Today, as friends have pointed out to me, is my blogiversary: Concocting History is three! I can’t quite believe it. How time flies. My baby is now entering the ‘ferocious threes’ (a phrase coined by Big Boy T) – the ‘terrible twos’ were not too hard on the exhausted mother.
What started more or less on whim, with no real strategy (error n. 1 in blogging!), has completely changed my approach to academic work. Through blogging, I have discovered new sources and I have met new people (some virtually, some in person). This blog is called ‘concocting history’ because I started by experimenting with ancient recipes. I may not have had time to do much of that recently (hopefully, as Little Boy G grows, I will be able to return to my blogging roots), but in another sense, the blog still aims at ‘concocting history’. Of course, I do not make things up, but I like to mix sources, disciplines and methods.
Now, wherever I go, I am on the lookout for inspiration. Blogging has given me an opportunity to discuss topics that fascinate me but on which I may never write full academic articles. In particular, I have indulged in my fascination for twentieth-century pictorial representations of ancient medicine (see here and here). I feel that on the day of my blogiversary, I may indulge some more.
Among the collections of the Wellcome Trust, there are numerous paintings by Ernest Board, an English painter of historical topics (1877-1934). These paintings were commissioned by Henry Wellcome himself. They range from the dawn of mankind (‘The healing art in pre-historic times’) to the advent of ‘modern’ medicine (‘Dr Jenner performing his first vaccination’).
I must have gone past Board’s paintings many times in the Wellcome buildings, but I never really looked at them – I never really saw them – until I attended a conference in October. Then I properly set my eyes on this little beauty: ‘Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus’. This is a representation of incubation, the process whereby patients sleeping in the sanctuaries of Asclepius were visited by the god, his attendants and snakes, in dreams. The dream itself would sometimes lead to healing; in other cases, it had to be interpreted by priests who would suggest a treatment.
This scene looks ‘classical’, but almost everything here is anachronistic. As I am not a purist, I will not list instances of anachronisms. What interests me more is the gendering of the scene. The three patients that can be seen properly are female. Not only are they female – they are attractive, young women, if rather emaciated. Like many others, Board was presenting an eroticised view of illness. This is not done in a particularly subtle manner: the eye is immediately drawn to the female naked breast and the snake that is set to lick/bite it.
‘Dioscorides describing the mandrake’ is another fabulous painting by Board that has Greek and Roman medicine as its topic. It represents a lady holding an anthropomorphic mandrake while the pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) writes its description, and a painter depicts it. Note the adorably anachronistic Attic black-figure vases used as flower pots!
This painting is clearly inspired by two frontispieces of the famous ‘Vienna Dioscorides‘, a manuscript produced c. 512 CE, and which contains an alphabetized version of the text of Dioscorides. The first of these frontispices (fol. 4v) represents Dioscorides with Discovery (Euresis), who is holding a mandrake over a sick dog. The second (fol. 5v) represents Dioscorides writing while Intelligence (Epinoia) holds a mandrake for a painter to depict. Unfortunately, that second frontispiece is not preserved as well as the first.
I wonder how Board came across the frontispieces of the Vienna Dioscorides manuscript? In fact where did he find his inspiration for his history of medicine series? What books of the Wellcome collection did he use? Was he given access to artefacts as well as books?
As I said, my fascination for twentieth-century representations of classical medicine may never lead to ‘proper’ articles, but who knows what the next three years hold? If you share my interest, please do not hesitate to contact me!