What cannot be repaired

November 30, 2010

There are some parallels between seventeenth-century herbariums, plant taxonomies and botanic gardens, and the institutional seed banks which have recently been commissioned by several governments in Europe. In the last few years, organised compendiums of vegetable life have been developed with renewed urgency, as scientists become aware of the hastening rates at which species are declining. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew aims to stockpile 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the doomsday vault, protects specimens in an underground cavern which is secured against environmental disaster.

The programme of early modern natural philosophers, however, tended to focus on collection and classification, while the twentieth century has seen a shift towards conservation. The Pavlovsk Seed Bank, a 1,200 acre fruit and crop garden outside St Petersburg, has recently been in the news because its nurseries are being optioned as a building site by the Russian government. If planned works go ahead, developers will evict thousands of varieties of strawberries, hundreds of blackcurrants, raspberries, and gooseberries, and many other species.  In an argument that the Guardian has called Kafkaesque, the developers argue that because the collection is priceless, no price can be paid for it

The site of John Evelyn’s famous garden in Deptford is also currently subject to contested building projects – read this blog for more on the development. Plans of the garden, drawn in the 1650s, can be used by campaigners as detailed maps of the area at the time, showing of what it was supposed to look like as it matured (there are better, copyrighted pictures available here and here). The key to one plan mentions stables, beehives and yards, rows of ash and elm, fountains, orchards and barns, amongst much else. But a plan can only go so far in describing the way the land took shape. Neat little avenues of trees and geometric hedges only partly fill the area delineated by the boundary walls, and rows of beds are drawn in, but vacant.

When Peter the Great, travelling incognito on his Great Embassy, stayed in Evelyn’s house in 1698, a servant at the residence wrote disapprovingly that the house was ‘full of people right nasty’. Of the many anecdotes which circulated during Peter’s stay, perhaps one of the most enduring is the story of the Tsar in a wheelbarrow holding races with his ambassadors through Evelyn’s home.

It was only after Peter left that the extent of his Embassy’s desecration became clear. William III sent Christopher Wren to itemise losses from the house, and another inventory was made of damage to Evelyn’s famous garden:

During the time the Zar of Muscovie inhabited the said house, severall disorders have been committed in the gardens and plantations, which are observed to be under two heads: one is what can be repaired again, and the other what cannot be repaired.

1.      All the grasse worke is out of order, and broke into holes by their leaping and shewing tricks upon it

2.      The bowling green is in the same condition

All that ground which used to be cultivated for eatable plants is all overgroune with weeds and is not manured nor cultivated, by reason the Zar would not suffer any men to worke when the season offered

4 The wall fruite and stander fruite trees are unpruined and unnailed.

5 The hedges nor wilderness are not cutt as they ought to be.

6 The gravel walks are all broke into holes and out of order.

We can see how Evelyn’s garden diversified, combining features of the botanical garden for plants that could be taken, or eaten by humans, with aspects of parkland, country-house gardens; kitchen-gardens and farmland, and a fashionable (then as now) ‘wilderness’. There is even a house in the grounds belonging to a poor man, appropriately named Russell  – the guards billeted there have ‘almost intirely’ ruined it.

The inventory also gives some details of cultivation work that was necessary to various parts of the garden: manuring, cutting, pruning, nailing (presumably of espaliers), in addition to implied maintenance of lawns, bowling greens and walkways.

The paper was drawn up by George London, the King’s Master Gardener, and the £55 cost of reparation work ‘to put the gardens and plantations in as good repair as they were before his Zarrish Majestie resided there’, is ‘certified’ and ‘Justified’ by his signature. The sum was duly paid out of the royal coffers. Evelyn had some revenge in the 1706 edition of his Sylva:

Is there under the heavens a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind than an impregnable hedge of about 400 feet in length, nine feet high, and five in diameter, which I can still show in my ruined garden at Sayes Court (thanks to the Tzar of Muscovy) at any time of year, glittering with its armed and variegated leaves, the taller standards at ordinary distance, blushing with their natural coral? It mocks the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts or hedge-breakers, et illum nemo impune lacessit

Other than the boggling dimensions of the hedge, it is striking to see that he defines the species by personal memoir, and more broadly, by its relative resilience to human impact.

Beneath George London’s £55 estimate comes the second ‘head’: that which cannot be repaired:

Great damages are done to the trees and plants, which cannot be repaired, as the breaking of branches of the wall fruit trees, spoiling two or three of the finest true phillereas, breaking severall holleys and other fine plants.

