Tag Archives: Poetry

Curtain Lectures

It was Burns Night at Hamilton Hall last night, and my husband and I were charged with giving the Toast to the Lassies and Reply. After a week steeped in the Ploughman Poet, both of us were a bit uncomfortable with the very bawdy Burns in this year of #metoo, so he went with the more inspiring Rights of Woman as the basis of his toast, which meant I had to go for the uplifting too. But I kind of wish he had gone with one of my favorite Burns poems, The Henpecked Husband. I don’t like it for its overall sentiment, of course, but because of just one phrase, curtain lecture, an idiom which I’ve used in class time and time again, because it always provokes a conversation!

The Henpecked Husband

Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life, The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!  Who has no will but by her high permission, What has not sixpence but in her possession; Who must to he, his dear friend’s secrets tell, Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell. Were such the wife had fallen to my part, I’d break her spirit or I’d break her heart; I’d charm her with the magic of a switch. I’d kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.

Burns certainly didn’t coin this phrase; it had been around for quite a while. In my courses, I use the frontispieces from Thomas Heywood’s Curtaine Lecture (1637) and Richard Brathwaite’s Art Asleep, Husband? (1640) but I think the expression predates these works as well. It seems very Shakespearian to me, but the heavily-curtained seventeenth-century bed provides the perfect “frame” for wifely “advice”.

Curtain Lecture collage

If you pop these images up before a class of 19-year-olds you are immediately rewarded with their focused engagement in the history of women, marriage, gender relationships, satirical discourse, and material culture (inevitably their attention strays to the “alarm clock” on the table in the Heywood illustration). Lots of comments, lots of questions, all of which can be contextualized and connected to other timely trends. Obviously the notion had a wide appeal—or recognition–in the seventeenth century and after, which is why it survived up until Burns’ time. In an earlier post, I showed the Richard Newton caricature that dates from around the time of The Henpecked Husband, and it is one of many variations on the theme published in this era, give or take a few decades. As the era of curtained-beds closed, the curtain lecture continued, and was revived quite dramatically by the publication of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures by Douglas Jerrold in Punch in 1845. These 37 illustrated lectures were published in book form that same year, and reissued frequently thereafter, inspiring a wave of  variant visual expressions in all sorts of mediums: stereoviews, postcards, even a board game. Now it is a general rule of mine that once animals (or birds) take the place of people a concept has jumped the shark (with a few exceptions), and it’s hard to conceive the curtain lecture could have lasted through the twentieth century in any case, but nevertheless it survives as an effective teaching tool.

Curtain Lecture J. Lewis Marks 1824

Caudle2

Caudle 3 John Leech

mrs-caudle-s-curtain-lecture-victorian-card-from-punch-lecture-3-modelled-faces-and-real-hair_a-l-1585476-8880731

Curtain Lecture 1907 LOC

Curtain Lectures PC 1905

Curtain Lectures Chickens

Curtain DucksA Curtain Lecture pub. by J. Lewis Marks, 1824, British Museum; illustrations by John Leech for the first edition of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, 1845; Mrs. Caudle Card (with real hair!), Victoria & Albert Museum; 1907 stereoview from the Library of Congress; postcards, c. 1900-1910.


A Week to Remember

It’s a rare week in Salem that the Witch Trials are the focus of commemoration rather than commerce, and this week is just such a time: the combination of the 325th anniversary of 1692 and the completion of the new memorial marking the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge is creating a perfect storm of remembrance. Maybe I’m a bit more focused on it than the average person because I’m also teaching a graduate institute on early modern witch-hunting all week and moderating a panel on Proctor’s Ledge on Thursday, but I think many people in Salem and its environs will be thinking about the victims of 1692 this particular week. I find the timing very poignant: we had our 325th anniversary symposium on June 10, the date of the execution of the first victim, Bridget Bishop, but on July 19 the Trials intensified with the execution of five women: Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes. Even though more executions were to follow in August and September, July 19 was also a turning point in the village consciousness: if such a venerable and pious woman as Rebecca Nurse could fall prey to accusations of witchcraft, then surely anyone could. Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem will dedicate the Proctor’s Ledge memorial on Wednesday the 19th at noon, the Danvers Alarm List Company, the stewards of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, are hosting a commemorative event that evening, and Governor Charlie Baker has proclaimed the 19th Rebecca Nurse Day.

Week 5 Hill

Week Rebecca Nurse

I went by the new memorial this morning, a glorious Sunday, as I wanted to spend some contemplative time there—it’s a small neighborhood site so I’m sure Wednesday will be a bit more busy. I’m so grateful to both the city and the neighborhood for making this memorial happen, as well as to the Proctor’s Ledge team of historians and geologists and interpreters who were not going to be satisfied with a generic “Gallows Hill” (earlier “Witch Hill”) execution site. Gallows Hill remains a neighborhood, however, and I sure there are those who live there who fear that their community will be overwhelmed by the witch-trial tourism that overruns the city in the fall and has transformed the downtown tricentennial Witch Trial Memorial into some less than sacred space. I hope that doesn’t happen too. I find the two memorials to be very complementary; if fact, when I was looking at the new one this morning I kept thinking about downtown, especially with reference to a poem about the latter by Nicole Cooley, from her 2004 volume of poetry inspired by the victims–and resonance–of 1692, The Afflicted Girls.

Week Text

Week Text 2

The absence she speaks of seems somehow less present at Proctor’s Ledge (if absence can be less present).

Week Memorial

Week Memorial 2

Week Worst Day

The Proctor’s Ledge Memorial in Salem, to be dedicated on July 19, 2017.


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