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.


Inside inns

March 29, 2011

Richard Ames’ The Search after Claret; or a Visitation of the Vintners (1691) takes the reader on a pub-crawl around London in search of a glass of the Bordeaux wine, or as Ames sometimes specifically refers to a glass of Pontac: the family name of the owners of the Haut-Brion estate.

In his Grands Vins, Clive Coates explains that the Pontac dynasty was founded at the turn of the sixteenth century by Arnaud de Pontac, and that the Haut-Brion vineyards were consolidated from bundles of land by his son Jean, who lived to be 101. Each successive son became a premier président of the hereditary Bordeaux parlement, and, after the Restoration, a representative of the family came to London to promote the family’s produce and to open The Pontac’s Head, alleged to be a fashionable dining spot. But in 1689, when England joined the Grand Alliance — the European coalition against Louis XIV’s France — French import channels to England were closed down, stopping the flow of Claret in London pubs and therefore sending Ames on his satirical search. Numerous publications from the Company of Vintners throughout this period enable the historical charting of the sanctions and their opposition.

The pub-crawl, which starts at Whitechapel, lasts two days, and is filled with unsatisfactory drinks, empty glasses and everywhere the news that stocks of French wine were dry. The text is fun for its sense of atmosphere, including invocations of certain bartenders and landlords and signs. Everywhere on the men’s journey they encounter and exchange brief words with other drinkers:

At his Door with a Rummer we found Neddy Dr______ner,
And perceiv’d by his looks that he was a Complainer.
We whisper’d in’s Ear, and desir’d (could he spare it)
To let us have a Bottle or two of old Claret;
He started as frightened to hear our Demands,
And answer’d, why Gentlemen (holding up’s Hands)
D’ye know what you mean? Let me die like an Ass,
If this twelve-month I’ve seen, smelt, or tasted a Glass.

We shook our Heads at him, and crossing the way,
At the Globe we attempted another Essay;
When askt for old Claret, the Drawers were inchanted,
And we for our parts thought the Mansion was Haunted,
So leaving the Tavern in study profound,
We concluded indeed that the Globe was turn’d round,

At the Mitre we call’d in, and walking the Entry,
Spy’d a Soldier in Habit much unlike a Centry,
Who spewing, did in his short intervals say,
Pox take your Red Port, and so Reel’d on his way,
We soon took the hint from his Stomach’s Alarms;
They’re wise gain Experience by other Mans Harms.

All manner of different traditions of drinking are linked to the various inns. The Mitre in Aldgate is where ‘young married couples to make their hearts lighter / Take a jolly brisk Glass to embolden ’em to say / That very hard chapter, for ever and for aye’. Peacocks at St Paul’s is surrounded by a bustle of drapers and chair-makers ‘whereof some are Christians, and others are Quakers’. The last bunch of drinkers they encounter, on the second day, is easy to picture:

The last Tavern we came to, was that of the Rose;
At the Door of which stood such a parcel of Beaus,
Who in Eating and Drinking great Criticks commence,
And are Judges of every thing else but of Sense,
When we saw ’em make Faces and heard one or two Swear,
That the Wine was the Devil they lately drank there;
We rely’d on their word, and ne’re stept o’re the Groundsil,
But thought they spoke truth like General Council.

The two-day search is at once acutely local and international, as the inn-crawlers obtain news from a variety of London drinkers about whether various hostelries contain produce from Bordeaux. Politics intersects with drink in a text where the insides of inns and conversations with exasperated drunks reflect the state of England’s international relations.

*Clive Coates, Grands Vins (University of California Press, 1995), 311-3.

Glass story

December 15, 2010

In The Invention of Comfort, John E. Crowley writes that:

The English word story, for a horizontal division of a building, derived from the Middle English term storye, which came from the Latin historia and referred to the story told by a horizontal series of illustrations on glazed windows. (p.42)

Crowley illustrates this with a great example from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. William Camden mentions something similar in his description of Peterborough abbey (later Cathedral): ‘The forefront carieth a majesty with it, and the Cloisters are very large, in the glasse-windowes whereof is represented the history of Wolpher the founder, with the succession of the Abbots’ (p.513). Painted glass windows were often smashed by iconoclasts, but breaking windows in general could be part of persecution, as one bad priest does to his host in Foxe’s Actes and monuments:

This dronken priest sitting at supper, was so dronke that he coulde not tell what he did, or els feyned himselfe so dronke of purpose, the better to accomplishe hys intended mischiefe. So it followed that this wretch, after hys first sleep, rose out of his bed and brake all the glasse windowes in his chamber, threwe downe the stone, and rent all his hostes bookes that he founde. (p.893)

This malefactor destroys the frames of his victims stories and exposes him to the elements — something windows are supposed to block while allowing agreeable illumination. In essence, he destroys his victim’s reading environment as well as directly destroying his books.

