New World Bacchanal: The New English Canaan, Part III
Hydra prognosticks ruin to our state | And that our Kingdom will grow desolate; | But if one head thence be taken away | The Body and the members will decay.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In “The May‐Pole of Merry Mount,” Nathaniel Hawthorne explained that “Two hundred years ago, and more, the old world and its inhabitants became mutually weary of each other. Men voyaged by thousands to the West: some to barter glass beads, and such like jewels, for the furs of the Indian hunter.” The white traders and their Indian customers mixed together socially, culturally, and biologically across the North American frontier zone, establishing a new era in history–the early modern–and a new geographic region–the Atlantic. Along with traders came “some to conquer virgin empires; and one stern band to pray. But none of these motives had much weight with the colonists of Merry Mount.”
When Thomas Morton wrote of the “New English Canaan,” he alluded back to the mists of time before Christ. The ancient Canaanites, it was said by chroniclers and theologians alike, were brethren of the famed Phoenicians and the infamous Carthaginians. As a sea‐faring, trade‐seeking, settler‐colonizing people, the Phoenicians founded what became Hannibal’s great Carthaginian Empire and innumerable cities dotting the Mediterranean coasts over the course of two millennia. Ancient Canaan looked little different from modern Israel on the map, and it is precisely that territory which God marks for Abraham’s descendants. Canaan was God’s gift to his chosen people–a paradisiacal land of plenty reserved as Israel. To seventeenth‐century Englishmen, North America was the New Canaan. The Native Americans and their ‘white Indian’ allies from places likes Morton’s Merrymount, moreover, were the New Canaanites. The Puritans fancied themselves God’s instruments to cleanse and purify the New World, preparing the New Israel for millennial battles against Satan.
This convoluted, highly problematic theological pairing of defeated, dispossessed, and displaced Canaanites with victorious, prosperous, and powerful Israeli colonists established the tone of historical conflict through early New English history. In the following selection, Morton continues his story from Mayday, 1627. The settlement is in cinders and the revelers in custody or scattered to the countryside. Historian Peter Linebaugh’s “rainbow coalition” of “masterless men and women,” Native Americans, and social deviants of all sorts, seemed to be destroyed along with their Maypole. The currents of popular culture, however, revived dozens of images from ancient history and myth to tell a very different story. Morton’s poem, “Baccanall Triumphe,” was perhaps written with assistance from popular playwright Ben Johnson and made its way from mouth to ear through the streets of London. The lines bursted with subversive imagery and a very modern, humanistic critique of fanaticism: the Puritans’ commitments to demonology threatened the existence of a very real and very wonderful New Canaan. Morton (and possibly Johnson) cry out to their English audiences that they, too, could enjoy free, prosperous, and leisurely lives in the New World, but for the militant, charter‐mongering “Separatists,” who saw monsters behind every corner and devils behind every face. For the Puritans, all individuals not Elect–from homosexuals to Native Americans, Africans, and poor people–were tools of Satan, the many heads of the same hydra. Massachusetts Bay hacked off the Merrymount head, but many others remained to snap and bite another day.
Thomas Morton, Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam. 1637. This version has been modified from the original.
New English Canaan or New Canaan. Containing an Abstract of New England.
Chap. XVII. Of the Baccanall Triumph of the nine worthies of New Canaan.
