Saturday, 31 October 2015

"Witches' " boots from Lapland

Witches were long thought to be able to stir up storms and sink ships --as in Macbeth--

"Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;"

and there was a special interest in the seventeenth century in the shamanism practised in Lapland, (possibly sparked by a series of witchcraft trials in Sweden).  The Sami culture, rituals and way of life were chronicled by Johannes Schefferus in 1673, aiming to prove that Swedish military success was not dependent on Sami magic.  But in the contemporary western European translations, chapters drawing on preconceived ideas of the Sami's  sorcery, drums, and pagan practices were inserted, without factual evidence, a case of publishers giving their readers the sensational accounts they wanted to hear, rather than a true picture.

© University Library of Tromso  (The Northern Lights Route)

 A young English diplomat in Stockholm, William Allestree, in 1673 sent home drawings of native Lapplanders to friends in England,  and later gifts of Lapp elkskin boots.  The ship carrying the boots, however,  was sunk,  which no doubt some superstitious readers of the adapted Lapponia translations would blame on the shamans' powers.  As Allestree  jests in his letter :

"Sir, yours of April the 14th, came to me on 17th Sept: by which you will judge, that either the Laps had no power to hasten it, or that they are no friends of mine, nor I at all in their book'es, who would deprive me so long of so great a kindness.  I could have wish'd, that as this, though late, came at length, the Laps-boots had had the same conveyance to you, and if they were lost in the sea, you may see, that though their makers are accounted witches because they cannot sinck, yet the boots who did so, were honest.   If the ship which carri'd them had not let in water, I am confident they would have held it out, and had the vessel bene in them*, it had been safer, then they were, being in it."
[*the elkskin boots, fur side out,  were waterproof]

Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E. S. De Beer,  Oxford University Press

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Paul Creswick, an Edwardian Bernard Cornwell?

Was  Paul Creswick the Bernard Cornwell of his day?  He is best known for his retelling of the Robin Hood story in the late Victorian style of Scott's Ivanhoe and George A. Henty's historical adventures.   It was first published in 1902, and was later popular enough to be issued in a deluxe edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth in England and in the United States.  Already an established writer,  in 1900 his first story of King Alfred's fight against the Danes was published by Ernest Nister - In Aelfred's Days, a Story of Saga the Dane, to be followed by two further books chronicling the adventures of his hero, Saga.

Set at the same period, it is the reverse of Cornwell's The Last Kingdom, for Saga is really a Danish child saved from the battlefield as a Saxon, and adopted into their household by Alfred and his Queen Ealhswith. The story sweeps along, with pitched battles, treachery, secret passages, caves, and forest wolves, not to mention those cakes.   After fighting with Alfred against Guthrum and his Danes at Edington, and discovering his real birth, our hero returns to his own country to reclaim his heritage and avenge his father in book two, Under the Black Raven.  In the last of the trilogy, Saga, now ruler in his own land,  helps his ally King Alfred defeat their common enemy in Hasting the Pirate (or Hastein, who was driven from Kent at this time).

The illustrator T H. Robinson was brother of Charles and (William) Heath Robinson, all three of them artists.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1866, Paul Creswick was no action man, but an insurance clerk living in Beckenham, Kent, with a wife and young son. His first book was published in 1895; by 1900 he was writing his best-selling historical adventure stories regularly, sometimes two in a year, while continuing his career with the Prudential Assurance Company.  He eventually became their Principal Clerk.
During  the First World War,  he was in charge of Kent's Voluntary Aid Detachments, and was County Senior Transport Officer. He was co-author in 1915 of Kent's Care for the Wounded. But all this, as well as his senior position at work, left him no time for fiction and he wrote only a few books afterwards.  He was awarded the OBE for his wartime services.  (see


Friday, 23 October 2015

"And a few friends, and many books,…" Abraham Cowley

Abraham Cowley,  Sir Peter Lely, 1666-67
© National Portrait Gallery

Highly regarded in the seventeenth century, there are portraits of Cowley in several Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, and he was buried in pomp in Westminster Abbey. His reputation as a poet dwindled in later centuries, but he should also be remembered for his influence amongst those who founded the Royal Society; his Proposition for the Advancement of Learning was published in 1661 and he and his friend John Evelyn shared their interest in botany. 


"Well then! I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy;
And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd, and buzz, and murmurings,
Of this great hive, the city.

"Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave,
May I a small house and large garden have;
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A Mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian angels are,
Only beloved and loving me.

"O fountains! when in you shall I
Myself eased of unpeaceful thoughts espy?
O fields, O woods!  when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
Here's the spring-head of Pleasure's flood:
Here's wealthy Nature's treasury,
Where all the riches lie that she
Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

"Pride and ambition here
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear;
Here naught but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter,
And naught but Echo flatter.
The gods, when they descended, hither
From heaven did always choose their way:
And therefore may we boldly say
That 'tis the way too thither.

"How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
I should have then this only fear: 
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
And so make a city here." 

Abraham Cowley,  1618-1667.  

Cowley was a staunch Royalist, carrying secret letters between Henrietta-Maria from exile in France and Charles I.   Having lived through the political and religious upheaval under Charles I, Cromwell  and Charles II, it is not surprising that Cowley echoes Virgil and Horace in his picture of a quiet rural life (although he never married).  But for the modern reader, Andrew Marvell says it so much better.   

