Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: seventeenth century

A bit of a pasting

Spotted the poster above pasted onto a wall on the north side of the Millennium Bridge, on the approach to Tate Modern. The URL in the corner is – but it takes you to a defunct website. A Whois check on the URL doesn’t reveal much, either.

Still, seeing it reminded me that pasting satirical messages onto London’s walls is nothing new, so I thought it would be a good excuse for a post. For comparison, here is one of the Voyeur Card’s famous early modern counterparts: a satirical broadsheet ballad that would probably also have been glued onto walls.


© The Trustees of the British Museum

The World Is Ruled & Governed By Opinion was published in 1641 by Thomas Banks (although subsequent editions did not feature his name).  The text is by Henry Peacham, a writer and illustrator who in the late 1630s and 1640s published a number of written works. There is some suggestion that he was down on his luck and attempting to make money by doing so. At this period Peacham collaborated with Wenceslaus Hollar, who is the artist behind the ballad’s illustration. This is one of a number of works they collaborated on at this period. The dedication is to Sir Francis Prujean, a noted physician.

In the illustration you can see Opinion (the blindfolded woman), crowned with the Tower of Babel. She has a globe on her lap, a chameleon on her left arm and a staff in her right hand. In the tree are various pamphlets and broadside ballads. On the left is a jester-like man watering the tree. On the right is the aristocratic cavalier labelled “Viator” or traveller, who is the person Opinion is debating with in the ballad’s text.

The ballad and its illustration are a good example of of views held in the 1640s about the dangers of print, news and opinion – Opinion is an inversion of Justice, watered by a fool, producing nothing but confusion and a world turned upside down. This is ironic, given that the pamphlet’s publisher, Thomas Banks, was a key producer of cheap ballads, pamphlets and newsbooks during the 1640s. Paradoxically, the ballad’s very medium cuts across its message.

Where it gets really interesting are the titles it’s possible to make out of the books hanging from the tree. These are:

  • “[John] Taylor’s Reply”
  • “The Ironmonger’s Answer”
  • “Mercuries Message”
  • “News from Elyzium”
  • “Hellish Parliament”
  • “A Swarme of Sectaries”
  • “Canterburies Tooles” (not Troubles as the British Museum website has it)
  • “Brownists Conventicle”
  • “Taylors Physicke”
  • “Lambeth Faire”

Of these, Taylor’s Reply, A Swarme of Sectaries, Taylors Physicke, and The Ironmonger’s Answer all relate to the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker.

Mercuries Message was a ballad critical of Laud. Newes from Elizium was a satirical piece using the same woodcut of Laud as Mercuries Message. The Hellish Parliament was another satirical pamphlet by Taylor. Canterburies Tooles is a pamphlet purporting to be by Prynne which reused the same woodcut. Brownists Conventicle was yet another Taylor satire. Lambeth Faire was another satirical ballad hostile to Laud.

I have a hunch – and it is no more than that at this stage – that the listed works may all have been published by Thomas Banks. Certainly Taylor had close professional connections with Banks, who printed a number of his satires. And much of Banks’s output at this time consisted of cheap satirical pamphlets and ballads. To add another layer of paradox, it may be that as well as a critical commentary on the burgeoning public sphere in 1641, The World Is Ruled & Governed By Opinion is also an advert for the very cheap print the ballad criticises.

What is also potentially fascinating for me is that works from both sides of the pamphlet war between John Taylor and Henry Walker are mentioned – not just Taylor’s but also Walker’s. Having blogged about this previously, and hypothesised that the two may have been closer than is supposed, and linked by their mutual associations with Banks and other printers, it is intriguing to wonder whether Banks actually printed all the pamphlets in the dispute. At any rate it’s something I’ll be following up.

Incidentally the ballad also inspired the title of Dagmar Freist’s excellent study of politics and communication in mid-seventeenth century London, which is now available in limited preview on Google Books, and which I would recommend if you want to find out more about print and other forms of communication in 1630s and 1640s London.

