Tag Archives: Local Events

The Year of Lost Archives

I must interrupt my festive holiday posts to mark a somber anniversary today: a year ago a representative of the Peabody Essex Museum admitted that there were no plans to reopen the long-shuttered Phillips Library in Salem, and that its archives and texts were soon to be relocated to a consolidated Collection Center in Rowley, in response to questions from members of the Salem Historical Commission. This admission was historic in a dual sense: it concerned history, the collected history of generations of Salem’s families and institutions, entrusted to an institution which couldn’t even be bothered to announce their removal, and it marked a moment in which Salem’s historic identity could now be cast in considerable doubt. It also triggered a series of responses and events which revealed so much to me about how history–and access to history—is perceived and valued in Salem. I was going to write an anniversary post anyway, just to wrap up this dismal year, but then an extraordinary coincidence manifested itself, and now I have a comparative format for my retrospective review. It happens that not only has my adopted hometown lost its archives, the hometown of my youth is on the verge of losing its as well! I feel like the personification of some powerful archival curse.

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Essex Institute IncorporationMr. James Kences of York, Maine protesting the imminent removal of Old York’s archives to a collections center in nearby Kittery, utilizing the same by-law precedent that we’ve employed here in Salem. Photo of Mr. Kences by Rich Beauchesne/Seacoastonline.

This may seem like an apples and oranges comparison with the only link being my personal interest, as the Peabody Essex Museum is a large, multi-faceted and well-endowed institution of international stature and the Museums of Old York constitute a local heritage organization with far fewer resources, but I think there are some interesting contrasts, particularly in the words and actions of the interested parties. Salem (1626) and York (1624) are also both venerable colonial settlements, with historical influence beyond their municipal boundaries. The Old York move is mandated by the sale of an old bank building in the center of town for redevelopment: not only have Old York’s plans been completely transparent since the publication of its strategic plan in 2015, but its Director, Joel Lefever, publicly acknowledged that York residents had the right to “raise questions” about the relocation of the archives out of town and even applauded the colorful protest of Mr. Kences. Compare this attitude and these statements to those of the now-retiring PEM Executive Director Dan Monroe: There was an expectation by a number of people that we had a responsibility to consult with them about what would be done with the Phillips collection…an expectation we didn’t particularly share or understand (Boston Globe, January 13, 2018).

Salem Hex

Old York’s decision to sell a downtown administrative building to focus resources on its historic buildings further afield was dictated by economic necessity and made in collaboration with the Town of York, which is embarking on a York Village revitalization project; the PEM’s decision to relocate the Phillips Library was a choice, not a necessity, made in isolation and opacity. Several organizations which had placed items on deposit in the Library, including the Salem Athenaeum and the Pickering House, were not even notified that their materials were to be relocated out of Salem. It was also revealed during the many hearings before the Historical Commission following the December 6 admission that the PEM had failed to file a master plan with the city of Salem, contrary to municipal regulations. While Salem residents are always in the dark when it comes to the PEM; I do hope our Planning Department knows more!

PEM Expansion PlanA romantic rendering of what might have been—if the PEM had fulfilled its promises to develop the Salem Armory and preserve the Phillips Library: not sure about the new situation of the John Ward House but it’s been moved once before. Not sure of the source or date either–I found it unlabeled on social media. Obviously the PEM went in quite a different direction.

There has also been a stark contrast in the reactions of municipal officials in York and Salem. Apparently there is no avenue to avoid the relocation of York’s archives to Kittery for the short term, but both the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen seem committed to finding a way for them to return. In an article in the York Weekly by Deborah McDermott, Town Manager Steve Burns allowed that there was no place suitable for the archives in York at present, But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something. This does not satisfy the passionate Mr. Kences, but I would be thrilled to hear a similar sentiment spoken in Salem: an obligation to the heritage of the town. For her part, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll never questioned publicly either the preservation-in-Rowley vs. decomposition-in-Salem scenario sold by PEM or its place-detached vision of history, and celebrated the Museum’s “investment in history” at the opening of the Collection Center in Rowley this past July. I do hope that the Museum makes a considerable investment in Salem’s history in the forms of library staff and digitization: at present (and as has been the case for some time) its most essential materials on commercial and cultural encounters in East Asia, so very valuable for the understanding of both local and world history, are accessible only behind a very expensive paywall at the digital publisher Adam Matthew and so inaccessible to Salem’s residents—and Salem students. While Salem’s history has been packaged as a digital “product”, the old Essex Institute buildings which once housed it remain dark and empty.

