Is the Cibber piper in the V&A a notorious plague-pit drunkard?

Featuring O du lieber Augustin, the Thomases Dekker and Middleton, Daniel Defoe and various disreputable beggars and foreigners.

Statue + story

A serendipity in The flowers of literature (1824) links the sculpture portrayed above to a story:

THE BAGPIPER.

In a garden, on the terrace in Totteuham-court-road, is a statue, which is an original work of the famous Caius Gabriel Cibber, the father of Colley Cibber.

The statue in question is executed on a fine free-stone, representing a Bagpiper in a sitting posture, playing on his pipes, with his dog and keg of liquor by his side, the latter of which stands upon a neat stone pedestal.

The following singular history is attached to its original execution. During the great plague of London, carts were sent round the city each night, the drivers of which rung a bell, as intimation for every house to bring out its dead. The bodies were then thrown promiscuously into the cart, and conveyed to a little distance in the environs, where deep ditches were dug, in which they were deposited.

The piper (as represented in the statue) had his constant stand at the bottom of Holborn, near St. Andrew’s church. He became well known about the neighbourhood, and picked up a living from the passengers going that way, who generally threw him a few pence as the reward of his musical talents. A certain gentleman, who never failed in his generosity to the piper, was surprised, on passing one day as usual, to miss him from his accustomed place:—upon inquiry, he found that the poor man had been taken ill in consequence of a very singular accident. On the joyful occasion of the arrival of one of his countrymen from the Highlands, the piper had in fact made too free with the contents of his keg: these so overpowered his faculties, that he stretched himself out upon the steps of the church, and fell fast asleep. These were not times to sleep on church steps with impunity. He was found in this situation when the dead cart went its rounds; and the carter supposing of course, as the most likely thing in every way, that the man was dead, made no scruple to put his fork under the piper’s belt, and, with some assistance, hoisted him into his vehicle, which was nearly full, with the charitable intention that our Scotch musician should share the usual brief ceremonies of interment. The piper’s faithful dog protested against the seizure of his master, and attempted to prevent the unceremonious removal; but, failing of success, he fairly jumped into the cart after him, to the no small annoyance of the men, whom he would not suffer to come near the body; he further took upon himself the office of chief mourner, by setting up the most lamentable howling as they passed along.

The streets and roads by which they had to go being very rough, the jolting of the cart, added to the howling of the dog, had soon the effect of awakening our drunken musician from his trance. It was dark; and the piper, when he first recovered himself, could form no idea either of his numerous companions or his conductors. Instinctively, however, he felt about for his pipes, and playing up a merry Scotch tune, terrified, in no small measure, the carters, who fancied they had got a legion of ghosts in their conveyance. A little time, however, put all to rights;—lights were got, and it turned out that the noisy corpse was the well-kno’wn living piper, who was joyfully released from his awful and perilous situation. The poor man fell badly ill after this unpleasant excursion, and was relieved, during his malady, by his former benefactor, who, to perpetuafe the remembrance of so wonderful an escape, resolved, as soon as his patient had recovered, to employ a sculptor to execute him on stone—not omitting his faithful dog, keg of liquor, &c.

The famous Caius Gabriel Cibber was then in high’ repute, from the circumstance of his having executed the beautiful figures which originally were placed on the entrance gate of old Bethlem Hospital; and the statue in question of the Highland bagpiper remains an additional specimen of the merits of this great artist.

It was long after purchased by John the great duke of Argyll, and came from his collection, at his decease, into the possession of the present proprietor.

The statue

The V&A says:

This is a fine example of late 17th-century garden sculpture; its weathered surface is evidence of its exposure to the elements. The subject may be related to genre works produced by the Netherlandish sculptor Pieter Xavery (active 1667-1674), and connections have also been suggested with the bronze statuettes by Giambologna (1529-1608). 1 The sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700) was a native of Denmark, and also studied in the Netherlands and Rome, before settling in England in the 1650s. He was appointed Sculptor in Ordinary to William III, in 1693. Cibber introduced a fluent style of sculpture, as well as new figurative subjects into Britain, thanks to his training in Europe

[…]

This work was probably made for the Duke of Argyll, as it was housed at his house in Whitton for 100 years. It was then moved to 178 Tottenham Court Road occupied by the studio of a sculptor named Hinchliff. Later it was under the possession of Hinchliff’s son, with whom it remained until ca. 1835. At some point it was removed to Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. It was included in the Stowe sale of 1848, sold as lot 134 for £38 17s 0d to a Mr. J Browne. Re-purchased by Mr. Mark Philips. Then in the gardens at Snitterfield, Mr Philip’s seat at Warwickshire. Later in the possession of Sir George Trevelyan at Welcombe. Then included in the sale of garden ornaments held by Sotheby’s in 1929 and bought in for 115. It was then acquired by the museum by private treaty, via Alfred Spero and Kerin Ltd, London in 1930 for 150.

