Thursday, August 11, 2011

Week of August 8 (Mini-Update)

One August day, a contagious wave of destruction, spreading outwards from London, landed in a northern Derbyshire village.
Eyam, August, 1666.
Dear Hearts,—This brings you the doleful news of your dear mother's death— the greatest loss which ever yet befell you! I am not only deprived of a kind and loving consort, but you also are bereaved of the most indulgent mother that ever dear children had.
Thus begins the letter relating the death of Catherine Mompesson to her young children, George and Elizabeth. Its composer: husband, Rev. William Mompesson. The Great Plague had arrived a few months earlier, hidden in a box of infested cloth, but the Reverend and his wife, after some mutual pleading for the other to flee, both decided to stay. They sent their children away.

In Hone's Table Book, verse and prose detail Mompesson's concern for his flock and the new arrangements made for addressing them and delivering his regular sermons. One letter he wrote at the time reveals his personal commitment.
I intend (God willing) to spend most of this week in seeing all the woollen clothes fumed and purified, as well for the satisfaction, as for the safety of the country.
Tomb of Catherine Mompesson [d. August 1666], and nearby ancient cross

Over 7 months of misery, 259 Eyam villagers--four-fifths of the total population--suffered and died. Yet no one fled, and the contagious disease spread no further. Hone reports that Mompesson imported necessary supplies, thereby tempering the desperation with goods, as well as his persuasive words. In their notes to The Desolation of Eyam, William and Mary Botham Howitt suggest that the subject of their poem was more efficient than an army.

What a cordon of soldiers could not have accomplished, was effected by the wisdom and love of one man.* This measure was the salvation of the country. The plague, which would most probably have spread from place to place, may be said to have been here hemmed in, and, in a dreadful and desolating struggle, destroyed and buried with its victims.
Hone concludes his narrative with the following lines.
William Mompesson exercised a power greater than legislators have yet attained. He had found the great secret of government. He ruled his flock by the Law of Kindness.
Since then, a few have had luck with those infected and disaffected, by insisting on living and working in the midst of social crisis.

Interview with James Cook [August 2011]

*Another individual, the Rev. Thomas Stanley, also aided his fellow residents of Eyam in their distress. After being forced into retirement for his beliefs, 4 years earlier by the Act of Conformity, Stanley received monetary support from most of the community.

[Table Book, pp. 655-661; 729]

Photos: from Jeffandi and Torchythetourist, via TripAdvisor; Associated Press

Audio: The World Today (BBC World Service), August 10, 2011, 02:00 GMT

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26, 2010

For many, once Christmas Day has drawn to a close, so does the merrymaking and special activities. This is not mandatory, however, as Hone hints. Just as modern celebrations emphasize Santa Claus' arrival between the late night news on Dec. 24 and 3am, certain obscure customs were once carefully observed in the days following Christmas.

December 26 is called both St. Stephen's Day and Boxing Day. The former designation marks the death of the first Christian martyr, and includes ancient traditions involving horses. "S. Stevens-day it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench'd," reads one old book. Yet there is a record of at least one gentleman refusing the bloodletting offer. "He answered, no, sirra, my horse is not diseas'd of the fashions." By the end of the 19th century, this gentleman's skepticism had spread to the medical community, both horse and human.


Less gruesome customs are connected with the day, perhaps best remembered in the Good King Wenceslas carol. Acts of charity are shown to the poor man gathering fuel, and this tradition was cemented into place by the second term for Dec. 26. Historically, Boxing Day was a day for distributing gifts specifically to tradesmen and the poor. Sometimes, the presents and money would flow forth as a matter of course. Other times, a little prompting helped to open the coffers.

In Malcolm's London, an anecdote from 1731 reveals the annoyance felt by one fellow. While he readily gave Christmas-boxes to his "brewer, baker, and other tradesmen," an "innumerable tribe" of those tradesmen's servants also turned up at his doorstep for their gifts, too. His disgust was complete after going into town with a friend, in order to see how the money was spent. At one alehouse, roast beef and plum pudding were on hand, but a card game ruined the good cheer when a fight broke out. At a barn, the pair of friends found themselves surrounded by a hundred people, some in costume, dancing "to the music of two sorry fiddles."

"This horrid place seemed to be a complete nursery to the gallows," writes the fellow, who rejoices when the police come to break up the party. No word on whether this Scrooge ever loosened up, but in Yorkshire, the celebration and charity of the season continued without fail:

On the feast of St. Stephen large goose pies are made, all of which they distribute among their needy neighbours, except one which is carefully laid up, and not tasted till the purification of the virgin, called Candlemas. [EDBv1]

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Week of December 19 (Mini-Update)

Weekend shopping, if not entirely consigned to gift selection, probably includes items for the pantry.


Hone records the changing customs of holiday meals, starting with a few overwhelming lines from Philip Massinger, the 17th century playwright:

Men may talk of country Christmasses,
Their thirty-pound butter'd eggs, their pies of carp's tongues,
Their pheasants drench'd with ambergris, the carcasses
Of three fat wethers bruised for gravy, to
Make sauce for a single peacock; yet their feasts
Were fasts, compared with the city's.

City Madam, act ii, sc.1.

Whether or not you have three fat sheep primed for your gravy boat, a taste of the old days may be recalled with Christmas games and stories. Traditional tales include those of Sir Thopas, Bevis of Southampton, Guy of Warwicke, Adam Bell, and Clymme of the Clough.

