Lukewarm barrel organ-ish ephemera from Hackney, London and thereabouts.
Given the choice (we believe in choice). Featuring castanets, monkeys, marionettes, and human and tortoise castles.
These tumblers are said to have come from Holland, but they sound like (apprentices of) Venetians, of whom more another day:
La belle foire Saint-Germain
Aujourd’hui se ferme, ou demain:
Ainsi, trêve de castagnettes,
De singes, de marionnettes;
Trêve de ces sauts périlleux,
Trêve de ces tours merveilleux.
Hath suffered a we-change:
The splendid fair of Saint Germain,
Here today, or gone demain:
And so, a truce of castanets,
Of monkeys, and of marionettes;
A truce of those bold parlous leaps,
A truce of marvellous human heaps.
Illiterate Southern Occitans and the UNESCO mafia would have you believe that biological pyramids were invented towards the end of the War of the Spanish Succession at Valls, just up the River Francolí from Tarragona. Sed testudines nos non assentimur:
Barrel/street organ stuff.
A tragic gallery dealing with 1832: contemporary/posterior mise-en-scène? Plus images of Napoleon as Polichinelle.
- Duc de Reichstadt = Napoleon II (1811-32, TB), infant dress reflects his still only being 21 in 1832?
- Mariée = his (married) mistress, Sophie of Bavaria (1805-72).
- Baby = Maximilian I of Mexico (1832-67, in most unfortunate circumstances), widely believed to be their lovechild.
- The (mechanical acrobat) Pulcinella & Mameluke toys = what has become of Napoleon I’s Italian and Egyptian imperial fantasies.
But perhaps d’Allemagne, not the toy manufacturer, is responsible for the composition of the image.
A popular print of the King of Rome (sic), now aged two, on a rocking horse in a The First Race of Childhood – happier times:
Another Polichinelle, with Harlequin and, apparently, Bobéche:
It seems to me that the 19th century Pulcinella acquires characteristics of Napoleon I – another swaggering bully, in caricature at least – and that in particular Pulcinella’s hat is often simplified to resemble that of the Corsican’s, even as Napoleon’s medical problems gradually converted him into a woman. Here is a nephew of Napoléon, son of the King in the Kassel, as a nicely humpbacked Polichinelle:
And this is apparently the great man himself as Punchinello – bone, date unclear:
There is probably a dreadfully earnest book somewhere about such things. But here, from d’Allemagne’s splendid book, is something infinitely more amusing:
François Dominique Séraphin, Bourbon favourite and reputedly the father of ombres chinoises (shadow puppetry), began operating 15 years later than is generally thought, and may have copied his techniques from an itinerant Italian or a London Alsatian. Featuring the memoirs of the valet to the later Louis XVII, early descriptions of the delights of the renovated Palais Royal (including a pygmy show), jolly old Baron Grimm on the lamentable state of French opera, shadow plays, and marionettes, and William Beckford’s favourite designer of theatrical perversions.
François Dominique Séraphin (1747-1800) was an entertainer who came to prominence before the Revolution, and whose successors are said to have continued his show until the establishment of the Third Republic. Three errors regarding his early career have led to his being regarded as a key figure in (audio)visual tech innovation:
- the date when his show started at Versailles,
- the date when it was patronised by the royal family there, and
- the date of its transfer to the Palais Royal and public acclaim in Paris.
The conventional Séraphin chronology is a nonsensical, late-19th-century creation
A new book from University of Chicago Press by Deirdre Loughridge, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism, claims that:
The acknowledged inventor of the ombres chinoises, François Dominique Séraphin, opened his show in Versailles in 1772. By the time he moved his show to Paris in 1784, it had already been copied by enterprising showmen and spread to other parts of Europe.
She has two sources for #11:
- Feu Séraphin: histoire de ce spectacle depuis son origine jusqu’à sa disparition, 1776-1870 (1875), which gives:
- 1772 for the show’s opening in Versailles – no evidence;
- April 1781 for granting of the title Spectacle des Enfants de France – no evidence, the subsequent playbill being apparently undated;
- 1784 for transfer to the Duke of Orléans’ speculative development in the gardens of the Palais-Royal – no evidence.