Glass windows were part of the scientific imagination. In his Anatomical Exercitations William Harvey used the skills of a private detective to prove that chickens broke out of their shells when they hatched, as opposed to the shells being broken inwards by the mother bird:

And as when Glass-Windowes are broken, a man may easily discover whether they were burst from within, or without; if he do but take the paines to compare the bent and inclination of the fragments remaining: So also when the egge is pierced, by the erection of the splinters all along the circuit of the Coronet, it is manifest that the invasion came from within. (p.130)

As part of his researches into air, and as an extension of experiments already undertaken with small animals in airtight glass containers, Robert Boyle imagined a set of windows looking inward on the story of human asphyxiation:

I have also had thoughts of trying whether it be not practicable, to make a Receiver, though not of Glass, yet with little Glass windows, so placed, that one may freely look into it, capacious enough to hold a Man, who may observe several things, both touching Respiration, and divers other matters; and who, in case of fainting, may, by giving a sign of his weakness, be immediately reliev’d, by having Air let in upon him. (p.192)

As far as I know, Boyle never made this contraption, but it is interesting to follow his imagination of viewing a human specimen gesturing for air through a series of little glass panes.

*John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
*William Camden, Britain (1637)
*John Foxe, Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable (1563)
*William Harvey, Anatomical exercitations concerning the generation of living creatures (1653)
*Robert Boyle, New experiments physico-mechanicall, touching the spring of the air (1660)

Mines Royal

October 31, 2010

In 1688 a law was passed that terminated a period of royal ownership of copper, tin, iron or lead mines, leaving only gold and silver mining under the royal prerogative. This meant they passed from being in the ownership of the Company of Mines Royal, which Deborah E. Harkness describes as one of two Elizabethan ‘metallurgical collectives’, the other being the Company of Mineral and Battery Works.*

A century earlier, in 1567, these laws had tightened in response to the test case of Elizabeth I vs. Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland. It was a battle over royal copper-mining rights on privately owned land. The case occurred three years after the institution of the Company of Mines Royal and there is a very good article by Eric Ash in History of Science** which explains that Elizabeth managed to win the trial because she harnessed the knowledge of all of the domestic and foreign (mainly German) mining experts who had been drafted in to work for the company since its then recent inception.

The details of the case, as outlined Ash, are fascinating. Northumberland responded to the royal right to mine on his property, without affording him any compensation or profit, as an impeachment of his birthright and inheritance. The negotiations, which were after all about the removal of a certain asset that Northumberland considered his, broke down when it transpired that he did possess the tools to value the ore, the queen having harnessed them all (in the form of her mining experts). Eventually she defeated him by employing her technicians to her advantage, referring to knowledge from the continent that asserted that copper was always mingled with silver and/or gold, both of which were undoubtedly the crown’s. Measurement and property go hand in hand: if you want to own something legally you need to be able to assess it, or acquire the tools of assessment.

*Harkness, The Jewel House, p.170.
** E. H. Ash, ‘Queen v. Northumberland, and the Control of Technical Expertise’ in History of Science 39 (2001), pp.214-240.

Steel-soled shoes

October 18, 2010

In March 1685 the librarian Henri Justel wrote from Paris to the Royal Society in London, with a description of a new ‘Engine that consumes smoak & prevents all sorts of the most foetid things cast into the fire’. Enclosed within the letter was an advertisement describing the machine, below which was printed a second advertisement, for ‘Semelles d’Acier’ – steel soles for the shoes.

