The Fat Man of Maldon

As an example of how an image can say so much more than appears at first glance, consider the British cartoon in the collection of the John Carter Brown Library. Called “The Waistcoat,” it shows John Stuart, Lord Bute, exerting his influence and tyranny over the government by pulling a cart over the prostrate body of Britannia. Representing the members of the Grafton Administration, seven men stand on the cart enveloped in a giant waistcoat. Lord Bute holds a switch to manage the rather cowed, and/or impassive, members of the government. An image request and subsequent article by Lynne Raymond, a researcher of Edward Bright and inhabitant of his town of Maldon, brought the interesting information to our attention.

From our remove, this image seems an odd one. But an eighteenth-century English audience would have understood more by looking this picture. They would probably have known of Edward Bright, the grocer of Maldon—a celebrity in mid-century England for his extreme corpulence. His weight in 1749 was 584 pounds (it may have been 616 pounds when he died in 1750); he was 5’9 in height and 6’11” around his belly. He became a grocer and would travel to London on business where, because of his size, he kindled renown in the capital. When he died at 29 years old from “miliary disease,” a special coffin had to be made as quickly as possible because his corpse immediately began to decay and a hole had to be cut in the wall of his house to allow it to be removed. As Lynne Raymond writes:

Shortly before his death one of Bright’s waistcoats had been sent to his tailor for enlargement and on 1 December 1750 a wager took place in Maldon’s Bull Inn between Mr Codd and Mr Hants whether five men resident in Maldon could be buttoned inside the waistcoat without breaking a stitch or straining a button. In the event not only the five but seven men with the greatest of ease were included.

To the people of mid-eighteenth century England, the code implicit in this image would have been very obvious, in a way that is quite unapparent to us. The message is further emphasized by the pictures hanging on the wall behind the odd scene—on one side, the picture shows the wager of fitting seven men into Bright’s waistcoat, on the other the Grocer of Maldon himself is portrayed. The English public would have understood the scene demonstrated the impotence of the Grafton administration by showing a band of men too powerless to resist being stuffed into a fat man’s waistcoat. They would have understood that the tyrannical oppressor who was driving the hapless men would even roll over Britannia with his autocratic ambition. On the other hand, we in this century—and without the knowledge that was common in eighteenth-century England—are mostly mystified by a peculiar image.

Lynne Raymond, “EDWARD BRIGHT, ‘THE FAT MAN AT MALDON”, 1721-1750, August, 2014
Essex Naturalist: Being the Journal of the Essex Field Club for 1888, 243-246

The JCB Loses a Sterling Bookman: David Parsons (1939-2014)

Staff at the John Carter Brown Library were surprised and saddened by the sudden passing of Board member David Parsons, who had been in touch with us not long previously, and had seemed to us the picture of health.

David was a singularly committed and supportive friend of the JCB, always thinking of ways to contribute his expertise and other resources. When his great Pacific exploration collection came on the market in a fine two-volume catalogue by Hordern House, he told me he would be happy to pull a book from the sale to present to the JCB, if I could identify one most desirable for the Library. This was a very fine collection, and so not an altogether easy decision.

As the editors at Hordern House expressed it,

“David Parsons has been one of the foremost collectors in this area for many years, and has assembled a collection of extraordinary quality. His many friends in the book-collecting world are already familiar with his uncanny ability to find the right copy of the right book. His remarkable eye for condition is demonstrated by the consistently high quality of just about every book described in this catalogue.”

The book I finally selected was Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov’s “Description of Kamchatka,” Opisanie zemli Kamchatki (Saint Petersburg, 1755), an exploration narrative in the original Russian. David very graciously withdrew it from the sale in the winter of 2006, allowing us to become the fifth American library to own it. The text includes one of the earliest printed narratives of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Krasheninnikov had joined Bering’s second expedition as an assistant to Georg Wilhelm Steller, and they explored Kamchatka together. The young student did not join Steller on the subsequent sea voyage, however, and made use of Steller’s notes in completing the book, citing them frequently, but he died before drafting an additional narrative about how he happened to join the project. The book very nicely complements our early Krasheninnikov editions in Dutch, English, French, and German.

