Below you’ll find around 100 blog posts written between 2009 and the present.

The bRes Obscura header newulk of them are imported from my blog Res Obscura, which is loosely themed around globalization, drugs, medicine and science, and intercultural exchanges in the early modern period. It also has a strong focus on visual culture and art history and has been featured on Metafilter and Slate’s Culture Gabfest. The blog is more or less on hiatus at the moment as I work on my dissertation, the Appendix, and articles, but I intend to resurrect it.

Read all Res Obscura posts here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 1.07.28 PMThe Appendix is an online journal of experimental and narrative history that I co-founded in 2012.

Read all Appendix articles and posts here.

Meiji Meth: the Deep History of Illicit Drugs

Robert Hooke, the short-tempered genius who discovered cells, was also the author of the first academic paper on cannabis. In the fall of 1689, Hooke ducked into a London coffee shop to purchase the drug from an East Indies merchant, and proceeded to test it on an unnamed “Patient.” It was evidently a large dose.

“The Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeth, heareth, or doth,” Hooke reported. “Yet he is very merry, and laughs, and sings… and sheweth many odd Tricks.” Hooke observed that the drug eased stomach pains, provoked hunger, and could potentially “prove useful in the Treatment of Lunaticks.” Hooke also strongly hinted that he’d personally sampled his coffee shop score: the drug “is so well known and experimented by Thousands,” he wrote, that “there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.” (There were good reasons that Hooke’s readers might be afraid of a new drug—this was, after all, a world where pharmacies sold ground up skulls and Egyptian mummies as medicine).

Historians have largely ignored Hooke’s adventures with cannabis, entertaining as they may be. Albert Hoffmann’s accidental discovery of acid, however, is well known. In fact it’s arguably the most famous tale of drug discovery, challenged only by August Kekulé’s famous dream-vision of the benzene molecule as an ouroboros, which preoccupied Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Read more at The Appendix.

This post was also syndicated by The Atlantic under the title “From the Lab to the Street.”

Hybrid Atlantics

Future Directions for the History of the Atlantic World

Between 1584 and 1590, the painter and colonist John White produced an extraordinary series of watercolors depicting the peoples, plants, and animals he encountered in the West Indies and Virginia. In 20072008, some seventy of these images toured the world as part of a traveling British Museum exhibition. Yet both the curators of this exhibition and the experts commissioned to write the catalog failed to note an important fact: White employed Spanish and Portuguese taxonomies to label many of the plants, fish, birds, and animals he encountered in the New World. Like his patron Sir Walter Raleigh, White had come of age in an England whose nominal king was Phillip II of Spain and whose national ambitions were delimited by the power of the Iberian empires. The mental horizons of early British imperial agents like White and Raleigh were strongly shaped by the works of Spanish and Portuguese naturalists, chroniclers, legal theorists, physicians, and writers. The subsequent trajectory of the Anglo-American world submerged these influences.

That such a prominent feature of White’s paintings went unnoticed is emblematic of a larger pattern in scholarship on British America and the Atlantic world more generally. Works of Atlantic history have repeatedly emphasized themes of interconnection, circulation, encounter, and exchange. Yet, national or linguistic boundaries often limit the underlying research behind these studies. Scholarship on British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese Atlantics follows separate trajectories, with the unhappy result that twenty-first century scholars sometimes fail to notice influences that would have been obvious to early modern individuals.

One major disadvantage of this “national Atlantic” framework is that it maps modernity’s more celebrated features – religious toleration, free market capitalism, democracy, and experimental science – almost exclusively onto the British and Dutch Atlantic. By contrast, the Iberian empires have been depicted as decadent, conservative, or mired in a particularly exploitative attitude toward their indigenous and enslaved subjects. All of these factors may have been true to varying degrees – yet they have too often been taken for granted as inherent historical patterns, part of a teleology by which the Protestant nations of Northwestern Europe and their colonies became distinctively “modern,” while the other regions of the Atlantic littoral (Latin America, Africa, and Iberia) remained “backward.” This is a dichotomy with a deep history in the politics of the colonial era: as Liam Brockey observes, “the way that Northern European historians have written about their own imperial enterprises has purposefully marginalized the history of their competitors.” The result is a longstanding perception of moribund Iberian empires overtaken by more “modern” British and Dutch mercantile systems.

