, in a searchable format here. If you want to know what he has to say about today, I recommend you scroll to the bottom and read ‘Child Suckled by Goat.’

The Terror, the Horror

07 09 ann radcliffeYesterday’s post was a big one, so I’m going to try to keep it short today. Today is the birthday of not one, but two Gothic novelists. Ann Radcliffe, who was born in 1764 and Matthew Gregory Lewis, who was born in 1775. Both, as far as I can tell, in London.

Details about the life of Ann Radcliffe are pretty few and far between. Christina Rosetti once began to write her biography, but had to abandon it for lack of information. Ann was married to a journalist and they had no children. Ann filled in the long hours whilst her husband was at work by writing stories and poetry. She published six novels and probably the most famous now is ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’. This is because it features heavily in another novel, ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austin. It features many of the characteristics we associate with the Gothic. An orphaned young woman, held captive in a remote castle by an aunt and her cruel husband. She has an unwanted suitor and a true love. The discomfort of her situation is compounded by the creepy castle. There are doors which close on their own, apparitions, sounds in the night. What people loved about her work were the vivid descriptions of the landscape and settings. She includes many long descriptions of landscapes, describing places she’d never visited herself, but drew her inspiration from paintings. Though the money she earned from her writing did eventually allow her to travel. Radcliffe’s heroine highlights how much a young woman was at the mercy of the men in her life. She can be taken away by a virtual stranger and forced to marry someone she doesn’t like. Eventually though, she gets away, inherits property and marries her true love.

The seemingly supernatural elements in Radcliffe’s novels are only there to illustrate the mood of the characters. In the end it turns out that there is a perfectly natural explanation. In the case of Udolpho, there are pirates in the castle. The writers of Scooby Doo must have been fans of Radcliffe and her oeuvre. Ann Radcliffe felt the power to scare lay very much in what she called the difference between ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. Between what is imagined and what is laid out in front of you in startling and gory detail. She says: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life, and the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.” Her point was that something which is partly seen stimulates the imagination to fill in the rest of the details.

NPG 2171; Matthew Gregory Lewis by George Lethbridge Saunders, after  Unknown artist

Matthew Gregory Lewis, on the other hand, enjoyed laying out all of the horror for us to see. He was a well-travelled and gregarious person, destined for a diplomatic career. You might like to know that he was briefly an MP and succeeded William Beckford, the author of Vathek, in his constituency. He made several attempts to write plays, in which he was only moderately successful. In 1803, his play ‘The Captive’ was staged at the Haymarket. It was about a woman imprisoned by her husband. Devoid of human contact, she realises she is on the brink of madness. It was performed only once. The audience hadn’t taken it well:

“…when it was almost half over a man fell into convulsions in the boxes; presently after a woman fainted away in the pit; and when the curtain dropped, two or three more of the spectators went into hysterics, and there was such a screaming and squalling, that really you could hardly hear the hissing…”

It seems even the theatre staff were horrified by it. Part of what was so frightening about his play was that in real life, no woman was safe from this fate. It was all to easy to claim that a woman was mad and have her locked up, no matter what her social standing. But Lewis was clearly pretty good at showing people something that scared them. His most famous work though, is a novel called ‘The Monk’. It is, of course, about a monk. He thinks of himself as a very pious man and is very proud of it and, as you might guess, this is a set up for a spectacular fall from grace. A nun, who disguises herself as a monk just to be near his ‘holiness’, eventually tempts him into a sexual relationship. There is rape, murder, imprisonment, incest, the spectre of a bleeding nun and a pact with the Devil, all luridly described. The Monk is the first novel to feature a holy man as the villain.

Ann Radcliffe did not care too much for The Monk, she felt it was all a bit graphic and it was probably what prompted her to write her essay about terror and horror. I have to admit, I haven’t read either of these novels. I’m writing about a new and unfamiliar subject every day, and there just isn’t time. Of the two though, The Monk sounds more readable for a modern audience. But I have to agree with Ann that, in fiction at least, a horrible thing which is presented to us in graphic detail is not as powerful as anything our imaginations can supply.

Here Comes Summer

06 28 the magic apple treeToday, I am in a bit of a quandary. The thing that I was going to tell you about did, I’ve since discovered, not happen on this day at all, but on the 25th. Never mind, it’s sometimes easy mistake a 5 for an 8 and if you wanted to know about the Newbury Coat, which was a bet about being able to shear a sheep, spin and weave its wool and make a coat out of it in a single day, you’ll find it here.

