Author: Lisa Smith

Looking to the Edge, or Networking Early Modern Women

It’s a funny thing, really, that after several decades of women’s history in the academic world, historians should still need to be told how to go about finding women. ‘Look to the edges’, exhorted Amanda Herbert in her keynote address for ‘Networking Early Modern Women’. This was no less than a call to arms, especially amidst the #femfog (in which a prominent medieval historian claimed that feminists intimidate and victimize men, obscuring manly good sense in a feminist fog).[1]

V0007640ETR Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil cr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Angels, demons and representations of flesh and the devil crowd around a stool upon which the different elements that make up a human burn and smoke; representing a test of faith. Etching by C. Murer after himself, c. 1600-1614. 1622 By: Christoph MurerPublished: 1622 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The origins of #femfog? C. Murer, c. 1600-1614. Image Credit: Wellcome Images, London.

The goal of the add-a-thon, hosted by the great Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project, was to add more women into the database’s networks. And the Sloane Letters team[2] was (virtually) there! As Hillary Nunn noted in a review of Six Degrees, there were initially few women in the database, in large part because the project drew heavily on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography when identifying networks.

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist etching and line engraving, late 18th to early 19th century NPG D30497 Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Elizabeth Monck (née Cavendish), Duchess of Albemarle, after Unknown artist. Image Credit: NPG D30497, National Portrait Gallery, London.

From a Sloane perspective, the Six Degrees database also lacked any of the women in Sloane’s networks–even though much of Sloane’s early patronage came from women. For example, Sloane was the Duchess of Albemarle’s household physician for several years after returning from Jamaica. The Duchess later married the Duke of Montagu, and Sloane was consulted by the extended Montagu family.

Sloane also corresponded with women about a range of subjects beyond medical treatment. Widows like Margaret Ray, Margaret Flamsteed, and Anna Hermann consulted him about bookselling and publishing. Some women, such as the Duchess of Bedford and the Lady Sondes, asked for advice about family matters. Other female correspondents shared an interest in natural philosophy; Cecilia Garrard, for instance, sent him specimens and the Duchess of Beaufort discussed botany (and, at her death in 1715, bequeathed him her herbarium). All of this I know through long familiarity with Sloane’s correspondence.

But what does the picture of women’s networks look like if we take a step back from individual letters to examine the cumulative data in the Sloane Letters database?

To prepare for the Six Degrees add-a-thon, research assistant Edward Devane extracted all of the Sloane Letters references to women who were born before 1699–the cut-off date for inclusion in the Six Degrees database. I also asked him to create a shortlist of women who had clearly strong connections with Sloane: women who appeared frequently, referred to social contact, or wrote several letters. There were 339 female individuals on the long list who were mentioned in the letters at least once. But for the shortlist? A mere twenty-seven women.

Look to the edge, indeed!

The group of strongly connected women picked up several crucial relationships, such as Sloane’s friendship with Lady Sondes; his old family connection to Anne Hamilton (dowager Countess of Clanbrassil); and his assistance of Margaret Ray, widow of Sloane’s good friend John Ray.

But the most important connections in Sloane’s life were only to be found in the margins. This was quite literally the case for his family relationships (wife and daughters) who appear in postscripts, along the lines of: ‘My humble service to your Lady and daughters’. There are also occasional references to his other female family members—mother, nurse, sisters, aunts… As for the Duchess of Albemarle, she was mentioned only a few times in a handful of letters from Peter Barwick.

Of course, it is not surprising that people whom Sloane saw frequently do not appear in the letters, but their absence obscures the social, family and patronage networks that would have been important to Sloane’s daily life. Although the women remain hidden as strong connections when extracting basic data, the Sloane Letters database can still be searched by name or relationship, which makes it easier to sift through the masses of correspondence to find scattered references to his family networks.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Image Credit: University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Then there are the female correspondents who didn’t even appear in the list at all because they signed their names using initials. Take, for example, J. Squire who wrote to Sloane in 1731. There is nothing in the letter that explicitly suggests that J. Squire was a woman. However, the linkage of the three names—Squire, Abrahm de Moivre and Sloane is telling. Jane Squire had a proposal to determine longitude, which attracted the interest of De Moivre and Sloane. How many other women are to be found lurking behind initials in the correspondence?