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There are also some interesting comparisons to be made regarding the quest for institutional and municipal vitality: the goal of both the PEM and Old York as well as their host communities. Old York’s archives are just that, historical archives, whereas the Phillips Collections of PEM constitute a large and multi-dimensional library, constituting myriad print and manuscript materials. It’s a bit difficult to see how the former collection could foster the development of a lively cultural community in York Village, but a Phillips Library returned to its original location could enhance Salem’s already vibrant cultural scene in many ways and expand its own community in the process. Libraries are meant to be used, and library collections are different than curatorial collections: the consolidation of both in a remote Collection Center–inaccessible via public transportation–may make sense from an administrative point of view, but it can only handicap the former in terms of its essential function. Just as I hope for more digitization of Phillips materials, I also hope that researchers are flocking to Rowley, but as yet I don’t see any evidence of the sorts of activities that are associated with other research libraries like those of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and (most familiar to me) the Folger Shakespeare Library: exhibits, events, brown bag talks, teacher workshops, crowdsourced transcription projects. It is early days for Rowley’s Phillips Library, so maybe these will come, but I believe such engagement would evolve far more easily in Salem’s Phillips Library, enlightening a dark stretch of Essex Street in the process.

Phillips last december

Anniversary 5In my open letter to the Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum from nearly a year ago, I focused on Nancy Lenox Remond, because I wanted to emphasize the connection between place and history. I couldn’t imagine a better example of someone whose history was made by Salem and who made Salem’s history in return! Mrs. Remond and her husband John were the resident caterers at Hamilton Hall and also operated several other businesses in downtown Salem. There were organizing members of Salem’s African-American church and abolitionist societies, and they advocated successfully for the desegregation of Salem’s schools. They raised eight children in Salem, among them the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox Remond and Sarah Parker Remond, for whom a seaside park in Salem is named. Here’s a photograph of Mrs. Remond and the Lafayette plaque at Hamilton Hall–which references a famous banquet which she and her husband John prepared. I didn’t understand a year ago, and I still don’t understand now, why the records of the lives and work of these extraordinary people, and all of the extraordinary people who made Salem, have to be located in Rowley.


A Very Merry House Tour

I felt a lovely spirit among the volunteers and tour-goers at this year’s Christmas in Salem tour yesterday: a clear and sunny 40ish day which made every open house shine. There were proud owners, dedicated stewards, enthusiastic guides and curious visitors everywhere in attendance. As I emphasized in my preview, it was particularly impressive to see such strong collaboration between Salem’s heritage and civic groups, not only between the tour sponsor, Historic Salem, Inc., and this year’s focus and host, the House of the Seven Gables, but also the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, two churches—Salem’s first Catholic Church, Immaculate Conception, which is now part of the amalgamated Mary, Queen of the Apostles parish, and the amazing Russian Orthodox church, St. Nicholas—-as well as the beautiful Brookhouse Home, a residence for senior women since 1861. There was of course the conspicuous absence of that elephant on Essex Street, the Peabody Essex Museum, but special compensatory recognition should be given to the relatively new Salem Historical Society, a group of young historians who formed during the prolonged closure—now apparently permanent—of the PEM’s Phillips Library. The SHS has no archives, of course, because the bulk of Salem’s archival history belongs to the PEM and is now housed in the relocated Phillips Library 40 minutes north on Route One, but they have goals: and chief among them is to get more recognition for Nathaniel Hawthorne. This tour was a means to that end, and a very material measure of their success is a brand new sign marking the sight of Hawthorne’s birthplace on Union Street, installed just in time for this “Vey Hawthorne Holiday” tour. The actual house, which was moved to the House of the Seven Gables campus in 1958, was on the tour as well, along with the storied mansion itself, the Custom House where Hawthorne (reluctantly) worked, and his least-favorite residence in Salem, his very own “Castle Dismal” (which is neither a castle or dismal).

