"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Frozen Thames: Reading notes from The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England by Darren Oldridge (2016)

In Chapter Three of The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (2016) author Darren Oldridge :

     God's invisible hand was the most common, and paramount, supernatural force at work in early modern England. It could deliver otherworldly marvels – and the acceptance of this fact allowed people to discern "wonders" in the world. But more often the Lord's will was perceived in outwardly unremarkable events and the hidden dramas of the Christian conscience….

The "Signs and Wonders" section kicks off thus:

     In the weeks before Christmas in 1683, the river Thames in London froze over, and a small carnival encamped on the ice. John Evelyn, the horticulturalist and co-founder of the Royal Society, described the scene in his diary in the following month: "I went across the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had diverse shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over".6 This extraordinary fair continued into the beginning of February 1685 and occasioned a small flurry of printed images, comment and versification. One broadside detailed the entertainments on offer on the frozen river: 

     There roasted was a great and well-fed ox,
And there, with dogs, hunted the cunning fox;
Dancing on the ropes, and puppet plays likewise,
The like before never seen beneath the skies.7

     The last line was, perhaps, an exaggeration: the Thames had frozen on previous occasions in the seventeenth century, and the first impromptu festival on the river had assembled itself in 1608. Nonetheless, the "great frost" of 1684 was a rare and spectacular event that disturbed the ordinary course of nature; indeed, the titles of the various tracts that celebrated the occasion – Great Britains Wonder, The Winters Wonder, and the like – testified to this fact.8

     The marvel of the frozen Thames illustrated some themes that were central to the understanding of divine "wonders". For a start, the wonderful status of the event depended on the framework of beliefs and expectations through which it was perceived. This fact is, perhaps, particularly evident to modern-day observers because the episode involved extraordinary weather: after all, dramatically cold winters, floods and droughts continue to raise attention in western societies but are normally viewed in naturalistic rather than supernatural terms. This difference in perception is based on wider cultural assumptions. The willingness of early modern people to interpret an event as a wonder rested, ultimately, on the acceptance of divine interventions per se; it also depended on the nature of the occurrence itself and the larger significance that could be attached to it. In the right circumstances, relatively mundane natural phenomena might be elevated to the status of wonders. As the crisis between Charles I and his parliament tipped frighteningly close to civil war in February 1642, an unusual tide on the Thames was presented as one of "God's extraordinary heralds" of catastrophe.9 More gently, the appearance of a robin on the mausoleum erected for the funeral of Queen Mary in 1695 became the "Westminster wonder", betokening the survival of the English church and God's guidance of the nation.10

     The "great frost" of 1684 also indicates another feature of wonder narratives. As they relied heavily on the assumptions of their beholders, they could be perceived in various ways. Often only one account of a marvellous occurrence survives, but where several have been preserved they show the considerable range of readings that were available, both supernatural and otherwise. The "winter wonder" in London is a good example. Printed accounts of the extreme weather often presented it as a divine intervention. The author of one pamphlet in 1684 affirmed that such events were "the Lord's doings, and ought to be marvellous in our eyes".11 But the significance of the marvel was open to interpretation. According to one broadside, some feared that it presaged "an approaching sad mortality" like the great plague of 1666. Whether or not this was the case, the author continued, "sin is the cause of all / the heavy judgements that on us do fall", and prayerful repentance the fitting response.12 In another version, the frozen river was a test of the people's reaction to God's extraordinary deeds. The author of Londons Wonder (1684) feared the worst: 

     On this mighty river they there did invent
All kind of vain pastimes to reap their content;
They acted all rudeness there with one accord,
And little regarded the hand of the Lord.

     The carnival on the Thames was an impious response to the sign that God had sent, which should rather have inspired humility and charity towards the poor. The stalls and entertainments on the frozen river would anger the Lord and "make our sad judgement fall more severe".13

     The multiple understandings of the great freeze extended to naturalistic explanations. The author of A Strange and Wonderfull Relation (1684) rehearsed both natural and supernatural interpretations of "the present unparalleled frost", before siding decisively with the latter.14 Others ignored the cause of the extraordinary weather entirely, preferring to concentrate on the "humours, loves, cheats and intrigues" enacted on the frozen Thames.15 The physician John Peter wrote a treatise on the possible medical effects of the unprecedented cold.16 Perhaps the most nuanced understanding of the event was presented by the Anabaptist merchant Thomas Tryon. In Modest Observations on the Present Extraordinary Frost (1684), Tryon interpreted the extreme winter as part of a natural process by which God tested and judged the people: the extraordinary cold would, he believed, begin a cycle of disturbed weather that would cause great suffering. Using nature as His handmaiden, the Lord would thereby correct the "crying abominations" of the sinful population.17

The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England has an excellent index:

signs and wonders 7, 155; 

apparitions and visions 59–60; 

astronomical 56; 

divine providence 60–4; 

escapes from death 58; 

execution and revival of Anne Green 52–5; 

extreme life experiences 57–9; 

frozen river Thames 50–1 interpretations of 56; 

malformed infants 57; 

reports of monsters 7–8, 55, 56–7; 

spectral armies 14, 15, 59–60; 

types of 55

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