Then I wasn’t sure what subject to choose. I could tell you that it is the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coronation. But the ceremony excluded, for the first time, the bit where the new monarch’s Champion rides into Westminster Hall in full armour during the coronation banquet, which is a pity. I could tell you that it is the birthday of Henry VIII. But that was a shame for quite a lot of people, especially his future wives. Anyway, I’m not generally big on royalty unless they’ve done something spectacularly eccentric. So, here instead is an extract from another ‘on this day’ publication for June 28th. It is “The Everyday Book” published in 1826.

Before you read it, you might like to know that ‘lawn of Cos’ means a very light linen fabric that would be lovely to wear on a hot day, that a water-cart would have sprinkled water in the streets to keep the dust down and that the word ‘tittle-bat’ probably means ‘stickleback’, a sort of fish. Also, you may like to know that ‘Tartarus’ refers to a region of the underworld, far below Hell, where all the really bad people went. Sadly, I can’t help you with the phrase ‘suckers of leather’, it might mean some sort of pump, but they are clearly three words that have changed their meaning significantly over the last two hundred years, and I wouldn’t google them.

So here is part of an essay by the poet Leigh Hunt called ‘a “Now”: Descriptive of a Hot Day’. Even though it describes a world long gone, I think it would remind me of what summer is like, even in the depths of winter.

06 28 samuel palmer sunset

“Now grasshoppers “fry”, as Dryden says. Now cattle stand in water, and ducks are envied. Now boots and shoes and trees by the road side, are thick with dust; and dogs rolling in it, after issuing out of the water, into which they have been thrown to fetch sticks, come scattering horror among the legs of the spectators. Now a fellow who finds he has three miles further to go in a tight pair of shoes, is in a pretty situation. Now rooms with sun upon them become intolerable; and the apothecary’s apprentice, with a bitterness beyond aloes, thinks of the pond he used to bathe in at school. Now men with powdered heads (especially if thick) envy those that are unpowdered, and stop to wipe them uphill, with countenances that seem to expostulate with destiny. Now boys assemble around the village pump with a ladle to it, and delight to make a forbidden splash and get wet through the shoes. Now also they make suckers of leather, and bathe all day long in rivers and ponds, and follow the fish to their cool corners, and say millions of “my eyes” at “tittle-bats”. Now the bee, as he hums along, seems to be talking heavily of the heat. Now doors and brick walls are burning to the hand; and a walled lane, with dust and broken bottles in it, near a brick-field, is a thing not to be thought of. Now a green lane, on the contrary, thick-set with hedge-row elms, and having the noise of a brook “rumbling in pebble-stone,” is one of the pleasantest things in the world. Now youths and damsels walk through hay-fields by chance; “ha’ done then William;” and the overseer in the next field calls out “let thic thear hay thear bide;” and the girls persist, merely to plague “such a frumpish old fellow.”

06 28 samuel palmer. early morning 1825.

Now, in town, gossips talk more than ever to one another, in rooms, in doorways and out of windows, always beginning the conversation with saying that the heat is overpowering. Now blinds are let down and doors thrown open, and flannel waistcoats left off, and cold meat preferred to hot, and wonder expressed why tea continues so refreshing, and people delight to silver lettuces in bowls, and apprentices in doorways with tin canisters that lay several atoms of dust. Now the water-cart, jumbling along the middle of the streets, and jolting the showers out of it’s box of water, really does something. Now boys delight to have a water pipe let out, and set it bubbling away in a tall and frothy volume. Now fruiterers’ shops and dairies look pleasant, and ices are the only things to those who can get them. Now ladies loiter in baths; and people make presents of flowers; and wine is put on ice; and the after-dinner lounger recreates his head with applications of perfumed water out of long-necked bottles. Now, the lounger who cannot resist riding his new horse, feels his boots burn him. Now buckskins are not the lawn of Cos. Now jockeys, walking in greatcoats to lose flesh, curse inwardly. Now five fat people in a stage coach, hate the sixth fat person who is coming in and think he has no right to be so large. Now clerks in offices do nothing but drink soda water and spruce-beer, and read the newspaper. Now the old-clothesman drops his solitary cry more deeply into the areas on the hot and forsaken side of the street; and bakers look vicious; and cooks are aggravated: and the steam of the tavern kitchen catches hold of one like the breath of Tartarus. Now delicate skins are beset with gnats; and boys make their sleeping companion start up, with playing a burning glass on his hand; and blacksmiths are super-carbonated; and cobblers in their stalls almost feel a wish to be transplanted; and butter is too easy to spread; and the dragoons wonder whether the Romans liked their helmets; and old ladies, with their lappets unpinned, walk around in a state of dilapidation; and servant maids are afraid they look vulgarly hot; and the author, who has a plate of strawberries brought him, finds he has come to the end of his writing.”

06 28 leigh huntIncidentally, Leigh Hunt was not big on Royalty either. He was once arrested and tried for saying something extremely uncomplimentary, but also true, about the Prince Regent. He was promised that he would be let off, if he promised not to say anything else rude about the future George IV. He politely declined and spent two years in prison. He bore it well. He had his room papered with rose trellises and the ceiling painted like the sky. He had his books, he had a piano and he had lots of visitors. His friend Charles Lamb said there was: “no other such room, except in a fairy tale.”

I hope it’s sunny where you are. If it isn’t, and you’re still not feeling summery, you could give this a try. I’m off to unpin my lappets and buy some strawberries.

Re: Joyce

06 16 ulyssesToday, along with many other people around the world, I am celebrating Bloomsday. Bloomsday is named after one of the central characters, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’.

The events of the novel are firmly placed between 8am on June 16th 1904 and 2am the following morning. Which was, for Joyce, a commemoration of the day that he and his future wife Nora Barnacle first ‘stepped out’ together. The structure of the novel closely follows the events in Homer’s Odyssey, which describes the journey of Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), as he travels home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But Joyce’s characters are ordinary citizens of Dublin having an ordinary day. Each of the eighteen episodes is written in a different style. It is a large and complex novel. Joyce wrote a couple of schemata for friends to help them understand his work. He ascribed each episode a meaning, a colour, a bodily organ. If you were thinking of reading it and want to get a handle on it first, you can find one of his schema here. Or if that puts you off, you could listen to Stephen Fry enthuse about the beauty of its language here.

Joyce wrote his novel between 1914 and 1921 and, between 1918 and 1920, an American magazine called the Little Review began to publish it in serial form. But publication was halted in 1920 when it became the subject of an obscenity trial. It was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922. This first edition is said to have contained over two thousand errors. Other editions have tried to make corrections but just wound up making more, so the first edition may still be the most accurate.

Bloomsday was first commemorated in a small way in 1924, twenty years after the events in the book. Joyce was in hospital following an eye operation. His friends sent him a bunch of blue and white flowers, which were the colours of the cover of his novel. Thirteen years after Joyce’s death, on June 16th 1954, three Irish novelists; Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin met with artist and critic John Ryan and Tom Joyce, a dentist who was Joyce’s cousin. They began at the Martello Tower at Sandy Cove which features in the opening scene. After hiring two old fashioned horse drawn cabs they intended to visit all the sites mentioned in the novel ending in what used to be the brothel quarter of the city. It didn’t start well. O’Nolan turned up drunk and there was a bit of an altercation when he and Kavanagh decided that they had to climb the tower. O’Nolan was eventually bundled into one of the cabs and they drank and sang their way around the city until they arrived at the Bailey pub in Duke Street, which belonged to Ryan. They never completed their odyssey, once there, they drank so much that they could go no further.

Bloomsday is now a massive event in Dublin. Many of the celebrations are organised by the James Joyce Museum which can be found at the Martello Tower mentioned above. People follow the route taken by Leopold Bloom in the novel. They often dress up as the characters from the novel, in Edwardian costume. There are readings and dramatisations of scenes from Ulysses. Pubs are crawled and special meals are served. The Bloomsday breakfast is popular. People like to eat the same meal enjoyed by Bloom, which is surprising as this is how Joyce describes it:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Personally, I would prefer the Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy he has for lunch. For hardcore fans, there are complete readings of the novel which can last for up to thirty-six hours. In 1982, Irish radio station RTÉ broadcast a complete reading and in 06 16 james joyce2004. To mark 100th anniversary of the events in the novel 10,000 people were served a special Irish Breakfast. In 2011, a global attempt was made to tweet the novel. Its organisers were not sure if it would produce something beatific or be a complete train wreck. I’m not sure how it went but it was certainly a magnificent idea.