- Bordat & Boucrot, Les théâtres d’ombres (1956), which I haven’t seen, but which, since it doesn’t alert Loughridge to the error, probably uses Feu or similar.
This and similar chronologies, with similar late 19th century sources 1 or worse, are to be found on Wikipedia 2 and in several dozen other popular and academic publications in the field. Yet a moment’s reflection casts doubt:
- If Séraphin was so good, would it really have taken the royal family nine years to discover him in Versailles, population < 40,000? I’d have thought that the typical trajectory involved playing provincial venues for a couple of years, and then blowing one’s savings on one season’s hall rental at Versailles in the hope of striking Bourbon.
- Why would the king have honoured the show in the name of the French Royal Children (plural) in April 1781 when Marie Antoinette’s second, Louis Joseph, wasn’t born till October, presumably with no great and immediate interest in the theatre?
- How could Séraphin have transferred to the Palais Royal in 1784 when the buildings in question were still under construction? The 1784 edition of Luc-Vincent Thiéry‘s celebrated guidebook doesn’t mention Séraphin, and Thiéry’s brochureware description of the Duke of Orléans’ residential and retail development makes clear that this is a project in progress.
Contemporary sources show that Séraphin became known in Versailles in 1786/7, was contracted by the royals in 1787, and moved to Paris in 1787
Jean-Baptiste Cléry (“Cléry”) was valet de chambre to the infant Louis-Charles (later Louis XVII) and served voluntarily as Louis XVI’s valet in captivity until the latter’s execution in 1793. His diaries, published posthumously in 1825 as Journal de Cléry, are sensational, but of less interest to us than the memoirs of his younger brother, Pierre Louis Hanet-Cléry (“Hanet”), who also served the Bourbons in a personal capacity and wrote memoirs (Mémoires de P.-L. Hanet-Cléry, ancien valet de chambre de Mme Royale (1825)). Valet de chambre to Marie Antoinette’s first child, Marie Thérèse, from her birth in 1778, Hanet says that the royal family’s first acquaintance with Séraphin’s work was during carnival when Louis-Charles was two. LC was born on March 27 and Easter was April 8 in 1787, so Hanet (“n’ayant encore que deux ans”) seems to be indicating 1788, although he might instead mean the run-up to LC’s second birthday in 1787, but is quite unlikely to have meant 1786:
The queen, one day attending her daughter’s dinner with Madame de Polignac [Marie Antoinette’s favourite and her children’s governess], asked me if I had seen the Chinese shadows of which she had heard much talk. Yes, Madame, I replied, and this spectacle seemed to me so well calculated to amuse the royal children that I proposed talking to the governess about it. That lady, thus informed, instructed me to go and negotiate with the director for three performances a week during carnival.
Mr. Seraphin, endowed with very small pecuniary means, but with a very large bump on his back, 3 thought it his duty to raise his pretensions; first he asked me for 1,200 francs per performance, then 1,000, and finally 600; but Mme. Seraphin, more modest, or perhaps more ambitious, at once contemplated where this could lead her, and reduced the price to 300 francs, which I granted her.
This spectacle afforded the greatest of pleasure to the royal children, especially to the Duke of Normandy [Louis-Charles], who, being only two years of age, enjoyed himself in a most remarkable manner. Their Majesties, who wished to be witnesses of the happiness experienced by their children, attended these performances, and soon all the princes of blood royal came with their young families. The king was personally so satisfied by this that he wished to testify as such to the inventor: “Your little tableaus,” said he, “are well drawn, and your pyrite fires are charming.” 4
Seraphin and his wife, filled with joy and hope, shared with me their intention to ask the king for permission to open their show in Paris without making the customary payment to the great theatres. I encouraged them; they presented their proposal, and obtained the authorisation they desired.
Installed at the Palais Royal, they accumulated a very large fortune; it was due, they often repeated to me, to the pure and simple tastes of Their Majesties, whose presence had created the fashion for Chinese shadows.
Thiéry’s 1787 guidebook describes Seráphin’s show, thus ruling out 1788, and says that the buildings are new, probably making 1786 more improbable:
The Chinese Shadows, nº 127
This Spectacle, established by Mr. Seraphin, awarded a patent by the King, 5 is situated on the first floor of new buildings of the Palais Royal, and is entered via arcade No. 127.
