Divine Inspiration: How Rome’s Unknown Dead Became Catacomb Saints

St Valerius

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

On May 31st, 1578, vineyard workers in Rome found a passageway that led into an extensive network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath the Via Salaria. The Coemeterium Jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) and surrounding catacombs were burial sites from the earliest days of Christianity, dating from between the first and fifth centuries AD.

By the time these catacombs were found, the Catholic Church had been struggling with the Reformation for decades. While certain human remains had been venerated as sacred relics for centuries*, Protestant Reformers rejected the practice of keeping relics as idolatry. Bodies were to return to dust, and that included the bodies of saints as well. Throughout the Reformation, countless relics were interred, vandalized, or destroyed.

With relics under scrutiny from Reformers, the issue was addressed at the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council of Trent in 1563. The Council maintained that relics were an essential part of Catholic life, and they had a point—kept in local churches, relics were still important to communities. Though they were viewed as sacred, their origins were rightly questioned. Forgeries—random bones or other found items sold as sacred—were common and undermined the value of the remains as religious artifacts. To combat the sale of forgeries, the Council decided that going forward, all relics would have to be authenticated by the Church. 

Relics had always been popular among the laity, and the transportation of new holy relics into German-speaking countries became a strategy of the Counter-Reformation. They needed to replace what had been destroyed, but where were they going to find more saints?

heavenly-1

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

The discovery of the catacombs under the Via Salaria must have felt like an answer to a prayer. The catacombs held the remains of an estimated 750,000 people, including early Christians, Jews, and some pagan Romans. While cremation was more common among pagan Romans, Christians wanted to be buried to allow for the possibility of resurrection; though thousands were resurrected following their discovery, not one of them could have predicted what awaited them after death.

The Church needed relics, and they found them. The bodies of those believed to be Christian martyrs became known as the Katakombenheiligen, the Catacomb Saints. While they had not been canonized and their identities were unknown, these bodies were used to show the connection between the earliest Christians and the post-Reformation Church. They were to symbolize the essential truth of the Catholic doctrine through that connection, and to boost morale among the Catholic communities hurting following the looting of their churches.

But if their identities were unknown, how could they prove they were martyrs? Because they had died during a time of persecution, many were assumed to be martyrs, but depending on who was asked, there were some other signs as well—some believed the bones of martyrs smelled sweeter, while others claimed they had an otherworldly glow. Though the Church had resolved to use more scientific methods of identification following the Council of Trent, conditions in the catacombs were less than ideal. The newest bones were still more than a thousand years old at that point, and any identifying plaques or stones were long gone. Worse, many bodies had been moved over the years to protect them from looting invaders.

The bones that were found could not be positively identified as Christian, much less martyrs, so they relied on largely illegible engravings on the surrounding stones. Anytime they found a capital M—which could be there for any reason from names to common inscriptions—or a depiction of a palm frond, they took this as evidence they had found a martyr’s grave. During one investigation of another catacomb in the 1560s, an Augustinian monk concluded there were at most three identifiable martyrs down there, but by the following century, there were said to be up to 200,000.

As soon as they were found, the remains began to make their way north. It’s impossible to estimate just how many skeletons and individual bones were shipped to the German-speaking countries affected by the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but demand was so high that the Church had to create a new office to manage the excavation of the catacombs as well as starting the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies to oversee the whole process. The saints’ popularity increased following the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); churches wanted to replace the relics that had been ransacked, and wealthier families also purchased them as symbols of piety.

heavenly-7

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

They were certainly symbols of status. The skeletons were given Latin names and decorated from skull to metatarsal in gold and jewels. Decoration varied, but it was often extravagant. The jewels were real or expensive imitations, and the skeletons were dressed in robes of velvet and silk embroidered with gold thread. A few were even given silver plate armor.

As striking as the end result was, there was more to constructing the catacomb saints than decorating dead bodies. Bones that old required expert handling and reconstruction, so they were given to nuns who specialized in the preservation of relics. Many of their convents were known for their mastery of decorative arts, and the state of the Katakombenheiligen today is a testament to their skill and devotion.

Restoration and decoration was a delicate process that could take years to complete. Bones were strengthened with glue, painted, and protected with layers of nearly transparent silk gauze or tulle. Missing pieces were reconstructed with wax, wood, or papier-mâché. In the cases where skulls were missing or too badly damaged, they were replaced with ceramic or wood and plaster.

Given the time, resources, and dedication it would have taken to construct the saints, it is devastating to consider how few have survived to the present day. Viewed as morbid and embarrassing during the nineteenth century**, many were stripped of their jewels and hidden or destroyed. Of all of the catacomb saints that once filled Europe, only about ten percent remain, and few can be viewed by the public. Quite aside from their religious significance, they are stunning works of art and represent a part of history that, while potentially controversial to some, is nevertheless worth remembering.

