21 December 2009

Hermits of Regency Britain

A nineteenth-century English idyll: Hermits and haywains.

Listen up, ladies -- I have a most interesting tale for your consideration! If you love the works of Jane Austen, with their romantic portrayal of the aristocracy of early nineteenth-century England, this post is for you.

Once upon a time, there was a king of Britain named George III. Perhaps you know him. He was the man that perennial Cabinet favorite George Washington personally bested in a game of nine pins in the gardens of Versailles to gain the naming rights to forty-three-per-cent of the taverns, alehouses, wayside inns, public houses, and ordinaries in the American colonies. A master of wizardry, he used his comprehensive knowledge of spells to transmogrify famed Prussian monarch (and George's cousin) Friedrich der Große into an oak tree. He had never forgiven Fred, who, in a spell of religious zealotry, had struck George with a cane and spat in his wife Charlotte's (admittedly plain) face at a fete in 1788.

In addition to his regal duties, George served as headmaster of the newly-established Royal Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry

George had a son, also named George, that fettered away his time instead of apprenticing to his father in the noble arts of magick, proving a große disappointment to just about everyone. Yet the Prince did excel in one thing: lavish hedonism! Also, he was mildly satisfactory at serving as Prince Regent for his father, a position he accepted after the House of Commons declared the King's spell-casting too out of control for a ruling sovereign, following a notorious incident where an annoyed George briefly turned William Wilburforce and Odullah Equiano into Cat-holics.

Contrary to popular opinion, dancing masters make poor hermits.

But what does this have to do with hermits, you might be asking? Did George III summon an army of his loyal servants, the hermits, to reclaim his lost crown from the Prince Regent, only to find that most hermits would rather live on a stone pillar in the baking heat of the desert rather than cooperate with their fellows? Although that would make for an exciting blog entry, and, in fact, almost did come to pass, I'm afraid that I made it up. But the Hanoverians and hermits are indeed connected, I assure you!

Let us return to that hedonistic fop, the Prince Regent George. His unfettered lifestyle inspired other romantic types to similarly indulge themselves and long to become syphilitic and/or consumptive. The broad cultural trend of a return to nature (probably not inspired by non-exercising George) inspired the golden age of the country estate, a fancy house owned by a rich family with a bunch of servants and lots of specialized rooms. With their excess moneys,
they made what they thought to be recreations of the pastoral landscapes found at ancient Roman country villas. And what scenic vista, they reasoned, could be truly pastoral without a solitary man of the soil to complement the landscape?

A latter-day hermit.  

In vain the great families of England tried to attract these grizzled loners to partake of the natural bounty that their estates offered. Many even had prefabricated hermit shacks or huts (see picture at right) installed on their lands in hopes that a roving gentleman might see them and take up residence. But the hermits, one of the first professions to unionize in the wake of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution that brought the Iron Rooster to their idyllic haunts, wanted in on the prosperity of their prospective landlords and demanded compensation. The landed gentry relented, ushering in the golden age of British hermitry.

Many of the great cultural achievements of the Regency period celebrate this renaissance of solitary living. Perhaps you remember the scene in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park when the heroin, Fanny, despairing because of Edmund's seeming involvement with Mary Crawford, runs away, only to become lost on the eponymous estate. She stumbles upon the cabin of Walter, Mansfield Park's resident hermit, and his comforting words result in a secret tryst whose vividly explicit details belong more in Austen's Harlequin series, Regency Nights. As with many of her writings, Jane based this episode on her real life experiences in rural Hampshire, during which she was romantically involved with a hermit, as profiled in a recent biopic. Many of the scenes in the film are speculative, but John Malcovich, who plays Walter, gives, in my opinion, a barbaric yawp of a performance.

But what did these ensconced misanthropes do with their time, and how did they interact with the family that resided on the estate? Why did these hermits seemingly "sell out" to "the man"? And what does all this have to do with the enclosure system? Only a return visit to the Cabinet, or an unnecessarily lengthy discussion with George III's portrait, will yield semi-satisfactory answers to these questions! Until next time, the Cabinet, like my mind, is closed.

03 December 2009

Presenting...Frankie X & the Jesuits! (Part II)

Note the variety of child tonsures Francis implemented after his 1549 arrival in Cipangu. 

So...where was I? Ignatius, Frankie X., and the boys had just accepted their mission from Paul III to be fruitful and multiply across the known (and unknown) world.

