Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature

ii. Gossip Redux

 It is perhaps unfair to ancient literature to say that it was totally impervious to the gossip of daily life. We really know very little ancient literature. Not only was writing the monopoly of a privileged caste, but it was the most pedantic and conventional members of that caste who decided how much of it would survive. Priests preserved whatever they thought was seemly in whatever was written down in Egypt or in Israel. Schoolmasters decided, as the Roman empire declined and fell, and sources of parchment and of literate scribes dried up, which of the texts of classical Greece and Rome were worth the effort of recopying. Uncounted masterpieces have been utterly lost and it may be that some of them would have contained genuine stretches of what the ancient Egyptians and Greeks were actually talking about among themselves.

 I doubt that there would be much, however. Gossip can be great fun, but part of its appeal is that it is irresponsible, what you say today does not bind you to what you will say or do tomorrow. In illiterate cultures today as in ancient Egypt and Greece, there is a distinct line between what is bandied around for the moment and what is considered worthy of being repeated. Hundreds of private letters have been found, reserved by the desert sands of Egypt, and they show that family life under the Ptolemies and the Romans revolved among much the same fads and feuds as it does today, but no professional writer would have had any interest in using such material.

 Anglo-Saxon soldiers getting drunk on beer in the hall of the King of Northumbria might have plenty of lively things to say about the Mercian skulls they cracked in the last battle with the King of Mercia, or how many Mercian girls remained to be picked up and raped in local villages. When a professional minstrel came to entertain them, they didn't want to hear about that, they wanted stories about ancestors like Beowulf who a long time ago had slaughtered monsters in Denmark.  

 In the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, only the clergy wrote, and most of these were monks writing in scattered monasteries with no connection to academies such as had once regulated taste in Athens or Rome. Most of the monks' time was spent copying older writings. Precisely because they were cut off from the libraries and academies, on the rare occasions when they had something to write for themselves, like lives of their patron saints, they had little to go on but what they knew in their isolated local communities, and so almost in spite of themselves they became the precursors of realistic fiction. Lives of the saints are mostly full of standard miracles set off in some featureless other world. At times, however, having little knowledge of what was going on in the great world, the monks had no choice but to put in some objects and people they were familiar with, local scenes, what we call local color.

 A typical story is the one that was told to pilgrims when they made their way to the great basilica of Conques in the hill country of southwestern France, over the tortuous route through the mountains which led to the shrine of Santiago de Campostella in Spain: The aim of the story was to explain how the bones of Saint Foy, patron of the establishment, came to be brought from the prosperous Roman city of Agen, site of her martyrdom, to the monastery of Conques far up in the barren trackless hills.. The saint herself, a young Gallo-Roman girl named Fides, or Faith, had been arrested by the Roman authorities when her Christian conscience would not let her worship the emperor as a god. They stripped her naked in the amphitheater, and a cloud came down from heaven to shield her from their dirty eyes. Nevertheless, they tortured her and killed her and cut off her head. Her bones, piously collected by her fellow Christians were preserved in a shrine at a monastery in Agen, and there they soon began to work miracles. Over succeeding centuries, the lame and the blind and sufferers of all sorts flocked to the shrine, and their offerings made the monastery one of the richest in all Gaul.

 A hundred miles or so away in the mountains, at Conques, there was another monastery, perched on a little ledge overlooking a savage ravine, and here the monks lived poorly in makeshift buildings with few visitors and little fame. They studied the situation carefully and groomed one of their more promising novices, whom they sent to Agen to enter the monastery there. He was soon marked out for his piety and zeal, and performed all the tasks assigned him with such modest and uncomplaining efficiency that he was rewarded by being made custodian of the bones of St. Foy.

 That very night he put the bones in a sack and when everyone else was asleep, he climbed the wall and took off for the mountains. Search parties were not fast enough to catch up with him, and he made it safely back to Conques. The bones were put in a new shrine, and began working miracles on a scale which attracted pilgrims in ever-increasing numbers to the desolate ledge and eventually made it one of the greatest religious and cultural centers of medieval Christendom. Over the shrine enclosing the little girl’s bones was built a noble and richly decorated church which is cherished as one of the glories of Romanesque art.

 Modern readers coming upon this story for the first time are apt to think that it was a piece of malicious gossip put out by enemies of the monks of Conques and meant to discredit their monastery. In the 9th century, when the bones were said to have made their journey, there was a different way of looking at things. Ages of Faith are in many respects far more materialistic than Ages of Reason like our own, and for the practical minds of 9th-century monks it was clear that St. Foy had actively supported the whole operation. If she had not wanted her bones in Conques she would have struck the young man dead when he touched them. But look at all the valuable objects brought by pilgrims which began crowding the monastery, visible evidence Saint Foy was pleased with what had been done. The story was enthusiastically repeated to all comers, and still appears in the official guidebook to the splendid monument, without a word to suggest that it was anything but a record of sanctity in action.