Joyce was, at first, unsure whether June 16th would, in the future, be of any significance to anyone at all. He was rather bemused when he met people who loved it. One fan begged to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses. He laughed and said: “no, that hand has done a lot of other things as well.”

Parental Guidance

06 13 struwwelpeter 1Today is the birthday of Heinrich Hoffmann, who was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1809. He is most famous for writing a book called ‘Struwwelpeter’ which has been frightening generations of children since 1845. It contains ten stories outlining the disastrous consequences of poor or reckless behaviour. For example, Harriet, a girl who plays with matches, is burned to death and a boy called Conrad who keeps sucking his thumb has them snipped off by a tailor with massive scissors. Many of us have grown up with this book of cautionary tales and a lot of us have wondered why.

Some of Hoffmann’s stories seem like cruel things to read to small children, especially at bedtime. But that wasn’t how he saw them. He wrote the stories because he had been looking for a picture book to give to his three year old son for Christmas and was disappointed by the quality of what was on offer. So he decided to write one himself. His friends thought it was so good that they persuaded him to publish it. The book’s original title, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I’ll shorten it to: ‘Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures… for Children Aged 3 to 6’, tells us, not only that it was a work of humour, but also the age of its intended audience.

06 13 heinrich hoffmannI really wanted to find out what sort of a man would write such a book and give it to his small child. Heinrich seems to have had a difficult time at school. He was thought lazy because he was easily distracted. Then he was subjected to an extremely punishing educational regime by a strict father. Details of Heinrich Hoffmann’s actual life have proved hard to come by, in English at least. Especially as he unfortunately shares his name with Hitler’s personal photographer. Hoffmann became, in his day job, a doctor. His first post was in a morgue in Frankfurt, probably making sure that all its customers were really dead, before they were taken away and buried. At the time the book was published he was working in a paupers clinic and had a second job teaching anatomy. None of his work paid very well but, in 1851, he was made doctor at the Asylum for the Insane and Epileptic, in the centre of Frankfurt, after a friend retired. He was shocked by the conditions there and quickly made plans to build a new hospital on the outskirts of the town. He managed to raise the money from private citizens, which he said he did by being “really quite unpleasant and annoying.” He gave the job of designing the hospital to an architect whose wife suffered from a nervous disorder and together, they travelled Austria, Holland, Belgium, France and England, looking for all the best that the modern European asylum could offer. The hospital’s thirty acre site included gardens and also areas for farming and growing vegetables. As well as segregating the male and female patients, he also made sure that the more excitable inmates were kept separate from the quieter ones. Unusually, for that time, there were also no bars on the windows. Hoffmann lived in the hospital with his family.

06 13 irrenschloss

He may have been the first person to practice psychiatry that was specifically tailored to children and adolescents, but again details are scant. Hoffmann is often cited as making an early description of the syndrome we now call ADHD which is illustrated in his story ‘Zappel-Philipp’ (Fidgety Philip) about a boy who can’t sit still. This is considered proof that the condition is not a modern phenomenon. As an anatomist, he firmly believed that the causes of mental disorders lay in the brain. He performed many autopsies on deceased patient who had suffered psychiatric and neurological disorders to try to determine the anatomical cause. His successor at the institute held similar beliefs and, in 1888, employed a doctor named Alois Alzheimer.

So, Hoffmann was not a cruel man. He genuinely loved his son and he devoted his life to helping children with behavioural problems. Not all his stories end in untimely death. There is one about a boy who falls in a river, because he is too busy looking at swallows in the sky to look where he’s going. But he is rescued and is fine. Then there is a story about three bullies who get dipped in a pot of ink for teasing a black boy. Hoffmann’s stories are really no worse than ‘The Boy who cried Wolf’ and he was mostly only trying to point out life’s pitfalls in a way that was memorable. A story about a little girl who catches fire is certainly shocking, but it did happen. One of my great aunts was burned to death as a child, back in the nineteenth century, because she was standing too close to the fire and her nightdress caught fire. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with warning children that the world can be a dangerous place.

He’s a Legend

06 11 roger bacon 1Today, I want to to tell you about Roger Bacon. I don’t know exactly when he was born. Best guess, it was somewhere between 1210 and 1220. I don’t know exactly when he died either, but one of my favourite sources, Robert Chambers, thinks it might have been on June 11th in 1292. Bacon became both a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University and a Franciscan friar. Bacon was one of the earliest people to argue that science, which was then called ‘natural philosophy’, should be taught in universities. He found that people were mostly learning from badly translated copies of works by Aristotle and Plato and were really not understanding them properly.

In 1267, he wrote an enormous book called ‘Opus Majus’, which means Great Work. It begins by outlining ‘The Four General Causes of Human Ignorance’: following a weak or unreliable authority, custom, the ignorance of others and concealing his own ignorance by pretending knowledge. In the light of this wisdom, I won’t even try to tell you about the religious and political climate he was working in, or the medieval university curriculum because I don’t really understand them. But I will tell you that his approach to the problem of ignorance: getting as close as possible to the original source and that “theories supplied by reason should be verified by sensory data, aided by instruments, and corroborated by trustworthy witnesses”, led to him being considered the father of the scientific method. So, by the nineteenth century, he was considered a genius born before his time. A sixteenth or seventeenth century philosopher who had somehow appeared three or four hundred years too early. His contemporaries hadn’t really rated his work much at all.

06 11 brazen head 1It’s really the bit in between people not thinking a lot of him and his being hailed as a scientific genius that I’m interested in today. There is also a legendary Roger Bacon, same man, just a different take on his life, who appeared some time in the sixteenth century. This Roger Bacon was a magician who cheated the devil, burned a French city and built a brazen head. His legend, called ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon’, was recorded by an unknown author. He gives the Friar a sidekick called Friar Bungey, an idiot servant called Miles and a sort of nemesis, a German Magician called Vandermast, who I don’t think I’m going to get round to telling you about today.

One story tells of a man who inherited a lot of money and then spent it all. When he was so poor that he thought he would starve, the Devil appeared in disguise and offered him money to buy back his lands, get him everything he needed and pay off his debts. The catch was that, when he had everything he wanted and had paid everything he owed, he would give himself over to his mysterious benefactor. When all that was done, he realised, too late, the true identity of his saviour. Friar Bacon offered to help the man escape his pact with the Devil. He offered to judge the case. The Devil showed him their contract and told the friar that the man had paid all his debts and that it was time for him to give himself up. But the Friar pointed out that the man had not paid all his debts, because he hadn’t paid the Devil back a single penny of the money that he had been lent. The Devil vanished in a fury and the man went home.

06 11 burning cityA second story tells us about a time that the King of England, I’m afraid I don’t know which king but logic suggests Henry III, was besieging a city in France, again, I don’t know which city. Friar Bacon offered his assistance but the king said, although that was very thoughtful, what he really needed were soldiers. Bacon replied that learned men could be useful too. He told the king that one day they would discover, among other things, how to build ships that could move without rowers, carriages that needed no animals to pull them and machines that could make men fly. He had the soldiers build a huge mound of earth then took the king to the top and showed him the city ‘as plainely as if hee had beene in it’, which suggests some sort of telescope. Then, he told the king to have all his soldiers ready to attack at noon the next day. Bacon then used an arrangement of glasses to set fire to the State House and other houses in the city. No one knew how the fire had started and the whole place was in uproar. That’s when the King attacked and won.

The third story I want to tell you about is the time Friar Bacon decided he could protect the whole of England from invasion by building a ‘brazen head’, (I love a brazen head, they come up quite a lot in alchemy). The head would speak and tell him how he could make a wall of brass appear that would protect out shores forever. Friar Bacon enlisted the help of his friend, Friar Bungey, who was nearly-but-not-quite as good as Bacon. Together, they built a head of brass that was exactly the same as a human head. It had all the right things inside it and everything. But it wouldn’t work. They conjured up the Devil and forced him to help them. The Devil told them that they needed “a continuall fume of the six hotest Simples”, which as far as I can make out, are herbs or something. He told them that the head would speak within a month, but he couldn’t say when. After three weeks of fuming their head and watching it day and night, Bacon and Bungey were exhausted. They left Bacon’s servant, Miles in charge to watch the head, with orders to wake them if it spoke. Miles kept himself awake by singing little songs to himself and presently the statue spoke. It said “Time is.” Miles didn’t think it was anything significant and failed to wake the pair. He carried on singing and, after about half an hour, it spoke again. It said “Time was.”. Again he thought it was nonsense, anyone with half a brain knew that time is and time was, that’s time for you. After another half hour of singing the head announced “Time is Past”. Then it fell down and exploded. That woke the two friars and they realised they had missed their chance.