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CIS collageFrom the brand new Hawthorne’s birthplace sign to the House of the Seven Gables, and then back to Herbert Street and “the house that Hawthorne hated” via Derby Street and the Custom House.

There were so many lovely houses on the tour interspersed among these Hawthorne sites: mostly early nineteenth-century, some eighteenth, with different degrees of detail and scale. There is a great range of houses along Derby Street, encompassing everything from the stately mansions alongside the Custom House and facing Derby Wharf, to simple Georgian cottages further along the street. I appreciated the diversity of structures, their number (this tour is an obvious bargain when compared to all the house tours I have attended this year!), and the mix between public and private buildings. It’s always a very personal commitment for a homeowner to open their doors for a house tour—and consequently it is an intimate experience for those that step within, and a privilege. But the public buildings have an intimate feel too, because the people that care for the House of the Seven Gables, the Brookhouse Home, the Custom House, and the churches, are so very committed to their preservation and interpretation. I ran out of time (because of a long lunch, another holiday tradition) and couldn’t quite make the Immaculate Conception by the end of the day, but several members of the congregation as well as the pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church were on hand to share their beautiful parish church, which was established in 1901. Beautiful day, great tour: if you couldn’t make it yesterday, it’s also on today: the weather may be a bit frightful but I assure you the interiors will be all that more delightful!

Just a sampling here: there was so much to see.

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CIS StairwayThe Captain William Lane House (with such a cheery laundry/mudroom! and decorated by Mr. Frank Bergmann who trims (other meaning) all my shrubs and trees; the Josiah Getchell House and the Thomas Magoun House along Derby Street–all absolutely charming.

 

CIS staircase collage

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CIS Crush

CIS CHAMBERLAINI’m just obsessed with the staircases now–two very different ones, from the Brookhouse Home (1810-11) and the Ives-Webb-Whipple House (by 1760). More from the latter–one of my favorite houses in Salem which is now for sale. The Captain John Hodges House on Essex (c. 1750), whose owners have some very compelling ancestors! I never take pictures of recent family photographs, but ancestors from 100+ years ago are fair game: I could not resist this remarkably handsome man, plus I am a Maine girl so must show you Joshua Chamberlain (center, dark suit, hat in hand), the hero of Gettysburg, at his 1912 family reunion.

 

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CIS Church interiorThe very festive Brookhouse Home and very serene St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, on Forrester Street.


A Very Hawthorne Holiday

This year’s Christmas in Salem house tour, the perennial seasonal fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization Historic Salem Inc., is Hawthorne-themed in recognition of the 350th anniversary of the House of the Seven Gables and features 15 decorated interiors in the greater Derby Street neighborhood along with a full schedule of associated offerings. The tour is on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon, and there are tie-in events (including a food tour, wine-tasting, meet-up of Salem history buffs, lectures on Hawthorne’s Utopian experience and the long history of celebrating Christmas) throughout the weekend. This tour is always a wonderful event for so many reasons: it supports preservation efforts and advocacy, does not exploit the witch trials in any way, and represents true collaboration between Salem’s heritage organizations. It’s a seasonal reminder of just how many beautiful old houses survive in Salem, and a great opportunity for decoration inspiration. I always emerge from the weekend full of empathetic gratitude for those generous homeowners who open their doors to hundreds of people during one of the busiest times of the year: I’ve been there, and done that (twice) and it is always quite the effort!

Hawthorne Poster

I like the theme of this particular tour as it harkens back to a time when Salem’s heritage identity was much more civic and civil, more diffuse, and much less commodified and concentrated on 1692. The neighborhood—and Hawthorne himself—are legacies of all of Salem’s history, dark and bright. Salem’s history and landscape gave Hawthorne his material: he always acknowledged his debt to his native city even as he distanced himself from it with obvious determination. In 1860, the Essex Institute had sustained a significant debt from moving their library (cabinet) into its permanent location (well, until the Peabody Essex Museum relocated it out of Salem) in Plummer Hall on Essex Street, and organized a fair to raise funds to pay off the debt. Hawthorne was asked for a story to contribute to the fair’s newsletter, The WealLeaf, and he acquiesced promptly, offering up an intense topographical memory rather than a story as his narrative inclinations had deserted him for the moment and he did not wish to be “entirely wanting to the occasion”. The relationship between the Essex Institute and Nathaniel Hawthorne was forged through moments like these, along with the deposit of Hawthorne family papers and the acquisition of additional papers and editions of all of Hawthorne’s works by the Institute, including The Spectator, his self-published (as a teenager!) newsletter.

