Silly Money

07 16 chinese paper moneyToday, I am told, is the date that the first European banknotes were issued by the Swedish bank, Stockholm Banco, in the year 1661. Banknotes are quite a weird thing, if you think about it, so I thought we might take a look at how we came to accept what is essentially just a piece of paper in place of something that has any intrinsic value. Paper money had been used in China for around eight hundred years. The Ancient Chinese also produced some of the earliest known coins. They were generally round, though there are older coins that are shaped like spades or knives. The coins had a rectangular hole through the middle so they could be strung and worn around the neck. The problem was, if you had a lot of them, they were a bit heavy. So people started leaving their coins with a trustworthy person which was exchanged for a slip of paper stating how many coins had been deposited. These slips of paper could then be used later to retrieve the money. Eventually the notes began to be passed from person to person instead of the coins.

07 16 kublai kahnTravellers from Europe such as Marco Polo brought back tales of the strange paper money. In fact in his ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ he devotes a whole chapter to it. He describes how the Emperor, Kublai Khan, had notes made from the bark of mulberry trees, which he had plenty of. He paid for everything with the notes and they were used by all his subjects in place of coins. No one was allowed to refuse the notes, on pain of death. Furthermore, merchants coming to China from abroad, bringing gold, silver, jewels or pearls were allowed to sell to no one but the Emperor. They were paid with his notes, which could be exchanged for anything in his Empire. If there was anyone else left who happened to have any gold, silver, gems or pearls, they could take them to the Royal Mint and get a good price for them, but they were paid in notes made from mulberry bark. So that was how the Emperor ended up with all his empire’s wealth, yet it cost him almost nothing to acquire it. “He hath”, said Polo, “ the Secret of Alchemy in perfection”. The idea of issuing promissory notes travelled to medieval Italy and Flanders and they began to be used as an alternative to transporting cash over long distances, which was both impractical and dangerous.


As in China, the notes that were issued in Sweden were also due to the difficulty of carrying heavy money around. Their problems however, were much bigger. Basically there were two currencies that were both called the daler, but one was made of copper and the other of silver. This was a problem because they were both meant to be worth the same amount. Copper was much cheaper than silver, so the copper coins needed to be bigger. Then suddenly copper got really, really cheap. The coins became enormous, huge slabs of copper weighing several kilograms. The largest denomination, the ten daler weighed almost 20 kilograms, that’s 44 lb. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t much want to carry them around, they wanted to deposit them at the bank. The promissory notes they received in exchange were much easier to use. A note could be put in an envelope and posted whereas even a single coin might require a horse and cart.

Sadly, Stockholm Banco decided it would be okay to print more notes than the value of the copper that they held. That didn’t really work out. They went bankrupt after three years. Swedish banks did not issue paper money again until early in the nineteenth century. The Bank of England began to issue paper notes in exchange for real money in 1695, when it was trying to raise money to rebuild the country’s navy after a particularly disastrous war with France. Eventually, paper money became pretty normal everywhere. Coins made from gold, from silver, from copper, could be often too dangerous, and sometimes massively inconvenient to carry around, so everyone was persuaded to accept little pieces of paper, that are essentially useless until you exchange them for something else. Now, of course, we don’t often have the pieces of paper either, just a small plastic card. Money feels even more imaginary but, unfortunately, our world would grind to a halt if we stopped believing in it.

Why Does it Always Rain on Me?

07 15 st swithinToday is Saint Swithin’s Day. According to English tradition, if it rains today, it will continue to rain for the next forty days. If it is dry, the weather will stay fine.

Details of the life of Saint Swithin are a bit sparse. He was tutor to Æthelwulf, who later became King of Wessex, and possibly to his son Alfred, who grew up to be Alfred the Great. Æthelwulf made Swithin bishop of Winchester in the year 853. He oversaw the building and repair of a lot of churches and possibly the building of the first stone bridge there. Aside from that, we don’t know a great deal. There are a couple of, once well-known, miracles attached to the saint. The first, the Winchester egg woman, is less interesting than it sounds. A woman was crossing the bridge with a basket of eggs. She was jostled, dropped the eggs and they broke. Swithin took pity on her and made them whole again.

