Character Writings of the 1600s
September 5, 2013 12:58 PM   Subscribe

The Corranto-Coiner, the Huffing Courtier, the Prater, the Squire of Dames, the Braggadocio Welshman, the Droll, the Pot Poet, the Ingrosser of Corn, the Duke of Bucks, the Drunken Dutchman Resident in England, the Factious Member, the Common Singing Men in Cathedral Churches, the Wittol, the Knight of the Post, and many more neglected stereotypes of 17th century England.

The narrow genre of character writing is said to have been invented by the Peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus, who devoted a book called The Characters to thirty sketches of moral and psychological exemplars. His work was rediscovered in England in the 16th century and much imitated in the 17th by writers of literary, as well as philosophical, ambition. The "friends" credited in the title of Sir Thomas Overbury's A Wife: Witty Characters Written by Himselfe and Other Learned Gentlemen His Friends (much excerpted in the first link) include Johnn Donne and the playwrights John Webster and Thomas Dekker.

English interest in character writing subsided towards the end of the century, though La Bruyère carried on the tradition in France. The observational and critical impulses behind the genre found more satisfying expression in the Picaresque novel, while the imminently dominant Realist style preferred the single life to the type.

But it fell to the master of Realism, George Eliot, to give character writing its viking funeral: her last and strangest book was called Impressions of Theophrastus Such.
posted by Iridic (20 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
There are great. I really like A PIRATE:

He is one plague the devil hath added to make the sea more terrible than a storm, and his heart is so hardened in that rugged element that he cannot repent, though he view his grave before him continually open. He hath so little of his own that the house he sleeps in is stolen: all the necessities of life he filches but one; he cannot steal a sound sleep for his troubled conscience...
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:10 PM on September 5, 2013

One of the sketches is A BUTTON-MAKER OF AMSTERDAM. Huh.

Is sowed as cummin or hempseed, with curses, and he thinks he thrives the better. He is far better read in the penal statutes than in the Bible, and his evil angel persuades him he shall sooner be saved by them. He can be no man's friend, for all men he hath most interest in he undoes. And a double dealer he is certainly, for by his good will he ever takes the forfeit. He puts his money to the unnatural act of generation, and his scrivener is the supervisor bawd to it. Good deeds he loves none, but sealed and delivered; nor doth he wish anything to thrive in the country but beehives, for they make him wax rich. He hates all but law-Latin, yet thinks he might be drawn to love a scholar, could he reduce the year to a shorter compass, that his use money might come in the faster. He seems to be the son of a jailor, for all his estate is in most heavy and cruel bonds. He doth not give, but sell, days of payment, and those at the rate of a man's undoing. He doth only fear the Day of Judgment should fall sooner than the payment of some great sum of money due to him. He removes his lodging when a subsidy comes; and if he be found out, and pay it, he grumbles treason: but 'tis in such a deformed silence as witches raise their spirits in. Gravity he pretends in all things but in his private vice, for he will not in a hundred pound take one light sixpence. And it seems he was at Tilbury Camp, for you must not tell him of a Spaniard. He is a man of no conscience, for (like the Jakes-farmer that swooned with going into Bucklersbury) he falls into a cold sweat if he but look into the Chancery; thinks, in his religion, we are in the right for everything, if that were abolished. He hides his money as if he thought to find it again at the last day, and then begin's old trade with it. His clothes plead prescription, and whether they or his body are more rotten is a question. Yet, should he live to be hanged in them, this good they would do him: the very hangman would pity his case. The table he keeps is able to starve twenty tall men. His servants have not their living, but their dying from him, and that's of hunger. A spare diet he commends in all men but himself. He comes to cathedrals only for love of the singing-boys, because they look hungry. He likes our religion best because 'tis best cheap, yet would fain allow of purgatory, cause 'twas of his trade, and brought in so much money. His heart goes with the same snaphance his purse doth: 'tis seldom open to any man. Friendship he accounts but a word without any signification; nay, he loves all the world so little, that an it were possible he would make himself his own executor. For certain, he is made administrator to his own good name while he is in perfect memory, for that dies long before him; but he is so far from being at the charge of a funeral for it, that he lets it stink above-ground. In conclusion, for neighbourhood you were better dwell by a contentious lawyer. And for his death, 'tis either surfeit, the pox, or despair; for seldom such as he die of God's making, as honest men should do.
posted by ersatz at 1:14 PM on September 5, 2013

Sounds like a Knight of The Post is what we'd call a professional snitch today:
Is a retailer of oaths, a deposition-monger, an evidence-maker, that lives by the labour of his conscience. He takes money to kiss the Gospel, as Judas did Christ when he betrayed Him. As a good conscience is a continual feast, so an ill one is with him his daily food. He plies at a court of justice, as porters do at a market, and his business is to bear witness, as they do burdens for any man that will pay them for it....
posted by Kevin Street at 1:17 PM on September 5, 2013

The Braggadocio Welshmen is my new band name.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:22 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Pot Poet

Do you ever think about
How when you eat
You're like
Putting stuff
Inside of your head
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:22 PM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

There was a vogue for this kind of thing in C20th England, so I don't think it's right to say that George Eliot brought the tradition to a conclusion. The only specific example that comes to my mind at the moment is Modern Types by Gorer and Searle, but I remember I used to come across a bunch of them in second hand bookstores. I think Punch fostered a lot of these kinds of satirical sketches.
posted by yoink at 1:22 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A BOWL-ALLEY: Is the place where there are three things thrown away beside bowls, to wit, time, money, and curses, and the last ten for one. Fucking TELL me about it dude
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:27 PM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Frans Hals did a number of these as paintings in the 17th century, "character portraits" of various types - often bar patrons.
posted by The Whelk at 1:28 PM on September 5, 2013

It is sort of depressing, though, that the 5% of these which are about women are either "sweet, faithful, ignorant religious hottie" or "wanton slutface." I mean, yeah, 17th century, sure, but it would be so INTERESTING to see like 20 or 30 district character types for women 400 years ago.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:35 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The drunken Dutchman:
Is but a quarter-master with his wife. He stinks of butter as if he were anointed all over for the itch. Let him come over never so lean, and plant him but one month near the brew-houses in St Catherine's, and he will be puffed up to your hand like a bloat herring. Of all places of pleasure he loves a common garden, and with the swine of the parish had need be ringed for rooting. Next to these he affects lotteries naturally, and bequeaths the best prize in his will aforehand; when his hopes fall he's blank. They swarm in great tenements like flies; six households will live in a garret. He was wont, only to make us fools, to buy the fox skin for threepence, and sell the tail for a shilling. Now his new trade of brewing strong waters makes a number of madmen. He loves a Welshman extremely for his diet and orthography; that is, for plurality of consonants, and cheese. Like a horse, he is only guided by the mouth; when he's drunk you may thrust your hand into him like an eel's-skin, and strip him, his inside outwards. He hoards up fair gold, and pretends 'tis to seethe in his wife's broth for consumption; and loves the memory of King Henry the Eighth, most especially for his old sovereigns. He says we are unwise to lament the decay of timber in England; for all manner of buildings or fortification whatsoever, he desires no other thing in the world than barrels and hop-poles. To conclude, the only two plagues he trembles at is small beer and the Spanish Inquisition.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:41 PM on September 5, 2013

The Metafilter Front Page Poster:
He -- or she -- brings the Metafilter links to sites near and far and does so only for the sharing. The tags assembled, the links thrice reviewed, the title sweated upon if more than lifted from the source and happily borrowed if merely lent, the "Post" button he or she clicks and waits and wonders. Will the guests and members arrive to marvel and comment? Will an early poster derail such that the effort is spoilt? Will the mods delete as too narrow, too broad, too fighty? Is it truly not a second as divined by search? Left unwondered is the poster's own inspiration, though that is no wonder at all. Sharing is its own reward (although favorites are nice!), as are the links' discovery, and their arrangement in clever prose to pique the reader's interest and motivate a further click (and inspire more favorites!). The true front page poster (and not some some other, rougher type such as The Self-Linker or The Pepsi Merchant) both seeks and shares, and if there is guile behind the posting, some other, baser motivation, it is unknown to the poster, even if supposed by an unkind commenter.
Thanks for sharing. These are terrific.
posted by notyou at 1:43 PM on September 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Is a young thing, whose father went to the devil; he is followed like a salt bitch, and limbed by him that gets up first; his disposition is cut, and knaves rend him like tenter-hooks; he is as blind as his mother, and swallows flatterers for friends. He is high in his own imagination, but that imagination is as a stone that is raised by violence, descends naturally. When he goes, he looks who looks; if he find not good store of vailers, he comes home stiff and sere, until he be new oiled and watered by his husbandmen. Wheresoever he eats he hath an officer to warn men not to talk out of his element, and his own is exceeding sensible, because it is sensual; but he cannot exchange a piece of reason, though he can a piece of gold. He is not plucked, for his feathers are his beauty, and more than his beauty, they are his discretion, his countenance, his all. He is now at an end, for he hath had the wolf of vainglory, which he fed until himself became the food.
posted by boo_radley at 1:47 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

From the same period: Casta Paintings.
Bearing titles such as Espanol con India sale Mulato (Spaniard with Black makes Mulatto), casta paintings display male and female couples of varying ethnicities with their mixed-raced children. The works follow an order premised on the idea that each race carries a distinct kind of blood (with Spanish blood linked to civilization--no surprise--and Black blood associated with slavery and degeneracy). Casta painting cycles therefore typically begin with a depiction of a "pure" Spaniard with a "pure" African or Indian mate that respectively bear a mulatto or a mestizo child. From that progeny onwards, however, the further racial/ethnic mixtures take on Byzantine dimensions.
posted by notyou at 1:49 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's right to say that George Eliot brought the tradition to a conclusion.

Yeah, besides Gorer and Searle, I remember when this was this was new.
posted by octobersurprise at 2:00 PM on September 5, 2013

Awesome. I was just reading about these in Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1762-3) today. He divides them up into a very serious and elaborate taxonomy based on what kinds of traits the character description is made out of--amusing to see how lowbrow the originals he takes so seriously are.
posted by sy at 4:20 PM on September 5, 2013

"Is a person of no action, and therefore we have reason to afford him no character." I shall be using that as my bio from here on.
posted by fallingbadgers at 6:10 PM on September 5, 2013

posted by Sticherbeast at 6:33 PM on September 5, 2013


Wow, all the tradesmen came right to your door back then, didn't they? I hope I can squeeze him in between the milkman and the rag and bone man.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:29 PM on September 5, 2013

A Very Woman

Oh yes that's me right there wait not really

Her Next Part

Something new has been added.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:22 PM on September 5, 2013


Is a diseased piece of apocalypse:

Oh my.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:24 PM on September 5, 2013

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