Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hard-Headed and Soft-Hearted



(To steal a title from one of Peter Kreeft’s favorite lines.)

My theory of yesterday to the contrary notwithstanding, it is important not to imagine that previous generations were too unlike our own.

There is an old canard the goes around some academic departments that parents of the medieval and Renaissance eras did not particularly care about their children.  Probably influenced by Lawrence Stone’s tremendous tome on the topic of family relations (whether they have read it or not) some students of the periods tend to assume that a peculiar combination of social relations and extremely high infant mortality combined to detach parents from their children at birth.  Let the baby grow for a few years, learn to mind his manners, and prove that he wasn’t going to fall dead from the plague, the toothache, or a random marsh fever, and THEN we might consider thinking about him with a smidgen of affection.

If that all sounds rather heartless, it is; if it sounds incredible, it is that too.  There is a fair amount of documentary evidence, in fact, to indicate that many parents did love their children, even their fragile newborns, intensely (sorry, L. Stone).  One of my professors liked to use two of Ben Jonson’s  poems as exhibit A in the case for early modern parental affection.

“On My First Daughter”
Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

“On my First Son”
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scap’d worlds and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

A considerable amount of restraint is exhibited in both these poems—and that is, after all, consistent with Jonson’s style in general: he tended to exhibit classicism more deliberately and overtly in his plays than many of his contemporaries, and in his poetry he rarely if ever flew to the extremes of the Petrarchan metaphors of the sixteenth century or the metaphysical conceits of the seventeenth.  Jonson appears to have been a careful and deliberate craftsman, one eminently conscious of his own hard work (he was the first playwright to issue a complete works in his own name, an act which coming from a playwright of the time was considered evidence of an absurd degree of hubris).  But those facts make it all the more difficult to imagine a more heartfelt and tender epitaph than that contained in the antepenultimate line:

“‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Did Shakespeare’s Wife Get Stressed Out?



One of the things that occurred to me, in considering the cautions we’ve received as soon-to-be first-time parents, is the implausibility of such cautions being delivered in another era.  In some other eras, perhaps: I could see Glencora just-made-Palliser being taken aside by some well-meaning aunt and counseled as to how her life would soon change EVEN MORE once that pregnancy corset came off and the baby inside came out.

Then again, the counsel probably wouldn’t do much for Glencora,
and Glencora is probably in more need of it than many a heroine of her era.
(P.S. No, this is not Victorian fashion.
For some reason, the Victorians didnt do the showing-off the-bump thing.)

But I can’t for the life of me imagine friends gathering around Ma Ingalls (pre-Mary) or Laura Wilder (pre-Rose) to tell them how tough things would be when the baby didn’t sleep through the night.  Nor, for that matter, can I imagine anyone telling Anne (née Hathaway) Shakespeare to Be Prepared.

Think about your average Renaissance Englishwoman for a moment.  Think about Wolf Hall.  (Actually, don’t think about Wolf Hall.  It’s too depressing.)  There are rushes on the floor.  This always seemed silly to me when reading historical novels as a child—until I realized that a lot of the floors were dirt, and actually, having sweet flag to cover that was probably better than, well, just walking in the dirt all the time.  (And if you’re thinking that maybe those rushes would have had their own inconveniences, there’s a theory for that.)

So: rushes (or rush mats) on the floor.  They keep down dirt, smell, cold … Ah, yes, cold.  Let me say a few words about cold.  Sometimes we think they wore a lot of clothing back then.  This is true.  It might have something to do with the fact that they were in the middle of the so-called Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were relatively low enough to freeze the Thames on occasion.  In other words: it got cold outside.  Also inside, because there was no central heating, and while fireplaces had been invented, the Franklin stove (a much more efficient bit of artifice) had not.

Admittedly, being in Florida makes me look at these pictures with nostalgia.
But then again—I have central heating and wood stoves.

Then there was food.  Techniques of drying, oil-packing, and salting were available; but in many places (despite the cold winters) you couldn’t reliably freeze things to preserve them.  Fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish where all seasonal items.  Nuts, grains, and cheese and milk (because God made cows like mothers to produce milk on demand) could plausibly be eaten all year round.

Oh, and did I mention that the bathrooms were oftentimes outside (unless you wanted a chamber pot in your bedroom), and the animals were sometimes inside?  Probably not in the bedroom, though (in this regard, early modern folks may have been a little smarter than some of their twentieth-century descendants), unless your only room WAS the bedroom.

Just let your imaginations dwell on that picture for a while.

The fact is, in previous ages people dealt with a much more physical discomfort on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis than we did.  The additional hardship of adding a squalling newborn to the mix might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some; but for many I suspect it was just one more facet of life-ain’t-easy-get-used-to-it.  And this particular facet, while it made just as much mess as the animals, smelled so much nicer (at least for the first few weeks)!

Meanwhile, here I sit in southern Florida, in a  climate-and-humidity-controlled apartment—infested with pestiferous boxes, to be sure (finally cleaned up, hurrah!)—wearing soft, stretchy clothing (elastic is my new best friend)—near a refrigerator full of food—well, hm, not that full; maybe it’s time to hop in my gasoline-burning miracle and go to the nearest Walmart?  Oh, and if I’m worried that the new absence of manual labor in my life may result in a subpar birth experience, I can head for the also climate-controlled gym, or better still hop onto YouTube (metaphorically) and go through that pre-natal Pilates video again.  (Complete with an instructor who is almost exactly as pregnant as I am, which is … inspiring? embarrassing?)

