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.

Prostitution in Renaissance Italy: The “Necessary Evil”

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A 15th-century depiction of a brothel. You can imagine the man walking in saying, “Well, at least the prostitutes are women.”

In the wake of the fourteenth-century plague, which killed over half of Italy’s populations, cities were faced with a crisis. To make matters worse, Italian men seemed uninterested in repopulating the peninsula, struck by a sin worse than death—same-sex attraction. Fifteenth-century preacher Bernardino of Siena railed that “even the Devil flees in horror at the sight of this sin.”

Italian cities responded by encouraging prostitution. In 1403, the government of Florence opened an office to promote prostitution in order to prevent the worse sin of sodomy. Venice legalized prostitution in 1358 and created a brothel district in the commercial heart of the city, the Rialto.

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Cesare Vecellio’s “Public Whore” waves a flag and wears high-heeled chopines. (1598)

Prostitution was a reality of life in Renaissance Italy. But in spite of its legality, Renaissance Italians had a mixed opinion of the profession. The medieval church had declared prostitution a “necessary evil,” drawing on St. Augustine of Hippo’s proclamation that “If you do away with whores, the world will be consumed with lust.” Thomas Aquinas likewise declared in the thirteenth century that “If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.” Aquinas likened prostitution to a sewer in a palace—if you took it away, the building would overflow with pollution. Or, more specifically, “Take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy.”

Prostitutes, then, served as receptacles of sin, protecting the rest of society from male lust. And, in particular, they kept male passions focused on women, rather than other men.

But legalization did not mean prostitution was an esteemed profession. It was heavily regulated, as cities passed laws to ensure that honorable citizens could avoid the corrupting influence of prostitutes. Venetian prostitutes had to wear a yellow scarf in public. In 1384, Florence passed a law forcing prostitutes to wear bells on their heads, gloves, and high-heeled shoes.

Let’s talk for a minute about these special shoes—they were called chopines, and they likely originated with Venetian prostitutes. These heels could be up to twenty-four inches high (and I thought four inch heels were tricky!). Patrician women were so enamored with the style that laws forcing prostitutes to wear the shoes were passed to discourage “good” women from donning them. Those efforts failed.

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Pietro Bertelli’s flip-up courtesan shows off the woman’s chopines as well as her undergarments. (c. 1588)

Renaissance prostitution was meant to channel male lust in appropriate directions, and as such, prostitution reinforced gender norms. Venice, for example, encouraged women to run brothels, because men relying on the earnings of prostitutes inverted normal gender relations. The city worried that men who lived off of women’s earnings would become dangerously lazy and fall into a life of crime. In an ironic twist, this attitude put a great deal of power in the hands of “matrons,” who were integrated into Venetian business at multiple levels.

Expensive, educated courtesans were also able to use their position to enhance their independence. Tullia d’Aragona, a sixteenth-century Roman courtesan, published multiple books and owned many houses. Another famous courtesan, Veronica Franco of Venice, was a published poet of great distinction. When King Henry III of France visited Venice in 1574, the city hired Franco to entertain him. These two women were widely admired for their works, and had a degree of freedom unmatched by their married cousins. Another courtesan, Angela del Moro, served as the model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

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Titian’s Venus of Urbino, thought to portray his companion Angela del Moro, a Venetian courtesan.

Legalized prostitution reinforced gender norms, but in limited cases it provided opportunities for women to assert power. As madams or courtesans, women could own property, publish, and achieve social acclaim. Yet for the majority of Renaissance Italian prostitutes, it was a hard life, and often not one they chose. Prostitutes were exploited by the brothels and by the cities, often treated no better than the sewers to which Aquinas likened them. They existed on the margins, their exploitation justified for the “greater good” of society.lionandfox_coverfa-small

Sylvia Prince is a history professor and author. Her debut novel, The Lion and the Fox, is set in the cutthroat world of Renaissance Florence, and follows Niccolo Machiavelli as he solves the murder of a Medici. It also features male and female prostitutes, as well as a female brothel owner. Find out more at Sylvia’s website www.sylviaprincebooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @sprincebooks.

Sources

Brackett, John K. “The Florentine Onesta and the Control of Prostitution, 1403-1680.” Sixteenth Century Journal, v. 24, no. 2 (Summer 1993), pp. 273-300.

Clarke, Paula C. “The Business of Prostitution in Early Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Quarterly, v. 68 no. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 419-464.

