Early modern Europe Monuments Museums

The Virus, the Virtual, the Virtuoso’s Cabinet, and the World

By Saara Penttinen

This blog post was supposed to be about something else.

Being inspired by the ongoing coronavirus situation is not something I expected or wished to happen. In fact, I feel conflicted about even admitting it despite many rather stimulating articles written in apparent lighting speed exploring, for example, epidemics and plagues in history, sprouting up in recent weeks. There might never be a return back to ‘normal’ – everything might have changed before we got a chance to say good-bye. There’s nothing else to do except to adapt, as people have done countless of times in history. I haven’t been able to write in about a month, but today I felt it was the time. Perhaps this is me, adapting.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some difficulties in centering my scattered thoughts, especially since the focus of this text has changed so drastically. But I want to start from the beginning: in the original marble lid of the famous Tradescant tomb in Lambeth. Since the early modern collections commonly known as cabinets of curiosity became a popular research subject in the last decades of the 20th century, the inscription – dedicated to father and son John Tradescant, eager seventeenth-century curiosity collectors – has been quoted in numerous publications The most quoted lines go as follows:

By their choice collection may appear
Of what is rare, in land, in seas, and air:
Whilst they (as HOMER’s Iliad in a nut)
A world of wonders in one closet shut.

Especially the last line describing the Tradescant collection, aptly called The Ark, as “a world of wonders in one closet shut” has been perceived to sum up nicely the microcosmic nature of these collections; in other words, they were understood as worlds in a miniature form. But how exactly were they ‘worlds’? What was their relationship with the wider world, the macrocosm? Were they considered substitutions of the real thing, simulations, or worlds in themselves? Since asking these questions in the beginning of my PhD studies, I have fallen deeper and deeper into the abyss of early modern ambiguities and analogies. Especially one of my key concepts seems to evade me. This concept is virtuality.

Virtuality is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot nowadays – I mean a lot. It has been used so much especially since the beginning of the internet age that it has lost its novelty and started to appear commonplace, even mundane. Despite its popularity, virtuality as a concept is more often than not taken for granted and not actually understood very well. What does virtuality, in fact, mean?

Nowadays everything seems to be virtual from shopping and entertainment to therapists, maps and communities. Through a huge array of avatars on different social platforms also our social lives and most intimate communications are, at least partially, virtual. But this was the situation only in February – it is nothing compared with were we are right now. If there ever was a time for virtuality, that time is undoubtedly now. How to be present without being present – that is the question on everyone’s lips. How to work, or go to school? How to visit elderly relatives? How to stay sane, or to feel connected with the world, even just a little bit? How to substitute the experiences that were taken away from us? Is it okay to drink a bottle of wine alone, if you’re doing it on Zoom?

Virtuality as a term holds many futuristic connotations, even if the future seems, to some extent, to be already here. The virtual future might mean an era of connectivity, shared experiences, and democratic opportunities. It can also mean a time of blurred lines between right and wrong and losing the touch of reality. Though many things are arguably gained in the current dystopia, many are also lost, perhaps for good. Besides the devastating human and economic cost, some of the loss happens in the very translation of the actual to the virtual, never to be recovered again.

Despite the futuristic connotations, and the contemporary usage of the term, virtuality has a history just like everything else. The first associations for most people are the different technologies, such as virtual memory, simulations, and virtual realities. The history of virtual reality is usually stated to have started in the 1930s, sometimes with a mention of earlier technologies, such as 19th-century stereoscopes and panoramas. The main function of virtual reality technologies seems to be in creating a sensory immersion of a kind – essentially, in fooling the eye and sometimes other senses too to feel like the experience is taking place somewhere completely different. Oliver Grau’s 2003 book Virtual Art takes a media history’s point of view and traces the history of illusory techniques in art from modern days all the way to Antiquity. My own research period, the seventeenth century, had a huge array of ‘virtual art’ alongside a multitude of devices for creating spatial and optical illusions. In general, the early modern period can be described as an era of un utmost interest in modifying the sensory experience.

Nevertheless, virtuality doesn’t only entail technologies, devices, or even illusory techniques. What’s the thread holding it all together – what’s the essence of virtuality itself? Alongside the computer-related meanings, the modern-day definition of virtuality according to a (virtual) dictionary is “in effect or essence, if not in fact or reality; imitated, simulated” while actual is “existing in act or reality, not just potentially”. Therefore, the term could be used in context of something being ‘as good as’ something else – as can be perceived in the everyday use of the adverb virtually.

The etymology of virtual most likely originates from Medieval Latin’s virtualis derived from the notoriously equivocal Latin word virtus, meaning for example, ‘excellence, potency, efficacy’. In a late 14th-century meaning, virtual meant something in the lines of “influencing by physical virtues or capabilities, effective with respect to inherent natural qualities.” In the beginning of the 15th century, this had been concentrated to the modern meaning: “capable of producing a certain effect”, and therefore, “being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact”.

Virtual travel is a concept that instantaneously comes to mind when thinking of substituting the real thing with something ‘as good as’. For most seventeenth-century people, travelling virtually was the only way to see the world. Most classes, professions, and age groups rarely travelled. Religions and customs often frowned upon the concept of ‘worldliness’, and people were suspicious about wanderers and rootless people. Even those that were able to travel, usually only got to do one big journey in their lifetimes – such experiences were cherished and relived, and eventually turned into travel writings, plays, and collections for other people’s armchair travel. Experience didn’t necessarily have to be direct; even an ad vivum picture could be made by an artist only consulting a previous representation of the subject.

Before March, I had no idea I wanted to travel (or at least, to wander aimlessly through hardware stores) as much as I do now. A couple of weeks ago, at the pajamas stage of the pandemic, I witnessed a morning show host pointing at the window behind him, and with a straight face suggesting, that for those viewers not being able to go outside, their windows could substitute the world outside. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The question of substitution becomes especially important when thinking about people who can’t experience things actually: How to replace the world for people confined to their homes? Even before the COVID-19 this was an important issue. For decades, there has been a growing market for technological innovations designed for the lonely, the disabled, and the sick. Now that a vast number of people have found that their world has been taken away, there’s suddenly a desperate need for some kind of a window back to it. If virtual is something that can replace the actual, the question is: what can be replaced, and what cannot?

