Friday, May 31, 2013

Seventeenth and eighteenth century memes

As I was saying in my last post, yesterday I went over to Innerpeffray Library to show the Bookwitch around, and whilst I was there I had a bit of a poke about for anything that might interest the readers of this blog.

Apart from the gripping first hand account of torture at the hands of the Inquisition, I also had a look at a gentler book - the fabulous Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. I think if I were allowed to have one single book from the library for my very own, it would be this one. It is an alphabetical encyclopaedia of animals - most of them real ones but some mythical ones such as satyrs and sphinxes have crept in too! Also one has to suspect that the illustrator had not actually seen all of the creatures he depicted; there is an otter who looks more like some kind of very grumpy small lion!

One of my very favourite entries is all about the Cat (left). Underneath this lovely picture the author remarks, "Once cattes were all wilde, but afterwards they retyred to houses, wherefore there are plenty of them in all countries." There is a great deal more text, far more than I could transcribe in a short visit, but it was so good that I have promised myself that I will copy it all down at a future date and post it here. I feel Seventeenth Century LOLcats have definite blog post potential!


This book was published in 1785. I mainly picked it up because I still have a bee in my bonnet about the case of the Reverend Richard Duncan, minister of Kinkell and Trinity Gask, who was hanged at Crieff in 1682 for infanticide. Sadly, somewhat as suspected, the case was not notorious enough to find a place in Arnot's book. I did however come across another case that I thought was worthy of a mention here - because it's all about writers!

Yes, dear reader, I am shocked to say that in days gone by, writers were not always the respectable, placid and clean-living individuals who appear today at signings and book festivals. Back in the lawless eighteenth century, they were no strangers to bad language and brawling! Tsk.

Hence the sobering tale of "George Cumming, Writer", who, together with another writer, John Hall, got himself into a nasty brawl in Edinburgh one September night in the early 1700s. The book describes the incident as follows:

"The indictment set forth, that the prisoner, being upon the street of Portsburgh, a suburb of Edinburgh, on the 5th of the preceding month of September, between nine and ten at night, the deceased Patrick Falconer, and other two soldiers of Lord Lindesay’s regiment, walked peaceably by him in the way to their quarters; when the prisoner gave the soldiers opprobrious language, and, without any just provocation, drew his sword, with which he maliciously run the deceased through the body, of which he died within twenty-four hours. 

The parties were pretty much agreed as to the facts which gave rise to this prosecution: That the prisoner, entertaining a notion that the soldiers had made a rude answer to his companions, who enquired of them what o’clock it was, gave the soldiers abusive language, upon which they went up to him, and attacked him with their drawn bayonets: That the prisoner received them with a drawn sword, and, after some skirmishing, killed the deceased."

The case seems mainly to have turned on who started the fight - whether "George Cummings, Writer" had been the first to insult the soldiers or whether they had started it by being rude to him. Cummings' goose was unfortunately cooked by the testimony of a local apothecary:

"James Porteous, apothecary in Edinburgh, deposed, that, in the beginning of September last, he was one evening in the street of Portsburgh, between nine and ten o’clock, in company with three other persons, of whom the prisoner was one. The prisoner went to a house to call for his cloak, and the deceased, with two other soldiers, came up with the deponent and his companions, who asked at them, ‘what o’clock it was?’ He cannot be positive what answer they made; but the prisoner, who was a little way behind them, called the soldiers sons of whores and sons of bitches. The soldiers asked what he said, and he repeated the words, calling, at the same time, to his companions to beat the soldiers. The soldiers then drew their bayonets, passed by the deponent and his companions, and went up to the prisoner, who advanced to them, and, when he was within sword’s length of them, drew it; and within a quarter of an hour, the deponent heard one cry, Murder!"

The court sentenced the prisoner to be hanged, and his personal estate to be forfeited. Writers, beware...

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