February 27, 2004

The mysterious marthambles

I agree with David Mamet that Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series is a masterpiece. O'Brian's fictional self-presentation is irrelevant to the books, but faintly troubling. Recently I've stumbled on a bit of evidence that he might sometimes have made up stories about his words as well as his life.

An interview with Patrick O'Brian published in The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter (volume 3, issue 1, March 1994) contains this Q & A:

Q. Please explain the meaning of the term "marthambles," the sailors' disease that Dr. Maturin is often concerned with aboard ship. I have looked in many dictionaries and medical texts for such a term.

A. Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century advising a nostrum that would cure not only "the strong fires" and a whole variety of more obvious diseases but the marthambles too. I have never seen it anywhere else and it has escaped the OED.

Certainly the word marthambles is missing from the OED and from other standard lexicographical sources that I've checked. The glossary at the O'Brian fan site Maturin's Medicine has

marthambles (DI 123, RM 164, NC 132, 149, WDS 130, YA 226):

An unspecified illness, "known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land" [NC]. Patrick O?Brian is said to have seen the word on a pamphlet of the era by the quack doctor, Dr Tufts. It appears to be contagious and deadly to Pacific islanders.

If the given list of citations is correct, then O'Brian's earliest use was the one on p. 123 of Desolation Island, which was published in 1978:

'Of course he'll live,' said his messmates. 'Ain't the doctor pumped him dry, and blown out his gaff with physic?' For it was just as much part of the natural order of things that Dr. Maturin should preserve those who came under his hands; he was a physician, not one of your common surgeons -- had cured Prince Billy of the marthambles, the larynx, the strong fives -- had wormed Admiral Keith and had clapped a stopper over his gout -- would not look at you under a guinea, five guineas, ten guineas, a head, by land.

Let's ignore the question of whether "the strong fives" (Desolation Island) or "the strong fires" (Patrick O'Brian newsletter) is a typo. It's the marthambles that we're after here.

Dorothy Dunnett's historical novel The Ringed Castle (fifth of the "Lymond Chronicles") was published in 1971. The fictional year is 1555, and Francis Crawford of Lymond, working for the Russian Tsar as a mercenary soldier, has travelled to Lampozhnya, near the mouth of the Pechora river, in what is now the Arkhangel'skaya Oblast'. He's accompanied by the English navigator Diccon Chancellor, employed by the infant Muscovy Company. On p. 244 (of the 1997 Vintage edition) we read:

Once, a low drumming made itself heard among the thin sounds spread out under the frozen crust of the stars: the cries and barking and warbling song: the coughing and squealing of livestock; and Chancellor asked what it was.

'The signal for massacre?' Lymond said; and then, relenting: 'The Samoyedes are Shamanists, and worshop Ukko as chief of the gods. The tribes are led by the Shamans, and the Shamans practise magic and medicine with the aid of their voices and drums. If you can manage an attack of the Marthambles, we could persuade one to say an incantation over you. You would then be anointed with infallible remedies -- say, live earthworms mashed into alcohol.'

'I shall avoid succumbing to the Marthambles,' Chancellor said. 'Are all their remedies so alluring?'

'Take your pick,' Lymond said. 'For example, cornsilk and hot dough and live ants in warm oil for your joint pains. Celery water and goose fat massage for frost bite. That works, and you might as well make a note of it: the Company will have cases sooner or later. The voice and drum treatment is something again.'

'Faith?' said Richard Grey.

They were about to retire for the night. Lymond rose, as did his captain, a shadow behind him. 'I don't know. The Shaman will not come to me. He must invite me to his tent; and he has not done so yet.'

'Acquire an attack of the Marthambles,' said Chancellor.

'I have them,' said Lymond, 'every time I think of George Killingworth sitting confidently over a wine pot with Viscovatu. Do you still regret that you came?'

He spoke to Chancellor, and Chancellor, after a long moment, answered him truthfully. 'No,' he said.

'No,' Lymond said also. 'Verily, God hath eighteen thousand worlds; and verily, your world is one of them, and this its bright axle-tree.'

The first novel in Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, was published in 1961, and further volumes came out every couple of years until 1975. They're exciting, literate, carefully-researched works, full of accurate historical detail and historically accurate specialized terminology. Dunnett is like O'Brian in using specific archaic vocabulary as a method for establishing characters and setting scenes, as in this passage from the start of The Ringed Castle, where a group of Lymond's former associates get a letter from him:

Lymond had left Turkey, it transpired, for Moscow. And now was inviting the pick of his captains to follow him.

'Well?' said Guthrie. 'He says the prospects for trained men seem excellent.'

The legal mind in the group was affronted. 'Prospects?' said Fergie Hoddim. 'Yon's a sore outlay, traveling to Russia and back for a prospect. They're a coarse, jabbering, ignorant people, and ye canna issue a complaint against wrangeous and inordinate dunts if ye're lying down deid on your baikie. I'll not move a step but a contract.'

They left at the end of the week: eight well-balanced and reasonable mercenaries, who had made up their minds to this exploit before ever finishing that laconic letter. And Fergie Hoddim was one of their number.

It seems likely that O'Brian would have read Dunnett's books, perhaps before he began his own series of historical novels in 1970 or so, and certainly as he went with them. And her use of marthambles predates his by seven years.

So either Dunnett read the same "quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century" that O'Brian allegedly did; or he got the marthambles from her, and made up the pamphlet as he made up being born in Galway and raised a Roman Catholic in genteel circumstances.

[Update: more on the marthambles here and here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 27, 2004 07:04 AM