The second is supposed to have taken place in the year 1050, quite some considerable time after Swithin died. It is the story of ‘Queen Emma’s Ordeal’. Queen Emma’s family life was terrifically complicated, but I’ll just tell you that she was married to both King Æthelred the Unready and, later, his sworn enemy Cnut, so there were plenty of people about who didn’t like her. Long after both her husbands were dead, she was accused of being overly intimate with the Bishop of Winchester. A man named Ælfwine. To prove her innocence, and his, she was made to walk in bare feet over nine red hot plough shares that were laid out on the floor of the cathedral. She prayed before the shrine of Saint Swithin and he appeared to tell her that she would not be hurt. When she was guided over the plough shares, she didn’t feel a thing. There are a couple of things wrong with this story. In 1050, Emma was sixty-five, a grand old age in the eleventh century. So if she was intimately involved with a bishop, fair play to her. But secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Bishop Ælfwine had died in 1047.

But back to Saint Swithin. He died around 862 and was a humble man. On his deathbed he requested that his body be buried not inside the church, as one would expect for a bishop, but outside the north wall. He wanted his grave to be where it would be walked over by ordinary people and where the rain from the eaves of the church might drip down onto it. He was buried according to his wishes but, a little over a hundred years later, his body was dug up and moved inside the church by Bishop Dunstan. His saint’s day is not the day of his death, but the day of his translation, the day his body was moved to its new resting place, July 15th 971. According to the story, when they started to move him, it began to rain and continued raining for the next forty days. This was taken as a sign of his displeasure and, ever afterwards, the weather on that day has been thought by many to determine the weather for the next forty days.

It isn’t true of course. It has been disproved over and over. Also there is no real historical evidence that it did rain on that day. It seems to have been a splendid celebration, enjoyed by all. What is more likely, is that the saint’s day has been linked to some pagan belief about changing weather patterns in early summer. There are many saints dotted throughout northern Europe with a similar legend attached to them. I mentioned another weather story in connection with the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus last month. There is a saint in France called Medard, who was once kept dry during a storm by an eagle that flapped around his head. In Germany, they have a pair of saints looking after their weather, Gervase and Protase. In Belgium, there is a saint called Godelieve, she was strangled then drowned on the orders of her incredibly unpleasant husband, yet she too has a feast day which is said to predict the weather. All these saints are commemorated in either June or July. I think if this proves anything, it is that the weather in Northern Europe is unsettled and unpredictable and it always has been. But we have always wished we had some way of knowing whether the summer was going to be nice or not.

Stormed It

07 14 bastilleToday, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.

What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.

When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…

When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.

Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.

07 14 bastille foundationsThe prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.

07 14 napoleon's plaster elephant

When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.

07 14 ribart elephant

In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.

07 14 moulin rouge elephant

Science and Magic

07 13 john deeOver the last year, I’ve mentioned so many people who occupy a rather grey area between belief in magic and the beginnings of modern science, that I cannot let today go by without telling you that it is John Dee’s birthday. Dee was born in 1527, in the Tower Ward of the City of London. Both his parents were Welsh and his surname derives from the Welsh word for black, ‘du’. John Dee is black by name and black by reputation. For hundreds of years, he has been mainly remembered as a magician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare probably modelled his character of Prospero on John Dee. While it’s true that he did spend a lot of the last thirty years of his life trying to speak with angels, this opinion is rather unfair. Dee was an incredibly clever man.

John Dee went to study at Cambridge at fifteen, passed his bachelor degree at eighteen and was made an original fellow of Trinity College when it was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Whilst he was at Cambridge, we know that he was stage manager for a production of Aristophanes’ play ‘Peace’. We know this because he built a huge mechanical flying beetle for the play, which caused quite a sensation. This was probably the beginning of his reputation as a magician.

In the late 1540s and early 1550s, Dee travelled Europe. He studied at Louvain, where he became friends with the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator and he went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid. Back in London, in 1552, he met an Italian called Gerolamo Cardano, and together they investigated the plausibility a perpetual motion machine and also a gem that was reputed to have magical properties. I couldn’t find out what conclusions they drew, but I know Cardano decided it was impossible except when it came to celestial bodies.

Dee was an extremely skilled mathematician and learned a lot about navigation whilst he was abroad. He brought back with him, several navigational instrument including a couple of globes built by Mercator. But alongside this, he also studied astrology and the occult. This was not unusual. In the sixteenth century, the mysteries of the occult were every bit as real and useful as the secrets of geometry. But one had to be careful not to be seen to be straying into the realms of Black Magic. When Mary was made Queen, after the death of her brother, Edward VI, Dee cast her horoscope. He did the same for the future Queen Elizabeth I. Mary and Elizabeth, as you might know, did not have an easy relationship. Dee was accused, by a man called George Ferrers of plotting the death of Mary and also of bewitching his children, blinding one and killing another. Dee’s lodgings were searched and sealed up and he was arrested, but he was cleared of all charges. Following his exoneration, he proposed to Queen Mary, the foundation of a national library and requested funds. He was turned down, but began to build his own personal library of rare books and manuscripts, using his own money. His library eventually comprised around three thousand books and a thousand manuscripts. When James Burbage built the first theatre in London, he turned to Dee and his library for advice about what an ancient Greek theatre might have been like.

