The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

6. The careful suppression of individual liberty

This week Radio 4 has been broadcasting a series of programs by John Simpson about China in the run up to this year's Olympic Games. The Liberator of Kabul, who was last reporting from Beijing in 1989 during the massacre at Tiananmen Square, is astounded by the changes in the country, by the phenomena that is China's almost total rejection of Communism in favour of capitalism. In today's program he remarked on the contrast between the clothing of a well-heeled businessmen and the monochrome
uniform of the Cultural Revolution, and the young man responded without irony by expressing his admiration of the chic style of the old look. During a very brief visit I made to the city a year ago almost everybody I spoke to wanted to enthuse about the new opportunities for business and prosperity, and to say how great a man was Chairman Mao.

Serendipitously, as I haven't yet returned it to the shelves, Volume 6 (Cli. - Day) has entries on both COMMERCE and COMMUNISM.

COMMERCE, by Robert Somers (author of "The Trade Unions: an appeal to the working classes and their friends" - thanks, Google) provides a historical outline of the rise of international trade, using the prosperity of Britain (being, in 1876 of course, Top Nation ) as an illustrative example. The outlook for Commerce, Mr Somers concludes, is pretty rosy:

"...[C]ommerce has acquired a security and extension, in all its most essential conditions, of which it was void in any previous age. ...[I]t is established in every quarter of the globe, and all the seas and ways are open to it on terms fair and equal to every nation. ...[S]uch decay and ruin as have smitten many once proud seats of wealth into dust cannot again occur without such cataclysms of war, violence, and disorder as the the growing civilization and reason of mankind, and the power of law, right, and common interest forbid us to anticipate."

The essay on COMMUNISM is written by Mrs Fawcett, presumably Milicent Garrett Fawcett (thanks again, Google), political economist and campaigner for suffrage for women. At nearly nine pages the essay runs somewhere over (by my approximate calculation) 10,000 words, and, perhaps to an even greater degree than Mr Somers' work, is a thoughtful analysis of the subject not entirely done justice by my selective use of it here.

The Utopian models of Plato and Thomas More are considered, as are the more contemporary writings of Louis Blanc and one Karl Marx, who is quoted as a "member of the International Society" to illustrate the contempt of German socialists for political liberalism.

Mrs Fawcett is critical of Thomas More and later communists for their rejection of monogamy. Their "attacking marriage and advocating promiscuous intercourse between the sexes may probably be traced to the notion which regards a wife as being a mere item among the goods and chattels of her husband. It is not difficult to find evidence of the survival of this ancient habit of mind." And not only amongst communist thinkers, as Mrs Fawcett was no doubt very aware.

On the whole, the essay is skeptical of the merits of communism as a philosophy, without failing to acknowledge that many of its principals are just.
"The communists denounce the evils of the present state of society ; the hopeless poverty of the poor, side by side with the self-regarding luxury of the rich, seems to them to cry aloud to Heaven for the creation of a new social organization. They proclaim the necessity of of sweeping away the institution of private property, and insist that this great revolution, accompanied by universal education, free trade, a perfect administration of justice, and a due limitation on the numbers of the community, would put an end to half the self-made distresses of humanity. Has it never occurred to them that a similarly happy result might be attained if all these subsidiary reforms were carried out, leaving the principles of private property and competition to their old predominance in the economic world ?"

The "limitation on the numbers of the community" is in the author's opinion a central concern of communism, as the larger the society, the thinner the prosperity has to be spread. Particularly, there is a removal of the incentive for a parent to work harder to provide for more offspring, and so communist societies must impose limitations on procreation.

Naturally, Mrs Fawcett draws most of her examples of communism as practised rather
than merely theorized from America: the Shakers, Icarians, Perfectionists and others. Acknowledging that they are imperfect models as they are all very small communities, she attempts to define what might be the problems with a larger system.

"If [...] communism were adopted throughout a whole nation, the minute despotism which now distinguishes the government of existing communistic societies, and which furnishes them with an effectual control over the growth of population, would cease to be possible ; or if, indeed, it should ever become possible it would be through the careful suppression of individual liberty, and through the strenuous encouragement of everything which tended to destroy self reliance on the part of the people and to build up the absolute power of the state."

