The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers by Aphra Behn (1677)

‘I know not what thou mean’st, but I’ll make one at any Mischief where a Woman’s concerned’
(Willmore, the Rover of the title)

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is generally considered the first professional woman writer in English literature. She wrote poems, essays and prose narratives but in her own day was best known as the author of some 18 plays, indeed she was second only to the poet laureate John Dryden in terms of theatrical productivity. The Rover is by common consent the most polished and entertaining of her plays.

In fact The Rover comes in two parts, each a self-contained five-act Restoration comedy. Part two contains some though not all of the same characters and so is a sequel, though it was never as popular as the original. Both were heavily plagiarised from a similarly two-part, ten-act play, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written by the Royalist exile and companion of Charles II, Thomas Killigrew. Thomaso was never performed onstage but was published in 1663-4. Behn comprehensively rewrote it, turning its turgid style and long wordy speeches into brisk comic dialogue.

The argument

The Project Gutenberg online edition is prefaced by a prose summary of the plot. Here it is with my additions and comments:

During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers, prominent amongst whom are Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt, find themselves at Naples in carnival time. Belvile, who at a siege at Pamplona (in Spain) has rescued a certain Florinda and her brother Don Pedro, now loves the lady, and the tender feeling is reciprocated. Florinda’s father, however, designs her for the elderly Vincentio, whilst her brother would have her marry his friend Antonio, son to the Viceroy.

Belville, Fred and Blunt greet Willmore who has just arrived by boat in Naples in company of ‘the Prince’ (the implication being the exiled Charles II). Florinda, her sister Hellena (who is intended for the veil i.e. to become a nun), their cousin Valeria, and their duenna Callis surreptitiously visit the carnival, all in masquerade, and there encounter the cavaliers. Florinda flirts with Belvile and arranges to meet him that night at her garden-gate. Willmore is bewitched by the ready wit of Hellena who is pretending to be a gypsy.

Meanwhile a picture of Angelica Bianca, a famous courtesan, is publicly exposed, guarded by bravos. Antonio and Pedro dispute who shall give the 1,000 crowns she demands for her ‘favours’, and draw swords. After a short fray Willmore, who has boldly pulled down the picture, is admitted to the house, and declares his love, together with his complete inability to pay the price she requires. Angelica, none the less, falling in love at first sight, yields to him.

Hellena and Florinda appear in the street below, the latter mocking Hellena for so suddenly and completely falling in love with the man she briefly met earlier (Willmore). Belvile and pals arrive, knock at Angelica’s door and get Willmore sent out to them. Wilmore makes it plain he has slept with Angelica. Hellena, eavesdropping, hears all this from a hiding place and is heart-broken, but when she confronts him Willmore outfaces the situation and resumes his ardent courtship of her, which is detected by the jealous Angelica, who has followed him vizarded.

In the same scene Florinda in disguise had approached and talked to Belvile, trying to seduce him, but found him loyal to the women he’s in love with which, she realises, is her. She gets him to promise to meet her in ‘the garden’ that evening and leaves a pledge with her which he realises, once she’s gone, is a little picture of his beloved.

A comic interlude in which simple honest Essex gentleman Ned Blunt is enticed back to her house by a very willing whore, Lucetta, who lures him up to her bedroom, where she hops into bed and asks him to strip off, which he promptly does. But as he stumbles towards her a) the lights go out b) the bed moves (a piece of comic mechanism) and c) Ned tumbles through a trapdoor down into a sewer – leaving Lucetta and her pimp Philippo to count the gold they find in Blunt’s clothes. The scene cuts to New Blunt emerging from the mouth of the sewer, very smelly and very sorry.

Florinda that night goes to the garden gate to meet Belvile, but encounters Willmore who is drunk and tries to ravish her. Her cries attract Belvile and Fred, who interrupt drunk Willmore, but then immediately her brother, Don Pedro, and the servants. Florinda just has time to tell Belvile to come back and loiter under her bedroom window later, before she escapes back into the house where she pretends to be fast asleep. Don Pedro and servants beat off Willmore et al who run away.

Willmore has to endure the reproaches of Belvile, who is furious with him for assaulting his beloved. They have wandered to the front of Angelica’s house, where they hide as Antonio approaches and makes as about to enter the house. Because he still feels linked to Angelica Willmore staggers forward and attacks Antonio with his sword, wounding him, before reeling offstage. Belvile goes to Antonio‘s aid just as officers run up and arrest him, conveying him by Antonio’s orders to the Viceroy’s palace.

