The Mastiff, A Tale
Three hundred years ago, nobody knew what a meme was, and it’s pretty tough to circulate parchment that widely anyway. But if mass media existed in the age of thatched roofs and bring-your-dead pickups, I’m convinced that “riding the Mastiff” would have gone viral, becoming a universal – not to mention risqué – euphemism.
Our story starts in the rare-book library of Columbia University in Manhattan, where I made an appointment to view its original copy of “The Pig, and the Mastiff: Two Tales,” which is kept in the university’s book vault. The almost 300-year-old booklet was printed in London in 1727, and, as its name suggests, it features two stories – morality tales, really – named after animals. While I don’t have anything against swine, we’ll stick to the second tale.
De te fabula narratur, the author tells us, which translated from the Latin means “the story applies to you.”
“The Mastiff Tale” starts off with a happily married couple. Theirs is a storybook relationship, at least from the husband’s vantage point, which in Tudor times was the only one that counted, anyway. His wife never argued with him, never showed her displeasure with him, never scolded him: “Free from Curtain Lecture was the bed,” our rhymthically rhyming narrator puts it, presumably referring to the hangings drawn around their marital bed at night, which didn’t ensconce the husband in a featherbedded litany of his transgressions.
The husband, however, sees a threat to their idyllic married life in their neighbor, a well-bred, well-dressed young man who has become the darling of the local ladies. The young rake is in great demand at card games and theater outings. Our jealous spouse admits to himself that his fears are unfounded – no one questions his wife’s virtuousness, as she is utterly devoted to him – but still, a spark of jealousy and insecurity is struck.
As luck would have it, the husband is called away on business, and no sooner is he a half-mile from home then he starts obsessing about what might happen between his pretty wife and the dashing neighbor. Rationalizing that an intervention is needed – “If it once be done, ‘tis plain / It ne’er can be undone again,” he muses, and we all know what “it” is – our insecure husband sends his servant, John, back home to forbid his wife to see the neighbor.
John, who is a little more level headed than his boss, worries that by mentioning the neighbor, he’ll put ideas in the wife’s head that weren’t there to begin with. And though he too thinks that the wife is as faithful as any – “blameless as the Babe unborn” – he worries about the very human impulse to seek out the forbidden. You know, Eve and all.
But John’s not so good at thinking on his feet, and when the wife presses him mercilessly about what message his master has sent, he says the first thing that comes into his mind. “He begs you would … not ride the Mastiff till you see him,” John blurts out.
After sending John away, the wife is left to figure out what “riding the Mastiff” means. Presuming it’s some sort of sexual euphemism, she calls her two maids, Jenny and Betsy, but neither of them have any idea, and both look at her as if she’s crazy, or perhaps drunk.
Finally, in desperation, she calls for Touzer the Mastiff, and tries to jump on his back to see what all the fuss is about. As you might imagine, Touzer is not amused.
Aside from being a charming foray into Renaissance Britain – the entire tale, which is reproduced below, is a delightful read – “The Mastiff Tale” also tells us some important information about the breed: First, the Mastiff-type of dog was commonplace enough around certain British households that mere mention of its name suffices to give the reading audience a visual picture of the dog. Second, the fact that a full-grown woman would even think of attempting to ride a Mastiff reinforces the long-held belief that impressive size was always a breed characteristic.
And if “riding the Mastiff” catches on, we can think of a few more Molosser-inspired euphemisms: Cajoling the Corso? Driving the Dogue? The possibilities are endless.
The Mastiff, A Tale
Your deep observers of Mankind,
Assure us constantly they find
A strong Propensity of Nature,
Rooted in every human Creature,
To do what otherwise they would not,
When once forbid, because they should not.
This Inclination, so perverse,
Is laid by Partridge on the Stars.
Your Rakes, with Floods of Elocution,
Charge it on Chance, or Constitution:
And out of fashioned Folks believe
It sprung for Adam and from Eve.
But though your Wits dispute about it,
The Fact itself was never doubted.
This Truth to illustrate, I have chosen
One common Story from a Thousand.
Let Critics at the Fable quarrel,
There’s no Exception to the Moral.
In Days of Yore (no need to show
How many hundred Years ago)
A Pair there flourished, free from Strife,
Who lived, indeed, like Man and Wife.
Her Temper mild and sweet, abhorred
To scold and wrangle at her Board.
Their Nights were peaceable, and free
From Curtain Lecture was the Bed;
When in a Fault her Spouse she found,
She rarely, very rarely, frowned.
In short, she gave him not Occasion,
For half the Trouble and Vexation,
Which many a Hen-pecked-keeping Varlet,
Endures most meekly from his Harlot.
Next Door a Captain chanced to shine,
Whose Clothes and Equipage were fine,
A young, and well accomplished Heir,
Of gentle Blood, and Fortune fair;
For ever at the Ladies Call,
To deal the Cards, or lead the Ball;
To Squire them to the Church or Play,
And Sense or Nonsense sing or say.
This Youth sometimes occasioned Pain,
In our too happy Husband’s Brain;
Yet of himself ashamed, with Care
He kept his Dreams from taking Air,
Else every Gossip in the Town
Had rose in Arms, and faced him down;
She never knew in all her Life,
A Dame more Virtuous than his Wife.
Before the Wight was wholly freed
From the Disorders in his Head,
Such Business called him from his House
As scarce gave Time to tell his Spouse;
He would have instantly been gone,
As being Old enough, alone,
But she, good Woman! durst not send him
Without a Servant to attend him.
She kindly begs him not to stay,
When Business was dispatched, a Day.
He promises, when in his Power,
He would not Absent be an Hour.
Soon as conveniently they can,
Up mounts the Master and the Man;
When once set out they travelled fast,
Yet e’er they half a Mile had passed
His Jealousy began to rise,
Thought he, as being deadly wise,
This Captain now, behind my back,
Addresses to my Wife will make:
‘Tis true, I shan’t continue long,
But she is Fair, and he is Young,
And if it once be done, ‘tis plain
It ne’er can be undone again.
I own, I never yet could find,
Her Heart to Gallantry inclined;
But then, in such a Case, a Man
Can hardly be too careful – John,
Go, bid your Mistress keep at Home,
Not see the Captain till I come.
John gallops back, but on his Way,
Thus, with himself, began to say,
And pray, where is it I am going?
And, what Fool’s Errand am I doing,
To make my Mistress, for her Life,
A faithless, or a scolding Wife?
At best she’ll wonder what he ails,
And fancy I’ve been telling Tales,
Though she is yet, I dare be sworn,
As blameless as the Babe unborn;
Perhaps, to be forbid may tempt one,
To wish for what one never dreamt on.
I’ll carry no such Message home,
To cause my Master’s Cuckoldom.
Thus fearful of foreseen Disaster,
And much discreeter than his Master,
Resolved full sagely, back he came,
And frighted heartily the Dame,
Who thought her Lord had come to Harm,
And broke, at least, a Leg or Arm;
For John made Twenty Hum’s and Ha’s,
When questioned what the Matter was.
He was not like your Servants now,
But of Invention dull and slow;
He could not hammer out a Lie,
The Lady stood impatient by.
What ails your Master? – Tell me quick.
He begs you would not – Can't you speak?
Not ride the Mastiff till you see him;
What! Does the Fellow rave or dream?
You are not sure ‘twas all he said,
Yes, indeed, Madam – Is he Mad?
Not ride the Mastiff! What a Whim?
Who ever thought of riding him?
Go back again from me, and pray,
Desire he’d let you with him stay,
Or find some wiser Message, John,
Hereafter to employ you on.
He went, and Mother Nature now,
In Madam’s Breast began to glow.
She mused; but still the more she thought,
The less she found the Meaning out.
Not ride the Mastiff! Could it be
Merely to try his Sovereignty,
When from her very Wedding Day
She never was known to disobey;
There must be something in’t to make
Him send a Servant posting back.
She never heard of it before;
Perhaps the Maids might tell her more,
For Maids, or those that bear the Name,
May sometimes teach a wedded Dame.
She thought the emptiest of the Two
Would soonest blab out all she knew,
But Betty never Touzer rid,
Nor heard of any one that did.
Vexed at her asking such a Ninny,
She sends her down to call up Jenny;
Yet slyer Jenny could tell no more
Than simpler Betty did before;
But stared with all the Eyes she had,
And thought her Mistress drunk or mad.
Tho’ begged, and stormed, and begged again,
But Prayers and Threatenings were in vain;
She might as easily have fought
To sound the Bottom of a Plot;
Or, though a Woman, taken Occasion
To enquire the Secret of Free Mason,
And how, as Mystic Lodge supposes,
Duke Wharton can succeed to Moses.
No Diligence there wanting was,
Yet so deplorable her Case,
Through Servants obstinate Denial,
Nothing was left her but a Trial.
Who should the secret Fact betray?
One Word her self she would not say,
What no one saw who should reveal?
For sure the Mastiff could not tell.
Resolved at length, she calls him to her,
And shutting carefully the Door,
She clapped his Head, and stroked his Side,
(‘Twas now no more than up and ride.)
Fast by his Neck she held, and thus
Mounted her strange Bucephalus;
Nor found it difficult to get,
Without a Stirrup, to her Seat.
Tauzer, unused to be bestrode,
Groaned sorely at the wicked Load,
And strove all Ways to disencumber,
His burthened Shoulders of their Lumber;
Reared, and curvetted, and in fume,
Trotted, and galloped round the Room.
But she, who now, or never thought,
To find her Husband’s Meaning out,
Firm, though without a Saddle, sat,
And clung as closely as a Cat.
But Fortune often spoils the Course,
Whether we ride on Dog or Horse,
Under a Table crept her Steed,
Threw her, and broke her addle Head.
Enraged, and surly, up she got,
Railed at her Husband for a Sot;
When he returned she kept her State,
Not stirred to meet him at the Gate.
Up Stairs he went, and found her Ill,
Silent, she frowned, and sullen still,
But could not Scolding long refrain,
Or take it in poetic Strain,
At length the Cloud that lowring hung
Burst into Thunder of her Tongue,
Like Lightnings flash her Eye appears,
And Rain fell plenteous in her Tears.
See – What you made the Mastiff do!
Did ever any Man but you –
And on she went, but there’s no need
Of punctual telling all she said,
An extract may suffice – The Dame
Full on her Husband turned the Blame.
Stark, staring Mad, he, to forbid it!
She, a poor Innocent, that did it!
The Man, who knew not what was done,
Ran down amazed, and fell on John.
Sirrah! What makes your Mistress rave?
What was the Message that you gave;
To break my Wife’s Head? John replied,
I bid her not the Mastiff ride.
The Master furious began to look,
John begged one Word before he struck.
Sir, had I charged her in your Name,
To shun the Captain till you came,
Doubtless the Case had been the fame.
Her Forehead broke your Brow secures,
Or else the Knobs had been on yours.