06 11 brazen head 2

The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon was, you might like to know, used as the basis of a play called ‘The Honourable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay’ in 1589. Its author was a man called Robert Greene. He was the man who attacked William Shakespeare in print early in his career and called him ‘upstart crow’.

The real Roger Bacon actually did mention the possibility of telescopes, flying machines and steamships in the last part of his Opus Majus. He also made the first mention in Western literature of gunpowder. So maybe he really did make exploding heads. I’m quite glad we’re not all trapped here, inside an enormous brass wall though.

Strange Tales

06 05 Pu_SonglingToday I am celebrating the birthday of Pu Songling who was born on this day in 1640. During his life, he collected and adapted almost five hundred folk tales which were gathered together and published posthumously around 1740 in a work called ‘Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio’. His adaptations reflect his concerns about corruption in authority and sad, lonely academics. The book is considered to be the bible of Chinese supernatural tales. The language of his stories is rich and beautiful, full of significances that I haven’t a hope of understanding or doing justice to. But as his work seems to parallel that of his western contemporary Charles Perrault and the work of the brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, I can’t pass him by today.

Pu Songling passed his first degree level examination at the age of eighteen. But due to a lack of social standing or the funds to bribe officials, he did not pass his next exam until he was seventy-one. His dislike of ridiculous bureaucracy is evident in his tales, though he disguises it with supernatural elements. A corrupt society run by unhelpful officials is, in his stories, just as much of a problem in Hell as in is in our earthly realm. I found out that Franz Kafka was quite a fan of his work, and I can see why.

His stories often involve ghost lovers, spirit foxes and demons. Ghosts are pretty important in Chinese folk tales. When someone died, it was believed that their family must pray for them and also burn paper money so that the dead person could use it to bribe themselves a decent place in the underworld and eventually reincarnation. If someone had no family to pray for them, they had to wander the earth as a ghost. Their only hope then was to lure another person to their death, which would provide a replacement soul so theirs could then be released for reincarnation. If a young unmarried woman died she could not be placed in a family and sometimes relatives would seek a posthumous marriage for her so that her spirit could be looked after. Therefore lots of ghost stories are about young female ghosts who have taken the matter into their own hands and are looking for an earthly husband. In Pu Songling’s tales, sometimes as a result of the marriage, the ghost can become human. Sometimes the opposite happens and the human fades away and dies.

06 05 nine tailed foxSpirit Foxes can be vicious murderers or utterly benign, but they really, really want to seduce humans. They can disguise themselves in human form and, whether male or female, are always beautiful. The disguise is not always complete though and sometimes you might notice a tail sticking out. If you were to discover a spirit fox and manage to kill it, you might then see that it was just an ordinary looking fox with a human skull balanced on top of its head. It would have used it’s magic to deceive you. Just as a the ghost of a human strives towards reincarnation, the ultimate goal of a spirit fox is to become a celestial fox which has nine tails and can communicate with heaven.

Probably his best known story is called ‘Painted Skin’. A couple of the details in it are revolting, so if you have just eaten, or are about to eat, probably don’t read on. It has been retold many times and made into at least one horror film. It is about a scholar who falls in love with a beautiful woman. But then he finds out that she is really a demon wearing a skin that it has painted to look like a human. He tries a charm to keep the demon away, but it doesn’t work and it tears out his heart and he dies. But the scholar also has a wife, who grieves over him and wants him brought back to life. She is sent by a priest to visit a raving madman and ask him for help. The madman insults her, beats her and finally coughs up a lump of phlegm and makes her swallow it. She returns home to prepare her husband’s body for burial and vomits up the lump of phlegm into the open wound in her husbands chest. Then, she sees it has become a beating heart. She binds up his wound with silk and he begins to breathe and lives again.

There’s something about tales of horror from a distant land that makes them somehow scarier than ours. Perhaps it is because they are rooted in a different culture. Maybe they just lack the familiar tropes that we’ve all got used to. If you want to read more, Pu Songling’s tales were translated into English by a man named Herbert Giles and published in 1880 and are easy to come by at Internet Archive. This version though, is bound by Victorian standards of morality, so his stories are devoid of some of the colour of the original. You won’t find any phlegm in his version of Painted Skin, and you will find his fox spirits who only want a nice cup of tea and a bit of a chat. I understand that a more recent translation by John Minford is much better.