Fables, Roadmaps, and Dancing Masters

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May 7, 2021 by libroshombre

            When I recently found myself reading something titled “Political Uses of Theaesopic Fable,” who else could I blame than that old Greek Aesop?  For the past few weeks Aesop’s popped up all over the place.  This time I was looking for information on John Ogilby, a most interesting character from the English Restoration era, whom I encountered this spring while preparing for an Osher Lifelong Learning class I taught on Samuel Pepys, the great diarist.  Ogilby had many fascinating and varied careers; here’s the short version. 

Born in Scotland to minor nobility, Ogilby began selling needles door-to-door to support his family while his father was incarcerated for debt.  He raised enough money to buy a lottery ticket that won him a land grant in the new Virginia Company’s Jamestown colony.  Selling that ticket enabled him to spring his dad and purchase his own apprenticeship to a leading dancing master.  “Good financial management” enabled Ogilby to buy out of his apprenticeship and open his own dancing studio in London’s Spread Eagle Court that attracted titled students, including the children of the Earl of Strafford.  Ogilby, noted for his daring dance moves in public performances, tore his knee up in a fall during one of King Charles I’s masques, but Strafford’s kids convinced their father, who’d been made Lord Deputy of Ireland, to take Ogilby to Ireland with the family as their dancing instructor.  Strafford made Ogilby deputy Master of the Revels, under whose auspices he established the New Street Theatre, the first purposefully built theater in Ireland.

By the time the English Civil Wars began in 1641, Strafford had so alienated the Irish that they rebelled, and he agitated Parliament enough to get executed.  Three years later the patronless Ogilby fled to England and was shipwrecked.  Destitute, he raised enough money to acquire tutoring in Greek and Latin and buy a house in London where he set up a printing shop that published high-end, illustrated books, one of the first being Aesop’s Fables.  Ogilby, a devoted monarchist, was tight with Charles II who designated him a leading planner of the Coronation Procession, for which he wrote speeches, songs, and choreography.  Ogilby’s publishing business in London thrived until the Great Fire of 1665 destroyed his house, shop, and entire inventory, leaving him worth £5.  However, his pal, the Lord Mayor of London, appointed him as a “sworn viewer” tasked with establishing the pre-fire property boundaries in the rabbit’s warren of old London.  Ogilby was assisted in this by his stepgrandson, some professional surveyors, and the famous Czech engraver Wenceslaus Hollar.

“The result,” as described in the rare books section of Frieze, the upcoming New York City art fair, “printed one month after Ogilby’s death, was this groundbreaking plan of London, on a scale of 100 feet to an inch: the first accurate and detailed map of the city. On publication, diarist Samuel Pepys and scientist Robert Hooke purchased their own copies. The map’s exactness was not matched until the Ordnance Survey, two centuries later.”  This encouraged Ogilby to re-establish his book publishing, and he proposed a five-volume “English Atlas” of maps of the world.   Charles appointed him “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer,” and the first volume, and the only one he completed, was titled the “Britannia Atlas.”   It comprehensively mapped the roads of England and Wales and standardized the English mile at 1,760 yards.  It was also a best-seller – Sam Pepys bought a copy and it resides in the Pepys Collection in the Magdalene College Library at Cambridge and was the first published road-book in Western Europe.   

“Historians and contemporary geographers have noted that Ogilby’s most famous published title was also a sly piece of propaganda that displayed his strong pro-monarchist sentiments,” according to another public library database: The Encyclopedia of World Biography.  Ogilby made special references in his road-book to towns that had been damaged by anti-monarchist Roundhead troops, and he made London, and Charles II, the central point of the realm from which all roads emanated.  In fact, recent historians have suggested Ogilby’s book was intended to facilitate a Catholic invasion of the country.

“Political Uses of Theaesopic Fable” describes how Ogilby used fables from Aesop and others to comment on and criticize government officials from Cromwell through Charles II.  He adapted Aesop’s “The Tree and the Reed,” about how a strong tree was scornful of the surrounding reeds until a storm blew it over and left the bendable reeds standing, the moral being “Obscurity often brings safety.”  Ogilby changed it to “The Oak and the Briar” and expanded it in political terms his readers were sure to catch.  In it a “Royal Cedar” was the king, a  “sacred Oak” is the archbishop, and the rank of the other trees was determined by their height, a clear reference to the English class structure.  With the support of the lower orders, a “husbandman” (Parliament) persuades the “Royal Cedar” (Charles I) to give him a little of its wood, with which he fashions an axe handle with which he proceeds to chop down lots of trees, including the Cedar, “a none-too-inscrutable allusion” to Charles I surrendering much of his power to Parliament.

In researching Ogilby on the public library’s biographical databases, I was disturbed to find him described as merely an “English mapmaker” in Hutchinson’s Biography Database, since he was Scottish, and a dancing master, translator, author, impresario, printer-publisher, cartographer, and paragon of gumption.  “That,” I thought, “is definitely a misnomer as defined in “The Describer’s Dictionary”: “an incorrect word, name, title, belief, and so forth,” which brought to mind a section on misnomers in that fabulous browsing book: “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.”  I enjoy perusing the cranky, idiosyncratic 1894 paperback edition which I keep under the front seat of my car.  Brewer’s “takes you on a captivating adventure through its trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend” and “is not a straightforward dictionary, nor is it an encyclopedia. It is, in fact, unlike any other reference book that exists, anywhere.”

The Reverend E. Cobham Brewer published his first edition in 1870 and intended it for the growing number of literate people who couldn’t afford advanced education, but, like Ogilby, he included “certain editorial decisions suggestive of the author’s personal bias,” as Wikipedia noted.  He wrote that the term “antelope,” for example, “is a hopeless absurdity for the Greek ‘anthos-ops’: ‘beautiful eye.’ ”  “ ‘Bridegroom’ has nothing to do with ‘groom’.  It is the Old English ‘guma,’ a man, ‘bryd-guma.’”  “‘Greyhound’ has no connection with the color grey.  It is the ‘grayhound,’ or hound that hunts the ‘gray’ or badger.”

Who among us is free from committing misnomers on occasion?  Not Aesop, whose angry verbal misapplications so infuriated the citizens of Delphi that they made him jump into the sea to his death.  As he once moralized, “Zeal should not outrun discretion.”

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