Jean Nicot was born in Nimes in the sixteenth century and is credited with helping to popularise the use of tobacco in France. Blount’s Glossographia explains under its definition of the active drug component:

Nicotian (Fr. Nicotiane, Span. Nicociana) Tobacco. so called from John Nicot, who first sent that weed into France from Portugal, where he was Ambassador Leiger for the French King, about the year 1560. Near which time, and at which place he made that great French and Latin (called Nicots) Dictionary.

In Nicot’s own dictionary, the Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606), which you can browse here, between entries on Nicher and Nid (‘to nest’ and ‘nest’) appears the reference to his eponymous substance:

Nicotiane, f.penac. est une espece d’herbe, de vertu admirable pour guarir toutes naurures, playes, ulceres, chancres, dartres, & autres tels accidents au corps humain, que Iean Nicot de Nismes Conseiller du Roy, & maistre des requestes de l’hostel dudit Seigneur, estant Ambassadeur de sa Maiesté Tres-chrestienne en Portugal lequel a recueill ce present Thresor ou Dictionaire de la langue Françoise, envoya en France l’an mil cinq cent soixante. Dont toutes Provinces de ce Royaume ont esté engées & peuplées, à cause de quoy laditte herbe a obtenu & porté ledit nom de Nicotiane, pour de laquelle sçavoir l’histoire entiere, voyez le ch.59. du li.2. de la Maison rustique.

Though it was based on a Latin understanding of how language works and many of the entries were given Latin explanations and etymologies, Nicot’s dictionary helped to establish the French vernacular in its own right. Following the fashions of his day Nicot called his book a ‘treasure’ (see John Considine, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, 2008). Like most information-collectors in the seventeenth century, Nicot regarded a ‘treasure’ as akin to the modern ‘treasury’ – a dimensional place in which riches and other goods could be stored. I post his definition of Thresor below.

It is interesting to consider the instant addition of ‘Nicotiane’ to that storehouse or repository, making a link between smoking and the French vernacular in the early seventeenth century.

Un Thresor, Alij Thesor, Thesaurus interponitur r. C’est tant l’assemblée et amas d’or et argent monnoiez qu’on tient en espargne, et en serre sans employ ordinaire, que le mesme lieu auquel tel or et argent sont mis en espargne et en reserve. Ce mot toutesfois ne sonne, ny n’est fait que de cestuy or, estant prins par antonomasie presques en toutes les langues, dautant que (comme dit Pindare en sa premiere Ode des Olympies) l’or est l’excellence, le fleuron et la supereminence de la richesse. Il vient de ce mot Latin Thesaurus, par interposition de la lettre r. Thresor aussi se prend pour la chambre, le lieu, le cabinet où sont les chartres, lettres et tiltres d’une couronne, d’un Royaume, d’une communauté et chapitre. Selon ce on dit La chambre et les Conseillers du Thresor, pour le lieu où sont reduictes, rangées et gardées toutes les chartres de France de toutes choses, qui est au Palais à Paris, ce qu’en aucunes provinces de ce Royaume on appelle les Archifs, ou Archives, Sanctius aerarium. Bud. La raison de ce mot Thresor attribué à la chambre des chartres de France, semble se pouvoir tirer de ce que Servius dit sur ce vers de Virgile au 2. livre des Georgiques: Insanumque forum, aut populi tabularia vidit. Qui est que les chartres des Senat et Peuple de Rome, estoient au temple de Saturne, auquel le thresor et coffres des finances d’icelle rep. avoient esté establis auparavant. Si que le nom d’Airaire, qui signifie Thresor, demeura par prerogative d’ancienneté au Tabulaire, c. aux Archifs de Rome, où les Tables, c. les chartres, tiltres et enseignemens publics estoyent en garde. Ce que paradventure les François ont pris pour raison d’appeler Thresor, le lieu où sont les chartres de la Couronne, voyez Archifs, Ce qu’ont imité les communautez et chapitres des Eglises cathedrales de ce Royaume.


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’.

*         *         *

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.

