Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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A Little Pig’s Will: Anthropomorphism, Materiality, and the False Testator in Early Seventeenth-Century Fictional Wills

Chloe Porter

[1] What do fictional wills tell us about the relationship between materiality, mortality and ‘human’ agency in the early modern period? If the last will and testament is the document in which a testator articulates wishes regarding the disposal of their property after death, then what might the implications of a ‘false’ version of such a document be for notions of ‘human’ property, ownership, and speech? This essay explores these questions with reference to three ‘fictional wills’, a phrase used here to encompass texts from two distinct genres. Firstly, I consider what is revealed about the ‘human’ dynamics of testation in the Testamentum Porcelli (The Will of the Little Pig), an anthropomorphic, fourth-century Latin mock testament in which a piglet about to be butchered by a cook makes his testament. The Testamentum survives in seven medieval manuscripts, and ‘several early-modern editions’ (Steel 2011: 204). Among those early modern incarnations is an English translation in Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (1607); Topsell also presents the ‘fiction of a Swines name and Testament, or last will’ in Latin.[1] Where the Testamentum Porcelli is a prose joke that parodies human will-making, the other two fictional wills that I discuss are acts of false testation depicted in Thomas Middleton’s Michaelmas Term (first performed 1604 and first published in 1607) and Ben Jonson’s Volpone (first performed in 1606 and published in 1607). Although generically very different to the Testamentum Porcelli, these plays are contemporaneous with Topsell’s work. While I do not mean to point to a specifically early seventeenth-century attitude to will-making in these ‘fictional wills’, the shared historical contexts of these texts offer encouragement for the analysis of Jacobean city comedy alongside an ancient Latin prose joke. Together, these texts produce a suggestive reading of the status of the ‘real’, ‘human’ testator in early modern will-making practice. I begin with a discussion of the destabilisation of the ‘human’ in the Testamentum Porcelli, before combining observations about this mock testament with guidance on testation presented in Henry Swinburne’s A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Willes, which was first published in 1591, and went through several editions in the seventeenth century. The implications of the mismanagement of testation are then discussed with reference to the two plays, both of which align false testators with non-human counterfeits such as the piglet of the Testamentum Porcelli.

The Performative Piglet
[2] The central comic premise of animal mock testaments is that the animal testator will bequeath its own body to a process of butchery. In John Lacy’s Wyl Bucke His Testament (1560), for example, a buck’s last will and testament is witnessed by the hunter who kills him; the testator bequeaths his ‘body’ to be used to ‘make Stekis, for a brekefaste’ (sig. a2v). In the Testamentum Porcelli, similarly, the little pig, who in Topsell’s translation is named Grunter Hoggson, makes his will because he is about to be butchered by the cook:

Magirus the Cooke said vnto me, come hither thou vnderminer of houses, thou rooter up of land, fearefull, fugitive little Pig, I must this day take away thy life. To whom Hog-son made this answer, If I haue done any harm, if I haue offended, if I haue trod in peeces any vessels of worth vnder my feet, then I entreat thee good M. Cooke pardon me, and grant me my request. But Magirus the Cook said, run (sir-kitchin-Boy) and bring me a knife out of the Kitchin, that I may let this litle pig bleed: presently I the little Pig was taken by the seruantes, and by them led the xiv. day of the calends of Torch-light into the place of Coole-worts, when Fiery-furnace & Pepper-spice were Consuls, and when I saw no remedy but that I must die, I entreated the Cooke but an houres space to make my will (Topsell 1607: 664).

The little pig’s account of the events leading to his testation expresses an absurd sense of agency that emphasises his subjection to human mastery; Hoggson is to ‘bleed’ because he is a transgressive, rebellious ‘fugitive’ who by his own admission disrupts the life of the kitchen.[2] The piglet’s punishment is therefore to be put to use in the kitchen as a consumable property; in this way, the Testamentum Porcelli demonstrates the tendency of anthropomorphism to ‘frame the natural world as a consumable asset’ (Boehrer 2002: 15). Purporting to consent to the death which is signalled ominously by ‘Fiery-furnace & Pepper-spice’, the piglet performs complicity in his own consumption, revelling in the making of a legacy which is evidently not his to dictate:

for my bowels I bestow them in manner following. I bequeath my bristles to the Coblers and shoomakers, my brains to Wranglers, my eares to the deafe, my tongue to Lawyers and Pratlers, my intrals to the Tripe-makers, my thighes to the Pye-makers, my loines to Women, my bladder to Boies, my taile to young maides, my muscles to shamelesse Dancers, my Anckle-bones, to Lackyes and hunters, my hooues to Theeues. (Topsell 1607: 664)

Topsell’s English translation loses some of the sodomitical humour of its ancient source, as he translates the Latin  ‘cinaedis’, meaning ‘the Unmanly’, to ‘Women’ (1607: 664).[3] Despite this adjustment, Hoggson’s bequest of his own body presents a queasy overlap between ‘human’ and ‘piglet’ bodies and behaviours while eroding distinctions between the consumer and the consumed. Such an overlap is also suggested by the piglet’s plans for the commemoration of his name. He requests:

that there be made for me a monument, wherein shall be engrauen in Golden Letters, this inscription or title, M Grunter Hog-son, Little-Pig, liued nine hundered ninety nine yeares and a halfe, and if he had liued but one halfe yeare longer he had liued a thousand yeares. And you my Louers and best counsellers of my life, I beseech you do good to my dead carkase, salt it well with the best season of Nutmegs, Pepper, and Honny, that so my name and memory may remaine for euermore (Topsell 1607; 664).