Hawthorne collage

As Hawthorne evolved into a truly national figure following his death, the Essex Institute enhanced its reputation through its Hawthorne collections, most particularly during the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1904, for which the Institute organized a series of summer events: as this most American of authors was born on the fourth of July. National headlines all summer long focused on the author and Salem, and most particularly on the “ancient” houses associated with Hawthorne, in accordance with the form of heritage tourism that was popular at the time: the literary pilgrimage. Even a century later, the collections of the Essex Institute, now absorbed into the greater Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), were the focus of the bicentennial commemoration of Hawthorne’s birthday: consequently it’s not very difficult to imagine an open Phillips Library in an open Plummer Hall, and an exhibition of Hawthorne texts and papers assembled as a complementary and contextual feature of this weekend’s house tour. But we can only imagine such a scene, as Plummer Hall has been closed since 2011, and the Phillips collections, encompassing nearly all of Salem’s archival history, have been relocated to a vast Collection (not plural–specificity is discouraged) Center in Rowley. Nathaniel Hawthorne is gone.

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Hawthorne at Salem NYPLBoston Herald, May 1904; New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Sorry—–digression into a rant: the anniversary of PEM’s reluctant admission to the permanent relocation (dislocation) of the Phillips collections approaches (December 6) and so this momentous move is on my mind. I fear that each and every historical occasion in Salem will be impacted by the withdrawal of its archives and the historical disengagement of such a large cultural force in the city. I’m trying to focus on what remains, and this tour provides a great opportunity to do that. The Salem houses in which Nathaniel Hawthorne lived, worked, and was inspired by remain, as well as organizations like Historic Salem, Inc., the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and the House of the Seven Gables, which are devoted to their preservation—and his memory. We also have more than a century of scholarship on Hawthorne in physical context—and his memorial statue of course, a stark contrast to that dreadful marker to Salem’s other claim to “fame” on the other side of town.

Closson Hawthorne

Hawthorne book collage

SAAM-S0001933The emphasis on Hawthorne’s “Homes and Haunts” begins with the Prang publication of William Baxter Palmer Closson’s portfolio in 1886 and continues today! Salem: Place, Myth and Memory was edited by my colleagues at Salem State University and includes a great chapter on Hawthorne by Nancy Lusignan Schultz. I haven’t read Milder’s Hawthorne’s Habitations yet, but it sounds like it is more focused on his time in England and Italy. The Smithsonian photograph above, of the newly-installed statue in front of the newly-built Hawthorne Hotel in 1925, was taken by Salem’s great horticulturist and planner Harlan Kelsey.


Saturday Shopping in Salem

After Thanksgiving in Maine, I returned to do my civic duty and shop in Salem on Small Business Saturday. For almost as long as I’ve lived here, I have resolved to do all my holiday shopping in the smaller shops of Salem and generally that’s been easy to do. Last year it was slightly more difficult as I boycotted the Peabody Essex Museum’s wonderful store after their reluctant admission that they were shipping most of Salem’s history out of town, and I’m going to stick to that policy until it comes back. A few people on my list will no doubt suffer the consequences! There are more shopping options in Salem than there used to be—although the concentration of witchcraft/Halloween shops along Essex Street is concerning: I just don’t understand the year-round, needless-to say holiday attraction of such purveyors, but maybe I’m in the wrong demographic. I just wish they had nicer signs: actually Vampfangs (for which I know I’m really in the wrong demographic) has a dark albeit curated street presence, but FreakyElegant has looked like a temporary pop-up since it replaced a wonderful toy store several years ago. Further down on Essex there is our local independent bookstore, Wicked Good Books, which is a great place to shop in any season, but that’s about it for Essex Street unless you are looking for more witchcraft wares, PEM goods and PEM-sponsored chocolate, or empty storefronts.