Antonio comes to Belvile in his cell, with his arm in a sling, and they make friends, Antonio asks Belvile to wear a mask (vizard) and impersonate him in a duel he has to fight with Florinda‘s brother, Don Pedro. Florinda intervenes to part them and Don Pedro gallantly assigns his sister to him thinking he is Antonio(Florinda refuses to be bullied but then Belvile pulls up his mask and reveals to her it is him.) But just as things are panning out well, Willmore staggers up and knocks Belvile’s mask off, Don Pedro realises it is he, and drags Florinda away.

Belvile is even more furious with Willmore and when he won’t stop talking, draws his sword and chases him offstage.

Angelica next comes in hot pursuit of Willmore. She accuses him of faithlessness, he gets bored and wants to hasten off to an appointment with the ‘gypsy’. They are interrupted by the ‘gypsy’ – in reality, Hellena, who arrives dressed as a boy. She tells a tale of the Rover’s amour with another dame and so rouses the jealous courtesan to fury, with Willmore intervening and beginning to suspect this young lad is Hellena. These scenes are getting confusing. Willmore makes excuses and leaves Angelica lamenting that all her beauty cannot hold such a treacherous man.

Florinda, meanwhile, who has escaped from her brother, running into an open house to evade detection, finds herself in Ned Blunt’s apartments. Blunt is sitting half-clad in a very angry mood, reflecting on having been stripped and duped by the whore Lucetta. Florinda throws herself on his mercy but he vows to use and abuse her:

Cruel, yes, I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the Injoyment, but to let you see I have ta’en deliberated Malice to thee, and will be revenged on one Whore for the Sins of another; I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lye to thee, imbrace thee and rob thee, as she did me, fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my Window by the Heels, with a Paper of scurvey Verses fasten’d to thy Breast, in praise of damnable Women

Enter Fred who begins to believe Florinda‘s protestations, especially when she mentions Belvile and how he will thank them if they are kind to her. Hmm. Blunt‘s determination on revenge is mollified by the present of a diamond ring, but at this moment a servant announces his friends and Don Pedro are arriving, so they lock Florinda away.

Belvile had told him Don Pedro that Blunt was a fool and would be a good source of amusement. Now, despite his protestations, they break down the door to his rooms and, sure enough, all have a good laugh at Blunt’s expense. But he insists he’s going to have the last laugh and take it out on another Italian whore. But when he shows them the diamond ring Florinda gave him, Belvile immediately recognises it as the love token he gave Florinda much earlier in the play. However, the rest of the company are determined to ‘enjoy’ her as much as Blunt, and in fact draw straws in the shape of drawing their swords to find out whose is longest. Ironically, it is Don Pedro‘s who is promptly sent into the room where Florinda is hiding in order to ravish her – his own sister! Florinda comes running out pursued by Don Pedro, but she is in disguise and he doesn’t recognise her.

A servant arrives and tells Don Pedro his sister is not safe at home – as he thought – but has run off dressed as a page. He makes his excuses and leaves. The moment he’s gone Belvile acknowledges Florinda, they leap into each other’s arms, Willmore says, so this is the woman you’ve been pining for all along’, Fred begs her pardon. A boy is sent out to fetch a priest and Florinda and Belvile go into the other room to be married.

They leave Willmore to protect the pass in case anyone arrives to interrupt the ceremony but who arrives is Angelica in disguise. Willmore totally gives himself away by excitedly hoping it is his ‘gypsy’ i.e. Hellena. Infuriated, Angelica puts a pistol to his chest and is about to shoot him dead. She follows him round the stage as he outdoes himself with a stream of justifications of the cynical debaucher’s attitude.

To everyone’s surprise Antonio walks in, still wearing the sling from where Willmore wounded him last night and takes the pistol off Angelica. But when he realises the man she was threatening is his attacker from last night, he himself threatens Willmore. At which moment Don Pedro enters and overhears Angelica and Antonio declaring their love. Antonio! The man he intended to marry his sister, Florinda!

