Tag Archives: books

Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

When I need to find fantastic beasts I know precisely where to go: straight to Conrad Gessner’s five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) or to its English variant, Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), both of which are illustrated extensively and digitized. Why do I need fantastic beasts? Principally for teaching purposes: there’s nothing better to illustrate the sense of the wonder of discovery in the early modern era along with a fledgling (in Topsell’s case very fledgling) scientific empiricism. Both authors describe what they have seen or heard about these beasts, and that is the difference between the early modern approach and the modern one: hearing about things seems to be just as valid as seeing them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Consequently a unicorn can be just as real as a rhinoceros, as neither had actually been seen. What I generally do with the images and descriptions of these texts is examine very real, even mundane animals side by side with more exotic, fantastic ones, and compare the details of their descriptions: a more scientific empiricism is evident in descriptions of dogs, horses and sheep, while the much shorter chapters on camels and lions and tigers–and their more mysterious but fellow four-footed beasts–rely on ancient “authorities” and “sundry learned” authors. We do not see the hearsay purged from natural history texts until the later seventeenth and eighteenth century, and thereafter fantastic beasts roam into the realm of the imagination.

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You can see how dependent Topsell (bottom) was on Gessner (top) in their comparative illustrations of camels, along with many of the other beasts–both common and exotic–featured in both books. Gesner’s peacock is particularly beautiful, and he also includes a North American turkey.

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Beavers are very interesting to both Gessner and Topsell, as the European beaver had become very scarce, if not extinct, in the region and its American counterparts were the source of both valuable fur and a musk-like substance called castoreum, which is secreted by both male and female beavers every spring. Gessner and Topsell both feature rather ferocious beavers, and the latter added an alternate view exposing the supposed source of castoreum.

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Now for some truly fantastic beasts: the unicorns of Gessner and Topsell, a satyr from Gessner, along with some sea monsters and a seven-headed hydra.

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Topsell’s Baboon looks rather wondrous/monstrous, but his manticore, a composite beast of ancient Persian origin, and the legendary lamia, a vampire-like siren, represent a more threatening form of hybrid monster. Here be dragons and sea serpents too, as well as beast from the New World (where wonders abound) called the Su, all part of God’s plan.

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topsell-su1 Illustrations from Conrad Gessner’s  Historiae animalium (1551-1558) and Edward Topsell’s History of FourFooted Beasts and Serpents (1658), National Library of Medicine and University of Houston.


Imag(in)ing Authors

I don’t think that there is any doubt that we used to glorify authors much more in the past than in the present: while the written word is still alive and well (for now) its producers are not the focal points of our popular culture that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once were, except for those long-dead but seemingly eternal celebrity scribes like Will and Jane. There is so much material evidence of author adoration from a century and more ago : portraits, pilgrimages to literary “shrines”, biographies, the various Victorian “Authors” games–first produced right here in Salem— designed to develop literary familiarity and appreciation from an early age.But that is not the literary or the material culture that we live in now, so I was kind of surprised to encounter two “Odes to Authors” prints while I was browsing around the website of Anthropologie, of all places. These are the work of artist Valerie Suter, who is apparently a voracious reader of twentieth-century fiction.

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Odes to Authors Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Valerie Suter, available here.

I went over to Suter’s website and found lots more authors: clearly they are her primary inspiration at this point in her life/career. She works in various mediums (including animation and clothing) and portrays her literary subjects in accessible and whimsical ways, occasionally doing something or in each other’s company, like the familiar subjects of A Moveable Feast  and Mark Twain playing pool, below. Lots of color, patterned backgrounds, interesting scale, and an almost complete absence of any formality or pretense bring these authors to life. I really want Josephine Tey, author of one of my very favorite books, The Daughter of Time (1951).

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Paintings by Valerie Suter: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast; John Steinbeck among chrysanthemums, Mark Twain playing pool, E.B. White, Joan Didion & Josephine Tey; Penguin Classic cover of The Daughter of Time. 


