Friday, October 24, 2014

Introducing the Res Obscura Newsletter

Hand-colored daguerrotype, c. 1850, "Three Lively Women."
After putting Res Obscura on hiatus for over a year so I could work on The Appendix, I've decided to resurrect it as an email newsletter and occasional blog. You can sign up for the weekly newsletter over here, and I'll also be posting weekly updates here which are gleaned from the newsletter's collection of links to interesting historical articles and archives. 
  1. Preventing “Monkey Business”: Fettered Apes in the Middle Ages. "A monkey destroyed a charter at the court of Robert, Duke of Burgundy in the year 1288. The chancery of the Duke had to copy some original letters of his ancestor Eudes, dated from the beginning of the 12th century, because Robert’s monkey had torn the documents." [Medieval Animal Data Network]
  2. Cooking an eighteenth-century recipe for "Italian Cheese." [Cooking in the Archives]
  3. Tramadol is fed to cattle in Cameroon to such an extent that it has soaked into root systems. "The farmers apparently take the drug themselves, at pretty high dosages, saying that it allows them to work without getting tired." [Corante]
  4. Rebecca Onion on marriage advice before feminism. "The column’s very existence in a magazine for educated women sends a powerful message. Men’s magazines – the closest parallels to the women’s service titles – don’t tend to write about marital troubles, preferring to focus on sex." [Aeon]
  5. "It sounded like we were an ancient people and that we didn’t exist anymore.” Francie Diep on how museum dioramas of American Indians can institutionalize a perception of indigenous cultures as frozen in time and defunct. [The Appendix]
  6. Over one hundred high resolution eighteenth-century images of costumes and fashions created by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur. [Wikimedia Commons]
  7. The Slaver’s Objectivity. "The Economist’s controversial review of Edward Baptist’s new book ends on a feverish crescendo of denial about the fundamentals of American slavery: that slaves were slaves and masters, masters — with all the brutality, coercion, and punishment that relationship entails. Accordingly, the publication has retracted the piece and issued an apology, but the loss of credibility will probably be lasting. The irony is that their indictment of Baptist’s exhaustive book decries its lack of objectivity. To this end, tucked away in the last paragraphs of the review is a surprising and somewhat obscure reference to Hugh Thomas’s 1997 book, The Slave Trade.[Jacobin]
  8. Sexual Curiosities?: Aphrodisiacs in Early Modern England. "Jacques Ferrand’s 1610 book on erotic melancholy argued that ‘salt things doe cause a kind of Itching or Tickling in those parts that serve for Generation.'" [Notches]
  9. The Literature of Laughing Gas. A short essay I wrote for The Paris Review about William James' delightfully unhinged nitrous oxide writings: 
    By George, nothing but othing!
    That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
    Thought much deeper than speech … !
    Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! 
  10.  What the 17th Century Can Teach Us About Vaginas by Lili Loofbourow. "Early modern England saw conception as more drawing-room drama than fantasy epic; basically, sperm are shy and retiring and likely to glumly depart unless they’re actively made to feel at home." [The Cut]
  11. The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass. "Shannon Martin, who is also Anishinabe, explains how she felt as a kid, when she saw American Indian exhibits in natural history museums: “It sounded like we were an ancient people and that we didn’t exist anymore.” [The Appendix]

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Why Does 'S' Look Like 'F'?": A Beginner's Guide to Reading Early Modern Texts

Last month, I came across a recently digitized book from 1680 with the innocuous-sounding title The School of Venus. After browsing it for a few moments, however, I realized I'd stumbled onto something truly interesting. It was a sex manual, and a rather free-spirited one at that, as the frontispiece engraving suggests:


It occurred to me that this was the sort of thing that would appeal to people outside of my specialist field of early modern history, and I began writing a blog post about it for the journal I co-edit, The Appendix.  Reading over my draft, my co-editor Chris brought up something that I'd taken for granted: like any 17th century book, the text employed what's called the 'long' or 'descending' S.

"If this has the reach I think it might," he said, "you need to explain that." I initially thought the suggestion was slightly condescending to my readers: doesn't everyone know about the old-timey S? Its right there in the first line of the Bill of Rights, after all:

Then I snapped out of it and realized that I was falling into the myopia typical of anyone who spends a long time in a specialist field. Like a biologist assuming that laypeople would know what hemoglobin is, I was forgetting that not everyone spends their days reading early modern texts. I put in an explanation of the S/F distinction, and the post got picked up by Slate and Jezebel - where a significant proportion of the comments were about how hard it was to read the old-fashioned writing.

