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East of the Sun

By Julia Clegson 

My research for East of the Sun began when I was five years old and met a remarkable woman called Mrs. Smith Pearse.  She was in her sixties and had just returned from twenty years of living in India.

Superficially, she was a classic Memsahib- the literal translation means wife of the Sahib, the master.  She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of the Fishing Fleet, the slightly derogatory name given to the English girls who went to India for the social season in search of husbands.

I loved everything about her: the battered tweeds, the honking laugh, the wonderful stories about India: the snakes under the bath, the tiger hunts with Maharajahs, the three day treks on ponies up to Simla.  I dressed up in tiny silk saris, spice-scented tunics and salwar kameeze, produced from her mother of pearl trunk.

Four years ago, I met her nephew.  He had a box of tape recordings made by her. Listening to these tapes as an adult made me realize that the India that had given her pleasure had taken in equal measure.  My childhood heroine spoke on the tapes of the agony of missing children sent home to be educated.

“It was the biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child.”  Passionately fond of nursing- she’d served with distinction in France in 1917- in India, she was only allowed to run a few village clinics- working Memsahib were frowned on.

Other women of the Raj spoke to me of botched births in remote areas, of burying young children, of flies and heat and snakes, of runaway or workaholic husbands, of terrible homesickness.

Because the British suffer from post- colonial guilt the Memsahib is often portrayed in literature or films as a gin swilling, narrow-minded snob. Some, of course, deserve our contempt; many didn’t. It’s easy to forget how young and ill prepared and uneducated many of these women were.

East of the Sun is my raised glass to these women: to their friendships, their naiveté, to the men they loved, to the work they did, and for the price they paid in loving India.

Julia Clegson is the author of East of the Sun.

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King Charles II: One Merry Monarch

By Susan Holloway Scott

A great many important historical events occurred during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), including the last outbreak of the plague and the Great Fire. But Charles himself is most remembered today for his love life, unique among English kings. Charles loved women, and women loved him. From high-born ladies to lowly milkmaids, women of every rank found him pretty near irresistible. It wasn’t just that he was king. Charles genuinely liked women, particularly clever, amusing women who could entertain them with their wit as well as in his bed, and they clearly returned the favor many times over.

No one knows the exact number of women Charles had sex with in his lifetime. It was not uncommon for him to call upon one mistress in the afternoon, visit his queen’s bed in the evening, frolic with another mistress after that, and then wind up the night at a brothel. The man famously required almost no sleep.

In addition to his wife and queen, Catherine of Braganza, Charles kept three main mistresses over the course of his reign: Barbara Villiers Palmer, Nell Gwyn, and Louise de Keroualle. These were the women rewarded with titles, houses, estates, incomes, and jewels, and political power. There were far more who only received the pleasure of the royal person, and perhaps a coin or two besides.

The greatest irony of Charles’s reign is that while he sired fourteen natural children (!) that he acknowledged with titles, his queen never bore him a legitimate son and heir. At his death in 1685, Charles’s crown passed to his incompetent brother James. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 followed soon after, and England never again had a ruler who was quite as merry as Charles, the “Merrie Monarch.”

Susan Holloway Scott is the author of The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth & King Charles II. For more about her books, please visit her website at

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Here are a few of our favorite things...

Who can identify the edifice above? Send along your most interesting bit of lesser-known (and documented) trivia about it or a personal story. For the person who sends the best story, we'll arrange for a copy of a Wonders & Marvels featured book to be sent your way.

In the meantime, a few websites that history geeks simply don't want to miss:

History News Network

American Historical Society Blog

The Historical Society Blog

Curious Expeditions


For those who just can't get enough, check out this never-ending list of history blogs.
Who said folks aren't interested in history and the humanities anymore!

HNN history blogroll

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Renaissance Nose Jobs

By Holly Tucker

For your viewing pleasure: a classic illustration from Gaspare Tagliacozzi's De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (1597, book 2).

