A priest’s hilarious diary reveals how rowdy London’s theatres were in the 1700s

Karl Philipp Moritz
A portrait of Karl Philipp Moritz

In the late 1700s, a young German priest and self-confessed Anglophile called Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) fulfilled an ambition to go travelling around England. The product of that trip is an incredible diary Journeys of a German in England in 1782, though the translated edition in English is called, somewhat less pithily, Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend.

Moritz offers an incredible window into English social history, detailing his encounters will people from both low and high society, in all sorts of scenarios, from cooking toast over the fire in a tavern to being shown around the university buildings in Oxford. He encounters a lot of friendliness, particularly in London, but as he travels out to the country, he experiences a lot of anti-German xenophobia, which taints his love for England.

One of the most memorable passages in the diary – and there are many – is his description of how rowdy London’s theatres were in their Georgian heyday. So here it is below. (If you want to read Moritz’s diary, Project Gutenberg turned it into an ebook and there’s even a free version for the Kindle.)

The Theatre in the Haymarket.

Last week I went twice to an English play-house…For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom.

Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside,
with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one.

Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

This is the oldest love poem in the world and it’s kind of beautiful

A cuneiform tablet from the ancient Middle East. (BabelStone/Wikimedia Commons)

Around four millennia ago, one of our lovestruck ancestors in the heat of the Mesopotamian desert grabbed their stylus and a clay tablet and got etching what would become the oldest known love poem in the world.

The ancient tablet was only discovered at the end of the 19th century by archaeologists digging in Nippur, southern Iraq – formerly Sumer in southern Mesopotamia – an area rich with history. And they did what archaeologists often do with the treasures of antiquity – slapped a reference number on it and stuck it in a museum drawer.

That reference number became the beautiful poem’s unseemly adopted name: “Istanbul #2461”. Its full title is actually The Love Song for Shu-Sin. But this was undiscovered for over seventy years because it was just sitting in storage. Nobody had got around to decoding its text.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the archaeologists who found the tablet took it to the Istanbul Museum in Turkey and locked away for decades until it was dug out again in 1951 by the famous Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer.

Kramer finally translated the mysterious cuneiform tablet to reveal the stunning truth about its origins and what it says.

The locals, Ancient Sumerians, were the first people to use a written language. They developed a system where symbols represented spoken sounds. These symbols were written into wet clay tablets using a stylus and the system is called cuneiform.

Nobody knows who wrote the poem. There are no other records of it, and no signature at the bottom to say who the poet was. But the Sumerian King Shu-Sin ruled around four thousand years ago.

Shu-Sin was king of Sumer and Akkad. He reigned under the Ur III dynasty and is known for building a large fortified wall between two rivers – the Euphrates and the Tigris – to stop violent nomadic groups attacking the cities under his control.

In his 1956 book History Begins at Sumer, Kramer recounts his discovery of the tablet.

While working in the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient as Fulbright Research Professor—it was toward the end of 1951—I came upon a little tablet with the museum number 2461. For weeks I had been studying, more or less cursorily, drawerful after drawerful of still uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary tablets, in order to identify each piece and, if possible, assign it to the composition to which it belonged. All this was spadework preparatory to the selection, for copying, of those pieces which were most significant—since it was clear that there would be no time that year to copy all of them.

The little tablet numbered 2461 was lying in one of the drawers, surrounded by a number of other pieces. When I first laid eyes on it, its most attractive feature was its state of preservation. I soon realized that I was reading a poem, divided into a number of stanzas, which celebrated beauty and love, a joyous bride and a king named Shu­-Sin (who ruled over the land of Sumer close to four thousand years ago).

As I read it again and yet again, there was no mistaking its content. What I held in my hand was one of the oldest love songs written down by the hand of man.

It soon became clear that this was not a secular poem, not a song of love between just “a man and a maid.” It involved a king and his selected bride, and was no doubt intended to be recited in the course of the most hallowed of ancient rites, the rite of the “sacred marriage.”

Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to ensure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb. The time­honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu­-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.


Here’s Samuel Noah Kramer‘s “tentative translation”, as he described it, of the world’s oldest known love poem.

The Love Song for Shu-Sin

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey filled,
Let us enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu­-Sin who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give me pray of your caresses.

Your place goodly as honey, pray lay (your) hand on it,
Bring (your) hand over it like a gishban-­garment,
Cup (your) hand over it like a gishban­-sikin­-garment,

It is a balbale­song of Inanna.