The Internet, Preserver of Our Fleeting Shames, also resurrects the lovely (because distant) indignities of the past. Prominent among these is the Athenian Mercury, the semi-reputable 1690s London advice column—put out by a group of misfits who called themselves The Athenian Society—to which many a citizen turned when wondering why people swoon at the sight of cats or laugh in the presence of pork.
A column about familiar fears and off-kilter folklore, the stuff the embarrassed children of a generation decided to forget, is built on the backs of modern-day Bartlebys who scanned and transcribed reams of faded, brittle, near-illegible paper objects. Anyone who’s tried it knows how tedious and eye-destroying that work is, and for what? To document and immortalize the balance sheets and other oddments not good enough to be Literature or important enough to be History, and to preserve the ephemera people bought to scratch the readerly itch at its least grand.
These redheaded stepchildren of publishing are beautiful. There’s a thrill in impersonating the middling seventeenth-century reader by sidestepping the canon and reading the rags the snobs of yore deemed unworthy. It’s a mundane thrill, a thrill not so different from reading modern-day tabloids, but predicated on what average people 400 years ago read not in spite of but for its delivery of familiar surprises. What they wondered at night, scared, what their shared phantasms looked like. What was the alien abduction story of the 1600s? The “classic” out-of-body experience? What did parents tell their children to make them behave?
This edition is dedicated, therefore, to the generic imagination: the superstitions, the urban legends, the jokes about what pregnant ladies eat. None of them match ours. It’s clear, from the examples below, that in the 17th-century universe, where a hen will lay eggs the color of the blanket she’s looking at and a mother’s cravings transmit to the fetus, an imagination isn’t innocent. It changes people. It leaks. You need to keep it in check.
That said, spend enough time there and you’ll look back with nostalgia and regret on the days when the canon decided for you what deserved your attention and what didn’t. You will also start criminally overusing commas. At those dark teatimes of the soul, I turn back to the snobs. Here’s what one such, the brilliantly cantankerous Cecil A. Moore, said about John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury, back when academics wrote in corrosive and devastating prose:
The momentary resurrection of these pious curiosities from long neglect is unquestionably a doubtful service to the cause of pure letters. There is nothing here without which English literature has suffered any serious deprivation. They are of some importance, however, for the additional light they shed upon the egregious dishonesty of the author and, incidentally, also upon the taste of a large English public to which he catered, with evident success, during the closing years of the seventeenth century. It is a safe generalization that the further we penetrate through the elaborate deceptions Dunton built up round his character and work the more plainly it will appear that he deserves no attention whatever as a creative writer. [Footnote: “John Dunton, Pietist and Impostor,” Studies in Philology, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1925), pp. 467-499]
Moore was fluent in the algebra of contempt, a quality he shared with Dunton, whose Athenian Society loved to beat up on its querists. (Example: “When shall I be marry’d?” —that’s short and sweet. Answer: “When you can find any that’s Fool enough to have ye”—that’s short and sour.) Moore isn’t wrong about Dunton’s aptitude as a “creative writer.” But he’s not right either. Dunton’s failings lie less with the “writer” side of the equation than with the “creative” part. He was a liar, sure, but he was also a frank and untroubled plagiarist. He even plagiarized his own claim to authenticity. I discovered that in the last installment of this column, when Dunton’s account of the “pure maggots” his “brain-pan” produced turned up almost verbatim in fellow Athenian Samuel Wesley’s book (which Dunton himself had published long before writing his Life and Errours).
This borrowing didn’t trouble the conscience of Dunton the Maggot much.
“If at any time,” he says, “I have borrow’d a sparkling Thought, yet still—The Projection, Plot, and Method of every Project (both in Prose and Verse) is entirely my own, and so for the most part are the Words; yet there’s few extraordinary Thoughts in any of our modern Poets but are brought into Duntons Athenianism, but they are so much alter’d, enlarg’d, or adapted to new Purposes, that the Original Author can’t pretend any Right to ’em.”
John Dunton might be to writing what Mario Lavandeira is to photography: a dubious and insanely productive interpreter of what constitutes fair use (or what Guy Davenport calls the “functional liberty of the lie”). Fair use in publishing was an emerging concept in Dunton’s day. (Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book outlines how stationers went about establishing their rights to “copy,” and it’s a more gripping story than you might expect.)