Hoggson’s wish to be commemorated in ‘Golden Letters’ parodies testators’ use of last will and testaments in the construction of a ‘post-mortem identity’, and the securing of ‘their place within … living communities’ (Helt 2000: 205). The Testamentum here critiques the absurdity of human testation as an assertion of agency at a moment which signals the testator’s subjection to corporeal processes of decay. Notably, Hoggson’s desire for a monument is aligned with the consumption of the piglet’s body as an act of commemoration, with his ‘name and memory’ imagined to ‘remaine for ever more’ in the passage of his ‘carkase’ through the human digestive system. This burlesque of human rituals of commemoration might remind us of the instance in which Hamlet lambasts the solemnity of death and ‘human’ ceremony by reminding Claudius that ‘we fat ourselves for maggots’, and that ‘a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar’ (4.3.29-30). In Hoggson’s and Hamlet’s accounts of post-mortem experience, humans, nonhumans and digestable foodstuffs exchange places. This morbid configuration is, in turn, echoed strikingly in Jane Bennett’s recent discussion of ‘eating’ as a process during which ‘human and nonhuman bodies recorporealize in response to each other; both exercise formative power and both offer themselves to be acted upon’ (2010: 49). Significantly, Bennett describes this process as part of her work on ‘vibrant matter’, or ‘the active role of nonhuman materials in public life’ (Bennett 2010: 2). Although the Testamentum Porcelli is, as Topsell suggests, a piece of ‘mirth’, the interaction between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ that it entertains disrupts assumptions about the connection between humanness, agency and ownership (1607: 663). If the Testamentum Porcelli frames the ‘natural world as consumable asset’, it also attributes agency to this asset, and in the process destabilises the privileged position of the ‘human’ as consumer and ‘owner’ of nature. The little pig’s will therefore performs a further function of anthropomorphism, or ‘seeing the world in our own image’, which is to destroy ‘anthropos as a category’, since by ‘making the human vision the only vision, the separation of the species is impossible’ (Fudge 2000: 7-8).

[3] Much of the elision of distinctions between ‘human’, ‘animal’ and consumable carcass in the Testamentum Porcelli is achieved through linguistic play and parody of ‘human’ modes of expression. This wordplay begins with the name of the piglet, which in the Latin version is ‘Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus’. As Karl Steel explains, this title refers to grunniere meaning ‘to grunt’; and caro cocta, meaning ‘cooked meat’ and ‘the name of a famous Iberian bandit’, as well as the name of a ‘Plinian beast, a cross between a hyena and a lion’ (Steel 2011: 204-5). Since Hyenas ‘were famous for their gender bimorphism and for luring people to their deaths by imitating human speech’, Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus ‘is at once a criminal human, a cooked pig, and a hybridized, anthropophagous master of speech’ (Steel 2011: 205). The multivalency of the piglet’s Latin name is lost in Topsell’s English translation, where Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus becomes the more mundane, onomatopoeic ‘Grunter Hoggson’. Despite this name change, the rebellious little pig’s account of the textual production of his last will and testament further emphasises the ambiguity of his status:

I, M. Grunter Hogg-son, little pig haue made this my last will and Testament, which because I could not write with my own hand, I haue caused it to be endited by other. (Topsell 1607: 664)

In declaring his will ‘endited by other’, Hoggson emphasises his illiteracy as an animal, at the same time demonstrating his possession of the ‘human’ voice that dictates the will because he ‘could not write with my own hand’. Since Hoggson has language, his illiteracy does not ‘identify him as being only animal’; as Steel explains, ‘even lacking a hand’, the piglet can ‘be a legal agent’, and his illiteracy was shared by many living during the fourth century and the medieval and early modern periods (2011: 205). Moreover, Hoggson’s reliance on an ‘other’ to write down the will reflects the textual processes involved in the production of last will and testaments in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. During this period wills were often written down in the first instance by a priest or scribe, and were ‘proved in an ecclesiastical court, at which point they were read and rewritten into the official record by a scribe’ (Richardson 2010: 100-2). In the case of nuncupative wills, meanwhile, testament was ‘made by word of mouth before witnesses’, before being relayed again to the scribe (Arkell, Evans and Goose 2000: 47).[4] Against this backdrop of textual mediation, the individual voice of the testator registers as a performative construct operational within public, legal discourse. In this view there is very little separating the real, legitimate human testator from Hoggson the testating piglet.

[4] Opening his mock testament with an allusion to the textuality and performativity of his legal voice, Hoggson heralds the mimetic referentiality of testation. In this, the Testamentum plays out concerns about the implications of textual mediacy for the legitimacy of real testaments. In his treatise on last wills and testaments, the ecclesiastical lawyer Henry Swinburne states that legitimate testation requires direct correspondence between meaning and expression. For Swinburne, it is crucial that the testator, ‘when the words were spoken, had Animum Testandi, that is to say, a mind or purpose then and thereby to make his testament or last will’ (1591: 8v). Swinburne here follows the early modern view that ‘language … is a way of expressing reason’ and that ‘possession of a rational soul  precedes and allows for language and speech’ (Fudge 2006: 14). Prior to René Descartes’ ‘declaration of animal automatism’ in his Discourse on Method (1637), most distinctions between humans and beasts followed the Aristotelian view that animals possess a sensitive soul connected to perception and movement, but lack the rational soul that ‘houses the faculties that make up reason’, and is possessed by humans (Fudge 2006: 1-2, 8; Decartes 1986: 44). Reason is therefore the primary property of the human in the early modern period, and hence people are considered to enjoy privileged access to meaningful speech. Animals (including parrots) may ‘parot’ words and phrases ‘without comprehension’, but a ‘human’ will utter ‘true speech’ in which there is a correspondence between the mind and what is said by the voice (Fudge 2006: 14). For Swinburne, the articulation of originary meaning produced by the correspondence between mind and voice is a privilege fundamental to testation, and is to be prioritised in the interpretation of a last will and testament:

The will therefore and meaning of the testator, ought before all thinges to bee sought for diligently […] it ought to bee sought for as earnestly as the hunter seeketh his game: And as to the sacred Anker ought the iudge to cleaue vnto it: Pondering not the words, but the meaning of the testator. For although no man be presumed to think other than hee speaketh, for the tongue is the utterer or interpreter of the heart, yet cannot euery man vtter al that he thinketh, and therefore are his words subiecte to his meaning. And as the mind is before the voyce, (for we conceiue before we speake) so is it of greater power; for the voyce is to the minde, as the servant is to his Lord (1591: 9v).

Here, divine correspondence between voice and mind transcends the textual limitations of the word; in legitimate testation, therefore, the différance between material text and human testator is overridden through participation in a divine sameness. The divine ‘voice’ of the legitimate testator exists beyond the limitations of ‘words’, which are considered inadequate to communicate meaning. Swinburne insists that this divine meaning is as recoverable as hunted ‘game’, but in pointing to the inadequacy of language, he demonstrates that this cannot be the case. The testator’s divine meaning always exists as the irrecoverable referent of the words written down by a scribe, and examined and interpreted by a judge. No testation can therefore meet Swinburne’s criteria for legitimacy, and the singular testator voice is deferred by the dynamics of testation.

[5] The possibility of the unavailability of the human testator voice is especially troubling for early modern attitudes to will-making, which are heavily invested in notions of the human and the attribution of this construct as a category. For example, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, testation is a human privilege to which not all people have access. Swinburne states that those ‘in subiection, as bondmen and other lyke personnes’, or ‘such personnes as haue not the vse of reason or vnderstanding, such as madde folkes, or idiots’ are ‘iustly excluded from making of testaments’ (1591: 10r, 8r). Swinburne aligns ‘bondmen’ with married women who, in common law, required their husbands’ consent to make testament (Swinburne 1591: 8r; Bedford, Davis & Kelly 2007: 205;  Houlbrooke 1998: 84-7). Here, Swinburne connects the ‘liberty to make a testament’ with the reasonable ability to do so (1591: 10r). Liberty in this sense goes beyond habitual conditions such as imprisonment or marriage; Swinburne insists that legitimate testation requires total self-possession, ‘that is to say full power and habilitie, to withstande all contradiction and countermaund’ (1591: 9v-10r). This ‘liberty’ ensures the fidelity of the will, ‘For as thy soule is not my soule, so thy will is not my will, nor my testament thy testament’ (1591: 10r). Testation for Swinburne is therefore rooted in the possession and protection of the individuated, rational soul, and is thus a distinctly ‘human’ practice. That entire groups of people are debared from this human practice suggests the extent to which early modern testation operates in a context in which ‘the borders of the human’ are ‘dangerously flexible, and uncontrollable … sometimes one thing is human, whereas at other times in other places that same thing is not’ (Fudge, Gilbert & Wiseman 1999: 5).

[6] As documents detailing the distribution of a person’s material goods, last wills and testaments are particularly susceptible to the sort of behaviour which, in an early modern view, indicates slippage into a non-human, bestial state. The distribution of goods implies the consumption of those goods, and the management of appetite for material things is an attribute of the rational soul. In the 1624 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton explains:

will is the power of the rationall soul, which ever covets or avoides such things as have beene before judged and apprehended by the Understanding. If good, it approves it; if evill, it abhorres it; so that his object is either good or evill. Aristotle cals this our rationall Appetite; for as in the Sensitive, we are carried to good or bad by our Appetite, ruled and directed by Sense; so in this we are carried to Reason (27).

For Burton, the reasonable will manages carnal, bestial will; indeed, later in this work the author explains love-melancholy as a bestial lack of reason, within which understanding is captive, ‘like a beast’ (335). Humans can therefore be subject to bestial will, but only humans can reflect rationally on their material existence. In contrast:

Brutes cannot reflect upon themselves. Bees indeed make neate and curious works, and many other Creatures besides, but when they have done, they cannot judge of them (Burton 1624: 26).

An inability to think in the abstract here also characterises ‘brutes’ in contrast with ‘humans’. Abstract thought is the product of reason, and so animals, lacking reason, cannot think beyond themselves to make conceptual judgments, although they may develop preferences and desires based on ‘pleasure’ experienced at a ‘material level’ (Fudge 2006: 11-12). If an inability to rationally manage and articulate desires relating to material experience is a marker of animality in early modern discourse, then by implication, there is something bestial about testation that does not meet the standards set out in Swinburne’s widely-read text. It is against this backdrop that early modern depictions of will-making connect non-legitimate testation with animality.

