The Elizabethan People/Chapter 3
LIFE IN THE CAPITAL
AS I have elsewhere made an attempt to describe topographically the city of London, I shall now merely suggest the appearance of the town, dwelling more at length upon a few features of the social life that I have not treated elsewhere.
London was then not only the capital but also the only influential city on a large scale in the kingdom. It was the guiding centre at the time, and exerted a far more dominating influence over the country at large than it does to-day. An Elizabethan could not grow up happily unless he was able to make the acquaintance of the great city. One went there and only there to try one's fortunes; and one frequently came home ruined in body and soul, for London was, indeed, in those days, a monstrous den of vice.
Yet it was an attractive city; not too small, nor yet so large as to preclude a general knowledge on the part of one individual of the private affairs of his neighbour. We should not overlook the fact, when contemplating the Elizabethan drama, that both actor and audience, meeting day by day, grew familiar with one another, almost on speaking terms of acquaintance.
The city was circled by a wall, in fact, had grown a little beyond it on the three landward sides. And a large settlement at Southwark across the river extended from the only bridge that spanned the stream.
The streets were narrow, filthy, and ill-paved. The houses were built mostly of wood, with overhanging gables, were covered with red tile, thus giving the city a distinct colour when seen from a distance. As important as any of the great streets as a thoroughfare was the river, then a clear stream of fresh water. Thousands of boatmen plied their clumsy little skiffs, or wherries, for the service of passengers.
In spite of the narrowness and the filth of the poorly paved streets, London possessed many beautiful buildings and several fine prospects. Traders still clung together, venders of one kind of article living in one street, those of another in another. In general they set up their shops in the lower front rooms of their dwellings.
The reign of Elizabeth was a time when the merchant was becoming more and more influential, both in a business and in a social way. Though Sir Thomas Gresham is a figure of magnificent proportions, there is reason to believe that the average petty trader was about as dishonest as the confidence man now met with at the racetrack.
Oftentimes the wares for sale were exposed in a lean-to or booth outside the house, encroaching upon the narrow street. The apprentices took turns standing to attract customers whose attention they solicited by the well known cry of "What do ye lack? What do ye lack?" People then as now often haunted shops for the purpose of satisfying curiosity rather than for the purpose of buying. Such people earned the contemporary title of "stall-troublers." The replacing of an appretice by an alluring wife or daughter was a common trick of the trade and frequently led to much scandal. Thus Field in Amends for Ladies (ii. 2) refers to "some decayed tradesman that doth make his wife entertain those for gain that he not endures."
Numerous passages in the Elizabethan plays refer to "false lights." The phrase applies to the placing of windows and other sources of light so as to defeat their own ends; in other words, an intentional effort was made to darken the shop rather than to render it light for the easy and just examination of goods. Thus:
"Fool that hadst rather with false lights and dark
Beguiled be than see the ware thou buyest."
(Nero, ii. 2.)
"Though your shop wares you vent with your deceiving lights." (Middleton, Anything for a Quiet Life, ii. 2.)
"Faith, choosing of a wench in a hugh farthingale
Is like the buying of ware under a great penthouse;
What with deceit of one and the false lights of the other."
(Middleton, Women beware Women.)
Dekker, in Westward Ho! says that the shop of a mercer or a human draper is as dark as a room in Bedlam.
The apprentice was a person of considerable moment. Yet he was one whose position was not always well defined. Nominally he was to learn the trade or profession of his master. A bond was executed between them: the master agreeing to teach and to provide, the apprentice to serve and to learn. At the end of his term of years the pupil was supposed to be qualified to set up in business on his own account. He often succeeded to his master's business and frequently married the daughter of the house. Though this equality existed, the apprentice was expected to perform many miscellaneous acts of domestic service not referred to in the bond. He must run errands, frequently serve at table, follow his master or mistress when abroad in order to carry bundles or to lend protection. Apprentices were attracted to each other as a class by ties of very sympathetic fellowship. Though they were permitted to carry no weapons other than staves, the cry of "Clubs, Clubs!" would rouse a whole neighbourhood with disastrous results. Scott has accurately described such a scene in The Fortunes of Nigel.
There were two shops, that of the barber and of the tobacco man, that merit special notice, for they were, in a way, Elizabethan institutions. The barber shop was recognised outwardly by the pole and the basin. The latter sign was symbolical not only of the bowl in which the barber mixed his lather but also of the vessel in which he caught blood when performing his office of surgeon, a profession that went hand in hand with hair-cutting. The barber often rented his basin for use in making the general hub-hub that accompanied the carting of a bawd. "Let there be no bawd carted that year, to employ a basin of his." (Jonson, The Silent Woman.)
