Early Lens Making

By Holly Tucker

As part of my day job, I write. I research. I write some more.

There are moments when it's hard to cut out hard-earned words. This is one of them. But I also know that--at least for this chapter that I just finished buttoning up--readers' eyes could glaze over in all the details about early telescopes and the challenges of lens making. It had to go.

So here I am, asking your indulgence as I put a least some of that writing to use in a post...

In the seventeenth century, the challenge for astronomers was to be found in the lenses. Lenses were extraordinarily difficult to make, and the quality was inconsistent at best.

The best available glass for telescope lenses was concocted from a mixture of sand and soda, borax was then added along with a bit of lime and manganese oxide. These last two ingredients tempered the yellow and greenish hue in the glass, not entirely but at least noticeably. All of the materials were left to boil in gigantic melting pots until the various components fused into a unified liquid. Sweating and covered in soot, the glassmaker then began the delicate and dangerous process of scooping the molten liquid onto marble slabs and rolled thin layers flat. The glass would be built up progressively, in layers, until just the right thickness had been achieved. Anything could go wrong in the process--and it usually did. Bubbles, particulates, and fissures specked the glass. And even the most faultless piece of glass was never perfectly clear. "The good colors of glass," wrote the astronomer and instrument-maker Cherubin, "are approaching wine-colored, or blue, or green, even black, but always transparent. Green or the color of sea water is most common."

Once the rough shape of the lens was traced out and cut with a diamond, the grinding process began. [Imagine here several paragraphs of minutiae on lens griding--also deleted!] It could take twenty, thirty, and sometimes more tries to get one lens that was of sufficiently high enough quality for use in a telescope.

Now before you think that I've gone the way of history of engineering, know that much of this great information is indebted to Maurice Daumas'
Scientific Instiruments of the 17th and 18th Centuries and Their Makers. Another excellent book is J.A. Bennett's The Divided Circle: A History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation and Surveying. Or, the visually stunning Scientific Instruments: 1500-1900, an Introduction by Gerard L'E Turner.

Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine

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Ancient Marvels

Guest Post by Justin Marozzi

Herodotus, the roving fifth-century BC Greek historian, collected wonders and marvels with the sort of passion and dedication that obsessive-compulsive travelers show today in filling their passports with foreign stamps and visas.

Why did he do it? I think there were two reasons. First, he knew it would fascinate his readers--it still does, 2,500 years after he died, so he was evidently onto something. Second, and just as important, he simply couldn't resist it. This was a man whose insatiable curiosity for the weird and wonderful runs riot throughout the pages of the Histories, his masterpiece about the Persian Wars.

He announces his interest in the very first lines of the book. He is going to concentrate, he says, on "great and marvellous deeds," and these marvels range way beyond the battlefields of the Persian Wars, from the stupendous temples of Egypt and Greece and bizarre human adventures to curious sexual practices and the workings of the Nile. Herodotus is awarding himself a licence to thrill--and be thrilled.

Hence the proliferation of curiosities he introduces us to, such as dog-headed men that live in the mountains, the gold-digging ants of India, bigger than a fox, smaller than a dog, and the fabulous flying snakes of Arabia.

He writes with gusto about the sexual habits of the Babylonians, who fumigate their genitals after intercourse and won't touch any household utensils until they have performed this strange cleansing act. He details the free-ranging promiscuity of the Massagetae of the Caspian Sea region, where it's a very male world: "If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving."

He notes the Scythians' fondness for hashish and the intoxicated howls of laughter the drug produces. In Egypt, he notes that the corpses of very beautiful women are not given to the embalmers right away due to instances of necrophilia among the more shameless practitioners of the art.

It's all compelling reading, and that's without even touching on his monumental history of the Persian Wars!

Justin Marozzi is the author of The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History, published by Da Capo.

Click here to enter the drawing for copy of Justin Marozzi's new book!

Image: Eighteenth-century engraving of the pyramids of Giza.

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Cleopatra's Makeup

Guest Post by Michelle Moran

We tend to think of cosmetics as feminine perks of the modern life. Women treasure their favorite lipstick colors like gold, protect their skin with anti-aging creams, and spend countless hours in front of the mirror getting their eyeliner just right.