What we mean when we talk about networks might also need to be broadened when we look to the edge. Do we just trace important people with wide networks? Do we just trace those whose biographies can be verified? Just how inclusive should we be?

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A family group of a woman and four children flanked on either side by figures of children. Engraving by Aug. Desnoyers after himself after Raphael. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s loose connections present a number of women who saw Sloane as a part of their network, even if the women did not play a meaningful role in his life. Mrs. E. Martin wrote to Sloane in 1725 and 1726 asking for his help in a person situation. Her lover, Mr. Knight, had abandoned her and their children to marry another woman. By 1726, the situation was worse: Mr. Knight had her confined, removed her child, and frozen his payments to her. Mrs. Martin noted that Sloane had once treated her. This was typical; there were several one-off letters from former patients asking for assistance, presumably because Sloane was one of the most important people they knew.

However, the names that Mrs. Martin dropped in the letters also suggest that she thought Sloane might have personal influence: Mr. Knight, Mr. Isted, and Mr. Meure. Isted was Sloane’s son-in-law, while Knight and Meure were friends of Isted and Sloane. Perhaps these other connections were a little too close, because Sloane dismissed her altogether:

I rec’d yors & am in no manner of condition either to advise or relieve you being perfectly a stranger to what you write & not in a possible way of helping you, being full of affairs in my own profession that I have neither time nor abilities to be assisting to you.

Mrs. Martin was, indeed, a woman found at the edge—of survival and social networks.

At first glance, looking at the list of letter-writers, women hardly factor in Sloane’s correspondence. There were women who wrote directly to Sloane, but most women appear only as subjects, mentioned by medical practitioners, family members or friends (their, er, networks?). One of the reasons that I developed the Sloane Letters database was to make those hidden women more findable; if we describe the letters beyond authorship, women’s stories and networks suddenly become visible.

And it is only by looking to the edges in the first place that the outlines of early modern women’s networks emerge, revealing how women were at the centre all along.

[1] David Perry has a good summary on #femfog and links to other criticisms here:

[2] The team included my University of Essex research assistants (Edward Devane and Evie Smith) and me.

Grading Sir Hans Sloane’s Research Paper

It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4).

Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for a good reason: there aren’t very many by him in his correspondence collection. But he did, occasionally, send in reports to the Royal Society… some of which were better than others. I love reading the early eighteenth-century Philosophical Transactions; many of the authors knew how to tell a cracking story, with a clear narrative arc of event, evidence and interpretation.

Not so much this offering from Sloane.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Filberts. Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Wikimedia Commons.

Sloane’s account began in 1729 when “a Person came to consult me on an Accident, that befell four of his Children, aged from four Years and a half, to thirteen Years and a half”. The children decided to have a foraged snack from the fields by St. Pancras Church, thinking that the seeds they’d found were tasty filberts. But foraging can be a risky business and the children took ill. Their symptoms included great thirst, dizziness, blurred vision, delirium and sleepiness. For Sloane, the symptoms suggested henbane poisoning; Sloane’s initial diagnosis was reinforced after examining the seeds that the father had brought in to show him. Sloane prescribed bleeding, blistering at multiple points, and purging at both ends: “And by this Method they perfectly recovered.”

This could have made for a solid medical case study: who better to bring together clinical observation with botanical detective work? But for Sloane, the real story was the seeds rather than his diagnostic prowess. I withheld judgement. At this point, I was curious to see where Sloane, the narrator, would take his readers.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Four poisonous plants: hemlock (Conium maculatum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), opium lettuce (Lactuca virosa) and autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane went on to describe how the symptoms of delirium can offered important clues. Henbane delirium was very different from regular fevered delirium, but had much in common to the delirium caused by datura (“a species of stramonium”) and bang of East-India (“a sort of hemp”–indeed). Unfortunately for the reader, he did not describe any of these forms of delirium.

