What could be more wholesome than a Goode Olde-Fashioned Christmas pantomime based on the story of Dick Whittington? Alas, even Dick Whittington has been contaminated by the vulgarity of our times, judging by a Manchester show with the Krankies and actor John Barrowman. As this BBC article notes, official complaints were lodged about its smutty jokes and lewd content–rather closer to Barrowman’s character on Doctor Who & Torchwood, the pan-sexual Captain Jack Harkness, than the English folklore hero Dick Whittington.
The pantomime show is thus likely less than educational on the story behind Dick Whittington. Although Richard Whittington was a late medieval merchant-turned-Lord-Mayor-of-London, it was in the early modern period that his life-story was fictionalised into the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat. In 1612, Richard Johnson published A Song of Sir Richard Whittington, who by Strange Fortunes Came to bee Thrice Lord Mayor of London, telling of how a poor Lancashire boy fled the drudgery of working as a kitchen scullion in London, was told by London church bells to ‘Turn againe, Whittington, / For thou in time shall grow / Lord Mayor of London’, and amassed a great fortune abroad due to his cat’s ratting abilities: ‘Meat that in trenchers lay, / No way they could keepe safe, / But by rats borne away, / Fearing no wand or staffe. / Whereupon soone they brought / Whittington’s nimble cat, / Which by the king was bought; / Heapes of gold giv’n for that.’ Back in London, Whittington rose to the office of Lord Mayor of London, and was famed for his generosity and charity (though the inmates at the notorious Newgate Prison, which was rebuilt with funds from his will, might beg to differ). The historical Richard Whittington came from a prosperous family and there is no evidence of a cat making his fortune, but the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat would be re-told throughout the early modern period and after in chapbooks, puppet plays, and of course pantomime shows.
In the style of the Star Wars franchise this season, we can imagine other early modern spinoffs. Dick Whittington and his Cat-lick Reformation: our hero, horrified by Lutheran and Calvinist attacks on the Holy See, builds the gaudily-ornamented Whittington Cat-hedral & Meow-soleom, complete with golden feline cherubim floating on painted clouds of ethereal kitty-litter beneath the massive catnip-encrusted dome; and founds the Holy Order of Cat-melite Nuns, directed towards inward rat-capture by exterminating rodent-Protestants sponsored by Vermin Princes. Dick Whittington and his Louis Quat-orze: our hero advances French power by building a gigantic palais at Versailles in the shape of a super-sized feline; the motto of Whittington’s megalomaniacal reign comes to be ‘Le chat, c’est moi.’ Dick Whittington and his Cat-herine the Great: our hero travels east and acts as a sort of ‘Rat-putin’ to the Queen, thus spreading Enlightenment ideals to the litter-ati in the largest state in Europe and providing plenty of room for her coterie of cats, who like nothing more than ‘Russian’ around chasing their tails. Dick Whittington and his Cat-egorical Imperative: now dying in the remote town of Königsberg, our hero reflects on the immoral deeds of his life and contemplates whether to lie to the East Prussian Tierschutzbeauftragter (Animal Control Officer) at the cat flap of his Gasthaus about the un-neutered feline hiding in the attic.
Finally, in the spirit of Christmas cats, what goodies will our program’s Philosophical Feline Philanthropist (aka the Early Modern Santa Paws) bring us this Winter? Jannette Vusich will be teaching a course about that Renaissance feline genius, Lion-ardo Da Vinci: Between Art and Science, as well as tracing the paths taken by other artistic felines of the period across Europe and beyond in The Renaissance Paw-Print and Cross-Cultural Exchange. Kat-hryn Morris the Cat, our resident historian of natural feline philosophy, will of course be focusing on black cats in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, as well as purr-ceptions of The Body in Early Modern Europe. Gordon Mc-cool-cat will be teaching and coordinating the lecture series on Automatons! From Ovid to AI (and cyborgs along the way), which will no doubt reveal the secrets to building a sentient, self-conscious mousetrap. And I will be teaching a course on those pesky buccaneering rodents who break into pastry pantries aboard ship, The Pie-Rat & Piracy.
The EMSP blog will take a break until the new year. For 2018, we will have more early modern related news both in the wider world and within EMSP, as well as a new feature, A Pirate Captain’s Blog. Stay tuned and happy holidays!
Director, Early Modern Studies Program