Still, the breakdown of “fair use” is more or less the point of a publication predicated on the anonymity of the querists as well as the respondents. Unlike modern-day advice columns or TV courtrooms which privilege personality, Dunton’s was a system that aggressively unlinked content from author even as it created a myth of collective authorship, a group of made-up moral “experts” whose fictional inwits became functional outwits through publication. In a society plagued by the oppressive consequences of reputation, the anonymity the Mercury made possible on both sides was its strength.
It would be a mistake, in other words, to call Dunton “uncreative.” The Athenian Mercury is a triumph achievable only by the imaginative complicity of all parties: the misfit authors pretending to be respectable and mainstream, the readers pretending to be fooled, and the querists pretending (for the most part) to be asking about other “Gentlemen” and “Ladies”. All this in the service of rigorously asserting moral authority and establishing the “matters of fact” concerning what was true. It was a supremely useful fiction.
Over time, Dunton’s fictions became less useful. Things didn’t end well for him, as Moore gleefully relates:
That he eventually went mad—as did his more illustrious contemporaries Defoe, Pope, and Swift—we should at least surmise from his later works, especially the political tracts, if we had no more explicit testimony. From the year 1705 onward, indications of paranoia are increasingly pronounced.
But until that time, Dunton and the Mercury were relentlessly committed to debunking all myths and untruths not of their own making:
Why are spooky animals so spooky?
Q: Whether rats, toads, ravens, screech-owls, etc., are ominous; and how come they to foreknow fatal events?*
A: If the Querist had said unlucky instead of ominous, he might easily have met with satisfaction. A rat is so because he destroys many a good Cheshire Cheese and makes dreadful ravages in a flourishing flitch of bacon. A Toad is unlucky because it poisons. As for ravens and screech-owls, they are just as unlucky as cats, when about their courtship, because they make an ugly noise which disturbs the neighbourhood. The instinct of rats leaving an old ship is because they cannot be dry in it, and an old house, because perhaps they want victuals. A raven is much such a prophet as our conjurers or almanack-makers, foretelling things after they are come to pass. They follow great armies as vultures, not as foreboding battle, but for the dead men, dogs, horses, etc. which (especially in a march) must daily be left behind them. For the foolish observations made on their croaking before death, etc., though we’ll not positively assert there is never any thing in that, or stories of the like nature, yet this we safely may, that the most of it is pure chance, fancy, superstition and humor, and has no ground in the world besides foolish tradition or a sickly imagination.
Moral: You know what else is unlucky? You. Kindly hold still while we beat you with the righteous stick of common sense.
Mouse crawls inside man and lives. True?
Q: An Author writes that a certain man being asleep, a mouse went into his body, and was, after it had remained there some time, vomited up alive. Is this likely, or is it not more probably ‘twould have gnawed his entrails to pieces?
A: We ought to have known the Author’s name, that we might have made some guess at the credibility of the story. Not that it appears utterly impossible, for we have an instance (I think ’tis in the Transactions of the Royal Society) of a maid who vomited up certain creatures like frogs and newts after ’twas guessed they had been a long time in her stomach. Nor was there any necessity of his gnawing the entrails of the man, unless he himself were so poor and hungry that he had nothing within for him to feed upon.
Moral: This sounds like one of those things that happened to a friend of a friend. We need names so we can verify if it’s true. Just don’t ask for ours. By the way, we totally read the Philosophical Transactions. That’s just how we roll.
Do storks hate monarchies and only hang out in commonwealths?
Q: Whether it be true that storks are never found but in common-wealths? Whether there were never any in England but in Oliver Cromwell’s days? And if any be found, into what country do they retire during the winter?
Answer to Part 1: The stork is mentioned frequently and familiarly in the Holy Scriptures, written under the Jewish Government when ’twas a monarchy. Now ’tis not likely that instances and illustrations should be taken from a creature that was now known amongst them. Moses gives laws concerning them, and they build there in the Mount of Amana, a branch of Libanus, to this day, as Bellondus tells us.
Part 2: ‘Twas common among the Romans under their Emperors, and mentioned in some verses cited by Petronius Arbiter. ‘Tis true she’s called a Peregrina, a Stranger, but she’s also called Hospita, a Guest, according to her nature, which is to come and go again as do all those season birds. St. Ambrose also mentions it and tells us the Romans called it Avis pia, the Pious Bird, on account of the known care it takes of its parents when old, and people use not to give names to things they’re not acquainted with. ‘Tis besides mentioned as a usual dish at the Roman feasts by Cornelius Nepos and Pliny. …
[We’re skipping Part 3.]
