A Description of Elizabethan England. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of Savage Beasts and Vermin
[1577, Book III., Chapters 7 and 12; 1587, Book III., Chapters 4 and 6.]
IT is none of the least blessings wherewith God hath endued this island that it is void of noisome beasts, as lions, bears, tigers, pardes, wolves, and such like, by means whereof our countrymen may travel in safety, and our herds and flocks remain for the most part abroad in the field without any herdman or keeper.
This is chiefly spoken of the south and south-west parts of the island. For, whereas we that dwell on this side of the Tweed may safely boast of our security in this behalf, yet cannot the Scots do the like in every point wherein their kingdom, sith they have grievous wolves and cruel foxes, beside some others of like disposition continually conversant among them, to the general hindrance of their husbandmen, and no small damage unto the inhabitants of those quarters. The happy and fortunate want of these beasts in England is universally ascribed to the politic government of King Edgar .1
Of foxes we have some, but no great store, and also badgers in our sandy and light grounds, where woods, furze, broom, and plenty of shrubs are to shroud them in when they be from their burrows, and thereunto warrens of conies at hand to feed upon at will. Otherwise in clay, which we call the cledgy mould, we seldom hear of any, because the moisture and the toughness of the soil is such as will not suffer them to draw and make their burrows deep. Certes, if I may freely say what I think, I suppose that these two kinds (I mean foxes and badgers) are rather preserved by gentlemen to hunt and have pastime withal at their own pleasures than otherwise suffered to live as not able to be destroyed because of their great numbers. For such is the scantity of them here in England, in comparison of the plenty that is to be seen in other countries, and so earnestly are the inhabitants bent to root them out, that, except it had been to bear thus with the recreations of their superiors in this behalf, it could not otherwise have been chosen but that they should have been utterly destroyed by many years agone.
I might here intreat largely of other vermin, as the polecat, the miniver, the weasel, stote, fulmart, squirrel, fitchew, and such like, which Cardan includeth under the word Mustela: also of the otter, and likewise of the beaver, whose hinder feet and tail only are supposed to be fish. Certes the tail of this beast is like unto a thin whetstone, as the body unto a monstrous rat: as the beast also itself is of such force in the teeth that it will gnaw a hole through a thick plank, or shere through a double billet in a night; it loveth also the stillest rivers, and it is given to them by nature to go by flocks unto the woods at hand, where they gather sticks wherewith to build their nests, wherein their bodies lie dry above the water, although they so provide most commonly that their tails may hang within the same. It is also reported that their said tails are delicate dish, and their stones of such medicinal force that (as Vertomannus saith) four men smelling unto them each after other did bleed at the nose through their attractive force, proceeding from a vehement savour wherewith they are endued. There is greatest plenty of them in Persia, chiefly about Balascham, from whence they and their dried cods are brought into all quarters of the world, though not without some forgery by such as provide them. And of all these here remembered, as the first sorts are plentiful in every wood and hedgerow, so these latter, especially the otter (for, to say the truth, we have not many beavers, but only in the Teisie in Wales) is not wanting or to seek in many, but most, streams and rivers of this isle; but it shall suffice in this sort to have named them, as I do finally the martern, a beast of the chase, although for number I worthily doubt whether that of our beavers or marterns may be thought to be the less.
