Do(n’t) try this at home: Simon Witgeest’s New Theatre of Arts

To improve Memory

Take the hearts out of seven living Swallows and five Turtledoves, take dry Mint, Pennyroyal, Verbena, Eyebright, prepared Coriander, and Sage, a drachm each, a drachm and a half of flowers of Rosemary, two drachms each of Sweet flag and Cinnamon, one and a half drachm of Cloves, eight grains each of Musk and Gallia Muscata, five drachms each of Anacardium Honey and Styrax Calamita: make cookies out of this with Fennel-water. Every night when you go to bed, you should stick one of these cookies in your right nostril, and close it off with a ball of cotton until you have read thirty Verses from Vergil; when you have done this for some days, you should wet a cookie with Rose-water and stick it into your left nostril, and all you have read, you will remember for sure. Meanwhile, one should stay clear of the games of Venus, drunkenness, and other irregularities. After the meal one should chew on some Coriander and swallow one of the cookies, or dissolve one in Lavender-water, and cover the head with it while sleeping.[1]

Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest's 'New Theatre of Arts', 1659.
Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest’s ‘New Theatre of Arts’, 1659.

In my search for recipes for coloured glass for the project I am currently working on, I delve into all kinds of sources: manuscripts, chemistry books, apothecary handbooks, company archives. Yet one of the most fascinating I have seen so far is a small book that first appeared in Leiden in 1659, entitled Het nieuwe Toneel der Konsten, or new theatre of arts. It is a book containing sections on magic tricks, recipes and instructions for painting, etching, and making glass, as well as home remedies and recipes for fireworks. The glass recipes in the New Theatre were of little use to me, as they were abbreviated translations from Antonio Neri’s well-known 1612 De Arte Vitraria, but the book is fascinating nonetheless, making you want to test some of the recipes yourself.

Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:
Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:

Simon Witgeest is most likely a pseudonym – Witgeest literally means ‘white spirit’ in Dutch, and it probably served to indicate to readers that the recipes were innocent, rather than black magic. It has been argued that Witgeest was a pseudonym of Willem Goeree (1635-1711), a Dutch book trader and publisher of Dutch books on art theory and practices.[2] However, the arguments for this are limited, and given the thorough character of Goeree’s other books, it seems unlikely that he would he would have invested time or effort in the rather frivolous Theatre of Arts, even under a pen-name.

Some of the recipes, like the one quoted above to improve memory, border on the impossible and seem outright ridiculous, whereas others, such as a recipe that advises to lather winter hands with palm oil or chicken fat daily are quite common sense. Some appeal to the imagination, and one would be tempted to try them if the ingredients and the possible results were not so dangerous; take for example a recipe that advises a mixture of vinegar, egg white and quicksilver to make ones hands ‘fire proof.’ Or what to think of a recipe ‘to write in human skin, which cannot be undone:’ tattoos made with a needle and gunpowder, minium, or smalt.

The author stated in the preface that the book was meant to ‘shorten wintery nights,’ although many of the activities described would only be feasible for those with a lot of time, space and money. Following the recipes copied from Neri’s book on making glass for example would require a glass oven that can be fired up to 1200 degrees Celsius. This was probably why in the many subsequent editions that appeared in Dutch and German throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the title was changed to The improved and extended natural magic book, or the new theatre of arts, and the sections on glass, drawing and etching were ditched in favour of more magic tricks, practical jokes, riddles, and entertainment with mathematical and astronomical brainteasers, as well as small chemical and physics experiments. Although it is highly unlikely that Witgeest’s contemporaries actually tried the recipes for making coloured glass, the other recipes will certainly have shortened winter nights for many.

[1] Witgeest, Simon. Het Nieuw Toneel Der Konsten, Bestaande Uyt Sesderley Stukken : Het Eerste, Handelt van Alderley Aardige Speeltjes En Klugjes : Het Tweede, van de Verligt-Konst in ’T Verwen En Schilderen : Het Derde, van Het Etzen En Plaat-Snijden : Het Vierde, van de Glas-Konst : Het Vijfde, Heeft Eenige Aardige Remedien Tegen Alderley Ziekten : Het Zesde, Is van de Vuur-Werken. Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1659, p. 252-3.

[2] Landwehr, John, ‘Simon Witgeest’s Natuurlyk Tover-boek et alia,’ in Volkskunde, 1967, vol. I, p. 70-71.

Gout? Kidney stones? Have a cup of tea!

