The Spider and the Fly

A little tweet from one of my favorite history bloggers brought me to a charming web illustration in the collection of the Library of Congress and then I was off–there is nothing better than a parable, especially one as universal and flexible as the spider and the fly. There have been all sorts of illustrative variants on this age-old story over the centuries, and I must begin with my very favorite, John Heywood’s 1556 illustrated poem, The Spider and the Flie. I understand that literary scholars have little love for this poem, but it is a very illuminating historical source, and a window into a very contentious time.  Heywood was a passionate Catholic in a time of surging Protestantism:  he envisions this religious conflict as a war between devious Protestant spiders and stalwart Catholic flies, with insect allies on both sides. The Catholic Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary” to the Protestants) is portrayed as a housemaid, squishing spiders and sweeping England clean.

The inspiration:  a couple caught up in a web of romance on the sheet music cover of the 1901 song, “The Spider and the Fly”, J.D. Cress, Library of Congress.

More serious matters at stake:  illustrations from John Heywood’s Spider and the Flie (LondonThomas Colwell, 1556).  Heywood looks on as a Catholic fly gets caught in a web with a Protestant spider army approaching, and then as the maid/queen Mary rids England of the spider.

An emblem engraving from the later sixteenth century: print made by Johann Theodor de Bry, Frankfurt, 1592 (British Museum).

The satirical and metaphorical use of the Spider and the Fly parable only intensifies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with new printing and printmaking technologies and the publication of Mary Howitt’s famous poem in 1829, with its leading line:  will you walk into my parlor?  But even before Howitt, the device was used by British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) to depict the central figure of his age, Napoleon:  pictured below surrounded by an army of European flies. After Howitt, cunning spiders armed with webs were everywhere, luring naive young me into taverns and the big city.

Thomas Rowlandson, “The Corsican Spider in his Web”, 1808, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a London temperance poster from the 1820s, Wellcome Library, London; a 1916 New York cartoon, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

You can always count on Puck magazine for this type of anthropomorphic visual satire, and I found two “Spider and the Fly” illustrations among its archive of covers:  I’m afraid that the precise issue regarding the Interstate Commerce Commission escapes me in the first (1907) image, but the second one, from 1913, looks pretty timely.

3 responses to “The Spider and the Fly

  • markd60

    I like the art, but never heard the story before. I heard about the Old Lady who swallowed the fly….

  • Moonsnail

    The wonderful 1907 illustration is a reference to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s investigation of Edward Henry Harriman (1848-1909). He is the bespectacled fly!

    The Commission was a regulatory agency set up in 1887, as a result of corruption in the railroads. It’s control eventually extended to all common carriers, except airplanes.

    Edward Harriman was a savvy and ambitious railroad baron, eventually seen as a monopolizer.

    In 1904, he was sued by President Theodore Roosevelt for violation of anti-trust regulations.

    In 1906-1907, an ICC investigation uncovered Harriman’s involvement, along with other “robber barons,” in the attempt to destroy the Chicago and Alton Railroad.

    (The ICC’s regulation of maximum railroad rates resulted in depreciation of railroad stock. This, in addition to many other factors, contributed to The Panic of 1907).

    Too much info to convey here. Please excuse this extremely abridged version of what is a very interesting and turbulent time in our history.

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