I think I know how the personification of time evolved in western culture: as an amalgamation of the ancient winged Greek god Chronos and the scythe-wielding titan Cronos (either a deliberate mash-up or an alliterative mix-up), with a touch of the Roman god Saturn thrown in there, which explains the timing of Father Time’s appearance. But when I look at the first visual representations of this composite time figure in the sixteenth century, I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of post-plague grim reaper that was added to the mix as well. He is certainly not the gently-departing figure that we see on early twentieth-century New Year’s cards, but something/someone a bit more menacing, and vengeful. In the first sixteenth-century image below, he is wiping out cities and people, all the glory of the world. But from/at nearly the same time, the second contemporary image shows a “Father Time” that is more recognizable to us, more placid and representing “the past” (with his hourglass) across the table from a young man who personifies the future. I don’t think the placard (all is sufficient) is a message that we understand today, but the visual trope will become universal, as these two Puck covers from 1911 and 1912 illustrate. Like their sixteenth-century predecessor, these Father Times are well-accessorized, and giving way to their futures: airplanes and votes for women.
Crispijn de Passe the Elder, print from Deliciarum Juvenilum Libellus, c. 1590; Giulio Bonasone, print from the EmblemsofAchillesBocchius, c. 1555, both British Museum; Puck Magazine covers from 1911 and 1912, Library of Congress.
Before Father Time’s image became standardized on the magazine covers and postcards of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a regular feature of watch- and clockmaker trade cards from a century earlier. In fact, I’m wondering if these trade cards didn’t play a key role in standardizing his image. These ephemeral Father Times make perfect sense; after all, clockmakers were, almost literally, selling time. Father Time as symbolic “spokesman” for this industry seems to be more prevalent in Britain than on this side of the Atlantic, but the trade card of a prominent Salem and Boston clockmaker and jeweler, Jabez Baldwin (which I featured in this earlier post) features him prominently.
Early Nineteenth-century Trade Cards from the American Antiquarian Society (Baldwin) and the British Museum.
This last trade card, from the 1820s, really harkens back to the sixteenth century and shows both the association and dis-association of time and death: Father Time seems to be breaking away/vanquishing the grim reaper. With this grimness set aside, he is now free to become the benign figure of more recent representations. Most of the New Year’s postcards from a century before depict him as a fairly passive creature, but the wording of the last postcard below (on which he appears only as a presence, not a figure) conveys just a touch of that righteous tone from days gone by.
Well, the year is rapidly coming to an end, so I guess I’ll have to move on from my current obsession with ancient esoteric beverages. But first, one last drink for New Year’s Eve: alchermes (alternatively spelled alkermes), a scarlet red cordial with origins that are medieval, middle eastern, and medicinal. I was looking for something colorful to mix with champagne, and came up with this mysterious red elixir, although I doubt I’ll be able to find a bottle. Today, its most common use is in Italian pastries and the Italian variation on trifle, zuppa Inglese, but in the Renaissance it evolved from a herbal tonic for the heart to a secretive and fashionable cordial under the patronage of the Medici family in general and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, who introduced it to the court of France when she married the future King Henri II in 1533. Alchermes derived its name and its color from its most exotic ingredient, a tiny parasitic bug named kermes, which was later replaced by another red bug, cochineal. The presence of insects (along with gold leaf, crushed pearl, and ambergris) in the elixir doesn’t seem to have been too objectionable before the twentieth century, but thereafter artificial ingredients were substituted (I think). The venerable Dominican SantaMaria de Novella pharmacy is a major producer of Alchermes, which has been recognized and registered as a “traditional product” of Tuscany.
British Library Sloane MS 2560, central Europe, 15th century: an alchemical treatise illustrating the redelixir, akingorrosarubea(redrose); Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Consort of France, as a new widow in 1560 by François Clouet; an 18th century pharmacy jar from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a bottle of Alkermes from the Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy.