In the sale catalogue, David Parsons also tells the story of how he was drawn into collecting, which I will summarize: One year David was in New York on business when, by coincidence, the annual spring book air was being held, and “on a whim” he dropped in to the fair. Being a fond reader of Patrick O’Brian’s seaborne fiction, he found a couple of first editions, but also the beginning volumes of a collection that furnished the background text that informed the historical novels, books on the voyages of Anson and Cook. As David himself put it, with those and two sets of Burney and Cook purchased not long after, “I was hooked and my collecting career was launched.” The scope of that late-eighteenth-century collection would broaden as his knowledge deepened on the age of sail.

We will miss the wise counsel and friendship of this gifted collector.

—Dennis Landis, Curator of European Books, John Carter Brown Library

Plants, Prescriptions, and Placebos: 1535 – present

Salvia divinorum

The circulation of people, things, and ideas between the New and Old Worlds from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries is a unifying theme of the John Carter Brown Library’s collections, and some of these circuits of exchange live on in strikingly similar ways. Online exhibitions at the JCB highlighting how indigenous American plants changed early modern European medical practices resound in many ways with Brown anthropologist Paja Faudree’s research on the contemporary global trade in Salvia divinorum, known colloquially simply as salvia. History does not simply repeat itself, however—changing contexts of production, use, and exchange illuminate how indigenous and European ideas about nature and medicine have changed each other over the centuries.

Two recent exhibitions at the JCB, 2011’s “Drugs from the Colonies: The New American Medicine Chest,” and 2009’s “Atlantic Materia Medica,” explore the circulation of plants and medical knowledge in detail, while several others touch on the subject, including “Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, 1600-1860,” currently on display in the reading room, and “Voyage to the Islands: Hans Sloane, slavery, and scientific travel in the Caribbean” from 2012. These exhibitions document an explosion of European writing about medicine and natural history in the eighteenth century, as explorers, traders, and colonists began to learn about indigenous American and African treatments for disease and experiment with new uses of plants from the colonies. Their technologies of knowledge gathering and dissemination included not only ethnographic observations, but also detailed engravings, preserved plant specimens, and seed boxes that circulated between Europe and the Americas. They also engaged in lively discussions about the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine, debating how best to categorize plants that could alter people’s physical and psychological states, and promoting European contexts of use and production that were radically different from indigenous customs. These plants included popular colonial cash crops like tobacco, sugar, cocoa, and coffee, which still blur the boundaries between food, recreational drug, and medicine.

Even today, “new” plants continue to join this circulation, one of which Paja Faudree, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown, explores in her research project “Magic Mint: A Linguistic Ethnography of the Global Salvia Trade.” Faudree recently received funding from the National Science Foundation for her investigation of how the increasing popularity of the Mexican plant, Salvia divinorum, is reshaping transnational discourses about plants and drugs. In the Mazatec region of Mexico, where she has conducted her linguistic anthropological research for many years, indigenous shamans use a tea of this hallucinogenic plant in ritual contexts. However, in other countries, recreational users smoke it for its psychotropic effects. The internet is a foundational technology for this international trade, since online middlemen link buyers and sellers, and You Tube videos celebrate salvia’s “natural” high, shaping expectations for future users. Through interviews, participant observation, media analysis, and historical research, Faudree connects the increasing impact of salvia’s status as a cash crop in the Mazatec-speaking region of Mexico with popular, media, and political discourses on salvia’s representation in and beyond the United States.

In both these historical and modern case studies, American plants with psychotropic effects have gained new meanings and uses in the Atlantic world, reshaping both trading networks and discourses. Plants that people can use to self-medicate, i.e. to change their own psychotropic states, have a widespread and successful history as cash crops, and salvia is increasingly filling this niche in Mexico today. Yet contrasts between the indigenous and non-indigenous uses of “drugs” show that despite cross-cultural interest in plants that influence physical and psychological states, cultural frameworks of medicine, recreation, nourishment, and spirituality help to determine when, how, and why people use them. These frameworks, which Faudree calls “placebo texts” or “cultural narratives,” play a vital role in shaping people’s experience of plants as drugs, foods, or medicine.

Of course, some things have changed since the 16th century. On a surface level, technologies of information exchange and transportation of indigenous plants have shifted from physical books to the Internet, and from ships to private shipping carriers. More significantly, the exchange that began with colonial exploration shaped the dichotomies that structure the debate over salvia today. The “Drugs from the Colonies” exhibition illustrates how eighteenth century experiments began to sanitize and professionalize medicine, as Europeans sought predictable and regular treatments for diseases. In the twenty first century, laboratory-produced pharmaceuticals dominate American biomedicine. Salvia’s popularity has this historical trend to thank, since its users and proponents in the United States contrast its “natural,” and supposedly safe, effects with those of highly processed illegal drugs in powdered, pill, or solution form. Yet Faudree points out that salvia, too, is processed by the time it reaches most end consumers. She directs our attention to production and processing as well as the labor both entail, noting that representations and discourses about plants that treat them as purely natural products, rather than products with social histories, can influence their reception in distant markets.

