Saturday, 19 January 2013

Medieval Glasses and Viking Reading Crystals

As a leatherworker, I get extremely interested when I hear the phase "leather framed glasses".  I never knew such a thing existed until a few days ago, when I saw a link to an article discussing a rare book containing an even rarer imprint of glasses.  Yes, someone, several hundred years ago, shut their glasses in the back of a book they'd been reading:

 Impression of glasses left in the endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata (1568-69).  This copy uses a page from an older manuscript.  It was pretty common for printed books of this time period to reuse old manuscripts for endpapers or as spine liners.  Photo by Pete Smith.  Original article:

The speculation is that these were leather framed glasses, an invention that was certainly in use in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It certainly makes you wonder how long those glasses remained in there before someone removed them though.  I also wonder how unobservant someone would have to be to lose their glasses in such a way...

Still, glasses are definitely up there in the most important inventions of the last 2000 years.  They were likely invented in Italy between 1268-1289, based on contemporary sources such as paintings and even sermons.  Although none of these early spectacles have survived (the earliest pair we have being from around 1400), we know that The Guild of Crystal Workers in Venice adopted the term "roida da ogli" in 1300 to refer specifically to lenses for glasses.

Before glasses were developed, however, monks had been using reading stones.  These were basically medieval magnifying glasses:

Between 1000 and 1250, presbyopic monks used reading stones, often made of beryllium or quartz, to read and work on manuscripts.  It would take another two centuries before someone thought to stick smaller versions of them into frames that sat in front of the eyes.

It was thought that these reading stones were mostly the property of monks, however, a set of crystal lenses made from quartz showed up in Viking graves in Visby, Gotland (Sweden).  Now, in fairness, Vikings were known for their love of pillaging monasteries.  They also had trade links though, which we often forget about.  Archaeologists believe that the lenses came from Byzantium or the Middle East, although unfinished lenses and rock crystal beads were found in 1999 in Frojel, meaning that someone could have been making them on Gotland.  The nifty thing about these lenses is that these people didn't have the mathematical knowledge to create them, still believing that light emanated from the eyes, rather than entering them.  They must have created these things through trial and error alone -- and it's believed that the know-how to do so was restricted to only a handful of craftsmen, if not only one at this time.

A range of the lenses found at Visby, although sadly, the largest and most impressive one has been lost since the 1950s.  Some of these were mounted and hung from pendants.  The others may have been waiting for mounting or were left deliberately unmounted.  Likely used for magnification, however, they could also have been used for starting fires or just as decoration.

Work undertaken at Aalen University of Applied Sciences concluded that although the mounted lenses were most likely used only as jewelry, the larger, unmounted lenses are shaped just like a modern projector lens.  The shaping was also deliberate, not accidental, so it's very difficult for the scholars to believe that these items weren't intended  to work as visual aids.  Certainly not during a time when such items did not commonly exist.

Refractive bling:  An aspheric lens mounted in silver, found in the graves in Visby, Gotland.  The lenses are suspected to be older than their mountings.  On the decorative pendants, like this one, the back of the mount is not open, but polished silver.  This smaller lens is purely decorative.

Either way, there's no disputing that if I were a Viking with a sight problem living on Gotland, I'd want one of these bad boys to help me see to do my crafts.  Also, it must be said that the smaller mounted lenses are really very pretty.  I'm a sucker for Viking bling, what can I say?

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Friday, 11 January 2013

Forbidden Books: Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece

If a book is considered too racy and controversial to be socially acceptable, demand for it will be high.  Of course, there will always be people who tut and sigh, even if the book is designed to be a medical and biological guide intended to inform rather than entertain.  This is the case with Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece, which was first printed in 1680 and became a "banned" book in Great Britain until the 1960s.  In the 18th century, however, more copies of this book sold than for any other medical manual on the market.