The Separatists were not so contended, (when mine Host of Ma‐re‐Mount was gone,) but they were as much discontended when he was returned again: and the rather because their passages about him, and the business, were so much derided and in songs exemplified: which, (for better satisfaction of such as are in that kind affected,) I have set forth, as it was then in use by the name of the Baccanall Triumphe, as followeth:
Sing th’ adventures of nine worthy withs, And pity ‘t is I cannot call them Knights, Since they had brawn and brain, and were right able To be installed of Prince Arthur’s table; Yet all of them were Squires of low degree, As did appear by rules of heraldry. The Magi told of a prodigious birth That shortly should be found upon the earth, By Archimedes art, which they misconster Unto their Land would prove a hideous monster; Seven heads it had, and twice so many feet, Arguing the body to be wondrous great, Besides a forked tail heav’d up on high As if it threaten’d battle to the sky. The Rumor of this fearful prodigy Did cause th’ effeminate multitude to cry For want of great Alcides aid, and stood Like People that have seen Medusa’s head. Great was the grief of heart, great was the moan, And great the fear conceived by ever one Of Hydra’s hideous form and dreadful power, Doubting in time this Monster would devour All their best flocks, whose dainty wool comforts It self with Scarlet in all Princes Courts. Not Jason nor the adventurous youths of Greece Did bring from Colcos any richer Fleece. In Emulation of the Gretian force These Worthies nine prepar’d a wooden horse, And, prick’d with pride of like success, divise How they may purchase glory by this prize; And, if they give to Hydra’s head the fall, It will remain a platform unto all Their brave achievements, and in time to come, Per fas aut nefas, they’l erect a throne. Clouds are turn’d trumps: so now the lot is cast: With fire and sword to Hydra’s den they haste, Mars in th’ ascendant, Sol in Cancer now, And Lerna Lake to Pluto’s court must bow. What though they [be] rebuk’d by thund’ring Jove, Tis neither Gods nor men that can remove Their minds from making this a dismal day. These nine will now be actors in this play, And Summon Hydra to appear anon Before their witless Combination: But his undaunted Spirit, nursed with meat Such as the Cyclops gave their babes to eat, Scorn’d their base actions; for with Cyclops charm He knew he could defend himself from harm Of Minos, Eacus, and Radamand, Princes of Limbo; who must out of hand Consult bout Hydra, what must now be done: Who, having sat in Council, one by one Return this answer to the Siggean fiends; And first grim Minos spake: most loving friends, Hydra prognosticks ruin to our state And that our Kingdom will grow desolate; But if one head from thence be taken away The Body and the members will decay. To take in hand, quoth Eacus, this task, Is such as hairbrained Phaeton did ask Of Phebus, to begird the world about; Which granted put the Netherlands to rout; Presumptuous fools learn with at too much cost, For life and labor both at once he lost. Stern Radamantus, being last to speak, Made a great hum and thus did silence break: What if, with rattling chains or Iron bands, Hydra be bound either by feet or hands, And after, being lashed with smarting rods, He be conveyed by Styx unto the gods To be accused on the upper ground Of Lesae Majestatis, this crime found T’will be unpossible from thence, I trowe, Hydra shall come to trouble us below. This sentence pleased the friends exceedingly, That up they tossed their bonnets, and did cry, Long live our Court in great prosperity. The Sessions ended, some did straight devise Court Revels, antiques and a world of joys, Brave Christmas gambles: there was open hall Kept to the full, and sport, the Devil and all: Labour’s despised, the looms are laid away, And this proclaim’d the Stigean Holiday. In came grim Mino, with his motley beard, And brought a distillation well prepar’d; And Eacus, who is a suer as text, Came in with his preparatives the next; Then Radamantus, last and principal, Feasted the Worthis in his sumptuous hall. There Charon Cerberus and the rout of fiends Had lap enough: and so their pastimes ends.
Now to illustrate this Poem, and make the sense more plain, it is to be considered that the Persons at Ma‐re‐Mount were seven, and they had seven heads and 14 feet; these were accounted Hydra with the seven heads: and the Maypole, with the Horns nailed near the top, was the forked tail of this supposed Monster, which they (for want of skill) imposed: year feared in time, (if they hindered not mine Host), he would hinder the benefit of their Beaver trade, as he had done, (by means of this help,) in Kynyback river finely, ere they were awares; who, coming too late, were much dismayed to find that mine Host his boat had gleaned away all before they came; which Beaver is a fit companion for Scarlet: and I believe that Jason’s golden Fleece was either the same, or some other Fleece not of so much value.
This action bred a kind of heart burning in the Plymouth Planters, who after sought occasion against mine Host to overthrow his undertakings and to destroy his Plantation; whom they accounted a main enemy to their Church and State.
