There’s so much here, I don’t even know where to begin. I won’t be able to write a coherent sort of essay right now about the Ripley Scrolls, as I’m just now wrapping my head around their magnificence.
There are 23 copies of the Ripley Scrolls, which get their name from the 15th-century alchemist George Ripley, as snippets of his verses are included on some of the scrolls. Most are thought to have been copied in the 16th and 17th centuries from a now-lost original.
The scrolls depict–in what to modern eyes are bizarre and obscure symbols–the process of making the Philosopher’s Stone, the substance thought to impart eternal life and to contain the power to turn base metals into gold.
I’m particularly interested in the “pelican flask,” the apparatus the alchemist is holding in the first panel. The pelican was a vessel that allowed the distillation of substances in the alchemical process to occur in a closed system. The shape of the vessel was reminiscent of the fable of the pelican, which was thought to pierce its own breast in order to feed her young from her own blood (and which, in Christian symbolism, represented Christ’s blood sacrifice). The resemblance can be seen here:
The pelican the alchemist is holding is cut away to reveal the changes the substances are undergoing–but despite the seeming transparency of the cut-away pelican, the changes are cloaked in the arcane system of symbols and riddles that marks the pursuit of alchemy (as you can see below).
Here’s a great video made by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University:
My next step is to get a better digital copy of this manuscript (as an aside–the digital availability of archival material is the best thing to happen since the Big Bang). I want to check out what’s going on in the pelican, especially with that weird toad. I’m thinking this more descriptive video from Adam McLean, who has been writing about alchemy for decades, may also be helpful: http://youtu.be/VyA2AiGbo5U
Next post: toads, green lions, and menstruating dragons…
As I sit here unable to sleep at 3:00 in the morning, my Twitter feed is filling up with breathless (and often snarky) observations about the royal baby. Helicopters hover over St. Mary’s Hospital in London. The BBC has cameras aimed at the front door of the hospital. Media experts are yammering on about how—with Twitter and RSS feeds—this is the most observed royal birth ever (ya think?).
#RoyalBaby is trending. Pundits debate whether Kate will have a C-section: “too posh to push?” as I read on Twitter. The Queen wonders out loud about whether she’ll have to postpone her holiday.
With all of this hoopla and manufactured drama, I can’t help but think about another royal birth that figures in the novel I’m writing: that of Henrietta Anne, born to King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria under very different circumstances.
Queen Henrietta Maria became pregnant after an emotional reunion with Charles in Oxford, where he’d found refuge during the First Civil War. The Queen was an experienced mother, having given birth to eight children already, but this was a difficult pregnancy. The Queen was convinced the time of birth was coming soon (though in fact it was still months away), and she was diagnosed with “fits of the mother,” bouts of hysteria thought to be caused by her laden womb.
After the Royalist loss at the Battle of Alresford, the Queen felt both ill and insecure. She convinced Charles to let her take the waters at Bath. On April 17, 1644, Charles accompanied Henrietta Maria to Abingdon to say their goodbyes. He returned to Oxford, and she departed for Bath.
It was the last time they would ever see each other.
Bath was a disaster: plague-ridden, with corpses left to rot in the street. The Queen continued on to Exeter, where she could take refuge with friends while awaiting her labor.
She was ill. Very ill.
Her usual doctor, Sir Theodore Mayerne, who had never liked the Queen, refused to come and tend to her, only relenting when the King himself sent a note reading, “Mayerne, for the love of me, go to my wife.” When the Queen confessed her fear that her illness was making her crazy, Mayerne responded, “You need not fear it madam, for you are that already.”
With friends like these . . .
The Queen finally gave birth on June 16, 1644, more than two months after she told the King she was certainly going into labor very soon. The birth was a difficult one that left her partially paralyzed and temporarily blinded, and she confessed that she often wished for death.
But Henrietta Maria did not have time for death.
The Earl of Essex’s Parliamentarian army was approaching Exeter, and Henrietta Maria had to flee. Just two weeks after giving birth to baby Henrietta Anne, she was forced to leave her with friends and servants as she fled with her confessor and a small handful of trusted advisors.