He then noted that the delirium from all three herbs was different from that “caused by the rubbing with a certain Ointment made use of by Witches (according to Lacuna, in his Version and Comments upon Dioscorides)”. The witches’ ointment instead would “throw the Persons into deep Sleep, and make them dream so strongly of being carried in the Air to distant Places, and there meeting with others of their diabolical Fraternity; that when they awake they actually believe, and have confess’d, that they have performed such extravagent Actions.”

I see. From faux-filberts to witches’ ointment in four easy steps…

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A sculpture of a man with toothache. Wood engraving after Mr. Anderson. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Henbane wasn’t all bad, though. Sloane recounted, for example, that several years before, a “Person of Quality tormented with this racking Pain [of tooth-ache]” was treated by an empiric who used henbane. The sufferer was desperate—“his Anguish obliging him to submit to any Method of procuring Ease”—and he allowed the empiric to funnel smoke into the tooth’s hollow before (allegedly) removing tooth-worms. If this case sounds familiar to regular readers, it should be. Sloane procured one of the maggots from the sufferer, then sent it to Leeuwenhoek who examined it in detail and found it to be an ordinary cheese worm rather than a so-called tooth-worm.

Although Sloane knew that the wormy tale was fake, he pointed out that “upon the whole”, the henbane would have offered pain relief. And in any case, presumably, a good tale about tooth-worms bears repeating. Sloane also took the chance in his conclusion to make a dig at empirics who, through “slight of Hand” acquired a reputation for their remedies’ success, “which from the Prescription of an honest Physician would be taken little Notice of.”

So ends the account


Essay Comments

Sir Hans,

There is much of interest in this paper: your medical cases on henbane and tooth-worms are intriguing and your ability to identify both seeds and poisoning is impressive. I also appreciate the historical perspective that you bring to this study with your discussion of witch ointments.

However, there are a few ways in which this essay could be strengthened. The essay lacks analysis as you move quickly between subjects–a recent case, types of delirium caused by different seeds, and an old case. These are all fascinating issues in their own right, but you lapse into storytelling with each instance without ever going into detail about their significance. For example, in the middle section, you aim to connect different seeds to different types of delirium, but you never provide any discussion about the specifics (apart from the witches’ delirium): how did the childrens’ delirium present? What does delirium caused by bhang or datura look like? In what ways are each of these similar or different? This would help the reader to understand your thought process in diagnosing the patients and in identifying poisons.

It is also worth more carefully considering the title you’ve chosen: “An Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane”. A good title should reflect the content of the essay. However, only the first section of your paper considers symptoms actually caused by eating henbane seeds. The second section is potentially related, but needed to be more closely linked to make the connection clear; this would have been done to good effect by comparing the specifics of each drug and their symptoms to the case of henbane poisoning you introduced. The third section is only tangentially related—although you discuss a medical case and henbane is involved, you consider henbane’s therapeutic qualities rather than symptoms arising from its use. You could usefully have omitted the case in its current state, particularly since the section focuses on making value judgements about empirics and examining tooth-worms. That said, if you really do think it necessary to keep the section, you needed to consider henbane’s effects in more detail. Even more crucially, you might consider changing the title: “An Account of the Effects of Henbane” would have neatly pulled the three strands together in a more coherent fashion.

This essay has the potential to be a wonderful example of your diagnostic and botanical mastery, especially if you took more time to consider the narrative arc. Rather than scattering your energies by telling several stories (henbane, witches or tooth-worms), focus instead on one strand. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by showing off what you know and how you know it, instead of just sharing a collection of interesting tidbits.

So what grade should we give it…?

Beginnings and Endings: History Carnival 150

It’s been one month since I started my new job at the University of Essex. Settling in has been a busy and fun process. The moving company now tells me that my boxes should be in England by the weekend. One month and a new start in life has simply become life… Being in a reflective state of mind, I’ve chosen to focus this month’s History Carnival on the theme of beginnings and endings.


