The fabulous online journal Atlas Obscura just published an article on some of my skeleton research. This is based on the talk, “The Whiteness of Bones,” that I gave a Columbia a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to Sarah Laskow. Link here.
The fabulous online journal Atlas Obscura just published an article on some of my skeleton research. This is based on the talk, “The Whiteness of Bones,” that I gave a Columbia a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to Sarah Laskow. Link here.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017
I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.
About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.
The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.
According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife. Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands. Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.
I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo. I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil. I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.
Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679. Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.
Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay. Here is one, of a jaguar. The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. Sorry I missed it!
Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola. With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678). Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna. Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s. Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).
Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.
Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.
Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso. I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist). I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.
I cannot resist this post from the National Library of Medicine’s excellent blog, Circulating Now.
By Anne Rothfeld
Les Mangeurs de Glaces, 1825
Want an intriguing dessert from the past to satisfy your present day holiday palate? Serve the syllabub: a cream-based treat, mixed with sweet wine and lemon juice, then whipped with cream until frothy, and garnished with a seasonal herb. The acids, which rise from the lemons to firm the cream, then separate from the wine, which sinks into a two-part delectable sweet course. Syllabub, wine mixed with well-whisked cream, originates from the name Sille, a wine-growing region in France known for its sweet wine, and bub, an English slang word for a bubbling drink.
Eighteenth-century English cooks whisked syllabubs into a froth then placed the mixture into a pot to separate. Next, the mixture was spooned through a fine sieve to drain, oftentimes overnight. Before serving to guests, the creamy foam was topped with a splash of…
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[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]
Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection. In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves. The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.
But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies. Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.
Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers. The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.
An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification. An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”
The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,” urban animals. But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables. Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons. Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection. Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive. And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function. These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.
Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents. The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row. In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood. Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice. Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen. The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.
From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité. Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.
On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland. Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution. Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife. According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured. Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.
The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect. Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate. We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it. But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.
He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton. In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton. He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton). Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.
In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book. As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water. After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days. Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.
Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest. He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh. “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began. The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.
The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat. The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults. “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”
Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur. The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit. One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.
The bones should not be allowed to dry too much. If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed. He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection. An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.
With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).
The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.
This review appears in The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 2 (May 2016), pp. 98-99
The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. ix + 496 pp.; figures, notes, bibliography, index; clothbound, $32.00; paperbound, $30.00; eBook, $14.99.
Like many academic historians, I have a complicated relationship with works of popular history. When I was in high school I found the works of Barbara Tuchman inspiring; now, I’m afraid to reread them because they would probably make me cringe. Yet I envy the audiences that such historians attract, and the possibility of communicating the past to a broader public.
Stacy Schiff has been a particularly prolific and successful practitioner of popular historical biography, with subjects ranging from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra. When I heard she had written a book about the Salem witch trials, I suppressed a groan—hasn’t that been done?—but after reading Jane Kamensky’s scathing review in the New York Times Book Review last fall, I felt I had to read it. There aren’t all that many popular books on my chosen era of the late seventeenth century that I could justify ignoring one.
Schiff is a skilled and descriptive writer, bringing the “crow-black” nights of the edge of wilderness, the spring mud, the bone-cracking winter cold, and the dreary, dim interiors to vivid life. Yet she also emphasizes the strangeness of 1692 New England to modern eyes. Puritanism is both mysterious and repellent; early modern knowledge of science is laughable, its medicine bizarre. Although New England Puritans, with their love of litigation, held a “hypertrophied faith in reason,” they were nonetheless utterly superstitious, with stout beliefs in omens and a healthy respect for the spirits that swirled about them (103). To them, very little happened by chance.
Schiff bases her work on prodigious research in both primary and secondary sources, as well as interviews and e-mails with well-known academic historians of early America. Her account is mostly chronological, beginning with the first accusations in early 1692 and ending with the last trials in the fall of the same year.. In between, she strings together a coherent story from disparate narratives and interpretations. She relies particularly on biographical sketches of major players: the weak Samuel Parris, from whose house the first accusations came; rigid William Stoughton, a political survivor who presided over the trials; the hot-tempered George Burroughs, accused of being the witches’ ringleader; and the slippery and ambitious Mathers—Increase, the father, and his son Cotton—who exploited the crisis for their own ends. Striking vignettes emerge: the rumbling carts that brought the accused to be hung; the sound of Giles Corey’s groans as he was “pressed” to death; the shrieks and gyrations of the accusing girls.
Yet it comes across as surprisingly flat. We are not allowed to identify with these people. Critical elements of context are missing. By 1692—seventy-two years after the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and sixty-two years after John Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts Bay—Puritans (who would not have called themselves that) were not the only religious sect in New England. Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers pop up in Schiff’s tale, but she never tells the reader who these people were or what they were doing there. In addition, the New Englanders of 1692 stood chronologically between the Puritanism of John Winthrop and the Methodist-inspired, emotion-soaked Great Awakening of the 1740s. Indeed, we can see Cotton Mather as straddling this divide, rather than as the deluded egomaniac of Schiff’s telling. What did it mean to be a “conservative” or “orthodox” Puritan in 1692? We never find out. Similarly, early modern medical practice may sound weird and disgusting to Schiff, but it followed its own logic and was not simply a morass of superstition. She seems unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of a belief system she does not understand, that is not somehow “rational.” Her discomfort emerges here and there in jolting anachronisms: the Wizard of Oz comes up several times, as does Hogwarts, and she refers to Salem as “the Lourdes of New England” (323). Cotton Mather, she says, viewed Indians and Quakers as a “colluding axis of evil” (266).