The Mowing-Devil

The Mowing-Devil is a quarto pamphlet printed in 1678.1 It tells the story of a farmer whose field of oats was destroyed by the devil, after the farmer rejected the price asked by a mower and said that the devil could mow it instead.

The pamphlet is often prayed in aid by crop circle enthusiasts as an example of crop circles being a pre-modern phenomenon. The Wikipedia article on the pamphlet puts this forward as a possibility, as do a number of crop circle websites. One, Swirled News, has carried out lengthy research into the provenance of the pamphlet, examining a copy in the British Library and discovering that there are a number of subtly different modern recreations of the woodcut illustration. At a quick glance it certainly does bear a resemblance to a crop circle – it looks like there are concentric rings of crops being pressed down by the devil.

However, the crop circle enthusiasts don’t really talk about the text of the pamphlet itself. A closer look makes the crop circle theory seem less likely. There is no mention in the text of patterns or concentric circles in the oats. The pamphlet goes on to say that after the farmer had abused the mower, his field was observed to be on fire during the night. The next morning, the field was:

totally devour’d by those ravenous Flames which were observ’d to be so long resident on his Acre and a half of Ground.

Below is a close-up of the woodcut on the pamphlet’s title page.

A close look shows what actually appears to be flames either side of the oats. Although the devil is cutting the oats down with a scythe, I’m fairly confident this is a representation of the diabolical flames consuming the field, rather than the devil cutting patterns into it. The pamphlet does then claim that the next morning, the oats were perfectly mown, and it’s possible that this may have been the way they were destroyed – but I suspect fire is the more likely explanation.

A close reading of the text reveals at least two rather different contexts that would have made much more sense to contemporary readers than speculation about crop circles. One is religious. The pamphlet starts with a proof of God: if devils exist, then there must be a Hell in which they live. If there is a Hell, there must be a Heaven, and hence there must be a God. The way in which the pamphlet deploys imagery of the devil can tell us something about its intended readership. Its imagery owes much to late medieval conceptions of the devil, in which he (or occasionally she) could appear as a physical being. This often presented the devil in a humorous or socially-inverted context. He appeared in medieval “merry tales” and mystery plays, often in a sexual or scatological context. Such images would have been recognisable by those at all levels of society during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 By the mid-seventeenth century, however, this late medieval conception of the devil was being challenged. Godly puritanism emphasised the power of the devil, putting the struggle with him at the centre of spiritual life. However, this challenge was not entirely successful – medieval conceptions of the devil continued to live on amongst much of the population of England.3 So this pamphlet would have had more appeal to those in rural communities who remained attached to the rhythms of the old church, who had turned against puritan tendencies.

The second context is a classed one. The pamphlet is fairly explicit in its representation of the power relationships between the farmer and the mower. The farmer is a “rich, industrious farmer”. The mower is a “poor Neighbour”, who:

endeavour’d to sell the Sweat of his Brows and Marrow of his Bones as at dear a Rate as reasonably he might.

But the farmer won’t give him a fair price for his labour. After some sharp words, the “honest Mower” runs back and offers to do the work at a much lower price than he’d ever offered to anyone else. But the farmer is having none of it, and makes his quip that the devil will mow the field before the mower does.

The farmer here – at least as far as the pamphlet’s author is concerned – stands guilty of breaking the moral economy of their rural community.4 The mower has offered a fair price within a framework of what is acceptable, and even offers to do the work at a loss. But the farmer rejects this, and by stepping outside the moral economy pays the price. It seems likely that the fire in the field was caused not by the devil, but by the mower or at least by friends or family members within his community. Again, this context would have been instantly recognisable to contemporary readers – a cautionary tale, perhaps, for middling sort landowners, and a comforting assertion of traditional values of fair play for rural wage labourers. Only a minority of this latter group might have been able to read the pamphlet, but all would have been able to see the illustration, and discuss it or have it read to them by those who could read.

In short, The Mowing-Devil is probably not the representation of an early crop-circle that enthusiasts want it to be. In focusing on the woodcut, they’ve missed a much more interesting side to the text that tells us something about late seventeenth-century popular politics and religion.

