Category Archives: 17th C

Hot Spiced Wine: Reading For the Winter

One of my friends from college days just posted an image on Instagram of what she’s doing now that she’s on semester break (she’s an English/writing professor now). It was a still life of romantic Christmas stories, spiced Glögg, and cute mug in front of a Christmas tree. She’s the type of person who finds joy in simple pleasures, who’s enthusiastic about life and invests herself fully in the projects she takes on — even if that project is just relaxation.

I’m not yet on vacation; as a freelancer, I’m never really on vacation because I’ll take work when I get it. Hence, I spent our summer vacation editing and when we had guests, I found myself formatting. Have computer, will travel. That being said, I’m still on a school schedule due to my after-school tutoring and, of course, my own children. Winter vacation is just around the corner for me, too! I realized I had already started my own version of winter spiced wine by the books I was obsessively downloading on my Kindle. Comfort books. Not necessarily Christmas or winter related, but still my own version of crack: history, biography, and autobiography.

Most history books I pick by subject rather than author, with the exception of Liza Picard’s books. I love her writing. She has four books out that I know of: Restoration London, Dr. Johnson’s London, Elizabeth’s London, and Victorian London. Somehow, I’d skipped Restoration London. This is one of my favorite points of history. The restoration of the British crown. The plague. The Great Fire. The explosion of developments in science and literature. Dr. Johnson’s London is the long tail of this Enlightenment period of British history; I have that book in print and have read it dozens of times. In the interest of interconnectedness, the professor I mentioned above studied the Long British Enlightenment with me in our heady college days. We were hooked by the hundred of years or so that make up this moment in history.

But why are Liza Picard’s books so engaging to me? She says it best in her foreword:

I have a practical mind. I have always been interested in how people lived. The practical details are rarely covered in social history books [she’s right about this, though it’s not 100%]…

I am not a historian. I am a lawyer. I have a liking for primary evidence — not what someone wrote long afterwards, or what someone has concluded from a selection of documents that I have not seen, but what someone said who was there at the time. This has led me down interesting detours, while I reinvented the wheel, and read as many contemporary documents as I could find.

In other words, she’s writing history the way I would if I took up that occupation: as the end result of uncountable hours worth of detours while immersed in primary documents — and all to discover those fine details of how people actually lived. And it’s not just the practical details that you get from primary documents. You get a view into the minds of history’s greatest thinkers, unfiltered by scholars who have to write the edgiest or most unique take on them in journals published by universities. Scholars have an unfortunate need to be yet more subversive than the last one was. This is no doubt the scholarly version of click-bait or sensationalist headlines, but with a lot more polysyllabic words.

Being that I have only so many primary documents at my disposal, Liza Picard is a good second-best. Of course, she’s going to put her own spin on things. As she noted herself: she’s practical. And more than that, she’s a lawyer by trade. Lawyers are trained to couch their language in a particularly convincing fashion, to make their case, in other words. I’m okay with it, despite that reading her books is like crack to me and I have no natural defenses against a divers look at infectious diseases during the last great bout of plague.

All told, she provides a wealth of information and anecdota in her books. This one is heavily filtered through the diaries of Samuel Pepys, which I haven’t read in a long time. I’m already feeling warmer and cozier, despite the freezing fog blanketing the world today, and the lack of any actual hot spiced wine, I’m sorry to say.

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On Melancholia and Media

“I hear news every day, those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions,. . . .and such like, which these tempestuous times afford. . . .New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion &c.”* –Robert Burton on melancholy

In 1621, the Vicar Robert Burton published a gem of a scholarly work titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. Although the book, in a broad sense, is supposed to be a medical text, Burton’s approach was to gather literary quotes and create a philosophical treatise that drew from varied disciplines such as psychology, astronomy, meteorology, theology, astrology, etc. I would conjecture that Burton’s gathering of the pieces became a philosophical journey in and of itself. And, in fact, Burton claimed to have written the book as a way to dispel his own melancholy.

I’m no stranger to melancholy. Angst may be a term overused by lazy poets, but it’s also an indicator of melancholic bile, as well as an apt descriptor of the place where my mind dwells. The words above, inspired by Burton’s philosophical (if not jocular) mindset in the early 17th C, give insight into, not only my small world, but our modern 21st C reality, which throws many of us into the same splenetic fits as men suffered from 400 years ago. Think about this for a moment. You’re no doubt already aware that the character of humans hasn’t changed much over the centuries–not at core–yet we view our modern technological age as vastly different from Burton’s era. Despite that, we have, on record, an early 17th C man claiming that his private life was inundated by media. If you read the entire preface to the work where the quote is culled from, you will find that this section rambles on with the full spectrum of news–wars and rumors thereof, plagues, entertainments and entertainers, etc.