If Schiff may be said to have a hero, it is Thomas Brattle, who criticized the way the Salem trials had been run (in October 1692, when they were over). He is Schiff’s model of a future-looking, rational man. But Brattle, like his mentor, the English chemist Robert Boyle, nonetheless believed in the existence of witches and demons, a fact that Schiff glosses over. And Cotton Mather was probably one of the few men in New England who could understand Brattle’s mathematical ideas; both were fellows of the Royal Society. Yet Schiff’s enmity against Mather is such that even his later advocacy of smallpox inoculation is viewed as an extension of his belief in demons. The other colonial fellow of note was John Winthrop Jr., son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who practiced alchemy, as did Boyle.
We will never know exactly why Salem erupted in witchcraft accusations in 1692, resulting in the execution of twenty people, mostly women. Scholars have offered many potential explanations, and it’s likely that many of those hold at least some truth. Schiff tells a good story, but at the end we are no closer to understanding Salem’s inhabitants than we were at the beginning. As historians, we should aim higher.
Here’s the full version of the Slate blog post:
I’ve been reading Charles Burney’s collection of newspapers for close to two decades: first turning fragile pages in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, then dipping periodically into the many boxes of microfilm there, and now online, unfortunately behind the Gale paywall. Charles Burney (1757-1817) was an English clergyman (his sister was the novelist Fanny Burney) who systematically collected old English newspapers, that most ephemeral and perishable variety of print. His collection dates from the early seventeenth century, but its real strength is in the period after 1695, when the expiration of the Licensing Act allowed a sudden rank growth of newspapers, especially in London — dailies, weeklies, biweeklies, fortnightlies. Some historians look at the news stories, since each newspaper had its own political slant. I go for the classified ads. There are ads for lost servants, houses to let, dozens of patent medicines, books, plays, and evening auctions (“For SALE by the CANDLE”) as well as dog fights and bear-baiting. The lady who lost her purse one Friday night in 1720 may apply to a certain Jonathan Wild for its return. Wild, the notorious “thief-taker general,” ran a ring of pickpockets and then demanded a ransom for the return of the goods. He was hanged in 1725, his career documented by Henry Fielding and his body dissected by the London surgeons. His skeleton still hangs in Surgeons’ Hall (more soon on that skeleton).
Another set of bones occupied the ads in the Daily Courant for about 15 months in 1716-17. The “Moving Skeleton” announced its first appearance “To all Gentlemen, Ladies, and others, who are Lovers of Curiosities” in September 1716, during the Southwark Fair, “at the Perfumer’s next to the Half-Moon Inn.” The fair was suppressed in 1762 for attracting the wrong kind of crowd. By a “Mechanical Projection,” the skeleton emerged from an upright case with a spring-loaded door. A curtain then slowly rose to reveal a full human skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand and a dart in the other. When the hourglass ran out, the hand with the dart plunged through the air three times. The skeleton then emitted a groan “like a Dying Person.” Its jaw bone struck a bell to tell the time. When the hands lowered, the operator stuck a pipe into the jaw, and the skeleton lit it and smoked the pipe “as naturally as if Alive.” It also blew out a candle. To end the performance, the operator poked the skeleton with a stick, and the jaw dropped open, allowing the pipe to be removed. Then “the Curtain falls down in its Place, and all is over.”
This mechanical marvel made the rounds of London for the following year. In December 1716 it turned up “at the First House on the Left-Hand in Charles-Court in the Strand, near Hungerford Market.” Hungerford Market stood at the site of the present Charing Cross Station. But “the Moving Skeleton, or the Skeleton of a Man” played second fiddle to “the wonderful Machine,” “Pinchbeck’s most surprising Astronomical and Musical Clock.” Visitors to the Clock paid from 2 shillings down to sixpence for the sight; no price is listed for the Moving Skeleton, which was shown separately. However, by the next week the skeleton had earned its own description, and the two sights alternated ads for the next several weeks. Both were on display from 10 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night. While the skeleton attracted lovers of curiosities, the clock addressed “all Lovers of Art.”
Shortly after Christmas 1716, the Moving Skeleton retreated into its case once more, only to re-emerge several months later in a new location, without the Clock. At the end of April 1717, Lovers of Curiosities could once more see this sight “At the next House to Sir John Old-Castle’s, in the Field between Gray’s-Inn lane and New River-Road.” (Sir John Oldcastle, a leader of the Lollards, had been executed for heresy in 1417). No price is mentioned, and the skeleton could be seen “without hinderance of Time.” It is advertised again two weeks later and then vanishes once more.
The Moving Skeleton made a final appearance at the end of November 1717, in another newspaper, the Original Weekly Journal. It is for sale.
The ad describes its performance in detail, which “of late had given so Universal a Satisfaction to those that have seen it.” If it was the “Artificial Skeleton” described in the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer the previous October as having been “shew’d up and down the Country Fairs in England,” it may have lost some of its novelty at this point, and the 10 shillings a year it cost in maintenance may have become onerous. The owner, who remained anonymous, offered to meet prospective buyers at Poole’s Coffee House outside of Bishopsgate.
But we hear no more of the Moving Skeleton.