Thursday, July 29, 2010

Early Modern Signatures and a Dolphin

I cropped these flamboyant signatures out of a few seventeenth century documents I recently photographed. I love the little Celtic knot glyphs that tended to follow the last letter of one's name in this period -- one of many beautiful things that got lost in modernity's push toward minimalism!


And as a bonus, here's a drawing of a dolphin from the 1660s:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Japanese Ethnographic Portraits of South Americans, 1720

 I was surprised to find that these images exist, but I'm glad they do. Apparently produced as part of a visual ethnography of the world's cultures written by a Japanese interpreter for the Dutch merchant community in Nagasaki named Nishikawa Joken, they depict "people from each of the 42 barbarian countries outside of Japan." (My main source for this information, and the images themselves, comes from the wonderful database of early American images maintained by the John Carter Brown library.)

Alas, I have only found two of the forty two online, but those two are quite fascinating. The first appears to depict two South American Indians, perhaps Amazonian judging by their dress, while the second portrays a "Native American Patagonian giant." I would be fascinated to learn what the accompanying Japanese text has to say about these and other New World cultures. If anyone reading this has any further information, please contact me!

"Two South American Indians" in Nishikawa Joken, Shijûni-koku Jinbutsu zusetsu (Kyoto, 1720). Xylograph print on paper with hand coloring, 31.1 x 18.2 cm.

"Patagonian Giant" in Nishikawa Joken, Shijûni-koku Jinbutsu zusetsu (Kyoto, 1720). Xylograph print on paper with hand coloring, 31.1 x 18.2 cm. 

I have yet to read this particular work, but according to the JCB's online catalog entry the great historian Charles Boxer touches upon these images in his work Jan Compagnie in Japan, 1600-1850, pg. 18-19. A cursory Google search of Joken's name also turns up this interesting-looking recent essay on Merchants and Society in Tokugawa Japan by Charles D. Sheldon.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Scurvy, Shipwreck and Spaniards in the West Indies

Today I read an interesting manuscript held by the British Library entitled "A Voyage to Guinea,  1714-15" (shelfmark: Add Ms. 39946). The work is anonymous, but some clues on the final page and a mailing address tell us that the author probably wrote it in Jamaica around 1726 and then sent it to his sister in Leicester, England. What follows is a short synopsis of its contents and some extracts from the author's detailed descriptions of daily life in early eighteenth century Cuba.

The manuscript's author appears to have been reasonably well-educated since he writes with a good cursive hand and speaks Latin, but his memoirs begin with him serving as a common crew-member on a slave ship off the Calabar Coast of West Africa. After an appalling description of the horrors of the Middle Passage (including some gruesome passages involving feeding dead slaves to sharks, discussed in this essay), we next find the author penniless in the West Indies, where he enlists on a merchant vessel to harvest logwood along the Gulf of Mexico. Here he promptly falls deathly ill with scurvy and seeks aid from a frontier doctor who treats the local loggers (quasi-piratical outlaws known as “Baymen”). This doctor convinces the author to journey with him to Jamaica to get medicine and provisions, but their ship soon runs out of food and water and begins to sink. The small crew of six men jump ship and wash up on a nearby desert island where they are sustained by raccoon meat obtained thanks to the hunting prowess of a “Spaniel Bitch, which one of the men brought of the Bay of Compeachy with him." After ten days the crew decides to attempt the passage to Cuba. While floating off the coast of the island they are boarded by some local sea ruffians who seize their belongings but give them food and portage to a local village, where they’re taken to “one Don Diego Ruez, who was Secretary of the Town."

Van der Aa's map of the Caribbean (Leiden, 1707)
Detail showing shipwreck.


