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The Greek of freakish animals
The freakishness which labouring-class people associated with Greek comes over in a poem called ‘The Fool’s Song’ by Thomas Holcroft, the revolutionary son of an itinerant pedlar. Holcroft was charged with treason in 1794. He considers all kinds of improbable situations with as much likelihood of coming about as a fair system of justice in Britain:
When law and conscience are a-kin,
And pigs are learnt by note to squeak;
Your worship then shall stroke your chin,
And teach an owl to whistle Greek.27
These are imagined prodigious fauna, but the provincial Englander’s concept of the distance between real life and the ancient Greek language could be weirdly proven by performing animals. The British showed their intellectual superiority over the French in 1751 during a war between educated hounds.
When Le Chien Savant (or Learned French Dog, a small poodle-ish she-dog who could spell words in French and English) arrived in London, she was trumped by the New Chien Savant, or learned English Dog, a Border Collie.28 The triumphant English Dog toured Staffordshire, Shrewsbury, Northamptonshire, Hereford, Monmouth and Gloucester, as well as the taverns of London. She could spell PYTHAGORAS and was advertised as a latter-day reincarnation of the Samian philosopher/mathematician himself.21’ Exhibited in a public house in Northampton in November 1753, this Learned Dog (for there were several other rival hounds touring the country during the 18th and earlier 19th centuries) had a range of talents. The local newspaper, the Mercury, recommended a visit to the exhibition heartily:
Of all the extraordinary curiosities that have ever been exhibited to the inspection for the curious, none have met with such a general approbation and esteem as the learned English Dog, now at the Angel Inn in this town [which] actually reads, writes, and casts accounts; answers various questions in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, geography, the Roman, English, and sacred history.30
This hound could tell the time, distinguish between colours and, at the climax of the show, display powers of Extra-Sensory Perception by reading spectators’ thoughts.31
The erudite hound tradition may have been inspired by Scipio and Berganza, the canine conversationalists in Miguel de Cervantes’ social satire El Coloquio de los Perros (Conversation of the Dogs), who understand the role played by displays of Latin and Greek in the Spanish class system. The last of Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels (Novelas ejemplares, 1613), of which English translations were fashionable reading, the dialogue is overheard by a man in hospital with venereal disease. Scipio and Berganza are the hospital guard dogs. They agree that there are two ways of abusing Latin quotations. Berganza, who learned Latin tags when owned by schoolmasters, resents writers who insert ‘little Scraps of Latin, making those believe, who do not understand it, that they are great Latinists, when they scarcely know how to decline a noun or conjugate a verb’.32 Scipio, the more educated and cynical hound, sees humans who do know Latin as more harmful. Their conversations even with lower-class cobblers and tailors are flooded with Latin phrases, incomprehensible to their listeners and therefore creating opportunity for exploitation of the less educated.
Scipio woofs references to the myths of Ulysses and Sisyphus. He would rather bark about philosophy than abuses of Latin. Like Plato’s Socrates, he becomes exasperated when his interlocutor relates anecdotes rather than producing definitions. Here is the dialogue after Berganza concedes that he does not know the Greek etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ and demands to know from whom Scipio learned Greek: Scipio responds, mysteriously,
In good truth, you are very simple, Berganza, in making so great account of this, for these are things which every school-boy, even those in the lowest forms are acquainted with; and there are likewise some, who pretend to talk Greek, as well as Latin, who know nothing either.33
Scipio is in danger of exhibiting the very intellectual snobbery which he purports to criticise. But it is Berganza who concludes the discussion of Classics with a striking, problematic image. He compares people who deceive others into thinking they are refined by faking knowledge of Latin and Greek with people who use tinsel to cover up the holes in their breeches. But he also suggests that such intellectual imposters be exposed by the torture methods used by Portuguese slavers on ‘the Negroes in Guinea’, thus revealing that he is not himself free from ‘human’ indifference towards the plight of slaves.34
Most poignant of all, given Burke’s insulting claim that putting scholarship anywhere near working-class people was to cast pearls before swine, were the Sapient Pigs which toured pubs in late Georgian England exhibiting their prodigious intellect. The most famous billed himself as Toby, the SAPI ENT PIG, OR PHILOSOPHER OF THE SWINISH RACE. There was more than one such pig; Richard Porson, who was acutely aware that he had risen from a workingclass background to become the most celebrated Greek scholar in the land (see pp. 294—9), wrote a Greek epigram for one in 1785 (prior to Burke’s notorious diatribe), appending a humorous short article about him. It opens by calling the pig a ‘gentleman’, and hoping that said ‘gentleman professing himself to be extremely learned, [he] will have no objection to find his merits set forth in a Greek quotation’. Person then supplies the Greek, and an English translation which he claims he has procured from the Chien Savant, because ‘it is possible that the pig’s Greek may want rubbing up, owing to his having kept so much company with ladies’?5
The frontispiece to the autobiography The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig implies that the learned swine’s preferred reading was Plutarch (Figure 16.2). The poet Thomas Hood saw that no amount of learning could ultimately save a pig—or a lower-class human—from being sacrificed in the interests of the voracious ruling class. His ‘Lament of Toby, the Learned Pig’, woefully concludes with the poor porcine, despite being crammed with Classics at Brasenose College, Oxford, being fed and readied for slaughter:
My Hebrew will all retrograde
Now I’m put up to fatten,
My Greek, it will all go to grease,
The dogs will have my Latin!36
Knowledge of ancient Greek authors was absolute proof of the prodigious intelligence of an animal. This is, in turn, telling evidence of the degree of difficulty—and therefore cultural prestige in financial and class terms—associated by the provincial inn-going public with such an arcane educational curriculum.
FIGURE 16.2 Frontispiece to autobiography The Life and Adventures of Toby the Sapient Pig (1817 edition) reproduced by permission of the British Library.
Ancient Greek authors sometimes pop up in other strange forms of plebeian entertainment involving fauna, especially in London. When Georgian showmen invited the public to view their exotic ostriches, they were sure to mention Xenophon.37 ‘The most astonishing and largest OSTRICH ever seen in Europe’ was advertised as on display at the Pastry-Cook Mr Patterson’s, no. 37 Haymarket. The advertisement informs the reader that ‘Dr. YOUNG observes from Xenophon, that Cyrus had horses which overtake the goat and wild ass, but none could reach this creature’38 (Figure 16.3). The reader is also told that a Satyr can currently be viewed, along with the rare Cassowary bird from New Guinea, at ‘Gough’s Menagerie’, no. 99, Holborn Hill. Appearances in London were even made by the terrifying snake-like monster called the basiliskos mentioned in ancient texts including Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Tale (III.8), Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams (IV.56—see further below p. 337) and Pliny’s Natural History (VII 1.78). There had been a 17th-century craze for the alleged discoveries of baby basilisks lurking in eggs, and examples, when dried, could reach a good
FIGURE 16.3 ‘The most astonishing and largest OSTRICH ever seen in Europe’. Handbill in John Johnson Collection reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library.
price across western Europe. A handbill in the British Library entitled ‘A Brief Description of the Basilisk, or Cockatrice’ shows that at least one fake basilisk was to be viewed in London. The handbill informs us that its owner, an impoverished Spaniard named James Salgado, had presented it to some gentlemen in London when begging for financial assistance.”
In April 1751 the London Magazine published an article supposedly exposing an April Fools’ Day scam.40 The story illustrates the kind of freak show, with an ancient Greek flavour, which snobbish readers thought credulous people of the lower classes could be tempted to pay to view. A few weeks earlier, a pamphlet had appeared announcing that ‘the surprising CENTAUR, the greatest Wonder produced by Nature these 3000 Years’ was to be exhibited on April 1st at the Golden Cross, Charing Cross41 (Figure 16.4). The pamphlet described how the Centaur, whose name was Paul Ernest-Christian-Ludovic Manpferdt (‘Manhorse’), had been born near a Jesuit College in Switzerland and had been
FIGURE 16.4 ‘The Surprizing Centaur’ by Richard Bentley (1751), reproduced by Courtesy of the British Library, [i.e. Richard Bentley] 1751, A True and Faithful Account of the Greatest Wonder Produced by Nature these 3000 Years, in the Person of Mr Jehan-Paul-Ernest Christian Lodovick Manpferdt; Lite Surprizing Centaur. Reproduced by Courtesy of the British Library.
transported with difficulty to England. The Centaur has failings, said the pamphlet, especially dunging and urinating in any company, ‘a propensity to all kinds of Indecency and Lewdness in his Talk’, and drinking an ‘immense quantity of Claret’.42 The price of seeing the Centaur was to be five shillings for nobility and gentry and one shilling to everyone else. These extortionate sums are part of the joke; a shilling was more than most working people at the time could earn in a whole day.