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Tuesday 2 August 2011

Paranormal investigation, 18th century style

From a Fortean point of view, the artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) is best known for his satirical print "Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism" -- one of his last works, dating from 1762. As discussed in issue 202 of Fortean Times (October 2005), the actual target of the satire was the new religion of Methodism, but (presumably because Methodists were seen as particularly credulous) the picture contains references to several popular paranormal phenomena of the time. These include the Cock Lane ghost, the phantom Drummer of Tedworth and the hoax perpetrated by Mary Toft -- a young woman who, back in the 1720s, convinced a lot of people that she regularly gave birth to live rabbits.

There is an earlier and less well-known work by Hogarth depicting Mary Toft, which he produced in 1726 when she was at the height of her fame. Although it's not a great work of art, there is at least one sense in which the earlier picture is more interesting than the later one. Rather than Methodists (who have always struck me as rather harmless) Hogarth's satire is directed at supposedly intelligent and educated individuals who "want to believe"... and hence are easily duped by hoaxers.
The title of the print is Cunicularii, as can be seen in the lower middle caption (you may need to click on the picture to enlarge it). Now "Cunicularii" is actually Latin for "rabbits"... but, since none of Hogarth's other prints have Latin names, it's safe to assume he chose this title because (in the timeless tradition of British anatomical humour) it "sounds a bit rude". The subtitle is "The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation" -- the fictitious town of "Godliman" being similar (but not actionably similar) to Godalming in Surrey, where Mary Toft lived. The quotation "They held their talents most adroit / For any mystical exploit" is paraphrased from Samuel Butler's 17th century poem Hudibras... but it could be the motto of paranormal investigators in any century!

The three Wise Men attending at the birth (not an original idea, of course) are labelled A, B and C:
  • Wise Man A is captioned as "The Dancing Master or Preternatural Anatomist", and he is exclaiming "A Great Birth!"
  • Wise Man B, "An Occult Philosopher searching into the depth of things", is pictured with his hand up the subject's skirt, saying "It pouts, it swells, it spreads, it comes!"
  • Wise Man C, who is exclaiming "A Sooterkin!" is labelled "The Sooterkin Doctor Astonished".
The last of the three may cause a puzzled frown, because you thought the woman was giving birth to rabbits, not sooterkins... and come to that, what's a sooterkin? But in those days it was just like it is today -- if you get three paranormal believers in a room together, you will hear three different explanations for the same phenomenon! A sooterkin, in the folklore of the time, was a small, furry, non-human creature that some women were supposed to give birth to spontaneously. The legend arose in Germany and the Low Countries, so possibly "sooterkin" is a corruption of "Pseudokind" (German Kind meaning "child", as in Wunderkind).

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