It has often been noted how the first images of Earth from space drastically changed our perspective of the planet. But a similar perspective was imagined by Richard Bentley in the eighth sermon he delivered against atheism in December 1692.

In the tenth section of the sermon Bentley responded to a quotation from Lucretius, who had — amidst an apparent description of the inhospitability of the planet — advanced the contention that ‘in no way for us the power of gods / Fashioned the world and brought it into being; / So great the fault with which it stands endowed’ (On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Sir Ronald Melville, book V, 197-9).

Bentley responded to this by beginning:

some men are out of Love with the features and mean of our Earth; they do not like this rugged and irregular Surface, these Precipices and Valleys and the gaping Channel of the Ocean. This with them is Deformity, and rather carries the face of a Ruin or a rude and indigested Lump of Atoms that casually convened so, than a Work of Divine Artifice. They would have the vast Body of a Planet to be as elegant and round as a factitious Globe represents it; to be every where smooth and equable, and as plain as the Elysian Fields.

He continues to ask upon what grounds men structure these objections and complaints about the earth, and it is here that he asks the reader to imagine, via mathematics, how the earth would look if one viewed it from space. He first imagines the horror of viewing the dry ocean from space, and how marked it would be from normal land. Secondly, he images the ocean bed to appear as normal land if it was covered with vegetation. He imagines how a man would not be able to distinguish the middle of the ocean from normal earth if this were so:

Why, if we suppose the Ocean to be dry, and that we look down upon the empty Channel from some higher Region of the Air, how horrid and ghastly and unnatural would it look? Now admitting this Supposition; Let us suppose too that the Soil of this dry Channel were covered with Grass and Trees in manner of the Continent, and then see what would follow. If a man could be carried asleep and placed in the very middle of this dry Ocean; it must be allowed, that he could not distinguish it from the inhabited Earth. For if the bottom should be unequal with Shelves and Rocks and Precipices and Gulfs; these being now apparel’d with a vesture of Plants, would only resemble the Mountains and Valleys that he was accustomed to before.

Because the contours of the ocean would be so subtle (i.e. like a large valley raher than a steep chasm), the man would not be able to note the difference. He would need to be carried up into the air:

So that to make this Man sensible what a deep Cavity he was placed in; he must be carried so high in the Air, till he could see at one view the whole Breadth of the Channel, and so compare the depression of the Middle with the elevation of the Banks. But then a very small skill in Mathematicks is enough to instruct us, that before he could arrive to that distance from the Earth, all the inequality of Surface would be lost to his View: the wide Ocean would appear to him like an even and uniform Plane (uniform as to its Level, though not as to Light and Shade) though every Rock of the Sea was as high as the Pico of Teneriff.

Bentley does allow for the possibility of such a perspective that would allow a view of the contours of an empty ocean, but, with that perspective not available, dismisses as futile the act of imagining it, and of following those imaginings to atheism:

But though we should grant, that the dry Gulf of the Ocean would appear vastly hollow and horrible from the top of a high Cloud: yet what a way of reasoning is this from the freaks of Imagination, and impossible Suppositions? Is the Sea ever likely to be evaporated by the Sun, or to be emptied with Buckets? Why then must we fancy this impossible dryness; and then upon that fictitious account calumniate Nature, as deformed and ruinous and unworthy of a Divine Author?

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.

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.

The torrid zone was a term used to refer to the region between the tropics, as explained here by David Abercromby in his Academia scientiarum (1687):

There are five Zones, one Torrid, two Temperate, and two Cold ones. The torrid Zone is comprehended between the two Tropicks; its breadth is 47 degrees, if we reckon according to the common Calcul 23 ½ on each side of the Equator; the two temperate Zones are contain’d between the Tropicks and the Polar Circles, whereof one is South, and the other North; the breadth of both is 43 degrees. The cold Zones are contain’d within the Polar Circles, distant from the Poles of the World 23 degrees ½. (p.50)

In his A short account, of the nature and use of maps as also some short discourses of the properties of the earth (1698), William Alingham described the people inhabiting the various realms of the earth in terms of the shadows they cast:

The Inhabitants of this Zone are called Amphiscians, because they have their shadows both ways at Noon, that is, one part of the Year it is toward the North, the other part toward the South.

