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The Scrivener: Mr Pepys And The Leapt Sheep

"Weather has always been a topic of concern, interest and conversation, particularly in Britain where it is so variable that the opening gambit of a conversation can be 'Turned out nice again, hasn't it?','' writes Brian Barratt, a writer whose style has been honed and weathered while living on three continents.

On 16 January 1660 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

'I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing of this very line, and cried, “Past one of the clock, and a cold, frosty, windy morning.”'

This is a typical call of a night watchman, like the one which became the chorus of a Christmas carol published in 1924:

'Past three a clock
And a cold frosty morning
Past three a clock
Good morrow, masters all!'

A bell-man was a sort of town crier, a night watchman who announced the hours. (By the way, the American term 'bellhop' is not related to it as claimed by some websites and dictionaries.)

Writing his diary by candle-light in the wee small hours of the morning, Mr Pepys was probably well aware that the weather outside was pretty inclement. Weather has always been a topic of concern, interest and conversation, particularly in Britain where it is so variable that the opening gambit of a conversation can be 'Turned out nice again, hasn't it?'.

The first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, published in Scotland in 1771, just over a century after this diary entry by Mr Pepys, comments on Weather and its relationship to our health and wellbeing:

'As it is in the atmosphere that all plants and animals live, and as that appears to be the great principle of most animal and vegetable productions, alterations, &c, there does not seem any thing, in all philosophy, of more immediate concernment to us than the state of the weather, and a knowledge of the great influence it has on our bodies.'

The 1771 Britannica also provides a clue to the origins of the term 'meteorology' which first appeared in print in the early 1600s. In the entry about Meteors:

'Meteors are of three kinds; fiery, airy, and watery. Fiery meteors consist of a falt sulphureous smoke set on fire; such as falling stars, draco volans, the igni fatuus, and other phænomena, appearing in the air. Airy meteors consist of flatulent and spiriturous exhalations, such as winds, &c. Watery meteors are composed of vapours, or watery particles, variously modified by heat and cold, such as clouds, rain, hail, snow and dew.'

'Draco volans' means flying dragon, the sort of streaked red cloud formation that appears in evening skies and was in more ancient times thought to be an actual dragon. 'Igni fatuus' literally means foolish fire, and refers to the strange lights that hover and float over swampy ground at night.

From the 1400s, meteor referred to any atmospheric condition but there were different explanations of their causes. Dr John Wecker, in his 'Secrets of Art & Nature', published in 1660, offers explanations by Aratus, a Greek poet who lived around 310 to 250 BC. Under the heading 'Signs before hand of fair Weather':

'The Moon appearing sharp on the third and fourth day, and clear, signifies fair weather. Also when she is in the full, if she be clear it is a sign of calme weather, also if she be half full and clear, it signifies the same: but if she be somewhat red, it imports Winds; and if any part be dark it shews Rain.'

And under 'Tokens before hand of tempestuous Weather, and what signs there are that foreshew Rain':

'The Moon on the third and fourth day having obscure and dark Horns, signifies Rain. But the circle about being red or fiery colourd, shews a Tempest. A full Moon with some black about foreshews Rainy Weather. But when about a full Moon two or three borders of black appear, that is a sign of great Tempests, especially the blacker they are.'

(The horns of the crescent Moon are each of the pointed extremities as they appear in its first and last quarters.)

Dr Wecker also quotes Lemnius, who is presumably Levinus Lemnius, a Dutch physician who lived in the early 1500s, on other ways of forecasting the weather:

'Signs that shew that the Winter will last longer.
The Scarlet Oke or common Oke bearing much fruit, shew that the Winter will continue the longer. And Sheep and Goats being leaped, and desiring to be leapt again, signifie a longer Winter; if flocks of Cattle dig into the Earth, and hold their heads towards the North, they foreshew a fierce Winter.'

In an old use of the verb leap, Sheep and Goats being leaped means that the females are making themselves ready for the males to leap upon them, i.e., they are available for copulation.

Maybe cows were digging into the earth and sheep were desirous of being leapt again on that cold, frosty, windy morning when Samuel Pepys was trying to concentrate on his diary.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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