The Mad Hatter

Christopher Hill introduces Roger Crab, former Cromwellian soldier and hatter of Chesham, who took literally the text: “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Vegetarian, teetotal, celibate, he led the life of a hermit. This is the first of two studies in 17th-century eccentricity.

Sober as a judge, drunk as a lord, black as a sweep: all these proverbial expressions are self-explanatory, since they describe a condition that is naturally incident to the occupation in question. But why mad as a hatter? No obvious reason suggests itself why this trade should render men especially liable to insanity. The answer appears to be that the proverbial madness of hatters derives from one particularly notorious example, Roger Crab, hatter at Chesham in the mid-seventeenth century.

Crab studied his New Testament carefully, and came across the words “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Crab was not a rich young man, but he wanted to be perfect. So he sold all he had, and gave it to the poor. Naturally, all good Christians thought him mad. If the text extended to us, Crab pictured the rich saying, “it would make the poor richer than ourselves.” They would rather deny Scripture than part from their riches.

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