 The monks of Conques wanted a statue of St. Foy worthy of her glory and the glory of the basilica they had built around her bones. They had a carpenter among them who could shape a roughly rectangular body for her out of wood. But there was no one in that time and place who could make anything resembling a human head well enough to impress the worshipers. They searched around, and found one of the marble heads of Roman officials that were still lying among ancient ruins. It had great staring eyes and a jutting Mussoliniesque chin, it might have been a Roman emperor of the last period. They put the head on the body, covered both with jewels, and created one of the unforgettable works of medieval art.

 Just so, lacking any of the traditional rhetorical devices which had been worked out by the classical schools, the only way they knew how to write about their Saint was to gossip about her, tell the story of what was called the Translation of the Bones in the same matter-of-fact way they told the story of the wicked knight who tried to rob the monastery and was promptly thrown off his horse by unseen hands, broke his head and was dragged down to hell.

 It was a manner of story-telling that had no aspirations to literature, but had its own dignity and certainly its own popular appeal. By the time we get to the late Middle Ages, there is an unmistakable air of freedom in the literary air. Writers are writing less in schoolbook Latin and more in the national vernaculars, closer to the language in which people gossiped in the market place. The morality plays in which Adam and Eve, or the shepherds at the Nativity, joke and quarrel like the families and shepherds of French and English villages indicate a willingness to listen to everyday speech, copy its locutions and its rhythms, and above all, to take the people who use it seriously. They are not thrown in simply for comic relief.

 Dame Gossip's voice is at last entering the public domain. She is still there in a subordinate capacity. She is an attendant to the sacred drama, part of the church's educational program to bring to the people the significance of the Fall of Man or the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

 I believe that the first large-scale attempt to use the techniques of gossip independently, for purely literary purposes – for entertainment rather than instruction – can be found at the very edge of the known world, Iceland, in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was then that most of the Icelandic sagas were written, though the original stories on which they had been based had surely been circulating by word of mouth for years or generations.

 Iceland, the Thule of the ancients, the last outpost of the world, has always been a nurturing home for gossip. There is not much else to do in the long night that lasts all winter. The medieval Icelanders had particularly rich subject matter to occupy them. Their forefathers had come to this land only a few generations earlier, having built better boats and braved more dangerous seas than anyone in the previous history of mankind. They had grown rich on sheep-herding and on piracy, they went off on yearly plundering expeditions that might take them as far as Estonia or Constantinople, and so they had had a chance to see a great deal of the world.

 “Saga” means simply something said. What they had to say to each other in those endless nights was partly ancient mythology, tales of gods and heroes like Odin and Sigurd the Volsung (who would later appear in caricatural form as Wotan and Siegfried in the Wagner operas), partly semi-reliable chronicles of the kings of Norway. These accounts are derived from very formalized verses in which everything is said and done in very traditional ways, but by the time they have been talked over for a couple of hundred years in Iceland, something of the living language breaks through. Here for instance is the reply of King Eystein, engaged in a traditional boasting match with his brother King Sigurd Jerusalemfarer, who has been away crusading and performing mighty feats on the banks of the Jordan while his brother sat quietly back home in Norway:

 It is but little I have to set up against this. I have heard that you had several battles abroad, but it was more useful for the country what I was doing in the meantime here at home. In the north at Vaage I built fish-houses, so that all the poor people could earn a livelihood, and support themselves. I built there a priest's house, and endowed a church, where before all the people almost were heathen; and on this account I think all these people will remember that Eystein had been king in Norway The road from Drontheim goes over the Dovrefjelds, and many people had to sleep out of doors, and made a very severe journey; but I built hospices, and supported them with money; and all travelers know that Eystein has been king in Norway. Out at Agdaness was a barren waste, and no harbor, and many a ship was lost there; and now there is a good harbor and ship-station, and a church also built there. There I raised beacons on all the high fields, of which all the people in the interior enjoy the benefit....Now though all this that I have reckoned up be but small doings, yet I am not sure if the people of the country have not been better served by it than by your killing blue [Old Norse for some reason had no word for black] men in the land of the Saracens and sending them to hell.


 There may be a kernel of historic truth in this slanging match, but it is as much a literary composition as any Greek drama. Yet it is entirely different from Greek drama. We cannot imagine Agamemnon and Menelaus, who were also kingly brothers, talking like this about building huts for fishermen when they had so many royal murders rapes and incests to talk about. In the distant barbarian North we have somehow come closer to our everyday world.

