Summary: The Friend chapter 4, The Body of the Friend (part one)

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from The Friend.

Sir Thomas Baines died in September 1681, and his friend John Finch died the following year. In their shared monument in the chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, there is a “single flaming funerary urn set above, in a visual pun on the marriage or love knot.” In Constantinople, Finch left an inscription to his friends memory, describing their friendship as an “Animorum Connubial”, a “marriage of souls.” Such an expression is “no eccentricity at the end of the seventeenth century” and can be seen in many other inscriptions.

This is the language used by Jeremy Taylor in his mid-seventeenth century Discourse of Friendship. Taylor describes friendships as “marriages of the soul, and of fortunes and interests and counsels.” Bray states that this remark comes from Taylor’s “sharp awareness of what was implied by the view that the good of marriage lay in the friendship it communicated without which society itself would not subsist: such friendship is, as he put it, is ‘all the bands that this world hath.’” Further, friendship had a “formal and objective character, so curiously unfamiliar to the modern eye”, as Bray has argued previously.

The monument for Baines and Finch is by the “communion table”. Its inscriptions “draw they eye back to the bodies of two friends awaiting the resurrection together,” while the placement of the monument also draws the “eye down to that other body, the Church, which is the Body of Christ.” Bray emphasizes the physical aspect. He argues that the monument’s signs and inscriptions represent “an intimate and physical closeness, as tangible as the bread and wine consumed in the Lord’s Supper.” This is seen in the bodies lying together in death, but “also in the single funerary urn that surmounts the monument; in the embraces of his friend as Baines lay dying, which the monument reverently records; and in the final kiss of peace with which his friend received his last breath, recorded on the inscription.”

Taylor also emphasizes the importance of the gift of an embrace. He writes, “‘a gift,’ saith Solomon, ‘fasteneth friendship’… so must the love of friends sometimes be refreshed it material and low caresses; lest by striving to be too divine it becomes less humane; it must be allowed its share of both.” Bray points out, however, that the monument’s inscriptions not only refer to Finch and Baines privately, but also to the broader society, “to the worldly connections of Sir John Finch.” Their friendship had a public role and, though it “may seem to the modern eye brash and disconcerting, perhaps even vulgar”, it did not seems so to the world at the time, and particularly not to their friends who commissioned the monument.

Embrace

The memoirs of Sir Anthony Weldon include a 1615 meeting between James I and Robert Carr, when the two were parting: “The Earl of Somerset never parted from him with more seeming affection than at this time… The Earl when he kissed his hand, the King hung about his neck slobbering his cheeks, saying ‘For God’s sake when shall I see thee again? On my soul, I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again.’” Weldon charges that “James had no intention of fulfilling [his claims”, but Bray focuses on the fact that these embraces were “public signs with an understood meaning.” Bray describes other such embraces and notes that an embrace could be used to illustrate a rise to power or to formalize taking another under one’s protection as a servant and friend. Kisses and embraces were given for “watchful ears and eyes,” and could be used as “material gifts that turned the wheels of seventeenth-century society.” There is a physical intimacy in which there is a “gift, one might perhaps call it, of the body.”

Table

Another public embrace used as a sign of friendship was eating together. “It was the table that perhaps most of all transformed the stranger into the friend.” In the great houses of seventeenth-century England which “contained different levels of society as part of one household”, the common table had a symbolic role. A lord’s “service” began with service at the table.

Symbolism of the body is also seen in the communal eating and drinking at the universities. The symbolism of their great halls, with hierarchies in seating, placement, and service, “reflected an older architectural pattern that had largely been abandoned in the great houses by the later fourteenth century.” The symbolism of friendship became manifest as food was passed from one table to the other.

Friendship in this context was a matter of ethics, with roots as far back as Seneca’s De Benefices. Benefits, more than anything else, knit men together in fellowship, and “a man’s honor required it to be given with an open hand. Men gave benefits to others, which created obligations on the beneficiary, but not necessarily to the giver. “It could be met, or rather passed on, to a third party and so reaffirm the solidarity of a group.”

In addition to indicating bods of friendship, these gestures could create them, and the “recurring association with the friendship created in the Eucharist” is suggestive. There is a “sharing of the food from the high table”, which carried, just as the sign of peace, “friendship’s obligations and was not given lightly.” Thus religion in traditional society “straddled” the division between religious and secular contexts, in contrast to the Reformation’s attempts to “divorc[e] religion from the symbolic systems outside it.” Still, Bray argues, “the Eucharist was and remained the experience of a transformative rite that changed the significance of bread and wine brought to it: through a mechanism of the same kind the table changed the stranger into the friend.”

Bed

Just as “eating and drinking created friendship, so too did sleeping together.” Honor and friendship could be bestowed or demonstrated when men were invited into the royal bedchamber, but this also extended to society at large. Beds in seventeenth century England, in addition to places where people slept, were “also places where people talk, and the epithet “bedfellow” readily suggested the influential intimacy of a friend.” Arrangements were made and known as men shared beds in this society, as can be seen in a number of historical accounts that Bray relates.

Thus Bishop William Laud records in his diary in 1625 that he dreamt of the Duke of Buckingham entering his bed, “where he carried himself with much love towards me… and likewise many seemed to me to ender the chamber who did see this.” Bray draws attention to the last part of the entry, which demonstrates that “the powerful mark of favor he was dreaming of was public.” Similarly, sleeping arrangements in universities “were as carefully orchestrated as the eating and drinking in the great halls.” Tutors regularly shared rooms with students who acted as personal servants, and the bodily symbolism even extended to the pride with which Sir Thomas Erskine cleared James’s chamber pot.

The significance of physical intimacy illustrated itself in the romances of friendship, such as the Latin Amys and Amylion and Guy of Warwick, which tell of friends as bedfellows, with a friend’s head lying in the other’s arms. The novel Euophues writes of two friends: “They used not only one board but one bed, one book… Their friendship augmented every day, insomuch that the one could not refrain the company of the other one minute. All things went in common between them, which all men accounted commendable.” Such tales, Bray writes, may idealize friendship, but they echoed and popularized Ciceronian and Neoplatonic ideas on friendship. They come from a long tradition.

Body and Society

There are some difficulties in understanding the place of bodily symbolism in the broader seventeenth-century society, since most historical evidence is left by the elite class. Still, the evidence may be sufficient for broader conclusions, since “the great houses were far from being populated only by the gentry.” Rather, they contained and facilitated the lives of many classes and groups.

Another difficulty is that “the great houses were overwhelmingly a world of men”, making it difficult to understand this symbolism in relation to women. And though man women made contact through the great houses as tenants or traders or workers on the land, “these women did not live and work within it… They ate, they drank, and they slept outside the great house. When they were unmarried… they would have lived together with other single women in a tenement or in a group of cottages.”

“Service in the great houses was men’s work.” And when “social life was shaped as widely by work as this, ‘work’ was not only an economic activity. It was also a means by which social relationships could be established and given meaning.” It was the means by which social relations were established and maintained.

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