The Woodcut Witch

Witchcraft and witch trials are by no means an academic focus for me, but any European historian who studies and teaches the early modern era must take these subjects on. Consequently I developed an undergraduate course called “Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe” just a few years after I came to Salem, in part because I also felt that I had a certain obligation, given the local unawareness of the fact that over 100,000 people were put on trial for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries across Europe and the consequential belief that the 1692 trials were the largest/most important/consequential in world history. My course goals consequently included: 1) putting the Salem Trials in a wider geographical and chronological perspective and; 2) placing the European witch trials in a longer and larger intellectual tradition, hence the “magic”. The course title is partially a misnomer, as we spend half our time in the medieval era, laying essential theological and historical groundwork, and the last few times I taught it, I became somewhat stalled in the fifteenth century. I think this was a bit frustrating for my students, as the most intensive period of witch hunting was the century between 1560 and 1660 (can’t we get to the trials?), but the more I studied both the primary and secondary texts the more I came to realize that the fifteenth century was absolutely key to the intensification that was to come. This is true not only because of the publication of the famous Malleus Maleficarum, an incredibly accessible, even riveting, “how-to” manual of witch identification and prosecution which itself is a consequence of fifteenth-century trends regarding what was seen increasingly as a “pestilential heresy” on the Continent, but also because of the visualization of diabolical witchcraft, most prominently in Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et pythonicis mulieribus (‘On Witches and Female Soothsayers, 1489). A Professor of Law at the University of Constance, Molitor’s point of view is traditional in terms of his opinions on witchcraft, unlike the more radical authors of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer and  Jacob Sprenger, whose perspectives were inquisitional rather than reasoned. In the course of a ten-chapter dialogue, Molitor ultimately concludes that witches are generally products of demonic illusion. So his words did not incite, but one could argue that his images did, as De lamiis was the first illustrated treatise on witchcraft, and a text with a remarkably long run: 43 editions were published between 1489–1669—more than the Malleus Maleficarum. Molitor’s insistence on the illusionary  powers of witches was definitely undercut by the inclusion of woodcut illustrations of middle-aged “witches” engaging in some of the things Kramer and Sprenger accused them of: stirring up storms, flying to the sabbat, frolicking with their demon lover. And so, in both words and woodcuts, stereotypes were created, and cemented over the next century.

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Woodcut illustrations from the 1489, 1500, and 1544 (last one) editions of Ulrich Molitor’s De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus. [first published in Reutlingen: Johann Otmar, not before 10 Jan. 1489]. University of Glasgow Sp Coll Ferguson An-y.34. For more and the later visualization of witches and witchcraft, see Charles Zika’s excellent The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe.


Salem Lots: the Beautiful and the Damned

I’m always checking upcoming auctions for Salem things and over the next week there are some beautiful items coming up for sale, representing the very best of golden-age craftsmanship in Salem, as well as one crafted-but-creepy item, which I’ll leave for last (as it is definitely least). Next Tuesday evening up in Portsmouth, Northeast Auctions is holding an auction featuring five lovely Salem lots, including a Samuel McIntire chair, and a drop-leaf table from the school of Nathaniel Gould. Could this rather low estimate on the chair be correct? Perhaps if there is light turnout (then why am I posting this?) and I do without (new clothes, books, food) for a while I could get it! There are a pair of “similar” mirrors and a great silhouette of Dr. Treadwell of Salem—I presume this is the elder Doctor John Dexter Treadwell (1768-1833) rather than the younger Doctor John Goodhue Treadwell (1805-1856, after whom the Treadwell Library at Massachusetts General Hospital is named), but I could be wrong.

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At Northeast Auctions next week: a mahogany shield-back side-chair, carved by Samuel McIntire; Queen Anne mahogany single drop-leaf table, Salem, Nathaniel Gould School; One of two similar Massachusetts gilt-wood and eglomise mirrors; Full-length silhouette of Dr. Treadwell at Salem, Massachusetts.

Here in Massachusetts, An upcoming auction of books and manuscripts at Skinner Auctions includes an edition of a Salem-published book which I’ve written about before: Daniel Cady Eaton’s two-volume Ferns of North America (1877-1880). I have seen these volumes before, and the illustrations by J.H. Emerton and C.E. Faxon are truly beautiful.

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At Skinner’s Fine Books and Manuscripts Auction on October 30:  Daniel Cady Eaton’s Ferns of North America.

Okay, now for the creepy lot pertaining to the damned. I made a shocking discovery this afternoon as I was browsing around, a KKK money clip manufactured by Salem’s venerable Daniel Low & Company, the producer of the famous Salem witch spoon! And that very familiar image, is right there on the back. This…….artifact is among the lots in the Omega Auction Corporation’s Jewelry and Collectibles auction down in Florida tomorrow–there’s not much information in the auction listing and I was not inspired to do any research. I almost wasn’t going to include it among these lovely lots, but it is Salem-made, and history is not just made up of beautiful things, unfortunately.

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Omega Auctions, Hialeah, Florida:  a money clip with KKK and Salem Witch insignias SUPPOSEDLY made by Daniel Low & Co., Salem (see comments below, on the trail!)


Antique Apples

I was listening to the TED talk of biodiversity warrior Cory Fowler the other day when I suddenly became panicked about the dwindling variety of apples in our world. It must be the season, but immediately this issue resonated with me: we have apparently lost 86% of the varieties of apples we had a century ago: 86%! Of course I am very, very late to the party: Thoreau was wandering around the woods and fields of Massachusetts 150 years ago reveling in the sheer variety of pomological splendor before him while at that same time observing that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is with that of man” and “the era of the wild apple will soon be over”. He complains about the preponderance of Baldwins, now relatively rare, but it seems like all we have are boring McIntosh, Delicious, Gala, and Granny Smith apples in the grocery stores today. I looked through some agricultural books, journals, and catalogs from the middle of the nineteenth century, beginning with the several editions of Robert Manning’s Book of Fruits and proceeding through The Apple Culturist (1871), and came up with a list of about 150 apple varieties which were cultivated just in Massachusetts at that time, including the aforementioned Baldwin, along with Bellflower, Blue Permain, Canada Reinette, Duchess of Oldenberg, Early Joe, Fall Pippin, Fenouillet Jaune, Grimes’ Golden Pippin, Hawthorndean, Hubbardston’s Nonsuch (to which there is a monument dedicated in Wilmington, Massachusetts), Myers’s Nonpareil, Newtown Spitzenberg, Northern Spy, Pickman Pippin, Pick’s Pleasant, Pound Royal, Red Astrakhan, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet (very famous as “New England’s first pomological experiment”), and my very favorite, Westfield Seek-no-further. There are a few local growers still cultivating some of these varieties, but most of them are no more.

We can’t taste all of these antiquated apples (though some, it seems, we can!), be we can see them, thanks to a great visual source: the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains over 7000 images of fruit from 1886 to 1942.We used to have over 7000 apples, and now we have pictures.

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roxbury-russetA Baldwin apple, 1915, by Mary Daisy Arnold; Early Joe, 1898, by Deborah Griscom Passmore; Hubbardston, 1928, Mary Daisy Arnold; Northern Spy, 1905, by Elsie Lower; Roxbury Russet, 1905, by  Amanda Almira Newton:  all U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705. A real Roxbury Russet from Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts.


Salem and “Dark Tourism”

For a while I’ve been wondering where Salem fits into the academic field of “Dark Tourism”, a term coined by Scottish tourism professors John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996 and utilized by a succession of authors, operating from a variety of perspectives and within several disciplines, over the past thirty years. There is even an Institute for Dark Tourism Research (at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK), and its director, Philip Stone, has crafted the most succinct definition of a concept-in-progress to date: ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’. While this certainly sounds like October in Salem to me, it could also apply to many heritage tourism sites: Civil War battlefields, World War One cemeteries, concentration camps—much of Dark Tourism literature is concerned with the memorialization of the Holocaust. Certainly one could call a visit to the 9/11 Memorial an expression of Dark Tourism, and maybe even the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit. Dark Tourism is about death and suffering, but it can also be about remembrance and awareness.

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The abandoned town of Prypiat in Ukraine, now a stop on the Chernobyl tour, ©Getty Images; Charter Street Cemetery in Salem.

Call me cynical, but I don’t think the majority of Salem’s witch businesses or tourists are focused on remembering the names and experiences of Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd and  Elizabeth Howe. They seem to be indulging in a sub-category of Dark Tourism called “Fright Tourism” (which itself seems to be a sub-category of Morbid Tourism–and there are many other sub-categories, such as “grief tourism” and “disaster tourism”–as well as a more academic umbrella term, Thanatourism ) identified by Westfield State geographers Robert S. Bristow and Mirela Newman, in which the authors compare two major Halloween destinations: established Salem and Romania, emerging center of Dracula tourism. They conclude that “the fantasy afforded by Salem or the one proposed in Romania is basically harmless to the visitor, yet may degrade the quality of life for the local population”. While I find no argument with that statement, I’m as focused on historical memory as economic infrastructure in Salem (probably more so) so I’m looking for a more comprehensive, cultural analysis. At this point, I’m not sure that the literature of Dark Tourism is going to satisfy me, but two titles just might: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South. Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era and Stone’s and Richard Sharpley’s The Darker Side of Travel: the Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.

The more I delved into this literature, the more I realized that Gettysburg (rather than Romania!) might be the best comparison for Salem so I would love to hear any insights about the tourism scene there, and I also think it may be all about GHOSTS. A post on the Gettysburg Compiler, a great blog written by the students and staff of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, really resonated with me when I read it a while ago. The author, Susan Johnson, writes about her experience at a Civil War conference panel on Dark Tourism. On the panel was a ghost tour leader in Gettysburg, who tacitly implied that the Park Service’s efforts to portray complex historical interpretations to the public were too mentally exhausting for the average tourist, who, instead of wanting to engage with the big questions of Civil War history, would rather have fun learning about the Civil War through the means of a ghost tour. One of the main points the panel argued was that Dark Tourism was the new way of tourism, a “fun” and “spooky” way for tourists to engage with the past. I left the panel disgusted by the macabre fascination with death and the exploitation of the very real suffering of men and women living from 1861-1865 to sell a few tickets and walk around town at night with a goofily-clad individual holding a lantern and telling ghost stories that usually are not true. Bingo, just substitute 1692.