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I wandered over to the Church Street to check out a relatively new craft consortium, Hive & Forge, but it was closed! Or rather the door was locked—I just couldn’t get in. Trying not to take it personally–and will try again. Fortunately the very active Salem Arts Association was holding its annual Holiday Artists’ Market at Old Town Hall, so I walked over there, and then I was in the center of Salem shopping–which is Front Street, and the adjacent Central and lower Lafayette Streets. Within about 2 blocks you can do all your shopping: there’s a very nice concentration of housewares, clothing, and food shops: all oriented towards the entire year rather than just Halloween.

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Shopping 14Hive & Forge (to which I will return) and some of my favorite things at the Salem Art Association’s holiday market.

On Central Street you have Pamplemousse and Emporium 32 facing each other: both very dependable sources of gifts and everything for the home (including food & wine in the former). Emporium 32 always has the best-dressed windows in town, which are quite representative of the wonders within (plus it has great gifts for men, who dominate my list). Further down this way (which turns into Lafayette) there is everyone’s favorite Cheese Shop of Salem and Mark Your Spot for more eclectic wares. Back on Front, nearly every single storefront is a great shop, with the notable exception of our Congressman’s office (perhaps if he were on Essex he could drive some traffic over there?). The adjoining shops Roost and Oak+Moss, owned, operated, and curated by a Salem couple with great taste, are always go-to shops in Salem, and most especially at this time of year.

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Shopping 2A well-dressed window (+reflection) at Emporium 32, plus hats and a wonderful book by Salem artist Sara Richard (from whom I have commissioned MY Christmas gift), The Cheese Chop of Salem, rocking horse at Mark Your Spot, Front Street, RBG at Roost and inside and outside at Oak +Moss.


Salem during the Great War

I have been so impressed with the World War One centenary commemoration initiatives both in Europe (where they have been going on since 2014) and the United States (more recent initiatives, organized by towns, states, and the national Centennial Commission): poppies and lights galore, a real focus on humanity, and that amazing “We’re Here because We’re Here” living history event, which makes me cry every time I see more than one minute of video—nope, make that 30 seconds. Of course the commemoration has been more intense in Europe because the loss was more intense, but there have been some impressive American initiatives too: in our region, the Lexington Historical Society, in particular, has gone all out. Here in Salem, we have our veteran squares, which is a lovely program, but that’s about it: we have no organization committed to collecting and interpreting local history in its entirety and in context, and I doubt there’s much money to be made from commemorating the Great War. And that’s really too bad, because the history of Salem’s homefront experience during World War I is absolutely fascinating, and worthy of note. It took me about an hour to search for these items: just imagine if someone with more intent–and more time–did so.

By far the most news generated in local papers (besides reports of troop movements) in 1917 and well into 1918 is that concerned with fundraising, including relief initiatives and the Liberty Loan program by which the federal government financed the war. These were community efforts, involving drives, parades, and all sorts of events—and press. The national posters for the Liberty Loan are amazing (so many different themes and approaches, from full-on jingoism to fear to sentimentality) and the local response equally so. The Boy Scouts were deployed in this effort, and the boys of the Salem Fraternity clearly answered the call. The “Community Chest” initiative started just before the war, and during the war 300 American cities raised charitable funds according to set goals: Salem’s goal was $34,000 a month, which I’m not sure it met, but this big “War Chest” appeared on Washington Street so the effort must have been somewhat successful! There were several relief efforts in Salem: the one which seems to have been the most active was the American Fund for Jewish War Sufferers in the various war zones of Europe and Palestine, which raised 20,000,000 over the course of the war. Mrs. Nathan Shribman, the chair of the “Relief Bazaars” through which Salem would raise its share of those funds, is below in June 2017. One really does get the impression of frenzied fundraising during the entire war, even as the flu raged in the fall of 2018.