Almost immediately, they encountered Parliament’s forces. Henrietta Maria was forced to hide under a pile of rags in a small cottage for two days with no food and no water, uttering no sound. The soldiers were so close, she would later tell one of her ladies-in-waiting, that she heard them name a reward of fifty thousand crowns for anyone who captured her.
A week later, on June 29, 1644, Henrietta Maria arrived at the relative safety of Pendennis Castle in Cornwall and shortly fled England, Essex’s troops in pursuit, for her homeland of France.
Henrietta Maria would not see Henrietta Anne until June 1646.
A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of King Charles I of England and Henrietta Maria of France, Katie Whitaker
Mad Madge, Katie Whitaker
Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Smallest Man, Nick Page (a biography of “the Queen’s Dwarf,” Jeffrey Hudson)
Probably it’s a combination of the two: a realization that, had I lived in 17th-century England, the presence of a doll’s head in my yard would have had me tied to the stake before I could say “NOT MY POPPET!” That’s why my nomination for Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month is Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General,” thought to be responsible for the deaths of over 300 women (and some men).
Hopkins was an innkeeper in the village of Manningtree, across the River Stour from Colchester. According to his own book The Discovery of Witches, composed in question-and-answer form, Hopkins came to witch-hunting after overhearing some women discuss meeting with the Devil in the woods outside of Manningtree:
The Discoverer [Hopkins writes about himself in the third person here] never travelled far for it [experience in witch finding], but in March 1644 he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill…
Hopkins claims they mentioned the name of another witch, so he told the authorities and had her apprehended. She was examined “by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks.” She was found to possess the traditional mark of the witch: a third teat, a nipple from which she was thought to suckle her familiar, or “imp.”
As an aside: Supernumerary nipples, often called third nipples, are very common, occurring in about 1 in 18 people: Entry on supernumerary nipples from Medline. They may not be interesting medically, but they sure are culturally:
(Video of Bradley Cooper pranking Ellen Degeneres by showing a third–and fourth, and fifth–nipple.)
After finding this damning evidence of the woman’s pact with the Devil, Hopkins and his associates forced her to stay awake for three nights altogether; on the fourth night, says Hopkins, she surrendered and called five of her imps:
1. Holt, who came in like a white kitling. 2. Jarmara, who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body. 3. Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg’d Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore. 4. Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet. 5. Newes, like a Polcat.
After this parade of familiars, the woman “confessed severall other Witches” and told Hopkins where to find their “marks” (third teats) and the names of their imps “as Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the Crown, Grizzel, Greedigut, &c. which no mortall could invent.”
As a result of Hopkins’s investigation, 23 women were tried in Chelmsford; nineteen were hanged and four died in prison.
This success launched a new career for Hopkins. He hired an assistant, John Stearne, and a group of women who examined the accused witches looking for their “witch’s mark” (often, if they couldn’t find a likely third teat in the form of a mole or birthmark, they would prick the woman’s flesh attempting to find one—in effect creating the very mark they were looking for).
Hopkins and his methods were startlingly popular. Torture was illegal, but Hopkins had other ways of extracting “confessions,” the most famous of which was a swimming test. The theory was that since witches had renounced their baptism, water itself would reject them. The suspected witch was tied to a chair and thrown into a lake or river. If she floated, it was a sure sign of her witchiness. If she sunk, she was innocent. Either way, she would likely die.
Though Hopkins was generally successful in his career (Ipswich residents even levied a tax to pay for his services), he was not without enemies. The most effective of these was the vicar of Great Staughton, John Gaule, who, though he acknowledged the existence of witches, deplored the folkloric roots of Hopkins’s methods for gathering evidence. He was particularly opposed to the swimming test, and he successfully lobbied for tougher evidentiary standards in the publication Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts.
Hopkins published his work The Discovery of Witchesin 1647, in response to Gaule, and its influence was great in the new American colonies. His own witch-finding career, however, was not to survive as long as his influence: he died shortly after the publication of his work in August 1647.
Though Hopkins probably died of natural causes, a tale of karmic justice has grown up around his death: popular local history held that he himself was tried as a witch and died as a result of his own creation, the swimming test.