1. Anonymous, The Mowing-devil, or, Strange news out of Hartford-Shire being a true relation of a farmer, who bargaining with a poor mower about the cutting down three half acres of oats, upon the mower’s asking too much, the farmer swore that the devil should mow it, rather than he… (London?, 1678), Wing / M2996.
2. Darren Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England (Sutton: Stroud, 2000), pp. 16-23.
3. Oldridge, The Devil in Early Modern England, pp. 58-89; Nathaniel Johnston, The Devil and Demonism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006), pp. 1-8.
4. E.P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century”, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136.

A speech I’d like to have written

Regular readers will probably have picked up that my day job is as a civil servant in one of the big UK Government departments. I deliberately don’t post about anything work-related – this is a blog about history, after all – but I figure I’m on safe ground with this post.

Officials working on policy often have to draft speeches for Ministers. These can range from keynote addresses to major conferences through to very much more technical speeches for specialist audiences. I found a great example of one of the latter recently that I would love to have been asked to write.

While searching for something else, I found a speech that Lord Falconer (Lord Chancellor until last year) made in 2004. It was to mark the 350th anniversary of the Whitelocke treaty between England and Sweden.

If you haven’t come across Bulstrode Whitelocke before, here’s a bit of background. Born in 1605, he was a lawyer and MP who became involved in supporting John Hampden’s resistance to Charles I’s fiscal policies in the 1630s. He was involved in the early failed negotiations with the king and later in the 1640s became a keeper of the great seal. He managed to hedge his bets with the trial and execution of the king: he was a member of the committee that prepared the charges, but never attended, and he stayed at home on the day of the execution itself.

In November 1652, he recorded in his memoirs that he chanced upon Cromwell late one night in St James’s Park, who asked him “what if a man should take upon him to be king?”. Whitelocked reportedly advised Cromwell against, although there are limits to the reliability we can place on this source. In 1653, Whitelocke became ambassador-extraordinary to Queen Christina of Sweden, the topic of Lord Falconer’s speech. He negotiated a treaty of peace which, as Lord Falconer makes clear, has never been repealed.

Whitelocke is important for historians of the seventeenth century because of his writings. He left two substantial works, the Annals (a narrative of public events up to 1660 which draw from his journal), and his Memorials which are a tidied up version of his journal (not quite a diary, as Blair Worden has pointed out). Both of these are fantastic sources for those reconstructing the high politics of the 1640s and 1650s.

The man himself has found less favour with historians. He’s been seen as a pragmatist, or less charitably as a trimming official concerned with saving his own skin. Probably the most memorable judgement is that of Thomas Carlyle, who characterised him as ‘Dryasdust’: ‘our Pedant friend’ but one whose prose did demonstrate ‘occasional friskiness; most unexpected, as if the hippopotamus should show a tendency to dance’. But as an official myself I’ve always had a bit more sympathy with him.

Lord Falconer’s speech is a wonderful potted history of relations between the two countries in the mid-seventeenth century. There is the obligatory delight at Whitelocke’s unusual first name, praise for Queen Christina, and a summary of Cromwellian foreign policy in 1654. And whoever drafted the speech has a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Take this line:

First, and most importantly, it sought to establish a contractual basis for long-term peace and amity between our nations. Perpetual peace, indeed (the 1654 Treaty was nothing if not ambitious). 350 years is a solid start, you will agree.

Going Dutch

There was a devastating review by Peter Conrad of Lisa Jardine’s new book on the influence of Holland on early modern English culture in the Observer this weekend . Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph had a slightly softer critique.

However, others seem to have liked Going Dutch better. Peter Ackroyd in the Times and Keith Thomas in the Guardian are both worth a read.

Update – John Adamson has also given Jardine a glowing review in the Literary Review .

Europe’s Physician

Europe’s Physician: the various life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne
by Hugh Trevor-Roper
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006

Here is a long overdue review of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne. I originally read this book over Christmas in a vain attempt to delay the process of essay writing, but it’s taken me a while to get round to writing about it.