The break between the fall and spring semesters used to be one of my favorite times of the year; now that I am Chair it won’t be quite as long or restful. When you’re a professor, you think about your courses a bit and write up the syllabi, but this January I’ll be doing transfer evaluations, a bit of scheduling, advising, meetings, correspondence, and planning for the semester to come. Woe is me! Nevertheless, there’s still time for some reading so I have assembled my year’s end list of books. I probably won’t get through all of these but they’ll sit by my bed all year long and put me to sleep (no slight to the book; I fall asleep almost instantaneously and very forcefully). As usual, it’s a list (exclusively) dominated by nonfiction, and the first two BIG books will probably take me through most of the year: the first volume of Victoria Wilson’s Barbara Stanwyck biography (I’m a huge Barbara Stanwyck fan) and the recently-updated Field Guide to American Houses. The latter probably won’t leave my bedside for years to come–in fact, I should probably buy two copies of the latter, one for my bedside and the other for the car.
Two popular histories/biographies of gilded-age people on either side of the Atlantic (and around the world): I see a lot of parallels between Prince Edward and Prince Charles (though not the playboy characterization).
Fauna and Flora, past, present, future:
I’m not really a cook or a foodie, but I do like reading about food: its production, its history, its role as a cultural force. Of all the food books that came out in this past year, these two titles appeal to me the most: one is quite specific and narrative in its approach, the other more general and historical:
What could possibly be more interesting than the story of punctation!!!??? and epistolary history (Simon Garfield is always on my list)?.
Well, it’s a bit too late to put in this request, but if I had been able to make a Christmas list of wants rather than chores and things to buy at the grocery store, these amazing “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious would be on the top. I’ve never really appreciated either holiday china or twentieth-century china, but these dishes are just so striking, as are most of the pieces made by Ravilious in his short life (1903-1942). My favorite is the first plate with what looks like a flaming (steaming) Christmas pudding, which was accentuated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a Christmas card. I was looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe when I found this plate, and then my search was over–I put in an order with our new bakery because I was so distracted by these decidedly cooler (in more ways than one) versions. Happy Christmas, everyone.
Wedgwood “Christmas Pudding” dishes designed by Eric Ravilious, 1938, collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
It must be because I have traditional Christmas drinks on the brain, but for the first time a reference to smoking Bishop in one of the last lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol caught my attention when I saw a live musical version the other day. I could not count how many times I’ve seen this story on stage and screen, but I never really heard that term before. It came right at the end, after Scrooge has been reformed and is in the process of pledging his support to Bob Cratchit and his family:“A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we’ll discuss your affairs this very afternoon, before this very fire, over a Christmas bowl of smoking Bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Now at first I thought this name was yet another example of early modern English anti-Catholicism, or at the very least, an anti-establishment jab. The Puritans disliked the Anglican bishops in their own country just as much as Catholic bishops abroad. But it turns out the name is all about color: the mulled red wine, mixed with port and spices and roasted fruit, was also known as purple wine, a reference to the purple robes and sashes that bishops wore–and still do. Yet another variation on the Wassail–there appear to be countless.
Illustrations from the 1911 edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by A.C. Michael, the 1915 edition by Arthur Rackham, and Scrooge and Cratchit drinking their Smoking Bishop before the fire by John Leech; Pope Francis greeting a succession of bishops at St. Peters.
One of the most famous colonial Christmas “incidents” occurred here in Salem on Christmas night, 1679: the so-called (by Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas) “Salem Wassail”. In the old English wassailing tradition, but quite contrary to the prevalent Puritan culture of Salem, four young men from Salem Village burst into the remote home of 72-year-old John Rowden and began singing before his hearth in an effort to entice him to offer them some of his (apparently renown) pear wine, or perry. Rowden and his family tried to get the intruders to leave, but they responded that “it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went.” The Rowdens were steadfast (after all Christmas revelry was actually illegal in the colony from 1659-1681), but wavered a bit when the young men offered them some money for the wine, “coins” which turned out to be pieces of lead. More pleading, a request for directions to Marblehead (apparently not as dry as Salem), and then the young men stoned the Rowden homestead in demand of perry. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as we all know, the holidays can promote rather disorderly behavior. The seventeenth-century “war on Christmas”, provoked by Puritans who saw no scriptural basis for the holiday and associated it with paganism (they were right) and popery, was largely over in Old England at the time of the “Salem Wassail” and it would soon end in New England as well.
