art history music

Milton at the Opera

By guest contributor John Phipps

February, 1639, and the festivities of the Roman carnival were approaching their apex. There had been processions and parades, public displays of civic and religious devotion—almost all bankrolled by the ruling Barberini family. The Barberini patriarch, Maffeo, sat in the Vatican as Pope Urban VIII. His nephews, Antonio and Francesco, were powerful cardinals and patrons of the arts. Together, the three men had the eternal city in their deep cassock pockets. 

The crowning glory of the carnival was Virgilio Mazzocchi’s comic opera, Chi Soffre Speri (Let he who suffers, hope). It was staged in the Barberini Palace, in a theatre capable of seating several thousand. There were vast choruses, troops of dancers, and a dozen changes of scenery. Real rain and thunder would appear to threaten a stage designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

Half an hour before the performance began, the young John Milton was greeted at the door by a Barberini official, and went to take his seat among the lords of Rome. 

John Milton, c. 1629

Milton was on his Italian gap year, having arrived in the summer of 1638. He was, in Susanne Woods’ phrase, ‘an oxymoron in search of the higher resolutions of paradox’: a Protestant in the home of Catholicism; a great poet who was more or less unknown to his contemporaries (ed. Di Cesare, 9). Denied entry into the priesthood, uninterested in the law, and sceptical of Caroline royal patronage, Milton was a brilliant young man with almost no prospects. So he went to Italy, in search of culture, art, and personal validation. 

These were precisely what he found. Milton would write later about his time in Florence:

In that city, which I have always admired above all others because of the elegance, not just of its tongue, but also of its wit, I lingered for about two months. There I at once became the friend of many gentlemen eminent in rank and learning, whose private academies I frequented—a Florentine institution which deserves great praise not only for promoting humane studies but also for encouraging friendly discourse. Time will never destroy my recollection—ever welcome and delightful—of you, Jacopo Gaddi, Carlo Dati, Frescobaldi, Coltellini, Buonmattei, Chimentelli, Francini, and many others.

 ed. Loewenstein, 347

It is a matter of record that Milton was, on his arrival in Italy, accepted as a member of a prestigious Florentine academy. On an almost weekly basis, Milton attended intellectual meetings with poets, scholars and noblemen. In Florence, the educated (and of course, male) humanist could move freely, in an elevated space where the “humane arts” superseded the old, denominational boundaries. Milton’s affectionate words—along with his long correspondence with the nobleman and poet Carlo Dati—suggest that, to Milton, Florence wasn’t far from worldly paradise.

But it’s hard not to wonder what the deeply Puritan Milton must have thought in Rome, which he would later call “the very stronghold of the Pope.” And not just in Rome, but seated in one of its finest palaces, the future author of Eikonoklastes (The image breaker) sitting down for five hours of operatic extravagance. 

His feelings can only have been uneasy. He was not just a puritan and a republican, but the product of a culture that lived in fearful opposition to Rome. In Britain it was commonplace to refer to the pope as Antichrist; a Catholic zealot had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament within living memory. At the same time, to be invited was a compliment. Milton would have been weighing his acceptance into Roman society against his feelings about the papacy; his uncertainty about princely patronage against his republicanism; his scepticism about Catholic musical propaganda against his cultural and lyric appetite.

All that, before the curtain had even risen. 

And after it had? Opera would not have been, to Milton, what it is to us now. In Italy it was the exciting new art form. Public demand was exploding: in the year of Milton’s visit, two new public opera houses were built in Venice alone. What’s more, Milton’s Florentine companions believed that opera had been invented by their forebears, in an academy much like their own, and they surely would have impressed this fact upon their English guest.  

In an age when Italian cities still functioned like states, regional pride was fierce, and the Florentines took pains to codify their claim to opera’s invention. Milton’s great friend Dati later wrote that opera had its roots in sixteenth-century nobleman Jacopo Corsi’s Camerata, which was “always open, like a public academy, to everyone who had intelligence or talent in the liberal arts … Recitative style for use on stage was born there (ed. Price, 135).”  

