A Spaniard in Samarkand, 1404

Special note: an earlier version of this post appeared on a new blog I helped develop in partnership with Not Even Past of the University of Texas at Austin and Origins (Ohio State University). Check it out here: historymilestones.tumblr.comOn September 8, 1404, the Castilian diplomat Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo reached the Silk Road city of Samarkand. He had travelled over […]

A Spaniard in Samarkand

On September 8, 1404, the Castilian diplomat Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo reached the Silk Road city of Samarkand. He had travelled over five thousand miles by foot, sail, horse and camel; passed through steppe, deserts, seas and mountains. Now he had reached his destination: the capital of a vast new empire created by a military genius, mass murderer […]


Sharp-eyed stargazers on the night of October 4, 1957, would have noticed a tiny unblinking point of light moving silently across the night sky, its glow waxing and waning. The world in those days was far less polluted by background light than it is today: interstate freeways were still a theoretical idea, electric lighting had […]

From Quacks to Quaaludes: Three Centuries of Drug Advertising

Eli Lilly Amphedroxyn (methamphetamine) advertisement, 1951. New York State Journal of Medicine, Vol. 51, No. 1. (Via the Bonkers Institute). Portuguese physician João Curvo Semedo, 1707, sporting the extravagant locks typical of his era. Image viathe Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. In his book Polyanthea Medicinal (Lisbon, 1697), a Portuguese doctor and seller of remedios secretos (“secret remedies”) named João Curvo Semedo […]

Three Centuries of Drug Ads

In his book Polyanthea Medicinal(Lisbon, 1697), a Portuguese doctor and seller of remedios secretos (“secret remedies”) named João Curvo Semedo listed hundreds of early modern drug recipes. Semedo rather resembled the British drug seller and author William Salmon (who I wrote about in a previous post) in his readiness to experiment with both remedies from the New World and alchemical […]

Origins of the Global Drug Trade

Portugal and Early Modern Globalization The slaves, merchants and mariners of the Portuguese imperial world played a key role in bringing tea to Britain, coffee to Brazil, and chili peppers to India. Indeed, early modern Portuguese were globalizers par excellence. Portuguese mariners and their African slaves can be spied shimmying up ship ropes and perched […]

Images of a New World: the Watercolors of John White

This is a cross-posting from a piece I recently wrote for the Public Domain Review. For this version of the post, I’ve supplemented the original with quite a few more images which are sourced from the British Museum and are reproduced here under its fair use agreement. As a side note, I’ve been remiss in updating […]

Painting the New World

As lucklesse to many, as sinister to myselfe. Such was the Elizabethan colonist John White’s gloomy assessment of his tenure as the first governor of Britain’s fledgling colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia. As White lived out his final days on an Irish plantation in 1593, he struggled to come to terms with his ambivalent legacy […]

Altered and adorned: an interview with Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Message box with hand-painted print, Germany, 1490s. Featured inSuzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols, Altered and Adorned. Today I’m pleased to offer up Res Obscura’s very first guest post: an interview conducted by Hasan Niyazi of the popular art history blog Three Pipe Problem. I’ve been a big fan of this blog since discovering it last […]

Early Modern Alchemy: Heinrich Khunrath’s "Amphitheater of Eternal Knowledge"

“While these Discontents continued, severall Letters past between Queene Elizabeth and Doctor Dee, whereby perhaps he might promise to returne; At length it so fell out, that he left Trebona and took his Iourney for England. The ninth of Aprill he came to Breame… Here that famous Hermetique Philosopher, Dr Henricus Khunrath of Hamburgh came […]