The modern glorification of media, its beauty and deceits, has come to us as a legacy from the days of the Enlightenment. Certainly, journalism and news weren’t new concepts even then; however, the 17th and 18th centuries marked a rise in printing and literacy that has not stopped rising since. Well, perhaps, literacy rates have tapered off over the years, but written words have continued to increase exponentially. Most people would call this progress, and I wouldn’t disagree with them. I love information. I love researching and sifting for ideas in a vast sea of them. Sometimes, though, I wish I could shut it all out and live as a media-less melancholic hermit in my desert home.

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever have to remind yourself of how literacy and access to published works have enriched your life? I feel it, even if I want to shut out the noise at times. I’m quick to remind myself that the noise, or parts of it, will leave a record for posterity. As a female, I feel a great sense of relief having been born into these modern days, 400 years after Burton. I’m grateful that women are currently leaving their own record for the future.

Have you ever noticed that the early feminist movement seemed to mysteriously blossom at the same moment in history that literacy rates soared alongside of increased access to presses and printed works? I often hear the claim, usually from naysayers, that feminism is a destructive modern movement whose ideals are unknown to history. That’s a peculiar claim, really, because the core of femininity hasn’t changed over the years any more than the core of masculinity has changed (which I didn’t exactly prove without a shadow of a doubt earlier, but still, who is naive enough to believe otherwise?). With access to media, women have simply been given the voice to express who they are, and they’ve been doing so for the last few centuries. Sadly, their expressions of self aren’t always pretty or nice. But neither are the expressions of men.

My rambling thoughts at four a.m. have come full circle, it seems, with the acknowledgement that people aren’t always nice. Hence, media outlets aren’t always nice. Accordingly, it throws many of us into splenetic fits, if not irrational knee-jerk reactions to the way the world is going to hell all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Religious controversies. Political intrigues. Paradoxes. Women. Feminism.

*Although the quote comes from the preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy, which you can find free all over the internet, I copied this tidy version of it from James Gleick’s Isaac Newton. I preferred his focus to my own. I was tempted to copy Burton’s entire paragraph because I like the whole rambling mess of it. Apparently, Gleick wasn’t tempted that way. Well, maybe he was, but, alas, he had an editor (a person I need).

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Medicine As a Speculative Art


Today I’d like to take a detour into a subject that’s fascinated me for years: medicine. I love the nitty-gritty, the gross, the bizarre, the historical. Although most of my studies and reading are stuck in what I call the Long Eighteenth Century (mid 1600s to about 1830), I’ll read any book that appeals to my obsession with grossness. At the same time, I’ll read both fiction and nonfiction, but I prefer nonfiction.

I especially enjoy reading accounts from history, as in Frances Burney’s mastectomy letter to her sister, Esther, which details her gory surgery. The victims of these early mastectomies could do this, of course, because they were wide awake throughout the entire procedure. For heaven’s sake, Burney could feel the knife hit her breastbone! Can you imagine? The description is enough to set my teeth on edge. I’m dutifully thankful she wrote it down for posterity. A fictional tale that begins with a horrific mastectomy, much like Burney’s, is Nicola Morgan’s Flesh Market. The book is a fine piece of historical YA fiction with a medical theme, if you don’t faint during the initial surgery description, and can get past Morgan’s writing style, which is engaging, but fraught with fragmented sentences.

I’ve read so many great pieces of historical medical advice involving rabbits, some great spoofs on doctors, and journals such as Samuel Pepys’–which detail the plague year–alongside fictional accounts–Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, for example. A modern novel, not worth much in my opinion, is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. I also enjoy compendiums of information such as Theories For Everything and Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers.

But what is most fascinating to me is the way in which medical science hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Doctors steeped in today’s practices mock new ideas; alternative doctors still espouse outlandish ones. Despite anesthesiology, modern doctors seem to find new ways to torture their hapless sick subjects, and sometimes their torture works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Throughout medical history, this has always been the case. Study the above image of early mastectomy tools. The seventeenth-century writer Mary Astell suffered through a mastectomy and died two months afterward. Almost a hundred years later, Burney’s mastectomy was no more advanced in its methods, but Burney lived for almost thirty years after the event.

