Friday, February 20, 2009

Dick Whittington and His Cat

Poor Whittington was severely beaten at home by his tyrannical mistress the cook, who used him so cruelly, and made such game of him for sending his cat to sea, that at last the poor boy determined to run away from his place.... He traveled as far as Holloway, and there sat down on a stone to consider what course he should take; but while he was thus ruminating, Bow bells, of which there were only six, began to ring; and he thought their sounds addressed him in this manner:"Turn again, Whittington, Thrice Lord Mayor of London."

"Lord Mayor of London!" said he to himself, "what would not one endure to be Lord Mayor of London..!" So home he went....
~from "Dick Whittington and His Cat"
We had a beautifully illustrated storybook about Master Whittington and his cat that was read to us often as children. Something about the story stayed with me. I suppose that the image of Dick Whittington the scullery boy, beaten, starving, cold and hopeless, was one that could be easily conjured up in bleak moments of existence, along with the words chimed by the Bow bells: "Turn again, Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London." Unlike other fairy tales, the idyll does not have its roots in classical or medieval legends, but in the life of one Richard Whittington (c.1354–1423), four times elected Lord Mayor of London. Whittington rose from the mercer's guild to become one of the wealthiest merchants in England, famous for his charities, some of which exist to the present day. The existence of the cat which he sold to the rodent infested land of Barbary is bit dubious, although a small statue of it still exists on Highgate Hill in London. What strikes me now about the tale is that it shows that it was possible for people to rise socially as well as financially in feudal times, contrary to the popular image of an intransigent class system. What is more, Whittington was considered a great man by his contemporaries not merely because of his wealth and political power but because of the generous use he made of what he had received.

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xavier said...

Maria Elena:
To be a bit pedantic: Wittington rose during the lower Middle ages when the society was becoming more mobile and less rigid. Even then, mobility still wasn't easy

elena maria vidal said...

That is true; upward mobility became more possible in the fourteenth century, although it was never an easy thing; it required some work. Also, Whittington was a member of the landed gentry to begin with, albeit a younger son with no fortune. His rise was still amazing, as was the influence he wielded.

tubbs said...

The decimation of Western Europe by the bubonic plague ( and here "decimatiom" is an understatement) triggered a huge amount of social upheaval. Some historians have claimed a growth in social mobility at this time.

Alexandra said...

Great link to the Andrew Lang Fairy book collection. Thanks!

We just saw an exhibit at a local museum on the plague and other devastating diseases. It was interesting to actually see what the germs looked like in animated digital microscopes.

The plague display was a room surrounded by bones and skulls with a mock up of a "beak man", and Ring Around the Rosey playing the background. The death toll is amazing to think about.