The manuscript for the book was amongst various unfinished works found in Trevor-Roper’s papers when he died in 2003. Much of the research seems to have been carried out during the 1970s, with the bulk of the manuscript completed by 1979 – but then, other projects got in the way and Trevor-Roper never fully completed it. Blair Worden, Trevor-Roper’s literary executor, has been the mastermind behind its eventual publication – his editing (rightly) confined to chasing references and the occasional polishing of roughly drafted text.

Mayerne was born into a Huguenot family in Geneva – his father having fled France following the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He studied first in Geneva then at Heidelberg and Montpellier, at the latter finding inspiration from Joseph du Chesne and building an interest in the new, heretical medical practices of Paracelsus. Trevor-Roper does a fine job of explaining and illuminating the battle between Galenic medicine and Paracelsian “chemical” medicine that was underway during Mayerne’s lifetime. Where Galen had argued that illness could be controlled by balancing the four humours within the body, Paracelsus and his followers argued that the universe and everything in it – including the human body – was chemically controlled, and could be adjusted through appropriate treatments.

After moving to Paris to set up practice, Mayerne continued his interest in Paracelsus but also managed to become one of Henri IV’s physicians. It was here that he developed the practice of keeping detailed case notes, something which has allowed historians to gain insight into the medical conditions of many contemporaries – Oliver Cromwell, for instance, sought treatment from Mayerne in 1628 and was described as “valde melancholicus”. At this time Mayerne also developed a political role, accompanying the Duc de Rohan on diplomatic missions. Trevor-Roper is excellent at bringing out Mayerne’s politics, particularly his commitment to the Huguenot cause. This is an aspect that is missing from other biographies that focus solely on Mayerne’s medical career. He was also later employed by James I for similar purposes of statecraft.

After Henri IV’s assassination in 1610, Mayerne was invited to England and became James I’s personal physician – and vet, too, for the royal horses (there was no distinction between the two roles at the time). He managed to ride out criticism of his treatment of Robert Cecil and Henry Prince of Wales – both of whom would die, despite his efforts. In Cecil’s case he was criticised for bleeding the patient by other doctors; in Henry’s case, the treatment was initially senna and rhubarb cordial, but when Henry’s typhoid fever did not respond to this, Mayerne’s desire to bleed him was vetoed by other doctors. Instead, his head was shaved and pigeons applied to it, and a cock was slit down the back and placed on his feet. Despite this, Henry went downhill and was dead by the next day. Mayerne was then caught up in the scandal surrounding the murder of Thomas Overbury, who died a horrible death, poisoned by Frances Howard and Robert Carr. Mayerned had been involved in Overbury’s treatment but managed to escape censure.

Mayerne was far-thinking in some of his ideas. During the plague of 1630, for example, he suggested a centralised office for public health, with royally-funded hospitals and trained doctors. He also saw which direction the wind was blowing in terms of monopolies – he applied for monopolies in lead-mining and in oyster-farming, although neither attempt was successful. Later in his career, he also developed an interest in art, applying his chemical interests to the science and technology of painting and pottery, and producing an influential history of the technique of oil painting.

In his later years, Mayerne kept a low profile during the civil wars and had his position as doctor to Henry and Elizabeth Stuart (Charles’s younger children, under Parliament’s care at St James’s) regularised by Parliament. He died on 22 March 1655, at the age of 82.

Trevor-Roper’s life is a fascinating account of the man, ranging equally from analysis of Mayerne’s role in high politics, through to his medical ideas, to interesting tidbits about arcane treatments or passing interests in non-medical issues. He has an eye for the funny detail – for example, the treatment of ointment of made of green lizards, applied to the feet, that he prescribed for the Duchess of Lennox. Some of the writing does jar slightly, though. The book was written in an age when literary tastes differed from today’s, and I found some of the language slightly overblown in places. There are also various points, particularly in Trevor-Roper’s account of European politics, where the historiography has significantly overtaken him. His summary of the English civil wars, for example, is very out of date. But this is to be expected in a book that was largely completed thirty years ago, and it does not take away from what an enjoyable read it is.