On August 15th of every year, Roggenburg does just that. Every year, it holds a Leiberfest (Celebration of the Bodies) in order to display and honor the catacomb saints. Once common among towns that had them, Roggenburg’s annual Leiberfest is the last one in the world. During this festival, Roggenburg’s four Katakombenheiligen are brought out of storage and paraded through town on litters decorated with flowers. The three female saints–Laurentia, Severina, and Valeria–are carried by young women wearing white, and St Venatius is carried by young men in top hats and tails.

Jessica Cale

*This practice also occurs in many other world religions
**Yes, even the nineteenth century found them morbid

Further reading: 

For more on the Katakombenheiligen, be sure to check out Paul Koudounaris’s Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Atlas Obscura also has a fun post about Roggenburg’s Leiberfest here.

Deadly Euphoria: A Short History of Erotic Asphyxiation in England

1 CRIMINAL CONVERSATION BON TON 1791

Bon-Ton Magazine, 1791

When Frantisek Kotzwara died in September of 1791, he was an accomplished man of only forty-one. A notable Czech composer famous for his sonata “The Battle of Prague,” he was working in London as a multi-instrumentalist for the King’s Theatre Orchestra. In spite of his successes in life, today he is better known for the manner of his death.

Standing trial for murder at the Old Bailey, Susannah Hill explained what happened. Hill was a sex worker, and Kotzwara was a client. On the 2nd of September, they had dinner and drinks together, then she took him back to her room, “where a number of most indecent acts took place.” So far so normal, but Kotzwara had a special request. He wanted Hill to hang him.

Claiming it would add to his pleasure, he asked to be hanged for five minutes, then released. He gave her money and sent her out to get rope, and she came back with two thin cords, placing them around his neck at his request. He hanged himself off her door, but when she cut him down after five minutes as he had told her to do, Kotzwara collapsed and died.

Although the jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder” with the intention of discouraging other young women from attempting the practice, the judge refused to make an example of Hill for her part in the tragic accident. He ultimately ruled Kotzwara’s death manslaughter, and Hill was free to go. Due to the sensitive nature of the case, the judge ordered all of its documents destroyed to protect the public.

That went about as well as you’d expect. In spite of his best efforts to bury it, the story got out. Hill’s full testimony was printed in the pamphlet Modern Propensities, not unlike a tell-all gossip magazine today. Bon-Ton magazine took it further, detailing the Kotzwara case and discussing the appeal of strangulation. It would have been on people’s minds. In 1791, the same year Kotzwara died, the Marquis de Sade had also published Justine, which featured a lurid scene depicting erotic asphyxiation.

Kotzwara was not the first to experiment with asphyxiation in Britain, and he certainly wasn’t the last. Erotic asphyxiation—or autoerotic if practiced alone—had been used in several cultures around the world as a spiritual as well as sexual practice. In England, it was recommended as a cure for erectile dysfunction from the early 17th century. Public hangings were routine and well-attended, with crowds of sometimes thousands watching the condemned slowly strangle to death over a period of several minutes. That the men often became erect or even ejaculated before death would not have been missed. This effect was caused by damage to the spinal cord or brain rather than actual sexual pleasure, but many were still curious enough to try it.

Two years after Kotzwara’s death, Bon-Ton reported that the well-known dangers of erotic asphyxiation had not dissuaded people from attempting it. They detailed the experience of a gentleman from Bristol with erectile dysfunction, which they referred to rather euphemistically as “(requiring) assistance in the secret affairs of Venus.” During a visit to London, the gentleman repeated Kotzwara’s experience with another sex worker on Charlotte Street. Well aware of the case, the young woman only reluctantly agreed, and cut him down the moment he started to have “alarming symptoms,” well within the first minute of suspension. Because of her quick thinking, the gentleman survived and wrote favorably of the experiment.

Not everyone was so lucky. Cutting off oxygen or blood flow to the brain is incredibly dangerous, and it can result in cardiac arrest, sudden loss of consciousness, suffocation, and brain damage. Even with partners or safety measures in place, death can occur so quickly that there is no way to do it safely. Because of its taboo nature, accidental deaths due to erotic or autoerotic asphyxiation have always been under-reported or misinterpreted as suicide, so outside of a few high-profile cases, it is impossible to know how many people have died in this way. Statistics have never been recorded in Britain, but a recent study estimated that as many as 1,000 deaths occur every year in the United States from autoerotic asphyxiation.*

In spite of the serious and well-publicized dangers, interest in erotic asphyxiation endured in no small part because of its effects on the mind. Kotzwara did it for the dream state it induced. In addition to heightened physical sensations, depriving the brain of oxygen could produce a hallucinogenic effect that, as Modern Propensities put it, would help people to “ascend the upper sphere of conjunctive transports.” The aim was not only to orgasm, but to straddle the boundary between life and death to see what was on the other side.

