‘The English Ape’: Barbarous Brits and the Culture of Climate in early modern England
‘Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.’ – Oscar Wilde
For Oscar Wilde, nothing was more excruciating to bear than talk of the weather – ‘the last refuge of the unimaginative’, in his words. During these drab English winter months, we too may empathise with Wilde’s cynicism. For ahead of excessive tea-drinking, professional queuing, and ill-advised foreign invasions, the English are perhaps best known for their tedious obsession with the weather. If the Inuit people have one hundred words for snow (technically they don’t), then the English have just as many expressions to describe ‘light-drizzle’. Call it a social prop, or just mindless small talk, this trait (combined with our stifling national awkwardness) naturally engenders the kind-of paranoia Wilde describes. Surely there must be some substance behind such throwaway babble: perhaps it’s the dreary repression of imperial guilt? A self-deprecating reminder of Britain’s industrial decline? Is it Cameron’s fault? Or Blair? No, Thatcher! Definitely Thatcher.
Bloody Thatcher and her brazen deregulation of the met-office
Almost certainly, it is none of the above reasons (and I’ll leave this debate – and potential PhD proposal – for the social anthropologists in our midst). As for our Elizabethan antecedents – equally obsessed with the changing seasons – talk of the weather did mean something else. In fact, it meant quite a lot of things. From physical and mental health, to providence and religious identity, the weather informed a gamut of social, scientific, and cultural practices. Most striking, however, is the curiously common attribution of national characteristics to the English climate.
‘As the air is, so are the inhabitants,’ wrote Robert Burton of the English temperament. The English, like their intemperate climes, were thus ‘dull, heavy, witty, subtle, neat, cleanly, clownish, sick, sound.’ Quite literally, the English were a product of their (rather unfavourable) environment. As the climate varied or worsened, as it so often did during the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’, so too did the very character of its inhabitants; for ‘the clime changes not so much customs, manners, wits … as constitutions of their bodies, and the temperature itself.’ This was bad news for the English. Like their barbarian forebears, they had inherited an intemperate, ‘northern’ climate that bred an inferior national complexion. Mary Floyd-Wilson, in her 2003 monograph English Ethnicity and Race, dubs this genre of ethnological thought ‘geo-humoralism’: i.e. the prevalent belief that ethnic and racial distinctions were drawn along environmental, rather than biological lines. National theories of climate (based on a set of classical texts by Aristotle, Galen, Pliny and Hippocrates) proposed the existence of three main climatic zones (the North, Middle, and South), of which the conditions determined the humoral disposition of its inhabitants. As opposed to the temperate middle-zone, praised by said classical thinkers as an incubator of civility, the men of the North (and therefore Britain) were ‘of great strength and little policie, much courage and small shift, because of the weake abode of the sunne with us … are white of colour, blockish, uncivill, fierce and warlike.’
See what I did there? Eh?
With Geography emerging as the dominant ‘scientific’ discipline, England’s literal position in the world became ever more significant. Moreover, having divorced herself from Rome and being separated by sea, England had become abruptly and distinctly northern. Automatically lacking the moderation of the Latin temperament, the English were also diametrically opposed to the peaceable and contemplative disposition of those bred in the hot, arid climes of eastern Africa. Though indeed strong and courageous, to those versed in classical and contemporary climate theory, it was clear that the English suffered from a debilitating mental inferiority. As Richard Helgerson has elsewhere shown, to be English in this period was to be the denigrated ‘other’ – the ‘sick man of Christendom’, so to speak. These discourses, Wilson has argued, extended to weather-talk. As Nathanael Carpenter admits in his Geography of 1625, the English – lacking the brainpower to govern effectively and amiably – were perhaps best suited ‘to Mechanicall works and martial endeavors.’ Patronising stuff indeed, but nothing compared to William Rankin’s 1588 diagnosis of the English complexion. ‘The English Ape’, Rankin said, was the product of an ‘inferior climate neither governed by religion nor virtue’ and ‘should make theé so brutish, as … to be transformed to a savage beast.’
‘Damn this English complexion of mine’
As disparaging as these accounts sound, they formed a fairly consensual idea of English ethnicity during the Elizabethan period. However, this is not to mistake the complexion of the English as inherently ailed, but constantly intemperate. Like the wavering climes of the British Isles, the English temperament was deemed to be unruly, erratic and severely changeable. Theoretically, this worked both to the advantage and disadvantage of the English. On one hand, and as alluded to above, they were unfortunately suited to barbarism, and were ‘wanting in the site of beauty.’ But, at the same time, the changeable constitution of the English body lent itself to self-improvement and ‘seasoning’ (i.e. the belief that one’s temperament can be changed by a change in air, diet, etc.) For Burton, the author of arguably the first self-help book, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), there was nothing more beneficial to an ailing temperament than a sudden change of climate (or ‘air’). Even better, a trip to one of England’s nascent colonies could redeem their lack-lustre complexion. This said, the issue of climatic change (in the contemporary sense) also triggered negative anxieties about the susceptibility of the English to external, climatic influence. Will their essential ‘Englishness’ be lost or exaggerated in response to changing weather?
Adapting to new climatic realities not only became a question of material subsistence, but of mental and emotional fortitude. Early modern Englanders, in light of their inferior climate, were forced to revaluate their ‘northern’ disposition: to embrace, alter, or reject the implications of classical climate theory. Consequently, this understanding of England’s culture of climate can cast potential doubt on the chauvinistic character of England’s early national identity. This is not to deny the xenophobic trends inherent in geographical discourse in the period, but an attempt to reassess the ‘English Ape’ in all his brutal glory.
Tayler Meredith is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham. His current research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is based on the popular understanding of the English climate during the so-called ‘Little Ice Age.’ Amongst other themes, his thesis will examine the climatic influence on an early English identity.
Twitter: @taylermeredith / Website: https://bham.academia.edu/TaylerMeredith
Mary Floyd Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, 2003)
Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago, 1994)
Robert Burton, ‘Air rectified’ in The Anatomy of Melancholy (London, 1621)
William Harrison, A Description of Britain (London, 1577)
William Rankin, The English Ape, the Italian Imitation, the footsteepes of Fraunce (London, 1588)
Nathanael Carpenter, Geography (London, 1625)