Red Herrings

November 2, 2011

Online resources like the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography or Early English Books Online allow scholars, in the twenty-first century, to follow lines of enquiry without actually going to the library, which is a mixed blessing. Some things get lost when accessing early modern books online– marginalia, say, or Copernican hairs – and there are lots of ways in which these very useful internet resources can swallow time.


In 1685 the Royal Society summarised a French advertisement for an engine that neutralised burning and cooking odours

composed of severall hoops of hammered Iron of about 4 or 5 Inches diameter, which shutt one into the other: it stands upright on the middle of the Room, upon a sort of trevet [trivet] made on purpose.

The engine was tested with ‘the most fetid things’: ‘Coal soakt in cats piss, which stinks abominably’; ‘encense’, and ‘red Herrings’ (RS Classified Papers 3i f.65). Hooke was evidently using the phrase ‘red herring’ in a taxonomic rather than a figurative sense – he referred to it as a recognisable environmental pollutant.

The engine passed the test, neutralising the smell of the coal, incense and herrings, and dispersing the smoke so that ‘the most curious eye’ could not ‘discover’ it, ‘[n]or the nicest nose smell it’.

There is a recipe for red herrings in Kenelm Digby’s 1669 Closet, or Excellent Directions for Cookery, which promises to satisfy ‘the curiosities of the Nicest palate’. (Digby’s cookery, the preface says, is so excellent, there ‘needs no Rhetoricating Floscules to set it off’.)

Digby got his recipe for ‘Red Herrings broyled’ from Lord d’Aubigny – probably Charles Stewart, who was the eleventh and last Stewart Lord of Aubigny – his line was extinguished when he drowned aged 33, without an heir, in 1672 at Helsinger, better known to early-modern scholars as Elsinore.

The Oxford English Dictionary characterises a red herring, like a kipper, by its method of preparation: sense 1b. ‘A herring that has been dried and smoked’. The OED doesn’t list this literal red herring as obsolete or even archaic, but the most recent citations come from history books (the red herring as a bar snack in Georgian Glasgow and a delicacy in Rembrandt’s Holland respectively). My local fishmonger told me with some certainty that they’re not available any more. A red herring, he said, isn’t an actual fish.

The phrase is usually used today in a figurative sense, as ‘a clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question’ (OED sense 2). This meaning dates from the nineteenth century, but it derives from an older practice wherein hunters would deliberately trail red herrings, or other stinking things, to draw on their hounds. It seems that the practice, which was probably Medieval in origin, was still a common use for red herrings in the seventeenth century – Nicholas Cox explains ‘what a Train-scent is’ in his Gentleman’s Recreation of 1686:

the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of Necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the scent.


Using searchable online resources, several red herrings could be traced in different, now-defunct contexts – as an experimental subject, as a food, as a hunting accessory. But these fish were real as well as figurative. Digby’s recipe gave practical instructions on how to recreate the authentic early modern smell that Hooke had been working at eradicating:

My Lord d’ Aubigny eats Red-herrings thus broiled. After they are opened and prepared for the Gridiron, soak them (both sides) in Oyl and Vinegar beaten together in pretty quantity in a little Dish. Then broil them, till they are hot through, but not dry. Then soak them again in the same Liquor as before, and broil them a second time. You may soak and broil them again a third time; but twice may serve. They will be then very short and crisp and savoury. Lay them upon your Sallet, and you may also put upon it, the Oyl and Vinegar, you soaked the Herrings in.

Poetry and Ecology

June 17, 2010

This interesting review by Daisy Hildyard offers a careful critique of Diane Kelsey McColley’s book Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell (Ashgate, 2007).

When I read the book I was intrigued to find that McColley made little mention of the thought-weaving nuns and their separate community in her chapter on Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, particularly as there is so much consideration of what it could mean to constrain nature and what it means to be ‘ungirt’  in that chapter. The nuns present an example of constraining, straining and preserving that applies to both the fruits of nature, and to writing that is not erroneous.

Within the poem there is a considerable section in which a nun’s original speech to Isabel Thwaites is reported. The stanza directly before the transition to the nun’s speech goes thus:

Near to this gloomy Cloysters Gates
There dwelt the blooming Virgin Thwates,
Fair beyond Measure, and an Heir
Which might Deformity make fair.
And oft She spent the Summer Suns
Discoursing with the Suttle Nunns.
Whence in these Words one to her weav’d,
(As ’twere by Chance) Thoughts long conceiv’d.

The nun speaks about life in the nunnery as though making a spontaneous speech, whereas she actually recites thoughts that were made a long time ago. This echoes the jam-making process the nun describes as a pleasurably-pious activity undertaken by her and her sisters:

‘Nor is our Order yet so nice,
Delight to banish as a Vice.
Here Pleasure Piety doth meet;
One perfecting the other Sweet.
So through the mortal fruit we boyl
The Sugars uncorrupting Oyl:
And that which perisht while we pull,
Is thus preserved clear and full.’

The horror of the nuns’ jam-making process particularly appealed to me when I first encountered this poem, and their awareness of the transformative aspect of the jam-making process that is the key to that horror and their trickery. The nuns’ thoughts are wicked because they are like a trick-jam, presented as though fresh, yet, like preserved* fruit, long bottled. The aim is enchantment (c.f. stanza 34): to hold Isabel spellbound. Contemporary readers were supposed to recognise this as error.

In sync with Diane Kelsey McColley’s book, this could be read as a particularly ecological kind of error, as where she states on p.8 that: ‘Readers sometimes speak of “capturing” things in words [...] One way we can learn to speak without appropriation is by listening to poets’ ever-fresh particularity and responsive form. A living earth needs a living language’, etc. For different reasons to McColley’s twentieth-century ‘literature and the environment’ commentators, Marvell contemplates a similar-seeming argument. His image of jammy, unnatural speech and enchantment here has a lot in common with contemporary images of how bad-knowledge circulated in repeated old wives’ tales and unchallenged old news – images found in the armories of both anti-Catholic and pro-experiment commentators.

Reading DH’s review and the book itself makes me want to add my own item to the shopping list for further investigation in this area. My sense is that the ‘dilemma of language’ (pp.7-9 in McColley’s book) needs to be vastly extended and considered principally in light of the contemporary dilemma of language.

*         *         *

*preserved, adj. 2. a. Of organic material, esp. foodstuffs: treated so as to prevent decomposition, fermentation, or decay (OED)

Of course, making jam was not an intrinsically suspicious process at this time! The world would soon see Boyle conducting experiments to preserve fruit by removing air rather than adding sugar (Hidden Qualities of the Air, 1674).

Wings and wingy things

November 9, 2009

The OED tells us that ‘wingy’ entered English with Thomas Browne, who used ‘alary’ (from the Latin alarius)  and ‘wingy’ to describe both plants and divine mysteries. Winginess for Browne was both a visual, structural idea and a metaphorical one. Leonard Willan picked this up in his Astraea of 1651 in which he wrote about ‘wingy Times decay’ and his ‘wingie Passions’.  John Vicars’ 1632 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid featured ‘wingy oares’ and ‘wingy sails’ tended to by opportune winds. Jane Barker, in a poem printed in the late seventeenth century, described the soul’s wingy nature and Aphra Behn’s Love-letters between a noble-man and his sister (1684) featured a letter ‘to Sylvia’ in which the speaker described the coy kissing wind and the free birds with their wingy embraces of love as a way of lamenting humankind’s comparatively fireless caution.

The Samuel Garth version of Ovid’s Metamorpohoses (1717) casts Phaeton’s fatal chariot ride in wingy terms:

…the youth with active heat
And sprightly vigour vaults into the seat;
And joys to hold the reins, and fondly gives
Those thanks his father with remorse receives.
Mean-while the restless horses neigh’d aloud,
Breathing out fire, and pawing where they stood.
Tethys, not knowing what had past, gave way,
And all the waste of Heav’n before ‘em lay.
They spring together out, and swiftly bear
The flying youth thro’ clouds and yielding air;
With wingy speed outstrip the eastern wind,
And leave the breezes of the morn behind.
The youth was light, nor cou’d he fill the seat,
Or poise the chariot with its wonted weight:
But as at sea th’ unballass’d vessel rides,
Cast to and fro, the sport of winds and tides;
So in the bounding chariot toss’d on high,
The youth is hurry’d headlong through the sky.

Phaeton’s crash-and-burn winginess was different to science’s idea of wings. Robert Hooke described the wings of insects accurately and minutely, considering the muscle structure that would have been needed to fly and the variations in strength and structure between different insects. While Hooke (in Micrographia) created a limiting figurative parallel between wings and minds, writing that ‘the Intellect of man is like his body, destitute of wings, and cannot move from a lower to a higher and more sublime station of knowledg, otherwise then step by step’, he was fascinated by flight and investigated the possibility of human flying machines, as this extract (among others) from the Hooke Folio shows:

Feb: 11. Dr. Croon Read of the flying of Birds ^ /concluding flying for a man impossible/ herevpon RH suggested that what nature Did not supply art and Reason could. and that he knew a way to produce strength soe as to giue to one man the strength of 10 . 20 or more men and to contriue muscle for him of equiualent strength to those in Birds. the same hinted also that a contriuance might be made of something more proper for the feet of men to tread the air then for his armes to beat the air

Hooke sought to investigate real wingedness, others metaphysical winginess. As a technology of the passions or material motion, wings were understandably fascinating in the seventeenth century. Watch this space for more in the future on wings and flight in Paradise Lost.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.