“Recitative style” refers to dramatic singing over homophonic chords (as opposed to the more common polyphony), just as in modern operatic recitative. It was at once an innovation and an archaism. Its invention stemmed from the contemporary belief that ancient Greek tragedy was not spoken, but sung, and both Florentine recitative and opera were born out of the desire to recreate the mythical impact of classical tragedy. Not only were many of the early operas on classical themes, they also centred and emphasized the self-consciously Greek device of the chorus.  

Milton was paying attention. At some point in the next few years, most likely not long after he returned to Italy, Milton began drafting tragedies on religious themes. These are clearly conceived with performance in mind: one contains specific instructions for costumes; others talk freely about “the audience.” Two of these drafts, for a tragedy called “Adam Unparadiz’d” or “Paradise Lost,” make extensive use of a chorus, a device unseen on the English stage for many years. One contains the shorthand instruction, “Chorus of angels sing a hymme of the creation.”

“Paradise Lost: The Opera?” It feels too unlikely to be true. But Milton was no stranger to music. His father was a composer; he himself was a good singer and talented multi-instrumentalist. He took a chest of the new Italian music home from Venice. And the 1634 masque Comus, his longest work to date, was set to music by his friend, the composer Henry Lawes. Even as a protestant amongst the world’s leading heretics, it seems that Milton was taking notes for his own dramatic designs. 

Edwin Henry Landseer, The Defeat of Comus (1843)

Whatever his plans were, Milton’s tumultuous life got in the way. His triumph would be to write what some consider the greatest poem in English. But what awaited him beyond the page—blindness, divorce, Europe-wide infamy—cannot have been what he had hoped for from life. 

The ambivalences of his Italian trip never left him. In Paradise Lost, there are several ambiguous references to the Italian humanist culture he experienced, most notably in Milton’s descriptions of Hell. For instance, an image in Book II sounds very like an Italian academy:

Others apart sat on a hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high,
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.

II. 557-561

The “others” in question are the fallen angels, banished to hell by God for an eternity of torment. Yet the demons seem more like philosophers than hellhounds. 

It’s not just that the fallen angels seem to be like Catholic humanists, civilized but confused, it’s also that Hell sometimes seems awfully like Italy—and in Paradise Lost Milton’s Italian references are consistently Hell-bound. Milton’s description of the devils as they lie chained on the burning lake in Book I goes so far as to be geographically specific, talking of “Angel forms:”

who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades 
High overarch’t imbowr.

I. 301-4

The reference is puzzling, because it is unlikely that Milton visited this remote area during his time in Italy. Some have suggested a reference to Psalm 23; the place name translates to “The valley of the shadow.” Others see a reference to Virgil’s description of the dead in Book 6 of the Aeneid, whose souls flutter and fall like leaves in Autumn wind. But the deliberate Italianisation of the classical image, the biblical reference, the Hellish context and the elegiac tone add up to something rich, strange and ambivalent—much like Milton’s own experience in Catholic Italy.. 


The questions facing Milton in Italy have not gone away. With whom can we acceptably associate? And do we make those decisions for reasons of principle, or for fear of our contemporaries’ judgement? How can we live among people with worldviews that would exclude our own? And if we find we can live among them, what does that say about us? 

The problems of liberalism have never been remote or intellectual. They are the problems of our daily life. Everyone works towards their own answer, though this is not to say that all answers are equally good. But the emotionally indeterminate Italian moments in Paradise Lost demand a change in perspective. If travel provides us with new choices, then art and literature offer us a space where we need not necessarily choose at all: where our many selves can coexist more happily than they can in daily life. 

In Italy Milton was engaged in the messy business of living with difference. He was hungry for knowledge, for culture, for something new and challenging. He was lucky enough to find a world removed not only from the one he knew, but from the increasingly bitter and hostile one he would return to. Several centuries later, on a continent far away from Milton’s, Elizabeth Bishop found herself pondering the narrow possibilities of a wide world, in her poem “Questions of Travel

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one’s room? 
Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free. 
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?

John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.

Atlantic history history of science Think Piece

John Parkinson and the Rise of Botany in the 17th Century

By Guest Contributor Molly Nebiolo

John Parkinson, depicted in his monumental Theatrum botanicum (1640).