When Elizabeth was eventually made Queen in 1558, Dee became her personal advisor on matters astrological and scientific. He chose the date of her coronation. Skilled in the art of navigation as a result of his studies with Mercator, he was advisor to many of the English voyages of discovery, including that of Martin Frobisher. He also advocated the country expanding its territories into the New World. He supported this idea with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s assertion that King Arthur had once conquered Ireland and that it was a Welshman called Madoc who had first sailed to North America in the twelfth century. England had a noble history of expansion and a prior claim to the new lands that had been discovered to the west. In 1583, he was asked to advise the Queen on the new Gregorian Calendar that had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. Dee thought it was a great idea, and also proposed that the we should adopt January 1st as New Years Day in both the civil and liturgical year. Both were sensible ideas, both were rejected on the grounds that they were a little bit too Catholic for a Protestant country. When the Spanish Armada attacked in 1588, Dee predicted a storm. It was partly down to extremely poor weather conditions that the Armada was destroyed and some credited Dee with conjuring up the storm rather than just forecasting it.

07 13 spanish armada

Dee often corresponded with the Queen on secret matters. He spent several years abroad during Elizabeth’s reign, between 1583 and 1589, and it is entirely possible that he was spying for her. You might like to know that he signed his letters to her ‘007’. The two zeros indicated that they were for the Queen’s eyes only and the seven was a number of magical significance. And, yes, this is where Ian Fleming got it from.

Dee’s political opinions were not as influential as he would have liked and, in the 1580s, he began to turn his attentions more towards the occult. That was when he began to try to converse with angels. This is a subject that I covered when I mentioned his rather questionable assistant Edward Kelley. But I feel I ought to mention that what Dee was seeking to learn was the original language of mankind. The language that Adam used when speaking to God. He felt that these experiments were every bit as important as his mathematical work in understanding the divine forms that he believed to underlie the visible world. He thought if he could understand that, he could heal the divisions between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and generally unify mankind. Dee knew he wasn’t able to speak directly to the angels himself. He needed a scryer. Someone who could tell him what the angels said while he wrote in all down. This was how he came to meet Kelley. So it was with Kelly that he went abroad with in 1583. If you need any encouragement to read about Edward Kelly, I’ll tell you that they parted company after the angels apparently suggested that Dee and Kelley should share their wives.

John Dee returned to England to find that his home had been vandalised and many of his scientific instruments and the books from his splendid library stolen. The rest of his life is rather sad. He had hoped, when he returned to England, to help the country’s prosperity through the use of alchemy. Instead, in 1595, he was appointed Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester. He didn’t have much control over the Fellows there. They despised and cheated him. Also, his wife died there, of plague, in 1604. In 1605, he returned to London, but Queen Elizabeth was dead and the new ruler, James I, had little time for magic. He spent the last years of his life living in obscurity with his daughter Katherine in Mortlake, which is at Richmond upon Thames. He was forced to sell off his possessions and make his living as a simple fortune teller. We don’t even know for certain when he died. Either in 1608 or 1609 at the age of 82. Even his grave is lost. It was a sorry end for a once great man.

A Wild Duck

07 12 george e ohrSometimes, I just have to see someone’s portrait to know that they are the person I want to write about. Today is the birthday of George E Ohr who was born in 1857 in Biloxi, Mississippi. His father was a blacksmith, his mother ran a grocery store. As you can see from the photo, he was an unusual looking fellow. George was a potter and he used to tie the ends of his eighteen inch long moustache behind his head while he worked. As you might guess from looking at him, his pots were quite unusual too. They were deliberately misshapen and he used bright glazes in unusual combinations at a time when everyone expected their pots to be brown. His boast was that he never made two things that were alike. Mostly he made his living by turning our chimney pots, planters, inkwells and little clay coins with rude messages on them. But he barely sold any of his more creative pieces. This was partly because he asked such a high price for them. People didn’t want to pay $25 for a pot that just looked as though it had gone a bit wrong. But it was also because George couldn’t bear to part with them. He was so fond of them that he called them ‘mud babies’. If he did manage to sell one, he would often chase his customer down the street and try to talk them out of their recent purchase.