Monday, 19 October 2015

Lady Masham's closet

No portrait survives of Damaris Cudworth, Lady Masham, who was a close friend of Locke since 1681;  she was then living in Cambridge where her father, the Platonist Ralph Cudworth, was Master of Christ's College.

The Master's Lodge, Christ's College, Cambridge (built c. 1550)
© Christ's College Cambridge

This description was written in November 1685, when she was still adjusting to her new life as wife to Sir Francis Masham, stepmother to his children and mistress of a household in rural Essex, and it gives us a vivid sense of her personality.

"I have several times begun to write to You since I received Yours But the Necessitie of Household Affaires will have it so that I could never Yet finish one Letter;...'Tis in vain that you bid me Preserve my Poetry; Household Affaires are the Opium of the Soul… if ever that Humour come on me againe You shall Wish for Finis a Thousand times before you find it; I will set the  Affronted Countrey Ladies too upon you, and They shall Abuse you Ten times more than I can, for All your Contempt of Theire Sublime Ideas of Goose Pye and Bag Puding.  This would bring me again now to the Chapter of Household Affaires, and my imployments, but that I am awearie: However for All my quarrel with you I cannot help  telling you that there is scarse any thing I would not give to see you Here in my Closet where I am now writing to You: I can but think how you would  smile to see Cowley and my Surfeit Waters Jumbled together; with Dr. More and my Gally Potts of Mithridate and Dioscordium; My Receits and Account Books with Antoninus's his Meditations, and Des Cartes Principles; with my Globes and my Spinning Wheel; for just in this order they at present ly, and tis not without Reason I think that I designe to Draw Curtains over this Fantastical Furniture."

From her letter to John Locke, 14 November 1685
The Correspondence of John Locke, ed. E. S. De Beer  Oxford University Press

Engraving of Lady Masham's estate, Oates House, Essex (c. 1821)
(Essex Records Office)

This portrait of Locke was painted in the summer of 1689, soon after his return to England from political exile in Holland. The next year he moved to live with the Mashams at Oates,  a more healthy spot than London, where he became an influential part of the household (although he insisted on paying rent).   So Lady Damaris Masham's correspondence with her friend was replaced with daily conversation.

  John Locke   Herman Verelst,  1689
© National Portrait Gallery

Sunday, 11 October 2015

John Locke: sight and insight.

Here are portraits of two very great friends - young William Molyneux, Irish astronomer and natural scientist and John Locke, the famous philosopher and man of letters. They lived in an age of enquiry and  debate - widely spread through the printed word - and shared their  interests and studies in natural philosophy.      You feel that as such close friends, who relied almost entirely on correspondence between Dublin and England, with only the one meeting in August 1698, they would want to be looking at each other.  But here they are, side by side, having sat for these portraits in 1696.

William Molyneux, attribut.  Sir Godfrey Kneller; and John Locke, by Michael Dahl  c. 1696
© National Portrait Gallery
 Locke wrote to Molyneux in May 1697:

"Though the honour you do me in the value you put upon my shadow be a fresh mark of that friendship which is so great an happiness to me, yet I shall never consider my picture in the same house with you, without great regret at my so far distance from you my self.  But I will not continue to importune you with my complaints of that kind; 'tis an advantage greater that I could have hoped, to have the conversation of such a friend, though with the sea between; and the remaining little scantling of my life would be too happy if I had you in my neighbourhood."

Their friendship began in 1692, when Molyneux read Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding.  He praised it for its 'more profound Truths, established on Experience and Observations' in the dedication of his work on optics,  Dioptrica Nova, and sent a copy of this to Locke,  who recognised a kindred spirit.  "For meeting with but few men in the world whose acquaintance I find much reason to covet, I make more than ordinary haste into the familiarity of a rational enquirer after, and lover of truth, whenever I can light on any such.  There are beauties of the mind, as well as of the body, that take and prevail at first sight;…"  Locke wrote in September, and asked Molyneux for his detailed advice in preparing the second edition of his Essay.

The friends finally met, face to face, when William visited Locke at Oates, Essex, in August 1698.   William  died soon after, in October 1698 aged only forty-two.  The leading Irish scientist of his day, his 'globe and cube problem' has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

Quotations from The Correspondence of John Locke  edited E. S. de Beer, the Clarendon Edition, Oxford University Press

Thursday, 1 October 2015

October in Somerset

"Outside in the parks and playgrounds around the parish, it's the local children's favourite time of year. The leaves of the horse-chestnut trees are turning an orangey-brown, and beneath every one is a treasure trove of spiky green balls, each beginning to split open to reveal the dark shiny fruit within.  Is there any natural object as instantly alluring as the conker?  Nothing else has quite the same appeal, and even now, more than forty years after I picked one up as a small child, I still get the same thrill each year when I find the first polished conker of the season."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

[Like seashells fresh from the beach, the shiny conkers fade when brought home, but the tree summer blossoms are still celebrated on Chestnut Sunday in May, with processions along the Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park, across from Hampton Court Palace.]