Tag Archives: early modern

Laughing at History

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Netherlandish (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday the website The Mary Sue published a post of mine, a short, lighthearted little thing about the malady known as green sickness.

After it was published, I committed the cardinal internet sin of reading the comments. Normally I don’t do that, but The Mary Sue’s readers are savvy and smart, and I was curious what they said.

Most comments were written in the same vein as the post—funny, a little snarky, lighthearted. But one comment made me pause. In a nutshell, it asked “Why is this something to laugh at? Surely this was a real problem for some people.”

It’s a compelling point and one worth bearing in mind, always. When we laugh at things from the past, are we demeaning the lived experience of real people?

I hope I would never do that. I did, however, want to poke fun at a system of beliefs about women that reduced them to uterine function. The theory behind green sickness was that a virgin was vulnerable to all sorts of maladies because the ultimate function of the uterus was to be occupied, either by a man’s seed or by a child, and until that happened, it was a site of blocked humors and disease that made a maiden sick, weak, and listless.

It’s the same system that attributed a host of physical and mental disorders to a woman’s “wandering womb.”

It’s crucial we remember the role that set of beliefs played in the history of medicine, how it served as a foundation for the ways we think about and discuss women’s health.

It informs the social structure that allows Todd Aiken to mystify reproductive biology and argue the rarity of child conceived in a “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” 

That system still shapes the way we talk about menstruation and menopause, even about PMS.

Every day I read news stories that sound like they come right out of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Women’s reproductive rights are being eroded day by day, from mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds to the limits on abortion even in the cases of rape or health of the mother.

And for a chilling analysis of how the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to the regulation of women’s wombs, read this piercing analysis by Margaret Lewis of the similarities between 17th-century infanticide trials and the 20-year sentence given to Purvi Patel. (Especially shocking is the use of the “lung test,” which has been recognized as scientifically flawed for the last 200 years.)

We need to remind ourselves of that system that used biology to define women, by their very nature, as weak, helpless, and incapable of decision or action without a man’s help.

I deeply appreciate that commentor’s reminder that there are real people behind these stories and diagnoses and treatments. It’s something I hope never to forget.

But I don’t think I can stop laughing at the ridiculousness of a system that reduces women to one particular organ. Because if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.

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The Spitting Image

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water transformed into several colours and into separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple engraving. Wellcome Library, London

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water
transformed into several colours and into
separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple
engraving. Wellcome Library, London

I came across this image while browsing in the online collection of the Wellcome Library (heaven only knows what my search terms were). Even in the often-bizarre world of the Wellcome’s collection, with wood engravings of eyes swollen shut by a witch’s curse and pictures of possessed men spitting up nails, this image stood out.

Regurgitating, spitting, expectorating—it all gets a pretty bad rap. About the only time it’s marginally socially acceptable is when done by cute babies. (Witness the time one of my daughters (in the interest of familial harmony, I won’t identify which one), age 12 months, spit up on her grandfather just as my camera was clicking to take their picture. I now have a permanent record of the look of satisfaction on her face and the blend of surprise, disgust, and great good humor on his.)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, some performers were able to take the act of regurgitation to a whole new level.

V0007186 Biagio di Manfrè, who regurgitated water transformed into ot

Though this image has Floram Marchand’s name, the Wellcome Library identifies this as Blaise Manfred (Biagio di Manfrè). Engraving after Wenceslaus Hollar. Wellcome Library, London.

Popular entertainer Blaise Manfrede was known for his ability to seemingly transform the vast amounts of water he swallowed into other liquids like milk or wine.   His student, Floram Marchande, the subject of the above engraving, was known for turning water into a variety of wines, each in its own arc spit high above the crowds.

V0007188 Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated

Floram Marchand, a man who regurgitated water transformed into several colours and into separate vessels. Reproduction of a stipple engraving. Wellcome Library, London

According to Joe Mitchell in Secrets of the Sideshows, Manfrede and Marchande employed special mouthpieces to help them spit the water in such dramatic fashion, and as for turning the water into wine—given that the “wine” got paler and paler the longer the act went on, it’s likely that Marchand ingested a red dye made from brazil nuts beforehand.

