Monday, January 21, 2013

Recently Read: Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme

I've recently finished reading Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme by the 17th century antiquary John Aubrey. I say recently, I actually read it about a year ago and it's been lying around on my Kindle with notes and annotations ever since. It's a fascinating work and having refreshed my memory with it I think I'll now relay the bits of information worthy of repeat.

The first thing I'll mention is the title. The book is basically a collection of customs, traditions and folklores, so to my modern eyes the title seems a little odd. The work contains some bits of information relating to Judaism, but on the whole it generally concerns itself with old wives' tales and I guess what we today would call pagan or rural traditions. I suppose the general sense of the title should be taken to mean the remains of anything pre-Christian. But still, the idea that Judaism was equated with paganism in years yonder is something I find quite interesting. I noticed when reading The Merchant of Venice that Jessica, the daughter of Jewish Shylock is at one point referred to as a pagan - Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! I wonder.

Anyway, I'll now just list some of the interesting facts I came across in the work;
"The Shepheards, and vulgar people in South Wilts call Februarie Sowelgrove"
"The vulgar in the West of England doe call the month of March, Lide" 
"When a Magpie chatters on a Tree by the house it declares the comeing of a stranger thither that night. So I have heard in Germany."
There was also this passage about the sacrifice of blonds that I can make head nor tale of;
"Vide Spondam Epitomen Baronii Annaliam - where he speakes de Basidilianisy that did keep Sacrifices for Christy as well as Jewish - and they had serpents that were fed with the blond of the Sacrifices. Vincentins Lerinensis adversns Haereticos also saieth the same. The Bramens have also serpents in great veneration: they keep their Come. I thinke it is Tavemier, that mentions it."
The book also mentions something called Cocklebread;
"Young wenches have a wanton sport, w[hich] they call moulding of Cocklebread ; viz. they gett upon a Table-board, and then gather-up their knees & their coates with their hands as high as they can, and then they wabble to and &o with their Buttocks as if the[y] were kneading of Dowgh with their A — "
I think Wikipedia explains this one better;
"Cockle bread was a bread baked by English women in the seventeenth century which was supposed to act as a love charm or aphrodisiac. The dough was kneaded and pressed against the woman's vulva and then baked. This bread was then given to the object of the baker's affections."
 Another passage that caught my eye was this one;
"Before printing, OJd-wives Tales were ingeniose : and since Printing came in fashion, till a little before the Civil-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade; now-a-dayes Bookes are common, and most of the poor people imderstand letters ; and the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of doors; and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away Robin-good-fellow and the Fayries."
Now I have a theory that universal literacy was not the product of schooling, but simply a product of the introduction of the printing press. I believe that in days gone by most people learnt to read much the same way that modern people learn to use computers and DVD players - i.e. not through schooling, but through their own everyday desire and need to do it. People wanted to read - because it was interesting, useful and (as there was no competition from TV and movies and so on) very entertaining - so they took it upon themselves to learn how to do it (no doubt with a little help and advice from friends and family). Just as in today's world if you want to use a mobile phone and get all the benefits of using it you have to teach yourself to use one - no-one's going to school to learn this kind of thing. Anyhow, I think the education system has taken credit for something that would have happened anyway regardless of it or not. In fact, I confidently predict that if children stopped going to school tomorrow in twenty or thirty years time society would be no less literate than it is today. But anyway, I meander, back to the book...
"Spell is the old English for word[,] so Gospell [is] God's word."
And finally a passage concerning my local area, Cleveland. It's an account of funeral dirges written down in the reign of Elizabeth the First.
"When any dieth, certaine women sing a song to the dead bodie, reciting the journey that the partye deceased must goe ; and they are of beliefe (such is their fondnesse) that once in their lives it is good to give a pair of new shoes to a poor man, forasmuch . as after this life they are to pass barefoot through a great launde full of thornes and furzen, except, by the meryte of the almes aforesaid, they have redeemed the forfeyte ; for at the edge of the launde an oulde man shall meet them with the same shoes that were given by the partie when he was lyving ; and, after he hath shodde them, dismisseth them to go through thick and thin without scratch or scalle."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Recently Read: Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

This is probably my favourite Shakespeare play. I read it before quite a long while back and enjoyed it then as I have now.

The first thing that always strikes me about this play is the title. I can't for the life of me understand the use of the apostrophes. It would seem much more pleasing without them to my mind. In fact, having read the play's Wikipedia page it would appear that originally the title didn't contain them.
"In its first 1598 quarto publication it appears as Loues Labors Lost."
Evidence to me that Shakespeare has once again been bastardised by later idiots. I think in future I'll just dismiss the apostrophes when referring to it.

Anyway, nothing much to say about this play really apart from the fact that it was excellent. Just brilliant.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Recently Read: Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

This was much more nuanced than 'The Jew of Malta'. Quite brilliant actually. Some of the language and observation contained within was just excellent. Once again the portrayal of Jews, this time via the character Shylock, was pretty disdainful. Although it's gotta be said not as strong as in Marlowe's - this time the Jewish character acts solely within the law, although the malice and self-interest is nonetheless evident.

Interestingly, in both plays the Jewish villain has a daughter - in 'The Merchant of Venice' it's Jessica and in 'The Jew of Malta' Abigail. Both these characters are good and contain none of the ill will or vengefulness of their fathers. It's generally believed that Marlowe's play directly influenced Shakespeare's, so that may explain this common theme in the two plays. However, I'm sure I've came across this theme before in literature, but I can't quite remember where. The theme of the horrid Jewish father and goodly Jewish daughter seems to have a certain resonance with me. I'll keep an eye out for it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recently Read: The Jew of Malta by Kit Marlowe

Really enjoyed it - whizzed through it. This one seemed a lot less Shakespearean. In fact, I've just made a start on 'The Merchant of Venice' and although the themes are similar, the text and styles seem markedly different. Shakespeare feels a lot more flowery.

The most notable thing about the play was the portrayal of the title character, Barabas. He's portrayed as a wealth-obsessed, deceitful murderer and conforms to the negative stereotype of the untrustworthy Jew. I'm not going to condemn, condone or try to explain this as it's hard to put the play into context, but I'm guessing that most modern readers would find it a little bit uncomfortable to read. Still, it's fascinating this sense of otherness Jews have had throughout the ages and I wonder how foreign Jewish people would've seemed to the English audiences of the day.

Like all these Elizabethan plays, this one was interesting for its historical value as well as its artistry. In short, anti-Semitic, but entertaining.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Recently Read: Tamburlaine the Great

I've just finished reading 'Tamburlaine the Great' (parts one and two) by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. It was my first introduction to Marlowe and my initial impression was of how similar in structure and style it was to the plays of Shakespeare. I'm guessing this impression is more due to my ignorance of other writings of the period than anything else. At a distance of 400 years everything probably looks a bit Shakespeary to modern eyes.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed it and now look forward to reading 'The Jew of Malta'. The next Marlowe play I have lined up to read.

I should also mention that the similarity of 'Tamburlaine' to Shakespeare has moved me a little closer towards believing the 'Marlowe was Shakespeare' conspiracy theory. Then again, like I said above, it might just be that that was the general style at the time and I can't appreciate the subtle differences. This observation then in turn opens me up to the idea that Shakespeare could have been more than a single man. The plot thickens.

Fascinating.