Thursday, 11 August 2016

Huntington Library despatches 1: Bears and squirrels

Thanks to the combined generosity of the Leverhulme Trust and the Huntington Library themselves, I have a delightful month to spend at this excellent institution, to which, shamefully, I’ve never yet been. It’s much like any top-rank library, except it’s 30 degrees C outside, and my family texted me this morning to tell me that a policeman had showed up at the house where we’re staying and advised them to go indoors because there was a bear in the next door garden.

But who cares about that when there are new manuscripts to play with? Today’s treat was a collection of anti-Parliamentary ballads from the 1640s, some but not all of which were published in the magnificently titled RUMP of 1662.

My favourite, which doesn't appear in the published version, is a cruel squib on Lady Grey of Groby, wife of a senior Parliamentarian general and regicide, who – supposedly – gave birth to ‘an Infant with a head like a hare and the tayle of a squirrel’. Tales of monstrous births like this, usually seen as judgements on the immorality of the parents, were common enough, but this one is done with a sharp comic edge. The monster, we read, ‘had been a beast at best of all / Had she brought forth a Gray’. And that fits with a wider sense that the entire parliamentary party are in some sense monstrous, and that the worst ‘ugly monsters’ are those that have been ‘hach’t by th’Assembly’s braine’ – meaning the Westminster Assembly, charged with the doomed attempt to create a new Protestant settlement for Britain.

What makes this more than routine name-calling, though, is its ironic voice, sustained almost to the end: in which it robustly denies that this and the many, many other monsters of all kinds which parliamentarians are bringing forth mean anything at all. Or as the subtitle puts it: ‘Whereby you may note, that the pious and godly / may be brought to bed of things that look odly.’

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