17 February 2013

The Athenian Mercury: The World's First Advice Column

The February 28, 1693/4 issue of the Athenian Mercury, chock-full of inspired questions, sage advice, and unnecessary capital letters.

Dear Readers, 

Ever wonder how Dear Abby, Dear Prudence, Dolly Parton in Straight Talk, or your favorite Agony Aunt got their start? Wonder no more! for today I bring you the story of the seventeenth-century periodical the Athenian Mercury, the first advice column, and its half-crazed, half-genius impresario, John Dunton, and his gang of merry advisers. 

Isaac D'Israeli, father of Benjamin Disraeli, called Dunton a "cracked-brain scribbling bookseller, who boasted he had a thousand projects, fancied he had methodized six hundred, and was ruined by the fifty he executed." But among those myraid doomed projects was a lump of figurative journalistic gold! - The Athenian Mercury.

Dunton, sometime denizen of London, called his brain-storm for an advice magazine scheme his "queſtion-answer project." In 1690, he recruited three of his acquaintances, Richard Sault, Samuel Wesley, and "Dr. Norris" to form the Athenian Society. In the pages of the Mercury, the Society would be spoken of as a real club with exclusive membership and regular meetings, in the manner of the Lunar Society (of Birmingham) or the Royal Society (of London for Improving Natural Knowledge). In point of fact, it was just a front for the editors and contributors to the magazine to give them advice-doling cred. Dunton later asserted the membership of the Athenians grew to twelve members, but most of his fellow bookmongers, magazineers, and publishers knew that this claim was just another of Dunton's "damn'd lunatickal lies."

A depiction of a meeting of the Athenian Society, including the four real members and twenty-two phantasmal members. Meetings could get unruly and sometimes resulted in an alcohol-fueled and mob-induced hanging of one of the aforementioned members (see middle panel above). From Charles Gildon's pseudo-history The History of the Athenian Society (1692).

Dunton took out an advertisement to solicit questions for the first run of issues:

All Persons whatever may be resolved gratis in any Question that their own satisfaction or curiosity shall prompt 'em to, if they send their Questions by a Penny Post letter to Mr. Smith at his Coffee-house in Stocks Market in the Poultry, where orders are given for the reception of such Letters, and care shall be taken for their Resolution by the next Weekly Paper after their sending.
The Mercury was published twice weekly. The first issues were called the Athenian Gazette or Causistical Mercury, but Dunton quickly contracted the name to Mercury, as to not anger the formidable editors of the London Gazette, then as now the official organ of the English/British/UK government. 

John Duntons. Notice the growth of Dunton's wig as he aged. 
(Although perhaps the one on the left is a fake, as it refers to a "M.r Iohn Dvnton," 
the dead minister of Aston Clinton, certainly not one of our Dunton's many professions.)

Richard Sault took on the questions relating to maths. Sault was the author of popular titles like A Treatise of Algebra (1694) and a translation from the Latin of Aegidius Strauch II's Breviarium Chronologicum (1699). He also headmaster'd a mathematick school near London's Royal Exchange. 

Samuel Wesley, as a clergyman and moonlighting poet, advised on questions of a theological or metaphysical nature. He also happened to be Dunton's brother-in-law.

The fourth (real) member of the Society was the shadowy figure Dr. (John) Norris. Not much is known of his involvement beyond that he tackled questions of a medical or pseudo-scientific nature, and refused compensation for his advising services. 

The Reverend Samuel Wesley, Athenian Societitian and father of the Wesley Boys. On the right Wesley can be seen holding his riding crop in preparation for one of his frequent meditative camel rides 'round the pyramids (now demolished) at St. James's Park.  

The Mercury was a quick and resounding success, spawning many imitators. The Athenians had their great nemesis in the copycat Lacedemonian [Spartan] Mercury, a publication started to capitalize on the Athenian Mercury's great periodical successes by plagiarizing popular entries. It was said that Sault once challenged Thomas Brown, the primary Lacedemonian editor and whom Dunton called "the chief Antagonist," to a duel at swordpoint. Less is known of the rumored "Adviſing-Duels," in which the two editors engaged in a series of advice-giving matches for a paying Covent Garden audience.

Poultry Street, London, where Dunton founded his multimedia empire, as it appeared in 1697. 
 [Courtesy: www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/3261154012/]

But what of the questions themselves? They spanned the length and breadth of Human Curios'ty. The answers, though sometimes clever fictions and dark-stabs, were often informed by the latest in scientific, theological, and common-sensical scholarship. Below are some questions culled from the rag-paper pages of the Mercury:

What's the original cause of the Gout?

Whether stones are porous?

Pray Gentlemen, what is the Cause of Suction?

What's Love?

Which of the five Senses is the most Noble?

     [A: Sight is the most Noble, Feeling more Useful.]

Whether Prince Meredith of Wales Discover'd the Indies before Columbus, as some Histories relate?

Is't possible for an Estate to prosper, which is gotten by selling lewd and vicious Books, or can he be a good Man that does so?

Why a Person cannot rise from his Seat, unless he first either bend his Body forward, or thrusts his Feet backwards?

How can a man know when he dreams or when he is really awake?

Many of these continue to baffle our greatest twenty-first-century minds. Indeed, what is the cause of Suction? 

What became of of our Athenian worthies after the Mercury ceased publication in 1697? In 1704, Dunton put together a three-volume compilation of the best of Mercury questions and answers, The Athenian Oracle (Although it is so long, and poorly edited, that this author doubts that Dunton did much culling.)

Richard "The Methodizer" Sault had, in 1700, removed himself to Uni. of Cambridge to profess the beauties of algebra. As is the case with most scholars, he died in great poverty in May 1702, despite being "supported in his last sickness by the friendly contributions" of his fellow professors. 

Samuel Wesley died in 1735, but not before siring nineteen children, including those twin evangelical dynamos, John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism. He also wrote a lot of weird poetry.

An engraving of the newsroom of the Athenian Mercury, as it appeared in 1691. Notice Dunton, sitting at a table in the back, preparing to open a submission from a curious reader with his red-hot letter opener.

After 1697, John Dunton's  achievements were, according to a biographer, marked by a “diminishing sense of responsibility and reality" earning him "the label of eccentric and lunatic from his contemporaries.” And that was when "lunatic" meant something! Dunton then joined, according to another biographer, “the ranks of anonymous mercenaries ...who filled the bookstalls with countless tracts of poorly written and badly printed political and religious invective.”*

If you really want to know more about Dunton, you can read his freely-available-on-the-Internet seven-hundred-page autobiography, Life and Errors of John Dunton, late citizen of London; written by himself in solitude. With an idea of a new life; wherein is shewn how he'd think, speak, and act, might he live over his days again, published in 1705. (One eighteenth-century critic compared Dunton's writing style to“tangled chain, nothing impaired, but all disordered," so you might want to skip it.)

That's it for this go-round, Readers Mine. What curious bagatelle shall usher forth from the Cabinet next time? Only Your Oracular Author knows for sure!


From Stephen Parks's John Dunton and the English Book Trade.

Or, you can read Gilbert D. McEwen's engaging biography of Dunton, The Oracle of the Coffee House (1972), if you live near one of the twelve libraries in the world that have a copy.

05 February 2013

Queen Anne's Lace: Or, A Natural History of the Wild Carrot

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.

- William Carlos Williams

Queen Anne's Lace: beautiful wildflower, as our greatest nominally-double-barreled poet would have it, or noxious weed, as the United States Department of Agriculture and legion disgruntled farmers contend? Only an overly-lengthy and digression-prone blog post by an Erudite Amateur Scholar can get to the bottom of this troublesome question.

Botanical print of Daucus carota (1885). 

Several plants are known by the name of QUEEN ANNE'S LACE (QAL), but it is the humble Daucus carota to which I refer. The plant also is known as: Wild Carrot; Bird's Nest; Devil's Plague; Bee's Nest; Rantipole; Lace Flower; and Bishop's Lace. Strangely, given the royal origin of the name, it is usually only called Queen Anne's lace in our fair anti-monarchical United States.  

QAL is a biennal, a plant that germinates, flourishes, and dies within two summers. This life cycle is far less common than that of the annual or perennial. During Year One, it puts out roots and leaves. After overwintering, it flowers and goes to seed during the second summer. Ah! Summer's lease hath all too short a date! 