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Salem WWI Fraternity Liberty Loan

Salem World War I Treasure ChestLiberty Loan posters, 1917-1918, Library of Congress; Lining up to buy Liberty Bonds, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Salem Boy Scouts on Central Street during a Liberty Loan rally, October 1917, US National Archives; the War Chest on Washington Street, SSU Archives and Special Collections.

As we get into later 1917 and 1918, news from the front dominates the headlines of the Boston and Salem papers, but what happens over there always affects the home front. One of my favorite stories involves a film made by all the Salem families of soldiers in France and sent over there through the YMCA. A wonderful community effort—wish I could find it. Then there is the incredibly story of Salem’s own Ralph C. Browne, a self-taught “hitherto unknown Yankee inventor”, whose antenna firing device made possible the North Sea Mine Barrage in the closing phase of the war: local man wins the war!

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World War I 8 Browne November 3 2018Boston Globe clips, 1918.

So many soldiers. Salem has its very own Saving Private Ryan scenario with the Gibney family, who sent four sons to France and were commended for their sacrifice by President Wilson in the Spring of 2018: this was a national story. Both the Salem and the Boston papers covered the war in a very personal way, sharing as many individual stories as possible, so these are just a few Salem soldiers who experienced terrible loss, joyful reunions, and distinguished themselves with great bravery. Meanwhile, back home, Salem’s residents were supporting their efforts in myriad ways right up until the end, and the Boy Scouts were drilling on Winter Island. Many came back, some did not, but the entire city seems to have turned out for the spectacular Armistice Day parade, a century ago.

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Salem World War 1 Armistice ParadeSalem 1918: just a few Salem soldiers’ experiences as reported in November, Boston Globe; the Boy Scouts drill on Winter Island, US National Archives; Armistice Day Parade, SSU Archives and Special Collections.


Cauldron Connections

Every year about this time, there is a “it could only happen in Salem” story in the news: this year’s version reports a recent incident of assault and battery by cauldron in a downtown witchcraft shop. Trite but true, and it got me thinking about the association of witches and cauldrons, which I know dates back to the fifteenth century at the very least, and possibly earlier. So I took a little break from my various sabbatical projects and dug in, promising myself that I would devote only one hour to this diversion. It took me away for about 90 minutes, so that’s not too bad. Of course what immediately comes to mind, and is quoted in the newspaper article and all of its variants, is Shakespeare’s quote from Macbeth: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake. But that’s not the source of the connection; Shakespeare’s words and phrases, clever as they are, are generally a reflection. So what is the connection? I think there are three actually: the Hell-Mouth, the image of the concocting witch as an inversion of the nourishing mother, and poison. 

Cauldron Lamb Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare, 1807

There’s nothing too terribly original about the first two connections; the last, maybe. The Hell-Mouth dates back to the early medieval era, when Hell was first personified as demonic monster who tortures and ultimately devours damned souls: the cauldron-like mouth is both the entrance to Hell and the scene of the torture and devouring, but increasingly in the later medieval manuscripts additional cauldrons (and demons) are added to this horrific depiction. As the cauldron is a tool of Satan, so too is the witch, who also utilizes cauldrons to stir up magical concoctions (with the bodies of unbaptized babies as a primary ingredient) in intensely-anecdotal late medieval texts like Johannes Nider’s Formicarius (1475). By the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, we can see these witches, encircling and stirring their cauldrons, in Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis et Pythonicis Mulieribus (Of Witches and Diviner Women, 1489) and Hans Baldung’s various witch woodcuts (c. 1510).

