Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here. 

The Power of a Pen in the Hand of an Angry Woman: The Trials of Caroline Norton

maclise the spirit of justice

Daniel Maclise, The Spirit of Justice (1847-9). Fresco. Caroline Norton was the model for Justice (center)

In an age in which English marriage law considered women not just less than equal, but absolutely nonexistent, Caroline Norton emerged as an unlikely hero. She is sometimes called an early feminist, but that is inaccurate. Pressured into marriage to a virtual stranger by her family’s financial problems, abused both physically and emotionally by her husband, object of general pity, falsely accused of adultery, separated from her children, and crippled financially by her manipulative husband, she fought back.

Caroline didn’t believe in woman’s equality with man, as did Wollstonecraft for example, and certainly never argued for it. What she did believe in was rule by law, laws that could be changed, and the obligation of the law to protect those dependent on others. She may have been without protection, money, or power, but she had two formidable weapons: she had influential friends and she could write.

Caroline’s early life is generally described one of poverty, and that is somewhat true. Her grandfather, the playwright Richard Sheridan, died in poverty, but in an age that knew true poverty, Caroline didn’t go hungry or lack shelter. However, her mother, who had been left with seven children to raise on a modest pension when her husband died suddenly, endured enormous financial insecurity and worried particularly for her three dowerless daughters throughout Caroline’s childhood. Still, her childhood cannot be called bleak. The Sheridans were an intellectually vibrant family with radical political leanings and a wide circle of friends. Her mother wrote novels, and Caroline was particularly fond of her uncle, Charles Sheridan, a noted if not particularly brilliant poet. She began writing and expressing herself at a very young age.

Once Caroline’s older sister made a successful marriage, Caroline didn’t question that it was her turn to do so, particularly because their youngest sister had begun to attract a number of suitors, and giving the family hope she might make a brilliant match. (So she did. Georgiana Sheridan became the Duchess of Somerset.) Caroline may not have wanted to stand in the way, may have desired to please her mother, or might simply have believed she would get no other offers. There had been none during her only London season. Whatever the reason, she agreed to marry Edward Norton, a man she had met only once three years before when she was sixteen. He had approached her mother at that time and been put off, apparently in hopes Caroline could do better. This time both mother and daughter agreed.

CarolineNortonbyGeorgeHayter1832

Portrait by Sir George Hayter, 1832

No one knows why Edward wanted Caroline, but his dissatisfaction with her surfaced early. The Sheridans were Whigs, if not outright radical, in their politics. Norton, a Member of Parliament and a staunch Tory, loathed much of what Caroline believed. Raised to argue her position, she must have been devastated when he kicked her for expressing views with which he disagreed. That kick early in the marriage was the first of extensive physical abuse. Various accounts describe Norton as “dull-witted” and indolent, the sort to be threatened by her wit, verbal dexterity, and vivaciousness. He wasn’t above using her social skills for political gain, however. He even encouraged her friendship with Lord Melbourne.

Money also caused trouble. Norton probably presented his financial status to Caroline’s mother otherwise, but he was in fact living on a barrister’s salary when he married. Though Lord Grantly’s heir, he received no allowance from the estate. He lost his seat in Parliament three years after they married. Extremely conscious of status, he refused work he considered beneath him, did little to help their situation, and pressured Caroline to convince her influential friends to get him an appointment, one he thought worthy of his rank. Eventually Melbourne gave him an appointment as a magistrate. Caroline, for her part, began to publish her writings, and he happily took the income from that.

The birth of three children and her writing gave Caroline some joy. She was a devoted mother. The violence, however, never let up. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, he beat her so badly she miscarried. After such episodes Caroline would go to her family for refuge but always went back. Arguing and violence escalated until one day, when Caroline was out, Edward sent their three children to a cousin and ordered the servants to lock her out of the house. He had, in essence, thrown her out.

Norton then brought suit against Melbourne for “Criminal Conversation,” or adultery, a first step in obtaining a divorce. He also hoped to milk money out of Melbourne. He lost. The jury didn’t even have to leave the courtroom; he was laughed out of court. The case had several results. Melbourne’s reputation and political position were upheld. Caroline was labeled a “scandalous woman” for the rest of her life. There could and would be no divorce. Only a man could sue for divorce, and she was a faithful wife. They were stuck with each other.

Worst of all he kept the children from her. Her only recourse was to attack the law that let him do it. Caroline rallied her friends and contacts. She finally convinced a member of parliament to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the Court of Chancery for custody of children less than seven years of age. She continued to write, but now she wrote pamphlets brilliantly arguing for the rights of women to their children. It took two years, but in 1839 parliament passed The Infant Custody Act enabling women sue for custody of children under seven as long as they were not adulteresses. The act made married women visible in the law for the first time. Edward countered by moving her children to Scotland where the law didn’t apply. Three years later one of her sons died there before she was able to get to him.