The verdict of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is clear - Communism is a flawed concept ; Commerce will prevail.

Although CHINA is found in Vol. 5, in Vol. 6 we have a respectably long essay on CONFUCIUS, from which and whom I would like to leave you with this saying:

Learning, undigested by thought, is labour lost ; thought, unassisted by learning, is perilous.

Monday, 25 February 2008

5. Infants, Lunatics and Married Women

From Vol. 6 of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1877):

"CONTRACT is a bargain or agreement enforceable by law. The law of contract occupies so large a space in all civilized systems of law, that only a few of its more leading principles can be stated here. There is a general harmony in the jurisprudence of modern nations on this subject which is not to be found in other departments of law. [...]

"Certain classes of persons are under peculiar disabilities in matters of contract, viz., infants, lunatics, and married women. [...]

"A married woman, being in the eyes of the law merged in her husband, cannot bind herself by contract."

Friday, 22 February 2008

4. Pregnancy: Medical Jurisprudence, Infanticide and Monsterism

My wife is currently 36 weeks pregnant and we are sharing the joy of impending parenthood. From friends, relatives, medical staff, magazines, the internet and so on and so forth we can in no way be said to be suffering from a deficiency of advice or information on the subject, but instinct and a sense of duty to this blog leads me to turn to Pregnancy in the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Index, where I am referred to Volumes 15, 13 and 16, and the subjects of MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE, INFANTICIDE and MONSTERS. I begin to suspect that a young couple at the twilight of the 19th century might not have received the same degree of support and reassurance available to us today.

So, in Volume 15, T. Stevenson M.D. of Guy's Hospital tells us that pregnancy "presents one of the widest fields for medico-legal evidence. The limits of age between which it is possible, the limits of utero-gestation, and the signs of pregnancy may all in turn be the subjects of investigation."

The limits of age are a simple enough matter "being limited by the age of puberty on the one hand and the cessation of the monthly flow" on the other. The limits of utero-gestation are "not in England fixed by legislation" but curiously the French code "fixes the extreme limit of three hundred days." This limit is "perhaps never exceeded, if ever reached", which seems fortunate for all parties concerned. Frustratingly, an exact medical definition of the term of gestation is baffled for non-Gallic nations as "[t]he uncertainty of females in fixing the exact date of conception has given rise to the discrepant opinions of physiologists on the subject."

And why is this significant? The following paragraph explains.

"The signs of pregnancy are of the utmost importance to the medical jurist. He may be called upon to pronounce upon the virtue of a female, to sustain or rebut a plea for divorce, to determine whether a capital sentance shall be carried out, or to determine whether it is probable that an heir will be born to an estate. Should he err in his judgement - and mistakes are very possible in the earlier months of utero-gestation - he may commit a grievous wrong."


Medical Jurisprudence is one matter, let us now see what we can learn from Volume 13, W. C. Smith LL. B., Advocate, and the subject of Infanticide.

Firstly, we see that this is a subject of which its history "as an archaic institution has already been referred to in the article FOUNDLING HOSPITALS (vol ix. p. 481)." In opening W. C. Smith acknowledges that principal causes of infanticide have varied in different times and cultures. Where infanticide has served a religious purpose, its victims have primarily been male in atonement for sacrilege as of course the boy "being the nobler child, was preferred." Otherwise victims have primarily been female, as a "positive check" (in the words of Malthus) against "the reckless propogation of children far outrunning the means of subsistence which the energy of the parents can provide", and furthermore it is "because girls cannot provide for themselves that they are killed."

The writer suggests that occurences of infanticide in India were more complex, and he examines the matter in some detail. He reminds us that the "wise action of the British Government" reduced occurence of the practise.

"According to the present law, if the female children fall below a certain percentage in any tract or among any tribe in northern India where infanticide formerly prevailed, the suspected village is placed under police supervision, the cost being charged to the locality. By these measures, together with a strictly enforced system of reporting births and deaths, infanticide has been almost trampled out ; although some of the Rajput clans keep their female offspring suspiciously close to the lowest average which secures them from surveillance."
Oh, those wily Rajputians!