There you can see arabesque fires of a new kind, and transparent tableaux, in which new and amusing scenes take place. The Chinese shadows, produced by various combinations of light and shade, show plainly all the attitudes of man, and execute rope and character dances with astonishing precision. Animals of all kinds go through their paces, and also perform all the motions proper to them, without any thread or cord being seen to support or direct them. 6
Reasonable conclusions: Séraphin launched his show in winter 1786/7, but even if it took two seasons for his show to be noticed, the earliest conceivable Versailles launch date is 1785; and he triumphed with the royals during Carnival 1787 and moved to Paris soon after.
Feu deceives deliberately, quoting several paras from Hanet without mentioning the dates which contradict its invented chronology. Why? Every publisher goes to market with the most remarkable ragbag he thinks he can sell, and natural commercialism may have been exacerbated by revanchism and a search for national heroes following France’s defeat by, and loss of Alsace and Lorraine to, Prussia in 1870-1 (Séraphin was from Lorraine, although his birthplace remained French) – make France great earlier, if you like, a sentiment that led to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
Séraphin’s ombres chinoises were simple and unoriginal, and may have been imitated from the itinerant Italian Sanquirico or the Alsatian Londoner Loutherbourg
Thiéry’s description of the puppetry is improved on by Kotzebue, a German emigré writer, in Meine Flucht nach Paris im Winter 1790:
Since today [Christmas] all the shows are closed, except the Ombres Chinoises in the Palais Royal, we went there, but couldn’t bear it for more than a quarter of an hour. I expected to find this little spectacle at the peak of its perfection, but I was mistaken. The paintings were very gaudy and bad, the little figures stiff and graceless, and even the threads used to pull their arms and legs were visible.
Among the scenes depicted was one in which a Russian woman complained to her girlfriend that her husband no longer loved her, since he hadn’t beaten her for three days, at which the husband appeared, begged for forgiveness, and excused himself on the grounds that he had left his stick somewhere, but had just found it, and, at last, as proof of his contrition, let loose on the woman.
“Typically German!” said someone behind us. Dear God, I thought for my part, typical French ignorance, which still believes in the old fairy tale that Russian woman prefer to be beaten than kissed by their husbands.
The orchestra consisted of a boy, who drummed on a dulcimer 7. The hall was very small and lowly, crammed full with people, the air suffocating. We drew a deep breath when we got to the door.
In technical terms, this appears to be simple shadow puppetry. Some key timeline moments:
- Huygens’ use, perhaps in the 1650s, of a projector described by Kircher with a local light source and for entertainment.
- Such a device was shown and commercialised for the elite in Western Europe by Walgensten in the 1660s.
- Leibniz’s thoughts on marionette shadow puppetry in the 1670s.
- Common(ly understood) and applied by the mid-18th century – for example, Guyot’s Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques was immediately translated into English and German on publication in 1769.
- A realisation mid-century – which I haven’t seen discussed, then or now – that the exploitation of projectors to enable the use of marionettes instead of humans in shadow plays (rather as actors were replaced by marionettes in the Italian commedia repertoire in the same period) enabled a substantial reduction in operating costs.
Who might Séraphin have imitated? Loughridge has a candidate:
In London, the ombres chinoises made their debut in 1776 under the auspices of Ambroise, an Italian (born Ambrogio) who had likely encountered Séraphin’s show in France the previous year.[Altick, The Shows of London] The same showman, now going by the name Ambrosio Sanquirico, brought the ombres chinoises to Germany in 1779, where he advertised his “never before seen here LES OMBRES CHINOISES.” 8 By the 1780s, other traveling showmen too performed “ombres chinoises” throughout Germany.
The Czech Theatre Encyclopaedia has more on Sanquirico, none of which I have fisked:
- He was originally a painter, but no relationship to the contemporary Milanese painter and set designer Alessandro Sanquirico has been demonstrated, let alone to Giorgio de Chirico.
- In autumn 1776 he showed Chinese shadows in Petersburg to acclaim.
- In autumn 1777 he appeared in Prague with a Chinese shadow show, which he had allegedly shown to the royals of France, Britain and Russia.