 The most popular, and powerful,.of the sagas are the so-called family sagas, which are supposed to be the stories of the great-great-grandparents of the story tellers, in the heroic years following the first settlements in Iceland. They are written in a style so clear and simple and straightforward that modern readers coming to them for the first time are almost always convinced that they are literal eyewitness accounts of what their authors saw and heard in the great days of the Vikings. Modern Icelanders, who all feel sure they are personally descended from the saga heroes (though there is a gap of several centuries in the genealogical records) are firmly convinced of the historical accuracy of their stories, and will take you to see the very spot where Njal Thorgeirsson and his family were burned to death, and where Gunnar Hamondson, warned that his enemies were closing in on him, stopped on his way to the ship that was ready to take him away to safety abroad and looked out over his land and found it “so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair,” and stayed home and was killed.

 Open a family saga almost anywhere, and you will come across a passage like this, near the beginning of the Njalsaga, or Saga of Burnt Njal:

 Hoskuld told his daughter Hallgerd about the marriage deal. She said, “Now I have proof of what I have suspected for a long time: you do not love me as much as you have always said you do, since you did not think it worth while to ask me about this before hand. Besides, this is not as good a marriage as you have promised me.” It was obvious that she thought she was marrying beneath her. “Your pride”, said Hoskuld, “is not of such concern to me that I would let it interfere with any arrangements I make. I, and not you, will make the decisions whenever we differ.” “Pride”, said Hallgerd “is a thing you and your kinsmen have in plenty, so it is not surprising if I have some too.”


 The narrative goes on in this down-to-earth tone, as Hallgerd goes on to marry and murder her father’s choice of a husband, and then a second one. She marries a third, Gunnar Hamondson, and the day comes when he is fighting off a whole army of foes who are attacking his home, keeping them at bay with his bow and arrows. His bowstring is cut, and he asks Hallgerd to cut off two locks of her long golden hair, which flows below her knees, so that she and his mother can twist a new string out of it.

 “Does anything depend on it?” asked Hallgerd.

 “My life depends on it”, said Gunnar, “for they will never overcome me if I use my bow”.

 “In that case”, said Hallgerd, “I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not.”

 “To each his own way of earning fame”, said Gunnar. “You will not be asked again”.


 He goes on fighting with his axe against his assailants, wounding eight of them, but in the end weight of numbers kills him.

 It is the kind of fierce fight and noble death associated with heroes since mankind first began to admire heroes. What is new and unusual in the Icelandic tales is that Hoskuld and Gunnar and all the other characters who turn up as the drama unfolds are not demigods or kings of Mycenae. They are hard-working farmers, who may moonlight periodically as pirates, but who spend most of their time building fences and bringing in the hay. Yet the saga treats them and all the round of their daily lives with complete seriousness.

 The author of this as of other sagas makes a great point of providing detailed genealogies for his characters and having them participate in well-known historical events like the adoption of Christianity in Iceland in 1000 (the only country in which it was ever done by popular vote) and the battle of Clontarf in Ireland. Spoilsport scholars have demonstrated pretty convincingly that the story of Gunnar and Hallgerd, like all the other stories in the family sagas are not really family tales transmitted intact from generation to generation. They are historical fiction, based partly on more or less genuine family traditions but mostly created by the saga writers themselves out of their own personal experiences, or their miscellaneous reading in the books that were imported into Iceland. In the saga of Eric the Red, the Norsemen who have just discovered America around the year 1000 run into a one-legged creature, a uniped, which has popped straight out of the pages of the Encyclopedia of the 6th century Spanish Bishop Isidore of Seville, a best-seller through most of the Middle Ages.

 So many miraculous elements borrowed from old books appear in the stories of Eric the Red and his son Leif the Lucky that some of those spoilsports concluded that they were all idle romances, that Eric had never discovered Greenland or Leif North America. The discovery of Eric's farmhouse in Greenland, with a chapel set off at an uncomfortable distance just as the saga says the old heathen did to keep his wife from bothering him with her everlasting pious talk, and the discovery of Norse remains in Newfoundland indicate at least that the saga-writers had real people in mind.

 As for the Icelanders who listened to the stories, hour after hour, week after week, sipping what they could get in the way of liquor, they were hardly concerned with academic accuracy. Life was hard in the 13th century in Iceland which was entering a period of long decline, with old institutions breaking down in an atmosphere of random violence. People responded readily to the possibly inaccurate but very relevant stories of, say, Egil Skallagrimsson from the days when, at the age of six, he buried an axe in the skull of a ten-year-old boy who had treated him roughly in a ball-game, to the day when, grown old and impotent, bullied by maidservants, he put all the gold he had plundered in his lifetime into a sack and had to be forcibly restrained from taking it to Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was meeting, and scattering it among the crowds so that he could see one last bloody battle before he died.

