Matthew vetoed all these suggestions and called on Widow Beaton, Woodstock’s cunning woman and midwife. She was poor and female — precisely the sort of creature the School of Night scorned — but this, Matthew argued, would better ensure her cooperation.
The term “cunning folk” generally refers to folk medicine practitioners across Europe. In England, the “cunning folk,” “wise women,” and “wizards” who supplied their communities with folk remedies in exchange for meals or other goods often escaped the scrutiny and persecution of “witches” during the same period; the common theory appears to be that cunning folk provided for a social good whereas witches brought ill-fortune and disaster. Shadow of Night takes place during a period after parliament outlawed “conjugations and witchcraft” in 1563. The law punished those who utilized “magic” and threatened both “witches,” who used magic for evil purposes, and the cunning folk who dispensed herbal remedies. During this period, Protestant theology condemned not just witches but any who used folk medicine that seemed “magical.” This apparently stemmed from a rejection of the mysticism and ritual of the Catholic Church as well as an inherent fear of evil folk wielding otherworldly power.
Because the popular thinking of the day did little to distinguish witchcraft from the craft of the cunning folk, the perception of a cunning woman in her community could change quickly based on (1) her effectiveness and (2) her perceived ill intent. In the book, Diana correctly (and justly) cautions Matthew that a witch’s safety depends on the goodwill of her neighbors. Given the historical context of Elizabethan England, it seems reasonable that the vulnerable Widow Beaton should attempt to divert suspicion away from herself and towards Diana.
“You think a historian can understand the tenor of the present moment better than the men living through it?” Matthew’s eyebrow cocked up in open skepticism.
“Yes,” I said, bristling. “We often do.”
“That’s not what you said this morning when you couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any forks in the house.” It was true that I’d searched high and low for twenty minutes before Pierre gently broke it to me that the utensils were not yet common in England.
The English word “fork” comes from the Latin furca, or “pitchfork.” According to a fascinating anecdote from a Brief History of the Fork, a fork arrived in Venice as a part of a noblewoman’s dowry in the 11th century.
The Church criticized the woman for using the fork as an affront to God’s purpose for fingers. The fork was considered to be “feminine” and dangerous in Western Europe until approximately 1633, when Charles I declared the utensil to be “decent.” Curious for more on the history of cutlery? I enjoyed this article on the history of the fork, as well as this one.
“It is never too early for stoicism,” Kit replied severely. “You should thank me it’s not Homer. All we’ve heard lately is inept paraphrases of the Iliad. Leave the Greek to someone who understands it, George — someone like Matt.”
Although you wouldn’t know it from Kit’s behavior (because he is The Worst), George Chapman’s actually managed a successful English translation of Homer’s Iliad. Published in 1611, Chapman’s Iliad rejected direct translation in favor of taking the occasional poetic license with Homer’s text. For instance, as the University of Michigan notes, Chapman substituted “the invisible cave that no light comforts” for Hades.
Chapman fell somewhat into disfavor after his death — he apparently had a tendency to try and squeeze strict moral teachings where they didn’t belong, so 19th century critics dismissed him. If you look up Chapman’s Homer translations on Amazon, you get a rather glowing statement of his accomplishments:
George Chapman’s translations of Homer are the most famous in the English language. Keats immortalized the work of the Renaissance dramatist and poet in the sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Swinburne praised the translations for their “romantic and sometimes barbaric grandeur,” their “freshness, strength, and inextinguishable fire.” The great critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) wrote: “For more than two centuries they were the resort of all who, unable to read Greek, wished to know what Greek was. Chapman is far nearer Homer than any modern translator in any modern language.”
You may have these translations for $30, if you like. It’s more than Kit could afford, that’s for sure. Speaking of which…
“Who are you in trouble with now?” he asked Marlowe, reaching for his wine. “And how much is is going to cost to get you out of it?”
“My tailor.” Kit waved a hand over his expensive suit. “The printer for Tamburlaine.”
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine — a violent, complicated play — tells the story of a shepherd who becomes an emperor through, well, lots of unsavory behavior. By the time Matthew and Diana arrive in 1590, Marlowe’s play has been in print for three months... enough time, apparently, for the printer to come collect his debts. The play had apparently been performed, however, as early as 1587. The themes of Tamburlaine involve pride and power and the desire of one man to conquer everything and everyone. You can read Tamburlaine and watch a trailer for a 2014 production (including a few great scenes) below:
For further reading on Tamburlaine, check out:
Burzynska, Katarzyna. “Re-gendering of the Nietzschean Ubermensch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.” Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation, and Performance, Vol. 12, Issue 27 (2015).
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Cait and Jen