In the recent tradition of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects and Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in 12 Maps, the British Library published A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps last month, and my copy arrived in the mail yesterday. The book consists of 110 maps actually, compiled for the most part from the Library’s vast map collection by Tim Bryers and Tom Harper. The maps are arranged chronologically and presented with detailed introductions: the end result is a perfect book. It occurred to me while browsing through it last night that the physical book is the preferable vehicle for the presentation of maps: they require close reading, although I suppose the zooming abilities of a Kindle would be helpful too. As I’ve written here time and time again, whether discussing maps in the form of animals, or hearts, or featuring octopuses bent on world domination, maps are an essential teaching tools, and this new book contains some great material. Though I do disagree slightly with Bryers’ and Harper’s thesis that the twentieth century is the map century: in terms of sheer cartographic impact, I would place my bet on the sixteenth.
Selections from A History of the World in 100 Maps: London Underground Map, 1908 (20+ years before the iconic map was created in the 1930s); Hark, Hark! The Dogs do Bark map by Johnson, Riddle & Co., 1914; secret Luftwaffe map of London at the beginning of the Blitz, 1940–with places marked for bombing and avoidance; Artwork for the Guardian’s article on the fictional islands of San Serriffe, published on April Fool’s Day in 1977; “The World of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, published in 1984.
I am sorry to drag out this hackneyed phrase, but Halloween morning in Salem really is the calm before the storm. I’m pretty calm myself, having managed to avoid most of the things that annoy me (the Salem Witch Museum–the most egregious trader on tragedy by far, Essex and New Derby Streets, tour guides–walking founts of misinformation) about this prolonged “holiday” for most of the month of October. I’m looking forward to November 1st (tomorrow!!!), but a bit concerned that I don’t have enough candy to get me through the night, as this is a Friday Halloween with projected good weather. I was praying for rain this morning as I took a walk under the clouds (that’s how much of a Halloween grinch I have become) but then the sun broke out, casting Salem in a beautiful light. Of course it will be even more beautiful tomorrow, or perhaps on Monday, when all of the porta-potties, motorcycles, and demons have left.
Big pumpkins and Big candy: there are big pumpkins on River Street every year, and every year I complain to my students about having to spend so much money on candy–so this year one of them (Samantha Ferraro) drew me with my very full shopping cart.
In my ongoing quest to put Christopher Columbus in context, both in and outside of the classroom, I’m offering up one of the most vivid visual sources of early modern Europe–and a brilliant example of Renaissance projection and propaganda: the Nova Reperta of Jan van der Straet (better known as Stradanaus), a series of 24 etchings illustrating all the “discoveries” of the era. Stradanaus (1523-1605) began his career as a designer of tapestries and fresco artist in the service of the Medici family in Florence but expanded his reach considerably after 1570 as a draughtsman and designer of prints which were engraved and published all over Europe by several Antwerp publishers in huge numbers. The Nova Reperta (“New Discoveries”) series, celebrating (and proclaiming) Renaissance innovations in art, science and technology, was first published in 1580 and reprinted numerous times thereafter. The images are striking and consequential, but so too are the captions, which either defend an age-old practice as a contemporary discovery or herald what truly is “new”, although there’s a bit of equivocation when it comes to the New World: Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci share in the acclaim, which is to be expected in this age, but there is a rather unexpected variation in the use of the terms “discovery” and rediscovery. A rare example of Renaissance humility?! The title page presents the major achievements of the age, with America (discovered by Columbus and named by Vespucci) projected as just one of many discoveries, including gunpowder, the printing press, an iron clock, the Brazilian guiacum wood cure for another American discovery—syphillis–distillation, the silkworm, the stirrup, and a magnetic compass, most of these things invented either well before–or outside of–Renaissance Europe.
The sequence of images of America are referenced both in terms of rediscovery and discovery: “Americus rediscovers America–he called her but once and thenceforth she was always awake” (one of the first “Europe awakes the world” images–note the roasting leg in the background); “America rediscovered: who is able with mighty heart to fashion a song worthy of the majesty of these events and discoveries?”; “Christopher Columbus of Liguria, overcoming the terrors of the ocean, added to the Spanish crown the regions of almost another world that he discovered, 1492″; “Americus Vespucci of Florence, in a marvelous expedition to the west and to the south opened up two parts of the earth greater than the shores which we inhabit and known to us in no previous age, once in which by common consent of all human beings is called by his name, Americus, 1497.”
Images taken from the Posner Center at the Carnegie Mellon University Library: NE674 .S8 D53 “New discoveries; the sciences, inventions, and discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as represented in 24 engravings issued in the early 1580’s by Stradanus.”
A by-product of the scholarly research that I’m doing on wonder and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been my exposure to texts on more practical magic that creates “artificial conclusions”, to use the words of a seventeenth-century scribe. I’m really not sure what to do with these texts–especially the more modern ones that fall well outside my period–but they certainly are interesting, and entirely suitable for a blog post or two! Books on magic tricks, conjuring, sleight of hand, legerdemain, are first published in the mid-seventeenth century (at least in England) right up through the 20th, and the classics are very valuable–deemed so most especially by the magical community. The first English book on practical magic, appropriately authored by Hocus Pocus Junior was The Anatomie of Legerdemain, first published in 1634 and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century: the Library of Congress has the second edition which was bequeathed by Harry Houdini himself in 1927. Both that edition and one from 1638 in the library of St. John’s College at Oxford University have been completely digitized, so you can learn all these tricks for yourself. The 1654 edition below sold at a 2009 Sotheby’s auction for £37, 250, so I suppose we’ll have to make do with the digital editions.
