Tuesday, January 05, 2010

who will swear the saints in their niches

In writing Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel used a workmanlike prose that is appropriate to Thomas Cromwell her industrious subject. But, just as she occasionally shows him poetically creative1, so her words occasionally sing to the reader. Here is an instance.
[Cromwell has prepared an oath —] a test of loyalty to Henry [the king], and he means to swear the men of every burgh and village, and all women of any consequence: widows with inheritances, landowners. His people will be tramping the wold and heathland, pledging those who have barely heard of Anne Boleyn to uphold the succession of the child in her womb. If a man knows the king is called Henry, swear him; never mind if he confuses this king with his father or some Henry who came before. For princes like other men fade from the memory of common people.... Yet beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marches of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and bogarts2 who live in the hedges and in hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug into unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of the uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future. (470-71)

{Thomas Cromwell, reproduced, as you can see, from a print shown in Life magazine}


1 As for example when he hums a song about his "going to war" as a clerk in an Italian bank while still a teenager. A boy of the kitchen in the Frescobaldi house in Florence, his hard work and reliability earn him the right to be brought "upstairs." The song is one he picks up from a boy who has been hired on in his own house and is scrubbing stairs:
Scaramella va alla guerra        Scaramella goes to the war
colla lancia et la rotella.          With his lance and buckler
la combero lor barombetta

Scaramella fa la gala               Scaramella is on a spree
colla scharpa et stivali.            With the boot and the shoe
la combero lor barombetta
-- Scaramella va alla guerra
This boy is much like he was at the age. Mantel writes:
"If you please, Giacomo," he said. To let him pass, the boy moved aside, into the curve of the wall. A shift of the light wiped the curiosity from his face, blanking it, fading his past into the past, washing the future clean. Scaramella is off to war... But I've been to war, he thought.

He had gone upstairs. In his ears the roll and stutter of the song's military drum. He had gone upstairs and never come down again. In a corner of the Frescobaldi countinghouse, a table was waiting for him. Scaramella fa la gala, he hummed. He had taken his place. Sharpened a quill. His thoughts bubbled and swirled, Tuscan, Putney, Castilian oaths. But when he committed his thoughts to paper they came out in Latin and perfectly smooth. (170)
Later, Cromwell will bring the boy with him as helper and miniature body guard.

2Of hobs and bogarts:
The name "Hob" has been noted as a generic term given to a goblin, boggle or brownie. Hobs are frequently described as short, hairy, ugly and bad tempered. Despite some claims that they have also been know to heal and help the Bogart is more commonly characterised by malevolence and causes mischief by souring milk, turning stock lame and hiding peoples' belongings. If you were unlucky enough to find your house inhabited by a troublesome Hob running away would not help as you would only be followed! The very worst thing to do would be to give the Bogart a name as once this has been done there will be no reasoning with him. Whilst commonly a house hold creature several of Whitby's local beauty spots have links with Hobs and Bogarts which can be seen reflected in their names; Boggle Hole and Hob Hole begin the most obvious. Boggle Hole lies between Whitby and it's coastal neighbour Robin Hoods Bay. In local folklore Boggles were believed to be little people that inhabited many of the caves running along the coast and these tales may have been the inspiration for the characters found in the pages of of Robin Jarvis' trilogy "The Whitby Witches". In reality it is thought that this natural costal cave was actually used by local smugglers as a place to unload and hide their contraband. Hob Hole lies near the fishing village of Runswick Bay and is said to be inhabited by a Hob with an uncommon gift. The local fishermen and their families are said to have believed that the cave's resident Boggle could cure whooping cough. Whilst the fishermen themselves where apparently too fearful to cross the entrance to the cave at night their wives are said the have shown more courage in times of need by carrying their sick children down to the cave with them to call upon the Hobs mystical healing powers.
-- Whitby Myth and Folklore: Hob

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