Indigenous Knowledge & the Scientific Revolution

In August of 2015, the Galileo’s World exhibit opened at the University of Oklahoma.  The exhibit highlights the University’s outstanding collection of rare scientific texts, including every book Galileo ever published (and two that include writing in his own hand), as well as the works of many of his predecessors, contemporaries and followers. The exhibit seeks to examine sixteenth- and seventeenth-century culture more broadly and to explore connections between the music, art, literature and science of the period.


Galileo’s signature on OU History of Science Collection’s copy of Sidereus Nuncius (1610).

While the main exhibition is located in Bizzell Library, where the rare book collection is housed, there are several satellite exhibits. One of them, at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, centers on the Spanish physician and explorer, Francisco Hernández (1514 – 1587). Hernández was commissioned by the King of Spain, Philip II, to prepare an account of the plants and animals of Spain’s newly conquered territories in what is today Mexico. Hernández spent seven years in Mexico (1571-77) and prepared an extensive series of notes on the flora and fauna of the region. These notes remained in manuscript form until the Italian nobleman, Federico Cesi (1585–1630), saw them and determined to have them published. Cesi was a friend and supporter of Galileo, and the founder of one of the earliest scientific academies, the Academy of the Lynx (Accademia dei Lincei), of which Galileo was a member. Hernández’s account of the natural resources of Mexico was finally published in 1651 by the Academy of the Lynx, under the auspices of Cesi’s successors. This particular portion of the Galileo’s World exhibit seeks to connect Galileo and his scientific contemporaries to what Europeans regarded as the “New World.”


Title page of Francisco Hernández, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651). Image Courtesy of the OU History of Science Collections.

The guiding question of the exhibit is: How did the natural knowledge of Native Americans shape European science in the age of Galileo? A blog post on the exhibit by the curators claims: “Through [Hernandez’s] work, Native American knowledge of plants and animals became part of mainstream European biology.”  The visitor is presented with a spectacular array of books on natural history (and other subjects) written by European naturalists and published in various European languages. The exhibit amply demonstrates that Europeans were fascinated by the strange flora and fauna they saw in the Americas, and that they sought to describe the plants, animals, minerals and peoples they encountered. But the guiding question is never actually addressed. That is, we learn much about what Europeans thought of the “New World,” but nothing about what the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought about the plants and animals of the region. And other than the vague statement that Hernández “worked closely with Aztec artists and physicians in central Mexico,” we learn nothing about how and what Europeans learned (or didn’t learn) from native inhabitants. The statement itself is deeply problematic as “worked closely with” suggests respectful and harmonious scientific collaboration. We need to recognize that Hernández came to Mexico in the wake of an extremely violent conflict and a massive disruption of the existing social structures in the Americas. He was part of a occupying force, not a sympathetic or even a neutral observer of native inhabitants. His mandate was to learn about the flora and fauna of the Americas so that the King of Spain would be in a better position to exploit them.

Can we use Hernández’s work to explore the interactions of European and indigenous knowledge systems? Perhaps, but the challenge is much greater than the exhibit acknowledges. Miruna Achim, discussing precisely this problem of incorporating nuanced accounts of indigenous knowledge into the history of (western) science, writes:

Most accounts of how things and people travelled across the Atlantic downplay the obvious power plays and exploitation attaching to colonized subjects and their intellectual common [?], or, on the other extreme, grant indigenous informers little or no agency – they are, instead, the dubious recipients of the honour of being “discovered,” with discovery, here, standing in for a politico-epistemological moment reproducing the European-indigenous first encounter, this time in the domain of science. (277)

One graphic from the exhibit powerfully illustrates this erasure of indigenous knowledge and indigenous peoples. On one wall the visitor is presented with a “tree of knowledge” showing the progress of biological knowledge from its “primitive roots” to its full flowering into sophisticated (European) scientific knowledge.

gw-sn-3Take a closer look at the “roots” of this tree.


“Native American natural knowledge” is vaguely linked with shamans, healers and artists.  But we learn nothing of any of these native men and women from the exhibit.  They are relegated to a generalized “pre-scientific” past from which Europeans drew to create modern science. The placard for Hernàndez’s book Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia asserts: “In Galileo’s time, European progress in the life sciences depended on the natural knowledge of central Mexico’s native inhabitants.”  A clear separation is drawn between “natural knowledge” which is primitive, mixed up with religion, and generally unworthy of serious discussion, and the “life sciences,” which are systematic, rational and progressive.  So the curators take a dim view of indigenous knowledge, but what about Hernández?

One piece of evidence may have been misunderstood as suggesting that Hernández “worked closely with Aztec artists and physicians in central Mexico.”  He gives the names of plants and animals in Nahuatl as well as Latin. Nahuatl was (and is) a language spoken (and written) by various peoples in central Mexico, including the Aztecs.  But today there are over 60 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. Even if Hernández attained some fluency in Nahuatl (and it is by no means clear that he did), that would not have enabled him to communicate with all indigenous groups in the region he had been sent to study. He must certainly have worked with intermediaries. More importantly, Hernández’s use of Nahuatl names reflects the contemporary European belief that there is a natural connection between a name and a thing; the name revealed essential properties of the thing to which it referred. This belief, more than any “respect” for indigenous culture and knowledge, is a more likely explanation for Hernández’s decision to use Nahuatl words.  His use of Nahuatl, alone, shows neither a respect for natives, nor scientific collaboration.

What can we actually know about indigenous knowledge and how Hernandez used it in his book? While I can’t provide a full answer for this question, I’d like to propose an interesting test case. I’m going to take a more in depth look at a Mexican plant and an animal: the Opuntia, a type of cactus also known as the Indian fig, or prickly pear, or nopal; and the cochineal insect, a parasite that lives on the opuntia. The cochineal insect was (and is) used to produce a very valuable dye, so Hernández ought to have been strongly motivated to gather accurate information about it. And in this case we can reconstruct in some detail what the indigenous people of Mexico knew about opuntia and cochineal, and contrast what Hernández and other early modern European scholars wrote about them. Was Hernández actually equipped to grasp what the indigenous peoples knew about cochineal? And were they inclined to share information with him about the production of a very valuable commodity, one that gave them a measure of power over their Spanish overlords and a connection to their pre-Conquest past? The answer to both of these questions is almost certainly no.  I think this example seriously calls into question the notion that Hernández and Native Americans freely exchanged scientific information about plants and animals.


Opuntia ficus. Wikimedia Commons.


Dactylopius coccus (cochineal) growing in Barlovento, La Palma, Canary Islands. Photo by Frank Vincentz (14. March 2008). Wikimedia Commons.

The native peoples of Mexico used the cochineal insect to produce both dyes and medicines. The cochineal insect lives on the opuntia cactus. Females attach themselves permanently to the opuntia and spend their whole lives sucking out the juice of the cactus and laying eggs. Males fly around and fertilize the eggs. They are fewer in number than the females and live for half as long. The female cochineal, because she can’t move, is vulnerable to predators. As a means of self-defense, cochineal insects have evolved to produce carminic acid, which makes them unpalatable to many potential predators. Carminic acid can be used as a red dye, and it produces an exceptionally vivid and long-lasting color. But cochineal insects were not simply wild animals that the indigenous people exploited. Rather, through selective breeding they had created a new species of domesticated cochineal that was larger than wild cochineal and had a higher concentration of carminic acid. This domesticated cochineal was considerably more delicate and vulnerable to changes in temperature than its wild relative. The opuntia on which it lived was also susceptible to cold and damp and would easily rot. The cochineal and the opuntia had to be carefully tended to keep them alive and productive. It was a labor-intensive form of farming, but well worth it because cochineal was a highly valuable commodity. While I have used certain modern and anachronistic terms here, like “evolved” and “carminic acid,” it is clear that indigenous people deliberately manipulated the insect and the cactus to maximize production of a desired commodity.