Interestingly, the book wasn't written by Aristotle and nor did it draw upon his works; it's thought that the name was used to sell more books through the credence of the name.  It also, strictly speaking, wasn't officially and legally banned, according to Lyon & Turnbull, contradicting earlier news stories about this book.  Sure, it was a work of high taboo and no one wanted to put their printing house on the copies, possibly for fear of persecution or even loss of earnings through association.  Granted, it wasn't a polite book that people admitted to owning or wanted to be caught with.  And yes, no one really wanted to be caught selling it either, but with that many sales, well, you can well imagine the conversation:

"Excuse me, but do you happen to have a copy of, ahem, that book, you know the one, about... women's bits... for sale, perhaps under the counter somewhere...?  I'm a mid-wife/doctor.  I'm only asking for necessity, you understand.  For my job."  "Of course you are..."

Forbidden Book for Auction:  Aristotle's Master-Piece Improved.  "Printed and Sold by the Booksellers" because no one wanted to accept responsibility for printing a medical and sexual manual in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Chapters split into Marriages, Monsters, Conception and Directions for Midwives.

The book actually calls on the earlier works of Nicholas Culpepper and Albertus Magnus, with a very liberal helping of old wives tale.  For example, did you know the best way for a midwife to help a woman with the afterbirth was for her to burn marigolds and generally waft the smoke into the mother's birth canal?  Yeah, there's a reason why you didn't know that.  Not really all that helpful after all, but in 1766, when the book above was published, this was stellar advice.  I have never been so glad for modern medicine.

The book also advises on conception, advising that women and men both should enjoy the act of sex in order to conceive.  This advice being given in the 18th century seems odd to us looking back on it from the modern day, but remember that we're looking back on history as filtered through the straight-laced Victorian era, which is ironic, given Victoria's own exploits.  The book also shows a picture of a baby in the womb, in context of the female body, which would have been quite helpful to midwives -- in theory at least:

Banned imagery -- "The Figure Explain'd:  Being a dissection of the womb with the usual manner how the child lies therein, near the time of its birth."  Being the most explicit picture in this book, it was likely the reason it was banned.

One of the odder chapters is about "monsters and monstrous births and the several reasons thereof".  Of course, it wouldn't be a good medical manual without illustrations of the "monsters" (a word that by today's standards is possibly the only thing still shocking in this book):

Illustrations from the 1766 edition of the banned book Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece Improved of "monsters" -- the only idea presented in this book that is still shocking outside of some of the dodgy medical advice.  It attempts to provide case studies and give advice on how to avoid birth defects.

Much of the advice revolves around the archaic idea of a child that is conceived through sin will suffer such defects as being covered in hair, being conjoined, missing limbs or even having a mouth in the chest or stomach.  "Sin" is often referred to as being extra-marital affairs or the child being conceived outside of wedlock. 

The book is certainly a strange one and I have to admit that I wouldn't mind spending an afternoon reading it.  However, in order to do that, I'd need to participate in the auction on 16th of January, and have approximately £300 ($500ish) to hand.  I may need £300...

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Thursday, 10 January 2013

Gruesome: Blood of Decapitated King Found in Gourd

People like trophies of their victories; of course, that depends on the context of the victory.  When the victory is the execution of a king, trophies of blood appear to be the order of the day -- at least, in 1793 in revolutionary France (or if your name happens to be Tamyris).

It's always been rumoured that the people present at the execution of Louis XVI dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood that spilled from the neck of the dead king.  Now, thanks to DNA analysis, that claim has been proven in a report published last month in the journal Forensic Science International.

One of these handkerchiefs was stored in a dried gourd, made for the purpose.  Over time, the handkerchief deteriorated, however, the blood remained dried on the inside of the gourd:

 Gourd containing the dried blood of the executed King Louis XVI of France.  The inscription reads "On January 21, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation."  Via Livescience.

The gourd has been held by a wealthy Italian family for a number of years and until now, there has been no real way of proving the inscription.  This is mostly because the French royal family had a bit of a hard time of it (to say the least) during the French Revolution, even the dead ones.  The royal family was so hated that revolutionaries actually went to the cemetery at Saint-Denis, took the long-dead bodies of the royals from their tombs, mutilated the corpses and tossed the remains into pits.  In 2010, however, a head from one of these mutilated corpses surfaced and was made available to the scientific community for DNA testing.  It was said to be the head of this man, Good King Henry:

 Before death and desecration:  Henry IV of France -- Good King Henry rose to the throne in 1589 when his cousin, Henry III of France, was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic monk.