- Some of this appears to have been automated, but my Czech fails me. 9
- His 1779 shadow theatre shows in Nuremberg (this is the playbill cited by Loughridge; he also visited Braunschweig in 1779) featured banditry, Spanish daggers, a compassionate enchantress, animals from the four continents of the world, and “beautiful dances” that even a “living person would not naturally perform.”
- He posed for official purposes as a scientific investigator but actually focused on foreign freakery and comedy – which Feu Séraphin‘s descriptions of repertoire suggest was also Séraphin’s line.
Séraphin may also have seen a nominally Germanic Alsatian called Loutherbourg (bios) who revolutionised the mechanics of London theatre for David Garrick in the 1770s and in 1781 launched his masterpiece, the Eidophusikon:
Described by the Public Advertiser as “various imitations of Natural Phenomena, represented by moving pictures,” it was the fruit, Philippe claimed, of twenty years of experiment (Altick, Shows 119, 121).  Inside his Leicester Square house he’d built an opulent miniature theatre-cum-art salon. Here, for a fee of five shillings, around 130 fashionable spectators sat in comfort to watch a series of moving scenes projected within a giant peephole aperture, eight feet by six feet. The darkened auditorium combined with skilful use of concealed and concentrated light sources, coloured silk filters, clockwork automata, winding backscreens and illuminated transparencies created a uniquely illusionist environment.  Audiences watched five landscapes in action. Dawn crept over the Thames at Greenwich; the noonday sun scorched the port of Tangier; a crimson sunset flushed over the Bay of Naples; a tropical moon rose over the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean; and a torrential storm wrecked a ship somewhere off the Atlantic coast. Between scenes, painted transparencies served as curtain drops, and Mr and Mrs Michael Arne entertained the audience with violin music and song. (Iain McCalman, The Virtual Infernal: Philippe de Loutherbourg, William Beckford and the Spectacle of the Sublime (2007))
Was Séraphin celebrated under Louis XVI because the rest of French popular theatre at that stage was pretty backward?
I’m asking the question, not providing an answer, but I do wonder whether a royal retreat to Versailles, suffocating theatrical regulation, and economic crisis meant that there was a lack of excitement in the decades leading to the revolution. In 1770 the satirist Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, describes French excitement re human shadow plays:
I remember being singularly amazed in my childhood by the noble play called schattenspiel in German, which was performed by ambulant comedians with great success. Well-stretched oiled papers or a white canvas are hung in place of the theatre backdrop. A candle is placed seven or eight feet behind this curtain; by putting the actors between the candle and the stretched canvas, the light behind them projects their shadows onto this stretched canvas or onto the paper transparency, and shows them to the spectators with all their movements and gestures. I know of no spectacle more interesting for children apart from French Opera; 10 it lends itself equally well to enchantments, marvels, and to the most terrible catastrophes. If, for example, you want the devil to carry off somebody, the actor who plays the devil has but to jump with his prey over the candle behind, and, on the canvas it will seem as if he has flown up into the air with him. This fine genre has just been invented in France, where it has been made an social amusement as spiritual as it is noble; but I fear that it will be smothered in its infancy by the enthusiasm for playing guess-the-proverb. 11 L’Heureuse Péche, a shadow comedy, with changes of scene, has just been printed: the title tells us that this piece was performed in society towards the end of 1767, epoch of the invention of the genre in France. It is to be hoped that we shall soon have a complete repertoire of such pieces. (Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm et de Diderot, 1753-90) 12
So perhaps we should turn to the French more for creative PR than for theatrical innovation, although the French are certainly not the only addicts to this vice: at a Lebanese Maronite kebab shop on the Dutch border, where I sheltered for several days some time ago, it was impressed on me that it was the (Ottoman) Turks, not the Italians, who invented the pizza.
- Le Roi’s Histoire de Versailles (1868), also popular and evidence-free, downgrades Séraphin from inventor to the “true founder of perfected Chinese shadows,” and says that he began at Versailles in 1780, that the Spectacle des Enfants de France was granted in 1781, and that he moved to the Palais-Royal at the end of 1781. Les pupazzi noirs, ombres animées (1896), used by some, gives a ben trovato but baseless description of a 1784 opening, apparently featuring Mozin Senior (born 1769) on harpsichord. ↩
- English: “developed and popularised shadow plays in France. The art form would go on to be copied across Europe… Séraphin is seen as the most important figure in the development of the art form.” Etc. ↩
- I think this refers to the (theatrical) tradition of elderly hunchbacked misers chasing gorgeous young things – e.g. Pantalone in the commedia dell’arte – rather than to any physical infirmity. Unfortunately no portrait of Mrs. Séraphin survives.