Here I am, one month into a visiting fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin – a wonderful institution full of scholars from all around the world working on a wide variety of topics. As you can imagine, a lot of tea and coffee is consumed here to keep everyone going. With all those different backgrounds, that leads to heated discussions about where the best coffee in the neighbourhood is sold, and what the right way is to make tea. That, combined with a remark about tea not spoiling in green glass in a text I was researching, reminded me of Cornelis Bontekoe (1647 – 1685), alias the tea doctor, who was born in Alkmaar (the Netherlands) and died here in Berlin.

Cornelis Bontekoe. Copperplate by Adriaen Haelweg.
Cornelis Bontekoe.
Copperplate by Adriaen Haelweg.

Bontekoe was born Cornelis Dekker, but took the surname Bontekoe (literally ‘spotted cow’ in Dutch) after the spotted cow on the shield of his father’s grocery shop. After obtaining his M.D. at Leiden University in 1667, he established a practice as a physician in Alkmaar. Bontekoe strongly advocated the use of fashionable products such as tea, coffee, cacao and tobacco to improve one’s health, which led to suspicions that he had a deal with the Dutch East Indian Company, the big importer of these products at the time. Deal or not, Bontekoe, who was known in intellectual circles as a passionate Cartesian and who went on to have a career as a university professor and court physician in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Berlin, would go down in history as ‘the tea doctor.’

This was mainly due to his Tractaat van het excellenste kruyd Thee, or tractate on the most excellent herbal tea, subtitle ‘which shows the right use, and the great powers of it in health, and sickness, printed in The Hague in 1678 and reprinted repeatedly. The first part of the tractate is rather curious, an anti-Aristotelian rant that criticizes the wide-spread beliefs that drinking water is bad for you, beer, wine, and butter milk preferable, and the apparent dominant ideal of beauty:

People hate and despise the small and delicate, the skinny and emaciated Bodies, which resemble a ghost or a skeleton rather than a man. People want to be fat, big, and coarse, stout and well-build, full of power and vigor; one should be able to hold down one’s liquor, that is health!

Title page to Cornelis Bontekoe's Tractate on Tea
Title page to Cornelis Bontekoe’s Tractate on Tea

In over 300 pages, Bontekoe refutes common misunderstandings about tea, such as that it would dry out the body, weaken the stomach, stimulate the production of bile, cause shaky limbs, epilepsy, and even infertility. He argues that although drinking cold water is unhealthy, boiled water with the added benefit of the ‘herb of tea’ has a beneficent effect on the mouth, digestive system, blood, and mind, hydrating the body without intoxicating it, stimulating digestion and reducing flatulence.

Tea according to Bontekoe stimulates the mind, improves ones mood, prevents kidney and bladder stones, can help cure gout and he common cold, and warms the blood, but mixed with milk and sugar tempers excessive heat in the body. My favourite argument however is that of the huge size and population of countries like China and Japan, where people drink tea all their lives.

Ladies drinking tea, Pieter van den Berge, ca. 1694 - 1737. The verse at the bottom of the page satirizes the fashion of drinking tea. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.
Ladies drinking tea, Pieter van den Berge, ca. 1694 – 1737. The verse at the bottom of the page satirizes the fashion of drinking tea. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

The tractate closes with a chapter on what good tea is: as fresh and white as possible, not too bitter, made with fresh, clean rain water that has not been boiled too long, and it should be drunk from earthenware or tin cups instead of copper ones. Tea should be not too strong, and no sugar should be added. Although there is no limit to the amount that can be had, yet those who want to sleep well at night should not drink it after midday.

As for Boerhaave’s remark that tea spoils in clear glass but remains uncorrupted in green glass; this appears to have had something to do with the fact that “by using a great deal of salt to a small quantity of flints, the glass becomes very clear; but is weak and frail, apt to crack by fire and water, and by age grows dull; and even infects liquors put in it, and sometimes destroys them utterly.” Green glass was generally stronger than clear glass, although the green colour came from copper oxides – the one substance Bontekoe warned not to drink one’s tea from….

Cup of tea, anyone?


Bontekoe, Cornelis, Tractaat van het excellenste kruyd thee: ‘t Welk vertoond het regte gebruyk, en de grote kragten van ‘t selve in gesondheid, en siekten: benevens een kort discours op het leven, de siekte, en de dood: mitsgaders op de medicijne, en de medicijns van dese tijd, en speciaal van ons land. Ten dienste van die gene, die lust hebben, om langer, gesonder, en wijser te leven, als de meeste menschen nu in ‘t gemeen doen. (The Hague: Pieter Hagen, 1678).