Though perhaps not as popular as it once was, the art of regurgitation has never really been abandoned. For example, in the 1920s and 30s, a Vaudeville performer named Hadji Ali was famous for swallowing and regurgitating water, nuts, smoke, handkerchiefs, and kerosene (which he would then spit out on a lit fire). You can see highlights of his act here:

Continuing the regurgitation tradition (if that can be said to be a thing), Glasgow-born Stevie Starr has made a career of regurgitating all sorts of items: broken glass, balloons, goldfish, and dry sugar. In 2010, he appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and flummoxed the audience by swallowing Amanda’s ring, a key, and a lock, and the regurgitating the ring—which was hooked onto the lock, presumably while in his stomach. Here it is (and oh my god, Amanda, are you really going to let the symbol of your enduring love be regurgitated by that man? Really, Amanda?):

Honestly, it’s enough to give a gal heartburn.

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Scratching “The Itch Infalable” at The Recipes Project

I wrote this blog post for The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine about a 17th-century anti-itching recipe: Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

On the downside, you may get psychosomatic itching after reading it, much like in 5th grade when you watched all those educational movies about lice. On the plus side, there is a largely gratuitous picture of an adorable scratching cat.

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Hog-Faced Woman ISO Single Male for Love, Marriage, Transformation

Human culture is a strange and wonderful thing.

I’ve been reading about a genre of folk stories that have as a central character a “hog-faced woman,” and I’m left shaking my head at the uncanniness of human imagination.

These tales seem to have arisen in the early 17th century concurrently in England, The Netherlands, and France. Most of the stories begin with a rich woman refusing charity to a beggar and her children, calling them “piggish” for asking for alms. The beggar turns out to be a witch who in revenge curses the child in the woman’s womb. The child is born perfectly healthy but with the face of a pig.

The first story of the pig-faced woman to have wide reach in England was circulated in a tract titled “A Certaine Relation of the Hog-faced Gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker.”

ohn Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Bell. Line engraving Gent's magazine Published: 1827

“A certaine relation of the hog-faced gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker … borne at Wirkham … on the river Rhyne. Who was bewitched in her mothers wombe in … 1618 … And can never recover her true shape, tell she be married …” Wellcome Library, London

(The story of Tannakin Skinker may or may not have had a basis in fact–the parallels to the pre-existing legends make me think it’s a fabrication.)

In keeping with earlier versions of the legend, Tannakin’s mother refuses to give alms to an elderly woman, who curses her, proclaiming, ‘As the Mother is Hoggish, so Swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withal.”

Tannakin is born healthy but with a snout and a preference for eating out of a silver trough.Tannakin’s father consults a famous scholar of magic, who tells them Tannakin will retain the snout while still a virgin, but that on her wedding night—provided she not be wed to “a Clowne, Bore or Pesant”—she will be cured. (Kathy Haas of the Rosenbach Collection points out that the story follows the traditional medieval trope of “the loathly lady.”)

The family moves to London and finds a likely prospect. On Tannakin’s wedding night, when her new husband reaches for her, he finds a beautiful young woman with a human’s nose. When he tries to kiss her, she tells him,

Sir, I am indeed no other than I now seeme unto you; and of these two things I give you free choice, whether I shall appeare to you thus as you now see me, young, faire, and lovely in your bed, and all the daytime, and abroad, of my former deformity: or thus beautifull in the day, to the sight of your friends, but in your armes every night of my former Age and Uglinesse: of these two things I give you free choice of, which till you have resolv’d me, there can be no other familiarity betwixt in: therefore without pause give me a speedy answer

Here’s where I fall in love with the story. Tannakin husband chooses not to choose, instead letting Tannakin decide. Tannakin is given the choice, agency in determining the contours of her face and her fate. She says,

Now Sir, you have given me that which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty; and know I, was by a wicked and sorcerous step-dame inchanted, never to returne to my pristine shape, till I was first married, and after had received such power from my Husband · And now from henceforth I shall be the same to you night and day, of that youth and lively-hood which you now see mee; till Time and Age breed new alteration, even to the last period of my life.

“That which all women most desire, my Will, and Soveraignty”: isn’t that wonderful?

One thing I find fascinating about this story is that it doesn’t display the early modern period’s affinity for correspondences in physiognomy. As Laura Gowing argues in her book Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century England, “In the literature of monstrous births, women become the conduit by which bestial features of body parts–in some cases, whole animals–found their way into human reproduction. Seeing a hare could cause a hare-lip; a jockey’s wife might give birth to a child with a horse’s head.” Given the resemblance of the woman’s face to a pig, the reader might expect to hear Tannakin described as hungry, greedy, gluttonous, and bestial. Instead, she shows great patience, indulgence, and wisdom.

The trope of the hog-faced woman trope continued in popularity well into the 19th century, culminating in the strange episode of “The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square.”

