With the semester coming to a close, the final pieces of marking complete, and Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts are increasingly turning to the respite of the holidays. Like many, I look forward to working myself slowly – though more likely quickly! – through the chocolates, crisps, and various other foodstuffs that have been accumulating at home over the past couple of weeks. While excess for the sake of excess is certainly frowned upon today, gluttony was a vice held in even greater disdain by the moralising pamphleteers of the seventeenth century. The curious account of the ‘Monstrous Devourer’, dated to 26th April 1675, is a case in point.
Source: Early English Books Online
The anonymous author ‘L.W’ does not pull any punches when it comes to explicating the moral of this strange tale, beginning his discussion with the observation that ‘the baleness of man is excessible and wicked Feasting, and surfeiting of drunkeness’. Gluttons, says the author, cannot escape ‘the all-seeing eye of the most high and mighty God, that will one day bring them all to judgement’. The ‘great devourer’ was one such soul punished by God for his wantonness. A vagrant, forever moving from town to town, this unnamed fellow was said to possess the most grotesque and ravenous appetite:
“For this fellow eats all that ever comes nigh unto him, intrels of Beast, Bullocks, Calves, Sheep, Hogs, or any other garbage he can come at, and never stands to wash it, but devours it as it comes from the cattle, with the dung in it, without picking or cleansing little or much, and as he travels along between town and town, if he lights of any dead horse by the way, that has been dead for three or four dayes, he will not leave it until he has devoured it all…’
The pamphlet goes on to describe – with a certain salaciousness, it must be said – how he once wandered into a butchers market and proceeded to devour sheep guts, offal and bull entrails, all before a fascinated crowd of ‘many hundreds’. Eventually captured and forced to perform at the Saint George’s Day Fair at Guidford on 23rd April 1675, the Devourer astounded onlookers by ‘eat[ing] Dogs and Cats whole without their skins, never taking their guts out’ making all that viewed the spectacle sick with disgust.
What, then, are we to make of this wonder? ‘L.W’ certainly has a few theories. It was rumoured the Devourer was a convert to Quakerism who, presuming to act in the manner of Christ and fast for forty days and forty nights, was visited by a spirit that told him ‘the should eat and never be satisfied for the space of seven years’. The irony would not have been lost on the pamphlet’s readership. Quakers were often scorned for their enthusiasm, religious excesses, and blasphemous practices. Their religious deviancies were often reflected in their tendency for public disorder. The actions of the infamous preacher James Naylor, who, in October 1656, entered Bristol on horseback in imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and was promptly arrested for blasphemy, would surely have been fresh in the minds of L.W’s audience. As a vagrant and (presumed) Quaker in possession of a monstrous, parodic appetite, the Devourer was undoubtedly read as a paradigm of social and spiritual chaos.
Degenerate Quakerism was not the only explanation. ‘L.W’ also speculates that the Devourer may have simply been husbandman who had fallen into melancholy. With his humoural balance destabilised, his body was thus ripe for demonic infiltration (‘and then the spirit entered into him’). This, indeed, is an incredibly orthodox interpretation of the mechanisms of demonic possession, deriving from the medieval scholastic tradition. The presumed location of the devil within the Devourer’s body also adheres to established popular beliefs: ‘only about the Rimm of his belly, is a kind of blew bunch and that is supposes to be the place where the Spirit lyes, as he and some others do declares’. Indeed, the theory that demons were unable to penetrate the soul and able only to ingratiate themselves in the lower, baser parts of the human anatomy had been a central tenet of demonology since the time of Vincent of Beauvis (d.1264). Folkloric sources concerning the walking dead betray a similar understanding that unclean spirits – not necessarily demons – were compelled to stay in the fetid parts of the body. Writing at the turn of the fifteenth-century, an anonymous Byland Abbey monk relays the following about the corpse of a certain Robert Kilburn:
“I must tell you that this Robert the younger died and was buried in a churchyard, but he had the habit of leaving his grave by night, and disturbing and frightening the villagers […] and when he had been conjured he spoke in the inside of his bowels, and not with his tongue, but as it were an empty cask, and he confessed his different offences…”
Whatever the ultimate cause of the Devourer’s hunger, L.W. is adamant that he should be regarded not with disdain, but with pity and charity. After all, the Devourer’s plight served as a stark warning to those who placed more stock in gluttony and drunkenness than the state of their eternal souls. L.W’s final admonishment has the distinct tone of a modern public service announcement:
“So many women tells their husbands of drinking and keeping of bad company, why, some be so void of grace, that they tell them, they will do it though it be to their ruine, and I fear there are too many that find it so, to the undoing of soul and body…”
As L.W. sees it, there is a ‘monstrous devourer’ lurking in all of us. Something, then, to consider when tucking in to our meals on Christmas day!
Charles L. Cherry, ‘Enthusiasm and Madness: Anti-Quakerism in the Seventeenth-Century’ Quaker History 73 (1984) 1-24
L.W. The Monstrous Devourer, or Great Feeder (London, 1675)
A. J. Grant., ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 27 (1924), 363–379.