 One of the things most often cited as an example of how the sagas are not be trusted is the story of the priest who dug up Egil's skull 150 years after his death and swung an axe at it but failed to dent it. Now comes the Scientific American (January 1995) to tell us that the thickness and hardness of the skull, and the scalloped ridges on top of it, as well as various characteristics of Egil's unbalanced and violent behavior, are all characteristic of the scientifically respectable Paget's Disease, symptoms of which have been found in Egyptian skulls three thousand years old. It can be unwise to sell Dame Gossip short.

 The population of Iceland sank to a few thousand at one point, in the “little Ice Age” of the 17th and 18th centuries, and there was talk of transporting the lot of them to Denmark. What held them together, they all say, was reading the magnificent gossip about Egil Skallagrimsson and their other ancestors. The day of most rejoicing in the recent history of the republic was the one when a Danish cruiser brought back the collection of saga manuscripts which had been carried off to Copenhagen long ago. It was surely one of Dame Gossip's finest hours.

 The Icelandic sagas did not have any effect on European literature till they began to be printed from old manuscripts in the 19th century. The general change of they represented, however, must have been widespread, because a similar shift from formal literary patterns to looser gossipy structures can be observed increasingly on the continent toward the end of the Middle Ages. Boccaccio's Decameron may be a turning point in world literature. Here is a collection of piquant, often scabrous, bits of gossip, not about Hebrew kings or barbarian chieftains, but about more or less anonymous Italians: gullible husbands, sex-starved hermits, dishonest tradesmen, nymphomaniac housewives, quite ordinary civilians, getting their way into and sometimes out of the ordinary scrapes of ordinary life. There had been plenty of such collections before, ragtag collections of what could be heard wherever people gathered; the Arabian Nights was such a collection. This time the stories were told with self-conscious art. Boccaccio found it natural to treat his commonplace characters and their disreputable acts with the elegance of style and psychological finesse that Dante brought to more serious themes like sin and redemption. 

 Boccaccio on his death-bed repented of having written the Decameron, just as Chaucer would repent of having written the equally scabrous Canterbury Tales, but the world had taken their message to heart. Gossip had found its way into the respectable world of belles lettres..


 Europe, and later the Europeanized two-thirds of the world has been getting richer, and, in its own opinion at any rate, more enlightened almost steadily year by year, certainly century by century. A sign of both is the spread of literacy to increasing levels of the population. One consequence is that literature is no longer a public art, designed to be declaimed on the stage, or from the pulpit, or before groups of admiring friends. It can be a private affair. Books could now be bought at a price within the reach of paupers, and they could be read in the privacy of the home, and every man (even on occasion woman) had free choice of the book to be picked off the shelves. It is possible for a man like Montaigne, though he was mayor of Bordeaux and had numerous important political missions to carry out, to spend a good part of his life alone in his study, noting down his own reflections on what he has seen and what he has read; gossiping with himself..

 Another consequence of the new social order is that people who in previous cultures would not have known how to hold a pen can now write letters or keep diaries with no regard for the current rules of rhetoric. Petronius's Trimalchio would never bother to learn how to sign his own name. In 17th century London a young man named Samuel Pepys, who is going to make a distinguished and profitable career in government service but who starts off as an impecunious easily bribable civil servant of a low rank can jot down the events of each day as it passes by, events like the Great Fire of London, where he sees everything including “the poor pigeons, loth to leave their homes, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, some broke their wings, and fell down” or great events of state:

 22d. To the 'Change, and there, being among the merchants, I hear fully the news of our being beaten to dirt at Guinny by De Ruyter with his fleete; it being most wholly to the utter ruin of our Royall Company, and reproach and shame to the whole nation


or little events like:


19th. Going to bed betimes last night we waked betimes, and from our people's being forced to take the key to go out to light a candle, I was very angry and began to find fault with my wife for not commanding her servants as she ought. Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I coying with her made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently one with another, and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it. But I was forced to rise, and up with Sir J. Minnes to White Hall, and there we waited on the Duke. Thence to the 'Change and there walked up and down, and then home. After going up to my wife (whose eye is very bad, but she is in very good temper to me), and after dinner, I to the 'Change, and there found Bagwell's wife waiting for me and took her away, and to an alehouse, and there I made much of her. Then away and I to the office. Thence to supper with my wife, very pleasant, and then a little to my office and to bed.

20th. Up and walked to Deptford, where after doing something at the yard without being observed, with Bagwell home to his house, and there was very kindly used, and the poor people did get a dinner for me in their fashion, of which I also eat very well. After dinner I found occasion of sending him abroad and then alone avec elle. By and by he coming back again I took leave and walked home.


all of it adding up to a mass of gossip which is now assigned reading in courses on English literature.

 As the centuries go by, there is more and more of this kind of private gossip by letter-writers like Madame de Sévigné and Fanny Burney, diarists like John Evelyn, collectors of scabrous anecdotes like the Seigneur de Brantôme, all prize pupils of Dame Gossip. 

 The enlarged world thus opened up to literature is evoked with the eloquence and enthusiasm, and incoherence, of the true gossip, by the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey in a letter to his friend Anthony à Wood:

I have put in writing these minutes and lives, tumultuously as they occurred to my thoughts; or as, occasionally, I had information of them... 'Tis a task that I never thought to have undertaken, till you imposed it upon me, saying that I was fit for it by reason of my general acquaintance, having now not only lived over half a century of years in the court, but have also been much tumbled up and down in it; which has made me well-known: besides the modern advantage of coffee-houses in this great city: before which men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their own relations, or societies. ..I here lay down to you (out of the conjunct friendship between us) the truth, the naked and plain truth: which is here exposed so bare, that the very pudenda are not covered, and afford many passages that would raise a blush on a young virgin's cheek...What uncertainty do we find in printed histories: they are either treading too near on the heel of truth, that they dare not speak plain: or else for want of intelligence (things being antiquated) become too obscure and dark. I do not here repeat anything already published (to the best of my remembrance) and I fancy myself all along discoursing with you...So that you make me to renew my acquaintance with my old and deceased friends, and to rejuvenesce (as it were) which is the pleasure of old men. 'Tis pity that such minutes had not been taken 100 years since or more: for want whereof many worthy men's names and inventions are swallowed up in oblivion...I remember one saying of General Lambert's, 'That the best men are but men at the best,’ of this you will meet with divers examples in this rude and hasty collection.


 Aubrey practiced what he preached. Here he is, in his Brief Lives.


 describing the last hours of Francis Bacon, Lord St. Albans:


Mr Hobbes told me that the cause of his lordship's death was trying of an experiment: viz., as he was taking the air in a coach with Dr Witherborn, (a Scotchman, physician to the king) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach, and went into a poor woman's house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman exenterate [gut] it, and then stuffed the body with snow, and my lord did help to do it himself. The snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his lodgings (I suppose at Gray's Inn), but went to the Earl of Arundel's house at Highgate, where they put him into a good bed warmed with a pan, but it was a damp bed that had not been lain-in in about a year before, which gave him such a cold that in two or three days, as I remember he [Mr Hobbes] told me, he died of suffocation.


 Bacon was of course a very famous man, the founder of modern scientific method, and it would be possible to read into this incident an ironic comment on scientific method. One of the great preachers of the Middle Ages might have described a similar episode in greater and grimmer detail as an example of the vanity of human wishes and a call for repentance. For Aubrey, there is no question of philosophy or religion involved. All he wants to do is to tell his friend, or any other friends who come along, about a man, a man at the best.

 He would write with the same random all-inclusive zest about Bacon and Shakespeare and Dr. William Butler who

never took the degree of Doctor, though he was the greatest physician of his time...

A gentleman lying a-dying, sent his servant with a horse for the doctor. The horse being exceeding dry, ducks down his head strongly into the water, and plucks down the doctor over his head, who was plunged in the water over head and ears. The doctor was madded, and would return home. The man swore he shoud not: drew his sword, and gave him ever and anon (when he would return) a little prick, and so drove him before him....

The doctor, lying at the Savoy in London, where was a balcony looked into the Thames, a patient came to him that was grievously tormented with the ague. The doctor orders a boat to be in readiness under his window, and discoursed with the patient (a gentleman) in the balcony, when on a signal given, two or three lusty fellows came behind the gentleman and threw him a matter of 20 feet into the Thames. This surprise absolutely cured him...

Another time one came to him for the cure of a cancer (or ulcer) in the bowels. Said the doctor, 'Can ye shit?' 'Yes,' said the patient. So the doctor ordered a bason for him to shit, when he had so done, the doctor commanded him to eat it up. This did the cure.


 So many of the recurring themes of Dame Gossip's repertory are scattered


through Aubrey's miscellaneous notes. There is the desire to set the record straight:


About nine or ten years ago, Mr Hooke wrote to Mr Isaac Newton of Trinity College, Cambridge, to make a demonstration of this theory (of gravity), not telling him, at first, the proportion of the gravity to the distance, nor what was the curved line that was thereby made. Mr Newton, in his answer to this letter, did express that he had not known of it; and, in his first attempt about it, he calculated the carve by supposing the attraction to be the same at all distances: upon which, Mr Hooke sent, in his next letter, the whole of his hypothesis, that is, that the gravitation was reciprocal to the square of the distance...which is the whole celestial theory, concerning which Mr Newton has a demonstration, not at all owning he received the first intimation of it from Mr Hooke