This is a charming little book. The anonymous author, “Hocus Pocus Junior”, whom many presume to be one William Vincent, who received a license “to exercise the art of Legerdemaine in any Townes within the Realm of England and Ireland” and was described as “alias Hocus Pocus” on several occasions, begins the preface with the question: Courteous Reader, doe you not wonder? and proceeds to define his art: Legerdomaine is an operation, whereby one may seem to worke wonderfull, impossible, and incredible things by agility, nimblenesse, and slightnesse of hand. The partes of this Arte are principally two. The first is in the conveyance of Balls, Cards, Dice, Money &tc…The Second is Confederacie (tricks performed in partnership, essentially). So we learn all the old (now newly-exposed for the first time!) cup and card tricks, along with special maneuvers like How to seeme to pull a rope through your nose and How to seeme to cut off a mans head..called the decollation of John Baptist, as well as “how to seem to eat a knife” and “breathe fire”. For some reason, the “strangest” trick is how to “seeme to cut a piece of Tape into four partes, and make it whole again with words”–and this takes quite a bit of detailed description. All the tricks do, really: in addition to being quite the magician, Hocus Pocus Junior was an exceptional technical writer.
Pages from Hocus Pocus Junior. The Anatomie of Legerdemain, Or, The
The Anglo-Saxon Saint Dunstan (909-988) has been much on my mind lately, even though his Feast Day (May 19) is months away. He has popped up in both of my classes coincidentally and then I rediscovered the most charming little book that focuses on his most enduring claim to fame: the horseshoe as protective talisman. Dunstan was the most popular early medieval saint in England by far and many things contributed to his legend and popularity. In his time, Dunstan served in every high-ranking position within the English church: Bishop of London and Worcester, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a dedicated servant of the Church but also an adviser to Kings–this dual role was not quite perceived as a conflict of interest at this time, but it provoked envy on more than one occasion. Dunstan clearly had the political skills to mentor princes and effect an ambitious program of monastic reform, but he was also skilled in the arts and crafts: whenever he retreated from the world to Glastonbury (where he was brought up), he kept busy in humble solitude, as a scribe, a painter, an instrument-maker, a silversmith, and even a blacksmith. It was during these times that Dunstan’s legend was crafted through duels with the Devil–who tried to tempt him on more than one occasion. Dunstan defeated the Devil not with words but with tools: when the Devil (disguised as a beautiful woman) tried to lure him away from his forge while he was working (piously) one day, Dunstan waited until his tongs were red hot and then seized the Devil by the nose, and when the Devil appeared as a weary traveler in need of hospitality and a new shoe for his horse, Dunstan duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of Satan. Before he removed the nails, which were causing the Devil considerable pain, Dunstan made him promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and with one stroke of the Devil’s pen a utilitarian object was transformed into a talisman. Talk about muscular Christianity!
Centuries later, with more whimsy than reverence, Edward Flight and George Cruikshank presented the story of St. Dunstan, the Devil, and the lucky horse-shoe in The True Legend Of St Dunstan And The Devil; Showing How The Horse-Shoe Came to Be A Charm Against Witchcraft by Edward G. Flight with eight woodcut illustrations by George Cruikshank, engraved by J. Thompson, London, 1871. And here I see that my own horseshoe is pointed in the wrong direction!
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.
Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections
August is probably one of my least favorite months, but I’m trying to adopt a different attitude this year. As I’ve either been in school or teaching school for my entire life (except one year) it is generally the last, fleeting, month of freedom before the resumption of academic responsibilities (I know everyone is really feeling sorry for me now): the first part of the month is really hot and the last part is all about completing my syllabi. But since I’ve been chair of my department, my perspective has changed, because the administrative responsibilities lighten, but do not cease, in June and they definitely intensify in August. So there really is no going back; and consequently there is no fleeting end of the summer. Chairs also teach less, so there are fewer syllabi to complete and more time to enjoy September, which is truly one of the most glorious months of the year. While there is a general perception that August is a transitional “back to school” time for everyone today; this was not always the case. Calendar pages, seeking to characterize each month according to activities, originally focus on work (the ever-present scythe, threshing) and later on leisure (tennis, boating, wandering among the flowers) but always in a lush landscape. August, for the most part, is all about abundance, until we get to the more-stark present.
Illustrating August in three Renaissance Books of Hours ( The Hague KB 76 F 14, Paris, c. 1490-1500; The Hague KB 133 D 11, Liège, c. 1500-1525; Simon Bening, 1510-60, Victoria and Albert Museum); details from the August page of Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Fruit, by John Clark et. al. after Peiter Casteels, 1732, Rooke Books; two art nouveau Augusts (Eugene Grasset, La Belle Jardiniere – August, 1896; Alphonse Maria Mucha, 1899, Mucha Foundation); modern Augusts–a bit more stark–by Harry Cimino and Dione Verulam