Tag Archives: environment

Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 


An Array of Elephants

I know that they’re trendy now and have been for some time, but I’ve been an elephant afficionado since I was a little girl, so I have many, many elephants that run the range from extreme tackiness to quite elegant.  I’ve had to edit my collection of elephants down rather dramatically to avoid their takeover of the house, so most of them are in boxes in the basement now (I could not, of course, get rid of them!)  I think that I should forgo future pachyderm purchases, unless they are of the ephemeral variety and don’t take up much room. Nevertheless, I am always looking…and several very different and unattainable elephants  have caught my eye over the past few weeks, renewing my appreciation for those in my own house at the same time.

Three great elephants: a “change packet” (a kind of ephemera I didn’t even know existed! nineteenth-century shopkeepers would give you your change back in these cute little paper packets, which provided them with another avenue for advertising) from the Graphics Arts Collection at the Princeton University Library, the mechanical elephant of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, which can carry around up to 49 people for 45 minutes, and an elephant embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots about 1570 from the collection of the Victoria & Alfred Museum in London.

I like this last embroidery panel because it indicates that the Queen had access to the first great Renaissance zoological work, Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-1558).  Mary’s elephant clearly seems to be based on the image in Volume One of Gessner, and I like to think of the plotting Queen and her ladies leafing through the tome for inspiration.

Elephants in my house:  a few of my favorite elephants, still upstairs, beginning with the wallpaper in my first-floor powder room. I can’t remember what the maker or pattern is.

The little guy below is my very favorite elephant:  I have no idea what he is made of or how old he is. He was in a box with some other little elephants–all cast iron–which I bought for a $1.00, but he is not cast iron but rather a hard plaster-like material.

A recent purchase from an antiques shop in Maine:  this guy seems to be made of old college pennants.  I have no idea what to do with him, so he just sits on a chair in the guest bedroom.

A sixteenth-century book illustration:  I purchased it after it was already cut out, but I still feel guilty.

Moneypenny, one with the elephant garden seat.


The Moon at Hand

I really tried, but my pictures of last night’s “supermoon” looming over Salem did not turn out very well; all you see is a bright orb, it could be a street light.  Too bad, because it was really beautiful, especially over the harbor earlier in the evening peaking through dark clouds.  This was more of a global event than a local one, however, and fortunately there are professional news service photographers out there whose more skillful photographs of the very large,very bright,very proximate perigee moon have been posted on the web.  Here are my two favorites, of the moon over Washington and East London, both demonstrating a good frame of reference which is precisely what my pictures did not provide:

The moon has always been the most intimate of the “heavenly bodies” beyond the earth, never more so when it is full.  In the medieval period, the moon was often perceived as heaven, as in the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy when Dante and Beatrice visit the “heaven of the moon” and the souls that reside there.  For religious, medical, and alchemical reasons it was necessary to chart the moon’s movements and phases and because of its proximity it was possible to do so.  The moon was never scary, and almost familiar, or as familiar as an entity that was not of this earth could be.  Most importantly, knowing the Moon was a way to know God.

British Library Egerton MS 943, Dante,14th century

The Moon in hand, British Library Harley MS 4940, 14th century

Phases of the Moon, British Library Yates Thompson MS 31, 14th century

The big transformative moment in man’s perception of the moon came with the publication of Galileo’s Starry Messenger in 1610:  through Galileo’s telescope it was revealed to be an orb with very “earthly” imperfections rather than the smooth, perfect “heavenly” body it was perceived to be before.  Soon it seemed possible to map the moon, just as one might map earth, and perhaps even to go there.

Illustrations from the Starry Messenger, 1610

Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), Map of the Moon, 1645

Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone, or, A Discourse of a Voyage thither, 1638. Early English Books Online

In the modern era, the moon gets increasingly familiar and metaphorical, the stuff of political cartoons, nursery rhymes and advertising, as well as scientific endeavors.  It was first photographed in the 1850s, and over the next century it appears in nearly every form of popular culture:  painting, theater, music, literature, and above all advertising.  Sometimes the moon is the focus, sometimes it is a metaphor, sometimes it’s just setting the scene. Below is a photograph taken by John Whipple in the collection of the Library of Congress, along with an 1890 illustration from London’s Punch Magazine, a 1909 play-bill and a song sheet from the same year, all from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

Collectible cigarette cards are among the most popular genres of advertising in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and hundreds of them have moon motifs, both emblematic and realistic.  Many were clearly marketed to children (strange for cigarette advertisements, but true), while others are more topical, like the World War I-era card below where the “old” moon is shining on both the home and battle-fronts.

And finally, an illustration (from a 1918 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine entitled “The Future of the Earth” in the Library of Congress) of an extremely adjacent moon and earth by Polish-American artist W.T. Benda.  I don’t think the moon was quite this close-at-hand yesterday.


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