And there is the desire to throw up the good old days against the degenerate




T.T. an old gentleman that remembers Queen Elizabeth's reign, has seen much in his time both at home and abroad: and with much choler inveighs against things now: ‘Alas! O'God's will! Nowadays everyone, forsooth! must have carriages, forsooth! In those days gentlemen kept horses for a man at arms besides their hackney and hunting horses. This made the gentry robust and hardy and fit for service: were able to be their own guides in case of a rout or so, when occasion should so require. Our gentry forsooth in these days are so effeminated that they know not how to ride on horseback. -- Then when the gentry met, it was not at poor blind sordid ale-house, to drink up a barrel of drink and lie drunk there two or three days together: fall together by their ears. They met then in the fields, well-appointed, with their hounds or their hawks: kept up hospitality...Then the elders and better sort of the parish sat and beheld the pastimes of the young men, as wrestling, shooting at butts bowling and dancing. All this is now lost: and pride, whoring, wantonness, and drunkenness.'



 This may not seem, strictly speaking, like gossip, which is concerned


exclusively with the up-to-date, but remember that the golden days of the past are

always being recreated at the present moment in the memories of old-timers, so


that Mr. T.T.'s laments, to those hearing them for the first time, must have seemed just as timely as Aubrey's account of Thomas Goffe the poet and preacher:

His wife pretended to fall in love with him, by hearing of him preach: upon which said one Thomas Thimble (one of the esquire beadles in Oxford and his confidant) to him: “Do not marry her: if thou dost, she will break thy heart.” He was not obsequious to his friend's sober advice, but for her sake altered his condition, and cast anchor here. One time some of his Oxford friends made a visit to him: she looked upon them with an ill eye, as if they had come to eat her out of her house and home (as they say): she provided a dish of milk and some eggs for supper, and nothing more. They perceived her niggardliness, and that her husband was inwardly troubled at it, (she wearing the breeches) so they were resolved to be merry at supper, and talk in Latin, that she could not hold, but fell a-weeping, and rose from the table. The next day, Mr Goffe ordered a better dinner for them, and sent for some wine. 'Twas no long time before this Xantippe [the shrewish wife of Socrates who was said by Athenian gossips to have taught him the art of contradiction] made Mr Thimble's prediction good: and when he died the last words he spoke were “Oracle, oracle, Tom Thimble,” and so he gave up the ghost.


 A special place in Dame Gossip's heart must be reserved for the man who may be called the greatest gossip of all time, Louis de Rouvray, Duc de Saint Simon, who lived at Versailles through the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and well on into the 18th century.

 Saint Simon was careful not to publish anything in his lifetime, he probably would have ended his days in a dungeon if he had, but he wrote as if he was writing for posterity, not to win any literary prizes but to give it a true picture of his time. His picture is all the more lifelike for being quite narrow, it is restricted to people of his own class and casts only a few sidelights on the wars and religious controversies and the creation of a modern bureaucratic state which, for the conventional historian, make up most of the substance of those years. Saint Simon had little of value to say about affairs of state because Louis XIV built Versailles specifically to keep the brawling irresponsible hereditary aristocracy, of which Saint Simon was a very haughty member though his dukedom went back only one generation, from having anything to do with running the country. He achieved this goal by packing them, the whole upper class of France, into the miles of rooms that formed his chateau of Versailles, where they could play and dance and flirt and fornicate and drink and gamble to their hearts’ content when they were not being sent off to be killed in the king's various wars. If ever there was a greenhouse built for the flourishing of gossip, this was it:

 It was an ingrown inward-looking community, like any small town in Eudora Welty's Mississippi, where everybody not only knew everybody else but knew exactly what everybody else was doing. There were no corridors in Versailles, only rooms: to reach the bedroom of his new mistress the Marquise de Montespan the King had to pass through the bedroom of his old mistress Mlle. de la Vallière. Back and forth through these rooms the lords and ladies in their perruques and high heels milled continuously, backbiting, back-scratching, intriguing, squabbling over points of etiquette and count ritual -- who would pass the royal nightshirt over the naked shoulders of majesty when majesty rose in the morning? -- as they made their daily rounds of all-too-human behavior, fawning on each other, snubbing each other, climbing in and out of each other's beds, angling for a nod or a smile or a hat raised a fraction more than usual which would be a sign of royal favor. In the middle of it all was the little Duke, bobbing around on the highest pair of heels at court, taking it all in and writing it all down, everything he saw or heard, every day for forty years.

 Though he has had his defenders, Saint Simon appears to have been an insignificant little fellow, the kind of man of whom the Irish say, if he was a horse no one would buy him. "No one pays any attention to him", wrote the Prussian ambassador. He was vain, vengeful, narrow-minded and impossibly snobbish, full of violent prejudices, notably against the King because the King preferred, quite sensibly, to turn to commoners rather than dukes to manage his affairs.

