ii. Gossip in history
When the English Civil War began in 1649, Prince Rupert of the Rhine quickly became the most successful of the Royalist generals, the one most feared by the Puritans. To get back at him, the Puritans spread gossip that he indulged in carnal relations with a gigantic demonic Hound, "sometimes the Prince lying upon the dog, sometimes the Dog upon the Prince, and how it will end no man knoweth."
As a weapon of war, this piece of gossip backfired on its creators. The Puritan soldiers developed such a superstitious fear of the Prince that they tended to run away at the mere report of his approach, and he went on winning battles for the King, till the battle of Marston Moor, where the Hound received a fatal wound, and after that the Prince won no more victories.
This Hound is an example of what is today technically known as Disinformation, a bureaucratized form of gossip practiced by all modern nations and, in a modified form, by modern advertising agencies. Like run-of-the-mill private gossip, it generally has little effect on the world at large, and is generally worth surviving as a footnote to history only when it enters the picturesque mode, as when a U.S. government called MO (for Morale Operations, part of the Office of Strategic Services) launched a program to hasten the end of World War Two in the summer of 1943 by broadcasting to "the lower classes of Southern Italy, Sardinia and Sicily" reports that "their misfortunes arose from Hitler's having had the Evil Eye."
But disinformation is not always a joke. It must go back to the very earliest days of human society, and, if St. Augustine's interpretation of the second chapter of the Book of Genesis is accepted, it began human society, on the day when the Serpent whispered into Eve's ear his mendacious description of what was growing in the Garden of Eden, resulting in all our woe,
. Poor Eve had no way of knowing whether she was hearing truth or lie. The human ear is created neutral. "Open your ears," says the Bard in the prologue to the second part of King Henry the Fourth, "for which of you will stop The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?" And in the first scene of the play we find the aged Duke of Northumberland eagerly opening his ears to two purportedly eye-witness accounts of the great battle which has just taken place, one of which has his victorious son Harry Hotspur killing the King, the other reporting that Harry's spur is cold.
It stands to reason that a world which has been flooding for thousands of years with rumors of events more important than the battle of Shrewsbury must have been repeatedly affected by them.
But how much? Accurately, statistically, speaking, to what extent have the mumblings of Dame Gossip been not only a product of history but a motive force in history?.
Dame Gossip lives at the borderline between the private and the public, and this is a shadow land where it is difficult to find firm outlines. If I were relaxing in a tavern in Salem Massachusetts in this year 2002 and remarked that I had seen a wrinkled old woman with a strange glint in her eyes at a street corner muttering some words in an unknown tongue, my companions might suggest light-heartedly that it was all arranged by the city's Chamber of Commerce which knows that nothing will attract tourists like a practicing witch.. If I had said the same thing in the same place three hundred years earlier, I might have been condemning one or more poor old people to an agonizing death.
Police departments, a necessity of all organized states, have always depended on webs of voluntary or hired informants to keep their ears open for pieces of gossip that might lead to the discovery of deadly crimes -- refusal to worship the Emperor in Roman times, denial of transubstantiation in the middle ages, passing of classified documents to a foreign power in our day. Organized crime from Robin Hood's day to out own have used similar techniques to discover sources of booty.
But what was the exact effect of all this gossip?
Rumors are always running around in the world, .in palaces and hovels, in army headquarters and boardrooms, in nunneries and in whorehouses, in Death Rows and the Supreme Court of the United States. But it is impossible to quantify them. When, as Saint Luke reports (iv, 37), "a fame went out into every place of the country round about," concerning a new preacher and miracle healer named Jesus of Nazareth, how many of the great multitudes which gathered to see him came because of direct reports from eye-witnesses they had met, and how many from stray bits of gossip they had heard in the fields or the market-place?
All the migrations that have populated all the continents of the earth must have been helped along if not actually provoked by rumors brought back by wandering shepherds or by spies of attractive prospects over the horizon. Gossip-fed dreams of gold and silk and luxury reinforced the religious faith that drew crusaders from distant lands to Palestine, just as similar dreams of milk and honey had drawn the Hebrews to the same destination a couple of thousand years before. How many participants in the greatest peaceful migration in history, the one that poured across the Atlantic to the USA in the nineteenth century, embarked on the long burdensome journey because they had heard that the streets of Mr. Rockefeller's country were paved with gold? Had the stories which they could have heard in any market-place originated with the uncle of the neighbor of their fish-merchant, or had they been deliberately concocted by New World capitalists looking for cheap labor?