Good King Henry was actually considered to be a pretty awesome ruler, as rulers go, trying to improve the lives of all his subjects and quoted as saying things like "If God keeps me, I will make sure that there is no sharecropper in my kingdom who does not have the means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday!"  However, given the anger of the revolutionaries, and the fact that his reign ended in 1610 -- and that the revolution took place in the 1790s...  It's hardly surprising, really, that they revolutionaries desecrated the graves, even if it is really very grim.  And it is really very grim.  Check it out:

 After death and desecration:  The head of King Henry IV of France, found in the garage of a French pensioner in 2010.  You can actually see where his ear was pierced too.  Born in 1553, died 1610 when he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic.  Who knew that death to religious fanatics could be hereditary across cousins?

The first genetic tests on the head were inconclusive, however, they later retested with materials taken from inside the head that had suffered less deterioration.  From this material they were able to actually perform a DNA analysis which could then be compared to the blood from the gourd.  They compared the Y chromosomes and were able to determine that yes, these two individuals were very much more than likely related -- 250 times more likely to be related than not.  Additionally, both samples showed characteristics exhibited by people in the Bourbon region of France, where they were from.

Now the blood has been confirmed, scientists intend to map the genome of King Louis XVI of France, which could be one of the first historical genomes to be mapped. 

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Saturday, 5 January 2013

Victoria's (and Albert's) Secret

I like QI.  It's a TV show that I can relate to, given that I seem to collect random bits of knowledge like an old lady collects random bits of string.  Apparently, I now use it to give me ideas when I'm stuck with writer's block like I was two weeks ago.

When we picture Queen Victoria, we picture the very straight-laced "Widow of Windsor"; a woman lost in perpetual mourning and the mother of the British Empire:

Queen Victoria, 1887, around 68 years old.  Although she never said "we are not amused", you can see why people thought that she did!

Of course, she wasn't born old.  It's easy to forget given that the pictures we see of her are largely like the ones above.  In her earlier years, she was absolutely besotted with her husband, Albert, although she had to ask him to marry her because of her royal position.  He became The Prince Consort in 1840 and the marriage lasted 21 years, until his death from typhoid fever in 1861.  It was his death that plunged her into the dark widow that we recognise today.  But before that, she was much different:

Vic & Al, 1846.  Painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.  Pictured here with five of her children.  As a side note, she was one of the first women to use anesthetic during childbirth, against the advice and will of the clergy, who believed that women should suffer the pain of Eve in order to bring a healthy child into the world.  She helped to break that belief.

Thing is, despite having nine children in total, Victoria hated being pregnant.  She thought babies were ugly and she really didn't like the idea of breast feeding at all.  She did, however, really like sex with her properly wedded husband.  In fact, after her last child was born she was told by her doctor, James Reid, that any more pregnancies would be dangerous to her health.  Her reply?  “Oh, Sir James!  Am I not to have any more fun in bed?”  She was far from the picture of Victorian repression that we picture today, by all accounts.  And fair play to her.

She was apparently very flirtatious as a wife, and as such, on Albert's 24th birthday, she surprised her husband with a portrait known for years after as "The Secret Picture".  Albert kept it in his private chambers and it was said to be his favourite picture of her.  At the time, it was seen as being a bit risqué, so he had every reason to keep it out of sight and very much to himself:

Queen Victoria's Secret:  The portrait deemed "too overtly sexual" to be shown to the public until 1977.  Of course, posing for such a picture would also have been seen as been scandalous by some.  That's 1843 for you!  Still, it's a beautiful picture and you can see why Albert liked it -- and why the royal family wished to keep it secret in order to keep Victoria's "proper" image intact.

The picture went on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009 as part of an exhibition called Victoria & Albert:  Art & Love, which focused on the years between Victoria's accession to the throne and Albert's death.  I have no idea what Victoria or Albert would think about it going on display, but it humanises her, her husband and her relationship; it allows us to relate to a couple in love, rather than the sadness that followed.  I'd like to think that they wouldn't mind it being shared 170 years later.

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