Let us begin, then, with a voyage. Over at Halley’s Log, Kate Morant has started blogging Edmond Halley’s third voyage on the Paramour (1701), this time to observe the tides in the English Channel–and maybe do some spying.

The ultimate traveller just might be Morrissey… or Richard III… who appears to have been doing some time travel. This is possibly my favourite tweet of the month. (Well, it’s technically from October rather than September, but it arrived just as I was writing this post.)

And there is a great introduction to the artist Sonia Delaunay over at Art and Architecture, mainly where we learn about how she began a new life in a new city and took up new ways of doing art.

A big welcome to Sheilagh O’Brien who has just started blogging at Enchanted History! Her first post on marriage to the Devil couldn’t be timed more perfectly, being on the Essex witch trials and mentioning–of course–Colchester. There is more witchy history over at The Witch, the Weird and the Wonderful, where HJ Blenkinsop considers how the black cat became the witch’s familiar.

Jan van de Velde, 1626. A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Jan van de Velde, 1626. A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A cracking criminal tale from Catherine Curzon at A Covent Gardern Gilfurt’s Guide to Life. In 1807, Strasbourg residents were being subjected to a new and elaborate con in which a gang of thieves played the roles of exorcist, devil and prophetess to dupe their victims.

Where there are thieves, there must be those who pursue them. Margaret Makepeace at Untold Lives tells us the story of the Metropolitan Police’s first-ever day on the job… that came complete with a review of their performance in the Morning Post the day after!

There are some great posts from historians reflecting on the profession and practice of doing history. Brodie Waddell at The Many-Headed Monster has a series of posts considering what problems exist in the history profession–specifically about training doctoral students and the casualisation of labour. In this post, he has “Seven Practical Steps” for what we can do to improve it.

Johann Staininger, a man with a very long beard. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Johann Staininger, a man with a very long beard. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. Congratulations to Alun Withey who has just launched his new project on beards in history, which he introduces over here.

From Victorians’ facial hair, it is but a short hop to Jacob Steere-Williams’ post at Renaissance Mathematicus, in which he critiques the “privileged hipsters living the solipsist dream of a phantasmagorical Victorian world in the twenty-first century.”

Steere-Williams argues that simply wearing nineteenth-century clothes and using nineteenth-century technology is an insufficient–even dangerous–start to understanding Victorian experience. This is “far from an inocuous appropriation of powerless objects from the past. There is a very real danger in a cherry-picked, tunnel-vision of history, one that ignores power, inequality, racism and privilege.”

Along the same lines, Matt Champion’s evocative post at the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey points out that

it isn’t enough to simply record what we find on the walls. It is a start. No more than that. The key though has to be understanding what we are seeing. To try and find our way into the mindset and motivations of the long-dead who left these tantalising messages for the future.

Silences as a way into a field of study, or a block to that study, is the theme of “The Truth about Child Sexual Assault” (1900-1950) by Mark Finnane and Yorrick Smaal at The Prosecution Project. What might be a tantalising start when studying graffiti is the frustrating (possible) end here. As Finnane and Smaal note: “The consequences of this silence continue to frustrate scholarly research.”

Henry Heath, 1841. Three dandies smoking and drinking coffee. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Henry Heath, 1841. Three dandies smoking and drinking coffee. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is Welcome Week here at the University of Essex and my mind is filled with thoughts of the teaching to come next week. The Recipes Project has been running a great series on teaching historical recipes throughout the month of September, but let me draw your attention to Carla Cevasco’s post on “Teaching High School American History with Cookbooks“. It’s a fascinating post about introducing students to recipes for the first time, as well as the intersection of (for example) immigration policy, food cultures and anxiety.

But who needs university anyway? (Shhh. Let’s not tell the government, who is already in the process of dismantling UK academia.) Thony Christie looks at “The Penny Universities”, or how the first coffee houses in Britain became places where one could attend lectures by paying a penny–the price of a cup of coffee. While I like coffee (occasionally), I’m not sure that this would put bread on my table.

