Failed engineering on St. Peter’s Day

October 21, 2009

The gospel of Matthew explains how, after Jesus walked on the sea, St Peter also walked on water for a few moments before he became fearful and doubtful and fell in (Matthew 14: 28-31).

According to the publicity-pamphlet The Water-Walker well Wash’d, being A True Relation, of a Strange Perambulation of a Person in this Nation, upon a Watery Station, on such a fashion, as gave the Spectators small Delectation on Tuesday June 29. 1669, this very same feat – i.e. walking on water – was attempted by a man in Islington upon St. Peter’s Day who had used clever engineering rather than strong faith.

The pamphlet tells how the a large crowd assembled to see the water-walker, but:

…when he did out of his Cell appear,
Upon the Water like an Engineer:
And likely was to get Applause, when, see,
Just as he saluted, Down fell he.
Instead of walking then, alas! poor wretch!
He e’en sunk down, and fell upon his Breech.
He struggled to get up, but all in vain,
For as he strove to rise, he fell again.

The picture heading the pamphlet shows a man standing on little discs (one presumes based on lily-pads), holding a stick with a third lily-pad disc at its base for balancing on the water. The pamphlet, which seeks to stimulate interest in further water-walking performances, explicitly does not doubt the ingenuity of the invention, but rather attributes the failure of the show to the audacity of its scheduling on a holy day when a saint experienced a miracle:

For nor the weakness of the Engeneer,
Nor yet the strength of Wine, of Ale, or Beer
Did sink him, but I dare be bold to say,
It was the crossness of St. Peters day.
Doubtless he was presumptuous in excess,
That did thus dare, (although his Faith were less)
To be the Great St. Peters Emulator,
Thus on this day to walk upon the Water:
Though all his Engins were the sons of Art

The pamphlet is trying to conjure further interest in the water-walker as it ends by saying the pamphlet can be redeemed for another free view of the show next time he performs (‘This man has walkt on Water oft before, / And will again, or else be seen no more. / And this he’ll promise, that without a Boon,  / Another day he will dance there alone. / And for his slip amends that he may make, / He’ll for your entrance this same Ticket take’).

With regards to science that mimics miracles this pamphlet confirms that there is demand for a show of walking on water but also suggests that the phenomenon should not be too closely aligned with St. Peter or some ‘crossness’ of the day will intervene.

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