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.com

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 and patron of the arts named Timur (meaning “iron” in Persian). De Clavijo’s lord, King Henry III of Castile, had dispatched him to learn more about the man who Europeans called Tamurlane. If possible, he was to forge a peace treaty with the world-conqueror, whose sack of Baghdad alone caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Clavijo recorded his entrance to the capital in great detail, noting the stores of “silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb” carried from China, the painted elephants, vast tent pavilions with fluttering jeweled banners, and the frenzied pace of construction. He noted that work on the largest mosque in the city had been completed just before his arrival, but Timur ordered its gate to be torn down again because it lacked grandeur.

An orientalist nineteenth century Russian view of Samarkand in the time of Timur. Oil on canvas, Vasily Vereshchagin, 1842. [All images via Wikimedia Commons.]

The arrival of Clavijo and the party of other ambassadors who he accompanied to the cosmopolitan city provoked mild interest, but mainly on account of their strange clothes and quaint customs. Medieval Castilians, it seems, were regarded as rather backward and provincial in the world of the Silk Road. Upon their entry to the city, he recorded, the party passed through a “plain covered with gardens, and houses, and markets where they sold many things.” They came to the gates of the city after several hours travel through this lush hinterland, being greeted by “ six elephants, with wooden castles on their backs”:

The [Samarkand] ambassadors went forward, and found the [Spanish] men, who had the presents well arranged on their arms, and they advanced with them in company with the two knights, who held them by the armpits, and the ambassador whom Timour Beg [Tamerlane] had sent to the king of Castille was with them; and those who saw him, laughed at him, because he was dressed in the costume and fashion of Castille. [Source]

De Clavijo referred here to Hajji Muhammad al-Qazi, a Chagatai courtier who had visited the court of Castile in Toledo several years earlier. Al-Qazi had been sent by Timur to offer gifts and letters to the Iberian monarch – Clavijo was now in Samarkand to return the favor.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky‘s photograph of a Rabbi instructing Jewish youths in Samarkand circa 1911 offers a vivid glimpse at the costumes of Samarkand’s citizens prior to the introduction of Western clothing. Via the Library of Congress photograph collection.


Why was a small Christian country on the farthest western fringe of Europe interacting with a Muslim emperor of central Asia in the first place? The era of Timur marked a high-point in what has been called the “archaic” or “early modern globalization” of the world, a period when travelers from the Christian, Muslim and Chinese worlds (like Clavijo’s rough contemporaries Ibn Battuta and the Chinese admiral Zheng He) successfully travelled vast distances across Eurasia by land and sea.

As the Oxford historian John Darwin noted in his book After Tamerlane, Timur was a figure of crucial importance in world history because he was the last great nomadic warlord. Like the armies of Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan, Timur’s forces were multi-ethnic conglomerations of Turkic, Mongol, Chagatai, Persian and north Indian peoples who were united under a common banner by the sheer charisma and military skill of a single man. His empire was not a state in the traditional sense, but a pan-tribal confederacy held together by military force.

A rare surviving letter from Tamerlane to King
Charles
 VI of France, written in Persian circa
1402.
Archives Nationales, Paris.

Timur’s tactics were highly sophisticated, requiring years of planning and complex organization.
Yet in fundamental ways they were pre-modern: like Genghis Khan, Timur and his commanders relied upon the mobility of massed mounted archers who could repeatedly gallop toward opponents, launch a volley of arrows and hasten away. His horseback archers, fighting at the dawn of the advent of gunpowder weaponry, were the last nomad army that could threaten the settled, urbanized states of China, south Asia, the Arab world and Europe.

By contrast, the “gunpowder empires” that succeeded Timur – the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British and French in Europe, the Mughals (who were themselves an offshoot of Timur’s dynasty) in India, the Qing in China – all relied on conscripted armies, state finances, and ‘hi-tech’ devices like musket rifles, cannons and sailing ships. The triumph of these more modern approaches to conquest and empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marked an epochal transformation. Ever since agricultural city-states emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 4th millennium BCE, human societies had been divided between hunter-gatherer or pastoralist nomads and settled cultivators. The threat of invasions by nomads from the vast steppes of Eurasia had instilled terror in town-dwellers from the earliest written records in Sumeria to the Middle Ages. After Timur, the agricultural, urban model of human society decisively won out over that of nomadism. The winners modeled ‘civilization’ in their own image.

Yet although Timur was famous for his cruelty – in one grisly episode, he supposedly murdered all 70,000 inhabitants of the Persian city of Isfahan for resisting his occupation – he was by no means a barbarian. Indeed, Clavijo was clearly overawed by the society he encountered in a region that is today regarded as a desert backwater. He was impressed by the gardens surrounding Timur’s palace, by the enormous variety of goods that the Silk Road yielded, and by the splendid feasts that Timur’s men enjoyed:

When the lord called for meat, the people dragged it to him on pieces of leather, so great was its weight; and as soon as it was within twenty paces of him, the carvers came, who cut it up, kneeling on the leather… When the roast and boiled meats were done with, they brought meats dressed in various other ways, and balls of forced meat; and after that, there came fruit, melons, grapes, and nectarines; and they gave them drink out of silver and golden jugs, particularly sugar and cream, a pleasant beverage, which they make in the summer time [Source].

