The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History

by Jan Bondeson


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In his new collection of essays, Jan Bondeson tells ten fascinating stories of myths and hoaxes, beliefs and Ripley-like facts, concerning the animal kingdom. Throughout he recounts—and in some instances solves—mysteries of the natural world which have puzzled scientists for centuries.

Heavily illustrated with photographs and drawings, the book presents astounding tales from across the rich folklore of animals: a learned pig more admired than Sir Isaac Newton by the English public, an elephant that Lord Byron wanted to employ as his butler, a dancing horse whose skills in mathematics were praised by William Shakespeare, and, of course, the extraordinary creature known as the Feejee Mermaid. This object became the foremost curiosity of London in the 1820s and later in the century toured the United States under the management of P. T. Barnum. Bearing a striking resemblance to a wizened and misshapen monkey with a fishtail, the mermaid was nonetheless proclaimed a genuine specimen by 'experts.'

Bondeson explores other zoological wonders: toads living for centuries encased in solid stone, little fishes raining down from the sky, and barnacle geese growing from trees until ready to fly. In two of his most fascinating chapters, he uncovers the origins of the basilisk, considered one of the most inexplicable mythical monsters, and of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. With the head and body of a rooster and the tail of a snake, the basilisk was said to be able to kill a person with its gaze. Bondeson demonstrates that belief in this fabulous creature resulted from misinterpretations of rare events in natural history. The vegetable lamb, a mainstay of museums in the seventeenth century, was allegedly half plant, half animal: it had the shape of a little lamb, but grew from a stem. After examining two vegetable lambs still in London today, Bondeson offers a new theory to explain this old fallacy.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801479472
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 07/02/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jan Bondeson is a physician specializing in rheumatology and internal medicine. He works at a major research institute in London and is the author of A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, also from Cornell, and The Prolific Countess.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Dancing Horse

If Banks had lived in olden times, he would have
shamed all the enchanters in the world, for whosoever
was most famous of them could never master
or instruct any beast as he did.

Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World

The annals of performing animals stretch far back in time. Whereas some noble Romans kept small private zoos, the profanum vulgum had to content themselves with watching the dancing dogs and apes shown by itinerant jugglers. In medieval times, brutal animal baitings were a popular pastime, but the art of training animals became almost entirely forgotten. Bears, bulls, horses, wild boars, and badgers were baited with dogs; this degraded form of entertainment was relished by both high and low, and in Britain as well as on the European continent. Shakespeare mentioned the career of the fighting bear Sackerson, and the bears Tom o'Lincoln and Blind Robin were almost as famous. These brutal pastimes reigned supreme in medieval times and remained well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not until the late sixteenth century that the earliest animal trainer appeared for whom authentic records survive: the Englishman William Banks. His celebrated dancing horse Marocco was, in Elizabethan times, as well known throughout Britain and Europe, as any other two- or four-legged performer. Marocco even enjoyed the unparalleled honor, for a member of the equine race, of being mentioned in Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World.

   William Banks was born in Staffordshire, probably during the 1560s. One source describes him as a "Staffordshire gentilman," but it is more likely that he spent his youth as one of the retainers of the earl of Essex. In view of his great familiarity with horses, it would not have been surprising if his duties had included tending the earl's stables. His career as a horse trainer seems to have begun in the late 1580s. In the summer of 1591 he visited Shrewsbury with a performing white horse. He probably toured other cities, but apparently without gaining much renown. Some years earlier, probably in 1589, Mr. Banks had purchased a young bay foal, whom he had trained with the utmost care. The horse's name—Marocco—was derived from a type of saddle frequently used at the time. Marocco was a small, muscular horse with remarkable litheness and agility; he also proved particularly intelligent and easy to educate. Mr. Banks was much impressed with his horse's progress and had high hopes for his young charge. In spite of the novelty of their act and the consequent uncertainty of success—there are no previous records of any performing horse having been exhibited with profit—he decided to take up residence in London. Some time in 1592 or 1593, the adventurous Mr. Banks sold his belongings in Staffordshire, shod his horse with silver, and set out for the metropolis.