George Ohr was one of five children. He described them as “a rooster, three hens and a duck”, he was the duck. At first George was apprenticed to his father as a blacksmith. But he was a restless individual and, at fourteen, he moved to New Orleans. By the time he was twenty-two, he had tried nineteen different jobs, including sailor, which he gave up after only one voyage. But then a friend offered to teach him how to make pots. He knew immediately it was the thing for him. He said “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” which is lovely because it shows how excited he was about it. After that, he went on a two year tour of the United States, visiting potteries in sixteen states to learn all he could. In 1883, he returned to Biloxi and built his own studio, his own wheel, his own kiln, he even dug his own clay. It was pretty good clay, red in colour and he was able to use it to make pots that were wafer thin in places.

In 1884, a fire swept through the town, destroying twenty businesses including his mother’s grocery store and his studio. George raked through the ashes and recovered his pots, he kept most of them for the rest of his life, and referred to them as his ‘burned babies’. Then, he built himself a new studio. What he built was a five storey pagoda, which he painted bright pink. George knew how to draw attention to himself. He styled himself ‘The Greatest Art Potter on the Earth.’ and the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. He was great at self publicity, he just wasn’t very good at selling pots.

07 12 ohr pottery workshop

By the turn of the century, he was gaining respect for his work. People were beginning to enjoy his colourful glazes. It was around this time that he decided to stop glazing his pots. In 1904, at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he won a silver medal for his work. He didn’t sell a single pot. He later tried to sell the whole collection but no one would come up with the thousands of dollars he was asking. In 1906, he sent fifty unsolicited pieces to a museum in New Orleans and when they would only accept a dozen of them, he insisted that they were all sent back immediately. Once, he took a bag of his pots, a shovel and a lantern and buried them deep in the woods. He also made a treasure map showing their location but it has since been lost. Possibly because after he died, his son, Leo, burned all of his papers, including all his recipes for beautiful glazes, many of which cannot now be replicated. The buried pots are probably still out there somewhere.

George and his wife, Josephine, had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. The first two, Ella and Asa, both died young. But then George noticed that his initials. G E O, also spelled the first three letters of his first name. For some reason, he then decided to name his subsequent children: Leo, Clo, Lio, Oto, Flo, Zio, Ojo and Geo.

In 1910, he closed his pottery and he devoted the rest of his life to becoming even more eccentric. He grew his beard long as well as his moustache and would appear at the Biloxi Mardi Gras as ‘Father Time’, in long flowing robes. Or you might find him racing his motorcycle along the beach with long white hair and beard flying out behind him. His unusual demeanour and self-aggrandizing make him a sort of Dali before Dali. When interviewed in 1901 he said ‘I have a notion….that I am a mistake.’ but predicted that his work would be cherished when he was gone. He died in 1918.

He had packed away around seven thousand of his pots and his sons turned the pottery into an auto-repair shop. After languishing in his sons’ shop for around eighty years, they were discovered, quite by accident, in 1968 by a man called James Carpenter. He wanted to buy them all, but the sons wouldn’t sell. After years of negotiation, he finally persuaded them to part with them for an unknown sum, but possibly around $50,000. Gradually, Carpenter began to sell them. Artists loved them. Andy Warhol bought them,so did Jasper Johns, they appeared in his paintings. Now his work commands very high prices. Jack Nicholson and Stephen Spielberg both own pieces by Ohr. George Ohr was once asked to put a price on his work, he replied that they were “worth their weight in gold”. Now they’re probably worth more that that.

There is now a museum in Biloxi dedicated to his work. You can see a little video of it here. The sound isn’t great, but you can see more of what his work looked like. It is so much more beautiful and elegant than I imagined from the descriptions. You can also see more of his amazing portraits.

07 12 ohr pot 1

A Scientist Adventurer

07 11 kenelm digbyToday is the birthday of Sir Kenelm Digby, who was born in 1603 at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. Digby was from a wealthy family, but he had a poor start in life. His father was one of the men executed for the Gunpowder Plot. I’ve not mentioned him before, but I’ve come across Digby often in my research. He turns up in all sorts of odd places, I’ve found him fighting duels, practising sympathetic magic, being a founder member of the Royal Society, authoring a cookery book and tragically mourning the death of his wife in quite weird way. So I thought we could have a proper look at him today.

In his early teens, Digby was tutored by a preacher called Robert Napier, who taught him about medicine, astronomy and alchemy. Robert had been a student of Simon Forman, who I mentioned back in December. He later studied at Oxford under the tutelage of a mathematician and astrologer called Thomas Allen.

Kenelm Digby was also in love, with a woman called Venetia Stanley, but his mother didn’t want them to marry. In fact, she sent him to Europe in 1620 so they couldn’t see each other. He spent some time in France, at the court of the mother of the King Louis XIII, Marie de Medici. According to his own account, she was deeply attracted to him, but he had to turn her down because of his love for Venetia. But she was so insistent that he could only get away from her by pretending that he had been killed. After that, he went to Florence where he wrote to Venetia to tell her he was well. But his mother intercepted his letter and it never reached her. Meanwhile, Venetia had heard and believed the rumours of his death and almost married someone else.

Digby also visited Madrid in 1623 at a time when the Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, was visiting the city in secret. Whilst there, Digby became involved in a huge street fight. It all started with a woman singing on a balcony. One of his friends was in love with the woman and stopped to listen. But he had a rival for her affections who had set a trap for him. They were suddenly attacked by a group of strangers. Again, we only have Digby’s, probably inflated, account to go on. But they were set upon by about fifteen men, it was dark, the men were wearing lanterns on their heads, which stopped him from being able to see them well. Everyone’s swords broke but Kenelm’s. They ran away and left him to fight. But he got away and killed two of them.

Digby returned to England later that year, and married Venetia in 1625. In 1627, he became a privateer, which means he had permission from the king to sail around the Mediterranean capturing Spanish and French vessels. So he was basically a legal pirate. Quite early on, his crew fell sick and he had to find a port. He chose Algiers, which was rather a daring choice. Most English captains tried to avoid Algiers, because it was full of pirates. He had a great time there. He made friends with the Algerian pirates and feasted with them. He bought Arabic manuscripts, he visited the steam baths. He met and talked with Muslim women, which was highly unusual, if not unique, for the time. He also managed to persuade the governors of the city to release fifty English slaves. After that he went on to defeat a very large fleet of Venetian ships and then went to Greece and plundered quite a lot of classical statues, which he thought would make impressive gifts when he returned home.

photo credit: stephencdickson licensed under creative commons

Sadly, Venetia died in her sleep in 1633. Digby was distraught. He took plaster casts of her hands, feet and face. He asked his friend, Anthony van Dyke, to paint a picture of her on her deathbed. He commissioned poets to compose verses in her praise. He summoned the poet Ben Johnson to come and look at her body, so that he might be inspired by the sight. He insisted on attending the dissection of her body, which was carried out to try to find the cause of her death. The only conclusion was that she “had very little brain”. He built a huge black mausoleum for her body with a gold bust of her on the top. He never married again.

He became less of a gregarious adventurer and more of a solitary scientist. I first came across him in connection with the ‘weapon salve‘, an ointment which could cure a wound by applying it, not to the body, but to the weapon that caused it. Digby claimed to have the secret of the ‘powder of sympathy’ which he used to cure the wound of a friend named James Howell. His hand had been cut when he tried to intervene in a duel and was in danger of developing gangrene. Digby asked for something with his blood on it and was given a garter. Then, he took a bowl of water, put a handful of powder in it and dipped the garter in the bowl. Howell, though he was unaware of what was happening, immediately felt relief. When later, Digby put the garter to dry before a fire, Howell sent word that his wound was burning worse than ever. When Digby put it back in the water, his wound was cooled again.

Kenelm Digby left England during the Commonwealth period and returned at the same time as Charles II. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society. In fact, one of his papers, ‘Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants’ was the first to be published by the society. In it, he claimed that it was possible to burn the bodies of crayfish and resurrect them from their ashes, which, in 2016, seems a bit of a wild claim. But his paper was the first to suggest that plants might draw some of their sustenance from the air.

But Digby had another surprise. After his death, his lab assistant published a book of his recipes. Kenelm Digby was a cook. During his travels, he had collected all sorts of recipes. He has an oriental recipe for ‘tea with eggs’, which is the first Chinese recipe ever published in English. Some of his recipes are European, but many of them are English. It’s a great source of information for what people were eating in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, some of them don’t sound that great. ‘Hart’s horn jelly’ and ‘barley pap’ both sound pretty awful, but his book also contains his recipe for the powder of sympathy, which I’m sure you could seek out if you were interested.