These dichotomies between natural and social—and between gentle plant and harmful processed drug—are as applicable to engravings from seventeenth-century sugar plantations as to arguments today that “cane sugar” is more natural and healthful than “high fructose corn syrup.” The connections between Faudree’s ethnographic research and the John Carter Brown Library’s exhibitions testify that while contemporary developments in botanical medicine may appear new, they often draw their sustenance from debates rooted in history.

Jeremiads Are More Fun Than You Might Expect

cotton1Cotton Mathercotton2





If you tap ‘Author: Cotton Mather’ into the JCB catalog, the effect is rather like opening the door of an over-stuffed cupboard and having the contents drop on your head — out falls a total of 235 works. Surely no other JCB author can compete with this — indeed, it’s been claimed that Cotton Mather published more titles than any other writer in history, though most of them are just single sermons or lectures.

One of these is a book misleadingly titled The Short History of New-England, which was published in Boston in 1694. It makes no attempt to provide any sort of coherent history but is in fact a sermon delivered to the General Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and its running title is Memorable Passages, relating to New-England (which is more accurate by dint of being more vague). As the date suggests, the work is primarily preoccupied with trying to draw a moral from the witchcraft crisis of two years before, with some reflections on the Massachusetts ‘revolution’ of 1689 and the new charter which came into effect just as the Salem tragedy began to unfold.

The book takes its text from Ezekiel 22:30: ‘I sought for a MAN among them, that should make up the HEDGE, and stand in the GAP, before me, for the Land, that I should not Destroy it. . . ‘. Mather melodramatically stops here, explaining that ‘The Rest I will not Now Read unto you, as Wishing and Hoping, that it may Never be fulfilled in our Eyes!’ (If you can’t take the suspense, the verse concludes: ‘but I found none.’)

The sermon is an example of the jeremiad, where New Englanders are taken to task for their backsliding by their ministers, but the form can be more exuberant and virtuosic than that glum agenda suggests. Mather plays all sorts of riffs on his controlling metaphor of a damaged hedge. Indians can sneak through that gap, he tells us, devils too, and worst of all, vices. Serpents come in and crawl and coil about us; wasting fevers find their way through, not to mention sexual defilements, and death itself. And sorceries. The word for hedge can mean ‘wall’ in Hebrew, he explains, and he visualizes it as a breakwater that has been breached, allowing the sea to cast up mire and mud. It is also a city wall, over which the heads and hearts of malefactors should be thrown to purify the community within.

I was researching a novel set at the time of the Salem witchcraft, and Mather’s little book provided me with the exact title I needed: The Gap in the Hedge. Without vulgarizing the issue, it evokes something of the ominousness of an M.R. James ghost story; more importantly it catches the sense shared by all those concerned, whether judges, accusers, or victims, that the cultural and spiritual boundaries established for the Christian plantation of New England had in some way broken down, and that a profound change was beginning to overtake their society. Mather’s elaborate explication of the Biblical metaphor also provided my book with a perfect epigraph, particularly as it concludes: ‘So then, there is a most Solemn and Weighty CASE; indeed, the more Solemn and Weighty, because it is OUR OWN, Case: where-with I am now to Entertain you.’ I remember wanting to shatter the scholarly quiet of the JCB reading room by waving my fists above my head and shouting out, ‘Yes!
–Richard Francis, Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow, Fall 2013

Keep On Minding Your Business

The JCB’s exhibits and research constantly refract old material through new lenses, and recent work with the library’s collections of business papers casts light on historical questions ranging from commerce to education, maritime history, and medicine. The 2012 exhibition “Mind Your Business: Records of Early American Commerce at the John Carter Brown Library” highlights multiple layers of history in the library’s manuscript collections, Providence’s past, and the growth of American business practices in the context of global trade. The online version of the exhibition is a contribution to local history and a promising teaching tool, and current fellows at the JCB continue to explore its source manuscripts from new angles of scholarship. Read more…