I recently returned from a trip to the UK, and between cathedrals and castles and museums, I worried my jaw would freeze from all of the gawping.
And I wondered: do most Americans feel a bit “Hee-Haw” when traveling?
Exacerbating this feeling is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool American West Coaster. I grew up in the wilds of Northern California (think redwood trees and Bigfoot, not San Francisco and cabernet) and now live in the wilds of Southern Oregon (think Crater Lake and blue collar, not Portland and Blue Moon beer).
My husband and I lived in Philadelphia for five years, and even though I had been to Europe before, I still remember the reverence with which I trod the cobblestone streets, stood at the epicenter of William Penn’s “greene country towne,” and threw a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave (sidestepping the three singing Benjamin Franklin impersonators to do so). When my husband and I accidentally stumbled on the building housing the Liberty Bell (much easier to do in the 90s before its new digs were built), we stared at each other in awe. “Do you suppose that’s the LIBERTY BELL bell? Like, the real one?” I whispered.
One year when my parents were visiting, we took them on a tour of Independence Hall. The eager young tour guide (think Kenneth from 30 Rock about ten years younger) marveled at the cumulative history of the place. “This building is over TWO HUNDRED years old! How many of you have been in a building that’s over TWO HUNDRED years old?”
A good three-quarters of the room raised their hands. The tour guide blushed
I remembered this episode while walking through Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Christ Church College, the Bodleian, Cardiff Castle, and Trinity College Dublin.
It came back with special force when visiting the Bodleian’s exhibit “Magical Books.” I knew I was going to see a First Folio Macbeth. John Dee’s Holy Table. C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia. I was prepared for all these, but even so there was an element of unreality to it all. “Is that the FIRST FOLIO MACBETH Macbeth? Like, the real one?” I whispered in my best Beverly Hillbillies drawl.
Then there were the surprises. I had no idea that the exhibition would prominently display one of the Ripley Scrolls. I walked into the smallish room housing these treasures and one of the first things I saw was the splashy toad of the Ripley Scroll prominently splayed out, the reds and greens and golds of the scroll still brilliant after all these centuries.
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.
Last week, my neighbor cut back our shared hedge considerably—about three feet. We didn’t think much about it until our family walk, when we were startled to discover this:
It’s a fuzzy picture, but if you enlarge it you can see it’s a baby doll head impaled on a stick–caked in mud, with one eye closed and one open, and lips and chin eaten away. Yup, the stuff of Stephen King’s own nightmares. We have since started referring to it as “Creepy Baby Head” (CBH for short).
We live on a relatively busy street with a lot of high school kids walking by, so it’s very likely that some bored teen found CBH and propped it there. (As an aside, my friends Kriston and Corin recommended hanging signs under CBH that read “Trespass on our lawn at your own peril!” and “Don’t tempt the haunted doll’s head! Stay off our lawn!” I’m favoring “See this guy? This guy left his Red Bull can and Taco Bell wrapper on our sidewalk…”)
Finding Creepy Baby Head so unexpectedly and so close to home was unnerving, especially because it dovetailed with research I’d been doing just a few days before about early modern witchcraft: I realized that this little baby head was creeping me out because it was so much like a poppet.
We now use the word “poppet” as a term of endearment, especially for young girls or women, but it’s actually a close relative of the word “puppet,” recorded as early as the 14th century in England. In witchcraft, poppets were little dolls used to aid in acts of sympathetic magic. The idea was to make a doll that looked like a person or animal and then to use the doll in charms–often for protection and health, but sometimes for less congenial purposes. Whatever you did to the doll happened to the real person or animal through sympathy (or correspondence) with that thing.
Here’s a sample of a poppet from about.com (I know this is kind of a basic introduction, but I’m a little nervous about doing too much witchcraft research on the web—I’ve tried it, and that’s a whole level of intensity I’m not prepared for!)
Below is a video in case you’re curious about making one. (As an aside, this video is an excellent way to dispel any stereotypes you may have of modern-day practitioners of Wicca. I’m going to crown this gal “World’s Peppiest Poppet Maker.”)
The comforting thing (okay, maybe not comforting as it still sends a cold little shiver down my spine) is that a poppet can be created and employed anywhere. It doesn’t depend at all on proximity. So if somebody out there had really made a poppet of me, they probably wouldn’t have put it right next to my house. So I’m safe.
The rest of you, though………..
Edited to add: Dear lord, look what I just saw in a local boutique! It’s called the Dammit Doll. It comes with a little poem that reads:
“Whenever things don’t go so well, And you want to hit the wall and yell, Here’s a little Dammit Doll That you can’t do without. Just grasp it firmly by the legs And find a place to slam it. And as you whack the stuffing out Yell ‘Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!'”