The roots of contemporary botany have been traced back to the botanical systems laid out by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Yet going back in further in time reveals some of the key figures who created some of the first ideas and publications that brought horticulture forward as a science. John Parkinson (1567-1650) is one of the foremost in that community of scientists. Although “scientist” was a word coined in the nineteenth century, I will be using it because it embodies the systematic acts of observation and experimentation to understand how nature works that I take Parkinson to be exploring. While “natural philosophy” was the term more commonly in use at the time, the simple word “science” will be used for the brevity of the piece and to stress the links between Parkinson’s efforts and contemporary fields. Parkinson’s works on plants and gardening in England remained integral to botany, herbalism, and medicinal healing for decades after his death, and he was one of the first significant botanists to introduce exotic flowers into England in the 17th century to study their healing properties. He was a true innovator for the field of botany, yet his work has not been heavily analyzed in the literature on the early modern history of science. The purpose of this post is to underline some of the achievements that can be  attributed to Parkinson, and to examine his first major text, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, a groundbreaking work in the field of history in the mid-1600s.

Parkinson grew up as an apprentice for an apothecary from the age of fourteen, and quickly rose in the ranks of society to the point of becoming royal apothecary to James I. His success resulted in many opportunities to collect plants outside of England, including trips to the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa in the first decade of the seventeenth century. At the turn of the seventeenth century, collectors would commonly accompany trading expeditions to collect botanical specimens to determine if they could prosper in English climate. Being the first to grow the great Spanish daffodil in England, and cultivating over four hundred plants in his own garden by the end of his life, Parkinson was looked up to as a pioneer in the nascent field of botanical science. He assisted fellow botanists in their own work, but he also was the founder of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the author of two major texts as well.

His first book, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise) reveals a humorous side to Parkinson, as he puts a play on words for his surname in the title: “Park-in-Sun.” This text, published in 1628, along with his second, more famous work published in 1640, Theatrum botanicum (The Theater of Plants), were both immensely influential to the horticultural and botanical corpori of work that were emerging during the first half of the 17th century. Just in the titles of both, we can see how much reverence Parkinson had for the intersection of fields he worked with: horticulture, botany, and medicine. By titling his second book The Theater of Plants, he creates a vivid picture of how he perceived gardens. Referencing the commonly used metaphor of the theater of the world, Parkinson compares plants as the actors in the the garden’s theatrum. It is also in Theatrum Botanicum that Parkinson details the medicinal uses of hundreds of plants that make up simple (medicinal) gardens in England. While both texts are rich for analysis, I want to turn attention specifically to Paradisus terrestris because I think it is a strong example of how botany and gardening were evolving into a new form of science in Europe during the seventeenth century.

Title page woodcut image for Paradisus Terrestris. Image courtesy of the College of Physicians Medical Library, Philadelphia, PA.

The folio pages of Paradisus terrestris are as large and foreboding as those of any early modern edition of the Bible. Chock full of thousands of detailed notes on the origins, appearance, and medical and social uses for pleasure gardens, kitchen gardens and orchards, one could only imagine how long it took Parkinson to collect this information. Paradisus terrestris was one of the first real attempts of a botanist to organize plants into what we now would term genuses and species. This encyclopedia of meticulously detailed, imaged and grouped plants was a new way of displaying horticultural and botanical information when it was first published. While it was not the first groundbreaking example of the science behind gardens and plants in western society, Luci Ghini potentially being the first, Parkinson’s reputation and network within his circle of botany friends and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries bridged the separation between the two fields. Over the course of the century,  the medicinal properties of a plant were coherently circulated in comprehensive texts like Parkinson’s as the Scientific Revolution and the colonization of the New World steadily increased access to new specimens and the tools to study them.



Paradisus terrestris includes many woodcut images of the flowers Parkinson writes about to help the reader better study and identify them. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.

Another thing to note in Paradisus terrestris is the way Parkinson writes about plants in the introduction. While most of the book is more of a how-to narrative on how to grow a pleasure garden, kitchen garden, or orchard, the preface to the volume illustrates much about Parkinson as a botanist. Gardens to Parkinson are integral to life; they are necessary “for Meat or Medicine, for Use or for Delight” (2).  The symbiotic relationship between humans and plants is repeatedly discussed in how gardens should be situated in relationship to the house, and how minute details in the way a person interacts with a garden space can affect the plants. “The fairer and larger your allies [sic] and walks be the more grace your Garden shall have, the lesse [sic] harm the herbs and flowers shall receive…and the better shall your Weeders cleanse both the beds and the allies” (4). The preface divulges the level of respect and adoration Parkinson has towards plants. It illustrates the deep enthusiasm and curiosity he has towards the field, two features of a botanist that seemed synonymous for natural philosophers and collectors of the time.

John Parkinson was one of the first figures in England to merge the formalized study of plants with horticulture and medicine. Although herbs and plants have been used as medicines for thousands of years, it is in the first half of the seventeenth century that the medicinal uses of plants become a scientific attribute to a plant, as they were categorized and defined in texts like Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris and Theatrum botanicum. Parkinson is a strong example of the way a collector’s mind worked in the early modern period, in the way he titled his texts and the adoration that can be felt when reading the introduction of Paradisus terrestris. From explorer, to collector, horticulturist, botanist, and apothecary, the many hats Parkinson wore throughout his professional career and the way he weaved them together exemplify the lives many of these early scientists lived as they brought about the rise of these new sciences.

Molly Nebiolo is a PhD student in History at Northeastern University. Her research covers early modern science and medicine in North America and the Atlantic world and she is completing a Certificate in Digital Humanities. She also writes posts for the Medical Health and Humanities blog at Columbia University.

Think Piece

Humanism in the Archives: The Case of Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

I’m sorry not to have been at the Renaissance Society of America Conference in Boston this last weekend. In the spirit of that conference, I want to introduce you to a wonderful renaissance manuscript currently on the other side of the country. The Italian mid-fifteenth century Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6 at the Huntington Library contains the satires of Persius and Juvenal copied in a particularly lovely early humanist hand on paper and parchment with at least three hands’ annotations from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. I want to use it, and its (possible) successive owners to examine possible networks of intellectual culture in the early Tudor period among those in royal service. There are also studies of the men who worked in royal administration under Henry VII and Henry VIII, but little appreciation of how connections made by those working for the king might feed into the larger networks of intellectual culture around them (Watts, “New Men,” 201-3). In this micro-study of one manuscript and its hints at possible connections of ideas and reading between individuals, I want to speculate about how one particular book traveled and was taken up in the intellectual world of administration.

EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.
EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.
The Juvenal manuscript and the biography of the man who first owned it emphasize the importance of administrative connections for early humanists, as many of them were also priests working for the king who knew and helped each other. John Gunthorpe was many things including dean of the Chapel Royal, canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster, and finally in retirement dean of Wells Cathedral until his death in 1498 (Reeves, 311-17). These church posts came in part from his distinguished career in royal service, as an ambassador under Henry VII, as a theologian and a lawyer who served on the Privy Council in the 1490s, and earlier as Keeper of the Privy Seal under Richard III. He can also be appreciated as a humanist who studied Latin rhetoric under Guarino da Verona in Ferrara in 1460, was a papal chaplain in Rome until 1465 and received his baccalaureate in theology at Cambridge. More generally, he helped to bring the Italian humanism of the mid fifteenth century to England. It was probably at Ferrara that he acquired the Juvenal manuscript and started to add his own dense notes to it, usually commenting on allusions and mythology in Latin, English, and occasionally in Greek, just as he is known in 1460 to have been copying and annotating Seneca (Reeves, 311).

Gunthorpe was just one of the highly educated priests whose humanist education, often abroad, allowed him to be used by the English kings Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII for their own needs as a councillor, ambassador, administrator, and senior churchman. Contemporaries at St Stephen’s, for example, included Christopher Urswick, and Henry VII’s Italian secretaries, Pietro Carmeliano and Andreas Ammonias, as well as the doctor Thomas Linacre later in his life. While Gunthorpe didn’t leave books to individuals in his 1498 will, he did use fellow royal servants and canons, including Richard Hatton, also a canon at Westminster and Wells who worked in Chancery, as his executors (Early Somerset Wills, 361). Hatton in his own will of 1509 called Gunthorpe his benefactor and endowed masses for Gunthorpe as well as himself. We need to see Gunthorpe not just on his own as a talented scholar, but also as part of friendship and patronage networks at the intersection of the church and royal service.

EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.
EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.

We know for certain that Gunthorpe owned this book because the handwriting of the first layer of annotations seems to match his handwriting in the surviving Bodleian manuscripts he owned, and also because a later sixteenth-century hand wrote on the back flyleaf “iuvenalis oli(m) gu(n)thorpi, welli quo(n)da(m) decani, nu(n)c a(u)te(m) heroni” (Juvenal once [the possession] of Gunthorpe, at one time dean of Wells, now that of Heron). Heron was interested in humanist works and clearly respected Gunthorpe as a humanist; the same hand also wrote in a book list on an earlier folio that includes several of Erasmus’ works including Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503) and De Conscribendis (1522). In addition, the book list includes eminently humanist classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the letters and works of Cicero. Finally, Heron added a few annotations to Persius and Juvenal about the meanings of particular words, usually on folios that Gunthorpe had not commented on. Perhaps most interestingly, he copied on the first folio of the manuscript the short summary piece that appears on the title page of a 1505 Parisian Persius. As far as I can tell, the printed edition and commentary was not reprinted in England, and is not included in Early English Books Online, although the Bodleian owns a copy of the 1507 printing (Bodleian MS Douce 81 (3)). Heron had access to specialist commentaries and thought this brief introduction to the arguments of the satires was worth copying into his own manuscript copy, an intriguing interplay of print and manuscript in the sixteenth century.

EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.
EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.
It’s not obvious who this Heron is. No one with that surname appears in Erasmus’ letters, so he doesn’t seem to have been active in scholarship himself during the early sixteenth century. There are a couple of Herons who were writing classically inspired verse under Elizabeth I, and previous readers at the Huntington have suggested that either of them might be our Heron. I’m skeptical of this suggestion because around seventy years would then separate Gunthorpe’s death and the writing of the book list and the inscription. The assumption that Heron must be someone who wrote in a humanist style, even if much later, is problematic given that Erasmus was a popular author. In addition the book list seems earlier to me, given the mix of titles and the presence of material from the 1505 Persius edition. Certainly, the presence of De Conscribendis provides the absolute earliest possible date that the list could have been written, although it could also be much later in the sixteenth century. By that point Gunthorpe himself had been dead for well over twenty years and many of his colleagues at Wells, at Westminster and as humanists would also have died. Yet there was enough memory of his status as a scholar that Heron wanted to commemorate his ownership of this manuscript. The question we really should be asking is how was a book owned by one humanist remembered as having been connected with Gunthorpe for at least a generation? I want to suggest that it wasn’t the sorts of humanist networks or patronage ties that have been the focus of study that maintained the manuscript’s remembered connection with John Gunthorpe but quite possibly the institutional ties of royal service and the church patronage that royal service still opened up under the early Tudors.

EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.
EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.
As mentioned above, Gunthorpe’s will did not mention his books, save one bequest to his old Cambridge college. Unless he had already disposed of his books, it would have been the executors’ task. We know that both Wells (where he died and was buried), and St Stephen’s had libraries of their own, including some classical works alongside the working liturgical books and law books. St Stephen’s certainly received a variety of books from canons and former canons, and was careful to identify them as associated with the relevant benefactor. It’s not completely out of the question that this Juvenal remained associated with Gunthorpe because it remained in the library of one of his former homes until it was acquired by someone with an interest in its contents. This is by no means anything more than a very tentative identification, but in 1535 a Dr. John Heryng was appointed as a canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster by Henry VIII, possibly as a reward for his work on Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon or his work on the theology of the new Church of England. We really don’t know much about him and his interests, nor do we know what books he owned. Yet like Gunthorpe, he was a canon of both Wells (from 1543) and St Stephen’s, and in royal service. It may be pure coincidence that Heron, whoever he was, wanted to memorialize Gunthorpe as dean of Wells at least a generation after his death. Yet, I think it is worth at least considering that, in this manuscript, we are looking at continued humanist thought and humanist interests among the traditionally-trained priests who worked for the early Tudor kings. If John Heryng were the man who wrote the inscription and the book list in the 1530s or later, then a man that we would not otherwise have encountered as a humanist was using the networks of royal service to advance his literary interests.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.

