Ringing Bells to Ward Off Thunderstorms is a collection of letters & replies from Notes and Queries. This magazine started in 1849 & is still published today. The idea was that people, mostly fussy antiquarians & clergymen by the querulous tone of the letters, wrote in with interesting facts about history or language or with a question like Were animals put on trial in the Middle Ages? or Was Clarence really drowned in a butt of Malmsey? or Do game bird’s feathers in a pillow or quilt stop the ill from dying? This last made me think of the scene in Wuthering Heights where Catherine has fasted for three days & tells Nelly that she couldn’t die because there were pigeons’ feathers in her pillow. Very obscure & pedantic but interesting all the same.
The modern editor of the book, Justin Lovill, gives a history of the magazine & often adds some context & extra information to the entries. It’s the perfect book to dip into in an idle moment. I kept it beside my reading chair & read a few entries every day as well as looking through the table of contents to find entries that piqued my curiosity. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by entries such as
BOILING TO DEATH : A punishment for cooks?
BYRON’S BRAIN : How much did it weigh?
CUSTARD : Why did the Puritans abominate it?
DEAD MEN’S HEADS : Unusual attachment to
LIVERS, WHITE : A sign of murderers and cowards?
MELANCHOLY : Does it cause waistcoat-bursting?
SWEARING : An Act of Parliament against
I found it fascinating that people could write in with their queries & someone fossicking in their library would come up with an answer or a reference to the original account of a legend or the derivation of a word or phrase. The book is illustrated with woodcuts & other pictures of the time. As Justin Lovill explains, Notes and Queries was the first magazine almost entirely written by the contributors & readers & can be compared with internet communities like Wikipedia. The contributors used pseudonyms such as Bookworm, Mr Blink, Dryasdust & Old Fogie to protect their anonymity so they weren’t without a sense of humour. Lovill has picked the plums from the original volumes of Notes and Queries & if you’re at all interested in history, the etymology of words & phrases or even just about the kinds of subjects that interested the 19th century scholar, this book has a lot to offer.