So I write today to give an accessible overview of how to read books and manuscripts from the early modern era - what scholars call the period spanning the early Renaissance to the French, American and Industrial Revolutions. To tackle the S first: the long S dates back to the old Roman cursive handwriting, and survived as an artifact in the earliest printed book fonts, which were modeled on various medieval handwriting forms. The key thing to understand about the long S is that it occurs only in the middle of words, never at the beginning or end. Thus the title of School of Venus would not feature a long S in either its first or final letters, but words like 'Castle' or 'Lost' would appear as 'Caſtle' and 'Loſt.'

So far so good. Things get trickier, however, when we try to read the earliest books printed in English, which typically featured variants of the German blackletter font. Here's a two page spread from one of the earliest English medical texts, Thomas Elyot's The Castell of Helth (1536):


A variant of the long S is in full effect here,  but so are a number of other features that look unusual to modern readers: capital letters like 'T' or 'H' take elaborate forms, and lowercase 'd' and 'r' retain the look of Carolingian miniscule or Gothic blacklister, the handwritings of choice of medieval monks. The top of the second page is intended to help with diagnosing sexual trouble, and reads: 
                                                              Heares [i.e. hairs] none or fewe
The genitories colde and drye {     Littel apetite or none to lechery.
                                                              Littel puiſſance to do it.
And so forth. I remember being a bit taken aback the first few times I tried to read books in this font, but it ends up registering in the brain as just that: a different font, but the same alphabet. Reading early modern manuscripts (the practice of which is called 'paleography') can be a different matter, however. To start us off easy, here's a lovely script from the late 17th century written by a clerk or secretary at the Royal Society of London:

"Mr Hawksbee shewed the following Experiment, viz: Placing two small Birds in two Glasses, & exhausting the Air from one, & injecting it into the other, that Bird which was plac'd in the Glass from which the Air was withdrawn, died in about 30 seconds of time, after his beginning to take away the Air. The other Bird which remain'd in the Glass, whereinto, by the same Operation, the Air was convey'd, was affected with Convulsions, but not unto Death."  (Via the Royal Society)
The script and language here is not all that different from modern English. The key differences are in the punctuation (early modern English, like modern German, tended to capitalize proper nouns), and also in certain contractions which are unused today, like "convey'd." As a side note, I kept this snippet on hand because it contains a rare reference to an impostor named George Psalmanazar, who I just published an article about

Moving backwards in time to the early 17th century pen of none other than the great poet John Donne, we find things a little more unfamiliar:

John Donne's handwritten draft of his great poem "The Triple Fool." Via the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
Donne's 'E's are typical of his period in that they resembled reversed '3's, and his uppercase 'I' looks like an F or J. The most difficult difference in this script - or at least the one that tripped me the most when I was learning it - is the variation in the 'S' shapes. In the second line, Donne writes "saying soe" using a form with a looping tail, but in "fools," he uses something like a modern cursive lowercase s. Finally, we find in the last line a very common 17th century abbreviation: 'yt' for 'that.' What appears to be a 'y' here is actually the descendant of the obsolete Old English letter thorn (Þ), which also appears in the classic construction "Ye Olde Shoppe." (The 'Ye' would actually have been pronounced like 'the'). You can see Donne using 'Ye' there in the middle: "Then as the Earths inward narrowe lanes..." As an interesting note, this draft of the poem differs from the final version - in the print edition, Donne substituted 'crooked' for 'narrowe.'

Now lets move on to some truly difficult paleography. This is a photograph I took of a book at the John Carter Brown Library called The Sea Surgeon, or the Guinea-Mans Vade Mecum (1729). The inside flaps of this copy of the book feature some fascinating notes by an actual practicing marine surgeon who was trying out various cures for scurvy, plague and fevers found in the book. He used a handwriting that was marked by his profession, featuring a number of abbreviations that it took me some time to puzzle out. I'd say this is fairly advanced-level paleography - although I should add that compared to my colleagues who work on things like sixteenth-century French or Scottish witchcraft trials, reading this is absolute child's play. 

Inscriptions in the John Carter Brown Library's copy of John Aubrey's The Sea Surgeon (1729).
At upper right, we find the heading "Rubarb given wt. ye Bark," which is to say "Rhubarb given with the [Peruvian] Bark." (Known primarily to modern eaters for its famed pie-partnership with strawberries, rhubarb was actually a highly prized and expensive medicine in this period.) Below the heading we find a list of ingredients supplied to a sick sailor, beginning with the still-familiar "Rx" prescription symbol: "[Prescription] of Bark Peru[viana] Powder lix [59] drams." The surgeon then lists  "Salt of Wormwood, Salt of Centaury, Salt of Carduus Benedict[us], of Each Half a Dram."

Of the ingredients of this witches brew, the most familiar to modern readers is probably wormwood, the possibly intoxicating herb which makes absinthe so infamous. There's a good amount of shorthand being used here, of the sort that a doctor or apothecary would use in jotting notes to others in the field. But in fact this is a fairly easy to read example of how early modern apothecaries wrote - I've seen much, much worse, and there are countless pages of documents which even after five years of training, I'm still unable to read. With practice and patience, though, virtually anything is readable

At any rate, I hope this brief and idiosyncratic overview to reading early modern texts has been helpful, and above all, I hope it spurs some further interest in the fascinating works out there, waiting for readers. Not everything from the 17th and 18th centuries is as immediately engaging as The School of Venus, but there are a lot of untapped riches out there

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism

18th century container for medicinal mummy, Germany. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the first Res Obscura post after another rather lengthy break, but I plan to start updating more regularly in the new year. I've cannibalized portions of this post from a piece I wrote for the new online journal I helped co-found, The Appendix, the other week: "Ravens-Scull & a Handfull of Fennel."

I spent much of the past year in Lisbon, Portugal, researching the development of the global trade in medicinal drugs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While there, I was struck by how extraordinarily different Portuguese pharmacies appeared from their United States counterparts. To be sure, many bore definite similarities to the type of American pharmacies I grew up regarding as normal: modern-looking edifices bathed in fluorescent light and painted a sterile white designed to set off the colorful packaging of the drugs for sale.

Others, however, (like the Farmácia Andrade, which I walked by nearly every day) looked more like this well-preserved pharmacy in Stockholm:
The Apoteket Storken (Stork Pharmacy) in Stockholm, Sweden, 2009, All images via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.
What is striking about these displays is how pre-modern they are. The same basic design (ceramic jars of herbs, minerals and animal products lined on wooden shelves along with the occasional specimen of exotica) can be seen in engravings and paintings from the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries:
Pietro Longhi, The Apothecary, Italian, 1752. 
An apothecary shop as depicted in Wolfgang Helmhard Hohberg, Georgica curiosa aucta (Nuremberg: 1697).
Yet what did these jars actually contain? Are there links beyond the purely aesthetic between early modern drugs and their modern counterparts? Trying to actually learn the craft of early modern pharmacy is a difficult process: the apothecary was a member of a guild who held closely-guarded secrets, and apothecary manuals were frequently written in Latin and employed a host of specialist symbols and words like "drachm" and "scruple."

To make matters even more difficult, early modern drug lore predated the widespread adoption of Linnaean classification, so a plant called "Dragon's blood" in Italian might be totally different from a plant with the same name in English. What emerges when one overcomes these various obstacles and actually gets to the bottom of what was being prescribed, however, is a fascinating picture. It turns out early modern Europeans were prescribing some very familiar items -- things found in herb teas sold in grocery stores today, like chamomile, fennel, licorice, and cardamom -- alongside some utterly bizarre ones, like powdered crab's eyes, Egyptian mummies, and human skull, or "cranium humanum."

Late 17th or early 18th century medicine jars that once contained human fat -- one of several gruesome "cannibal medicine" remedies now forgotten by all except collectors of antique jars and historians of early modern medicine.
In the sister post to this one, on The Appendix's blog, I listed a few intriguing medical recipes for things like "Snaill water" that I found in archives in Portugal and Philadelphia -- you can read them here. But while I was revisiting these sources today, I was struck by the degree to which they take for granted something that I suspect most people in the contemporary world would find revolting: the consumption of human bodies as medicinal drugs.

As the picture above hints, substances like human fat or powdered mummy were once so common that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of antique ceramic jars purpose-built to contain them still exist in antique shops, museums and private collections. This is no secret, but it remains more or less the domain of specialists in early modern history and (judging by the reactions of friends and dinner guests I have broached the subject with!) appears to not be widely known to the general public.

