There Is Nothing New Under The Sun
WHEN we read of the manners and customs of by-gone times, nothing pleases us so much as to come across some little trait of character or some observance which reminds us of our own day. We see demonstrated — perhaps for the thousandth time — the essential brotherhood of man, the oneness of human nature, ancient and modern. The imagination bridges over the intervening centuries between our own days and those of old with a rapidity which throws the operations of military bridge-builders far into the shade. We seem to walk and talk with spirits long vanished from the earth.
" One touch of nature makes the whole world kin," as Shakespeare undoubtedly said, though the humanitarian vanity of the late nineteenth century put it into the head of a writer to say that the great poet did not intend this famous passage to be read in the sense ordinarily ascribed to it that Shakspeare Shakespeare better than he knew! Truly, in none but a conceited epoch like the present would any one dare to limit the imagination of a Shakespeare, or have the presumption to declare that the poet who understood human nature from A to Izzard, needed a lesson in its essential nobility from the era of penny-a-liners!
The antiquarian spirit within us certainly delights in odd discoveries, and in the bringing to light of curious facts relating to by-gone days. When in these ancient legends we find the prototypes — or the origin — of things well known to ourselves, then is our historical happiness made perfect; we revel in facts at once strange and familiar, and the archasologist and philosopher in our breasts are both well satisfied. We feel as does the philologist who is studying some new language, and who rejoices greatly whenever he discovers an old familiar word masquerading under a new form.
Thus it is truly delightful to find eras of Jeffersonian simplicity constantly recurring throughout history, to be as constantly succeeded, alas! by periods of profusion and prodigality. The reign of Philip Augustus of France (the contemporary of Richard Coeur-de-Lion) inaugurated a day of economy among kings and princes, made necessary by the enormous outlays for the machinery of war, arrows, helmets, chariots, etc., — and for the pay of men-at-arms demanded by the crusades. Philip never made any considerable display of magnificence save on occasions of state, and had only a few personal attendants, a chancellor, a chaplain, an esquire, a cup-bearer, some knights of the Temple, and a few sergeants-at-arms comprising all the officers of the palace. The king and the princes changed their garments only three times a year, at the Feast of Saint Andrew (the last day of November), on Christmas, and at the Feast of the Assumption. They wore simple raiment, the king's royal mantle of scarlet being apparently the one piece of genuine finery; certainly it was the one jewelled garment that existed at court, and this was only worn on grand occasions. The royal children slept in sheets made of a species of serge, and their nurses wore dark robes made of a woollen material called " brunette."
Philip the Handsome was economical as long as his first wife, Jane of Navarre, lived; an ordinance to the maître d'hôtel of his time empowers that functionary " to buy all the clothes and furs for the king, to keep the key of the wardrobes, to know how much cloth was given to the tailors, and to verify the accounts when the tailors were paid."
A much more modem instance of royal economy for wise purposes is found in Frederick the Great's melting' into silver dollars the staircase of solid silver built by his grandfather. Indeed, the traditions of the house of Hohenzollern favor a rugged simplicity of life which would not be endured for a moment by any wealthy inhabitant of our luxurious republic. The narrow camp-bedstead, the simple wash-stand, etc., of the Emperor of Germany would be scorned by any American whose income was two thousand dollars a year!
Queen Victoria herself has sometimes been charged with penuriousness, although it seems impossible that any very mean person should put lace worth eighty thousand dollars (if I mistake not the figure) into the royal rag-bag, where it was discovered by the sharp eyes of her devoted youngest daughter. However, there is no doubt that the wax-candles from the Royal Palace are or were regularly sold to the outside world, since it is contrary to etiquette to light them a second time. Let us hope, however, that the King does not profit by the sale of the " palace ends," as they directly are called.
It is interesting to learn that Lord Chesterfield's celebrated Advice to his Son had a prototype as early as the end of the fourteenth century, in a book of instructions written by one Geoffroi de la Tour-landry, an Angevin nobleman, for the benefit of his three daughters. This anxious father, wishing his daughters to have prudence and wisdom as safeguards to their beauty, gave a number of rules for their conduct, interspersed with anecdotes by way of illustration.
One of these reminds us of the well-known story of General Washington and the negro. " I have seen a great lady take off her ' chaperon' [a sort of hood] and salute a simple ' taillandier ' [edge-tool maker]; when some one expressed surprise at this proceeding, the lady replied, ` I prefer to have been too courteous to this man, rather than to have shown the least impoliteness to a chevalier.''' ' It seems a strange notion to us, that of a lady removing her head-gear when about to make a salutation. Knight says that the chaperon or hood of this period was of a most indescribable shape, and was sometimes worn over the, capucium, or cowl; thus it may have been thrown back, to show the features of the wearer.
The eldest daughter of this discreet father lived an exemplary life, but the second one was much addicted to feasting and gayety, and arose in the middle of the night, like a naughty school-girl, to stuff herself with good things. Her husband followed and discovered her, and was so much enraged that he beat her with a stick, a fragment whereof flew off and injured her eye; after which, the old chronicler naively says, he was less fond of her!