    Exactly at what time the dancing horse first made his bow to a London audience has not been recorded; it is certain, however, that the shows were a great success from the start. Marocco could dance on either two or four legs with amazing agility. He could play dead in a particularly realistic manner. If Mr. Banks indicated some person in the crowd wearing a distinguishing garment, Marocco ran toward the person and pulled him into the arena. Sir Kenelm Digby wrote that Marocco "would restore a glove to the due owner after the master had whispered the man's name in his ear, and would tell the just number of pence in any silver coin newly showed him by his master." In an amusing trick, Mr. Banks ordered his horse to bow to the queen of England. Marocco did so with great reverence, ceremoniously scraping his hoof. But when he was ordered to bow to that archenemy of all Britons, the king of Spain, Marocco flatly refused. When Mr. Banks insisted, the horse neighed furiously, showing his teeth, and kicked out behind. The conclusion of this caper was that the infuriated horse, whose political opinions had been grossly insulted, chased its master out from the arena. This popular trick was aped by Marocco's successors among London's performing animals: a "jackanapes," an elephant, and Mr. Holden's old, unwieldy camel all shared Marocco's dislike of the Spanish monarch. The poet John Donne described, in one of his poems, a particularly apathetic and indifferent gentleman, who

... doth move no more
Than the wise politique horse would heretofore
Or thou, O elephant, or ape wilt do,
When any names the King of Spain to you.

Marocco was also famous for his arithmetic ability. Mr. Banks collected a number of coins from the audience and shook them in a large purse. Marocco then took up each of the coins in turn and returned them to their proper owners, after first stamping his hoof to tell how many shillings and pence each of them was worth. William Shakespeare mentioned the dancing horse's money-counting ability in Love's Labour's Lost. In the mid-1590s, William Banks and Marocco were among London's most popular entertainers. Mr. Banks was a wealthy man: he took lodgings at Belsavage Inn near Ludgate, where Marocco also had his stables. Their own arena was near Gracious Street, where Banks had ordered a gallery to be constructed. A musician was employed to entertain the spectators in between the shows and to play suitable music for the dancing horse. A merry tune, called Bankes' Game, was played to accompany Marocco's calisthenics. Some of the dancing horse's early tricks verged on the burlesque: in one trick Marocco drank a huge bucket of water and then relieved himself when ordered by the trainer. This amused one of Banks's literary friends, the poet John Bastard, who wrote that

Bankes has a horse of wondrous qualitie,
For he can fight, and pisse, and daunce, and lie,
And find your purse, and tell what coyne ye have:
But Bankes, who taught your horse to tell a knave?

The ladies of London were unamused by these unprepossessing antics, however, and Mr. Banks seems to have excluded this trick from his later repertoire. He also had Marocco's tail cut, making the horse a cut-tail or "curtail", as it was frequently described by his contemporaries. Another of Mr. Banks's literary friends, the famous author Thomas Nashe, wrote that "Wiser was our brother Bankes of these latter days, who made his jugling horse a Cut, for feare if at any time he should foyst, the stinke sticking in his thicke bushie taile might be noysome to his Auditors."

    The ladies who attended Mr. Banks's later shows still had some unpleasant surprises in store for them. One of Marocco's foremost accomplishments was "to discern Maids from Maulkins." Mr. Banks ordered his horse first to fetch him a chaste and honorable virgin and then to bring him a harlot of the streets. It is unknown whether Mr. Banks trusted his own ability to determine the ladies' moral virtues from their clothing, or whether he let the horse select them at random. In either of these versions, this trick must have given rise to much coarse laughter from the male spectators. Another variation of this trick was described in one of the many anecdotes about the famous clown Richard Tarleton, about whom it was written that "for the part called the Clown's part, he never had his match, never will have." The authenticity of Tarleton's claim can be questioned, however, because Tarleton had been dead some years before Marocco came to London. Alternatively, the horse may have been older than earlier presumed, and identical to the "white horse" that Mr. Banks had brought to Shrewsbury in 1591.