As every teacher knows, term time has its ups and downs. At some point, stimulants and tonics will be needed. D. Brooks at Friends of Schoharie Crossing takes a look at Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, good

For the cure of Dyspepsia, Indigestion, Nausea, Flatulency, Loss of Appetite, or any Bilious Complaints, arising from a morbid inaction of the Stomach or Bowels, producing Cramps, Dysentery, Colic, Cholera, Morbus, &c., these Bitters have no equal.

Pharmacy jar, used for nerve ointment, The Netherlands, 1730. Credit: Science Museum, London.

Pharmacy jar, used for nerve ointment, The Netherlands, 1730.
Credit: Science Museum, London.

And with some 47% alcohol. A better bet than (at least the initial runs of) The Cereal Beverage” offered by the Chemung Beverage Company in 1927. Kelli Huggins (Chemung County Historical Society blog) discusses how the cereal beverage rapidly became a bit more high-powered, despite it being illegal. The “near beer” of Schenectady, as described at the Grems-Doolittle Library Collections blog, would also be a bit disappointing… Coffee it is, then. And maybe some bitters, too.

While thinking about the rhythms of the academic year, it’s worth reading this post on the traditional calendar in West Virginia by Danna Bell at the Library of Congress on “Finding Traditions: Exploring the Seasonal Round“. What is beginning now will end in only ten weeks, followed by grading, research and Christmas holidays, only to begin again in January…

And next month, there will be yet another History Carnival, this time hosted by Sharon Howard over at Early Modern Notes… so start saving up your posts, just as the West Virginians will be preserving foodstuffs. See you there!



Changes… and a History Carnival!

If you’re still around, dear readers, then you will have noticed that the blog has remained quiet–despite the end of my maternity leave. There is a reason for this: I have been caught up in a flurry of paperclips and packing. At the start of September, I began a new job as Lecturer in Digital History at the University of Essex.

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex. The house and some of the parkland are still on the University of Essex campus, 1816.

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816. The University of Essex is built on Wivenhoe Park. You can still see the house and some of the parkland (but, sadly, not the cows and swans).

This entailed packing up my office of thirteen years (in addition to my house). To simplify my life, I gave books and periodicals to students and sent my article library for recycling, along with all the other masses of paper that accumulate over a career.  In the end, I whittled the library down to a mere 523 books and two boxes of papers. Sloane would scoff, no doubt.

These are the two boxes of papers that escaped recycling and are in the process of being transported by ship to England. Looking at this picutre, I realise that I forgot my little office rug.

These are the two boxes of papers that escaped recycling and are in the process of being transported by ship to England. Looking at this picture, I realise that I forgot my little office rug.

To mark the new academic year and a new job, I’m hosting the 150th History Carnival on October 1.  If you don’t know what a History Carnival is (or missed the last one),  please  check out the 149th one hosted by Ana Stevenson. For Carnival 150, I’m particularly interested in featuring posts on the themes of beginnings, endings or change.* To nominate your favourite blog posts from around the interwebs in September, just fill in this form. I look forward to reading all the nominations.

*But don’t worry if your favourite September post doesn’t seem to fit that theme–nominate it anyway!


On Hans Sloane’s Copies of De Humani Corporis Fabrica

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Title page. Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septum, 1555. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Thanks to Felicity Roberts, I’ve learned that a copy of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica Librorum Epitome (Basel, 1543) once owned by Hans Sloane went up for auction at Christie’s on 15 July.  Although the list price was a £70,000-£100,000, the book ended up going for £60,000.

Christie’s has just started a Discovery series of short videos to highlight pieces with particularly interesting histories. First up: Sloane’s book! Go take a look at “The ‘Google Maps’ of the Human Body” now.

What I love about this video and post is how well it captures Sven Becker’s enthusiasm when it came to finding something unexpected in the course of researching the book’s provenance. The sale also caused some excitement on the C-18L listserv, with some contributors wondering whether the book had been stolen or its notes forged.