Mormondo, Franco. The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy

Review: Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray

bray_sex_amazon-1I write mysteries set in Elizabethan England featuring Francis Bacon as my primary sleuth. No one knows for sure — no love letter from Bacon to another person has survived. He isn’t likely to have written such things, in my opinion, because he was a courtier practically from birth and knew better than to write down anything that could be used against you later. But most historians believe he was a man who preferred men, sexually. The evidence is slender; such as there is I discussed on my blog.

Based on that slender evidence, my version of Francis Bacon is decidedly gay, to use the modern term. So I need to understand what that would have meant in his time. Toward that end, there is no better resource than Alan Bray’s excellent Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1996, Columbia University Press.)

This book is not only a clear-eyed, detailed resource on the stated topic, but also a fine example of historical writing, on both technical and stylistic grounds. Read this together with Alan Haynes’ Sex in Elizabethan England and you’ll learn the difference between history and literature-based speculation. Bray’s thesis is that a study of homosexuality ought properly to belong in a general study of interfamilial relations.

He begins quite correctly with a discussion of his sources. He notes that most of our ideas about homosexuality in early modern England derive from Havelock Ellis’ provocative 1897 Sexual Inversion. Ellis was trying to create a new culture; he was not writing a history book. It’s not much help for those of us who try to cleave to the actual as much as possible.

The slippery slope

goat-1Bray notes on page 9, “There was an immense disparity in this society [early modern England] between what people said — and apparently believed — about homosexuality and what in truth they did.” Thank goodness! What people said was pretty horrible. Diatribes and sermons of the time displayed a persistent association between unnatural acts, homosexual sex and bestiality. Boys + goats = demonic debauchery.

Strictly speaking, nobody ranted about homosexuality, because the term wasn’t coined until the late nineteenth century. The earlier term was ‘sodomite;’ gritty and biblical, meant to be shocking. Like ‘atheist,’ the word had more to do with outlawry and social nonconformity, — behaving in a manner contrary to the laws of man, God, and nature — than with sex. Nobody you liked and respected was ever a sodomite. It was a word you hurled at someone you were trying to injure.

Turned upside down

upside-downThere was plenty of ranting, some of it truly vile. The odious Sir Edward Coke thought buggery was treason against the King of Heaven. (Coke was one of Bacon’s lifelong rivals; for this and other reasons I despise him.) Bray reviews the rantings and discusses the reasons people were so fearful about overturning God’s laws. If you go too far, you risking turning the whole world upside down. Chaos would result. We’d all go mad!

Bray also gives us a look at the caricatures drawn in early modern literature: “…the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his ‘catamite’ on the other; he is indolent, extravagant and debauched.” The Earl of Oxford fit this portrait perfectly. Note that this man-about-town was omnisexual — depraved in all directions.

Lots of storm, little fury

Bray examines court records for hints about interpersonal relations. Buggery cases were heard in the Quarter Assizes, judged by county Justices of the Peace. While the crime was a felony, cases were rare. In the 66-year period 1559-1625, in all of Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, and Essex, there were only 4 indictments for sodomy. These cases involved violence and were thus breaches of the peace. Nobody was sneaking around spying out naughty buggers and hauling them into court; not even into church courts.

Bray situates garden variety homosexuality inside the home, observing that homes in early modern times were also workplaces. The workshop was on the ground floor of the house or in the yard. A typical path for a young person, male or female, was to leave the natal home in the early teens and go off to work in someone else’s house. Boys might be apprenticed to a craftsman; girls would find work as servants. They would work until they were able to support themselves, through savings and advancement in their craft.
In early modern England, as now, couples were expected to establish independent households. They married later as a result; men well into their twenties or even thirties, women around mid-twenties. Note that this is also an effective means of managing the birth rate; pretty much the only means they had other than abstinence.

Arden farm

Servants’ beds

Servants and apprentices lived with the family, though they might sleep on cots in the attic or in a cockloft over the barn, segregated by sex. Thus there were many opportunities for opportunistic sexual relations; desirable as a way of relieving sexual pressures without producing unwanted pregnancies.

Neither ask thou, nor tell

Bray concludes that, “In general homosexual behaviour went largely unrecognised or ignored, both by those immediately involved and by the communities in which they lived.” Vehement hostility in public was matched by willing blind complicity in private.

Bray notes that Francis Bacon was known to have sexual relations with his servants, which no one would have minded if he hadn’t been so outrageously generous with gifts, for which he probably borrowed the money. He quotes Aubrey’s Life of Francis Bacon: “He was a παιδεραστής. [paiderastes~pederast] His Ganymedes and favourites took bribes; but his lordship always gave judgement secundum aequum et bonum [according to what is just and good.] His decrees in Chancery stand firm, i.e. there are fewer of his decrees reversed than of any other Chancellor.”