    The popular "Tarleton's Jests" related that once, when Tarleton and his actor friends were staging a play at the Crosse-Keyes near Gracious Street, Mr. Banks and his "Horse of Strange Qualities" were performing near the sign of the bell. Although the actors were wholly unsuccessful, Marocco had a field day, attracting much notice from the passersby. At last, Tarleton himself went up to see the dancing horse, and his friend Banks recognized him in the crowd. Mr. Banks asked the horse to seek out "the veriest foole" among the spectators. Marocco immediately ran to Tarleton and pulled him into the ring by the sleeve. Tarleton was laughed at by the crowd, but said nothing other than "God a mercy, horse!" He then said to Mr. Banks that he himself could make Marocco perform an even more startling feat, to which Banks replied that he would allow him to try, be it what it might. Tarleton told Marocco to seek out "the veriest whore-master" among those present: the horse ran to its own master and seized his coat with its mouth! As Marocco pulled Banks into the center of the arena, accompanied by the shouts and laughter of the audience, Tarleton said "Then God a mercy, horse, indeed!" It can be suspected, however, that the two cunning performers had planned the whole thing beforehand. Their advertising gimmick was a great success, and "God a mercy, horse" remained a byword in London for many years.

    Late-sixteenth-century London was a hotbed of literary activity. Shakespeare's contemporaries were tireless in writing and publishing satirical pamphlets, squibs, and poems, and their work was eagerly bought by the growing, literate middle class. The satirical poems and pamphlets had strange tides—Satiro-Mastix, Strappado for the Devill, Armin's Nest of Ninnies and The Mastive, or a Young Whelpe of the Olde Dogge—many of which are difficult to comprehend today, owing to their extreme topicality. In November 1595, a laudatory poem dedicated to Marocco was printed. This "Ballad Shewing the Strange Qualities of a Yong Nagg Called Morocco" was apparently meant to be sold at the shows, but its contents are unknown, since not a single copy has been preserved to posterity. The month after, a thirteen-page pamphlet entitled Maroccus Extaticus; or, Bankes Bay Horse in a Trance was published in London. The alleged authors were Iohn Dando, the wier-drawer of Hadley, and Harrie Runt, head ostler of Bosomes Inne, but the pamphlet is likely to have been written by some Oxford undergraduates, who were among the main providers of contemporary satirical fiction. According to a nineteenth-century source, only two copies of this scarce pamphlet were known at the time. It was a common jest among the Londoners that Mr. Banks and Marocco probably could talk to each other, and the pamphlet has the form of a conversation between Banks and his horse. They talk about certain reprehensible features of daily London life and unanimously deplore the deceitful merchants and ungenerous publicans of the metropolis. The innkeepers were divided into two categories: those who were also keepers of brothels and those who employed prostitutes from the street. The pamphlet was illustrated with an amusing woodcut, showing Mr. Banks and his horse performing before some interested spectators.

    After seeing Marocco in action, not a few spectators suspected that witchcraft was involved: no mere horse could perform such wonders. When Mr. Banks made an extended tour of the provinces from 1595 to 1597, visiting Oxford, Shrewsbury, and other cities, many people in the audience sat pale and trembling during the show; they were certain that Mr. Banks was a sorcerer and the horse his familiar spirit. In Edinburgh, Marocco again made a lasting impression, as judged from Patrick Henderson's History of Scotland: "There came an Englishman to Edinburgh with a chestain coloured naig, which he called Marocco. He made him do many rare and uncouth tricks, such as never horse was observed to do the like before in this land." The superstitious Scotsmen were certain that the horse was an evil spirit that would one day devour its master when his incantations could no longer harness it.

    When Mr. Banks returned to London in the late 1590s, he found that his act had lost its novelty. London was full of performing horses, donkeys, apes, baboons, and bears. An elephant, imported to London, was a serious competitor, as was Mr. Holden's dancing camel, which had its arena on London Bridge itself. Extraordinary measures were needed to maintain Marocco's position as London's foremost four-footed entertainer, and the cunning horse trainer rose to the challenge. St. Paul's Cathedral was, at this time, London's centerpoint. The nobility strolled outside its gates, and the streets and shops nearby teemed with people. Jugglers, street pedlars, and beggars were everywhere. The cathedral did not have its present-day cupola, which was added after the Great Fire of London, but instead a very tall, square tower. From the summit of this tower, the entire city and its surrounding boroughs could be seen on a clear day; it cost a penny, paid to the verger, to be allowed to climb the tower. It is not: recorded in the annals of St. Paul's, however, if there was a separate fee for animals: in February 1601, Mr. Banks led his horse up the more than a thousand steps of the endless spiral staircase out onto the church roof, which was, according to a contemporary writer, "as rotten as your great-grandfather." Here, more than 520 feet above ground, the horse danced and performed equilibristic tricks. Mr. Banks had of course spread the word about Marocco's great feat: all around the cathedral, people craned their heads not to lose sight of the horse up in the sky. Churchgoers, deacons, and clergymen rushed out not to miss this miracle. It was told, in a collection of anecdotes called Jests to Make You Merie, that a misanthropic old man sat in his chambers when his servant came running in, flustered and panting, to tell him about the horse standing "on the top of Powles" and the great multitudes of people being in the streets staring to behold it. The old man looked through his window to view the chattering crowd around the cathedral, replying "Away, thou foole, what need I goe so farre to see a horse on the top, when I can looke upon so many asses at the bottome?"

    It was told, some years ago, in an American newspaper, that some drunken university students had brought a young bull up twelve flights of stairs into the flat of one of their friends—who, one might suppose, did not particularly appreciate this unexpected nocturnal visit. When the jokers tried to get the bull downstairs, it refused to move and instead became more and more furious. The neighbors called the police and the local television stations after their doors had been gored and kicked by the enraged animal, and the pranksters became national celebrities—probably welcoming their jail sentence, since it would enable them to evade the clutches of the animal rights activists. Some experienced policemen, who had previously encountered similar situations, were called. They decided that it was completely impossible to get any livestock to go down a flight of stairs, since that was against their nature. Instead, the bull was lassoed and pulled up another twenty-six flights of stairs, where the policemen planned to harness it to a helicopter and lift it off the roof of the building. The bull was frightened by the helicopter, however, and in spite of attempts to sedate it, the furious animal suddenly leapt from the roof. The bull nearly took one of the policemen, who held on to the lasso until the last second, with it on its headlong plunge toward the unyielding tarmac of the street below. Marocco's descent from St. Paul's cannot have been any easier. Defying the predictions of the twentieth-century Texan police officers, however, the horse, led on by his master, nimbly climbed down the endless stairway to receive the ovations of the masses below. Some years later, the poet Thomas Dekker considered this feat, in his Guls Hornebooke:

From hence (the top of St. Paul's steeple) you may descend, to
talke about the horse that went up; and strive, if you can, to
know his keeper; take the day of the moneth, and the number
of the steppes, and suffer yourselfe to beleeve verily that it was
not a horse, but something else in the likenesse of one.

After the triumphant climb of the cathedral tower, the British Isles had become too small for Mr. Banks and his star performer, and he planned an extended tour of the continent. In March 1601, he set up headquarters at the Lion d'Argent Inn at Rue Saint Jacques in Paris. Under the new artist's name Monsieur Moraco, the horse made its debut some weeks later and was an immediate success: nothing even remotely like it had ever been seen by the Parisians. The amazement by which the feats of Marocco were received in the French capital has been graphically described by Monsieur Jean de Montlyard, Sieur de Melleray, the councellor of the prince of Condé. His eyewitness account of "cest incomparable cheval" was published as a long footnote to a French edition of Les Metamorphoses ou L'Asne d'Or of Apuleios; it describes Mr. Banks and Marocco at the summit of their extraordinary career.

    The horse stood on two legs, walked forward and backward, and then knelt, extending his hooves straight out in front of him. He danced and capered with the agility of a monkey. Mr. Banks then threw up a glove, asking the horse to take it to a man wearing spectacles. The horse immediately did so. He then asked the horse to carry one glove to a lady wearing a green muff and another to a lady wearing a violet muff, to demonstrate that the horse knew colors; although there were more than two hundred people present, Marocco performed this task without a false step. When told to seek out a man with a bundle of papers under his arm, the horse did so although the man tried to hide the papers under his coat. Marocco used his strong teeth to seize the man by the cloak and pull him into the ring. Mr. Banks then blindfolded his horse and collected a large number of French coins in a purse. The horse, when asked how many coins were in the purse and how many of them were made of gold, gave correct answers by stamping his hoof. Mr. Banks then seized a golden écu from the purse and asked his horse how many francs such a coin was worth. Marocco stamped his hoof three times to mark that it was worth 3 francs, but did not seem quite satisfied with this answer. Prompted by Mr. Banks, Marocco then struck another four blows with his hoof, to designate that the écu was, owing to a recent change in the gold standard, now worth 3 francs and 4 sols. Chevalier de Montlyard was amazed by this: his imagination had to be stretched to the limit for him to believe that a horse could count money with its eyes blindfolded; then—"chose plus estrange"—it also knew the recent changes in the currency!