As dangerous as it was, the high produced by the combination of hypoxia and orgasm could prove addictive, so demand for it continued. Throughout the nineteenth century, a number of Hanged Men’s Clubs opened for the purpose in London, staffed with sex workers who claimed to be able to do it safely every time. It was an impossible guarantee, and medical professionals continued to make the risks known to the public. With these warnings, its use as a cure for impotence was eclipsed by its ability to help one transcend physical reality into a euphoric dream state. It was a specific, dangerous high not unlike opium or laudanum, but with the added promise of orgasm as well.

For some, interest in it might not have been in spite of its close association with death but because of it. Throughout the nineteenth century, the dead or dying were often fetishized, and a lot of popular literature depicted death in a romantic light. As interest in spiritualism and seances took off, asphyxiation may have felt like the next logical step for some—a way to not only contact the other side, but to see it for oneself.

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bloch, Ivan. Sexual Life in England Past and Present.

Ober, William B. The Sticky End of Frantisek Koczwara, composer of “The Battle of Prague.” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 1984. Volume 5, Issue 2, 145-150

Seidl, Stephen. Accidental Autoerotic Death: A Review on the Lethal Paraphiliac Syndrome. Forensic Pathology Reviews, Vol 1. Edited by Michael Tsokos.

Tarr, Clayton Carlton. Pleasurable Suspension: Erotic Asphyxiation in the Nineteenth Century. Nineteenth Century Contexts, 2016. Vol 38, No 1, 55-68.

*Really, really, REALLY do not try this at home

 

A Secret Gay Brotherhood at the Court of the Sun King

Louis,_Count_of_Vermandois

Louis de Bourbon, by Pierre Mignard

Philippe de France, brother of Louis XIV, was always known to have a preference for men. It was no secret. Although the king’s brother was married twice and fathered plenty of children, his real love was a man three years younger than him. In 17th century France, homosexuality was a crime and Louis XIV himself was no fan of men loving men, yet had to tolerate it due to his brother. After all, if he were to punish the men of his court who openly showed off their male lovers, he would have to start with his own flesh and blood.

It was not just his brother Philippe who loved men. Their father, Louis XIII was rumoured to have preferred men, there was also their uncle César de Vendôme, whose Parisian town-house was nicknamed Hôtel de Sodome, and even Louis XIV’s son, the comte de Vermandois. Named Louis after his father, his mother Louise de La Vallière retired to a convent in order to repent for her previous sinful lifestyle as mistress of the king. Little Louis de Bourbon was sent to live with aunt and uncle afterwards. There he met Philippe de France’s favourite, the Chevalier de Lorraine, and was introduced to a secret brotherhood of gay men both belonged to.

It was founded somewhen between 1680 and 1682, its members the crème de la crème of the French court. Philippe de France and the Chevalier de Lorraine were founding members. This brotherhood was led by four Grand Masters and had a set of “outrageous” rules such as “wearing a cross between vest and shirt, which displays a man kicking a woman with his feet into the dust, just like the cross on which Saint-Michel kicks the demon”. The society met at various Parisian higher-class taverns, brothels and country-houses to engage in bed sports with each other or sex workers, some of them women. If women were present, they were not treated kindly by the men and were apparently even abused.

This order had plenty of novices eager to take part, one of them being Louis de Bourbon. He was a teen of fifteen and rather handsome to behold. His mother did not want to hear anything about him anymore and his father did not care much, either. Louis was introduced into the brotherhood by the Chevalier de Lorraine himself, who ordered him to sign a statement in which he swore obedience to the rules and absolute secrecy. Said paper was not to be signed with ink, the Chevalier told him, it must be signed with his semen. The Chevalier then assisted in acquiring it, making the boy faint in delight.

Although secrecy was sworn by every member, the brotherhood did not stay a secret for long. Rumours of their meetings and stories of their wild orgies circulated swiftly in Paris. Soon after, Louis XIV got wind of it himself.

He ordered his son to him. All of Louis XIV’s children had a lot of respect for their father and even feared him to some degree, Vermandois was no exception. He was eager to gain the love of his father and hoped that he might gain it by showing his loyalty to the king he was. It did not take long until he spilled the beans to his royal father. The Sun King was outraged as Vermandois told him all about the brotherhood and its members. Members nobody wanted to speak up for once the story made the rounds.