The inventory of Evelyn’s losses gives us an idea of many of the things that were in his grounds at that time, their purposes, and the maintenance they required. It seems unlikely that we would have a picture so precise and so particular of Evelyn’s garden at that moment in 1698, if Peter and his company had not destroyed it.

  • A transcript of the inventory, ‘Peter the Great at Sayes Court, Deptford’, was published in Notes and Queries, 19 (1856)
  • Evelyn’s servant and Sylva quoted in Simon Dixon, ed., Britain and Russia in the Age of Peter the Great – Historical Documents, London: School of Slavonic & East European Studies,1998

Mines Royal

October 31, 2010

In 1688 a law was passed that terminated a period of royal ownership of copper, tin, iron or lead mines, leaving only gold and silver mining under the royal prerogative. This meant they passed from being in the ownership of the Company of Mines Royal, which Deborah E. Harkness describes as one of two Elizabethan ‘metallurgical collectives’, the other being the Company of Mineral and Battery Works.*

A century earlier, in 1567, these laws had tightened in response to the test case of Elizabeth I vs. Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland. It was a battle over royal copper-mining rights on privately owned land. The case occurred three years after the institution of the Company of Mines Royal and there is a very good article by Eric Ash in History of Science** which explains that Elizabeth managed to win the trial because she harnessed the knowledge of all of the domestic and foreign (mainly German) mining experts who had been drafted in to work for the company since its then recent inception.

The details of the case, as outlined Ash, are fascinating. Northumberland responded to the royal right to mine on his property, without affording him any compensation or profit, as an impeachment of his birthright and inheritance. The negotiations, which were after all about the removal of a certain asset that Northumberland considered his, broke down when it transpired that he did possess the tools to value the ore, the queen having harnessed them all (in the form of her mining experts). Eventually she defeated him by employing her technicians to her advantage, referring to knowledge from the continent that asserted that copper was always mingled with silver and/or gold, both of which were undoubtedly the crown’s. Measurement and property go hand in hand: if you want to own something legally you need to be able to assess it, or acquire the tools of assessment.

*Harkness, The Jewel House, p.170.
** E. H. Ash, ‘Queen v. Northumberland, and the Control of Technical Expertise’ in History of Science 39 (2001), pp.214-240.

Steel-soled shoes

October 18, 2010

In March 1685 the librarian Henri Justel wrote from Paris to the Royal Society in London, with a description of a new ‘Engine that consumes smoak & prevents all sorts of the most foetid things cast into the fire’. Enclosed within the letter was an advertisement describing the machine, below which was printed a second advertisement, for ‘Semelles d’Acier’ – steel soles for the shoes.

Leur usage este d’empechere de sentir la dureté du pavé, de l’Estrie & des pointes des Pierres, & de tenir le pied en estat si foiblesque le soient les Soulier

Justel’s report was read aloud at the next Royal Society meeting on 10 March, 1685/6, and duly recorded in the Society journal book, which mentions

steel soles for shoes wch are made very light and yet preserve the feet from the inequality of the Pavemt and sharpness of the stones.

The shift, in the Society’s translation, from the ‘dureté’, or hardness, of the pavement, to its ‘inequalities’, could imply that pedestrians experienced different problems with the climate, terrain or architecture in different urban surroundings: problems which were common to the inhabitants of each place. In this case, the advert might show an interest on the part of virtuosic communities in London and Paris – the ‘scavans et curieux’, mentioned in the blurb – not only to make methodological leaps and theoretical distinctions, but also to develop (and profit from) practical innovations along the lines of everyday life – like the story, probably apocryphal, that Newton invented the cat-flap.

But the bill does not appeal to a sense of shared experience – the environment is particularised rather than shared, and the Society’s translation of the advertisement literally offers a way for those with sufficient means to make the ground more equal for themselves than for others.

And the predicament, which is located where the body makes contact with the solid world, is described in different forms elsewhere in seventeenth-century texts, such as in the following account from Robert Boyle’s History of the Air (1692). Boyle’s informant is ‘an Ingenious Gentleman’, who, experiencing inhospitable terrain, suggests a cheaper but more exhausting solution:

in the Island of St Louis, or near it, at a certain Season of the Year, when hot winds blew from the Continent, the Sand on the Shores would be so scorching hot, that he was not able to stand upon it, but it would, through the Soles of his Shoes, scorch his Feet, unless he walked very fast.

tresor trové

August 11, 2010

The notion of the treasure trove, which may strike the 21st-century reader as that of an item or items to be found, originally (as the Anglo French shows) actually referred to the found state of the treasure – the conditions which led to its discovery and inevitable appropriation. Derived from Roman law, the principle of treasure trove was written into English common law until it was replaced by the Treasure Act of 1996. Under this new act the British Museum processes treasure from England and Wales. Scotland still has an older form of treasure trove law, and the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer deals with all finds which instantly become the property of the crown, which is more like the system in the seventeenth century, and a perusal of any law book from that time will show you that treasure trove, along with certain royal animals and so forth belong to the monarch.