Performing Testation in Volpone and Michaelmas Term
[7] In the final acts of both Volpone and Michaelmas Term, the production of a fictional will functions as a part of a plot device in which the central protagonist fakes his own death. In Michaelmas Term, a scheming draper named Quomodo makes his will as part of a ‘toy’ to fake death (4.2.89). Similarly, Volpone has it given ‘out about the streets […] That I am dead’, and produces a will in which he names his servant, Mosca, as heir, aiming to spite the crowd of legacy-hunters whose hopes for his legacy he has ‘milked’ throughout the play (5.2.60-1, 1.2.127). The association between false testation and animality is more marked in Volpone, and so I will begin this part of my discussion with reference to Jonson’s play. Steeped in bestial imagery, Volpone is based on the fable in which a fox pretends to be dead in order to ensnare birds of prey who swoop to consume what they believe to be a corpse. It is worth noting that Jonson may have read this fable in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium (1551-1558), the text which provides much of the material included in Topsell’s Historie of Foure-footed Beastes.[5] A version of the fable is included in Topsell’s account of the fox:

His manner is when he perceiueth or seeth a flocke of foule to flye in the aire, to rowle himselfe in red earth, making his skin to looke bloody, and lie vpon his backe, winking with his eie, and holding in his breath as if he were dead, which thing the birds, namely Crows, Rauens and such like obseruing, because of the hatred of his person, they for ioy alight & triumph at his ouerthrow, and this the fox indureth for a good season, till oportunity seruing his turne, and some of the fowle come neare his snowt, then suddenly hee catcheth some one of them in his mouth, feeding vpon him like a liuing and not a dead foxe, and so doth deuoure and eate him (1607: 226).

In Jonson’s play, Volpone, the ‘Fox’ behaves in a similar manner; he lies in bed, pretending to be near death, wearing ‘ointment’ that creates the illusion of a leaking, disintegrating body (1.2.114). Legacy-hunters, whom Volpone calls ‘vulture, kite/Raven and and gorcrow’, circle his bed, offering the supposedly dying Magnifico gold and valuables in the hope of being named his heir (1.2.88-9). Both Volpone and the legacy-hunters act with a self-interest that registers as self-consuming. The goods offered by the ‘birds of prey’ would be returned to them were they to be named as heir; Volpone, meanwhile, builds up a ‘legacy’ which is entirely for his own consumption. Gorging on his own legacy, Volpone resembles the ‘anthropophagous’ Hoggson.

[8] Having pretended to be near death throughout much of the play, Volpone testates and fakes death as he passes a point of full satisfaction from the rewards of his parasitic behaviour. Jonson introduces the fake-death plot at a significant moment in the drama that Stephen Greenblatt has identified as the ‘false ending’ in Volpone (1976: 90). At this point in the play, Volpone has triumphed over the law and the legacy-hunters in a ‘masterpiece’ of deception in which he evades punishment for and profits from his attempted rape of Celia, the wife of the legacy-hunter Corvino (5.2.11). For Mosca, this ‘masterpiece’ is the limit of parasitic satiation that ‘we cannot think to go beyond’ (5.2.11-12). It is at this point that Volpone develops the plan to produce a will and fakes death in order to thwart the ‘expectation’ of the ‘vulture, crow’ and ‘raven’ that pursue his legacy by having it ‘ravished from their mouths’ (Jonson 1999: V. ii. 64-8). In this allusion to sexual violence, the fake-death plot is revealed to be driven by the same energies that fuel Volpone’s previous ‘masterpiece’, a deceit which he claims was ‘more’ satisfying ‘than if I had enjoyed the wench’ (5.2.10). Indeed,  Volpone exploits his recent triumph for this fresh device, deploying the ‘slander’ of the accusation of rape as the given reason for his supposed death (4.2.63). The fake-death plot, then, reflects Volpone’s  renewal of appetite at his arrival at a point of fulfilment in a play which is about ‘the hero’s attempt to “fill himself”’ (Greenblatt 1976: 96). False testation in Volpone is therefore the product of an unchecked, overflowing bestial appetite, or ‘wolfish nature’, as Mosca puts it when sentenced to prison for his part as ‘chiefest minister’ in the deceits of the play (5.12.115). The bestiality of Volpone’s ‘vice’ is emphasised by the concluding remarks of the first Avocatare:

Let all that see these vices thus rewarded
Take heart, and love to study em! Mischeifs feed
Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed (5.12.149-51).

Once again resembling the ‘rebellious little pig’ of the Testamentum Porcelli, Volpone receives violent punishment because he has overreached the boundaries of his status on earth. Just as Hoggson is complicit in his own destruction, so Volpone (with perhaps more self awareness than the piglet) realises that he will ‘bleed dead’ as a result of his plots, because he has made ‘a snare for mine own neck! And run / My head into it wilfully … out of mere wantonness’ (5.11.1-4).

