I've always had great sympathy with the frustrated musician in this 1741 engraving by William Hogarth – probably more that Hogarth himself have. Many historians see this as the triumph of virtuous English noise over the effete foreigner who can't take the racket. (Click the image to enlarge.)
But honestly, who can blame him? This print captures how incredibly noisy an 18th c. street must have been. There are street vendors like the milk maid and the fish seller, crying their wares. A ballad singer sings while her baby cries, and a piper pipes. Dogs bark, birds caw, cats fight, children play drums and rattles (and piss on the fence.) A knife-grinder sharpens a cleaver, a pavior pounds a new paving stone in place, a dustman rings his bell, and a sow gelder blows his horn. The flag on the church spire signifies a holiday, meaning that even the church bell is likely tolling, too.
When the author Henry Fielding saw this engraving, he reportedly exclaimed it was "enough to make a man deaf to look at." He's right. It is.
Now substitute me pulling my hair for the musician. I live on a very quiet street, a dead end surrounded by woods, so that beyond the birds, dogs, and the occasional leaf-blower, my muse is peacefully undisturbed. But this week as I raced to meet my deadline, the local water company decided to replace all the water-pipes in my neighborhood. They're not on my street yet, but each morning by 7:00 a.m., I can hear them inching closer: jack hammers, front-end loaders, cranes lifting pipes and dump trucks dumping gravel, radios blasting call-in talk shows, and, of course, shouting men. It's only a matter of time, with the pavement outside my house marked with spray-painted crosses like a doomed plague victim, and I'm racing towards "The End" before the trucks appear.
Monsieur Enraged Musician, I feel your pain.
Above: The Enraged Musician, by William Hogarth, 1741, etching and engraving on paper. Tate Britain, London.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.