The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

December 16, 2013

December 16, 1821

Thomas Frost (December 16, 1821 to July 16, 1908) was a English writer who owned a printing press. His support of politically radical causes (the rights of workers) involved composing not just sympathetic arguments but also what he himself called potboilers. These books written to raise money were often about the world of the circus.

We find  this excerpt more interesting that his activism. The following story, about a horse who does amazing tricks, alludes to its sources. The point is that the original  audience thinks the only way the horse could do such tricks is by witchcraft. 

In the reign of Elizabeth lived the famous Banks, whom Sir Walter Raleigh thought worthy of mention in his History of the World, saying that ‘if Banks had lived in older times, he would have shamed all the enchanters in the world....'

Sir Kenelm Digby records that the animal ‘would restore a glove to the due owner after the master had whispered the man’ s name in his ear ; and would tell the just number of pence in any piece of silver coin newly showed him by his master.’ De Melleray...says that he witnessed the performance of this animal in the Rue St Jacques, in Paris, to which city Banks proceeded in or before 1608 ; and he states that Morocco [the name of the horse] could not only tell the number of francs in a crown, but knew that the crown was depreciated at that time, and also the exact amount of the depreciation.

The fame which Banks and his horse acquired in France, brought the former under the imputation of being a sorcerer, and he probably had a narrow escape of being burned at a stake in that character. Bishop Morton tells the story as follows :—

‘Which bringeth into my remembrance a story which Banks told me at Frankfort, from his own experience in France among the Capuchins, by whom he was brought..
.[up on]  suspicion of magic, because of the strange...feats which his horse Morocco played Orleans, ...[H]e, to redeem his credit, promised to manifest to the world, that his horse was nothing less than a devil. To this end he commanded his horse to seek out one in the press of the people who had a crucifix on his hat ; which done, he bade him kneel down unto it, and not this only, but also to rise up again and to kiss it. And now, gentlemen (quoth he), I think my horse hath acquitted both me and himself; and so his adversaries rested satisfied ... conceiving (as it might seem) that the devil had no power to come near the cross.’

... It has been inferred, from the following lines of a burlesque poem by
[Ben] Jonson, that [Banks]... suffered at last the fate he escaped at Orleans; but the grounds which the poet had for supposing such a dreadful end for the poor horse-charmer are unknown.

‘ But 'mongst these Tiberts, who do you think there was!
Old Banks' the juggler, our Pythagoras,
Grave tutor to the learned horse ; both which,
Being, beyond sea, burned for one witch,
Their spirits transmigrated to a cat.’ 

Tibert is a name for a cat. This story is from Frost's Circus Life and Circus Celebrities (1876). An interesting thing is the trouble Frost goes to add the glimmer of scholarship to the story. It is like the scholarship is part of the story. This may reflect the weight of so-called scientific thinking in the 19th century.  And of course, there have been other horses who could do similar tricks in history, and I believe the modern explanation is not witchcraft but hidden clues the trainer gives the horse.

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