These laws are now mainly concerned with the transfer of valuable finds to museums and the arrangement of payment to finders, but it is also interesting because it highlights a concept alive in the seventeenth century, at a time when property law was undergoing development and the human race considerably expanded its dominion over the land. The treasure trove law indicates a moment when property wears out, when property ceases to inhere in an object – when an object becomes free to be taken by a new owner, or, if it remains hidden, rest ownerless. Objects in this state are governed by the legal concept of bona vacantia, and this really kicks in when no owner can be traced. It strikes one as rather obvious, but there is a whole section of the Treasury devoted to this.

There must be a certain moment when goods become officially ownerless. Perhaps when the last person with knowledge of the original ownership dies, or a last deed is destroyed.

The title of An euerlasting prognostication of the change of weather collected and compiled for the common vse and profit of all countrey men. By Kinki Abenezrah, a wandring Iew (1625) makes me nostalgic. Despite its advertised eternal relevance, when I read the euerlasting prognostication I was struck by how passé the knowledge in it seemed. Not because of the fact that we supposedly live in a time of fast and man-caused changes in the weather, but because of the way the book expects people to be in tune with rainbows, sea, animals and wind on a daily basis. Anyway, here are some useful prognostications for you to experiment with these changeable summer days:

Predictions of hote weather.

IF a mist or hoare frost do fall either in the spring time, or autumne, it is a token that that day shall be hot.

If night Battes come in great numbers, and more timely in the eueuing then they were wont, it is a signe of great heat to follow.

If Humble-Bées or Drones flye abroad in an euening, it is a signe of great heat.

The rising of any white smoake, steame or rike vpon the waters, meddowes, or marshes, before the rising or setting of the Suune, or in the night time, it is an euident signe of very hote weather.

Predictions of raine.

SMall store of water in winter doth signifie a moist and wet spring to follow.

The appearing of the Rainebow in any cleare and faire weather, is a token of raine presently to follow.

The gréener the Rainebow is, the greater store of raine it doth signifie.

If in the euening it lighten onely in the North, it is a token of ensuing raine.

Lightning in a Summers euening, is a token of raine to follow within thrée daies after.

If Oxen féede apace when it raines, it is a token that the raine shall continne many daies after.

The skie or element being red or fiery in a morning, foresheweth raine to follow.

If Crowes or Rauens flie together in great number, and that they croake and flutter their winges, it will raine shortly after.

If Cats doe licke their foreféet, and with them wash their head, it is a signe of raine.

Dusky and blacke cloudes in the aire signifieth raine.

The extraordinary crowing of Peacockes, is a manifest token of raine.

If the Hearne-shaw crye extraordinarily, it is a certaine token of raine.

If it thunder in the South, it will raine shortly.

Any gale of wind comming from the West, signifieth moistnesse and water.

Poetry and Ecology

June 17, 2010

This interesting review by Daisy Hildyard offers a careful critique of Diane Kelsey McColley’s book Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell (Ashgate, 2007).

When I read the book I was intrigued to find that McColley made little mention of the thought-weaving nuns and their separate community in her chapter on Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, particularly as there is so much consideration of what it could mean to constrain nature and what it means to be ‘ungirt’  in that chapter. The nuns present an example of constraining, straining and preserving that applies to both the fruits of nature, and to writing that is not erroneous.

Within the poem there is a considerable section in which a nun’s original speech to Isabel Thwaites is reported. The stanza directly before the transition to the nun’s speech goes thus:

Near to this gloomy Cloysters Gates
There dwelt the blooming Virgin Thwates,
Fair beyond Measure, and an Heir
Which might Deformity make fair.
And oft She spent the Summer Suns
Discoursing with the Suttle Nunns.
Whence in these Words one to her weav’d,
(As ’twere by Chance) Thoughts long conceiv’d.