Alison Walker, who leads the British Library’s Sloane Printed Books Project, attended the auction and has been tracing the book’s provenance in more detail. This has required a bit of digging, but the process involved in uncovering a book’s history is fascinating. It’s worth quoting Alison’s findings (which she shared in an email to me) at length. She reports that the book, which was from the Duke of Westminster’s collection,

seems to have been sold as a duplicate by the British Museum in 1769, and appears as lot 336 on p. 12 of S. Baker and G. Leigh, A Catalogue of the Duplicates of the British Museum which will be sold by auction… April 4 1769 and nine following days, London, 1769. Normally one would expect to see a British Museum duplicate sale stamp on the book, but it seems to have been omitted in this case. It is listed on p. 54v of the interleaved copy of J.A. van der Linden, Lindenius renovatus, 1686, which Sloane used as his catalogue of Latin medical books. The book may have been acquired by Sloane in the 1720s or 1730s, though there is no precise acquisition date in his catalogue, and no indication of its previous provenance.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica, 1543.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

She has now included the book in the Sloane Printed Books database–a useful tool for suggesting the comings and goings of books in Sloane’s library over the years. (And, believe me, it is easy to lose track of time when playing with the database.)

The British Library still holds several other versions of De Humani Corporis Fabrica once owned by Sloane, including an especially fancy Epitome printed on vellum. And along the way, the British Library has sold off other copies from Sloane’s collection. For example, one 1555 edition of the book now at the Royal Society library was purchased during a duplicate sale in 1830.

Although there was a bit of excited speculation about fraud or theft surrounding this sale, a bit of historical detective work can uncover a much more prosaic explanation. Records do sometimes get lost–or never created, as in this case.

The featured image: putti killing a dog, from book 7 of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1555). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. I’ve always hated putti.

Of a leveret brought up by a cat

Tales of cross-species ‘friendships’ always warm the cockles of our modern hearts. It is difficult not to be charmed by accounts of Koko the Gorilla’s attachment to kittens and her grief when one died, or tales of a tiger suckling piglets . Early modern people were also fascinated by these odd pairings. In 1654, for example, John Evelyn reported that he “saw a tame lion play familiarly with a lamb” at a London fair. (Evelyn also stuck his hand in the lion’s mouth to touch its tongue—not sure I’d have taken my chances, no matter how tame the lion!)

In 1743, Montague Bacon, the Rector of Newbold Verdun in Leicestershire, offered up another strange pairing for the interest of Sir Hans Sloane (BL Sloane MS 4066, f. 127). “Pray tell Sr. Hans”, he wrote to Captain Tublay, “that my brother has got a Leveret, that has been suckled & bred up by a cat”. Not quite lion and lamb status, but still…

The cat & the Leveret are as fond of one another, as can be. The Cat take’s it to be of her own kind, & sometimes bring’s live mice to it to teach it it’s own hare: and when she see’s, that the Lever[e]t has no relish of the employment, she boxe’s her ears for not learning her bus’ness, as she should do.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Both animal odd couples were clearly curiosities, but viewers would have had very different interpretations. During the Interregnum (1649-1660), the lion and lamb pairing would have had religious and political resonance. Religiously, it evoked Isaiah 11:6 and the dual nature of Christ (lion as conquest and lamb as sacrifice): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

"Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" by Edward Hicks - under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” by Edward Hicks – under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the lion and lamb pairing also showed up in Royalist works celebrating the return of the king, such as the popular ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again”:

When all these shall come to pass,
then farewell Musket, Pipe and Drum,
The Lamb shall with the Lyon feed,
which were a happy time indeed:
O let us all pray, we may see the day,
that Peace may govern in his Name:
For then I can tell all things will be well
When the King comes Home in Peace again

The leveret and cat pairing was a much cozier domestic matter. It took place within the home of Bacon’s brother and the cat acted as mother to the leveret, even trying to teach the leveret to hunt. Bacon emphasised the cat’s maternal instinct as overriding its predatorial instinct, so much so that he never even indicated why and how the cat came to be suckling the leveret. (But perhaps it was something like this account of another cat and leveret.) England of 1743 was at peace, but the ever-expanding British empire that brought them into contact with new people, lands and animals: could they be brought under British domestication, too? A homely little tale of predator and prey living together might have been very appealing.

