Sunday, May 22, 2011

Carnivalesque 74

What follows are my selections for this month's Early Modern Carnivalesque, the seventy-fourth in an ongoing series of blog post compendia, or "carnivals," curated by the web's doyenne of early modern history, Sharon Howard. Thanks to Sharon and to all the authors of the posts cited below for making such rich stores of information freely available.

• The blog of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History presents scans from a macabre and rather hilarious rare book in its library: Le Livre sans Titre [The Book without a Title]. This 1830 work relates the "perils of self-abuse, or onanism," i.e. masturbation, but bears no title because "merely speaking the word in polite company invited rebuke in the nineteenth century," writes Jim Edmonson. It features some striking illustrations depicting the adverse health effects of "corrupting" oneself. A sample:

Before: "He was young, handsome and the hope of his mother." After: "He is corrupted! Soon
he carries the pain of his fault, old before his time... His back is bent...
• The Readex Blog presents a guest post by Elizabeth Hopwood, a graduate student in English at Northeastern, on "Avoiding Errors, Fopperies and Follies: How to be a Good Wife." This post offers extracts from a piece published in the New-England Weekly Journal in 1731 called "A Letter to a Lady on her Marriage." The author inveighs strongly against showing "the least degree of Fondness to your Husband before any Witness whatsoever, even before your nearest Relations, or the very Maids of your Chamber." PDA didn't go over well in colonial New England, it would appear.

• The wonderful Powered by Osteons blog offers up "Artifacts... in Space!" The English warship Mary Rose sank in battle with French ships in 1545. What can the bones of its sailors and the remains of the ship itself tell us about its fate? The author, Kristina Killgrove, is a biological anthropologist at UNC Chapel Hill, so she is able to offer some interesting insights in regards to the sailor's skeletal remains. A 2008 isotope analysis of the sailors' bones found that part of the crew was non-English, thus occasioning the theory that the ship "may have sunk because a language barrier among the sailors caused poor communication leading to operator error"! This strikes me as a bit of a stretch, and it seems to have been debunked by a more recent study. Killgrove also writes about the reconstruction of a sailor's face (seen at right) and the fact that a bead from the Mary Rose was recently sent into space aboard the Shuttle Endeavor. Quite a fascinating post.

• A food history blog called The Old Foodie posts about one of my favorite Englishmen of all time: the radical vegetarian and author Thomas Tryon (1634-1703). When I first stumbled upon Tryon's works in a rare books library I was amazed at how modern Tryon's advocacy of a healthy diet sounded (he loves salads and hates meat) and fascinated by the religious associations that he brought to bear in his polemics (he wrote an invented dialogue between a Frenchman and a "Brahmin" philosopher from "the Indies" advocating a form of deism). This post offers one of the best overviews of Tryon I've seen online. It also features a typically grim-sounding recipe he created: artichoke soup. The first ingredient: "blanched water." Vegan cooking has come a long way since the 1600s.

• On Not Even Past, a new website created by the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin (full disclosure - I'm the assistant editor), my friend and graduate school colleague Maria Jose Afanador Llach writes about "Naming and Picturing New World Nature: The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano." The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano, or Badianus manuscript, was the "first illustrated survey of Mexican nature produced in the New World." Fascinatingly, it was a joint product of indigenous Mesoamerican and European medical knowledge, and was produced by Nahua-speaking artisans and physicians. The illustrations (an example is posted below) are beautiful and evocative, with an eye-popping neon color scheme that varies strongly from traditional European botanical illustrations. This incredibly valuable work is currently housed in the Vatican archives.



• The Renaissance Mathematicus blog examines a mathematical text written by a painter - Albrecht Dürer, to be precise.