    After this impressive demonstration of Marocco's power of intellect, some burlesque pranks were played to impress the more simple-minded spectators. Marocco neighed and sneezed when ordered to do so, showing his teeth and pricking up his ears. Whenever any spectator threw an object onto the stage, the horse brought it back like a spaniel. Mr. Banks then commanded his horse to walk as if carrying a lady, and Marocco ambled very gently around the arena. He then asked the horse to walk as if a riding master was mounted on him, and the horse leaped, scraped, bowed, and made the most intricate steps and passades. The jokes were continued when Mr. Banks harshly scolded his horse for being lazy, threatening to sell him to some carter who would soon work him to death, "et luy baillera plus de foüett de que fiun." Marocco hung his head and made other gestures to show his unhappiness. He then fell on the earth as if sick, rolling over with an agonizing groan. The horse lay absolutely still, playing dead with such skill that many spectators believed that he had really expired. Some rogues may have demanded their money back, while many soft-hearted people felt sorry for the poor horse, who had sacrificed his life for the sake of art. Mr. Banks then promised that the horse would revive if anyone would ask his pardon. Several spectators immediately cried out "Pardonnez-luy! Il fera bien son devoir!," and the horse jumped up, to everyone's relief. At Banks's beckoning, Marocco ran to a gentleman with red hair, who had been one of those interceding on his behalf, thanking his savior with many caresses. Mr. Banks then threatened to sell Marocco to the French postal service, who were not known to treat their horses kindly. Marocco raised up one leg and cantered about on three only, to show that he was lame and unfit for such arduous service.

    Jean de Montlyard wrote that the show had once been visited by one of the city magistrates, who thought that such things could not be accomplished without magic. The horse and his master were both imprisoned for interrogation, but Mr. Banks managed to persuade their captors that the tricks were done only by art and signs, which the horse had been trained to obey since an early age. A distinguished visitor to the horse show was the philologist and philosopher Professor Isaac Casaubon. This famous scholar had visited several performances, becoming increasingly puzzled as to how this magic was achieved, if not by sorcery. Mr. Banks politely received Isaac Casaubon and managed to convince him that Marocco's feats were due only to his own careful training. He bragged that, given a year of preparations, he could train any other horse to perform similar tricks.

    In the next year, Mr. Banks and Marocco arrived in Orléans, having probably visited several other French cities on the way. Their show was, once more, a great success. Orléans had several large Capuchin monasteries and churches, and the monks and priests were keen visitors to the dancing horse's performances. When treated to, one might suppose, a similar show to that performed in Paris, they were frightened out of their minds, calling out that Banks must be a sorcerer and the horse a demon from hell. Banks and Marocco were once more arrested and threatened to be burned alive, as witches or conjurers. To save himself and the horse, Mr. Banks demanded to be allowed to give a farewell performance before the priests and monks, which he was granted. Mr. Banks ordered Marocco to seek out one of the priests who had a large crucifix stuck in his hat. The horse did so, knelt down before the crucifix, and kissed it with the utmost piety. The monks and priests had to confess that they had made a mistake, since the devil did not have power to come near the cross. Instead, they said that the beast must have been inspired by the Holy Ghost, and they gave Mr. Banks "money and great commendations" when they left Orléans.

    After this fortunate escape, Mr. Banks and Marocco continued their European tour for several years. It is likely that they performed in Lisbon, Rome, and Frankfurt. In the last city, Mr. Banks told an English cleric, Bishop Morton, about his adventures in Orléans. The Bishop later reproduced this tale in one of his theological pamphlets, A Direct Answer to the Scandalous Exceptions of Theophilus Higgons, written in 1609; it was later elaborated on in The Booke of Bulls. Mr. Banks's friend, the famous poet Ben Jonson, later added to this story by claiming, in an epigram published in 1616, that Banks and Marocco really had been burned at the stake:

But amongst these Tiberts, who do you think it was?
Old Bankes the juggler, our Pythagoras,
Grave tutor to the learned horse. Both which
Being, beyond sea, burned for one witch ...