One good popular resource on the subject is this May 2012 Smithsonian article by Maria Dolan, which quotes the authors of two recent academic works on the subject: Louise Noble's Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture and Richard Sugg's Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. As the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, it was a relatively common sight in early modern France and Germany to witness relatives of sick people collecting blood from recently executed criminals to use in medical preparations:
"The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade... 
[T]hese medicines may have been incidentally helpful—even though they worked by magical thinking, one more clumsy search for answers to the question of how to treat ailments at a time when even the circulation of blood was not yet understood. However, consuming human remains fit with the leading medical theories of the day. “It emerged from homeopathic ideas,” says Noble. “It’s 'like cures like.' So you eat ground-up skull for pains in the head.” Or drink blood for diseases of the blood. 
What is striking to me about such stories is not that merely that they occured -- there are lots of similar oddities in the history of science and medicine -- but that they appear to have been so strikingly commonplace.

Monrava y Roca, Breve curso de nueva
cirurgia,
(Lisbon, 1728). An interesting
engraving illustrating a physician's
medicine chest containing "mumia." 
 In my own research I've probably come across dozens of references to eating human remains at this point, and they're all delivered in a matter-of-fact, almost laconic tone. It is interesting to reflect that this was precisely the era -- the 16th through 18th centuries -- when Europeans were virtually obsessed with the supposed cruelties of cannibalism in a New World that was thought to be ruled by Satan. It seems to me that Montaigne was (characteristically) alone in noting this irony, in his famously brilliant essay "On Cannibals":
I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts [of cannibalism by indigenous Americans], but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.
Even here, though, Montaigne was equating New World cannibalism with the inhumane cruelty of the French Wars of Religion -- which involved extensive torture of civilians and atrocities like the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre -- and not with the medicinal cannibalism that was going on all around him. Strangely, even the shrewd and gifted Montaigne seems to miss the obvious equivalences to be drawn between ritualistic cannibalism of the sort practiced in Mesoamerica and early modern European's consumption of human bodies as part of their medical beliefs, which were intimately tied up with religious and astrological theories of the body.

In such discussions, the specificity of what medicinal cannibalism entailed often gets lost. So I wanted to close by transcribing some "recipes" for early modern medicinal drug preparations that include humans. The following is from a 1676 manuscript called "Viridiarum Regale" that I consulted at the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. I'd like to thank the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and the Rare Books staff at the Van Pelt for making this research possible. This manuscript is written in a combination of Latin and Italian, which I've translated sloppily. The anonymous author promises his reader a list of "simple remedies gathered from diverse and celebrated authorities," but on page 591 we encounter a gruesome remedy that is anything but simple:

The regenerated mummy or microcosmic tincture: 
Take the body of a mummy with its own form and substance, whether it be a discrete limb, or the entire body, and allow this to putrefy in conserve of violets for a month, so that it becomes a mutillagenous blood. Then strain the putrefied matter and conserve this material… From this 'embrionic' mummy material you can separate a tincture.

A 1629 German edition of Croll's Basilica,
via the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 
The alchemist Oswald Crull's  Basilica chymica (1608) gets even more specific, and macabre:
Take the fresh corpse of a redhaired, uninjured, unblemished man, 24 years old and killed no more than one day before, preferably by hanging, breaking on the wheel or impaling… Leave it one day and one night in the light of the sun and the moon, then cut into strips. Sprinkle on a little powder of myrrh to prevent it from being too bitter. Steep in spirit of wine for several days. As the foulness of it causes an intolerable humidity in the stomach, it is a good idea to macerate the mummy with oil.
God knows how Croll expected his reader to successfully obtain a redhaired man of the exact age of 24 years who had died one day before. Imagining early modern physicians even attempting such a thing -- let alone prescribing the bizarre "drug" of myrrh-coated human jerky that Croll's recipe describes -- is a bit mind-boggling for me. Indeed, I wonder to what degree these recipes actually were carried out in practice -- were such elaborate descriptions of medicinal cannibalism more theoretical than practical?

The complex references to a "spiritual mummy" in the writings of Paracelsus, famously described in Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, seem to me to point to a widespread metaphorical use of "mummy" to refer not to actual human bodies but to a theory of how illness and cures operate on the body. On the other hand, it is hard to get around the material evidence from apothecary jars, and the resolutely specific and tactile descriptions of dismembering and consuming human bodies in texts like Crull and Viridiarum Regale.

As my friend Rachel Herrmann put it in her research into cannibalism and starvation in colonial Jamestown -- in the early modern era, humans truly were "the other, other white meat."

Further reading:
Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011)
Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Pallgrave, 2011)
The Chirurgeon's Apprentice on "corpse medicine in early modern England."
Rachel Herrmann, "The "tragicall historie": Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown"
Karen Gordon-Grube, "Evidence of Medicinal Cannibalism in Puritan New England"
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