 But Saint Simon had also the sharp eye and taste for dramatic color that mark the expert gossip, and he was one of the great masters of French prose. It was a time when French literature had reached almost the outer limits of formality, when every syllable and every phrase had to be weighed and measured for felicitous effect according to an elaborate and rigid set of rules. Saint Simon was a very conscientious writer who worked hard at his sentences and often rewrote them several times, but he was unaware of any rules. He wanted to give the effect of life passing by in all its quickness, color, vitality. He boasted of paying no attention to grammar and syntax, he wanted the pell-mell rush of what he saw going on around him. He invented his own racy style, inventing words when he needed to (he is said to have coined the words patriote and publicité}. And it all comes out so lively and direct -- so gossipy -- that the court of Louis XIV is better known, in the details of its daily operations and in overall tone, than any similar body of people in history. Editors have shown that he often got his facts wrong, and his interpretations even more so, but from the moment we dip into his memoirs we have no doubt that if we were to be transported to the Sun King's Versailles we would feel perfectly at home there.

 Everything goes down in the ramshackle order of real life: war, politics, religion, intrigue, money, sex, disease, death, ambition, lawsuits, slander, digestive upsets. He swings from subject to subject as the wind of Versailles gossip blows him. Now a great battle is being fought in Flanders, and he hears all about the disgraceful bickering of the French generals trying to put the blame on each other as their army disintegrates. In the next breath he is telling the merry story of M. de Roquelaure, bribed by the offer of a dukedom to marry one of the king's girlfriends. Almost immediately a daughter is born and the new duke greets her with the words, “Bonjour mademoiselle, I hadn't expected you quite so soon”.

 The Saint Simon eye is everywhere. He is present at the moment when the Duchess of Orleans, proud of her immemorially noble German ancestry, gives her son a resounding smack in the face for letting himself be bribed and bullied into marrying one of the king's bastard daughters. He is around to note that in one year Mme de Puisieux, while standing and fretting her way through the endless hours of court ceremonial etiquette, has chewed up 100,000 crowns worth of fine Genoese lace in the shawl she wears around her neck and shoulders.

 He keeps a sharp lookout of people like the Princess d'Harcourt who has become a great favorite of the king's second wife, Mme de Maintenon, “for unpleasant reasons” (Mme de Maintenon had been at one time the mistress of her father). This princess he describes as “a gross vulgar bustling creature with a skin the color of putty, thick blubber lips and hair like tow, perpetually falling down like all the rest of her soiled and filthy attire.” She also cheated at cards. One night the young Duc de Bourgogne, the king's grandson, and his bubbly little wife crept into her bedroom and pelted her with snowballs. “The dreadful old creature woke up with a bound, all crumpled, furious and gasping for breath, with snow in her ears, her hair unfastened, screaming her head off, and wriggling like an eel to find some means of escape. The scene kept them amused for more than half an hour, until the nymph was awash in her bed, with water everywhere and a flood on the floor. Next day, she sulked.”.

 The Duchess of Bourgogne, bored to distraction by her dull pious husband, falls in love with the chevalier de Nangis. He is delighted to be involved with a girl who is scheduled to be one day Queen of France, but he is already in love with one of her ladies in waiting, Mlle. de la Virillière, who threatens to create a scene, and makes everyone nervous. Enter the Comte de Mauleuvrier who falls madly in love with the Duchess. He pretends to be consumptive and to have lost his voice, which allows him to keep out of the army and to be able to speak to his idol in passionate whispers out of everyone's hearing. She is pleased enough to have another handsome admirer until the day he whispers to her that if she doesn't send Nangis packing he will go to the king and tell him all. The king is notorious for disapproving all royal adulteries except his own, and is capable of blasting the reputations and ruining the lives of all concerned. There is general panic throughout the Bourgogne household until Mauleuvrier's father, the wise old Comte de Tessé, who has just been appointed ambassador to Spain, convinces the king's doctor to tell Mauleuvrier the French climate is killing him and order him to go off to some warmer place like Madrid. So Mauleuvrier departs, eventually he commits suicide, and everyone in the Duchess's little circle, which includes Saint Simon and his wife, can breathe easily again.

 Great events appear as distant noises in the background. Disaster follows disaster in the war. The peasants starve, the enemy is crossing the frontier. But the king insists that everyone be gay and smiling; the balls must go on, the card games must begin again a few hours after the death of the king's brother.

