Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Bartholomew Fair is a very long comic play set in London’s huge and sprawling Bartholomew Fair. The fair had been held every year on 24 August since the 12th century in the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside the Aldersgate, and by Jonson’s day had grown into a massive, teeming festival of entertainment, sideshows and crime.

Reflecting the size and complexity of its subject matter, Bartholomew Fair is a very decentralised play. There is no hero or central authority figure, although a couple of the more monstrous caricatures come to dominate the narrative. Instead there are some 33 speaking parts which sprawl across an unusually long text.

The characters can be divided into two categories: the regular fair stallholders who remain their colourful selves throughout the play, such as fat Ursla, keeper of the roast pig stall, and Edgworth the cutpurse; and the visitors to the fair, a more disparate crew who can be sub-divided into three groups:

  1. A citizen family made up of John Littlewit – immensely proud of his own cleverness and of his beautiful wife Win-the-fight, her mother Dame Purecraft, and Purecraft’s spiritual father, the vehement Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Win is pregnant, so one motive for the family going to the fair is to buy some of the roast pig it was famous for and she is yearning for; but another is so Littlewit can see the puppet show he has written.
  2. Another family party led by Bartholomew Cokes, a legendarily simple-minded idiot, his tiny angry tutor Humphrey Wasp (who Cokes winds up by referring to throughout as ‘Numps’), his fiancee Grace Wellborn (who is reluctant to marry Cokes) and Cokes’s married sister, Mistress Overdo.
  3. A pair of witty gallants – Winwife who is a suitor for the hand of Dame Purecraft, and Quarlous (who at one point accuses his friend of ‘widow-hunting’). These two only go to the fair once they’ve learned the Cokes family are going, because they reckon the latter will behave so stupidly as to be good entertainment.

Omitted from this list is Justice Overdo. One of the main themes of this complex play is the legal situation of wards of court. Through the Court of Wards, Justice Overdo has ‘bought’ Grace Wellborn, i.e. become her guardian, expressly in order to marry her – and her fortune – off to his idiot brother-in-law Cokes. One of the complex ironies of the play is that Justice Overdo ploughs through the fair seeking out relatively minor misdemeanours while all the time blind to the gross moral (albeit legal) crime which he was committing (the issues is explained in detail on page 98 of the New Mermaid edition).

Similarly short-sighted and troublesome is the butt of the other Big Theme of the play, which is Puritanism. For over forty years, ever since the earliest plays began to appear on Elizabethan stages in the 1570s, Puritan preachers and writers had been violently denouncing plays and, by implication, most forms of imaginative writing. They accused them of dramatising and thus glamorising all manner of crimes, including murder and adultery, stirring up bawdry at every point, and also as providing a cockpit for gallants and fine ladies and city merchants and prostitutes and petty criminals to meet and indulge their basest passions.

When the play was presented to James I in 1614 Jonson wrote a short verse prologue specifically addressing the king and the trouble he had with non-conformists and Puritans – ‘the zealous noise of your land’s faction’ and their ‘petulant ways’ – is mentioned as early as line 3 and makes up most of the content:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;
Such place, such men, such language, and such ware
You must expect: with these, the zealous noise
Of your land’s faction, scandalised at toys,
As babies, hobby-horses, puppet-plays,
And such-like rage, whereof the petulant ways
Yourself have known, and have been vext with long.

So an overbearing city official (Overdo) and an overbearing humbug (Busy) are the two main, serious, satirical butts of the play – but there are plenty of other victims, large and small.

Cast

Visitors to the fair

John Littlewit, a Proctor
Solomon, Littlewit’s man
Zeal-of-the-land Busy, suitor to Dame Purecraft, a Banbury Man
Winwife, his rival for Dame Purecraft, a Gentleman
Tom Quarlous, companion to Winwife, a gamester
Bartholomew Cokes, an Esquire of Harrow
Humphrey Wasp, his tutor
Adam Overdo, a Justice of Peace

Win-the-fight Littlewit
Dame Purecraft, her mother, and a widow
Mistress Overdo
Grace Wellborn, Ward to Justice Overdo

Fair people

Ezechiel Edgworth, a cutpurse
Nightingale, a Ballad-singer, who Edgworth slips the purses after he’s cut them
Mooncalf, dim and slow tapster to Ursula
Dan Jordan Knockem, a horse-courser, and a ranger of Turnbull – who talks continually about ‘vapours’
Lanthorn Leatherhead, a hobby-horse seller (toyman)
Valentine Cutting, a roarer or bully
Captain Whit, a bawd with a thick Irish accent
Trouble-all, a madman
Bristle, Haggis } Watchmen
Pocher, a Beadle
Filcher, Sharkwell } door-keepers to the puppet-show
Northern, a Clothier (a Northern Man)
Puppy, a wrestler (a Western Man)

Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman, always bickering with Leatherhead the toy-man
Ursula, an immensely fat pig-woman
Ramping Alice, a prostitute

Costard-monger, Mousetrap-man, Corn-cutter, Watch, Porters, Puppets, Passengers, Mob, Boys, Etc.

The plot

Before it even starts, there is an unusual prologue in that the first person on-stage is a young stage-sweeper who gives a lengthy moan about how the play they’re about to see is nothing like Bartholomew Fair, he (the sweeper) knows it much better and gave the playwright many useful suggestions which he mocked and ignored.

The stage sweeper is then shooed offstage by two new arrivals, a book holder and scrivener, the former announcing he has come to make a deal with the audience. He gets the scrivener to read out a mock legal contract between author of the new play and the audience, which goes into some detail about how they are only allowed to criticise the play according to the entrance fee they’ve paid, and if one man has treated others audience members he can criticise to the extent of his payment but the others must be silent, and other humorous joshing about audiences and their criticisms. He says the play isn’t going to hearken back to former glories, nor is it going to feature servant-monsters from a Tale or Tempest (usually taken as a reference to Shakespeare’s recent plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). He also goes out of his way to tell the audience to beware of spies and ‘politic pick-locks’ who would interpret this or that character as a libel on the famous and powerful. Such people must be exposed and mocked. All is for entertainment.

Act 1

The entire first act is set in Littlewit’s house, as we meet the man himself, in a good mood and fussing over his wife Win, lovely Win, la Win what a lovely day etc. Then one by one other characters are introduced: Winwife who, it is explained, is a suitor for Win’s mother, Dame Purecraft. Quarlous, who also fancies the Dame. To both Littlewit explains 2 things, 1. that Dame Purecraft has taken to visiting Bedlam to see the mad people, so anyone wooing her would do well to act a bit crazy and 2. just a few days ago her superior in the Puritan religion, Zeal-of-the-land Busy has come from Banbury to stay with them.

The act ends with Littlewit persuading his wife, Win, that she wants to go to the fair to eat pork at the famous pig shop – Littlewit also telling his wife that he has written a play for the puppets that he is itching to see performed.

Key characters

It is a vast play, 180 pages of solid prose whereas others in the New Mermaid hover around 100 to 120 pages, half of that in verse. In other words, it’s just packed with words and verbiage. Some of the characters are given whole pages of dense prose without paragraph breaks to explain their character and purposes.

Quarlous and Winwife play the role of The Observers, a pair of smart alec gentry who are cleverer than all around them. Having observed Littlewit and his compliant wife in the latter’s house – and then the arrival of Coke, the gangling, 19-year-old idiot heir – they declare to each other that following these dimwits to the fair will amount to excellent sport. And so they saunter through the rest of the play, sardonically observing the follies of the rest of the cast, pretending to sympathise while egging them on.

Thus they spend several pages outdoing each other with insults and abuse of Ursla, the pig woman, telling her how fat she is, while she replies with rich Bartholomew insults, until she is so infuriated she goes into her stall and emerges with a red hot scalding-pan, and gets into a fight with the two cocky young men, which she loses and in falling over manages to badly burn her leg so that half a dozen of the fair people have to carry her into her stall (II, v).

Master Overdo dresses up as a madman in order to infiltrate the world of the lowlife stallholders and is amusingly over-shocked by even the slightest scams and adulterations of food or drink or tobacco which he overhears, and has the stage to himself at quite a few early points to make mock heroic speeches about his bravery in going undercover and what he has to put up with in the performance of his duty – pomposity which is clearly intended to be mocked. Specially after he gets into dispute with Edgworth the cutpurse and ends up getting beaten up.

‘It is a comfort to a good conscience to be followed with a good fame in his sufferings. The world will have a pretty taste by this, how I can bear adversity; and it will beget a kind of reverence towards me hereafter, even from mine enemies, when they shall see, I carry my calamity nobly, and that it doth neither break me, nor bend me.’

Zeal of the Land Busy is a conspicuous hypocrite, depicted as endlessly stuffing his face (‘he eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’) while making long speeches about the sins of the flesh. He rails so loudly against Leatherhead’s toy stall and upsets Joan Trash’s basket of gingerbread men all over the floor, so that Leatherhead calls officers who, seeing all this, arrest Busy and take him off to the stocks.

Act 4

In a separate storyline Overdo (in his disguise) is placed in the stocks and learns that a man who he convicted the year before lost his place at the fair and his mind, and Overdo is chastened, and listening to other stories it dawns on him that compassion is suitable for a judge (IV, i).

After this chastening experience they take him out the stocks just as new officers rock up with Zeal-of-the-land who they had intended to put in the stocks but now the ravings of the madman Trouble-All has persuaded to take Busy in front of Justice Overdo instead.

Coke wanders round the fair being an imbecile. He has two purses. When the one containing only a little silver is pick-pocketed he makes a great show of waving around the other one and telling everyone it is full of gold, interspersed with joining in a long ballad about cutpurses sung by Nightingale, in the middle of which Edgworth does indeed pick Coke’s pocket, cutting the strings which attach his purse to his hose, and slipping it to Nightingale when no-one is looking (III, 5).

Except that Quarlous and Winwife are watching and see everything. They approach Nightingale and Edgworth, tell them they saw everything but won’t tell the officers, so long as the two crooks carry out some scams on simple-minded Cokes. Thus in a later scene they arrange for a pear-seller to stumble and drop his pears at Cokes’s feet. So naive is Cokes that he hands his hat, cloak and sword to a kind bystander as he stoops down to collect all the pears – and the bystander – Edgworth – promptly runs off with Cokes’s stuff – who stands up again, looks around, then starts shouting ‘Thief thief!’

Quarlous and Winwife – Quarlous is really the ringleader – commission Edgworth and Nightingale to steal from Wasp the black box containing the warrant for Coke’s marriage to the (very reluctant) Grace Wellborn III, v).

Meanwhile, in their flaneuring round the fair stirring up trouble, Quarlous and Winwife have been accompanied a lot of the time by Grace Wellborn, the poor young woman engaged to Cokes. In Act 4 she explains the situation. Her parents died leaving her a ward of court. Justice Overdo ‘bought’ her from the court and has now engaged her to his idiot brother-in-law, Cokes. Grace has now choice. If she refuses the marriage she will have to herself pay Overdo the value of the estate which he bought to buy her.

This outrageous story lights a spark of love in both men’s hearts and before we know what’s happening, Act 4 scene iii opens with the two men in a swordfight over Grace’s favours She begs them to desist. They say she must choose one of them. She says that’s ridiculous, she only met them a few hours ago. Instead she suggests they write in some writing tablets a name apiece, and then ask the first person to come past to choose one. They agree, write their names and the next person to appear is the madman, Trouble-All, whose every sentence is asking whether people have Justice Overdo’s warrant for their behaviour. He has difficulty understanding the task then ticks one of the two names more or less at random.