“The Defeat by Timur of the Sultan of Delhi, Nasir Al-Din Mahmum
Tughluq, in the winter of 1397-1398.”
Watercolor painting by
Zafarnama, from India circa 1600.

Clavijo seemed particularly eager to note the favor that Timur showed to the King of Castile. When he was presented to the world-conqueror, Clavijo was surprised to find that “he was sitting on the ground.” Timur sat cross-legged before a fountain “which threw up the water very high,” wearing a silk robe and a hat studded with rubies and pearls. The Castilian proudly related that when he entered his presence, “Timour Beg turned to the knights who had seated around him… and said, ‘Behold! here are the ambassadors sent by my son the king of Spain, who is the greatest king of the Franks, and lives at the end of the world.’”

Clavijo’s mission – to forge a treaty with Timur in order to fight their common enemy, the Ottoman sultans of Turkey – ultimately failed. Nonetheless, his account gives us a fascinating glimpse into a now-vanished world (as do the entrancingly vivid memoirs of Timur’s direct descendant, emperor Jahangir of the Mughal empire). Timur was the final manifestation of a mighty world-historical force: the nomadic empire. Turkic and other central Asian warlords would continue to control the Russian steppe and the Silk Road cities for centuries, but never again would a leader from the center of what some called “the World Island” of Asia cast fear into the hearts of Chinese emperors and Christian kings alike.

Less than two hundred years later, Christopher Marlowe – the celebrated Elizabethan playwright known for his brilliance, homosexuality and violent death in a tavern brawl – would write his most celebrated play, the full title of which gives insight into the mixture of wonder and fear that surrounded Timur’s legacy: Tamburlaine the Great, who, from a Scythian Shephearde, by his rare and wonderfull Conquests, became a most puissant and mightye Monarque. And (for his tyranny and terrour in Warre) was tearmed, the Scourge of God (London, 1590).

Already by Marlowe’s time, Timur and his Silk Road world of nomads and warriors had become the stuff of legend. The balance of power had now shifted from nomadic tribes to emerging nation-states. Charismatic warlords had been supplanted by maritime monarchs like Phillip II of Spain – the descendant of Clavijo’s Castilian king— or controllers of vast state bureaucracies like the Qing emperors of China. Yet for Marlowe, Timur’s legacy remained:

Then shall my native city, Samarqand…
Be famous through the furthest continents, 
For there my palace-royal shall be placed, 
Whose shining turrets shall dismay the heavens… 

Some more photographs of Samarkand by Sergei Prokudin-Gorski, who I posted about back in 2010:

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 and patron of the arts named Timur (meaning “iron” in Persian). De Clavijo’s lord, King Henry III of Castile, had dispatched him to learn more about the man who Europeans called Tamurlane. If possible, he was to forge a peace treaty with the world-conqueror, whose sack of Baghdad alone caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Clavijo recorded his entrance to the capital in great detail, noting the stores of “silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb” carried from China, the painted elephants, vast tent pavilions with fluttering jeweled banners, and the frenzied pace of construction. He noted that work on the largest mosque in the city had been completed just before his arrival, but Timur ordered its gate to be torn down again because it lacked grandeur.

Read more at Res Obscura.

Sputnik

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 yet to spread to many parts of the world, and 24-hour businesses were virtually unheard of. Much of the world remained agrarian and used premodern lighting by candle or kerosene. Yet the tiny light that tracked across the unpolluted cosmos of 1957 was a herald of the future.

The next morning, Pravda, and other Soviet newspapers, announced “the first successful launch of a satellite” to the world. Pravda put a distinctively communist spin on the news, arguing that “artificial satellites from the Earth will pave the way to interplanetary travel… our contemporaries are destined to witness how the freed and meaningful labor of the people of the new, socialist society will transform humanity’s most daring dreams into a reality.”

American officials – who surely numbered among the unnamed “contemporaries” that Pravda had in mind – were flabbergasted. Although both the Soviets and the United States had been preparing long-distance rocket programs since the early 1950s, the launch of Sputnik caught President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration by surprise. In public, of course, the President sought to downplay the news, laconically describing it as “one small ball in the air.” A presidential aide, Sherman Adams, took an even more disdainful stance: he quipped that American satellites (when they appeared) would be used for legitimate research and not for competition in what he called “an outer-space basketball game.”

Read more at History Milestones.

