Away with the Showfolk

As I hinted the other day, I am still separated from all my notes for this blog because I recklessly tried to upgrade my laptop to windows 10 and it didn’t like it. I know I had something planned for today, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.  So I had a look at what Robert Chambers had to say about April 14th, back in 1864, in his ‘Book Of Days’. Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the Stage

Robert tells us that, on this day in 1684, a notice was published suppressing all ballad singers, rope dancers and mountebanks who did not have a licence to perform from the Master of Revels. At that time the Master of Revels was Thomas Killigrew, who I feel certain I’ve mentioned before. A rope dancer, I discovered, is a tightrope walker. Robert has quite a lot to say about mountebanks. I knew the term referred to some sort of scurrilous person, but according to him they seem to have been specifically showmen who travelled about selling fake medical cures. They did not work alone. As well as having accomplices amongst their audience to come forward and be ‘cured’, their shows seem to have included a harlequin, a clown and possibly a brass band. I learned two names for a clown that I’ve never heard before. They are merry-andrew and jack-pudding. The entertainment value of the shows they put on was well worth the sixpence they charged for whatever quack cures they were selling. Sometimes, they practised dentistry. It seems pulling teeth was a spectator sport back in the day. The brass band was to drown out the cries of the patient.

Robert Chambers mentions several people who I’d like to revisit on another occasion, but for now I want to tell you about a character surnamed Russell who seems, among other things, to have claimed some medical knowledge. I don’t know when this person was born, probably some time in the late 1660s or early 1670s and lived in Streatham, London. Russell died in 1772 and was buried on April 14th. Russell is described as an itinerant vagabond and seems to have lived to be at least a hundred years old. You might have noticed that I’m avoiding the use of a gendered pronoun for this person. The reason is that, in life, everyone believed Russell to be a woman called Elizabeth, but after her death she was found to be a man. What little information I’ve found about Elizabeth Russell is very old and uses the word ‘he’ all the way through, but as Ms Russell chose to live as a woman, I’m going to stick with ‘she’.

An examination of church registers reveals that her father, John Russell had two sons: William in 1668 and John in 1672. If Elizabeth was born John, she lived to be 100, if William, she was 104. Elizabeth herself believed that she was 108. In 1770 she acquired a copy of a certificate of baptism belonging to her sister Elizabeth who may have died in infancy or just moved away. Elizabeth Russell seems to have taken up a travelling life with ‘strollers and vagabonds’ and she travelled all over Europe. Sometimes she travelled in the company of another once famous, now forgotten vagabond, Bamfylde Moore Carew. In later life, she settled in Chipstead in Kent, where she kept a large shop. She also travelled the countryside hawking her wears along with a man she said was her husband. In fact, she changed her surname to his and was known as ‘Bet Page’. I have been unable to find out exactly what it was that she sold. Googling ‘Bet Page’ is hopeless, you just end up with loads of gambling websites. But I did find out that she worked with travelling physicians and learned their ways.

She had a good reputation as both a healer and an astrologer. She was also an excellent seamstress who could sew a mean shirt. Elizabeth could have lived comfortably on what she earned, but spent most of it in the alehouse, buying drinks for herself and her friends. It’s pretty amazing that, over two hundred years later, we know anything at all about her, but she really came to attention because she was so very old. She became a frequent visitor to Henry Thrale, the MP for Southwark and it was at his house that she met Samuel Johnson. Doctor Johnson enjoyed talking with her very much. He found her shrewd, sensible and to have an excellent memory, despite her advanced age.

Elizabeth died very suddenly and everyone was astounded when it was discovered that she had been a man. Elizabeth had been a woman for as long as anyone could remember. I’ve no idea what prompted her to live as a woman. Whether it was what she actually wanted or whether it was just a really good disguise, she certainly had everyone fooled. She often used to share the bed of her landlady when a new lodger came along unexpectedly. Tantalisingly she is described as having a: ‘wildness and eccentricity… which seemed to border on insanity’ but no one seems to have gone into any detail about how this manifested itself.