It is, however, the inside of the barber shop that interests us particularly as an Elizabethan institution. It was the place above all for the manufacture and the dissemination of gossip. Here the young gallant came, incidentally to be trimmed and shaved, primarily to spend a social hour. The shop was well fitted out for his amusement. Just as a newspaper is handed one to-day who is compelled to wait his turn at the chair, so a musical instrument was given to an Elizabethan with which to beguile the time.
The instruments most frequently in use were of the lute or cittern order. Thus Dekker in Match me in London speaks of a cittern with a man's broken head "so that I think 'twas a barber-surgeon." The allusion is to the grotesquely carved end of the instrument. In one of The Merry Jests of Peele, when a lute is needed, haste is made to borrow one of a barber. The barber himself should also be a performer. "Have you any skill in song or instrument?" cries one in Dekker's Wonder in a Kingdom. "As a gentleman should have," is the reply. "I know all but play on none. I am no barber." A passage in Ford's Fancies Chaste and Noble (ii. 2), shows that the barber was also, upon occasion, expected to instruct the lasses both in song and dance.
Reed gives the following graphic sketch note of the interior of a barber's shop with waiting customers:
"A lute or cittern used to be part of the furniture of a barber's shop, and as Sir John Hawkins, in his notes on Walton's Complete Angler, p. 236, observes, answered the end of a newspaper, the now common amusement of waiting customers. In an old book of enigmas, to every one of which the author has prefixed a wooden cut of the subject of the enigma, is a barber, and the cut represents a barber's shop, in which there is one person sitting in a chair under the barber's hands, while another, who is waiting for his turn, is playing on the lute; and on the side of the shop hangs another instrument of the lute or cittern kind."
A passage regarding the barber shop occurs in Measure for Measure and has given rise to much comment,
"laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanced, that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
As much in mock as mark."
"In order to enforce some kind of regularity in barber shops," says Dyer (p. 533), "which were places of great resort for the idle, certain laws were usually made, the breaking of which was to be punished by forfeits." A list of such rules is given by Nares, who, however, doubts their authenticity. Warburton suggested a different interpretation. Barber shops were continually crowded with irresponsible persons "who would be perpetually handling and misusing" the barber's instruments. "To remedy which, I suppose, there was placed up against the wall a table of forfeitures, adapted to every offence of this kind; which it is not likely would long preserve its authority."
An interesting sidelight is thrown upon the Elizabethan barber shop by Mr. H. C. Hart, the latest editor of Measure for Measure, who seems to have discovered the correct interpretation of the above passage. After giving a list of passages referring to barbers and their shops, he says:
"Many other votaries of St. Cuthbert (Cutbeards) might be mentioned, but nowhere is there even an illusion, that I have met, that could be construed into a reference to any kind of bye-laws. …
"But there is one kind of forfeit which the barber took possession of from his customers and hung up as part of his insignia in his shop, and that was their teeth. For the barber was the dentist of the time. These were the innocuous forfeits that could mock, not mark. In the first act (I. iii. 19) these neglected statutes have already suggested the metaphor: 'We have strict statutes, and most biting laws. … Which for this fourteen years we have let sleep.' If it be objected that these shop fittings cannot be called forfeits, since the idea of penalty is not present, no doubt Cutbeard would reply if the sufferers had visited him earlier their teeth would have been saved by proper treatment, and they forfeited them from neglect. But Shakespeare would have made nothing of that point in his choice of a word to express a bold idea. He often paid slight heed to the exact verbal signification, and left it for others to discover his meaning. And he uses forfeit (verb) absolutely in the sense of to lose several times.
"With reference to the custom a few examples will prove it. We learn from Jonson's Silent Woman, iii. 2 (430b), how the decoration was fixed: 'Or draw his own [Cutbeard's] teeth, and add them to the lutestring.' In Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle (1611), Act III., the string is confirmed: 'Lo, where the spear [barber's pole] and copper basin are! Behold the string on which hangs many a tooth. Drawn from the gentle jaw of wandering knights!' And in The Woman Hater, iii. 3 (1607), by the same authors, is another reference: 'I will break my knife, the ensign of my former happy state, Knock out my teeth, have them hung at a barber's, and enter into religion.' Shakespeare has referred a number of times to toothache and raging teeth. It is not therefore an unlikely fancy to occur to him. One passage is indeed a remarkable parallel to the thought in the text. It is in 2 Henry VI., IV. vii. 16–19: 'Away, burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England. Holl. Then we are like to have biting statutes, unless his teeth be pulled out.' So that Shakespeare compared the 'biting statutes' already to teeth that should be extracted, then to become a mockery, and hung up as a badge of ornament."