Louis XIV wanted to exile his son to the Normandy, but due to the intervention of his aunt, he was sent to Flanders as soldier instead. The Chevalier de Lorraine was ordered not to appear at court for a while. Other members, like the prince de La Roche-sur-Yon, the comte de Marsan, the chevalier de Saint-Maure, the chevalier de Mailly, the comte de Roucy and the vidame de Laon, were exiled. Louis de Bourbon died a drunkard after a short illness, aged only sixteen, in Flanders. He never managed to gain his father’s love and his mother did not mourn him.

Aurora von Goeth is a historian specialising in 17th century France and writes on www.partylike1660.com about Louis XIV and his court, with a special focus on its members and little-known stories of the time. Her first book Louis XIV and The Real Versailles will be published by Pen & Sword in spring 2018.

Sources

Barker, Nancy. Brother to the Sun King.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné.

I Thought they Had Been Nuns: Great Wine and Failed Sexual Transactions

DSH Zante 1810s William Turner

Zante, 1810s. William Turner.

On January 31, 1599, John Chamberlain wrote a letter to his friend and relative Dudley Carleton. There, sandwiched between the Duke of Florence complaining of English piracy and poor Sir Henry Poore’s non-life-threatening shot in the head, were the following words: “Here is a great and curious present going to the Great Turke, which no doubt will be much talked of, and be very scandalous among other nations, especially the Germans.”

This “great and curious present” departed England on The Hector in February of 1599, bound for the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed III. It went as a rather overdue acknowledgment of his becoming Sultan upon the death of his father in 1595, and it was to be presented by the English representative, Henry Lello, so that he could kiss the hand of the Sultan and be recognized as England’s ambassador. The gift was a magnificent clockwork organ, sadly smashed just a few short years later, and its maker, who travelled with it on The Hector, was Thomas Dallam.

Dallam is a fascinating figure. He was no sailor, soldier, diplomat, or spy; he seems never to have even left England before. But from February 1599 to April 1600, he’d journey to and from the city he mostly called Constantinople (and once or twice Stamboul), and he’d write all about it. He’d write about encounters with Dunkirker pirates shortly after departure, his annoyance at the captain’s behaviour, “an infinite body of porpoises,” and the behaviour of Turks. He runs for his life on a few occasions, notes as the ship passes the birthplace of Pythagoras or of Saul, and eventually gives an incredibly stressful solo performance for the Sultan and 400 of his attendants.

DSH zante1678pieter-schei-engraver-daniel-stopendaal

Zante. Pietr Johan Schei, 1678. 

One of the aspects that is most interesting about this unlikely Elizabethan diplomat and world traveller, is how strikingly he sometimes resembles the modern tourist. He grumbles at the greed of foreign officials. He wonders at the climate off the shores of southern Spain, struck by the difference from England in much the same way that many, many, more English travellers would be in centuries to come. Most amusingly, he hammers off for himself a little piece of the walls of Troy, an apparently timeless inclination to possess a bit of history.

For all of Dallam’s adventures, and his generally naive role in some rather important diplomatic dealings, one of the episodes that he gives the most attention to in his writing is an adventure of a different kind: an unsuccessful attempt to pay for sex in a hilltop house, on a Greek island he identifies as Zante, in the month of April, 1599. Zante, now known as Zakynthos, was a possession of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, but our narrator tells us that tribute was paid for it, yearly or quarterly, to “the great Turk,” the Ottoman Sultan.

Dallam and the other men of The Hector had sat at anchor for 6 long, dull days. Having most recently left Algiers, and with Turkish goods and men aboard, they were waiting out the quarantine required of a ship arriving from any part of the Ottoman domain without a Venetian letter of health. These days, tantalizingly close to shore but denied access to its pleasures, gave Dallam time to admire a little mountain. It was close to the sea, he wrote, very green, and promised to be excellent spot from which to view the whole island and the waters around it. Trapped as he was, Dallam’s liking for the little mountain swelled until he had made vow to himself: he would climb that mountain as soon as he set foot ashore, before he’d even paused for food or for drink, in fact.

Dallam’s fellows aboard the boat seem to have been less keen, but he worked on them; he had days to do so after all, and eventually he’d extracted commitments from two of them: Michael Watson, Dallam’s joiner, and Edward Hale, a coachman (The Hector was also carrying a coach as a gift for the Sultan’s mother, an immensely powerful figure in her own right), would be joining him on his little hike up the hill, and Dallam would not let them forget their promises.

The day came, and a small payment to some of the ship’s sailors secured their passage in a little boat to near the foot of the hill. It was early in the morning, and the trio began their climb. Having received stern instructions while aboard that they were not to carry weapons, they had only “cudgels in [their] hands,” and perhaps that helps account for Watson’s apprehensions.

Dallam describes their first encounter on the hill:

“So, ascending the hill about half a mile, and looking up, we saw upon a story of the hill above us a man going with a great staff on his shoulder, having a clubbed end, and on his head a cape which seemed to us to have five horns standing outright, and a great herd of goats and sheep followed him.”

The “great herd” gives a pretty clear indication of the man’s real business there on the green slopes, but it was still all too much for Watson: the clubbed staff, the horned cape, their lack of weapons. Watson fearfully complained that surely these were savage men on this island, men who would certainly do them wrong. He was convinced to go a little higher, high enough to convincingly identify the herdsman as, in fact, a herdsman, but that was it. Michael Watson, if our narrator is to be believed, spent the remainder of the morning hiding in a bush, and Dallam and the coachman carried on, Hale saying “something faintly that he would not leave [Dallam], but see the end.”

A little way up the hill, and the now-duo came upon another local inhabitant, and he also did not strike them down, only bowing towards them with a hand on his breast and smile to his face. This, Dallam seems to have taken as solid proof “of what people they be that inhabit here,” but Edward, who Dallam at this point in the story began to call Ned, was less confident. He was all for going back at once. Dallam, however, asserted that his oath to himself would allow nothing less than as far as they might possibly go. So, go they did, all the way up.

DSH Zante map engraving

Map of Zante

The top of the hill was not only a very pleasant place from which to view the island and the sea. It was also occupied by at least two buildings. The first one, Dallam tells us, was small, square, and made of limestone. It had housed an anchorite (a religious devotee bound by oath to an enclosed space) until only recently, and Dallam writes that she had “died but a little before [their] coming thither, and that she had lived five hundred years.” At the other, across the green, a man inside passed a copper kettle to another outside.

Ned saw no reason to go closer, but Dallam, as you might have gathered, was not the sort of tourist who retreated to the comforts of his hotel room and locked the unfamiliar world outside. He seems to have been driven by the confidence of a craftsman whose organ had, he will sometimes mention, been approved of by Queen Elizabeth herself, and also by a tremendous curiosity. During this voyage, he’d try to speak with Syrian soldiers, wonder at his first sight of carrier pigeons at work, and find occasion to peer in at the Ottoman Sultan’s concubines as they played with a ball. Here, after a morning’s uphill walk in hot weather, he was also driven by thirst.

Waving aside Ned’s protests, he went forward (“boldly,” he says), and by gestures made it known to the man with the kettle that he wanted to drink. The stranger did not offer him water though. Instead, he pulled up a carpet that lay against the wall and produced 6 bottles of wine and also a silver bowl which he soon filled with red wine and handed to Dallam. Ned was still questioning the wisdom of all of this from a little ways off, but Dallam drank from the bowl and found it to be “the best that ever [he] drank.” The bowl was refilled, this time with white, and this wine, Dallam pronounced, was even better than the first.

Now, Dallam wondered how he might repay the man for his hospitality. The cautious Ned consented to come forward and take a little water, and Dallam brought out the only money he had on him, a silver Spanish coin; it was not accepted. Then, he produced a decorative knife he had in his pocket. It was gilded, graven, and sheathed, and the man was very pleased with this. Dallam and Ned were promptly ushered round the corner and into what they realized was a chapel, complete with a priest giving mass, candles burning, and strange and unfamiliar decorations all about. The service made no sense to either Englishman, but soon it was over and they were brought into another space:

“… he led us through the chapel into the cloister, where we found standing eight very fair women, and richly apparelled, some in red satin, some white … their heads very finely attired, chains of pearls and jewels in their ears, seven of them very young women, the eighth was ancient, and all in black. I thought they had been nuns, but presently after I knew they were not.”

There in the cloister, the two were settled down to a meal of “good bread and very good wine and eggs.” Ned still would only drink water, but Dallam indulged himself fully, and wondered at the women, three of whom were standing very close now, looking on. He “knew they were not nuns,” but he wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. He offered one a bowl of wine, but she would not accept it. He tried again with his Spanish silver, but this too was rejected. He produced another of the decorated knives and pressed that on the older woman who at first would not take it, but then did. The group of women gathered around it, seeming to admire it, he thought, and then bowed towards him in thanks. He was no closer to a successful transaction.

Shortly after, he and Hale left in good spirits, doubtless energized by the turn the day had taken. They collected an indignant Watson from his bush, likely quite sore and badly in need of refreshment, and they went down into the town, finding others from their ship in a house marked with a white horse. Their friends within were at first angry, saying they’d looked everywhere and thought the worst, but then, Dallam writes, “When [he] had told them all the story, they wondered at [his] boldness, and some Greeks that were there said that they never heard that any English man was ever there before.”