[9] Because Middleton is not preoccupied with bestial imagery in Michaelmas Term as is Jonson in Volpone, the connection between false testation and animality is less evident in the former play. And yet, in Michaelmas Term, the use of false testation to satisfy unreasonable desires follows a similar pattern to that presented in Volpone. Like Volpone, Quomodo conceives of his plan to testate and fake death at a moment of triumph in a deceit that has been practiced throughout the drama; in this case, the cozening of a young country gentleman named Richard Easy of his lands in Essex. Momentarily, the acquisition of Easy’s lands satisfies Quomodo’s appetite, as he declares that ‘my desires are full – for this time’ and that ‘A little thing, three hundred pound a year, / Suffices nature’ (4.2.71-4). Indulging in a corrupted pastoral fantasy of corporeal immersion in his new, rural property with his wife Thomasine, Quomodo is propelled to fresh desires:

I long to warm myself by th’wood […] There will be a fine show on’s, I can tell you, where we citizens will laugh and lie down, get all our wives with child against a bank, and get up again. – Stay, ha! Hast thou that wit, i’faith? Twill be admirable. To see how the very thought of green fields puts a man into sweet inventions. I will presently possess Sim Quomodo of all the land (4.2.75-89).

The thought of the satiation of sexual desire on his land triggers in Quomodo the wish to indulge further his appetite for his property, since, as he concludes, he is ‘as jealous of this land as of my wife’ (4.2.120). Quomodo therefore decides to fake death in order to monitor the passage of his legacy:

In this business I will […] in disguise note the condition of all: how pitiful my wife takes my death, which will appear by November in her eye, and the fall of the leaf in her body, but especially by the cost she bestows upon my funeral, there shall I try her love and regard; my daughter’s marrying to my will and liking; and my son’s affection after my disposing (4. 2. 112-19).

Hoping to test and play with his property – including his family as well as his land – beyond the legal and temporal boundaries within which he lives, Quomodo is driven by desire operating in excess of its possible fulfilment. This appetite for property reflects a lack of self knowledge and capitulation to material pleasure that diverges from early modern Aristotelian markers of the human.

[10] The non-humanness of Quomodo’s and Volpone’s actions in early modern terms is most keenly demonstrated by these characters’ fundamental misconception of the relationship between a mortal ‘human’ and their property as delineated in a last will and testament. The disposal of property in a last will and testament is final, and marks a separation between the  testator and their goods; a continuation of the testator’s ‘ownership’ of those goods is impossible, since, as Swinburne explains, ‘so long’ as the testator ‘liueth, the testament is of no force; but dooth take its strength, and is confirmed by the testators death’ (1591: 10v). Both characters behave as if their legacies are reversible and recoverable; Volpone does not anticipate that Mosca will claim the inheritance left to him in his master’s will, refusing to admit that Volpone is alive unless the magnifico offers ‘half’ of his property to his servant (5.12.67). Quomodo, meanwhile, does not seem to have thought beyond the pleasure of attending his own funeral, and assumes that he will be able to reverse the terms of his will and the events set in motion by his supposed passing. For example, discovering that his son is ‘lewd’, Quomodo intends ‘to disinherit him forever’, but is foiled on this count because his son has since been cozened of the lands which have now passed back to Easy, ‘the right heir’ (5.3.44-76). Having ‘thirsted’ to maintain a totalising ownership of his property and legacy, Quomodo has absented himself from its control ( 5.3.39). Quomodo’s mistake, then, is in part to assume that his legacy is ‘his’ without limitation; Volpone, similarly, operates in a fantasy of totalising, endless ownership, and does not wish to leave his property to Mosca or to any other character. As they engage in morbid performances of death, both Volpone and Quomodo forget their own subjection to death. Although both ‘human’, these characters operate with a sense of agency no less absurd than that displayed by the little pig in the Testamentum Porcelli.

[11] Taken together, the Testamentum Porcelli, Volpone and Michaelmas Term depict testation as the site of blasphemously over-reaching assertions of material ownership and mortal agency. As such, these texts operate as memento mori, reminding readers and audience members to think on their deaths and to realise the limited value of earthly, material wealth. The mnemonic function of the Testamentum Porcelli is suggested by its inclusion (in an English translation) in the craftsman Thomas Trevelyon’s The Great Book (1616), a miscellany which, according to its preface, contains ‘matter’ that ‘teacheth examples […] manners, and […] a spirituall and heavenly institution’ (Wolfe 2007: 8).[6] In the plays, meanwhile, mnemonic meaning is advanced by metatheatrical allusions that emphasise the presence of actors’ bodies in the roles of false testators. Both fake-death plots involve extensive disguising and performance; in Volpone, for example, Mosca’s inheritance begins with a performance that is stage-managed and viewed by his master as a comedy. Volpone orders Mosca:

Hold, here’s my will.
Get thee a cap, a count-book, pen and ink
Papers afore thee; sit as thou wert taking
An inventory of parcels. I’ll get up
Behind the curtain, on a stool, and hearken;
Sometime peep over, see how they do look,
With what degrees the blood doth leave their faces.
O, ’twill afford me a rare meal of laughter! (5.2.80-7)

Following this initial performance, Volpone subsequently appears disguised as a ‘commandatore’ in the streets, where he discusses his own death with the legacy hunters (5.5.1.SD).  The performativity of Volpone’s actions is highlighted by Jonson’s repeated, mnemonic allusions to bodily decay, as in Volpone and Mosca’s solution to the absence of a corpse following Volpone’s supposed death:

Mosca: But sir, what if they ask after the body?
Volpone: Say it was corrupted.
Mosca: I’ll say it stunk, sir; and was fain t’ have it
Coffined up instantly and sent away. (5.2.77-9)