Nothing about plagues or drunks there (though the keg is clearly visible), and, on the other hand, there is no mention of statues in most versions of…

The story

The Viennese myth of der liebe Augustin was fabricated by the prolific historical fantasist, Moritz Bermann, and published in Alt-Wien in Geschichte und Sage in 1865. It combines and locates in Vienna two items with no demonstrable link to one another or to the Austrian capital: firstly, the late 18th century popular song about a beloved and probably fictional wastrel:

Oh you darling Augustine,
Money’s gone, it’s all gone!
2

… and secondly, a much older story about a different person’s drunken escape from a plague pit, and it’s the story we’re interested in. A marketing genius, his creation speaks to the Viennese view of themselves as down-to-earth and darkly humorous (there may have been more truth in that before the empire tumbled in 1914), 3 and his invention still furnishes hope to modern tourists suffering from a surfeit of Habsburgs.

Bermann claims that he has exclusive access to a chronicle of the life of a Max Augustin, who is born in 1643 into a Viennese family of innkeepers. Shunning work, Max earns his living as an itinerant bagpiper in the city’s most disreputable taverns. One night in the plague year of 1679 he is staggering along singing a particularly gloomy version of the title song when he falls into a plague pit. The following morning, having sobered up, he plays his pipes to attract the attention of the corpse carriers, and goes on to die less sensationally in 1705.

Unfortunately for Bermann, the same story, featuring a nameless bagpiper, turns up in Paul de Sorbait’s 1679 Pest-Ordnung, which consists of the plague notes of a fellow Viennese physician, Johann Wilhelm Mannagetta, who died in 1666, 13 years before Max Agustin’s plague. 4 I can’t find the 1679 edition online, so here’s the 1681 reissue:

The same story is told of a bagpiper, who, having fallen asleep in the tavern, was taken for a plague-death, and thrown into the pits on top of other uncovered bodies, but he woke up, and reaching around him, supposed that these were those with whom he had been drinking, and hence to enliven them he pulled his pipes out of the bag and blew, causing no little fright to the corpse carrier who was arriving with another body.

Der gleichen Geschicht erzehlet man auch von einem Sackpfeiffer, welcher im Wirtshauß entschlaffen, für einen Pest-verstorbenen gehalten, und in die Gruben auff andere unbedeckte Cörper geworffen, da er aber erwachte, und umb sich griffen, vermeinte, daß es die jenige wären, mit welchen er getruncken, derowegen vermeinte sie zu ermuntern, zoge auß dem Sack seine Pfeiffe herfür und pfieffe, dardurch dann die mit einer andern Leich ankommende Todtenträger nicht wenig erschreckt hat.

Mannagetta mentions other interments of the undead in Italy (including a woman who gives birth to twins), this kind of thing is quite common in Italian literature (think of the Decameron), and the whole story may well be a southern import, or from Indian, like most things. However, Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is in no doubt that it took place in London, not Vienna, and in 1666, again before Bermann’s date:

It was under this John Hayward’s care, and within his bounds, that the story of the piper, with which people have made themselves so merry, happened, and he assured me that it was true. It is said that it was a blind piper; but, as John told me, the fellow was not blind, but an ignorant, weak, poor man, and usually walked his rounds about ten o’clock at night and went piping along from door to door, and the people usually took him in at public-houses where they knew him, and would give him drink and victuals, and sometimes farthings; and he in return would pipe and sing and talk simply, which diverted the people; and thus he lived. It was but a very bad time for this diversion while things were as I have told, yet the poor fellow went about as usual, but was almost starved; and when anybody asked how he did he would answer, the dead cart had not taken him yet, but that they had promised to call for him next week.

It happened one night that this poor fellow, whether somebody had given him too much drink or no—John Hayward said he had not drink in his house, but that they had given him a little more victuals than ordinary at a public-house in Coleman Street—and the poor fellow, having not usually had a bellyful for perhaps not a good while, was laid all along upon the top of a bulk or stall, and fast asleep, at a door in the street near London Wall, towards Cripplegate-, and that upon the same bulk or stall the people of some house, in the alley of which the house was a corner, hearing a bell which they always rang before the cart came, had laid a body really dead of the plague just by him, thinking, too, that this poor fellow had been a dead body, as the other was, and laid there by some of the neighbours.

Accordingly, when John Hayward with his bell and the cart came along, finding two dead bodies lie upon the stall, they took them up with the instrument they used and threw them into the cart, and, all this while the piper slept soundly.