Think Piece

A Case of Androgynous Gender-Bending in Early Modern Radical Religion

By guest contributor Timothy Wright

From the perspective of contemporary feminism, Christianity has a decidedly mixed record on gender. On the one hand, many modern scholars, such as Mary Wiesner-Hank, cite Christian culture as leading to an “erosion of gender variation” as the patriarchal hierarchy implicit in Christian scripture demanded a binary model of gender identity (Wiesner-Hank, Mapping Gendered Routes and Spaces, 72). On the other hand, scholars of early modernity have increasingly pointed to the egalitarian and subversive potential of the doctrine and practices of radical Christian sects such as the Quakers, whose doctrine of the ‘universal light’ legitimized such practices as female prophesy and female traveling ministers, leading the historian Mack Phyllis to label Quakerism the “cradle of modern feminism” (Phyllis, Visionary Women, 349).

A particularly outlandish example of experimenting with gender roles in early modern radical religion is found in the practice of Christian rebirth in the ascetic radical Protestant network led by Johann Gichtel (1638-1710), named the “Brethren of the Angelic Life”. Far from being understood as a purely symbolic allusion to a change in one’s inward ‘spiritual’ attitude or disposition, Christ’s reference to rebirth in John 3:5 evoked widespread early modern mystical, alchemical, and Rosicrucian speculation on how the soul and body could be transformed by faith (Dohm, Alchemische Poesie, 15). Gichtel and his circle followed in this tradition, but with a twist: his concept of rebirth aimed to erase all traces of gender from the human body, thus precipitating an androgynous transformation rendering us as the angels, or as Adam before the Fall, a doctrine Gichtel took from the highly heterodox and speculative musings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624). Gichtel, following Boehme, taught the great ‘mystery’ that mankind must reclaim in its own body the image of God as found in the first creation before the Fall. Gichtel argued that “the first man Adam was neither man nor woman” (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 276) and this androgynous Adam, incredibly, had the ability to

impregnate himself through paradisaical means through the power of imagination like Mary and multiply without tearing [Zerreissung]. But because he did not desire this, so did God create him for this earthly life and split him in two [my italics], in which he now must spend his life with fear and pain in great sorrow. He should have had no need for his beastly genitalia [thierische Glieder] which were first given to him when he slept, of which afterwards he was ashamed and of which we still today are ashamed. The circumcision of children also shows that the phallus does not belong in the kingdom of God… (Gichtel, Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 271-2) (all translations are mine)

That the Brethren of the Angelic Life sought to realize this androgynous rebirth in mortality is illustrated by the case of one Sister Beatrix, with whom Gichtel and his companion Johann Überfeld (1659-1732) practiced celibacy, poverty, and intensive meditative prayer in a house community in Amsterdam from 1695 to 1705. In a letter from 21 March, 1710, Überfeld claimed that Beatrix had achieved such a “high and deep degree of purification” that she had “overcome her gender” (Überfeld Briefe, Theil IV, 120). In another letter, Überfeld explained that Beatrix “had died to the world to such a degree that she had almost completely lost her nature, and one could not tell in the last five years she lived, that there was a woman in the house” (Briefe, Theil IV, 128).

Unfortunately, Überfeld does not go into precise detail about the changes to Beatrix’s body, but elsewhere, including in descriptions of Gichtel’s own rebirth, we learn that the Angel-Brothers believed that sexual abstinence and other ascetic practices could induce a purifying mutation of the very substance of the human body. In a biography of Gichtel published in 1722, Überfeld claimed that Gichtel as early as the 1680s “already carried the body of the first Adam in his soul” (Lebens-Lauf, 150) which manifested itself in an outward manner: “his spirit was thereby transformed in a wholly new form, such that he appeared to be a completely new man. His soul beamed through his eyes.” (Lebens-Lauf, 84). Gichtel himself had earlier described how reborn bodies change into a ‘transparent, crystalline’ substance like Adam’s body and shed the “earthy, hard, and dark” fallen flesh (Theosophische Send-Schreiben, 217).

genderMuch of the activity of Gichtel and his network of Protestant ascetics was geared toward propagating through correspondence and publications the precise means by which such a transformation could occur. Gichtel even published a guide in 1697 to this system, or ‘theosophia practica’, of ascetic rebirth replete with anatomical diagrams illustrating the spiritually significant parts of the body (see image) such as the ‘dark world’ of the genitalia and the seat of sexual desire in the kidneys.

