Spiritum ambulatorium: Wandering like a ‘Masterlessehound’

January 5, 2010

Around 1600, Spanish novelist Mateo Alemán wrote about Guzmán de Alfarache, a rogue or picaro who gets into bad scenes to the point that his life gradually deteriorates. Guzmán’s life can be read as a moral parable but I am really interested in this text for Guzmán’s method of perambulation, that is wandering.

Once, wandering, he meets an attractive woman:

I went wandring vp and downe the City, and hauing little money, and much care, it was my happe to meete with a rare piece of Nature, an admirable Beauty; (at least in my eye, howsoeuer in other it might be otherwise)

In another instance Guzmán notes that ‘There did daily passe by the doore many haggard-Hawkes, youngwandring Lads, much about my yeeres and growth; some with money in their purse, others begging an almes for Gods sake’. He hopes that he ‘might not (as many others) be punished as a Vagabond, and runne the censure of a wandring Rogue’. One night he has an accidental encounter with a woman when they are both naked, and remarks that upon seeing him:

[The woman] suspected that I was some Phantasma, some Hob-goblin, orwandring Ghost, and letting the light fall out of her hand for feare, she gaue withall a great schriche.

As the story progresses, and Guzmán descends further down the social ladder, the wandering gets more sinister:

How often haue I accused and condemned my selfe, when begging in the Church, mine eye hath beene wandring and rouing about? and chuckt and hugg’d my selfe, with the delight and pleasure that I haue taken therein? Or to speake downe-right English, and to declare my selfe more plainely, feeding mine eyes greedily on those Angelicall faces of your finest Ladyes, whose Louers did not dare to looke vpon them for feare of being noted

Wandering like a ‘Masterlessehound’ gets him into bad company:

I wandred vp and downe at mine owne pleasure, (as my fancie did lead me) thorow the streetes of Rome. And because in my prosperity, I had purchased some friends of mine owne profession, they seeing me vn-prouided for, and that I went vp and downe like a Masterlessehound, here one would inuite me, and there another

At another point he proclaims ‘todo lo nueuo, aplaze: See what is newest, that we still like best. This rule, holding more especially in such as I was, who had spiritum ambulatorium, a wandring humour of mine owne, and was a great louer of nouelties’.

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The dictionary defines wandering as ‘travelling from place to place or from country to country without settled route or destination; roaming. Often in plural, sometimes denoting a protracted period of devious journeying’, which serves as a useful contemporary reminder that deviousness isn’t always with malintent, rather it can mean simply ‘departing from the direct way; pursuing a winding or straying course; circuitous’. Now people celebrate city walkers and deviators, like Ian Sinclair, who wend their own way through a place, but in the early modern period we see wandering linked to vice, and the potent menace of having nowhere particular to go.


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