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The Trimming of Thomas Nashe Gentleman

by Richard Lichfield

Thomas Nashe woodcut, c.1597  This pamphlet (which gave us the picture on the left) came out in 1597, at a time when Nashe was in dire trouble with the authorities over The Isle of Dogs. The author was a barber-surgeon of Cambridge called Richard Lichfield. For some reason the college barbers at Cambridge seem to have acted as amateur humorists and entertainers, their brand of humour evidently playing a lot on false Latinisms and parodies of learned academic speech. Lichfield was considered the doyen of the breed. His performances appear to have been verbal; there's no evidence of any writing other than this pamphlet. He must have been a cross between a stand-up comic and a good after-dinner speaker.
(I have begun an etext of Lichfield's pamphlet. To see the work so far, select here.)

He didn't attack Nashe out of the blue, though. Nashe himself picked the fight by prefacing his worst assault on Harvey yet, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, with a sarcastically-respectful epistle dedicated to "olde Dick of Lichfield", and choosing him as patron for this, the most abusive (and funny) anti-Harvey pamphlet he ever produced.

Nashe's biographer Charles Nicholl feels the epistle has a curiously ambivalent tone, half-serious and half-sly, and speculates that Nashe was hoping Lichfield would join him in his Harvey-bashing, - but if he didn't, and turned out to be on Harvey's side, that didn't matter either. Nashe thrived on controversy. Since Harvey had fallen silent, he needed another opponent.

Have With You had come out around October 1596, but The Trimming is nearly twelve months later. Lichfield loftily explains his delayed reply by saying he didn't go hunting for a copy of Nashe's paltry pamphlet, but having come across one found it so tedious he considered it was perhaps not worth the bother of answering. Having belatedly decided he would reply, though, he claims to have knocked out an answer in his spare time during three weeks over Lent of 1597. The Trimming wasn't registered to be published till October however, and Lichfield twice mentions that the work has grown bigger during the time it's been delayed. Fairly obviously, just as Lichfield had been preparing to publish in summer, news had filtered through to Cambridge of the Isle of Dogs affair, and he had waited to gather fresh material from that little debacle to attack Nashe.

For what it's worth, Lichfield appears to be a more reliable source of information than Nashe himself. Nashe was an artist, and seldom let the truth stand in the way of a humorous effect. His funniest passages - Harvey's boyhood, for example - owe more to a vivid imagination than to hard fact. Lichfield grumpily complains that Nashe's comic extravaganzas are mere compulsive lying, a fault he claims to avoid himself.

It's interesting therefore that in the earlier section he states unequivocally that in spring of 1597 Nashe is in jail; he also refers in a later inserted section to Nashe fleeing from punishment after The Isle of Dogs affair blew up over late summer, (something Nashe himself confirms in Lenten Stuffe).

Nashe never does appear to have answered Lichfield. It's true of course that after mid-1597 he was involved in so many troubles he hardly had the leisure to do so. There's a comical threat in Lenten Stuffe that he's about to trounce Lichfield and his pamphlet both - "stay till Ester Terme, and then, with the answere to the Trim Tram, I will make you laugh your hearts out." - but prevented by death, he never did.

For those who would like more background on Lichfield, there's an article on him by Benjamin Griffin in Notes and Queries, March 1997.

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