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Cauldron Hell-Mouth

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Cauldron BaldungTwo hundred years of cauldrons: British Library MS Additional 47682, the Harrowing of Hell in the Holkham Bible Picture Book, 1327-35; British Library MS Additional 38128, cauldron-like Hell-Mouth, late 14th-early 15th century; the Prince of Hell with his Cauldron Hat in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, 1500, Museo del Prado; Molitor’s Weather Witches, 1489; Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbat, c. 1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the sixteenth-century depictions, which will become increasingly lurid into the next century coincidentally with the intense persecution of witchcraft, I think it’s a hop, skip and jump to the folk-tale witches of the nineteenth century and postcard witches of the twentieth from the early twentieth, but there’s one more connection I think is worth exploring, even though I haven’t quite worked it out. A key contributing cause of the early modern witch hunt was the translation of a particular Old Testament passage, Exodus 22:18, into the vernacular as Thou Shall not Suffer a Witch to Live, a translation which Reginald Scot contested in his early and popular skeptical treatise on witchcraft and its prosecution, The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584–one of Shakespeare’s sources). Scot maintained that the original Hebrew word utilized in the passage, which he referred to as Chasaph but is usually referenced (in its root form) as Kasaph, really meant diviner, seer, or poisoner rather than the “witch” of Christian demonology. Before the seventeenth century, the crime of witchcraft in England was perceived more specifically as maleficium, or harmful magic, rather then devil-worship, and poison was the most pernicious form of maleficium: it required knowledge, and skill (and perhaps a cauldron) and those found guilty of bringing about death by poison were sentenced to death by boiling in a cauldron! A sensational poisoning case in 1531 involved Richard Roose, a cook in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who attempted to murder his master by poison. The bishop was spared but two people in the household did indeed die before Roose was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by “boiling” in a cauldron in Smithfield.  So much inversion tied to the cauldron and the witch beside it: from nourishment, healing and life to poisoning and death, from childbirth and mother’s milk to infanticide and poisonous gall (referenced by Lady Macbeth) before both are transformed into innocent vessels.

Witchal©Historic New England


Where are all the Quince Trees?

I am encountering so many references to quinces in my early modern recipe books and regimens: to eat, to preserve, in tarts and jellies and marmalade, of course. These English people really loved quinces, or they depended on them, and so they brought them to New England, where every garden apparently had a quince tree or bush; apparently only one was needed because they were so fruitful. There was even a moment in time when quinces were considered as a possible staple crop here in Salem: according to Felt’s Annals of Salem, there was a succession of crop failures which led to scarcity of corn in the 1760s, provoking a public inquiry “whether some foreign vegetables might not be introduced, which would serve as a substitute for bread”. The “quince of Portugal” was proposed, along with the “Spanish potato” (did they not know that the potato was a native North American crop?). This is a good clue, confirmed by some of the English evidence: apparently the English variety of quince was not so pleasing as the Mediterranean variety, thus it needed a lot of cooking, steaming, boiling, roasting and sugaring: just perfect for what the English liked to do to all sorts of foods. According to Thomas Moffatt in Health’s Improvement (1655), quinces were worth the trouble: though their raw flesh be as hard as raw beef unto weak stomachs, yet being roasted, or baked, or made into Marmalade, or cunningly preserved, they give a wholesome and good nourishment.” This was fine for the seventeenth century, but in the nineteenth century I think people wanted to just pick a piece of fruit off the tree and eat it, and consequently Robert Manning, Salem’s superstar horticulturist (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle) just gives a few paragraphs to quince trees in his New England Book of Fruits and seems more interested in grafting his beloved pears onto them to create dwarf varieties. As quince also served as a type of pre-modern gelatin the development of alternative sources and processes in the nineteenth century were factors that must have aided its gradual disappearance as well. By the later nineteenth century, there were only to be found in “grandmothers’ gardens” and now—nowhere.

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Quince Cakes

quince newenglandbookof00mannrich_0070 1847

Quince Bush Arthur Wesley Down 1895 MFAQuince, Cabbage, Melon & Cucumbers, by Juan Sanchez Cotan, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art; a Quince tree in Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), 1542the eighteenth-century recipe book of the Marchioness of Wentworth and a recipe for “Quince Cakes”;  “Quince stock when grafted or budded with a Pear”, Robert Manning’s New England Book of Fruits, 1847; Arthur Wesley Dow, “Our Quince Bush”, 1895, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Well, except for the Bonnefont Herb Garden at the Cloisters (below) and there are a few quince boosters out there so maybe we will see a revival. Since they are small trees, they are perfect for urban courtyard gardens like mine, so I’m looking for a space…..and speaking of small urban gardens, for those of you in Salem (or nearby), the creator of one of the most impressive gardens in Salem (which you can see here) is giving a talk this Thursday night in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. No doubt her garden is illustrative of her knowledge, which means we will all learn a lot!

Quince Cloisters

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gardening event

 


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