Tag Archives: books

Procuring Pepper

In my last post I decried the dehumanization of microhistory in favor of “commodity history” but truth to tell there is definitely some value in the latter, particularly in reference to the big three global commodities: salt, sugar and pepper. When it comes to Salem’s history, pepper is big: Salem merchants established trading contacts in Sumatra in the 1790s which gave them a near monopoly on the lucrative trade for nearly fifty years, during which 179 Salem ships sailed to the Aceh Province, bringing back millions of pounds of pepper, much of which was re-exported to Europe. The immense profits from pepper–black gold–built the street on which I live and made Salem Salem: whenever I get depressed about living in “Witch City”, all I have to do is look at the city seal, emblazoned with the motto “to the farthest points of the rich East”, the source of all that pepper. At the intersection of global history and local history is national history, and here, too, pepper plays a big role:  when the crew of the Friendship were massacred by natives of the chiefdom of Kuala Batu in February of 1831 while their captain, Charles Endicott, was ashore securing his cargo of pepper, the United States Navy responded with at retaliatory expedition a year later: Salem’s trade was apparently “too big to fail” at the time.

As daring and entrepreneurial as Salem’s pepper merchants were, they were just the latest purveyors of an eastern commodity that had long been desired in the West. Alexander the Great supposedly developed a liking and a name for it, and centuries later Pliny the Elder observed that “its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India.” Marco Polo presented pepper as one of his wonders of the world, and it was so valuable in the Middle Ages that it was accepted as currency, collateral, and a very appropriate gift for a King. Pepper was a prominent motivation for the discovery of a sea route to the East, which would effectively bypass Muslim middlemen, and consequently Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships became the major European suppliers in the early modern era. What is so interesting to me about the Salem re-export trade in pepper is that the Americans replayed the European role a few centuries later: in seeking to cut out intermediaries, they became the intermediaries themselves (for a while).

Pepper Marco Polo

L0006013 Indigenous people collecting pepper grains.

Pepper WH BM

pepper - lg

Joseph Peabody by Frothingham

Procuring Pepper:  harvesting and presenting pepper in Marco Polo’s Livre des Merveilles du Monde, MS Français 2810 , Bibliothèque Nationale de France; more harvesting in Les oeuvres d’Ambroise Pare … / Diuisees en vingt sept liures, auec les figures et portraicts, tant de l’anatomie que des instruments de chirurgie, et de plusieurs monstres, 1579 (Welcome Library Images); pepper varieties in Johannes Nieuhof’s ‘An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China’ (London: 1669, British Museum); An East India Company catalog from 1704, British Library; James Frothingham, Portrait of Captain Joseph Peabody (1757-1844), privateer, shipowner, and Salem’s richest pepper importer.

 

 


Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


September Spread

I love to read old cookbooks–I mean really old cookbooks, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and of course these texts reflect a culinary culture that is far more tied to the land than that of the present: farm to table was the rule rather than the trend. From a pre-modern culinary standpoint, September is the month of feasting, the time when all manner of meats and fruits are now in their proper vigor and perfection in the opinion of Richard Saunders (Apollo Anglicus: The English Apollo, 1665). September was not only the time of the harvest, but the commencement of both Oyster and Partridge seasons, so it was truly the time of plenty. One of the most popular cookbooks of the seventeenth century, reprinted time and time again, was Robert May’s The accomplisht cook or, The art & mystery of cookery, which contains a bill of fare for an extravagant September feast–beginning with an “Olio”, a stew of beef, lamb, veal and poultry mixed with herbs and vegetables and proceeding through many dishes. Even though May claimed to be writing for the “greater good” and “meaner expenses” in his preface, this particular menu definitely reflects more aristocratic tastes and pockets.

Robert May’s September Feast (1665)

FIRST COURSE:

OYSTERS/ An Olio/Breast of Veal in stoffado/ Twelve Partridge hashed/Grand Sallet/Chaldron Pie/Custard

SECOND COURSE:

Rabbits/Two Hearns, one larded/Florentine of tongues/ 8 Pigeons roasted, 4 larded/ Pheasant Pouts, 2 larded/ A cold hare pie/Selsey cockles broil’d after

There is certainly no sentiment of saving or storing for the lean months ahead here, but rather fattening up for the winter. I just love the language of these dishes:  Florentine of tongues, Pheasant pouts! Essentially there are lots of baked stews and pies on this menu: “sallet” is the seventeenth-century spelling for “salad”, chaldron refers to a measure of coal, but there is a traditional recipe for calf’s foot chaldron pie, so I assume that is what May is referencing, and “hearns” are herons. The Sussex seaside town of Selsey had definitely earned a reputation for its catches of cockles by this time, so May is using that term in much the same way we would say “Maine lobster”.

September Fare

Claesz-turkey-pie-large

Title page of Robert May’s The Accomplisht cook (1671 edition), British Library; Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Turkey-Pie (and Oysters!), 1627, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 

 


Sunshine and Shadow

It seems appropriate to focus on sundials in these waning days of Summer. I know, I know–there are technically several more weeks–but I am a college professor, so for me Fall definitely begins on Tuesday. There is just no question; it’s the least transitional of the seasons. Sundials have a long history and are aesthetically pleasing, but the main reason I like them is for their representation of another transition:  from the technological and practical to the simply decorative. A sundial sits right in the middle of my Colonial Revival garden but there is also one (in more portable form) front and center in one of my favorite Renaissance paintings, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Sundials 006

Sundial Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533, The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

There’s a lot going on in The Ambassadors, but if you can get past the anamorphic skull and focus on the instruments on the table, your eye (at least my eye) focuses on the sundial, right in the middle of these two handsome Renaissance men. In their time, the sundial was already almost anachronistic with the coming of the mechanical clock, but still, there it is. Obviously, like the other instruments on the table, it had come to symbolize more abstract things: the ability to harness time and (conversely) the limited amount of time that is available to man, any man (or woman), even men as magnificent as these. This sentiment is very evident in a print from about a century later, Stefano della Bella’s cartouche for the funeral of Francesco de Medici, with the central image of a sundial and the emblem Umbrae Transitus Tempus Nostrum: “Our Time is the Passing Away of a Shadow”.

Sundials Medici

Stefano della Bella, A cartouche with a sundial, a skull with feathers on its head at top, from ‘Eight Emblems for the Funeral of Francesco de Medici’ (Huit emblèmes pour les funérailles du prince François de Médicis), c. 1640-1660, Metropolitan Museum of Art

These words, this sentiment, are expressed in multiple variations on sundials over the next centuries: shadows we are, like shadows depart, as a shadow, so is life, man fleeth as a shadow. When they were not strictly utilitarian, sundial inscriptions expressing morose mortality seem to peak in the Victorian era and then shift to the light, rather than the shadow: Robert Browning’s popular plea to Grow Old along with Me; the Best is yet to Be is certainly a more hopeful (and trite) inscription. Visually, sundials cease to be macabre and become romantic, associated not with death but with the pleasures of life and with a world that was slower-paced and less technological: the perfect symbol for taking time away from that busy world, in the garden.

Sundial Crane

Sundials Crane

Sundials Earle Cover

Sundial Lee

Back cover of Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden (1899), available here; Front cover of Alice Morse Earle’s Sun-Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902), available here. One of my favorite sundials, in the sunken garden of the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


Salem needs a (real) Tavern

There are three bar-restaurants in Salem with the name “Tavern”: the Tavern at the Hawthorne Hotel, the Village Tavern, and the Tavern in the Square. None of these places are really taverns. The Hawthorne Hotel’s Tavern probably comes closest, but it is a tavern-esque room in a 1920s hotel, the Village Tavern and the Tavern in the Square are charmless modern sports bars which are located in neither village or square: they are certainly not taverns (see Matt’s comment below–it’s not in the square, it’s on the square, surely?). We have other places that come close to being taverns in some ways (In a Pig’s Eye, Naumkeag Ordinary) but I want the real thing. What I want is the long-lost Black Horse Tavern, or something very much like it.

The Black Horse Tavern/ Trask Homestead, built c. 1680

The Black Horse Tavern/ Trask Homestead, built c. 1680

I think every town in the greater Boston area had a Black House Tavern in the eighteenth century: Salem’s was located on Boston Street, a main entrance corridor then and now, and operated from about 1680 to 1740 by all accounts. The house survived until the later nineteenth century, I believe–certainly long enough to be photographed—but by that time it was primarily known as the old Trask house, after one of the seventeenth-century “Old Planter” settlers of Salem. I walked over to Boston Street to photograph its location and became quite excited when I found a near lookalike (disguised by 1970s siding and replacement windows)–but alas, its surviving neighbor is indeed the Samuel Bell House, built in 1721.

Black Horse 006

The Black Horse was hardly Salem’s only colonial tavern: these essential institutions are inextricably interwoven with the Witch Trials and every other public event in the past. Those two grande dames of Colonial Revivalism, Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911) and Salem-born Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926) both loved taverns and revealed the names of Salem’s finest in Stage-coach and Tavern Days (1900), Memories of Old Salem (1917) and We Visit Old Inns (1925): the Ship Tavern, Thomas Beadle’s Tavern, the Kings Arms (which acquired the more politically correct name the Sun Tavern with the Revolution, and where John Adams frequented when he visited Salem), the Bunch of Grapes. In the words of Northend, in imagination you can enter one of these old Ordinaries, seat yourself by the side of the broad fireplace, warmed by the lively wood blaze that crackled in the hearth, and meet distinguished strangers. You can easily discern her fascination with taverns!

My tavern would look like an urban version of the Black Horse, because the post roads that Boston Street used to be ceased to exist in the age of the automobile. The hard and soft furnishings would be relatively easy to assemble, I think, so I’m fixated on the all important sign. If I were going to stick with the name Black Horse, a slightly more colorful version of the sign below (from a 2010 Skinner auction) would do nicely–but I think I might go for something more eccentric. I love the twentieth-century “Raven & Ring” sign, but this seems more appropriate for Baltimore than Salem. Whenever I do come up with a name (and a tavern) I have my signmaker all picked out:  Heidi Howard, Maker & Painter, who produced the White’s Tavern (with black horse) sign below.

Black Horse Tavern Sign Skinner

Tavern Sign Raven and Ring

Tavern Sign White


Paper Shadows

When I found the hand shadow trade card for Salem furrier T.N. Covell below I thought I had stumbled onto something unique, but it turns out that shadowgraphy, ombromanie, or “Ombres Chinoises” was just another Victorian fad, like phrenology, penny farthings, and mesmerism. It didn’t take long to find other examples, and other “animals”: the seal led to search for other shadow cards made in Boston and elsewhere, and the offerings of John Bufford, who was a very serious lithographer and businessman. So here we have a late nineteenth-century variation on the silhouette: more whimsical than documentary and more commercial than personal. An ephemeral art, as (electric) light was already too bright when it appeared, and very reflective of a much simpler time!

Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows 2

Paper Shadows 3

Paper Shadows 4 Chatterbox

PicMonkey Collage

Victorian hand shadow trade cards and the December 15, 1869 edition of Chatterbox, Library of Congress; Illustrations from the Ombres chinoises, guignol, marionnettes, par Émile Lagarde , 1900, Bibliothèque nationale de France


Bloomsbury Tudors

My upcoming summer institute is as much about Tudorism as it is the Tudors, and as I have studied the reception and appropriation of the Tudors in the ages that followed their rule it has become increasingly clear to me how influential children’s literature has been in this ongoing process, particularly from the Victorian era onwards. This is perfectly understandable as there is lots of “merry” history to emphasize over off with their heads, a boy king, and Elizabeth is always adaptable. It’s certainly understandable to me, as a royal picture/poetry book first peaked my interest in the Tudors: Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens, which was first published in 1932 and re-released in a facsimile edition by the British Library a few years ago to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. This is the most enchanting book, with clever little verses about each and every English king and queen paired with striking illustrations by Rosalind Thornycroft–the monarchs appear poised to leap off their pages! Even Oliver Cromwell is included, which I don’t think would happen now. Along with the Farjeons, Rosalind was part of the Blooomsbury set: she also had a romantic relationship with D.H. Lawrence and apparently inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover! Of course I didn’t know that when I first set eyes on this book many years ago, but somehow this little fact (rumor?) makes it even more interesting. Here are Thornycroft’s Tudors, with a little context–I’m surprised Mary isn’t “Bloody”.

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 7

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 8

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Bloomsbury Tudors Mary

Bloomsbury Elizabeth

KingsQueens Farjeon

 

 

 

 


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