The Secret Horror of Dissection

The eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783) told his students that the practice of dissection “familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity.”(1)   A few decades  earlier, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) expressed more forcefully the “secret horror” that dissection, particularly of the human corpse, elicited in most of its practitioners.   His comments appeared in the “Description du Cabinet du Roy” (description of the Cabinet of the King), which began the third volume of Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), published in 1749.  Daubenton had studied dissection in the 1730s with François-Joseph Hunauld at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden, which housed the royal “cabinet” of natural history and anatomical specimens, including a room devoted entirely to skeletons.

Daubenton fig 1
Skeleton with rickets.  Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. I.   BNF

 

Buffon became intendant or director of the Garden in 1739, and a few years later summoned Daubenton (now qualified as a physician) from their hometown of Montbard near Dijon to help with the inventory of the collections.  Daubenton’s detailed inventory of the human remains at the Garden, which included skeletons, preserved body parts, and anatomical models in wax and other materials, occupied over half of volume III but is much less well known than the second half of Buffon’s “Histoire naturelle de l’homme” (Natural history of man, begun in volume II) that concluded the volume.  Daubenton began the section on anatomical models and waxes with this heartfelt plea for dissection, however horrific its seemed to its practitioners.  (The translation is mine, and I have kept Daubenton’s 18th-century punctuation.)

Daubenton fig viii
Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. VIII.  BNF

“Most men naturally have a secret horror for anatomical dissection: nearly all those whom I have seen enter for the first time into an anatomical theater have been seized with that kind of terror that the view of a cadaver, bloody & torn to shreds, imprints; this image of death seems to express at the same time a sensation of the most cruel pain: it is only by the force of habit that one is able to view in cold blood such hideous & terrible things: also they are only ordinarily those obligated by their status as anatomists, who study that science in dissecting the human body, others would be moved far away by the mere smell that a cadaver exhales when it is kept; that odor is even sometimes so penetrating, that the most experienced Anatomists  are affected by it to the point of succumbing to colics & other illnesses.  The difficulties that one experiences in order to have subjects on which to pursue this study, renders it as costly as it is tiresome; despite these obstacles anatomy has made very great progress in recent years, many authors have given us exact descriptions & faithful drawings of all the parts of the body: but what are these descriptions & images in comparison to the real things?  It is a shadow in place of the body.” (2)

bpt6k974923
Histoire naturelle, tome III pg. 210.  BNF

(1)William Hunter, “Introductory lecture to students” [circa 1780]. St Thomas’s Hospital, London, MS 55: 182.

(2) [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, with Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton], Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy, tome III. Paris : De l’Imprimerie Royale, 1749, p. 210

The featured image is Plate 9, Histoire Naturelle, tome III.  BNF.

The Moving Skeleton

Here’s the full version of the Slate blog post:

British Library
British Library

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).

southwark-fair-1733-1
Hogarth, Southwark Fair, 1733

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.”

OldHungerfordMarket1805
Old Hungerford Market, 1805

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.

Bishopsgate, ca. 1650
Bishopsgate, ca. 1650

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.

The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented atObjects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work…

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Animal Paris, part 1: Fagotin and his kin

This is the first post in a occasional series on animals in (mostly) early modern Paris.

29 April 2015

Last week, a US judge apparently ruled that two research chimpanzees are “legal persons” and have standing to pursue a court case against their captivity.  As the work of historian Alan Ross is revealing, non-human primates have long been human companions.  In early modern Europe, monkeys were popular pets among royalty and the aristocracy.  The French king Charles VI in the late fifteenth century kept a pet monkey, and over a century later Queen Marie de’Medici, mother of Louis XIV, kept a “sapajou” or capuchin monkey (a South American species) and a “guenon,” one of the many species of cercopithecus, an Old World monkey.  This seems to have been a popular pairing, immortalized in 1676 in this Sapajous et guenonsillustration from the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. The setting is the terrace of a chateau, with a formal, geometrical parterre in the background. If this was not the actual palace of Versailles, the image was certainly meant to evoke it, and one historian has identified Charles Perrault’s labyrinth in the background.  Among all of the animals depicted in this volume, the monkeys are the only ones shown under restraint, with a ball and chains. The chains are delicate, and the monkeys appear to be playing with the single small ball, its form echoed in the fruit another monkey holds.

Apart from serving as pets – the royal minister Mazarin also had a pet monkey, who sported the Cardinal’s specially made perfume – performing monkeys and apes were frequently seen at fairs and other spectacles.   This image from 1630 shows monkeys clowning around a sleeping man — the phrase in French is “faire des singeries,” to monkey around.

Le songe de Guillot,  1630 Gallica.fr
Le songe de Guillot, 1630 Gallica.fr

The ape Fagotin, who may have been a chimpanzee, had a large following in midcentury Paris. There were at least two of that name. The first flourished in the 1640s in the marionette show of a certain Brioché. According to one source, Brioché was the stage name of father and son puppeteers Pierre and François Datelin; according to another, it was a Gallified version of an Italian name, Briocci.  The nineteenth-century chronicler of marionettes, Charles Magnin, even claims that Briocci had some connection to his countryman Mazarin (born Mazzarino).  The sources agree that there was a father and a son, and that they gave their performances at the base of the Pont Neuf near the statue of Henri IV and also at the popular fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. Foire_saint-laurent

Fagotin, who is described as “fat as a pâté of Amiens and big as a small man,” wore an old hat with a large plume and was fully dressed.   The description comes from a little 1655 pamphlet that describes how the playwright and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55), mistaking Fagotin for a man, ran him through with his sword, much to the dismay of Brioché.  This event may have taken place in 1654.

Later in the 1650s, a second Fagotin was known as a rope-dancer or tight-rope walker. “Fagotin” became a standard name for a performing monkey; a poet in 1664 described “Les fagotins et les guenons” at the Foire Saint-Germain.  Fagotin also made appearances in works by Molière and La Fontaine.  In La Fontaine’s fable “Le cour du lion,” Fagotin and his marionettes even entertain the king.

 

 

Long Live the King

Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles
Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles

21 September 2014, Berlin

Louis XIV, who saw himself as the new Alexander the Great, adopted the lion as one of his symbols. Although he didn’t wear a lion skin on his head like Alexander, real and imaginary lions surrounded him.

Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
PM-Distribution_Map-Barbary_Lion
Historic distribution of Barbary and Asian Lions. Map by Peter Maas, http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/barbarylion.htm

The lion long pre-dated Alexander as a symbol of power and majesty. On visits to two of Berlin’s many wonderful museums, I recorded just a few examples of the many appearances of the king of beasts in antiquity.  We think of lions as animals of sub-Saharan Africa.  But two sub-species of lions existed outside that region: the Barbary lion of North Africa (Panthera leo leo),

Barbary Lion 1893
Barbary Lion 1893

now extinct in the wild, and the Asian lion (Panthera leo persica), with perhaps 250 individuals now living in India.   These are the animals we see represented in antiquity.

Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE, Pergamon Museum
Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE
Assyrian lion gate
Assyrian lion gate, Pergamon Museum
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE, Pergamon Museum
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century, Pergamon Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum