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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

Early Modern Alchemy

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 […]

American Monsters: Images of Brazilian Nature from Early Modern Europe

“The most disgusting and nauseating thing which man ever saw.” -Spanish chronicler Andres Bernaldez on Christopher Columbus’ first impression of Caribbean iguanas, 1513. IN HIS BOOK Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Harvard literature professor Stephen Greenblatt argues that “the production of a sense of the marvelous in the New World is at the very […]

The Art of Fooling the Eye

PARRHASIUS, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his […]

A Renaissance Merchant’s Life in Clothing

I’ve just finished reading Ulinka Rublack’s Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, 2010) and came away from it with a newfound appreciation for how truly odd early modern clothing was — and how important these clothes were in people’s daily lives. Rublack, a Cambridge history professor, is very shrewd in noting that obsolete sartorial choices like […]

Le Monde Aquatique

The images below are hand-colored details from two lavishly illustrated atlases of the world’s oceans produced by the workshops of Pieter Goos (d. 1670) and Johannes van Keulen (1654-1715).  Goos’ L’Atlas de la Mer, ou Monde Aquaticque (“Atlas of the Sea, or the Watery World”) the title page of which is visible at left, was published in Amsterdam in 1670. […]

Carnivalesque 74

What follows are my selections for this month’s Early Modern Carnivalesque, the seventy-fourth in an ongoing series of blog post compendia, or “carnivals,” curated by the web’s doyenne of early modern history, Sharon Howard. Thanks to Sharon and to all the authors of the posts cited below for making such rich stores of information freely […]

The Key of Hell: an Eighteenth-Century Sorcery Manual [Updated]

Astrological talisman from an 1801 grimoire. I found these amazing illustrations on Wellcome Images, a useful online database devoted to images related to the history of medicine from ancient times to the present. It is a small part of the larger Wellcome Trust archives. According to the image captions supplied by the Wellcome, all of the images below come […]