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 via
the 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 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 preparations being developed by acolytes of Paracelsus. The substances listed as medicinal drugs in Polyanthea Medicinal run the gamut from dog feces to powdered pearls, and from ordinary table salt to mysterious stones “found on the beach of Casomdama in the Kingdom of Angola,” which, “after being put in wounds caused by any venomous beast, will draw out the venom.” The unusual range of Semedo’s pharmacy led one nineteenth century Portuguese medical student to remark in his doctoral thesis that he believed the book would “nauseate” any modern reader. Later generations tended to view Semedo as a physician in the “quack doctor” tradition of mountebanks and snake-oil salesman. Interestingly, he actually acknowledged this criticism in his own work, beginning his book with the following “plea to the Readers.” (The below is a rough paraphrase from the rather more Baroque Portuguese original):

In the Parisian Court, and in many other parts of the world, there are those who knowing some singular remedy, affix papers at the most traficked roads, proclaiming to all who live in these areas that they have a panacea useful for all illnesses. These fellows distribute their papers to people they encounter in the street, so that all may know where to go to find such a remedy.   

Such men gain such profit from this that they desire to do the same in Portugal, and give notice of secret medicines… However I have long suppressed my wish to follow suit, knowing that these days there is no labor that escapes the malice of others. Now however, the criticisms that have been made about my aim are not able to ignite the fire of choler in my heart, because my anger has been reduced to little more than ashes. Thus I resolve to speak of the medicines which I myself possess. 

The ensuing list of what Semedo called “the Remedies that I prepare in my house” included his eponymous preparation “Bezoartico Curviano,” an “Agua Lusitana” (Portuguese water), and a “powder which cures the involuntary flux of semen.”

Similar advertisements for specially prepared drug formulations began to appear in medical texts throughout Europe in the late seventeenth century. Readers of English language newspapers in the era of Newton and Locke, for instance, began to encounter notices such as the following, from the newspaper Domestick Intelligence or News both from City and Country (12 Sept 1679, originally plucked out of obscurity by Carolyn Rance at the Quack Doctor):

This sort of thing might not quite have the same form or content as the 1950s advertisement for methamphetamine that begins this post, but it was the beginning of a long tradition that wed drug marketing with global capitalism and print culture. The fruits of this alliance are very much still with us — whenever you see an advertisement for Lipitor or Adderall in a magazine or on a billboard, or your physician offers you a free sample of a drug given to him by a pharmaceutical sales rep, you’re unwittingly taking part in a tradition that dates back to the first era of entrepreneurial drug merchants in the second half of the seventeenth century. Indeed, pharmaceutical giant Merck dates its founding to an apothecary named Friedrick Jacob Merck who opened his drug shop in precisely this early modern era of global commercial expansion and medical experimentation — 1668, to be precise.

The following advertisements bring the story forward to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the things here — like the popularity of cocaine as an energy tonic and ingredient in Coca-Cola around the turn of the twentieth century — will probably be familiar. Others, like the fact that methamphetamine (under the trade name Desoxyn) is still approved by the FDA as a weight loss drug, might be less well known. Most of the images below were collected by Ben Hansen of the Bonkers Institute, and I direct interested readers to his unusual and rather fascinating site for more where these came from.

Following the public praise of opium preparations by the leading physician of the late seventeenth century, Thomas Sydenham, opium and laudanum became the celebrated “wonder drug” of eighteenth century medicine. George Wolfgang Wedel’s Opiologia (First edition 1682) featured an engraving of a Turkish man harvesting poppy pods on its title page, offering a hint of the entanglement between the drug and the eighteenth century interest in exotic locales and distant cultures. This would later play a role in the Romantic-era fascination with laudanum as well.
The Victorians made opium-based remedies into a global industry. This 1885 ad (originally sourced from the Quack Doctor blog) championed Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a morphine-based preparation for infants. This particular preparation was first formulated in the 1840s, during the apex of British imperial power.
“The exact ingredients of Wolcott’s Instant Pain Annihilator (c. 1863) are unknown. But ethyl alcohol and opium figured prominently in the mix.”
Many late-19th century drugs of this type failed to specify their active ingredients. Boasts of curing “nervous fatigue” or, as this label for “Brain Salt” puts it, “Over Brainwork,” often pointed to the inclusion of a sedative or opiate, but consumers were largely unaware of what precisely they were imbibing. A parallel with the present-day gray market of internet-bought research chemicals might be made.