Now when they had begun with him, they thought best to proceed: forasmuch as they thought themselves far enough from any control of Justice, and therefore resolved to be their own carvers: (and the rather because they presumed upon some incouragement they had from the favorites of their Sect in England: ) and with fire and sword, nine in number, pursued mine Host, who had escaped their hands, in scorn of what they intended, and betook him to his habitation in a night of great thunder and lightening, when they durst not follow him, as hardy as these nine worthies seemed to be.
It was in the Month of June that these Marshallists had appointed to go about this mischievous project, and deal so crabbidly with mine Host.
After a parly, he capitulated with them about the quarter they proferred him, if he would consent to go for England, there to answer, (as they pretended,) some thing they could object against him principal to the general: But what it would be he cared not, neither was it any thing material.
Yet when quarter was agreed upon, they, contrary wise, abused him, and carried him to their town of Plymouth, where, (if they had thought he durst have gone to England,) rather then they would have been any more affronted by him they would have dispatched him, as Captain Shrimp [Miles Standish] in a rage protest that he would do with his Pistol, as mine Host should set his foot into the boat. Howsoever, the chief Elders voice in that place was more powerful than any of the rest, who concluded to send mine Host without any other thing to be done to him. And this being the final agreement, (contrary to Shrimp and others,) the nine Worthies had a great Feast made, and the furmity pot was provided for the boats gang by no allowance: and all manner of pastime.
Captain Shrimp was so overjoyed in the performance of this exploit, that they had, at that time, extraordinary merriment, (a thing not usual amongst those precisians); and when the wind served they took mine Host into their Shallop, hoisted Sail, and carried him to the Northern parts; where they left him upon a Island.
Chap. XXVII. Of the Practice of their Church.
The Church of the Separatists is governed by Pastors, Elders and Deacons, and there is not any of these, though he be but a Cow keeper, but is allowed to exercise his gifts in the public assembly on the Lord’s day, so as he do not make use of any notes for the help of his memory: for such things, they say, smell of Lamp oil, and there must be no such unsavory perfume admitted to come into the congregation.
These are all public preachers. There is amongst these people a deconesse, made of the sisters, that uses her gifts at home in an assembly of her sex, by way of repetition or exhortation: such is their practice.
The Pastor, (before he is allowed of,) must disclaim his former calling to the Ministry; and take a new calling after their fantastical inventions: and then he is admitted to be their Pastor.
The manner of disclaiming is, to renounce his calling with bitter execrations, for the time that he hath heretofore lived in it: and after his new election, there is great joy conceived at his commission.
And their Pastors have this preeminence above the Civil Magistrate: He must first consider of the complaint made against a member: and if he be disposed to give the party complained of an admonition, there is no more to be said: if not; He delivers him over to the Magistrate to deal with him in a course of Justice, according to their practice in cases of that nature.
Of these pastors I have not known many: some I have observed together with their carriage in New Canaan, and can inform you what opinion hath been conceived of their conditions in the particular. There is one who, (as they give it out there that think they speak it to advance his worth,) has been expected to exercise his gifts in as assembly that stayed his coming, in the middest of his Journey falls into a fit, (which they term a zealous meditation,) and was 4 miles past the place appointed before he came to himself, or did remember where abouts he went. And how much these things are different from the actions of mazed men, I leave to any indifferent man to judge; and if I should say they are all much alike, they that have seen and heard what I have done, will not condemn me altogether.
Now, for as much as by the practice of their Church every Elder or Deacon may preach, it is not amiss to discover their practice in that particular, before I part with them.
It has been an old saying, and a true, what is bred in the bone will not out of the flesh, nor the stepping into the pulpit that can make the person fit for the employment. The unfitness of the person undertaking to be the Messenger has brought a blemish upon the message, as in the time of Louis XI, King of France, who, (having advanced his Barber to place of Honor, and graced him with eminent titles), made him so presumptuous to undertake an Embassage to treat with foreign princes of Civil affairs.