Tobacco was usually sold at the apothecary's shop and our interest lies rather in the material than in the shop. The use of tobacco, which had recently been introduced into England, was rapidly becoming general. Stow tells us that it was taken by most men and by many women. "In these days," says Harrison in his Chronology, "the taking of the smoke of the Indian herb called tobacco, by an instrument formed like a little ladle, whereby it passeth from the mouth into the head and stomach, is greatly taken up and used in England against Rewmes (colds) and some other deseases ingendered in the lungs and inward parts, and not without effect. This herb as yet is not so common but that for want thereof divers do practice for the like purpose with the Nicetian . . . or the yellow henbane, albeit not without great error; for, although that herb be a sovereign healer of old vices and sores reported incurable outwardly, yet is not the smoke or vapour thereof so profitable to be received."
We find in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (ii. 1) the following allusion to the adulteration of tobacco. "Three pence a pipe full, I will have made of all my half-pound of tobacco, and a quarter of a pound of colt's foot mixed with it to [eke] it out;" and in The Alchemist (i. 3) is another allusion to the practice.
"This is my friend Abel, an honest fellow,
He lets me have good tobacco, and he does not
Sophisticate it with sack lees or oil,
Nor washes it in muscadel, and grains,
Nor buries it in gravel, underground,…
He has his maple block, his silver tongs,
Winchester pipes, and fire of juniper, etc."
Sir Philip Sidney.
Marquis of Hamilton.
Illustrative of falling bands.
It is hard to understand how a habit in such general disrepute as "tobacco taking" could have grown so rapidly among the people. To be sure, John Davies wrote the following praise, though doubtless ironically:—
"It is tobacco, which doth cold expel,
And clears the obstructions of the arteries,
And surfeits threatening death digesteth well,
Decocting all the stomach's crudities:
It is tobacco, which hath power to clarify
The cloudy mists before dim eyes appearing;
It is tobacco, which hath power to rarify
The thick gross humour which doth stop the hearing;
The wasting hectic, and the quartan fever,
Which doth of physic make a mockery,
The gout it cures, and helps ill breaths forever,
Whether the cause in teeth or stomach be."
Though there are many serious allusions to the virtues of the new drug, a greater number express the contrary opinion. King James in his Counterblast calls it a "custom loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fumes thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomless."
Above all, the plays abound in allusions expressive of contempt. Jonson in Bartholomew Fair makes Overdo exclaim "Hence it is that the lungs of the tobacconist are rotted, the liver spotted, the brain smoked like the back side of the pig-woman's booth here, and the whole body within black as her pan you saw e'en now without."
In Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday we read, "Oh, fie upon it, Roger, perdy! These filthy tobacco pipes are the most idle, slavering baubles that ever I felt. Out upon it! God bless us, men look not like men that use them."
"By my little finger, I'll break all your pipes, and burn the case, and the box too, and you draw out your stinking smoke before me." (Dekker's Westward Ho.)
Beaumont and Fletcher are equally contemptuous. "Fie, this stinking tobacco kills me! Would there were none in England." (Knight of the Burning Pestle.) Middleton mentions the goldsmith and the tobacco seller as the two extremes; and Field, "Her fortune, O my conscience, would be to marry some tobacco man." (Amends for Ladies, iii. 1.)
The tobacco sold in that day must have been very dark if we may draw an inference from "faces far blacker than any ball of tobacco" a line from Nash's The Terrors of the Night, i. 139. It was the custom to hand one a pipe of tobacco already filled; and the phrase, "Will you take a pipe of tobacco?" was the customary equivalent of "Have a drink?" In fact, the phrase "drinking tobacco" was in use.
Fill my discourse up drinking tobacco."
(Chapman, All Fools, ii. 1.)
Dishonest tradesmen, gossiping barbers, and adulterating tobacconists were not the only evil elements in the popular London life.