Full article behind paywall at History Compass. PDF available upon request.

(Co-authored with Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra)

In the Garden of Forking Paths

The Appendix, Appendixed

How do we order what we’ve learned of the world?

In 1941, Borges imagined a “Library of Babel” that contained every book that could possibly exist: histories of the future, “autobiographies of archangels,” lost gnostic gospels, “the treatise Bede could have written (but did not)” even “the true story of your death.” And dwarfing all of these works, Borges envisioned a universe-worth of endless nonsense, jumbled texts without coherence. A book that repeats the letters M C and V over and over. A book of utter gibberish surrounding one phrase at its center: “O Time thy pyramids.”

Although the library initially seems to be a blessing to humankind, it breeds violence and madness: “thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons,” writes Borges. “These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts.”

The problem was this: although, somewhere in the endless branching hexagons of books there existed a “faithful catalog of the Library,” no one knew its location. For Borges the librarian, the problem wasn’t too many books, or too large an accumulation of data, but not having a good index.

Read more at The Appendix. 
(Praise from AHA Today).

Calypso’s Island

A Short History of the Apocalypse

How does one survive an apocalypse, let alone remember it? Who writes the history of the end of the world?

At the time of its destruction four thousand years ago, Ur was the largest city in the world. Indeed, up to that point, it was the largest city to exist in the history of the world. Having emerged as an agricultural settlement in the late Neolithic, Ur’s citizens gained nourishment from barley, onions and emmer wheat coaxed from the fertile black soil of the Persian Gulf floodplains. As its power grew, conquered neighbors sent gold, silver, lapis lazuli, incense, sheep and slaves as tribute. The Kings of Ur enforced the earliest known code of laws, prescribing rules for everything from slave marriages to the proper punishment for false accusations of sorcery. Ur’s scribes created some of the earliest known written records. One could make a convincing argument that Ur invented Western civilization.

In 2004 BC, soldiers from the emerging empire of Elam in present-day Iran overran the city’s fortifications and killed or enslaved many of its citizens. For the inhabitants of Ur, it truly was the end of the world – or, at least, of their world. Remembering the disaster decades later, the survivors produced some of the earliest poetry in the historical record. These poems are dark lamentations, frightening, violent and nihilistic in tone. They speak of the night air filled with “burning pieces of clay” and of terrorized townsfolk “crouch[ing] down at the wall,” the Elamites “chewing them up/ like a pack of dogs.”

These poems are the earliest post-apocalyptic narratives. They document a world that would never exist again. The Sumerian language spoken in Ur was what linguists call an “isolate”: a tongue with no known relatives and no modern-day speakers. The culture that gave rise to farming, cities and writing became submerged beneath repeated invasions – Elamite, Akkadian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek – until eventually it was all but forgotten, even by those who inherited it.

And yet we can write about Ur today. This is apocalypse’s central paradox.

Read more at The Appendix.

"Why Does ‘S’ Look Like ‘F’?": A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Early Modern Texts

Last month, I came across a recently digitized book from 1680 with the innocuous-sounding title The School of Venus. After browsing it for a few moments, however, I realized I’d stumbled onto something truly interesting. It was a sex manual, and a rather free-spirited one at that, as the frontispiece engraving suggests:

It occurred to me that this was the sort of thing that would appeal to people outside of my specialist field of early modern history, and I began writing a blog post about it for the journal I co-edit, The Appendix.  Reading over my draft, my co-editor Chris brought up something that I’d taken for granted: like any 17th century book, the text employed what’s called the ‘long’ or ‘descending’ S.

“If this has the reach I think it might,” he said, “you need to explain that.” I initially thought the suggestion was slightly condescending to my readers: doesn’t everyone know about the old-timey S? Its right there in the first line of the Bill of Rights, after all:

Then I snapped out of it and realized that I was falling into the myopia typical of anyone who spends a long time in a specialist field. Like a biologist assuming that laypeople would know what hemoglobin is, I was forgetting that not everyone spends their days reading early modern texts. I put in an explanation of the S/F distinction, and the post got picked up by Slate and Jezebel – where a significant proportion of the comments were about how hard it was to read the old-fashioned writing.

