“I’ll put her to her pension”: A Mad World, My Masters I.ii.66

One of the more difficult passages in Middleton’s play is the soliloquy of Harebrain (aka Shortrod) as the “pure virgin” (actually a courtesan) fetches his wife (I.ii.62-69):

This is the course I take; I’ll teach the married man
A new selected strain. I admit none
But this pure virgin to her company;
Puh, that’s enough. I’ll keep her to her stint,          65
I’ll put her to her pension;
She gets but her allowance, that’s a bare one;
Few women but have that beside their own.
Ha, ha, ha, nay, I’ll put her hard to’t.

In her comments on Peter Saccio’s text of the play in the Oxford Middleton, quoted above, Celia R. Daileader provides three notes on these lines, including this on 65:(1)

stint: an allotted amount or measure; an allowance, here sexual.

In his Oxford World Classics edition of the play, Michael Taylor gives five notes on the eight lines, including this on 66:(2)

pension: (sexual) payment for board and lodging.

Leaving aside the ‘pension’ for the moment, it seems most natural to distinguish Mistress Harebrain’s ‘stint’ (65) from her ‘allowance’ (67), taking the first as the work (sexual and otherwise) she must do to earn the latter, Taylor’s ‘board and lodging’. The rhetorical parallelism of lines 65 and 66 makes the ‘pension’ look like her work, the duty she performs, rather than the compensation she receives for it. But ‘pension’ would more naturally mean the reward, the payment for her work, in her husband’s degrading financial metaphor. Could ‘I’ll put her to her pension’ mean ‘I’ll put her to earning her pension’? Again, the parallelism makes that difficult: she isn’t earning her stint, she is doing her stint to earn her allowance, for which ‘keep her to’ and ‘put her to’ seem insufficiently differentiated.

I suggest that ‘pension’ is a corruption of a similar, rare (at least in English), and more suitable word: pensum. I put it in italics because it is not really an English word at all, but Latin. Any classically educated Englishman in Middleton’s day would have known it, since it is found in all the most-read Roman authors. The root sense is ‘thing weighed’ (neuter perfect passive participle of pendere, ‘to weigh’), but it came to mean the specific weight of wool a woman or slave was expected to weave or spin in a day, hence more generally (Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. 2) ‘An allotted piece of work, task, stint’. After ‘stint’ in 65, a synonym is precisely what we want in 66. The Shorter OED italicizes pensum in the lemma, dates it to the 18th century, and glosses ‘A duty, an allotted task. Also, a school-task or lesson to be prepared; (US) this as a punishment.’ I would add that I suspect it usually referred to a specific and constant quantity of ‘lesson to be prepared’, and was most used in Latin classes, where schoolboys would be expected to have 15 or 20 lines of Vergil or Horace parsed and scanned for every class, with more added as punishment for misbehavers. In short, a modern (or early modern) scholastic pensum is a measured piece of assigned drudgery, as for the Roman woolworker.(3)

If (as I think) Middleton wrote ‘pensum’, the scribe’s or typesetter’s ‘pension’ could be explained as substitution of a familiar for an unknown word, anticipation of ‘allowance’, or a bit of each.

Should we backdate the word in the OED? That is a very difficult question: I don’t see any clear criterion for deciding when a Latin word has become sufficiently naturalized to count as an English word and be listed in an English dictionary.

(1) Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino, Oxford, 2007.

(2) Thomas Middleton: ‘A Mad World My Masters’ and Other Plays, ed. Michael Taylor (1995): subtract 5 from Saccio’s line numbers to get Thomas’s.

(3) It may be worth mentioning that Schopenhauer calls life a pensum: “Das Leben ist ein Pensum zum Abarbeiten: in diesem Sinne ist defunctus ein schöner Ausdruck” (“Life is a pensum, to be worked off: in that sense ‘defunctus’ is a fine expression”), Parerga und Paralipomena: Kleine Philosophische Schriften, II § 156. Samuel Beckett seems to have been influenced by this passage: cf. Ulrich Pothast, The Metaphysical Vision: Arthur Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Art and Life and Samuel Beckett’s Own Way to Make Use of It, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 15, from which I take quotation and translation.

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