The Corpse Walk: Paris, 1660

[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, …

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The Witches

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 …

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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 …

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John Evelyn meets Raymond Chandler

You could smell them before you saw them, what Raymond Chandler called “that peculiar tomcat smell,” so evocative of southern California.  I did not expect to smell them in a forest in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where I spent a week last September walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.  But there they were, …

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An Ostrich for the New Year

Aristotle had not been entirely certain that the ostrich was a bird, but it took pride of place among the birds in the Versailles menagerie and in the 1676 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.   Ostriches had first made the long journey from Africa to Paris in the early seventeenth century; the young …

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Montmor’s House

Paris, 26 November 2013 This morning I decided to find Montmor’s house.  Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor (1603-1679) was the Master of Requests for  Louis XIII and XIV, and ran a much-fabled scientific salon from his home in the 1650s and 60s.  His hôtel still stands at the edge of the Marais at 79 rue du …

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The Ghastly Kitchen

Next month, I'll be giving a talk at the International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (ICHSTM) in Manchester, UK.  I recently blogged about it on the conference blog: In 1865, the physiologist Claude Bernard described the life sciences as “a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing …

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“M. Couplet will find one”

When the anatomists at the seventeenth-century Paris Academy of Sciences wished to dissect an animal – which was often – they called on Claude-Antoine Couplet (1642-1722). Couplet was an élève (literally, a student) of the Academy, although he was hardly an adolescent.  When the Paris Observatory opened in 1672, Couplet moved in as its concierge, …

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The King’s Elephant

Last month, someone broke into the Paleontology wing of the Paris Museum of Natural History, and used a chain saw to cut off one of the tusks of the elephant skeleton there.  The skeleton dates from 1681 and is the oldest specimen at the museum.  Here is a little on the skeleton’s origins, from my …

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