• Elizabeth Roberts of Brain Blogger writes informatively about the oft-forgotten but crucially important barber-surgeons of the early modern era - one of my own favorite historical topics. "From Haircuts to Hangnails - the Barber-Surgeon" gives a broad overview of the topic, showing how the arts of hair-cutting has been intermingled in history with quite a few of the jobs we moderns associate with medical professionals, from lancing and blood-letting to surgery and amputation. At right, an engraving from 1524 by the Flemish painter Lucas van Leyden shows a barber-surgeon performing some dicey-looking maneuvers to a man's ear region. "In the ancient Mayan civilization," Roberts writes, "they were called upon to create ritual tattoos and scars. The ancient Chinese used them to castrate eunuchs. They gelded animals and assisted midwives, and performed circumcisions. Their accessibility and skill with precise instruments often made them the obvious choice for surgical procedures." It all puts me in mind of my friend Chris, who once expressed the desire to write a history of the craft in Latin America called "Barberism and Civilization." I hope he does it someday. (By the way, the earlier Res Obscura post "A Pirate Surgeon in Panama" sheds some light on the barber-surgeon's sea-going compatriots.)

• The art history blog 3 Pipe Problem seems to keep getting better and better. This month saw a typically rich and well thought out post on "The elusive truth of art historical inquiry - a Raphael case study." The author, H. Niyazi, takes to task what I've long regarded as the most obnoxious element in the field of art history -- namely, the view that certain experts have quasi-supernatural gifts of discerning authorship in works of art. The author offers up the term "shamanistic connoisseurship" to describe such a view. I have to say I'm glad to see this ahistorical and snobby practice falling by the wayside. This post offers an interesting introduction to the contours of the debate, which has also been discussed in a fascinating recent piece on Jackson Pollocks in the New Yorker called "The Mark of a Masterpiece."

• Finally, the ever-reliable BibliOdyssey, which was the direct inspiration for my own blog, offers up a selection of writing blanks. These were "were single sheets printed from copper or wood engravings, issued by print sellers (and, later, children's booksellers), and sold to children across a broad socio-economic spectrum" in the period between 1650 and 1850, or thereabouts. Students would use the blank space in the center to show off their best hand-writing. The pictorial themes of the borders are quite varied, from the voyages of Captain Cook to the rather more prosaic topic of "Craneing Goods on Shore" (see below). Whether these reflect the interests of early modern school-children accurately or not is hard to say, but they are useful as scraps of evidence about what pre-modern kids were interested in, thus shedding light on highly elusive but fascinating topic of the history of childhood.


That's all for now - I will probably update this to add new posts as I find them. Thanks to all whose blogs I have sampled!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Key of Hell: an Eighteenth-Century Sorcery Manual [Updated]

Astrological talisman from an 1801 grimoire.
I found these amazing illustrations on Wellcome Images, a useful online database devoted to images related to the history of medicine from ancient times to the present. It is a small part of the larger Wellcome Trust archives. According to the image captions supplied by the Wellcome, all of the images below come from an eighteenth century German magical text known as the Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metatrona -- which translates as "The Key of Hell with white and black magic proven [or approved] by Metatron."

Cyprien et le démon, French, 14th century.
According to its catalogue entry, this mysterious manuscript was purchased from Sotheby's on March 29, 1912. Although the title-page inscription seems to date it to 1717, the catalogue notes that "the script seems to be of the late 18th century." As for the text's origins, the Wellcome's caption writes that it
is also known as the Black Book, and is the textbook of the Black School at Wittenburg, the book from which a witch or sorcerer gets his spells. The Black School at Wittenburg was purportedly a place in Germany where one went to learn the black arts.
I was somewhat dubious of this Harry Potter-esque claim so I researched the title a bit more and found that the attributed author, one Cyprianus, probably refers to St. Cyprian of Antioch (d. 304 CE): a very common apocryphal attribution for medieval magical texts, since Cyprian was reputed to have been a powerful magician and demon-summoner before converting to Christianity (see also the Iberian grimoire The Great Book of Saint Cyprian).