The nun speaks about life in the nunnery as though making a spontaneous speech, whereas she actually recites thoughts that were made a long time ago. This echoes the jam-making process the nun describes as a pleasurably-pious activity undertaken by her and her sisters:

‘Nor is our Order yet so nice,
Delight to banish as a Vice.
Here Pleasure Piety doth meet;
One perfecting the other Sweet.
So through the mortal fruit we boyl
The Sugars uncorrupting Oyl:
And that which perisht while we pull,
Is thus preserved clear and full.’

The horror of the nuns’ jam-making process particularly appealed to me when I first encountered this poem, and their awareness of the transformative aspect of the jam-making process that is the key to that horror and their trickery. The nuns’ thoughts are wicked because they are like a trick-jam, presented as though fresh, yet, like preserved* fruit, long bottled. The aim is enchantment (c.f. stanza 34): to hold Isabel spellbound. Contemporary readers were supposed to recognise this as error.

In sync with Diane Kelsey McColley’s book, this could be read as a particularly ecological kind of error, as where she states on p.8 that: ‘Readers sometimes speak of “capturing” things in words [...] One way we can learn to speak without appropriation is by listening to poets’ ever-fresh particularity and responsive form. A living earth needs a living language’, etc. For different reasons to McColley’s twentieth-century ‘literature and the environment’ commentators, Marvell contemplates a similar-seeming argument. His image of jammy, unnatural speech and enchantment here has a lot in common with contemporary images of how bad-knowledge circulated in repeated old wives’ tales and unchallenged old news – images found in the armories of both anti-Catholic and pro-experiment commentators.

Reading DH’s review and the book itself makes me want to add my own item to the shopping list for further investigation in this area. My sense is that the ‘dilemma of language’ (pp.7-9 in McColley’s book) needs to be vastly extended and considered principally in light of the contemporary dilemma of language.

*         *         *

*preserved, adj. 2. a. Of organic material, esp. foodstuffs: treated so as to prevent decomposition, fermentation, or decay (OED)

Of course, making jam was not an intrinsically suspicious process at this time! The world would soon see Boyle conducting experiments to preserve fruit by removing air rather than adding sugar (Hidden Qualities of the Air, 1674).


June 10, 2010

This week I have been to the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden where there are many fine paintings, but I was mainly interested in the area where – in the seventeenth century – cloth was scrutinsed, regulated and judged by a panel who, like most other powerful panels through history, had portraits painted of themselves which are now hung about the walls. Perhaps most fascinating was the cutting table where fabric was meted out. It had measurements marked on it at 68.5cm, a measurement referred to as an El. Different places have different Els – measurement was nationally not standardised until the eighteenth century – and this measurement (or so the museum says) is supposed to represent the average human arm.

What I liked most was another information board in the museum which explained that when the Governors cleared up a dispute, they sometimes displayed the length of defrauded fabric in the hall as a moral lesson. So many half-arms, the length of lies, were a cautionary lesson to potential malefactors.

How does this relate to Airs, Waters, Places? It reminds us that then as now interior environments were furnished with lengths of fabric based on lengths of human body parts, which varied region to region.

Sea Grammar

May 26, 2010

This post is about Captain John Smith’s Sea Grammar of 1627, itself an enlargement of his 1626 An Accidence, or a Pathway to Experience, Necessary for all Young Seamen. Smith was an experienced seaman, and his Sea Grammar was mostly taken from Sir Henry Mainwaring’s ‘Nomenclature Navalis’, which was circulated in manuscript form in the 1620s to naval officers and other nautical elite.

The idea of Smith’s book is to offer a vernacular guide to terminology pertaining to the sea and naval activities. There is a section on ‘stearing, sayling, or moring a Ship in fine weather, or in a storme’ which introduces the novice to likely spoken instructions such as:

Let fall your fore-saile. Tally! That is, hale off the Sheats. Who is at the Helme there? Coile your Cables in small fakes! Hale the Cat! A Bitter, . . . belay, . . . loose fast your Anchor with your shank-painter! Stow the Boat!

And explanations of other procedures with particular vocabulary such as:

One to the top to looke out for land!
The man cries out Land to!, which is just so farre as a Kenning, or a man may discover, descrie, or see the land. And to lay a land is to saile from it just so farre as you can see it. A Good Land fall is when we fall just with our reckoning; if otherwise, a Bad Land fall. But however how it beares, set it by the compasse, and bend your Cables to the Anchors.

It also explained sequences of connected vocabulary like this:

Flood is where the water beginneth to rise, which is young flood as we call it; then quarter flood, halfe flood, full Sea, still water, or, high water; so when it Ebbes: dead low water, every one doth know; and also that as at a spring tide the Sea or water is at the highest, so at a Neape tide it is at the lowest.