Now, Grace made the two suitors promise she wouldn’t show them which name was chosen till she was safely home, but in any case at this moment Edgworth rolls up to tell the pair of gallants that Wasp has fallen in with a droll set of company and that, if they come to watch, they enjoy his discomfiture and watch the box being foisted off him.

Quarlous watches half a dozen of the fair lowlifes playing a stupid game of ‘vapours’ where each person just has to contradict the speaker before him. Edgworth makes sure a fight breaks out between testy little Wasp and the Irishman, Captain Whit, and in the confusion steals the marriage licence (intended for Cokes and Grace) out of Wasp’s black box. Officers arrive to arrest Wasp (their role seems to be to punish everyone who is uppity and overbearing) and meanwhile, Mistress Overdo has been left without her man in the company of these rowdy gamesters and has been trying to calm them and stop them fighting.

Now she asks Whit if he can arrange for her to go for a pee somewhere. Just then fat Ursla enters and Whit asks her if Mistress O can use the ‘jordan’ in her booth to which she points out it is already being used by Win, Littlewit’s wife who we saw, in an earlier scene, saying she needed a leak. Knockem comes upon Whit in a corner with Mistress Overdo trying to help her and the conversation takes a bawdy turn as the rough fairmen make rude innuendos to Mistress Overdo which – I think – she quite enjoys.

Anyway, as Mistress Overdo goes into Ursla’s booth or tent, Littlewit and Win emerge – her presumably relieved to have had a pee – and Littlewit announces he is off to see the puppet show that he wrote and off he goes.

The point is – this leaves Win by herself just by Ursla’s booth and Mistress Overdo within it and sets Ursla thinking – the various rascals and cutpurses she knows will be tired and randy by the end of the fair and she has no ‘plover or quail’ (meaning wenches, meaning whores) ready for their entertainment. And here are two posh and rather silly women abandoned, Win and Mistress O. Ursla suggests to Kockem that they ‘work on’ the two women, with a view to making them compliant with the wishes of the whore customers they know will be arriving soon.

Kockem and Whit immediately set about persuading dim Win that a married woman’s lot is a terrible thing and she would be much better if she became a ‘lady’, wore fine clothes bought for her by her countless male lovers. Win is immediately dazzled, but the plan is knocked awry because, inside Ursla’s tent, Mistress Overdo encountered a real whore / punk, Alice of Turnbull, Ramping Alice, who has started beating and belabouring her. The men – Whit and Knockem – quickly dispatch Alice – after some choice insults have flown about – and resume seducing Win with visions of fine clothes and a coach of her own.

Enter Edgworth who has given the marriage licence he stole out of Wasp’s black box to Quarlous. Edgworth offers Quarlous the women in Ursla’s booth, fine green women he promises, but Quarlous scorns such an offer and warns Edgworth he saw him cut a purse so holds the threat of the hangman over him.

Edgworth exits and enter the watchman, Haggis, bearing Wasp to the stocks which they lock him in. (If you remember Wasp got into a fight with a bunch of roughs and Mistress Overdo shouted for the watch to come and restore peace, and because testy old Wasp wouldn’t stop shouting ‘A turd i’ your teeth’ at everybody, they arrested him.) Quarlous saunters by and enjoys teasing Wasp in the stocks.

As he does so the other officers bring back Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Justice Overdo still in disguise. They lament that they can’t find Justice Overdo anywhere and his assistants don’t know where he is so, in the absence of his authority, they’ll clap these two troublemakers min the stocks and proceed to do so – so for a while Wasp, Overdo and Busy exchange moans.

Trouble-All enters. Now Quarlous has been looking for him ever since he indicated in Grace Wellborn’s writing tablets which man should marry her to ask him which he chose – but the officers now tease Trouble-All and call him a madman so Quarlous is taken aback to learn that the man who has made the decision of whether he will marry Grace or not is insane. By a ruse Wasp escapes from the stocks and the officers, when they return, argue about whether they were locked properly, undo them with a view to redoing them tighter but at that moment Trouble-All enters and the mocking escalates into a fight, during which Overdo and Busy take advantage to escape. When they stop fighting the officers look round and are horrified that their prisoners have escaped.

During this confusion, improbably enough, Dame Purecraft, the widowed Puritan falls in love with Trouble-All because, like many stage madmen, he speaks clearly and nobly (if obsessively and repetitively). While Dame Purecraft declares her love for Quarlous-as-Trouble-All, Quarlous has dressed like this in order to ask Grace to see the chapbook and see which name ‘he’ ticked. Turns out it wasn’t him, it was Winwife. The secret is out.

So: Grace admits it to Winwife who is over the moon and they exit. Quarlous is sunk in dejection as Dame Purecraft tells him she loves him – at which he rounds on her with a snarling abuse of all Puritans. To which she reveals that she is indeed a hypocrite and gives a long list of the deceptions and cons she has been carrying out under cover of being a deacon for the past seven years, not least mulcting gifts from all the suitors she’s led on – and goes on to indict Zeal-of-the-land as ‘the capital knave of the land’ and listing his crimes and deceits – presumably to the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Quarlous turns to the audience and ponders. Well, he’s definitely lost Grace and has no other prospects in sight. Dame P has just said she’s worth some £6,000. Well… why not marry her, he has Cokes’s marriage licence in his pocket, all he has to do is scratch out the name, marry the widow and come into a fortune and a juicy wife. Yes. He’ll do it.

At this point Justice Overdo-in-disguise approaches Quarlous, thinking he is Trouble-All who he has so much offended, and reveals his true identity and offers to do anything to make reparations, offers him a blank warrant signed and sealed by him. Quarlous jumps at the opportunity, Overdo gives him such a warrant, and Quarlous is left reflecting how powerful this disguise of insanity can be.

Act 5

Act five centres around the puppet theatre and the play Littlewit has written for it. But of course various other plotlines come to a climax.

Enter Leatherhead (who for the rest of the play takes the alias Lantern) and Filcher and Sharkwell, who are going to stage the puppet theatre. Leatherhead reflects that although Biblical subjects are topical (like the fall or Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah) domestic subjects like the Gunpowder Plot are best.

Enter a) Overdo in a new disguise, that of a porter, still bent on his misguided mission to seek out ‘enormity’ before, as he plans, bursting forth in all his magnificence to rain down justice on his people. At least that’s how he sees himself; b) Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Trouble-All the madman.

The playmen and their booth: enter Cokes followed, as he now is everywhere, by a flock of children who’ve realised he’s an idiot, he reads out loud the playbill for the benefit of the audience i.e. it is going to be a parody of Marlowe’s heroic poem, Hero and Leander. Enter Lovewit who one of the boothmen owners won’t let enter though he protests he is the author of the damn play!

Littlewit greets Cokes and is surprised to see him without a cloak or hat – Cokes laments how he has lost everything at the fair – both his purses, his clothes and all his friends. Like an idiot, Cokes is excited about the play and asks if he can meet the actors or visit the changing room. Amused, Lantern explains that both are a little small.

This conversation takes in references to contemporary actors, including Richard Burbage and Nathan Fields, before Lantern explains that they commissioned Littlewit to adapt Hero and Leander for modern times and modern audiences. Indeed, we learn that the Hellespont has been translated into the River Thames, Leander is a dyer’s son from Puddle Wharf, and Hero a wench of Bankside, who is rowed one morning over to Old Fish Street and Leander, spying her alighting at Trig Stairs (these are all real locations in Jacobean London) falls in love with her. Or with her white legs. It is a crude, funny burlesque of the Marlowe poem.

Other character arrive for the play: Overdo still in disguise as a porter; Winwife now attached to Grace (they both hear Cokes being very dismissive of Grace who he’s never liked); and the two posh women who have been talked into becoming whores, silly Win and pompous Mistress Overdo, both wearing masks, swanking in fine clothes and enjoying having chairs pulled out for them, men dancing attendance; and Wasp – when Cokes tells Wasp he knows he’s been in the stocks, Wasp laments that his authority over his pupils is now at an end. (To be honest this doesn’t make much impact, because Wasp never seems to have had any influence at all over the idiot Cokes.)

They settle down to watch the play in bad rhymed verse as the puppets play the parts of Hero the fishmonger’s daughter, and Leander the dyer’s son. Cokes keeps interrupting when he doesn’t understand bits, or to praise bits he does understand.

This is by far the funniest part of the play, not least because it is the most self-contained and comprehensible. The reader easily understands that the puppet play is an outrageous burlesque of two classical stories, the tragic love affair and Hero and Leander and the legendary friendship of Pythias and Damon. In Littlewit/Jonson’s hands these become raucous fishwives and drunks. The famous friends fall out as they compete to hurl insults at the lovers which descends into a fight. And a little later puppet Damon and Pythias comes across puppet Hero and Leander snogging, start insulting her as a whore, she turns, bends, flips up her skirts and says they can kiss her whore arse, at which they kick her arse, and all the puppets descend into fighting again. All this while Cokes, like an idiot, repeats various parts of the bad verse, telling everyone else how much he admires it, and then cheering when the puppets start fighting. It’s also funny the way the puppetmaster, Leatherhead/Lantern, whispers asides to Cokes, about the onstage action, as if the puppets are real people.

So as a scene it is by far the most coherent and comprehensible and the comedy is as funny now as it was 400 years ago.

All this argy-bargy wakes up the puppet ghost of Dionysius but he’s barely delivered a speech before into the whole scene bursts Zeal-of-the-land Busy, fired up with rage and fury against the play and against the fair in general. But his wrath against the puppetmaster, Leatherhead, is neatly diverted against the puppets themselves, and Busy finds himself engaged in a Public Debate About Morality with a puppet – much to the derision of the onlookers.

The debate reaches a climax when Busy accuses the puppets of what Puritans had been accusing the theatre and actors for 40 years or more, namely that theatre was an unnatural abomination for encouraging men to dress up as women and women to dress up as men. The puppet Dionysius gleefully refutes Busy by lifting up his skirts and revealing that – he has no sex at all!

Deflated, Busy acknowledges defeat and sits down.

But this is the moment Justice Overdo chooses to throw off his disguise and carry out his Grand Promise to discover the ‘enormities’ of the fair and punish them all.

OVERDO: Now, to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! the example of justice, and Mirrour of Magistrates; the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours, and but observe my discoveries; and compare Hercules with me, if thou dar’st, of old; or Columbus, Magellan, or our countryman Drake, of later times. Stand forth, you weeds of enormity, and spread.

Immediately all the shady characters – Knockem, Whit – start sneaking away. But the real point is that, instead of dispensing justice and creating order, Overdo’s presence raises confusion to new heights. Ursla comes running in chasing the real Trouble-All, who has stolen her pan because, as Ursla explains, some nasty man stripped Trouble-All and borrowed all his clothes. Overdo turns to the man he thought was Trouble-All, who is in fact Quarlous and now admits it. Overdo orders the two masked women in the audience to unmask and they are revealed as Win – so Littlewit is appalled to see his wife dressed up as a whore – and Mistress Overdo – and the Justice is dumbstruck to see his wife dolled up like a trollop. Worse, she is immediately sick into a basin having drunk to excess (explains how the rogues got her to dress that way in the first place).

While Overdo is struck dumb, Quarlous – the witty cynical gallant who has in many ways been a chorus and instigator of scams – now steps forward and takes the Justice’s function, pointing out the true state of affairs.

