FROM THE PULPIT
NOT LONG AGO, the historian and MP Tristram Hunt wrote a piece in The Guardian waxing wistful about the news that, in a joint venture with Google, the Br itish Library plans to put 250,000 books from between 1700 and 1870 online.
He was sued by unpaid manservants, pursued by Star Chamber for more than a decade over his refusal to pay alimony to his wife, and narrowly escaped the noose after being charged with a p lo t to ki l l the Bishop of London. No respecter of the clergy, he was also the subject of a complaint by a local parson
D e s p e r a t e l y S e e k i n g
Pu t t e n h am
‘When everything is down-loadable,’ Hunt declared, ‘the mystery of history can be lost. Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents? … it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent.’
I must take issue. Every few months one hears eructations from one quarter or another about the British Library being too full of undergraduates, too full of whizzy electronic nonsense, not dusty enough, etc. One need only consider how much easier scholarly or quasi-scholarly activity has become to realise how wrong these are.
I recently spent a good deal of time in the British Library researching a book about rhetoric. For several centuries rhetoric was one-third of an entire education. Before literary criticism, we had the study of rhetoric, and at the heart of it were the ‘figures’ (as in ‘figures of speech’) that jazzed up rhetorical writing: metaphor and metonym, hyperbole, chiasmus, apostrophe and so on.
So it was that I came to be digging into the story of George Puttenham (c1530–90). Puttenham, now a pretty marginal figure, was once a rather large one. Tradition attributes to him the authorship of The Arte of English Poesie, which has been described as ‘the central text of Elizabethan courtly poetics’. What made him important for my purposes was his discussion of ‘Ornament Poeticall’, in which he made a heroic attempt to replace the Greek and Latin names for the figures with vernacular English ones.
Zeugma, for instance, where a single verb governs a number of objects (‘he put out the cat, his cigar and the lamp’) was rechristened ‘Single Supply’; alliteration was ‘ L i ke Let t e r ’ ; hyperbole became ‘ t he OverReacher’; irony became ‘the Drie Mock’; sarcasm ‘the Bitter Taunt’; and mycterismus – an insult with accompanying gesture – was f abulously Englished as ‘the Fleering Frumpe’.
This attempt, of course, failed: we still call hyperbole hyperbole, and though Drie Mockery is all about us nobody calls it by that name. The work remains a fascinating failure. Still more fascinating, though, turned out to be Puttenham himself.
He presented himself as – and until three years ago was credited as having been – an exper ienced and urbane courtier, mannerly and well-travelled, with insight into the inner circles of Elizabethan courtly life. In fact, Puttenham was an utter bounder, whose main contact with authority was when he got his collar felt for beating up vicars, reneging on his debts or doing the dirty on his wife.
who claimed Puttenham had dispatched a team of thugs that interrupted Sunday service and ‘with violence dyd pull away a great parte of ... his beard’.
His sex life did him little credit either. No fewer than seventeen witnesses testified to his indiscriminate extramarital shenanigans and physical abuse of his wife. He sired children on a whole succession of domestic servants (four maidservants and a cook, as it happens; one of them was taken to Flanders to give birth before being abandoned there ‘in grete misery’). He went on to kidnap a teenager from Cheshire and keep her as a sexslave, a racket that only ended when his wife came home unexpectedly and discovered the girl. She wrote to Puttenham, crisply: ‘I haue in my custodie a damsell chosen by you as she confessethe for yor owne toothe.’
In the roll call of literary wrong ’uns, in other words, George Puttenham makes Arthur Koestler look like a model of chivalry. Discovering this was one of the singular pleasures of my research – and I owe that discovery to a single essay in a journal that appears on all too few coffee tables: Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Steven W May’s essay in the Summer 2008 number bears the unimprovable title ‘George Puttenham’s Lewd and Illicit Career’.
So, after what medieval rhetoricians would have called a digressio, and Puttenham would have called a ‘Straggler’, I return to the point at issue. Had I not found it through an electronic search, it is highly unlikely I would have found May’s article at all. Because it came out only a few years ago, and in a journal, it would appear in few if any of the footnotes or bibliographies in the full-length books I used for most of my research. Wikipedia has by now got Puttenham’s number, though at the time I came across May’s essay it had not. The Dictionary of National Biography and The Oxford Companion to English Literature, of course, have not. Not only does digitisation make it easier to come across important essays, like May’s, in obscure corners, it makes it easier to bring references up to date. And it makes it easier, when looking back through your A4 pads of scribble wondering where the hell you got that quote, to compile accurate endnotes: you can just Google the quote. (Ironically, this makes precise citations less and less important even as it makes them easier to provide.)
The ‘mystery of history’ is an odd thing to fetishise. As I understand it, you write history to dispel the mystery. Let us welcome the digital revolution and give the fleering frumpe to the manuscript fetishists. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011