But what was the issue? He behaved himself to unworthily, (yet as well as his breeding would give him leave,) that both the Messenger and the message were despised; and had not he, (being discovered,) conveyed himself out of their territories, they had made him pay for his barbarous presumption.
Socrates says, loquere ut te videam [“speak, that I might see you”]. If a man observe these people in the exercise of their gifts, he may thereby discern the tincture of their proper calling, the asses’ ears will peep through the lion’s hide. I am sorry they cannot discern their own infirmities. I will deal fairly with them, for I will draw their pictures cap a pe, that you may discern them plainly from head to foot in their postures, that so much bewitch, (as I may speak with modesty,) these illiterate people to be so fantastical, to take Jona’s task upon them without sufficient warrant.
One steps up like the Minister of Justice with the balance only, not the sword for fear of affrighting his auditory. He points at a text, and handles it as evenly as he can; and teaches the auditory, that the thing he has to deliver must be well weighed, for it is a very precious thing, yes, much more precious than gold or pearl: and he will teach them the means how to weigh things of that excellent worth; that a man would suppose he and his auditory were to part stakes by the scale; and the like distribution they have used about a bag pudding.
Another, (of a more cutting disposition,) steps in his steed; and he takes a text, which he divides into many parts: (to speak truly) as many as he list. The fag end of it he pares away, as a superfluous remnant.
He puts his auditory in comfort, that he will make a garment for them, and teach them how they shall put it on; and incourages them to be in love with it, for it is of such a fashion as doth best become a Christian man.
He will assure them that it shall be armor of proffer against all assaults of Satan. This garment, (says he,) is not composed as the garments made by a carnal man, that are sowed with a hot needle and a burning thread; but it is a garment that shall outlast all the garments: and, if they will make use of it as he shall direct them, they shall be able, (like saint George,) to terrify the great Dragon, error; and defend truth, which error with her wide chaps would devour: whose mouth shall be filled with the shreds and parings, which he continually gapes for under the cutting board.
A third, he supplies the room: and in the exercise of his gifts beings with a text that is drawn out of a fountain that has in it no dregs of popery. This shall prove unto you, (says he,) the Cup of repentence: it is not like unto the Cup of the Whore of Babylon, who will make men drunk with the dregs thereof: It is filled to the brim with comfortable joys, and will prove a comfortable cordial to a sick soul, says he. And so he handles the matter as if he dealt by the pint and the quart, with Nic and Froth.
Another, (a very learned man indeed,) goes another way to work with his auditory; and exhorts them to walk upright, in the way of their calling, and not, (like carnal men,) tread awry. And if they should fail in the performance of that duty, yet they should seek for amendment whiles it was time; and tells them it would be too late to seek for help when the shop windows were shut up: and pricks them forward with a friendly admonition not to place their delight in worldly pleasures, which will not last, but in time will come to an end; but so to handle the matter that they may be found to wax better and better, and then they shall be doubly rewarded for their work: and so closes up the matter in a comfortable manner.
But stay: Here is one stept up in haste, and, (being not minded to hold his auditory in expectation of any long discourse,) he takes a text; and, (for brevity’s sake,) divides it into one part: and then runs so fast afore with the matter, that his auditory cannot follow him. Doubtless his Father was some Irish footman; by his speed it seems so. And it may be at the hour of death, the son, being present, did participate of his Father’s nature, (according to Pythagoras,) and so the virtue of his Fathers nimble feet being infused into his brains, might make his tongue outrun his wit.
Well, if you mark it, these are special gifts indeed: which the vulgar people are so taken with, that there is no persuading them that it is so ridiculous…
Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, PM Press, 2016; Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” in Twice‐Told Tales, American Stationers, Co., 1837; Jack Dempsey, ed. New English Canaan, by Thomas Morton of “Merrymount:” Text, Notes, Biography & Criticism, Stoneham, MA: Jack Dempsey. 2000. For a broad and powerful overview of popular rebellions in the Early Modern period, see Rediker & Linebaugh, The Many‐Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, 2013.