  • The man Overdo took a liking to early on in the fair and has been protecting throughout is none other than Edgworth the cutpurse, who stole both Cokes’s purses and helped stir up the fighting which got Overdo and Wasp landed in the stocks.
  • Grace Wellborn, who Overdo intended to marry off to Cokes, has now become ward to Quarlous, who filled in the blank seal and signature he gave him to this effect.
  • Quarlous hands Grace over to Winwife, who won her in the little game where she wrote their names down and got the first passerby (who happened to be Trouble-All) to choose one. But since Quarlous is now Grace’s guardian, Winwife must pay him the value of her estate in order to free her for marriage. (This is a little difficult to follow, but it was the law of the land at the time.)
  • Quarlous hands Trouble-All back his cloak and gown and thanks him for the loan.
  • Then turns to his wife, Dame Purecraft, whom he has married in the guide of the madman Trouble-All, and who he now promises he can be mad whenever he pleases.
  • And then points to Wasp and facetiously thanks him for the marriage licence (which Quarlous got to steal out of Wasp’s black box) which he has used to marry the widow.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy has been publicly humiliated and revealed as a hypocrite; Justice Overdo revealed as a man puffed up with own self-importance who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and his wife was on the verge of becoming a drunken whore; Wasp has lost all authority over his pupil; Littlewit has realised his wife was also easily led to become a fairground bawd; Winwife did win a wife, but only by default, not out of his own abilities.

And Quarlous is the clear winner and impresario of the entire play. As such he reprimands the justice:

QUARLOUS: Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! you have your frailty

And then goes on to perform the traditional role of inviting everyone to an end-of-comedy celebration feast at Overdo’s house:

QUARLOUS: Forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all to supper. There you and I will compare our discoveries; and drown the memory of all enormity in your biggest bowl at home.

And then the Epilogue steps forward to address the king and asked if he was pleased. Presumably he was, as Jonson wasn’t thrown into prison! In fact by this stage, Jonson was well into his second career as a writer of masques for the royal court, and was in the highest favour.

Thoughts

Long Bartholomew Fair is so epically long – twice as long as a play like The Shoemaker’s Holiday – and consists of walls of solid prose unrelieved by passages of verse like all the other Jacobean comedies I’ve read – that I was just relieved to get to the end of it.

Numerous characters Both Volpone and The Alchemist have a much smaller cast of characters, much more focused plots and move much faster. There are so many characters in Bartholomew Fair that I found it difficult to distinguish many of the minor ones, especially the rogues who only appear in a few scenes, like Puppy and Cutting and Northern and Haggis and Filcher and Sharkwell.

Difficult prose This is compounded by the fact that 17th century prose is difficult to read. It’s unusual to get even a single sentence that doesn’t contain at least one obscure word or expression, or isn’t part of an elaborate metaphor which is incomprehensible without a good footnote. So you are continually stopping to read the notes and understand what they’re saying.

Different motivations And at a level just above the verbal, it’s often difficult to understand what the characters are trying to say or do. Even when you’ve understood every word in a speech it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve understood why the character said it or what they were driving at. You are constantly rubbed up against the fact that, on a verbal and minor psychological level, the people of 400 years ago had different moment by moment concerns, and expressed them in language, metaphors and elaborate conceits, which are hard to grasp.

Disease Despite these obstacles, several things do come over loud and clear. The first is how utterly unlike our times the Jacobean era was in two obvious respects: the brutality of its punishments and the virulence of disease. There was no medicine worth the name and not only the recurring pandemics of plague, but smallpox, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other diseases killed or maimed a large percentage of the population and there was nothing the so-called doctors or anyone else could do about it.

Brutality As to the punishments, it is hair-raising the way even minor offences led to hanging, and the play refers throughout to the ritual whereby the condemned were taken in carts from the various London prisons to Tyburn to be hanged amid much popular celebration. But even worse in its way was the commonness with which whipping and scourging was applied. Ramping Alice the prostitute was whipped and scourged simply for being a prostitute.

Therefore the people in this time, as for centuries before and for some time to come, lived between two dire threats, the threat of catching, suffering horribly and dying from appalling diseases – and the threat of infringing one of any number of man-made laws and being subjected to capital punishment or extremely violent punishments.

Sex The next most obvious aspect is the absolute drenching of the play in sex and sexual innuendo. As with most comedies there’s a marriage plot (who will marry Grace Wellborn?) surrounded by seemingly endless jokes about marriage and adultery, endless references to the cuckold’s horns which arise when a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. But it’s far deeper than that, not a page of the text, not a minute of the play goes by without someone making a comment which has a sexual implication or double meaning. In these plays sex is everywhere, all the time.

Theatrical convention Now you could take this at face value and say something like, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans lived in a society which was massively less sexually repressed than our own, in which everyone all the time is making sexual comments and innuendo. Except that, as the editor of the Mermaid edition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, D.J. Palmer, emphasises, plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of 1600s London life – far from it. They are entertainments and follow the conventions of entertainment, many of which have stayed the same from Chaucer to TV sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Open All Hours or Last of the Summer Wine.

For centuries – in fact for millennia, because the Greeks and Romans did it, too – playwrights have used bawdiness and double entendre to make people laugh and have flooded the stage with sexual innuendo and byplay precisely because it was and is so lacking in everyday life. Characters on stage are licensed to be outrageously forward and suggestive (just as they are licensed to fall into despair and kill themselves or rage and storm and murder people) precisely as an outlet for feelings and impulses which most people, most of the time, in most societies we have records of, have been forced to repress and contain.

Overdo As to the obvious themes of the play, these are embodied in arguably the two key figures are Justice Overdo and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The justice is probably the more important one and his storyline concerns the way he adopts a disguise to seek out ‘enormity’, but this is problematic. Arguably going in disguise means abdicating the responsibility he has to be there in person – we see the watchmen at a loss what to do without his authority – and has a secondary indictment in that the ‘enormities’ he thinks he discovers are trivial. The main point of his storyline though, is seeing close up the impact a casual judgement of his against Trouble-All had on the poor man, namely to drive him mad.

Busy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy has less stage time than Overdo but is a more vivid character, not least because the Puritan rhetoric he uses is so very distinctive and, in its way, attractive. Here he is warning his little flock about the perils of the fair:

BUSY: The place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

He is taken down twice, once when the widow, Dame Purecraft, reveals to Quarlous and the audience all the scams she and he have been foisting on their ‘brethren’ for seven years, and then when he loses his Public Debate to a puppet.

Conclusion

Complicated and obscure as some of it is, the broad plotlines are still totally accessible and Bartholomew Fair is not only sometimes very funny but turns into a thought-provoking meditation on social and cultural power which is still relevant to our times.


Social history

  • The Hope theatre where the play was performed, was also used for bear-baiting. On bear days the stage was taken down to allow packs of dogs to try and maul bears to death while the bears defended themselves and spectators gambled on the outcome.
  • King James opened a public lottery in 1612 to raise funds for the colonisation of Virginia (a colony often mentioned in these plays). James Fort, Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and would be renamed Jamestown.
  • It was a popular stereotype that Dutchmen consumed excessive amounts of butter.
  • Bridewell prison specialised in sexual offenders. The sex worker Ramping Alice was recently an inmate where she was flogged and scourged i.e. cut with the scourge.
  • A waistcoat, when worn without a gown over it, was the sign of prostitutes, who were sometimes known as ‘waistcoateers’.
  • Words for sex worker: prostitute, whore, bawd, jade, punk, waistcoateer, green woman,
  • Tailors were supposed to be a) bawdy, presumably because they saw their clients in states of undress b) greedy, having enormous appetites.
  • Colliers, black from their trade, were thought to be a) notorious cheats b) associated with hell.
  • The trade of working with feathers to make and sell fans and puffs and perukes was associated with Puritans, especially in the Blackfriars area (location of the Blackfriars theatre and also where Jonson lived). The contradiction between their vehement raging against worldly vanity, and the fact they made a handsome profit out of catering to that vanity, did not escape the Puritans’ critics.

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)

The Alchemist is a plague play. Not only was it written in 1610, when the London theatres were closed (yet again) for (yet another) outbreak of plague, but the plot itself derives from that fact. The master of the house, Lovewit, has (like everyone else who can afford it) fled London and is waiting at his country seat for the plague to abate (his retreat appears to be in Kent; he is said to be waiting in his ‘hop-yards’). In the meantime his housekeeper, Face, has invited a conman, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to come and stay in the house in a kind of joint criminal enterprise, persuading a series of gullible victims that Subtle is a renowned alchemist who will supply each of them the Philosopher’s Stone and make their dreams come true… for a price.

The cast

The three crooks

SUBTLE, the alchemist
FACE, the Housekeeper
DOL COMMON, their Colleague

The gulls or dupes

DAPPER, a Lawyer’s Clerk
DRUGGER, a Tobacco Man
SIR EPICURE MAMMON, a Knight
PERTINAX SURLY, a Gamester
TRIBULATION WHOLESOME, a Pastor of Amsterdam
ANANIAS, a Deacon there
KASTRIL, the angry Boy
DAME PLIANT, his Sister, a Widow.

The absent master

LOVEWIT, Master of the House

The plot

Act 1

Scene 1 The play opens in media res, with typically Jonsonian energy, as the three crooks stumble onstage in the middle of a flaring row, Face and Subtle throwing insults at each other, Face claiming to have rescued Subtle from absolute desperation, having found him on the streets in rags looking like ‘the father of hunger’, Subtle claiming to have set up the successful con scheme and made Face a fortune – both of them being told by a frustrated Doll to calm down and that by arguing they risk provoking the neighbours to call the constables.

The verbal energy in the abuse is invigorating and reminds us that formal contests of abuse were a recognised genre in medieval and renaissance literature, called flyting. They argue until Doll eventually grabs Face’s sword and ‘breaks Subtle’s glass’, calling them an ‘abominable pair of stinkards’, and reminding them they are all equal partners in the ‘venture tripartite’ and when Subtle, once again claims he plays the lead role, as the fake alchemist, Doll is so infuriated she flies at him and starts to strangle her till he cries quits and

They eventually argue themselves to a standstill and listen to Doll telling them they have to work together when there’s a knock at the door!

Scene 2 Enter Dapper, a ‘quodling’ i.e. innocent young man who has got into conversation in a pub with Face who says he knows a man can conjure a spirit to help him (Dapper) at his gambling. (I thought the name Dapper rang a bell and it is the name of Sir Davy Dapper and his son Jack Dapper, in Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl). Face makes a great pretense of claiming Subtle is a learned man who is almost to particular in his alchemical practice and then introduces Dapper (with sly humour) as:

FACE:Good deeds, sir… ‘Slight, I bring you
No cheating Clim o’ the Cloughs or Claribels,
That look as big as five-and-fifty, and flush;
And spit out secrets like hot custard,
Nor any melancholic under-scribe,
Shall tell the vicar; but a special gentle,
That is the heir to forty marks a year,
Consorts with the small poets of the time,
Is the sole hope of his old grandmother;
That knows the law, and writes you six fair hands,
Is a fine clerk, and has his cyphering perfect.
Will take his oath o’ the Greek Testament,
If need be, in his pocket; and can court
His mistress out of Ovid.

The verbal vigour of the play, the exuberance of its characters, is infectious and compelling. Face and Subtle make a wonderful double act, persuading the gullible Dapper that he was born under a lucky star, that he is related to the Queen of Fairy no less. They extort four angels from him (Jacobean coins), making pretense that Face is having to force them on Subtle, who makes a big show of warning Face that, if they give Dapper this power, he will ruin every gambler in the city and win all his bets – before telling him to return at 1 to carry out the full and elaborate ceremony which will raise him a familiar or lucky spirit.

Scene 3 Next to arrive is Abel Drugger, the not-too-bright pharmacist who is about to set up a new shop and has come to ask advice from the alchemist on how to arrange it, where to put the doors and windows and shelves. Subtle invokes contemporary learning about faces and hands (each one with its own tutelary spirit) to bamboozle the simple man.

(This is all played for laughs but as Subtle quoted obscure terms from contemporary books of alchemy etc in order to tell Drugger how to arrange his shop, I realised we still do exactly this today – it is called feng shui and, once again, requires a supposedly special mystical knowledge, dressed up in a foreign language).

