Early Modern Times – hoax populi

Early Modern Times - hoax populi

Dear readers,

Amidst the stress of writing final essays and exams, one antidote to the temptation to plagiarise or cheat is the fact that far cleverer and more interesting hoaxes have been perpetrated–and still caught, judging from this recent article on some notable hoaxes in English history (including three from the early modern period). In 1726, a servant from Surrey (who was, however, not ‘sorry’ until too late) claimed to have given birth to rabbits, as well as to the bladder of a pig (which was hogwash) and the legs of a cat (which gives the reader paws for thought). Mary Toft’s fraudulent relation, depicted amongst other instances of ‘Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism’ lampooned in William Hogarth’s print pictured above, was that she was ‘startled by a rabbit in a field….From that moment, she said, she dreamed about, and had a “constant and strong desire” to eat, rabbits’ (good thing that she didn’t dream about horses, as she’d have been pregnant with night-mares). Thus, several physicians including one of King George I’s doctors were persuaded that ‘maternal impression’ had caused Toft to beget bunnies. The king’s doctor brought one of her fifteen supposed offspring to the royal court, a handover to the Hanovers. A royal surgeon, however, examined the rabbity spawn and discovered corn in its dung, which contradicted the claim of spontaneous generation by Toft. King George was surely not amused at this corny (and shitty) joke. The reputation of the King’s doctor, who wrote ‘A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets [sic]’ before Toft’s confession, was in tatters and his career ruined. Toft was convicted and sent to prison for several months; nothing more is known of her thereafter. This, then, was the sorry end of her ‘hare-raising tails’. The moral of the story: cheaters never ‘wean’.

Fifty years later, in 1776, the historian Thomas Birch bequeathed several documents to the British Museum, including what appeared to be handwritten manuscript and printed versions of the July 1588 edition of The English Mercurie, a hitherto-unknown newspaper relating the English defeat of the Spanish Armada. This publication predated the earliest European newspaper by six years, as its spelling and typesetting seemed historically accurate. In 1839, however, Thomas Watts, ‘Keeper of Printed Books’ at the British Museum, matched the handwriting in the manuscript to that of Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke and friend & correspondent of Birch. To this day, the Library of Congress and the National Library of Australia wrongly catalogue Birch’s documents as belonging to the Elizabeth age. They should have clued into Birch & Yorke’s sloppy errors in the manuscript, including references to a victorious battle against a rare sea-snake from Cadiz known for attacking the area between shoulders and hands: the defeat of the Spanish ‘arm-adder’.

Earlier in the eighteenth century, the republic of letters was far more easily duped by George Psalmanazar, a thoroughly Caucasian Frenchman who claimed to be a native of Formosa (the Portuguese name for Taiwan) and wrote the 1704 An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. As the article relates, Psalmanazar ‘spoke in Latin and claimed men in Formosa wore nothing but a metallic disc to preserve their modesty, that husbands were allowed to eat their wives if they were unfaithful, and the hearts of young boys were sacrificed to the gods every year. A healthy Formosan breakfast involved chopping the head off a viper and sucking its blood out.’ When interrogated by the sceptical astronomer Edmund Halley (whose attempt to scrub away these filthy lies and arrive at the pure, unvarnished truth might be called ‘Halley’s comet’) and others about such fanciful claims and especially his pale complexion (a white lie), the pseudo-Formosan replied that he was a member of the underground-dwelling aristocracy (presumably, given the lack of vegetation underneath the earth, a ‘baron’). Psalmanazar even constructed a fake Formosan alphabet (or more an al-faux-bet or al-fib-et) and generated ‘Formosan’ translations of religious texts, but soon confessed his hoax. He later turned to the study of theology and was even befriended by Samuel Johnson (perhaps the latter saw echoes of Psalmanazar’s ambitious hoax in his own crazed efforts to define the English language?); but he was mocked by other literary figures such as Tobias Smollett and Jonathan Swift. After all, he was an eccentric, perhaps a madman resembling a drunkard known to ‘Tai-wan on’. Lost to history, however, was his similarly fraudulent claim in his later life to be a native of an obscure village in Newfoundland known for its two pairs of local fauna with large antlers and skin-growth hanging from the neck, ‘Four-moose-a’.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program.

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