It is unknown exactly when Marocco retired from show business. Some writers have presumed that the horse might have died in some of the first years of the 1600s, but the horse was actually alive much later than that. According to certain recently discovered German documents, the (at least) 16-year-old Marocco was performing in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, in April 1605, at the court of Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. This magnate, who was the brother-in-law of James I, was a considerable patron of British actors. In his account books, it is recorded that "Reichardt Banckes" received 40 thaler for the horse show, and the accompanying musician received 10 thaler. It is odd that this source, like Chambers' Shakespeare, gives Banks's first name as Richard; the evidence that his first name was really William rests solely on his vintner's license, signed William Banks. It is unknown whether Marocco died literally in harness, touring Europe until the last, or whether he was finally allowed to enjoy some years of retirement. On their return to England, like the great predecessor among their ilk, Marocco would have been able to view the manifold performing animals of London with a condescending horse laugh. It is likely that the dancing horse expired at some time in 1606 or 1607.

    Mr. Banks, who had bragged that he could train another horse to take Marocco's place within a year, never again performed, in London or elsewhere. He had probably taken Marocco to court during their earlier residence in London, and it is recorded that in 1608 he received an appointment to the royal stables. He was paid a considerable sum from the privy purse of Prince Henry "for teaching of a little naig to vault, at his highnes comand." In the early 1620s, he was employed to train a horse for the duke of Buckingham. William Banks probably put away a good deal of money during his career as an international celebrity: in London, he was considered a wealthy and honest gentleman. It is unlikely that he had any shortage of interesting anecdotes from his travels. He had many friends, and his daughter married John Hyde of Urmstone, a Lancashire gentleman. William Banks was considered a great humorist by his contemporaries, but his recorded jokes have become rather dated. He once made a bet with the famous Moll Cutpurse, a notorious female pickpocket and dealer in stolen merchandise, that she would not dare to ride through London dressed in male apparel. This joke failed miserably, however, since she was attacked by a furious mob, full of moral indignation toward such an outrage against nature.

    In 1632, when William Banks was about 70 years old, he decided to begin a new career. He wanted to open a tavern. This was a difficult venture in these days, since the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen of London had limited the number of licenses to keep "ale-houses," in a vain attempt to curb the prevalent drunkenness and hooliganism in the metropolis. Furthermore, Mr. Banks wanted to open his tavern in Cheapside, London's dominant mercantile street. After a year of bickering with the authorities, Mr. Banks went to the king and obtained a royal license to open his tavern. The year after, there was another quarrel, after the Lord Mayor had withdrawn his permission to serve food, but the king again supported the old horse trainer against the authorities. William Banks's tavern was among the most popular ale houses of London, and in 1637, some of his friends wrote a satirical squib about the strange foreign delicacies one might consume there. In Shirley's Ball, of 1639, a final mention is made of "mine hoste Bankes." This is the last record left by the old horse trainer, but it cannot be excluded that he was alive for several more years, to enjoy the success of his tavern. In 1662, Moll Cutpurse's biographer wrote that "I shall never forget my fellow Humourist Banks the Vintner in Cheapside who taught his Horse to dance, and shooed him with Silver."

    When Marocco was touring Britain and France, many people were curious to know how the horse could be induced to perform such wonders, but Mr. Banks never divulged the secrets of his trade. In 1607, when he realized that he could never train another horse to become Marocco's worthy successor, he finally told a certain Mr. Gervase Markham exactly in what way Marocco had been trained. Markham was a country squire and an early hippologist; his book Cavelarice was set out to contain "all the Arte of Horsemanship, as much as is necessary for any man to understand, whether he be Horse-breeder, horse-hunter, horse-runner, horse-ambler, horse-farrier, horse-keeper, Coachman, Smith, or Sadler." Gervase Markham considered Mr. Banks's information to be of great interest, and "an explanation of the excellence of a horses understanding, and how to teach them to doe trickes like Bankes his Curtall" formed a separate chapter in the 1607 edition of Cavelarice.