Tagliacozzi shows autografting--grafts using the patient's own skin. In addition to the ravages of syphilis, nose jobs were needed to repair injuries in battle, but also after duels.

The question that I always get is: Did they work? The problem is that we do not have a lot a data on survival rates after such surgeries. We have a good number of case histories, but often there is more information about the specifics of the surgery--rather than the post-op outcomes.

I can say that it's important to remember that antisepsis and anesthesia were 19th-century discoveries. This means that surgery had an even more complex set of potential complications than it does today. Like most of the early-modern folks, I would certainly not line up to get a nose job or breast enhancement surgery just for the heck of it. Come to think of it...I wouldn't do that now anyway!

For more on all of this, I recommend Sander Gilman's excellent
Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Gilman is on the faculty at Emory and a top cultural historian.

Image courtesy of:
Lilly Library, Medical Collections.

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Henry Hudson's Lost Voyage

By Peter C. Mancall

On April 17, 1610, the English sea captain Henry Hudson maneuvered his small ship called Discovery out of St. Katherine’s dock in London toward the Northwest Passage, the water route Europeans believed connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On board were twenty-two men and two boys, one of whom was Hudson’s seventeen-year old son.

In the late summer of 1610 the captain guided the Discovery into modern Hudson Bay. He decided to spend the winter in Canadian waters even though he knew the ship would become trapped in ice. At some point during the bitterly cold months, some crew members decided they had suffered enough. When June came and the bay thawed, rebels put Hudson, his son, and seven loyal or ill men on a small boat (known as a shallop) and set them adrift. According to the survivors, the mutineers soon met a just fate when a group of Inuit killed four of them. A fifth rebel died, apparently of malnutrition, as the boat sailed homeward.

Sixteen months after its initial departure the Discovery, its decks stained with blood, returned to London with seven men and one boy. The survivors blamed the mutiny on the five men who had since died, but lingering suspicions about the captain’s fate prompted the High Court of Admiralty to investigate further. The suspects could not be charged with mutiny, because there was no such crime in England yet. The sailors had not committed treason because private financiers, rather than the King, owned the ship. The court charged four of the survivors with murder for purportedly exposing those on the shallop. But the accused were exonerated, probably because the court lacked evidence to prove that they had caused Hudson’s demise.

The bodies of Hudson and his last companions have never been found. No one was ever punished for the crime.

Peter C. Mancall is the author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson.

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Was There a Scientific Revolution?

History has often been marked contrasts, "before's," and "after's." BC/AD, Medieval/Renaissance, pre-industrial/post-industrial, post-9/11...

The 17th and 18th centuries are linked, of course, to a big break: the Scientific Revolution. Big S, big R. Of course, some Very Big changes--big V, big B--took place in the early-modern era. Copernicus's heliocentrism (image above) for one. But the question is: was it a specific moment of Revolution...or more of progressive sea-change in world view?

Scholars have spilled gallons of ink exploring this question: Michel Foucault, Frances Yates, Alexandre Koyre, Raymond Williams, just to name the few who come immediately to mind. And still more gallon have been spilled by the vociferous responses their works have elicited.

But what are your thoughts? Be sure to leave a comment!

Here at Wonders & Marvels, one of our favorite quotes comes from Steven Shapin's The Scientific Revolution.

"There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution," he writes, "and this is a book about it."

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Magic and Medicine in Harry Potter

Do Mandrakes Really Scream? This was a question that the National Library of Medicine posed in their magnificent "Magic and Medicine in Harry Potter" exhibit awhile back. The exhibition takes a close look at the facts, fictions, and legends in references to the healing arts in Harry Potter. Very nicely done.

By the way, if you haven't yet explored the NLM's online exhibitions, you really should! Among the many highlights, is the "Dream Anatomies" exhibition. A visually stunning and informative look into early anatomy and dissection.

Another NLM favorite for us here at
Wonders & Marvels is the "Turning the Pages" project. Where else can you flip through a copy of Conrad Gesner's Historiae animalium while stretched out on your couch, laptop in hand? The image quality is extraordinary.