As is well known, Coca-Cola originally began its life as a medicinal tonic that boasted the stimulating alkaloids found in both cocaine and the cola nut. Early advertising, such as this ad from the late 1880s, marketed the drink as a health tonic that relieved exhaustion and nervous strain – as it surely did. Interestingly, the note at left shows how it was also marketed as a “temperance drink.” Cocaine had not yet gained infamy as an illicit drug at this point. Indeed, it was being championed by Sigmund Freud in precisely the same period.
The invention of heroin — here portrayed as a “sedative for coughs” comparable to aspirin in this circa 1900 advertisement by Bayer — did not immediately produce outcries from law enforcement and anti-drug crusaders. It was initially a legal and fairly widely prescribed medicine; indeed the very name “Heroin” is in fact a trademark held under copyright by the Bayer Corporation.
Benzedrine advertisements, 1943 & 1944. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 123, No. 10; Vol. 124, No. 12.
With the marketing of Benzedrine (amphetamine) as a bronchodilator starting in 1928, amphetamines became widely popular among drug consumers, especially World War II pilots and others who needed to stay awake for long periods. It wasn’t long before the euphoric properties of Benzedrine inhalers became well known, and even commemorated in popular music. “Who Put the Ovaltine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” was the memorable title of a 1944 hit single released by Harry “the Hipster” Gibson:
Drug advertisements in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly began to cater to women, particularly housewives. However, in true 1950s fashion, the ads seem to be targeting the husbands of housewives rather than the women themselves. This advertisement for Mornidine is from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1959, Vol. 81, No. 1, p. 59.
“Adorable then… deplorable now” was the remarkably judgmental tagline of the new weight-loss drug Ambar – a mixture of methamphetamine and phenorbarbital, shown here in a 1964 advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 1, No. 5385). 
Predictably, drug advertising became more “feel-good” and consumer-focused in the 1970s. This 1971 ad for Quaaludes (Methaqualone) bears a basic resemblance to contemporary drug advertising with its glossy portrayal of a happy family scene and its side effects relegated to a small-print facing page. In an interesting side note, the history of Quaaludes offers a glimpse of how the pharmaceutical business, and global capitalism in general, was changing in the twentieth century. Like methamphetamine, which was synthesized by the Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893, Methaqualone was invented in the non-Western world: it was synthesized in India by Indra Kishore Kacker and Syed Hussain Zaheer in 1951.

This contemporary (mid-2000s) ad for Adderall continues the story up to the present day.

One common theme of these drug advertisements is the manner in which they use branding, particularly naming practices, to differentiate what is actually a surprisingly small core group of consumer drugs. Adderall, for instance, is simply a trade name for a mixture of amphetamine salts – of which one quarter is d,l racemic amphetamine, i.e. our old friend Benzedrine. This is a story that goes back to the era of João Curvo Semedo, William Salmon and Thomas Sydenham. Rather than marketing one’s “remedio secreto” as nothing more than a tincture of opium in wine, early modern drug sellers seized on the idea of selling these preparations under catchy names — “Sydenham’s Drops,” for instance — and obscuring their source ingredients. This marked, arguably, the beginning of the massive pharmaceutical branding industry.


Those wishing to find more vintage drug advertisements merely need to type that phrase into Google in order to find a true treasure trove of images (although many are sadly lacking identifying info). Two particular riches sources can be found here and here. (For the culture of contemporary drugs more generally, I’ve also been enjoying Hamilton Morris‘s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia series). The history of drug advertising in the pre-modern world is much more lacking in documentation and analysis. One approach can be found in this interesting paper on “Exotic drugs and English medicine” by Patrick Wallis of the London School of Economics, which is available online.

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 preparations being developed by acolytes of Paracelsus. The substances listed as medicinal drugs in Polyanthea Medicinal run the gamut from dog feces to powdered pearls, and from ordinary table salt to mysterious stones “found on the beach of Casomdama in the Kingdom of Angola,” which, “after being put in wounds caused by any venomous beast, will draw out the venom.” The unusual range of Semedo’s pharmacy led one nineteenth century Portuguese medical student to remark in his doctoral thesis that he believed the book would “nauseate” any modern reader. Later generations tended to view Semedo as a physician in the “quack doctor” tradition of mountebanks and snake-oil salesman. Interestingly, he actually acknowledged this criticism in his own work, beginning his book with the following “plea to the Readers.” (The below is a rough paraphrase from the rather more Baroque Portuguese original):

In the Parisian Court, and in many other parts of the world, there are those who knowing some singular remedy, affix papers at the most traficked roads, proclaiming to all who live in these areas that they have a panacea useful for all illnesses. These fellows distribute their papers to people they encounter in the street, so that all may know where to go to find such a remedy.   

The ensuing list of what Semedo called “the Remedies that I prepare in my house” included his eponymous preparation “Bezoartico Curviano,” an “Agua Lusitana” (Portuguese water), and a “powder which cures the involuntary flux of semen.”

This was the beginning of a long tradition that wed drug marketing with global capitalism and print culture.

Read more at Res Obscura.

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 on crow’s nests in sixteenth-century Japanese nanban screen paintings. Their bearded visages peer out from the famed Luso-African ivories of early modern West Africa. It was Portuguese mariners who first introduced tobacco and opium to China, paving the way for the breakdown of Chinese political autonomy during the Opium Wars. Perhaps even more significantly, potent tobacco and high-proof liquors from the plantations of colonial Brazil were used to purchase tens of thousands of human lives during the era of the Atlantic slave trade.

My dissertation research situates the medical and pharmaceutical legacy of Portugal’s imperial connections against this backdrop of ‘early modern globalization.’ I am specifically interested in how tropical remedies that had once existed in specific cultural and ecological contexts became objects of global commerce and scientific controversy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most existing works on the early modern trade in drugs, medicines and spices have focused on the reception of these commodities among domestic European consumers, particularly urban elites in England, Spain, France and the Dutch Republic.

