Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Playing Cards of the South Sea Bubble, 1720

I lay it down as a foundation, that whosoever, sailing over the South Seas... shall never fail to discover new worlds, new nations, and new inexhaustible funds of wealth and commerce, such as never were yet known to the merchants of Europe.

South Sea Bubble by Edward Matthew Ward (1846).
So much has been written about the South Sea Bubble of 1720 (see here, here, here and here) that I'm not going to reiterate the story of this huge financial collapse, which seems to be revisited and reinterpreted at each moment that the cycle of boom and bust repeats itself. Amidst all the economic analysis it is easy to loose sight of the (to me) far more interesting underlying geopolitical motive behind the stock speculation. This was the recognition that the Spanish Empire's control over the Pacific Ocean was weakening, and that other commercial powers might be able to assert themselves in this vast and largely unknown 'South' Sea -- which, Defoe proposed, should actually be the 'American Sea' because it gave access to the rich ports of Spanish America. Spanish treasure fleets and the occasional Portuguese carrack had been warily traversing this vast maritime world since the first decade of the sixteenth century, but it still held many surprises in store. Hawaii and New Zealand, for instance, were as yet unknown to Westerners, as was much of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. British observers had been aware of the potential for trade in this region since the time of Drake, and the South Sea Company represented the fulfillment of these hopes.

Famously, however, things did not work out as planned. A roughly ten-fold decrease in the price of South Sea stock between 1720 and 1721 ruined countless families and sent shockwaves through the popular culture of Western Europe. No less a personage than Isaac Newton was reported to have lost the huge sum of roughly £20,000 (millions in the US dollar of today). Perhaps apocryphally, the astronomer remarked that he could "calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men."

As I said above, historians and economists have shed a lot of ink on this subject. But the popular culture of the South Sea Bubble strikes me as less well covered. For instance, I was interested to discover that playing cards seem to have been a popular means of commemorating the financial failure. Perhaps the juxtaposition of economic catastrophe with the small-scale world of gambling was a form of sly social commentary? Below are some images of 'Bubble Cards' and other printed ephemera from the 1720-21 period.


The caption to this card, the Jack of Hearts, shows how the fortunes of the Company could impact the world of courtship:

Here's a complete set of South Sea playing cards via BibliOdyssey.
And a broadside that cleverly gathers together (we would say plagiarizes) some of the most popular images of the collapse. Note the Bubble Card posted above in the bottom left corner, for instance:

The sheer number of Bubble Cards  held by libraries to this day attests to their popularity. I suppose it is a testament to the entrepeneurial character of the age that even a disastrous financial collapse could be used to sell merchandise. And it seems fitting that this merchandise consisted of ink on paper, since so many of the schemes associated with the South Sea Bubble (and, indeed, European trading companies in general) amounted to little else.

The Scottish author Charles Mackay discussed the Bubble in his famous work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds (1841). A sample of this chapter is available online here. For more images, I highly recommend BibliOdyssey's post on the subject. The Baker Library of the Harvard University Business School has digitized a different set of South Sea Bubble cards which are viewable in their entirety here.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Res Obscura Miscellany, Part One

A medical alchemist, or 'iatrochemist,' examines a jar of urine in seventeenth-century Holland.
Well, I try to avoid posting decontextualized grab-bags of images (one of the drawbacks of Tumblr and its ilk, in my opinion), but I'm on vacation and busy with research, so this week I'm going to take the easy route and do just that. Below are some images that at one time or another I filed away as appropriate for Res Obscura, but which got lost in the shuffle for some reason or other. I've tried my best to add identifying details and short descriptions of their historical context.

A detail from Hans Memling's Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c.1485, Oil on oak panel, Strasbourg, 
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. Thanks to Morbid Anatomy for reminding me of this beautiful, haunting painting. 
I believe the scroll that Satan is holding at right reads, "There is no redemption in Hell." Frightening.
Tatars in Kazan, 1885
Temptation of Saint Anthony. Unfortunately I have no other identifying details for this bizarre work.
I suspect it hails from mid-19th century Iberia, or possibly Britain.
Jan van der Straet's illustration of Canto 34 of Dante's Inferno, circa 1585.
"Now came I (and with fear I bid my strain
Record the marvel) where the souls were all
Whelm'd underneath, transparent, as through glass...
 That emperor, who sways
The realm of sorrow, at mid breast from the ice
Stood forth..."
A remarkably vast apothecary's shop. Iberian, 18th century. Unfortunately I have no further details.
Alchemist filling wet drug jars, Italian, 17th century. Via the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Franz Christophe Janneck, Medical alchemist, oil on copper, 18th century.
Also via the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
A harrowing vision of hell, featuring monks being boiled for their sins -- a typical pictorial jab at the
much-resented clergy of the Reformation era. Portuguese, c. 1530. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Auto-da-Fé, 1495

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking... 
Eight days after they were dressed in san-benitos and their heads ornamented with paper mitres. The mitre and san-benito belonging to Candide were painted with reversed flames and with devils that had neither tails nor claws; but Pangloss’s devils had claws and tails and the flames were upright. They marched in procession thus habited and heard a very pathetic sermon, followed by fine church music. Candide was whipped in cadence while they were singing; the Biscayner, and the two men who had refused to eat bacon, were burnt; and Pangloss was hanged, though that was not the custom. 

Goya,  The Tribunal of the Inquisition (1812, detail)
The Portuguese auto da fé (or auto de fe in Spanish) was not meant strictly as a punishment - it was an "act of faith" intended to atone for the imagined sins of those prosecuted in the courts of the Inquisition via a series of religious rituals. This included a public procession, prayers, a formal reading of the legal charges leveled against the accused, and various forms of 'atonement' ranging from a mere public shaming to banishment or death. As the detail above shows, Voltaire's description, though bitterly sardonic in intent, was pretty accurate in its visual details: the penitents here are shown wearing the same tunic-like garments known as san benitos and pointed paper 'mitres' as Voltaire's hero Candide.

Pedro Berruguete, self-portrait c. 1490.
Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.
What is remarkable about this is that Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, and the painting above is from circa 1495! The remarkable longevity of the Inquisition may, I think, have something to do with the public and ritualized nature of these rites. One reoccurring feature of the early modern world, after all, is that everyone -- from children to the aged, peasants to lords -- seemed to adore watching the brutal punishment of sinners and criminals. (The continuity and apparent universality of this popular affection for public execution is just one of the many unappetizing insights into human nature afforded by the study of history).

The full painting from which I've picked out the detail above is by the Spanish painter and sculptor Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504). I had never heard of him until I came across this work on Wikipedia, but I'm quite taken by the mixture of brilliantly observed pictorial detail (the shadows are particularly beautiful) and sensitive psychological insight on display here. The complete painting is below (click to see the original image size), along with a few more details that struck me.
Pedro Berruguete, Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-da-fe, circa 1496, Prado Museum, Madrid.
Some details:
Faces in the crowd.
Phallic overtones.
Praying or asleep?
There is a huge literature on the Iberian Inquisitions which I am far from an expert in, but I can heartily recommend Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (1999) for those seeking a fresh approach to the subject. This book was one of the more mind-bending revisions I encountered as an undergraduate new to early modern history -- in essence, Kamen argues that the prosecutors of the Iberian Inquisition were actually in some respects more humane, skeptical and sensitive to the plight of the accused than the secular courts of the era. It is an interesting argument (which I'm sure I have butchered here with my half-remembered recollections) that Kamen backs up with a vast amount of archival evidence.


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