To conclude the day, try a bed-time posset. Part drink, part pudding, this favorite dessert has been employed by the rampaging Macbeth family (with a little poison), to dispose of the King's guards. It's also popped up in another epic adventure, where it demonstrated temporary restorative powers. [EDBv2]

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Week of November 28 (Mini-Update)

As December opens, a note from Hone about past tendencies to mark the winter months:


[Christmas] is the holiday, which, for obvious reasons, may be said to have survived all the others; but still it is not kept with any thing like the vigour, perseverance, and elegance of our ancestors. They not only ran Christmas-day, new-year's-day, and twelfth-night, all into one, but kept the wassail-bowl floating the whole time, and earned their right to enjoy it by all sorts of active pastimes.

Hone then summarizes a range of colorful and boisterous activities--which we will return to in the coming days. You, too, will learn "the way to turn winter to summer." [EDBv1]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Week of August 2 (Mini-Update)

August 5 - You: at the coffee shop, pretending to read W.B. Yeats. Brown knitted sweater, frizzy hair, worn jeans. Me: tall, soaking wet and my nose pressed against the window. Something passed between us when you noticed me. Please call mailbox #8675309 .

Ever see those ads searching for missed connections? Here's one from this day in 1758, originally published in the London Chronicle:

A young lady who was at Vauxhall on Tuesday night last, in company with two gentlemen, could not but observe a young gentleman in blue and a gold-laced hat, who, being near her by the orchestra during the performance, especially the last song, gazed upon her with the utmost attention. He earnestly hopes (if unmarried) she will favour him with a line directed to A.D. at the bar of the Temple Exchange Coffee-house, Temple-bar, to inform him whether fortune, family, and character, may not entitle him upon a further knowledge, to hope an interest in hear heart. He begs she will pardon the method he has taken to let her know the situation of his mind, as, being a stranger, he despaired of doing it any othe way, or even of seeing her more. As his views are founded upon the most honourable principles, he presumes to hope the occasion will justify it, if she generously breaks through this trifling formality of the sex, rather than, by a cruel silence, render unhappy one, who must ever expect to continue so if debarred from a nearer acquaintance with her, in whose power alone it is to complete his felicity.

Hone comments that "a description of the various afflictions and modes of relief peculiar to the progress of this disorder would fill many volumes."

There's no word on whether A.D. ever cured his heartache, but one wonders if contemporary approaches to the same illness are more successful than his. [EDBv1]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mini-Update (Week of December 7)

December 11 - On this day, a letter about Saint Nicholas is published, concerning his yearly visit to the city of Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands:


"During a residence in the above town, some twenty years agone, in the brief days of happy boyhood, (that green spot in our existence,) it was my fortune to be present at one of these annual visitations. Imagine a group of happy youngsters sporting around the domestic hearth, in all the buoyancy of riotous health and spirits, brim-full of joyful expectation, but yet in an occasional pause, casting frequent glances towards the door, with a comical expression of impatience, mixed up with something like dread of the impending event. At last a loud knock is heard, in an instant the games are suspended, and the door slowly unfolding, reveals to sight the venerated saint himself, arrayed in his pontificals, with pastoral staff and jewelled mitre."

Sinterklaas, after praising the family's successes, then gave "his parting benediction, together with the promise (never known to fail,) of more substantial benefits, to be realized on the next auspicious morning."

"Before retiring to rest, each member of the family deposits a shoe on a table in a particular room, which is carefully locked, and the next morning is opened in the presence of the assembled household; when lo! by the mysterious agency (doubtless) of the munificent saint, the board is found covered with bons bons, toys and trinkets.

The writer, identified only as H.H., hopes that others appreciate the "relics of ancient observances, belonging to a more primitive state of manners," and offers the sentiment that "modern refinements, if they tend to render us wiser, hardly make us happier!"

H.H. could never have guessed that Sinterklaas' annual arrival to the Netherlands would be telecast and archived for all to see, but he might have relished the enduring joy in the spectacle. [EDBv1]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mini-Update (Week of October 26)

October 29 - For the young student, busy fashioning pumpkin faces over the past weeks, the very same skills that create a toothy grin may come in handy later on.

Consider the progression of the carving knife through the year-end seasons: from Halloween jack o'lanterns to Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams. For this day, Hone publishes a letter that examines the importance of the carver in history and literature.



The friendly command "Come, make yourself at home!" was designed to end idleness more that it was meant to spur merriment. Originally, the idea was to jump into the fray and carve for yourself.

It wasn't always this way. During the time of royal and noble ranks, it was the custom for dinner guests to sit at the table, arranged in order of ranking. Carving started with the host, at the head of the table, and continued as it was passed down to the other end. If you were poor, hopefully you weren't too finicky by the time the roast was slid in front of you:

[T]he fastidious would be sorry to cut it, after it had been mangled by the aristocracy above, then to be washed by the tears of famishing plebians...

At first, the cook was often the carver as well. But the latter eventually carved out a niche for himself, even if the Roman philosopher Seneca didn't think much of it. "Unhappy he who lives but for this one purpose, that he may carve fat fowls with neatness!," he wrote in his Epistle the 47th.

About a century later, the Roman poet Juvenal described the occupation differently, in his Fifth Satire:

The carver, dancing round, each dish surveys
With flying knife; and, as his heart directs,
With proper gesture every fowl dissects.
A thing of so great moment to their taste
That one false slip--had surely marr'd the feast

In time, Chaucer and Shakespeare would make references and allusions to the meat-carver. Within Spanish culture, proficiency in carving was possibly just as important as bravery on the battlefield. For it could show ingenuity and acuteness, in adapting the parts and pieces to the tastes and tempers of the served:--a wing for the ponderous--seasoning for the inexperienced--a merry-thought for the melancholy!

How important is the carver? Observe her face, and listen--is she festive, or solemn? Then pay attention to the rest of the dinner guests and the mood at the table. [YB]

Image from Lex in the City's Flickr page