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E-mail is such an impersonal way to learn of someone’s death. The very distance it creates makes the realisation of the loss of a human – someone you heard speak and laugh – all the more bitter. It was by opening of my inbox this morning that I learnt of the death of Jenny Wormald.
Jenny Wormald, historian of Scotland and of early modern Britain, tutor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – I owe her so much. I remember the seminars I had with her in my final year as an undergraduate: one set in Cliff Davies’s rooms in Wadham, the other looking out over the gardens in her own college. What was a constant in those sessions was her willingness to provoke, to encourage reticent students into conversation and debate. I was to learn that this was a characteristic of her scholarship, a gift of making us continually re-think our assumptions, much as she insisted she herself must do. One of the last times I heard her speak I remember the author of the justly celebrated ‘James VI and I, one king or two?’ shock her audience by announcing that she had changed her mind: ‘he was a terrible king’.
It is also to Jenny that I owe my first job, standing in for her at St Hilda’s for a term. I remember well her room there, which I occupied for that Michaelmas, and its impressive range of books. My knowledge of her – I can hear her now being strident with me when I hesitate to assume it was friendship – was deepened by the fact that I was also at Christ Church with her then husband, Patrick. As that marriage collapsed, I heard both sides. And, at Patrick’s untimely funeral in Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy, I – like so many – could not hold back the tears as Jenny gave the eulogy with such eloquence and dignity.
It is perhaps that event which I remember most, though it was not the last time I saw her. I think that was in the run-up to the 2010 General Election when she was in Oxford for a while, and was palpably excited about the prospect of a LibDem break-through in the forthcoming vote. She was, I fear, disappointed both with the outcome and with the inglorious aftermath. Perhaps, though, there is something fitting about that memory and fear: she would be the first to remind us (as she took a drag on her cigarette and eyed you sideways) that you have to take all that comes and, through it all, survive. She no longer does but, in us, the memory of her and the traits we learnt from her will live. That is, I hope, no small legacy.
In between the various commitments of a teaching term, I have been working on the release of a second batch of entries for the Lost Manuscripts project – and today is the day they are launched upon the world.
As you may remember, the pilot project involves cataloguing and digitizing the manuscript fragments found in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now resident in the library of the University of Essex.The rationale has been to treat each fragment both as an object worth describing in its own right and as witness to a manuscript which once existed but is now lost to us. In doing this, then, it engages with the developing and exciting practices of ‘virtual reunification’ – the process of bringing together on the internet elements of a work of art which are physically dispersed. Its manuscript variant is sometimes called ‘fragmentology’, an undeniably unlovely term (but I have complained about that before now). What the project hopes to bring to the metaphorical table, beyond a set of new examples, is thinking about the standards of cataloguing we might require for fragments and how they may differ from those for complete codices.
The intention of the Lost Manuscripts site is to make the images and the descriptions freely available. The bulk of the work for the pilot project was done in the summer of this now-closing year, but the pages are being released in small batches to allow for checking and the addition of further information. So, today is one step on a journey, and a small one at that. In the first batch, there were twenty ‘lost manuscripts’; in this, only eight. That is partly because this group includes several fragments which do not meet the rules we have set for creating a lost manuscript: if only one remnant remains from which it is impossible to extrapolate what might have been, then it is not allowed into that virtual realm of reborn codices we like to call Babel. So, a stray strip of music, or a single scrap of a copy of the Digest stands beyond that city’s gates. Of course, in those instances, our hope is that more work and more discoveries will allow us to link up that lone fragment with others – and then the doors will be opened to them.
All the same, there are some interesting finds in the fragments now there to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which provided virgin parchment. There is also a useful reminder that, while the process of dismantling manuscripts is, in English history, particularly associated with the disruption of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reformers by no means invented the practice. The fragments involved in that case are a personal favourite at the moment because several come from one medical manuscript for which we have been able to identify precisely from what text they come: it is painstaking and, indeed, thankless work which, in this instance, involved learning more about the varieties of urine than any layperson could ever really want to know.
As the project develops, what is also coming into sharper focus is the range of questions we should be (funding permitting) asking at the next stage. We can detect a variety of practices that took place in different binderies – what were the reasons for those differences and how did they develop from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century? We also know that a broad sweep of medieval texts were ripe for cutting up, but did the variety of manuscripts and the balance between them shift over the sixteenth century? What, fundamentally, was the logic of the destruction of manuscript culture in the early modern period? These are big issues which will need ‘big data’ to begin to answer them – but they are ones that are surely worth asking.
It’s that time of year when grading is on an academic’s mind. With first-year assignments still fresh in my head, I recently found myself frustrated by Sir Hans Sloane’s “Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane” (Philosophical Transactions, volume 38, 1733-4).
Letters by Sir Hans rarely feature on this blog—and that’s for a good reason: there aren’t very many by him in his correspondence collection. But he did, occasionally, send in reports to the Royal Society… some of which were better than others. I love reading the early eighteenth-century Philosophical Transactions; many of the authors knew how to tell a cracking story, with a clear narrative arc of event, evidence and interpretation.
