steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Goodbye to Grey

Niger: [The daughters of Niger] were the first form'd dames of earth,
And in whose sparkling and refulgent eyes,
The glorious sun did still delight to rise ;
Though he, the best judge, and most formal cause
Of all dames beauties, in their firm hues, draws
Signs of his fervent'st love ; and thereby shows
That in their black, the perfect'st beauty grows ;
Since the fixt color of their curled hair,
Which is the highest grace of dames most fair,
No cares, no age can change ; or there display
The fearful tincture of abhorred gray...

So wrote Ben Jonson in The Masque of Blackness (1605). That last line has always bugged me, though. Did Jonson really believe that black women never went grey? If so, where did he get that idea? If not, why did he have Niger say it?

Pliny the Elder would normally be suspect number one for the first question, but it's hard to believe that Pliny, living in such a multi-ethnic society as first-century Rome, would be unaware that African women do indeed turn grey. The same would surely be true for most ancient writers of the kind that a Renaissance autodidact might believe in preference to his own eyes.

What had those eyes actually seen? Jacobean London wasn't exactly devoid of black people - though I wonder whether many of them were women of middle-age and older. The fashion for black pages would tend to skew the population towards youth; while foreign merchants would be overwhelmingly male. Maybe Jonson had never seen a black woman over thirty-five? Or maybe hair-dye or head coverings were in common use, which would have hidden the evidence? Either way, I've never come across anyone else stating the same belief, either before or since.
Tags: books
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