Also Don Pedro is angry because he challenged Antonio to a duel and Antonio sent a deputy, an impersonator in disguise, who turned out to be Belvile, his own rival. Don Pedro is angry with him and say, as soon as his arm has recovered, he’ll challenge him to another duel. He leaves and Pedro says he is so angry with the man whose cause he tried to promote, he is in a mood to give his sister to Belvile.

Funny you should say that, says Willmore – they are in the other room and have just got married. At which point they emerge and Pedro gives Belvile and his sister his heartiest congratulations. They exit and Willmore is about to follow them when he is accosted by Hellena. There follows a really long dialogue of wits, and he finds he is attracted to her wit and intelligence. He discovers he is ready to marry her. In a comic moment he asks if he may know her name.

The rest of the cast re-enter and Pedro is initially furious that his other sister is being ravished away, the one intended for a nunnery but, in another comic moment, bold Hellena asks the cast whether she should throw in her lot with Heaven or with the Captain:

Hellena: Let most Voices carry it, for Heaven or the Captain?
All cry: a Captain, a Captain.
Hellena: Look ye, Sir – ’tis a clear Case.

Enter Ned Blunt looking ludicrous in a badly fitting Spanish outfit, to give everyone a laugh.

Then enter a group of mummers passing by to the masquerade, who are invited in to play music and dance, thus rounding the play out with music and gaiety.

And the very last lines are to Willmore, the rover himself, as he leads Hellena into the adjoining room to be married.

Willmore: Have you no trembling at the near approach [of marriage]?
Hellena: No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore: Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.

Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’ th’ Marriage-Bed.

And thus this convoluted series of shenanigans comes to an end. It is obviously designed to amuse a sophisticated London theatre audience, a large part of which would be precisely the kind of amoral aristocrats the play depicts, so they would enjoy seeing their lifestyle depicted on stage – while others would enjoy moralising about them.

The gossip instinct

It struck me the play is a kind of concatenation of gossip in the sense that

  1. the characters on stage spend almost all their time gossiping about each others affairs’
  2. they spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting and – in effect – gossiping about their own affairs
  3. and this complicated spectacle prompts members of the audience, or readers, to gossip about the gossip – to approve or disapprove of Willmore, to opine that Florinda is too hard or too soft etc

You know the magazines you get at supermarket checkouts which are stuffed full of stories about the stars of TV soaps or presenters of Good Morning Britain or Loose Women, the endless supply of tittle tattle about celebrities going out, getting married, getting pregnant, being unfaithful, splitting up with their partners, getting back together with their partners? Well – it’s like them.

The academics who introduce plays and texts like this are paid to write about them in terms of ‘gender representation’ and ‘female agency’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and Restoration ‘misogyny’ and the handy cover-all term, ‘The Patriarchy’ (all these terms can be found in the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Rover).

I don’t deny that these are real things, are valid ideas, interpretations, and worth exploring – although the solid wall of feminist interpretation laid over everything like carpet felt, does often get very monotonous, monoglot and wearing.

But I’m suggesting something much simpler and more obvious. These plays – Restoration plays – full of theatrical artifice, 18th century language and elaborate games as they may well be – also appeal to the basic human instinct for Gossiping. They cater to the same love of judging and moralising about other people’s (‘ooh that Willmore!’) as the endless celebrity tittle-tattle which fills the Daily Mail.

Comedy

Also, it is easier to moralise and judge than to write about humour. It is notoriously difficult to write about comedy – to convey in a flat essay the thousand and one things which make an audience smile or laugh, from ironic asides, tone of voice, sarcasm, pratfalls, bathos, grotesque characters, comic mistakes, comic business with props, gags with punchlines and so on.

Much easier to grandly state that a narrative ‘subverts’ 18th century ‘gender stereotypes’ – any schoolgirl can write that kind of thing these days, it’s taught at GCSE and A-level and at university: anybody writing like that is just faithfully parroting what their teachers taught them degree level. Much harder to pinpoint just why The Rover is the brightest and funniest of Behn’s plays.

For example, when Hellena points out that aged Don Vincenzio may increase Florinda’s ‘Bags but not her family‘ I take it as a sly dig at his probable impotence, to be said with a knowing leer to the audience to trigger a fnah fnah laugh. Or, in the same speech, Hellena vividly pictures the scene as her young sister is forced, night after night, to accompany the aged Don Vincencio to his bed. After she has performed the disgusting task of undressing him…

That Honour being past, the Giant stretches it self, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two – And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?