Now let’s turn to what Europeans knew (or thought they knew) about cochineal and opuntia.  In his Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651), Hernández describes “a certain species of cactus called Nocheznopalli, or Nopalnocheztli” (quodam genere Nocheznopalli, seu Nopalnocheztli).


“Nocheznopalli, or Nopalnocheztli” (Opuntia) from Hernández, Nova plantarum . . .

On this cactus, he reports, there are:

… round worms, white on the outside, within, however, of scarlet color, [which grow] sometimes naturally of their own accord, sometimes by the industry and diligence of men, who move the seeds from the previous year at a set time. [The Indians call these worms] Nocheztli, our men, however, are wont to call them cochinilla, perhaps from cocco [scarlet], or grain, whose appearance they have.

vermiculi rotundi, extra candidi, intra vero coccinei coloris, interdum sponte ipsius naturae, interdum hominum industria atque diligentia, semina superioris anni stato tempore Tunis admoventium, quae Indi Nocheztli, nostri vero Cochinilla, fortassis a Cocco, seu Grano cuius species sunt, appellare solent.

We might note here that in Nahuatl, the name of the plant (Nopalnocheztli) contains the name of the insects (Nocheztli). These cactuses are also called “nopals,” which is still their name in Spanish. This suggests that the two were seen as a unit.

Hernández asserts that these “worms” are a form of “excrement” secreted by the cactus. (Tamen cum vermiculu ex hoc excremento gignantur). Some people, he reports, believe it is a seed produced by the plant, but he insists that it is a worm that is spontaneously generated on this particular plant and no other. He notes that “Indians” use the worm as a wound dressing and as a purple and scarlet dye for fabrics. An additional passage in italics at the end of this entry, which may have been added by a later author, perhaps one of the members of the Academy of the Lynx reads:

Excrements are generated on many plants, which are then transmuted into various species of insects. Thus it is not only coccus that is born on a scarlet oak , but also flies grow inside the gall-nut on the oak, [and] one is able to observe the same thing in the vesicles of the elm, and on the terebinth [turpentine tree] and many other plants.

Excrementa pluribus adnascuntur plantis, quae deinde in varias insectorum species transmutantur. sic non tantum Coccus in Ilice nascitur, sed etiam quaevis Galla in Quercubus intra se Muscam gignit. idem observare licet in vesiculis Ulmi. Terebinthi aliisque plantis compluribus.

It is clear from this description that Hernández had only a limited understanding of the opuntia and the cochineal. He knew that cochineal was used as a dye and a medicine. But he was only vaguely aware of the difference between wild and domesticated cochineal, and he believed the cochineal were spontaneously generated on the opuntia, rather than placed there by their cultivators. He used a European concept – spontaneous generation – in an attempt to make sense of what he had seen or heard about the opuntia and the cochineal. The notion that certain creatures, usually insects, toads and frogs, could spontaneously generate out of rotting material was widely accepted by sixteenth-century Europeans.

Let’s look at what some other European scientists thought about the opuntia and the cochineal.  The English naturalist John Gerard (ca. 1545–1612) included the opuntia in his 1597 Great Herbal (another text that is on display in the exhibit). Here he made no mention of cochineal, but in his revised and enlarged second edition of 1633 he noted: “Upon this plant in some parts of the West Indies grow certain excrescences, which in continuance of time turn into Insects, and these out-growings are that high prized Cochenele wherewith they dye colours in graine.” (1512)

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597)

John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Courtesy of the OU History of Science Collections.

The botanists Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) (whose work is displayed in the exhibit) and Matthaeus Lobelius (1538–1616) included descriptions of the opuntia in their works on plants. The information about the opuntia in these texts is almost wholly divorced from their native context. Aside from the brief mention that Indians use the plant on wounds because of its astringent properties, all sources cited are European, and all descriptions refer to opuntia cultivated in European gardens. Neither author even mentions cochineal, which, as we have seen, was inextricably linked with the opuntia in indigenous understandings of the plant.  And they transfer the healing properties of the cochineal (its use as an astringent on wounds) to the opuntia.

Another English naturalist, Thomas Moffet (1553–1604), included the cochineal in his Theater of Insects. Like Hernandez and Gerard, he thought it generated spontaneously from the opuntia.

Cochineal begins thus: When the lower stalk [of the opuntia] divides into two branches, and in the middle of these there comes forth a thing that is round, and of the colour and bigness of a Pear, they call this the Mother, because from this the other grains proceed. Besides every one of these shrubs hath commonly five Mothers, which at the beginning of Summer and in hot weather put forth a great company of little Worms, and they cleave in the top. A new off-spring of shoots growes up severally on high of a white colour, that produce living creatures. But wheresoever they meet with the hollow places of the twig budding where the Worms are, they fall down, and become as great, as Millet-seed. Then growing up more freely, the white colour changeth into ash-colour, and then they appear no more living creatures, but again like unto Pease. Then those grains being ripe gathered, now great with colour’d Worms: whilest they are carried to the Merchants, the thin skin that goes about them breaks. The price of a pound of these Worms that are come forth of the skin is a gold noble; but that part which is yet in the skin, is sold for a fourth part of it: the mean while the little Worms are as if they were dead, and move not. (1085)

Other European naturalists believed that the dye and medicine called cochineal were derived from the fruit of the opuntia itself, and still others believed the cochineal was a seed or berry of the opuntia. In the late 17th century the two most outstanding microscopists of the period, Anton van Leeuwenhook and Jan Swammerdam examined cochineal under a microscope and eventually concluded that it was an insect, not a seed. But because they were looking at dried insects imported from Mexico, their findings were not considered certain. Even in the 18th century when Europeans finally came to understand that cochineal was an insect and that it was not spontaneously generated but rather carefully cultivated, all their attempts to breed and raise cochineal in Europe or other colonies often failed.

Despite the haziness of their understanding of opuntia and cochineal, Europeans eagerly consumed the substance throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and it was one of the most valuable New World commodities. The dye produced spectacular and vivid shades of red and purple and was widely sought after. Artists used cochineal to make red paint. And Europeans rapidly incorporated cochineal into medical practice and experimented with new and different uses for cochineal as a medicine. For example, in Isaac Newton’s alchemical manuscripts there is a recipe for fevers that uses cochineal:

Extract a tincture from 2 drachms of opium, 1 drachm of crocus, 1 drachm of cochineal, 1 drachm of Spanish contrayerva, 1 drachm of Virginia snakeroot, using spirit of elderberries. It is an anodyne elixir by which sleep and sweat are induced at the same time. The dose is from 20 to 30 drops. If the same tincture is extracted using spirit of sal armoniac, the same dose produces the same effect in the fevered after which the disease comes to its crisis and begins to weaken.