Subtle promises Drugger that if he follows his instructions it will become the most popular apothecary’s in London, and they then extract a gold coin (a ‘portague’) as a down-payment. He also asks if Subtle can look over his almanac to tell him which days he should and should not trade on.

When Drugger leaves, Face repeats the accusations the play opened with, namely that Subtle thinks of himself as the supremo of these scams and yet it takes a lot of time, effort and money to seek out and latch onto such stupid gulls and bring them to him, and therefore he (Face) deserves a larger share of the loot. This is the basis of the argument between them.

Scene 4 A short one in which Doll runs to tell Subtle that she’s spied Sir Epicure Mammon waddling towards them from the end of the lane, and gives Subtle the opportunity to explain that today is the day when Subtle is due to hand over The Philosopher’s Stone to Mammon, who is already fantasising about wandering round London offering miracle cures to lepers and beggars and infertile women.

Act 2

Scene 1 Sir Epicure Mammon rolls up in front of the house and delivers a wonderful monologue to his sceptical follower, Surly, about all the wonders he will perform once he has the Philosopher’s Stone and can turn any metal into gold and can restore men to their youth and then a fantastical tour of the ancient world proving how every legend from Jason to Pandora, are but refractions of the wonder of the stone. Surly doesn’t believe a word.

Scene 2 Enter Face, from the house, dressed as a man who pumps bellows to keep a fire alight, and pretending to be working hard to maintain the heat required to produce the stone. Mammon calls him ‘Puff’ and ‘Lungs’ and says he will set him free from his master in order to come and supervise his harem, for Mammon intends to establish a vast harem, and to give himself magical powers of stamina, and a strong back, so he can make love to 50 women a night! He will, of course, have to geld Face. Face nods wisely at all this. Mammon’s speech swells into a cornucopia of sensual pleasures.

We will be brave, Puffe, now we have the med’cine.
My meat shall all come in, in Indian shells,
Dishes of agat set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies.
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels,
Boil’d in the spirit of sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy:
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels served, instead of sallads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite, and poignant sauce;
For which, I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold,
Go forth, and be a knight.”

Surly points out that he who creates the Philosopher’s Stone must be pure and virginal. Yes, says Mammon cutting across the difficulty – but I’m not going to make it, I’m going to buy it. As the introduction points out, this is a play about money and greed and people’s readiness to do anything, and believe anything, to be rich.

Scene 3 Enter Subtle. The comedy in this scene is that Subtle pretends to be fantastically pure and high-minded and pretends to spot slips and hints in Mammon’s speech that the latter is covetous and greedy – at which Mammon furiously backtracks and emphasises he will use the stone purely to do good works.

MAMMON: No, I assure you,
I shall employ it all in pious uses,
Founding of colleges and grammar schools,
Marrying young virgins, building hospitals,
And now and then a church.

Surly looks on with profound scepticism which is exacerbated as he listens to Face and Subtle have an extended and jargon-ridden exchange about the umpteen pipes and retorts and alembics and burners (later they are listed as ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads,’) which are bubbling away in their laboratory from which it slowly emerges that something is not going right and they require more money.

‘You don’t say’, comments Surly, smelling a rat, whereas Mammon is desperately keen to hand over another nine or ten pounds of gold, and Subtle launches into a really massive theoretical justification of alchemy including an explanation of how gold comes about, naturally, in the bowels of the earth, but he knows the way to hasten this natural process, followed by a lengthy explanation of why the art requires such arcane terms, in order to protect it from the vulgar multitude.

They tell Mammon to bring everything iron in his house, his andirons and spit jacks, everything, so it can be turned to gold. Presumably the crooks intend to pawn it for cash.

In a further elaboration of their plotting against the gullible and self-deceiving Mammon, the pair cause Doll to briefly appear onstage before Subtle angrily tells Face to take her away. Mammon, the sensualist, is aroused at the sight of a nubile lady, even for only a minute and asks about her, whereupon Face spins an elaborate yarn that Doll is a noblewoman, a most rare scholar driven mad by studying the works of a famous alchemist, Hugh Broughton.

Hooked, Mammon gives Face money if he will mention him (Mammon) to her and praise him. (There is a deliberate disjuntion between Mammon’s verbal fantasies of being a second Solomon walking naked amid his harem, and the sordid reality of him paying Face to meet up with a prostitute.) This Doll episode convinces Surly that Subtle is a fake and this is a bawdy house.

In order to complexify the plot, Face takes Surly aside and asks him to meet Captain Face at a pub later that day (at which point we realise that Face is really meant to be utterly disguised as the bellows-man, ‘Lungs’).

Scene 4 Face explains to the others that his intention is to win the sceptical Surly round. They tell Doll she must play the part of a grand lady for Mammon, and she tells them not to worry, she knows all the tricks.

Scene 5 Enter another gull or mark or victim, a Puritan named Ananias in fact, to be precise, he is an Anabaptist, a heretical Protestant sect which arose in Germany in the 1530s but whose members were forced into exile. In a historical note, the area of Blackfriars (between St Paul’s cathedral and the river) a) was famous for its Puritans, b) it’s where Jonson himself lived for a while, and c) it was the location of the theatre where we think this play was first performed – so it was super-relevant to its first audience.

Subtle adopts a different, more religiose tone with him and, when Ananias recoils from his ‘heathenish’ use of alchemical terms, Subtle gets Face to trot through an impressive exposition of alchemical terms and concepts. Ananias is:

Please you, a servant of the exiled brethren,
That deal with widows’ and with orphans’ goods,
And make a just account unto the saints:
A deacon.

sent from the amusingly named Tribulation Wholesome. His congregation are hoping Subtle will make a philosopher’s stone for them, too, but when Subtle asks for more funds, complains that they’ve already given him thirty pounds of materials. Looking for a way to turn the situation, Subtle discovers the man’s name is Ananias and fakes outrage that the Elders have sent him a man named after the high priest who condemned Jesus in the gospel story.

Scene 6 Enter Drugger the pharmacist. Subtle concocts a sign for his new shop which plays on his name, and for which they extract more money. Drugger confesses he is in love with a young woman in his neighbourhood, a widow. He goes on to explain she has a brother, newly 21 and just inherited property worth 3,000 a year. Subtle and Face spy an opening and tell Drugger they’ll work to win him her favour. He gives them more money and leaves, at which they instantly insult him and say they will win the woman and her inheritance for one of them.

Act 3

Scene 1 A dialogue between Ananias and his superior in the Anabaptists, Tribulation Wholesome in which the latter explains that 1) Subtle may not be the heathen Ananias thinks him, maybe has has been soiled by his trade i.e. working with fire (later on Face refers to him as ‘black boy’ – presumably he has a sooty face), 2) explains their motivation, namely that many non-conforming ministers were excommunicated and forbidden from preaching by the Hampton Court Conference called soon after James’s accession, in 1604. The point being, they want to use the philosopher’s stone to produce gold to bribe secular magistrates into permitting their ‘silenced’ brethren to preach again.

Scene 2 Subtle joins them. He listens to Wholesome and makes him extravagant promises about what the philosopher’s stone will enable him to do, namely cure and heal people and so gain temporal power and influence (whenever Ananias chips in, Subtle turns on him and scolds him)

Subtle gives a long list of the odd and affected behaviours and secret hypocrisies which public opinion attributed to the Puritans, saying possession of the philosopher’s stone will mean they no longer have to practice them, with Wholesome and Ananias nodding in agreement and the audience laughing their heads off at the Puritans’ naked hypocrisy. Subtle manages to persuade them to contribute another 100 marks to buy alchemical equipment.

Scene 3 Face enters (in his disguise as a captain) to tell Subtle he’s irritated because Surly never showed up at their rendezvous at the Temple church. The good news is that ‘a noble Count, a Don of Spain’, laden with treasure, is on his way to court ‘our Dol’. How does he know? Someone handed him a message when he was waiting for Surly… Mmm.. I wonder if it’s Surly in disguise, planning to expose them as con-men.

Scene 4 Dapper arrives. He is expecting the Fairy Queen. Doll has to run off and get changed before Face opens the door to Dapper. Face is promising him the Fairy Queen will make him the most successful gambler in London when Drugger arrives, with Kastril, the brother of the widow he mentioned earlier.

Kastril is a recognisable type – a brash, crude young man, he’s come to town to learn how to swear and quarrel and smoke like the other roaring boys, and yet is touchingly naive and innocent – he won’t go to a pub because he has heard there is gambling there!

Anyway, Face bamboozles him with wild stories of how Subtle has made the poorest young men rich beyond their dreams and winds Kastril up to such a wild pitch he runs off to fetch his widowed sister. Then Face dispatched Drugger to get the length of damask cloth he’d promised them.

This leaves Face alone with Dapper. They told Dapper to wash with vinegar in preparation for his audience with the Fairy Queen, and he has, and has bought ‘six score Edward shillings’ and an old Harry’s sovereign and three James shillings and an Elizabeth groat. Would that our current money was so interesting!

Scene 5 Enter Subtle dressed as a priest of fairy who ensures Dapper has made the necessary preliminaries, they blindfold him and make him throw off all his valuables (purse, rings) then dance around him pretending to be fairies and insisting he throw off absolutely all his valuables.

They haven’t even got as far as introducing Doll dressed as the Fairy Queen, when she hisses through the window that Sir Epicure Mammon has arrived. Oops, that’s torn it! As he knocks at the door Face has to run over and speak through it saying he needs to get Subtle out of the way so Mammon can talk to Doll, so go for a few turns up & down the street… then he hurriedly changes into his outfit as ‘Lungs’.

Subtle and Face then persuade blindfolded Dapper that the Fairy Queen is eating and will see him presently. They furiously ad lib and decide he can be gagged with some gingerbread and stashed somewhere – where? the privy! They tell him it is all perfumed and ready for him, ‘Only the fumigation’s somewhat strong’. No sooner have they locked Dapper in the toilet, than Face runs over to the front door to let Mammon in.

Act 4

Scene 1 A comic scene in which Mammon, the overblown sensualist, woos Doll, enumerating her virtues and beauties, while Face stands to one side commentating, knowing she is a common whore.  When she points out his power to create wealth will threaten the authorities, Mammon paints a fantastic image of them moving to some free, fantasy country where they will live on unheard-of luxuries, in a bravura speech speech:

We’ll therefore go withal, my girl, and live
In a free state, where we will eat our mullets,
Soused in high-country wines, sup pheasants’ eggs,
And have our cockles boil’d in silver shells;
Our shrimps to swim again, as when they liv’d,
In a rare butter made of dolphins’ milk,
Whose cream does look like opals; and with these
Delicate meats set ourselves high for pleasure,
And take us down again, and then renew
Our youth and strength with drinking the elixir,
And so enjoy a perpetuity
Of life and lust!

Face enters to tell Mammon he is getting very loud, please to be quieter and go within. Doll and Mammon exit.

Scene 2 To make way for Kastril, the country heir who would be a city gallant, and his bashful sister the widow, Dame Pliant. When Kastril begins to make objections, Subtle interrupts him to play the part of teacher and explains to him how to make an argument, and then turns to the widow and flatters her, saying she is made to be kissed, and kissing her. He reads the lines in her hand and tells her she is destined for a military man.

At that moment, enter Face dressed up in his Captain uniform and he praises both Kastril and Dame Pliant, impressing both, but gets to whisper to Subtle that the Spanish Don has arrived! Hastily they fabricate a plan – Subtle will take Kastril and Pliant to his rooms where he will show them the rules of quarrelling and a magic mirror, while Face deals with the Don.

Scene 3 Subtle has taken the pair to his room and returns for an argument with Face. The scene brings out how, amid the frantic juggling of their victims, the pair are jostlingly rivalrous, quick to spot if either is gaining an advantage over the other. The arrival of Dame Pliant adds flames to the mix, because both now want to win her and are jealous of the slightest advantage the other gains… But they agree their plan and jointly greet the Don.

This Spanish Don is, in fact, Mammon’s sceptical friend, Surly, disguised in a comically exaggerate Spanish costume with an enormous ruff: ‘He speaks out of a fortification’, as Face puts it. There is the familiar but still very funny comic device that, once the Don starts speaking Spanish, Face and Subtle, at first timidly, and then with mounting confidence, insult and abuse him to his face in English, confident that he cannot understand. But of course, he can

But then they realise they are facing a pressing problem: the Don has arrived to fulfil the promise of seeing the beautiful senorita (Doll) but Doll is busy inside with Mammon. And the Don is getting impatient. Face has a brainwave. What about the widow, Dame Pliant, who’s just arrived with Kastril? Why not serve up Dame Pliant to the Don, he gets his woman, she gets a glorious knight, both pay our crooks?

This leads to a furious row between Face and Subtle who had both wanted the widow for themselves, but  the Don is getting impatient so they are forced to make a hurried deal, and Face runs off to get the widow.

Scene 4 Enter Kastril and Dame Pliant, who they all set about persuading that she should let herself be wooed by he Don, with Face and Subtle competing to paint the most grandiloquent picture of her wealth and eminence if she marries him – a coach and horses and fine clothes – whereas if she doesn’t, she’ll be a street vendor in a year. Her brother joins in the bullying and so, reluctantly, she acquiesces and goes over to the Don, who continues to address her in Spanish. They exit into the garden, apparently, while Subtle tells Kastril they should now go to his room where he can commence his lessons on how to argue and quarrel like a well-bred Londoner.

Scene 5 Cut to Mammon with Doll. Now you might have thought she would be seducing him for his money but in fact she is playing out the part allotted her of intelligent, educated woman who has been driven mad by learning and Face enters the room (having quickly changed his disguise to ‘Lungs’) to find Doll obsessively monologuing about Egyptian history and the fifth monarchy while Mammon is at his wits end to get her to stop. Face and he talk at the same time as Doll’s monologue and then they hear Subtle coming and all flee.

All except Mammon who Subtle discovers, trying to hide from him. Subtle immediately plays the role of the chaste and spiritual alchemist who is disappointed to find his favourite son engaged in some hole-in-a-corner bawdry. No wonder, Subtle grandly proclaims, the alchemy in the laboratory is going badly, if Mammon has brought spiritual impurity into the house!

THE GREAT EXPLOSION – A loud crack is heard within, and Face comes running in to say everything has exploded – ‘Retorts, receivers, pelicans, bolt-heads’ – all destroyed as if a bolt has come from heaven! Subtle faints and when he comes round, claims the great destruction was due to Mammon’s infidelity and licentiousness and Mammon believes him!

MAMMON: O, my voluptuous mind! I am justly punish’d.
FACE. And so am I, sir.
MAMMON: Cast from all my hopes—
FACE. Nay, certainties, sir.
MAMMON: By mine own base affections.

Face tells him the distressed noblewoman (i.e. Doll)’s brother is arriving, he will be angry if he discovers Mammon is wooing his sister, he’d better leave in a hurry. Is there no recompense Mammon can make? Well, says Face boldly, give a hundred pounds to the charity box at Bedlam Hospital for the insane – Mammon agrees – Face says he’ll send someone round to collect it later that day. Exit Mammon.

Our crooked pair congratulate themselves on having got one problem out of the way. Now to the Spanish Don and his wooing of the widow Pliant.

Scene 6 Surly is with Dame Pliant. He has thrown off his Spanish disguise and is explaining to her what a pack of crooks Subtle and Face are. Subtle comes in, is complacently rude to the Don (thinking he understands no English) and begins to pick his pockets when Surly throws him to the floor and berates him in English. ‘Help! Murder!’ cries a horrified Subtle. Face enters and is horrified to discover the Spanish Don is in fact Surly, who now gives a long list of the ways Face scams his victims in pubs. Face slips out again but when Subtle tries to, Surly grabs him.

Scene 7 Then Face r-enters accompanied by Kastril, and tells him that Surly is an imposter, come here on false pretences to seduce his sister. Face tells Kastril to practice his new-found quarrelling skills on him. Now Surly finds himself facing a united front of Face, Subtle and Kastril, who all start shouting at him.

With perfect comic timing, this is when the Puritan Ananias enters proclaiming the standard Puritan greeting: ‘Peace to the household!’ Ananias instantly tells from Surley’s preposterous Spanish ruffs and sill hat (!) that he is a Catholic and therefore of the Anti-Christ. Confronted by this wall of opposition, Surly has to retreat and exits. Comically, Kastril asks Face and Subtle if he quarrelled and argued like a professional. They praise him while, in fact, all he did was throw abuse.

Anyway, Kastril exits and now Face turns to sort out Drugger. He tells Drugger that they had intended him to play the part of a Spanish nobleman in order to win Dame Pliant’s heart. Has he a Spanish outfit? They dispatch him to go and find one.

That leaves the crooked duo with Ananias. The joke here is that Ananias reports that the Elders and the Brethren of the Separation (i.e. their congregation) have determined that coining money is not unlawful (to them; it is, of course, illegal according to the laws of the land). In other words, that they have piously and hypocritically decided it is alright to break the law. Subtle is pleased to act for them, but says it can’t be at this house, the Brethren must suggest another location – and so Ananias exists and Face and Subtle are finally alone, well, except for the widow, Dame Pliant, who is inside somewhere being hosted by Doll in the guise of noblewoman.

But at that moment Doll enters to tell them… the master of the house is back! He is outside, surrounded by forty neighbours! Face as usual, is the man with a plan. Subtle shall shave him to restore him to (we now discover) the character of smooth-faced Jeremy, the house servant. Face/Jeremy will put the master off for as long as he can, while Subtle and Doll pack up all their goods into a couple of trunks which they’ll have taken to the river and conveyed downstream to Ratcliffe, where they can all rendezvous in a day or two.

Act 5

Scene 1 A crowd of neighbours buzz round the master of the house, Lovewit, telling him about all the strange comings and goings and how none of them have seen Jeremy the butler for a month or more. Lovewit knocks on his own front door.

Scene 2 To his surprise, Jeremy (Face) opens it and proceeds, straight-faced, to tell his master he has been absent from the house for a month or more, and acts astonished when the neighbours insist they’ve seen so many strange comings and goings. Jeremy/Face pretends to be astonished when Lovewit retails the neighbours’ stories of endless comings and goings, saying it is all news to him. And indeed, in a nice touch of satire, the neighbours themselves begin to doubt their own testimonies and to downplay them, and Lovewit impatiently calls them changelings who are so unreliable.

Scene 3 So things were looking up when suddenly Mammon and Surly appear. Face pushes Lovewit inside just as Mammon and Surly arrive at the front door. Surly has fully explained to Mammon the scale of the imposture played on him and Mammon is furious. They knock at the door and Face/Jeremy opens it bold as brass, claims to know nothing of any Captain or alchemist, suggests they have the wrong house and, as they become angry, produces Lovewit as the true master of the house who, of course, knows nothing about them.

Hardly have they been put off than arrives Kastril, the angry boy, who bangs loudly on the door and insists on seeing his sister. And then Ananias and Tribulation, the Anabaptists, who also knock angrily on the door. When Lovewit appears at the door to appease them, they decide to fetch the officers and exit.

Face is still trying to persuade Lovewit that these visitors must be mad, when they both hear the voice of Dapper crying out from inside the house. Oops, everyone had forgotten him. Remember how they’d promised him he would meet the Fairy Queen and Face and Subtle had blindfolded him and gagged him with gingerbread, while they sorted out all their other visitors. Well, clearly the gingerbread has melted/been eaten and now he’s shouting.

When Subtle starts shouting at Dapper to shut up, Face can’t help hissing at both of them to be quiet and Truewit finally realises something is really up, and demands Face tell him the truth. He emphasises that he is a tolerant and forgiving master, just tell. So Face admits that he has been entertaining guests, but focuses on the fact that there is a widow currently within the house (Dame Pliant), a rich widow, who Lovewit can woo and win if he dresses up as a Spaniard.

Scene 4 Surprisingly, the scene cuts to the room where Dapper is, where Subtle enters and asks what happened to his gag, and where Face joins them. They both promise Dapper he will see the Fairy Queen and lo and behold, enter Doll dressed as the Queen. Subtle bids Dapper kneel and abase himself and kiss her skirts.

Doll performs impressively as the Queen, blessing Dapper and giving him a fly-familiar (?) to wear around his neck. Subtle tells him to prick his wrist to draw blood to feed the fly, once a week, and the magic fly will make him win every game of chance he plays. Subtle suggests that in a week’s time he brings them the first thousand pounds of his winnings, as fee. In fact, why doesn’t he give away his wretched inheritance of forty marks a year? To him, Subtle? ‘I will, I will’ says Dapper, kisses the Queen’s hem as she departs, then himself runs off to get the legal documents to sign over his inheritance.

He has barely left before Drugger is at the door with the Spanish suit they asked him for earlier. Subtle gives it to Face who runs off (I think) to give it to Truewit to woo Dame Pliant in. With Face out the way, Subtle tells Doll of his plan. Once they have packed up all their treasures and shipped by boat, instead of going to Ratcliffe, they’ll head west to Brentford, and escape Face, who they are both sick of. Doll agrees. She’ll go now and tell Dame Pliant to hand over rings and treasures to please the Doctor (i.e. Subtle) then they’ll abandon her and quit the house. They seal the deal with a kiss.

Face enters at precisely that point, spots them kissing, tells them Drugger is back with the parson they told him to get, runs off to sort it out – Doll and Subtle think he (Face) is planning to marry Dame Pliant in haste, but moments later he is back. The trunks are packed and all three go through the inventory of all the treasure they have extracted from all the victims they have conned, Face locks them up and then – there is A BIG REVEAL:

Face reveals that he invited his master to return, that he has told his master everything, and his master has forgiven him in exchange for possession of the treasure i.e. all the loot which only a few seconds earlier the other two were gleefully counting. All Face can offer them is a hand over the wall as they’ll have to flee the officers of the law who have been summoned.

At which exact point there is a loud knocking on the door from the officers. With mock solicitude, Face offers Doll a reference if she needs a job in a brothel – she tells him to go hang himself – and tells Subtle to set up as a conman in a different setting, and he’ll send him a customer or two for old times sake – to which Subtle replies he will hang himself solely so he can haunt Face for the rest of his life. All three exit.

Scene 5 Leaving the stage to Truewit, master of the house who enters dressed as a Spaniard and the parson, followed by Face who asks him if he’s got married to Pliant? Yes, is the quick answer. At which point the knocking gets louder, as no less a crowd than the police officers, Mammon, Surly, Kastril, Ananias and Tribulation are all banging on the door. Truewit lets them in.

They all clamour to see Face and Subtle, Truewit eventually calms them and explains – his servant here, Jeremy, has told him he let out the house this past month or more to a Doctor and a Captain, who have now quit it and where they have gone, he has no idea! He admits them all and tells them to search the premises which he himself has found the worse for candlesoot and burns, but nothing else.

All except for the widow who, he now declares, was waiting for a Spanish don to return but in whose absence, he has now married. Surly exclaims his disappointment and Truewit is comically surprised that he should have waited and delayed and so lost his bird.

