Posts Tagged ‘eighteenth century’
March 13, 2015 | by Ken Armstrong
A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.
This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.
On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.
A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”
Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.
Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »
March 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
From William S. Walsh’s Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, a 1909 compendium of “bibelots and curios” from the world of letters. The critic Barbara M. Benedict has written that the Bottle Conjurer “promised to bring literature to life; to reverse power relations; to incarnate onanism; to make monstrosity—the transgression of physical boundaries—humorous. Instead, he made the audience fools of their own desire ... The explosive result revealed the danger of unmonitored curiosity.”
Perhaps the most gigantic hoax ever perpetrated was that known to history as the Great Bottle Hoax.
Early in the year 1749, a distinguished company of Englishmen were discussing the question of human gullibility. Among them were the Duke of Portland and the Earl of Chesterfield. “I will wager,” said the duke, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”
“Surely,” returned the earl, “if a man should say that he would jump into a quart bottle, nobody would believe that.”
At first the duke was staggered. But having made the wager he held to it. The jest pleased the rest of the company. They put their heads together and evolved the following advertisement, which appeared in the London papers of the first week in January: Read More »
November 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
The excellent Public Domain Review is making its first foray into print with a new anthology, The Book of Selected Essays, 2011–2013, celebrating their three years as dedicated spelunkers of the public domain. They’ve amassed an incredible collection of esoterica—stuff that, as their editor Adam Green writes, “didn’t quite make the cut when that mysterious editor on high was working away with razor blade and glue upon the reels and reels of recorded past”—much of which I hadn’t encountered before. How, for instance, had I never heard of Christopher Smart?
Smart was an eighteenth-century English poet, an intimate of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Henry Fielding; in 1755 he got a gig producing a weekly paper, The Universal Visitor or Monthly Memorialist, and the job so overworked him that he had some kind of a nervous fit. It’s not clear whether he really went mad or not, but he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics—an admirably blunt name, no?—where he wrote one of his more enduring works, Jubilate Agno.
As Frank Key writes in the Public Domain Review,
Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last.” Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the twenty-first century than when it was written.
Indeed we are. “One of the great joys of Jubilate Agno,” Key says, “is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem’s most famous passage, a long consideration of Smart’s cat, Jeoffry: Read More »
September 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.
Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’
Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.
I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’
He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”
Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”
BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:
‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’
I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’
August 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
As evidenced by its name, the 1783 Great Meteor was, yes, great and meteoric. At the time, not much else could be said about it with certainty—indeed, when it graced the skies of the British Isles 231 years ago today, it prompted a scientific (or pseudoscientific) crisis. Experts rushed to answer that burning—pun intended—question: What the hell was that?
On the night in question, Paul Sandby, a landscape painter, happened to be with Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian philosopher, hanging out on the terrace of Windsor Castle, enjoying the summer night, taking in the solemn spectacle of the sky, when, as Cavallo later wrote,
some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens … This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east … Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.
I like the blend of specificity and awe here: Cavallo takes pains to describe the event as accurately as he can, but his account is suffused with the kind of wonder that only comes from confusion. How exciting it must’ve been, not knowing what was happening, not having the rote assurance of a scientific explanation. This was a time, after all, when one could still refer to the skies as “the heavens” without the slightest trace of irony.
In what amounts to an early example of crowdsourcing, artists and scientists came together to corroborate and dispute various accounts of the meteor. Sandby turned in an excellent watercolor of the phenomenon, and a schoolmaster named Henry Robinson made the engraving below. The meteor became the subject of wide speculation in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; London Magazine ran an absurd account from a British lieutenant who claimed to have seen the meteor reverse its course, “moving back again, the contrary way to which it came.”
July 31, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.
Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.
Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.