Francis Xavier was stuck in Rome, though, while his buddies traveled to the Mysterious Orient. Ignatius had given him a desk job in the Vatican pushing pencils as the Jesuit representative to the Pope. A cubicle in St. Peter's could never satisfy a proactive man like Francis, and he yearned to proselytize to the peoples China, Cipangu, and even the antipodes of farthest Terra Australis. Yet this literal purgatory was only temporary, because in 1540, Ignatius ordered him to Goa (!) to India. The Portuguese trading post and colony of Goa was on the coast of India, and the King of Portugal Joao (insert tilde here) III felt that the Europeans and Christian converts in the city were mired, not just in two to three feet of fetid water during the monsoon season, but also in vice and ungodliness.

A disinterested-looking Francis Christianizes an Indian (who looks a lot like an American Indian) in Goa in 1542, while in the background, another Goan hails a rickshaw.  From a nineteenth-century print. 

Speaking of fetid water, are you, readers mine, aware of how horrible long-distance travel by ship was in the sixteenth century? In addition to dealing with bleeding gum and extremely nonexistent sanitation, passengers like Francis had to contend with kraken, merpeople, and the lethargy and heating of the blood induced by the lower latitudes. The trip around Africa included a tangle with a sea monster that bit Francis' hand as he held a crucifix up to its beach-ball sized demonic eyes, successfully repelling the beast (see picture below). 

The voyage was no picnic, and Francis and the other souls on the Santiago stopped off in the eternal Portuguese colony of Mozambique to refuel. Arriving in Goa in May of 1542, Francis started off gangbusters, working for three years to reconvert the once-Christianized natives of the city and their leader, John, and impede the drunken revelry of his fellow Europeans. This was a thankless job, however, because most Indians thought the idea of only one god was crazy boring, and sailors and blackguards have never been the most sincere religious converts.

The largest one-handed statue of Francis Xavier in the Malay Peninsula, depicting Francis post-Kraken accident

All of this was very frustrating, so Francis decided he needed some time off. One day, while enjoying a Singapore Sling in Malacca, Francis met a strange man named Anjiro. This gentleman hailed from a land that Europeans called Cipangu ("Land of the Rising Median Age") that was but a fable among the Jesuits. Smelling a Comstock Lode-like bevy of possible converts, Francis quickly made friends with this Japanese expat.

A professional translator while in Japan, Anjiro fled his homeland after being charged with MURDER. Despite this transgression, Francis and Anjiro soon became bosom buddies, and the Japanese gent convinced our earnest Jesuit that if they saw that his life corresponded with his teaching, they would readily convert. What Anjiro did not tell Francis was that the Japanese had a BUNCH of religions already! Punk'd!

So, Francis, Anjiro, and some other missionaries left to meet the "King of Japan." After they found out that they literally couldn't talk to him, Francis and company hit the streets. Evangelizing for over two years in Japan, he made a few converts and established a beachhead for future Jesuit missions, but more importantly, he found a Lost Tribe of Israel!

Fifteenth-century globe, post-Mu, showing Cipangu on the middle left.

But on his return trip to Goa, Francis was attracted by an even more tempting bauble -- China. He set sail and wound up on an island off the south coast of China. Francis could not get into China, however, without a hall pass. He tried to find someone that would smuggle him in, but, while waiting on the island, it suddenly appeared as if the mainland was only a few cubits and a span across the bay. When Francis waded into the shallow water off of the beach to get a closer look, the mirage vanished suddenly. A giant clam, perhaps summoned by the Son of Heaven, made war upon Francis, dragging him, after a great struggle, to its secreted lair in the inky depths.

I know what you're thinking -- "A tangle with both an occidental and an oriental sea monster? Are you serious, my good man?" Such is the destiny of a lieutenant in the Army of God when he tempts fate in distant Cathay. Francis died without ever having had the pleasure of seeing a palace full of scheming eunuchs. :( His last words, as reported by the Shen, were, "Equo ne credite, Teucri. Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes." Too bad I don't know a stitch of Latin!

OK, so maybe Francis was frustrated in most of his endeavors in the Far East, and his sea-borne proselytizing upset the the legendarily cranky Associated Denizens of the Deep (ADD) .  But his legacy lives on, kind of. There's a fair chance that the good Catholic boy over the age of fifty you know named "Frank" is actually his nom de nicke for Francis Xavier. Also, if you live in an east-coast city, and especially in Ohio, you might just know someone that went to a school named after this college dropout. Yes, you're right, there aren't a whole lot of Christians in India, China, or Japan these days, but can you fault a zealot for trying? As for the Jesuits, they have controlled world politics for the last five centuries -- not too shabby, Iggy, not too shabby...

Well, it is with great regret that ol' Doc C must inform you that the Cabinet is presently closing. I recently slathered its hinges with bear grease, however, so expect increased visits to the Cabinet!

What is wrong with this photo?

If you guessed the anachronistic follicle stylings of the Chinaman on the left, you were correct!

Congratulations, you've found the special prize at the bottom of this edition of the Cabinet!
Open up its cellophane wrapper here.
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