Similarly, Middleton’s play calls attention to its own performativity. For example, disguised as a ‘Beadle’, Quomodo attends his own funeral, an ironically performative event at which ‘a counterfeit corpse [is] brought in […] Thomasine […] and all the Mourners equally counterfeit’ (4.4.52.SD). Where the mnemonic function of Volpone is stimulated by multiple references to bodily decay, in Michaelmas Term, Middleton layers levels of performativity until it appears that there is almost no other state available. For example, there is an uneasy correspondence between the living Quomodo and the counterfeit corpse presented at his funeral. In the final scene of the play, Quomodo appears undisguised before a judge in the hope of reversing the terms of his will, but is only accepted as the ‘true’ Quomodo, and ‘no counterfeit’, when he admits to his false character, being ‘the man that lived the famous coz’ner’ (5.3.21-30). The morbid humour of Quomodo’s fake-death device performs the function of a memento mori by drawing attention to mortality, but unlike Volpone, Middleton’s play combines the corpse and the living testator in the same image. As a result, Michaelmas Term engages closely with questions about the availability of a legitimate testator. As noted above, the legitimate human testator voice is difficult to locate in the interpretation of the will; and yet the mnemonics of the fictional will urge the testator to act truthfully and rationally, or in other words, to testate legitimately in the manner described by Swinburne. As I discuss in the concluding section of this essay, fictional wills do not leave readers and audience members without an answer regarding the implications of the unavailability of ‘true’ testation. Reflecting Swinburne’s concerns about the significance of false testation, these texts instead present the deathly horror that forms in the absence of the legitimate testator.

‘My deeds have cleft me!’: Vibrant matter and deathly countefeits
[12] Writing on the notion of ‘female legacy’ in relation to Isabella Whitney’s Will and Testament (1573), Wendy Wall observes the ‘strange time frame involved in the concept of the will’, in which the testator’s ‘voice … fashions a present leave-taking in an imagined void’, and ‘makes visible a statement of desire from a corpse’ (1991: 38). This configuration echoes the dynamics of the Testamentum Porcelli, in which the little pig performs, or ‘fashions’ a farewell that articulates his status as dead meat destined for consumption. Wall’s account of the implications of the temporal dynamics of testation are also echoed in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, in which Horatio’s difficulty in speaking to the ghost of Old Hamlet is mobilised as a model for interaction between late-twentieth century Europe and the ‘specter’ of the communist past (1993: 151, 63). Where Wall finds the temporally ‘strange’ testator both ‘present and absent’, Derrida accounts for the spectre from whom Hamlet (standing for Europe) inherits on the basis of its ‘untimeliness’, or ‘disjointure in the very presence of the present’, a ‘sort of non-contempereity of present time with itself’ (1993: 29). In Derrida’s argument, Wall’s visibly-vocal corpse-testator becomes a spectre; in Volpone and Michaelmas Term, testators are not corpses or spectres, but they are inflected by modes of untimeliness as their performances of death are revealed. For example, Volpone is punished with life imprisonment and the confiscation of his property; actions which prevent him from ever again making testament. The terms of this sentence, and the destination of Volpone’s property, meanwhile, suggest that he is condemned to unending suffering:

Thy substance shall all be straight confiscate
To the hospital of the Incurabili.
And since the most was gotten by imposture,
By feigning lame, gout palsy and such diseases,
Thou art to lie in prison, cramped with irons,
Till thou be’st sick and lame indeed (5.12.119-24).

Although, as noted above, Volpone functions as a mnemonic reminder of death, Volpone’s sentence does not envisage his death, and by implication condemns him to interminably live out the terminal illness that he had previously performed. A similar sense of interminable decline is evoked in the bequest of Volpone’s property to the Ospedale degli Incurabili, Venice’s ‘hospital of the incurables’, associated with the treatment of syphilis, which was ‘often viewed as an incurable disease much like leprosy’ in early modern Europe (Lindemann 2010: 70).[7] Mocking Volpone’s lasciviousness as well as the impotency of the ‘childless’ magnifico’s legacy, his goods are invested in a place of irreparable decay (Jonson 1999: ‘The Argument’, 1).

[13] In Michaelmas Term, meanwhile, Quomodo’s faking of death and false testation signals an erasure of personhood that articulates his material ‘non-self-identity’, recalling the ‘non-identity to self’ of Derrida’s untimely ‘spirit’ (Harris 2009: 8; Derrida 1993: 151). Like Volpone, Quomodo realises that he has been complicit in his own erasure from the legal and temporal structures that he sought to exploit. Proclaiming ‘my deeds have cleft me, cleft me!’ Quomodo figures himself as a dismembered property subject to his own will, both in the sense of the legal document and in the sense of reasoned desire (5.3.91). As a result of his will in this double sense Quomodo loses the status of rational subject at ‘liberty’ to testate (Swinburne 1591: 10r). At this moment in the drama, the testator becomes the disposable property, but, significantly, is not a ‘thing’, or an object invested with discrete identity (for this concept of the ‘thing’, see Brown 2001: 1-22). This is not just in the sense that he has written himself out of his legal ‘identity’, but also because in declaring that he is ‘cleft’, Quomodo figures himself as a mode of re-worked and re-workable matter in the sense described as ‘untimely’ by Jonathan Gil Harris (2009: 11). Building on work on early modern textual and material culture by Jonathan Goldberg and Marry C. Fuller, Harris notes that where the ‘object assumes a synchronic temporal framework’ and is ‘reified as temporally singular’, matter ‘far from being an actuality endowed with self-identical presence’ is ‘understood as designating a play of multiple temporal traces’ (2009: 8). In this way, Harris explains, matter is ‘a surface that can be written on; but is itself a species of “arche-writing” in Derrida’s sense, inasmuch as it is characterized by an ontological and temporal self-differentiation and hence deferral’ (2009: 8). The process of testation arguably locates the testator as ‘untimely matter’, as a site of deferral, since this process articulates the testator’s status as material, social subject from the position, in Wall’s words, of a ‘corpse’ (1991: 38). The performance of false testation makes visible and exaggerates the deferential and material ‘play of multiple temporal traces’ involved in will-making, since the false testator lives beyond the temporal limitations with which testation corresponds.

