Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.
For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.
For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.
I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.
But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?
The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.
The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.
There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.
Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?
There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.
Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…
Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing. After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!
And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.