    From the time Marocco was a young foal, William Banks had spent most of each day together with his horse; to strengthen the bond between them, no other person was allowed to feed or caress Marocco. The horse followed Banks like a dog when he went about his daily business. William Banks always used kindness and patience during Marocco's lessons: when the horse performed well, it was rewarded with loaves of bread, but if Marocco showed obstinacy, he was given no food that day, as an incentive to become more attentive during next day's morning lesson. To teach Marocco how to count money, Banks first made the horse lift its leg on the command Up!, then indicated, by means of raising and lowering a rod in front of the horse, how many times it should stamp its hoof, "giving him a bit of bread til he be so perfit that, as you lift up your rod, so he will lift up his foot, and as you move your rod downeward, so he will move his foot to the ground." Soon, Marocco learned how to perform this trick without the use of a rod: as soon as the command Up! made him alert, Marocco could, by means of watching Banks's face, deduce how many times he should stamp his foot. William Banks's explanation of this behavior was that "it is a rule in the nature of horsses, that they have an especiall regard to the eye, face and countenaunce of their keepers." As soon as this trick had been perfected, it was easy for Banks to ask Marocco to tell him how many knaves, how many harlots, and how many rich men were in the audience.

    To teach Marocco to bring a glove to any person in the audience, Banks first rewarded the horse when it brought back a glove that had been thrown. He then pointed his rod to an assistant and taught the horse to go to the assistant instead. Finally, several assistants were paraded in front of the horse, and the rod pointed toward one of them. If it looked as if Marocco would choose the wrong one, Banks called out Be wise!, and the horse at once chose a bystander instead. When the right person was selected, Banks called out So, boy! to indicate this. Finally, the horse became accomplished enough for Banks to direct him merely with his eyes. Marocco's ear for the different commands was soon sure enough for Banks to make them a part of his introduction for each trick, to prepare the horse for What was to be expected of him. Gervase Markham commented that Marocco's feats proved beyond doubt that a horse was as intelligent and teachable as a dog or jackanapes; it could perform the same tricks as these animals "except it be leaping upon your shoulders, climbing up houses, or untying knots, all which are contrary to the shape and strength of his great body." He had himself seen one of the shows, and he could well remember that the horse never removed his eyes from its master's face.

    During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the British Isles enjoyed a time of rapid economic development, with flourishing commerce and freedom from political tyranny and religious fanaticism. During the decades around 1600, there was also a rapid intellectual development, particularly in London. Large classes of society, recently liberated from poverty, had a gluttonous appetite for literature, drama, and other forms of entertainment. Seen from this perspective, Mr. Banks and Marocco were a phenomenon of their time, like William Shakespeare and other contemporary writers, artists, and dramatists. William Banks lacked any predecessor of importance: he was a great innovator within his particular field, and a man of genuine talent. It should be noted that Marocco's performances occurred in a time still redolent with witchcraft and barbarism. London had, at this time, a large "bear garden," where the most disgusting and cruel "sport" was advertised several times a week. Not only were bears baited, but also lions, bulls, and wild boar. A huge, three-story building contained more than 120 boxes for large mastiff dogs; new recruits to this company of fierce curs were needed, at regular intervals, since the baited animals frequently wrought havoc among their ranks. The Elizabethan Stage tells us that a horse was once chased around the arena by four hungry "mastives," with a screaming ape tied to its back. A visiting Spaniard found this dismal sight "most laughable." It is hoped that William Banks and Marocco were able to impress the Londoners with some of the respect for animal rights they were so obviously lacking. It was certainly a more edifying spectacle, from every point of view, to see the dancing horse perform than to watch an idiot devouring a living cat, a blind bear being whipped with a baboon tied to its back, or a badger with its tail nailed to the floor desperately trying to defend itself against four fierce fox terriers.

    Marocco has had many successors. Perhaps the best known of these was the little horse Billy, one of the stars of Astley's circus in London during the late 1700s. Billy could dance, count, boil tea, and serve it like a waiter. After the circus had gone bankrupt, Billy was sold to a tradesman and had to pull a cart for several years until, one day, he was spotted by one of Astley's circus riders, who thought the dusty and rundown horse resembled the famous Billy he had once known. When the man clicked his fingernails as a sign for the horse to start tapping its foreleg, Billy did so at once. He was repurchased by the circus, which was once again solvent, and performed there for many years. After his death, at the venerable age of 42, Billy's skin was made into a huge thunderdrum that was used for special effects in the circus. In the late 1800s, the tricks of circus horses became increasingly dramatic. In 1885, the Italian Signor Corradini showed a horse walking the tightrope at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. His competitor Mr. Cottrell trained a mule to balance on a row of large bottles, which were, in their turn, balanced on a tightrope. Doc Carver, Buffalo Bill's former henchman, had a horse that could dive from a 36-foot platform into a huge basin full of water, whereas Freyer's Pony Circus boasted a team of horses that walked on stilts.