Today, the legend of Tannakin Skinker and the trope of the pig-faced woman is all but dead, but there are still echoes. Check out this video of “Mad Madam Mims” from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone (especially around 1:03 and 1:19):

There is also the (IMO underrated) movie Penelope starring Cristina Ricci. There are too many similarities—the nose, the marriage, the curse—for it to be a fluke. Here’s the trailer.

As we’ve seen, in the tale of Tannakin Skinker, the “hog-faced woman” character is allowed to choose her own fate. She has agency and control. This theme is pushed even further in Penelope, in which the main character runs away after meeting cute with her potential husband. The plot is too complicated to get into, but suffice to say that Penelope breaks the curse by learning to love herself with the help of Reese Witherspoon in a fine turn as a Vespa-riding sub-category of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Is it cheesy? Yes. Do I love it anyway? Yes.

And do I think it’s a fascinating twist on a centuries-old tale that reveals much about 21st-century American ideals of beauty, individualism, and self-actualization. You betcha.

Work cited:
Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch, and Power in Seventeenth-Century EnglandNew Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Other reading:
Kathy Haas talks about “The Hog-faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker”  in The Rosenblog: From the Staff of the Rosenback at the Philadelphia Free Library. 

Tassie Gniady discusses Tannakin Skinker in her chapter “Do You Take this Hog-Faced Woman to be Your Wedded Wife” in Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 (London: Ashgate, 2010)

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Great Globs of Glowing Urine

File:JosephWright-Alchemist.jpg

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone (1771). Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many fields define themselves by specialties. Doctors are not just doctors—they are podiatrists or pediatricians or surgeons. Restaurant workers are baristas or pastry chefs or sommeliers. Writers are novelists or poets or “content providers.” So it is for academics, as well. When I’m wearing that hat, I define myself as an early modernist.

But even within narrow academic confines, we find ways to shrink our focus (for better and for worse). I trained in early modern English literature with an interest in the history of early modern science and medicine. Recently, because of a novel I’ve written, I’ve become a little obsessed with alchemy, as well.

By definition, such a narrow focus means few people are interested in (understatement) what makes my clock tick. So imagine my surprise when, on a long car trip last month, my teenage daughter turned to me, looked up from the book she was reading, and said, “Hey, Mom, this is cool. This is the sort of thing you like.”

And she was absolutely right. She was pointing to a picture of Hennig Brand, a 17th-century alchemist from Germany who spent his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, that elusive substance capable of turning lead into gold. Brand was a soldier with the valuable talent of marrying well—he burned through (pun intended) two wives’ handsome fortunes in his alchemical pursuits.

While Brand never did find/create/uncover the Philosopher’s Stone (that we know of…), he certainly hit the mother lode by successfully isolating phosphorous. To do so, he, ummm…well….let this video show you first:


Brand collected around 60 buckets of human urine, waited for it to ferment to the point of turning black, and then boiled it down into a syrup. That syrup was distilled and cooked over very high heat. He then took the cooked substance—minus the salts that had formed alongside—and submerged it in water. (Excellent descriptions of the process can be found here and here.) The substance he’d discovered–phosphorous–was chemiluminescent, emitting a soft light that at the time must have seemed magical indeed.

Brand, like most other alchemists, kept his discoveries to himself, but he was able to sell his secret later (and recoup at least some of his wife’s money). Other folks, including Robert Boyle, later discovered the process independent of Brand. (They were tipped off, most likely, that the phosphorous had been made from urine. Boyle made the process more effective by also using the salt that Brand threw away.)

And because I’m deficient in gravitas, I couldn’t resist adding this video. If you can’t get enough of pee puns (or if you love to see Anderson Cooper giggle):

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Feeling crabby

Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Urania’s Mirror, Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Happy birth-month to me!

My birthday was last week, and, as per usual, I was out of sorts.

I’ve never really enjoyed my birthday, to be honest. It’s not that I mind getting older. Heck, I have Gratiano’s line from The Merchant of Venice–“with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come”–etched onto a mirror in my bathroom. And it’s not because of past experiences. The last 40+ birthdays have been pleasant enough.

No, I think the reason I dislike my birthday so much is that it come in JULY, which is HOT, and MUGGY, and SLOOOOOOW. I vastly prefer the crisp busyness of October, or the sparkly excitement of December, or the stinging promise of April.

The other reason I dislike having a birthday in July is that it makes me a Cancer. As a child, I was always looking out for markers of my identity (most of us do that, right? I’m not alone, right? Gulp). The easiest and therefore most popular way to do that is to look up your zodiac sign, and I always hated the descriptions of “me” (the Cancer “me”).  I still do. This description is an excellent example of NOT me.  (I especially love this: ” Cancers often find that a robust workout session is just the tonic for their touchy feelings.” Snort.)