It is at this point that the author's tone changes from a rather matter-of-fact catalogue of his travels to a richly detailed account of daily life in early eighteenth century Cuba, with particular attention paid to religious matters. Here the author describes a boisterous Christmas celebration, December, 1715:
On Christmas day in the morning I went to Church, but could hardly hear any thing of the Mass for the noise of Drums, Trumpets and other Musick, at the end of every prayer, there was a Volley of Muskets, and Chambers fir’d in the Church-Yard. At night I went again, when the Devotion for the day was over, and found the great Altar-table all set with little Images of clay, representing some people of the Town, some were deform’d, others in obscene postures, and every one had a piece of paper tied to it, to distinguish his Character; this was a great diversion to the Mob. After this there was a kind of farce acted, representing a Battle betwixt St Michael and the Devil; the two Champions began with verbal expostulations, and afterwards came to a furious attack with their Swords, till the Victory seem’d doubtful for a good while, till Michael with a bit of fire at the end of his flaiming Sword, touch’d a parcel of Crackers that were tied to the Devil’s back-side, and made him glad to run out of the Church under the cover of fire and smoke. I my self once bore a part in one of their Drolleries by the perswasion of the Secretary.
Based on his experiences in this small town and a later stay in Havana, the author offers an account of "the Character of the Spanyard" with many interesting details mingled with the national steretypes:
The Spaniards as to their temper are generally Proud, and Reserv’d, valuing themselves much on the reputation of their country. They represent the Kingdom of Spain as a large Cow, and all other nations as so many calves sucking her; this alludes to the Silver, and gold of the West Indies, which furnishes a great part of the World…
The Women seem to be little akin to the Men, for as the men are stiff and Reserv’d, the women are Gay, and Pleasant and much more free and communicative in their conversation…
They drink Chocolate four or five times a day, of which they have two sorts, the best is call’d Regalo, which is pure Chocolate; the other is call’d Chocolata de Maiz, which is mix’d up with Indian Corn, and is us’d by the ordinary people...
Musick is in great vogue among them, and singing in Consort with it; their chief Instruments are the Harp and Guitar, which one may hear in most houses about Sun-set.
The work of the historian Marcus Rediker offers a fuller account of both this particular text and of the world it describes than I can offer here -- see especially his The Slave Ship: A Human History and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 - 1750.

More extracts from my recent archival research to follow in the next few days!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Witchcraft and Magic Images from the Wellcome Library

The Wellcome Image Collection is one of the best digitized archives of rare, unusual and old images I've found on the internet. Here's a selection of images relating to magic, witchcraft and sorcery.

A figure holds a scythe as winged creatures fly above him, three figures approach on a horse, and another figure approaches from the left with a scroll. Woodcut, ca. 1700-1720.

 A perturbed young woman fast asleep with a devil sitting on her chest; symbolizing her nightmare. Stipple engraving by J.P. Simon, 1810, after himself.

 A witch. Oil painting. Eighteenth century?

Witchcraft and magic: a man conducting magic rites, devils and a ghost appearing, and a hunter cowering in terror. Coloured engraving. Looks like its from c. 1820. And perhaps the top left corner is referencing the scary owl creatures in Goya's famous "El sueño de la razon..." aquatint?


Malayan black magic (Ilmu Sihir) charm intended to curse its recipient with a fatal illness. The Arabic letters surrounding the human figure are incantations and spells written in the language of Djinns and Syaitan (demonic spirits). 19th Century

 A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Etching by J. van de Velde II, 1626. Note the strange creature in the foreground smoking a tobacco pipe, and the one in the back sporting two!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Drug Merchant in Seventeenth Century London

John Jacob Berlu's wonderfully titled The Treasury of Drugs Unlock'd (London, 1690) is a rare book, and I can find very little information on either the work itself or the author, who was apparently a London merchant of drugs, spices and other exotic commodities. I took the opportunity to look at the copy in the British Library and found the following.

Title page of the first edition.

The book is essentially an encyclopedia or almanac of medicinal drugs, with around two hundred entries arranged in alphabetical order. Its important to remember that Berlu's concept of what the word 'drug' meant and our own differ considerably -- merely witness the fact that pine nuts, pistachios, "white sugar candy" and iron shavings, among others, are included in Berlu's list of drugs used by physicians and apothecaries alongside familiar names like cannabis, opium and coffee.

Extracted here are a few of the more engaging entries. I'm especially fascinated/appalled by the three entries on the trade in edible human remains!

Ambra Grisea… it is of a most fragrant, pleasant smell, clear from any dross… running a hot Needle slightly into it, there will issue out a Fatness of a fragrant scent; ‘tis brought from the East and West Indies (viz. Bermoodos, &c.) and sometimes tis found in near parts adjacent… (6)

Adeps Hominis. The Fat of Man is gathered from those parts of Men, as Suet is made of other Creatures, and Hogs Lard from Hogs, of which the sweetest and cleanest is to be preferred. (2).

Bang. Is an Herb which comes from Bantam in the East Indies, of an Infatuating quality and pernicious use (18).

Cranium Humanum. The Scull of a Man ought to be of such an one which dieth a violent Death, (as War, or criminal Execution) and never buried: Therefore, those of Ireland are here best esteemed, being very clean and white, and often covered over with Moss (35).

Mumia. The Arabian Mumia, is a Liquor sweating out of dead Bodies, being Imbalmed with Aloes, Myrrh and Balsom, &c. wrapped up in Cere-cloths: Sometimes whole Bodies may be seen, with Hands, Legs and Toes, perfectly intire, being of a black colour: And that Mumia which is most gummy or bituminous, is best esteemed. ‘Tis brought from Chio and Egypt (83).