Boerhaave, Herman. Elementa chemiae, quae anniversario labore docuit in publicis, privatisque scholis. vol. i (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1732).

Art and alchemy in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast

May and June have a lot of bank holidays in the Netherlands, and this year we decided to use one of the bank holiday weekends for a short road trip to Germany. It gave me to opportunity to visit the exhibition Art and Alchemy at the Düsseldorf Museum Kunstpalast, which alone was worth the trip. This extremely well-researched exhibition brings together unique documents and objects, like the Ripley Scrolls, the Leiden Papyri, porcelain, glass, distillation apparatus and historical and contemporary art works.

Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf
Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf

As I have discussed before on this blog, alchemy was strongly connected to medicine in the early modern era, so this was an exhibition I definitely wanted to see. The curators have done a great job, visualizing the connections between early modern art, alchemy and medicine through intelligent matching of objects, images and texts.

The exhibition is divided over two spaces: one focuses on the historical connections between art and alchemy, primarily in the early modern period, and in the other space, contemporary art influenced by alchemy takes centre stage. Whereas the historical section was a feast of recognition for me, I was pleasantly surprised by the contemporary section of the exhibition.

Exhibition catalogueI especially enjoyed Rebecca Horn‘s works, like ‘The chemical wedding,’ a glass reservoir half filled with blue water and a quotation from Johann Valentin Andreae’s 1616 novel The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, anno 1459, printed on top. The blue water -blue symbolized the female in Rosicrusian symbolism- evaporates and condenses on the top plate, thus endlessly dividing and reuniting in this hermetic vessel.

An impressive and surprisingly friendly priced hard cover catalogue accompanies the exhibition. As the exhibition was created in cooperation with the Art and Knowledge in Pre-Modern Europe research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the catalogue contains contributions by leading experts in the field, such as Lawrence M. Principe, Sven Dupré, Jennifer Rampling and William R. Newman, and is available in both a German and English. If your happen to be in Düsseldorf before 10 August, do not miss Art and Alchemy!

Anatomy Month: the start of a tradition?

As I am currently very busy finishing some publications, I have had little time for new research the past few months – hence my relative silence here. Therefore I’d like to draw attention to a series of events that I enjoyed very much and which I believe deserves to become a yearly occurrence: the first-ever Dutch Anatomy Month.

Skeletons affected by disease. Source: Museum Vrolik.
Skeletons affected by disease. Source: Museum Vrolik.

Two weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk during an anatomy weekend at Museum Vrolik in Amsterdam. Organized by the curators of anatomical collections in the Netherlands and Morbid Anatomy‘s Joanna Ebenstein, the weekend was one of the highlights of the month. It included a morning of talks on various aspects of the history of anatomy, as well as exciting workshops like a mini wax-modelling course by artist Eleanor Crook, an expert in forensic facial reconstruction.

With exhibitions and events in museums in Leiden, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Groningen, Anatomy Month shows the enormous diversity of anatomical collections and the importance of anatomical knowledge past, present and future. Anatomy, whether it human, animal, normal or pathological, was and is about learning about ourselves, about the structures of our bodies. We all have an anatomy – I think that that is one of the reasons why books, events and exhibitions about anatomy are so universally appealing.

Photo: Koen Hauser. Hair and make-up: Louise van Huisstede. Model: Georgina Verbaan. Design: BrandendZant.
Amazing Models in Museum Boerhaave.                           Photo: Koen Hauser. Hair and make-up: Louise van Huisstede. Model: Georgina Verbaan. Design: BrandendZant.

The events and exhibitions during Anatomy Month are certainly appealing, and there is something for every age group. In Groningen, the University Museum has created a special exhibition of anatomical preparations in the Aa church to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the university, an in Museum Boerhaave in Leiden the alluring exhibition Amazing Models, featuring wax, textile, wood, plastic and papier-mâché anatomical models is on display until the end of the month.

In Utrecht, the exhibition Tot op het bot (to the bone) focuses on skeletons, with live demonstrations by a taxidermist, special tours, lectures, and a hands-on bone puzzle for the youngest visitors. Finally, on 1 June, the anatomical museum at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) is open to the public – a great opportunity to learn more about their impressive historical and contemporary collections, as this is only one of the two annual days the museum is open to all.

Unlike some (historical) exhibitions concentrating on human anatomy, the one on display during Anatomy Month share one common denominator: they are all not only fascinating, but also respectful. If you are not in the Netherlands but love the history of medicine as much as I do, I hope this is an inspiration. Wouldn’t it be great if May became Anatomy Month all over the world?

Sensitive (t)issues: penis preparations then and now

The (human) reproductive organs long were a source of wonder for physicians: exactly how did they work? But answering this question required the dissection and preservation of reproductive organs in anatomical collections – a practice that for a long time no one seemed to be eager to contribute to. Anatomical dissection was not something people signed up for voluntarily until the twentieth century; in the Middel Ages it was considered an extra punishment on top of capital punishment, and having ones intimate parts displayed in an anatomical collection was not something people aspired to. Especially the study and collecting of female reproductive anatomy by male medical scholars was controversial in the early modern period – Katherine Park, Lucia Dacome and Rina Knoeff have written about this in the recent past.[1]

RCSHC/P 1386. A portion of a penis showing healed ulceration of the foreskin.1760 - 1793 Made by or for John Hunter.
RCSHC/P 1386. A portion of a penis showing healed ulceration of the foreskin.1760 – 1793 Made by or for John Hunter. Source: 

However, the study of male reproductive anatomy neither was – and is – without controversy. Darren Wagner is currently working on a thesis on the study of both male and female anatomy in the eighteenth century, and like Rina Knoeff, points out how genital preparations could affect an anatomist’s reputation in the eighteenth century. Yet genital preparations were essential for the study of reproduction, as can also be seen in the collection of the eighteenth-century London surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793), eighty preparations of organs of generation of both humans and animals can be found, these can be viewed online by searching for ‘penis’ and ‘Hunter’ in the museum database.

As Darren Wagner has also noticed, we are still not entirely comfortable with the study of reproductive organs – although it appears to me this discomfort is evoked in particular by preparations of human reproductive organs that are still recognizable as such. My guess is that very few people will blush or chuckle over a newspaper article on, say, new IVF techniques. Yet if it becomes more concrete, as it does in the documentary The Final Member, discomfort is lurking closer.

Film poster for 'The Final Member'
Film poster for ‘The Final Member’

This documentary follows the quest of Icelander Sigurður “Siggi” Hjartarson to obtain ‘the final member’ to complete his life work: the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  When the documentary was made, in 2012, the museum already housed an impressive array of mammalian members, from that of a field mouse to the colossal sperm whale. The film shows how shortly after one another, two voluntary donors offer their member for the collection. Both feel it would be a great honour to have their member preserved for eternity in Siggi’s museum. It is this attitude that is probably still most stunning to many viewers, and that would likely have been inconceivable to the involuntary eighteenth-century ‘donors’ to anatomical collections like those of John Hunter.

[1]Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection. New York: Zone Books, 2006.Lucia Dacome, ‘Women, Wax and Anatomy in the “Century of Things”’, Renaissance Studies, 21.4, (2007): 522–55. Rina Knoeff, ‘Sex in Public. On the Spectacle of Female Anatomy in Amsterdam around 1700.’ L’Homme. Europäische Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft. 23.1 (2012): 43-58.



How a bird of paradise finally ended up in the Prado

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Madrid to celebrate new year’s with some close friends. One of the best parts of my stay was a visit to the Prado museum, and particularly the ‘Natural Histories’ exhibition that is on until the end of April. This is not an exhibition in the conventional sense of the word; rather, it is an artistic project -or ‘artistic interventions’ as the creator calls them- throughout the museum by the Spanish artist Miguel Ángel Blanco.

Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.
Carlos III of Spain as a boy, painted by Jean Ranc, ca. 1724. Museo del Prado, Spain, Num. de catálogo: P02334.

What many visitors usually do not realize is that the Prado was originally designed to house a natural history collection. The idea for the new museum was conceived by the Spanish king Carlos III (1716-1788), an enlightened ruler who amassed a great collection of art and natural history during his life. Important parts of this collection were brought together by two men hardly known outside their respective countries: the Spanish naturalist Pedro Franco Dávila (1711-1786), who was born in and travelled extensively throughout Spanish South America, and the Dutch naturalist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey (1729-1812). The latter reluctantly sold his collection to Carlos in 1785 after his political views had compromised his income.

The Prado building was designed in in the same year, but by the time it was finished Carlos had died and his grandson decided to turn the building into the first public art museum in Spain. It opened in 1819, and never housed a collection of natural history. Carlos’ natural history collection remained in what he had originally intended as contemporary housing, the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. The collections of this cabinet eventually developed into three other museums: the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional and the Museo de América. Blanco chose the objects for his project from their collections, and those of the Apothecary Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.
Satanic invocation (Room 67). Photo: Pedro Albornoz/Museo Nacional del Prado.

Now, for the first time since the eighteenth century, a small part of the royal natural history collections and the royal art collections are reunited at the Prado, and it works amazingly well. Instead of creating a separate exhibition space, the objects Blanco has chosen are placed throughout the museum, and paired with paintings and sculptures. The skeleton of a snake rests in front of Dürer’s paintings of Adam and Eve, a stuffed bird of paradise sits next to Frans Snyder’s Concert of Birds and apothecary bottles filled with snakes and toads, as well as a piece of sulphur, lie in front of Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath.

This way of bringing together art and nature works so well for several reasons. First, it reflects historical events and processes, and in way it posthumously fulfills king Carlos’s dream of a grand museum for his natural history collection. Second, as the objects chosen by Blanco are spread throughout the museum, all visitors are automatically engaged in the project at some point. As I noticed while wandering through the museum, initial confusion about the presence of natural history objects in an art museum soon dissolved in in wonder and enthusiasm with many visitors. The objects make them look at the paintings and sculptures differently, as they raise questions of and give well-dosed information about the shared history of the Prado, the art works, and the natural history objects.

In an interview with the New York Times about the project, Blanco mentions that this kind of exhibition is a relatively cheap solution to presenting existing collections in novel ways. If this is the kind of creativity that austerity evokes in the cultural sector, the future of historical collections is bright.

Natural Histories‘ until 27 April 2014, Museum del Prado, Madrid.

Additional source:

Miguel Ángel Blanco, “La llamada del ave del Paraíso,” in Historias Naturales, Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2013, p. 13-20.

Aurum potabile and the tears of brides: a history of drinkable gold

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the use of precious metals in eighteenth-century medicine. Ever since, I have studied a lot of new primary sources and learned more about alchemy and medicine. Obviously, not everything I read will find a place in my research output such as journal articles, but sometimes I find little gems that I just want to share with a wider audience anyway. As it is the holiday season, a very brief history of potable gold seems appropriate this month.

Frontispice of Nicolas Culpeper's 1565 Aurum Potabile
Frontispice of Nicolas Culpeper’s 1565 Aurum Potabile

As Lawrence M. Principe describes in his excellent book on alchemy, some early modern alchemists attempted to extract a ‘tincture’ from gold that contained the colour of the metal, also called Sulphur of gold, anima auri, or the ‘soul’ of gold. Some believed that this material was potable gold, a supposedly universal panacea prepared from gold, characterized by the fact that, unlike other medicinal preparations from gold, it could not decompose back into gold. The gold had been sufficiently ‘dissected;’ only the therapeutic part was preserved.[1] Drinkable gold did not only have therapeutic significance; its creation was also a more general chemical inquiry. This shows from a work on aurum potabile by the famous English botanist Nicolas Culpeper (1610-1654) was posthumously published in 1656, in which the author connects the ‘elementary, celestial, and intellectual’ world.

As Principe points out, alchemy did not disappear in the eighteenth century. Although alchemy was increasingly vilified, many of its central practices and ideas were re-appropriated in medicine and the ‘new’ chemistry. This also shows from a letter written by the famous Leiden professor of medicine, Herman Boerhaave, to his friend Bassand, in 1733. In it, he writes about his curiosity about Gur, a substance found in mining areas believed by some to be the basis for all metals:

I have thought about it, whether such a primordial matter [Gur] of gold could be the true potable gold, so adorned by acclaimed forces? This is the only reason of my desire to see it: because it would be easily evaluated by cautiously applying it with the ill.[2]

Although Boerhaave was curious, you would almost hope Gur was not potable gold, as it was apparently a ‘greenish, soft, thickened material similar to butter fat.’[3] Boerhaave never set eyes on a sample of Gur, and died five years after he wrote his letter to Bassand.

Gold nanoparticles stick to cancer cells and make them shine. Source:
Gold nanoparticles stick to cancer cells and make them shine. Source:

As my previous blog on precious metals in medicine demonstrated, by the late eighteenth century most medical professionals had become persuaded that precious metals or preparations thereof had no special curative powers, yet the general appeal of precious metals remains until today. Some people believe that colloidal gold is the gold of the alchemists, and that it has health benefits.[4] Indeed, gold nano particles  appear to have some very specific medical applications, for example as a drug carrier or in tumour detection. [5] However, there are no indications that randomly consuming colloidal gold has health benefits as far as I know.

Yet even if you do not think consuming precious metals will improve your health, they do give many of us a festive feel, and if you want to, you can still drink gold, albeit in a somewhat different form than the alchemists and early eighteenth-century medical men such as Boerhaave envisioned.[6] Today, all over Europe cinnamon-flavoured liquors with small fragments of gold leaf swirling in them are available (Gold Strike, Danziger Goldwasser, Goldschläger).


Curiously, the Dutch variety of this liquor is called ‘Bruidstranen’ (tears of the bride). It is hard to tell exactly since when this drink was produced and when the gold leaf was first added, but a search in the repository of the Digital Library of Dutch Literature ( suggests the consumption of a drink called ‘Bruidstranen’ during or shortly after a wedding was a common tradition in the nineteenth century.[7] However, it appears that these ‘Bruidstranen’ were a sort of spiced, mulled wine or liquor; also known all over Europe as a festive drink called Hippocras.[8] The gold leaf may well be a twentieth-century addition.

This shows how the concept of ‘potable gold’ has changed profoundly in less than three hundred years; another reminder of how careful we should be when studying historical objects and concepts, as it is really easy to misinterpret them. Yet if you want serve your guests a festive cocktail and a good story this New Year’s Eve, mix a little layer of Gold Strike or Bruidstranen with cava, prosecco or another bubbly white wine in champagne glasses, and tell them about the potable gold of the alchemists and the tears of brides.

Happy new year!

P.S. For those who read Dutch: the Dutch medical heritage website is completely renewed. Check it out!

[1] Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, 113.

[2] Lindeboom, G.A., en Herman Boerhaave. Boerhaave’s Brieven aan Bassand. Haarlem: Erven F. Bohn, 1957, 8-12-1733, 223-6: “Ik heb er over gedacht, of zulk een oermaterie van goud niet het ware drinkbare goud zou kunnen zijn, zo gesierd door veel geprezen krachten? Dit is de enige reden van het verlangen dat te zien: want het zou gemakkelijk na te gaan zijn door het voorzichtig bij zieken aan te wenden.”

[3] For more about the eighteenth-century search for Gur, see Alfonso-Goldfarb, Ana Maria, en Marcia H.M. Ferraz. “Gur, Ghur, Guhr or Bur? The quest for a metalliferous prime matter in early modern times.” British Journal for the History of Science 46, nr. 1 (maart 2013): 23–37.

[6] Some people do still think a gold solution will improve their health, for them, gold colloid is sold online:

[7] Jan ter Gouw, De volksvermaken. Erven F. Bohn, Haarlem 1871, 538:  “Als ‘t paar was aangeteekend, waren ‘t alweêr de buren, die de bruidstranen kwamen opdrinken in den vorm van lekkeren ypocras. Aan de vrienden buiten de buurt werd de ypocras in vercierde flesschen t’huis gezonden. Oudtijds echter waren die bruidstranen slechts bier, en op den Eifel noemt men dit nog ‘heulbier’; maar of men ooit ergens jenever met stroop voor bruidstranen gedronken heeft, als ‘de Oude Tijd’ verhaalt, laat ik in ‘t midden…”

Two anatomy exhibitions: models and lessons

As of this week, there are two wonderful exhibitions on anatomy on in the Netherlands. The first is The anatomy lesson at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the second is Amazing Models in Museum Boerhaave in Leiden. Leiden and The Hague are only 11 minutes apart by train, so if you’d want to you could visit both within half a day. For those who do not have a chance to visit the exhibitions, or need persuasion, here is a quick review.

The anatomy lesson

In this exhibition, all known seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of anatomy lessons have been brought together for the first time. They are presented together with contextual material such as historical anatomy handbooks, models, instruments and preparations, as well as contemporary art works that are inspired by anatomy and medicine, such as Damien Hirst’s Sometimes I Avoid People. Being the historian of medicine I am, I especially loved the fact that I could finally see all the seventeenth-century paintings together, although I have to admit the combination with contemporary art worked quite well.

Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt - Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer. Delft 1617. Oil on canvas.
Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt – Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer. Delft 1617. Oil on canvas.

Paintings of anatomical lessons were ordered by surgeons’ guilds in the seventeenth century primarily as status symbols. Although the set-up is pretty much identical in all of them – guild members dressed in the typical solemn black clothing with big white collars of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic – some of them have really cool details. My personal favourite is the one painted by Michiel van Miereveldt, Anatomy lesson of Dr. W. van der Meer, Delft, 1617. In this painting, small details stress the harsh reality of the anatomy lesson: around the opened body, we see a candle, burning incense, and guild members holding twigs of herbs to counter the undoubtedly putrid smell of the decaying corpse.

Amazing models

This detail also brings home one of the great benefits of the exhibits in the Amazing models exhibition in Museum Boerhaave: they allowed people to study human anatomy without having to deal with the smell of death. In this amazing exhibition that travels through Europe, late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wax models from collections in Bologna and Vienna are combined with Museum Boerhaave’s collection of nineteenth-century papier-mâché models from the Auzoux workshop. The sharp contrast between the elegant anatomical Venus made from wax and the raw realism of the wax models of pathologies makes it hard to believe that such vastly different anatomical models were produced within such a short timeframe.

Clemente Susini and workshop, Italian, 1754–1805, Anatomical Venus, 1782 Photo by Saulo Bambi, Museo di Storia Naturale "La Specola" Florence, Italy
Clemente Susini and workshop, Italian, 1754–1805, Anatomical Venus, 1782
Photo by Saulo Bambi, Museo di Storia Naturale “La Specola” Florence, Italy

However, the reception of some of the Venuses is illustrative here. The first Venuses were ordered by  grand duke Pietro Leopold of Tuscany in the 1770s for his museum, La Specola in Florence. In the 1790s, his brother Joseph ordered anatomical wax models, including some Venuses, for the Josephinum in Vienna. However, the Jospehinum had been established in 1785 as medical academy for the military, so this collection was not primarily meant for the education of citizens, but to train military surgeons and physicians. As Anna Maerker has vividly described, the iconography of the Venuses backfired in this context; the envisioned users of the models condemned them as luxury toys, unsuitable for medical training.[1] The Auzoux models, many of them not made much later, are of a much more pragmatic nature: cheaper and easier to handle, and thus immensely popular with educational institutions throughout the nineteenth century.

All in all, two exhibitions worth visiting!

[1] Maerker, Anna. Model Experts.  Wax anatomies and Enlightenment in Florence and Vienna, 1775-1815. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2011.

The jamu women: herbal medicine in colonial Indonesia

The jamu women: herbal medicine in colonial Indonesia

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my upcoming trip to Indonesia. Back in the Netherlands, I am cherishing the new memories of everything we saw and did. Throughout Indonesia, we encountered many reminders of the shared Dutch-Indonesian colonial past. Predictably, some were rather embarrassing, such as the fact that as we were travelling, the Dutch government finally apologized half-heartedly for the atrocities committed by captain Westerling.

Caricature wajang puppets at the National Wajang Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia
Caricature wajang puppets at the National Wajang Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia

Others were endearing or even funny, such as the caricatural wajang puppets of J.P. Coen (1587-1629), founder of Batavia, in the National Wajang Museum. Understandably, in many cities little is left of Dutch colonial architecture, and finding traces of the medicine and chemistry of the eighteenth century would have required archival expeditions, something I had promised my better half to refrain from during this holiday. However, many other, more recent souvenirs of a shared history of medicine were easily found. The most enjoyable was probably a visit to the jamu factory of Nyonya Meneer in Semarang, a big harbour city in the north-east of Java, the city where my mother-in-law was born.

Portrait of Nyonya Meneer in the factory museum, Semarang, Indonesia.
Portrait of Nyonya Meneer in the factory museum, Semarang, Indonesia.

About fifty years earlier, Nyonya Meneer (1895-1978) was born in East Java. Here actual name was Lauw Ping Nio, but she probably was required to have an Indonesian name too as she was a member of the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia. ‘Meneer’ (which means ‘mister’ in Dutch) was likely a degeneration of the Indonesian word ‘menir,’ broken rice, which her mother was said to have craved during her pregnancy. When Nyonya’s husband suffered from severe intestinal complaints in the 1920s, Nyonya Meneer started to make him jamu medicines, traditional Indonesian herbal cures. Eventually, she set up a business to sell them to others too, and today Nyonya Meneer jamu products are sold throughout Asia.[1]

Advertisement for breast-firming herbs, probably 1940s.
Advertisements in Dutch and Indonesian for breast-firming herbs, probably 1940s.

