August 26, 2011

ICON OF THE AGE OF REASON:

Peter the Wild Boy: A mysterious child from northern Germany, portrayed by William Kent on the King's Grand Staircase, became one of the sensations of the Georgian age, as Roger Moorhouse explains. (Roger Moorhouse, History Today)

In the summer of 1725 a peculiar youth was found in the forest of Hertswold near Hameln in northern Germany. Aged about 12, he walked on all fours and fed on grass and leaves. 'A naked, brownish, blackhaired creature', he would run up trees when approached and could utter no intelligible sound. The latest in a long line of feral children - in turn celebrated, shunned and cursed through the ages - 'The Wild Boy of Hameln' would be the first to achieve real fame.

After a spell in the House of Correction in Celle, the boy was taken to the court of George, Duke of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom, at Herrenhausen. There the young curiosity was initially treated as an honoured guest. Seated at table with the king, dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away. He was given the name of Peter, but was variously known as 'Wild Peter', 'Peter of Hanover', or, most famously, 'Peter the Wild Boy'.

In the spring of 1726, after briefly escaping back to the forest, Peter was brought to London where his tale had aroused particular interest. As in Hanover, he caused a sensation and his carefree nature provided an amusing antidote to the stultifying boredom and decorum of court life. He appealed especially to Caroline, Princess of Wales, who persuaded the king to allow Peter to move to her residence in the West End, where he was kept virtually as a pet. Though he insisted on sleeping on the floor, he was dressed carefully each morning in a tailor-made suit of green and red. He was also appointed a tutor, who had him baptised and taught him to bow and kiss the hands of the ladies at court.

Peter quickly became a celebrity. On one level, tales of his antics busied the London gazettes. Jonathan Swift, whose fictional 'Yahoos' Peter appeared to personify, noted sourly that 'there is scarcely talk of anything else'. He was soon the 'talk of the town', his portrait graced the walls of the King's Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace and an effigy of him was erected in a waxworks on the Strand. In 1727 a premature report of his death gave rise to a mocking epitaph in the British Journal. His resemblance to Swift's fantastical characters had clearly not been missed:

Ye Yahoos mourn, for in this Place
Lies dead the Glory of your Race,
One, who from Adam had Descent,
Yet ne'er did what he might repent;
But liv'd, unblemish'd, to fifteen,
And yet, O strange, a Court had seen,
Was solely rul'd by Nature's Laws,
And dy'd a Martyr in her Cause!
Now reign, ye Houynhnms, for Mankind,
Have no such Peter left behind,
None like the dear departed Youth,
Renown'd for Purity and Truth,
He was your Rival, and our Boast,
For ever, ever, ever lost!


But Peter could not to live up to the popular interest invested in him and a fickle public quickly abandoned him in favour of the next unfortunate. His academic progress also failed to match his earlier promise. He was declared 'unable to receive instruction', despite the attentions of 'the ablest masters'. He could say nothing beyond his own name and a garbled form of 'King George'. By 1728, his tutor had given up his efforts and Peter was retired to the country. A home was found for him on a farm near Northchurch in Hertfordshire and a generous crown pension of £35 per annum was supplied for his upkeep. The 'talk of the town' became a humble farm hand.

Though still only an adolescent, Peter faded into provincial obscurity and thereafter rarely troubled the gossip columns. He developed a taste for gin and loved music, reportedly swaying and clapping with glee and dancing until he was exhausted. But he never learned to speak and his lack of any sense of direction gave cause for concern. In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered as far as Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a result he was fitted with a heavy leather collar bearing the inscription: 'Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.' He finally died, aged around 72, in 1785.

Though Peter's life is remarkable enough, what is most astounding is the sheer scale of scientific and philosophical interest that his case aroused. While wits opined that the boy might be corrupted by the sybaritic life of London high society, others saw in him an ideal test case for the nascent sciences of anthropology and psychology.

To the thinkers of the Age of Reason, Peter represented a blank slate. As humanity in its 'raw' state, he was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called 'the noble savage', man 'unspoilt' by society and civilisation.


Quite. A useless savage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 26, 2011 5:52 AM
  
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