Not so much this offering from Sloane.
Sloane’s account began in 1729 when “a Person came to consult me on an Accident, that befell four of his Children, aged from four Years and a half, to thirteen Years and a half”. The children decided to have a foraged snack from the fields by St. Pancras Church, thinking that the seeds they’d found were tasty filberts. But foraging can be a risky business and the children took ill. Their symptoms included great thirst, dizziness, blurred vision, delirium and sleepiness. For Sloane, the symptoms suggested henbane poisoning; Sloane’s initial diagnosis was reinforced after examining the seeds that the father had brought in to show him. Sloane prescribed bleeding, blistering at multiple points, and purging at both ends: “And by this Method they perfectly recovered.”
This could have made for a solid medical case study: who better to bring together clinical observation with botanical detective work? But for Sloane, the real story was the seeds rather than his diagnostic prowess. I withheld judgement. At this point, I was curious to see where Sloane, the narrator, would take his readers.
Sloane went on to describe how the symptoms of delirium can offered important clues. Henbane delirium was very different from regular fevered delirium, but had much in common to the delirium caused by datura (“a species of stramonium”) and bang of East-India (“a sort of hemp”–indeed). Unfortunately for the reader, he did not describe any of these forms of delirium.
He then noted that the delirium from all three herbs was different from that “caused by the rubbing with a certain Ointment made use of by Witches (according to Lacuna, in his Version and Comments upon Dioscorides)”. The witches’ ointment instead would “throw the Persons into deep Sleep, and make them dream so strongly of being carried in the Air to distant Places, and there meeting with others of their diabolical Fraternity; that when they awake they actually believe, and have confess’d, that they have performed such extravagent Actions.”
I see. From faux-filberts to witches’ ointment in four easy steps…
Henbane wasn’t all bad, though. Sloane recounted, for example, that several years before, a “Person of Quality tormented with this racking Pain [of tooth-ache]” was treated by an empiric who used henbane. The sufferer was desperate—“his Anguish obliging him to submit to any Method of procuring Ease”—and he allowed the empiric to funnel smoke into the tooth’s hollow before (allegedly) removing tooth-worms. If this case sounds familiar to regular readers, it should be. Sloane procured one of the maggots from the sufferer, then sent it to Leeuwenhoek who examined it in detail and found it to be an ordinary cheese worm rather than a so-called tooth-worm.
Although Sloane knew that the wormy tale was fake, he pointed out that “upon the whole”, the henbane would have offered pain relief. And in any case, presumably, a good tale about tooth-worms bears repeating. Sloane also took the chance in his conclusion to make a dig at empirics who, through “slight of Hand” acquired a reputation for their remedies’ success, “which from the Prescription of an honest Physician would be taken little Notice of.”
So ends the account
There is much of interest in this paper: your medical cases on henbane and tooth-worms are intriguing and your ability to identify both seeds and poisoning is impressive. I also appreciate the historical perspective that you bring to this study with your discussion of witch ointments.
However, there are a few ways in which this essay could be strengthened. The essay lacks analysis as you move quickly between subjects–a recent case, types of delirium caused by different seeds, and an old case. These are all fascinating issues in their own right, but you lapse into storytelling with each instance without ever going into detail about their significance. For example, in the middle section, you aim to connect different seeds to different types of delirium, but you never provide any discussion about the specifics (apart from the witches’ delirium): how did the childrens’ delirium present? What does delirium caused by bhang or datura look like? In what ways are each of these similar or different? This would help the reader to understand your thought process in diagnosing the patients and in identifying poisons.
It is also worth more carefully considering the title you’ve chosen: “An Account of Symptoms arising from eating the Seeds of Henbane”. A good title should reflect the content of the essay. However, only the first section of your paper considers symptoms actually caused by eating henbane seeds. The second section is potentially related, but needed to be more closely linked to make the connection clear; this would have been done to good effect by comparing the specifics of each drug and their symptoms to the case of henbane poisoning you introduced. The third section is only tangentially related—although you discuss a medical case and henbane is involved, you consider henbane’s therapeutic qualities rather than symptoms arising from its use. You could usefully have omitted the case in its current state, particularly since the section focuses on making value judgements about empirics and examining tooth-worms. That said, if you really do think it necessary to keep the section, you needed to consider henbane’s effects in more detail. Even more crucially, you might consider changing the title: “An Account of the Effects of Henbane” would have neatly pulled the three strands together in a more coherent fashion.
This essay has the potential to be a wonderful example of your diagnostic and botanical mastery, especially if you took more time to consider the narrative arc. Rather than scattering your energies by telling several stories (henbane, witches or tooth-worms), focus instead on one strand. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn by showing off what you know and how you know it, instead of just sharing a collection of interesting tidbits.
So what grade should we give it…?