A spiritual transformation understood as the loss of the male-female sexual binary is nothing new to those familiar with the Christian ascetic tradition. Peter Brown indicates that Origen’s castration was not so much about ensuring chastity but rather an attempt to eliminate his maleness (Brown, The Body and Society, 169). Early Christian ascetic practice aimed not to escape the body, but rather to reclaim the original pre-lapsarian Adamic body (Body and Society, 222) that, according to Valentinian Gnostics, was characterized by a platonic unity which knew no diversity or separation into gender, as could be seen in the homogeneity of the angels. The polarity between male and female would disappear as the confusion of spiritual forces occasioned by the fall were overcome through the individual’s battle with his/her fallen flesh. Thus, the overcoming of gender was “the surest sign that the redemption offered by Christ had come to the believer.” (Body and Society, 115).

We should not assume, of course, that Gichtel’s early modern reiteration of early Christian androgynous spiritual rebirth is equivalent to an emancipatory post-modern play with the contingency of gender. Enough misogyny lay hidden in Gichtel’s hatred of sex to fill volumes. Nevertheless, Gichtel does treat sexual identity as a secondary, temporary aspect of human nature. Earthly androgyny becomes, therefore, a way to escape the straightjacket of earthly sexuality, and takes us one step closer to a form of divine ontology not expressed in gender binaries. If nothing else, Beatrix’s androgynous transformation is a colorful example of the manner in which theological heterodoxy and divergent ideas of the body and sexuality were often two sides of the same coin.

Timothy Wright is a fourth-year PhD student studying Early Modern History at UC Berkeley. His interests include religious heterodoxy and separatism in the Protestant Reformation as well as the relationship between theology, scholarship, and religious praxis in the early Enlightenment.

Think Piece

The Early History of Arabic Printing in Europe

by Maryam Patton

In the middle of the ninth century, Paulus Alvarus complained about Spanish Christian youths who were abandoning Latin for the native Arabic of their new conquerors. Yet nearly seven hundred years later, when the last Muslim state of Grenada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, the sustained study of Arabic in Europe suffered a fatal blow. In the following years, royal decrees banning the use of Arabic and book and manuscript burnings, such as the one initiated by Archbishop of Toledo Ximénez de Cisneros in 1499, worked to undo the special relevance Arabic had had for Europeans (Toomer, 17). Until well into the seventeenth century, European interest in the philological pursuit of Arabic waxed and waned. The sources for this interest included the Crusades, scientific knowledge, the rediscovery and transmission of Greek classical texts from Arabic and Syriac translations, and faith-based missions to the Near East. These factors constituted a “first wave” of interest in Arabic study in the medieval period. It was not until a “second wave” of interest beginning in the sixteenth century that Arabic became a sustainable subject for philological inquiry (Russell, 1-19).

This second wave embodied some of the same concerns the original Arabists felt concerning the religious significance of Arabic. In addition to their evangelical missions, early modern students of Arabic sought to reconnect with Eastern Christian communities such as the Maronites and Coptic Christians. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII founded the hugely successful Maronite College in Rome for the education of Jesuit missionaries traveling East. Meanwhile, growing pressure from the encroaching Ottomans, combined with Ottoman “capitulations” allowing for expanded economic involvement within Ottoman territories, offered economic incentives to study Arabic, as well as Persian and Turkish.

Yet, during the early modern period, an increasing emphasis came to be placed on studying Arabic for its own sake, rather than purely religious or economic concerns. Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609) was one significant example of an early modern scholar who argued for the study of Arabic as an end rather than a means. He stressed the importance of the Koran as a waypoint to understanding Arabic language and culture. His own knowledge of Arabic was limited, but his influence as a professor at Leiden and the example he set for his students ought to be emphasized. Upon his death he bequeathed his impressive library of Oriental manuscripts to the university, helping to establish the Netherlands as one of Europe’s most important centers for the study of Arabic (Toomer, 42-45).

The pursuit of Arabic for its own sake was facilitated by the appearance of printing presses sophisticated enough to print in Arabic using moveable type without relying on crude woodcuts. John Selden’s (1584–1654) 1614 book Titles of Honor for instance relied on woodcuts for the ‘words of the Eastern tongue’ like amir and sultan, but the letters looked strange and often appeared alone when they should instead have been connected to the following letter. In some cases, blanks were left in books where Arabic words were called for and were written in later by hand, like in Richard Brett’s Theses published at Oxford in 1597 (Roper, 12-13).