Bacon’s interpretation also has similiarities with our own modern tendencies in anthropomorphization; we look for examples of nurturing behaviours–our own best selves, as reflected in the animal world. But his interpretation differs from ours, as well. Where we might read the animal behaviour as emotion (as with the video showing Koko’s grief), Bacon was more circumspect in making that comparison, describing the pair “as fond of one another, as can be”.

In any case, the real animal curiosity as far as Bacon was concerned, was not the cat and leveret relationship. In the letter, he gave as many lines to another point of interest:

I know not whether it be a curiosity to mention, that our neighbor Mr. Crawley has a breed of white, quite white Game hares. The young ones are speckled, when young, but grow quite white, as they grow up. Sr. Hans can tell whether these things are worth mentioning or not.

Now that line of enquiry is very different from our modern interests, but certainly fit with the eighteenth-century attempts to classify the world around them. When looking at accounts of animal friendships, then and now, context is indeed everything.

A Peculiar Postscript

Eighteenth-century letters generally contain an excess of politeness, even when one correspondent rebuked another. But every now and then, letter recipients must have been left scratching their heads—and not because of head lice…

In 1732, the Dowager Countess of Ferrers wrote to Mrs Hinde, asking her to take the letter along with payment to Sir Hans Sloane for advice on an eye problem. The letter begins with an apology for not writing to Mr Hinde. This the Countess blamed on her eye trouble, which “render’d it [writing] so uneasy to me that I now never attempt it but when forced by Business of necessity”. The Countess then found the energy to write a lengthy letter (about 1200 words) on her eye problem. Well then, that put the Hindes in their place: she was only writing because she wanted something.

Of course, there was an obvious status difference between writer and recipient here. The rules for polite behaviour that were so integral to the Republic of Letters (or when a lower-ranking person wrote to a higher-ranking recipient) did not apply when the letter writer was the social superior. The Hindes probably thought nothing of this particular comment.

But still, the real charm clincher comes in the postscript.

I am glad yr young baby and misses have so much Health & strength & gives so much entertainment to ye whole Family, I cannot say that I ever could give into ye amusement of being able to divert my self with little Children but I have often envy’d those that found pleasure in them & therefore give Mrs Hinde Joy upon that occasion.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant’s helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Righto. And this is what I hear it as:

Congratulations on the birth of your baby, if that’s what makes you happy. I hate small kids. And I’m sorry not sorry that I never liked them.

Anyway, social status notwithstanding, the Countess’ somewhat peculiar (if unintentionally hilarious) postscript surely must have left the Hindes wondering how long they could reasonably wait before passing on the letter to Sloane. And given that the Countess had sent the letter from France, there could have been any number of possible reasons for a delay.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

Measles in History

The terror of smallpox lives on in popular memory, but measles are often dismissed by many as just a childhood disease: How much harm could it really cause? And aren’t childhood diseases useful for breaking in immune systems anyhow? We overlook measles at our peril, as recent outbreaks, such as the Disneyland one, have shown. It only takes one sick person for the disease to spread rapidly among those who can’t be vaccinated (such as babies), those whose vaccines are incomplete or unsuccessful, and those who opted out of vaccination.

But is measles really comparable to smallpox, or am I being a bit extreme? Well, in early modern Europe, measles—more specifically, its complications–was considered as deadly as smallpox.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1730, physician Thomas Fuller published Exanthematologia: Or, An Attempt to Give a Rational Account of Eruptive Fevers, especially of the Measles and Small Pox. Fuller addressed it to Sir Hans Sloane and the Royal College of Physicians. In part, this was a strategy to situate the book as part of the reformed and rationale medicine that Sloane championed as the College’s President.

But it would have appealed to Sloane who had promoted smallpox inoculation and had a longstanding interest in fevers. Not only did he help to popularise the use of Peruvian bark for treating fevers, regularly using it in his own practice, but he took an interest in the publication of Edward Strother’s Criticon Febrium: or, a critical essay on fevers in 1716 (Preface). Strother, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a fan of Peruvian bark (48).

Fuller classified and described the various types of fevers with rashes or pustules, concluding that the most dangerous were smallpox and measles. Although the two diseases were very different, they had something crucial in common, being contagions that could be spread through one’s breath or skin pores (93). These “venemous fevers” were produced by a venom that was mild, unless over-heated—then the fevers became “more killing than even the Plague itself” (119).

Measles, even in its most benign state, is a miserable experience. The symptoms include: coldness and shivering; yawning; queasiness and vomiting; anguish; headache and backache; quick and weak pulse; great heat and thirst; short, painful breathing and oppession of the breast; hypochondriac tension and pale urine; watchfulness and drowsiness; convulsions; weakness and heaviness; redness, swelling, and pricking of eyes, lids and brows; involuntary tears and sneezing; sore throat, hoarseness, runny nose, and perpetual cough (142).

Fuller noted that not only did the cough always come before the measles, but that the pain in one’s chest and shortness of breath were much worse in measles than smallpox (147-8). Measles could also become malignant, or as we’d call it today, develop complications. The fever would last longer than four days and the spots would erupt much more slowly. Worse yet, diarrhea and peripneumonia occurring afterwards could prove fatal (149-150). At this point, Fuller included excerpts from Thomas Sydenham’s observations of measles outbreaks during the 1670s (151-7).

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano Della Bella, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is Sydenham’s references to the personal devastation from the illness that caught my attention. In 1670, measles “seiz’d chiefly on Children; but spar’d none in any House they enter’d into” (151). By day 8, the spots cleared up, as was typical, but that is when the cough set in: “we are to observe, that at this Time the Fever, and Difficulty of Breathing are increased; and the Cough grown so cruelly troublesome, as to hinder Sleep Day and Night”. The cause of the children’s terrible coughs, Sydenham suggested, was poor management of the disease; they had “been kept too hot, and have taken hot Medicines, to drive, or keep out the Measles” (153). As we know now, complications are more likely to happen in people who have chronic conditions, the very young or elderly, and the malnourished.

So, how did Sydenham and Fuller treat measles? With “much the same Method of Cure with the Small-pox”. Not surprising, given that they were both classed as venomous diseases. Above all, “hot medicines and regimen are extreamly pernicious”. The patient should “eat no flesh”, only water-gruel, barley-broth and roasted apples (sometimes). To drink, the patient was allowed small beer or watered down milk. The patient was to remain in bed for two to three days during the eruption, so the morbose particles would leave through the skin (155-6).

The cough should be treated with a pectoral decoction, linctus and diacodium (poppy syrup): “Very rarely, if ever, will any one that useth this Method die”. If the cough continued, it could “bring great Danger”. Bleeding was the clear choice in that case. “I have (with great Success)”, Sydenham promised, “order’d even the youngest Infants to be let Blood in the Arm; and where the Case requir’d it, I have not fear’d to repeat the same.” This rescued “truly many Children that have been at Death’s Door”. As a bonus, bleeding treated the diarrhea by ridding the body of sharp humours (156-7).

No wonder measles was so feared, with Sydenham declaring that the pneumonia “is so fatal commonly after the Measles, that it may well be reckon’d the chief Minister of Death, destroying more than even the Small-Pox itself” (157). They didn’t know yet about the potential for brain damage or deafness! In the West, we’ve forgotten the real horror of epidemic diseases that killed children.

For some other historical discussions of measles, see The Wellcome Trust Blog on the development of vaccination programmes and Historiann on the early eighteenth-century treatments proposed by Cotton Mather.