A while back, I stopped reading daily articles on modern medical topics, especially on alternative therapies. I stopped this practice because I felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of information. I grew tired of it, and especially tired of the arguments between alternative ideas and mainstream ones. Recently, however, a friend lent me a book called Earthing which is about the great! wonderful! cure of walking barefoot and sleeping “grounded” in order to access the negatively-charged electrons from the earth. I like the idea of it and consider it a no-brainer that walking barefoot in nature is good for health. However, the book barely scratches the research surface before devolving into personal anecdotes of how this method helped even the sickest RA or MS patients. I don’t disbelieve these anecdotes, nor do I believe them. Keeping an open, yet skeptical mind is fundamental to who I am as a person, and when it comes to human suffering, I hope for the best.

But you can guess what mainstream medicine thinks of earthing. They hate it. They mock it. By the way mainstream doctors conduct critiques, you’d think ad hominem arguments spring from the hardest, most fundamental core of science. And the way they completely ignore valid double-blind studies if they’re published in the wrong journals or espouse the wrong/not accepted conclusions is just sickening, to be honest [I’m not sure what the cure for science disgust is. Maybe more ad hominem arguments?].

What I’m left with after all this is wanting to create my own monster from the wreckage of hundreds of years of medicine–be my own Frankenstein, as it were. Why not? The very idea that electricity can give new life to sick people is so galvanistic that I’m simply galvanized to write about it. I can imagine it now: I, Dr. Jillenstein, will force a mainstream doctor to walk barefoot through the grass! She will then transform, beyond my wildest nightmares, into an earth-muffin, Sedona-dwelling acupuncturist who wears a hood to hide her bee-raper bag. She will call me God and herself Eve, and I will have to run, flee from her until I can run no more and am forced to come face to face with the horrific visage I’ve created. And will I have the nerve to drive a crystal through her merciless heart? Stay tuned for the exciting denouement.

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A Blazing New World

There’s nothing that says “culture” like Facebook. Facebook is the epitome of twenty-first century American aesthetic. It’s a place where we can manufacture ourselves by updates: honest, exaggerated, or false. We are our Facebook creations. Accept this universal truth.

I suspect my profile is something akin to the chaos theory, but with a pessimistic twist on it of predictable results. No amount of force I exert changes these expected results. I simply push more objects into motion. Because the results of the chaos are predictable, order does inhabit my chaos theory, even if the order is a simple lack of irony. The expected will occur. That is order. That is good. That is ironic.

On a serious note, an old college friend—we’ll call her Camilla—typed out a frantic list of all the things she had to do this week, which included, but was not limited to a dance performance plus rehearsals, reading through hundreds of essays, and a load  of scholarly studying on obscure historical subjects. I immediately commented, “Let’s switch schedules.”

Camilla’s update reminded me of a truth not so universal, but still harsh. My schedule wasn’t so different from hers on the outside, but was diametrically opposed on the inside. Hers was a reflection of her personal dreams and goals, while mine mirrored a loss of myself–dance performances for my daughters–essays I read as a homeschool mom. Any other studying I might engage in is done surreptitiously and applied haphazardly to my sense of well-being, as if tacked on to mask my blank wall with ornaments and images. Recently, for example, I hung an avant-garde canvas covered in topological mixing (see above) and called it “Self Confidence”.

I sneaked out today to avoid staring at my blank wall, as well as my Facebook page. I tucked my computer inside its bag and left my house to haunt the corridors of the local college library. My plan was a pretense, of course. It was a pretense to scholarly achievement where none existed, and this pretense included having to request a guest ID to enter the scholarly databases. Then, after coming up blank yet again with my search terms, I typed utter nonsense in the parameters, such as “James Boswell, you’re a dirty old goat, and you’re no longer my favorite animus.” Then the library shunted me, the fake scholar, from their system. I sat at the table and felt sorry for myself, just as Boswell might have done nearly 300 years ago. I don’t know how anyone can beg a question, or conversely how a question can beg, but the circumstances implored, “Why is a dead man part of your psyche, anyway?”

I looked up blearily from my computer screen, and I saw him—not James Boswell, but a man whose presence in the library chilled me to the deepest place of my heart. I won’t name names, but ten years ago, we occasionally allowed this man to sleep on our floor because he was homeless and had been for years. He still is.

