Asides: words, spiders, etc.

It’s the day after the autumn equinox, and the weather is performing on cue – strong winds and grey skies. So here’s an eclectic post about words, mostly. Warning: spider image looming.

My subscription to OED’s ‘word of the day’ service turned up this beauty recently:

latebricole, adj.

[‘ Of an animal, esp. a spider: living concealed in a hole.’] OED online (source of all the lexical data here)

Etymology: <  French latébricole, adjective (1870 or earlier designating insects; also as noun denoting a group of spiders…<  classical Latin latebricola person who skulks in concealment <  latebra (see latebra n.)

Latebra?

[< classical Latin latebra hiding place, hidden place, recess < latēre to be hidden (see latent adj.) + -bra, feminine form corresponding to -brum, suffix forming instrumental nouns + -cola < classical Latin -cola inhabitant, < colere to inhabit (see cult n.)

A hiding place; a place of refuge or concealment. In natural history: a winter refuge, a hibernaculum, a pupal cell, etc. Now rare.

There follows this rather verbose citation for its use:

1652   J. Jones Lawyers Unmask’d 35:  The second Statute..granted a Capias to ferret out such Latitants out of such Latebras.

Now that’s just showing off your recondite vocabulary. Let’s look at some of it:

latitant, adj. (and n.)

That lies concealed or hid; lurking; latent; (of an animal) hibernating.

Citations include:

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica iii. xxi. 163   Lizards, Snails, and divers other insects latitant many moneths in the yeare. [Sir Thomas Browne was a great coiner of new words; he’s no. 71 in the league table of sources for citations in the OED, with 4155 in total, of which 776 represented the first evidence of the word. I wrote a piece about his Religio Medici and Urne-buriall a couple of years ago. He also popped up in my ‘Disiecta Membra’ post (also about words) the year before as the source for that useful term sarcophagy.]

Back to ‘latitant’:

One who is in hiding. (Cf. latitat n.)

Next from that Jones 1652 citation: capias

Latin capias ‘thou mayest take’.

Law.

A writ or process commanding the officer to take the body of the person named in it, that is, to arrest him; also called writ of capias.

The term Capias includes writs of various kinds; capias ad respondendum, to enforce attendance at court; capias ad satisfaciendum, after judgement, to imprison the defendant, until the plaintiff’s claim is satisfied; capias utlagatum, to arrest an outlawed person; capias in Withernam, to seize the cattle or goods of any one who has made an unlawful distraint

That last item, Withernam takes us to this entry in OED online:

  1. In an action of replevin, the reprisal of other goods in lieu of those taken by a first distress and eloigned; also, the writ (called capias in withernam) commanding the sheriff to take the reprisal.

Etymology: Law French (in Britton wythernam ), presumably < Old Norse viðrnám recorded only in the sense ‘resistance’ (but compare early Danish vedernam pledge)…The etymological meaning is ‘reprisal’.

  1. A process of distress (or arrest) for debt, formerly current in the Cinque Ports (and other towns).

This is like Russian dolls: each entry generates another search –

Replevin

The restoration to or recovery by a person of goods or chattels distrained or confiscated, upon giving a surety to have the matter tried in a court of justice and to return the goods if the case is lost. Now U.S. (chiefly hist.). Derived from Anglo-Norman legalese.

Back again to that show-offy Jones 1652 citation: there latebra is just a synonym for where we started: LATEBRICOLE – definition above. Citations include:

1912 N.E.D. at Theraphose, Of or pertaining to the Theraphosæ, a division of latebricole spiders, as the mygalids and trap-door spiders.

Note: mygalids include the bird-eating spider (American tarantula). Wouldn’t want one of those in the bathtub…Back to citations; I liked this one:

2009  W. Penn Love in Time of Flowers viii. 497 He was at no other place than the very one I deducted he’d be.., a lair within a hole though not as latebricole as a mole.

See the Phrontistery website, a repository of obscure words and meanings, for a list of more rarities beginning with L.

Phrontistery, btw, means ‘a thinking place’, from the Greek phrontisterion, from phrontistes, a thinker, from phroneein, to think.

California trapdoor spider

California trapdoor spider

This trapdoor spider image is a still from a 1-minute YouTube video by cinead 84; if you’re not arachnophobic it’s worth a look – a man and a woman try to coax the little critter out of his hole with endearments. Spider remains unimpressed.

 

PS this image of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy (via Wikipedia) was painted by

Sir Thomas Browne and wifeJoan Carlile (around 1641-50). She was one of the first women to make a professional living as an artist. She and her husband, one of Charles I’s courtiers, lived at Petersham, on the edge of Richmond Park, SW of London.

Coincidentally I lodged for some months with the then vicar of Petersham when I was training to teach in Roehampton – didn’t know at the time that this illustrious painter (and husband) are buried in the churchyard beside the vicarage where I was living. Occasionally Desmond Tutu’s son Trevor, who was studying at Imperial College, London at the time, visited the vicar, a friend of his father’s. We had a beer together several times, and a rather strange party at which he cooked mussels. The vicar was away at the time.

A Google search turned up stories that suggest he’s had a troubled life since those heady student days in London in the 70s.

 

Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Religio Medici’ and ‘Urne-Buriall’.

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Image from the NYRB Classics website

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. NYRB Classics. New York, NY, 2012

In their detailed and entertaining Introduction the editors describe the ‘idiosyncratic and often surprising ways of thinking’ of Sir Thomas Browne. Coleridge praised him for his ‘brain with a twist’. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric list of topics covered in his works includes a study of the quincunx in gardening, and an encyclopaedic exploration and refutation of ‘credulity and supinity’ and ‘false opinions’ (the Pseudodoxia Epedemica, or Enquiry into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths, first published in 1646, and subsequently much revised and augmented): here he considers such beliefs as ‘Glasse is poyson’ (in a chapter on Minerals and ‘vegetable bodies’); ‘Of the pissing of Toads, of the stone in their head, and of the generation of Frogs’ (in a marvellous chapter on animals, which includes the notion ‘That all Animals in the land are in their kinde in the Sea’, which I cited in a recent post on Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’), or that children, without instruction, would naturally grow up speaking Hebrew.

Born in London in 1605 and educated at Oxford and then in the field of medicine in Italy, France and Holland, he was a typically polymathic, Baconian enquirer into all phenomena and esoterica in the natural and metaphysical worlds. His erudition was profound and extensive, but untrammeled by the scientific methods of his contemporaries: he was, as the editors put it so admirably, a ‘connoisseur of uncertainty’ who ‘delighted in circuitous methods and ambiguous conclusions’.

He settled in Norwich to practise medicine in 1637 and lived there until his death in 1682.

Like Shakespeare he was an aficionado of neologisms: the OED ranks him at no. 70 of the most prolifically cited sources (above Shelley, George Eliot and Ruskin [about whom I posted several times recently ]), and in the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word he ranks among the great, at an impressive no. 25, with 788, including the nouns ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘suicide’, and adjectives such as ‘medical’, ‘ferocious’ and ‘ascetic’. He was particularly fond of Latinate vocabulary, so for example snails are not ‘boneless’, they are exosseous; he writes not of birds’ flight but of their volitation; earwigs aren’t wingless but impennious; there’s a highly entertaining article on his contribution to English vocabulary on the Oxford Words blog here.

Title page of 'Religio Medici', 1642 edition

Title page of ‘Religio Medici’, 1642 edition; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons

The title of his first published work, Religio Medici, is intentionally paradoxical and controversial. It alludes to a contemporary proverb that two out of three doctors are atheists and sceptics, as the opening sentence shows:

For my religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world I have none at all, as the generall scandal of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with the common ardour of contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable stile of a Christian…

Here he’s also referring to his medical education at three famously free-thinking European universities, where the pursuit of science was demarcated from the usual theological approach, and where the practice of anatomical dissection, which was considered a blasphemous transgression in other institutions, was an essential part of the curriculum. In this same sentence he alludes also to his refusal to be caught up in the doctrinal disputes that had grown increasingly virulent in the 1620s and 1630s, and which were threatening to ‘tear England apart’, and led to the Civil War of 1642-51 (Greenblatt and Targoff). His unorthodox examination of his religious faith in the light of his medical profession proved highly controversial, and like many Protestant works it was (in 1645, three years after its first unauthorised publication, to which Browne responded by bringing out an expurgated edition a year later) placed on the Vatican’s Index expurgartorius – the notorious Index of prohibited books.

Browne’s self-exposure in the Religio was unusual but not unprecedented: Montaigne’s Essays, first published in 1580 (and translated into English by John Florio in 1603) were a similar attempt to explore the questing motions of its author’s mind, and of his learning and beliefs.

Like Montaigne, Browne is addicted to digressions in his labyrinthine pursuit of his mind’s movements, and the text lacks discernible method. As you will have seen in my quotation of his opening sentence, his style is ornate, eloquent and sonorous, full of literary and theological allusions, subordinate clauses and rhetorical flourishes, with parallelisms and mellifluous symmetries; it also has an elegance, ruggedness and verbosity that verges on the obscure and pedantic. His writings were gruffly praised by Samuel Johnson, and admired by the Romantics. More recently WG Sebald wrote with fascination (in The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995 and in English in 1998) about Browne’s ‘Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita’ –  a playfully imaginative catalogue of his imaginary collection of rarities ‘never seen by any man now living’ (it’s discussed in my blog post here).

The craze for such cabinets of curiosities and wonders in the seventeenth century became the basis for some of the great scientific museums that were founded about this time, like the Ashmolean in Oxford, or the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, parts of which were bequeathed to the nation and formed the heart of the British Museum. But unlike the rational spirit of classification and organisation that underpinned these Baconian enterprises, Browne’s was a mind that delighted in paradox and contradiction, and occult mysteries, and he wasn’t averse to the dangerous voicing of doubts about accepted religious tenets and implausible Bible stories. He sums up his thinking as being dominated by ‘an unhappy curiosity’.

Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, first published in 1658, was Browne’s prose meditation on the discovery in a field near the village of Great Walsingham in Norfolk of between forty and fifty urns containing human ashes, bone fragments and funerary objects. He reflects upon the different funeral practices of people from earlier cultures, and how they thought about the afterlife. He mistakenly believed the urns contained the remains of Romanised Britons; subsequent scholarship has shown they were probably Anglo-Saxon, dating from around the year 500. But he was far more disposed to link them with the sophisticated Romans, and not the pagan savages (as he saw them) of their successors in Britain’s history.

 

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust

Portrait after a miniature by FH van Hove, now in the Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons

He speculates on the practice of funerary cremation, but is effectively conducting a ‘diagnosis of the human condition’ – principally our hopes and fears about the afterlife:

To be gnaw’d out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall abominations, escaped in burning Burials./Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents.

In a typically elegant but uncharacteristically emotional section he ponders the apparent evidence that some of the urns contained the remains of more than one person, which leads him to consider the origins of the impulse for couples to indulge in the practice of joint burial:

The ashes of Domitian were mingled with those of Julia, of Achilles with those of Patroclus: All Urnes contained not single Ashes; Without confused burnings they affectionately compounded their bones; passionately endeavouring to continue their living Unions. And when distance of death denied such conjunctions, unsatisfied affections conceived some satisfaction to be neighbours in the grave, to lye Urne by Urne, and touch but in their names.

He ultimately finds little consolation, however, in this desire to find solace in the hope that death is not the end of life; ‘Vain ashes’, he concludes, ‘which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities.’ Earthly commemoration is as futile as the hope for posthumous life – but we can’t help pursuing this magnificent endeavour.

I’ll finish with perhaps the most famous lines in the text:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entred the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.

NYRB Classics has yet again done us a service in publishing this pair of texts in such a handsome edition, and I congratulate them and their editors for retaining the original spellings and orthographical practices: this is not just antiquarian quaintness – it enables the modern reader to appreciate the richness of the prose. The ample notes are learned and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sebald, Rings of Saturn and humour

My copy of WG Sebald’s recently translated book of essays on German-language writers, A Place in the Country, arrived the other day; can’t wait to read it.  Robert McCrum wrote about WGS’s ‘quietly potent legacy’ in the Guardian yesterday.  Meanwhile I’d recommend taking a look at this piece by Claire Preston in The Public Domain Review, the online journal cited here yesterday, about Sebald’s references to other texts in The Rings of Saturn, a typically enigmatic work in  which he recounts his wandering along the ghost-haunted coast of East Anglia, musing on mutability, the holocaust, fishing, silkworms, skulls, and so on.  The thing is, much of the time he’s being funny; the erudition is often playful.  Just as Borges amuses himself and us with his witty Book of Imaginary Beings, so Max (as he preferred to be known) reflects that the Argentinian’s mention of the mythical Baldanders was borrowed from an equally strange work by Hans J.C. von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669; English tr. 1912: ‘the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fechshaim’; unfortunately this translation by Goodrick omits Bk VI, in which the imaginary creature is found, but it can be read about in the original German version which does include all six books, a link to which is given in the article by Preston).  It has to be said that Sebald wasn’t always a happy bunny, though, and there are passages in which the ‘shadow of annihilation’ darkens the narrative, and past figures and events leach into the present with melancholy power; this explains the reference to Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) remarkable Hydrotaphia, Urne-Buriall or a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658).  Browne spent his last 50 years in Norfolk, hence Sebald’s interest in him (WGS taught at the Univ. of E. Anglia until his death aged just 57 in 2001).  Like Sebald, however, Browne was also capable of frivolity and playfulness, hence the citation in The Rings of Saturn to Browne’s Borgesian catalogue of (possibly) imaginary books, pictures, ‘sundry singular items’ and antiquities, the Musaeum Clausum (published in Certain Miscellany Tracts, 1684); a typical entry reads: ‘3.  An Ancient British Herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonius Largus, when he attended the Emperour Claudius in his Expedition into Britany’.  Scribonius was indeed the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and in AD 47 he drew up a list of nearly 300 ‘compositiones’ or prescriptions.  Not everyone cares for this bookish mix of humour and darkness (or the complex authenticity of the orthography), but I find it fascinating and fun.

Other texts cited in Preston’s article (via Sebald) include Diderot’s Voyage en Hollande (1798), Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (Eng trans 1848), Flaubert, Swinburne, etc.

There’s a lively review of A Place in the Country by Tim Adams in The Observer, 27 April. I liked this bit: ‘He was, after all, in his writing, always in the company of ghosts, both of place and person, in anxious search, as he said, for “how everything is connected across space and time”; the books that have emerged since his absence from the realm of living writers only heighten this unsettling sense of willed limbo.’

Good stuff, but I’m not so sure about ‘willed limbo’…

One of the figures Sebald writes about in this posthumous book is Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer of feuilletons, stories and novels, who was much admired by the likes of Kafka and Musil, and about whom I intend posting some time in the future; might even finish the story I’m drafting about him under the working title ‘The Walker’.  If you cared to explore him further, there’s an informative 1998 essay by Sebald, originally published as ‘le promeneur solitiaire’, and which can now be read in English translation as the introduction to the 2009 New Directions translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners; if you click on that last link you’ll find one of many informative pieces on Sebald (and the influence of Walser, in the linked piece), in an excellent online lit. journal: A Piece of Monologue.   More on Sebald, no doubt, in future posts.