Tag Archives: 18th century

The fifteenth of September, 2011: a nasty dog in a dirty shirt

Rootling about in the annals of eighteenth-century surgery (preparing an article for History Today magazine), I came across the lavishly disturbing surgeon John Rainby, and, as a corollary, the circumstances of the horrid death of Queen Caroline.

Rainby – a man “harsh of voice with inelegant manners” (inelegant manners not being the half of it, as we shall see) – was surgeon to Caroline, wife of George II. She was fond of him, or at least she was familiar enough with him to routinely address him as ‘Blockhead’.

In 1737, she suffered an internal rupture.

Queen Caroline to Rainby: ‘I am sure now, Blockhead, you are telling the King I have a rupture.’

Rainby to Queen Caroline: ‘I am so, and there is no more time to be lost – your Majesty has concealed it for too long already.’

She would not conceal it for much longer. But despite her sufferings, Caroline retained that delightful sense of humour with which one will always associate the English aristocracy. When a visiting surgeon, bending to tend the Queen’s needs, inadvertently brushed a lit candle and set his wig on fire, the Queen begged Rainby to hold her hand, so that she could laugh.

Five days before her death, the Queen’s intestine ruptured completely. “The putrefying contents of her belly soaked through the sheets and over the floor,” one historian reports.

The incident provoked a merciless couplet from Alexander Pope:

Here lies, wrapped in towels,

The only proof that Caroline had bowels.

Nice. Back to Rainby. Here’s a rather chilling analysis of his character by a professional rival, the splendidly named Messenger Monsey:

Rainby was the only man I ever heard coolly defend the use of laudanum in effecting his designs on women, which he confessed he had practised with success.

Rainby countered this distasteful allegation not with a rebuttal but with a crisp ad hominem swipe: Monsey, he said, was “a nasty dog in a dirty shirt”.


The ninth of September, 2011: breeding salamanders

As a heavy weekend hoves monstrously into view, I am going to launch a pre-emptive jinx or hex on the inevitable Sunday-morning unpleasantness.

This is from 1700, the pre-dawn of the Geneva Age (also known as the 18th-century gin craze). It describes a gin hangover.

His stomach doesn’t concoct, but bake his food,

His liver even vitrefies his blood;

His trembling hand scarce heaves his liquor in,

His nerves all crackle under parchment’s skin;

His guts from nature’s drudgery are freed,

And in his bowels salamanders breed.

That may be my favourite last line in all English poetry. That’s from an anonymous ‘Satyr Upon Brandy’ (‘brandy’ then being a catch-all term for spirituous distillations), quoted in Patrick Dillon’s excellent Gin: The Much-lamented Death of Madam Geneva (Justin, Charles & Co, 2003).

Bottoms up.


The seventh of September, 2011: tossing foxes in the palaces of the mighty

The past is not a foreign country. They do do things differently there, though.

We’re back with Tim Blanning and his splendid book The Pursuit of Glory. Blanning has a mind-boggling chapter on hunting among the European aristocracies of the 18th century. The statistics of the mass animal slaughters are, as you might expect, almost unbelievable (the prince de Condé’s hunt, for instance, killed a scrupulously totted-up 924,717 “items of game” between 1748 to 1785 (but then, much more recently, our own King George V and his lovable grandson Edward VIII once bagged 3,937 pheasants in a single shoot in 1913, setting a British record)).

More extraordinary than these almighty bags is Blanning’s account of the activity depicted below.

What are these cheerful fellows up to? Why, they’re fox-tossing, of course. Fox-tossing was a popular spectator sport “in which a fox was tossed in a net or blanket held by hunt servants or gentlemen and ladies of the court until it expired”. Here’s Blanning:

The Saxons seem to have been particularly fond of this form of entertainment: in the course of 1747 Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had 414 foxes, 281 hares, 39 badgers and 9 wildcats tossed to death.

Blanning adds that, in 1672, the Swedish envoy to Vienna found it “odd” that Emperor Leopold I should “join with the court dwarves and small boys in delivering the coup de grâce to the tossed foxes by clubbing them to death”.

The twenty-second of August, 2011: Dr Clutterbuck will see you now

Lately, the world has been full of coded messages imploring me to return to Clutterbucking. There was, for instance, a Mr Clutterbuck in the Guardian magazine on Saturday. There was also a Clutterbuck in the last book I read. So okay, world, I can take a hint.

The last book I read was The Air Loom Gang by Mike Jay (Bantam, 2004). It’s the astonishing story of James Tilly Matthews. Matthews was confined in Bedlam (that is, the Bethlehem hospital for the insane) in 1796. He was kept there for the rest of his life.

He claimed that he had been involved in covert diplomacy with the Revolutionary government of France. This – to some extent, at least – was true (although he didn’t have much luck with the French: they banged him up too).