It surprises many people to know that ancient Egyptian women were just as fanatical about their cosmetics. Take a look at the portraits of ancient Egypt and you would be hard-pressed to find a woman (or a man) whose eyes aren't perfectly lined with kohl, whose lips aren't perfectly painted with ochre, or whose long tresses aren't protected from the harsh desert sun by wigs.

A wealthy woman's typical beauty regiment might begin with her waking in the morning and applying incense pellets to her underarms as a form of deodorant. Then, she might sit herself in front of a "mirror" (which was really polished bronze), and call for her servant to bring applets and grinders necessary for applying her daily makeup. Once the pallet was brought, she would watch her servant mix malachite with an oil derived from animal fat to create a eye-shadow. She would close her eyes as her servant applied the green power with sweeps of a small ivory stick carved on one end to look like the goddess Hathor. Then, when the eye-shadow was finished, the lady of the house would sit perfectly still while her servant lined her eyes with black kohl.

While these applications resulted in the beautification of the wearer, they had practical purposes as well. When applied above and beneath the eye, kohl served to protect the eyes from the intense glare of the sun. In fact, the Egyptian word for makeup palette appears to have been taken from their word to protect, which may reference kohl's usefulness outdoors, or may even refer to the belief that outlining the eyes protected the wearer from the dreaded Evil Eye.

Once the lady of the house had on her protective kohl, she might then decide to use red ochre on her lips or dab her wrists and breasts with perfume. Having completed all of this, the lady would then dress for the occasion.

Michelle Moran is author of The Heretic Queen, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra's Daughter (coming out soon).

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Book of the Week: The Way of Herodotus

If you couldn't tell, I am passionate about early history. Early history means that marvelous moment between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. 16th to 18th centuries. It's what we academic types usually call "the early-modern."

The early-modern era had something of a love-loathing relationship with Antiquity. The recovery of classical texts by writers like Aristotle, Plato, and Galen in the thirteenth century helped to usher in the Renaissance. Ancient philosophy, science, and literature became a benchmark of high learning--and the foundations on which European culture would seek to build itself.

In France, the sixteenth-century poet Joachim du Bellay wrote a treatise called the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language." In it, he argued that for French and France to come into itself as a nation it would be critical for authors to "ingest" classical texts, digest them, and integrate them into the very fabric of French knowledge. In his poems, he often lamented the fall of Rome and compared himself to Ulysses. Writing was a quest of origins and the efforts to integrate those origins into something new, something distinct, something French.

This week's choice for Book of the Week shifts the focus to one of the ancient "superstars" for early-modern writers: Herodotus. Writing in the 5th century BCE, Herodotus provided critical historical information about the ancient past. Much of what he had to say is apocryphal. He made up a few tall tales--but it's the tall tales that I adore! I'm an early-modern marvels junkie, after all.

Justin Marozzi's The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History retraces the travel of this ancient great. And the result makes for a brilliant interweaving of a long-lost past and an equally intriguing present.

Step right up: it's not all dusty history. There be dog-headed men, gold-digging ants, and flying snakes in these parts. I think you'll really enjoy this one.

To enter this week's drawing, just click here.

Image: Double-headed bust of the historians Herodotus (left) and Thucydides (right). Courtesy of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

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Women's Medical Secrets

by Renee Hanemann (Vanderbilt University)

Queen Elizabeth I, the queen of England and Ireland in the late 16th century, was a public participant in what was usually considered women's secret, private household medical practice. She helped to create broader public recognition of women's medical knowledge with the publication of "Closset of Secrets." The "secrets" contained in the text were extensive, covering numerous aspects of women's health and beauty. In a segment entitled "The Child Bearer's Cabinet," the text exposed monthly medical instructions for pregnant women, including nutritional information and advice for avoiding imaginary and psychological traumas which might affect the fetus. Additionally, the segment contained post-birth medical instructions, both for the newborn child and the new mother. The main purpose of this selection was to ensure that women of the royal court (among other readers) would make no mistakes in childbearing due to their own ignorance. Thus the queen used her position as queen to educate other women.

Another segment of Elizabeth's "Closset" concerned the Black Plague and Smallpox. Epidemics in London created widespread fear and panic, calling for new medical knowledge. The selection "Treatise Concerning the Plague and the Pox" focused on presenting cures for both illnesses through the use of home remedies and recipes that could ward off contagions and keep the population healthy. In this way, Elizabeth I used her public position to draw connections between the queen's duty to share knowledge and protect her people, and the housewife's duty to use household wisdom to cure her family.