Although earlier in the article the observation is made that "Infanticide still survives among many savage races", we now read that the modern crime "shows no symptom of diminution in the leading nations of Europe."

"In all of them, it is closely connected with illegitimacy in the class of farm and domestic servants. The crime is generally committed by the mother for the purpose of completing the concealment of her shame, and in other cases, where the shame has not survived, in order to escape the burden of her child's support. The paramour sometimes aids in the crime, which is not confined to unmarried mothers."

We learn again of the peculiarities of the French statutes, for in that country "inquiry into paternity is forbidden", leading to the preservation of life "at the expense of morality."

In English law of the 19th century, a child is considered a human being at the moment of birth, and so killing of a child "is homicide - punishable by death - when it dies after birth in consequence of injuries received before, during, or after birth." This leads to niceties of distinction between homicide and abortion - also then a crime, but not a capital offense - the maximum punishment, we are informed, being penal servitude for life.

The author clearly acknowledges the moral complexities of these issues and the problems posed in framing law in the matter. He leaves us,however, in no doubt that he considers abortion to be utterly abhorrent, and is displeased to note that it is a crime which prevailed extensively "even in classes of society in which infanticide proper would not be thought of without a shudder."

It is difficult to imagine that W. C. Smith would be much taken with the moral climate of the modern world and our loss of shame. Still, reading that thirty years prior to publication of Volume 13 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica "a large number of children were murdered for the mere purpose of obtaining the burial money from a benefit club", and reading about the then prevalent "baby-farming houses of London" to which an unwanted child might be sent with payment of a "ridiculously insufficient sum for the maintenance of the child" leading to a "great rate of mortality", does give some evidence that the price of an impaired morality may be worth paying.

And so we come to Volume 16, Charles Creighton, M.A., M.D., and MONSTER. I suppose it goes without saying that this essay, a catalogue of a comprehensive range of birth defects, was not written with the purpose of providing any comforts or reassurance to prospective parents to be. Indeed, it might have proven particularly unfortunate for any Victorian wife to read the paragraphs indicated by the index entry - concerning the possible causes of congenital abnormality. Dr Creighton informs us that "[m]aternal impressions during pregnancy have often been alleged as a cause, and this causation has been discussed at great length by the best authorities. The general opinion seems to be that it is impossible to set aside the influence of subjective states of the mother altogether. The doctrine of maternal impression has often been resorted to when any other explanation was either difficult or inconvenient ; thus, Hippocrates is said to have saved the virtue of a woman who gave birth to a black child by pointing out that there was a picture of a negro on the wall of her chamber." Unwilling as our author is to dismiss this possible explanation of monsterism, which of course has retained its currency in the beliefs practised by Scientologists today, he also offers us the "erratic spontaneity of the embryonic cells and cell-groups" as possible culprit.

One has to hope that detailed accounts of infanticide and five comprehensive pages on the subject of congenital deformity, against, well, nothing at all on the simple biological facts of the process, would not have any kind of negative impression themselves.

[ have gone to the trouble of uploading the entirity of the MONSTER article for your edification here]

Sunday, 17 February 2008

3. A realm where nothing is fixed

Two weeks ago, after watching the finale of HBO's Rome, I lifted down the Index and the couple of volumes it directed me to in order to try and educate the impressions I had received from the very enjoyable TV series. I was much taken with what the Britannica's authors had to say regarding the personalities in that soap opera. Today I pulled down Volume II (Ana.-Ath.) looking to re-read the damning portrait of Mark Anthony which had so amused me, in order to share some of the salient points here, but in scanning the contents page and finding no entry, was led astray by the will-o-the-wisp fairy lights of the subject of "Apparitions".

"Apparitions" was written by Andrew Lang, M.A. The article has been transcribed and uploaded to and is well worth reading in full. The author begins by expounding a careful and logical hypothesis explaining the origin of the belief in spirits in primitive, ancient and modern societies. "[T]he further we go back in the history of civilisation, as in the works of nature, the simpler, the more identical, the more widely diffused are all its productions. The earliest implements for lighting fires, the earliest weapons, are not more alike than the earliest guesses of speculation and the earliest efforts of fancy. These oldest fancies dream of apparitions of the dead, and are preserved below the level of advancing culture, and insinuated into the ideas of the cultivated classes by the classes which are unprogressive, unaffected on the whole by religious or social changes." To illustrate the influence of what, post Jung, we may term the author's description of the collective unconsciousness, he cites the near identical practices of "the Scotch witch...the Kaffir witch...[the] Parisian sorceress... [and the] Finnish wise-woman."

So Mr Lang sets out to test his hypothesis with the following provision: "In entering the cloudland of folk-lore, it is impossible to advance too cautiously. This is a realm where nothing is fixed and definite ; where all is vague, floating, confused. He who would call up and try the spirits here must not place himself within too narrow a magic circle, but extend his view as far as possible to the beliefs of the most alien and distant races."

The margins of the Encyclopaedia Britannica have subject headings in a smaller font which assist the reader scanning an article to find the particular points of interest to themselves - in "Apparitions" Primitive beliefs, Fairies, Brownies, and Second sight lead us to ground familiar from our reading of "Torture", Apparitions in witchcraft.

Lang discusses the various factors which contributed to widespread belief, even amongst such persons as Henry More and John Wesley, in the veracity of the accusations made in witch trials relating the most grotesque and fantastical of happenings. The author notes that supposed witness accounts and confesions of the witch's compact with Satan resembled "[t]he same revolting ceremonies and travesties of the church service... as were attributed to the Templars... after which there ensued a licentious revel." He makes a plausible suggestion to explain the common characteristics of these supposed happenings: folk-memories of "those vast nocturnal gatherings, with their revival of pagan rights, their mockery of the church, their unnatural licentiousness, in which the popular misery of the 14th century found relief and expression." I must confess myself ignorant of the gatherings referred to, and hope that the 9th will shed further light on this matter some time in the future, as they sound rather fun.

Lang observes that Isobel Gowdie was burned as a witch in Nairn, Scotland in 1622 for "telling tales which would nowadays make her invaluable to the collector of [folklore]" He wryly adds that "modern believers in spiritualism claim the witches as martyrs of their own faith[...]." Of course 130 years later, in the age of superconductors, genomes, string theory etc, we have Wiccans to claim the witches as martyrs, as spiritualism is generally considered to be quite old-fashioned and silly.

Next, the subject of Ghosts gets the thorough treatment it deserves. Lang begins on a skeptical note, acknowledging that much evidence given of ghosts is "of the hearsay class ; it is almost as rare to find a witness who has seen a ghost as to encounter a person who does not know someone who has had this experience." After a comprehensive dissection of a range of learned scientific and philosophical thinking on the matter, the author rather surprisingly pitches in with a piece of hearsay of his own, recounting an example of a "genuine ghost story as contrasted with a hallucination:- It happened to a lady, a distant relative of the writer..." She is visited in Edinburgh by an apparition of her father - who was currently stationed in India - suffering from some pain in his side . She relates the event to a clergyman "with whom she was residing" (what is wrong with the world today that one can no longer provide such bonafides?) who made a note of the date and time of this uncanny occurrence. News later arrived from India that dat!dat!dah! her father had been injured! In his side! At the very time and date that the good lady's clerical acquaintance had faithfully recorded! Zounds!

There's something touching about the naive faith with which the author presents this dubious and unremarkable tale. If the testimony of a distant female relative and a clergyman have not already blown your mind, then prepare yourself for Mr Lang's very own experience.

"The writer once met, as he believed, a well-known and learned member of an English university who was really dying at a place more than a hundred miles distant from that in which he was seen."

He offers us no speculation as to the cause of this meeting nor any other details of the meeting itself - did they have tea and discuss Swedenborg? or merely raise hats and say good-day? - it must surely go without saying that our author would have had the good taste to refrain from enquiring after the distinguished gentleman's health.