He also believed that, from their lair in a London basement, a cabal of shadowy revolutionaries was controlling the thoughts and actions of the British government (and others) by means of an Air Loom. The Loom was powered by ‘sseminal fluid, male and female… effluvia of dogs – stinking human breath… stench of the sesspool – gaz from the anus of a horse’. The Loom ‘wove’ invisible airs and magnetic fluids into different configurations, and then projected them on to unsuspecting subjects. Among the miseries inflicted on Matthews (and others) by the Loom were the processes of ‘bomb bursting’ – filling the stomach with gas and then detonating it – and ‘gaz-plucking’ – the removal of precious magnetic fluid, bubble by bubble, from the subject’s anus.

This was probably not true.

He also, at times, believed himself to be the Emperor of the world, signing himself ‘James, Absolute Sole and Sacred Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Sovereign Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Proprietor Omni Imperious Arch-Grand-Arch Emperor Supreme etc.’.

This was also probably not true.

In 1809, Dr Henry Clutterbuck examined Matthews. In evidence submitted to a habeas corpus hearing summoned to determine Matthews’ state of mind, Clutterbuck reported that ‘he could not discover any thing that indicated insanity in James Tilly Matthews and he verily believes him to be perfectly sane’.

Mm. If you say so, doc.

But I’m being disingenuous. The question of Matthews’ sanity or otherwise is a vexed one – as, indeed, is any question of sanity. The bare facts of Matthews’ life don’t seem to encourage nuanced analysis (rather, they encourage the conclusion that Matthews was madder than mad Jack McMad), but that is just what Jay delivers in The Air Loom Gang. 

I could go on, but then you might be less inclined to read the book. I’ll just include one more snippet: a detail from Matthews’ staggeringly good technical diagram of the Air Loom. It’s a picture of the Air Loom’s victim as he comes under the influence of the Loom’s baleful emissions. Jay believes that it might very well be a self-portrait – and the only image we have – of poor, tormented James Tilly Matthews himself.

The twenty-fifth of November, 2010: Lady Mary and a bout of constipation

Augustan pin-up Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)

Lady Wortley Montagu is just here to add some colour and vim to an otherwise dry post on eighteenth-century poetry. I’ll probably write a post about her at some point, though.

Here’s some healthcare advice.

Ye who amid this feverish world would wear

A body free of pain, of cares a mind,

Fly the rank city, flee its turbid air.

John Armstrong, from ‘The Art of Preserving Health’ (1744)

From the same century, some choice invective:

Mayst thou die desperate in some dirty pool,

Catching, conceited, choleric old fool!

Thus prays thy lodger with his heart and pen;

And all who know thee sure will say – Amen!

George Farewell, ‘An Adieu To My Landlady’ (1733)

(In another poem, ‘Privy-love For My Landlady’ (1733), Farewell thanks his landlady for curing him of a bout of constipation:

Here costive many minutes did I strain,

Still squeezing, sweating, swearing, all in vain;

When lo! who should pop by but Mother Masters,

At whose bewitching look soon stubborn arse stirs.

No more my wanton wit shall whip thy wife,

Dear, doting Dick, for O! she saved my life.)

And, to finish, a ribald bit of Augustan blue (which sounds like it should be either a cheese or a pedigree rabbit, but is neither):

Why, Jack, how now? I hear strange stories,

How Molly—what-d’ye-call’t your whore is:

Hold,—blot that word;—rhyme forc’d it in,

Your dear kind mistress, Sir, I mean:

And people say, but whisper that,

That she, poor soul! is big with brat.

If this, as I believe, is true,

In what a cursed case are you!

You must the Child maintain and father,

Or hang, or marry, which you’d rather:

Confounded choices all, I vow:

But you ne’er dream’d of these till now.

These thoughts, alas! were ne’er in your head,

Th’ unlucky feat was done hand o’er head:

Reason was then esteem’d a bastard,

True pleasure’s foe, a fearful dastard,

And by stiff passion over-master’d.

Robert Dodsley, ‘An Epistle To My Friend J.B.‘  (1732)

No idea who J.B. was, I’m afraid.

Thanks and praise be to The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, Roger Lonsdale ed. (OUP, 2009).

Here costive many minutes did I strain,
Still squeezing, sweating, swearing, all in vain;
When lo! who should pop by but Mother Masters,
At whose bewitching look soon stubborn arse stirs.
No more my wanton wit shall whip thy wife,
Dear, doting Dick, for O! she saved my life. 

Here costive many minutes did I strain,

Still squeezing, sweating, swearing, all in vain;

When lo! who should pop by but Mother Masters,

At whose bewitching look soon stubborn arse stirs.

No more my wanton wit shall whip thy wife,

Dear, doting Dick, for O! she saved my life.