Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Admirable Crichton


 He knew it all

          On the assumption that my views of the Ferguson grand jury or the resignation of the Secretary of Defense would command about as much enthusiasm among my readership as those of the anointed punditocracy have stimulated in me, I shall take up the compelling subject of the Admirable Crichton.  If you have heard of the Admirable Crichton at all, which may be unlikely, it is probably in connection with J. M. Barrie’s once-famous play of that name (1903).  The Admirable Crichton is an imaginative satire on the theme of the British class system, sort of a combination of Downton Abbey and Lord of the Flies.  It is rather brilliant, but now probably hopelessly “dated”.

            Barrie’s “Crichton” is an imaginary butler in the stately home of a limousine liberal peer, the Earl of Loam; but his name alludes to an actual if shadowy historical figure of the sixteenth century, the Scotch polymath James Crichton (ca. 1560- ca. 1583).  Youthful genius too soon cut down is one of cultural history’s recurrent tragic themes.  Think of John Keats, “one whose Name was writ in Water,” dead of consumption at twenty-five.  Closer in spirit to the original Admirable Crichton, and indeed a probable biographical model, was the great Renaissance occultist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), although he made it all the way to thirty.  Pico knew everything there was to know, and so did the Admirable Crichton.  The laudatory adjective must be understood in the sense of the Latin admirabilis—that which inspires wonder, something marvelous.

            Young James came of good stock.  His mother was a Stuart of the Stuarts, and his father was for a time under the reign of Queen Mary the Lord Advocate of Scotland.  The youngster studied the trivium at Perth before going on to take a precocious baccalaureate degree at Saint Andrew’s.  At the age of eight Crichton’s eloquence in his native vernacular was compared with that of Demosthenes and Cicero.  By fifteen he knew “perfectly” Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic (presumably classical), and Syriac; and commanded native conversational fluency in Spanish, French, Italian, “Dutch”, (i.e., German, Deutsch), Flemish, and, oh, “Sclavonian”.

            That was the mere beginning of Crichton’s admirableness.  He was also a champion athlete, a horseman, a fencer, a dancer, a singer of rare voice, and the master of most known wind and string instruments.  His St. Andrews professor, Rutherford, a noted Aristotelian commentator, judged him to be one of the leading philosophers of the era.

            The cultural ties between Scotland and France were particularly strong, and it was quite natural that the adolescent Crichton, having sucked Scottish erudition dry, should move on to the College of Navarre at the University of Paris.  Here the young Scotsman cut a broad swath, though according to his jealous fellows his arenas of greatest activity were the taberna and the lupanar, rather than the lecture hall.  Young Crichton did like the ladies, who in turn found him most--admirable.

            Unfortunately our sole source for the more dramatic episodes in Crichton’s short life is Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, the mad philologist and English translator of Rabelais.  This worthy is given to exaggeration and even, perhaps, fabrication; but I reckon we can credit at least sixty percent of his testimony.   I am now in a stage of life when I know less and less about more and more.  How attractive to me seems the age of the Renaissance, when aspiration to universal and encyclopedic knowledge was at least plausible.  Crichton decided to emulate a famous feat of Pico della Mirandola’s.   He had posters printed up declaring that on a day six weeks hence, at nine in the morning, in the main hall of the College of Navarre, he intended to present himself to dispute with all comers all questions put to him regarding any subject.  He had these put up on all the appropriate notice boards and church doors, before disappearing into the red light district to prepare himself for the contest.  His adversaries had to quit laughing when on the appointed day Crichton appeared as advertised and bested the greatest local experts in grammar, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, logic, and theology.

            The Crichton Show, having conquered Paris, moved next to the Italian peninsula.  The young Scot performed memorable feats of academic disputation first in Rome and then in Venice.  There he became fast friends with the famous scholar-printer Aldus Munitius, who is a credible witness to some of his more amazing intellectual performances.  One of his specialties was the off-the-cuff invention of Latin hexameter verse suitable for any emergent occasion—Virgiian Stand-Up, so to speak.

Rigoletto: not so funny

            It is perhaps ironic that the Admirable Crichton met his death at the hands of his own tutorial pupil Vincenzo da Gonzaga, the son of the Duke of Mantua, a spoiled wastrel who was nearly his own age and perhaps also his unsuccessful rival in love.  One night during Carnival Crichton was set upon in the streets of Mantua by four masked youths.  Very Italian this, and very Renaissance: you may remember the street brawl in Romeo and Juliet.  Or you have seen Rigoletto?  With superb sword play Crichton disarmed them all and forced them to show their faces.  One of them, their leader indeed, turned out to be Vincenzo!  Thinking then that it was all a jest, Crichton surrendered his own sword to him in semi-mock obeisance.  Vincenzo, drunk and humiliated in front of his friends, took it and ran him through.  I suppose there are less noble ways of passing from this vale of tears than being killed by a jealous lover; but this brute Vincenzo was as Awful as Crichton was Admirable.  There is textual uncertainty whether the Admirable Crichton was twenty-two or thirty-two when a rapier blade went through his liver.  Either way, it seems an awful shame, and a great waste of admirabilitas.


  1. Legend-wise, whether "twenty-two or thirty-two", he had the advantage of dying young.

  2. Who dies in youth and vigour, dies the best,
    Struck thro’ with wounds, all honest on the breast.

  3. Wasn't there some more immediate Late Victorian/Edwardian source for Barrie's play? I'm away from my books, and don't remember where I might have read it, anyway. Still, I have some vague memory that there was a relatively well-known figure in that time who had a servant who was brilliantly learned and surprisingly adept—a kind of show-piece for the master to show off. Doyle uses him as a model, too, for the servant in the Sherlock Holmes's story "The Musgrave Ritual."

    1. Thanks for the note. The trope of the "servant turned master" is pretty pervasive in early drama, and then beginning with Pergolesi's "Serva Padrona" in opera as well. One of my friends wrote to me reminding me of Ainsworth's novel about Crichton (1837). There is no particular thematic link between Barrie and the "historical" Crichton, just a play on the name, I think.

  4. Of course he could know everything. The Trivium teaches a kid how to think efficiently and validly, and the Quadrivium teaches him how to apply his mind efficiently and validly to the world around him. It's cause and effect. Every time the Seven Liberal Arts are the foundation of early-childhood education, we have a renaissance.