Mammon has been searching the house and now returns to say it’s true, it’s empty, all except for his metal goods which the crooks have stashed in the basement and he’ll have back. ‘Will he, though?’ asks Truewit. Is Mammon prepared to go to court and broadcast to all and sundry how he was richly cozened out of his goods. ‘Oh, in that case you can keep them’, says Mammon.

Bitterly disappointed, Mammon says he will hire a farmer’s turnip cart and go preach the end of the world. Surly says he’ll join him, but if he ever finds that Captain Face… And Face – obviously transformed by having a shave and different clothes – says he will gladly tip him off if ever he sees him.

Ananias and Tribulation step forward and say they will reclaim their goods, but Truewit says no. When they launch into their biblical cant, Truewit says he will refute them with a cudgel and they flee. Drugger enters very briefly and doesn’t even have time to make a claim before Truewit scares him off.

It is clear that Truewit is, in his own gentrified way, just as much of a crook as his man, Jeremy. Editor of the New Mermaid edition, Elizabeth Cook, describes him as ‘amorally magnanimous’.

A vibe which comes over even more in the last moments of the play when Kastril enters, pushing his sister boorishly in front of him. He insults and vilifies her for marrying a poor man and not a knight as he’d planned, but Truewit interjects, says he is a true knight and when Kastril starts to practice his insulting, Truewit easily outdoes him and, in fact, talks him round to being quite friendly. Indeed the pair agree to take a pipe of tobacco together, and Kastril takes Dame Pliant inside (how many words does she get to speak in the entire play? she is just a kind of package passed from hand to hand).

It is The End. Truewit steps forward and addresses the audience, saying what master would not be delighted in a servant who procured him a rich widow as wife and trunks full of treasure, even if it is a little beyond the bounds of decorum. And the last word goes to Face who directly addresses the audience and asks their indulgence.

Thoughts

This is a brilliant play from the very start, driven by Jonson’s phenomenally energetic language, by the extraordinary range and breadth of his vocabulary – especially the specialised jargon of alchemy – and the sheer energy with which the three crooks carry out their scams.

It starts off at a gallop, throwing us into the middle of a violent argument between the crooks, and from that point the pace never lets up, with an endless stream of new victims arriving then returning in an ever-increasing frenzy of comic delusions, scheming and pomposity.

This latter quality is the speciality of the wonderful Sir Epicure Mammon – ‘I will be puissant and mighty in my talk’ – whose speeches are almost worth memorising for their elaborate and eloquent decadence.

More even than Volpone this play makes you realise Jonson was in love with the very crimes he purports to satirise and castigate.

Social history

One of the pleasures of reading older works of literature is the feast of social history they contain. The Alchemist makes reference to the following notable, contemporary events:

  • Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Alexander de Lannoy when he failed to produce the philosopher’s stone for her
  • quintessence simply means ‘fifth’ essence, superior to the four earthly elements, thought to be what heavenly bodies were made of
  • colliers were associated with hell and the devil (because of coal and its fires)
  • the act 33 Henry VIII c.8 forbade the use if magic invocations to find gold or silver
  • ‘laundering’ meant putting coins in acid to dissolve off some of the gold or silver surface; ‘barbing’ meant snipping slips off the edge of coins – both were illegal
  • the Elizabethan magician John Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley, had both ears cut off as punishment for coining
  • Southwark doctor Simon Read was pardoned, in 1607, for invoking three spirits to discover a thief
  • Chaush – in 1607 a Turk named Mustafa arrived in England declaring himself an ambassador from the Sultan using the title ‘Chiaush’ and was grandly entertained until the fraud was discovered
  • Lambeth was ‘noted for prostitutes and thieves’, which amuses me as I live in Lambeth
  • Peru – synonymous with great wealth because of the Spanish silver mines there
  • The Hampton Court Conference of 1604 banned numerous non-conformist ministers from preaching
  • in the winter of 1607-8 the Thames froze over
  • Lions were kept in the Tower of London as tourist attractions
  • It was a common punishment for prostitutes to be attached by rope to the back of a cart which was slowly pulled through the streets of London while the prostitute was whipped
  • Barbers used stale urine as a ‘lye’ to loosen their customers’ hair
  • One of the talks of the town was the little boy of six with a large penis (mentioned act 5 scene i and in Act 3 of The Knight of the Burning Pestle)
  • In 1609 the case came to court of Thomas Rogers, a Dorset man, who was robbed of £6 by two brothers who promised they would introduce him to the Fairy Queen who would be his bride

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)

He drew himself, as a wanderer, a lover, a fugitive, with reaping death hard at his heels…
(Narziss and Goldmund, page 228)

‘Narziss’ is a direct transliteration of the name in original German title, Narziß und Goldmund, but the word also translates as Narcissus, which is why some modern editions are titled Narcissus and Goldmund. Goldmund translates literally as ‘gold mouth’, though you can see why this wouldn’t work so well as a title. Narcissus and Gold Mouth might begin to sound too much like a fairy tale.

Narziss and Goldmund is longer than its predecessor novel, Steppenwolf (300 pages in the Penguin edition compared to Steppenwolf’s 250 pages). And it’s far more integrated and coherent than Steppenwolf, which is built up from a number of different texts, echoing the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s divided mind. By contrast, Narziss and Goldmund maintains a calm, lyrical and mellifluous sonority throughout, leading some critics to call it Hesse’s ‘most lyrical’ novel.

Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and both narrative and dialogue are couched in an unobtrusive but persistent cod-medieval style which might irritate some modern readers.

‘Mistress Lisbeth,’ he said, in a friendly voice. ‘I am not come to ask you for work. I wanted to give you greeting – you, and the Master. It irks me sore to have to hear you. I can see you have had much sorrow. If your father’s thankful apprentice can do you a service – name it – it would be my recompense.’ (p.224)

But, as mentioned, it is this low-key but persistent ‘medieval’ style which gives the book its distinctive flavour and tone.

Two opposites

The two central figures are ‘types’ – of the dry intellectual, the analyser and categoriser (Narziss) and the passionate lover of life, wine and women (Goldmund).

The first fifty or so pages describe in some detail how the pair first meet, as young novitiates at the ancient monastery of Mariabronn somewhere in North Germany. Narziss is himself a junior monk but already skilled and educated enough to be put in charge of the monastery school. One day young Goldmund is dropped off by  his father, a knight, who asks the monks to educate him. He never sees his father again. It slowly emerges that he’s never known his mother who, his father told him, was a wanton hussy who ran off when Goldmund was a baby.

This will turn out to be centrally important because there is a sense, in everything that follows, right up until his death, that this missing mother, the search for the Absent Mother, is central to his psyche.

Goldmund goes a wandering

Initially Goldmund is a good scholar. He is ragged by the other boys in fights and taunts which are presumably meant to reflect the bullying of schoolboys everywhere, in all times, but he fights back and establishes a place for himself in the hierarchy. There’s a naughty excursion from the monastery when a bunch of older boys sneak out of the premises to a nearby village, where they drink wine and chat up a peasant’s pretty daughter. She takes a shine to Goldmund, who is fiercely attracted to her and fiercely tries to repress the impulse.

Narziss and Goldmund forge a special bond based on Narziss’s uncanny insight into other people. They have many intense conversations. In one of them Narziss dwells on Goldmund’s absent mother and it comes as a revelation to Goldmund that there is this great hole in the centre of his life, and he breaks down in tears. It is that kind of very intense psychological bonding between the pair which gives the book its title.

But fate is fate, or biology is biology, and Goldmund goes out walking, picking flowers and marvelling at the beauty of the world. He falls asleep and is woken in a half-dream, by a beautiful gypsy girl, Lisa, waking in her lap, as she leans down to kiss him and, to cut a long story short, she takes his virginity, which is described in flowery euphemisms appropriate for 1930.

It is a revelation. Goldmund realises he is never going to be a monk, he’s not even that good a scholar. Goldmund returns to the cloister to tell Narziss he’s leaving, there and then. He packs his bags and leaves. He finds Lisa again the next day, but this time she is scared and runs back to the husband who beats her.

Now commences the long central section of the book where Goldmund goes on the tramp, vagabonding across northern Germany, and – this may be the slightly hard bit for a modern reader to swallow – everywhere he goes he is ‘desired and appeased by women’ (p.98). With his blonde hair, good looks and slim figure, Goldmund is a ladykiller, a babe magnet.

He quickly, comprehensively and intuitively becomes an expert at sex, a connoisseur, ready and able to give every woman what she wants, whether hard and fast, or slow and sensual, responding to all moods and needs. If you’d expected a spiritual classic, it certainly has a lot of deep psychology about life and destiny, but you’ll be surprised by the amount highly sensual, soft porn writing.

Drawn and clasped to one another, they lost themselves within the scented night, saw the white, shimmering secrets of its flowers, plucking its fruits, for which they thirsted, with gentle, ever-grateful, hands. Never before had spielmann struck such a lute, or lute known fingers so strong and cunning. (p.234)

The knight and his daughters

Pages 100 to 122 describe his adventures at a castle. He is taken in by an ageing knight who, when he discovers Goldmund is a scholar, hires him to write the life’s long adventurous life story in Latin. But the knight has two daughters, Lydia and Julia, and they are soon competing for his favours. It takes a bit longer than usual but Goldmund persuades Lydia into his bed where, however, she strips and kisses a little but, irritatingly, refuses to give him what so many other gypsy girls and peasant girls and farmers’ wives have already given him.

Worse, they’re lying there one night when the door opens and in comes the jealous younger sister Julia. Lydia is panicking when Goldmund overrides her and invites Julia to join them in bed. There follows a passage where Goldmund is kissing older, stiff Lydia on one side while with his hand he strokes and then begins to masturbate young Julia on his other side, who begins to make moans of pleasure.

See what I mean about a certain soft-porn 1970s feel? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to see all these sexy passages as extraordinarily open, candid, honest descriptions of sex for their time (1930), and to place them in the wider context of the books and their serious concerns with human psychology and spirituality. In other words to see that Hesse’s books address the entirety of the human condition, sex and death and bereavement and loss and abandonment and friendship and love and art, and that the lyrically porny sequences are just an unashamed, honest inclusion of the role sex does play in many people’s lives.

This soft porn sequence is, alas, interrupted when the older sister leaps out of bed and threatens to tell their father. Both girls go. But Lydia goes to the knight and tells him everything. Goldmund is rudely awakened the next morning by the knight who is too angry to speak, who grabs his stuff in a bundle and marches him half a mile to the bounds of his land and then tells him never to return on pain of death. It is snowing. Goldmund sets off into the freezing cold.

An hour later, Hans a servant rides after him and delivers gifts from Julia – one golden ducat, an undershirt she has woven, and a side of bacon. Well, it’s something.

Goldmund comes to a village where he begs food and then is conscripted to assist as a villager gives birth, quite a traumatic experience for a young, sensitive mind. Typically what strikes Goldmund is the way the sounds of pain are so close to the sounds of a woman’s ecstasy, which triggers characteristic philosophical meditations. He dallies in the village a while i.e. has a brief ‘affair’ with a brawny village wife, Christine.

Murders Victor the vagabond

In this village he meets another vagabond, Victor. Victor is a seasoned, wily survivor, full of impressive stories of life on the road and Goldmund is taken under his spell. They travel on together for a few days but late one night in the forest, Goldmund wakes up to find Victor stealthily rifling through his clothes looking for the precious gold ducat Goldmund had told him about. When he resists, Victor starts to strangle him, in earnest, so Goldmund finds himself with his last breaths fumbling for the small knife he keeps mainly to cut up bread and cheese, and in a final paroxysm, stabbing Victor again and again and again until the grip round his neck loosens, and the man falls away from him, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds and there and then, in the dark early hours, in a forest in winter, Victor breathes his last, leaving Goldmund staggered and appalled. (p.127)

(And this reader thinking, yet again, that these German novels have a special affinity for knife murder.)

