Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

19 November 2012

Beware the Cat: auditory overload in the 16th century

BEWARE THE CAT is a short novel written in 1552 by William Baldwin, a poet and printer’s assistant who lived in London. This scholarly article from 1979 claims that Beware the Cat is the first substantial and original work of prose in the English language, and therefore the first novel. (You’ll need a subscription to JSTOR to read the whole article, but the first page is open to all.)

The novel has a complex structure consisting of three interlinked stories which are related by one Master Streamer. Streamer is a bit daft and naive, like Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, and Baldwin has some fun making him stumble over complicated-sounding words in the spirit of ‘I won’t have you casting nasturtiums about me’.

Streamer hears tales from Ireland about talking cats and becomes obsessed with the idea of being able to decipher the secret speech of animals. He goes to great lengths to capture different animals around London (St John’s Wood is mentioned as a hunting ground), and combine bits of them to make magic pills and potions.

Initial tests work well. Despite streams of snot coming from his nose ‘as I never saw before, nor thought that any such had been in mans body’, Streamer finds he can recollect in detail everything he’s experienced over the past twenty years. He also believes he can hear a cat calling out someone’s name so, later, the dosage is upped.

[ . . .] I put into my two nostrills two troisiques, and into my mouth two losenges, one above my tounge, the other under, and put off my left hose because of Jupiters appropinquosion, and laid the fox tail under my foot and to hear the better I took off my pillows, which stopped my ears, and then listened and viewed as attentively as I could; but I warrant you the pellicils or filmy vein that lieth within the bottom of mine ear hole, from whence like veins carry the sound to the senses, was with this medicine in my pillows so purged and parched, or at least dried, that the least moving of the air, whether struck with breath or with living creatures, which we call voyces, or with the moving of dead, as winds, waters, trees, carts, falling of stones, &c. which are named noises, sounded so shrill in my head, by reverbrations of my final filmes, that the sound of them altogether was so disordered and monstrous that I could discern no one from other, save only the harmony of the moving of the spheres which noise excelled all others as much both in pleasance and shril bigness of sound as the zodiac itself surmounteth all other creatures in altitude of place, for in comparison of the basest of this noise, which is the moving of Saturn by means of this huge compass, the highest whistling of the wind, or any other organ pipes (whose sounds I heard issued together,) appeared but a low base, and yet was those an high treble to the voice of beasts which as a mean the running of rivers was a tenor, and the boyling of the sea, and the catracts or gulf therof a goodly base, and the rushing, rising, and falling of the clouds a deep diapson.

This perception of the music of the spheres leads to an imaginative passage in which Streamer becomes aware of the sounds of everything happening in a hundred-mile radius:

While I harkend to this broil, labouring to discern both voices and noises a sundre, I had such a mixture as I think was never in Chaucer’s “House of Fame,” for there was nothing within an hundred mile of me down on my side (for from so far but so faither the air may come becaue of obliquacion,) but I heard it as well as if I had been by it, and discern all voices, but by means of noises understood none. Lord, what a doo women made in their beds; some scolding, some laughing, some singing to their sucking children, which made a woeful noise with their continual crying, and one shrewd wife, a great way off (I think at St. Albans), called her huband cuckold as loud and shrilly that I heard that plain, and would fain have heard the rest, but could not by no means for barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wailing of cats, rumbling of rats, gagling of geez, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gagling of ducks, singing of wains, ringing of panns, crowing of cocks, sowing of sockes, cackling of hens, scrapling of pens, heeping of mice, trulling of dice, curling of frogs and todes in the bogs, churking of crickets, shutting of wickets, scritching of owls, fluttering of fowls, routing of knaves, snorting of slaves, farting of churls, fisling of girls, with many things els; as ringing of bells, counting of coins, mounting of groins, whispering of lovers, springling of plovers, groning and pinning, baking and brewing, scratching and rubbing, watching and shrugging, with such a sort of commixed noises as could adaf any body to have heard, much more me, seeing that the peanieles of my ears were with my medicine made so fine and stiff, and that by the temperate heat of the things therin, that like a tabbar dried before the fire, or els a lute string by heat shrunk, never they were incomparably amended in receiving and yeilding the shrilnes of any touching sounds.

The reference to the House of Fame alludes to Chaucer’s description of sound as like concentric circles rippling across a pond, and which eventually travel upwards so that every sound ever made converges in the fantastical House of Fame. But, like Dr Morbius taking the Krell brain boost in Forbidden Planet, sensory omniscience doesn’t go well for Streamer.

While I was earnestly harkening (as I said) to hear the women, minding nothing els, the greatest bell in St. Botolph steeple, which is hard by, was tolled for some rich lady that then lay in pasing, the sound therof came with such a rumble into mine ear, that I thought all the devils in hell had broken loose, and where come about me, and was so afraid therwith that when I felt the foxtail under my feet (which through fear I had forgot) I deemed it had been the devil indeed; and therfore I cried as loud as ever I could, “The devil, the devil!” But when some of the fellows, raised with my noise, had sought me in my chamber and found me not there, they went seeking about, calling to one another, “Where is he ? I cannot find M. Streamer.” Which noise and stir of them was so great in mine ears, and pasing much common sound, that I thought they had been devils indeed which sought and aked for me; therfore I crept close into a corner and hid me, saying many good prayers to save me from them; and becaue that noise was so terrible that I could not abide it, I thought best to stop mine ears, thinking therby I should be the less afraid. And as I was there about, a crow, which belike was nodding asleep in the chimney top, fell down into the chimney over my head, when fluttering in the fall made such a noise that when I felt his feet over my head I thought then the devil had he come indeed and seized upon me; and when I cast up my head to save me, and therwith touched him, he called me knave in his tounge after such a sort that I swooned for fear, and by that I was come to myself again he was flown from me into the chamber roof, and there he sat all night.

These passages are remarkable for their intense focus on sound. The idea of knowing everything’s that’s going on seems prescient of modern-day ambitions to acquire total information to feed into statistical models, of mass documenting projects like Google Streetview, or the existence of perfect information in an idealised marketplace.

Wanting to hear everything going on can become a dream of control. During the time of Beware the Cat, Catholics were viewed as a potential enemy within, and the need to know more about them and what they were saying led to the efficient spy networks of Sir Francis Walsingham just three decades later.