However, virtuality is not simply synonymous with replacement; according to Wolfgang Welsch, its philosophical roots go back at least to Aristotle’s concept of dynamis, meaning literally potentiality – something later writers, starting from Thomas Aquinas, called virtual. However, dynamis, or Aquinas’ virtual, didn’t mean an alternative to the actual, but a prerequisite; a possibility, in the limits of which reality was able to actualize. In later centuries the nature of the concept changed with different writers, slowly disconnecting virtual from the actual. As the one-two step connection vanished, the virtual realms could in some cases even exist separately from the actual. The eventual actualization didn’t necessarily empty the realm of the virtual possibilities; they stayed alive, in some other realm. At some point, we ended up in the situation we’re in now, with the virtual and the actual existing in completely different, but in some ways, mutually supportive realms. (3–6)

The idea of having something beyond or before actuality, something to possibly support, to substitute or even to replace it, fits well to many phenomena in different eras, cultures, media, and genres: the idea might be generally human and global, a concept larger than the etymology of the term itself. In fact, all time periods and people have had virtual media of some kind, and experienced virtual travel in some form or another: reading books, going to the theatre, listening to stories, daydreaming, playing, and creating – all of them have a quality of substitution, of making plans awaiting realization, of dry running, of conceptualizing. Virtuality might just be a way of life for humans, to some extent.

The multiple nuances of the term enrich (or confuse) my research on the relationships of the cabinets of curiosity and similar collections had with the world: they can be seen, all at once, as representations of the wider world; as private worlds of the collectors; as cultural lenses to the world; or as worlds in themselves. Could the collections, just like the television and the internet nowadays, substitute the world at large, and be a replacement for travel? And whose travel was that – and whose world: the visitors’, the collector’s, or someone else’s?

The research on the virtual worlds in cabinets of curiosity can open up interesting connections to the modern-day conversations on virtuality. There is surprisingly little research that takes into account or even acknowledges the full history of the concept – usually the focus is on some niche contemporary meaning. Virtuality is not solely about technologies and illusionism, but about much larger and more fundamental themes: what is reality? What is experience? What is the effect of different kinds of media to experience and its authenticity? How does cognition work? How do we make sense, simulate, and create worlds?

This new and sudden era of virtuality might be a modern society’s attempt to cling onto an old version of the world; to save it in an ark – in ‘one closet shut’, as the Tradescants did with their collection. At the same time, something brand new is beginning to form. We might even realize that some of the old is not worth replacing after all. Perhaps the situation will force us to re-evaluate our priorities: is it more important to be constantly productive and active, or to take it slow, to keep in touch, to touch, to walk in the park, to be able to sit down outside and watch the spring arrive. What is the right ratio of the actual and the virtual for the recipe of human happiness? What even is real, and what does it mean to be real?

I’m sure that in the end, we will find the balance – we will all, yet again, adapt to the new world we are thrown into.

Saara Penttinen is a PhD Student at the University of Turku department of European and World History working on virtual worlds in seventeenth-century English cabinets of curiosity. She’s currently a visiting associate at the Department of English at Queen Mary University of London.

Featured Image: Engravings of the Tradescant Tomb from Samuel Pepys Drawings, Philosophical Transactions, 1773.

Early modern Europe religious history

Believing in Witches and Demons

By Jan Machielsen

How do we assess whether a claim is worthy of belief? What does it mean to treat it with scepticism? Do we reject it outright as a fiction or lie? Or do we simply refuse to act while we wait for further confirmation? After all, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) observed, ‘it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.’ Montaigne was writing about witch-burnings, but the question as to whether to act on witchcraft belief was, for him, as much a matter of temperament—a question of trusting one’s beliefs—as it was about reasoned argument. When he was given the opportunity to interview a group of convicted witches while traveling through Germany, he was not convinced, deciding the women needed hellebore instead of hemlock—that is, they were mentally ill, rather than deserving of death. And yet, Montaigne’s witchcraft scepticism was not certain knowledge of a falsehood. It was not knowing. Witches might well exist—Montaigne did not know, and if they did, it might not even matter.

Michael Pacher, The Devil holding up the Book of Vices to St. Augustine (1483)

We do not typically think about the early modern witch-hunt in this way. We tend to see witchcraft almost as axiomatically false, as a falsehood which will wilt away when exposed to reason. US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis used witches in that sense in a famous 1927 free speech case: ‘men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.’ Witchcraft, unfortunately, did not die because more and better speech was available. Indeed, as Thomas Waters has shown in a marvellous recent study, witchcraft was nothing if not free-speech-resistant. Yet the concepts and categories—credulity, superstition, bigotry—meant to contain the irrational have been equally persistent. Credulous folk and bigoted inquisitors believe in superstitions, and those superstitious beliefs demonstrate their credulity and/or bigotry. Do not prod this further. Whatever the cost, witchcraft belief can never be reasonable.

Inevitably, it was nineteenth-century historians keen to banish witchcraft into the past who transformed it into an eschatological battle between reason and superstition, between science and (a perversion of) religion. Andrew Dickson White and his student George Lincoln Burr co-opted witchcraft in their A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896) as one more battleground between reactionaries and ‘the thinking, open-minded, devoted men … who are evidently thinking the future thought of the world.’ This reduced the early modern witch-hunt into a conflict between ‘bigots and pedants’ and their heroic opponents, who risked their lives for ‘some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature.’ This struggle for reason, in which White and Burr were still very much engaged, was very much the preserve of men alone. White’s principal reason for supporting women’s education at Cornell, the university he co-founded in 1865, was to ‘smooth the way for any noble thinkers who are to march through the future’—by ‘increas[ing] the number of women who, by an education which has caught something from manly methods, are prevented from … throwing themselves hysterically across their pathway.’

The early modern witch-hunt has served many moral purposes since then—noble yet doomed peasant revolt, Wiccan holocaust, or feminist ‘gynocide’—but the structures sustaining such readings have long collapsed. Witch-hunting was, for the most part, not an organized affair, instigated by elites. Instead, it was the product of daily interactions between villagers who did not get along. Nor was the witch-hunt particularly severe. With most estimates ranging between 40 and 50, 000 victims—across a continent and multiple centuries—it is easy to list a number of recent environmental catastrophes that cost as many lives in weeks, days, even seconds. The persistence of these moral readings tells us more about our own time than it does about the early modern period.