Leur usage este d’empechere de sentir la dureté du pavé, de l’Estrie & des pointes des Pierres, & de tenir le pied en estat si foiblesque le soient les Soulier

Justel’s report was read aloud at the next Royal Society meeting on 10 March, 1685/6, and duly recorded in the Society journal book, which mentions

steel soles for shoes wch are made very light and yet preserve the feet from the inequality of the Pavemt and sharpness of the stones.

The shift, in the Society’s translation, from the ‘dureté’, or hardness, of the pavement, to its ‘inequalities’, could imply that pedestrians experienced different problems with the climate, terrain or architecture in different urban surroundings: problems which were common to the inhabitants of each place. In this case, the advert might show an interest on the part of virtuosic communities in London and Paris – the ‘scavans et curieux’, mentioned in the blurb – not only to make methodological leaps and theoretical distinctions, but also to develop (and profit from) practical innovations along the lines of everyday life – like the story, probably apocryphal, that Newton invented the cat-flap.

But the bill does not appeal to a sense of shared experience – the environment is particularised rather than shared, and the Society’s translation of the advertisement literally offers a way for those with sufficient means to make the ground more equal for themselves than for others.

And the predicament, which is located where the body makes contact with the solid world, is described in different forms elsewhere in seventeenth-century texts, such as in the following account from Robert Boyle’s History of the Air (1692). Boyle’s informant is ‘an Ingenious Gentleman’, who, experiencing inhospitable terrain, suggests a cheaper but more exhausting solution:

in the Island of St Louis, or near it, at a certain Season of the Year, when hot winds blew from the Continent, the Sand on the Shores would be so scorching hot, that he was not able to stand upon it, but it would, through the Soles of his Shoes, scorch his Feet, unless he walked very fast.

tresor trové

August 11, 2010

The notion of the treasure trove, which may strike the 21st-century reader as that of an item or items to be found, originally (as the Anglo French shows) actually referred to the found state of the treasure – the conditions which led to its discovery and inevitable appropriation. Derived from Roman law, the principle of treasure trove was written into English common law until it was replaced by the Treasure Act of 1996. Under this new act the British Museum processes treasure from England and Wales. Scotland still has an older form of treasure trove law, and the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer deals with all finds which instantly become the property of the crown, which is more like the system in the seventeenth century, and a perusal of any law book from that time will show you that treasure trove, along with certain royal animals and so forth belong to the monarch.

These laws are now mainly concerned with the transfer of valuable finds to museums and the arrangement of payment to finders, but it is also interesting because it highlights a concept alive in the seventeenth century, at a time when property law was undergoing development and the human race considerably expanded its dominion over the land. The treasure trove law indicates a moment when property wears out, when property ceases to inhere in an object – when an object becomes free to be taken by a new owner, or, if it remains hidden, rest ownerless. Objects in this state are governed by the legal concept of bona vacantia, and this really kicks in when no owner can be traced. It strikes one as rather obvious, but there is a whole section of the Treasury devoted to this.

There must be a certain moment when goods become officially ownerless. Perhaps when the last person with knowledge of the original ownership dies, or a last deed is destroyed.

The title of An euerlasting prognostication of the change of weather collected and compiled for the common vse and profit of all countrey men. By Kinki Abenezrah, a wandring Iew (1625) makes me nostalgic. Despite its advertised eternal relevance, when I read the euerlasting prognostication I was struck by how passé the knowledge in it seemed. Not because of the fact that we supposedly live in a time of fast and man-caused changes in the weather, but because of the way the book expects people to be in tune with rainbows, sea, animals and wind on a daily basis. Anyway, here are some useful prognostications for you to experiment with these changeable summer days:

Predictions of hote weather.

IF a mist or hoare frost do fall either in the spring time, or autumne, it is a token that that day shall be hot.

If night Battes come in great numbers, and more timely in the eueuing then they were wont, it is a signe of great heat to follow.

If Humble-Bées or Drones flye abroad in an euening, it is a signe of great heat.

The rising of any white smoake, steame or rike vpon the waters, meddowes, or marshes, before the rising or setting of the Suune, or in the night time, it is an euident signe of very hote weather.

Predictions of raine.

SMall store of water in winter doth signifie a moist and wet spring to follow.

The appearing of the Rainebow in any cleare and faire weather, is a token of raine presently to follow.

The gréener the Rainebow is, the greater store of raine it doth signifie.

If in the euening it lighten onely in the North, it is a token of ensuing raine.

Lightning in a Summers euening, is a token of raine to follow within thrée daies after.

If Oxen féede apace when it raines, it is a token that the raine shall continne many daies after.

The skie or element being red or fiery in a morning, foresheweth raine to follow.

If Crowes or Rauens flie together in great number, and that they croake and flutter their winges, it will raine shortly after.

If Cats doe licke their foreféet, and with them wash their head, it is a signe of raine.

Dusky and blacke cloudes in the aire signifieth raine.

The extraordinary crowing of Peacockes, is a manifest token of raine.

If the Hearne-shaw crye extraordinarily, it is a certaine token of raine.

If it thunder in the South, it will raine shortly.

Any gale of wind comming from the West, signifieth moistnesse and water.

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).


June 10, 2010

This week I have been to the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden where there are many fine paintings, but I was mainly interested in the area where – in the seventeenth century – cloth was scrutinsed, regulated and judged by a panel who, like most other powerful panels through history, had portraits painted of themselves which are now hung about the walls. Perhaps most fascinating was the cutting table where fabric was meted out. It had measurements marked on it at 68.5cm, a measurement referred to as an El. Different places have different Els – measurement was nationally not standardised until the eighteenth century – and this measurement (or so the museum says) is supposed to represent the average human arm.

What I liked most was another information board in the museum which explained that when the Governors cleared up a dispute, they sometimes displayed the length of defrauded fabric in the hall as a moral lesson. So many half-arms, the length of lies, were a cautionary lesson to potential malefactors.

How does this relate to Airs, Waters, Places? It reminds us that then as now interior environments were furnished with lengths of fabric based on lengths of human body parts, which varied region to region.

Sea Grammar

May 26, 2010

This post is about Captain John Smith’s Sea Grammar of 1627, itself an enlargement of his 1626 An Accidence, or a Pathway to Experience, Necessary for all Young Seamen. Smith was an experienced seaman, and his Sea Grammar was mostly taken from Sir Henry Mainwaring’s ‘Nomenclature Navalis’, which was circulated in manuscript form in the 1620s to naval officers and other nautical elite.

The idea of Smith’s book is to offer a vernacular guide to terminology pertaining to the sea and naval activities. There is a section on ‘stearing, sayling, or moring a Ship in fine weather, or in a storme’ which introduces the novice to likely spoken instructions such as:

Let fall your fore-saile. Tally! That is, hale off the Sheats. Who is at the Helme there? Coile your Cables in small fakes! Hale the Cat! A Bitter, . . . belay, . . . loose fast your Anchor with your shank-painter! Stow the Boat!

And explanations of other procedures with particular vocabulary such as:

One to the top to looke out for land!
The man cries out Land to!, which is just so farre as a Kenning, or a man may discover, descrie, or see the land. And to lay a land is to saile from it just so farre as you can see it. A Good Land fall is when we fall just with our reckoning; if otherwise, a Bad Land fall. But however how it beares, set it by the compasse, and bend your Cables to the Anchors.

It also explained sequences of connected vocabulary like this:

Flood is where the water beginneth to rise, which is young flood as we call it; then quarter flood, halfe flood, full Sea, still water, or, high water; so when it Ebbes: dead low water, every one doth know; and also that as at a spring tide the Sea or water is at the highest, so at a Neape tide it is at the lowest.

There is an interesting modern edition of Smith’s book by Kermit Goell (London, 1970) containing a useful introduction. Goell reproduces images of some of the objects named in the book, such as ‘A Murderer’, which is ‘an iron breech-loading anti-personnel weapon’.

Sea Grammar also features a great chapter (XV) on nautical information-storage systems, including ‘what Bookes and Instruments are fit for a Sea-man’, and ‘the use of the petty Tally’, which is the means of allocating and recording the ship’s allowance of alcohol, food and other supplies.

Sea Grammar will be useful for anyone interested in early modern nautical matters, but it also sheds light on the development of specialist vocabularies. In 1625 Gervaise Markham had published The Soldier’s Accidence, a specialist introductory vocabulary for the military man. It can remind us that much measurement and description to do with the sea developed out of naval, military priorities, as well as fishing requirements.