Desktop version

Home arrow Language & Literature

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>



The rarity of knowledge of ancient Greek and its strange alphabet gave the language a mystique in the popular imagination. In low-class circles, more often than Latin, Greek was associated with extreme, other-worldly intellectual prowess and arcane, even sinister arts. In the course of this chapter, we will find Greek being cited, used or abused in a variety of recherche contexts ranging from accusations of witchcraft, caricatures of menacingjesuits, the dialects of the criminal underclass, the display of prodigiously intellectual dogs and pigs, the lives of notoriously uncouth Scotsmen, Welsh dream divination and downmarket pharmaceuticals and sex manuals. But the story, which will return at its conclusion to the Bible, begins with Greek’s special status within Christianity.

Popish, Satanic and criminal Greek

When in the 16th century Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, long the officially recognized Bible of the Catholic Church, began to be seriously rivalled by vernacular versions in English (et al.), the Greek New Testament attracted sustained attention. For the first complete English edition of the New Testament (1526), William Tyndale had used the Greek text as well as the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, published a decade earlier in 1516, had proved seminal in the emergence of Renaissance Christian Humanism and the expertise in Greek for which educated Protestants like Tanneguy Le Fevre, head of the Protestant Academy in Saumur, France, and his daughter Anne,1 were later to become renowned; Martin Luther himself found numerous errors in the Vulgate Latin by comparing it in detail with the Greek.2 It is now held that, as an Aramaic speaker, Jesus merely knew enough Greek (the international language of the eastern Roman

Empire) to communicate with Roman officials in it. But in the Renaissance and Early Modern period, it was widely believed that Jesus had spoken Greek as his first language. God himself, through Christ, was thus held to have communicated with the multitudes of the 1st century ce in Greek. ’

On the other hand, especially after the Gunpowder Plot, knowledge of Greek was often perceived as suggesting ominous Jesuit connections. In the next chapter we shall see that, when in the early 18th century a Frenchman disguised as a native of Taiwan (then called Formosa, ‘beautiful’ in Latin) wanted to explain to Britons why he knew ancient Greek, he claimed that he had been taught it by a Jesuit missionary to the island.4 Study of classical Greek authors as well as the New Testament was by that time being exported across the planet by the Society of Jesus. The best minds at the Jesuit school in Rome had in 1599 enshrined several Greek authors in their official plan for education, the Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum.’ The men involved in the plot to blow up the House of Lords on 5th November 1605 included several from families who had protected Jesuit priests during the reign of Elizabeth I. Despite the attempts of Father Henry Garnet, the English Jesuit Superior, to dissuade Robert Catesby, the leader of the conspiracy, from committing any act of violence, the government was determined to incriminate the Jesuits. Garnet himself was executed. The Jesuits, with their expertise in Greek, were subsequently often blamed for any national disasters, including the 1666 Great Fire of London, the Popish Plot of 1678, and even the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.6

The mystical potency of Greek was certainly sometimes associated by Anglicans with ‘papists’. William Perrye was an idle 13-year-old in Bilston colliery town who feigned Satanic possession in order to avoid school:

Bilston was noted for the imposture of one William Perrye, a lad of thirteen, who practised a variety of grimaces and contortions, vomited rags and pins, &c., either from a habit of idleness, or to serve papist exorsists.7

The trigger for his fit was the Greek of the first verse of the Gospel of St. John, ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’.8 William claimed to have been bewitched by a poor old woman named Joan Cox. She was put on trial for witchcraft, and narrowly escaped conviction. The Bishop of Lichfield was summoned and unmasked the boy’s imposture. The learned divine recited the twelfth verse of St. John, ‘which the boy supposing the first, fell straightway into one of his agonies’.9 But when the famous first verse, en archei en ho logos, was read in Greek, Bilston Bill did not recognise it as his customary cue. In due course, he apologised.10

All Roman Catholics, regardless of what seems here to be connections between Greek and their practice of exorcism, were conversant with Latin. Latin’s associations with popish rituals and superstition were only underscored by the Latin element in canting, the supposedly secret language of highwaymen. This was publicly exposed as early as 1610 by a writer under the pseudonym

‘Martin Mark-all, Beadle of Bridewell’. At the end of his Apologie, he explains the origins of the patois used by the criminal underclass of his day, a mixture of Latin, English and Dutch. Bridewell Prison had been established in 1553 to control London’s ‘disorderly poor’. In a fascinating section offering a history of robber gangs of England, its Beadle, or governor, describes the day when, he claims, the lingua franca of highwaymen was invented.11

Tensions had grown between the two biggest robber gangs in the early 16th century. The dominant gang for several years was led by a tinker named Cock Lorrell, ‘the most notorious knave that ever lived’. But a new ‘regiment of thieves’ sprang up in Derbyshire, led by one Giles Hather. This 100-strong gang called themselves ‘the Egyptians’. Hather’s woman, a whore named Kit Calot, was ‘the Egyptians’ Queen’. The Egyptians disguised themselves by donning black make-up. They made good money from fraudulent fortune-telling. The two ‘Generals’, Lorrell and Hather, decided to cooperate rather than compete with one another. They met as if they were establishing a new republic, ‘to parle and intreat of matters that might tend to the establishing of this their new found government’.12 This momentous diplomatic event took place in a famous cave in Derbyshire’s Peak District, then known as ‘The Devil’s Arse-Peak’ (prudish Victorians renamed it ‘Peak Cavern’). The most important measure was

to devise a certaine kinde of language, to the end their convenings, knaveries and villanies might not be so easily perceived and knone, in places where they come: and this their language they spunne out of three other tongues, viz. Latine, English, and Dutch.13

The speakers of the canting tongue, most of whom will have been illiterate, did not write it down. The Dutch element will have come from the intensive contact between the English and Dutch sailors, especially those who had escaped from the ships into which they had been pressganged in the port cities of northern Europe.14 The priority of Latin was inevitable: it will have been the only language of which most members of the gangs (at least, everyone who had been to Catholic churches or through the courts of law) will have acquired at least a smattering. The lost Latinate language of the thieves and highwaymen of England was probably not ‘devised’ overnight in that cave in Derbyshire. But the fact that the ‘Beadle of Bridewell’ describes it in such detail suggests that he knew whereof he spoke.

Yet, by the time Classics emerged as a discipline at the dawn of the 18th century, it was not Latinate canting, but another underworld dialect, known as ‘St. Giles’s Greek’, which was favoured by metropolitan Georgian felons. The enterprising Francis Grose (who may have penned the burlesque of the Iliad discussed above p. 3-4) treated it to a lexicographical investigation in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785; much reprinted). (Figure 16.1) Grose was responding, no doubt, to the vogue for comprehensive dictionaries (Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language is the most famous, but it had





■ . . .. •




Extiico it SrATieytt'c Bail.

FIGURE 16.1 Frontispiece to Francis Groses Classical Dictionary of the VulgarTongue (1785) reproduced front copy in Edith Hall’s personal collection.

followed hard on the heels of Lancashire-born schoolmaster Robert Ainsworth’s Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendarius (1736) and Benjamin Martin’s Lingua Britannica Reformata [1749]). Grose’s subversive title parodied such scholarly works as Laurence Echard’s Classical Geographical Dictionary (1715), Andrew Millar’s An Historical, Genealogical, and Classical Dictionary (1743) and John Kersey’s New Classical English Dictionary (1757). He expressed scorn for pedantic classicists ‘who do not know a right angle from an acute one, or the polar circle from the tropics, and understand no other history but that of the intrigues between the eight parts of speech’ while looking ‘down with contempt’ on everyone else.1’ Yet his biographer believes that he received a classical education in his boyhood; there is substantial knowledge of ancient authors on display in his A Treatise on Ancient Armour and Weapons (1786).16 After an army career, Grose worked as an antiquarian and draughtsman; a warm-hearted man of ready wit, after visiting Scotland he became one of Robert Burns’ closest friends.17

Grose explains in his preface that ‘the Vulgar Tongue’ consists of ‘the Cant Language, called sometimes Pedlars’ French, or St. Giles’s Greek’, plus burlesque or slang terms ‘which, from long uninterrupted usage, are made classical by prescription’. He satirically explains what he means by ‘the most classical authorities’ for the latter category: ‘soldiers on the long march; seamen at the capstern; ladies disposing of their fish, and the colloquies of a Gravesend boat’.18 Grose had served at non-officer ranks amongst the rank and file of the army, having joined a foot regiment in Flanders as a volunteer at the age of 17. When serving in the Surrey Militia, he had met many robbers and highwaymen because he was charged with a clampdown on their activities. He took their lower-class speech seriously and created a scholarly lexicographical resource. He found some material in previous collections of slang, but also conducted primary research on nocturnal strolls amongst the London underworld with his servant Tom Cocking.19

Criminal cant was called ‘St. Giles’s Greek’ because the parish of St. Giles (between Newgate Prison and the Tyburn gallows, now part of Camden) was notoriously the operating ground of thieves and pickpockets. ‘Greek’, being known by nobody except the elite, was a convenient term for the ‘cant’, a gibberish few understood.20 These entries from the dictionary show that ‘St. Giles’s Greek’ adopted a humorous approach to classical culture, Latin and learned etymologies: cobblers were called ‘Crispins’ after two early Christian saints. Blind men were called ‘Cupids’ and prostitutes ‘Drury Lane Vestals’. Ars Musica meant ‘a bum fiddle’, a person always scratching their posterior (arse + a musical instrument); Athanasian wench means a promiscuous woman, who will sleep with anyone who offers, because the first words of the Athanasian creed are ‘qui-cunque vult’, whosoever wants ... ; Circumbendibus means a story told with many digressions; the entry under Fart includes an obscene rhyming couplet in Latin; Hicksius-doxius means ‘drunk’, by making comical pseudo-Latin out of sounds suggestive of hiccups; Myrmidons means ‘the constable’s assistants’ by association with Achilles’ stalwart men-at-arms in the Iliad; Trickum legis—a hybrid Anglo-Latin comical phrase meaning ‘legal quibble’; and Squirrel means a prostitute because it hides its backside with its tail. Here Grose cites a French authority who quoted a Latin proverb meretrix corpore corpus a/it, ‘a whore nourishes her body with her body’.21

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics