Sunday 7 April 2013

The Surprising Scope of the Athenian Answers

                The Athenian Mercury was instantly extremely popular and was critically feted by such luminaries as Jonathan Swift, Sir Thomas Blount and Nahum Tate, (later to be the Poet Laureate). 

Jonathan Swift - Ode to the Athenian Society - 1691

Jonathan Swift even wrote an Ode in praise of it, his first published work, but the young Swift had not yet reached his later powers and his 307-line Ode led John Dryden, the pre-eminent dramatist, literary critic and the then Poet Laureate to remark, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,” an aside that fostered a life-long animosity to Dryden in Swift.  

Jonathan Swift's 'Fan Letter' to the Athenian Society

The Athenian Mercury declared that it was not confined 
“… to answer all manner of Nice and Curious Questions of Divinity, Physick, Law, Philosophy, History, Trade, Mathematicks &c” but every ‘Natural and Artificial Rarities of the Known World.’ 

John Dunton

The first ever question to be answered in The Athenian Gazette was, 
Whether the Torments of the damn’d are visible to the Saints in Heaven? and vice versa?” 
and the range of the publication considered many such esoteric topics; half a dozen of the questions, chosen at random, illustrate the extensive compass of the paper – 
  • How came the spots on the Moon
  • I knew a Gentlewoman who wept the first Night she slept with her Husband, Whether was it Joy, Fear or Modesty that caus'd these tears? 
  • Whether a Circle may be squared; that is, what demonstration can be made of the Equality betwixt a Circle and a Square? 
  • Whether if Females went a courting, there wou'd not be more Marriages than now there are? 
  • Why do Scotchmen hate Swines-Flesh?  
  • Whether a Woman may be believed when she says she’ll never marry?  
As it turned out, there was such a disproportionately high number of questions about relationships and sex, that in February 1693, The Ladies’ Mercury appeared, for a scant four weeks, in response to an enquiry by a gentlewoman who wanted to know if the Mercury accepted questions from the fairer sex; it was the first publication, a single sheet printed on both sides, aimed at an entirely female audience. 

The Life and Errors of John Dunton - 1705

The questions raised, and the answers given, provide a unique insight into the concerns, attitudes and preconceptions of the late seventeenth century, and a fascinating glimpse into the language used by ordinary people, in contrast to the literary language employed by poets, dramatists and the like. 

Sometimes, the answers are not what we might expect, given our own misconceptions of what we might consider to be those unenlightened times. Take this question from Volume 3, Number 29 - Whether Negroes shall rise so at the Last Day? The implication is that ‘negroes’ are somehow imperfect and need necessarily to become white before they can go to Heaven. The given answer is refreshingly surprising, 
The Pinch of the Question only lies— Whether White or Black, is the better Colour? For the Negroes won't be persuaded but their Jett is finer and more beautiful than our Alabaster. — If we Paint the Devil black, they are even with us, for they Paint him white, and no doubt on't are as much in the right on't as we.” 
It is a reflection on the importance placed on the Classics at the time, that pretty soon a rival publication called The Lacedemonian Mercury appeared, and observers would have been expected to know that Lacedemonian was another term for the Spartans, the ancient Greek rivals of the Athenians. Dunton responded with typical ingenuity, he advised readers of the imitator to resubmit their questions to the Athenian Mercury, where they would be properly amended and answered correctly. The Athenians physically faced up to the Lacedemonians in the Three Cranes tavern, with Richard Sault threatening at one stage to draw his sword on Mr Thomas Brown, the rival editor, for an ‘incivility’, whereupon everyone saw sense and the spurious Spartans withdrew in disarray. 

The Life and Errors of John Dunton - 1705 (1818 edition)

Another attack came soon after, when a scurrilous play was staged, 
The New Athenian Comedy; containing the Politicks, Oeconomicks, Tacticks, Crypticks, Apocalypticks, Stypticks, Scepticks, Pneumaticks, Theologicks, and Dogmaticks of our most learned Society,” 
written by Elkanah Settle, it presented the members of an Athenian Society meeting over a dinner of black pudding at Smith’s Coffee House, to decide such weighty matters as ‘Which is the noblest animal; the Louse or the Flea?’ or answering the amatory queries of an Islington milkmaid, Dorothy Ticklecat, who pays for the answers with strawberries and cream. This obscene ‘comedy’ was unsuccessful, and Dunton remarked in his autobiography, The Life and Errors of John Dunton (1705), that ‘… there was nothing of Wit through the whole of it,’ and its only achievement was to further popularise the Mercury

Charles Gildon - The History of the Athenian Society - 1692

Conversely, Charles Gildon wrote an effusive The History of the Athenian Society (1692), which was prefaced with complimentary poems by the likes of Tate and Defoe and, like the Mercury, scatters capital letters, apostrophes and a variety of typefaces around with neither apparent rhyme nor orthological reason. 

The Athenian Society

It also featured an illustration of the imagined Athenian Society in all their glory, sitting at a long table with quills in hand and receiving questions from a gathered multitude, with more arriving in coaches, and at one side an angel rescues a man on the gallows whilst his companion cries, “Help, help, noble Athenians.” In the corners are the cities of Athens, Rome, Oxford and Cambridge, and at the top left, a monkey forces a cat to pull roasting chestnuts from a fire, indicating that the Athenians are well aware of the dangers of getting ones fingers burned. 

Live by Rapine

The individual parts of The Athenian Mercury were published in volumes of thirty numbers, together with an added supplement, stitched into marble papers for half-a-crown each, with nineteen volumes issued up until February 1696, before an advertisement in the thirtieth part announced, 
That the proprietor of the Athenian Mercury thinks fit, whilst the coffee-houses have the Votes every day, and six newspapers every week, to discontinue this Weekly paper (the nineteenth volume being now finished), and carry on the said design in volumes; and, in pursuance of this resolution, thirty Numbers shall speedily be printed altogether, to complete the twentieth volume; the first undertaker designs to have it continued in weekly papers as soon as ever the glut of news is a little over.
 Notwithstanding this inconsiderate glut of news, the first number of the 20th edition did not appear until May 1697, and did not extend beyond the tenth number, on June 14th of that year. 

But that was not the death of The Athenian Mercury. Almost, but not quite.

Tomorrow - What happened next...

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