[14] The conclusion that the testator is an untimely material site of deferral, however, seems unsatisfactory as an account of the status of the testator as an agent of material culture. From the textual production of wills to the ‘anthropophagous’ exchange between testator and inheritors displayed in Volpone and the Testamentum, the evidence that I have discussed thus far suggests that testation is the product of a network of interactions between ‘active’ matter. This configuration recalls the actor-network theory in which ‘objects’, or ‘non-humans’ are ‘full-blown actors’ in what Bruno Latour calls ‘the social’ (2005: 72). Actor-network theory influences Bennett’s account of ‘vibrant matter’, which I use above as a model for the ‘recorporealization’ of Hoggson’s post-mortem body, which, in turn, I found comparable to Volpone’s ‘fatted’, bleeding body in the wake of his false testation. Is it possible to configure the ‘corpse’ that is seen to speak in the last will and testament as ‘vibrant matter’ that partakes in a network of active interaction with other ‘non-human’ matter?

[15] This interpretation is tempting, but requires further qualification with attention to early modern ideas about the status of false testator. Quomodo’s description of himself as having been ‘cleft’ again provides a pertinent focal point. Significantly, the OED states that ‘cleft’ was used as a verb during the seventeenth century and at no other point before or since. This verb referred to dividing, splitting, and cleaving; the earliest sense given in the OED (postdating Middleton’s play), is from William Folkingham’s Feudigraphia (1610), a guide to surveying, in which the author mentions ‘that Earth, that by moulding in the hand doth clift and cleave’ (17). If ‘cleft’ was in use in the early seventeenth century to refer to the re-moulding of the earth, then Quomodo’s ‘cleft’ state at the conclusion of Michaelmas Term starts to resemble a return to an originary state of ‘non-identity’, given that Adam is said in Genesis 2:7 to have been made by God from the earth.  It is worth recalling here that in Calvinist discourse, the bodies of the elect were re-made post-mortem by God, who is often anthropomorphically figured as a kind of ‘human’ artificer. In Samuel Gardiner’s The Doomes-day booke (1606), for example, God’s remaking of the bodies of the elect is described with reference to the artisanal re-working of metal ‘substances’:

Goldsmiths, and such as worke in mettals, can dissolve confected substances, concreate of gold, silver, brasse, steele. And such are to be found, who can expresse Oyle and liquide matter out of anie drie bodie: Wherefore the illimited power of God, which made all things of nothing, shall reduce our bodies to their formes againe, howsoever formerly reduced to nothing … everie man shall have so much matter of his owne, as will serve to make him a perfect bodie (54).

Arguably, the transformation of the body into recyclable matter that is presented in mock testaments echoes the re-formation of the body as ‘matter’ that is imagined in Gardiner’s account of resurrection. Hoggson, Volpone and Quomodo would be unlikely candidates for membership of the elect, but there is an intriguing symmetry here between the degeneration of these false testators to reworkable non-human bodies, and the re-making of the body after death as described by Gardiner. In pretending to be dead, Quomodo has also entered into an imitation of the return to matter figured as a part of the process of resurrection.

[16] It is at this point that the performativity of testation and the unavailability of the legitimate testator become particularly troubling, since early modern legitimate testation is a question of divine being and material deathliness. I return here to Swinburne’s discussion of the significance of the testator’s ‘mind’ to make a will. Swinburne anthropomorphises the legitimate last will and testament as a document that may possess ‘life’ where false testation is a deceitful counterfeit:

Much lesse is that to be taken for a testament, when as any man rashely, bostingly, or iestingly, affirmeth that he will make this or that man his executor. For without meaning, or consent of minde, the testament is altogether without life; and it is no more a testament, then a painted Lion, is a Lion (1591: 8v-9r).

In his allusion to a ‘painted Lion’, Swinburne makes disingenuous or even merely inaccurate testation a question of deathly idolatry. The legitimate testation is ‘alive’ in that it is not an idolatrous false representation such as the ‘painted Lion’. It is worth noting here that in early modern thought an idol is equivalent to ‘NOTHING in all the world […] because they have nothing in them of the divinitie or Godhead, whether we regard the nature or the efficacie thereof’ (Perkins 1601: 4).[8] Implicit in the attribution of ‘life’ to the will is a fluid integration between the testator as a natural product of God’s work and the legal document as matter that is or is not ‘natural’ depending on the fixity of the testator’s meaning. The legitimate testament as text is ‘vibrant matter’. When the testator’s meaning is faulty or expressed in faulty terms, the will takes on a different kind of life altogether, becoming a false representation, a deathly thing (as opposed to matter) ‘without life’ that tries to pass as its ‘natural’ equivalent.[9] Given that a legitimate will is given ‘life’ by its traceable origins in the non-mimetic ‘meaning’ of the testator, we might also conclude that a false will that performs the role of that legal document leads back to an equally performative testator, ‘without life’. At this point, distinctions collapse between the life-less false testator, and the perpetual deathliness of the testator’s voice in a document that ‘makes visible a statement of desire from a corpse’ (Wall 1991: 38).