Other pernicious beasts we have not, except you repute the great plenty of red and fallow deer whose colours are oft garled white and black, all white or all black, and store of conies amongst the hurtful sort. Which although that of themselves they are not offensive at all, yet their great numbers are thought to be very prejudicial, and therefore justly reproved of many, as are in like sort our huge flocks of sheep, whereon the greatest part of our soil is employed almost in every place, and yet our mutton, wool, and felles never the better cheap. The young males which our fallow deer do bring forth are commonly named according to their several ages: for the first year it is a fawn, the second a pricket, the third a sorel, the fourth a soare, the fifth a buck of the first head, not bearing the name of a buck till he be five years old: and from henceforth his age is commonly known by his head or horns. Howbeit this notice of his years is not so certain but that the best woodman may now and then be deceived in that account: for in some grounds a buck of the first head will be as well headed as another in a high rowtie soil will be in the fourth. It is also much to be marvelled at that, whereas, they do yearly mew and cast their horns, yet in fighting they never break off where they do grife or mew. Furthermore, in examining the condition of our red deer, I find that the young male is called in the first year a calf, in the second a broket, the third a spay, the fourth a staggon or stag, the fifth a great stag, the sixth a hart, and so forth unto his death. And with him in degree of venerie are accounted the hare, boar, and wolf. The fallow deer, as bucks and does, are nourished in parks, and conies in warrens and burrows. As for hares, they run at their own adventure, except some gentleman or other (for his pleasure) do make an enclosure for them. Of these also the stag is accounted for the most noble game, the fallow deer is the next, then the roe, whereof we have indifferent store, and last of all the hare, not the least in estimation, because the hunting of that seely beast is mother to all the terms, blasts, and artificial devices that hunters do use. All which (notwithstanding our custom) are pastimes more meet for ladies and gentlewomen to exercise (whatsoever Franciscus Patritius saith to the contrary in his Institution of a Prince) than for men of courage to follow, whose hunting should practise their arms in tasting of their manhood, and dealing with such beasts as eftsoons will turn again and offer them the hardest, rather than their horses feet which many times may carry them with dishonour from the field .2
If I should go about to make any long discourse of venomous beasts or worms bred in England, I should attempt more than occasion itself would readily offer, sith we have very few worms, but no beasts at all, that are thought by their natural qualities to be either venomous or hurtful. First of all, therefore, we have the adder (in our old Saxon tongue called an atter), which some men do not rashly take to be the viper. Certes, if it be so, then is not the viper author of the death of her3 parents, as some histories affirm, and thereto Encelius, a late writer, in his De re Metallica, lib. 3, cap. 38, where he maketh mention of a she adder which he saw in Sala, whose womb (as he saith) was eaten out after a like fashion, her young ones lying by her in the sunshine, as if they had been earthworms. Nevertheless, as he nameth them viperas, so he calleth the male echis, and the female echidna, concluding in the end that echis is the same serpent which his countrymen to this day call ein atter, as I have also noted before out of a Saxon dictionary. For my part I am persuaded that the slaughter of their parents is either not true at all, or not always (although I doubt not but that nature hath right well provided to inhibit their superfluous increase by some means or other), and so much the rather am I led hereunto for that I gather by Nicander that of all venomous worms the viper only bringeth out her young alive, and therefore is called in Latin vipera quasivivipara, but of her own death he doth not (to my remembrance) say anything. It is testified also by other in other words, and to the like sense, that Echis id est vipera sola ex serpentibus non ova sed animalia parit.4 And it may well be, for I remember that I have read in Philostratus, De vita Appollonii, how he saw a viper licking her young, I did see an adder once myself that lay (as I thought) sleeping on a molehill, out of whose mouth came eleven young adders of twelve or thirteen inches in length apiece, which played to and fro in the grass one with another, till some of them espied me. So soon therefore as they saw my face they ran again into the mouth of their dam, whom I killed, and then found each of them shrouded in a distinct cell or pannicle in her belly, much like unto a soft white jelly, which maketh me to be of the opinion that our adder is the viper indeed. The colour of their skin is for the most part like rusty iron or iron grey, but such as be very old resemble a ruddy blue; and as once in the year (to wit, in April or about the beginning of May) they cast their old skins (whereby as it is thought their age reneweth), so their stinging bringeth death without present remedy be at hand, the wounded never ceasing to swell, neither the venom to work till the skin of the one break, and the other ascend upward to the heart, where it finisheth the natural effect, except the juice of dragons (in Latin called dracunculus minor) be speedily ministered and drunk in strong ale, or else some other medicine taken of like force that may countervail and overcome the venom of the same. The length of them is most commonly two feet, and somewhat more, but seldom doth it extend into two feet six inches, except it be in some rare and monstrous one, whereas our snakes are much longer, and seen sometimes to surmount a yard, or three feet, although their poison be nothing so grievous and deadly as the others. Our adders lie in winter under stones, as Aristotle also saith of the viper (lib. 8, cap. 15), and in holes of the earth, rotten stubs of trees, and amongst the dead leaves; but in the heat of the summer they come abroad, and lie either round in heaps or at length upon some hillock, or elsewhere in the grass. They are found only in our woodland countries and highest grounds, where sometimes (though seldom) a speckled stone called echites, in Dutch ein atter stein, is gotten out of their dried carcases, which divers report to be good against their poison.5 As for our snakes, which in Latin are properly named angues, they commonly are seen in moors, fens, loam, walls, and low bottoms.
As we have great store of toads where adders commonly are found, so do frogs abound where snakes do keep their residence. We have also the slow-worm, which is black and greyish of colour, and somewhat shorter than an adder. I was at the killing once of one of them, and thereby perceived that she was not so called of any want of nimble motion, but rather of the contrary. Nevertheless we have a blindworm, to be found under logs, in woods and timber that hath lain long in a place, which some also do call (and upon better ground) by the name of slow-worms, and they are known easily by their more or less variety of striped colours, drawn long-ways from their heads, their whole bodies little exceeding a foot in length, and yet is their venom deadly. This also is not to be omitted; and now and then in our fenny countries other kinds of serpents are found of greater quantity than either our adder or our snake, but, as these are not ordinary and oft to be seen, so I mean not to intreat of them among our common annoyances. Neither have we the scorpion, a plague of God sent not long since into Italy, and whose poison (as Apollodorus saith) is white, neither the tarantula or Neapolitan spider, whose poison bringeth death, except music be at hand. Wherefore I suppose our country to be the more happy (I mean in part) for that it is void of these two grievous annoyances wherewith other nations are plagued.
We have also efts both of the land and water, and likewise the noisome swifts, whereof to say any more it would be but loss of time, sith they are all well known, and no region to my knowledge found to be void of many of them. As for flies (sith it shall not be amiss a little to touch them also), we have none that can do hurt or hindrance naturally unto any: for whether they be cut-waisted or whole-bodied, they are void of poison and all venomous inclination. The cut or girt waisted (for so I English the word insecta) are the hornets, wasps, bees, and such like, whereof we have great store, and of which an opinion is conceived that the first do breed of the corruption of dead horses, the second of pears and apples corrupted, and the last of kine and the oxen: which may be true, especially the first and latter in some parts of beast, and not their whole substances, as also in the second, sith we have never wasps but when our fruit beginneth to wax ripe. Indeed Virgil and others speak of a generation of bees by killing or smothering a bruised bullock or calf and laying his bowels or his flesh wrapped up in his hide in a close house for a certain season; but how true it is, hitherto I have not tried. Yet sure I am of this, that no one living creature corrupteth without the production of another, as we may see by ourselves, whose flesh doth alter into lice, and also in sheep for excessive numbers of flesh flies, if they be suffered to lie unburied or uneaten by the dogs and swine, who often and happily present such needless generations.
As concerning bees, I think it good to remember that, whereas some ancient writers affirm it to be a commodity wanting in our island, it is now found to be nothing so. In old times peradventure we had none indeed; but in my days there is such plenty of them in manner everywhere that in some uplandish towns there are one hundred or two hundred hives of them, although the said hives are not so huge as those of the east country, but far less, and not able to contain above one bushel of corn or five pecks at the most. Pliny (a man that of set purpose delighteth to write of wonders), speaking of honey, noteth that in the north regions the hives in his time were of such quantity that some one comb contained eight foot in length, and yet (as it should seem) he speaketh not of the greatest. For in Podolia, which is now subject to the King of Poland, their hives are so great, and combs so abundant, that huge boars, overturning and falling into them, are drowned in the honey before they can recover and find the means to come out.
Our honey also is taken and reputed to be the best, because it is harder, better wrought, and cleanlier vesselled up, than that which cometh from beyond the sea, where they stamp and strain their combs, bees, and young blowings altogether into the stuff, as I have been informed. In use also of medicine our physicians and apothecaries eschew the foreign, especially that of Spain and Pontus, by reason of a venomous quality naturally planted in the same, as some write, and choose the home-made: not only by reason of our soil (which hath no less plenty of wild thyme growing therein than in Sicilia and about Athens, and maketh the best stuff) as also for that it breedeth (being gotten in harvest time) less choler, and which is oftentimes (as I have seen by experience) so white as sugar, and corned as if it were salt. Our hives are made commonly of rye straw and wattled about with bramble quarters; but some make the same of wicker, and cast them over with clay. We cherish none in trees, but set our hives somewhere on the warmest side of the house, providing that they may stand dry and without danger both of the mouse and the moth. This furthermore is to be noted, that whereas in vessels of oil that which is nearest the top is counted the finest and of wine that in the middest, so of honey the best which is heaviest and moistest is always next the bottom, and evermore casteth and driveth his dregs upward toward the very top, contrary to the nature of other liquid substances, whose grounds and leeze do generally settle downwards. And thus much as by the way of our bees and English honey.
As for the whole-bodied, as the cantharides, and such venomous creatures of the same kind, to be abundantly found in other countries, we hear not of them: yet have we beetles, horseflies, turdbugs or dors (called in Latin scarabei), the locust or the grasshopper (which to me do seem to be one thing, as I will anon declare), and such like, whereof let other intreat that make an exercise in catching of flies, but a far greater sport in offering them to spiders, as did Domitian sometime, and another prince yet living who delighted so much to see the jolly combats betwixt a stout fly and an old spider that divers men have had great rewards given them for their painful provision of flies made only for this purpose. Some parasites also, in the time of the aforesaid emperor (when they were disposed to laugh at his folly, and yet would seem in appearance to gratify his fantastical head with some shew of dutiful demeanour), could devise to set their lord on work by letting a flesh fly privily into his chamber, which he forthwith would eagerly have hunted (all other business set apart) and never ceased till he had caught her into his fingers, wherewith arose the proverb, Ne musca quidem, uttered first by Vibius Priscus, who being asked whether anybody was with Domitian, answered Ne musca quidem, whereby he noted his folly. There are some cockscombs here and there in England, learning it abroad as men transregionate, which make account also of this pastime, as of a notable matter, telling what a sight is seen between them, if either of them be lusty and courageous in his kind. One also hath made a book of the spider and the fly, wherein he dealeth so profoundly, and beyond all measure of skill that neither he himself that made it nor any one that readeth it can reach unto the meaning thereof. But if those jolly fellows, instead of the straw that they must thrust into the flys tail (a great injury no doubt to such a noble champion), would bestow the cost to set a fools cap upon their own heads, then might they with more security and less reprehension behold these notable battles.
Now, as concerning the locust, I am led by divers of my country, who (as they say) were either in Germany, Italy, or Pannonia, 1542, when those nations were greatly annoyed with that kind of fly, and affirm very constantly that they saw none other creature than the grasshopper during the time of that annoyance, which was said to come to them from the Meotides. In most of our translations also of the Bible the word locusta is Englished a grasshopper, and thereunto (Leviticus xi.) it is reputed among the clean food, otherwise John the Baptist would never have lived with them in the wilderness. In Barbary, Numidia, and sundry other places of Africa, as they have been,6 so are they eaten to this day powdered in barrels, and therefore the people of those parts are called Acedophagi: nevertheless they shorten the life of the eaters, by the production at the last of an irksome and filthy disease. In India they are three foot long, in Ethiopia much shorter, but in England seldom above an inch. As for the cricket, called in Latin cicada, he hath some likelihood, but not very great, with the grasshopper, and therefore he is not to be brought in as an umpire in this case. Finally, Matthiolus and so many as describe the locust do set down none other form than that of our grasshopper, which maketh me so much the more to rest upon my former imagination, which is that the locust and the grasshopper are one.