Jan Luyken, Two Bamberg Girls taken to Their Execution Site (1685)

Now, even the containment field of irrationality no longer appears to be holding. This may also reflect the present, when truth claims seem to have lost their value and the world’s most powerful figure proclaims himself to be the victim of a witch-hunt. In that sense, to study the historiography of witchcraft really is to study ourselves. Yet the demise of irrationality has been a long time coming. In a seminal book in 1997, Stuart Clark taught us that witchcraft belief, far from the preserve of a fringe group of demonologists, was embedded in larger modes of political, religious, and—indeed—scientific thought. Yet the question he was effectively pointing to, and with which we opened, is only more recently being answered: what did it mean to believe, or not believe, in witches? Precisely because it appears to us as almost axiomatically false, the early modern witch-hunt invites us to think about what it means to believe in anything

Historians of early modern demonology have mostly stopped dividing authors into (irrational) believers and (rational) sceptics. As Montaigne has shown, belief can take on many forms. It may be cautious acceptance, or indistinguishable from certain knowledge. It can be highly reasoned, or entirely unthinking. It can also be entirely passive—part of a wider subscription package. Certainly, many eighteenth-century elite thinkers, most notably the founder of methodism John Wesley, treated witchcraft in this way: as proof of the existence of the spirit world but without any expectation to ever meet a witch. Witchcraft belief could be partial and caveated, or it could be extreme. The heterodox political thinker Jean Bodin believed that the devil could even break the laws of nature (because God would permit him), while King James VI of Scotland was virtually alone among the major demonologists to support the ducking or swimming of witches. Belief could be sustained, or discredited, by direct experience with witches and their bodies, which could be tortured and examined for a devil’s mark. Or it could be textual, founded on a wide range of biblical, patristic, and classical texts whose authority was incontrovertible. Nor was belief founded on fear alone. For those ensconced in the safe comfort of their study, tales of witchcraft delighted and entertained as much as any horror story today. And partly because of different and shifting emotional registers, belief in witchcraft could also change over time. Scepticism yielded to belief, and vice versa.

Seen from the angle of what it meant to believe—and why, how much, and when—the entire field of early modern demonology looks very different. It no longer resembles a battlefield between two opposing camps, nor can it sustain an opposition between irrationality and reason, between false belief and knowledge of falsehood. The science of demons is much messier and hence, for historians, much more interesting. It consisted of many conflicts and disagreements, both major and minor. Could witches transform into mice and thus enter homes through key holes? The Lorraine judge Nicolas Remy said yes, the Flemish-Spanish Jesuit Martin Delrio said no. Witchcraft also looked very different from different vantage points and at different points of time. One ardent Catholic, the Jesuit Juan Maldonado living in Paris in the run-up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, could see Protestantism and witchcraft as the devil’s twin attacks. Like any good brothel-keeper, the devil transformed beautiful courtesans (heretics) into procurers (witches) when they lost their physical appeal. Writing twenty years later in the midst of the Trier ‘super-hunt’, the Dutch Catholic priest Cornelius Loos considered witchcraft belief to be diabolical in origin, making the witch-hunters the devil’s true human allies. Yet Loos was not, as White and Burr once supposed, a harbinger of enlightenment, as they saw themselves. A religious exile from the Dutch Republic, he repeatedly called for a universal crusade against all Protestants.

Unshackled from moral straitjackets and the concepts that defined them, the early modern witch-hunt can actually teach us a great deal. On the level of human interactions, it shows us how forced daily interactions can foster resentment. (A colleague once suggested I write a book about witch-hunting as office politics.) It reveals the processes by which we demonize those with whom we disagree. At the level of belief, following in Montaigne’s footsteps, it should make us question why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we think we know. Most importantly, the early modern witch-hunt, when studied properly, teaches us that we are, when push comes to shove, not very different from those who came before us. And that is perhaps the most sobering thought of all.

Jan Machielsen is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. He is the author of Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015), and the editor of The Science of Demons: Early Modern Authors Facing Witchcraft and the Devil, published by Routledge on April 13, 2020. 

art history Atlantic history Dutch Early modern Europe empire Latin America

Agneta Block’s Pineapple: Colonial Botany and the Europeanization of Knowledge

By Cindy Kok

Look closely at the lower left corner of Jan Weenix’s 1693 group portrait: a pineapple grows amidst a cluster of exotic plants (Fig. 1). At first glance, Weenix’s depiction of this family suggests a familiar narrative of Dutch Golden Age wealth and success. To the right, merchant Sybrand de Flines (1623-1697) wears a luxurious kimono-inspired robe; his wife and children pose at a country estate, surrounded by objects of knowledge and art. However, Weenix draws the viewer’s attention to the pineapple, composing the family members in a diagonal leading to the plant. In addition, the artist shows the pineapple on its stem—still relatively small—rather than an imported ripened fruit.

Why is an American botanical a focal point of this composition? More than a family portrait, Weenix’s painting celebrates matriarch Agneta (Agnes) Block (1629-1704) and her achievements as a naturalist and botanist. Scholarship on women naturalists has highlighted their role in shaping a domestic relationship to European exploration. Botanical illustrations by artists like Maria Sibylla Merian and Rachel Ruysch—as well as the images’ afterlives in crafts like embroidery—made fragments of the larger world accessible to a European audience (Tomasi, “La femminil pazienza,” 160; Kinukawa, “Science and Whiteness as Property in the Dutch Atlantic World, 93-94). Block, however, purchased an estate outside Amsterdam in 1670 to engage directly in theoretical and experiential sciences from which women were commonly barred (Fig. 2). In 1687, she successfully grew the first European pineapple plant in the Vijverhof hothouses. With her pineapple, and this portrait, Block locates herself intellectually within a network of (predominantly male) European naturalists taxonomizing, codifying, and propagating the flora and fauna of the New World.

European explorers did not discover the pineapple, nor were they the first to cultivate it. Pineapples are indigenous to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, originating between the Paraná and Paraguay rivers (where modern-day Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet) (Okihiro, Pineapple Culture, 74). Native Americans first domesticated the plant for its fruit, which they believed stimulated the appetite and aided digestion. By the seventeenth century, the pineapple is well-documented in European writings such as Pietro Martir de Anghiera’s  De Orbo Novo and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdéz’s Historia General y Natural de las Indias.