The martyrdom of Cyprian and Justina, medieval
Portuguese, oil on panel.
I also found that this very manuscript has actually been published by something called the Avalonia Press, which appears to be one of several such boutique presses devoted to occultism and attempts to revive 'black magic' as a religion or way of life. (I find that these folks usually do more harm than good by spreading poorly-researched information which hinders actual historical research into the history of magic and alchemy, but I am glad that they put texts like this into print).

An interesting-seeming book by a professor of Norwegian literature named Kathleen Stokker (Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land) offers a different take on the reputed identity of Cyprianus (pp. 100-101). Stokker writes:
The identity of the mysterious figure Cyprianus varied wildly. People in Holstein, Denmark, imagined Cyprianus to be a fellow Dane so evil during his lifetime that when he died the devil threw him out of Hell. This act so enraged Cyprianus that he dedicated himself to writing the nine Books of Black Arts that underlie all subsequent Scandinavian black books.
Next comes a surprising twist:
In stark contrast, the Cyprianus of Oldtidens Sortebog [a Norwegian grimoire] is a ravishingly beautiful, irrestistibly seductive, prodigiously knowledgeable, pious Mexican nun. The nun's gory story, dated 1351, details her mistreatment by a debauched cleric whose advances she steadfastly refused.
It goes unexplained how a Mexican nun could have even existed in 1351! Perhaps the identity of Cyprianus, and of the Wellcome manuscript attributed to him, will never be known with much certainty owing to the profusion of misinformation that seems to surround all things related to black magic. The images, however, are incredibly evocative and mysterious, and tell a fascinating story in themselves.


The work's title page. Note the date, provided in curly Roman numerals toward the bottom of the page, and the cipher script above it. "Metratona" refers to the angel mentioned as God's courier and scribe in the Talmud and Judaic lore. [Update 5/11] Also note the two lines at the bottom made up of Greek, Latin and a few symbols. The anonymous poster in the Comments section below has kindly translated these lines to something like "You hang it above the pentacle, you bring together the earth from a known thread." With 'thread' (filo) having connotations of the thread measured out by the Fates. Still fairly opaque.


Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The script is a cipher. According to the Wellcome's caption, this image depicts "Maymon - a black bird - as King of the South; and Egyn - a black bear-like animal with a short tail - as King of the North."


Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. "Uricus - a red-crowned and winged serpent - as King of the East" and "Paymon - a black cat-like animal with horns, long whiskers and tail - as King of the West."


Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. A crowned dragon consumes a lizard, arching over a snake-wrapped cross with skull and cross-bones. The sword and branch probably refer to the common iconography of God's twinned powers to create destruction or peace. The Latin text reads Qui facis mirabilia magna solus finis coronat opus. I translate this to something like "You who act alone with great miracles [or miraculous things], the end shall crown the work." But my Latin is quite rusty.


Cyprianus, Clavis Inferni sive magia alba et nigra approbata Metratona. German, 18th century, ink and watercolor. The archangel Metatron with allegorical objects. I have no idea what to make of this one. The text is in Kabbalistic Hebrew and cipher, with Greek alpha and omega symbols.

The final page. Note the symbol, which looks strangely like the emblem of the Society of Jesus to me. [Update 5/11] The same Anonymous in the comments section has also contributed a rough translation of this passage: "I truly, from the law of that Majesty, do receive and take the treasure requested by you in the sent proclamation. Go away now most calmly to your place, without murmor [assuming rumore instead of umore] and commotion, and without harm to us and to the circle of other men. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, AMEN." Sounds like a spell or prayer to return a summoned being to its place of origin, perhaps.

These magical texts can make you feel a bit crazy if you spend too much time researching them (I was recently told as a bit of historian gossip that a prominent early researcher of John Dee went mad from precisely this cause, and I wasn't surprised). So I'll stop there.

As a side note, I'm hosting this month's early modern Carnivalesque (a round-up of recent blog posts on early modern history) so please send submissions to resobscura@gmail.com!

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