Cum spiritu Baccharum Sambuchi extrahe tincturam ex Opio ʒii Croco ʒi Cochinelia ʒ1 Contra-earva Hispanica ʒ1 Serpentaria Virgineana ʒ1. Est Elixir anodinum quo Somnum et sudor simul inducuntur.  Dosis a 20 ad 30 guttas. Si eadem tinctura extrahatur cum spiritu salis armoniacai, dosis eadem eundem producit effectum in Febrilitantibus postquam morbus ad ἀκμὴν venit et incipit mitescere.ailed

Such experiments on the medicinal properties of cochineal were conducted on dried and prepared cochineal imported from Mexico, not on the living insect. And they were based on European understandings of physiology (primarily the theory of the four humors) and European disease categories.

I raised the question above of whether Hernandez and his contemporaries had the conceptual tools to grasp what the indigenous people knew about cochineal. His understanding of cochineal, and those of other early modern Europeans, takes place wholly within received Western categories. He failed to learn what we would today consider the most basic facts about the opuntia and cochineal from native informants.  In fact  “Western” scientists lacked the conceptual tools to understand the native knowledge of opuntia and conchineal until the twentieth century and the development of the sciences of biochemistry and genetics.

Primary sources:

Francisco Hernández, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (Rome, 1651)

John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes ( London : [Edm. Bollifant for [Bonham Norton and] Iohn Norton, 1597).

John Gerard, The herball or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London Master in Chirurgerie very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Iohnson citizen and apothecarye of London (London: Printed by Adam Islip Ioice Norton and Richard Whitakers, 1633).

Thomas Moffet, Theater of insects, in Edward Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents. . . ; whereunto is now added, The theater of insects, or, Lesser living creatures . . . by T. Muffet . . . (London: Printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge … T. Williams … and T. Johnson …, 1658).

Isaac Newton, Portsmouth Collection Add. MS. 3975, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge University, 134 verso (transcription and translation from The Chymistry of Isaac Newton)

Secondary sources:

Miruna Achim, “From rustics to savants: Indigenous material medica in eighteenth-century Mexico” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2011) 275-284.

Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006).

Jordan Kellman, , “Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal” Atlantic Studies 7.4 (2010) 373-395

Henry M. Reeves, “Sahagún’s “Florentine Codex”, a little known Aztecan natural history of the Valley of Mexico” Archives of natural history 33.2 (2006) 302-321.

Neil Safier, “Global Knowledge on the Move: Itineraries, Amerindian Narratives, and Deep Histories of ScienceIsis 101.1 (2010) 133-145.

Simon Varey (ed.), The Mexican Treasury: The Writings of Dr. Francisco Hernández (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Galileo’s World writing assignment

OU Lynx

by Dr. Kathleen Crowther

Gw logoAssignment: Visit the Galileo’s World exhibit on the 5th floor of Bizzell Memorial Library. You will note that the exhibit is divided into the following galleries:

  1. Music of the Spheres
  2. Galileo, Engineer
  3. Galileo and China
  4. Controversy over the Comets
  5. A New Physics
  6. The Galileo Affair

Each of these six galleries begins with a question to prompt reflection. The question is painted on the wall at the beginning of the gallery. For example:

“What would it be like to be a mathematician in an era when music and astronomy were sister sciences?”

Pick one of the galleries of the exhibit and answer its guiding question. You should write this essay in FIRST PERSON. Write from the perspective of a person FROM THE 17TH CENTURY answering this question. You may choose to be a real person from the 17th century or invent a fictional character (some suggestions:…

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Anatomy and Wikipedia

This semester in my HSCI 3013 class (History of Science to the Age of Newton), I tried a new type of assignment: I asked students to edit Wikipedia articles. I got most of my inspiration and technical assistance for this project from my colleague Dr. John Stewart. Dr. Stewart has done projects like this in his own history of science course and has given presentations on how to use Wikipedia in the classroom.  He and Stacy Zemke gave a very helpful presentation on this topic last October and posted helpful links. Dr. Stewart has also let me pick his brain over lunch and coffee on numerous occasions, for which I am enormously grateful.

This assignment accompanied lessons on the history of anatomy. The history of anatomy in the medieval and early modern periods is still very much dominated by Andreas Vesalius, even after work of Katharine Park and Andrew Cunningham. This is especially true of the way we present the history of anatomy in history of science courses (where time is limited) and even in history of medicine classes. Even scholarly work that discusses the lesser-known anatomists typically ignores anatomists working in the medieval Islamic world. (The idea that religious beliefs and taboos prevented dissection of human cadavers in the Islamic world remains pervasive, but to my knowledge largely undocumented and unproven.) I wanted to give students the opportunity to explore the work of a variety of medieval and early modern anatomists, and also to contribute to the general stock of knowledge on medieval and early modern anatomy.

I have five groups of about seven to nine students each in my classroom (dictated by the fact that the room has five tables with nine seats a piece). I picked five medieval and early modern anatomists who had very short articles on Wikipedia: Ibn al-Nafis, Mansur ibn Ilyas, Gabriele Zerbi, Alessandro Achillini, and Realdo Columbo. (If you click on these links you will be taken to Wikipedia pages created almost entirely by my students.) Some were short enough to be classified as “stubs” and others were only a couple of paragraphs long. I also selected these anatomists because I was able to find several accessible readings on each. “Accessible” in this context means the articles or book chapters were in English and they were either available on-line or I could obtain them through inter-library loan. Wikipedia articles must meet a “notability” criteria, which means that there must be “significant coverage” of the topic in secondary sources. Wikipedia is NOT a venue for original research. Wikipedia defines “significant coverage” as “two independent secondary sources from reputable publishers.” This means that I had to be sure at least two authors had written in English on each of these anatomists. I had to reject a few good candidates because there just wasn’t enough secondary literature in English. I gave the students these readings. I did not ask them to find their own sources. Certainly, I could have asked them to track down sources, but I have other assignments designed to teach research skills, and in this particular assignment I wanted them to focus on learning how a Wikipedia article is constructed and edited and to think about how the writing style expected in an encyclopedia article is very different from that expected in an research paper. I asked students to increase the article five-fold, and to add images (where possible) and sources.

Each student was required to sign up for a Wikipedia account and give me their user name so I could verify that they had contributed to the group effort. Each student was expected to read the secondary sources on their anatomist outside of class and to go through the Wikipedia training for students (which takes about an hour). I devoted three fifty-minute class periods to working on this project. Although in theory students could all work on this independently and discuss their edits on-line, I found that they really wanted and needed the time to meet up face to face and plan out who would do what edits, and then to look over the whole article as a group and edit it for consistency.

I hope this makes students more critical and careful users of Wikipedia in the future. If it inspires them to do more Wikipedia editing, that’s all to the good. If it inspires my students – or some one else – to undertake original research to write fuller and better accounts of these anatomists’ work, that would be fantastic.

In addition to the links above that I got from John Stewart and Stacy Zemke, I have found this piece by Adeline Koh very useful: “Introducing Digital Humanities Work to Undergraduates: An Overview”


One of Mansur ibn Ilyas’ colored illustrations of human anatomy. This illustration highlights the arterial and nervous systems as viewed from behind. From: Mansur ibn Ilyas: Tashrīḥ-i badan-i insān. تشريح بدن انسان. Manuscript, ca. 1450, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Cooking in the Classroom; or, how to make a Hedge Hogg

This semester I tried a new type of assignment in my HSCI 3013 class. I had students transcribe and analyze recipes from an early modern English manuscript recipe book held by and digitized by the Wellcome Library in London.  You can find the catalog record, and link to the digital version of MS 8097 here.  According to the Wellcome catalog record, the manuscript is from the 17th and early 18th century.  It contains multiple hands, but none of the authors are known.  One section of the book contains recipes for food, and the other contains recipes for medicines.