Fig. 1. Jan Weenix. Agneta Block and garden Flora Batava. 1693-4. Oil on canvas. Amsterdam Museum.

Oviedo describes the pineapple as having a “beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, [and] excellent flavor” that affects all the senses in a way in which “none of the other fruits…can compare, by many carats” (Oviedo y Valdéz, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, in Collins, 9-14). He quantifies its value in commercial terms typically reserved for precious materials.  Indeed, European interest in the pineapple grew with trading companies’ investment in commercial botanicals, or “green gold” (Schiebinger, “Prospecting for Drugs,” 119). Plantation owners cultivated these profitable plants in American and Asian territories; trading companies carried the products back to eager consumers in Europe. Undergirding this imperial economy was the study of natural sciences, which used European scientific methods to monetize plant resources from outside territories (De Vos, “The Science of Spices,” 401-402).  Block’s pineapple, particularly its reliance on hothouses that replicated equatorial colonial climates, is inextricably linked to this imperial-commercial complex.

To have greater control over cultivating tropical plants, gardeners had to understand how to manage the instruments of a hothouse. The Dutch first pioneered the design and use of hothouses in 1685, prompting European elites to send their gardeners to the Netherlands to study Dutch methods and buy Dutch pineapple plants (O’Connor, Pineapple, 24). Most prominently, Gaspar Fagel, adviser to stadhouder William of Orange (later William III of England), established a tropical garden at his estate Leeuwenhorst; after his death, part of his collection transferred to Hampton Court in 1689, accompanied by Dutch gardeners who maintained, expanded, and documented the collection (Arens, “Flowerbeds and Hothouses,” 266). The European gardener needed to be a mechanical as well as a natural scientist, bringing together technical knowledge with field and laboratory research (Fleischer, “Rooted in fertile soil,” 1). Hothouse technology, in combination with botanical knowledge, allowed gardeners to grow tropical plants year-round in cold Europe, subverting natural seasons and climates.

The hothouse became a way to appropriate even the environment of South American territories, overcoming distance, reordering non-native plants in a European taxonomy, and controlling them with European science. The wealthy and well-educated Block deployed this new technology at Vijverhof. In the humid hothouse, she planted a pineapple slip—a tuft of leaves taken from the base of the plant—acquired from the collection of tropical and subtropical plants at the Horticultural Garden in Leiden (O’Connor, Pineapple, 24; Oviedo y Valdez, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, in Collins, 12). Most likely she learned this indigenous American method of propagating pineapples from books such as Oveido’s. Although Block’s work intersected with colonial botany—whereby imperialists acquired and deployed indigenous knowledge—she was uninterested in growing pineapples commercially. Rather, her success was a personal achievement that gained her access to European intellectual and cultural networks. Vijverhof became a center for other painters and naturalists like Merian, Herman Saftleven, and Jan Commelin to study rare specimen firsthand.

Fig. 2. From the Atlas Coenen van ‘s Gravesloot (specific maker unknown). View of the Vecht River in Loenen from the Vijverhof Estate. c. 1718-1719. Print. Utrecht Archives.

Before the development of hothouses, the pineapple had been elusive: difficult to preserve in the transatlantic journey, impossible to grow in cold northern climates. Its rarity made it an impressive diplomatic gift. When unable to purchase the expensive fruit, English noblemen could still rent a pineapple to display at important dinners (Thompson, “Pineapples”). According to legend, royal gardener John Rose gifted a pineapple to his patron King Charles II in the 1660s. Although the pineapple was likely imported and not even grown in the royal gardens, Hendrik Danckerts chooses this career-defining exchange to commemorate Rose upon his death (Fig. 3). The moment of presentation, as mythologized by Danckerts, is ceremonious: Rose kneels before Charles presenting the pineapple, as if symbolically offering his monarch all the botanical resources of the New World.

Rose and Charles pose in front of an English estate, the gardener holding the pineapple as if it were a flower. Danckerts’ constructed image erases the origin of the pineapple and the work and knowledge of the indigenous American cultivators who grew it; he implies that the plant originated from the estate, reinforcing this idea with visual echoes of pineapple plants in leafy pots surrounding the fountain. The artist places Rose at the center of the narrative, positioning the European gardener as procurer of New World goods and proprietor of scientific botanical knowledge. Similarly, in her portrait, Block claims credit for the pineapple, seamlessly incorporated into her surroundings. Although central to his painting, Weenix situates the plant among other foreign flora and symbols of knowledge within a European landscape. These portraits fictionalize global natural history, perpetuating a narrative in which the pineapple is only available when mediated by European expertise.

Fig. 3. British School, after Hendrick Danckerts. Charles II Presented with a Pineapple. c. 1675-1680. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Block also facilitated the normalization and circulation of the foreign through images. In particular, her successful cultivation of a pineapple prompted her to adopt it as her personal emblem. Around 1700, Albert van Spiers illustrated a frontispiece for an album of drawings Block collected from Heroldt (Fig. 4) (“Design for a floral frontispiece with a portrait medallion of Agnes Block”). The floral wreath includes Block’s portrait medallion, discussed below, as well as her family’s coat-of-arms. Floral motifs were popular for frontispieces but Spiers customizes his illustration for Block’s album by using tropical flowers, many of which he likely studied in  her garden. Even the scales of the gold frame recall segmented pineapple fruit. In her visual program, exotic botanicals become associated with Block’s personal identity, rather than with non-European peoples or places. Once the botanicals are transplanted to her estate, they become absorbed into Vijverhof’s knowledge base for Block to (re)distribute.

Block also commissioned a portrait medal by Jan Boskam that references her expertise in horticulture (Fig. 5) (Vander Ploeg Fallon, “Petronella de la Court and Agneta Block,” 103). On the recto, the phrase “Flora Batava,” or Dutch Flora, is stamped alongside Block’s profile; on the verso, an anthropomorphized figure of Nature holds a tulip—originally from Turkey but popular and valuable in the Netherlands—and gestures to Block’s gardens at Vijverhof. To the right of Nature, as in the Weenix portrait, are a cactus and a pineapple plant, crown jewels of Block’s garden.