Master Nicholas and the nature of art

Goldmund comes to a nearby city, referred to as the Bishop’s City. On the outskirts he had come across an isolated chapel and been entranced by a sculpture inside it of the Mother of God.

In the city he makes enquiries as to who carved it and discovers it is a certain Master Nicholas the sculptor. To cut a long story short, Goldmund asks to be his apprentice. Nicholas tells him to draw something, anything, on a piece of paper he gives him and the result impresses him enough to take him on.

There follow extended passages meditating on the nature of art, on the meaning of reproducing the world and God’s creatures.

Goldmund realises he has within him the faces and personalities of all the women he’s encountered and realises he must make a particular carving, bringing the essence of all these women together to create a Mother of God.

Goldmund stays with Master Nicholas for two years while he works on this figure. During that period he has many many women – the tradesman’s wives and daughters – including the serving wench in a butcher’s house, Katherine, who he calls his ‘pork and sausage maid’ (p.179).

All through this period he is tormented by the contradictions in art between the soul and the physical, despising little people who are happy with decorations, driven by a striving for the unseeable essence of the subject.

Many lengthy discussions of the nature of true art. Goldmund ponders why Master Nicholas is a master sculptor, all right, but also a journeyman craftsman and that ability, facility, doesn’t interest Goldmund. Goldmund sits by the river and realises it is those endless flashes, light off the ripples, sudden glimpses of pebbles on the riverbed, the light through a butterfly’s wings – all the art in the world can’t compete with the beauty of the actual world.

Meanwhile, Master Nicholas has been thinking and offers to make Goldmund his heir, bring him into his workshop and to marry him to his daughter, Lisbeth. Unfortunately he makes Goldmund this offer at just about the moment Goldmund has realised he doesn’t want to be a journeyman like Nicholas. Nicholas goes white with anger when Goldmund embarrassedly turns down his offer, and makes it plain he must leave immediately.

Rather as he was ordered by the angry knight to leave the castle.

So Goldmund sets off on his rambles again, despite there being so many women in the city of whom he might have taken his leave (p.184). Last, and barely noticed, is the 15-year-old lame daughter of the burghers he’s been rooming with him. As he leaves the city, she offers him a drink of fresh milk and a crust of bread and, out of politeness, he leans down and kisses her. She closes her eyes in bliss. She has had a teenage crush on him all this time but, as in an American magazine romance, Goldmund doesn’t know or care. Then he is back on the road.

The plague

Goldmund hooks up with timid young Robert, a younger tramp. We learn it is ten years since Goldmund left the monastery (p.204). He now has a blonde beard (p.209).

The pair come to a plague village, whose villagers aggressively warn them away. But Goldmund goes in and finds a family dead in their beds, prompting characteristic Hesse reflections about Death. And the artist in Goldmund is attracted by their postures and positions…

As they walk on they discover that the whole countryside is ravaged, abandoned. Coming to an empty town, Goldmund notices a beautiful young woman (of course) leaning out a window and, as usual, picks her up. Her name is Lene (p.198) and she succumbs to Goldmund’s invitation to come with them, packs a small bag and off they go. She is ‘a sweet mistress… shy and young and full of love’ (p.201)

After much wandering they come across abandoned farm buildings, decide to settle there, fix them up and make a life, rounding up stray abandoned animals.

One day Lene and Goldmund go hunting, get separated, he hears her screaming, runs and finds her being raped, grab the scrawny rapist, strangles him and dashes his head to a pulp against rocks.

Goldmund carries Lene home, washes her breast where it has been scratched and bitten so hard it is bleeding. But, somewhat inevitably, Lene gets the plague and dies in a matter of days. Robert refuses to come near the hut she’s in, then runs off never to return.

Goldmund tends Lene till she dies and then, characteristically, studies the face of death. Then he sets fire to the hut, as a funeral pyre and to cleanse it, and hits the road again, wandering through a landscape of horror where the deserted villages and towns are surrounded by plague pits, passing processions of flagellants, watching the lynching of people scapegoated for the disaster, not least the burning alive of Jews in their houses in one town. Horror. The Kingdom of Bones (p.212)

But he watches it all with fascination, soaking up the suffering and despair, never tiring of watching the Grim Reaper at work.

Goldmund stumbles across a beautiful young Jewess (isn’t he lucky to come across so many beautiful young women) weeping beside a big burnt-out fire and discovers this is where 15 Jews from the nearby town were murdered and burned to death, including her father.

Goldmund is touched and offers to take her with him and protect her but can’t stop himself also trying to seduce her with honeyed worlds. Well, for once it doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, she is disgusted, says all Christians are alike, murderers and hypocrites (and she might well have thrown in the accusation that all men are alike) and runs off.

Goldmund’s head is full of all the images he has seen, a medieval panorama. With increasing urgency he wants to return to ‘the Bishop’s city’ where he lived and worked for Master Nicholas. When he finally arrives back there he is overwhelmed by happy nostalgia of re-seeing all the familiar sights, the old churches, the market square, the clear purling river.

But, inevitably, Master Nicholas is dead of the plague… and his beautiful, haughty daughter, Lisbeth? She is now yellow-faced, gaunt and shrivelled. He offers help but Lisbeth (and the raddled old servant Margret) scorn him.

Wandering the town’s streets Goldmund bumps into lame Marie, who had a teenage crush on him, and she invites him modestly back to her parents’ house. They are honestly glad to see him. Inspired, Goldmund starts drawing hundreds of pictures of everything he’s seen in the Landscape of Death.

Lady Agnes

One day Goldmund is struck by the sight of a haughty beautiful rich woman riding by on a horse. He must have her. It is a challenge. He places himself at the town gates every morning as she goes a-riding. He appears under the trees near where she stops the horse for her daily rest.

After a few days she deigns to talk to him. She gives him a token, a gold necklace, which gives him admittance to the castle. He goes there that evening, claiming to have found the lady’s necklace and wanting to return it. He is allowed into the busy castle courtyard, full of horses and bustle.

The lady’s maid takes him up to her ladyship’s luxury rooms and there, amid the fur and incense, on a rich white bed, he strips and makes love to her, as – inevitably – ‘she has never been loved before’!

If you let yourself go along with this mood, it is a scene of exquisite sensitivity; if you are a little more jaded, it is like an extended Flake advert.

But the next very evening, when he returns for some more soft-focus erotic goings-on, he is trapped and caught by the jealous husband, Count Heinrich.

As the big angry knight opens the bedchamber door, Lady Agnes pushes Goldmund into her closet. Here the knight discovers him but Goldmund is quick witted enough to pretend he is a thief who has broken in to steal the precious dresses and furs.

The count believes him and says he will be hanged in the morning. Goldmund’s wrists are tied and he is led down to a pitch-black dungeon and thrown in. As the churls are unlocking the door to the dungeon, two priests visiting the castle pass by, and one stops to ask if the prisoner is to be confessed and shriven, then tells the guards he will come at dawn to perform this service.

Goldmund spends the night trying to reconcile his soul to death, to never more see the sun or feel the wind or hear the birds. He also spends the whole night freeing his wrists from their tight cords, cutting himself badly in the process. When dawn comes, the door opens and a cowled monk descends the stairs into his cell.

Goldmund is fully prepared to whip up hi stool, dash the monk’s brains out, steal his habit and make a getaway. Imagine his amazement when the monk pushes back his cope and reveals the face of… his old, old, deepest friend, Narziss, now thin and gaunt with asceticism and the responsibilities of command. For Narziss has now become the abbot at Mariabronn.

Narziss raises Goldmund to his feet and says he spent a lot of effort the night before pleading with the angry knight for his life. Result: Goldmund will not hang. Instead the other monks dress his wounds, pack their bags, mount their horses, and ride out of the castle courtyard. Even at this late stage, and despite having learned his lesson, Goldmund still looks up at the windows overlooking the courtyard, hoping the beautiful Lady Agnes will be looking out of one at him. But no.

Goldmund rejoices as his horse carries him through the scenery of all his adventures, he reviews them, the many women, murdering Victor, the cold nights lying in the forest and so on.

Then they reach the old monastery and Goldmund is overcome with memories of his youth. Here he is kindly invited to stay as a guest, with no demands on him to become a lay brother let alone a monk, by his wise old friend.

After a spell of feeling a bit lost and bewildered, Goldmund decides on a plan, which is to work as a carver again, and create a wooden relief spiralling up the steps to a lectern where monks read texts to each other in the refectory.

This penultimate section of the book allows for:

  1. an emotional reunion of Narziss and Goldmund and a series of conversations during which they revive their friendship and remember the old times, the old abbot et al
  2. a series of debates between them about the nature of the scholarly intellectual mind and the artistic creative mind. Goldmund comes to realise he has led a chaotic and disorderly life, but when he tells Narziss how much he admires the other’s purity and devotion, Narziss says that’s only because he knows nothing of his (Narziss’s) intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Both envy the other his clarity and conviction, while both reveal they are, in fact, riven by doubts and uncertainties.

Womanising

Almost all of the long middle section of the book describing Goldmund’s wandering is, in my opinion, a little undermined by his endless womanising.

I take the point that it’s designed to show Goldmund’s immersion in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and so point up the basic dichotomy between the Worldly Personality and the Scholarly, Secluded Personality. My criticism is that these worldly scenes describe the same schoolboy fascination with seducing and stripping nubile young women without any attempt to explore the deeper levels a heterosexual relationship can go to, let alone the complicated problems relationships often develop.

Instead it’s just one woman after another, just as in a porn film.

Anyway, this passage at the end of the book discards all the womanising and sensual rhetoric, and returns to much more abstract discussions between the two friends about art and religion.

There’s a lovely passage where, after a good long time of working on it (with a young boy assistant he’s been given, Erich) Goldmund shows his carving to Narziss, and it prompts the older man to a wonderfully insightful speculation about the intellectual and the artistic routes to God.

He mulls over how the intellectual personality strains to clear away all the clutter of the world in order to strive for the simplest, purest, most fundamental truths – while the artist throws him or herself into the things of the world, precisely into all the clutter, and, by dint of his or her passion, reveals beneath it the pattern underlying the world’s profusion.

‘I see you by the opposite way, the way which leads through the sense, reach as deep a knowledge as any that most thinkers achieve, of the essence and secret of our being, and a far more living mode of setting it forth.’ (Narziss addressing Goldmund, p.280)

This passage is worth rereading and savouring, as many passages of the book are, for example the couple of pages where Goldmund sits by the river, watching its ever-changing surface and pondering the nature of manmade beauty contrasted with the ever-fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Briefer but just as full of juice and wisdom is the passage where Narziss instructs Goldmund how to pray.

But, says the younger man, my mind is overwhelmed with doubts, about whether my prayers can ever be heard by a God who probably doesn’t exist and, even if he does, probably doesn’t hear them.

To which Narziss replies, imagine you’re singing a song. You don’t let yourself get swamped with doubts about whether you’re doing a good rendition or whether the composer would be upset by your voice or whether anyone’s listening properly and so on. You abandon yourself to the song. You give it your best shot. Singing is its own justification. Same with prayer.

I can see why Hesse inspires such loyalty among his devotees. He discusses serious problems with seriousness, he isn’t patronising or ironic, and his characters discuss ideas which occur to any educated person clearly and simply, and sometimes, with a depth of feeling or insight which clearly derive from the author’s lifelong engagement with these ideas.

And the depth and seriousness leave their mark on the reader. Some of these passages are really stirring.

Goldmund hits the road again

But all good things come to an end. It takes Goldmund two years to carve the wooden relief and when it is finally done, and installed on the steps and pulpit, he returns to his workshop and feels empty and spent.