Here and now, I have stocked up for my Christmas visitors with perry ( a traditional local version from Russell Orchards in Ipswich and a more festive sparkling variety–see below) as well as other spirits: I don’t want to get stoned.
Bonny Doon Vineyards Sparkling Perry label (there’s also quite a few artisanal pear CIDERS on the market now–not sure if they are the same as perry; Russell Orchards makes both); two tracts from the war on Christmas in the 17th century: The Vindication of Christmas (1653) and Merry Boys of Christmas, or The Milk-Maids New Years-Gift (1660).
I like to decorate with live plants at the holidays–and all year round–but I don’t particularly care for the traditional Christmas plants: cyclamen is too gaudy for me, as are Christmas cacti, and I can’t stand the smell of paperwhites. I suppose amaryllis are alright, but I can never get them to bloom on time and, again, I find them a bit showy. Poinsettias are too predictable (and I have cats). So the only flowering plant that I seek this time of year are hellebores, varieties of which are alternatively called “Christmas Roses” (helleborus niger) and “Lenten Roses”. You’ve got to love a winter-blooming flower, and the association with Christmas is based not only on the season but also on the story of a penniless shepherdess who sought to give a gift to the baby Jesus–an angel turned her tears into pale waxen flowers, which were, of course, the greatest gift. Like tears, hellebore petals are seemingly-fragile, especially in contrast to their sturdier stems, and white, like winter (although there are pale pink varieties too–but the Christmas rose is white). There is another dissonance between the virtues of the plant and its seasonal beauty: all of the classical and medieval herbals testify to its toxic qualities.
A succession of hellebores: British Library MS. Egerton 747, Salernitan Herbal c. 1280-1310; two images from the British Museum: after John White, c. 1600 and Mary Delaney, 1770s; early 19th century British soft paste plate from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian; a Charles Rennie MacKintosh drawing, c. 1901-1914, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; one of my potted hellebores, overlooking a snowy Chestnut Street.
From sweet to sour, or tart. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the most delicious pork scallopini at an Italian restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York. It had an interesting acidic flavor in its sauce–my stepmother identified it as vinegar, but after looking through a bunch of recipes, I’m pretty sure it was verjuice, a close relation with a long history. Verjuice (or verjus) just means “green juice”, and generally it refers to the juice of strained unripe apples or grapes, hence the tartness, but I’ve seen references to it in recipes dating way back–and most prominently in the late fourteenth-century household guide Le Ménagier de Paris and the Tudor cookbooks of Thomas Dawson. I always thought verjuice/verjus was just another name for vinegar (an incredibly important substance in the medieval and early modern eras–essential in both cooking and preservation), but upon closer reading, it’s clear that it is different, as this recipe from Le Ménagier makes clear: SAUCE FOR RABBIT OR FOR RIVER-BIRD OR FOR WOOD-DOVE. Fry onions in good oil, or mince them and put to cook in the dripping-pan with beef drippings, and do not add verjuice nor vinegar until boiling: and then add half verjuice half wine and a little vinegar, and pass the spices. Then take half wine half verjuice and a little vinegar, and put all in the dripping pan under the rabbit, dove or river-bird; and when they are cooked, boil the sauce, and have some bits of toasted bread and put in with the bird.