So interested was Dallam’s audience, that nine of those present decided to go immediately up for a look themselves. Their storyteller being too tired to make the walk again that day, they hired a local as a guide, and so they came to the house on the hill with information he had lacked. The thing to do, he later learned, was to go first into the chapel and to make an offering of money there, “as little as they would,” and then “they should have all kinds of entertainment.” Despite their guide, the party missed the easiest path up, and some fell and “broke their shins.” However, the whole thing seems to have been a tremendous success, enjoyed by all despite the shin breaking (which was perhaps not as bad as it sounds). Dallam wrote that, “very late in the evening, they returned safely again, and gave [him] thanks for that which they had seen.”

It’s an odd little story, one in which the narrator is ultimately unsuccessful, but also entirely unbothered by his failure. He seems to absolutely delight in showing his comrades to be buffoons (“… and laughed at him – as indeed they might, for he behaved himself very foolishly.”), or cowards (“Michael Watson, for shame, would not go in with us.”), or both. He seems to equally enjoy portraying himself as boldly venturesome, the first Englishman up the hill, a trail-blazing tourist who left his trembling companions behind to clasp hands with the locals and drink their wine. However, we also see him at a loss, unsure of what was to be done, first in payment for the wine, and then in the question of the women, stumbling where his shipmates would later succeed.

He doesn’t seem to overly regret his missed sexual opportunity, though. He’d enjoyed his little adventure on the Greek hilltop that day, with its thrill of the unfamiliar and the best wine he’d ever tasted. He’d enjoyed it enough to devote an unusually long passage of his writing to the day. We don’t know what Dallam intended to do with this writing; despite the apparent interest in all things Ottoman at the time, he did not publish after returning from his very close encounter with the Sultan. But he seems to have wanted to remember his morning in the unfamiliar house, and his glee at the discomfort of Michael and Ned.

Sources
Dallam, Thomas, John Covel, and James Theodore Bent. Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant. London: Hakluyt Society, 1893.

Chamberlain, John. Letters Written by John Chamberlain During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1861.

Devon Field is a history podcaster with a Humanities M.A., telling the stories of lesser known historical figures and, through their narratives, exploring their context and place in larger events. Particularly, he’s interested in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and their travellers, figures that passed between cultural worlds and revealed sometimes surprising connections. You can hear more about Thomas Dallam and others like (and unlike) him on the Human Circus podcast.
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Agony Uncles: Advice From The Anthenian Oracle (Part 1)

Athenian_Mercury_Feb_28_1693Most people today would probably consider Dear Abby, with her origins in the 1950s, as the archetypal advice columnist, but this brand of casuistical journalism actually has its roots nearly three hundred years earlier. Usually credited with producing the first English-language advice column, John Dunton (1659–1733) first published his Athenian Mercury in London in 1690.

Although the Mercury answered questions on topics which are still modern advice column stalwarts, such as love dilemmas and health complaints, it also addressed a bewilderingly wide range of other topics from history, to science, to mathematics, and philosophy. Despite the claim to virtual omniscience inherent in setting up as an advice columnist, this might have been a tall order for just one man. Dunton, therefore, answered his readers’ queries with the aid of an expert panel: the Athenian Society, comprising Dunton, a mathematician, a discretely anonymous and genteelly uncompensated physician, and a poetic clergyman, as well as several non-existent alter-egos.

The questions asked demonstrate the enduring nature of certain human fascinations, whilst the answers given read like little populist summaries of the zeitgeist of later Stuart London. This is the first in a series of posts drawing from The Athenian Oracle, an edited collection of highlights from the periodical, available in the public domain, here.

The Oracle divides its selections from the writings of the Athenian Society under three main headings: History and Philosophy, Divinity, and, of course, Love and Marriage. This post will be the first of several drawing on the selections classified as History and Philosophy, a fascinating amalgamation of casuistry on subjects we might describe variously as natural history, human and Church history, legal history, science, psychology, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and more.

Here are three of my favorites:

HookeFlea01

Schem. XXXIV – Of a Flea. Robert Hooke, Micrographia.

1. Why the anatomy of the flea is like the cruelty of a beautiful lady.
It’s okay to be curious about the World around you, as long as you don’t mind a hefty dose of condescension, flirtation, and misogynistic leg-pulling with your edification.

Quest. —A lady desires to know whether Fleas have stings, or whether they only suck or bite, when they draw blood from the body?