So I write today to give an accessible overview of how to read books and manuscripts from the early modern era – what scholars call the period spanning the early Renaissance to the French, American and Industrial Revolutions. To tackle the S first: the long S dates back to the old Roman cursive handwriting, and survived as an artifact in the earliest printed book fonts, which were modeled on various medieval handwriting forms. The key thing to understand about the long S is that it occurs only in the middle of words, never at the beginning or end. Thus the title of School of Venus would not feature a long S in either its first or final letters, but words like ‘Castle’ or ‘Lost’ would appear as ‘Caſtle’ and ‘Loſt.’

So far so good. Things get trickier, however, when we try to read the earliest books printed in English, which typically featured variants of the German blackletter font. Here’s a two page spread from one of the earliest English medical texts, Thomas Elyot’s The Castell of Helth (1536):

A variant of the long S is in full effect here,  but so are a number of other features that look unusual to modern readers: capital letters like ‘T’ or ‘H’ take elaborate forms, and lowercase ‘d’ and ‘r’ retain the look of Carolingian miniscule or Gothic blacklister, the handwritings of choice of medieval monks. The top of the second page is intended to help with diagnosing sexual trouble, and reads: 

                                                              Heares [i.e. hairs] none or fewe
The genitories colde and drye {     Littel apetite or none to lechery.
                                                              Littel puiſſance to do it.

And so forth. I remember being a bit taken aback the first few times I tried to read books in this font, but it ends up registering in the brain as just that: a different font, but the same alphabet. Reading early modern manuscripts (the practice of which is called ‘paleography’) can be a different matter, however. To start us off easy, here’s a lovely script from the late 17th century written by a clerk or secretary at the Royal Society of London:

“Mr Hawksbee shewed the following Experiment, viz: Placing two small Birds in two Glasses, & exhausting the Air from one, & injecting it into the other, that Bird which was plac’d in the Glass from which the Air was withdrawn, died in about 30 seconds of time, after his beginning to take away the Air. The other Bird which remain’d in the Glass, whereinto, by the same Operation, the Air was convey’d, was affected with Convulsions, but not unto Death.”  (Via the Royal Society)
The script and language here is not all that different from modern English. The key differences are in the punctuation (early modern English, like modern German, tended to capitalize proper nouns), and also in certain contractions which are unused today, like “convey’d.” As a side note, I kept this snippet on hand because it contains a rare reference to an impostor named George Psalmanazar, who I just published an article about
Moving backwards in time to the early 17th century pen of none other than the great poet John Donne, we find things a little more unfamiliar:
John Donne’s handwritten draft of his great poem “The Triple Fool.” Via the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
Donne’s ‘E’s are typical of his period in that they resembled reversed ‘3’s, and his uppercase ‘I’ looks like an F or J. The most difficult difference in this script – or at least the one that tripped me the most when I was learning it – is the variation in the ‘S’ shapes. In the second line, Donne writes “saying soe” using a form with a looping tail, but in “fools,” he uses something like a modern cursive lowercase s. Finally, we find in the last line a very common 17th century abbreviation: ‘yt’ for ‘that.’ What appears to be a ‘y’ here is actually the descendant of the obsolete Old English letter thorn (Þ), which also appears in the classic construction “Ye Olde Shoppe.” (The ‘Ye’ would actually have been pronounced like ‘the’). You can see Donne using ‘Ye’ there in the middle: “Then as the Earths inward narrowe lanes…” As an interesting note, this draft of the poem differs from the final version – in the print edition, Donne substituted ‘crooked’ for ‘narrowe.’
Now lets move on to some truly difficult paleography. This is a photograph I took of a book at the John Carter Brown Library called The Sea Surgeon, or the Guinea-Mans Vade Mecum (1729). The inside flaps of this copy of the book feature some fascinating notes by an actual practicing marine surgeon who was trying out various cures for scurvy, plague and fevers found in the book. He used a handwriting that was marked by his profession, featuring a number of abbreviations that it took me some time to puzzle out. I’d say this is fairly advanced-level paleography – although I should add that compared to my colleagues who work on things like sixteenth-century French or Scottish witchcraft trials, reading this is absolute child’s play. 
Inscriptions in the John Carter Brown Library’s copy of John Aubrey’s The Sea Surgeon (1729).
At upper right, we find the heading “Rubarb given wt. ye Bark,” which is to say “Rhubarb given with the [Peruvian] Bark.” (Known primarily to modern eaters for its famed pie-partnership with strawberries, rhubarb was actually a highly prized and expensive medicine in this period.) Below the heading we find a list of ingredients supplied to a sick sailor, beginning with the still-familiar “Rx” prescription symbol: “[Prescription] of Bark Peru[viana] Powder lix [59] drams.” The surgeon then lists  “Salt of Wormwood, Salt of Centaury, Salt of Carduus Benedict[us], of Each Half a Dram.”
Of the ingredients of this witches brew, the most familiar to modern readers is probably wormwood, the possibly intoxicating herb which makes absinthe so infamous. There’s a good amount of shorthand being used here, of the sort that a doctor or apothecary would use in jotting notes to others in the field. But in fact this is a fairly easy to read example of how early modern apothecaries wrote – I’ve seen much, much worse, and there are countless pages of documents which even after five years of training, I’m still unable to read. With practice and patience, though, virtually anything is readable
At any rate, I hope this brief and idiosyncratic overview to reading early modern texts has been helpful, and above all, I hope it spurs some further interest in the fascinating works out there, waiting for readers. Not everything from the 17th and 18th centuries is as immediately engaging as The School of Venus, but there are a lot of untapped riches out there

Medicinal Cannibalism

As the picture above hints, substances like human fat or powdered mummy were once so common that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of antique ceramic jars purpose-built to contain them still exist in antique shops, museums and private collections. This is no secret, but it remains more or less the domain of specialists in early modern history and (judging by the reactions of friends and dinner guests I have broached the subject with!) appears to not be widely known to the general public.

One good popular resource on the subject is this May 2012 Smithsonian article by Maria Dolan, which quotes the authors of two recent academic works on the subject: Louise Noble’s Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture and Richard Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and VampiresAs the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, it was a relatively common sight in early modern France and Germany to witness relatives of sick people collecting blood from recently executed criminals to use in medical preparations.

Read more at Res Obscura.

Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism

18th century container for medicinal mummy, Germany. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the first Res Obscura post after another rather lengthy break, but I plan to start updating more regularly in the new year. I’ve cannibalized portions of this post from a piece I wrote for the new online journal I helped co-found, The Appendix, the other week: “Ravens-Scull & a Handfull of Fennel.”

I spent much of the past year in Lisbon, Portugal, researching the development of the global trade in medicinal drugs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While there, I was struck by how extraordinarily different Portuguese pharmacies appeared from their United States counterparts. To be sure, many bore definite similarities to the type of American pharmacies I grew up regarding as normal: modern-looking edifices bathed in fluorescent light and painted a sterile white designed to set off the colorful packaging of the drugs for sale.

Others, however, (like the Farmácia Andrade, which I walked by nearly every day) looked more like this well-preserved pharmacy in Stockholm:

The Apoteket Storken (Stork Pharmacy) in Stockholm, Sweden, 2009, All images via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.

What is striking about these displays is how pre-modern they are. The same basic design (ceramic jars of herbs, minerals and animal products lined on wooden shelves along with the occasional specimen of exotica) can be seen in engravings and paintings from the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries:

Pietro Longhi, The Apothecary, Italian, 1752. 
An apothecary shop as depicted in Wolfgang Helmhard Hohberg, Georgica curiosa aucta (Nuremberg: 1697).

Yet what did these jars actually contain? Are there links beyond the purely aesthetic between early modern drugs and their modern counterparts? Trying to actually learn the craft of early modern pharmacy is a difficult process: the apothecary was a member of a guild who held closely-guarded secrets, and apothecary manuals were frequently written in Latin and employed a host of specialist symbols and words like “drachm” and “scruple.”

To make matters even more difficult, early modern drug lore predated the widespread adoption of Linnaean classification, so a plant called “Dragon’s blood” in Italian might be totally different from a plant with the same name in English. What emerges when one overcomes these various obstacles and actually gets to the bottom of what was being prescribed, however, is a fascinating picture. It turns out early modern Europeans were prescribing some very familiar items — things found in herb teas sold in grocery stores today, like chamomile, fennel, licorice, and cardamom — alongside some utterly bizarre ones, like powdered crab’s eyes, Egyptian mummies, and human skull, or “cranium humanum.

Late 17th or early 18th century medicine jars that once contained human fat — one of several gruesome “cannibal medicine” remedies now forgotten by all except collectors of antique jars and historians of early modern medicine.

In the sister post to this one, on The Appendix’s blog, I listed a few intriguing medical recipes for things like “Snaill water” that I found in archives in Portugal and Philadelphia — you can read them here. But while I was revisiting these sources today, I was struck by the degree to which they take for granted something that I suspect most people in the contemporary world would find revolting: the consumption of human bodies as medicinal drugs.

As the picture above hints, substances like human fat or powdered mummy were once so common that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of antique ceramic jars purpose-built to contain them still exist in antique shops, museums and private collections. This is no secret, but it remains more or less the domain of specialists in early modern history and (judging by the reactions of friends and dinner guests I have broached the subject with!) appears to not be widely known to the general public.

One good popular resource on the subject is this May 2012 Smithsonian article by Maria Dolan, which quotes the authors of two recent academic works on the subject: Louise Noble’s Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture and Richard Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. As the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, it was a relatively common sight in early modern France and Germany to witness relatives of sick people collecting blood from recently executed criminals to use in medical preparations:

“The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade… 

[T]hese medicines may have been incidentally helpful—even though they worked by magical thinking, one more clumsy search for answers to the question of how to treat ailments at a time when even the circulation of blood was not yet understood. However, consuming human remains fit with the leading medical theories of the day. “It emerged from homeopathic ideas,” says Noble. “It’s ‘like cures like.’ So you eat ground-up skull for pains in the head.” Or drink blood for diseases of the blood. 

What is striking to me about such stories is not that merely that they occured — there are lots of similar oddities in the history of science and medicine — but that they appear to have been so strikingly commonplace.

Monrava y Roca, Breve curso de nueva
(Lisbon, 1728). An interesting
engraving illustrating a physician’s
medicine chest containing “mumia.” 

 In my own research I’ve probably come across dozens of references to eating human remains at this point, and they’re all delivered in a matter-of-fact, almost laconic tone. It is interesting to reflect that this was precisely the era — the 16th through 18th centuries — when Europeans were virtually obsessed with the supposed cruelties of cannibalism in a New World that was thought to be ruled by Satan. It seems to me that Montaigne was (characteristically) alone in noting this irony, in his famously brilliant essay “On Cannibals”:

I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts [of cannibalism by indigenous Americans], but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.

Even here, though, Montaigne was equating New World cannibalism with the inhumane cruelty of the French Wars of Religion — which involved extensive torture of civilians and atrocities like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre — and not with the medicinal cannibalism that was going on all around him. Strangely, even the shrewd and gifted Montaigne seems to miss the obvious equivalences to be drawn between ritualistic cannibalism of the sort practiced in Mesoamerica and early modern European’s consumption of human bodies as part of their medical beliefs, which were intimately tied up with religious and astrological theories of the body.

In such discussions, the specificity of what medicinal cannibalism entailed often gets lost. So I wanted to close by transcribing some “recipes” for early modern medicinal drug preparations that include humans. The following is from a 1676 manuscript called “Viridiarum Regale” that I consulted at the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. I’d like to thank the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and the Rare Books staff at the Van Pelt for making this research possible. This manuscript is written in a combination of Latin and Italian, which I’ve translated sloppily. The anonymous author promises his reader a list of “simple remedies gathered from diverse and celebrated authorities,” but on page 591 we encounter a gruesome remedy that is anything but simple:

The regenerated mummy or microcosmic tincture: 

Take the body of a mummy with its own form and substance, whether it be a discrete limb, or the entire body, and allow this to putrefy in conserve of violets for a month, so that it becomes a mutillagenous blood. Then strain the putrefied matter and conserve this material… From this ’embrionic’ mummy material you can separate a tincture.