[17] As noted above, the non-mimetic meaning of the legitimate testator, forged through a divine correspondence between mind and speech, is irrecoverable in the interpretation of the last will and testament. Swinburne insists that judges must search for this meaning as if it were ‘game’, but gives no convincing assurances as to how this prey is to be caught. If legitimate meaning cannot be found, then by implication, the last will and testament reveals a counterfeit; a ‘painted Lion’, a mock testator that, like Hoggson, is significantly less lively than hunted ‘game’. This problem is played out in Volpone and Michaelmas Term, as both plays ridicule the efficacy of early modern judicial systems, not least in the fact that both wills are proven despite the ongoing life of the testator. In Michaelmas Term, in particular, the written word, spoken word and bodily presence are all discounted as means to prove the existence of the testator or the content or meaning of their will. Enraged that his wife Thomasine has re-married since his reported death, Quomodo promises to take her before a judge where she ‘shall feel … whether my flesh be dead or no’ (5.2.132). In the event, Quomodo’s ‘flesh’ is irrelevant to the judge’s interpretation of Quomodo’s ‘presence’, partly because of the possibility that ‘some false spirit’ might ‘assume’ Quomodo’s ‘shape’ (5.3.13). This concern highlights the correspondence between the Quomodo who ‘framed deceitful in his life’, and versions of the draper that might be discerned after his death. This correspondence is further emphasised when Quomodo admits to his lifelong falsity in order to demonstrate that he lives and is ‘no counterfeit’ (5.3.2-21). This much proven, Quomodo is unable to surmount the disjunction between his desires and their textual expression, as the judge rules that he may not recover the lands which have since passed back to Easy, because Quomodo has previously been persuaded to ‘set … firm’ his ‘own hand’ against a ‘memorandum’ declaring that Easy owes him nothing (5.3.69-71; 5.1.113). ‘Cleft’ by his own signature, the false testator is revealed as a counterfeit that mimics the vibrancy of divine processes of testation, death and resurrection. Playing out the mistakes, corruptions and deceits attendent on the production and interpretation of a last will and testament, Volpone and Michaelmas Term confirm the fear that it may not be possible to speak as anything other than a false testator.

[18] In naming the false testator as a deathly ‘counterfeit’ of vibrant matter, I do not mean to conclude evasively that all testators in this period are idolatrous ‘nothings’. For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century iconoclasts, the idol horrifies because it is a ‘nothing’ that exists materially and must be addressed, hence the numerous acts of violence carried out against images perceived to be false representations during this period (cf. Phillips 1973; Aston 1988, 1993). Similarly, the fictional wills discussed in this essay are unnerving for early modern readers and audiences because they draw attention to the false testator as a material ‘nothing’ whose voice exists to be heard. The mnemonic concerns of the Testamentum Porcelli, Volpone and Michaelmas Term urge readers and viewers to manage and articulate relationships to the material with ‘human’ rationality, lest they take on the deathliness of the false testator. In Volpone and Michaelmas Term in particular, the fact that the vital bodies of the actors perform the roles of false testators emphasises the corporeal reality of human subjection to death within a divinely-ordered framework. As these performances intersect with early modern concerns about the absence of a true, real testator, however, that mnemonic message also advances the monstrous spectacle of the living, post-mortem counterfeit as the only available testator identity. Working in tandem with the morbid imagery of these plays, the bodies of the actors suggest with horror that subjection to death makes mortal agency a mimetic counterfeit.

University of Sussex



[1] For the best edition of the Testamentum Porcelli in Latin, see Alvaro d’Ors (1953: 73-83). Karl Steel provides a useful overview of the textual history of the Testamentum (2011: 204). D. C. Allen discusses the early modern textual history of the Testamentum, suggesting that the pig’s will is an analogue for John Donne’s The Will (1954:559-60).[back to text]

[2] See also Edward Champlin’s intriguing discussion of the piglet as an allusion to dissident militarism (1987: 182-3). Elsewhere, Jean-Jacques Aubert considers the Testamentum Porcelli as a Jewish, anti-Christian text (2005: 119-21).  Steel finds Aubert’s analysis unconvincing (2011: 204, n. 74).[back to text]

[3] I am grateful to Karl Steel for pointing out this alteration in Topsell’s translation.[back to text]

[4] Following a statute of 1540, nuncupative wills ‘could only be used for transmission of moveable goods and not for lands’ (Arkell, Evans & Goose 2000: 47).[back to text]

[5] Brian Parker discusses Gesner as a source for Volpone in his introduction to the play (1999: 14).[back to text]

[6] This passage from The Great Book is quoted in Wolfe’s introduction but is not included in Nicholas Barker’s facsimile edition of this text.[back to text]

[7] On Italian Incurabili hospitals, see Arrizabalaga, Henderson & French (1997: 145-233).[back to text]

[8] I discuss idolatry and representation in my Making and Unmaking in Early Modern Drama: Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion (forthcoming, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).[back to text]

[9] On the Aristotelian and Marxist distinction between the ‘potentiality’ of matter and the ‘actuality’ of thingly form, see Harris (2009: 7-8).[back to text]


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