Verjuice was (is) neither vinegar nor wine, but perhaps something in between, which is not my original observation. In this foodie world that we live in, it was only a matter of time before verjuice made a comeback, and the Australian chef MaggieBeer started producing it commercially a while ago. Just the other day, I was strolling through a shop in Newburyport, and there it was. So now I can try to make my own perfect scallopini–or maybe a traditional syllabub for our Christmas Day desert.
Noble Verjus at Wishbasket in Newburyport; Title page of the 1610 edition of Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Jewel, which has many recipes calling for verjuice; “As sour as Verjuice”, George Hunt print c. 1825, British Museum.
Sugar has long been a connecting commodity, linking various global communities in networks of supply and demand. In both my world and western history courses I have long stressed its importance: as a key factor in the expansion of Europe from the Crusades on, as a major cause of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as an initiator and indicator of the increasing globalization of trade and consumerism over the early modern era. From the moment I discovered Sidney Mintz’s classic text Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), sugar has been one of my portals into the early modern past. Because of the inextricable connection between sugar and slavery, I thought I was familiar with the term “blood sugar”, as used by abolitionists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in much the same way that we would use “blood diamonds” today, but I never really understood the full ramifications of that term until I was viewing a current exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University: Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, circa 1600-1800. “Blood sugar” can refer metaphorically to the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of the slaves who were sacrificed on the altar of the ever-increasing consumption of sugar in the western world, but also literally to use of cattle blood in the sugar-refining process. Several sources in the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition make the explicit connection between sugar and the blood shed by people and animals, including the fascinating 19th century abolitionist “picture book” aimed at children, Cuffy the Negro’s Doggrel Description of the Progress ofSugar (1823).
This might seem like a very graphic association for children, but British abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (like their counterparts across the Atlantic) were not known for their subtlety. The most popular pamphlet of the 18th century, William Fox’s Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum (1791) went much farther and set the tone for much of the debate: Nay, so necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported from Africa), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.The Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition explores this “Cannibalism” angle and its role in making sugar distasteful for everyone–including the royal family, who were pictured in several contemporary caricatures trying to wean themselves off the substance. Below, a rather grotesquely caricatured Queen Charlotte (who was said to have African blood herself) weighs tiny pieces of sugar on a scale for her guests while King George III says he can leave it altogether.
Isaac Cruikshank, The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade, or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees, 1792, British Museum.
Even (long) after the abolition of the slave trade in both Britain and America, sugar continued to foster connections, criticism and conflict. It became a focal point for critics of both economic and political imperialism, as illustrated by the 1906 Puck cover below (from the Library of Congress), criticizing U.S. economic policy in the Philippines. Much more recently, I came across the headline “Coca-Cola Distances itself from Blood Sugar Farms” in Cambodia.
In the midst of all the festive houses decorated for the Christmas in Salem tour stood one cold and dark house, its contents spilled out and “displayed” for all to see and buy: this is the Captain John Collins house, beautifully situated on Turner Street with the House of the Seven Gables in front and a boatyard in back. All of the architectural authorities date this house to circa 1785, but it has that boxy (rather than rectangular) shape that gives me pause, or testifies to later additions. It has been in need of paint for quite some time, but inside it was relatively pristine–in need of work certainly, but possessing great bones. I could never be a good antiques picker because estate sales are a bit intimate for me (and here the sheets were still on the bed, literally), but this particular one offered me an opportunity to get into a house I’ve often wondered about, so I could not resist. My friend Carol and I wandered all through the house, focusing more on the architectural details (great paneling,distinct mantels, beautiful doors and floors, finely-plastered ceilings still in quite good shape, old wooden storm windows) than the stuff (although we did admire a 1950s roaster), and from a third-floor bedroom I gazed out at Salem Harbor (looking over the House of the Seven Gables), a view that Captain Collins must have taken in (without all those wires) many times. The word on the street is that the house has already sold, and I suppose condominiums are on its horizon.
The Captain John Collins House this weekend and in the mid-20th century, MACRIS (Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System).