One purpose of this assignment was to give students experience working with primary source documents. I modeled the assignment after Lisa Smith’s “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription” and Amy Tigner’s “Teaching Recipes”.  I drew considerable inspiration and numerous ideas from Colleen Kennedy’s “Baking a Pumpion Pye (c. 1670)” and Marissa Nicosia’s Lobsters in the Archives and the amazing blog Cooking in the Archives.  I will write more about how this assignment fit into a course on the history of science in a subsequent post.

My choice of this particular manuscript was serendipitous. A group of students in my HSCI 3013 class last fall found it while researching early modern diseases and remedies. (Their work on a remedy for jaundice is described in A Bill of Mortality (and a peck of snails) ) After they drew my attention to it, I started paging through the book, and I was utterly charmed. The culinary recipes are a delightful mix of the familiar (rice pudding and coffee cake) and the very unfamiliar (calfs head pie and roasted pigeons). The medical recipes evoke the pain and suffering of everyday life, both in the past and in the present: sore breasts from nursing, smallpox, coughs, back pain, burns, plague and miscarriages. The writers frequently name the people who gave them the recipes, suggesting a larger community and a network of people exchanging recipes and information. The recipe for preserving walnuts includes the detail that “Sir Harbottle Grimstone found great good by these, but he used to eat them dry [before] going to bed.” (MS8097a pg. 86). Although the authors of this book are unknown, every so often they use “I” or “my” or “me” in a recipe and one catches a fleeting glimpse of their lives. In a remedy “for a cold,” the author comments that this medicine is good for children’s coughs and adds, “mine found good by it” (MS8097a pg. 113). It was this last aspect of the book, these tantalizing glimpses of the lived experience of women and men and children in the past, that inspired me to incorporate this manuscript into my class.

One of my goals as a teacher of history is to bring the past alive, to get students to see people in the past as living, breathing, three-dimensional individuals. Once an elementary school teacher told me that one of her students asked if there was color in the past. She didn’t at first understand the question, but then she realized he was confused because historical photographs are all black and white or sepia-toned. He wondered if that was what the past actually looked like. I’ve always thought that this charmingly naïve question was actually pretty astute. Many students of history see the past in sepia tones, whether they realize it or not. It is especially easy for students in history of science classes to see the people we are studying (Galileo, Newton, Cavendish) as disembodied minds, not as people who had to fill their bellies, deal with aches and pains and attend to sick children. Further, most of the people we study in the history of science are named individuals (mostly men) who published their work, or who left written records that were carefully preserved by their families or students or friends or colleagues. I want my students to see that a much broader range of people, women as well as men, contributed to exploration of the natural world in the early modern period.

I intend to write at least two more posts on this manuscript and what my students were able to do with it. They have just turned in their assignments, and I am just beginning to sort through them. The day the project was due, my teaching assistant (Calandra McCool) and I recreated five recipes from the manuscript for students to taste. We chose the hedgehog (see below), rice pudding, taffity tart, coffee cake and fried cucumbers. We will write more about these recipes in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to share my favorite, the hedgehog. Don’t worry, it’s not an ACTUAL hedgehog, but a dessert made to look like a hedgehog!

The hedgehog, p. 33.


To make a Hedge Hogg.

Take a pint of sweet Cream very thick, beat 2 whole eggs and strain them, put to it 2 spoonfulls of Sowre Cream, for want of that take butter milk, seting it together on the fire stiring it all one way untill it comes to curds and whey, then tye it into a strainer and let it hang up that the whey may run from it, when it has done droping take the curd and mix with it a quarter of a pound of blanched and beaten Almonds with roswater, sweeten it to your tast, make it in to the from [i.e. form] of a Hedge Hogg with a spoon in your dish, putting 2 curance for the 2 eyes keep out 10 Almonds to cut into long pieces and stick them on thick for bristles on the top, when you bring it to the table, have a pint of cream ready boyled and seasoned with sugar and rosewater and quite cold, put it to the hedghog so sende it up. this looks pritty and eats very well.

Here’s the recipe in somewhat modernized form, although none of the ingredients have been altered. I’ve added in a few measurements to reflect how much sugar and rosewater I used, but no one should feel bound by that.

For hedgehog:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

2 eggs

2 tablespoons sour cream or buttermilk

¼ pound blanched almonds, finely ground

1 tablespoon rose water

¼ cup sugar

3 raisins or currants

Slivered almonds

For sauce:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon rosewater

Sugar to taste


  1. Combine heavy whipping cream and sour cream (or buttermilk) in a saucepan.
  2. Beat two eggs together and add them to the cream mixture through a strainer.
  3. Heat the cream and egg mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly. Do not allow the mixture to boil over.
  4. After about 20 minutes, the mixture will start to thicken and form curds. Continue stirring until it is about the texture of cottage cheese (the curds are not quite this big, and there will be a bit more liquid).
  5. But the mixture into a cheesecloth bag. I placed a wide strip of cheesecloth over a plate (with the edges hanging over the plate), dumped the mixture onto the cheesecloth on the plate, and then wrapped the edges of the cheesecloth around the entire mixture, gently squeezing out excess liquid.10399442_928325990534295_2492489343551749772_n
  6. Hang the bag over a bowl and allow it to drip for a while. I let it drip for over an hour the first time I tried this. That’s longer than it needed to get all the liquid out, but you also want it to cool down enough that you can handle it.
  7. When the bag of curds has stopped dripping and is cool enough to handle, add the ground almonds, sugar and rosewater. I ground the almonds in “ye Olde Cuisinart.” If that’s not authentic enough for you, I suppose you could use a mortar and pestle, or just chop them super fine with a knife. I used ¼ cup sugar and a tablespoon of rosewater, but you could use more or less. (It tastes fine without the rosewater, if you can’t find this.)
  8. Shape the resulting mixture into a hedgehog. (Note: the first time I tried this recipe, the mixture was a bit too mushy to mold properly so I stuck it in the refrigerator for about an hour to stiffen it up. Then it worked fine. The second time I guess I’d gotten the hang of it, because I was able to shape it immediately after mixing it.) A hedgehog is basically a dome, with a pointy head stuck on it. Add raisins or currants for eyes and nose and stick slivered almonds all over the dome to make the bristles. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Keeps fine overnight.
  9. Full disclosure – this little beasty is so rich I did not actually feel the need to douse him in sweetened cream, so I did not make the sauce. But if you want to go whole hog (or whole hedgehog), heat a pint of heavy cream over medium heat, add sugar to taste and stir until dissolved. Take off heat, add rosewater and chill.


I was INCREDIBLY pleased with how this came out. While I am a pretty competent cook and baker, I am NOT skilled at things like cake decoration. I DO NOT attempt anything I see on Pinterest. But this actually looks like a hedgehog! And I thought it tasted delicious. It’s a bit like mascarpone with ground almonds, although the flavor is definitely creamy, not at all cheesy. My students seemed to like it as well. Several took pictures of it before we cut it up, and there was none left over.

11096416_928325980534296_5544407784547787657_nMy three-year-old son Niels was so disappointed that I was taking the hedgehog to my class that I had to promise to make him another one. For Niels’s hedgehog, I halved the recipe and used chocolate chips for the eyes and nose because he doesn’t like raisins.