Anatomy of Melancholy

02 08 robert burtonToday is the birthday of Robert Burton, who was born at Lindley in Leicestershire in 1577. In 1621, he published a very long and very strange book called ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. In it, he addresses the subject of melancholy; the causes of it and what he thinks we should do about it. Burton was himself, a sufferer from melancholy, what we would now call depression, and he tells us that: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”

Burton studied at Oxford University and spent the greater part of his life there both working in the library and as the vicar of a local church. He was a voracious reader and his book is packed with references and quotes from works ranging from the classical literature of Greece and Rome, through the medieval period to the renaissance and up to, what were for him, the works of modern writers. In fact, using his subject of melancholy, he looks at all human emotion and thought and includes citations from just about every book available to a learned man in the seventeenth century. The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical manual, it’s an encyclopaedia, it’s a mine of clever quotations, it’s a self-help book, it’s a mess. But lots of people love it. His first edition ran to nine hundred pages, but he revised it five times during his life and his last version, published shortly after his death, was two thousand pages. A lot of seventeenth century texts are a bit all over the place, but Burton’s book is a particularly fine example. It’s almost impossible to read from cover to cover, but it’s lovely to dip in and out of. The index is a joy in itself. A quick look will tell you that he has written about aerial devils, beef – a melancholy meat, why poets are poor and the urine of melancholy people.

Burton believed in the humoral system of medical diagnosis which had been outlined by Hippocrates, expanded on by Galen and had basically been around for about two thousand years. Here is how it works: the four humors; phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile are four liquids which flow around the body. Ideally, they are in perfect balance, but that is rarely the case. An excess of one or another leads to different personality traits. Phlegm, which is governed by water, makes a person ‘phlegmatic’ which is calm, thoughtful, patient and peaceful. Blood is governed by air, it makes people ‘sanguine’, they are courageous, hopeful, playful and carefree. Yellow bile is governed by fire and causes a person to become ambitious, leader-like, restless and quick to anger. Black bile is governed by earth and makes a person despondent, quiet, analytical and serious. If any of these humors are badly out of balance, they can cause disease, the symptoms can be both physical and psychological. Too much black bile is a cause of melancholia. In fact, the word comes from the Greek: melaina (black) and kholé (bile).

People believed that the quantity of these humors were affected by the food you ate, how much exercise you got, how much you slept, even the sort of air you were breathing. Treatments for symptoms were tailored according to the patient’s humoral temperament. There is no such thing as black bile, and they meant something completely different by the word phlegm from the way we understand it, but it was a system that had it’s good points. It meant that physical diseases could also have symptoms that were psychological and vice versa. So for Robert Burton, a psychosomatic illness was every bit as real as one with a physical cause. He knew that melancholia was a real illness and that telling a depressed person to cheer up was every bit as useless as telling an injured person to stop hurting or someone with a fever to stop being so hot.

02 08 sir philip sydneyMelancholy was actually quite a fashionable thing to suffer from in the seventeenth century. Here’s why: Back in Ancient Greece someone, possibly Aristotle, mused about why it was that all the greatest artists, poets and philosophers were predisposed to melancholy. During the renaissance people rather took up this idea and ran with it. A melancholic disposition became a sign of a great artist or a sensitive soul. People started to have pictures painted of themselves mooning about under trees, perhaps wearing black. It became something that was considered attractive and generally associated with genius. (It is a look that hasn’t really gone away, take the photograph of Oscar Wilde taken some time in the 1880s.)

02 08 oscar wilde 2So Burton’s book was really rather popular. He does warn though, that although it might seem attractive at first, too much melancholia can lead to serious problems and you should really try to do something about it. Writing helped him with his melancholia, as did reading, but he was aware that reading is a solitary occupation that can lead to melancholia. Particularly, he cites too much learning as a source of sorrow, which is rather sad but probably true. In certain passages he will warn his reader that if they are suffering from a certain type of melancholia, they might not want to read the next bit. Or he says that if what they are reading is making them feel sad, the next bit might cheer them up a bit. Goodness, comic interludes and trigger warnings from the seventeenth century, I really like Robert Burton.