From hence they passed along and took in other dead bodies, till, as honest John Hayward told me, they almost buried him alive in the cart; yet all this while he slept soundly. At length the cart came to the place where the bodies were to be thrown into the ground, which, as I do remember, was at Mount Mill; and as the cart usually stopped some time before they were ready to shoot out the melancholy load they had in it, as soon as the cart stopped the fellow awaked and struggled a little to get his head out from among the dead bodies, when, raising himself up in the cart, he called out, ‘Hey! where am I?’ This frighted the fellow that attended about the work; but after some pause John Hayward, recovering himself, said, ‘Lord, bless us! There’s somebody in the cart not quite dead!’ So another called to him and said, ‘Who are you?’ The fellow answered, ‘I am the poor piper. Where am I?’ ‘Where are you?’ says Hayward. ‘Why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you.’ ‘But I an’t dead though, am I?’ says the piper, which made them laugh a little though, as John said, they were heartily frighted at first; so they helped the poor fellow down, and he went about his business.

I know the story goes he set up his pipes in the cart and frighted the bearers and others so that they ran away; but John Hayward did not tell the story so, nor say anything of his piping at all; but that he was a poor piper, and that he was carried away as above I am fully satisfied of the truth of.

And the only earlier published source I can find for the story is also British: Thomas Middleton & Thomas Dekker’s The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie: Or, The Walkes in Powles (1604), which deals with the 1603 London plague outbreak. Its form is even simpler than Mannagetta/Sorbait: the drunkard dumped in the plague pit has neither name nor bagpipes:

[T]his that I discourse of now is a prettie merrie accident that happened about Shoreditch, although the intent was Sad and Tragicall, yet the euent was mirthfull and pleasant: The goodman (or rather as I may fitlier tearme him, the bad-man of a House) being sorely pesterd with the death of seruants, and to auoyde all suspition of the Pestilence from his house aboue all others, did very craftily and subtilly compound with the Maisters of the Pest-cart, to fetch away by night as they hast by, all that should chance to die in his house, hauing three or foure seruants downe at once, and told them that he knew one of them would be readie for them by that time the Cart came by, and to cleare his house of all suspition, the dead body should bee laide upon a stall, some fiue or sixe houses of: where, there they should entertaine him and take him in amongst his dead companions: To conclude, night drewe on-ward, and the seruant concluded his life, and according to their appointment was enstalde to be made Knight of the Pest-cart. But here comes in the excellent Jest, Gentlemen-Gallants of fiue and twentie, about the darke and pittifull season of the night: a shipwracke drunkard, (or one drunke at the signe of the Ship,) new cast from the shore of an Alehouse, and his braines sore beaten with the cruell tempests of Ale and Beere, fell Flounce vpon a lowe stall hard by the house, there being little difference in the Carcasse, for the other was dead, and he was deaddrunke, (the worse death of the twaine) there taking vp his drunking Lodging, and the Pest-cart comming by, they made no more adoo, but taking him for the dead Bodie, placed him amongst his companions, and away they hurred with him to the Pest-house: but there is an oulde Prouerbe, and now confirmed true, a Druncken man neuer takes harme: to the Approbation of which, for all his lying with infectious Bedfellowes, the next morning a little before he should be buried, he stretcht and yawnde as wholesomly, as the best Tinker in all Banburie, and returned to his olde Vomit againe, and was druncke in Shoreditch before Euening.

However, Johann Heinrich von Falckenstein, Civitatis Erffurtensis historia critica et diplomatica (1739) 5 claims to have seen documents showing that in 1517 a drunken beggar called fell into and escaped from a plague pit without the aid of bagpipes (dodgy translation?):

Around Michaelmas there arose in the city a great mortality from a plague outbreak. At the Canons Regular [i.e. the Augustinians], 60 bodies were put in a pit in one go. The hole was covered over at night with boards. There was at the time in Erfurt a beggar, a rogue called Schuch, who that evening wanders drunkenly through the churchyard and arrives at the board-covered pit, in which the dead bodies were laid in layers; and since the boards weren’t fixed properly, the drunken Schuch falls in. But because he was so drunk that he could no longer hear nor see, he remained lying among the dead as one of them. When he wakes up in the morning he imagines he is lying somewhere else and reached around him; but, perceiving that he found himself among the dead, he began to lament: and although the people in the neighbourhood heard him, no one dared to go to him, since they believed that it was one of the dead who had come back to life, or that the noise and wailing came from a ghost. But around nine o’clock when new corpses were brought to the pit to be buried, they found in it the rogue, the beggar Schuch.