Yet this approach tells only one part of a much larger story. My research suggests that non-European societies, such as those of Africa, south Asia and the South American interior, also embraced ‘exotic’ medicinal drugs over the course of the seventeenth century. Why were drugs important in these colonial-era interactions? I believe that the history of drugs (defined as non-food consumables that physiologically alter mind or body) offers new insights on some of the defining features of the modern world, such as the rise of global commerce and the attendant expansion of the slave trade, and the development of empirical approaches to science and medicine. By tracing the itineraries of drugs as they circulated around the globe, we can uncover areas of human behavior that previous works on European colonial expansion have largely avoided.

Read more in Perspectives on Europe.

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 Res Obscura lately because I’ve been in the thick of my dissertation research, and have also been traveling. But I’m working on a couple new posts at the moment so I expect to start updating more regularly again.  – BB

“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 in the “Newe found Worlde.”

Anonymous portrait of Sir Richard  Grenville
 from the National Portrait Gallery.

Just eight years earlier, White had set out for North America as part of an expedition lead by a fiery-tempered courtier named Sir Richard Grenville. This voyage was not without its challenges – White recalled laconically that in a battle with Spanish mariners he was “wounded twise in the head, once with a sword, and another time with a pike, and hurt also in the side of the buttoke with a shot.” Yet in this time White also witnessed natural marvels, helped build a new colony, and even celebrated the birth of his now-famous granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English/Christian parentage to be born on American soil. Ultimately, however, White’s ambitions ended in catastrophe, with the mysterious disappearance of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children who comprised the Roanoke colony – a group that included his daughter and granddaughter.

In the centuries since White’s death, his story has diverged in an interesting way. Generations of schoolchildren raised in the United States can probably recall reading about the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke in textbooks. In these simplified accounts, White and his fellow colonists typically figure as doomed but visionary pioneers in a larger narrative of British-American exceptionalism. Among professional historians, White is equally famous, but for rather different reasons. In recent histories of colonial British America, it is John White the artist, rather than John White the colonial governor, who takes center stage. This is because White was a watercolor painter of extraordinary talent whose works number among the most remarkable depictions of early modern indigenous Americans ever created.

‘The Flyer’, a Secotan Indian holy man or “conjuror” (as the British often called them) painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

To be sure, many other European contemporaries of White offered up visual depictions of native Americans. Readers of André Thevet’s early account of Brazil, Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Paris, 1557), for instance, could expect to be treated to renderings of Tupí Indians harvesting fruit, singing songs (complete with musical notation recorded by Thevet) and even munching casually on barbequed human thighs and buttocks.

Yet White’s illustrations stood out among those of his peers. Rather than working via woodblock printing or engraving, White produced paintings in vivid watercolors. This allowed him to achieve a level of lifelike detail which printed illustrations couldn’t hope to match. One of the most striking examples of White’s eye for detail is found in his tender depiction of an Algonquian Indian mother with her daughter.

John White, “A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years.” (1585) British Museum, London.

In 1585, one of White’s companions in Virginia, the natural philosopher and inventor Thomas Harriot, remarked that the indigenous children he encountered in America “greatlye delighted with puppets and babes which are broughte oute of England.” White’s painting actually offers a direct visual proof of this observation: in the hands of the woman’s child, one can spot a tiny female doll wearing Elizabethan dress.

As the historian Joyce Chaplin notes in her book Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003), this image was later recreated by the Dutch printmaker Theodore de Bry, who used White’s watercolors to create engravings for Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). De Bry’s depiction shows the Indian girl holding not only “an English doll in Elizabethan clothing,” but “an armillary sphere,” which served as “an instructional and decorative representation of the globe and heavens” (Chaplin 36).

Engraving by Theodore de Bry after John White’s watercolour, from Thomas Hariot’s
A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590)

Remarkably, according to the British Museum, this engraving served as the inspiration for a Mughal Indian watercolor painting in the 1630s! This copy-of-a-copy wonderfully illustrates the globalization that was beginning to occur in this period. I took the liberty of arranging the three variations end to end so the resemblance could be seen (the Mughal painting is at the far right).

White also had a remarkable ability for “zooming out” from a scene to create an imagined isometric perspective. His painting of an Algonquian village stands out as one of the most detailed depictions of indigenous American village life to survive from the sixteenth century.

Village of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina, by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

As the detail of the dancing circle in the lower right of this image suggests, White seems to have had a particular interest in Algonquian religious ceremonies. Another painting by White along similar lines gives a precious glimpse of pre-contact American Indian religious practice and daily life:

Ceremony of Secotan warriors in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

What, then, was White’s final legacy? In a narrative first printed in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages, White described his return to Virginia in 1590 in search of the colonists he had left at Roanoke (he had returned to England three years earlier in efforts to obtain “supplies, and other necessities”). His account evokes the haunted landscape of a ghost story, and its eerie details have made it part of American folklore ever since. On the 17th of August, White recalled, three ships under his command reached Roanoke, where they “found no man, nor signe of any that had been there lately.” The next evening, one of White’s sailors spied “a fire through the woods” and the men “sounded a Trumpet, but no answer could we heare.” The light of the next daybreak revealed that this was “nothing but the grasse, and some rotten trees burning.”

