Mountebanks and mounted priests: an International Archives Day post

9 Jun

I spent today in the Manuscripts Room of the British Library. Even though – as I found out earlier this week – Saturday 9th June is when International Archives Day is celebrated worldwide, there were no special events being held to mark the date. Instead, just like the rest of the year, there were rows of scholars getting on with the business of history, sifting through letters and diaries and court records and poems and all of these sources that make up What We Do.

But, to mark the day – and the end of a good week spent in the archives – I thought I’d throw together a very quick post on the train home to Cambridge. We’re gathering speed as we leave London, and I thought I might share a few snippets that I’ve come across over the last few days. These are from documents I’ve been working on – mainly the commonplace-books and diaries of English-speaking travellers in the seventeenth century – but what I’ve chosen to share isn’t the stuff that’ll ultimately end up in the thesis. Instead, these are a few morsels from these documents which made me feel like I’d learnt something new about the early modern world as these authors perceived it. They’re snapshots, and not meant to seem much more than local details or momentary asides, but on a day when we’re supposed to celebrate the power of the archive to help us to see the world as others saw it, I thought they were worth sharing.

The first comes from the travel journal of a man called Richard Symonds, a Royalist soldier who, in the face of a hostile government, made the politic choice to embark on a period of continental travel. Beginning in 1649, he travelled through France and southwards to Rome, learning the languages along the way and amassing a collection of books and of prints by the great artists of the Italian Renaissance – from Caracci and Michelangelo to Titian and Raphael. He’s also a source for the rumour that one of Caravaggio’s male models was his lover, something Symonds heard and dutifully noted in Rome (forty years after the painter had met his untimely end), and which would be seized upon gleefully by art historians in centuries to come.

Symonds’ journal contains some gems: effectively in self-imposed exile after the wars of the 1640s, he can’t help noting something he prefers about the Italians when compared to the English:

‘I have not yet seene in all this Countrey a man or woman with a pimpled red drunken face. Nor a Puritan squynt eye very rarely.’

My favourite snapshot, though, comes from his extended stay in Paris, where he gets to know the city and its inhabitants. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know the Pont Neuf – the bridge that crosses the Seine at the very point of the Ile de la Cité, and where a bronze statue of Henry IV looks down on passers-by. Symonds noted that while many other shops would be closed on a Sunday, it was here that you’d find an interesting pair:

‘A Mountebancke & his boy on Sunday hanging his Crocodyle Skins & selling his medicaments with his quack confidence to the people under the brasen Horse of H.4. upon Pont Neuf.’

I like thinking of this glorious spot – it’s just by one of the nicest places you’ll ever eat a picnic – as being the go-to place for quack remedies and mumbo-jumbo in seventeenth-century Paris. And the image of man and boy hard at work on the lord’s day, hanging their crocodile skins, setting out their jars, and preparing to dazzle a crowd – of believers, sceptics, hecklers, passers-by – has stayed with me all week.

Texts like this can be particularly illuminating when it comes to the mundane, day-to-day business of travel. As well as the stories of run-ins with bandits or fears of plague and war, they offer information on conditions at different inns, where good food could be found and bad avoided. The commonplace-book of Robert Southwell, an Irish traveller in France a decade after Symonds, contains a few asides of this kind. The Dutch, it seems, had a reputation for driving a hard bargain: ‘The Hollander exact much on strangers and bring most unreasonable reckonings to great men espetially’. Not for the first or last time in recorded history, travellers abroad got a raw deal even when they tried to haggle at the market, and even more so if they looked as though they had a few quid on them. One Scottish lord made the mistake of ‘quarrelling at it’ and trying to beat the Dutch down on price, but unluckily for him, ‘they heard he was a Lord and made it soe much more.’

Southwell got up to all sorts of things in Paris – visiting a cabinet of curiosities, he saw a rattlesnake’s corpse, and the body of a forty-day-old child which he swore to be nothing but head and belly. He went to meetings of a group which discoursed on such crucial topics as ‘Wheather Tickling to death, or dying for love be the greatest paine’. This remains undecided. On the road, he noted down his observations – that one of his travelling partners was deemed ‘a Cross old Rogue’, or that the Normans had plenty of cider but that it wasn’t up to much, even when mixed with claret. My favourite observation of the lot, though is this:

‘A priest on the road had his hatt off riding on the Sunday morning and way at his prayers, the missala Romanum being open in his hand.’

A priest on horseback, bareheaded, heading who knows where and using the journey to say his prayers, is the kind of detail you couldn’t make up. I can’t explain what it is about it that makes me so happy, but it feels like something worth sharing on a day when we think about what the archive means for what we do.


2 Responses to “Mountebanks and mounted priests: an International Archives Day post”

  1. kateash June 9, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    Really enjoyed reading this. It’s these snippets that most of us never see and they give a wonderful insight as you say. They’re also a fantastic reminder of the day to day history of people that we quite often forget or cannot access because these local details are so seldom recorded. Thanks for sharing them!


  1. carnivalesque 86 » Wynken de Worde - June 24, 2012

    […] going to make it into his thesis but that are nonetheless compelling moments. In “Mountebanks and mounted priests: An International Archives Day post,” EMJ describes finding references to a mountebank and his son selling wares on the Pont Neuf […]

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