More than once in the present volume attention has been called to the credulity of the Elizabethans, and its effect on the national character. It was the tendency to believe in the marvelous that made the age one of fortune telling and prophecy. Palmistry, alchemy, and astrology were probably then more popular than they have ever been before or since. The fact that the practice of these professions was frowned upon by the authorities, coupled with their mysterious nature, tended to make them dear to the Elizabethan heart. The very nature of these so-called arts was especially tempting to dishonest people. London swarmed with quack astrologers and alchemists who have become through lineal descent the bunco men of to-day.
It is not the purpose of the present chapter to set forth an exposition of the serious beliefs pertaining to either of the allied arts; but rather to tell in the words of those who, at the time, were sharp enough to see through the deceitful practices, what was really done by the Elizabethan quacks. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that there were honest and sincere devotees to each of these arts who practised for the love of science what they believed to be truth.
Whatever can be said of certain false astrologers, there can be no denial of the fact that they were believed in implicitly by the people, from the Queen down. The popularity of alchemy is sufficiently attested by the fact that no less than 113 books on the subject were published between 1595 and 1615. It was the Queen's patronage that contributed most largely to this popularity. At bottom, the whole thing rested on the belief in magic which we shall see was the mainstay of witchcraft. In the following words, Nash bitterly attacked the belief in sorcery:
"Purblind London, neither canst thou see that God sees thee, nor see into thyself. . . . Therefore hath He smitten thee and struck thee because thou wouldst not believe He was present with thee. . . . His hand I may well term it, for on many that are arrested with the Plague, is the print of a hand seen, and in the very moment it first takes them, they feel a sensible blow given them, as it were the hand of some stander by. As God's hand we will not take it, but the hand of fortune, the hand of hot weather, the hand of close, smouldy air. The astronomers [astrologers] they assign to the regiment and operation of planets. They say Venus, Mars, or Saturn are motives thereof, and never mention our sins, which are his chief procreators. The vulgar meniality conclude, therefore, it is like to increase, because a heronshaw (a whole afternoon together) sat on the top of Saint Peter's church in Cornhill. They talk of an ox that tolled the bell at Woolwich, and how from an ox he transformed himself to an old man, and from an old man to an infant, and from an infant to a young man. Strange prophetical reports (as to touching the sickness) they mutter he gave out, when in truth they are naught else but cleanly coined lies which some pleasant sportive wits have devised, to gull them most grossly. Under Master Dee's name, the like fabulous divinations have they bruited, when (good reverend old man) he is as far from any such arrogant prescience, as the superstitious spreaders of it are from peace of conscience."
In that age it was not unusual for a scholar or philospher, by entering all fields of thought, to lay claim to well nigh universal knowledge. So it was with the quacks. Though all the sciences were to a degree, medicine was the one most closely linked to astrology. Jerome Cardan, perhaps the greatest physician of the day, was also one of the most famous astrologers. Forman, who has left an interesting astrological diary, as a physician diagnosed wholly by the Ephemerides.
"On the basis of medicine and astrology," says Mr. Hathaway, "it was easy for the would-be general fakir to rear his structure. Conjuring up spirits, telling fortunes, locating lost property, or hidden treasure, preparing love philters, seemed to the people but an extension of the practices of the scientists and physicians of the times. There was a difference in degree, but not in kind. The base of it all was magical. This attitude of wise and simple alike made imposters of the Forman type not merely possible but inevitable. The law of supply and demand applies at once. The people believed that such operations could be performed. They wished them to be performed. It remained but to select the person to perform them. Economic law presented him in a large assortment of varieties. The demand still exists in a lessened degree, and the supply meets it amply. The truth of this, for verification, needs but reference to the advertisements of any large daily paper. Clairvoyants, quacks, patent-medicine men abound. Their only dangerous competitors are the founders of new religions. This latter is to-day, perhaps, the most profitable and easily operated swindle in the world."
Closely allied to the astrological practice of medicine were the arts of palmistry and physiognomy, which Nash bitterly attacks in The Terrors of the Night.
"Just such like impostures as is this art of exposition of dreams are the arts of Physiognomy and Palmistry: wherein who beareth most palm and praise, is the palpablest fool and Crepundio. Lives there any such slow, itch-brained, beef-witted gull, who by the riveld bark or outward rind of a tree will take upon himself to forespeak how long it will stand, what mischaices of worms, caterpillars, boughs breaking, frost bitings, catel rubbing against, it shall have? As absurd is it by the external branched seams of furrowed wrinkles in a man's face or hand, in particular or in general to conjecture and foredoom his fate.
"According to every ones labour or exercise, the palm of the hand is wrythen and pleyted, and every day alters as he alters his employments or pastimes; wherefore well may we collect, that he which hath a hand so brawned and interlined, useth such and such tools or recreations; but for the mind or disposition we can no more look through it than we can into a looking-glass through the wooden case thereof. . . .
"My own experience is but small, yet thus much can I say by his warrantize, that those fatal brands of physiognomy which condemn men for fools, and for idiots, and on the other side for treacherous circumventors and false brothers, have in a hundred men I have known been verified in the contrary."
Nash is one from whom we shall quote often in the following pages; for he, together with Robert Greene, profligate and debauchee himself, were most energetic in exposing the abuses of this time. The same pamphlet from which the above is quoted furnishes the following relative to the conjurors or "cunning" men of the time:
"Shall I impart unto you a rare secrecy how these famous conjurors ascend by degrees to tell secrets as they do. First and foremost they are men that have had some little sprinkling of grammar learning in their youth; or at least I will allow them to have been surgeons or apothecaries prentices, these, I say, having run through their thrift at the elbows, and riotously among harlots and makeshifts spent the annuity of half-penny ale that was left them, fall a beating their brains how to botch up an easy gainful trade, and set a new nap on an old occupation.
Illustrative of falling bands
"Scarce one month have they stayed there, but what with their vaunting and prating, and speaking fustian instead of Greek, all the shires round about do ring with their fame; and then they begin to get a library of three or four old rusty manuscript books, which they themselves nor any else can read; and furnish their shops with a thousand quid pro quos, that would choke any horse; besides, some waste trinkets in their chambers hung up, which may make the world half in jealousy they can conjure.
"They will ever more talk doubtfully, as if there were more in them than they meant to make public, or was applicable to every common man's capacity; when God be their rightful judge, they utter all that they know and a great deal more.
"To knit up their knaveries in short (which, insooth, is the hangman's office and none's else) having picked up their crumbs thus pretty well in the country, they draw after a time a little nearer and nearer to London; and at length into London they filch themselves privily; but how? Not in the heart of the city will they presume at first dash to hang out their rat banners, but in the skirts and outshifts steal out a sign over a cobbler's stall, like aqua-vitae sellers and stocking menders.
"Many poor people they win to believe in them, who have not a barreled herring or a piece of poor John that looks ill on it, but they will bring the water he was steeped in unto them in an urinal, and crave their judgment whether he be rotten, or merchant and chapmanable or no. The bruit of their cumming thus travelling from ale-house to ale-house, at last is transported into the great hilts of one or other country serving-man's sword to some good tavern or ordinary; where it is no sooner arrived than it is greedily snatched up by some dapper Monsieur Diego, who lives by telling news, and false dice, and it may be hath a pretty insight into the cards also, together with a little skill in his Jacob's staff, and his compass: being able at all times to discover a new passage to Virginia.
"This needy gallant with the qualities aforesaid, straight trudgeth to some nobleman's to dinner, and there enlargeth the rumour of this new physician, comments upon every glass and viol that he hath, railed on our Galenists and calls them dull gardners and hay-makers in a man's belly, compares them to dogs, who, when they are sick eat grasse, and sais they are no better than pack or malt horses, who if a man should knock out their brains will not go out of the beaten highway; whereas his horsleach will leap over the hedge & ditch of a thousand Dioscorides and Hippocrates, and give a man twenty poisons in one, but he would restore him to perfect health. With this strange tale the Noble-man inflamed, desires to bee acquainted with him; what does he but goes immediately and breaks with this mountebanke, telling him if he will divide his gains with him, he will bring him in custome with such and such States, and he shall be countenanst in the Court as he wold desire. The hungrie druggier ambitious after preferment, agrees to anything, and to Court he goes; where being come to enterview, he speaks nothing but broken English like a French Doctor, pretending to have forgotten his natural tong by travell, when he hath never been further than either the Lowe Countries or Ireland, inforced thether to fly either for getting a maid with child, or marrying two wives. Suffiseth he set[s] a good face on it, & will swear he can extract a better Balsamum out of a chip than the Balm of Iudaea; yea, all receipts and authors you can name he syllogizeth of, & makes a pish at in comparison of them he hath seen and read: whose names if you aske, hee claps you in the mouth with half a dozen spruce titles, never till he invented them heard of by any Christian. But this is most certaine, if he be of any sect, he is a mettle-bruing Paracelsian, having not past one or two Probatums for al deseases. But case he be called to practise, he excutheth it by great cures he hath in hand; & will not encounter an infirmity but in the declining, that his credit may be more autentical or els when by some secret intelligence hee is thoroughly instructed of the whole process of his unrecoverable extremitie, he comes gravely marching like a Judge, and gives peremptorie sentence of death; whereby he is accounted a Prophet of deepe prescience.
"But how come he to be the divells secretarie, all this long tale unrips not. In secret be it spoken he is not so great with the divell as you take it."
Possibly the strictures of Nash will seem more believeable when reinforced by the record of an actual case. Dr. John Dee, born in 1527, died 1608, was one of the best known and influential astrological-alchemists who flourished during the reign of Elizabeth. He graduated from Cambridge, where he took both the B.A. and M.A. degrees. He early showed genius as a mathematician, and planned a reformation of the calendar that received the government's serious consideration. He was always held in high favour by the Queen, who visited him in order to see spirits in his crystal globe at Mortlake, a relic now preserved in the British Museum. He had been imprisoned by Queen Mary on the charge of enchantment with malicious intent. He calculated an auspicious day for the coronation of her successor. It was he who was called in to counteract the bad effects of the waxen image of Elizabeth picked up in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1577. The next year he was required to charm away pains in the teeth of the Queen. Subsequently, on the appearance of a comet in the heavens, Dr. Dee was sent for to explain its portentous significance.
Up to this point there is nothing to show that Dee should be associated with Forman among the abusers rather than the true but mistaken disciples of an absurd science. Whether he should be ever so classed it is now hard to say; but his proceedings have a doubtful look from the time of his association with Edward Kelly. This man was a knave to the inmost marrow. He had had his ears clipt for coining counterfeit money. He became Dr. Dee's "seer," that is, he saw the spirits invisible to the saner or more honest man; and thus they began together their joint career of public deception. Dee's diary is full of references to the spirits seen by Kelly, and of the remarks and messages he reported from them. To continue in the words of Mr. Hathaway:—"The repute of Kelly and Dee was so high in alchemy that, in 1583, Albert Laski, a Polish nobleman of large property, but considerably involved, took them to Poland with him to build up his fortunes. Before they went Kelly and the crystal got in their work magnificently. Laski spent many hours in their study, and Kelly got messages predicting great things for Laski. The spirits were very hopeful while they were in England; Laski was to have dominion, perhaps over all of Europe. But the judicious spirits changed their messages when Kelly got to Poland and found that the count was not so rich as he had supposed, and saw that some result from the money spent on Dee and Kelly was expected. After some years in various parts of Germany, dealing with sovereigns, scholars, and alchemists, after many wonderful adventures, after several transmutations made (?) by Kelly, they separated. Dee returning to England, and Kelly remaining confined by the Emperor, Rudolph II, of Germany. He died in 1595 of a broken leg incurred in an attempt to escape from his prison by a window. Dee, it is highly probable, in addition to his scholarly activity, had acted as a political agent for Elizabeth abroad. In 1589 he returned to England to find that his house had been sacked by a mob and most of his books burnt. The mob cursed him for a magician while wrecking the house. Dee's reputation as a magician had far outgrown the fame of his scholarship. He complains several times during the rest of his life of this evil repute."
Though the testimony of Nash has been quoted to the effect that Dee was a good old man, he certainly failed to keep clear of the company that justified his later reputation. The affair with Laski is typical. If he was not, his professional colleagues were frequently guilty of the pretended manufacture of gold. The usual practice was to smelt quicksilver before the dupe's eyes. When the process was well advanced the alchemist laid on the crucible a bit of coal with silver filings in holes plugged up with wax. Sometimes by sleight of hand, a lump of gold or silver was substituted for one of copper. At any rate, the dupe was the one who was allowed to fish the precious metal out of the fire. They all repaired to a goldsmith who, after sufficient trial, pronounced it fine. This transmutation was a valuable secret indeed. Could one not immediately grow rich by the possession of it? The victim was willing to pay a great sum for the precious drug that wrought the transformation. Needless to say, he never again saw the vender.
