Category Archives: Seventeenth-Century Tidbits

Surgical Implements

A couple of weeks ago I posted in answer to a question on Quora about whether there was such a thing as necessary suffering. I began by saying that in an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. I then went on, in my wonted fashion, to discuss the issue in a rather abstract and philosophical way. This brings home the point rather more directly:


These surgical instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are (left) lithotomy dilator; dental forceps; trepan; dental forceps;
(right) double-bladed bistoury; forceps for extracting arrow head; bullet extractor;
(below) surgical saw.


Disturbingly erotic…or not?

I posted this a few months ago, but I’m having some trouble with spambots on a few of my posts, so I’m republishing with a slightly different permalink to see if that resolves the problem. Apologies to those who’ve already seen it!
An art historian is claiming that Dürer’s work is deeply erotic, in a highly explicit but subliminal way. The trouble is, she gives the answer away, and once you know the answer it’s impossible to unknow it! As a result, I can no longer look at the picture with objective eyes. So I’m asking you. Take a good look, spend several minutes and – here’s a hint – focus on other stuff going on in the picture, not on the woman breastfeeding the baby. It might also help if you half-close your eyes, forget that it’s representational art and think of it as something a bit like a Rorschach test. Think dirty!

Then take take a look at what Dr Garner says. Click on comments to see a summary of reactions so far…

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #9: Armadillos in Unlikely Places

Edward Topsell,  The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607), says ‘0f the Tatvs, or Gvinean Beast’ that ‘The Merchants as I haue herd and Cittizens of London keepe of these with their garden wormes’, and in the following entry, ‘Of the Aiochtoctch’, ‘There are of these as I haue heard to be seen in Gardens of London, which are kept to destroy the Garden wormes’  (p. 706).

The illustration accompanying his ‘tatus’ is borrowed, he says, from Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (p. 705), and is fairly recognizably an armadillo:

tatusEnquiring minds might be wondering why they didn’t want worms in their gardens. This would presumably be because they hadn’t had the benefit of Darwin’s observations about the value and crucial significance of worms in the history of world (The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Worms, 1881).

They might also be asking, if the tatus is an armadillo, what is the aiochtoctch (or aiotochth, as Topsell also spells it)?

It looks as if Topsell may have got his wires crossed and described the same beastie twice. George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
(1707-1788), tells us in his Histoire Naturelle that ‘le tatou’, or armadillo, is known as ‘Aiotochli au Mexique, tatu ou tatupeba au Bresil, chirquinchum à la Nouvelle Espagne’ (1799 edition, volume 3, p. 188). He would also appear to have miscatalogued it, since he includes it in the sections which treats ‘Of Animals Common to Both Continents’ (i.e., the Old World and the New).

I can’t find any other accounts of armadillos in early modern England, but it’s a fascinating thought. Not having access to a proper research library right now, I don’t have access to
Egmond, F. and P. Mason (1994), ‘Armadillo in Unlikely Places. Some Unpublished Sixteenth-Century Sources for New World Rezeptionsgeschichte in Northern Europe’, Ibero-Amerikanischens Archive 20: 3-52, but it’s a wonderful title, and sounds like just the thing for the whacky enquirer who wants to find out more!

Maybe armadillos turned up in all sorts of odd spots in those days. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, or even given them much thought until a tweet by Conversion Narratives caused me to drop whatever pointless task I was engaged in and turn my attention to this pivotal issue:

Question: Topsell says armadillos and duck-billed platypi both kept to eat worms in C16th/17th London gardens. Any (other) evidence of this? ConversionNarratives (@conversiontales) November 8, 2013


Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #8: November 5th at Blackfriars, 1623

There’s some interesting detail on  Victoria Buckley’s blog about the calamitous events of November 5th, 1623, when nearly a hundred Catholics were killed after the floor gave way in a garret where between two and three hundred had assembled to hear a sermon:

Crowds quickly assembled, many to assist in the rescue of survivors, others merely to taunt the unfortunate Catholic victims…

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #4: More about bras

Just when you think you know something someone comes along and turns it all upside down! There I was – along with pretty much everyone else who’d bothered to give the matter a second thought – all cocooned in my certainty that the early modern breast was corseted, and someone goes and digs up a 600-year-old bra that turns all our certitudes on their head!

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #1: Ladies Spat in the Theatre!

On the 25th of January, 1661, Samuel Pepys ‘went to the Theatre, where I saw again “The Lost Lady,” which do now please me better than before; and here I sitting in a dark place, a lady spit backward upon me by a mistake, not seeing me, but after seeing her to be a pretty lady, I was not troubled at all’ (The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Hayes Barton Press, 1950, p. 268). An excellent online edition of Pepys’s diary is being compiled and annotated here.