Arnold, Ken. Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Evans, Robert John Weston. Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

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History is not for the Faint of Heart

by Kathleen Kent

Awhile back, I got the opportunity to speak to my son's school in a general assembly of students ranging from the 7th to 11th grades to talk about my novel recently published based on my own family's stories about the Salem witch trials of 1692. As I looked across the mostly pained, blank, or already bored faces, I suddenly remembered something I had forgotten for many years. I recalled my 10th grade European history teacher who, on the first day of class, ordered all of us to pass our text books to the front row of desks. They were typical, weighty tomes, mostly about dead white people and, as it was the late 1960's, we felt a moral obligation to sit in sneering condemnation, expecting a rehash of everything we had learned in lower school.

To our surprise, our instructor, Mr. Bentley, threw a few of the textbooks in the trash barrel, telling us that if we wanted a dry recitation of facts and figures we should transfer to 6th period math. His first assignment was to read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. He then proceeded to take us through the rigors and, to our delight, the horrors of the black plague of Europe in the 14th century. We did end up, in spite of ourselves, memorizing the seminal dates of history: the Norman Invasion of 1066, the Magna Carta in 1215, etc. But for the first time, history was a marvelous, dark, and rancorous stew of human emotions and desires. People long dead were motivated by the same sparks of passion or apathy, which afflicted all of us; and, except for the funny costumes, would be as easily recognized as our own peers.

Standing in front of 150 teenaged kids, I remembered, thanks to Mr. Bentley, that they could care less about the places and dates--they wanted to know about the people. So I told them about the ultimate "mean girls" who sent 19 innocent men and women to the hangman, and one man to be crushed under a weight of stone. I asked for a volunteer and piled books on top of him until he screamed "uncle." I asked for another volunteer and recreated that favorite Puritan torture method called "the bow," where the victim is tied face-down, hands behind the back, a noose tied neck to ankles. It only took to minutes to get him to confess he was a witch, and the kids loved it. I had their attention and then I could tell them about how courageous, how utterly singular, it had been for those brave few to stand up in front of an entire community and cleave to the truth, knowing it would bring imprisonment, torture, and death.

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Book of the Week: Heretic's Daughter

If you've been a regular reader of Wonders and Marvels, you know that early-modern witches have captured our odd imaginations. You'll find a treasure trove of broomstick riders here.

The Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project is the work of Professor Ben Ray, whose research was supported in part by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. Well worth a look for anyone interested primary documents, images, court records of this particularly dark moment in American history.

Our Book of the Week is the Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent. Kathleen is a descendant of the infamously tragic Carrier family. Her book tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of Martha Carrier's young daughter. The prose is mellifluous, the characters rich, and the plot gripping. I'm not surprised that it received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.

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What would the Middle Ages do with Outlook 2007?

By Holly Tucker

I'm in what good friends and family call my "Cartesian mode." That's when I start breaking tasks down by lists and tackling the mysteries of the natural world in manageable chunks, careful not to overlook anything. And taking nothing as a foregone conclusion. You can call it OCD--Obsessive Cartesian Determination.

My "tabula rasa" moment came with a heretical rethinking of the tyranny of email over the holidays. Armed with a copy of David Allen's Getting Things Done, I wrestled my inbox to the ground. Then came the Outlook 2007 reminder flags and color categories. Finally, the decision to turn off the computer in the evenings so I could share regular, focused time with my family.

I mention all of this because this is a blog on Wonders and Marvels. I'm marveling that it is IS possible to keep an inbox empty. It IS possible to pump out a book chapter in half the normal time without losing tons of sleep (and oddly, my beta readers have decided it's the strongest one yet...). And it IS possible to have dinner as a family with spare time for checkers in the evenings.

Can you find ten extra hours in your week to make time for the stuff that really matters? Here's a place to start.

And for your viewing pleasure: One of the most stunning book of hours in history...
"Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry" (1412-1416). Those medieval and early-modern folks were just as busy as we are now. So many fields to tend, crusades to launch, and wonders to explore.

Here's wishing that my Outlook calendar were as beautiful as theirs! There is only so much those color-coded categories can do.

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A 19th Century Abortionist

By Beverly Swerling

It’s tempting to think the abortion wars started with Roe v. Wade, but it’s not true.