The chastisement of the young by their parents we know to have been highly approved of in King Solomon's time, and no doubt long before; but there is a curious anecdote that deserves mention, in regard to Anne of Austria, regent of France, and the frequent whippings which she bestowed on her son Louis Quatorze. The Queen always accompanied the floggings with profound reverences, which she considered as due to the future king of France, till one day he cried out, " Ah, Madame, not so many reverences nor so many whippings! "
The modem diner a la Russe seems to have existed in a rudimentary form as long ago as the time of Herodotus. That historian says of the Persians: " They are moderate at their meals, but eat of many after dishes, and those not served up together. On this account the Persians say that the Greeks rise hungry from table, because nothing worth mentioning is brought in after dinner, and that if anything were brought in they would not leave off eating.”
It is pleasant to learn that the Yankees are not the only nation who connect the destruction of sticks with the making of a bargain. The Zulu does not, to be sure, whittle a stick while dickering with his savage brother; but he puts a piece of wood in his mouth and chews it, hoping by this symbolic act to soften the heart of the man from whom he wishes to buy oxen. In the same way stick-chewing constitutes a part of his wooing, and is thought to soften the hard heart of his dark-skinned lady-love. This is reversing the old Hebrew tradition in accordance with which the rejected lover broke a wand over his knee when his mistress wedded another man.
Many people consider that the witchcraft of ancient days was an early manifestation of modem spiritualism, and it is certainly rather startling to find in John Bale's sixteenth century interlude, an account of stools and earthen pots moving about, much after the fashion of our modem table-tipping.
" Theyr wells I can up drye,
N. B. It is evident from this passage that in the days of Elizabeth the broad pronunciation of " dance and similar words existed in England. Witchcraft is said to have been known in Europe in the centuries preceding the tenth, but it had no especial prominence. Charlemagne anticipated the tolerance of the twentieth century by more than a thousand years! This wise and powerful monarch, far from persecuting witches, like a Sewall or a Cotton Mather, enacted laws directed against such people as should put men or women to death on the charge of witchcraft.
Among the superstitions which still survive even in the minds of educated people, a notable one is the fear that the building a new house will cause a death in the family. This seems undoubtedly to be a survival of the old barbarian belief that a victim must be buried under a new building in order to make it stand. History gives numerous instances of varying forms of this belief, from the folly of which even highly-civilized people are not exempt.
The custom of consulting old women, and one's acquaintance generally, in cases of illness, is a very ancient one, though perhaps no nation save the Babylonians ever recognized this sort of quackery as the best mode of treatment for disease. Herodotus says: " They bring out their sick to the market-place, for they have no physicians; then those who pass by the sick person confer with him about the disease, to discover whether they have themselves been afflicted with the same disease as the sick person or have seen others so afflicted . . . and advise him to have recourse to the same treatment as that by which they have escaped a similar disease." He adds that no one was allowed to pass by a sick person in silence. This was certainly applying the doctrine of Moulières " Le Médecin malgré lui " to a whole nation !
Every one knows the delightful proposition made by a writer in our own time to shut up boys — in 'barrels or otherwise during the odious period of hobbledehoydom; and it is both curious and instructive to find our all-wise Shakespeare expressing the same wish, though with greater mildness. He says in "A Winter's Tale ": " I would there was no age between ten and three-and-twenty; or that youth would sleep out the rest." Whence we may reasonably infer that the young fellows of that day were very much like the troublesome boys of our own time.
When we come to speak of amusements, we find that many of our games have been played for hundreds of years, and some were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Virgil describes a whipping-top, and Pliny tells about a rich woman who was very fond of playing chess. Bagatelle was played three or four hundred years aga under the name of Trou-madame, or Pigeon-holes. An old treatise on Buxton baths, in describing the amusements of the place, says: " The ladies, gentlewomen, wives, maids, if the weather be not agreeable, may have in the end of a bench eleven holes made, into the which to troule pummits, either violent or soft, after their own discretion; the pastime troule in madame is termed."
An illumination of the fifteenth century shows Louis XI. of France playing checkers with his courtiers. They are represented as sitting on hard wooden benches and playing on a bare wooden table. Despite the presence of the king, and the fact that the scene is apparently within doors, all wear their hats. These look like low-crowned Derbys, or soft felt hats.
Two centuries earlier we find gentlemen of quality amusing themselves with backgammon, checkers and chess, " to which certain chevaliers consecrated all their leisure."
Playing-cards were used by Charles VI. of France, and an entry in the account-book of his treasurer, about the year 1393, mentions this item: " Fifty-six sols of Paris given to Jacquemin Gringonneur, painter, for three packs of cards, gilt and colored, and of different sorts, for the diversion of his Majesty." An old manuscript copy of "Renard le Contrefait "would seem to prove that cards were known in France about the year 1340, or six years before the battle of Cressy, where firearms were used for the first time.