There is an interesting modern edition of Smith’s book by Kermit Goell (London, 1970) containing a useful introduction. Goell reproduces images of some of the objects named in the book, such as ‘A Murderer’, which is ‘an iron breech-loading anti-personnel weapon’.

Sea Grammar also features a great chapter (XV) on nautical information-storage systems, including ‘what Bookes and Instruments are fit for a Sea-man’, and ‘the use of the petty Tally’, which is the means of allocating and recording the ship’s allowance of alcohol, food and other supplies.

Sea Grammar will be useful for anyone interested in early modern nautical matters, but it also sheds light on the development of specialist vocabularies. In 1625 Gervaise Markham had published The Soldier’s Accidence, a specialist introductory vocabulary for the military man. It can remind us that much measurement and description to do with the sea developed out of naval, military priorities, as well as fishing requirements.

The surveyor’s book

March 12, 2010

An old article by E.G.R. Taylor (Economic History Review, 17:2, 1947) draws attention to the fascinating way in which surveyors  traditionally gathered information:

A principal part of the outdoor work of the Surveyor, when he had finished his examination of the written records within doors, was to butt and bound the manor as a whole, together with its individual parcels or premises. This he carried out with the help of those tenants whose memories went back farthest, and who accompanied him on his perambulation together with some of ‘the younger sort’ who would be the witnesses of the future. Because of the very great importance attached to this operation from most ancient times, and the consequent care taken over it, such ‘bounders’ provide us with a most valuable and reliable source of information about place-names, roads and other topographical detail.

Writing of the early modern period, Taylor notes an old type of surveyor and a new type: ‘The old-fashioned Surveyor, a man of classical education possessed of sound legal knowledge, was gradually outmoded and eventually superseded by the assistant whom he had been accustomed to term a “mere land-meater”, employed to carry the measuring rod’. Taylor says that older styles of surveying involved guessing and estimating, whereas newer types involved mathematical accuracy and formal measurement. George Atwell’s Faithfull Surveyour (1658) is full of information about how surveyors should keep precise records. He explains in detail how they should keep and fill out field-books, and it is interesting to consider the types of localised information that schemes like this exclude as well as the new precision they allow:

If you intend to practise Surveying, make you a book of a quire of good strong paper, so folded, that the breadth of the leaves may be in octavo, and the length thereof may be the length of two quarters, well bound with vellum, that you may lay it on your left arm to write: and if it be your first book that you have filled, write on the cover a great (A). If the second (B). On the third (C), &c. Then page your first part of your book (A), all but some 12 leaves at the latter end, on each severall page whereof you shall write a severall letter of the Cross-row in Alphabetical order, and so your book is ready to go to work.

Testimony in surveying takes on an acutely political dimension with land disputes in the British archipelago but also the New World. It is well known that the colonisers of America used translators to talk to the natives about the land, but how their testimony was used was quite different to the way Taylor describes things functioning in the case of a country estate.

The Rijksmuseum website explains that Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Ships in Distress in a Heavy Storm (c.1690) was ‘not intended as a depiction of a historical event’. Apparently Bakhuysen used to sail out to sea during different weather conditions and observe the colours of the sea and sky. Context slips away similarly in a description on the National Gallery website, in relation to his painting An English Vessel and a Man-of-war in a Rough Sea (1680s). There it is explained that ‘A preparatory drawing [...] identifies the view as the mouth of the Thames at Deal, Kent, but the coast there differs from the drawing and is almost certainly imaginary’.

Some subjects have signs of fixed place. A View across a River near Dordrecht (?) – to carry on using the galleries’ titles – depicts a ship flying the Dutch colours against the backdrop of a town that ‘seems to be Dordrecht’. Another painting, Dutch Men-of-war entering a Mediterranean Port (1681) is described thus on the NG site:

The man-of-war on the left flies the Dutch colours and has the arms of Amsterdam on her stern. Another man-of-war in the right middle-distance carries the flag of the States-General and a plain red ensign. Other small vessels are visible and fly Dutch colours. The view is probably imaginary, but the galleys show that a Mediterranean scene is intended.

What do we mean by probably imaginary in relation to paintings? Do we mean that the painting was not created at the site of a real scene, or that those exact visual circumstances never occurred? What constitutes an ‘event’? Is an ‘historical event’ something that is supposed to appear as a set of sensory effects not saturated in an index of experience, as Bakhuysen would have had of the sea if he regularly sailed in storms?


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