Finally, however, White found evidence of the colonists’ wherabouts. In a tree, he discovered “three faire Roman Letters carved C. R. O.”: this was a pre-arranged maker which White understood “to signifie the place where I should find them”: Croatan. White’s suspicion was confirmed with the discovery of a scene that is now almost mythical:

We found no signe of distresse; then we went to a place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found them all taken downe, and the place strongly inclosed with a high Palizado [i.e. a palisade of wooden stakes], very Fortlike; and in one of the chiefe Posts carved in fayre capitall Letters C R O A T A N, without any signe of distresse, and many barres of Iron… and such like heavie things throwne here and there, overgrowne with grass and weeds…

Interestingly, White’s account here connects his two identities as governor and painter. He remarks that his men “found diverse Chests which had been hidden and digged up againe” surrounding the palisade. Among these chests, White was surprised to find objects which he knew “to be my owne”: “books” and “pictures” he had created in the years before, now “scattered up and downe…[and] spoyled.”In the end, White was unable to follow up on these strange clues: storms forced the expedition’s ships to turn back before reaching Croatan, and he returned to Britain with the mystery unresolved. The ultimate fate of the Roanoke colonists continues to be debated. Some have conjectured that White’s fellow colonists may have opted to join a local Algonquian Indian tribe and adapt themselves to the very different (and rather more effective) Amerindian methods of contending with the harsh American landscape.

It is unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened – but if White’s daughter and granddaughter really did become incorporated into an Indian tribe, it would have made a strange sort of sense. Few sixteenth century Europeans looked upon indigenous Americans with anything other than a jaundiced and prejudiced eye. Yet White’s sensitive and humane portrayals of daily life among the Algonquians tell a different story, and suggest that his own stance toward the native peoples he encountered in the New World was rather more complex. In White’s sensitive depiction of the Algonquian woman and her child holding a European doll, perhaps we can discern a foreshadowing of the hybrid Euro-American fate of his own daughter and grandchild. The intertwined tales of the failed colony White governed, the family he raised, and the artworks he created offer one of the earliest examples of the mingling of cultures that would define the history of the Americas in the centuries to come.

I’d like to close by sharing some further illustrations, which have been traditionally associated with White. According to the British Museum, the traditional attribution of these works as copies after lost originals by John White is debatable. However, even if White was not directly involved in their production, they seemingly still were produced in the Roanoke colony, perhaps by an assistant of Thomas Harriot:

In his will, Harriot mentioned his long-time servant Christopher Kellett, a ‘Lymning paynter’, and it is just feasible that these are his work, though his name is not recorded in the list of Lane colonists for 1585–6. It would be natural for a set of these to end up in White’s volume if they did eventually intend to publish them.  

Interestingly, the famed editor Richard Hakluyt ultimately came into possession of the paintings and provided them to none other than Edward Topsell, a writer on animals whose Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes was the subject of the very first Res Obscura post. All of the following images are owned by the British Museum. See here for a further discussion of their provenance and here for the complete collection of 117 paintings.

Further reading: 

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 in the “Newfound Worlde.” Just eight years earlier, White had set out for North America as part of an expedition lead by a fiery-tempered courtier named Sir Richard Grenville. This voyage was not without its challenges – White recalled laconically that in a battle with Spanish mariners he was “wounded twise in the head, once with a sword, and another time with a pike, and hurt also in the side of the buttoke with a shot.”

Yet in this time White also witnessed natural marvels, helped build a new colony, and even celebrated the birth of his now-famous granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English/Christian parentage to be born on American soil. Ultimately, however, White’s ambitions ended in catastrophe, with the mysterious disappearance of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children who comprised the Roanoke colony – a group that included his daughter and granddaughter

Read the full article at the Public Domain Review.

Altered and adorned: an interview with Suzanne Karr Schmidt

Message box with hand-painted print, Germany, 1490s. Featured in
Suzanne 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 year and really enjoy its commitment to unravelling the various mysteries of Renaissance and Baroque visual art. The following is an interview that Hasan of 3PP conducted with the art historian Suzanne Karr Schmidt, who received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2006 and served as the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Schmidt recently co-authored an exhibition catalogue called Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (Yale University Press, 2011) which examines “how prints were used to create sewing patterns, affixed on walls, glued into albums and books, and in some instances even annotated, handcoloured, or cut apart.”

Frontispiece, Hortus Sanitatis, 1491.

On a personal level, I’ve been fascinated by this topic ever since I examined an exceptional 15th century book (these oldest of all printed works are called incunabula) held by the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin called the Hortus Sanitatis or “Garden of Health.” This 1491 bestiary and herbal was printed by none other than the right-hand man of Gutenberg himself and features (in the HRC copy, at least) incredibly beautiful hand-painted prints. The Harvard copy, which also features hand-painted illustrations, is available online here. Just holding such an ancient and rare object in my hands was a remarkable experience.  I noted on the first page of this particular copy that it had been signed by an owner from 1577 named Thomas Lasse, and found that this owner had annotated the work throughout with elaborate quotes and the occasional manicule. As I turned to the section on sea creatures, I was stunned to find that this Elizabethan owner had gone one step further – he had actually replaced a page of the book relating to mer-folk with his own careful drawing of a mermaid! No scan of the HRC edition exists online, but this is the original page that Thomas Lasse replaced with a hand-drawn version:

(As an aside, observant readers might note that the Hortus Sanitatis mermaid appears to be the direct ancestor of the Starbucks logo – which was famously toned down from the slightly risque early modern original in the 1980s and ’90s.)

