Fair warning: this blog is going into a very random phase, even more random than usual. Normally around this time of year I would have some sort of Labor Day or “Back to School” post, but as I have just started a sabbatical I am unaccountable to any calendar but that of my own projects–of which I have several. I might post on these occasionally, or I might use the blog to take a break from scholarship. Faithful readers know how I feel about Salem’s ever-intensifying Haunted Happenings, so know not to count on me for any October coverage: last year I got out of town for six straight weekends from September to November and that worked very well for my piece of mind. That’s the standard advice offered to anyone who is critical of Halloween in Salem—embrace it or leave town; you know what you were getting into–but in my case it is actually good advice! Fortunately my study is way up on the third floor of our house–and in back, overlooking the garden rather than the street–so when I’m not traveling I can hide away, far from the maddening crowds. So that’s the setting for the next few months, and I’m not sure what I’ll come up with for this space/place. Today is a good case in point: I was looking into the medical use of several plants in the sixteenth century, including artemisia and byrony, and found myself among the digitized manuscripts of the British Library. One manuscript in particular, Giovanni Cadamosto’s Herbal with accompanying treatises on food, poisons, remedies, and the properties of stones (MS Harley 3736; late 15th or early 16th century) provided me with a little escape/break, mostly because of the amazing roots of several of the plants illustrated within.
I am familiar with this manuscript, but I never realized just how many fantastic roots it contained: suddenly that’s all I could see! We all know about that of the magical Mandrake, of course, but that’s just one of eleven by my count. Anthropomorphism always interests me, but in this case it’s a bit perplexing, as this text represents a more realistic Renaissance attempt to draw from nature rather than just relying on traditional motifs. These roots contradict that naturalism, but then again we’re in that transitional time, when a bit (or more) of whimsy could be retained. I’m still working on the plant identifications: “Antora” might by a yellow variety of aconitum or monkshood, “Dragontea” might be dracunculus vulgaris, or dragon lily, and “Palma Christi” must be the castor bean plant, which went by that common designation.