Kenelm Digby died in 1665, and was buried alongside Venetia. Sadly their tomb was lost in the Great Fire of London the following year. The gold bust was looted. Someone once caught sight of it on a market stall but, when he went back for it, it had gone. Digby’s reputation was also largely forgotten. He struggled hard against the legacy of his father’s treachery. He became a learned man, he freed slaves, he brought home plundered wealth. He was an important figure at the courts of both Charles I and Charles II. Yet he was mostly remembered as a bit of a quack, who thought you could get rid of warts by washing your hands in a bowl of moonshine. He did think that, but he also invented the wine bottle.

Kindred Spirit

07 10 robert chambersToday, I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Chambers who was born in Peebles in the Scottish Borders in 1802. He and his brother William founded W & R Chambers Publishing, who eventually produced Chambers Dictionary. That’s my favourite dictionary, but that’s not why I wanted to tell you about him. I discovered Robert a year ago when I was writing on Tumblr and he has been with me almost every day since. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Both Robert and his brother were born with six fingers and six toes. Both had undergone surgery to remove the extra digits but one of Robert’s operations had left him lame. So he was not an active child, but became instead a great devourer of knowledge. When he found a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica in his father’s attic, it kept him entertained for years. His brother later said of him: “the acquisition of knowledge was with him the highest of earthly enjoyments.” I have learned so many interesting things whilst researching this blog that I’m inclined to agree.

The family moved to Edinburgh in 1813 and when Robert was sixteen he began to run a second hand book stall on Leith Walk. When his brother William bought a printing press, they began to publish magazines together, with Robert providing the content. In 1832 they began to produce a weekly magazine called ‘The Edinburgh Journal’. It cost one penny and included articles about history, religion, language, and science.

In 1844 he produced a book called ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’. It began by explaining the formation of the solar system, continued with the geology of the earth and followed the pattern of increasingly complex lifeforms right the way up to humans. He talked about how one species of creature may have arisen from another. He would have referred to it as the transmutation of species, we would now call it evolution. This was all very controversial and ungodly at the time and Robert went to great lengths to conceal his authorship. He dictated it to his wife, so the manuscript would be in her handwriting and then sent it to a different publisher. It brings together a lot of ideas that were around at the time regarding how our world came to be as it is. Some of the experiments he cites are questionable, such as one which suggests insects can be made to arise spontaneously from electricity. But his examination of fossil records, which points out that fossils of simpler organisms are found in older rocks, is good.

Vestiges quickly became a bestseller. The first edition sold out in only a few days. Over ten years, it sold over 20,000 copies. Prince Albert read it aloud to Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln was also impressed by it. Others were not so keen. Such a theory rather cut God out of the equation, which was a pretty shocking claim. Roberts book received a lot of scathing reviews. At least one of his critics thought it was such awful nonsense that it must have been written by a woman. Some of the theories in the book were similar to those being pursued by Charles Darwin. Darwin found some of his explanations a little clunky. He didn’t feel that the, then anonymous, author of Vestiges had really described the environments that caused animals such as a woodpecker to develop in the way it had. But for many years, Vestiges was the only book available in English the explained the theory of evolution. Its reception by its critics may also have been what put Darwin off publishing his ‘Origin of Species’, which appeared fifteen years later. Robert’s authorship of Vestiges was not revealed until 1884, thirteen years after his death.

07 10 chambers book of days Robert Chambers’ last work was ‘Chambers Book of Days’ published in 1864. It was subtitled: ‘A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character’. It’s a massive work that runs to two volumes each with more than 840 pages. It contains, for each day of the year, a list of the births and deaths of notable people and a list of the saints associated with that day. Then underneath are a number of short essays about the some of the people, or the events that happened on that date. When I discovered Robert, I was happy to have found a kindred spirit. His undertaking was much larger than my meagre effort. He wrote around two thousand essays for his ‘Book of Days’ and he didn’t even have the internet to help him. It seems his family all thought the huge amount of work he put into his book contributed to his early death in 1871. Despite this warning from history, I have pressed on with my project and now have only twelve days to go.

Robert has helped me out of many a hole in this last year. When Wikipedia failed me, I turned to him. Sometimes, I’ve felt he was up against the same problems as me when seeking something interesting to say about a particular date. But he has also introduced me to some wonderful characters. Without him, I would not know so much about mountebanks, eighteenth century bets and weird burials. You can find Chambers Book of Days, in a searchable format here. If you want to know what he has to say about today, I recommend you scroll to the bottom and read ‘Child Suckled by Goat.’