What does all of this have to do with Suzanne Karr Schmidt’s book, you might ask? After pondering the case of the missing mer-creatures for an hour or two, it occurred to me that there might be a surprisingly mundane reason why this particular page had been torn from the book at some point prior to 1577: someone wanted to put a mermaid on their wall. Early printed books were very expensive, but prints and woodcuts in the early modern period were not treated with nearly the degree of museum-instilled reverence we give them today. Prints were portable decorations which became part of everyday life: they were frequently torn from books and broadsheets and pasted on walls of taverns, workplaces and homes. This is something you can see quite clearly in details of Dutch paintings — for instance in the paintings of the domestic life of alchemists I highlighted in an earlier post:

In essence, then, the mermaid from this virtually priceless book may once have been the sixteenth century version of a poster on a teenagers wall.

So with no further adieu, I’m happy to present the following interview between Hasan Niyazi (HN) and Suzanne Karr Schmidt (SKS).

In December 2011, 3PP posted a review of Altered and Adorned – an exhibition catalogue by Suzanne Karr Schmidt and Kimberly Nichols. Inspired by the visually rich and accessible volume, 3PP sought to interview its author and delve a bit more deeply into the fascinating world of Renaissance prints. Suzanne Karr Schmidt is a US based artist and art historian. In 2008 she was appointed as the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) – which resulted in the aforementioned exhibition and catalogue publication distributed by Yale University Press. 3PP’s full review can be read here. –HN

HN: What sparked your personal interest in Renaissance prints – both as an artist and as an art historian?

SKS: I’ve always loved books, with a children’s author (my mother, Kathleen Karr) in the family. I was a double major in art history and studio art as an undergraduate at Brown University, which included a fantastic etching class. I initially decided to work on Renaissance art, specifically from Northern Europe, when I went to graduate school at Yale University. I settled on prints instead of paintings or other media when a seminar paper that would become my doctoral dissertation on early modern paper engineering (read: the Renaissance Pop-Up Book) allowed me to spend time going through boxes and boxes of nearly unseen prints throughout Europe. The fact that there are still unknown prints out there was and remains very important. Prints are the last art-historical frontier, where there are discoveries still to be made.


HN: You were appointed Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the AIC in 2008 – what does this role involve?

SKS: This three-year position is one of two at the Art Institute of Chicago generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program (which is also active at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other U.S. art museums) is intended to interest postdoctoral scholars in museum work rather than just university positions. The fellows assume the duties of assistant curators in departments museum-wide, usually complete a culminating project (in my case the Altered and Adorned exhibition and catalogue), and are actively engaged in all aspects of building, exhibiting, publishing, and maintaining the collection. All in all, it’s a fantastic opportunity for scholars who prefer hands-on engagement with objects and exhibitions to teaching, and the museums get a recent Ph.D as a fully-funded new member of their staff.

HN: How accessible were Renaissance Prints to different levels of society? Is it mainly through collectors that they have survived?

SKS: I research a wide variety of Renaissance prints–from fine engravings that would certainly have been more expensive and kept relatively safe by collectors–to more ephemeral wall hangings and broadsides sporting texts about current events and cruder woodcuts. The cheaper ones were probably printed in the greatest numbers, but are now the rarest. Many were collected almost accidentally (as bookmarks, for instance), though there have thankfully been early modern collectors of broadsides as well. Their stark attrition initially stemmed from their size and purpose–to be posted where the literate could read the texts for the illiterate (who could also enjoy the pictures). Not every print would have been accessible to every level of society, but there are plenty of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of ‘Twelfth Night’ parties where farmers or middle-class revelers gather for the Epiphany feast to crown a king with a printed paper hat, and some uncut sheets still survive.


HN: Can you explain anything of the provenance of the mysterious “messenger box” acquired by the AIC – and why it remains so well preserved?

SKS:  The “messenger box” was sold at auction in 2007 from the collection of a prominent Paris bookseller, who had amassed some 25 of these boxes with prints in them over his long career in the book trade. Prior to that owner, very little is known, though art historians begin to discuss these hybrid artworks in the early 20th century. Before then, they were evidently ignored as decorative but not necessarily fine-art objects. They have also sometimes been interpreted as boxes for missals and other religious books, which could explain why a book dealer came across so many.


HN: Do you see parallels with the explosion in the distribution of knowledge via Renaissance prints with our own information age?

SKS: I absolutely do. The change from a manuscript culture to a printed one didn’t mean there were suddenly multiple copies of books where there had previously been none, just that the speed of replication was much faster. Literacy eventually improved as well. Even with images, copying was rampant, and printed images could go viral, as in the many, many versions of Dürer’s portrait of a rhinoceros he’d never seen, but which became the unshakable image of what such a beast should, theoretically, look like. Not all visual information was necessarily trustworthy, even if it was in print before the days of Photoshop. On a more specific level, printed scientific instruments offered replaceable gadgetry that was relatively cutting edge. (These appear in greater numbers in another exhibition I’ve worked on recently, Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, at Northwestern University’s Block Museum, until April 8.) The folding pocket sundials (some with cheap printed veneers) are like an early modern iPhone, and could tell time among other calculating bells and whistles. Some had maps on their back with built-in latitude charts (essential for telling local time).


HN: Artists like Dürer, Raphael and Titian embraced the use of prints – producing unique designs in printed media alone. Can they be viewed as multimedia pioneers – or was their utilisation of printed media typical for artists of the era?

SKS: These artists were absolutely pioneers, with an explicit intention to disseminate their works via prints. Dürer in fact lamented that he had not diversified with prints sooner, as painting was a much more painstaking process with a limited amount of exposure, especially if the commission were for a private owner rather than for display in a church or town hall. Dürer is still considered to have engraved his own intaglio prints (though not cut his own woodblocks) however, which is slightly different than the workshop effect of Raphael and Titian where others translated the designs into print. The Dürer-Marcantonio Raimondi (the main artist who engraved Raphael’s work) lawsuit in Venice, in which Raimondi was fined for using Dürer’s monogram, but not for copying his images, shows some of the growing pains of the new media.

A foldout print from the Altered and Adorned exhibit: Lucas Kilian’s Third Vision (Eve),
anatomical flap print from Mirrors of the Microcosm, 1613

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 to visit him.” – Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum, (London, 1652), cited in Frances Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment

I‘M a bit obsessed with the Elizabethan occult author John Dee (even wrote a good chunk of his Wikipedia page), but I know very little about the man who the famed historian Frances Yates considered to be the critical link between Dee and the Continental tradition of European alchemy, Heinrich Khunrath. Last year I came across some of the book plates from Khunrath’s occult work Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg, 1595), or “The Amphitheater of Eternal Knowledge,” and was floored by their complexity and beauty. Remarkably, only three copies of the first edition of this work are known to exist. The University of Wisconsin Library has been good enough to scan the images of its copy and make them available online along with an excellent critical history of the book (here). The same site also offers a good overview of the little that is known about Khunrath’s biography.

“The Cosmic Rose”
“The Hermaphrodite.”
“The Alchemist’s Laboratory.” Each object bears a Latin motto offering advice
for the alchemical adept. For instance, the still reads FESTINA LENTE 
(“hasten slowly”), the personal motto of Emperor Augustus.
“The Four, the Three, the Two, the One.”

Remarkably these already exceptionally detailed images originally appeared surrounded by cryptic Latin text. Take “The Hermaphrodite” image displayed above, for example:

Click image for a much larger version. Transcription of the text here.

A detail from the same image:

Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica
(London, 1564), frotispiece.

Here we get a sense of the bafflingly complex nature of these images. The figure of the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for the dualistic nature of the universe and the human body is a common one in alchemical imagery. Likewise, the sun and moon are frequently used to symbolize the male and female natures inherent in different elements (the sun is gold/male, the moon female/silver, etc.) The black peacock labelled “AZOTH” leads us deeper into Hermetic territory. Azoth was the hypothesized universal solvent, the “ultimate substance” which could transform all elements. Here it seems to be used to convey the union of male and female (and of all elements) which would allow the corporeal human form to transcend to a divine plane (note the symbol of the trinity above the peacock feathers, which resemble diagrams of the celestial spheres). To top it all off, the “O” in “Azoth” made out of John Dee’s “hieroglyphic monad”!

So what are we to make of all this? Quite a few scholars have examined Khunrath’s Ampitheatre. In her book The Alchemy of Light, Urszula Szulakowska, for instance, argues that the engravings in Khunrath’s texts

are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystic alchemy can take place through the act of visual contemplation… Khunrath’s theatre of images, like a mirror, catoptrically reflects the celestial spheres to the human mind, awakening the empathetic faculty of the human spirit which unites, through the imagination, with the heavenly realms. Thus, the visual imagery of Khunrath’s treatises has become the alchemical quintessence, the spiritualized matter of the philosopher’s stone (9).

A 17th century portrait engraving of
Khunrath.

The images, in other words, invite the viewer to engage in a meditation on the nature of the universe and on the links between the earthly and the divine, the corporeal and the spiritual. Of course, such a statement would be equally true of many other instances of early modern alchemical and Hermetic symbolism. I suspect that a lot of the meaning in these images and the text that accompanies them has actually been lost, due to the fact that alchemical practice depended upon face-to-face interactions (like the one between John Dee and Khunrath) which were never recorded. And this was precisely what was intended – the true secrets of early modern alchemy were intended for a small number of the “elect” and were elaborately concealed in complex and often inscrutable language when they were allowed into printed works.

On the other hand, the visual interest of these magnificent images is arguably all the greater owing to the unknowable mysteries that now surround their creation and meaning.