Part 4: They are now frequent in the Turkish Empire, being the only one forbidden to be eaten in the Alcoran of all water fowl. For which the Mahumetans give several wise reasons: one because he eats serpents, the other because he moves his wings in flying, like a bird of prey; we ourselves may add a third reason more probable than both, why that cunning impostor should forbid it, namely, because it devours frogs, as the fable tells us, and Bellonius de Aegypto. Now frogs are by the Alcoran reckoned among the Five Sacred Animals which they are forbidden to kill, because they praise God, and sprinkled Abraham’s tomb with water.
I think we have proved the first supposition a mistake. Whether they were never in England but in Oliver Cromwell’s time, or whether here then, we confess our ignorance, but if here then I mean after his establishment, the poor birds were extremely mistaken and found an Usurpation in seeking a Commonwealth.
As to what countries they retire to, we may answer of them as of the other Aves migratoriae, or Season Birds. Some have pleasantly enough thought they go to the Moon or some of those distant bodies, though most others shorten their journey a little and only send them to warmer climates. But for the precise place or region, Pliny tell us … ’tis not yet discovered.
Moral: No. And they don’t go to the moon either, in case you’re wondering. Also, if you think Cromwell ran a Commonwealth I have a bridge I’d like to sell you, built by Mohammed, who might have been an impostor but at least he was smart.
Why is my wall ticking? Is it Death?
Q: What is that really, which many people Imaginarily fancy to be a Death-Watch?
A: Only a worm in the wall: And the reason it is called a Death-Watch, is because it makes a noise just like a watch, and is reported to come into an house only to foretell the immediate death of some person in it: For which we see no more reason than for several other such like foolish omens.
Moral: It IS a death-watch. Except that’s just its name.
Was Louis XIV really born with two teeth? And where’s his birth certificate?
Q: Who was the French King’s Father, and whether he was born with Teeth; and if so, the cause thereof?
A: The first part of the question perhaps will never be resolved till the Day of Judgment. The Protestants indeed fought stoutly to prove him the legitimate son of Louis the Thirteenth, and it may be, their swords were the strongest part of the title, for which he has since very well rewarded them. However, in all probability, it could not be that weak prince that was his real father; his aversion to women, and the reasons of it too, being sufficiently known to the world. But whether the gentleman who has been mentioned in some prints, Mr. Le Grand, were the real father of his namesake, we can learn little from public intelligence, for if really so, it can’t be imagined but a thing of that nature would have been managed too deep for the day by that cunning politician who contrived it.
Moral: The French. Amoral bribing cheating cunning you-know-whats to a man, and while there’s no proof that Mr. Le Grand is his real father, his “dad” was gay. So.
I dreamed of a comet, and it came. OMG AM I A PROPHET?
Q: The Querist dreamt he saw a comet, and was extremely frighted at it, about a month after which the great comet appeared, the last that was seen in England: He desires to know whether there were any thing extraordinary in that dream?
A: There’s no reason to believe there was, his dream appearing purely accidental, and formed from the ideas of such comets as he had before seen or heard described. There’s another person who comes in with his dream too: that he saw a great man lying dead up on his back in a river with marvelous large teeth in his head. To which all the answer we think he deserves is that ’tis great pity the Roguy-Dreamer should not be whipped till he confessed he dreamt all this waking. Another of a gentleman who dreamt he himself was hanged, and looking over the Sessions Paper, found one of the same, both Christian and Sirname, though both unusual, really executed, seems to be of the same nature with the first which we have already judged only accidental.
Moral: Dream #1: Accident. Dream #2: Totally fake. Write a novel. Dream #3: Accident. None of you are prophets. But you knew we’d say that, right?
Um, this dying baby did a very strange thing.
Q: This account is what I have heard so credibly accepted, that I cannot doubt the truth of it. A child of ten weeks old, being taken with convulsions, the last Fit it had, cried out distinctly, three times, O God, and immediately died; there were six people in the room, two of them I know. Some of them were so frighted that they fell into a swoon. I desire your thoughts of it.