Um Michaelis erhub sich in der Stadt ein grosses Sterben von der eingerissenen Pestilenz. Zum Reglern legete man auf einmahl in eine Grube 60. Cörper. Das Loch legete man des Nachts zu mit Bretern. Da war nun damahls in Erfurt ein Bettler, ein Grundschalck, Schuch genannt, derselbe gehet des Abends besoffen über den Kirchhof, und kommt zu der mit Bretern oben bedeckten Grube, worein die todten Cörper Schichten weise geleget wurden; indem nun die Breter nicht allzufest geleget waren, so fällt der besoffene Schuch hinein. Weil er aber so sehr bezecht war, daß er von feinen Sinnen nicht wußte, also blieb er auch unter denen Todten, gleich als ein Todter mitliegen. Wie er des Morgens erwachet, vermeint er, er liege an einem anderen Orte, grieff um sich; wie er aber wahrnahm, daß er sich unter denen Todten befande, fing er an zu lamentiren: Und ob es schon die Leute in der Nachbahrschafft höreten, so getrauete sich doch niemand hinzu zugehen, weilen fie vermeinten, es wäre einer von denen Todten entweder wieder lebendig geworden, oder das Getöß und Lamentiren komme von einem Gespenste her. Als man aber gegen neun Uhr wiederum Verstorbene zur Grube brachte, um dieselbe dahinein zu begraben, so fand man den Grundschalck, den Bettler Schuch darinnen.

A motif summary:

Questions

  1. Is there any prior information linking Cibber’s statue with the plague, or is the story published in The flowers of literature merely a charming falsehood like Bermann’s?
  2. Wouldn’t a copy of the statue, complete with a plaque with the story, true or false, work rather well on the pedestrianised junction of Tottenham Court Road with Howland Street, opposite 178? You could advertise the V&A & add a silver lining to the dreadful shadow cast by the Bloomsbury Group over the touristic prospects of the area. Calling Linus Rees and Fitzrovia News… This vulgar Orpheus would of course be happy to contribute songs of death and disaster at the unveiling.
  3. How many small mammals would we have to add to the story before it overtook the Pied Piper of Hamelin?
  4. Does the story tie up with the not entirely pointless tradition of (annoying) beggars, spoons virtuosi and amped guitarists being killed or humiliated as scapegoats? For example, this note in Charpentier (trans.), Oeuvres complètes de Virgile (1831):

    When the plague raged in Marseille, a miserable person, a beggar was chosen, who, after having been fed and fattened at the expense of the public purse, was sacrificed.

    Lorsque la peste régnait à Marseille, on choisissait un misérable, un mendiant, qui, après, avoir été nourri et engraissé aux frais du trésor public, était sacrifié.

    Or Philostratus, Life of Apollonius:

    when the plague began to rage in Ephesus, and no remedy sufficed to check it, they sent a deputation to Apollonius, asking him to become physician of their infirmity; and he thought that he ought not to postpone his journey, but said: “Let us go.”

    And forthwith he was in Ephesus, performing the same feat, I believe, as Pythagoras, who was in Thurii and Metapontum at one and the same moment. He therefore called together the Ephesians, and said: “Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.”

    And with these words he led the population entire to the the theater, where the image of the Averting god has been set up. And there he saw what seemed an old mendicant artfully blinking his eyes as if blind, as he carried a wallet and a crust of bread in it; and he was clad in rags and was very squalid of countenance. Apollonius therefore ranged the Ephesians around him and said: “Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.”

    Now the Ephesians wondered what he meant, and were shocked at the idea of murdering a stranger so manifestly miserable; for he was begging and praying them to take mercy upon him. Nevertheless Apollonius insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on him and not let him go. And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.

    After a little pause Apollonius bade them remove the stones and acquaint themselves with the wild animal they had slain. When therefore they had exposed the object which they thought they had thrown their missiles at, they found that he had disappeared and instead of him there was a hound who resembled in form and look a Molossian dog, but was in size the equal of the largest lion; there he lay before their eyes, pounded to a pulp by their stones and vomiting foam as mad dogs do. Accordingly the statue of the Averting god, Heracles, has been set up over the spot where the ghost was slain.

Stuff

  1. I thought of the 16th century Pfeifferbrunnen (piper fountain) statue in Berne, which has a goose instead of a dog.



  2. James J. Fuld, The Book of World-famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (2000) is pretty good on the tune, though I think his first date is 10 years early. A couple of early dates:

    See also Polly put the kettle on, which sounds to me like a parody of the German song, and other stuff like Did you ever see a lassie and Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt, and I’ve heard of a Czech version.

  3. Freud’s story in Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud. Life and Work, Vol. 2 (1955) about the young Mahler rushing out onto the street to escape warring parents and being confronted with an organ-grinder playing “Ach, du lieber Augustin” is probably less about who he was than about who he wanted to be – a transfigurer of the commonplace.
  4. Via Gertraud Schaller-Pressler in Wien, Musikgeschichte: Volksmusik und Wienerlied (2006).
  5. Via Johannes Nohl, Der schwarze Tod – Eine Chronik der Pest 1348 bis 1720 (1st ed. 1924). Nohl also mentions one Kumpan in 1549 Danzig/Gdansk, who I haven’t managed to trace.