Isn’t this something? I mean, it’s totally a poppet, right? A twee, over-priced, over-marketed poppet. I’m only mad I didn’t think of it first….
The other day my 10-year-old daughter came home incensed: a friend had told her of a congressman’s assertion that evolution and the Big Bang Theory were lies sent by Satan to deceive Americans. She and her friend were spittin’ mad and spent their lunch hour talking about his stupidity (yeah, my daughter has some cool friends).
I was plenty shocked, so I decided to look this up. I was floored. The congressman in question, Rep. Paul Broun, proclaimed to a group of sportsmen at a church in Hartwell, Georgia, “God’s Word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.” (August Chronicle)
Pretty bad, but it gets worse: Rep. Broun is a medical doctor, somebody who, presumably, studied some science at some point.
Even worse?: Rep. Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Shortly after this episode (and an extended discussion with my daughter about faith and science, God and creation—about what early modern natural philosophers would have called “the book of God” and “the book of Nature”), I saw this article about the BBC’s documentary, Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. The film details a perceived oddity of Newton’s career: an obsession with alchemy that lasted until his death. It may come as a surprise to some that a towering figure in the story of modern science was obsessed with a field we associate with magical thinking, pseudo-science, and occult study.
The juxtaposition of these two events—my daughter asking me about Broun and reading about Newton’s research interests—made me think about the asynchrony of science. I mean, it doesn’t all happen in a straight line, does it? We posit, hypothesize, doubt, prove, doubt again, and then prove again. But while we’re doubting and proving, we’re holding different sets of assumption in our head, provisionally balancing outcomes and worldviews.
Newton could write the magisterial Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and analyze the refraction and diffraction of light in the Opticks, all while influenced by Rosicrucians in his search for the Philosopher’s Stone.
Broun is trained in biology and chemistry. He’s made his living based on science determined by modern scientific practices. Yet he can still assert that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory are lies sent by the Devil.
But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became with lumping Newton and Broun together in this asynchrony.
First, of course, there is the possibility that Broun only made those statements in order to secure the evangelical Christian vote, that it was a calculated misrepresentation of his actual beliefs.
But there’s something deeper, too. Newton’s alchemy relied on principles very similar to those that would eventually yield the modern field of chemistry. Exciting new finds in the natural world seemed to buttress the kinds of ancient claims made by the alchemists. As Natalie Angier notes in her excellent article on Newton in The New York Times:
There were plenty of theoretical and empirical reasons at the time to take the principles of alchemy seriously, to believe that compounds could be broken down into their basic constituents and those constituents then reconfigured into other, more desirable substances.
Miners were pulling up from the ground twisted bundles of copper and silver that were shaped like the stalks of a plant, suggesting that veins of metals and minerals were proliferating underground with almost florid zeal.
The principles of alchemy that Newton relied on were not so very different from modern scientists’ shared assumptions. Again, Algier:
The conceptual underpinning to the era’s alchemical fixation was the idea of matter as hierarchical and particulate — that tiny, indivisible and semipermanent particles come together to form ever more complex and increasingly porous substances, a notion not so different from the reality revealed by 20th-century molecular biology and quantum physics.
With the right solvents and the perfect reactions, the researchers thought, it should be possible to reduce a substance to its core constituents — its corpuscles, as Newton called them — and then prompt the corpuscles to adopt new configurations and programs. Newton and his peers believed it was possible to prompt metals to grow, or “vegetate,” in a flask. After all, many chemical reactions were known to leave lovely dendritic residues in their wake. Dissolve a pinch of silver and mercury in a solution of nitric acid, drop in a lump of metal amalgam, and soon a spidery, glittering “Tree of Diana” will form on the glass. Or add iron to hydrochloric acid and boil the solution to dryness. Then prepare a powdery silicate mix of sand and potassium carbonate. Put the two together, and you will have a silica garden, in which the ruddy ferric chloride rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom. rises and bifurcates, rises and bifurcates, as though it were reaching toward sunlight and bursting into bloom.
The principles and assumptions underpinning Broun’s scientific background (his medical school education, for example), however, are markedly different from the evangelic Christian tenets he proclaims. Whereas modern scientific assertions require prediction based on observation, Broun relies on literal interpretation of an ancient text.
I guess a lot of this is just me thinking out loud (which is what blogs are supposed to be, right?). What do you all think?