Edward also denied her a home and refused to support her. Another woman might have been crushed under all that, but Caroline Norton was made of sterner stuff. She continued to write. She could support herself with her published works. Edward quickly claimed her income as his right.

Yes, he could do that.

She proceeded to send her bills to him, bills he was obligated to pay. Years of conflict followed eventually culminating in another court case in 1853. This time Edward won on a technicality because the particular creditor in question had presented his bill before Norton withdrew support.

CarolineNortonbyFrank_Stone

Detail from a painting by Frank Stone, 1845

Again Caroline fought back with her pen. Since her husband was entitled to all her income from writing, she dedicated that writing to one topic, marriage and property laws that enabled him to profit from her labor. She never argued for the equality of women. She focused entirely on the non-existence of women in marriage law.

A movement to change the laws was already underway and a number of women including Barbara Leigh Smith, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett and Dorothea Beale, were lobbying for change. Caroline threw herself—and her pen—into the fray. NON-EXISTENT became a kind of rallying cry for her. Among other things, she wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria about the position of women in regard to divorce. When the Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857 it had 68 clauses, four of which came from Caroline’s pamphlets. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward. It created a Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes removing divorce from both civil and ecclesiastical courts, and provided women recognition in law.

In later years Caroline continued to write. Her poetry and novels enjoyed some success, but today they are far less well known than her political writing. Edward Norton died in 1875. Two years later Caroline married a long time friend and supporter, Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. They died within months of each other later that year and are buried next to each other. Sadly, her oldest son predeceased her, and her only remaining son died within weeks of Stirling-Maxwell.

Caroline Norton never joined the earliest feminist circle, The Ladies of Langham Place, who had lobbied for the Matrimonial Causes Act, nor devoted herself to such women’s issues as education, the vote, or equality in employment. Still, her influential writing helped put the first cracks in the wall separating women from recognition under the law. She used her pen to stand up for herself and in doing so stood up for others who had no voice.*

Further Reading:

There are many pieces about Caroline Norton in print and on the Web. These three are particularly rich and well documented:

“Caroline Norton,” on Spartacus Educational.

Diniejko, Andreij, Contributing editor, “Caroline Norton: A Biographical Sketch,” on The Victorian Web.

Ockerbloom, Mary Mark, editor, “Caroline Norton (1808-1877)” on A Celebration of Women Authors, University of Pennsylvania Digital Library, 1994-2017.

Untitled design (15)Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She is a regular contributor to History Imagined and to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.

Her current series, Children of Empire, is set in the late Georgian/early Victorian era and focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire—and the women who help make them whole. The second book in the series, The Reluctant Wife, set in India and England, was just released.

Website | Amazon | Pinterest

*Editor’s Note: Caroline Norton’s influence on modern matrimonial and custody laws cannot be understated. As a lovely (and telling) tribute, Daniel Maclise used her as the model for Justice in his fresco The Spirit of Justice in the House of Lords (top). See The Transfigurations of Caroline Norton for more on her influence on art and literature. -JC

Daniel Mendoza and The Modern Art of Boxing

mendoza-by-gillray

Daniel Mendoza by James Gillray

“It is undoubtedly a fact, that some men of turbulent and vindictive dispositions have made a bad use of their pugilistic powers, and have thereby become obnoxious and disgraceful members of society; but these instances occur not frequently, and when they do they must be acknowledged to result from the abuse, and not from the right use of the art. The robust and athletic should never forget that excellent observation of Shakespeare: ‘It is good to have a giant’s strength, but merciless to use it like a giant.’” -Daniel Mendoza, Memoirs (1816)

The first thing you learn in boxing is that if you don’t guard yourself with your hands up, you’re going to get hit in the face. It seems like common sense, so you might surprised to learn that this was not always done. Before English boxing’s heyday in the latter half of the eighteenth century, prizefights were still popular among the lower classes who tended to fight by taking turns hitting one another until someone won. Boxing as we know it today–a sport of skill and stamina as much about blocking and dodging as hitting–comes from the technique developed by Jewish-English prizefighter, Daniel Mendoza.

By the time Mendoza was born in 1764, Jews had only been allowed to settle in England for about a hundred years after officially being readmitted by Cromwell in 1656. Communities of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews were forming primarily in London’s East End, and although they were generally accepted in London, they were still met with a degree of suspicion and antisemitism.

Georgian London attracted diverse people from around the world, but it was by no means a haven of tolerance. Jews in particular were viewed as small and weak, a stereotype Mendoza spectacularly disproved. During his career, he formed his own boxing academy and taught students there as well as giving private lessons for the wealthy, and wrote a boxing manual, The Modern Art of Boxing (1788), that is still read today.

Memoirs

XJF377272

Daniel Mendoza by Henry Kinsbury, 1789

In 1816, Mendoza published Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza, an intelligent and witty autobiography still available today and surprisingly accessible to modern readers. In Memoirs, he recounts notable events in his life and career for dozens of subscribers credited in the first several pages.

Mendoza displayed proficiency at boxing from the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to a glass cutter. His master was kind, but the man’s son abused Mendoza’s Jewish heritage on numerous occasions until he gave the boy the thrashing of his life, before voluntarily leaving his position. Unwilling to burden his parents, he moved through a succession of odd jobs through his teens and early twenties, working for a greengrocer, a tea merchant, and a tobacconist, before inadvertently accepting a job escorting smuggled goods from the coast into the City. Once he discovered what they expected him to do, he quit this job and worked for some time as a biscuit maker, “baking Passover cakes” and so forth until fighting became a full-time job.

Although Mendoza was arguably one of the most naturally talented athletes in history, he never meant to make boxing his career. Still, the fights kept finding him. The “scientific” method of boxing he invented was very effective and drew huge crowds to see his fights and self-defense demonstrations. Unlike other boxers at the time, Mendoza fought with his knees bent and his arms guarding his face in a stance we would still recognize today. This stance allowed him to block and quickly dodge in a way his opponents could not. His natural ability coupled with this method proved a formidable combination: by 1788, he had won twenty-seven fights in a row. The same year, his long time rivalry with his one-time mentor Richard Humphreys, “The Gentleman Boxer,” came to a head in four fights and a series of letters published in The World.

Mendoza vs. Humphreys

In a match against Richard Humphreys in 1788, Mendoza suffered an injury that temporarily left him unable to walk and significantly slowed his career. Humphreys was declared the victor by default, but his victory was a hollow one as he had not beaten Mendoza as a result of skill.

richard-humphreys

Richard Humphreys by John Hoppner

While Mendoza was recovering from his injuries, he became aware of rumors he had handled himself poorly during the fight and that his injuries were exaggerated or even false. He felt compelled to write to The World to clarify his side of the events (no misconduct on either side) and that his injuries were very real and had been sustained by unfortunate accident (he fell out of the ring onto his head and injured his pelvis) rather than from the fight itself. He further suggested that if Humphreys would like to reschedule the fight, he would be more than willing to oblige. Humphreys took exception to this and responded with a letter of his own.

Mendoza accepted Humphreys’ challenge with his characteristic patience (and perhaps just a touch of well-earned superiority) and what follows in his Memoirs amounts to two chapters of Georgian smack-talk, faithfully recorded word for word as they worked out the details of their next fight.

Some highlights:

“Notwithstanding my declaration, previous to the battle between me and Mr. Mendoza, that whether I was beaten, or I beat him, I would never fight again, yet as in his address to the Publick, through the medium of your paper, he has insinuated that in his late contest with me at Oldham; his being beaten was the mere effect of accident, I do now declare that I am ready to meet him, at any time not exceeding three months from the present date.” -Humphreys

“As the world is decidedly of opinion that Mr. Humphreys is superior in the art of boxing, the third proposition I make is, the man who first closes shall be the loser. The time of fighting is impossible to mention, since the injury I have received in my loins may continue its effects to a distant period, but the moment I am relieved from that complaint, and declared capable by the gentleman who now attends me, I shall cheerfully step forward and appoint the day.” –Mendoza

“I cannot help remarking that neither Mr. Mendoza nor his friends seemed decided where they should fix this unlucky disaster. At first, it was his ancle; and there were people who could have sworn they saw three of the bones come out. The disorder moved gradually to his hips, from whence, lest it should be mistaken for a rheumatic complaint, it is settled, with more excruciating pain on his loins; where I am aware it may abide as long as he finds it convenient.” -Humphreys

“Mr. Humphreys is afraid, he dares not meet me as a boxer; he retires with the fullest conviction of his want of scientific knowledge; and though he has the advantages of strength and age, though a teacher of the art, he meanly shrinks from publick trial of that skill, on which his bread depends,” -Mendoza

“Mr. Mendoza says I am afraid of him; the only favour I have to beg is, that he or any of his friends will be kind enough to tell me so personally, and spare me the trouble of seeking them.” -Humphreys

After months of going back and forth, Mendoza and Humphreys finally met for not one, but three rematches beginning in May of 1788. It is worth noting that boxing matches often went on much longer than they do today, some of them lasting two hours or more through dozens of rounds.

Beyond superior technique, Mendoza’s major strengths were patience and stamina. Both the first two fights with Humphreys ended anticlimactically when Humphreys suddenly fainted, unable to keep pace with Mendoza. Although Mendoza was coming back from an injury, he was in the best shape of his life: he taught boxing at his academy and in private lessons as well as touring the country giving self-defense demonstrations to massive crowds.

The third and final fight with Humphreys lasted an incredible seventy-two rounds before Humphreys quit from exhaustion. He didn’t challenge Mendoza again.

Humphreys learned his lesson, but the public wouldn’t let him forget it. A song was written to commemorate their fight at Stilton in Huntingdonshire, which Mendoza helpfully includes in his memoirs. The song was one of many on the subject, but Mendoza reports this one in particular was “sung with great applause at several convivial meetings.”

For all this was basically a drinking song, it can be read as a neat summary of the public’s changing view of Mendoza wrapped up into a few verses from suspicion and antisemitism through to surprise and eventually praise. They are on Humphreys’ side (Richard has become “Dicky” here), but when he starts looking at the “curst little Jew from Duke’s place” like Goliath looking at David, we understand “Our Dicky” is in for a surprise…

SONG,
On the Battle Fought Between
HUMPHREYS and MENDOZA
At
Stilton in Huntingdonshire

O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear,
Such a wonderful Dicky is not found far or near;
For Dicky was up, up, up, and Dicky was down, down, down
And Dicky was backwards and forwards, and Dicky was round, round, round
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky was all the delight of half the genteels in the town;
Their tables were scarcely compleat, unless my Dicky sat down;
So very polite, so genteel, such a soft complaisant modest face,
What a damnable shame to be spoil’d by a curst little Jew from Duke’s Place!
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

My Dicky he went to the school, that was kept by this Danny Mendoza,
And swore if the Jew would not fight, he would ring his Mosaical nose, Sir,
His friends exclaimed, go it, my Dicky, my terrible! Give him a derry;
You’ve only to sport your position, and quickly the Levite will sherry.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Elate with false pride and conceit, superciliously prone to his ruin,
He haughtily stalk’d on the spot, which was turk’d for his utter undoing;
While the Jew’s humble bow seem’d to please, my Dicky’s eyes flash’d vivid fire;
He contemptuously viewed his opponent, as David was viewed by Goliath.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

Now Fortune, the whimsical goddess, resolving to open men’s eyes;
To draw from their senses the screen, and excite just contempt and surprise,
Produced to their view, this great hero, who promis’d Mendoza to beat,
When he proved but a boasting imposter, his promises all a mere cheat.
O my Dicky, my Dicky, and O my Dicky my dear!

For Dicky, he stopt with his head,
Was hit through his guard ev’ry round, Sir
Was fonder of falling than fighting,
And therefore gave out on the ground, Sir.

Poor Dicky. Somehow, we can’t quite feel bad for him.

Mendoza’s boxing career continued through the end of the eighteenth century, at which point he dedicated himself to teaching and touring. In his efforts to find other sources of income, he eventually became landlord of The Admiral Nelson pub in Whitechapel. He won and lost a fortune, and passed away in 1836 at the age of 72.

Legacy

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Mendoza. Did I mention he was gorgeous? I feel like that was implied…

Daniel Mendoza’s contribution to boxing cannot be overstated. During his lifetime, he became a major public figure. He won the patronage of the Prince of Wales in 1787 and became the first Jew to speak to George III. He was known throughout Britain on sight, thanks in no small part to the engravings of him sold to fans as well as his frequent appearances in Gillray cartoons (top). He was so well known, songs were written about his victories, and he was even mentioned by name in many of the plays of the day, including The Duenna and Road to Ruin. At least as significant as his contribution to boxing, he paved the way for acceptance of the Jewish community in Britain by challenging prejudices and winning respect, one fight at a time.

Though he’s not as famous today as he once was, proof of his influence can be seen every day. The next time you turn on the TV to watch some boxing or MMA, imagine how boring the matches would be if the boxers just stood there and took turns hitting each other.

Jessica Cale

If you’re interested in learning more about Mendoza’s fighting stance, English Martial Arts has a terrific video on it you can watch here.

Further Reading:

Egan, Pierce. Boxiana, or Sketches Of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812)

Gould, Mark. Boxing Pioneer Remembered At Last. The Guardian, September 2nd, 2008.

International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Daniel Mendoza.

Jews in Sports. Daniel Mendoza.

Mendoza, Daniel. The Modern Art of Boxing (1788)

Mendoza, Daniel. Memoirs of The Life of Daniel Mendoza (1816)

Theresa Berkley: Queen of the Flagellants

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Flagellation. An 18th Century engraving presented to the Royal Society in hopes they could explain the appeal.

No dirty, sexy history would be complete without the story of the extraordinary Theresa Berkley, who as a brothel madam and splendid businesswoman to boot, amassed a fortune and compiled a list of London’s finest and their sexual predilections during her long career which spanned both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

She began her business life as a brothel mistress in the late eighteenth century when she opened the first of her premises to patrons who wished to be flogged or birched or do the same, if they preferred a more active role, to the establishment’s willing ladies. It was a time of licentiousness and debauchery which flourished beneath a veneer of high morality and ideals. The service she supplied was not a unique one; flagellation or le vice anglais had played a fairly prominent role in English sex work from about 1700 onwards. She was simply clever and intuitive in how she reacted to and serviced her clientele.

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The White House, now known as Manor House, has become an office building. 

Theresa’s career spanned 49 years, ending only upon her death in 1836. She began in 1787 by turning the White House, a mansion in Soho Square, into a haven of sadomasochism by installing various instruments of torture. These included whip-thongs, cats-o’-nine-tails studded with needle points, supple switches, thin leather straps, curry combs, ox hide straps studded with nails and green nettles. She opened another establishment in 1828 at 28 Charlotte Street (now 84-94 Hallam Street) Fitzrovia which housed a contraption devised for flogging gentlemen known as ‘the Horse’ and where George IV was reputedly a regular visitor (see below).

Berkley brought her collection of instruments of torture with her to Charlotte Street and according to Mary Wilson, another madam, “were more numerous than those of any other governess. Her supply of birch was extensive, and kept in water so it was always green and pliant. There were holly brushes, furze brushes and prickly evergreen called butcher’s brush.” Clients could be “birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half hung, holly brushed, furze brushed, butcher brushed, stinging nettled, curry combed, phlebotomised and tortured.” She had a ready supply of mistresses in the form of Miss Ring, Hannah Jones, Sally Taylor, One-eyed Peg, Bauld-cunted Poll and a black girl called Ebony Bet, who both administered and received floggings and flagellation.

Theresa herself, possessed of a pleasant disposition and whose countenance was pleasing to the eye, occasionally allowed herself, if the price was right, to be whipped by her clients, although she preferred to be the one to administer her flagellations. Political and public figures, together with the wealthy constituted her clientele and she maintained absolute privacy, although the calibre of her clients incited little fear of imprisonment or transportation as had befallen other brothel keepers of the time. Certainly her establishments were never raided by the constabulary.

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The Berkley Horse (1830)

Berkley was also a devout Christian, her occupation notwithstanding. An insight into her extraordinary professional success is recorded by her erstwhile colleague Mary Wilson, who in the Foreword to The Venus School-Mistress in 1810 wrote that Theresa possessed:

“(That) first grand requisite of a courtesan, viz. lewdness: for without a woman is positively lecherous, she cannot keep up long the affection of it, and will be soon perceived that she only moves her hands or her buttocks to the tune of pounds, shillings and pence. She could assume great urbanity and good humour; she would study every lech, whim, caprice and desire of the customer, and had she the disposition to gratify them, her avarice was rewarded in return.”

Thus Theresa displayed a genuine open-mindedness; an attitude of libertinism which she exploited for financial gain. Her ‘governessing,’ as it was known during the period, brought her wealth, which when she died, was inherited by her brother. He arrived from Australia, where he had been a missionary for 30 years, to find she had left him a large estate. Appalled upon finding how it had been amassed, he immediately renounced all claim as her heir and departed again for the Antipodes.

Henry Ashbee, businessman and erotic author, makes mention of Theresa after her death in his series of Curious and Uncommon Books, published in 1877. He details that Dr. Vance, her medical practitioner and executor “came into possession of her correspondence, several boxes full, which, I am assured by one who examined it, was of the most extraordinary character, containing letters from the highest personages, male and female, in the land.” But he records, “The whole was eventually destroyed” as upon her brother’s renunciation, her estate had devolved to Dr. Vance who similarly wanted nothing to do with it. Thus, the Berkley Whipping Horse, now owned by the Royal Society of Arts in London, together with the rest of the estate became the property of the Crown.

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Another Berkley Horse (1828)

Dr. Vance died while Ashbee was writing his Bibliography of Forbidden Books and Ashbee expressed the hope that perhaps now Theresa’s memoirs, reputedly ready for publication, and which contained “Anecdotes of many of the present Nobility and others, devoted to erotic pleasures and Plates” could be published.

It appears not. Either Dr. Vance or his executors felt this manuscript was too incriminating or too unworthy for public release and it too was destroyed. Such reticence in matters of sex, or prurience, was emblematic of the Victorian age – respectability was the order of the day and the absolutes of godliness, goodness and virtue were what Victorians aspired to achieve, at least outwardly. Concentration on these matters inevitably led to the submersion of the baser instincts and enterprising women like Theresa Berkley, willing to supply services of a sexual and masochistic nature, were able to continue to ply their trade to a willing and receptive clientele.

Not surprising, really, in an era when women were not allowed to own property and could not vote. The sense of power afforded when a woman was able to use a whip on a man for payment would be one difficult to pass up if you were so restricted in life and in achieving an acceptable standard of living. Theresa Berkley was in fact a very dangerous woman; she held the power to blackmail or expose those of high political status and influence, but chose to keep their identities secret during her long career, all the while diarising their proclivities for future reference. One can only conclude she was also a very shrewd woman – one who turned her lewd capabilities into a viable business, one who knew how to survive and prosper in an era when few women were able to do so without inherited wealth and status – and write her memoirs for publication only after her death.* A pity her trustees were not so brave as she in this regard; the truth as she proposed to tell it was thus lost together with a valuable insight into the psyche of the upper class English of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

*Debate persists over whether Theresa Berkeley wrote and perhaps funded the publication of the 1830 pornographic novel Exhibition of Female Flagellants.

Sources

Linnane, Fergus. Madams: Bawds & Brothel Keepers of London. The History Press, 24 October 2011.

Mudge, Bradford Keyes. The Whore’s Story: Women, Pornography & the British Novel, 1684 – 1830. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nomis, Anne O. The History & Arts of the Dominatrix. Anna Nomis Ltd. 2013.

Reyes, Heather (Ed). London. Oxygen Books, 2011.

Teardrop, Destiny. Femdom Pioneer Theresa Berkley. Femdom Magazine, Issue 15, 25 April 2011.

Wilson, Mary (Forward). Venus School-Mistress or Birchen Sports, 1810. (first published 1777, reprinted regularly and expanded throughout the nineteenth century)

Manor House, Photo. Nancy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

082-2Leigh Denton studied English Literature and Fine Art before becoming a litigation lawyer in Sydney. She maintains an interest in Victorian and Edwardian history, blogs on this subject at downstairscook.blogspot.com and is presently at work on a novel set in the nineteenth century.

She has previously written on the legal and social reformer Josephine Butler for the Dangerous Women Project, an initiative of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and regularly tweets snippets of interest on Twitter as @DownstairsCook.

 

 

Bloody, Sexy Murder: Sexual Magic, Missing Evidence, and Jack the Ripper

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Whitechapel, 1888

Theories still abound about the identity of Jack the Ripper, a nineteenth-century serial killer who was never caught. Experts debate endlessly over the victim toll and the actual start/stop dates of the gory murder spree in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood (Odell, 2006). Officially, two prostitutes were murdered on August 31 and September 8, 1888, before two more were “ripped” in the “double event” on September 30. A fifth murder occurred during the early hours of November 9. Some victims were gutted, all had their throats slashed, and some body parts were taken. The spree drew international coverage and a massive police effort.

newsarticleDuring this period, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer (Evans & Skinner, 2001). One nasty note offered the grim moniker, “Jack the Ripper,” although there’s no proof that Red Jack sent any letter. If he (or she or they) did send one, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” letter as the best candidate.

This mysterious missive arrived shortly after the double event to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, enclosed with half of a preserved human kidney that had the appearance of a disorder from which victim #4, Catherine Eddowes, had suffered (and her kidney was missing). The note’s author claimed he’d consumed the rest before taunting, “Catch me when you can” (Evans & Skinner, 2001). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow (2004) discovered that the original note had gone missing from police files, and some experts think it ended up with a private collector.

This note’s potential provenance became the starting point for my fictional murder mystery. I linked it with a Ripper suspect whose background offers plenty of spooky detail.

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The “From Hell” letter

A circle of occult practitioners believed that their crony, Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson, was the Whitechapel killer (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987-8; Odell, 2006; O’Donnell, 1928). He was a former military surgeon who knew his way around knives and who’d studied magical practices in France and Africa. His wife had gone missing in 1887, possibly murdered, and he claimed to have killed a female shaman in Africa. He was unmoved by brutality. D’Onston associated with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical group, adding to his obsession with the occult. Some members said that they never saw him eat and whenever he appeared, he made no sound.

Despite being highly secretive, D’Onston openly shared his ideas about the identity and modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. He named a medical colleague. D’Onston was himself arrested but not detained. He sought out a sponsor to fund a private investigation, but D’Onston’s associates remained convinced that he was the killer. One of them reportedly discovered a box under his bed that held books on magic, along with several stained black ties. D’Onston’s friends thought the ties had been worn during the murders to hide body parts carried away, as blood would not show up on black material.

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The fourth victim

On December 1, 1888, D’Onston published a detailed article about the murders in the Pall Mall Gazette, offering a black magic angle (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987). He suggested that the killer had walked around Whitechapel to select specific locations for six murders that would mirror Christian symbolism, in order to pervert it. Sexual energy, released with “sacrifice” of a “harlot,” would tap into psychic energy for demonic ceremonies. Female body parts, he said, were essential, along with such items as strips of skin from a suicide, nails from a gallows, and the head of a black cat fed on human flesh for forty days.

“Yet, though the price is awful, horrible, unutterable,” he wrote, “the power is real!”

Intrigued with D’Onston’s description, surveyor Ivor Edwards (2003) measured the distances between murder sites and found them strikingly consistent. He mapped out two equilateral triangles and added an elliptical arc to form the Vesica Piscis, the almond-shaped intersection of two circles, a vaginal symbol. This aligned with D’Onston’s notions about erotic energy and his belief that triangles had supernatural power.

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Whitechapel’s London Hospital

In addition, throughout the spree, D’Onston had been a self-committed patient in Whitechapel’s London Hospital for a fatigue disorder (easily malingered). What a perfect hiding place! He could easily have eluded police after each murder. Although most Ripperologists dismiss D’Onston as a viable suspect (Dimolianis, 2001), Odell admits that “Edwards’ idea of murder by measurement produced some intriguing symmetry.”

I agree, and from such mysteries can one effectively form fiction.

theripperlettercoverKatherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has published 58 books and hundreds of articles, mostly nonfiction devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. Lately, she has added paranormal murder mysteries with The Ripper Letter and it’s sequel, Track the Ripper, published by Riverdale Avenue Books. There’s romance, sure, and sex, but she has wrapped it all in Ripper lore, along with other figures from history that nicely fit. She doesn’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but she knows enough from extensive research (including trips to London and Paris) to realize that all of the theorists make assumptions and take some leaps to make their ideas work. Within the gaps and ambiguities she has found room to develop fictional plots that still retain historical accuracy.

Sources

Dimolianis, S. (2001) Jack the Ripper and Black Magic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Edwards, I. (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals. London: John Blake.

Harris, M. (1987). Jack the Ripper: The Bloody Truth. London: Columbus Books.

Odell, R. (2006). Ripperology. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.

O’Donnell, E. (1928). Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Rumbelow, D. (1975, 2004). The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: W. H. Allen.

Evans, S. P., & Skinner, K. (2001). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Stroud: Sutton.

 

Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

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Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).

Saints and Whores: Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia, and Mary of Egypt

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Saint Thais. Jusepe de Ribera

Between 303 and 311CE, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius masterminded the last Great Persecution, a final attempt to exterminate Christianity altogether. It failed. By 322, Christianity had successfully transitioned, thanks to the conversion of Constantine, from being a hunted sect to becoming the undisputed state religion of the Roman Empire. The dizzying speed of this change, of Christians moving from being hunted down and burned at the stake to being installed in the corridors of power, had a vast effect on the history of the Catholic Church, the history of Europe, and on the imagination of countless people.

As a persecuted people, Christians had developed a mythology where the martyr was the ultimate heroic figure. But now it was easy to be a Christian, and no more martyrs were appearing. In the Middle East, particularly, where Christians had always been persecuted the hardest, Christian hardliners began to isolate themselves in the wilds as the first Christian hermits, monks and nuns. A literature began to spring up around them.

The Lives of the Fathers (Vitae Patrum) was collected in 1602 by Heribert Rosweyde, but it compiles texts written between the fourth and seventh centuries about these lonely desert saints. Book One ends with the biographies of eleven women. Four of these Latin stories, the lives of Saints Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, have the suffix meretrix.

It means whore. The word gets translated in Latin dictionaries as “prostitute” or “harlot” or “courtesan” even, but in Latin it is a swear word. It’s a slur. Men throw it at women from the classical period on. For example, in 54 BCE it was one of the slurs addressed to the Roman socialite Clodia by the lawyer Cicero in his speech Pro Caeliohe used it nine times, but then Pro Caelio is the quintessential text of Latin misogyny. Meretrix has that exact force that the more polite translations of words like it just don’t. It is an insult. It is a blot on the language. And part of the business of translation is to translate things with their appropriate force.

But what does it even mean? What did they do to cause the label to be applied to them, even after they were saints, so that through posterity, in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, they would continue to receive the name: whore, meant as an insult?

The story of Thaïs appears to have been written at some time in the fifth century, but is set in 350s, since it features Paphnutius, a real figure active between the 320s and the 350s. Paphnutius visits Thaïs, reputedly the most beautiful of Alexandria’s courtesans, and pretends to buy her for sex. He browbeats her into repenting and publicly humiliating herself; he takes her to a convent where he seals her in a cell with her own effluent and orders her to pray a simple mantra of repentance; three years later he comes back and lets her out.

He tore down the threshold that blocked her in, but she insisted that she remain

imprisoned there, even though the door was open.
“Come out!” he said. “God has forgiven your sins!”
“I bear witness to God,” she said, “because of whom I am in here, that all of my sins appear to me as if on a tray before my eyes, and I can’t stop seeing them.”
“It wasn’t your punishment that removed your sins,” Paphnutius cried, ” but the fact that you always have the guilt of them in your mind.”

– Anon, The Life of Saint Thaïs the Whore. 3

He lets her out and she refuses, until he tells her she has been saved by her own self-loathing, and then she comes out, and, broken, she dies shortly afterwards.  

It’s only a page long. I close my eyes and I see Thaïs kneeling in her own piss and shit, blank-eyed, head-lolling, starved, only kept alive by the mantra she is forced to repeat to such an extent that when the ritual is broken, she dies in two weeks. It’s a legitimate horror. 

While (although she’s still on the calendar, 8th October) authorities think she’s fictional, of all the stories in the Lives of the Fathers, this is the one that could happen, and the one that most captured future imaginations. Anatole France’s novel Thaïs approaches the story critically and was adapted for stage and film. Michele Roberts’s account of her in her novel Impossible Saints is as bleak and brutal as the source material.

The story of Mary dates to about 370. Mary is the niece of a hermit called Abraham, orphaned, who lives with him in his little house in the desert. Mary is pestered into having sex with a nameless monk and is so consumed by guilt at having sex once that she thinks she might as well just go and do it for money, so she runs away and goes to work in a brothel. Abraham goes to get her back and they tearfully reconcile; he forgives her for everything. Saint Mary is also remembered on October 8th.

The account of Pelagia comes from the fifth century, but is again set in the fourth. A bishop sees an actor pass in the street.

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Saint Pelagia

As all of us were admiring his holy teaching, look, all of a sudden the most famous actress of Antioch passed us by, the best of the ballerinas and comediennes. She was riding on a donkey, and she was dressed so ostentatiously that you couldn’t see anything of her beneath all the gold and gems and pearls. Even her feet were covered in gold and pearls. She had a train of boy and girl slaves with her, all dressed in expensive clothes, each with a golden collar, some in front and some behind. No one could ever have enough of her loveliness. She passed by us, and the air was filled with musk, and some of the sweetest fragrances in the whole world.

–Jacob the Deacon, The Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 2

She is specifically what the Romans called a mima. Now in ancient theatre of the respectable kind, the comedies and tragedies, all the actors were men. Female actors did the mimes, the sacred fertility shows, and these were bawdy, and had nudity, and included simulated sex acts. Writers of antiquity tell us that these shows included actual sex acts, and that the women who performed in these shows were sex workers too, but we don’t know if that’s true. This story assumes that being an actor makes her a stripper and a porn star too. The title, added later, just labels her a whore and is done with it.

The actor, Pelagia, converts to Christianity; Satan visit her and tries to get her to recant.

He said, “Why are you doing this to me, Lady Pelagia? Why are you playing the part of my personal Judas?”

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 9

She refuses, and runs away in one of the bishop’s cloaks. Three years later, the narrator asks to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nonnus asks James to send his regards to a hermit who lives nearby called Pelagius.

I found the hermit on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed, in a modest little shack, closed off on all sides, except for a little window in the wall. I banged on the shutter of the little window, and she opened it and at once recognised me, but I didn’t recognise her. How could I have possibly recognised her since when I saw her before she was indescribably beautiful, and now her face had wasted away from her starving herself? Her eyes looked like ditches in her face.

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 14

It is of course Pelagia. Shortly after she dies. When it’s discovered that the miracle-worker was in fact a young woman, the assembled people marvel, and the moral is that she’s saved because she became a man. Her day, again, is October 8th.

Mary of Egypt’s story, written by Sophronius, probably in the 630s but is again set some time in the late fifth century. Zosimas of Palestine, supposedly the world’s best monk, meets a naked old woman in the desert, who, although reluctant initially to speak, tells her story.

Her skin was completely black, all tanned by the heat of the sun, and the hair on her head was white like the clouds, and short, and like wool. And it fell no farther than the nape of her neck.

-Sophronius, Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 7

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Mary of Egypt. Jose de Ribera

She says she’s from Egypt. She was promiscuous from a young age. That’s it. She slept with anyone who asked.

I took nothing from anyone for it; now that I was mad with passion… I fulfilled my sexual needs for free. I was evil! And don’t think I took nothing because I was rich – no, I lived by begging, and sometimes working as a weaver.

-Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 13

So in fact, she was explicitly not a sex worker. She just liked sex.

She one day decided, she says, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and worked her way across by sleeping with all the men on the boat. At Jerusalem, she found herself barred from the temple by an invisible wall. She prayed for forgiveness and a vision of the Virgin Mary told her to go to the desert. She bought three loaves of bread and retreated into the desert. The bread miraculously kept her going for fifteen years.

Illiterate, she now knows the Bible by heart. She levitates, walks across rivers. Zosimas visits her a couple more times and on the second time finds her dead. An angelic lion appears and writes her name on the ground: Mary of Egypt. The lion buries her.

The Orthodox church in particular honours Mary of Egypt in the week before Easter. They say the moral of her story is that even the greatest of sinners can become miracle workers.

But what was her sin, exactly? She liked sex. She slept around. In the society I live in, it is no big deal. But back then, that made her the worst. It earned her the label, whore.

And in all of these stories, all of which are supposed to be about redemption, the slur sticks in the title (and I don’t think it’s an accident that the three of them share a feast day). In the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t remembered as a byword for the redemptive power of Christmas, these four women get “whore” attached on the top line of the permanent record. It never goes away.

Howard David Ingham is a writer, poet and artist. He has an MPhil in Late Latin Literature and once got hired by the British Government to do something secret. He writes regularly at Chariot. His book, The Age of Miracles is still funding on Kickstarter.