Lots of other people have enjoyed his book too. Some because they recognised the symptoms in themselves, Some have read it to find impressive quotes in Latin to make themselves look clever. The Anatomy of Melancholy was a favourite of dictionary compiler Samuel Johnson. Samuel suffered from bouts of depression and said the Burton’s book was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. Laurence Sterne borrowed his sprawling style with its extensive use of footnotes for his novel ‘Tristram Shandy’. He was rather making fun of Burton, but he also lifted a large section of text directly from The Anatomy, for which he got into trouble. The poet Keats loved the book and it was an inspiration for some of his poetry. Byron mined it for quotes to impress women with. His book has been also much admired by Samuel Beckett, Philip Pullman and Nick Cave.02 08 the anatomy of melancholy

It’s worth seeking out The Anatomy of Melancholy, even just for a glance through the index. His suggested cures are not really recommended. Most of his cures for sleeplessness involve opium, but he also suggests horse leeches behind the ears or smearing your teeth with earwax from a dog. He does describe the way people are often kept awake by worries in a rather lovely way though. He says it is called ‘being led around the heath by Puck’, which makes it sound a lot more fun than it actually is. Often he recommends just going along with whatever the patient says and just telling them that they can be easily cured. He has a story about a king who believed that his head had been cut off. He was cured by being given a leaden cap to wear, so that he could really feel it weighing on his shoulders. While having your head cut off is not really a fear many of us can relate to, for a king in days gone by, it could have been a very real worry. The way people’s symptoms manifested is both very different from our own but at the same time sometimes oddly familiar. Burton also describes ‘The Glass Delusion’, a surprisingly common belief that the patient was made from glass and might easily shatter. I wrote about this elsewhere back in the summer. If you think of it as a way a person suffering from anxiety might describe their feelings it’s completely understandable.

Cock Lane

02 01` cock laneOkay, I’ve been looking forward to telling you about this for ages. It’s another hoax story, but it went on for quite a long time and it’s been hard to choose a suitable date to hang it all on. It involves usury, a ghost and accusations of murder. It’s a story worthy of Charles Dickens. But what is really brilliant about it is not so much the details as the name. Today I give you… Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost.

It all begins with a man called William Kent from Norfolk. His wife died in childbirth and he began a relationship with her sister Fanny. Church law forbade the couple to marry, so they moved to London, hoping to pass for man and wife. William took up a new career in usury (which means he was a loan shark) and managed to secure them a place to live in Cock Lane, near Smithfield Market. As part of the deal, he lent twelve guineas to his new landlord, Richard Parsons. They shared the house with Parsons, his wife and their two daughters.

The first sign of anything untoward was when William was away from home, some time in 1759. Fanny was several months pregnant and it was thought to be a good idea if the Parson’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, a girl of eleven, stayed with her while he was away. The two heard scratching and knocking noises in the night. At first it was thought to be a cobbler at work next door. But when they heard the noises on a Sunday, it was clear that it was not. Then the landlord of a nearby tavern visited the house. He caught a glimpse of a ghostly figure on the stairs and ran home terrified.

02 01 cock lane roomIn 1760, William and Fanny moved away from the house. But then, just before their child was born, Fanny caught smallpox and died. Fanny’s family didn’t approve very much of William and, when they found out she had left all her money to him, they liked him even less. When William and Fanny left Cock Lane, he was still owed money by Parsons, their landlord. In 1761, William sued Parsons and got back the three guineas he was owed. That was when the noises started again at Cock Lane. Richard Parsons’ new tenant, Catherine Friend, was driven from the house by them. They sounded like a cat scratching at furniture and seemed to emanate from Elizabeth Parsons, who also suffered from fits. Her father Richard enlisted the help of a local preacher, John Moore, to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. All the wainscotting was removed from around Elizabeth’s bed, but nothing was found. It had been generally decided that the first ghostly manifestations had been down to Williams first wife, coming to warn her sister of her imminent death. Now they believed Fanny was haunting them as well.

It was not uncommon, in the eighteenth century, to believe that, if a ghost appeared, it was because it had some message for the living. The two men devised a way of communicating with the ghost. One knock for ‘yes’ two for ‘no’. The ghost told them that Fanny had not died of smallpox, but had been murdered by William with a dose of arsenic. Now, Fanny’s sister Anne had complained that she had not been able to see her sister’s body because the lid of the coffin was screwed down. This was seen as more evidence against William. If they had seen her body, they would have been able to easily tell whether or not she had died of smallpox.

The story of the ghost soon spread all through London and William Kent was suspected of murder. Determined to clear his name, William attended a séance on January 12th 1762 at Cock Lane. The ghost of Fanny was again asked if William had poisoned her, and the reply was yes. When asked if Kent should be hanged, it also answered in the affirmative. William leapt up saying: “Thou art a lying spirit, thou are not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.”

More seances followed throughout January, sometimes at Cock Lane and sometimes elsewhere. Public interest in the story grew, especially when everyone found out that the manifestations were centred around Elizabeth Parsons. During the seances, Elizabeth would be put to bed and everyone would sit around her waiting for the noises to start. Not all the seances were successful. If someone sat too close to the bed, the ghost would not communicate. When someone looked under the bed with a candle, the ghost would make no noise. Yet, when the street outside the house in Cock Lane was thronged with people all intent, after paying a small fee to Mr Parsons, on gaining an audience with the ghost, they were not disappointed. In retrospect, it was all very suspicious, but people still weren’t sure.

On February 1st, 1762, a very eminent crowd indeed were gathered together to observe Elizabeth and her ghost, at the house of Rev. Aldrich of Clerkenwell. Among the company was Dr Samuel Johnson, who is famous for writing a dictionary and was not at all prone to flights of fancy. It is from him that we have the following account:

For an hour all was quiet. They left the room for a while. At a previous séance the ghost had promised that it would accompany a person into the vaults of the church at Clerkenwell where Fanny’s body lay buried. It further promised that it would reveal it’s presence by knocking on the coffin. They thought they would test this out. While they were debating this, they were called back to the séance by a group of women who had remained with the girl. Elizabeth told them that she could feel Fanny’s spirit “like a mouse upon her back”. They asked her to keep her hand above the covers, where they could see them, then entreated the spirit to touch them, to make a noise, anything to indicate its presence. Nothing was heard. Then, they told the spirit that someone was, at that moment, entering the crypt and would expect its presence there. The people dispatched to the church returned at one in the morning, having heard nothing. They tried questioning the girl, but she would admit nothing. A couple of hours later, she asked to go home. Dr Johnson’s conclusion, and that of everyone else present was that: “the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise”.

02 01 cock lane ghostAfter that Elizabeth was tested several more times and it was found, as you might expect, every time her hands were visible the noises stopped. Eventually, she was told that if the ghost did not manifest, her father would be sent to Newgate Prison. That was when a couple of the women who were attending her saw her hide a small piece of wood inside her bodice. After that the noises were clearly heard. It was obvious that Elizabeth was making the noises herself and also clear exactly how she was doing it. William Kent was at last free of suspicion. A pamphlet was written (naturally) possibly by the poet Oliver Goldsmith called ‘The Mystery Revealed’. He probably also did the rather splendid drawing below, mocking the whole affair. If you look closely, you can see on the wall, pictures of the Bottle Conjurer and Elizabeth Canning who I have also mentioned recently.

