Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Past As Foreign Country: Family Memoirs and Strands of History

And so here's what I do when the "disoriented, disarranged social structure[s]" in which I find myself (and about which I blogged earlier today, citing Eldridge Cleaver) threaten to drive me crazy and rob me of hope: I retreat to the past.  Because the past is a foreign country, and has infinitely variable possibilities (and infinitely variable plasticity, since we can pick and choose the moment of history in which we want to immerse ourselves at any given time), I look for slices of history to amuse, entertain, and instruct me.  And divert my attention from the dismal present.  Though, as my previous posting indicates, I do continue picking the bones of the present for hope: my faith obliges me to do so.

Right now--warning: one of those personally slanted postings that may be of little interest to anyone but myself--I'm immersing myself in two early 17th-century documents full of fascinating, gossipy tidbits of family history, history that catches my attention because both documents happen to be written by brothers of ancestors of mine.  I'm reading James Whitelocke's Liber famelicus, and the autobiography of Phineas Pett.  And as I read both, I'm struck by how alike, yet how very unlike, we and our ancestors are.  Some tendencies of human nature remain invariable, generation after generation: greed, credulity, the stupidity that makes us choose insubstantial friends over solid ones, the cruelty of those who have power to those who lack power, the occasional redemptive loving presence of a courageous figure who curbs the power of those who lord it over others, etc.

And other tendencies shift radically according to the time in which we happen to live.  Where, today, for instance, is one likely to find the kind of Christmas gifts that James Whitelocke (1570-1632) so lovingly enumerates in his list of gifts given to him in 1614, to celebrate the birth of Christ for that year's holy season?:

Sir Frauncis Leighe, a hanche of venison
Mr. Richard Vaus, a doe
William Whitelocke of Okingham, a fat turkey
My mother Browne, 4 collars of brawne, 4 capons, a capon pye, and goose py
Sir Henry Dymock, a colar of brawne and 3 capons
Widow Mountague, 2 capons
Samuel Baker, 2 capons
My cosen Peck, a bottle of bastard
My brother Bowstred, a swan and 2 geese, 2 capons, a color of brawne, a fletche of bacon
Anthony Bull, 6 silver spoones and 2 partriches
Sir Humfrey May, impost for 2 ton of wyne
Sir George Wrighte, a girdle
Nurse Harding, a goose; William Croke, a cake ; mr. Jones, a goose and a chync of pork

The wine was perhaps particularly welcome, since it would likely have been a staple of James Whitelocke's table.  His father Richard Whitelocke died  in 1570 in Bordeaux, where he happened to be at the time of his death as a merchant adventurer importing, among other items, good French claret to England.  James's brother Richard, my ancestor, followed in his father's footsteps in trade in Elbing in West Prussia, now Poland, where an uncle of James and Richard, Christopher Colte, and a nephew, Simon Fryer, were also a part of the family trading empire in that Baltic community.

And for those of us descended from this family who have long sought to follow the tantalizing clues in Virginia court records naming our Whitlock cousins in England, what an amazing tidbit James Whitelocke happens to provide when he notes that Richard, his merchant brother, sent his son James back to England for his brother James to take under his wing.  James the uncle sent James the nephew to Magdalen College in Oxford, and he remained in England, whence his son James went to Virginia in the latter half of the 17th century.

Equally fascinating are details Phineas Pett (1570-1647) happens to mention in his autobiography, which parallel stories handed down in several branches of my Nottingham family in Virginia.  These include a story of some relative in England who was beaten to death by her step-father with a pair of fire tongs--an event Phineas Pett describes in detail in his autobiography, noting that it almost destroyed him, since the hapless little girl murdered by her step-father was his little sister Abigail.

Who was beaten to death in a fit of rage in 1599 by her mother's second husband, Thomas Nunn, an Anglican parson at Weston in Suffolk, whom Phineas's mother Elizabeth  (née Thornton) had married following the death of Phineas's father Peter Pett.  One of those witnessing the savage beating was Abigail's sister Mary, my ancestor, who married Richard Nottingham, a ships' owner of Ipswich and London, whose son Richard went to Virginia in the early 1600s.  And whose descendants told and retold the story of the murder of a young girl somehow connected to their family by a monstrous "Squire Weston," helping researchers of that family, many years later, put together the pieces of its English history which link it to the Pett family, noted in English history for its involvement in the ship-building industry and naval affairs.

Of such tenuous, fragile, but steel-strong strands is history woven: stories told and retold, facts obscured and forgotten and retrieved.  And a few precious, gossipy memoirs that occasionally allow us to decipher the murky stories and to pick and sort through the fragile, steel-strong strands.  

The first gentleman above is James Whitelocke; the second is Phineas Pett.

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