A long time ago, like many children, I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit always intrigued me. Walt Disney’s interpretation of the character, with his twitching, nervous upper lip and hoppity movements, made me laugh. As did his habit of clutching his timepiece, which I called a grandfather watch. Just like the one hanging from my grandfather’s bulging midsection.
Somehow, though, I never connected Carroll’s story with the phrase “Down the rabbit hole.”
As Kathryn Schulz wrote in a 2015 New Yorker article, “In its most purely Carrollian sense, then, to fall down a rabbit hole means to stumble into a bizarre and disorienting alternate reality.”
I certainly haven’t experienced that since a night when Mary Jane showed up at a party, and the world suddenly turned sepia on me.
Today’s popular phrase “going down the rabbit hole” describes something not really possible before the Internet. For me, the closest thing to rabbit-holing happened as I worked up a bibliography for a paper or something, checking the bibliographies of books on a specific topic, then moving from one book to another and yet another, weaving a web of references. To do that required switching from shelf to shelf in a well-stocked library. Or waiting for ILLs (interlibrary loans) to come through.
But that’s almost exactly what happened the other day. Only this time I lounged in my comfortable office chair, traveling with my eyes, darting from link to link.
A vague reference in an obscure journal to Thomas Tusser’s A hundreth good pointes of husbandrie, published in 1557 in London set off the whole thing.
So, I Googled “Thomas Tusser” and up came Professor Martha Carlin‘s page. Ah yes! A link to the full-text version of Mr. Tusser’s book, right there, digitized, on my computer’s screen. Oh, joy!
Professor Martha Carlin, a medievalist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has compiled a most remarkable resource for scholars and others. It’s actually been listed here on my own site for a while, under “Online Historical Cookbooks.” Links galore, with many, many rabbit holes to disappear into!
And away I went, charging into oblivion. Clicking here, clicking there. Reading, noting, writing, bookmarking, saving.
My eyes burning, I looked away from the screen. The light outside seemed faded more than usual. A glance at my Fitbit told me why.
I’d been engrossed for hours, reading Anthony Viscount Montgue’s A Booke of Orders and Rules of 1595, a treatise on running a large English manor house. The text makes it clear that every single move made by the people in his household followed the strictest of protocols. Status, hierarchy, and place meant everything. Even household servants followed precedence and other rigid customs. And – obviously – this way of doing things, of viewing the world and the people in it, wasn’t limited to just the Viscount. That same mindset followed the English to the New World, too, with long-reaching ramifications.
I stopped. Montague’s comments on serving meals reminded me of my own kitchen duties.
Reluctantly, I climbed out of the rabbit hole.
Did I see something white and furry scurry around the corner as I headed to my kitchen?