The fact that gunpowder and the " Devil's pictured books " came into use at the same period might perhaps furnish an additional argument to those who contend that cards are an invention of the Evil One. " A youth of frolics, an old age of cards," said Pope. But Thackeray understood the matter much better. In his " Roundabout Papers " he says: —
" If I had children to educate, I would at ten or twelve years of age have a professor or professoress of whist for them, and cause them to be well grounded in that great and useful game. You cannot learn it well when you are old, any more than you can learn dancing or billiards. . . . A waste of time, my good people! Allons ! What do elderly home-keeping people do of a night after dinner? Darby gets his newspaper, my dear Joan her ` Missionary Magazine,' — and don't you know what ensues? Over the arm of Darby's arm-chair the paper flutters to the ground unheeded, and he performs the trumpet obbligato que vous savez on his old nose. My dear old Joan's head nods over her sermon (awakening though the doctrine may be). Ding, ding, ding; can that be ten o'clock? It is time to send the servants to bed, my dear, and to bed master and mistress go too. But they have not wasted their time playing at cards, oh no! ... Not play at whist? ' Quelle triste vieillesse vous vous préparez ! ' were the words of the great and good Bishop of Au-tun."
The art of dancing in the Middle Ages had not yet attained the degree of intricacy which marks our modern german. From miniatures of that period it would seem that ordinary dancing consisted simply of forming large rounds or circles, in which people turned around, and swayed themselves in cadence, observing the measure of the music.
Some curious dances also are illustrated in ancient books, such as the torch dance, and the famous dance of satyrs, which caused a fearful accident at the court of France in 1392. Froissart describes how a squire of Normandy devised six coats made of linen cloth covered with pitch, and thereon flax-like hair. The king and five noblemen put these on; " and when they were thus arrayed in these sad coats, and sewed fast in them, they seemed like wildwood houses [savages] full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot." All the varlets holding torches were commanded to stand up by the walls, and none of them to approach near to the woodhouses that should come thither to dance. They were so disguised in flax that no man knew them; five of them were fastened one to another; the king was loose, and went before and led the device.
The Duke of Orleans was so anxious to find out who the dancers were, that he placed a torch so near the satyrs that the flax took fire; all were burned to death save the king and one other, who fled to the " botry " and cast himself into a vessel full of water wherein they rinsed pots, and thus saved himself. " The Duchess of Berry delivered the king from that peril, for she did cast over him the train of her gown and covered him from the fire."
The boat-races of antiquity seem to have excited almost as much contemporaneous interest as the inter-collegiate races of our day. Virgil, in his account of the games at the tomb of Anchises, describes how the owner of one of the boats became so enraged at his pilot for not hugging the turning-stake (in this case a rock) as much as he thought proper, that he pitched the unfortunate man into the sea, and every one laughed at the luckless navigator when he finally succeeded in climbing on to the rock, panting for breath, and dripping with sea-water. In the same account Virgil describes the terrible coestus, or ancestor of our modern boxing-glove, which consisted of seven thicknesses of bull's hide, strengthened with lead and iron, and sometimes adorned with brass knuckles.. The imagination shudders at the thought of what the great John L. might have accomplished, arrayed in these terrible gauntlets. In the Iliad they are called " the gloves of death;" and so dangerous was the contest with these " iron hands," that both Homer and Virgil dwell on the difficulty of inducing heroes to enter the ancient prize-ring, where prizes were provided for the vanquished as well as for the victor.
There is not space enough left in this chapter to speak at length of the follies in dress of ancient times, or to solve the difficult problem of the date and origin of the first dude. Richard II. of England was perhaps the greatest fop of his century; and by a somewhat singular coincidence his reign was filled with labor troubles and commotions, very much as is our own Age of Dudes. Richard " had a coat estimated at thirty thousand marks, the value of which must chiefly have arisen from the quantity of precious stones with which it was embroidered, such being one of the many extravagant fashions of the time." The wearing of enormous sleeves reaching almost to the feet was another foolish habit of this period, against which Chaucer and his contemporaries all inveighed. John of Gaunt, the founder of the house of Lancaster, did not yield to the follies of dress prevalent in his nephew's reign, but wore a sleeve tight to the wrist, with a sort of balloon above the elbow.
Foreign as well as native writers bear witness to the foppery of the English at or about this time. Paul Lacroix relates an anecdote of a French lord to whom some one had spoken disparagingly of the fashion of his wife's dress. " I wish my wife dressed like the good ladies of France, and not like those of England," replied the worthy gentleman. " It was the latter who first introduced into Brittany wide borders, bodices divided at the hip, and hanging sleeves."
In the reign of King John of England — a century earlier — the beaux curled and crisped their hair with irons. They seldom wore caps, but bound slight fillets around their heads, as they wished their crimps to be seen and admired.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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