In the early eighteenth century abortionists advertised in New York City broadsheets offering “guaranteed cures” for “female problems,” code for an unwanted pregnancy. The cures took the form of a variety of purges and placebos, and the non-sterile, non-anaesthetized version of what we’d now call a dilation and curettage when performed by a doctor, or a back-alley coat hangar special at the hands of an unqualified abortionist.

Just as the title quack was not a pejorative in colonial times – quackery was defended as natural and ‘homely’ – abortion was considered perfectly acceptable if performed before the end of the fourth month, the usual time for the child to “quicken.” The popular notion was that until then the fetus was not human, not ensouled, as the clergy said. By 1828, however, doctors were beginning to develop the specialties of gynecology and obstetrics. To eliminate the competition they lobbied for a law that said a person performing an abortion after quickening could be charged with manslaughter, fined $100, and sentenced to a year in prison. Their pleas were reinforced by a journalist, George W. Dixon, who saw himself as the keeper of public morality and apparently believed that if they could be sure of ending an illicit pregnancy, women would all become adulteresses and prostitutes. Under such circumstances no man could be sure of the virtue of his wife or his daughters.

None of this stopped the most famous abortionist of her day, a woman who called herself Madame Restell, from building a thriving business. On the one occasion when Madam Restell was imprisoned, the men who relied on her to look after their mistresses if needed, (philandering was fine, creating a scandal was not) paid her jailer to provide a featherbed and “delicate” food. While she was in prison the American Female Moral Reform Society visited and tried to persuade her to convert to Christianity. They were not successful. She made even more money after she was released. Enough so she built herself a Fifth Avenue mansion (on the corner of 52nd Street) and bought a splendid coach and four with a liveried driver who took her up and down Broadway every afternoon.

For more, see Edward G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press.

Beverly Swerling is author of City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York.
Image: National Police Gazette, March 13, 1847

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Witches and Midwives

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early seventeenth century, which witch hunts had reached their height, midwives were often depicted as witches who communed with the devil. While there may be questions regarding the exact nature of prosecution/persecution of midwives between 1500 and 1700, description of the demonic works of the midwife-witch nonetheless abound in lay and learned writings through the early-modern era. Kramer and Sprenger's influential witchcraft book Malleus Maleficarum, first published in 1486 and reprinted no fewer than thirty times between 1487 and 1669, contains frequent reveries on witch-midwives and their horrific acts toward new mothers and their offspring. This book of witchcraft reports a woman's allegations that she was punished after she refused to allow a midwife with a "bad reputation"to assist her in her pregnancy. Soon after she went into labor, the rejected midwife went into her room, paralyzed her so that she could not speak, and vowed to avenge herself. The midwife-witch then put thorns, bones, and bits of wood in her entrails so that, six months later, the new mother would be "tortured"with unbearable pain.

From Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early Modern France
(p. 64). Author? yours truly.

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The King Dances

At the tender age of six, Louis XIV showed very little signs of kingly behavoir. He was a socially awkward child, tongue-tie, and bashful. Hushed whispers ran through the court that the young boy would likely be unfit to lead. One Italian traveler reported followed a trip to the royal court at the Louvre that the French "considered him dim-witted."

Whether through training or through maturity, there would be little doubt just a few years later that while Louis was a taciturn youth, he had an uncanny gift for physical activities.

Each morning, Louis woke to a room full of well-wisher and attendants. He was helped from bed to a small alter in his room and knelt to pray. Hair combed, tights and knee-length pants on, Louis springed with delight to a large room just behind his chamber for his daily exercises. One of his valets de chambre, Dubois de Lestourniere, wrote that the king "vaulted with an admirable lightness, like a bird and had his wooden horse propped up to its highest point. He would fall back on the saddle as noiselessly as if it were a pillow. He then fenced, jousted, and went back to his alcove room where he would dance."

France dance in the seventeenth century required outstanding coordination, strength, and delicate agility. It was an exercise in control as the dancer completed elaborate and richly choreographed movement to pounding, triumphant music that shift in rhythm an dmood. Every part of the body was involved: the dancer's feet tapped, praced, and swirled, torso still and upright, hands followin gin stylized staccato. Restrained facial expressions were careful to hide the complexity of the art.

In 1653, the full power of the young king's artistic talent was put on display for the court. He took the stage as Apollo, Sun God. His costume was "covered with a rich gold embroidery and many rubies. The rays that appeared around his head were of diamonds and the crown was of rubies and pearls topped with numerous pink and white feathers.'