My eldest daughter—burgeoning animal-rights activist and wannabe vegan (alas, she likes bacon and cheese too much to commit)—is supposed to do her first dissection soon in biology class. She is not happy about it, and after some thought, I realized I wasn’t really either: with all of the virtual tools at our disposal, do we really need to kill animals and expose our kids to harsh chemicals for 7th-grade biology?
This may be a moot point (as the school district may already have something in place as a substitution), but it got me to thinking again about the bizarre history of dissection practices and early instances of virtual dissection. Unlike in current medical schools, where a cadaver is shared between three or four medical students, in the middle ages dissections occurred in a theater. The actual cutting was performed by a surgeon—a relatively low-level practitioner who couldn’t claim the vaulted status of physician. Guiding the surgeon was the professor of medicine, who sat on high and read from Galen, the undisputed ancient authority on medicine. Actual physicians seldom (if ever) cut into a real body (there’s some discussion of this here), like this:
In the Renaissance, a physician named Andreas Vesalius challenged Galen’s primacy and encouraged physicians and medical students to cut into the bodies themselves. Though the idea caught like wildfire, there was a hitch: it was not easy (and often not lawful) to obtain human bodies for dissection. At different times and in different places, those wanting to dissect a human body had to obtain them from professional grave-robbers who kept the anatomists in fresh bodies.
It is perhaps due to the desire to have first-hand experience, and the difficulty of getting fresh bodies, that there was a boon in the publication of what are called “fugitive sheets,” or what a professor of mine in grad school called “Renaissance pop-up books.” Basically, they are anatomy books with illustrations that can be lifted and folded back to provide a sort of early modern virtual dissection. Here’s a great example of a fugitive sheet from the Wellcome Collection:
Anatomical fugitive sheets of a skeleton, male figure and a female figure. Wittenberg, 1573
Have you ever met one of those peckerheads who’s almost too pathetic for so robust an insult? The kind of guy who doesn’t want to do bad things, but would be okay with it if bad things happened to people he didn’t like?*
Our Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead for March** is that guy. His name was Henry, Lord Neville, the earl of Westmorland, and he conspired to murder his wife and father. Kind of.
I learned about Henry in this great book called The Sorcerer’s Tale by Alec Ryrie that I bought at the Wellcome Collection bookstore (not where you’d expect to find a book about a sorcerer). I bought it because I’m fascinated by the intersections of magic and science in 16th- and 17th-century England, and this book didn’t disappoint: Ryrie meticulously recreates the life of Gregory Wisdom (yes, that seems to have been his real name), who managed to craft a life as (in unequal parts) con-man, magician, and surgeon in 16th-century London.
Ryrie’s book is about Wisdom, but this blog post is about Henry, Lord Neville. As Ryrie describes it, Lord Henry was easy pickings for a charlatan like Wisdom. He was rich, dumb, greedy, and unhappy in his marriage.
Wisdom was introduced to Lord Henry by one of Henry’s servants, the euphonically named Ninian Menville (who was also a massive peckerhead, but maybe we should leave that for another month).
Wisdom offered to make a magic ring for Lord Henry, a talisman that would help him win at cards and dice. Not that Wisdom was in the habit of making such rings for just anybody, mind you . . . only his “dear friends.” He assured Lord Henry that the ring would net £2000 or £3000 in only a few months, and for this amazing trinket he required only a pension of £20 for life (enough, says Ryrie, to comfortably retire on). Lord Henry took the bait.
The ring didn’t work. Wisdom blamed Lord Henry, accusing him of laying with a woman not his wife, an act that would void the ring of any magic it contained. (This was a pretty astute guess on Wisdom’s part, as Lord Henry was known to have an unhappy marriage and to frequent the brothels as well as the gambling houses.)
You’d think Lord Henry would have nothing more to do with Wisdom, but ignorance and greed are powerful forces. To distract Lord Henry from the ring debacle, Wisdom revealed that another magician of his acquaintance had told him of a vast buried treasure on the Nevilles’ own estate, a cache of gold worth well over £2000. Of course, somebody would have to go retrieve it, and that somebody would need traveling expenses…
Lord Henry was out another £6.
Up till now, Lord Henry had proved to be an idiot, but he wasn’t yet a peckerhead. That was about to change.
After allowing time for Menville to soothe Lord Henry’s ruffled feathers, Wisdom again showed up, this time tempting Lord Henry with a different kind of bait: “My lord, I know you love not your wife” said Wisdom (according to Lord Henry’s own account), “whereby you lead an abominable life in whoredom, which will be your destruction both of body and soul. If your wife were dead, then might you choose one, which you might find in your heart to love, and by that means lead an honest and a godly life. And here I have a book, wherewith I can dispatch her, and not known but that she died of God’s hand.”