Thus we see that Bacon may have been queer, but he was also always fair.

Anna Castle

References
Bray, Alan. 1996. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Columbia University Press.

mbm_small_150wdAward-winning author Anna Castle writes two historical mystery series: the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty mysteries. She has earned a series of degrees — BA in the Classics, MS in Computer Science, and a PhD in Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, grammar-writing, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning.

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Editor’s note: For more on the contraception available in this period, check out this post on 17th century condoms. They were more of a protection against syphilis, and not a very effective one at that… 

Art is the Best Revenge: Painting Justice with Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait, 1638-9.

Centuries before feminism had a name, post-Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) made waves with exemplary work in a male-dominated medium. Raped at seventeen, she channeled her trauma into her art, raising questions about the mistreatment of women with paintings of staggering beauty and brutality. Of fifty-seven known paintings, forty-nine feature female heroines from history and mythology in positions of strength, many of them also survivors of sexual assault.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was an established artist who taught her to paint while she was growing up. By the age of sixteen, she already showed great promise, but was rejected by more formal academies. Wanting to nurture his daughter’s talent, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to be tutored by a friend of his, artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644).

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Susanna and the Elders. AG, 1610.

Perhaps the first hint that Tassi was not exactly a gentleman can be found in Susanna and the Elders (1610). The Biblical Susanna was a virtuous young woman who was sexually harassed by some of the older men in her community. While many male artists had depicted Susanna as compliant or even flirtatious, Artemisia’s heroine is anything but: she is disgusted and exposed, shielding herself from two men almost falling over each other to leer at her.

By 1612, Orazio had taken Tassi to court for raping his daughter. Artemisia testified he had forced himself on her, and she had fought him so savagely that she removed a chunk of flesh from his penis. After the rape, Tassi pressured her into having an ongoing sexual relationship with him with the promise he would eventually marry her. Tassi was already married and could fulfill no such promise, but continued to abuse Artemisia until her father brought charges against him.

It wasn’t Tassi’s first run-in with the law. He had already been tried for rape, incest, and the attempted murder of his wife. Artemisia, his latest victim, was a well-behaved young woman of eighteen. So what happened?

They tortured her.

Although Tassi’s defense was contradictory and blatantly false, the court didn’t believe Artemisia’s claim that he had raped her. She was subjected to a humiliating physical exam in front of the court to prove she was no longer a virgin, her character was questioned, she was accused of promiscuity, and then she was tortured with thumbscrews while her rapist watched. Over months of witness testimonies and torture, Artemisia never once changed her story and Tassi was eventually convicted. He chose banishment from Rome over imprisonment, but he was back within a few months. By now it was common knowledge that he was a real piece of work, but he had friends in high places: Pope Innocent X was a big fan of his landscapes.

Tassi may have escaped justice through the courts, but Artemisia wasn’t done with him. Now a far superior artist to her one-time tutor, she took her revenge in a series of masterful paintings depicting women equal to or dominating men. At least half a dozen show women physically assaulting men, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes:

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612, and again in 1620): As the story goes, Judith was a Jewish widow. When her town was attacked by Assyrian general Holofernes, she took advantage of his attraction to her by going to his tent with him and then decapitating him as he was passed out drunk. This story has been interpreted by several notable artists including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Kilmt in the twentieth century, but Artemisia’s is undoubtedly the most graphic. It was owned by the Medicis, but hidden for years as it was considered too brutal to display. Two versions of this were painted, the first just after Tassi’s trial.

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Caravaggio’s Judith (left) and Gentileschi’s Judith (right)

This painting is a clear tribute to Caravaggio’s work of the same name, but Artemisia takes it further. Artemisia’s Judith is more mature and self-assured. While Caravaggio’s Judith hesitantly beheads her attacker with a look of distaste on her face, Artemisia’s Judith is all business. She looks almost bored as she hacks off Holofernes’ head as if it’s something she does–or has thought of doing–every day.

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Judith and Her Maidservant (1613-14) : Here we see Judith leaving with her maidservant, sword in hand. Holofernes’ head is in a bag, bottom left. Her hairpin here depicts David, who likewise removed the head of Goliath.

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Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes (1625): In the last of this series, the head is bottom center as Judith and her maid escape into the night.

And then there’s Jael and Sisera (1620):

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Sisera was a Canaanite leader who had ruled over the Israelites for many years. Following his defeat by the Isrealites, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s tent, only to have a tent post hammered into his brain once he fell asleep.

Artemisia painted heroines she could relate to, such as Lucretia, the classical victim of rape, and other famous “fallen women” like Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Lucretia and Cleopatra are shown in the moments prior to suicide: instead of despair, they seem to question the idea that they ought to take their own lives. Surely a woman is worth more than the concept of “honor” attached to her body?

Artemisia seemed to think so. She married another painter and worked as an artist her whole life, fulfilling commissions for the Medicis and England’s Charles I. She was a friend of Galileo, painted a ceiling for Michelangelo’s nephew, and inspired countless other women artists to follow in her footsteps during her lifetime.

As for Tassi, his work has fallen into obscurity and he is now primarily known as Artemisia’s rapist. I wasn’t able to find a portrait of him, but we might be able to guess what he looked like…

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Jessica Cale

Further Reading:

Brash, Larry. Artemisia Gentileschi.

Christiansen, Keith, and Mann, Judith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Sartle. Category: Artemisia Gentileschi

 

Historical Underwear and the Surprising Thing Used to Clean It (Hint: It Starts with a U)

[From the archives] Okay, so we’ve had a lot of posts lately that have been on the serious side (fire, plague, syphilis, under-paying jobs), so for a change of pace, I thought I’d write about something a little more fun.

Underwear!

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15th century. Yes, really. (University of Innsbruck)

What’s not to like? Everyone knows that the best part of costume dramas in the historically accurate underwear (that can’t just be me). Fans of historical anything will already be so familiar with corsets that you might feel like you know your way in and out of one, but what about the rest?

Underwear is a surprisingly tricky subject. You’ll often hear that people just didn’t wear any, but that wasn’t always the case. Charles II wore one of the world’s first versions of silk boxer shorts to bed–would you expect anything less?–and Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, is noted to have worn “drawers.” While it’s true that seventeenth century undergarments were a long way off from Victoria’s Secret, they were very common and almost always the cleanest thing a person wore. It was extremely difficult to clean many finer items of clothing, and people depended in part on frequent changes of undergarments such as shifts to preserve the more expensive outer layers.

As Lucy Worsley writes in If Walls Could Talk:

“In the Tudor or Stuart concept of hygiene, clean underwear played an important part. The wearing of clean linen next to the skin was considered essential in the ‘dirty’ centuries. People thought it was dangerous to immerse their bodies in water but perfectly safe to use linen to absorb the body’s juices, and then to wash the linen regularly. In fact, a show of brilliant white linen at the collar and cuffs was important to publicise the cleanliness of your body–and. by implication, the purity of your mind.”

The brighter the linen, the cleaner the mind. So how did they maintain the extraordinarily bright whites seen in portraits (apart from being kind to their painters)?

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15th Century tie-on underwear, not unlike something you could find at Ann Summers. Probably used for menstruation. (University of Innsbruck)

Urine!

That’s right, the second U of the day was used a stain remover right up until the twentieth century. Garments were scrubbed with a soap made of lye before the dirt was beaten out of them and they were hung in the sun to dry, ideally over sweet-smelling rosemary or hawthorn bushes. But for tough stains, you couldn’t beat urine. Satisfying as it might be, surely just peeing on one’s employer’s clothes would be too easy. So how was it done?

“Lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out.”
-Hannah Woolley, 1670

As you can see, sometimes it took quite a lot to do the job. Housemaids would even reserve urine from the house’s chamber pots for this specific purpose. Effective as it must have been, I can’t help but wonder how much lye and rosemary it took to neutralize the smell.

If that didn’t work, there was always perfume.

Perfume, pomanders, and scented washballs, waters, and other cosmetics were extremely popular and available in every scent imaginable from rosewater to civet (a musk from a wild cat). Although Worsley warns us about the perceived dangers of bathing, Sally Pointer assures us that both sexes bathed in scented flower waters regularly, so the situation was probably not as dire as you might imagine.

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Unidentified tailor, Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1570. Notice the pristine white ruffles under his doublet. Someone knows the secret to keeping their whites whiter.

For a bonus U: Giovanni Battista Moroni’s unidentified tailor (1570). This has very little to do with underwear (see caption), but I found him when looking for photos for you and thought you’d earned something pretty to look at after that syphilis post.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty

Woolley, Hannah. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1670).

Worsley, Lucy. If Walls Could Talk.

Monsters Are Real: Hieronymus Bosch and the Medieval Mind

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Hieronymus Bosch, born Jeroen Anthonizoon van Aken, was born around 1450 in the market town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Brabant in the Netherlands. Very little is known about the man himself outside of the work he left behind. Part Flemish tradition, part surreal fever dream, his unflinching depictions of the follies of man and nightmarish vision of hell offer the modern viewer an unparalleled look into the medieval psyche. His work is a window into the religious fervor of the middle ages through which we can see questions of morality, harsh lessons on the nature of sin, and the pervasive fear of eternal damnation.

He is, without a doubt, the most metal painter of the Renaissance.

Bosch was one of the first artists known to paint primarily from his imagination. When travelers and traders brought stories of the middle east and Iceland to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, he incorporated their descriptions into his work, giving his landscapes a distinctly foreign flavor. Animals appeared in paintings that he had never seen in person, notably a little silver giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (above. In case you don’t see it right away, it’s between the bear and the striped porcupine, beside the two-legged dog).

As a teenager, Bosch witnessed a massive fire that destroyed more than 4,000 houses in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and killed countless people and livestock. Fire is a recurring theme in his work and particularly vivid are his flaming skies.

Unlike many artists, Bosch enjoyed success during his lifetime due in no small part to the Church’s patronage. His art may have been a calling, but it was also his profession, and he worked mainly on assignment. We may be able to glean a little about his worldview from his paintings, however. Many of his humans are grotesque and inherently sinful, and his judgement of them is clear. His work suggests a deeply pious man with a sharp intellect, a visionary imagination, and a rather dark sense of humor.

The detail demands your full concentration. In order to take in all the monsters and nightmarish punishments, you can easily lose an hour staring into hell. This is no vague impression of hellfire or in the older tradition, ice, but a painstakingly detailed depiction of the imagined horrors of damnation that is both oddly comic and deeply disturbing. It draws your attention in a way that is not coincidental; as most of his work was commissioned by the Church, it was intended to encourage meditation and to inspire the kind of fear of divine punishment that would keep the churches full come Sunday. Given the intent was to scare people straight, it’s no wonder that his depictions of hell are particularly detailed and imaginative.

Bosch’s surrealist vision was so ahead of his time, it looks like something that would fit more easily alongside Dali than in the Northern Renaissance. It’s difficult to look at it without immediately thinking of hallucinogenic drugs that could not have existed in the Netherlands in the 16th century.

LSD might have been a long way away, but there are over more than a dozen species of poisonous mushrooms in the Netherlands, including the Death Cap and the iconic red and white Fly Agaric that was thought to have inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of these would have been found in the dense forest surrounding ‘s-Hertogenbosch. By the sixteenth century, the the Fly Agaric had been used in Northern Europe for spiritual as well as culinary purposes for some time, while the Death Cap can easily be mistaken for other edible varieties of mushrooms.

We’ll never know for certain whether Bosch used mushrooms, but as Grunenberg points out, “in The Haywain, there is evidence suggestive of Bosch’s knowledge of the Amanita muscaria mushroom and the apocalyptic hallucinations it can induce.”

Bosch’s monsters have been attributed to mushrooms, rancid rye bread, alchemy, Freudian theory, and even a mystical sex cult, but the truth was probably more mundane.

It was the middle ages. Monsters were everywhere.

St. John’s Cathedral in ‘s-Hertogenbosch was under construction over the course of Bosch’s entire life. The cathedral is decorated with intricate monsters and angels, so not only was Bosch not the only one seeing them, he wasn’t even the first. While we might not think of most supernatural beings as part of the Christian tradition today, in the middle ages, many still believed in magic and mythical creatures were thought to haunt everything from forests and ponds to the very air they breathed. He used arcane symbolism to communicate his meaning, so many of the aspects that confuse us today would have made more sense at the time.

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The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Undated triptych.

Death was a constant threat and people turned to the Church for salvation. It was not in the Church’s best interest to comfort them. It was fear that brought them in, and fear that drove them to purchase indulgences as insurance for the afterlife. Interestingly enough, Bosch himself was a member of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, a deeply religious organization that was sustained through the sale of indulgences. The Brotherhood claimed indulgences purchased for the dead could pull souls directly out of hell, and after getting a good look at what that might have been like, it’s no wonder people would have wanted to save their loved ones from it.

After his death, all of Bosch’s paintings were snapped up by collectors across Europe until at one point, every single piece was in a private collection. Philip II of Spain – husband of “Bloody” Mary and patron of the Inquisition — was a huge fan, and bought up most of Bosch’s work. As a result, Spain still has the best collection of it today. According to the monk Fray José de Siguenza, Philip had a now unknown companion piece to Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins in his bedroom and was said to meditate on it every day.

Bosch has become more popular again over the last few years, and now you can find his paintings on everything from leggings to coloring books. You know, in case you want to take your meditative coloring to the next level of religious contemplation.

To end on a high note, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is music painted onto the butt of one of the souls in hell. Jim Spalink has actually recorded this and you can listen to it on YouTube. The result is haunting, distinctly Renaissance, and beautiful in a deeply, deeply creepy way. I’m listening to it now and it’s actually freaking out my cat, so Lord knows what kind of Boschian creatures are lurking between the bars. Maybe don’t play it by yourself in the dark and in the middle of the night, like I am.

Or do. 

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to calm down my cat.

Jessica Cale

Sources

The Atlantic. Hieronymus Bosch, the Trendiest Apocalyptic Medieval painter of 2014.

Byrne, David. 11 Things I learned from the Hieronymus Bosch Show.

Cooper, Paul M. M. Hell in a Handcart: The Secrets Behind Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain.

Grunenberg, Christoph and Harris, Jonathan. Summer of Love: Psychadelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s.

Hickson, Dr. Sally. Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Khan Academy.

Schuster, Clayton. The Last Judgment, Hieronymus Bosch. Sartle.

Zeidler, Anja. Heironymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins Table Painting.

Death and the Maiden: Macabre Desire in Renaissance Art

After the Black Death killed an estimated sixty percent of the European population in the fourteenth century, Death himself haunted art across the continent. Always a popular theme in the middle ages, it nevertheless adapted from primarily religious art into paintings of plague and the always unsettling Danse Macabre, depictions of the dead dancing, often with the living. By the early sixteenth century, however, the Danse Macabre theme had progressed into something far creepier.

Death was no longer so much dancing with the woman as embracing her. The courtly dance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had taken an erotic turn, and now Death was kissing, fondling, and all but making love to women in art across Europe. The progression can be seen in two works of art from the Swiss artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Dance of Death and Death and the Maiden:

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Dance of Death. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

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Death and the Maiden. Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517.

That escalated quickly.

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The Rape of Proserpina (detail). Bernini, 1621. Photo by Int3gr4te.

The theme of Death and the Maiden was nothing new. The Greeks and Romans had their own version in the story of Persephone, kidnapped by and eventually married to Hades, the god of the underworld. While Hades has been presented at turns as a handsome goth, an old man with a beard, or bafflingly, a purple cartoon character, he is often used to represent death, a man being ever so slightly more appealing than the skeletons in Deutsch’s work.

It’s interesting to note that although there are many artistic renderings on the theme of the Rape of Persephone, it isn’t clear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses whether this rape was literal or just referring to her abduction. Nevertheless, Persephone married Hades and ruled over the Underworld by his side, and many traditions depict them as happily married and, atypically for the gods of Olympus, monogamous.

So why did Death fancy young women rather than knights or minstrels? There are a couple of different theories. Death may serve as a reminder not only of mortality, but of the inevitable passage of time. As we see skeletons embracing young women, we understand that youth and beauty cannot last forever. Alternatively, the sexualization of Death can be read as a warning, given how many women died in childbirth during the middle ages. (Art or the most intense abstinence-only program ever? You decide.)

It could also be the artists wanted to paint pretty girls in various states of undress. You know, because art.

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Death and Life. Edvard Munch, 1894.

As for the maidens in these paintings, they really vary. While some of them submit to Death’s grasp with all the enthusiasm of an awkward hug from a bad blind date, many of them embrace him with passion. Is it fate, a metaphor, or a macabre exaggeration of the kind of man a young woman ought to avoid?

While we may not be able to ask Deutsch and Grien what is was about 1517 that had them painting erotic pictures of skeletons fondling women, the theme proved to be a persistent one and enjoyed a resurgence in the romantic period of the late nineteenth century. Edvard Munch imagined a relationship dominated by the maiden in Death and Life, the sexual aggression of the Renaissance balanced with a rather sweet-looking kiss.

Jessica Cale

Sources

LeClaire, Lance David. 10 Grim Themes of Death in Western Art. 

Ovid. Metamorphoses.

Pollefeyes, Patrick. Jeune Fille et la Mort, La Mort Dans l’Art.