Now if time travel is ever made possible in my lifetime, this is the historical moment I would give anything to attend...

References: Regine Astier, "Louis XIV, 'Premier Danseur.'" IN Sun King: The Ascendancy of French Culture During the Reign of Louis XIV. Ed. David Lee Rubin. NJ: Associated University Presses, 1992: 73-102.

Image: Ballet of the Night, 1653

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Book of the Week: City of God

Up this week: Beverly Swerling's City of God: A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York.

Beverly's novels are spell-binding journeys into an era rich in history and intrigue. For a flavor of her work, take a peek at her latest book trailer. (Yes, there are such things as book trailers now!) This novel, in particular, caught my eye because of its many references to medical life in the 19th century. My guess that many Marvels & Tales readers will enjoy it!

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Looking for Louis

By Holly Tucker

I've had many people ask me why a girl from the cornfields of Illinois would have a passion--no, obsession--for life in 17th century France. The first part of the answer is easy, actually. My paternal grandmother's family was French; she was truly my kindred spirit. Une ame jumelle, a sister soul, as they say in French. There is not a day that I do not miss her. A portrait of my French family hangs in our dining room and speaks volumes about who I am--and the legacy of which I am a part, and the legacy that I wish to leave when I am gone.

The second part of the answer--the part specifically about the 17th century--is less obvious. It has everything to do with searching for a king who eluded me for years.

When I was just thirteen years old, I had a chance to travel to Paris with a school group. As so many tourists do, we took the train from the French capitol out to Versailles. Due to an unfortunate snafu, we were not able to enter the palace. Instead, we had to content ourselves with touring the gardens only. But, if you've ever been to Versailles, you know that the gardens alone are worth the trip.

Ever curious and always the geek, I bought a tour book of the interior of the palace. The photographs were so vibrant, so amazing. I spent the next five years pouring over every detail of every photograph. I concocted stories about what the inside of Versailles was like, how Louis XIV moved in the spaces, and what life at court would sound, smell, taste like. Years later, I finally had the opportunity to visit the palace.

I was devastated.

Call me silly, but I think now--in retrospect--I did truly expect to meet the king. Or, at least, to come in contact with some visceral evidence of his extraordinary existence. Instead, I was crushed against a sea of tourists and shuffled from furniture-less room to furniture-less room. The walls were covered with protective plexiglass. And the school children in the group behind us giggled and squealed in ways that made my eardrums ache.

I have spent nearly 20 years of my adult life researching the seventeenth century. I am sure it is because I am always looking for Louis.

Over time, I've gotten to know him well. Too well. Yes, he was the Sun King. And yes, his legacy is one of unyielding magnificence. But, the Louis I know now had rotten teeth and problems with anorectal fistulae. He was a king of splendor and of stink.

Or, maybe I'm just still mad at him for not meeting me at the gates of his palace all those years ago?

Image: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV

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The Art of Dying

by Kris Waldherr

Of the many méthodes de la mort presented in my book Doomed Queens, it's beheading which generates the most buzz. After all, thanks to Henry VIII and his infamous wives, it's a rare person who hasn't seen Hollywood footage of one of his queens losing her head. These cinematic scenes are usually acted with a trembling lower lip, defiant last statement, then cue birds flying away (no doubt symbolizing the flight of the soul to heaven).

Beheading has been utilized worldwide since ancient times. It's considered a quick and effective way to end a life, provided the executioner is skilled. In the case of Mary Stuart, it took three blows to sever her head. During Henry's era, the condemned were usually blindfolded after they made a pious last statement that included forgiveness of the executioner and praise for the monarch. Next, they placed their necks upon the block; in the case of women, sometimes someone held their hair to the front, to steady them for the blow to come. Though an ax was traditionally used, Henry sent for a French swordsman to execute Anne in 1536; it was rumored that he was so skilled that she would feel no pain. Anne quipped, "He shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck." The queen was killed with a single sword stroke while kneeling upright mid-prayer.

The much-married king did not splurge for the French swordsman in 1542 for Catherine Howard, his fifth queen but second conjugal beheading; she was dispatched in the usual way. The story goes that poor little Queen Kitty was so nervous about her upcoming date with death that she requested the block to be brought to her. She spent the night before her execution rehearsing how to place her head on the block. Presumably these efforts left her exhausted; her legs gave way as she climbed the scaffold and she had to be helped up.

