“Not only libraries and shops are full of our putrid papers, but every close-stool and jakes.” (Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621))
For those of you who weren’t alive in the seventeenth century, “close stool” and “jakes” were in that day names for what your grandmother called a “powder room,” and your mother most probably a “half-bath.” More distant ancestors might have called it a “privy” or “stool closet,” since the chamber in question was private, closet-like, and furnished with a stool. The seat of this stool was, of course, perforated with a large hole, and beneath this hole a chamber pot was either set or suspended.
This item of furniture was itself referred to as a close-stool, until the euphemistic nineteenth century renamed it a commode. Here, for instance, we find the phrase close-stool used in a colorful description of the courtship rituals of seventeenth-century Ireland.
“On a design of marriage they are . . . so far from selling a pig in a poke that it is not unusual for the man to mount the beast before he binds the bargain; so that ’tis no strange thing amongst them to make a maid a whore first, and then to make that whore his wife afterwards; like a sloven that first makes a close-stool of his own hat, and then claps it upon his own head” (1).
As it so happens, this engrossing work of anthropology appeared under the imprint of a London publisher called “W.C.”; but there was, I am afraid, no way he could savor the irony and know that plumbers would one day raise the fetid close-stool to a fragrant water closet.
I must master my natural delicacy and push on to the point of this discursive introduction, which is to place my epigraph in its historical and biological context. A man repaired to a close-stool to evacuate his bowels, which is why physicians nowadays refer to our excrement as “stool.” Women were no less ready to make use of a stool-closet, as we see here:
“Go into the mistress’s chamber, and the first glance of your eye gives you the prospect of an open close-stool, and a chamber pot full-charged, as if the woman thought all that came from her were nothing but civet and essence of orange flowers” (2).
How little women have changed! (Civet, incidentally, is a species of perfume.)
As “all that came from her” was not civet and essence of orange flowers, some disagreeable paperwork accompanied the filthy business of a close-stool. And since the bespoke product that we call toilet paper would not be sold for another two hundred years, close-stools of the seventeenth century were supplied with what Burton called “putrid papers.” He meant outdated ephemeral books and pamphlets that had, in their literary aspect, died and begun to stink.
There was no shortage of “putrid papers” because Burton lived in a “scribbling age” when the “number of books is without number.” Seventeenth-century England was bursting with poor and ink-stained devils who would “write no matter what, and scrape together it boots not whence.” These “base and illiterate scribblers” were even known to “lard their lean books with the fat of others’ works” (3).
Except that I am free of ink stains and my writing yields nothing so useful as toilet paper, these poor and ink-stained devils sound more than a little like yours truly. But, be that as it may, there is another line in which Burton really lays his finger on why I write what you, dear reader, are so kind to read.
Burton says that he found himself afflicted with gravidum cor, foetum caput, which is to say a heavy heart and swollen brain. His swollen (foetus-like) brain he likened to an abscess filled with puss, and his scribbling served to lance the boil, drain the puss, and ease his mind.
“When I first took this task in hand . . . I aimed . . . to ease my mind by writing.”
Withdrawal and despondent brooding is a good definition of melancholy, and gravidum cor, foetum caput is at least one of the great causes of withdrawal and despondent brooding. And this is why I count myself as a very minor disciple of Burton when he writes,
“I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy” (4).
If my writing has given your mind any ease, why that is just gravy.
(This post was written to commemorate two-hundred posts and three years of easing my mind at the Orthosphere)
(1) Anon. A Brief Character of Ireland, with Some Observations of the Customs, etc. of the Meaner Sort of the Natural Inhabitants of that Kingdom. (London: W.C., 1692), pp. 16-17.
(2) Anon. The Pleasures of Matrimony Intermixed with Variety of Merry and Delightful Stories: Containing the Charms and Contentments of Wooing and Wedlock in all its Enjoyments, Recreations, and Divertisements(London: Henry Rhodes, 1688), p. 70.
(3) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, second edition (Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1621), pp. 8-9.
(4) Burton, Anatomy, p. 6.