In this idealized vision of the garden, the tools of Block’s work, such as the hothouse, are elided in favor of a more mythical narrative about the bounty of nature with which Block (like the Dutch Republic) is blessed. With the non-native flora, Block mimics a guild tradition of stamping medallions with signs of membership to a network of like-minded specialists (Weinstein, “The Storied Stones of Altona,” 573). Block symbolically joins the ranks of professional naturalists and, like them, collects and fits knowledge into a European framework. Long before pineapples were widely available for consumption, Block assimilates the imagery and disseminates it. Unlike artists like Merian and Albert Eckhout, who traveled to the Americas and painted pineapples as symbols of foreign bounty (Fig. 6), Block’s pineapple is presented as a Dutch product integrated into Dutch gardening.

The modern age of the Anthropocene has inherited this notion that human interventions—from hothouse pineapples to ethylene-ripened bananas—allow us to master and improve upon nature. Yet even with naturalists’ attempts to scientifically regulate and define plants, the living specimen remained inherently unstable and mutable (Arens, “Flowerbeds and Hothouses,” 272). In spite of the advantages afforded by the hothouse, gardening was always characterized by this European struggle to control colonial resources and manage the demands of nature. The visual, however, remained easier to manipulate and, while not her explicit goal, Block patronized work that reinforced the visual scheme of empire. Botanical gardens and natural sciences, long considered politically neutral in scholarship, actively facilitate a Europeanization of knowledge taken from indigenous sources through processes of imperialism. The images that emerged in conjunction with natural histories and accounts of curiosities achieve similar ends, eliding a sense of locality to privilege European centrality. Through her experiments and visual rhetoric, Block similarly displaces the pineapple to relocate it in a European sphere. By placing exotic fruits in her portraits, medallions, and printed material, Block expresses a sense of possession that reflects a Dutch understanding of their relationship to the New World.

Fig. 4. Albert van Spiers (Piramied). “Design for a floral frontispiece with a portrait medallion of Agnes Block.” c. 1700. Christie’s Old Master and 19th Century Drawings (Sale 1340), Lot 129, Jan. 22, 2004, New York, New York.
Fig. 5. J. Boskam. Portrait Medallion of Agnes Block; reverse with her garden at Vijverhof. 1700. Silver. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.
Fig. 6. Albert Eckhout. Still Life with Watermelon, Pineapple and Other Fruits. 17th century. Oil on canvas. National Museum of Denmark.

Cynthia Kok is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at Yale University. Her work investigates the global circulation of material and ideas in an early modern Dutch world; she is currently working on a dissertation on mother-of-pearl.

Early modern Europe religious history

The Scottish Covenanters and Catholic Political Thought

By Contributing Writer Karie Schultz.

On 28 February 1638, opponents of King Charles I gathered at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh to sign the National Covenant, thereby voicing their opposition to the king’s “popish” ecclesiastical reforms and oversight of the church. These Scots, known as the Covenanters, were led by a group of noblemen, ministers, and lawyers who defended the legitimacy of political resistance on behalf of the true religion (Reformed Protestantism) against criticism from Scottish royalists. The Covenanters’ arguments resembled those advanced by other Reformed authors throughout continental Europe in response to the persecution they faced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although the distinctiveness of a “Calvinist theory of resistance” has been challenged by Quentin Skinner, most Reformed resistance theorists shared the belief that inferior magistrates might legitimately resist and depose their superiors to protect the true religion. This reasoning permeated Scottish defenses of resistance, but Covenanter leaders also incorporated a more surprising source: the post-Reformation Catholic scholastics.

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh’ (c.1838) by William Allan.

There has been a tendency amongst church historians—from the seventeenth century to the modern day­­––to consider Catholicism and Calvinism as distinct intellectual traditions that diverged after the Reformation. Historians of religion have generally focused on developments within Protestant confessions or within Catholicism alone rather than on a comparative context. The persistent fear of Catholic worship practices, the equation of the Pope with the Anti-Christ, and the proliferation of vehemently anti-papal rhetoric amongst early modern Protestants also reinforced this tendency for scholars of anti-Catholicism in early modern Britain looking to those phenomena as evidence.

Although Catholics were indeed the enemies of the staunchly Reformed Covenanters, the latter favorably employed Catholic ideas about the natural law and the origins of government in their own resistance theories. The reception of Catholic scholasticism in Reformed political thought resulted, in part, from a problem that the Covenanters faced regarding the proper structure of the church (ecclesiology). The majority of the Covenanting leadership believed that Scripture mandated Presbyterianism, a democratic form of church government constructed upon a system of elders and synods rather than bishops. They needed to defend themselves against criticism from royalists who believed that Presbyterianism was not divinely ordained and that it assumed too much power for the church by reducing royal oversight.

For the majority of Scottish royalists, Presbyterianism was incompatible with absolute monarchy because it limited the king’s power to appoint bishops and maintain control over the church. King James VI and I advanced such ideas in The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) to challenge George Buchanan’s theory of a social contract between the ruler and his or her people. James’s divine right theory of kingship formed the basis for royalist discourse and was echoed in the most thorough exposition of Scottish royalism in the period: Sacro-sancta regum majestas (1644). Scottish bishop John Maxwell (d. 1647) wrote this tract to defend the king’s absolute sovereignty over both the church and the civil kingdom, drawing on The six books of the commonwealth (1576) by the nominal French Catholic Jean Bodin (c. 1529-1596) to ground his theory. Within this context, the Covenanters needed to prove that the form of civil government was voluntary. If government was based on a contract, subjects could impose limitations on the king’s power over the church. Reformed Presbyterianism could thus flourish when freed from the king’s imposition of bishops and popish ecclesiastical reforms.

To advance this argument, the Covenanters resorted to contemporary Catholic scholastics who had written extensively on the voluntary, contractual nature of civil government. For example, the primary political theorist for the Covenanters, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), engaged extensively with Catholic scholastic authors to build his case for the voluntary origins of government. In Lex, Rex; or, the law and the prince (1644), Rutherford drew upon Catholic authors, such as Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca (1512-1569) and Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), to create a theory of the political state that was safe for Presbyterianism. Vázquez was a Spanish jurist in the School of Salamanca whose ideas about the ius gentium (the law of nations) informed Hugo Grotius’s exposition on international law and freedom of the seas. Rutherford, who frequently ascribed the accolade of ‘the learned senator’ to Vázquez, drew upon the jurist’s ideas about the law of nations to prove that subjects willingly choose the form of civil government (monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy) since no human being is born in a position of natural superiority or inferiority (Lex, Rex (London, 1644), p. 92). Absolute monarchy was thus not prescribed by God as the only legitimate form of civil government (as the royalists argued). Vázquez’s treatment of natural human equality and the voluntary nature of political government allowed Rutherford to argue that protecting Presbyterianism was of the utmost importance because it was mandated in Scripture. The form of civil government was not. Subjects could thus limit the king’s royal prerogative since they had voluntarily consented to live under his authority and could resist him when he threatened the church. By drawing on Catholic scholastic analyses of legal categories, such as the natural law and law of nations, Rutherford was able to defend a civil state structure accommodating for Presbyterianism. 

On the one hand, Reformed engagement with Catholic political thought was not surprising or unusual. As the Reformed attempted to forge their own orthodoxy after the Reformation, they frequently deferred to medieval authors, such as John Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas, as representatives of Western Christendom. On the other hand, it was unusual that Reformed authors drew favorably on the work of post-Reformation Catholic authors, such as Vázquez, Suárez, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), or Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). These Catholic scholastics often engaged in bitter disputes with Protestant scholars throughout continental Europe and the British Isles. That a staunchly Reformed Covenanter such as Rutherford resorted to their theories about the natural law and the law of nations to develop his own ideas about the political state suggests the presence of something distinctive in Catholic scholastic political thought that was not as readily available in the Reformed intellectual tradition.

I would argue that this distinctiveness resulted from the differing priorities of Catholics and Protestants who developed political theories in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Catholic authors in powerful European empires such as Spain, where the School of Salamanca was also located, were preoccupied with defending imperial expansion and often did so by developing categories of natural law and the law of nations (such as Vázquez and Suárez). By contrast, many Protestant authors throughout Europe expounded upon the legitimacy of resistance by self-defense in light of the persecution they faced. There was more focus on ideas about lesser magistrates and self-defense in early modern Reformed political discourse, whereas extensive development on legal categories took precedence in Catholic scholastic thought. The emphases in the two traditions effectively combined to form a language of political legitimacy in civil-war Scotland. Rutherford merged Catholic ideas about the law of nations and voluntary government with a Reformed legitimization of resistance by inferior magistrates to defend resistance to Charles and promote a Presbyterian settlement. The differing priorities of Catholic and Protestant authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thus allowed political dialogue to transcend traditional confessional boundaries. The Covenanters favorably incorporated elements of Catholic scholastic thought into Reformed resistance theory to create the language of political legitimacy underlying the British revolutions of the mid seventeenth century. Ultimately, this argument about inter-confessional elements to early modern political thought is not entirely new. Skinner, for example, noted the reception of Catholic scholastic ideas (such as conciliarism) in Calvinist and Lutheran arguments for resistance in his Foundations of modern political thought (Cambridge, 1978). Yet an analysis of Catholic scholasticism and Scottish political thought makes an important historiographical intervention. Skinner and other scholars of the ‘Cambridge School,’ including Annabel Brett and Richard Tuck, have postulated that the ideas underlying modern liberalism (such as individual rights and popular sovereignty) emerged as the church became distanced from the state. John Coffey and Alister Chapman have rightly observed that this approach tends to detach political ideas from their religious context. Yet (as seen in the case of Covenanted Scotland), the importance of ecclesiology to debates about the structure of the civil state challenges the idea that modern liberalism emerged only when the church was progressively marginalized. Instead, an ecclesiological crisis of the church within Protestantism played a significant role in the development of the political thought underlying the modern liberal state, including ideas about constitutional monarchy, consent of the governed, and the right of resistance. In Scotland, this ecclesiological problem resulted in the incorporation of Catholic scholastic legal categories into Protestant ideas about resistance by inferior magistrates in self-defense. Royalists and Covenanters alike adapted political ideas from Catholic scholastic political theory to create a state that was safe for different forms of church polity. Ecclesiology and defense of the church was essential to Covenanter political thought. The people had a God-given duty to defend and protect the true religion, including the form of church government mandated by Scripture (Presbyterianism). The church was thus fundamental, not marginal, in shaping the political ideas underlying modern liberalism, urging us to reconsider the position of both Calvinism and Catholicism in the development of the modern secular state.

Karie Schultz is a final-year Ph.D .candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. She is completing a dissertation on ecclesiology and political thought in the Scottish Revolution (1638-1651) as part of a European Research Council-funded project: ‘War and the supernatural in early modern Europe.’ Her broader research interests pertain to the political, religious, and intellectual history of seventeenth-century Britain and continental Europe.

Ancient Classics Early modern Europe Literature

Translating the Canon

By Contributing Writer Julian Koch

Unless we are unashamed linguistic chauvinists, some, maybe most, of the works of literature we consider to be part of any form of literary canon are inevitably written in languages we do not understand, and we read them in translation. Thus, a notion of translation tacitly underlies any notion of canonicity. Yet, our understanding of translation and its place in our thinking—and consequently its bearing on our conception of the canon—has undergone a remarkable but relatively unnoticed change between the Latin Middle Ages and our present day. Today, in English, we take the word translation inevitably to mean the transfer of a work from one language to another. What is translated how, when, and where is fundamental to whether a work can receive admission into the canon.

But this notion of translation as a cross-linguistic transfer is a relatively recent one. It was preceded by a notion of translation that we only rarely stumble upon today: the transfer of something from one place or time to another. The Latin translatio simply means “to carry over,” and in the Latin Middle Ages the term was used accordingly broadly—as the Latin term for metaphor or as the ceremonial transfer of a saint’s relics from one place to another, among many other meanings. The most relevant use of translatio for the notion of canon in the Latin Middle Ages, however, was the idea of a translatio studii et imperii as a spatio-temporal transfer of learning and power. This idea was used by European kings to legitimize their hold on power or by institutions of learning to establish intellectual pedigree. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes writes in his Prologue to Cligès:

Our books taught us Greece was extolled


for learning and for chivalry.

Then chivalry came next to Rome;

now all that knowledge has come home

to France, where, if God has ordained,

God grant that it may be retained.