Pretty macabre stuff! As an aside, I love the fact that Berlu advises his reader to seek out skulls of "one which dieth a violent Death" in Ireland.

But Berlu had a good cause in mind when advising his readers where to find oily mummies, moss covered skulls, cannabis and "Fat of Man," among other desirable goods. I sign off today's post with a quote from his prologue, which contains some interesting hints of the travails of a drug merchant in seventeenth century London:
Courteous and Benevolent READER. Certainly nothing can promote Trade more than for Men to learn and understand those Commodities and Merchandizes; they do intend to Trade in; which gives me hopes that this Treatise will be kindly accepted of, and that those of the Trade of Druggist will be more Ingenuous than that Popish Tenet, to keep the People in Ignorance. The Price Currant which is weekly published of Drugs, may prejudice, this cannot: For the more Men understand the goodness of a Commodity, the more value they will set upon it.
    To avoid also those dangers (of prohibited Goods) by which I have been (as it were) shipwracked, you will easily discern the places of growth, being mentioned almost to every Commodity, and thereby avoid those Rocks and Perils by which I have fore-gone a good estale. Vale. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Image of the Week 4: Elizabethan Shipwreck "Poesy Ring"

I recently came across this image while browsing through the website for an exhibition entitled "Lost at Sea: the Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750" that is currently being held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

This artifact is one of those things that makes me love history -- an object infused with meaning, but also with mystery, since we can know so little about the events that led to its creation. All we can tell from the available evidence is that this is a memorial keepsake ring apparently made to commemorate a loved one who lost his life at sea. According to the Folger Library's website,
The short verse or “poesy” inscribed inside the band reads, “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”  The lines focus on the dead man’s past; the skeletal image and initials “R.C.” represent the missing corpse’s present; and the gold gestures toward a heavenly future.
Memorial poesy ring. Ring in memory of one who went to sea. Gold, rock crystal and textile, 1592. Shelfmark H-P Reliques no. 9 Art Vault B8b.

Such keepsakes are among my favorite artifacts from the early modern period -- they seem to encapsulate the preoccupations and personal thoughts of individual people better than anything else. Another one of my favorites is this surreal and moving c. 1600 miniature of an unidentified nobleman wreathed in flames of hellfire, thought to be from the workshop of Isaac Oliver:
Isaac Oliver?  Man against a background of flames, British, c. 1600

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oddities from the Royal Society

I have no coherent post to make today, but I wanted to share some of the miscellaneous things I've found so far in my research -- the sort of stuff that would never make it into a finished paper, but which you still bother to write down because its funny or interesting or both. The early archives of the Royal Society, especially the stretch between 1660 and around 1740 when that august institution was headed by the likes of Isaac Newton and Hans Sloane, are a real gold mine for this sort of thing.

Near the end of Volume 5 of a series entitled "Royal Society Domestic Mss," for instance, can be found a fascinating collection of paper scraps that are apparently memoranda from members of the Royal Society proposing that their colleagues  conduct various experiments. Many of the proposals were sensible sounding ideas having to do with the measurement of the weight of air or the refraction of light, the observation of little known species, etc. But others strike the modern eye as positively bizarre. Some samples:

Desiderata recommended to the Earle of Argile.

To make inquiry after the Gyant child in
Scotland : whether it be yet alive, and if so,
How it thriveth?    Apr. 27 1664
Recommended to Dr. Croon
1. The history of Hatmaking
...
6. To send Water into the East-indies, to see whether at the returne it will yield an inflamable spirit.
7. to procure… an embalmed body of one of the Guancos of the Canary Islands.

10. To try a way of softening stool, and hardening it again, to give an account of it to the Society.

13. To stain Linnen with several sorts of staining fruit, to see whether the stans do wash out the next year, at the time of the blossoming of such fruit…
Experiments recommended to Sir George Ent.[?]

1.    to torment one with Sympathy powder.
2.    To dissect an Oyster.
This last request "to torment one with Sympathy powder" seems to me like a joke at the expense of Sir George, but one can never really tell -- so many things are lost in translation when we try to understand the past.