02 01 goldsmith's drawingIt isn’t clear what became of Elizabeth Parsons, but her father was put on trial, along with several others, and sentenced to be put in the stocks. But people felt quite sorry for him and rather than throw things they left him money.

I said at the beginning of this post that it was the sort of thing Dickens would like. In fact, he did know this story. He probably had it from his childhood nurse, Mary Weller. He mentions the Cock Lane Ghost more than once in his novels, especially Nicholas Nickelby.

Full English

09 18 samuel johnsonToday is the birthday of Samuel Johnson, of dictionary fame, who was born in Lichfield in 1709. He was a very intelligent child, blessed with an excellent memory and a gift for Latin. He came from a poor background and though he began a degree at Oxford University, he was forced to give it up due to lack of funds.

In fact he had a lot of disadvantages. He wasn’t a well child. He suffered from scrofula, horrible swellings of the lymph nodes. Oddly, people at the time thought that the best cure for this was to be touched by the reigning monarch and, at the age of two, he was taken to Queen Anne. Sadly, it didn’t work and instead he suffered surgery which left him with disfiguring scars on his face and body. When he was around seven he began to develop a series of tics that have led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome. People remarked that he was inclined to make odd noises, a sort of whistle or clucking like a hen. He had a habit when drinking tea of holding the cup out at arms length in every direction, which was rather alarming. When approaching a doorway, he would whirl and twist about before making an exaggerated step over the threshold. When a little girl asked him why he did this, he replied that it was because of bad habit. Johnson also seems to have suffered from bouts of depression, which he refers to as a black dog. His way of combating his depression was to keep himself so busy that he couldn’t dwell on dark thoughts. He advocated sleeping with a lamp burning and always keeping a book by the bed.

After leaving university, he tried very hard to get employment as a teacher, but his lack of a degree made it difficult. His involuntary tics and gesticulations didn’t help him much either. The directors of the school in Solihull would not employ him because: ‘he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can’t help) the gents think it may affect some lads.’ He even ran his own school for a while with the help of his wife’s money. It wasn’t very successful, but one of his students was David Garrick, who would grow up to be a famous actor.

After moving to London in 1737 he managed to scratch a living writing for a magazine. In 1746, he was asked by a group of publishers if he would write a dictionary of the English language. At the time, the French were producing a similar dictionary of their own language. Forty scholars were working on it for forty years. Johnson was sure that he could finish his in only three years. He suggested that, as forty multiplied by forty was sixteen hundred, a proportion of three to sixteen hundred was how much better as Englishman was than a Frenchman. He really wasn’t at all keen on the French. Many French words are omitted from his dictionary. He does not include the words ‘champagne’ or ‘bourgeois’, but does include the word ‘escargatoire’, which he describes as a nursery for snails. Fair enough, it’s a good word. Johnson seems to have felt a similar animosity towards the Scots. He defines oats as: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. He later became friends with a man from Edinburgh called James Boswell, with whom he travelled the Western Isles. Boswell was also Johnson’s first major biographer.

Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary actually took him eight years to complete and was published in 1755. Although it isn’t the first dictionary of the English language, it was the first to use citations, examples of uses of each word from famous works of literature, to make the meaning more clear. It was a massive undertaking and he needed several assistants to help him. It isn’t really a comprehensive dictionary, it contains 42,773 entries while at the time there were around 250,000 words in the English language. Still, for 150 years it remained the best dictionary of the English Language. Some of his definitions are lovely and show us that he had a sense of humour. He defines the word ‘dull’ as: ‘Not exhilirating, not delightful: as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work’. Also ‘to worm’ means: ‘To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.’ There were no entries under the letter ‘X’ because: ‘X begins no word in the English language.’

After his dictionary was published he was congratulated by several society ladies for having left out all the indecent words. His reply to them was: ‘Ah, ladies, so you have been looking for them?’ While it is true that he left out any words with a sexual connotation, penis and vagina are not there at all, he did include the words bum, fart, arse, piss and turd. So the ladies must have been fine with those.