Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon, (c. 1670)

Tom Colville, PhD candidate in the KCL History department, considers the value of satires for a historian seeking to understand early modern concepts. The particular source in question is Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon (c. 1670) which features in his thesis on “Mental Capacity in the Early Royal Society and Beyond: Intelligence and The New Science in England c.1650-1750”.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, formed in 1660, was a contentious institution. Anyone who has ever studied early modern natural philosophy, or indeed any aspect of Restoration society, will no doubt have come across one of the vitriolic pamphlets that attacked the Society in its early years. Some of the more brazen of these have been extensively discussed by historians, for example Henry Stubbe’s inflammatory Legends no Histories (1670). However, I believe one of the most interesting criticisms of the early Royal Society has largely flown under the radar.

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elephant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

The frontispiece to Samuel Butler, The Elepehant in the Moon, (London: N. Merridew, c.1670).

Samuel Butler’s The Elephant in the Moon must be one of the most wonderfully simple yet beautifully conceived satires of the seventeenth century. Essentially, Butler’s poem tells the story of a group of self-congratulatory Royal Society virtuosi gathered around a telescope. These gentlemen scientists take turns to examine the moon through the looking glass and discover the regaling sight of open warfare taking place on that celestial body, with two opposing armies in the heat of battle. Most astonishingly of all, an enormous elephant emerges from one of the lines of soldiers and rampages across the surface of the moon at a blistering pace, travelling from one side to the other in a matter of seconds. Amazed at the brilliance of their own discovery the virtuosi set about writing up their findings for publication, certain in the belief that this will finally put all questions about their lack of productivity to bed at last. Leaving the telescope unattended, a simple footman decides to experience the Royal Society life-style and steals a quick look through the eye-piece; he sees the truth of the situation immediately. Some gnats and flies have found a gap in the telescope and made a home on the lens; these are the virtuosi’s warring armies. And the elephant? A mouse has got trapped and squashed against the internal glass.

‘For he had scarce apply’d his eye
To Th’ engine, but immediately
He found a mouse was gotten in
The hollow tube, and, shut between
The two glass windows in restraint,
Was swell’d into an Elephant’

For my own research into conceptions of intelligence and mental capacity in the social milieu of early modern natural philosophy this poem offers some really valuable insight. The subversive twist is really effective because there is a perceived difference in expected intelligence between the footman and the virtuosi. Let us consider the significance of the mouse in the story. The fact that the footman’s mouse discovery conquers the Royal Society Fellows’ elephant discovery represents the victory of the small over the large, the seemingly insignificant over the bloated and loud. That size difference corresponds to an idea about the size of intellectual ability between the two groups. To leave his reader in no doubt at all, Butler composed an ode to his mouse as a footnote to The Elephant in the Moon. The Royal Society, and particularly their oversized appreciation for their own mental ability, is the real elephant in the room. And ‘the Mouse, that, by mishap,/ Had made the telescope a trap’, ‘though he appears unequal match’d, I grant,/ In bulk and stature by the Elephant,/ Yet frequently has been observed in battle/ To have reduc’d the proud and haughty cattle’.

Butler’s work has prompted me to think about the value of satires as primary sources for historians. The success of satirical work rests on a shared set of ideas between the author and his/her readers. Unlike a polemic (such as Stubbe’s above mentioned work), which can forcibly impose ideas onto the minds of their readers in acts of persuasion, a satire is dependent on the reader already sharing certain conceptions with the satirist. Satires might therefore – if we are able to decipher them – be able to demonstrate core concepts and ideas which are not only important to one author but are genuinely expected to resonate with an audience.

Swift's word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[...], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Swift’s word machine, included in, Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver[…], Volume 2, (1727, London), p. 74

Moreover, the power of imagery to articulate concepts which are not neatly encapsulated by a simple phrase or term is an interesting off-shoot from examining satires closely. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that a number of references to mental capacity which I have come across in early modern satire also rely heavily upon clear images. In Butler’s case, what could be more emblematic of the misrepresentation of intellectual size than a mouse distorted into an elephant? In Gulliver’s Travels, one of the very few images is included to demonstrate the writing machine that allows a group of unlearned idiots to randomly turn wheels until intelligent words start to appear. It may well be the case that difficult-to-articulate concepts, and those with an uncertain and contested vocabulary (such as intelligence or mental capacity), are the ones which imagery-heavy satire are best suited to representing.

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