To unfairly borrow the words of Yum-Yum, herself facing the culturally-distinct prospect of burial alive, “You see my difficulty!”  I have it quite easy, compared to my female ancestresses.  Everything around me is tailored to my comfort, my convenience, my needs; really, tailored to my preferences.

OK, well, maybe not being in Florida itself.  Because Zika. 
And humidity.  And having to stay indoors.  But still!

I’m hardly complaining about the situation.  But it does mean that the permanent presence of a baby will make this the first time in a couple of years that I’ve had to tailor my daily life around anything but the preferences of myself and one other rational adult.  And—especially if one’s memory of parents’ doing the same is faded or non-existent—I can see how that adjustment would be dramatic, not to say traumatic.  In this one regard, at least; in not having so great an adjustment to make, Shakespeares Wife had it easy.

P.S. One more advantage that our ancestors may well have had in the matter of child-rearing: sleep habits.  New scholarship is suggesting that divided sleep cycles were not unusual prior to the last century or so.  In other words: Anne Shakespeare may already have been up once or twice a night, before little Susanna came along.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Something Natural in Separation into Three



“‘That there was something natural, if not also divine,’ remarks Professor Pollard, ‘in the separation of mankind into three classes seemed as clear to mediaeval philosophers as it did to nineteenth-century railway companies’ (and does—he might have added—to some university examining boards).  The idea, he reminds us, is as old as Plato; and no doubt it is much older.  But we need not investigate the mysterious attraction which the number ‘three’ has always had for the human mind, nor attempt to trace the course of the idea in the Christina Fathers and in the mediaeval philosophers.  The immediate point is precisely the feeling of the naturalness or even divinity of the threefold division of society—a division in no respect thought to be a result of royal will” (Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, 94, in his discussion of the three estates).

And did you further know that people are more likely laugh at and remember things when they come in threes?  The Romans had a phrase for it: omne trium perfectum (every triad is perfect).  Indeed, it seems that we are also more likely to believe things or consider them to be significant when they come in threes.  Advertisers, of course, have made hay with this principle; but so have very good storytellers indeed.  One cannot sit on a two-legged stool; a three-legged stool satisfies not only the (deplorably duplex) feet, but the mind as well.

That hyperlink is not an endorsement of the website or the ideas contained therein, by the way.  Being a Christian, and one moderately sympathetic to Platonism, I have my own suspicions about the importance of the number three.  For the moment, I will simply say that, not merely in the notoriously fertile and unreliable imagination, but even in the world of Euclidean arithmetic and geometry, there seems to be something qualitatively different about the number three.  One is not really a number, and two is questionably so; three is the first truly number-like number.  Two is a company; three is a crowd! (so went the old Shoppers Food Warehouse slogan, which promised to open a new register once the lines got too long).  But “crowds” by this definition are comparatively lovely things.  One is the number of solitude, and two is the mirroring number: the devil’s number, according to certain mediaeval and Renaissance thinkers, though (and, but of course?) also the number of romance.  But “Baby makes three”; or, as it is expressed in that immemorial sacred trifold rhyme dating no doubt back to the caveman, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.”


And card games, naturally, involve sets of three as well.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Five Seconds Too Long



Scientists have supposedly debunked the five second rule.  In other news, someone actually shelled out money so that people could Drop Food on the Floor and See What Happens.  Not only that: it isn’t even the first time they’ve tried to figure this out: “Schaffner’s research isnt the first to conclude that the favorite excuse for why that yummy snack that fell on the ground is still OK to eat is wrong” (first link).  But not to worry; the topic is hardly over-researched because “there have only been three studies conducted on the theory that has not been [sic?] published in scientific journals” (third link).  Only three, mon frère!

What I want to know is why I can’t get that research job.  Writing, editing, paleography, Shakespeare?  Pooh.  I want to be able to drop food on the floor and call it research.  I bet I could even bring Baby to work with me as well; babies know how to drop food on the floor.  It’s one of their favorite games, in fact, especially if the adults around them keep picking said food up.  (Also, I clearly should have gone to Rutgers: they have all zhe money.)

So now there are headlines saying that we shouldn’t eat that fallen food.  Google study five second rule and look under “news”; or just take this terrifying quote, from the second article: “[W]e should mention there are 31 known pathogens responsible for an estimated 9 million cases of food-borne illness a year, according to the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention.”  Thirty-one known pathogens!!  Nine million cases of food-borne illness!!!!  Bunter, my fainting couch!!!!!!


But now I’m confused, because I remember those other theories that kids who eat dirt and stuff have fewer allergies.  And then there’s personal experience.  I taught college for two years …

Sans flu shots, no less—please don’t hurt me, internet.
My Tdap is still swollen from a week ago.

without getting so much as a sniffle, an experience which I can only attribute to the fact that there are certain pieces of sanitary advice which I have always tended to ignore.  Mind you, that “always” is probably important: I’m not recommending that someone who has never eaten fallen food start now.  Nor am I saying you should let your two-year-old pick up that string bean from the “spotless” (or not-so-spotless) tile floor of your kitchen.  (Hey, lawyer’s daughters have their disclaimers.)  I’m just saying that I’m not scared of a few bacteria.  And I have centipedes in my kitchen.  Possibly millipedes—I haven’t taken the trouble to count.  But if Rutgers will give me money and a microscope to play with, I will turn out a highly-researched, jauntily-phrased, and beauuuutifully-edited academic paper on the topic from my kitchen.  Which I traverse on a regular basis, barefoot and pregnant.

I double, double dare you to eat that watermelon.