And to answer the question about whether mandrakes scream...first-hand experience suggests they don't. We tried it out at a local nature preserve, where mandrakes grow freely in the lush hills of the south. Darn!

Image: Gerarde, "Mandrake Root" (1636) from another impressive online collection of images, hosted by the University of Colorado: The World of Gloriana: Books and Manuscripts from the Age of Elizabeth I.

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Holy Foreskin!

By David Farley

When I first heard about the Holy Foreskin, I thought—like a lot of people—it was a joke, either the title of a foreskin fetish magazine or something straight from the mind of a perverted Batman fan. I’d majored in history—focusing on the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe—and I had a particular interest in the saints and their relics. Yet, in the research I’d done for papers as an undergraduate and grad student, this once-rapturous remain had never come up. Which intrigued me because once I started doing a bit of research—blew a bit of dust off the documents, so to speak—I found out there was a lot of relatively buried material about the history of Jesus’ foreskin.

After moving to the village of Calcata, 30 miles of Rome, the last place the Holy Foreskin had been seen, I wasn’t sure if broaching the topic of the missing relic would be taboo. But, much to my surprise, pretty much everyone wanted to share their knowledge on the history of the relic and their theories on what happened to it. Everyone except the priest, under whose watch it disappeared. (I eventually did get him to talk, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened.) Then I talked my way into the Vatican Library and, after enough digging around, unearthed some centuries-old papal-approved booklets about the history of this miraculous membrane. All the documents—complete with an impratur that stated papal approval—put the Calcata foreskin at the center of attention, but they always dedicated some discussion to the other Holy Foreskins that were floating around Europe (though mostly in France) during the Middle Ages (most of the other foreskin relics were lost during the Reformation and French Revolution).

But the publications on the relic abruptly stopped after the 19th century. The reason? In 1900, Pope Leo XIII issued a decree stating that anyone who spoke of or wrote about the relic would face excommunication. I was officially intrigued. How did a relic go from being a major pilgrim magnet to being banned by the church centuries later? Factor in the mysterious disappearance of the relic from Calcata in 1983 and we’ve got a genuine historical mystery on our hands.

David Farley is author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Oddest Town.To learn more about David and his book, visit

Image: Calcata, Holy Foreskin Niche, courtesy of the author

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Telling Time in Early Europe

What time is it, you say? If you were living before the 18th century, you would not look at your wrist watch. No, you'd slip a portable sundial out of your pocket. The more complex sundials could also be converted to moon dials that indicated the time according to the amount of moonlight expected on a clear, starry night.

Although town squares began constructing clocks beginning somewhere in the 14th century, sundials remained in the picture well into the 18th century. Mechanical clocks were exorbitantly expensive and could be found only in the most noble of homes. And they were notoriously unreliable--telling time only within an hour, give or take. They also needed to be reset frequently. Of course, with the help of a sundial.

A well crafted sundial was the mark of good birth and high culture. One of the most famous sundial makers of the late seventeenth century was the Englishman Michael Butterfield, who set up shop along the riverbanks of Paris. His top-of-line sundials were made of silver, not brass, and were engraved with beautifully elaborate designs.

Sundial preferences were also gendered. Men went for larger sundials of about 2 1/2 inches nested in a silver box, that itself was nested in a brass exterior box. Women reached instead for daintier, 1 inch models in gold cases that could be slipped more easily in a purse.

Now I'm not a specialist of time telling in the early-modern period. Hardly! Much of what you have here is a distillation of Sara Schechner's outstanding article: "The Material Culture of Astronomy in Daily Life: Sundials, Science, and Social Change" (Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2001, 189-222). Well worth the read!

And for anyone near Chicago and interested in time keeping, a visit to the Adler Planetarium is well worth the trip. Their historical collections are remarkable. Any readers out there with a big checkbook? Take a peek at the sundial collections here. Feel free to ship one to me!

Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum. For more information on the sundial above, click here.

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