shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Much more to the point

"......................................Let us revenge this with
our pikes, ere we become rakes: for the gods know I
speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge."

                                                                        Coriolanus          (I, i)

Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus begins with hunger, that most ancient of afflictions. The citizens of Rome are clamoring for bread. They have learned to hate the self-indulgent patricians of privilege, and that hatred simmers. The lean and the famished are on the outside looking in; that figurative window is in danger of being smashed with the weapons of the mob: the fist, the club, the barrel stave, the pike.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is the end of an ornate ceremonial pike that dates to the nineteenth century, by which time pikes had long since ceased to be regarded as effective weapons in battle. Not that the idea of their use had by then disappeared entirely: in London during World War II, there were brief and ill-advised discussions of the idea that even a pike-wielding Home Guardsman was of more use than a completely unarmed one. But the concept of using so primitive a weapon in the midst of a 20th-century war was widely regarded as ludicrous and morale-busting, and the idea was soon scrapped.

During the European heyday of the pike in the Middle Ages, the weapon could be reasonably effective if wielded by well-trained, disciplined troops: the Swiss were among the most highly regarded in the use of both pikes and halberds, which were essentially long-poled axes that also had a sharp spike at their extreme end. Some had a hook-like appendage that was used for violently dismounting an opposing horseman. The poles of pikes were usually at least ten feet long; some were twice that.

It should be added that the pike was a much less effective weapon if the battle came to close quarters: although the poles varied in length they were inevitably cumbersome if not impossible to use if an attacker managed to get close enough for a face-to-face encounter. Tactics frequently called for formations of pikemen to maneuver in conjunction with mounted troops or infantry armed with shorter weapons, to compensate for this liability.

Ultimately, of course, gunpowder weapons cleared most bladed weapons from the battlefield. It isn't easy to regard this as progress.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

To bee or not to bee (with regrets, wincing, and gnashing of teeth)

"The commons, like an angry hive of bees
That want their leader, scatter up and down,
And care not who they sting in his revenge."

                                                      Henry VI, Part 2        (III, ii)

As any number of Shakespearean scholars have pointed out over the centuries since the playwright lived, this was a man raised in a world that valued order. Chaos and disorder were regarded as forms of plague: just as deadly, just as fear-engendering and disruptive to the health of the state. As an earlier posting has mentioned, Shakespeare liked to use a well-tended garden as a metaphor for a well-ordered nation. Weeds were to be rooted out; troublemakers were taught to kick the oxygen habit at the end of a rope or the edge of a blade.

Shakespeare also used beehives as symbols of an ordered society, of a healthy body politic that becomes imperiled when any member of that corporate body is dysfunctional, seeks to climb above its station or vanishes altogether.

Regarding the quotation above, the Earl of Warwick has just reported that the King's uncle "good Duke Humphrey traitorously is murder'd" and that, like a hive that has just lost its queen bee, a swarm of malcontents will be out seeking vengeance.

Warwick's words prove prophetic: England had sustained some semblance of fragile order under Humphrey, who served as Protector to King Henry VI during the monarch's youth. But with the good Duke now out of the way, the stick has been poked in the hive, and the swarm is forthcoming.

Pictured above, in the Herb Garden at Agecroft Hall, are three bee skeps (they're called "skeps" if made by people, "hives" if made by bees). In Shakespeare's time, bee skeps were frequently placed in gardens to encourage the creation of good sources of honey, always in demand among the sweet-toothed English. Also, the bees helped with plant pollination.

Due to 21st century Virginia bee-keeping regulations, Agecroft's skeps do not actually house productive hives, but with their high-mounded form they do closely resemble skeps seen in any number of garden-related European woodcut illustrations made during Shakespeare's lifetime. His was an age that placed a greater value on self-sufficiency than we do today: like bread-baking and ale-making, the domestic production of honey helped make the English Tudor home in good times an all the more resourceful world unto itself.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pages worth drying out

"...............I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book."

                                                       The Tempest    (V, i)

Shakespeare's Prospero is calling it quits: he has decided that it's time to set aside his magic, his spells, his conjurations, his books. His masterful knowledge of the otherworldly arts certainly came in handy: not just any crackpot could brew up a raging sea storm, drag a passing ship and its hapless passengers ashore to his island, and eventually make fools of long-time adversaries that had conspired to usurp his dukedom of Milan.

Not bad for a day's work.

Shakespeare makes much of Prospero's absorption in books, the predilection of many an acolyte of the European Renaissance. In The Tempest, books and the knowledge they contain are depicted as the source of Prospero's power, much as  Christopher Marlowe shows us a man nose-deep in necromantic literature in his London stage hit The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. Books offer the input of the ages, both playwrights seem to be saying. But overindulge at your own risk.

Pictured above, from the collection of Agecroft Hall, is a 1597 copy of John Gerard's classic Historie of Plants. When it was published, William Shakespeare was 33 and had yet to write Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest. His rival playwright Christopher Marlowe had been dead four years, stabbed during an argument over a tavern bill in Deptford, downriver from London. Neither man would likely have scoffed at the publishing success of Gerard's work, dubbed the Herball. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the botanical world, Gerard had a winner on his hands.

As an English herbalist and surgeon, Gerard became superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Queen Elizabeth's chief secretary of state. In later years, Gerard was herbalist to King James I. One reason that Gerard's work was so well received lies in the importance that people attached to plant lore and its medicinal uses in daily life during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Plant-based concoctions were used, with variable results, as a means to cure just about every ailment one could imagine.

Herbs were known as "simples," and Gerard maintains that the "art of Simpling" was "neither base nor contemptible" as it might seem - rather it was a kingly art practiced in Eden "where Adam was set to be the Herbalist." It should be pointed out that Adam's talents as an herbalist went largely unappreciated.

The binding of Agecroft's Herball is brown calfskin with gilt borders that include a central panel. The spine bands are gilt-tooled, also with panels. The flyleaf includes a bucolic scene with gardeners, tools, and plants. It was popular subject matter in Shakespeare's day, as it is now, so it is hardly surprising that Gerard's volume is so lushly illustrated and grandly produced.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Oh, Say, can't you see? Your days are numbered....

"Tell me wherein have I offended most?
Have I affected wealth or honor? Speak.
Are my chests filled up with extorted gold?"

                                                Henry VI, Part 2      (IV, vii)

Shakespeare's character Lord Say is about to be thrown to the dogs: Jack Cade's rebellion is gathering steam, and since rebellions rarely succeed without scapegoats, Say is beginning to look more goatish by the minute. In a few moments, he looks even less like himself: he and and his son-in-law have just had their heads lopped off, and the murderous legions of the rogue Jack Cade are on the march toward London.

If Lord Say did have a chest "filled up with extorted gold," it might have resembled the one pictured below at Agecroft Hall, made during Shakespeare's lifetime or very shortly thereafter (curatorial records indicate that the chest was made in Germany between 1575 - 1625).

This chest presently stands in Agecroft's front hallway, beneath a portrait of William Dauntesey painted in 1566, two years after Shakespeare's birth. Dauntesey became master of Agecroft Hall upon his marriage to Anne Langley, who had inherited the property several years earlier.

The chest, made of oak and walnut, measures 74x44x34 inches. The origins of the piece might be traced to one of several German cities, including Cologne, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. There were very strong trade relations between London and Cologne via the commercial hub of Antwerp. Curatorial research at Agecroft Hall mentions elaborate marquetry chests whose decoration originated in the Mannerist style of the German Kunstschrank. These were cabinets with many enclosed small spaces and were regarded as works of art in themselves, with utility taking only a secondary role. Agecroft Hall's chest is definitely of this type.

It should also be noted that many chests that were constructed in England and featured elaborate marquetry were actually made by German immigrants working in Norwich and in Southwark across the Thames from London. Southwark also happened to be the brothel-bestrewn locale of the Globe Theatre, built there in 1599 in an attempt by Shakespeare's troupe to get beyond the legal reach of puritanical London magistrates.

Curatorial notes include an additional bit of insight: a "famous example of this type of chest and very similar to ours (Agecroft's) is the Offley chest in St. Saviour's Cathedral in Southwark. It was given to the church by Hugh Offley, the Lord Mayor of London, in 1556. Its classical style is evinced by its ornamentation of arches, architraves and pilasters....Our chest, like the Offley, has a variety of colored wood in the marquetry and both have three drawers at the bottom." However, unlike the Offley piece, Agecroft's chest does not have a chessboard inside, held in place by vertical grooves, with a small built-in inlaid box for the chessmen. Perhaps the services grew long and tedious in the cathedral.

Did either chest have any hidden compartments for "extorted gold?" Well, we're not telling.