I’m a Cancer. And I thought that sucked.

I got that the crab symbol came from the constellation—unlike some of the other zodiac signs, it kind of fits (if you squint). But I still hated it. First: who wants their zodiac symbol to be a crab, a synonym for a grouchy malcontent? Second: the Crab was the mascot for our local minor-league baseball team, and I would see the cranky and dissatisfied look on his ugly little crustacean face everywhere. Third (luckily I only learned this as a teenager): “to have crabs” = (ahem) not exactly socially acceptable.

But the worst and most confusing part of “being a Cancer”: what did it have to do with the horrific disease people whispered about, the menace that terrified my parents enough that they almost stopped smoking, that prompted me and my friends to put on sunblock in the anemic Northern California sun?

For a while as a child, I even thought that being a Cancer meant I would, eventually, get cancer. In kid logic, that kind of makes sense, right?

A few weeks ago, I read an excellent article entitled “Wombs, Worms and Wolves: Constructing Cancer in Early Modern England” by Alanna Skuse that finally answered the question I’d forgotten I’d had: what is/was the connection between Cancer, the zodiac sign, and cancer, the terrible disease?

According to Skuse, a Wellcome Trust Scholar at the University of Essex, the tumors that came to be recognized as cancer were named after their appearance:

“Not only were they [tumors] peculiarly gruesome even by the standards of the age, but, crucially, they evoked the very name of the disease, a derivation of the Greek karkinos, or crab. Round and red, the tumour appeared like the body of that creature, whilst the blood vessels extending outward were ‘verie like unto the feete of crabbes, descending from the round compasse of their bodies’.”

The connection then—the resemblance of the constellation and the tumors of physiological mutation to a crabby little crustacean—is just coincidence.

I am very relieved.

Virgos: you are on your own.

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Of Sloths, Demons, and Palindromic Numbers

When I hear the word “sloth,” I generally have a Kriston Bell moment. And I’m not alone. Sloths are enjoying a cultural surge, with sloth memes, sloth fan clubs, and even sloth socks (yes, I own a pair).

Culturally, though, we pay more attention to the cute little critter than we do to the other sloth, that of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The idea of sloth as a sin is complicated. Is sloth laziness? Sluggishness? Apathy? Is it a sin of omission rather than commission?

Scholars have pointed out that sloth has an antecedent in the medieval monastic term acedia,which referred to a sort of spiritual malaise. It was also termed the “noonday demon.” The nomenclature is perfect. We’ve all faced the noonday demon: that ennui that hits right around lunch, when our bellies are either rumbling with hunger or full and happy–either way, our thoughts go wandering and no work gets done. (For a modern take on the phenomenon, see this article from the New York Times“Their Noonday Demons, and Ours,” ; and in this interview with Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,)

But whether sloth was characterized as spiritual torpor or a conscious decision to be a couch potato, the consensus was that sloth was A Very Bad Thing, worthy of its own demon. And, of course, the early modern period was happy to provide one.

According to the 16th-century German witch-hunter Peter Binsfeld, who classified the “Princes of Hell” according to the Seven Deadly Sins, the demon who best represented sloth was Belphegor (the name likely originates from the Moab god Baal-Peor).

Belphegor

Belphegor, from J.A.S. Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal, Paris : E. Plon, 1863. Wikimedia Commons

(Note to readers about images of Belphegor:

  1. The image above is actually from the 19th century, not the early modern period. Sorry, it was the only one I could find.
  2. Belphegor is very big in anime and in the role-playing game Megami Tensei, where he appears in a modified version of the image above as a purple demon sitting on a toilet.
  3.  if you do a Google image search for “Belphegor,” you’re going to get a LOT of pictures of really kind of sad-looking death metal bands.)

Okay, so now here’s where things get a little weird. The demon Belphegor is also associated with a special kind of palindromic number called “Belphegor’s Prime”:

1000000000000066600000000000001

Note the “666” in the middle with 13 zeros on either side.

I have been unable to find any source explaining why this admittedly terrifying number would be associated with Belphegor. Obviously the number 13 and the 666 are considered to be “demonic,” but why that particular demon? Why not Satan, or Beezelbub, or Mammon? Does it have anything to do with the association between Belphegor and sloth, and if so, why?

*********
Couldn’t resist throwing in these tidbits:

  • Simon Singh, author of the brilliant The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, has quasi-nominated Belphegor’s prime for a future Simpson’s Halloween appearance.
  • Thanks to Mary Catherine for this gem of a meme and to the conversation between her and Kriston that prompted me to dust off this forgotten blog post.

slothdeadlysin

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