The difficulty in answering such questions on the historical level is the same as it is on the personal level. We have all heard endless stories of lives that have been ruined, careers destroyed, families driven out of town, marriages broken up, reputations irreparably tarnished, by false rumors. We almost always hear these stories from the point of view of the aggrieved parties, and they are not necessarily impartial or true. They stand out in our memories because they are dramatic, not because they are statistically important. There are no doubt many innocent people who have been driven to suicide by gossip, though certainly not as many as have been killed by drunk drivers. There have been politicians driven out of office by ugly rumors, but more often than not these rumors have turned out to be true.
All we an do is guess, and poke around in the relative handful of items of gossip which have managed to survive out of the chaos of the past.
Long before the Kings of Persia established their postal service which neither heat nor snow could interrupt, and Alexander Graham Bell first said Hello. Dame Gossip had established amazingly efficient if quite unreliable communications channels which could carry tidings of a murder or an invasion or a virgin birth faster than man could run over mountains plains and deserts where a common language was spoken, and had provided relay stations in oases and markets and caravanserais where the same tidings could start spreading in slightly different form in other languages.
The Bible tells us that gossips tried to turn King Saul against David, and King Ahasuerus against Mordecai. Both David and Mordecai survived. The Tudor monarchs of England spread well-organized gossip, using such distinguished agents as Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare, that King Richard III, last of the previous, Yorkist, dynasty, was a hunch-back and a serial killer. Richard was long in his grave when the gossip started, so aside from bolstering Tudor self-esteem, it is hard believe that the gossip had any effect on the history of England. No matter. Friends of King Richard four centuries later, using such agents as the mystery writer Dorothy Sayers have organized a reverse gossip campaign which has convinced a considerable audience that not only did Richard have a straight back, but all the crimes ascribed to him, like the murder of his nephews the Little Princes in the Tower, were actually committed by the Tudor King Henry VII who dethroned and killed him.
. Similar plots and cabals are being organized at this very moment against candidates for President, candidates for Nobel Prizes, television anchor-persons and perhaps you yourself as you read these lines..
Plots and cabals spring easily to the mind, but a little reflection will show that much if not most gossip is spread, not by envious enemies, but by and for the persons directly concerned. From the beginning, the people most gossiped about have not been little people like you and me, but big people, important people, the village headman, the king, the pope, the movie star; great artists, great saints, great criminals; Socrates, Nero, Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, Ignatius Loyola, Picasso, Bill Gates. Such people are generally not stupid, they know that they are going to be gossiped about, and they and/or their staffs and their friends do their best to deflect, control, manipulate, fabricate gossip in their favor, to ensure as the contemporary phrase has it that they have a favorable image. In the days before you could make an image appear in the palm of a subway-rider's hand, the best way was to spread stories via the channels of Dame Gossip to make clear to every one that King Solomon was wise, that King Croesus was rich, that Genghis Khan was invincible, that Elizabeth I was a Virgin Queen.
Henry IV would never have been the most popular king France ever had if busy courtiers had not spread, perhaps invented, his desire that every French family might have a chicken in its pot, or his autobiographical note, "Till I was twenty, I thought it was a bone.".
It is hard to judge or even estimate the real effect of such gossip about important figures in the distant past because in pre-Gutenberg days only such items could survive as were written down by people who knew how to write..
Throughout the middle ages in writing was a monopoly of the monks, and one result is that the monkish chronicles are full of the most malicious gossip about rulers who offended God by such crimes as seizing church property, while those who endowed churches and monasteries with a lavish hand get very good things said about them.
A 12th century chronicler recorded the following bit of gossip about Count Geoffrey of Anjou, ancestor of the Plantagenet kings of England:
When he was master of Normandy, the chapter of Seez presumed, without his consent, to proceed to the election of a bishop, upon which he ordered all of them, with the bishop elect, to be castrated, and made all their testicles be brought him on a platter.
Gibbon, with his usual anti-clerical bias, not only believes this story but rather approves of what happened to the clerics of Seez: "Of the pain and danger they might justly complain; yet, since they had vowed chastity, he deprived them of a superfluous treasure." There is no inherent reason to doubt the story: 12th century French counts had much the same tastes, and ability to indulge them, as 20th century Mafia godfathers. On the other hand, it may simply be a piece of ecclesiastical propaganda, created by the monkish chronicler, or by the unfortunate bishop of Seez himself, to discredit a ruler who had offended him. What was actually gossiped about in the taverns and monasteries of Anjou and Normandy in the 12th century, and whether the gossip had any influence whatever on the history of Anjou and Normandy, historians can never know.
With the spread of literacy and of the printing press and cheap paper in the last three or four centuries, historians have had to face an opposite problem: they know too much. Enormous quantities of gossip have found and continue to find their way into letters, diaries, memoirs, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, books. Biography, which used to be a stately record of its subject's public achievements, has tended more and more to center on its subject's bedroom.
What has it all got to do with history? Your guess is as good as the historians'.
Take Marie Antoinette, a giddy music-loving teen-age Austrian princess who was sent off to stifle in the rigid court ritual of Versailles, where among other things she had to sit stark naked in her chilly bed every morning while her attendants ladies passed her garments one to the other in strict hierarchical order before they reached her. She was married to a dull young king whose predominant interest were hunting and clock-making, and who could not adequately perform his conjugal duties until his brother-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor bullied him into a surgical operation.
It was only natural that stories begin to circulate about improper extra-martial activity, stories of the kind which are always told about queens, colored in this case by political passions. Many of the noblemen at Louis XVI's court were convinced that he was bent on stripping them of their ancient privileges, and as politicians do to this day they found a useful weapons in spreading nasty stories about his wife. The stories have survived in huge quantities, largely because the nobles had them printed as pamphlets in Holland, where the press was free, and got them safely to Paris by taking advantage of their ancient privilege which exempted their baggage from customs inspection.
According to the historian Simon Schama who has examined every one of these animated accounts of the Queen's wild sexual pranks in boudoir and royal forest, they are one hundred percent malicious nonsense. Marie-Antoinette, years after her marriage, had an affair, perhaps a platonic one, with the handsome Swede Count Fersen. But, considering the general tenor of 18th-century morals, she seems to have made an unusually hard effort to be a good wife and mother. She certainly did not spend the night before her coronation romping in the woods with an anonymous "Hercules," any more than she played nasty sex games with her little son the Dauphin, as the poor boy was coached to say before the revolutionary tribunal which condemned her to death. The aristocrats of the court must have been perfectly aware that they were lying, but lying is an immemorial privilege too. It might have occurred t some of them as they were being trundled in their turn to the guillotine, that their stories chipped away at the prestige of royalty and helped create the general state of mind which made the French Revolution possible. But they might also have reflected that the French Revolution or something remarkably like it would surely have taken place when and where it did if Marie-Antoinette had never been born.
Marie-Antoinette's sad experience does not mean that gossip about princesses is always bound to be a pack of malicious lies. Twenty years after she was guillotined, tongues were wagging in London and all over Europe about a scandal in the British royal family.
:"The first thing I saw in the room," wrote Lady Bessborough to a friend from Genoa one day in 1815, "was a short, very fat, elderly woman with an extremely red face...in a girl's smock dress but with shoulder, back and neck quite low (disgustingly so), down to the middle of her stomach...I was convinced that she was mad, till William pushed me, saying, 'Do you not see the Princess of Wales nodding to you?'" It was indeed Caroline, wife of the Prince Regent of the United Kingdom, who was traveling around Italy with an insufferable gigolo named Pergami. Just how insufferable he was may be deduced from the stories picked up on good authority by the biographers of Rossini that after the composer refused to bow to the Princess at a reception, with the excuse that he had a stiff neck, Pergami hired a gang of hoodlums to wreck the theater in Pesaro on the opening night of the next Rossini opera; and Rossini himself barely escaped with his life.
According to the gossip relayed to London by Lady Bessborough and many others, the antics of the Princess and her paramour were tasteless, squalid, and quite public. And this time the dirty details of the gossip was confirmed by sworn witnesses during the trial in the House of Lords of an unsuccessful divorce action by her husband, who was by now King George IV.