In the small museum at the factory site, you can see a nice selection of historical documents, photographs, some of Nyonya Meneer’s personal belongings, an explanation of the production process, and objects such as raw ingredients, storage containers, product packaging, and historical production tools. In the museum, it quickly becomes clear how intertwined the lives of the Indonesians and the Dutch were in the colonial era. Nyonya Meneer taught herself the basics of pharmaceutics from a Dutch handbook, and many of the advertisements from before 1950 are in Dutch, as jamu was popular with both the Dutch and the Indonesians. This also shows from the fact that a 1907 Dutch handbook on the curative powers of Indonesian plants was so popular that it was updated and reprinted at least ten times in fifty years.[2] As late as the 1980s an Indonesian translation was sold.[3]

What is interesting to see is that women, both Indonesian and Dutch, dominated the domain of jamu or traditional herbal medicine in twentieth-century Dutch Indonesia and that it was a shared domain with Semerang as its centre. Nyonya Meneer founded an emporium and ran her company almost single-handedly for about half a century, and ‘Kloppenburg,’ the handbook written by Mrs.’s  Kloppenburg-Versteegh (1862-1948) and originally published in Semarang, was a household name for Dutch women in Indonesia.


The most obvious explanation for this would be that herbal medicine was traditionally the domain of women, and that women would have to deal with ill family members and manage the household budget, which may have created a market for the relatively easily obtainable jamu products. However, this is just speculation, and my visit to the Nyonya Meneer factory raised many more questions that are worth answering, such as whether Mrs. Meneer and Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh ever met, how Semarang came to be the centre of Jamu production, et cetera. Who knows, maybe I or someone else will one day have a chance to investigate further.

The blogging historian

About thirteen months ago, I started this blog to keep my friends, colleagues and family updated about the work I was doing. As I have been blogging for over a year now and as I am going to discuss history blogs on a panel this week, it is time to reflect on how it all started, what it has brought me, and what the future looks like. I was inspired to start a blog of my own by Lindsey Fitzharris’ brilliant blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, although I by no means intended to copy what she is doing, nor did I expect to generate the same kind of success. Lindsey has, amongst other things, gone on to appear in a variety of media, writing for the Huffington Post and crowd funding her own television series. However amazing all this is, it just would not be right for me (the camera doesn’t love me, for starters).

However, blogs are a useful medium for a historian whatever your ambitions are. As a reader of history blogs, I can say they give me a quick and enjoyable insight in what colleagues are working on, enabling me to contact them easily if I am working on something similar, or have some information that might be useful to them. Some of my favourites are:

If you look at these blogs you may be surprised to find that they vary wildly: some are personal projects, some are collectives or institutional blogs, some appear weekly, others incidentally. There are blogs that feature journal article-length pieces, while there are also blogs (like my own) that rely on shorter pieces. One is not necessarily better than the other, although it is good to realise that a certain format will be more likely to draw a particular audience.

For me, writing my blog is valuable in itself, as it allows me to share finds that do not fit entirely in a ‘real’ publication, as well as to share work in progress. Moreover, blogging helps me to reflect on my own work and to communicate it to a variety of people. My research is funded with public money, so I feel obliged to show the public what I am doing with it. Obviously I could simply refer to my print publications on my faculty page, but I want to share my work more frequently, more directly, and with a broader audience. In comparison to others, mine is a small, rather unpretentious blog, but still people from seventy countries have viewed it over 4,000 times in the past year.

Apart from the fact that it is nice to know that my parents and someone in Japan read my blog, it has also brought me into contact with people whom I otherwise never would have met, like Tamara Varney. My blog also got me invited as a guest blogger with The Recipes Project and I regularly receive emails from other academics, as well as from journalists and people who are simply interested in one of the topics I write about who ask questions, have helpful suggestions, or who want to share some of their work with me. Finally, the blog serves as a business card: often people look one another up on the internet before meeting at a conference, and a blog gives a quick impression of the work you’re doing.

I know I am probably not using the full potential of my blog yet; I could improve on tagging and categorizing, and might be able to use my posts more strategically. Yet the foundations are there, and as James M. Banner Jr. points out in his book Being a Historian. An introduction to the professional world of history:

“Fortunately, there is some evidence that the readership of serious history blogs, infinite in prospect, is, while small in comparison to those on popular subjects, an attentive one spanning the world. Whether this audience can help make history blogging an accepted, respectable means of communicating historical knowledge among both amateurs and professionals remains to be seen. But no one concerned with the future of historical communication can afford to ignore this new use of a young medium.”[1]

[1] James M. Banner Jr. Being a Historian. An introduction to the professional world of history. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012. p.92.