Lord Henry wrote that he was shocked—gasp, just shocked!—by Wisdom’s proposal to use magic and spells to murder his wife, but somehow he overcame his revulsion in order to meet Wisdom and Menville again three weeks later. This time, though, they informed him that they had placed a spell on his father as well. This double murder would make Lord Henry not just a bachelor, but a *rich* bachelor.
The spell on the father was a bit of a surprise, it seems, and seems to have caused Lord Henry some guilt–though not enough guilt to do anything about the situation for several weeks. However it came about, Lord Henry had Wisdom captured and claims to have gone, with Menville, to the duke of Suffolk’s house to confess his sins. Unfortunately, claimed Lord Henry, the duke was too ill to see him (a clear fabrication, as the duke, who did get sick later in the year, was perfectly capable of receiving visitors during the time in question).
Oh well. He tried. Shrug.
He let Wisdom go, perhaps finally realizing that he, too, would be implicated in any charge brought against the sorcerer.
Lord Henry’s wife, Anne, lived. The earl lived. Everything went on as normal until a year later, when the story finally broke. Lord Henry was imprisoned, and there was the requisite scandal.
And then, here’s the crazy thing—after a little cooling-off period, Lord Henry was free to go. He went back to his wife and father and resumed his gambling and whoring and all-around-jerkiness. He outlived his wife and lived to assume the earldom from his father.
What gets me about Lord Henry is his bullshit passiveness in the proposed murder of his wife and father. One can imagine him throwing up his hands, feigning helplessness: “Oh well, what could I do? I mean, the spell was already cast! And, I mean, my wife was going to get to go to heaven, after all…”
So, for behavior befitting a peckerhead (albeit a weak, limp, flaccid peckerhead), I nominate Henry, Lord Neville, for March’s Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month.
*Kind of like George Costanza from Seinfeld, maybe? I still haven’t recovered from the episode in which George called up Marisa Tomei for a date mere hours after Susan died from licking too many of the wedding invitation envelopes . . . but that’s fodder for an altogether different kind of blog.
**I know, I know, I skipped February. I was too busy celebrating Valentine’s Day and the birthday of my decidedly non-vile-hearted husband.
I’ve been happily married for almost 18 years, but my kids listen to enough Taylor Swift (Lord help me) for me to know what a broken heart means in 21st-century America: It means “breaking down and coming undone,” feeling that “I’m only me when I’m with you” (don’t get me started on how messed up this is), and sopping up the “teardrops on my guitar” (Taylor Swift lyrics).
Maybe what Taylor needs is a good dose of 17th-century medical inquiry. How did you know when your heart was broken? When it stopped beating. Probably because of a plague.
For a more nuanced understanding of the workings of the heart, we owe a debt of gratitude to physician and natural philosopher William Harvey, who is credited with “discovering” the circulation of the blood. Harvey was the first to systematically describe the action of the heart and the circuitous motion of the blood in the body.
Before Harvey, most physicians followed 2nd-century Roman physician Galen, who theorized that the heart’s role was to produce the body’s heat: venous blood came from digested food that was “cooked” in the liver and imbued with vital spirit. Other parts of the body sucked up this blood for nourishment. Some of the blood that went to the heart passed through the ventricular septum, where it was further refined and mixed with “inspired air” from the lungs. This new concoction was the arterial blood, also used for nourishment.
One critical problem for 17th-century doctors, however, was that medical schools favored a model of dissection in which the professor merely read anatomical texts; a hired anatomist (sometimes, if not often, himself illiterate) did the actual dissection. So the anatomy professor did not always realize that what was in the text was not what could be found in the body itself.
Harvey, who insisted on performing dissections himself, observed that the heart simply does not behave the way the textbook said it would. Nor, to his aggravation, could he find any proof that ventricular blood could pass through the septum.
Another vexing problem for Harvey was how the blood could circulate around the body without reversing direction, pooling in the hands and feet. This was cleverly solved, however, by considering a discovery made by his professor at Padua, Hieronymus Fabricius, that veins had valves that could stop the flow of blood. Harvey relied on a beautifully simple experiment to show the function of the veins: you can see it in the video below from 23:16-24:55Do be careful, however, as the rest of the video has much blood and organ stuff.
So, play along at home, my friends! Try these experiments: if your blood does not flow in the correct direction, likely your heart is broken. But if the experiment is successful, your heart is in fine working condition and primed to have a very happy Valentine’s Day.
Edited to add: I told my daughter about this post, and she sent me this meme to share with you all. We are clearly a family of literalists.