As for Marie Antoinette, she was beheaded with a guillotine in 1793, which was a la mode in France due to the efforts of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The good doctor submitted a modest proposal in 1789 to an assembly evaluating changes to the French penal code. Within it, Guillotin made the audacious suggestion that all men be treated equal when executed—that is, without pain and without torture. He wrote, "In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same. . . . The criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism." Contrary to popular belief, Guillotin was not a fetishist fascinated by executions; he was a lapsed Jesuit who hoped that a more humane method would lead to the abolition of the death penalty. Nor did he design the "simple mechanism" that bore his name. Variations of the guillotine have been around since the fourteenth century. After nearly two years of debate, the Assembly approved his measure in time for the Reign of Terror's communal bloodletting.

Did the guillotine really render its victims a painless, swift death? The jury is out on that, since no one can tell us. However, one story suggests that consciousness did not immediately cease after the blade fell. Charlotte Corday, the infamous murderess of Marat, was recorded to have blushed with "unequivocal indignation" after her severed head was slapped by her jubilant executioner. That written, a neuropsychologist recently informed me that it was likely that individual consciousness would end within four seconds, in response to the severing of the aorta during decapitation. More probably, Charlotte's famed blush was in reaction to the slap itself. Since the guillotine operates so quickly, her blood would be caught still circulating toward her brain, leaving her skin responsive to physical force after consciousness ceased—unless that was one really fast slapper.

Kris Waldherr is the author of Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends From Cleopatra to Princess Di from Broadway Books. Image: Kris Waldherr

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Surgical Strikes

By Holly Tucker

Our semester is gearing up here. Students to teach, meetings to attend, and--as always--lots of work to do on my book manuscript.

Scissors and tape in hand, I did a surgical amputation of nearly 15 pages on a chapter this weekend. Yes, yes. I know all about the cut and paste functions on the computer. But at the end stages of drafting, I just see things better when I get out the scalpel.

My beta readers have confirmed that the patient is much better for the procedure. A glass or two of wine after the procedure helped this surgeon recovery nicely too.

Vino or no, it hurt to chop out some sections. Regular readers know that I just love odd historical details. But, my gut was right; too much is too much.

But hey, the good news is that those delicious tidbits will find their way here. Want to know how early telescope lenses were made? Stay tuned later this week.

Curious about Louis XIV the ballet-dancing Don Juan? He'll be leaping his way to Wonders & Marvels without delay. So many great little time!

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Book of the Week: Doomed Queens

Joining us this week at Wonders and Marvels is Kris Waldherr. Kris is an author, illustrator, and designer whose books present women's stories, sacred and profane —she's written about goddesses as well as queens and courtesans.

Her latest book is Doomed Queens, which garnered some fine praise from
The New Yorker:

"It isn’t often that one encounters a book that invites the reëmergence of childhood fantasies, then eviscerates them in a few words. Even less common is the book that manages to make the process utterly satisfying. Such is the rush I got from Kris Waldherr’s deliciously perverse Doomed Queens . . . a concise, humorous, and keenly observed history of women and power."

As for me, I love the illustrations in the book. And little wonder at that! Kris's art has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and England, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, where she has a small gallery that doubles as her studio. You can take a peek at her stuff on her website and at the very cool

Really makes me wish that were half as creative! Boxes and unlife-like trees are about the best I can draw.

Kris will be joining us on Thursday to talk about--yes, folks--life at the guillotine. Now there's the fate of a few doomed queens or two, or three, or more.

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A View from the Inside

By Holly Tucker

Awhile back, a friend sent me this link to a BBC video about writers and the rooms where they write. It made me think about my own space, a place where I spend so many hours of my day.

As most of you know, I'm in the depths of writing a book on medicine in 17th century France and England. It's a work of narrative nonfiction: a rigorously researched history, but with the pacing and character development of a novel. It's what keeps me awake at night--not just because I find the topic utterly fascinating, but also because I can hear the ticking of my editor's deadline.

After years of trying to get the space right, I think this one works. I've learned that I need to be able to see out a window as I write. Facing a wall is too much like facing a blank page. I recently discovered the joys of dual monitors, which allow me to write on one screen while consulting notes on another. I also need plenty of space to sprawl out, a place for so many research files and books, and a bulletin board for random notes. On the bulletin board, there's a postcard of a 17th century study housed at the Getty that is my inspiration for the closing scene of the book. And another image of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of learning, and Ganeshi, remover of obstacles. A call-out to the affection that I have for India and, ok, I'll admit it: hopefulness that Saraswati will help the words flow from my mind to the keyboard.

The study is my space at the house, but it's doors are open. My daughter does her homework at the desk next to mine, or reads in the chair as I write. And our dog, Lucky, often sleeps at my feet as I work.

For the soundtrack? I always have playing in the background. Techno Indian/Bollywood when I'm outlining or researching; Jean-Baptiste Lully's 17th court music for writing; and Pandora random mix when I'm editing/rewriting. It's not an intentional choice of music, I actually just noticed that pattern last week. I like it.

Writing can be peaceful, but lonely, work. I'm fortunate to be surrounded by superb friends who help me balance out this cloistered life, and amazing students who make the research worth it. This blog is yet another way that I find inspiration and connections in this odd life of writing. And what wonder and marvel that is!

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A History of Rum

By Frederick H. Smith, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1996 I went to Barbados to prepare a historical archaeological field school in Bridgetown with my colleague Dr. Karl Watson and his students from the department of history at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. On the morning of Saturday, July 13, Watson called to say that construction workers in a part of the city known as the Pierhead had unearthed skeletal remains while preparing a site for the expansion of a local shopping mall.

The skeletal remains turned out to be human, and further investigation revealed more burials at the site. We spent the day surveying this unmarked and forgotten cemetery, and recording information about the site. Based on the absence of grave markers, the cemetery’s location on the periphery of the town, and the presence of a mid-eighteenth century white kaolin clay tobacco pipe, which had been placed in the crook of the right arm of one the deceased, we determined that the graveyard was the final resting place of Bridgetown’s slave population.

Throughout the day, construction workers and residents from the nearby neighborhoods monitored our excavation and pondered our work. Some mentioned the ghosts of those buried at the site and the restlessness of duppies, the mischievous, and sometimes malicious, spirits of the dead. At the end of the day, we removed the skeleton with the tobacco pipe and began packaging it for proper storage at the University of the West Indies. About that time, someone in the crowd shouted that we needed to pour libations to those buried at the site, and within minutes a bottle of rum was produced for that purpose. The rum was poured on the ground and the pouring was punctuated by requests that the duppies “rest in peace” and “leave us alone.”

This event was a major turning point in my academic career. Since 1991, I had conducted fieldwork in different parts of the Caribbean and during these visits had the opportunity to observe the central place of rum and other forms of alcohol in Caribbean society. I had also come across numerous references to rum in the primary documents I was reading. During the excavations at the Pierhead cemetery in Bridgetown, however, I was an actual participant in an event that embodied and expressed centuries of alcohol-related traditions in the Caribbean, which inspired me to pursue further study.

My book explores the role of alcohol in the Caribbean from the sixteenth century to the present. Drawing on materials from Africa, Europe, and throughout the Americas, it contributes to the growing field of Atlantic studies and breaks new ground in using an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates documentary, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence. It investigates the economic impact of Caribbean rum on multiple scales, including rum’s contribution to sugar plantation revenues, its role in bolstering colonial and post-colonial economies, and its impact on Atlantic trade. A number of political-economic trends determined the volume and value of rum exports from the Caribbean, especially war, competition from other alcohol industries, slavery and slave emancipation, temperance movements, and globalization.

My book also examines the social and sacred uses of rum and identifies the forces that shaped alcohol drinking in the Caribbean. While the enormous amounts of rum available in the Caribbean contributed to a climate of excessive drinking, levels of alcohol consumption varied among different social groups. The different drinking patterns reflect more than simply access to rum. For example, levels of drinking and drunken comportment conveyed messages about the underlying tensions that existed in the Caribbean, which were driven by the coercive exploitation of labor and set within a highly contentious social hierarchy based on class, race, gender, religion, and ethnic identity. Moreover, these tensions were often magnified by epidemic disease, poor living conditions, natural disasters, international conflicts, and unstable food supplies. While nearly everyone in the Caribbean drank, the differing levels of alcohol use by various social groups highlights the ways in which drinking became a means to confront anxiety.

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Frederick Smith is author of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. He teaches Anthropology at the College of William & Mary.

Image: A West India Sportsman by Lieutenant Abraham James (1807). Barbados Museum and Historical Society

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