Both Nash and Greene are outspoken in their attack on alchemy. The former says:
"If they see you covetously bent, they will tell you wonders of the philosopher's stone, and make you believe they can make gold of goose-grease; only you must be at some two or three hundred pounds cost, or such a trifling matter, to help set up their stills, and then you need not care where you beg your bread, for they will make you do little better if you follow their prescriptions." He even goes so far as to make the usurer in The Groat's Worth of Wit condemn it most heartily. "Multiply in wealth, my son, by any means thou mayest, only fly Alchemy, for therein are more deceits than her beggarly artists have words; and yet are the wretches more talkative than women."
In spite of the complimentary prose concerning Dr. Dee, Nash grows enthusiastically poetical when he upholds the opposite side.
"Sky measuring mathematicians;
Gold breathing Alchemists also we have,
Both which are subtle-willed humourists,
That get their meals by telling miracles,
Which they have seen in travelling the skies.
Vain boasters, liars, make-shifts, they are all,
Men that removed from their inkhorn terms,
Bring forth no action worthy of their bread."
In The Terrors of the Night, he says: "They [the cunning men] may very well pick men's purses, like the unskillfuller kind of alchemists, with their artificial and ceremonial kind of magic, but no effect shall they achieve thereby, though they would hang themselves."
Though, Dr. Dee was well educated and a Cambridge master of arts, there were many of his class who deserved the condemnation of Nash, pronounced in the following words: "How many be there in the world that childishly deprave alchemy, and cannot spell the first letter of it."
The evil effects of professional astrology were almost equaled by its disastrous effects upon private fortunes. It was frequently followed merely as the hobby of a gentleman. Thus, in Middleton's Anything for a Quiet Life, one entreats "that you would give ore this fruitless, if I may not say this idle study of alchemy; why, half your house looks like a glass house.… And the smoke you make is a worse enemy to good housekeeping than tobacco.… Should one of your glasses break, It might bring you to a dead palsy. … My lord, your quicksilver has made all your more solid gold and silver fly in fume."
With all these attacks on a subject held in such popular esteem, with the mildest satire of Lyly's Galathea, with the more serious exposure contained in Jonson's Alchemist—with all these facts in mind, is one not likely to ask oneself, What did the master writer think of it all? As I have already pointed out, Shakespeare's writings, more than those of any contemporary dramatist, abound in allusions that show his familiarity with all the varied mass of superstition. Yet, throughout these plays Shakespeare has artfully concealed the feelings of his own heart. The only inferences that can be drawn are due to the fact that he sometimes presents one side of a case with more apparent sympathy than the other. Shakespeare's serious allusions to the subject are not infrequent. Thus, in Julius Cæsar,
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings."
And in King Lear,
"It is the stars,
The stars above us govern our conditions."
And in Pericles,
"Bring in thy daughter, clothed like a bride,
For the embracement even of Jove himself:
At whose conception, till Lucina reign'd,
Nature this dowry gave, to glad her presence,
The senate house of planets all did sit,
To knit in her their best perfections."
Yet King Lear, which furnishes one of the above quotations also furnishes the following piece of ridicule which in sense, though not in quality, is quite of a piece with the quotations from Nash and Greene:
"This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behaviour—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treacherous by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on; an admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail, and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows that I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing."
One can hardly over-estimate the shocking prevalence of venery among the Elizabethans. perhaps no more positive attestation of the fact can be cited than the careless way in which it was made the subject of public consideration. Middleton may be called the bawdy playwright, frequently selecting his heroines from the stews. 'T is Pity She's a Whore is almost a deification of the class. Furthermore, references and allusions to the practice crept in everywhere, shamelessly, as a part of current speech. One is surprised to count the number of allusions to cuckolds in the plays of Shakespeare, the cleanest of all the Elizabethan dramatists.
There are frequent allusions in the contemporary literature to the great number of courtesans in England—London especially. Dekker tells us that all the loose women of Italy fled to England. "Our soldiers are like glovers, for one cannot work well nor the other fight well, without his wench." (Middleton, Father Hubbard's Tales.) Many other passages attest the fact that loose women in great numbers followed English armies to the field. They also hung about the theatres, and so pestered London during the court term that "termer" became a familiar name for whore. They became, says Dekker, "as common as lice in Ireland, or scabs in France." (Westward Ho.) A consideration of the whole body of contemporary plays and pamphlets impresses one with the gullability and the lecherous tendency of the average Elizabethan.
Certain portions of London were the special resorts. Stow graphically describes the stews in Southwark near the theatres. The suburbs in general were so notorious that, to be called a "suburban" was an insult. The suburbs were places of "sixpenny sinfulness," says Dekker, who has written so much about the seamy side of Elizabethan London life. Turnbull Street was a sort of Elizabethan Burlington Arcade, but Shoreditch, Whitefriars, and Westminster were almost equally notorious.
The Elizabethan dramatists frequently describe the dress and appearance of these women. Taylor, The Water Poet, write: "Commonly most of the shee-bauds have a peculiar privilege more than other women: for generally they are not starveling creatures, but well larded and embossed with fat, so that a baud hath her mouth three stories of chimes high, and is a well fed emblem of plenty; and though she be of but small estimation, yet is she always taken for a great woman amongst her neighbours." In fact, there seems to be in the writing of this time a recurrence to this typical picture of a fatted prostitute which reminds one of the national incarnation, to-day of some type as we see it in the comic papers. The double chin, in particular, was a favourite point of reference. "The boy, he does not look like a bawd, he has no double chin." (Dekker, Northward Ho.) "With her fat, sag chin, hanging down like a cow's udder." (Middleton, The Black Book.)
Prostitutes of the lower order frequently wore loose bodied gowns in the street, a form of attire that was not then, so far as we know, ever worn by respectable women.
Sir John Davies thus describes a bawd:
"If Gella's beauty be examined,
She hath a dull dead eye, a saddle nose,
An ill-shaped face, with morphew overspread,
And rotten teeth, which she in laughing shows;
Briefly, she is the filthiest wench in town,
Of all that do the art of whoring use:
But when she hath put on her satin gown,
Her cutlawn apron, and her velvet shoes,
Her green silk stockings, and her petticoat
Of taffeta, with golden fringen around,
And is withal perfum'd with civet hot,
Which doth her valiant stinking breath confound,—
Yet she with these additions is no more
Than a sweet, filthy, fine, ill-favour'd whore."
Though the meaning of the word is not clear the association of taffeta with whoredom is very common. A courtesan would not leave the house without a fan; but, perhaps, the most distinguishing mark of her dress was her ring—a death's head, which she wore upon her middle finger as a sign of her profession. In the house of correction she was compelled to wear by way of punishment a blue gown.
Street walkers were innumerable. They were frequently preceded by a "squire," made assignations in the theatres, and in St. Paul's, where "every wench takes a pillar."
Brothel houses and their inmates were made the subjects of many writings. In Middleton's Five Gallants, a pack of courtesans and their house are imposed upon a gull as a music school. Such houses were fitted out with expensive fittings and furniture. Refreshments, such as stewed prunes, muscadine and eggs, and other aphrodisiacs were furnished gratis. Kept mistresses were also common; and the following is probably not exceptional as illustrative of the manners of a large portion of the substantial middle class:
"The woman crying her ware by the door (a most pitiful cry, and a lamentable hearing that such a stiff thing as starch should want customers), passing cunningly and slily by the stall, not once taking notice of the party you wot on, but being by this some three or four shops off, Mass, quoth my young mistress to the weathercock her husband, such a thing I want, you know: then she named how many puffs and purls [fringes] lay in a miserable case for want of stiffening. The honest, plain-dealing jewel husband sent out a boy to call her (not bawd by her right name, but starch woman): into the shop she came, making a low counterfeit courtesy, of whom the mistress demanded if the starch were pure gear, and would be stiff in her ruff, saying she had often been deceived before, when the things about her have stood as limber as eelskins. The woman replied as subtilely, Mistress, quoth she, take this paper of starch of my hand; and if it prove not of your mind never bestow penny with me—which paper, indeed, was a letter sent to her from the gentleman her exceeding favourite. Say you so? quoth the young dame, and I'll try it, i'faith. With that she ran up stairs like a spinner [spider] upon small cob-web ropes, not to try to arraign the starch, but to conster [construe] and parse the letter (whilst her husband sat below by the counter, like one of those brow bitten catchpolls that wait for one man all day, when his wife can put five in the counter before him), wherein she found many words that pleased her. Withal the gentleman writ unto her for a certain sum of money, which no sooner was read, but was ready to be sent: wherefore laying up the starch and that, and taking another sheet of clean paper in her hand, wanting time and opportunity to write
|George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland.||Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel.|
Space forbids any further enumeration of the sins of London; but there is a plentiful supply of material from which one can reconstruct such a picture of the times as will lead one to believe that the above suggestions as to the foul condition of the public morals is not in the least overdrawn.
- I have drawn my facts largely from Mr. Hathaway's excellent biographical sketch of the astrologer.