An excerpt from Titles of Honor showing incorrect letter forms

Proper Arabic type made it possible to finally print grammars and dictionaries. Previously, students had to rely on native speakers and others who already knew the language. The first book containing Arabic printed with moveable type was a book of hours printed in 1514 and intended for use in the near east. Though it was published independently by the Venetian Gregorio de Gregorii, it was paid for by Pope Julius II, and featured odd shapes for some of the letters (cut by Gregorii himself). The characters dal and dhal in particular were too large and should not have curved down below the baseline.

Book of Hours 2

A number of other religious texts intended for Christians in the East appeared soon thereafter, but the most impressive feat was a complete Koran published in 1538 in Venice by Paganino de Paganini and his son Alessandro. It was printed entirely in Arabic without any Latin characters whatsoever in an effort to disguise its Western origins, and was most likely intended for sale in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans did not establish their own printing presses for another two hundred years, with the efforts of Ibrahim Müteferrika. Sadly, a lack of demand and the costs associated with creating new Arabic type (not to mention the numerous errors contained therein) bankrupted Paganini. Only one extant copy of this text is known (Nuovo, 79-81).

First printed Qur'an in west

Italian printing in Arabic reached its height in Rome starting in 1584 with the founding of the Medici Oriental Press by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici. Pope Gregory XIII again offered his support, and with a newly designed type from the famed typographer Robert Granjon, the Medici Press was in an ideal position to seriously advance Arabic studies. Yet the director, Giovanni Raimondi, grew too ambitious and published many obscure texts with a limited audience. The press faced criticism for its lack of fundamental books such as grammars and basic readers. Few scholars besides those already learned in the language could make much use of these advanced texts, and the press effectively shut down upon Raimondi’s death in 1614. Granjon’s elegant type was, at the very least, saved for later use by the Vatican Press and others, and helped raise the aesthetic standards of Arabic printing. As in the image below, Granjon’s type was far more rectangular than earlier fonts. These instead resembled the curvier handwriting of the manuscripts on which they were based, while Granjon’s type resembles modern Arabic fonts.

Thomas-Stanford Plate11

After the failure of the Medici Press, the center for Arabic studies shifted to the Netherlands thanks to the diligent efforts of a few key individuals. Scaliger arrived at Leiden in 1593 and swiftly set to work encouraging others to pursue Arabic. His student Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) was arguably “the first native European to achieve true excellence in Arabic.” Erpenius assumed his position as Professor of Oriental Languages in 1613 and in the same year published his masterful Grammatica Arabica. Its type was cast by Francis Raphelengius, and served as the authoritative grammar for many years to come with several updated editions and the addition of reading passages. Erpenius unfortunately died at the young age of 40, but his student and successor Jacob Golius (1596–1667) carried on in the same vein and produced an Arabic lexicon in 1653. His brother Petrus was then serving in Antioch, and Golius relied on this connection to build an extensive library of Arabic manuscripts rivaled only by Edward Pococke’s collection in England (Toomer, 43-45).

By this point, there was still no press capable of printing Arabic in England. Scholars instead would travel to Leiden to have them printed with Raphelengius, or rely on unsatisfactory woodcuts. Although William Bedwell succeeded in purchasing the type from the Raphelengius brothers when he visited Leiden, what arrived in England in 1614 were worn out types rather than the matrices from which fresh new types could be cast. England’s entry into Arabic printing was thus delayed until 1652 when Selden published Mare Clausum. Erpenius and Golius’ philological texts expanded the possibility for further Arabic study not only because students could be self-taught but also because they encouraged standardization in the teaching. Even after difficult financial setbacks and the technical challenges of a language with varying letter forms, the printing presses ultimately made it possible for serious advancements in the early modern period. As in the case of Greek, advances in typesetting expanded access to printed texts and made it possible for early modern scholars to learn the language from a grammar, instead of having to rely on someone who already knew the language (Dannenfeldt, 17).

Maryam Patton is a first-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the early modern intellectual history of Europe and the Near East. She is particularly interested in the ways books and ideas moved between cultures, especially those concerning the history of astronomy, and her dissertation focuses on 17th-century British Orientalism.