Tag Archives: Jennifer Sherman Roberts

In the Image of Dog He Created Them…

We’ve all heard the theory that people look like their pets (or is it vice versa?), and we’ve all seen the uncanny photos, like these featured in the popular listicle website, Buzzfeed (oh dear, number 23…)

(As an aside: I joke that it’s because of this resemblance theory that I adopted a greyhound—it was a weight-loss strategy.  And no, it didn’t work.)

hound

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

This fascination with resemblances between people and animals is nothing new, as we can see in Giambattista della Porta’s De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586)

owl

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta (also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta and John Baptist Porta) (1535-1615) was a scholar and philosopher from Naples, most famous for his work in magic, mathematics, and natural philosophy (among many other things—he was quite the polymath).

Della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segretti (Academy of Secrets), one of the first of the early secret societies devoted to studying natural philosophy and discovering “the secrets of Nature.” These natural secrets were often thought to be perilously close to occult secrets, and della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V to answer for rumors that the Academy had too keen an interest in magic. He was found to be innocent, but the Academy was shut down by the Inquisition.

Della Porta would later go on to co-found the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academy of the Lynxes (or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed: the lynx, thought to have extraordinary vision, symbolized the critical importance of observation in the “new science.”)  A similar institution in England, the Invisible College, would eventually morph into the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Della Porta’s text was influential in the ancient pseudoscience of physiognomy, the study of determining a person’s inner character by her or his outward appearance. For della Porta, this analogous thinking was a product of the doctrine of signatures, the theory that medicinal plants would look like the part of the body they could cure (hence roots like the phallic-looking mandrake were thought to help impotence and fertility). While it may seem strange to modern thinking, terms from physiognomy are common in our daily lexicon. It is from physiognomy, for example, that we get the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.”

The impulse to judge a person’s inner qualities by their outward appearances is ancient, but the categorization and codification of these aesthetic judgments is relatively modern. In the 18th and 19th century, together with its cousin phrenology, physiognomy enabled pernicious forms of scientific racism.

Strangely enough, physiognomy is making a bit of a comeback, albeit in a modified form. Scientists have taken to studying people’s reaction to different kinds of faces, as profiled in this Economist article . Whether this kind of study is helpful or not is debatable: do these studies counter or reinforce stereotypes when they assert, for example, that men with angular faces are perceived as criminal? That attractive men have an evolutionary advantage because their faces cause women to orgasm more frequently?  When a generalized theory is applied to the individual, does it simply slip into stereotype?

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Completely gratuitous additional note about the greyhound thing: if you were to judge my character (and not my body habitus), the greyhound would actually be an appropriate choice for analogy, as it comes in at #8 on this list of “Top 10 Dogs for Lazy Owners”!)

 

More information on Giambattista della Porta and/or physiognomy:

From the National Library of Medicine, “Historical Anatomies on the Web,” a full version of De humana physiognomonia libri IIII http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/porta_home.html

An article on Giambattista della Porta and “natural magic” from the Folger Shakespeare Library: http://www.folger.edu/html/folger_institute/experience/textures_grabner_porta.htm

More on della Porta (including text, articles, etc.) from Prof. Gary Zabel at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Natural_Magic/jportat3.html

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Welcome to Rivendell, Frodo Baggins

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.

Then I saw the frontispiece to Mathew Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches.

Then I marveled at the 12th-century herbal instructions on how to harvest a screeching mandrake.

We walked out quietly. My daughter looked at me and said, sotto voce, “Mom, was that a page from HARRY POTTER Harry Potter?”

I put my arm around her shoulder. For that day, we weren’t the Clampetts in Beverley Hills, we were hobbits who’d left the Shire for Rivendell.

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Fascination of the Day: The Ripley Scrolls

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:

pelican

Alchemical pelican, Wikimedia commons

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).

Ripley Scrolls

By George Ripley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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…

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July 25, 2013 · 7:22 am

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General and Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month

Lately, I’ve been a little obsessed with early modern witchcraft.

Perhaps it’s because of the poppet in my hedge. Or perhaps it’s because I took the BBC’s online quiz “Would You Have Been Accused of Witchcraft” (short answer: yes).

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).

Matthew Hopkins, "Witchfinder General"

Matthew Hopkins, “Witchfinder General”

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 Witches in 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.

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More

Blog “Shakespeare’s England” on “Swimming a Witch”

Marks of an Absolute Witch: Evidentiary Dilemmas in Early Modern England by Orna Alyagon Darr (Ashgate, 2011)

 

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