Mid-18th century Doccia porcelain Pantalone from the V&A. ↩
- Feux pyrites, a malapropism for (the tautologous) feux pyriques, Pyrrhic fires, aka feux arabesques: images projected using a magic lantern, and animated, perhaps by moving one painted glass slide in front of another fixed one, or perhaps by using a hand-cranked version of this convection-driven apparatus from around 1800. Mathurin Régnier‘s 1613-ish Satire XI suggests that image carousels had been revolving around light sources for some time:
a bright lantern
With which some confectioner amuses children,
Where trussed-up geese, small monkeys, and elephants,
Dogs, cats, hares, foxes and many strange beasts
Run, one after another
une lanterne vive
Dont quelque pâtissier amuse les enfants,
Où des oisons bridés, guenuches, éléphants,
Chiens, chats, lièvres, renards et mainte étrange bête
Courent l’une après l’autre
19th century incarnations, sometimes combining kaleidoscopy (keyword: chromatropy) with shadow puppetry, persisted until the beginning of cinema:
Some German rambling on the this and other optical illusions:
- Sacre bleu! He didn’t even invent it, and watch him trying to use the state to kill off the competition! ↩
- The preceding pygmy spectacle also sounds good. More Gallic dwarves some other time. ↩
- Zackebrette: “What modern Jews call [a psalterion] we call a Zacke-Bret” (Curieuses und Reales Natur-Kunst-Berg-Gewerck- und Handlungs-Lexicon (1731)), so I think it’s a Hackbrett, a kind of hammer dulcimer. ↩
- The playbill cited in Loughridge’s #13 may have meant that such shadow puppetry had never been seen before in Germany, but is more likely to have referred to Nuremberg. ↩
- Altick, The Shows of London (1978) says that Séraphin’s USP was the use of clockwork. Unfortunately I can’t see his source, and Kotzebue and other 18th century sources don’t support the notion. ↩
- Jouer des proverbes: a society game where the party has to guess the proverb played out by one of their number. ↩
- Grimm’s satire on French operatic decadence, Le petit prophète de Boehmischbroda (1753), is also justly famous, and contains a chapter on marionettes. ↩
The latest barrel organ news from Hackney, London.
Samuel Butler on a writer of doggerel.
In Part 2, Canto 3 of Hudibras we discover more about Sidrophel the astrologer, and about Whachum, his fool & apprentice. Ctrl+F “poetaster” to cut to the crap:
A paultry wretch he had, half-starv’d,
That him in place of Zany serv’d.
Hight WHACHUM, bred to dash and draw, 325
Not wine, but more unwholesome law
To make ‘twixt words and lines huge gaps,
Wide as meridians in maps;
To squander paper, and spare ink,
And cheat men of their words, some think. 330
From this, by merited degrees,
He’d to more high advancement rise;
To be an under-conjurer,
A journeyman astrologer.
His business was to pump and wheedle, 335
And men with their own keys unriddle;
And make them to themselves give answers,
For which they pay the necromancers;
To fetch and carry intelligence,
Of whom, and what, and where, and whence, 340
And all discoveries disperse
Among th’ whole pack of conjurers
What cut-purses have left with them
For the right owners to redeem;
And what they dare not vent find out, 345
To gain themselves and th’ art repute;
Draw figures, schemes, and horoscopes,
Of Newgate, Bridewell, brokers’ shops,
Of thieves ascendant in the cart;
And find out all by rules of art; 350
Which way a serving-man, that’s run
With cloaths or money away, is gone:
Who pick’d a fob at holding forth;
And where a watch, for half the worth,
May be redeem’d; or stolen plate 355
Restor’d at conscionable rate.
Beside all this, he serv’d his master
In quality of poetaster;
And rhimes appropriate could make
To ev’ry month i’ th almanack 360
What terms begin and end could tell,
With their returns, in doggerel;
When the exchequer opes and shuts,
And sowgelder with safety cuts
When men may eat and drink their fill, 365
And when be temp’rate, if they will;
When use and when abstain from vice,
Figs, grapes, phlebotomy, and spice.
