Sunday 27 March 2016

Trolling in the 18th century

The clocks went forward one hour during the night - it's now British Summer Time and I'm experiencing the usual bi-annual mild disorientation. It's either 6 or 7am (which means little enough, given that time is a random sub-division of eternity). Everyone else is asleep. We're in a remote backwater of Suffolk and from one window of this tiny cottage I see open fields and some pheasants, from the other the medieval parish church of St Mary, Battisford. It's Easter Sunday, but there will be no service as the church appears to have been decommissioned (though not deconsecrated).  Very few people live around here, and fewer still, it seems are church-goers.

I'm dipping into Swift's Satires and Personal Writings, the solid Oxford Standard Authors edition, and reacquainting myself with The Partridge-Bickerstaff Papers.

John Partridge (born John Hewson), 'an obscure cobbler', set up as an astrologer in London in1678 and became rich. King William appointed him court physician, grateful for his denunciations of Popery. Partridge was a dolt, and the object of ridicule by the Wits of the day. Swift published, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, Predictions for the Year 1708 in which he made a spirited defence of astrology before offering some thoughts on what the future would hold. His first prediction - 'but a Trifle' - was that John Partridge would 'infallibly dye upon the 29th of March next, about Eleven at Night, of a raging Feaver'.

Other predictions followed - some of mesmerising vagueness ('On the 15h [of May] News will arrive of a very Surprising Event, than which nothing should be more unexpected'); others of a startling specificity ('On the 29th [of June] the Cardinal Portocarero will Dye of a Dissentery, with great Suspicion').

On the morning of 30th March Swift published an Elegy on the death of Partridge:

Here, five Foot deep, lies on his Back,
A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack;
Who to the Stars in pure Good–will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you Customers that use
His Pills, his Almanacks, or Shoes;
And you that did your Fortunes seek,
Step to his Grave but once a Week:
This Earth which bears his Body’s Print,
You’ll find has so much Vertue in’t,
That I durst pawn my Ears ’twill tell
Whate’er concerns you full as well,
In Physick, Stolen Goods, or Love,
As he himself could, when above.

A few days later a longer piece appeared, called An Account of the Death of Partridge. His victim made a huge error by claiming, insisting even, that he was still very much alive, prompting Swift to print a Vindication.

The hoax became the talk of the town and many of Swift's contemporaries weighed in - Congreve, Gay, Pope and Steele - an avalanche of squibs and pamphlets proving that Partridge was dead and Bickerstaff's prediction accurate. (This anticipates by more than three centuries the current phenomenon of 'trolling' on the internet). The Company of Stationers struck Partridge's name from their rolls so he could no longer publish his popular and profitable almanac Merlinus Liberatus. He took legal proceedings to prove he was alive but the Lord Chamberlain ruled against him. Swift continued the campaign, writing both as Bickerstaff and Partridge (and Swift's version of Partridge's hectic 'afterlife' following his death in March is hilarious, as he is palgued by what he calls 'a Pack of Dismals':

In short , what with Under-takers, Embalmers, Joyners, Sextons and your damn'd Elegy-hawkers, upon a late Practitioner in Physick and Astrology, I got not one Wink of sleep that Night, nor scarce a Moments Rest ever since.

Partridge was a  wealthy fool with access to power and considerable influence. We need Swift and his fellow Wits more than ever.

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