Such was the worldwide stir caused by my revelation that the Sweeney Todd story is at least a century older than previously thought that I know many of you will be impatient to read this new story of sinister stylists across the water. It’s from a French tutor, Méthode rationnelle suivant pas à pas la marche de la nature pour apprendre à lire, à entendre, à parler et à écrire l’anglais by Claude Marcel (1872):
An Englishman, coming from Dover, had no sooner landed in Calais than he went to a barber to get himself shaved. “Sir, said the islander, I am very nervous and mortally dread being cut when I am shaved. Here is a guinea for you if you do not cut me, and here is a pistol with which I will blow out your brains, if you cut me. Do you accept these conditions?” — “Yes, my lord, fear nothing.” And he shaved him without accident. The Englishman, much pleased, handed him the guinea, saying, “Has not the pistol frightened you a little?” — Not at all, answered the barber; for if, per chance, I had cut the skin, I would have finished you by cutting your throat.”
Why Calais? Did Brits go to have their hair done there, perhaps when it was still British, rather as they now go to buy booze? Did Beaumarchais base Figaro in Seville do differentiate him from his colleagues in Calais? Are notorious barbers always based in strategically important ports? (Fleet Street used to be next to the port of London.) Are there any more stories like this out there?
- The demon barber of Calais, a 17th century Sweeney Todd
I believe the current early chronology of versions containing all the basic motifs is as follows:
- Joseph Fouché was a politician and administrator, and the delightfully wicked creator under Bonaparte of something vaguely resembling the modern police service. According to PBS, he wrote in something called Archives of the police of a series of murders committed
- Daniel Heinsius’ solitary phoenix and the final words of the beastly bookseller of Barcelona
In 1927 the Catalan literary researcher and writer, Ramon Miquel i Planas (1874-1950; henceforth MiP) wrote a little book, published in a bibliophile edition, called La llegenda del llibreter assassí. In it he reflects on the origins and recycling of “Le bibliomane ou le nouveau Cardillac”, an anonymous tale published as if true in 1836 …
- Monkey hangers in 17th century Barcelona
Xenophobic atavism in the 1640 Reapers Revolt.
- Assaulted by a pine processionary caterpillar!
With chunks of Dioscorides and Andrés Laguna, including the wonderful story of what happened when an impotent bridegroom and a constipated friar involuntarily swapped medicines.