And as in prison mean rogues beat
Hemp for the service of the great, 370
So WHACHUM beats his dirty brains,
T’ advance his master’s fame and gains
And, like the Devil’s oracles,
Put into doggrel rhimes his spells,
Which, over ev’ry month’s blank page 375
I’ th’ almanack, strange bilks presage.
He would an elegy compose
On maggots squeez’d out of his nose;
In lyrick numbers write an ode on
His mistress, eating a black-pudden: 380
And when imprison’d air escap’d her,
It puft him with poetic rapture.
His sonnets charm’d th’ attentive crowd,
By wide-mouth’d mortal troll’d aloud,
That ‘circl’d with his long-ear’d guests, 385
Like ORPHEUS look’d among the beasts.
A carman’s horse could not pass by,
But stood ty’d up to poetry:
No porter’s burthen pass’d along,
But serv’d for burthen to his song: 390
Each window like a pill’ry appears,
With heads thrust through, nail’d by the ears
All trades run in as to the sight
Of monsters, or their dear delight
The gallow tree, when cutting purse 395
Breeds bus’ness for heroic verse,
Which none does hear, but would have hung
T’ have been the theme of such a song.
Twenty years ago some of Hudibras might have seemed a bit wearisome for those of us who missed the English Civil War and the Protectorate, but now iconoclasm, fancy dress and threadbare flags are back in fashion there’s surely little as relevant and nothing as well written.
A News-monger is a Retailer of Rumour, that takes up upon Trust, and sells as cheap as he buys. He deals in a perishable Commodity, that will not keep: for if it be not fresh it lies upon his Hands, and will yield nothing. True or false is all one to him; for Novelty being the Grace of bothe, a Truth grows stale as soon as a Lye…
The latest organ-grinder news from Hackney, London.
Twitter’s death agony probably won’t continue for very long, so I’ve written a PHP script to parse their JSON output and post it here. I’ll improve presentation when I’ve got a mo.
Translations from Welsh and Yiddish revealing ornithomancy amongst the 19th century north Welsh and Jewish Lithuanians.
One day about A. D. 550 the blackheaded gulls, flying as usual along the coast of Wales, and scanning the sea sharply for food or any- thing else interesting to a gull, found floating in a coracle — a round, wicker work canoe — a human baby a day or two old, contentedly asleep on a pallet made of a folded purple cloth. Several gulls seized the corners of this cloth and so carried the child to the ledge of the Welsh cliff where they nested, plucked feathers from their breasts to make a soft bed, laid the baby on it, then hastened to fly inland and bring a doe to provide it with milk, for which an angel offered a brazen bell as a cup. There the blessed waif lived for several months; but one day, in the absence of all the gulls, a shepherd discovered the infant and took him down to his hut and his kind wife. The gulls, returning from the sea, heard of this act from the doe. They at once rushed to the shepherd’s cottage, again lifted the babe by the corners of its purple blanket, and bore him back to the ledge of their sea-fronting crag. There he stayed until he had grown to manhood — a man full of laughter and singing and kind words; and the Welsh peasants of the Gower Peninsula revered him and called him Saint Kenneth. 1
Tradition has it that the only Welsh understood by living members of my family is “Here is the news in Welsh,” but here’s a bash at the last of several amusing anecdotes told by David Evans of Carmarthen about a mid-19th century north Welsh patrilineal forebear:
Simon Jones used to get awfully angry with superstitious folk who believed in ghosts, corpse candles and birds etc., but once something happened that shook his faith too. His sister Mary was languishing with tuberculosis and he was called home from Sheffield. On reaching Bala it was already late and he had to walk home to Llanuwchlyn through the dense trees on the Llanycil side of the lake. He was into the trees when suddenly, with uncanny accuracy, a big bird flew past and smote the hat from his head. As if this wasn’t unnerving enough, the bird came past again, wailing terribly, and struck off his hat once more. Now he knew this to be a portent of the certain death of his sister. He crept in terror to Lon, where he found his parents praying, and Ap Vychan watching over Mary. He could not refrain from telling Robert Thomas what he had seen and heard on the road, but to avoid hurting his sister Mary he told his tale in English. Mary understood the word “bird”, and she read in the face of her brother an impression of terror in his telling, so she asked Robert Thomas, after Simon Jones had gone out, “What was Simon, my brother, saying to you, Robert, about a ‘bird’?” He judged it better simply to reveal the story to her, but she, like the common people, who thrust disagreeable things, and death in particular, far from them, said, “Oh, ‘right’ sure I am that we’ll hear in the next few days of the death of our sister-in-law in Sheffield.” That woman was indeed quite poorly at the time, but Mary got the first call after all. 2