The Temperate Zones are those spaces of Earth, included betwixt the Tropicks and Polar Circles, the North temperate Zone being that portion of Earth contained betwixt the Tropick of Cancer and Artick Circle; the South Temperate Zone, is that part or portion of Earth, bounded by the Tropick of Capricorn and Antarctick Circle; each of these Zones are in breadth 43 Degrees, that is, 3010 Miles; in the Northern Temperate Zone, lies almost all Europe and the North part of Africa, as also a considerable part of Asia and America; the Southern Temperate Zone is not so well known to us, it being far distant from our Habitation. These Zones are termed Temperate, because the Sun-beams being cast Obliquely, cannot create that excessive heat, as they do where they fall Perpendicular. They in some measure pertake of the Extremities of Heat and Cold, proceeding from the Torrid and Frigid Zones; those that inhabit in these Zones are called Heteroscians, because their shadows is but one way. (pp.35-7)

The author of The last time I came o’er the moor, a short poem published in 1670 (amongst a collection in the British Library) evoked melting icecaps as an improbability, to show how much he loved his mistress:

In all my Soul there’s not one Place
To let a Rival enter;
Since she outshines in every Grace,
In her my Love shall center:
Sooner the Sea shall cease to flow,
Its Waves the Alps shall cover,
On Greenland Ice shall Roses grow,
Before I cease to love her.

In the seventeenth century, the use of coal as a fuel was linked to the use of wood as a fuel, and as stocks of trees diminished, coal usage increased. Coal was substituted for charcoal in the household, and also in industry, as manufacturers of metals worked out how to smelt them with this alternative fuel.

There were also different types of coal. A publication called Sea-coale, char-coale, and small-coale: or A discourse betweene a New-Castle collier, a small-coale-man, and a collier of Croyden (London, 1643) features a debate of the recent fortunes of various coals, by the coals personified. Sea-coale is what we might now call mineral coal; Char-coale is the carbon residue of vegetable or animal matter (usually wood); and Small-coale is also charcoal.

In January 1643, parliament had passed a bill forbidding coals and salt to be fetched from Newcastle, Sunderland and Blyth. They had found that the ‘Town of Newcastle, being possessed by Forces raised against the King and Parliament, hath been and is the principal Inlet of Foreign Aid, Forces, and Ammunition, for the strengthening of that Force that intends Distractions to the Parliament, and thereby to the Religion, Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom.’ They decided that ‘sufficient Coals be supplied from other Parts’ and forced the embargo.

The pamphlet, written in the form of a dialogue, reflects this coal block.

Croydon, aka Char-coale, opens by explaining these current events to which the pamphlet is responding:

I came up to town to learne the truth of a flying report which I heard at my house in Croydon, namely, that my old enemy, that Sulphurous Pitchie-fac’d Raskall, Good-man Sea-Coale of Newcastle, was restrained to his own town in the North, & that because he was rebellious and refractory to the decrees of the High Court of Parliament, that all manner of traffique was forbidden betwixt him and the Merchants of the City of London, if it is true it is the best news for me that I have heard these twenty years.

Small-Coale replies:

Truly brother Char-Coale, you have heard nothing but what was too sad a truth, as all the poore in the City can testifie, who are fearefull they must sit and blow their nailes the rest of this Winter for cold, unlesse some new project (and they you know are all cashier’d by the Parliament) be found out, to make the Bricks and balls of Clay burne, as you know they did not many yeeres since.

Sea-Coale passes by the pair but will not hang about with his old friend Char-Coale of Croydon, explaining why he cannot be in London:

The Parliament, whose wisdome I dare neither contradict nor question, have decreed it; my towne of Newcastle is possesed by Malignants, and tis not fit that any reliefe should by traffique thither be given to those disturbers of the Kingdomes peace and tranquilitie.