A 1629 German edition of Croll’s Basilica,
via the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 

The alchemist Oswald Crull’s  Basilica chymica (1608) gets even more specific, and macabre:

Take the fresh corpse of a redhaired, uninjured, unblemished man, 24 years old and killed no more than one day before, preferably by hanging, breaking on the wheel or impaling… Leave it one day and one night in the light of the sun and the moon, then cut into strips. Sprinkle on a little powder of myrrh to prevent it from being too bitter. Steep in spirit of wine for several days. As the foulness of it causes an intolerable humidity in the stomach, it is a good idea to macerate the mummy with oil.

God knows how Croll expected his reader to successfully obtain a redhaired man of the exact age of 24 years who had died one day before. Imagining early modern physicians even attempting such a thing — let alone prescribing the bizarre “drug” of myrrh-coated human jerky that Croll’s recipe describes — is a bit mind-boggling for me. Indeed, I wonder to what degree these recipes actually were carried out in practice — were such elaborate descriptions of medicinal cannibalism more theoretical than practical?

The complex references to a “spiritual mummy” in the writings of Paracelsus, famously described in Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, seem to me to point to a widespread metaphorical use of “mummy” to refer not to actual human bodies but to a theory of how illness and cures operate on the body. On the other hand, it is hard to get around the material evidence from apothecary jars, and the resolutely specific and tactile descriptions of dismembering and consuming human bodies in texts like Crull and Viridiarum Regale.

As my friend Rachel Herrmann put it in her research into cannibalism and starvation in colonial Jamestown — in the early modern era, humans truly were “the other, other white meat.”

Further reading:
Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011)
Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Pallgrave, 2011)
The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice on “corpse medicine in early modern England.”
Rachel Herrmann, “The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown”
Karen Gordon-Grube, “Evidence of Medicinal Cannibalism in Puritan New England”

Cabinets of Curiosity

The Web as Wunderkammer

“We moderns tend to associate boxes and cabinets with the mundane. They hold a single type of item. They order and sort. They serve as metaphors for the banal, the ordinary, the pedestrian. Our public figures frequently endeavor to “think outside” them and occasionally offer to blow them up.

Yet imagine a cabinet that contains rubies, “unicorn” horns, and Hindu sculptures. Pocket watches, pocket portraits, guns, silk ribbons, saints’ relics, and perfume bottles. Deadly poisons, Amazonian drugs, powdered mummies, fossilized bones, and bezoar stones. A cabinet that contains a world in miniature.

This was the curiosity cabinet, or Wunderkammer.

Read more at The Appendix.

Tempora Mutantur

Narrative and Experimental History

On a brisk April morning two years ago, I followed winding medieval streets to the Edinburgh University Library, an imposing concrete slab that houses some of the rarest and oldest books in Scotland. I was there to consult a set of letters between two 17th century natural philosophers and physicians, Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Robert Sibbald. Their exchanges were eye-opening: I began reading them expecting to witness science in the making, but in reality the correspondence between the two men was dominated by frustration and failure.

The problem was simple. Mail delivery between Edinburgh and London in the 1680s was still primitive, and often their packages never even reached one another. In his very first missive, Sibbald wrote of a book whose delivery “had miscarried.” The philosopher reflected forlornly, “it is not the first tyme I have been so served. My regret is that I am frustrated of seeing these fine things I am told are in that book.” Similar refrains continued over the years: in 1712, Sibbald tried to send Sloane some “curious books,” but his courier “had the misfortune to lose them and all his papers in a storme during the Voyage to London… he traveled by land and it seems fell in a river.” (To make matters even worse, the letter informing Sloane of this unhappy accident was dated Christmas Day).

As I continued to browse, I noticed a few lines written in charcoal pencil in the margins of one letter. The handwritting — a looping Victorian cursive — was very different from the cramped Baroque lettering of Sibbald. The annotation read as follows:

On Sat. 19 Feb 1848 a special train brought the budget of ministers to Edinburgh in nine and a half hours, from London. – AH.

Tempora mutantur [‘the times are changed’]

Below this note, the author calculated the duration of the same trip in the era of Sibbald and Sloane: 100 days.

Read more at The Appendix.