He begins another work, a statue of the Mother of God, but goes absent for long walks in the country, feeling increasingly restless. He encounters a young peasant woman, Francisca, but is struck that, although he uses all his old tricks and tells her romantic tales of life on the road etc, she listens politely as to an old man, as to her father. Ah. He is old.

Back in the monastery, Goldmund realises he has grey in his hair and wrinkles round his eyes but more than that, he feels old.

So he leaves the monastery. With Narziss’s blessing he departs, leaving the narrative to describe Narziss’s sudden sense of emptiness. Narziss admires the way Goldmund’s wastrel, vagabond life has made him capable of creating such exquisite carvings which will bespeak the glory of God and his creation long after Narziss and his dry, scholarly theology is forgotten.

Goldmund returns, a broken man

Inevitably, Goldmund returns, in the autumn of the same year, but much changed, transfigured. Now he is an ill old man and Erich his assistant is appalled to see him, help him back into the workshop and put him to bed. After some days, Narziss comes to see him and is also appalled. Now Goldmund is grey-haired and sick, he has broken ribs and internal injuries.

As his health fails, Goldmund tells Narziss what happened. Turns out his real motivation to leave was not a general romantic urge to hit the road, but that he’d heard that Lady Agnes was in the area with Count Heinrich. Improbably, Goldmund had managed to secure an audience with her, but the Lady told him to his face that he is no longer the golden youth, the blonde sex god, that he was – and she turns away, uninterested.

Heartbroken, Goldmund rides off and doesn’t mind when his horse stumbles and throws him down into a gulley. He lands hard in a stream, breaks some ribs and lies all night in the freezing mountain water. Next day he staggers up and on and eventually is found and placed in a hospice, where he stays for months, sells the horse, uses up the money Narziss gave him and eventually realises he had to stagger back to Mariabronn.

Here Goldmund dies. On his deathbed, he says he is not afraid of death. In what we now realise was the great defining conversation of their youths, when Narziss had identified the central pillar of his personality as being the absence of his mother. Goldmund says that Narziss had given back his mother, restored the image of his mother to the central place in his life.

Now the pains in his chest feel not like the broken ribs and infections, but as if his mother, his beloved mother, the earth mother Eve, is putting her fingers between his ribs and pulling out his heart, taking it to her. For only with a mother can you die. ‘How can anyone love without a mother, and how can we die without a mother?’

And on these last words and their rather shocking image, Goldmund dies, leaving Narziss distraught.


I’m caught between two views, as I am with all the Hesse I’ve read.

Against

With my hard hat on, I know it is romantic twaddle. By that I mean that every scene is lit with a sentimental romantic light, and profoundly unrealistic.

1. Painless vagabonding Take the way he survives as a vagabond, with no food or money, and travelling across north Europe in the winter, for not weeks, or months, but years on end. I know people did do this, but a lot of them died of starvation and exposure. After a week sleeping rough in a forest, with no food and no blankets or bedding you would be in very poor shape, more a J.G. Ballard character at the end of their tether than a handsome swain.

2. Women everywhere Whereas Goldmund is always in such tip-top condition that, wherever he goes, every woman that he meets – virgin or housewife – throws themselves at him, and he ploughs his way through hundreds and hundreds of women.

3. The dialogue And then there’s the diction, the sub-Tennysonian melliflous fake medievalism, all palfreys and pilgrims, varlets and churls, like scenes from a thousand pre-Raphaelite paintings. As a tiny instance take the moment when Goldmund speaks to the haughty, high-born lady by the ivy-covered town wall, and offers his devotion:

‘Oh’, he replied, ‘I would as lief make you a gift as take one. It is myself I would offer you fair woman, and then you shall do as you will with me.’ (p.231)

It is all written in this style.

4. Lucky And the way he keeps landing on his feet – in the castle of the knight who needs a Latin scholar, in the household of the Master artist Nicholas – is more like a fable or fairy tale than an adult narrative.

5. Sex And the way there always just happens to be a nubile and beautiful young woman in the offing for him to seduce, fondle, strip and make love to… is more like a 1970s soft porn movie than reality.

Gently he unclasped the white fur at her neck and unsheathed her body. (p.234)

Indeed, the entirety of Goldmund’s adventures could be devastatingly critiqued as a sustained example of male wish-fulfilment, as the most basic sexist fantasy that more or less every women you meet is ready and willing to have sex with you, at no more than a smile and a wink.

None of the women appear to have periods or any other medical problems or difficulties. And nobody in this dreamworld appears to have a sexually transmitted disease.

6. Death as romantic And take the fundamentally romantic notion that Death is somehow romantic, seductive and sensual, a warm loving mother luring you into her bosomy embrace – an image which emerges in the plague scenes and recurs at the end.

‘I’m curious to die because it’s still my belief, or my dream, that I’m on my way back to my mother; because I hope my death will be a great happiness – as great as I had of my first woman. I can never rid myself of the thought that, instead of death with his sickle, it will be my mother who takes me into herself again, and leads me back into nothingness and innocence.’ (Goldmund, p.297)

Twaddle. Having seen death up close, I found absolutely nothing redeeming or good about it at all. It is the grief-stricken cessation of life. The sensual penumbra Hesse casts over it is late-romantic, 1890s sentimentality.

For

On the other hand… although the plots which deliver them up may be questionable, the intensity with which Hesse describes the emotional and sexual entanglements, especially the menage a trois at the knight’s castle, are conceived and described with an intense sensuality which really goes home to your imagination, reminding you of the best and most sensual experiences in your own life.

Similarly, the vagabonding is to be taken with a pinch of salt: it’s a narrative framework, a scaffolding, an age-old narrative trope designed to deliver a steady stream of situations which allow Goldmund/Hesse to meditate on the meaning of life, and death, of art and suffering, as he encounters and observes them.

And although he may not have anything blindingly original to say about these subjects, nonetheless reading a Hesse book means that you engage with these questions in a sustained and serious way for several days, through the medium of his lyrical and measured prose. And this can turn out to be a very moving and thought-provoking experience.

And because the characters in the books cover quite a range of topics, chances are that some, at least, of the subjects will touch a chord. For me it was the entire sequence with the Master carver and in particular the scene where Goldmund sits by the river and mulls over why some art may be technically finished and immaculate but doesn’t move you, whereas other, less finished works, for some reason touch your soul.

Conclusion

The hokiness of the plot, and the often sentimental romanticism of the worldview, and the questionable womanising, are all forgiveable because the book delivers a steady stream of deeply pondered thinking on a range of perennial topics.

Credit

Narziß und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was published in 1930. It was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in an edition which appeared in 1932, titled Death and the Lover. Penguin Modern Classics republished this translation in 1971, with the different title of Narziss and Goldmund. All references are to this 1971 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (The Plague, page 63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence), a city which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims and slowly comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city.

The plague doesn’t relent but keeps getting gets worse and worse, and Rieux plays a key role in reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city and so on.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary 1940s ideas derived variously from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, and who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these characters come into contact with Dr Rieux at one stage or another, as acquaintances who he treats or as friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of Jacques, the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t stop till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, forced to face up to the fundamental questions of existence – and Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this completely believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself The Narrator, who explains how – after the plague had finally expired – he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and so is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character of The Narrator’s account. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age when he wrote the novel, it is Rieux who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards, and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city and separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big, strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s ‘flail’ or ‘scourge’ swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Father Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. The priest offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There then follow inevitable dialogues between Father Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in a conversation with Rieux, and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Father Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Father Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. It is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Father Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which The Narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of many of the other characters such as Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level of the narrative, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, and arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter of Oran when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates throughout existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned representative of a vengeful Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the ‘injustice’ of ‘bourgeois society’, which stood up for the workers and for the humiliated everywhere. But then Tarrou found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders of his movement (presumably the communists in Spain) claimed were necessary to overthrow the unjust regime.

Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic and brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying, all chime perfectly. It is a great scene. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois, legalistic world of his father, Tarrou has also walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register which domaintes the novel – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. But a saint without a God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books, I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He was a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague struck. When the city is closed, Rambert finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers.

This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another. He is told to be ready to be smuggled out of one of the city’s gates by ‘friendly’ guards, only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches.

Presumably Camus is deliberately trying for a realistic, unromantic and unexciting narrative effect – the opposite of a Hollywood adventure movie. Somewhere The Narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion, his loyalty, his quixotic quest, are contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of most of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows just after the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-stricken Oran, Rambert has realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the political and social issues of Camus’s time, great big issues of justice and commitment, loyalty and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something, somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic stereotype of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, Grand uses his real skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by The Narrator as demonstrating precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which The Narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them as a result of an incident, when Grand telephones the doctor to tell him that he’s just found Cottard as he was attempting to hang himself. The doctor rushes round and he and Grand save and revive Cottard. Cotard recovers but, from that point onwards, is shifty and consistently evades the police and the authorities, since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in Cottard becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks together. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises the disease is bubonic plague far more quickly than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally mass produced and administered, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague or whether the plague declines because it had worked its way through the population anyway.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children around Oran. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a plague victim, Othon is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising the characters like this makes it clearer than when you actually read the novel, just how schematic they are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity.

Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types. Additional comments:

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is lucky enough to be packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife, back in Paris. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist. (Algeria achieved its independence from France after a horrific war, 15 years after this novel was published, in 1962.)

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever and pain and the last-minute falling away of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically. It is described as a character with agency and intent.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto. Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends a serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus was not a philosopher. Although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to anywhere near the same level as Sartre, who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s coterie. But then, Camus himself was ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus can maybe be described as a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour, he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe.

Exile is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging.

He uses the word hope to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his later ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express, various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’ and the medical aspect, as I’ve pointed out, is medieval.

No, we read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter, at around 100 pages each. The Plague is by far the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The realisation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is much more important to Camus than the ideas around ‘the Absurd’
  3. Camus’s horribly long-winded style which makes stretches of The Plague almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post)

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18-year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England, where, by the 1970s, most people thought of ‘the Church’ as a retirement home for nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope via P.G.Wodehouse to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics.

The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its theological tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God.

Politically, the French Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them, deeply cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free – indeed that you are condemned to be free – to make your own set of values and decisions, derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this knowledge involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

So it seems reasonable to speculate that a lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something vital and life supporting – and that now it is lost.

In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is simply that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish, when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or ‘exiled’ by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse.

Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals, without feeling the need to burst into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of other facts about the world we live in, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

This line of thought was prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly ‘existential’ or ‘atheist’ worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. Christianity is key.

When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

Likewise, God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology.

This plucky godlessness only really has meaning by reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. Camus and his characters can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of the throat, some philosophical foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc? It’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before the characters finally feel able to get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity, and so on.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus.

The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his life and actions. But where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text saturated with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are a few passages about ‘the Absurd’ but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. The Law is absolutely central to these two novels, and it is a notion of the law inextricably interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice.

And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux, and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and ever since have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wonder why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and to be a member of the Resistance. That would have been of huge historic importance and also directly tied his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful.

Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels (published in 1942, 1947 and 1956) mention the Second World War, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all. Kafka was another author obsessed by the idea of law and justice.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything – a transparent reference to The Trial.)


Key terms in The Plague

Because the entire translated text is available online, it’s easy to do a word search for key terms. The following results tend, I think, to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

References to Camusian concepts

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

There are, then, surprisingly few direct references to the main concepts which made him famous.

References to Christian concepts

Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more fully expressed and explored.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

References to the law

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

Exile

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’.

This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from the (Christian) belief systems which give our lives purpose.

But it is typical of Camus that this key term is not a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word in the book is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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