 With his broad-minded aristocratic insouciance, Saint Simon could take in his stride episodes that the plebeian practitioners of the art of gossip in our own day, the Walter Winchells and Kitty Kellys would suppress in the name of good taste. In one passage he describes the mission of a bishop sent by the prince of Parma to negotiate with the Marshal Duke de Vendome, the king's cousin and commander of the French armies in Italy, who prides himself of observing the rude simple manners of the ancient Romans. The bishop was so shocked at “being received by the Marshal on his chaise percée [the 17th century equivalent of our toilet bowl], and more distressed still when his host got up, turned his back and wiped himself,” that he tucked up his skirts and ran back to Parma. The Prince then dispatched a young priest named Alberoni to Vendome's headquarters, where he was received in the same manner as the bishop. “When Alberoni saw the exposed portions of Vendome's anatomy turned towards him, he cried O culo di Angelo! [oh angelic ass], and kissed them”. Vendome was delighted with this ancient Roman attitude and later had Alberoni join his staff, starting him on the career that would make him a cardinal, foreign minister of Spain and one of the leading statesmen of his age.

 The fame gained by writers like Saint Simon should not blind us to the fact that overt gossip -- gossip that dares to tell its name, as opposed to gossip disguised as history or moral precept -- is extremely rare in world literature up to the last couple of centuries of western civilization. One reason is that, in strongly hierarchical societies, meaning ninety-nine percent of all societies, gossip about little people is simply not deemed worthy of the effort involved in putting it down on paper. And gossip about big people always carries an element of danger with it, and prudent practitioners of the art in olden days preferred to leave it unrecorded. Suetonius wrote his scandalous stories about the private lives of Caesars who were safely dead. Procopius and Saint Simon kept their manuscripts well out of the sight of Justinian and Louis XIV, and they were only to be published when monarchs and gossipers alike were in their graves.

 Literacy and liberty, the twin genii of modern times, have changed all that. Beginning about the time of Saint Simon's death, in the middle of the 18th century, gossip has been able to come out of the closet and cavort in full view of the world. Diarists, letter writers, pamphleteers, journalists have all followed the little duke's model and tried to capture every detail of the life around them.

 Many of them have created enduring literary monuments.

 Everybody's favorites must include James Boswell's London Journals, in which events go by with the cheerful irrelevance and unpredictability of real life or good gossip.

 I open at random to Saturday 1 January 1763, and he is reporting snatches of conversation he overheard at a café:

 1 CITIZEN. Pray, Sir, have you read Mr. Wharton's Essay on the Life and Writings of Pope? He will not allow him to be a poet. He says he had good sense and good versification, but wants the warm imagination and brilliancy of expression that constitute the true poetical genius. He tries him by a rule prescribed by Longinus, which is to take the words out of their metrical order and then see if they have sparks of poetry. Don't you remember this?

 2 CITIZEN. I don't agree with him.

 1 CITIZEN. Nor I, neither. He is fond of Thomson. He says he has great force.

 2 CITIZEN. He has great faults.

 1 CITIZEN. Ay, but great force, too.

 2 CITIZEN. I have eat beefsteaks with him.

 1 CITIZEN. So have I.


 I received for a suit of old clothes 11s.,which came to me in good time. I went to Louisa at once. “Madam, I have been thinking seriously.” “Well, Sir, I hope you are of my way of thinking.” “I hope, Madam, you are of mine. I have considered this matter most seriously. The week is now elapsed, and I hope you will not be so cruel as to keep me in misery.” (I then began to take some liberties.) “Nay, Sir -- now -- but do consider –“ “Ah, Madam!” “Nay, but you are an encroaching creature!” (Upon this I advanced to the greatest freedom by a sweet elevation of the charming petticoat.) “Good heaven, Sir!” “Madam, I cannot help it. I adore you. Do you like me?” (She answered me with a warm kiss, and pressing me to her bosom, sighed, “O Mr. Boswell!”) “But my dear Madam! Permit me, I beseech you.” “Lord, Sir, the people may come in.” “How then can I be happy? What time? Do tell me.” “Why, Sir, on Sunday afternoon my landlady, of whom I am most afraid, goes to church, so you may come here a little after three.” “Madam I thank you a thousand times.” “Now, Sir, I have but one favor to ask of you. Whenever you cease to regard me, pray don't use me ill, nor treat me coldly. But inform me by a letter or any other way that it is over.” “Pray, Madam, don't talk of such a thing. Indeed, we cannot answer for our affections. But you may depend on my behaving with civility and politeness.”

 I drank tea at Lady Betty's.


 The incidents in Saint Simon and Boswell, in which the same people keep recurring in different circumstances read very much like scenes from a novel, and in fact if given fictitious names all these people might be characters in novels. They fill all the requirements, they are genuine flesh and blood, and you are always waiting to see what they will do next. When fictitious characters began to take walks on 'Change and pay visits to actresses like Louisa, Dame Gossip was able to make a giant step forward. She was about to enter her Golden Age.