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Looking for some insights into Dark Tourism, “haunted heritage”, and Salem (always Salem!). The travel writer J.W. Ocker lived as one of us last October, so this book should be interesting–it’s just coming out now.


Face-based History

I am a longtime admirer of Simon Schama, as both historian and art historian, presenter and public intellectual. For me, his study of the Dutch Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (1987) is a classic of cultural history, illustrating a masterful engagement of textual and material sources, almost Burckhardtian in its scope. I always have it close at hand. Even though Schama is not principally an English historian, I show bits and pieces of his History of Britain series in class, just because he is such a good communicator–and teacher. As any reader of this blog (or former student) knows, I’m always utilizing (I think of it as playing with, actually, as I am not trained) art in class, in large part due to Schama, even though I am far less knowledgeable and adept than he. Schama’s latest project focuses on British portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, probably my very favorite museum in the world: The Face of Britain is a multi-media history of Britain through its portraits, rather than a history of British portraits. Through an exhibition last year at the NPG, and an accompanying book and television series, Schama examines Britain’s relatively modern history (after all, the portrait is a Renaissance creation) through portraits of individuals which represent both precise historical moments and dynamic trends. A very representative, and compelling, vignette relates the creation of a famous (or infamous) portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday by Parliament. There was quite a bit of push-and-pull between Churchill and the commissioned artist, Graham Sunderland, resulting in a portrait that is described by Schama as a “beautiful ruin” detested by the subject, the humiliation of the artist at its public unveiling in 1954, and its eventual  destruction by Lady Churchill or one of her delegates. All we have are studies and photographs of the painting that captured this particular historical moment.

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Preparatory Study for Winston Churchill’s 1954 portrait by Graham Vivian Sunderland, National Portrait Gallery.

The making of Churchill’s portrait is a study in power dynamics, and Schama explores other kinds of relationships in his exhibition/presentation/narrative: “The Face of Power” is accompanied by “Faces of the People”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Look of Love”, and “The Face of the Mirror”. The essential relationship in all of these categories, however, is between the artist and the subject, and consequently it is a bit difficult to string along an entire collective history. I didn’t see the exhibition, but I heard from friends that it was confusing because of its conceptual-rather-than-chronological structure. I do have the book and I’ve seen several episodes of the series, and (once again) Schama’s superior communication skills do seem to carry us along, especially as we move among variant genres: “portable portraits”, miniatures, statues, engravings, photographs. I didn’t learn too much from his analysis of the Tudor and Stuart portraits–I’ve heard all that virgin and martyr stuff before–though I do appreciate the inclusion of Oliver Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait and the “mourning portraits” Kenelm Digby commissioned of his beloved Venetia. I got a little lost in the later seventeenth century, but thought he made effective arguments for the representational value of portraits from the eighteenth century up through much of the twentieth, and I LOVED his “faces of the mirror”: I always though of self-portraits as being exclusively individualistic and not particularly dependent on context, but no longer! As is often the case with Schama, his transitions were subtle and his connections convincing, so in the end I found myself agreeing with his assertion that”portraits bring you into their company”.

Historical faces from Schama’s Face of Britain: Sir Francis Drake, whom Schama calls “the first genuine heroic famous Englishman”, principally because he is a “man of action”; Two very different portraits by William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III and the convicted murderess Sarah Malcolm in prison; Two earnest expressions of love by Thomas Gainsborough (for his daughters) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for Jane Morris, the wife of his William), and some amazing artists’ self-portraits, for which Schama provides plenty of context: Gerlach Flicke (cropped), an imprisoned sixteenth-century artist who painted the first English self-portrait so that his “dear friends….might have something by which to remember him after his death.”, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Orpen, “Ready to Start” fighing (?) in the Great War. Apparently Orpen later regretted his trivializing accouterments.

NPG 4032; Sir Francis Drake by Unknown artistSir Francis Drake by an unknown artist, c. 1580, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-800_hogarth_davidgarrick_as_richardiii David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth, © Walker Art Gallery

british-faces-hogarth-sarah-malcolm-in-prison Sarah Malcolm by William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm © Scottish National Gallery

british-faces-gainsborough-daughters-npgThe Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough ©National Gallery

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ©Society of Antiquaries of London

british-faces-gerlach_flicke_by_gerlach_flicke_crop Gerlach Flicke, ©National Portrait Gallery

British Faces Self-portrait_c.1747-9_by_Joshua_Reynolds_(2).jpgSir Joshua Reynolds, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-498px-william_orpen-ready_to_start-1917 William Orpen, Ready to Start, ©Imperial War Museum


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