 An early Royal Society manuscript describing Newton's famous (possibly apocryphal) encounter with an apple.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nature Poetry by a Seventeenth Century Apothecary [February 2011 Update]

A bust of the famed physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane.
I spent the day doing some desultory browsing of the British Library's  Sloane manuscript collection, and while it yielded little that I can actually use in my research, I did come across these poems.  Apparently written by one of Sir Hans Sloane's colleagues, the London apothecary and Royal Society fellow James Petiver (1663-1718), they appear in the midst of some memoranda on the natural history of the 'Indies' (Sloane 4020). A few are written on tiny scraps, as if they occurred to the author on the spur of the moment and he jotted them down on whatever he had at hand. Great poetry they're certainly not -- but I was charmed by them. At certain moments, such as in the final lines of "On the sealed tortoise," Petiver's attention to the tiny details of nature and his cynical tone even remind me a bit of Emily Dickinson. Other lines, such as his dark injunction to avoid "pine apples" because they "the Bloody-Flux produce," are a bit less elevated. Here's a selection: 
On the Indian serpent gecco
Such deadly poyson lyes within
This seagreene Lizards specled skin
That with more revengefull spite
It kills beyond our Acconite [?]
The divellish Indian knowes its force
& by it kills without remorse
Against their dartes dipt in this juice
There are noe Antidotes of use
The cursed Bassilisk which kills
By looks: to this in venome yeelds.

Of the swallow nestes which are eaten for a dainty in the Indyies
And why poore Progie[?] doest thou seeke
In such high cliffs & Rockes so steepe
To build thy nest - think’st thou thereby
To avoyde the Indians Luxury?
Noe noe: They’le haunt you out & eate
Your nests (because such dainty meate).

Of the China Cornill
This China Cornill cures outright
The fluxes, Red, Yellow & White
A[nd] thousands at their latest Breath
Hath releved from the Jawes of Death.

 On the sealed Tortoise
What Indian Monster’s this that dwells
Under a roof all thacked with shells
Both flesh and fish he is & preys
Now on the Land, now on the Seas
Thus doe the Parasites at Courte
Turn fish or Flesh of any sort
& as things there doe change their State
So they themselves Transpeciate.

Of the Pine Apple
Doe not yr Palates much provoke
With this sweete Indian Artichoke
Nor with their lushious strawberyes
For in them all their venome lyes.
By which lethiferous fatall juice
They will the Bloody-Flux produce.

Of Indian Vervine
The Indians say this Plant agrees
With ours in all its qualities
Our European old wives say
This herb is sacred: so say they
And both their dotages agree
It drives away all witchery
Who in yt Clime would think should grow
With it, the same opinion too.

February 2011 update: I know of no contemporary portraits of Petiver, but his more illustrious colleague Sir Hans Sloane (pictured above) gained a great deal of fame in his long and eventful lifetime. In addition to amassing the collections that would metamorphose into both the British Museum and British Library, Sloane won fame for his travelogue and natural history compendium of the West Indies, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St. Christophers and Jamaica (London, 1707 and 1725) -- better known as the Natural History of Jamaica -- and his popular recipe for "drinking chocolate," which was still considered a medicinal remedy in the 18th century:


Those wishing to learn more about Petiver, Sloane and natural history should check out two excellent academic journal articles by historian colleagues: James Delbourgo's "'Exceeding the Age in Every Thing': Placing Sloane's Objects" (available here) and Anna Winterbottom's "Producing and using the Historical Relation of Ceylon: Robert Knox, the East India Company and the Royal Society" (here). Also, many thanks to Anna for sharing some more extracts from Petiver's poetry below!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Images from the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts

I leave today for three weeks of research in the UK. In preparation I've been poking around the British Library's online catalogs, and found that they have apparently digitized sample images from all of their illuminated manuscripts. Below are a few of the more interesting:

Randle Holme, John Holme,"Man in Profile,"  Sketchbook and household ledger. England, N. W. (Chester); c. 1688-1692


Anon., Discourse on Geomancy Dedicated to King James II, England, c. 1685.

 Anon. Seven Emblems, France, late 17th c.

 Anon. Allegorical Designs Relating to Political Events in the Reigns of King James I and Charles I. England, c. 1628.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Image of the Week 3: "Cats Forming the Characters for 'Catfish'"

Today's image is a surreal print by one of the last great masters of traditional Japanese woodblock printing, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). An assemblage of black and white, tan and calico cats, looking quite content with themselves, float in an abstract color field of steel gray, cream and blue, their twisting bodies forming an approximation of the Japanese character for 'catfish.' I have no idea what the historical background for this image is, but I really like it.

A couple of others by the same artist:


"Scribbling on the Storehouse Wall," seemingly an attempt to memorialize graffiti and the public doodles of strangers in a print.


"Cats Suggested as the Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido," an even more elaborate depictions of cats that playfully alludes to Hiroshige's famous print series.
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