What middle-aged wife would not recognise this unflattering portrait of her husband? It reminds me of the jokes about unromantic age which fill the TV series Last of The Summer Wine

Clichés and conventions

Italy It is set in Italy. The wickedest reprobates and comic plots are always Italian (cf Shakespeare comedies with their endless Antonios). In fact, there are multiple reasons for its foreign locatio:

– The nations of Europe (and of Britain) were freely stereotyped. Italy was thought to have very devious and sophisticated people – suiting both comedies or tragedies that depended on plot devices like deception and treachery

– Italians were thought to be more hot-blooded and passionate than the phlegmatic Brits (a belief which runs through the 18th and 19th centuries, underpins countless novels and continues, in some quarters, up to this day) – thus allowing for a degree of sexual passion which might not be believable in Brits

I like their sober grave way, ’tis a kind of legal authoriz’d Fornication, where the Men are not chid for’t, nor the Women despis’d, as amongst our dull English;

– Italians were popularly known for their violence – always quick to grab a sword or dagger – as in Romeo and Juliet

Yes: ’Tis pretty to see these Italian start, swell, and stab at the Word Cuckold,

– The weather is better in Italy – so the people are more often outside – in gardens, streets and so on, bumping into each other and thus providing the potential for countless complicated comic permutations. It never rains in plays like this as, of course, it regularly rains in England, keeping people trapped moodily indoors.

Blunt: What a Dog was I to stay in dull England so long

– Also there was the simple pleasure that it was a foreign country with an exotic language, food, customs etc there was a sort of mental tourism in seeing plays in Italy

Faith I’m glad to meet you again in a warm Climate, where the kind Sun has its god-like Power still over the Wine and Woman.

Spain Same sort of thing –

Belvile: Remember these are Spaniards, a sort of People that know how to revenge an Affront.

But with the difference that Britain had little or no military or geographical interest in Italy, whereas we were at war with Spain for a good deal of the 16th century and were major rivals for imperial territories, for example in the Caribbean. Behn has the whore Lucetta’s pimp Philippo find gold pieces from ‘Old Queen Bess’s reign in Ned Blunt’s waistband and comment:

We have a Quarrel to her ever since Eighty Eight, and may therefore justify the Theft,

I.e. the character is made to say that the Spanish have had a quarrel with the British since 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the attempt at an amphibious invasion of England which was designed to overthrow the Protestant queen and impose a Catholic Spanish dictatorship, all blessed by the Pope. The Armada had taken place about 70 years before the play’s production, so the same length of time as separates us from the Second World War, which we still remember and commemorate.

Therefore English writing about Spain often has a more bitter or harder edge, whereas Italy had and still has, fewer negative connotations. So it is a little notable that so many of the actual characters are Spanish. Still, the same hot-blooded, exotic rules apply.

English Also, being set abroad allows some of the characters to ridicule the home audience, the English, which is also humorous.

This is a stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk he’ll venture to follow me; and then, if I understand my Trade, he’s mine: he’s English too, and they say that’s a sort of good natur’d loving People, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a Woman with any Wit may flatter ’em into any sort of Fool she pleases.

Which might have brought ironic cheers from the London audience.

Young woman struggling to be free A young woman is being forced to marry an old man by her wicked father for the money (Florinda being hustled to marry aging but rich Don Vincentio).

The young couple Whereas the young woman wants to marry a dashing young hero: There is a pair of young lovers – Florinda and Don Belvile.

The confidante The young woman has a comic confidante to provide a running comic commentary on the main action and make cynical asides and jokes. This leaves the heroine free to express only Noble and Dignified sentiments – in this instance the cynical humorous confidante is her sister Hellena.

The two couples In fact, as the play unfolded I realised there are two couples.This, apparently, is a core, stock convention of Restoration comedy –

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored… The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover… (An Introduction to Restoration Comedy)

Rogue male There is an outstanding, amoral, rakish, predatory male figure – Willmore, the Rover.

Thou know’st I’m no tame Sigher, but a rampant Lion of the Forest.

Haste Things always have to be done in a hurry. This is itself a structural requirement of the theatre where it is difficult to convey the passage of months or years. Instead the action must follow pell-mell. Over and above the difficulty of conveying the passage of time, haste and deadlines also simply create tension, energy, dynamism – sweep the audience up in the action – and, of course, prompt the characters to all kinds of desperate behaviour they might not take. Thus when Don Pedro tells his sister, Florinda, that he wants to organise her marriage to young Antonio we can be confident it will trigger all kinds of desperate behaviour.

Dressing up The masked ball or masquerade or disguise is a key element of comedy from ancient Rome to modern pantomime. The feminist scholars of the play get excited because the masquerade allows characters to ‘subvert the gender roles’ imposed on them by ‘misogynist Restoration society’. But in fact dressing up allows for two really basic elements of comic theatre, namely:

1. Freedom you can get away with saying and doing things in disguise which you wouldn’t think of trying normally:

Will. But why thus disguis’d and muzzl’d?
Belv: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.

2. Comic misunderstanding – where characters say things to each other which match the outfits and characters they’ve adopted, but are wildly inappropriate to the actual characters we – the audience – know them to be.

3. Serious understanding Having read The Rover carefully it dawns on me that dressing up as someone else is also a way of discovering the real motives and character of the person you have designs on, as in the complex scene where Belvile dresses as Antonio and can sound out Don Pedro’s real character; or where Hellena dresses as a young man in order to assess Willmore‘s relationship with Angelica.

Also – people like dressing up for parties. It makes them feel special excited, in a party mood. Thus characters on stage – which have already been simplified and heightened for the audience’s enjoyment – become twice as simplified and heightened. Comedy squared.

Politics Behn was a devoted Royalist. The play is set in the 1650s and Belvile, Willmore, Frederick and Blunt are all English courtiers in exile from the Roundhead, republican government of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Gentlemen, you may be free, you have been kept so poor with Parliaments and Protectors, that the little Stock you have is not worth preserving—but I thank my Stars, I have more Grace than to forfeit my Estate by Cavaliering.

There are lots of little indications e.g. when Belvile introduces Blunt to Willmore as one of us’.

Belvile: Yet, Sir, my Friends are Gentlemen, and ought to be esteem’d for their Misfortunes, since they have the Glory to suffer with the best of Men and Kings; ’tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a Prince aboard his little wooden World.

Class distinction There is an interesting moment when Colonel Belvile gives a satirical portrait of Ned Blunt, one of their party for sure, but an honest country English gentleman who – it is implied – the more urban, worldly Belvile and Willmore despise.

Willmore: Prithee what Humour is he of…?
Belvile: Why, of an English Elder Brother’s Humour, educated in a Nursery, with a Maid to tend him till Fifteen, and lies with his Grand-mother till he’s of Age; one that knows no Pleasure beyond riding to the next Fair, or going up to London with his right Worshipful Father in Parliament-time; wearing gay Clothes, or making honourable Love to his Lady Mother’s Landry-Maid; gets drunk at a Hunting-Match, and ten to one then gives some Proofs of his Prowess—A pox upon him, he’s our Banker, and has all our Cash about him, and if he fail we are all broke.

As so often, the aristocracy are in reality dependent on the honest bourgeoisie – and despise them for it.

Fred: Oh let him alone for that matter, he’s of a damn’d stingy Quality, that will secure our Stock. I know not in what Danger it were indeed, if the Jilt should pretend she’s in love with him, for ’tis a kind believing Coxcomb;

Blunt: No, Gentlemen, you are Wits; I am a dull Country Rogue, I.

Nobody is surprised when honest Ned Blunt is swindled out of his diamond. He even hails from Essex which, right down to this day, 370 years later, is the butt of jokes.

Blunt: ’Tis a rare Girl, and this one night’s enjoyment with her will be worth all the days I ever past in Essex.—

Contemporary references

Moretta: He knows himself of old, I believe those Breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651 was the last battle of the Civil War.

Moretta: Oh Madam, we’re undone, a pox upon that rude Fellow, he’s set on to ruin us: we shall never see good days, till all these fighting poor Rogues are sent to the Gallies.

Consignment to galleys was a punishment.

Frederick: It may be she’ll sell him for Peru, the Rogue’s sturdy and would work well in a Mine;

The Spanish had used slave labour in their South American silver mines for over a century.

Blunt: I had rather be in the Inquisition for Judaism, than in this Doublet and Breeches

Tells us something about the power of the Italian Inquisition, and of its attitude to Jews, in the 1660s.


Related links

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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