A: We have many instances of infants that as they were dying have lifted up their hands and eyes [Ed. Note: this is so scary] and have smiled, although their age incapacitated ’em to know the use of either hands or eyes [Ed. Note: When do babies not know how to use their hands or eyes? This one really bugs me.], or to be affected with an external object that could raise a smile; which instances must necessarily have their rise from some internal agent. Perhaps their intellect might have a supernatural illumination, to see their innocence, and the happiness of the condition they were entering into [Ed. Note: Aaaaaahhhhh!!]; and this might be the case of the present instance. Or else we shall offer this physical reason: When the soul was forced to leave the body, it exerted all its powers at once, to the highest degree it could, even beyond its [illegible] acting by proper organs, and in the strife forced that unusual instance. Just so an extinguishing candle, when ’tis going out, rallies all its powers together, and emits one greater flame than it did all the time it had nutriment enough to sustain it.
[Editor is too disturbed to comment.]
Cabbage—it freaks you out too, right?
Q: Whence are the strange antipathies in Nature, as to swoon at the sight of a cat, an egg, cheese; sweating at the cutting of a lemon, etc.?
A: We have already said something upon this Question … which with what we shall here add we hope may give a satisfactory answer to the ingenious querist. But first amongst the innumerable instances we find of this nature, we shall relate one or two perhaps very uncommon: One we read of, that if pork, or any thing made of swine’s flesh, were brought into the room, he would fall into a convulsive Sardonian laughter, nor could he for his heart leave as long as such an object was before him. Libavius reports that a certain man would be surprised with a Lipothymy [Ed.: fancy word for swoon,] at the sight of his own son; nay, upon his approaching near unto him, though he saw him not. For which some assigned this reason: that the mother, when she was with child, used to feed upon such meats as were abominable to the father…
Another would fall into a syncope if either a calves’ head or a cabbage were brought near unto him. We have already shown the power of imagination as to longing, marking, etc., as above, which we must again make use of in the resolving of this question, thus: ‘Tis observed that those meats which the mother longed for, the child when born is very greedy of the same, so on the contrary, when mothers take an aversion to any sort of meat or creatures, (occasioned by fancy and indisposition of body when breeding) the same is by the imagination of the mother (as above) impressed and fixed into the very nature of the child she goes with, as in the last mentioned example of calves’ head and cabbage. The mother had a strange aversion to that meat in breeding, and the fancy had the same effect as longing in other women, for the child was marked on the right side in the form of a calves’ head, and on the left with the likeness of a cabbage.
Moral: Your neuroses and your relationship with your dad are entirely products of what your mom liked and hated when you were a fetus. Best of luck.
Do people born with missing bits have missing souls? And do they get the parts back in Heaven?
Q: Whether monstrous Births have rational souls, and whether they shall appear so at the last day?
A: That’s a monster which has any thing defective or redundant, either in parts or magnitude. A Giant and a Dwarf are monsters, and so he that is born with six fingers, or one less than he ought to have upon his hand. Now none will be so mad to say—therefore they have not rational souls. Nay, though they should appear much more deformed or monstrous. For their rising at the last day, we think it shall be, as we have formerly expressed it, at the greatest perfection of their Natures, for the greater intenseness of their rewards or punishments.
Moral: Yes they have rational souls. Stop being a jerk. And maybe they’ll look better at the Day of Judgment than they do now, which is more than we can say for you.
Say a person is born with a thin amniotic helmet on his head. Will he be happy forever?
Q: What are we to think of such as are born with cauls about their heads?
A: Some would persuade us that they are not so subject to the miseries and calamities of humanity as other persons, and that some special privileges are denied the rest of mankind which they enjoy. To this end they insinuate the History of Antoninus, … who being born with such a coif, did afterwards come to the sovereign dignity of the Empire, in the management whereof all things succeeded according to his wishes. Advocates in ancient times usually made use thereof to gain reputation in their public pleadings, and to that end were in fee with midwives, who knowing the excellency of such a coif, sold it at a very dear rate. Some have had the vanity to believe that such as have come with this coif into the world were to expect all good fortune, even so far as to become invulnerable, provided they be always careful to carry it about ’em. Nay, if it should be by chance be lost or surreptitiously taken away, the benefit of it would be transferred to the party that found it. But we believe no such correspondences betwixt the actions human life… because, if so, the ordinary dispensations of Providence would be frustrate, and many actions, which according to their tendencies would be inverted and consequently a confusion in the settled Chain of Natural Causes. … In short, we believe neither fortunate nor unfortunate.
Moral: Midwives used to keep them and sell them to lawyers in ancient times, but we’re not buying what they’re selling.
* Spelling and punctuation for all entries has been modernized.
Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She blogs as Millicent over here.
Read earlier installments of “Dear Athenian Mercury.”
Pictures courtesy of the English Broadside Ballad Archive.