The Mountebank’s Mask

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Idling, as I so often seem to be these days, in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a book published in 1849 about Inigo Jones, the hero of a close friend of mine. One is interested in the heroes of one’s friends, and so I leafed through it. The book had once belonged to Major Inigo W Jones, Inigo’s descendent of the book’s era, to whom Van Dyck’s magnificent portrait of the great architect then still belonged.

Inigo Jones was not only a great architect but famous as a stage designer of masques, those strange and elaborate royal entertainments (costing the modern equivalent of nearly £1 million for a single night), half theatrical, half musical, wholly allegorical, that I think would probably bore us stiff, were it not that they would strike us as so bizarre. Ben Jonson wrote many but not all of them; and the text of one masque not written by him, The Mountebank’s Mask, the least boring by far, appears in this book.

This masque was once firmly attributed to John Marston (1576 – 1634), a writer of satiric plays who described his own writing as “lifting up his leg and pissing against the world,” an activity not unknown among writers to this day, and whose tomb carried the words Oblivioni sacrum. Marston’s last recorded literary act was trying to get his name removed from the title page of his own collected works. By then he had become a clergyman.

The Mountebank of the title is a quack, and the first part of the masque is taken up by some rather racy verses, and then a recitation of his prescriptions for various ills to which the flesh is heir:

If any Lady be sick of the Sullens, she knowes not where, let her
take a handfull of simples, I know not what, and use them I know
not how, applying them to the part grievde, I knowe not which, and
shee shall be well, I knowe not when.

I am not sure what the Sullens were in the early seventeenth century, but walk into any street today and you will see that they have become quite prevalent in the meantime, as have the Poutings. Mountebank, thou shouldst be living at this hour. England hath need of thee!

The Mountebank begins his address to King James and his courtiers as follows:

The greate Master of medicine. Aesculapius, preserve and prolong
the sanitie of these Royall and Princely Spectators. And if any here
present happen to be valetundinarie, the blessed finger of our
grand Master Paracelsus bee at hand for their speedie reparation.

Then the chorus breaks into song, as in an Indian film:

This powder doth preserve from fate;
This cures the Maleficiate;
Lost Maydenhead this doth restore,
And makes them Virgins as before.

Heers cure for tooth ache, feaver, lurdens,
Unlawfull and untimely burthens:
Diseases of all Sexe and Ages
This Medicine cures or els asswages.

I have receipts to cure the gowtye,
To keepe poxe in, or thrust them owte;
To coole hot bloods, cold bloods to warme.
Shall doe you good, if noe good, no harme.

The Mountebank takes up the song:

Is any deffe? Is any blinde?
Is any bound, or loose behind?
Is any fowle, that would be faire?
Would any Lady change her haire?
Does any dreame? Does any walke,
Or in his sleepe affrighted talke?
I come to cure what ere you feele,
Within, without, from head to heele.

The desire for a pill for every ill, then, is not new.

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