    Marocco's intellectual achievements have also been challenged by his modern competitors. The best known of these was perhaps Clever Hans, a robust German working horse that could answer questions and perform calculations by means of handling blocks adorned with letters or numerals. But although the German horse trainer Karl Krall believed that both Clever Hans and his predecessors, the Arab stallions Zarif and Muhammed, possessed a superior intelligence, the animal psychologist Dr. Oskar Pfungst dismissed his claims with scorn. It is likely that Krall directed his horses with hidden signs just as Banks had done, although this was never conclusively proved at the time. In the 1920s, the American parapsychologist Dr. J. B. Rhine was greatly impressed by Clever Hans's American counterpart, the mare Lady Wonder; he alleged, in several scholarly publications, that the horse possessed supernatural gifts. Although these learned and acrobatic horses possessed considerable talents, none of them commanded even an inkling of the universal fame enjoyed by Marocco; it is doubtful if even the great modern circuses possess a horse capable of reproducing the tricks of its great sixteenth-century predecessor. Marocco will forever remain the only horse to have climbed the tower of St. Paul's Cathedral, since the steeple was reconstructed after the Great Fire of London: no hoofed animal will ever succeed in climbing the present-day cupola!

    Mr. Banks and Marocco were mentioned more than sixty times in the contemporary literature: already during its lifetime, this miraculous horse had become a character of legend. The most exaggerated tales were current about Marocco's acrobatic tricks "on top of Powles." Through Ben Jonson's garbled account, several pamphleteers and scandal chroniclers repeated the untrue tale that Marocco and his trainer had been burned at the stake by the papists. In a French humorous pamphlet, published in 1626, the English houyhnhnm is one of the main characters: "Le joly Monsieur Maroc" plays the part of Dante's Virgil, residing in the nether regions of hell after the conflagration, and entertaining a visiting Frenchman with great eloquence. Another doubtful authority, the apocryphal mock romance of Don Zara del Fago, goes into further details about these matters:

Banks his beast; if it be lawful to call him a beast, whose perfections
were so incomparably rare, that he was worthily term'd
the four-legg'd wonder of the world for dancing; some say
singing, and discerning maids from maulkins, finally, having of
a long time proved himself the ornament of the British clime,
travailing to Rome with his master, they were both burned by
the commandment of the Pope.

In 1654, when both Banks and Marocco had been dead for several years, the poet Edmund Gayton wrote his Pleasant Notes to Don Quixot, a versified introduction to this popular novel, which was quite a best-seller in mid-seventeenth-century Britain. In one of the poems, Marocco makes a long speech to Don Quixote's horse Rosinante, extolling his own virtues, which went far beyond those of the Spanish knight's faithful steed. The famous dancing horse with silver shoes, who could count money by stamping its hoof and who climbed the tower of St. Paul's Cathedral, while Rosinante was only hoisted up a windmill, provides a suitable conclusion to this tale:

Though Rosinante famous was in fields
For swiftnesse, yet no horse like me had heels.
Goldsmiths did shoe me, not the Ferri-Fabers;
One nail of mine was worth their whole weeks labours.
Let us compare our feats; thou top of nowles
Of hills hast oft been seen, I top of Paules.
To Smythfields horses I stood there the wonder;
I only was at top; more have been under.
Thou like a Spanish jennet, got in the wind,
Wert hoisted by a windmill; 'twas in kinde.
But never yet was seen in Spaine or France,
A horse like Bancks his, that to the pipe would dance:
Tell mony with his feet; a thing which you,
Rosinante nor Quixot ever could doe.

Table of Contents

A Prelude
1. The Dancing Horse
2. Lament of the Learned Pig
3. The Feejee Mermaid
4. Obituary of an Elephant
5. Jumbo, King of Elephants
6. Animals on Trial
7. The Riddle of the Basilisk
8. Spontaneous Generation
9. Odd Showers
10. Toad in the Hole


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