Ans.—Not to trouble you, Madam, with the Hebrew or Arabic name of a flea, or to transcribe Bochart’s learned dissertations on the little animal, we shall, for your satisfaction, give such a description thereof as we have yet been able to discover. Its skin is of a lovely deep red colour, most neatly polished, and armed with scales, which can resist anything but fate and your ladyship’s unmerciful fingers; the neck of it is exactly like the tail of a lobster, and, by the assistance of those strong scales it is covered with, springs backwards and forwards much in the same manner, and with equal violence; it has two eyes on each side of its head, so pretty, that I would prefer them to any, Madam, but yours; and which it makes use of to avoid its fate, and fly its enemies, with as much nimbleness and success as your sex manage those fatal weapons, lovely basilisks as you are, for the ruin of your adorers. Nature has provided it six substantial legs, of great strength, and incomparable agility jointed like a cane, covered with large hairs, and armed each of them with two claws, which appear of a horny substance, more sharp than lancets, or the finest needle you have in all your needle-book. It was a long while before we could discover its mouth, which, we confess, we have not yet so exactly done as we could wish, the little bashful creature always holding up its two fore feet before it, which it uses instead of a fan, or mask, when it has no mind to be known; and we were forced to be guilty of an act both uncivil and cruel, without which we could never have resolved your question. We were obliged to unmask this modest one, and cut off its two forelegs to get to the face; which being performed, though it makes our tender hearts as well as yours almost bleed to think of it, we immediately discovered what your Ladyship desired, and found Nature had given it a strong proboscis, or trunk, as a gnat or muschetto, though much thicker and stouter, with which we may very well suppose it penetrates your fair hand, feasts itself on the nectar of your blood, and then, Like a Little faithless fugitive of a lover, skips away, almost invisibly, nobody knows whither.

2. Is ignorance bliss, or is it hard to tell because everyone is stupid?

Quest.—Who are the most happy in the world, wise men or fools?

Ans. — Much may be said of either, but the manner very different. If the fool be the happier, the world is a very desirable place, there being such a quantity of happy men in it. The Supreme Being is essential happiness; those, therefore, that act the most like him are happiest. There is but one right line, and infinite crooked ones; one wisdom, but follies innumerable; one real goodness, but divers appearances of it; and but one best way to every thing, and to judge of everything that is reason, or understanding. Here only is the paradox; the fool’s happiness consists in a privation of grief, and the happiness of a wise man in possession of good; which, being a little considered, the result of this next question will answer the first; namely, which would be more miserable, a wise man that wanted his good, or a fool that had a sense of his grief? In this reverse the wise man would be more miserable; because he that wants his happiness wants every thing, but he that has a sense of grief may have a sense of happiness. Now this reverse, or contrary to the reverse, must necessarily make him happy; namely, his possession of good is preferable to the fool’s privation of grief.

Fashionable_contrasts_james_gillray

Fashionable Contrasts; – or – the Duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the Duke’s foot. James Gillray, 1792.

3. I hope you weren’t expecting medical advice from our in-house doctor…
…unless misogyny be the cure for corns.

Quest. — A lady who is extremely troubled with corns desires to know the reason?

Ans. —Alas, poor lady! There may be many weighty reasons assigned for this sore calamity. Perhaps her hard heart has infected her toes, and made them as obdurate as herself; or else the little wag Cupid is taking his vengeance upon her for having murdered some of his humble servants, and is turning her into stone for a flinty-hearted creature, as his cousin Apollo served Niobe; and she is now dying upwards as Daphne’s poor toes rooted in the ground, and if she appeases not the little angry god quickly, she must in a few days expect to be perfect plaster of Paris.

Had the Society set their conviction that all women were responsible for broken hearts over twelve bars of music, the blues might have been born somewhat earlier and in a very different place. Nevertheless, they attempted to curry favor with the sex they so mercilessly teased, and the Ladies’ Mercury became the first periodical to be aimed at women alone in 1693. Perhaps the constant jibes were not appreciated as the publication only lasted four issues.

What are the clouds-The above extracts have been selected for their entertainment value but the philosophical and historical questions most typically sent to the Mercury resemble most closely, to modern eyes, the whimsical wonderings of a stoner. In my mind, I can’t help but imagine them being read by Keanu Reeves: What are the clouds? How is the dew produced? How does a nettle sting? What is the reason that, by applying the empty shells of some shell-fishes to your ear, you may therein perceive a noise like the roaring of the sea? Whether birds have any government? Whether the sky be of any colour? What think you of the Milky Way in the heavens? Wherefore is it that, having two eyes, we see nevertheless but one … image of the objects? Why men dream of things they never thought of? What is melancholy? What is death? Is it not better to die than to live? What becomes of smoke? How is the fire made betwixt the flint and the steel? And, of course, Whence have we our Opium?

Despite how these questions may sound to me, they are more accurately viewed in the context of the Scientific Revolution. Late seventeenth century London was a place where people were feeling their way towards a confidence that empirical observation and experiment (something like what we might call the scientific method) could increase their knowledge of the natural world and that such knowledge could be used for invention and innovation which might improve the material and spiritual lot of mankind.

This was a more radical way of feeling than we might imagine. The medieval sense of living in the ‘dark ages’, where man clung to scraps of wisdom from the ancients which could not be improved upon, had been gradually eroded by discoveries of new lands, their people flora and fauna, their technologies. Scholarship flourished, partially out of the simple need to catalogue and process all this new information. London, the seat of a monarch sympathetic to learning, presiding over a court where natural philosophy was fashionable, was near the forefront of European scholarship for the first time. The men of the Royal Society, giants like Boyle and Robert Hooke, were the Mercury’s heroes and a large part of the Athenian Society’s purpose was to make their discoveries accessible to the layman. In the case of the flea, a new-ish and fashionable technology was used to reveal a previously unknown microscopic world. The Athenians make their observations, laced with humor and divested of Latin. This was popular science for people who did not want to wade through Hooke’s Micrographia, a sort of seventeenth century Bill Nye, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or, for my older, British readers, Johnny Ball.

Quest. — Whether the common notion of the world be true, that these latter ages, for some centuries past, have a less share of learning, judgment, and invention, than those which have preceded, because we find them deficient in finding out such advantageous arts as their forefathers have done?

Ans. — …See the inventions and experiments of the Royal Society, which will abundantly convince anyone that our age has as active and busy spirits for invention as any former age in the world.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins

Source

The Athenian Oracle, available online here. 

A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Review: A History of Courtship by Tania O’Donnell

 

51Iv62jqdOL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_Tania O’Donnell, A History of Courtship: 800 Years of Seduction Techniques (Pen & Sword; Barnsley, 2017).

Have you ever wondered why we give flowers to people we like? About the origins of the rhyme ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’? How people in the past dressed to catch the eye? Why the girls in costume dramas always have to have an older lady in tow? Or generally how our forebears went about signalling their intent and making a move? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then Tania O’Donnell’s History of Courtship may be the book for you.

O’Donnell focuses on, mainly British, sometimes American, and certainly Western, courtship, from the development of courtly love in the twelfth century up to (and including) the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is avoided on the basis that its sweeping technological and social changes made courtship a very different game, which is perhaps true, but I would have loved to see the story taken from Tristan and Isolde to the early rock’n’roll which retold their tale so many times.

Nevertheless, A History of Courtship leaps nimbly between periods, from the court poets and troubadours of Europe in the Middle Ages to the dangers of Tudor England, and from the grubby London of the Restoration to the more familiar romantic settings of Regency ballrooms and Victorian studies. The book gives only a superficial sense of how courtship may have changed between these periods but this is understandable given its thematic, rather than chronological, organization. It may even be justified given O’Donnell’s awareness that people themselves change rather less than customs over time and that even some of these have a cyclical existence.

Thematically, A History of Courtship illustrates an impressive range of romantic tropes (love at first sight, childhood sweethearts, kidnapping, elopement, proposal, marriage, scandal) using an equally impressive range of sources (clothing, cosmetics, legislation, letters, songs, poems, plays, diaries, sermons, gifts). The book is well illustrated with apposite selections, which speak to the depth of the author’s immersion in, and the breadth of her knowledge on, her subject. Although this is a slender, accessible volume, these provide something unique the more academic reader can appreciate as readily as the more casual. I found the intricate “lover’s knot” created by a hapless nineteenth century Pennsylvanian Quaker for the unrequiting object of his affections particularly intriguing.

O’Donnell, however, does not concentrate purely on the sweeter side of courtship at the expense of its, sometimes more visceral, reality. Regular readers of this blog will be quite satisfied with the quantities of scandal, prostitution, venereal disease, and ‘Vinegar’ Valentine’s cards in evidence. There is even a lengthy extract from the works of our late patron, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Whilst not entirely alleviating the biases of the more traditional sources, O’Donnell’s approach also helps to draw out some of the leaner evidence on illiterate, poor or gay courtships.

Finally, O’Donnell offers a way of looking at the past that might help shed some light on our own lives. With the benefit of a little perspective, she seems to suggest, perhaps we should not rush to judgement in the present. Certainly, we should be grateful for the relative freedoms we enjoy today and should be cautious of viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Above all, we should celebrate our courtships and not let them end at marriage. Seductive arguments.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins