Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Golden Boy

In 1666, a fire destroyed most of the old medieval City of London and part of the area west of it. It started on Pudding Lane and spread through neighborhoods of densely packed wood and tar paper buildings on a dry east wind. It was a predictable disaster, so obvious that even an astrologer could see it coming. And sure enough one did forecast the fire. He ended up being arrested and tried for having started it, but was acquitted and escaped hanging. Other scapegoats included Catholics and foreigners, and a French imbecile was actually hanged. But the best scapegoat of all was the sin of gluttony.

The fire reached its furthest extent at Pye Corner, where Cock Lane meets Giltspur Street. In a niche above the corner is a little golden cherub, which was originally attached to a pub that stood on the site. The inscription reads: "This Boy is in Memmory Put up for the late Fire of LONDON Occasion'd by the Sin of Gluttony." Closer to ground level is an engraved plaque that explains "the boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral."

He's also a monument to how things change, and don't. We've gotten so good at gluttony that the kid wouldn't even rate as pudgy today. The fact that we need to be explicitly told that this kid counted as "prodigiously fat" tells us that Londoners in the 1660s were amateurs when it comes to obesity. More interesting is the idea that divine intention could be conveyed via geography. Sadly, that's still with us. Think of the people who believe 9/11 was God's punishment for America's sins.

To the nonconformist preacher (whoever he was) who came up with the gluttony theory, the fact that the fire had done so much damage was clear evidence that God was pissed off. Fair enough, but why was He so mad? The City was the commercial center of London at the time, and home to its busiest port and biggest market. The preacher saw this as a clear sign that the problem was gluttony; otherwise, the fire would've wiped out parts of the city more notorious for other sins: Drury Lane--home to actresses and brothels--if he'd been punishing lewdness, Westminster for lying, Billingsgate for blasphemy, and so on.

Gluttony seems like a stretch. No doubt the rich residents indulged in it, but their stone houses were surrounded by wooden tenements crowded by a whole lot more poor people who couldn't afford gluttony. Besides, gluttony is a knock-on effect of greed and envy, the driving forces behind commerce and accessible to the rich and poor alike. And why not lust? Like all ports, London's had its fair share of brothels, including the legal ones on Cock Lane and Stew Lane ("stew" being the word for "brothel" at the time). And the fire destroyed over 80 parish churches and St. Paul's cathedral; how did those figure in the divine punishment mix?

Another version of the story holds that the the divine lesson was written not so much in geography itself, but the names attached to it: the fire started on Pudding Lane and finally stopped at Pye (Pie) Corner. How could He make it any clearer?

But here too the clarity is a little problematic. True, Pudding Lane was home to bakehouses, including the royal baker to Charles II, where the fire seems to have started. Today, the word "pudding" connotes a baked dish, if you're British, or a kind of custard, if you're American. But in the 1600s it referred to both sausage and the entrails from which they were made. According to John Stowe's 1603 description of London, Pudding Lane was named after entrails, since the street ran from the "skalding House for Hogges" in Eastcheape to the docks on the Thames, "and their puddinges with other filth of Beastes, are voided downe that way to theyr dung boates." In a similar vein, "Pye" referred to the magpie on a sign that once hung from a tavern on the spot. So in terms of original meanings, the fire basically ran from Pig Entrails Lane to Magpie Corner. Hard to know how to read divine intention in those.

But one of the fun things about place names is that we interpret them in terms of their contemporary meanings, not their original ones. As word meanings change over time, so does the way we think about places attached to those words. So it may well be that in 1666 Pudding Lane and Pye Corner connoted tasty treats, as they do today, if you're willing to forgive the archaic "pie" spelling.

Other names haven't fared so well. Two examples: Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire, England, and Intercourse, Pennsylvania. "Butt" in this case probably referred to cistern, or more likely a pond or well that supplied one. But we don't much think of cisterns anymore, and especially in the US, "butt" means something else, especially in the context of "hole." Likewise, when "Intercourse" was so named, probably in the 18th or 19th century, it referred to commerce or conversation. During the 20th century, it became a polite word for sex, and thus the place name became chuckle-worthy.

Place names that have gained frisson from language shifts or lost referents are all over the place, and they add something to the landscape. It's hard to avoid forming an opinion about Bumpass Creek or Deadman Island, even if you know nothing about the places themselves. "Bumpass" and "Deadman" are family names that have been attached to dozens of places in the U.S. ("Deadman" place names show up over 600 times on USGS maps), but for most of us, it isn't the families we think of when we run across these places, and our experience of them is likely to be shaded, if only a little bit, but the sort-of-funny or sort-of-creepy meanings the names impart.

I'm sure the gluttony angle packed the pews for awhile in 1666, and it seems to have inspired a pub owner to commission the little gold statue of a kid to hang some blame on. It's nice that he's still around.