(ll. 25-42)

Frenchmen drew on the theme of the translatio studii in order to establish the Université de Paris as the center of learning by evoking a temporal continuity between the university and the ancient centres of learning (cf. Jeauneau, Translatio studii, 24-36). If such a historical and locational transfer from venerable ancient institutions was perceived to be successful by enough scholars, legitimacy was bestowed upon the institution that so claimed its lineage.

Similarly, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, better known as Barbarossa, legitimated his power by tracing it, in an act of translatio imperii, to Charlemagne’s which, in turn, was understood to have renewed—and therefore received its legitimacy from—the Roman Empire (Curtius, European Literature, 29). Certainly, such claims of translatio studii or translatio imperii were not uncontested by other centers of learning (especially Oxford and Cambridge) or other emperors. Yet, such rivalries shared the core idea that legitimacy was derived from translatio studii et imperii. Whoever established themselves as the translator of knowledge and empire, so to speak, would occupy (or at least claim to) center stage in Christendom and would trace their lineage back to the ancients. The notion of time, which is at the heart of this spatio-temporal translation, was understood to be continuous and linear (Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 165). Likewise, the spatial horizon implied in the translatio studii et imperii is a universal, not national, one (Curtius, European Literature, 29; on medieval space cf. Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 138, 165).

This notion of spatio-temporal translation was fundamental to the understanding of canonicity in the Latin Middle Ages. The canon was universal and eternal, irrespective of the fact that the works thought to be comprised within it differed depending on whom was asked.

While spatio-temporal translation was central, cross-linguistic translation played no role in this understanding of canonicity. Even though canonical texts—first and foremost the Old Testament—were often read in (cross-linguistic) translation, this was not acknowledged. In fact, the Church actively suppressed any notion of the Vulgate being a translation of the (mostly Hebrew) Old Testament (Weissbort and Eysteinsson, Translation, 100), and interdicted any translation of it into other languages.

How we view canonicity along the lines of languages as well as time and space changed considerably with Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari et eloquentia (both written in the first decade of 1300). Dante made the canon malleable by language and thereby gave the canon spatial and temporal specificity. Certainly, in his Convivio, written in vernacular, Dante holds that: “Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible” (Book 1, Chapt 5). Yet, despite the eternal status of Latin, Dante writes most of his works in (Tuscan) vernacular. Dante’s conflicting relationship with the vernacular is perhaps most apparent when his De vulgari et eloquentia emphatically communicates the possibility of a vernacular aesthetics rivaling that of Latin, despite the work itself being written in Latin. His Magnum Opus the Divina Commedia, of course, is written in vernacular. The Commedia’s reception into the canon inevitably introduced the vectors of time and space into the notion of canonicity, since  “our [vernacular] language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but […] it must vary according to distances of space and time” (De vulgari et eloquentia, Book 1, Chapt 9). Despite these developments, the crucial role of translation in creating the canon was still awaiting full acknowledgement.

Five-hundred years later, it was Goethe who went beyond the mere inadvertent admission of the canon’s changeability because it now comprised works written in languages reflecting the spatio-temporal vicissitudes of daily life. Goethe rethought the notion of canonicity altogether. Goethe’s canon—his Weltliteratur (world literature)—comes into being through a different notion of translation. Whereas the Latin Canon relies on the mechanism of historical transfer with implicit claims to universal validity in its translatio studii et imperii situating the canon in a realm beyond time and space, Goethe’s world literatureis characterised by a geographical and temporal concurrency enabled by cross-language translation.

Goethe envisions a highly unusual notion of cross-language translation, as he explains in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan. He believes that there are three successive epochs of translation, and in the third, most radical epoch, the translation takes the original’s place and assumes its identity (258; for this interpretation see also Olschner 153). We could not imagine a more decisive departure, at least in theory, from the principles of the medieval canon which was thought to comprise timeless and placeless original works. As we saw, even if the Vulgate Bible was a translation, its canonical status was possible only by the Church’s rigorous exorcising of the notion that it was not an original. Goethe, however, believes that, at least in the third, most mature, epoch of translation, the duality of the original and its translation is transcended (256).

Unfortunately, Goethe remained famously opaque on how these epochs are reached, and it is unclear exactly what transcending the duality of translation and original means for translation in practical terms. Furthermore, Goethe did not always practice what he preached. Indeed in some of his musings on the German language, Goethe seems to attempt a form of translatio studii when he claims that the German language is the true inheritor of Greek and Latin (Krobb, “Priapean Pursuits,” 6).

Goethe’s flaws in formulating notwithstanding, his message of the age of world literature enabled by translation gained currency. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he was later ennobled, Goethe’s message resonated with two figures who sought to fundamentally transform European politics: Marx and Engels. Perhaps the most radical pronunciation and enactment of world literature by cross-linguistic translation is found in their Communist Manifesto (published anonymously). The Manifesto embraces world literature and in so doing its perspective is decidedly geopolitical and contemporaneous. All trace of translatio studii et imperii is gone. Rather, the Manifesto’s purpose was to spread the idea of Communism presently and as far as possible—a task only achievable through translation.

Thus, in order to facilitate translations, it seems that Marx and Engels resorted to a remarkable ploy: they concealed the Manifesto’s original language. Consequently, we have the curious situation that the authors call for the Manifesto to be published in—and thus translated into—a variety of languages without giving any indication of the original language (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 51). In accordance with such ideas of linguistic and translational relativity, the Manifesto was, at times, even translated from translations (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution 53).

Endowing translation with such importance may seem exaggerated, especially given that translations only make up 3% of the UK and US book market. However, a look at canons tells a different story. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canonlists Henryk Ibsen, among 13 other non-English authors (out of a total of 26), whose original works would be intelligible only to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish speakers—a group comprising only about 20 million people. Broader and more multicultural, the recent Norton Anthology of World Literature consists almost entirely of translated works. Cross-language translation is so prominent in canons that they do not exist without it. Given the near-universal presence of (cross-language) translation in canons, we are well into Goethe’s third epoch and the real issue is to remain aware that many, probably most, of “our” canonical works are only accessible to us as translations.

Julian Koch is a German and Translation Studies Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. His research interests include Translation, Post-WWII German and French poetry, narratology, documentaries on genocide, analytical approaches to continental philosophy (esp. Kant), and philosophical notions of the imagination (18-19th century).

companion piece Dutch Early modern Europe Intellectual history JHI religious history

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Menasseh?”

