The ‘Corsican Monster’ in British caricature

While British troops were away fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars, a concerted war effort was being carried out on the home front. These years saw a proliferation of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in many forms. The government needed to whip up patriotic fervour not only to promote a general spirit of resistance against the French, but also to inspire volunteer recruits for the army and navy, and to persuade people that raised taxes were necessary for Britain’s very preservation.

The genuine popular demand for anti-Napoleonic propaganda gave lyricists, dramatists and others a rich fund of material to work with. This was a good time in particular to be a talented caricaturist. Napoleon (also known as ‘Boney’ and ‘the Corsican Monster’) was lampooned in prints by all the leading illustrators of the day, including Gillray and Cruikshank. By all accounts, the publishers of these satirical prints did a roaring trade. One French émigré wrote to the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan of the enthusiasm surrounding a new print, describing the ‘madness’ as ‘people box their way through the crowd’ to the print shop. Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, another French observer described ‘a large crowd that had gathered in front of a shop on the Strand. The meeting was a noisy one and the agitation suggested that some people were actually boxing. We soon learned that a new caricature was the reason for all the upheaval. What a triumph for the artist!’

The caricatures themselves veered between bold assertions of Britain’s superiority, staunchly supporting the regime, to personal attacks on Napoleon, condemning everything from his short stature (a complete myth, incidentally), to the colour of his skin (suspiciously dark), to his troubled private life. For the personal attacks, nothing was considered too vulgar, as the following few caricatures show.

The First Night of my Wedding. Or Little Boney no Match for an Arch-Dutchess (1)

The first night of my wedding, or, little Boney no match for an Arch Dutchess (1810)

Marie Louise: Still says sly old Hodge, says he, Great talkers do the least d’ye see. Well well there’s one hope left – I shall quickly carry him to his Journeys end

Napoleon: Mort de ma Vie I must I must brush off to Compiegne and order seperate Beds

This cartoon is clearly about Napoleon’s alleged impotence. Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, quotes from Charles Dibdin’s comic opera, The Wives Revenged, while using a crown-shaped chamberpot as a footstoolNapoleon, looking rather the worse for wear, drinks some sort of reviving potion, has a bowl of ‘cock-broth’ on the table and plans to buy separate beds as soon as possible, presumably to save himself from the rampant sexual demands of his new wife.
The arch dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her NAP 1810 LOC.2

The Arch Dutchess Maria Louisa going to take her Nap

Marie-Louise: My dear Nap. your bed accommodations are very indifferent! Too short by a Yard! I wonder how Josephine put up with such things over as long as she did!!!

Napoleon: Indeed, Maria I do not well understand you: the Empress Josephine who knew things better than I hope you do, never grumbled – Le Diable! I see I never will be able to get what I want after all!!!

This print mocks both Napoleon’s alleged stature and the fact that his first wife, Josephine, was sexually experienced when he met her, whereas Marie-Louise was meant to be the blushing virgin who would give him a healthy heir, a role she fulfilled admirably.

More politically-oriented cartoons spanned a broad spectrum, ranging from the brash trumpeting of British superiority to more subtle takes on Napoleonic foreign policy.

Caricature by James Gillray. Tiddy Doll, the great French-Gingerbread-Baker; drawing out a new Batch of Kings, 23. Januari 18..

TIDDY-DOLL the great French Gingerbread-Baker, drawing out a new Batch of Kings. – his Man, Hopping Talley, mixing the dough (before 1806)

This 1806 cartoon mocks Napoleon’s political re-shaping of Europe. In the ‘New French Oven for Imperial Gingerbread’, Napoleon is baking three new rulers for the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. Below the oven lies an ‘Ash-Hole for broken Gingerbread’, which includes Holland and Italy; they have been swept there by the ‘Corsican Beson of Destruction’. The basket to the left contains ‘true Corsican kinglings’, referring to the family members Napoleon put on the thrones of other countries. The cupboard on the right contains drawers for ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Crowns & Sceptres’ and even ‘Suns and Moons’, suggesting that Napoleon wants to reshape the universe itself.

omparative Anatomy or Bone-ys new Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments 1813

Comparative anatomy or Bone-y’s new Conscripts filling up the Skeletons of the Old Regiments (1813)
InvasionraftAn accurate representation of the floating machine Invented by the French for invading England. and Acts on the principals of both Wind & Water Mills, carries 60-000 Men & 600 Cannon (c. 1805)

 

Cruikshank_-_Little_Boney_gone_to_Pot 1814 G. Cruikshank

Little Boney gone to Pot (1814)

This caricature was drawn towards the end of Napoleon’s career. It shows the defeated emperor exiled on the island of Elba with no-one to keep him company except the Devil. He sits on a chamberpot, the toy cannon is all that remains of his military ambitions, and he seems ready to commit suicide with the gun offered to him by his satanic tormentor.

Caricatures were, of course, not the only form of anti-Napoleonic propaganda in Britain. Handbills denouncing Napoleon and containing gruesome accounts of supposed French atrocities were manufactured almost daily and distributed throughout the kingdom, probably reaching even the illiterate sections of the population. Patriotic plays were put on to whip up national sentiment, and anti-French broadside ballads were common. Clergy thundered against the Corsican Monster from the pulpit, and millenarian preachers warned that Napoleon’s evil empire was surely a sign of the end time.

Eighteenth-century English men and women were characterised as ‘a polite and commercial people’ in Paul Langford’s contribution to the New Oxford History of England. When it came to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, the English were hardly polite, but some of them were certainly commercially-minded. Canny manufacturers took advantage of popular sentiment and produced all sorts of anti-French memorabilia. Perhaps the most remarkable example I have seen is a chamber-pot featuring a small bust of Napoleon in the middle. How edifying it must have been for those consumers who were now able to express patriotic sentiment even when exercising their most basic functions!

napoleon_chamber_pot_jpg

Pissabed, mare’s fart, dead man’s fingers: Curious old plant names

Pissabed; mare’s fart; dead man’s fingers. These are just three of the hundreds of traditional English plant names which, once ubiquitous but now little-known, have been replaced by the much more prosaic taraxacum, jacobaea vulgaris and xylaria polymorpha. A victory for scientific categorisation, perhaps, but arguably a sad loss of colourful English folklore. Before the professional standardisation of botanical terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries, England was full of such plant names, boasting a huge regional diversity. Some, such as Old Man’s Beard, are still in widespread use, but many are not, and it is the Latin terms which are largely used in scientific circles. Yet these names are colourful and humorous and curious, and deserve to be remembered.

Medieval and early modern plant names had strong visual, emotional and human connotations, fitting well into popular cosmology and reflecting the dominant anthropocentric worldview. Many were influenced by religion. Christ’s tears, Star of Bethlehem, Jew’s ear, Solomon’s seal, Jacob’s ladder and St John’s Wort are just a few examples. The centrality of Marian devotions to popular medieval Catholicism meant that plenty of plants were named after the Virgin Mary. Conversely, there were over fifty supposedly ugly or unpleasant plants whose names began with ‘Devil-‘. Religious plant names, particularly those alluding to saints or the Virgin, were particularly distasteful to Puritans, so they tended to be discouraged from the 16th century onwards.

Christ's tears. (© Vinayaraj)
Christ’s tears. (© Vinayaraj)
Star of Bethlehem (© Ulf Eliasson)
Star of Bethlehem (© Ulf Eliasson)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More names which came to be disapproved of were the coarse ones referring to sexual and other bodily functions. 17th century England was a forthright place, so it’s perhaps no surprise that in the countryside you could find shitabed, naked ladies, black maidenhair, Stinking Willy (named for its foul smell) and even priest’s ballocks [sic]. A herb garden commonly included horse pistle and prick madam, while in the orchard, the open-arse (or common medlar) was a popular fruit. ‘Open arse’ of course left itself vulnerable to all sorts of puns and jokes which Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists didn’t fail to take advantage of. In Act II Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio uses the image to tease Romeo about his unrequited love for Rosaline:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!

I doubt that a gently-bred aristocratic lady would have asked for an ‘open-arse’ at table, but such a term would have been widespread among less exalted folk, both men and women. However, altered sensibilities in the 18th and 19th centuries were disgusted by these coarse names, so they were abandoned or changed, at least among the educated classes. For instance, ‘lords and ladies’ is no ancient name, but a fanciful Victorian invention. Seeing the plant (below left), it’s not very hard to imagine what sort of name it was given before its bowdlerisation.

Botanical illustration of Lords and Ladies
Botanical illustration of Lords and Ladies
Open-arse (© Andrew Dunn)
Open-arse (© Andrew Dunn)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other plant names were based on supposed similarities to parts of animals: cat’s tail, goat’s beard, hound’s tongue, cranesbill, coltsfoot, bearfoot, bird’s eyes. Some referred to the smell: hound’s piss, stinking arrach; and some plants were named for their edibility: poor man’s pepper, sauce alone, hedge mustard, fat hen. Plants which supposedly looked like parts of the human body included miller’s thumb, old man’s beard, maidenhair and dead man’s fingers, and items of clothing were also represented in bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap and ladies’ slippers. In the medieval and early modern periods, much popular medicine relied on herbal lore, so some plant names alluded to their supposed medicinal properties: navelwort, lungwort and feverfew, for example.

Much terminology was simply poetic or humorous without any obvious practical meaning. For instance: thrift, goodnight at noon, patience, son-before-the-father (because the blossom came before the leaves),  love-in-idleness, honesty, courtship and matrimony (alluding to the deterioration in the scent after the flower was picked), and the wonderfully named welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. One contemporary accused women of making up these silly terms, saying that “our London gentlewomen have named [swallow wort] Silken Cisley…our women have named [oxlips] jack-an-apes-on-horseback”.

A field full of Bachelor's buttons (© Ralf Roletschek)
A field full of Bachelor’s buttons (© Ralf Roletschek)
Dead man's fingers (© Michael Gäbler)
Dead man’s fingers (© Michael Gäbler)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To complicate matters still further, there was rarely one vernacular name for a plant. There could be so many regional variations that the frustration of professional botanists perhaps becomes more understandable. Herbals (popular books containing drawings and descriptions of plants) tell us that ladies’ bedstraw (galium verum) was also known as cheese rennet, gallion, pettimugget, maid’s hair and wild rosemary. Ground ivy was variously referred to as tun hoof, haymaids, catsfoot, alehood, Gill go by the ground and Gill creep by the ground. Mulleyn (candelaria) was called Jupiter’s staff, woollens, hare’s beard, high-taper, hagtaper or bullock’s lungwort depending upon where you were. The Tudor surgeon and botanist John Gerard wrote of treacle mustard (erysimum cheiranthoides), “we call this herb in English penny flower or money flower, silver plate, pricksongwort; in Norfolk [it is called] sattin and white sattin and among our women it is called honesty”. It really was a minefield for anyone seeking to bring some order to plant terminology.

Bullock's lungwort (© Andrew Dunn)
Bullock’s lungwort (© Andrew Dunn)
Ladies' bedstraw (© Tetcu Mircea Rares)
Ladies’ bedstraw (© Tetcu Mircea Rares)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s an interesting point to be made beyond the quaintness of these old names. The change to Latin terminology was a sign of the onward march of science, and it signalled the end of the anthropocentric worldview which was previously dominant in Europe. Latin names turned plants into neutral objects more fit for study, whereas the old vernacular terms tied the natural world closely to humans; plants were given personal names, were named after human characteristics and referred to by their usefulness in medicine or other tasks. By the 18th century it was no longer acceptable for professional naturalists to use the old vernacular terms. “Those who wish to remain ignorant of the Latin language”, said John Berkenhout in 1789, “have no business with the study of botany”. Vulgar names were an obstacle to science. In the nineteenth century there was a brief, sentimental attempt by John Ruskin and others to revive or invent English plant names, but by that time the learned world had permanently discarded the language of ordinary discourse.

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Further Reading
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Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (1991)

“The Bank of Mum and Dad”, funding students since 1200

Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:

“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting. 
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun. 
Farewell.”

Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin
Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin

Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:


“To his son G. residing at Orl
éans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!

Bentham's letter of February 5th 1762 to his father
Bentham’s letter of February 5th 1762 to his father

Dear Papa
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son
J. Bentham”