Written by John Waite, John Waite Rare Books, Ascutney VT
Urban legends, our digital age term for “popularly-held mistakes,” have been kicking around since the rise of the first city, so every age and metropolis needs its Snopes.com to set the record straight. Writers of the Enlightenment fancied themselves slayers of superstition and ignorance, and the straightforwardly titled New Catalogue of Vulgar Errors, published in 1767 by Cambridge fellow Stephen Fovargue (d. 1775), offered itself as one such corrective to the “man of sense” who might be mistaken in many things. “Error is easily fallen into [and] in the disquisition of any Point, there are numberless wrongs, but there is only one Right,” Fovargue declares.
The errors he has in mind are principally those concerning “natural Objects, and the Phaenomena which daily present themselves to our view.” They are as practical as loading a “fowling piece,” drying hay in the sun, or guessing what a field dog is up to when he points. Some have to do with climate, weather and geography; some concern errors related to music and musical instruments, still others with medical procedures such as bleeding. One section is devoted to ghosts and apparitions; several have to do with education, writing and poetry. Fovargue even takes Londoners down a notch in their mistaken derision of country people, which must have guaranteed his book would not be found fashionable. However, he also wisely sidesteps questions that “may interfere with any religious Tenets, it not being the Intention of the Pamphlet to deprive Men of their Rest, by tearing from their Consciences those fixed Protestant Principles of Religion . . . which they and their Ancestors have long and peaceably enjoyed.” No sense stirring up too many hornets.
To the errors themselves! Or a few of them, anyway.
VIII. “That the Violin is a wanton Instrument, and not proper for Psalms; and that the Organ is not proper for Country-Dances and brisk Airs.” A case of prejudice on both counts, according to the writer, and how could one not agree? The violin, “commonly made Use of at Balls and Assemblies . . . has annexed the Idea of Merriment and Jollity to itself” while the organ, being a heavy and fixed instrument, “is not convenient for Country Dances” but is made use of “in most Churches . . .” Nevertheless, the violin is “capable of great Expression, but especially it is most exquisitely happy in that grave and resigned Air, which the common Singing-Psalms ought to be played with.” On the other hand, “nothing can be more adapted to the Performance of a Country-Dance, than an Organ.” Anyone who grew up listening to rock n’ roll or blues during the 1960s and ’70s would have to agree, as few sounds are more go-go than a Hammond B-3 organ booming through Leslie speakers. Dance to the music, Mr. Fovargue!
XV. “That there is now, or ever was, such a Science as Astrology.” Accusing ancient and idolatrous “Egyptian priests” of deceit, Fovargue praises his Britain where people have the “refreshing Liberty of hearkening to Reason, and of thinking as they [do] like best.” Continuing very much like an 18th century Rush Limbaugh, he reminds readers that “if thou didst live in some Countries, thou wouldst find, that thou must either think as others please to dictate to thee, or else keep they Thoughts to thyself . . . I tell thee, Reader, though art happy in being a Native of a Country where though art not deceived by the false Science of Astrology; and where anyone who understands it . . . will show thee as much of the Real Science of Astronomy, as thou desirest to learn . . . well knowing, that it will be a Means to give thee a more sublime Notion of the Supreme Being; for the more thou dost contemplate the vast Machinery of the Heavenly Bodies . . . the more thou wilt be convinced of the immense Contrivance of Him who laid the Foundation of the Heavens.” Deists could embrace the reasonable sounding notion of the clockmaker universe (“intelligent design”) while scoffing at the idea that planets and stars had any influence “upon the Lives and Fortunes of Individuals.”
XVIII. “That the Way to make Boys learn their Books, is to keep them in School all Day, and whip them.” Okay, that’s an error?
XX. “That teaching Boys Bawdy Books, will make them religious Men and good Clergymen.” Who would have believed it? But Fovargue’s issue here is whether young scholars should be “suffered” to read such a “Master of Intrigue, as Ovid; or some of the Odes of such a Libertine, as Horace.” Fovargue recommends instead “hardy Diversions, which are generally followed by Youth, such as Hunting, and the like, [that] can ever keep them in Health.” The constitutions of Englishmen, he writes, “will not endure any such Excess of Pleasure, as the Italians are able to sustain more easily.” Obviously, the Cambridge scholar never attended a football game, nor does he seem to have had any friends in the book trade. My apologies, but as far as the indulgence of vice goes, your average Englishmen is a world-class competitor.
XXXII. “That Negroes are not Part of the Human Species.” Slavery was practiced in the British Empire at the time of the book’s publication and to his credit, Fovargue delivers a rebuttal to this widely-held sentiment. He calls it a “Creolian error” by which he attaches the mistake particularly to Creoles who, you will be pleased to recall, were persons of European descent who were born in the West Indies or Spanish America. He got it right: the sentiment is racist. “The passive Appearance of these unhappy [slaves] at their Work, which sometimes resembles that of a Horse in a Mill, gives Master Tommy Sugar-Cane an Idea, which is the Cause of an Opinion, that a Negroe is Part of the Brute-Creation, and therefore ought to be thrashed. But indeed, Master Tommy, if I had the Care of thy Education, I would teach thee a more reasonable Way of Thinking.” He reminds “young Gentlemen” that the “Works of Nature are neither better nor worse either for your Approbation or Disapprobation of them” and he argues that education will show the true ability of Africans: “Let him have Instructions in Music, you will find that his Genius is greater than your own; teach him to fence, his Activity and Stratagem will surprise you. In short, instruct him in any Science, and he will discover a Capacity.”
Noteworthy too is Fovargue’s “Introduction,” in which he takes a moment to instruct 21st century internet users in the niceties of attribution. He points out, in what must have seemed like a wrist-slashing moment, that the third error in his book is “one which Sir Thomas Brown has taken Notice of; and it must be acknowledged, that the inclusion of it here was a Mistake.” He offers an excuse, of course, but owns up to the mistake (the accusation certainly was plagiarism) and almost apologizes.
All in all the book is an admirable effort, if a tad didactic for contemporary taste. But when wasn’t that the case?
John Waite Rare Books
PO Box 6, Route 5
Ascutney, VT 05030
You can follow John on his Tumblr blog here: Floating Copy, where this post originally appeared on June 26, 2013.