I saw a white bird up in the black night
And knew that time would soon put out the light
Of my eyes in the black night. 3
You will know about the serinette and otherwise named mechanical musical instruments which were used to teach melodies to finches. But you may not be aware of the small birds which, working from on top of larger organs, created an extra revenue stream by selecting fortune cards, which were sometimes accompanied by little prizes in unregulated lotteries. Uriah Katzenelenbogen 4 on Russian imperial Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century:
Birzh was a center of Jewish organ-grinders, in Birzh referred to as loyerleit, certainly originating from the German word Leierkastnman [barrel organ man]. However, in Birzh the word leierman was not connected to the German word leiern [to crank] (play on a barrel organ), but with loyern [to lie in wait for]–to ransack, to wander.
Near Chanukah, scores and scores of Jews with their organs and with small animals and birds–squirrels, white mice and parrots that would draw slips of paper with fortunes from a box–would set out from Birzh through the villages and cities. Rich organ-grinders even had monkeys, a small bear. They would lay aside their barrel organs, animals and little birds and be middle class like everyone else. They would come home at the time of the Days of Awe when, incidentally, the substantial mud started and it was not easy to wander. On simkhas torah, they would carry the old rabbi to the synagogue and celebrate with the Torah.
The organ-grinders’ wives showed off their large earrings and golden bracelets and colorful wide clothing. I remember these women–with open full faces, but with their sad eyes. Their wandering husbands left them in a more permanent loneliness than the wives whose husbands were in America or Africa. The “American women” and the “African women” hoped that they would soon join their husbands. I think that because of their association with monkeys and exotic birds, jaunty young organ-grinders would leave for [South] Africa and Australia in an easier frame of mind than the other young Birzher men. 5
I have found piglets and parrots performing this work for organ-grinders, but as yet no such anecdote with Simon Jones’ personal charm. Suggestions?
Update: I remember that Andreas Pum, the WWI veteran turned organ-grinder in Joseph Roth’s Die Rebellion, gets a parrot called Ignatz to help him in his last job as toilet attendant. It is precisely what he would have liked previously for his barrel organ—except that it doesn’t tell fortunes. He also has a moving relationship with small birds while imprisoned.
- Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in legend, fable and folklore (1923). I also saw my first pair of choughs, or King Arthur and friend pace Ingersoll. ↩
- She died, presumably of tuberculosis, in 1837. Simon Jones, perhaps building on the Sheffield connection (cutlery!), later had a shop in Bala, but unfortunately George Borrow only had eyes for the Anglicans when in 1854 (Wild Wales) he stayed at the White Lion at Bala and went to church in Llanuwchllyn.
Comparison of source and target will reveal that I have adopted common practice among (literary) translators of lonely languages and omitted a phrase that was beyond me—”elai o’i bwyll ar darawiad wrth wrando straeon gwrachïaidd felly, a dywedai, ‘O! yr heu gacen bwci baw.'” I also wonder whether the “religious fellowship” in “Ymlusgodd i’r Lon, a braw arno, a chafodd fod ei rieni yn y gyfeillach grefyddol, ac Ap Vychan yn gwarchod gyda Mary” isn’t more than a way of saying that the parents are praying. And then there are the unknown unknowns. Any assistance gratefully received. ↩
- Translation by A.Z. Foreman. ↩
- “Cat’s elbows”: perhaps the only way of explaining, in the light of the subsequent enthusiastic collaboration of Lithuanian nationalists with the Nazis, how a Jew could have ever identified with their cause to the extent Uriah did. ↩
- JewishGen, in Gloria Berkenstat Freund’s translation. ↩
Organ-grinding in Hackney, London.