Euclid and Book History in the Digital Age

In the spring semester of 2014, I taught a new course (for me and for my department): a junior seminar (HSCI 3993) designed to give junior history of science majors a serious research experience before they embarked on their senior capstone projects. I had each of my students pick a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century book from the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma. They worked with the digitization laboratory (the DigiLab) to produce high quality digital images of their chosen book, and they wrote research papers and iBooks about their book.

One of my students, Jonathan Self, chose the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements, published in London in 1570.

The elements of geometrie of the most auncient philosopher Evcli

The book has a series of pop-up diagrams to illustrate three-dimensional geometric shapes.

Euclid1 Euclid2

The book is very commonly referred to as “John Dee’s Euclid,” after the famous English mathematician, astrologer and sage, known for his conversations with angelic spirits. Dee wrote an introduction to the English translation of Euclid, but it is unclear whether he contributed to the book in any other way. It appears to have been Henry Billingsley, a far less well-known figure, who did the major work of translating the work. Jonathan wrote a paper on this book. He also made an iBook, which he titled “Billingsley’s Euclid,” that really showcases the spectacular three-dimensional illustrations. The iBook is available for download from the iTunes store.

Although this wasn’t essential to his research project, Jonathan and I were both intrigued by the many marks of ownership in OU’s copy of the English translation of Euclid. Would it be possible, we wondered, to figure out some of the different people who owned this book over the centuries? What follows is the (admittedly still incomplete) results of our investigations into the provenance of this particular edition of Euclid. I will begin with the most recent owner and work backwards chronologically.

Euclid_1570_000_e01vEuclid_1570_01v The newest bookplate is that of Herbert McLean Evans (1882 – 1971). Evans was a prominent American physician, a professor of anatomy at the Johns Hopkins University and then at the University of California at Berkeley. He is known for his research in embryology, endocrinology and histology. He was an avid collector of rare books in the history of science. On his death, most of his collection passed to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. For more on Evans, see here and here

Identifying Evans was simple. Next we tried to figure out who the other bookplates belonged to, and who else had put their name in the book. I tweeted pictures of the bookplates and signatures and asked if anyone recognized them. I got some very generous and helpful replies from Andrew Aberdein (@andrewaberdein), Professor of Philosophy at the Florida Institute of Technology, that enabled us to identify two more owners.

The bookplate right above Evans’ plate is that of James Veitch, Lord Eliock (or Elliock) (1712 – 1793). According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Veitch was Scottish. He was educated at Edinburgh University and then at Leiden. He served at the court of the Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (late Frederick II, “the Great”) for several years. He returned to Scotland and practiced law. He was well connected in literary and intellectual circles. He became a judge in 1761, acquiring the title Lord Elliock.Euclid_1570_000_e01v

Veitch put his bookplate over an earlier owner’s plate. It is possible to make out a bit of the previous owner’s motto under Veitch’s plate. I believe that the motto on the underlying bookplate reads “sine labore nihil” (nothing without work). Professor Aberdein informs me that this is the motto on the Colebourne coat of arms.  On the verso of the title page, the name “William Coleburne” has been crossed out. I have been unable to find biographical information on William Colebourne (or Coleburne). Underneath William Coleburne’s name, someone has written (or perhaps more accurately scrawled) words that look like: Gekaufft zu Edinburg in Januar 1765 für fünff [illegible] (Purchased in Edinburgh in January, 1765, for five [illegible]). As Veitch spent several years in Prussia, he must surely have been fluent in German, so it seems at least plausible that he wrote this.

Above the bookplates, someone has written: “This book I bought of Mr. Robert Anderson December 1698 I gave [illegible] for it.” The name Robert Anderson is hardly uncommon, so we cannot identify this person with certainty. However, there is a somewhat obscure mathematician of this name, whose exact dates are not known.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the mathematician Robert Anderson was active between 1666 and 1696. He was described by one of his contemporary mathematicians, John Collins, as “very able in algebra and solid geometry.” He published a book called Stereometrical Propositions (1668) and another called The Genuine Use and Effects of the Gunne as Well Experimentally as Mathematically Demonstrated (1674).  Finally, there is a name we can’t make out with the date 1647.


So between us, Jonathan and I, with Professor Aberdein’s assistance, have the names of four previous owners of OU’s Euclid: Robert Anderson, William Colebourne (or Coleburne), James Veitch, and Herbert McLean Evans. This is hardly a complete history of the ownership of this book. The earliest date we can find written in the book is 1647, and it was published in 1570. We also can’t tell WHY some of these people owned this book and what use they made of it. If the mathematician Robert Anderson was in fact the owner, it would seem fairly natural that he would be interested in a work on geometry. But why did a Scottish judge in the eighteenth century own this book? Was it of purely antiquarian interest? Did he expect to learn geometry from it? If he purchased it in 1765, he would have been in his early fifties – hardly a schoolboy! (Of course, the handwriting may not be his. He could have sold the book to someone else in 1765. The bookplate says “Lord Eliock,” a title he gained in 1761, but he could certainly have owned the book before he added his bookplate.)

Interestingly, in the eighteenth century there was considerable interest in teaching geometry with three-dimensional models. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge has some eighteenth-century model kits used for teaching and learning geometry. For images of these models, see here. Is there any connection between the paper models of the first English Euclid and these wooden models?

What I’ve presented here may read like a detective story without a proper ending. If anything, this investigation into the owners of OU’s English Euclid has opened up more questions than it answered. I’d like to make two broad observations about what I have learned from this investigation. First, it reminded me quite forcefully that books have long histories. Since my area of specialty is the sixteenth century, when I deal with books printed in the sixteenth century I tend to focus on the contexts in which they were produced (by authors and illustrators and printers) and the immediate uses of the book by different groups of readers. This is what all of the historical literature on the English Euclid, including Jonathan Self’s iBook, focuses on. But how was the book read and used by seventeenth-, eighteenth- and even nineteenth-century readers? It wasn’t always a historical artifact stored in a climate-controlled vault. The question of how the meanings and uses of books change over time is one that I don’t think gets asked enough in the history of the book. This translation of Euclid, with its tantalizing traces of former owners, invites further reflection on these issues.

My second observation is that this was one of my first experiences of the powerful new possibilities for research and collaboration in the digital humanities, and new ways of integrating research and teaching. The exploration into the provenance of a unique book in OU’s History of Science Collections was part of a research project initiated by an undergraduate student as part of an undergraduate class. When Jonathan chose this book, he worked with Barbara Laufersweiler (@barbaraell) and her staff in OU’s Digitization Laboratory (@OULibDigitize) to get high quality images (and I do mean HIGH – the full size files are too big for this blog). It was the availability of these high quality images that made it possible for us to share the marks of ownership on Twitter and get expert advice from Andrew Aberdein, one of a large and generous community of twitterstorians. (For more reflections on the highly productive relationship between digital scholarship and book history, I recommend Matthew G. Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner, “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline” Book History 17 (2014) pp. 406-458, available as a pdf on Sara Werner’s blog Wynken de Worde). A digitized copy of the entire book will eventually be available as an open-access resource to scholars, teachers and students of all kinds.

All images courtesy of the OU History of Science Collections.

A Bill of Mortality (and a peck of snails)


Wikimedia Commons.

This Bill of Mortality is a dense document, crammed with facts and figures on death and disease in seventeenth-century England. The English started collecting data on numbers of births and deaths and causes of death in the sixteenth century as a way of tracking potential plague epidemics. This particular Bill is much reproduced because it is the total Bill of Mortality for the year 1665, which was the year London experienced a devastating plague epidemic. According to the Bill, 68,596 people in London died of the plague. For more on this plague see here and here.  I like to use this Bill in class to discuss some more general issues about morbidity and mortality in the early modern world.

The top two thirds of the Bill list numbers of people buried in each parish in London and its immediate surroundings. You can see (if you look carefully at the numbers) the huge differences in numbers of deaths between parishes. The two parishes with the biggest body counts are Stepney parish, where 8595 people were buried, and St. Giles Cripplegate, where 8,069 people were buried. On the other end of the spectrum, we see Allhallows, where ten people were buried and St. John the Evangelist, where only nine people died. This reflects in part the widely varying sizes of London parishes (the parish of St. John the Evangelist was only one acre), but it also reflects the varying economic levels. Poorer parishes were much harder hit, something that did not escape contemporary observers.

If we turn to the bottom third of this document, we see all the deaths in London listed by cause of death. Obviously, plague was far and away the biggest cause of death in 1665. Other major causes of death (i.e. things that killed a thousand or more people) were: aged (1545), ague and fever (5257), chrisoms and infants (1258), consumption and tissick (4808), convulsion and mother (2036), dropsy and tympany (1478), griping in the guts (1288), teeth and worms (2614), spotted fever and purples (1929) and surfeit (1251). Several of these “causes” are actually age categories. “Aged” would include people who died of old age. Chrisoms and infants are deaths (from a variety of causes) of children under the age of one year. Likewise, the category “Teeth” includes child deaths coincident with teething. As Rebecca Onion has pointed out in a post on the Bills of Mortality, they document the very high rates of infant and child death in the early modern period.

In many (perhaps MOST!) cases, the causes of death do not fit modern disease categories. I had groups of students look up each cause of death in the Oxford English Dictionary, in order to understand the 17th-century use of the term. Many of these definitions are taken verbatim from the OED.  I list them here for those who might be interested.  Some of the oddest are “calenture” (in which a sailor believes the sea is a field and leaps into it) and “plannet” (which we believe to be the condition of being struck by the malign influence of a planet).  Others, especially those involving the deaths of children, are very poignant.  Headmouldshot and overlaid were ways that very young infants could die.  And one would like to know the tragic stories behind the bleak “found dead in the street” and “grief.”

Abortive and Stilborne: Miscarried fetuses or stillborn infants.

Aged: Of advanced age; very old.

Ague and Feaver: An acute or high fever; disease, or a disease characterized by such a fever.

Appoplex and Suddenly: Apoplexy means a malady, very sudden in its attack, which arrests more or less completely the powers of sense and motion; it is usually caused by an effusion of blood or serum in the brain, and preceded by giddiness, partial loss of muscular power, etc.

Bedrid: Confined to bed through sickness or infirmity. Worn out, decrepit, impotent.

Blasted: Balefully or perniciously blown or breathed upon; stricken by meteoric or supernatural agency, a parching wind, lightning, an alleged malignant planet; the wrath and curse of heaven; blighted.

Bleeding: The flowing or dropping of blood (from a wound, etc.); hæmorrhage.

Bloody Flux: Bloody diarrhoea; disease causing such diarrhoea, spec. dysentery of infectious origin; an instance of this; now hist. or arch. Also (now rare): (an instance of) bleeding from another part of the body, spec. menstrual bleeding, esp. when excessive or prolonged.

Scowring: A looseness or flux of the bowels, diarrhœa.

Flux: An abnormally copious flowing of blood, excrement, etc. from the bowels or other organs; a morbid or excessive discharge. spec.An early name for dysentery.

Burnt: Set on fire, consumed with fire.

Scalded: Inflamed or raw as if injured by hot water.

Calenture: A disease incident to sailors within the tropics, characterized by delirium in which the patient, it is said, fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it. The word was also used to mean fever and sometimes sunstroke.

Cancer: Any of various types of non-healing sore or ulcer.

Gangrene: Necrosis (death) of an area of tissue in the body, esp. as a result of impairment of its blood supply, often accompanied by bacterial infection and putrefaction; an instance of this process; a small circumscribed ulcer on the skin, esp. on the leg or in the mouth.

Fistula: A long, narrow, suppurating canal of morbid origin in some part of the body; a long, sinuous pipe-like ulcer with a narrow orifice.

Canker: A chronic, non-healing sore or ulcer, esp. one that extends into surrounding tissue; (in early use) spec. a cancer, or the disease cancer.

Thrush: A disease, chiefly of infants, characterized by white vesicular specks on the inside of the mouth and throat, and on the lips and tongue, caused by a parasitic fungus.

Childbed: Maternal death in childbirth or immediately after.

Chrisomes and Infants: A chrisom is an infant that dies within a month of birth (and was often buried in the “chrisom” or christening gown). An infant is a child under a year.

Cold and Cough: Respiratory sickness.

Collick and Winde: Severe paroxysmal griping pains in the belly, due to various affections of the bowels or other parts; also to the affections of which such pains are the characteristic symptom.

Consumption: abnormality or loss of humors, resulting in wasting (extreme weight loss) of the body; later used more specifically for tuberculosis.

Tissick: (Also phthisis) Coughing or wheezing; any of various diseases characterized by this, esp. asthma or bronchitis.

Convulsion: An involuntary contraction, stiffening, or ‘drawing up’ of a muscle, limb, etc.; cramp; tetanus.

Mother: A medical condition thought to arise from a disorder of the uterus, esp. its (supposed) upward displacement against other organs. Also: a condition with similar symptoms in men and children.

Distracted: Mental disturbance, perplexity. Deranged or mad.

Dropsie and Timpany: Accumulation of water in the lungs, brain, et cetera; morbid swelling, tumors.

Drowned: Killed by submersion in water.

Executed: Killed by an outside force.

Flox and Small Pox: An acute infectious disease characterized by high fever, headache and backache, and a rash which affects esp. the face and extremities and consists of pustules which heal with scarring

Found Dead in Streets, Fields, etc.: Unknown cause of death.

French pox: Syphilis.

Frighted: Affected with fright, scared.

Gout: A specific constitutional disease occurring in paroxysms, usually hereditary and in male subjects; characterized by painful inflammation of the smaller joints, esp. that of the great toe, and the deposition of sodium urate in the form of chalk-stones; it often spreads to the larger joints and the internal organs. The name is derived from the notion of the ‘dropping’ of a morbid material from the blood in and around the joints.

Sciatica: Originally: pain in the hip; disease causing such pain. In later use: the condition of having pain along the course of the sciatic nerve, radiating from the hip down the back of the leg, and most commonly resulting from protrusion of a lumbar vertebral disc.

Grief: Hardship, suffering; a kind, or cause, of hardship or suffering.

Griping in the Guts: Severe pain in abdomen and bowels.

Hanged and made away themselves: Suicide.

Headmouldshot and Mouldfallen: Disease or injury affecting the sutures or bones of the skull; a condition in which the skull is compressed in the pelvic canal during delivery, causing the cranial bones to ride over each other.

Jaundies: A morbid condition caused by obstruction of the bile, and characterized by yellowness of the conjunctiva, skin, fluids, and tissues, and by constipation, loss of appetite, and weakness.

Impoftume: A purulent swelling or cyst in any part of the body; an abscess.

Kild by severall accidents: Implies that death was caused by accidental means.

Kings evill: Scrofula (a constitutional disease characterized mainly by chronic enlargement and degeneration of the lymphatic glands), which in England and France was formerly supposed to be curable by the king’s (or queen’s) touch.

Leprosie: A disease causing scaliness, loss of pigmentation, or scabbiness of the skin; an instance or type of such disease; (now hist.). In later use: the chronic disease caused by infection with the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which affects mainly the skin and peripheral nerves, causing nodular and macular lesions of the skin which are often pale and scaly, and loss of sensory and motor function (esp. in the limbs) resulting in destruction of tissue and deformity of the affected parts of the body in severe untreated cases.

Lethargy: A disorder characterized by morbid drowsiness or prolonged and unnatural sleep.

Livergrown: Suffering from an enlarged liver, or a liver adherent to other part.

Meagrom and Headach: Dizziness or vertigo; headache, specifically migraine.

Measles: An infectious disease caused by a morbillivirus, characterized by a dark red maculopapular rash preceded and accompanied by catarrh and fever, usually with Koplik’s spots in the early stages, tending to occur in epidemics that chiefly affect children. In early use also: any of various other diseases causing a red rash.

Murdered and Shot: Murdered and shot.

Overlaid and Starved: To overlay is to lie over or on top of so as to suffocate (a child, etc.); to smother by lying on (generally an accident associated with nursing a baby). Starved (at nurse) is the failure of an infant take in enough nutrients from breast milk.

Palsie: Paralysis or paresis (weakness) of all or part of the body, sometimes with tremor; an instance of this.

Plague: Any infectious disease which spreads rapidly and has a high mortality rate; an epidemic of such a disease. OR A particular affliction, calamity, or evil, esp. one interpreted as a sign of divine anger or justice, or as divine punishment or retribution (usually with reference to the ten plagues of Egypt described in Exodus chapters 7 to 12).

Plannet: Struck by the evil force of a planet.

Plurisie: Abscess of the ribs or inner surface of the chest; pain in the chest or the side, especially when stabbing in nature and exacerbated by inspiration or coughing.

Poysoned: Affected, made ill, or killed by poison (of a wound, etc.) infected.

Quinsie: Inflammation or swelling of the throat; tonsillitis

Rickets: A disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in abnormal calcium and phosphorus metabolism and deficient mineralization of bone (osteomalacia) with skeletal deformity. In later use also (chiefly with distinguishing word): any of various other diseases resembling this, affecting children, adults, or animals, and typically of metabolic, nutritional, or renal origin.

Rising of the Lights: A medical condition characterized by difficulty in breathing or a choking sensation (probably arising from various causes, such as croup, asthma, pneumonia, or pulmonary embolism); (later also) indigestion with belching; heartburn.

Rupture: A break, tear, or split in a surface or substance, esp. the skin or other tissue.

Scurvy: A disease characterized by general debility of the body, extreme tenderness of the gums, foul breath, subcutaneous eruptions and pains in the limbs, induced by exposure and by a too liberal diet of salted foods. Now recognized as due to insufficient ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the diet.

Shingles and Swine pox: Originally an inflammation or infection of the skin, esp. when accompanied by heat and redness; spec. erysipelas (obs.). In later use: a disease of the skin characterized by an eruption of vesicles on a reddened base, typically occurring along the distribution of a cranial or spinal nerve, and accompanied (and often preceded) by severe neuralgic pain.

Sores: A place in an animal body where the skin or flesh is diseased or injured so as to be painfully tender or raw; a sore place, such as that caused by an ulcer.

Ulcer: An erosive solution of continuity in any external or internal surface of the body, forming an open sore attended with a secretion of pus or other morbid matter.

Spleen: Excessive dejection or depression of spirits; gloominess and irritability; moroseness; melancholia.

Spotted fever: A fever characterized by the appearance of spots on the skin; now spec. epidemic cerebro-spinal meningitis, and typhus or petechial fever.

Purples: Any of various diseases characterized by a dark red or purplish rash; also used of the deadliest form of smallpox

Stopping of the stomach: Want of digestion; incapacity of or difficulty in digesting food.

Stone: A hard mineral mass resembling a stone or grain of sand which may form in the kidneys by the abnormal precipitation of salts (esp. calcium oxalate) dissolved in the urine; a renal calculus.

Stranguary: A disease of the urinary organs characterized by slow and painful emission of urine; also the condition of slow and painful urination.

Surfet: Excessive consumption of food or drink; overindulgence in eating or drinking; gluttony. Also in figurative contexts.

Teeth: Children who die as result of teething complications or fever during teething.

Worms: Any endoparasitic helminth breeding in the living body of men and other animals. Usu. pl. (formerly often with the). Also, the disease or disorder constituted by the presence of these parasites.

Vomiting: The act of ejecting the contents of the stomach through the mouth; an instance of this.

Wenn: A lump or protuberance on the body, a knot, bunch, wart.

For more information on some of these diseases, Therese Oneill’s 15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Finally, to emphasize that early modern people DID have ways of coping with illness, and that they DID NOT just lay down and wait for death when they got sick (even if that sickness was the plague) I ask students to find 17th-century remedies for some of the diseases or conditions listed as causes of death in the Bill. One group (John Stacy, Taylor Greene, Kiley Poppino, Brandon Curd, Jason Troy, Michael Rath, and Matt Banks) found a hand-written collection of recipes from a 17th– or 18th-century English manuscript currently held by the Wellcome Library in London. One page of this book is reproduced below. You will see recipes for some of the ailments listed as causes of death on the Bill, including jaundice, thrush, plague and stone.

MS8097_0051 MedicalMS

Here’s my favorite of the recipes they came up with – because how can you resist a recipe that begins: “take a peck of garden snails”?

For Jaundice, or weakness in the stomach.

Take a peck of garden snails, wash them in beer, and put them in an iron dripping pan on a hot fire of charcoal stirring them up and down, and set one end of the pan higher than the other that the liquor may run from them, and take it out with a ladle, and when it hath done coming, they are broiled enough, put them in a mortar and bruise them shells and all. Take a quart of earth worms, scour them with water and salt and wash them very clean and beat them in a mortar, then take angelica, 2 handfuls and lay in the bottom of your pot, 2 handfuls of selendine, on the top of them a quart of rosemary flowers. Agrimony and betony of each 2 good handfuls, bears foot red dock roots, bark of barberry tree, wood sorrel each a good handful and half, of rue half a handful, of fenugreek and turmeric each an ounce, saffron dried the weight of 6 ounces, a handful of clara. When these are put together in the pot, put your worms and snails and 3 gallons of the strongest ale you can get and cover it close for 24 hours, and when you go to put fire under it put in 6 ounces of harts horn shavings, but stir not lest you make those things go to the bottom that should be on top, and set on your alembic, and distill it with a fire, you may draw 5 or 6 quarts.

Did plague doctors wear those masks?

I get asked this question a lot when I teach courses in the history of medicine or the history of science.  Even more commonly, people tell me they “know” what plague doctors looked like: they had a mask with a long beak, goggles, gloves and a garment that covered them from chin to ankles.  Indeed, the 12-year-old son of some friends of mine just dressed up as a plague doctor for Halloween in precisely this costume.  But doubts about the historical accuracy of the plague mask have nagged at me for a while.  If it was so common, why didn’t I ever run across mentions of this costume in historical sources or in histories of the plague written by academic historians?  A Google search on “plague doctor” turns up an enormous number of images of men in beaked masks and black cloaks, and numerous sites that assert as historical fact that this is what doctors wore during plague epidemics.  Let me give you a couple of my favorite examples:

There is a doctor character in the enormously popular video game Assassin’s Creed who wears a plague mask. I pulled this picture from the Assassin’s Creed Wiki, which explains that,


“To protect themselves from this pandemic, doctors dressed in a long black cloak covered with a coating of wax, along with a very primitive beak-shaped plague mask, although not all doctors chose to wear it. Within this Medico Della Peste mask, there were usually flower petals, burning incense or aromatic herbs to rid of bad smells, since it was believed that disease was transmitted through “bad air.” The eyes of the mask were also made out of glass, as it was believed that sicknesses could be caught through face-to-face contact with patients, or by touching infected objects.”