This divorce trial can be taken as a watershed in the history of gossip. For up till about that time kings and queens had been very important people, and they made ideal subjects for gossip because they had no private lives at all. Everything they did had to be out in the open, and especially their sex lives. The fate of their nations might literally depend on their ability to produce offspring: two of the greatest of European wars, the Hundred Years War between France and England, and the War of the Spanish Succession between France and nearly every one else, were caused by the running out of direct heirs in a ruling family.
No wonder that Ben Jonson, who had a respect bordering on idolatry for Queen Elizabeth I, his "goddess excellently bright," could talk at length about her gynecological problems with his friend Drummond: "She had a membrana on her, which made her incapable of man, tho for her delyte she tryed many. At the coming over of Monsieur younger brother of the king of France, one of the many royal suitors for the hand of the Virgin Queen there was a French chirurgen who took in hand to cut it, yett fear stayed her, and his death." (A historical scholar might want to ask just who it was who died. Jonson, an experienced gossip, would know that his audience needed no explanatory footnote.)
No wonder Louis XIV sent a countess to Madrid on a state mission to provide him with firm evidence that King Carlos II was incapable of producing an heir of any kind, so that he might shape the foreign policy of France accordingly.
But times had changed by the time poor king George IV came along. Nothing he did could have any serious effect on world conditions, and nobody really cared what happened to him. The best-known piece of gossip about him told how, arriving at a ball, he cut dead his old friend, the elegant but disreputable Beau Brummel. :"Who's your fat friend, Alvanley?" Brummel inquired in a loud voice of the marquess who was accompanying him. No one spoke that way at the court of Charlemagne.
Since then, royal gossip has continued at a very commonplace level. Serious people listen to it avidly, but after the headlines have dined away, they don't take it seriously. Queen Victoria was for many years the subject of many off-color stories dealing with her relationship with her Scotch gillie John Brown, the "stallion of the Queen," as the magazine Punch called him. It seems very unlikely that he was the Queen's lover (if he was, he was the first of the breed who did not make a fortune out of it) or that their physical contact ever came much closer than his privilege of lifting her on and off her horse. Even in Punch's sources had been accurate, the history of the British Empire would not have changed an iota. No more would the fate of nations have been different in our own day no matter what people were saying Princess Diana of Wales or Princess Grace of Monaco or Mrs. John F. Kennedy had been up to.
The gossip about Mrs. Kennedy, extensive and merciless as it has been, is a reminder that presidents of the United States and their families for a long time --more than a century and a half, in fact --lived in a kind of historical parenthesis. Unlike all but a handful of chiefs of great states since the beginning of states, they had no sex life. Of course in the real, historical world they were men like any others, they were all but one married, had children, even were gossiped about. Jefferson was reported to have had children by the slave girl bequeathed to him by his wife on her deathbed. The virtuous John Quincy Adams was said to be mixed up with a call-girl ring when he was envoy in Saint Petersburg. An evil tongue has suggested that there was some form of hanky-panky involving page-boys in the White House of James Buchanan our only bachelor executive. Grover Cleveland admitted to having fathered an illegitimate child. Warren Harding wrote throbbing prose about the naked flesh of a woman in Ohio.
But unlike the 18th-century Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who was said to have had 360 children, or the 9th-century Pope who was said to be a woman, none of these Presidents went down into popular folklore with any intimate impropriety attached to them. As far as the American people was concerned, the President was a Great White Father sitting benign and friendly and utterly chaste in his Ice Palace on the Potomac. In Hollywood movies, the curators of Folk Memory, he not only lacked sex organs, he lacked a face, he showed only his hinder parts to the camera, as God did to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The curtain of silence which was lowered when George Washington was inaugurated in 1789 only began to be lifted in 1945 when the columnist Westbrook Pegler, whose peppery prose style and right-wing opinions helped to cheer up Ezra Pound when he was in jail in Washington awaiting trial for treason, became curious about why President Roosevelt was having his portrait painted the day he died, and by diligently pursuing the gossiparian techniques of what he called "gents room journalism" when it was practiced by others, uncovered the long romance between FDR and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Any number of people must have been aware of the romance, since the movements of a president, especially a president in a wheel-chair, require the supervision and cooperation of multitudes. But everyone including the Washington press corps had been discreet, for twenty-seven years. The press corps would go on being discreet for another half a century, no more aware of President Kennedy's tumultuous sex life than the German press corps in World War II was aware of what was going on in places like Auschwitz. .
No one is discreet any more. We know all about our presidents now, whatever they do there is always an investigative reporter or a state trooper close by. The consequences should, according to the anchorpersons who are our most visible moral guides, have been horrendous. But the American people have quietly switched gears in the last half century, as should have been obvious when in 1980 they elected as their President a man who had not only been divorced (a fatal handicap to Adlai Stevenson in 1952) but had spent his formative years in Los Angeles, the Babylon and gossip capital of th modern world, and today they show no surprise if Presidents are revealed to have yielded, in their youth, or even in office, to lascivious impulses like the most common of common men. A Gennifer Flowers in Mr. Lincoln's bed, a Monica Lewinsky undoing her thongs in Mr. Roosevelt's oval office, might easily have changed the course of our two greatest wars. In Mr Clinton's day they simply allowed the Great White Father to fall back into line with the traditional monarchs of the Old World, always more or less conscious of their descent from prehistoric corn gods whose sexual prowess guaranteed plentiful rain and good harvests to the tribe.
It may or may not be significant that all of the three European monarchs slaughtered by revolutionary subjects in recent centuries - Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, Nicholas II of Russia -- were all model family men, faithful husbands, devoted fathers, who offered little or no material for Dame Gossip's spiteful tongue.
There is a sufficiency of other sovereigns to keep her tongue busy. She will go on insisting that the spicy and salacious details in which she specializes are what keep the world spinning in the crazy way it does. She is convinced that the illicit passion of Dervogilla, Princess of Brefni, for Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, cost Ireland her freedom, and that the fate of the ancient world was settled by the length of Cleopatra's nose.
Gossip deals with personality, and say what you will about the vast impersonal forces the climate, the technologies, the viruses, the law of supply and demand -which govern the tides of history, it is difficult to deny that personality does sometimes take over. Was Charles Doughty totally off base when he said of the prophet Mohammed, "How different the world had been, had the tongue not wagged, of this mischievous Ishmaelite?" Would millions of lives have been saved if Karl Marx had suffered less agonizing pains in his large intestine? If Winston Churchill had not barely escaped with his life when he looked left instead of right on 5th Avenue in New York one day in 1932 and was run down by a taxi, would England have survived its darkest hour in 1940? Since we are human beings ourselves, and not impersonal historical forces, we will always be tempted by human, personal, explanations, of the great events of the past which have gotten us where we are.
Hence the abiding passion for conspiracy theories which insist that all the great calamities of this or any other time are caused by definable people with a human if sinister face: the Devil, the Jesuits, the Jews, the Free-Masons, the International Bankers, the Liberal Media.
. Hence Time magazine's Man of the year.
Hence the observation of Marc Chagall when he was introduced to William F. Buckley jr. Vous êtes si beau. Pourqoir vous n'êtes pas Président?
A captious critic might say that Chagall had picked up some very unreliable gossip about how the American political system works. Or it might be said that he had tapped into a wellspring of world gossip For any political system to work, its leaders have to be gossiped about favorably. And what better way to ensure that than for the leaders to be endowed with a pleasing countenance, the kind that inspires confidence among the led that they will be well taken care of when the time comes?
The Romans understood this principle very well, who placed marble or bronze statues or busts of their emperors everywhere in their vast domains so that when people gossiped about them they would have an image of a wise strong and just ruler in their minds. If the emperor turned out badly, like Caligula or Nero, his successors would have their statues defaced, so that people could have rulers with nasty faces to gossip nastily about..
In the museum of Nicosia in Cyprus there is preserved a larger-than-life bronze statue of a naked Roman emperor, a proud bearded imperious figure. An inscription describes the figure as that of Alexander Severus but close examination shows that only the head is a (surely idealized) representation of what Alexander might have looked like. The body was that of a standard naked proud imperious emperor on whom a new head, and new stories of his virtue and contributions to imperial prosperity circulated, every time the previous office-holder in Rome died in bed or was murdered.
The form remains, the function never dies.
©2005 Robert Wernick