A small colony of Queen Anne's Lace in various stages of bloom

The flower stalk is nigh on a yard (one meter for my non-American and non-Liberian readers) high. The inflorescence, called an umbel, is made up of dozens to hundreds of tiny individual flowers. The flowers are white, with the common exception of a single wine- (or blood-!) colored flower in the center of the umbel, which is used to attract insects. 

Daucus carota is not to be confused with the "Philosopher's Bane," the POISON HEMLOCK (Conium maculatum), a biennial both pleasing to the eye and troublesome to the mammalian central nervous system. The two species have similar-looking leaves and flowers, but the expert naturalist can spot that the hemlock has smooth (not hairy) stems and often stands a full yard (1 m.) taller than QAL. But this doppelgangerality shouldn't be a problem unless you use it as a Clif Bar substitute during your nature walk. 

Botanical print of the poison hemlock (1897)

But is Queen Anne's Lace good for anything except lookin' perty? Perhaps! The first recorded mention of QAL comes to us from Ancient Greece, land of the Democracy and botanical corporal punishment. The great medical doctor and notorious oath-taker Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 BCE) recommended the seeds as a contraceptive, probably on the advice of Mrs. Hippocrates.  

The great Greek physician Hippocrates, whose experiments with and exposure to the wild carrot resulted in premature baldness and a permanent pupil-less, thousand-bēma stare.

Man's fecundity: A sampling of varieties of "Eatin' Carrot" bred from the wild QAL.

Would you believe that QAL, the so-called wild carrot, is, in fact, the hearty natural stock from which our ingenious human ancestors selectively bred the familiar carrot sold by every greengrocer worth his or her greengroceries? Carrots were, at first, cultivated for their leaves, which were used for greens, and their aromatic seeds, which were used for smelling. The cultivated carrot we eat today is the taproot, which, when in its wild state, has a rather unpleasant woodiness, bitterness, and noticeable dearth of orangeness. 

Botanical print of the newly-orange carrot (1796)

It was those great orange-loving, botanical-novelty-demanding innovators, the Dutch, who gave the carrot its modern hue in the seventeenth century. This new brand of carrot was sweeter, and perhaps was a tribute to the Dutch royal family the House of Orange, famous for its scions William the Silent, first head of state assassinated with a firearm, and William III of Orange, King of England, first head of state assassinated by a mole.

William the Silent (1533-84), founder of the Dutch House of Orange, in the middle of being assassinated with a pistol, or dood peen.

But back to the carrot's unruly forebearer. Who is the royal namesake of Queen Anne's lace? It is said that this "Queen Anne" loved to make "lace," which resembles the white umbrel of the plant, but, because of her abnormally large, cumbersome hands, she often needle-pricked her finger, hence the single blood-red flower at the center. These are the main candidates:

Anne, Princess of Denmark (1574-1619), wife of James I/VI of England/Scotland (1566-1625, ruled 1567/1603-1625), and mother of Charles I, he of civil warring and regicide-inducing stubbornness. In addition her fondness for botany and lacemaking (notice her collar!), Queen Anne often went on long walks with her five identical dogs (not King Charles Spaniels, bred by her grandson, oddly) as her favorite horse and servant trailed behind at a respectable distance. (See above.)

Our second candidate is Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665-1714, ruled 1702-1714), great-granddaughter of the previous Anne and last of the Stuart line (and sister-in-law of William III of Orange!) to sit on the British throne. When not stuffing her face with carrots, Anne was busy birthing sickly and ill-fated infants, arguing with her best gal-pal Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (and ancestress of Winston), and perhaps making lace out of flowers. 

No, not THAT Queen Anne's lace!

Your Humble Author is leaning toward Anne of Denmark as the true namesake, but, since it's all in the family anyway, I suppose the truth isn't so important. 

Well, Dearest Readers, another Cabinet post is drawing to a close, much like the curled-up, birds-nest-like seedhead of Daucus carota. I hope you have come to appreciate the carrot's wild ancestor, majestic biennial and favorite of roadside ditches everywhere. 

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