Read Professor Nadler’s full article from this season’s JHI, “Spinoza and Menasseh ben Israel: Facts and Fictions.”

It just goes to show: even a rabbi can sometimes bend the truth a little, especially in the heat of debate.

In this article, I considered how, during his 1656 “friendly and extemporaneous conversation” in London with the Huguenot minister Jean d’Espagne, the Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel claims that the Jewish people do not “anathematize” people. Here is the exchange:

Menasseh: Do you think our rabbis are fools?

D’Espagne: Well, at least crazy. For what do you think about those who think and speak about God in such a blasphemous way? Indeed, why do you not anathematize them?

Menasseh: We are not accustomed to cursing people.

As I note, Menasseh’s remark is striking because this debate took place just two months before Menasseh’s own Talmud Torah congregation of the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam decided to “excommunicate, expel, curse and damn” the young Bento de Spinoza for his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds”, punishing the future philosopher with the most extended and vitriolic herem (ban or ostracism) ever pronounced by the parnassim (leaders) of that community.

What makes his remark even more interesting is that Menasseh himself was once put under herem by his community. Here are the circumstances:

In early 1640, according to a report in the community’s record book, some anonymous individuals had “put up certain posters or defamatory papers on the doors of the synagogue, on the bridge, at the market and in other places.”[i] The placards, which the report says touched on “the subject of Brazil”, were apparently impugning the business practices and character of certain members of the community involved in the South American trade (mostly sugar). Most likely they were directed at well-established merchants who did not appreciate any new competition and so were making things difficult for others seeking to enter the market. Dishonorable behavior in commerce was one thing, and it would be dealt with, but publicly shaming fellow congregants was yet a more serious violation of the community’s regulations. This kind of insolent behavior could not be tolerated. “It is well understood by all that this deed is abominable, reprehensible, and worthy of punishment.” And so, on February 9, 1640, the members of the ma’amad issued an at-large punishment on the unknown culprits.

We put under herem and announce that the person or persons who have made such papers and posted them are cursed by God and separated from the nation. Nobody may speak with them or do them a favor or give them assistance in any way.

A herem was an act of banning or ostracism (often, somewhat inaccurately, translated as “excommunication”) used by the Amsterdam parnassim to punish congregants who had violated communal regulations and generally to keep people in line. It was a form of religious, social and economic isolation. A person under herem was usually forbidden from participating in synagogue services, as well as from socializing and conducting any business with members of the community. It was an effective measure for maintaining Jewish discipline and social order among relatively new Jews—many of the Amsterdam Sephardim were, or descended from, former conversos—still getting used to an orthodox life.

Soon after the libelous posters appeared, the ma’amad learned who the guilty parties were—Daniel Rachaõ and Israel da Cunha—and the ban was applied to them the very next day. (It was lifted on Rachaõ a week later after he expressed contrition for his actions.)

However, a short time later, the ma’amad discovered that Jonah Abrabanel and Moses Belmonte were also involved in the “Brazilian matter”, either as participants in the original escapade or by circulating new posters again suggesting that certain Portuguese-Jewish merchants were less than honorable. Abrabanel and Belmonte were each given a herem, but were soon back in good standing after expressing deep and sincere remorse for their behavior and paying their fines.

Menasseh, however, was incensed by the way in which Jonah Abrabanel, his brother in-law, had been treated. He, of course, as Jonah’s partner, shared his sentiments about the merchants who were seeking to monopolize the Brazil trade, and he may even have been involved in distributing the offending material. But even more, Menasseh felt that the ma’amad had shown great disrespect to Jonah when the whole affair was made public in the synagogue during services, not least by failing to accord him the honorific title senhor when his name was read out. Menasseh lost his temper and protested loudly from the rabbis’ bench. According to the report of the ma’amad, “Menaseh [sic] came from his place and, with loud voice and all worked up, complained that his brother-in-law was not called ‘Senhor‘ – giving him the title that was owed to him.” The congregation’s gabbai responded that Abrabanel did not deserve the title, as it was to be used only with sitting members of the ma’amad. This only made Menasseh madder.

A large part of the assembly left its place, whereupon Menasseh turned on them, without being willing to calm himself, as he was continuously warned to do, until finally two parnassim of the synagogue stood up in order to make him be quiet, and indeed, since they could not do it with sufficient words, used the punishment of herem. They ordered him to stop and to return to his house. He countered with a loud voice: he would not. Then the parnassim, who were in the synagogue, came together, and since the disturbance continued further, they confirmed the punishment of the herem in order to make him [Menasseh] stop, and they ordered as well that no one speak with him.

The members of the ma’amad retired to their chambers, whereupon Menasseh followed them, burst in and

raising his voice and pounding on the table, said in a serious fashion all the unbridled thoughts that came into his mind, so that finally one of the parnassim apprised him that he is the cause of various disturbances … the parnassim told him to leave the chamber and that they regarded him as cut off. He responded to that with loud voice that he was putting them under herem and not the parnassim him, and other such shameful things.

It was an impressive display of righteous indignation. Out of respect for his position and years of service to the community, the ma’amad took some pity on him. Menasseh’s ban, recorded on May 8, 1640 and imposed “for the insubordination, the scene, and the curses, which he had spoken four times”, was in place for only one day.[ii] From sundown to sundown, he was forbidden from entering the synagogue and communicating with any members of the community. On top of that, however, “to serve as an example to others”, he was suspended from his rabbinical duties for a year. It was a heavy penalty for what was regarded as a serious breach of decorum. Unlike his brother-in-law, there is no indication that he ever expressed remorse for his behavior.

[i] The ma’amad‘s records of the event, from which the quotations that follow are taken, are in the Livro dos Acordos da Naçao e Ascamot, in the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Archive 334: Archives of the Portuguese Jewish Community in Amsterdam, Inventory 19 (Ascamot A, 5398–5440 [1638–1680]). See fols. 55–56 and 69–70. These pages are accessible online as #71, 78 and 79 at

They are transcribed in Carl Gebhardt, Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1922), pp. 212–19.

[ii] Livro dos Acordos da Naçao e Ascamot, fol. 70, accessible online as #79 at On 8 September 1647, the page on which the herem against Menasseh was recorded was pasted over with a piece of paper by the ma’amad, “out of respect.”