In the world of the pamphlet, Sea-Coale explains that although it seems that is he unlucky to be banished, the scarce trickle of coal coming to London from Newcastle will actually appreciate in value and so fetch the same overall profit. He says: ‘Although I send fewer of my Coales then formerly, yet shall they be at double the usuall rate’. Small-Coale’s response shows the impact of the embargo on the city:

First and formost, your Brewers cry out, they cannot make their Ale and Beere so strong as it was wont to be, by reason of the dearnesse and scarcity of fewell, and then all the good fellowes, such as myself, as used to tost our noses over a good Sea-coale fire of my kindling, at an Ale-house, with a pot of nappy Ale, or invincible stale Beere, cry out upon the smallnesse both of the fire and liquor, and curse your avarice, Sea-coale, that occasions these diasters; for your Bricke-layers and Builders, with open throats, exclaime at your scarcity; the Brickes which were but badly burned before, are now scarce burned at all, no more than if they were onely baked in the Sunne, and are so brittle, they will not hold the laying: Cookes, that noble fraternity of Fleet-Lane, and in generall, throughout the City, raise their meat at least two-pence in a joynt; and in stead of rosting it twice or thrice, according to their ancient custome, sell it now blood-raw, to the great detriment of the buyer. Finally, Ale-houses rail at your dearnesse abominably, and all the poore people of the populous City, and it’s large Suburbs, whose slender fortunes could not lay out so much money together as would lay their provision in for the whole Winter…

As Sea-Coale prepares to move off and the pamphlet draws to a close, Small-Coale issues words of action:

I doe intent, neighbour Sea-Coal … and soe does all the poore of the City, to petition that a constant rate may be set upon you…

Acre / perch

October 30, 2008

It’s interesting to see how definitions of land measurements bear such strong historical marks, like this from Blount’s Glossographia:

Acre (Sax. Aeker) is a certain quantity of land, containing in length 40 Rods, Poles or Pearches, and sour in breadth, or to that quantity, be the length more or less, And, if a man erect a new Cottage, he must lay four Acres of land to it after this measure, ordained by Stat. 31. Eliz. ca. 7.

A ‘pearch’, or perch, is (from the OED)

II. A measure of length, etc.

2. Originally: a rod of a definite length used for measuring land, etc. Later: a measure of length used esp. for land, fences, walls, etc., varying locally but later standardized at 5 yards, or 16 ft (approx. 5.03 m). Also called lug, rod, pole. Now chiefly hist.

The language of measurement and by extension (in this case) property, like most other language, is not future-proofed.

This account of a flood in Bilbao is linked by the author to a certain ‘Romish’ procession due to take place that day. The elements turn iconoclasts.

From the ancient and famous town of Bilbo, by letters to severall London Marchants, it is certified, that there hath hapned a great inundation of waters; an exact Copy followeth:

Sir, On the 8 of this instant Aug. here hapned an accidence of very amazing consequence, & as sad an inundation as hath befel in any part of Europe these many years; the manner thus: It rained by fits almost 24 hours together, and very great were the showers; so that at the last, there came powring down the Mountains such a torrent of waters, that in 4 hours time the water was 16 foot high in our houses: insomuch that most of the goods in Cellars & Warehouses were utterly spoiled: the stream was of such a force, that it bare down many strong houses, and level’d them with the ground; & had it not bin for the great Church at the end of the bridg which did break the impetuosity of the fall, it had undoubtedly swept away the whole town. It has drown’d all our Mules, Hogs, sheep, and other cattel, fill’d our Iron Mines, over-turned our Mills, carryed away all our stores of Charcoal, broke down our Wharf, that there is no sign of it left, carryed away all our ships, Barks, and Lighters into the sea, dismantled whole Woods, that there is not so much as a shrub left, undermined the very graves, so as to give forth their dead, beat down the fowls in the air, yet hath not destroyed many persons that we can hear of. This place is totally undone, and of the sweetest place in Spain, is now become the noysomst in the world: we all gave our selves up for dead men, for we had no visible refuge: the Lord give us hearts to be living Monuments of his praise. It is to be observed, that this hapned on a day dedicated to a great Romish-supersticious Procession; but now the Images and Altars in the Churches are all demolished by the waters.