And he, too, haunts the libraries in town. With his 160 IQ (I made that number up), he searches for truth and gathers knowledge and works it all into loony 500 page dissertations on alien spacecraft technology. Really, nobody with an IQ of less than 160 could entertain the kind of technology he writes of—it wouldn’t occur to somebody with less intelligence, better social acumen, and a few more doses of sanity antidote.

Back then, when I was still in my twenties, and he in his forties or fifties, I knew we were alike. I sensed it and, therefore, wasn’t put off by him as another young person might have been. Unfortunately, my acceptance of him gave him the wrong impression, which ended in general embarrassment for all parties. This also meant he no longer felt welcome to sleep on our floor and moved his sleeping bag back into his van. To this day, he spends his nights by the river. And by day, he haunts the corridors of the libraries, searching for more information, for that crucial understanding of life, the universe, and everything that will allow him to reenter the world of men.

I saw my sad face reflected in his trifocals today. No, he wouldn’t look back at me. He quickly lowered his head to the large volume he held in his hands. But that didn’t matter because I witnessed in him what I needed to apprehend. I saw with blazing clarity what happens to fake scholars who wait and wait for understanding before they reenter the world. I know what you’re thinking (not really). I know that exiting the real world worked for Isaac Newton. Whenever he felt threatened by life, he retreated, and through his retreats he wrote his masterwork. But most men aren’t Newton. And aside from that, Newton wasn’t a fake. Newton was the real deal, a genius of the first order.

Now it’s time for me to acknowledge this most universal of truths and reenter the world. I’m also considering a change to my Facebook profile.

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The Secret Life of Mrs. Astell

Years ago, I ordered the book The Eloquence of Mary Astell by Christine Mason Sutherland on Amazon. It arrived with its cover upside-down and backwards, the pages set together right to left, instead of left to right. Looking back from modern days into the life of a person who lived three-hundred years ago is like that; isn’t it? It’s one thing to read what historians have to say about a historical personage, another to read source documents written by the person herself (in this case, Mary Astell), or by a contemporary who actually knew her. But we still don’t really know Mrs. Astell.

I’m going to propose the preposterous. Perhaps conjecturing that Mrs. Astell secretly kept a whore house would be a little much. What if, though, she didn’t really spend all of her time working diligently, eating plain food and drinking nothing but small beer, and dressing in coarse, plain clothing? What if, behind closed doors, after she had hung her head out the window at visitors and shouted the words Ballard claims she did, “Mrs. Astell is not at home right now;” what if she passed her time in daydreams?

I know of few authors who would not admit to wasting their lives in daydreams. Why should Mrs. Astell be the exception? What if she frequently languished on a sofa with a glass of port and watched a play unfold on the parlor wall of her mind? What if it was a bawdy play, to the style of restoration comedies, before the comedy of manners came into fashion? What if she saw herself as the heroine of the play: a lively Cornelia, as in the famed Feigned Courtesans?

Mrs. Astell, I’m imagining it now: You’re walking from church in your black garb, back from London to Chelsea, through the wintry mists. You enter through your garden, and then through the front door for all the world to see. You are the pious neighbor, the one who arises early on Sunday in order to attend a church that isn’t even in your neighborhood. You hang your bonnet and cloak, light a fire to warm your bedroom, and sit at your coffin.

What is a coffin doing in your bedroom? Well, as you would say, it’s there so you’ll always be thinking of God and the afterlife. When the afterlife is in your thoughts, your thoughts remain pure. It works especially well, you explain, as a writing desk. Your words must glorify God, rather than yourself and your own vanity. Isn’t the coffin empty, though? And isn’t that a sad way to consider your life with God?

You raise the lid of the coffin and peer inside. It’s not empty, but filled with clothes: yes, dress-up clothes. How astonishing! You dress yourself in one item of clothing; it’s a tunic made of bright red cloth. It’s to remind you, so you tell yourself, of the educated women of old, exotic Romans or Greeks, those unlike the English women of your own time. You pour yourself a glass of port, dip your pen in ink and begin to write. You’ve thought about dancing on previous occasions, but you still remain Mrs. Astell and no other. Dancing is not for you. Singing, on the other hand, is an ingenuous diversion well worth your time, as you yourself say in your Proposal to the Ladies. And so you sing.

You carry your books, your port, your papers down into the kitchen, where you prepare yourself a modest meal of bread and cheese. You may live in secret extravagance, but you simply don’t have the time or the money for more voluptuous meals. You carry your food back upstairs, too absorbed in your reading of Descartes to continue in song . . .

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