The eminently pragmatic and thoughtful analysis of spiritualism that concludes the essay does nothing to dispel for me the impression given by these two short anecdotes that if ghosts of Christmas past, faerie kings, black dogs, headless highwaymen and their ilk were not popping up at every strike of midnight in the days of steam, then our forebears were nonetheless astrally projecting and behaving in strictly non-linear relations to the physical world, in a manner more fitting to the aesthetics of a David Lynch film than my notion of Victorian common sense and rationality would previously have suggested. For this I am very grateful.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

2. The perverted ingenuity of man

A grimly sincere sounding American chap on the Today program the other morning was making a very forceful argument in support of the American legal system legislating for the use of torture. What if a terrorist in your custody has the information to prevent an imminent and devastating attack on the White House, the gravelly-voiced gentleman posited, should security forces not have the right to stick nails under the prisoner's fingernails?

"Torture" has its entry in Volume 23 of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the essay is the work of one James Williams.

At the outset Mr Williams disappoints the salacious reader by declaring his interest to be the role of torture in legal processes ancient and modern, rather than providing a catalogue of "the innumerable modes of inflicting pain which have been from time to time devised by the perverted ingenuity of man [...]."

"The whole subject is now one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned."

A comprehensive history is given of the role of torture in Greek and Roman law, and how it has been applied in Europe throughout the centuries.

Of the United States there is little for Williams to say. "One instance of the peine forte et dure is known. It was inflicted in 1692 on Giles Cory of Salem, who refused to plead when arraigned for witchcraft." One recorded instance, an admirable record. Williams earlier explains that peine forte et dure was the only torture that had been legislated for in England, to be applied where a person refused to plead either guilty or not guilty. Boards would be placed across the prostrate form of the recalcitrant accused, and heavy weights added until they either were persuaded to enter a plea, or in agony expired. Giles Cory is probably most familiar to us today thanks to the gruesome scene in The Crucible, which powerfully portrays this pre-Constitutional equivalent of 'pleading the Fifth.'

Other than this instance it only remains for the 9th to round up by quoting the Constitution's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishment', before returning to the more fertile ground of the varied brutalities practised in continental Europe.

James Williams would doubtless provoke even more of a disdainful sneer from Mr Pins-under-the-nails than the average namby-pamby liberal Radio 4 listener of today. He provides a colourful-sounding list of tortures permitteded in 17th - 18th century Scottish Law including "...the rack, the pilniewinkis, the boot, the caschie-laws, the lang irnis, the narrow-bore..." and concludes somberly with the "worst of all, the waking, or artificial prevention of sleep." What, no water-boarding? Of course, Mr Williams was writing in simpler times, and so too unsophisticated to appreciate the distinction between torture and enhanced interrogation techniques.

1. Preface

The 24 volumes and index of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were published between 1875 and 1889. It has become known as the 'Scholar's Edition' owing to the highbrow quality of the submitted articles. It was the last British edition before the enterprise passed to American publishers.

The 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the print apotheosis of the Victorian world view. It is not a dry work of reference, but is alive with opinion and personality. There are plenty of examples of Empire-minded bombast and slanted jingoism, but again and again the freshness and modernity of a contributor's insights leap out at the 21st century reader. And then other parts might lead to legal action or at the least outraged offense if reprinted without contextual apology.

It is very heavy, takes up a lot of shelf space, and is usually given away rather than bought. Homes are sought for the 9th edition with a similar degree of mixed desperation and affection that the owners of a rare and over-sized breed of long-haired dog express when finding that their new apartment is just too small for the old boy.

When I get the opportunity, I like to preface an argument by saying "According to the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica..." It is a deeply satisfying thing to say, and opportunities to bend conversations in that direction do not come often enough for my liking. The object of this site is to address that deficiency.

There is an excellent website called which has many articles uploaded from the 9th edition, presumably with purpose of some day having the whole of it available to Interwebshire. This is a noble objective which deserves your unconditional support. If you don't know anyone desperate to throw away their edition, or simply don't have room for a pungent, silverfish-riddled addition to the family home, will provide you with the next best thing. Should you not have the time to browse randomly through the articles and formulate half-baked rants and misapprehensions of your own then look no further! According To The Ninth is here to help.