AGNES BOWKER'S CAT- Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England
By David Cressey, published by Oxford University Press at £9.99 ($14.95 - USA). 351pp. ISBN: 0-19-282530-5 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
This is an excellent little book covering many interesting subjects. Take, for example, the cover story about Agnes Bowker's cat. It was alleged that Agnes gave birth to a cat. Cressey tracks down the detective work done by some local men at the time (mid 16th century) which reveals that the cat was an adult cat which had been skinned and that inside the cat was found straw and part of a side of bacon - indicating that the cat had been alive and well in the streets of the nearest town before allegedly being born to Agnes. Agnes was very inventive in the stories about how a cat had 'carnal knowledge of her body' prior to the birth, but in other stories it is clear she had a human lover at times. It seems that Agnes had a child which she sent away or buried in the fields (the precise truth is not known) but created this story in order to try and hide the truth and possibly struck a deal with the local midwife in order to pass it off - the consequences being rather dire for women in this situation at the time. The story reveals Agnes' real story which lies behind the sensational tale and not only illuminates small details of early modern society, but also places it within the broader historical context of the time. No mean feat.
The other chapters in the book are no less unusual in their content - here's some chapter titles to give you some of the flavour; 'Monstrous Births and Credible Reports: Portents, Texts, and Testimonies'; 'Cross-Dressing in the Birth Room: Gender Trouble and Cultural Boundaries'; 'Who Buried Mrs Horseman? Excommunication, Accommodation and Silence'; and 'Baptized Beasts and Other Travesties: Affronts to Rites of Passage'. The book is, as you may have guessed, a collection of essays written about life in the margins of early modern history and as such it is fascinating and revealing in many ways. Each topic is addresses with sensitivity and the most cursory of glances at any chapter demonstrates that Cressey has not chosen them for their sensational nature but for how they reveal all the extreme aspects of early modern belief and behaviour. Anyone familiar with Cressey's other historical work (for example, Birth, Marriage and Death) will know that he is a serious and respected historian who has served a long apprenticeship writing about many different aspects of early modern society.
Each of the chapters approaches an unusual tale and, through historical inquiry and fresh research, provides an honest and refreshing reappraisal of these oddities which are the foodstuff of myth and folklore. The writing style in the book is at all times very approachable and likeable, and is full of quirks of expression that make it a pleasure to read. In his introduction Cressey states that by looking at the margins as well the centre of early modern history a more complete understanding of the period can be acquired - his book proves him right as it adds texture and colour to a period which broadly seems to lack it in existing literature. If the period from approximately 1500-1800 interests you and you enjoy unusual tales and good history, buy this book because you will find it very enjoyable. Highly recommended!