My other favorite was this fantastically creepy video on YouTube: The Plague Doctor.  Set in 17th-century London, a sick gravedigger visits a plague doctor, only to be told he is dying and that the doctor will not treat him.  In anger, he slashes the doctor’s protective glove, thus infecting him with the deadly plague.

My problem with these representations is that the only even remotely contemporary image I can find of a plague doctor in such a get up is this one, from 1656:


Paul Fürst, “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom.” Reproduced from Eugen Holländer, Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, 1921), p. 171. Wikimedia Commons.

This image was originally a single-sheet broadside, produced by the German engraver Paul Fürst of Nuremberg.  The reproduction that appears all over the internet (generally without attribution) is from Eugen Holländer’s Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, 1921).  This entire book is available on-line here.  The first thing I would note is that this is VERY late in the history of the plague.  The very last plague epidemics in Europe were in the early eighteenth century.  The second thing is that this is a SATIRE.  As this seems to be the main primary source for what plague doctors wore and what they did, I’d like to look at it in detail.  The title is “Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom” (Dr. Beak from Rome).  The caption at the bottom is in German.  I’ll give the original (for those who can read German but not the old-fashioned Gothic lettering) and my translation.  (Corrections and suggestions are more than welcome!)

Kleidung wider den Tod zu Rom. Anno 1656. Also gehen die Doctores Medici daher zu Rom, wann sie die an der Pest erkranckte personen besuchen, sie zu curiren und tragen, sich widerm Gifft zu sichern, ein langes kleid von gewäxtem Tüch ihr Angesicht ist verlarvt, für den Augen haben sie grosse Crÿstalline Brillen, wider Nasen einen langen Schnabel mit wolriechender Specereÿ, in der Hände, welche mit Handschüher wol versehen ist, eine lange Rüthe und darmit deüten sie, was man thun, und gebraüchen sol.

Clothing to ward off death in Rome, 1656. The doctors of medicine in Rome go about thus, when they visit people sick with the plague in order to take care of them. And they wear, to protect themselves from poison [infection], a long robe made of waxed cloth. Their face is wrapped up; in front of their eyes they have large crystal glasses; over their nose they have a long beak filled with good-smelling spices; in their hands, which are protected by gloves, they carry a long rod and with this they indicate what people should do and what [medicines] they should use.

This sounds exactly like the description of the plague doctor’s attire from the Assassin’s Creed Wiki (and numerous other websites).  That seems pretty conclusive, right?  It’s a primary source document, so here we have a seventeenth-century person’s description of plague doctors he actually observed.  Or do we?  Here’s what gives me pause.  The verses on either side of the figure are what mark the broadside as satirical (also calling the figure “Dr. Beak”).  These verses are in a mixture of Latin and German.  Again, I will include them here in both the original languages and my translation.  I am not nearly good enough to render them into rhymed English, but I’ve tried to capture the sense of the originals.  (Again, suggestions and corrections are welcome!)

Vos Creditis, als eine fabel

quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel

der fugit die Contagion

et aufert seinen Lohn darvon

Cadavera sucht er zu fristen

Gleich wie der Corvus auf der Misten

Ah Credite, sihet nicht dort hin

Dann Romae regnat die Pestin.

Quis non deberet sehr erschrecken

für seiner Virgul oder stecken

qua loquitur als wär er stumm

und deutet sein consilium.

Wie mancher Credit ohne zweiffel

das ihn tentir ein schwartzen teuffl

Marsupium heist seine Höll

und aurum die geholte seel.

You believe it is a fable

What is written about Dr. Beak

Who flees the contagion

And snatches his wage from it

He seeks cadavers to eke out a living

Just like the raven on the dung heap

Oh believe, don’t look away

For the plague rules Rome.

Who would not be very frightened

Before his little rod or stick

By which means he speaks as though he were mute, and indicates his decision

So many a one believes without doubt

That he is touched by a black devil

His hell is called “purse”

And the souls he fetches are gold.

The verses begin by marking the plague doctor as an UNFAMILIAR sight.  You may believe what I’m about to tell you is just a fable, the author begins.  In other words, this is NOT how doctors in Germany dress.  This is a strange, Italian custom.  And then he goes on to lampoon the plague doctors of Rome.  They protect themselves from contagion, but they profit from it.  They seek out the dying to get money from them, just like ravens (or crows) scavenging in a pile of shit.  Like the Devil, who goes among the dying, seeking souls he can drag into hell, Dr. Beak goes among the dying, seeking gold coins to put in his purse.  This satire certainly resonates with a good bit of contemporary critique of doctors as rapacious and greedy.  But I wonder, was the comparison of the plague doctor to a raven inspired by the resemblance of the plague mask to a bird’s beak, or was it the other way around?  Was the mask in this image exaggerated to look beak-like because of the comparison to an avian scavenger?  Note that the fingers on the gloves are elongated and pointed, like the talons of a bird.  There is nothing in either the poem or the passage below the image to indicate why this might be medically efficacious. Finally, at the end of the rod is an hour glass with wings, a visual symbol of the saying “tempus fugit” (time flies) (originally from Virgil’s Georgics).  Surely no plague doctor ever literally carried such a device!  Rather, the emblem suggests that the doctor is the harbinger of death rather than a savior.  All things considered, I’m left unconvinced that this is a literal description of the costume of a plague doctor.  And I’ve yet to find evidence that would convince me.

Why does it matter whether or not plague doctors dressed up like ghoulish carrion birds?  One problem I have with the popularity of the figure of the plague doctor is that it erases the very real contributions of women to medical practice generally, and to the care of plague victims specifically.  Numerous historians of medicine (I’m thinking here of Monica Green, Katherine Park, Margaret Pelling, Mary Fissell, Deborah Harkness and Gianna Pomata among others) have documented the presence of female healers in medieval and early modern Europe.  These women did not function exclusively as midwives (although all midwives were women).  Rather, they performed a wide range of medical services and treated men, women and children for all kinds of illnesses and injuries.  A substantial amount of medical care in medieval and early modern Europe was provided by women, and yet women do not figure in any popular representations of the plague, except perhaps as victims.  In 17th-century England, where the creepy video is ostensibly set, the people who sought out plague victims and determined the cause of death were women called “searchers.”  They did the dangerous work of examining dead bodies, not the doctors.  (For more on the searchers, see here.)  Indeed, there were repeated accusations in early modern London that “doctors,” that is, men with medical degrees who were members of the Royal Society of Physicians, fled London for their country houses whenever a plague epidemic threatened.  These same doctors then complained bitterly about female “empirics” cutting into their business by treating plague victims.

So, what’s my answer to the question?  Did plague doctors actually wear those masks?  I still don’t know.  But I find the question of when and why the figure of the masked plague doctor became iconic in representations of plague to be an increasingly intriguing one.

UPDATE: Great video on the plague and plague doctors by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris.