Think Piece

The “Conquest of the Sun” and Ideas about Energy

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

In late summer of 1878, a visitor strolling the park at Trocadéro on a sunny day during the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris would have encountered an enormous silver-plated cone. Twenty-four square meters of reflective surface trapped the sun’s rays and converted their heat into usable energy, performing an astonishing array of tasks. Next to this strange contraption, a roast beef rested, having just emerged from the solar-powered oven. It cooled beside a rumbling steam engine that curiously lacked a combustion chamber. Behind this device, the world’s first solar-powered engine, was a provincial mathematics teacher from Tours, Augustin-Bernard Mouchot (1825-1912). His work, now forgotten, piqued the interest not only of the scientific establishment in Paris but also of the popular press long before its debut at the Exposition Universelle. After a trial run in Algeria, the device captured the French public’s imagination, the interest of the notoriously exclusive Académiciens at the Academy of Science and the patronage of France’s two successive political regimes between the construction of the first prototype in Tours in 1860 and the scaled-up model displayed at the 1878 Exposition.

The receptor sits amid several contraptions, similar to those that were displayed on the Champs de Mars at the Exposition Universelle. At the bottom of the page, a banner reading “The sun—cooking aid—distiller—printer—photographer—rotisserie—fire starter—electrician—mechanic—etc.—etc.” appears, heralding its versatility. Strikingly, two men, noticeably dark and lacking shirts, occupy the middle ground. One appears to be in the midst of tending to a machine (perhaps peeling potatoes before boiling them in a trough?) while the other sits, half-reclined upon the frame of the receptor, at rest. In the background, a small figure in a suit stands at the gate, surveying what lies in front of him. The self-assured title, “La Conquête du Soleil” suggests the conquest at work in the image: of the sun in its role as prime mover of nature, harnessing the rays to suit the needs of colonists. La Science Populaire. Paris, no.131 (17 Aug 1882).

Mouchot’s story is an interesting one, and not just on account of the delightful tremor of self-recognition upon discovering that something so apparently cutting-edge belonged to an earlier century. Mouchot’s device and its trajectory also allow us to pose questions about how he and his contemporaries thought about natural resources and energy. Seen in this way, it belongs to the “new” intellectual history which explores the ideas of individuals who are not normally considered intellectuals and are far outside the pantheon of celebrated scientists. Since the legacy of the man (as so often is the case) was eclipsed by his invention, the ideas he engaged with provide a more fruitful path for further inquiry than any sort of biographical preoccupation.

Not much is known of Mouchot’s life before his construction of the receptor. His earliest published work, La chaleur solaire et ses applications industrielles, appeared in 1869. In it, he describes the properties at work in the solar receptor and in early-stage experimentation. He credited recent developments that explored the role of heat in machines for opening the possibility of his invention. Mouchot’s first experiments with the solar receptor date from 1860 in Alençon, where he began his career as a mathematics teacher at the local lycée. Using modest materials—his first prototype involved a receptor fashioned from the blacked interior of a wooden crate—Mouchot began to apply the principles of solar heat and mechanical work.

In La chaleur solaire, Mouchot, a specialist in neither geology nor political economy, confidently asserted that Europe’s coal stocks would become exhausted. “Unlike our forests,” he wrote, “the coal stocks are not replenished, and yet we have seen the wood supply become more rare. Is there any reason to imagine that the situation with coal, one in which the deposits are never refilled, can avoid dearth?” And yet, Mouchot continued, “the consumption of coal worldwide increases annually, while scientists scramble to calculate the expiration date of this period of bounty.” With this in mind, Mouchot aimed to disabuse his readers of their false sense of security in the current coal-based energy regime.

This is a story about coal as much as it is one about solar power. La chaleur solaire provides a genealogy of the principles that informed Mouchot’s research, but it is also a tool of self-promotion. Mouchot self-consciously reproduces the language of a coal shortage, drawing attention to the promise of the solar energy as a “free resource” (ressource gratuite) in a way that was meant to draw the attention of official networks of patronage. Put differently, the problem he seeks to address is not just solely the creation of usable energy from the sun, but the creation of usable energy that does not rely upon coal.

While we are accustomed to hearing about “peak oil”, we often forget that “peak coal” was a legitimate concern in the nineteenth century. Western European nations, whose enormous industrial growth was predicated on a reliable supply of the stuff, fretted over its eventual exhaustion. Mouchot’s own vague allusions to the calculations of the rate of coal exhaustion drew upon the work of Louis Simonin in France and, more famously, William Stanley Jevons in Great Britain, both popularizers of the idea of coal shortage. Exhaustion, explained Jevons in his 1865 publication The Coal Question, signified a time when the costs of extracting coal rose to a point that it was no longer feasible. Jevons wrote within a British context, but these same anxieties made their way across the channel to France (a nation already poorly endowed with accessible coal). Innovations in mining technology had overcome these setbacks for the time being, but the growing demands of industry ensured that France would be playing consumption brinkmanship if alternatives were not sought out.

appareil solaire.jpg
“Appareil pour l’utilisation de la chaleur solaire,”Dictionnaire encyclopédique et biographique de l’industrie et des arts industriels, (Paris: Lami, Tharel et Compagnie, 1891)

In the two decades spanning 1860 to 1880, the conversation about resource management was a conversation about coal extraction and trade– petroleum was slowly making inroads, but coal reigned. “Coal,” wrote Roderick Murchison, director of the British Geological Survey, was “the meter of power of modern nations” (Murchison to Layard, 23 Feb. 1866, Layard Papers, BLAM 39118, ff.410-411). The geological survey inaugurated an age in which mineral wealth provided an index of national power. The late nineteenth century displayed a tendency to measure its power not solely in terms of its standing army, but also its feedstock resources.

Mouchot set out to create a means for collecting and utilizing solar rays for the profit of agriculture and industry in warm regions. His technology was not merely one with applications confined to the borders of France; in fact its conditions for optimal results lie beyond the Hexagon. After nearly a decade of promoting his technology before provincial and national audiences, he secured support for an expedition Algeria in 1877. The results were promising. His application-first approach tested the utility of the receptor for tasks suited to the everyday needs of a military expedition. He traveled the country and systematically tested the caloric yield of his devices at various locations and altitudes. These included the distillation of water and alcohol, the baking of bread and cooking of meat, which were all tasks of great importance to the French military in light of the shortage of naturally occurring coal and tinder in Algeria. These minor uses were subordinate to the primary goal, which was to determine the utility of a large solar powered engine for agriculture, to power a motor for elevating water for irrigation purposes, and industry.

The journey to Algeria and the display at the 1878 Exposition Universelle furnish the climax of this story; afterwards both the man and his machine fade into obscurity. The difficulties of finding dependable sunlight in France proved to be a damning drawback, cited again and again in scientific proceedings and reports. Its utility in other climes was plain, but investment in technology solely suited to France’s colonial possession (which was itself an engagement of questionable at best economic return) was hard to justify. Eventually, the idea of a solar-powered engine was altogether abandoned and treated as a curiosity on display in a courtyard on the rue d’Assas in Paris.

This post begins with a story and finishes with a set of questions about what a history of ideas about the environment might offer. In addition to sufficient institutional resources, an energy shift requires a degree of imagination; it requires us to imagine alternatives that are not readily apparent. In its brief lifespan, Mouchot’s device captured the imagination of his contemporaries. (Mouchot appears as footnote in August Bebel’s sketch of socialist future outlined in Die Frau und der Sozialismus, which is how I myself came upon the topic.) Mouchot’s device partakes in the wider phenomenon of the forgotten history of alternative energy sources. These projects have been largely neglected by historians. They are either been taken as unremarkable, and thus unworthy of study (such is the case of wind and watermills); or due to their failure to take hold (as in this early case of solar power), they appeared casualties of “inevitable” progress fed by fossil fuels. Returning to these stories and attempting to reconstruct the moments of possibility can help us to see beyond the blinders of fossil fuel dependency that govern the modern world and to recapture earlier ideas about natural resources.

Think Piece

Goodnight Moon: Kepler’s ‘Somnium’

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

One Bohemian night in 1608, the Imperial Mathematician gazed up at the moon and the stars. In the seven years since he had received that title, Johannes Kepler had discovered many things about these celestial bodies, some true and some (as Hesiod said) like the truth: that planets moved around the sun, not the earth; that they moved in ellipses, not perfect circles; that they were enormous magnets – to name a few. The following year, he would publish these discoveries as his New Astronomy, a book which would make his name a fixed star in the firmament of science. On this particular night, however, a different book was on Kepler’s mind. His curiosity had been aroused by popular historical comparisons to the current troubles between Emperor Rudolph and his brother, the Archduke Matthias; while investigating Bohemian legends, Kepler had come across the story of Libuše, a prophetess associated with the founding of Prague and “most famous for her skill at magic.” With Libuše and the moon swimming in his head, Kepler got ready for bed and fell into an unusually deep sleep.

Kepler's 'Somnium' and other writings, published posthumously in 1634
Kepler’s ‘Somnium’ and other writings, published posthumously in 1634

Kepler circulated but never published a written account of the bizarre dream which ensued; after his death, his penniless wife persuaded his destitute son (an aspiring doctor) to complete and publish the work. For us, the text is marvelously rich in astronomical, literary, and sociological significance. He dreamed that he was reading a book—a realistic enough start—about an Icelandic boy named Duracotus. When the curious boy cuts open one of the pouches of herbs his mother Fiolxhilda has promised to a skipper, she sells him instead and keeps the money; the skipper takes the boy and sails for Norway. Eventually, Duracotus is charged with delivering some letters to Tycho Brahe (Kepler’s predecessor as the Imperial Mathematician), and the man becomes his mentor. Having made startling progress in his astronomical studies (though with only middling Danish) Duracotus sails home to his mother. Fiolxhilda is overjoyed at Duracotus’s astronomical knowledge, and Duracotus is surprised to discover that his mother knows as much as he. She explains that she is visited by nine spirits of the moon (called by them “Levania”) and conjures one to expatiate on his homeworld.

Caspar David Friedrich, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon," 1835 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).
Caspar David Friedrich, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon,” 1835 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).

What follows in Kepler’s dream is a detailed astronomical account of Levania punctuated with fantastic and often humorous details about the journey from one to the other realm. A man who wishes to be whooshed away to Levania, for example,

…must first be tranquilized with narcotics and opiates and stretched out by the limbs, lest the body be separated from the rectum or the head from the body, but so that the force may be divided among the individual limbs. Then begins a new problem, namely a great chill and difficulty breathing… to counteract which we place wet sponges at his nostrils.

Voicing both fact and fantasy, the Levanian spirit spoke to serious issues in current astronomical debates by providing desiderata like the length of the lunar day; at the same time, Kepler managed to translate his brand-new astronomy into Levanian terms—that is to say, from the point of view of an observer on the moon. In such terms, the work exhibits a daring relativism, suggesting not only (with Copernicus) that the planets revolve around the sun, but that scientific designations are contingent rather than absolute. The earth is called “Volva”—from the Latin root volv– ‘turn, revolve’—and contemplation of it is a favorite activity on Levania; Levanian geographers and astronomers subdivide the surfaces of the earth and the moon differently from their terrestrial counterparts. “Even if all Levania has the same views of the fixed stars as we do,” Kepler posited, setting up a dizzying thought experiment, “yet it sees [observat] planetary motions and quantities very different from those which we see here [sc. on earth], so that the mode of reckoning [ratio] of their whole astronomy is entirely different [sc. from ours].”

At the end of the dream, Kepler awoke with his head on a cushion and his body wrapped in blankets, a suggestion of precautions for the journey to Levania – also a complicated and literary gesture which points either to the influence of the waking world on dreams or to a claim that the dream actually took place. Kepler’s own, copious notes to the text preserve this ambiguity while treating the reader to certain authorial insights: “I’ve forgotten the real reason for this number,” he wrote, glossing the nine spirits, “… I’m certain I was thinking of Urania from the number of the muses or of Astronomy out of the nine sciences.” He chose a remote place like Iceland “in order to imitate the philosophers in this genre of writing.” In fact, the notes tell us as much about what Kepler was reading as about what he was writing. Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, Plato’s tale of Atlantis, and Lucian’s True Story are all named as influences, but as for Plutarch’s treatise on the face of the moon, Kepler had not yet read it, and later marveled “by what chance our dreams or tales [somnia seu fabulae] accorded so exactly.”

The notes also contain a tirade against the dogmatism of Augustinians in relation to astronomy. One wonders at the wisdom of this, given that the text (in an earlier form, without Kepler’s notes) may have been a factor in accusations of witchcraft against Kepler’s mother. The woman, whom Kepler nastily described as mean-spirited, illiterate, and a chatterbox, could not much have resembled the sage Fiolxhilda, but to contemporary readers, Kepler’s dream could have seemed autobiographical as well as fanciful and didactic. The Copernican matter was inflammatory to begin with, but to mix it with magic probably increased the violence of certain readers’ reactions.

Even in the time of trigger warnings, the extent to which seventeenth-century readers believed in the power of books will continue to surprise and enchant us. Kepler’s reading brought about his dream; in his dream, he read a book which he suggests transported him to the moon. For centuries, people had imagined Vergil as a magician (and told the most spectacular tales about his magical feats) thanks in part to a few lines of the witch’s song in his eighth eclogue: “spells can bring down the moon from the heavens,” Vergil wrote, and in the notes to his dream, Kepler quoted him, though he nearly brought down the heavens instead.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

Think Piece

The Archival Agenda: Thinking Through Scientific Archives at the Royal Society

by guest contributor Brooke Palmieri

Imagine that an archivist’s child is raised from birth as a professional archivist to see how they documented their life. Imagine that toddler making a finger painting, taking a digital image, filing away the physical copy into an acid-free folder, alerting its parents as to the proper terms from the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, uploading it to Omeka. Even with training from birth by archivist parents, decisions would be made about what to keep as much as what to discard, how to form an archive from preservation as well as loss. Maybe there would be moments of sabotage, like the burning of notebooks filled with teenage poetry. The experiences that matter most in life would be over-represented, like vacations.

Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)
Beyoncé in the archives (wallpaperstock)

Or imagine Beyoncé’s “Crazy Archive”: it includes every photograph, interview, and performance she’s ever done, combined with tens of thousands of hours of footage. Unlike most, Beyoncé has the resources to employ “visual directors,” who have documented every day of her life since 2005.

Neither example provides total recall, but rather a lesson in managing expectations: all archives are meant to include just what they include, and it’s only the expectations of outsiders that find fault or shortcomings in their contents. For example, it is likely that scholars in days to come will ask: what did Beyoncé do every day of her life before 2005, before the birth of her daily archive?

Either way, experimenting on children or following the example of Beyoncé is the closest we could get to a true “archival agenda” shaping the product, rather than some other agenda that happens to manifest as an archive. Which is to say that there is no such thing as an archive that is first and foremost archival. Archives are secondary in nature, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it doesn’t take away from their importance in preserving heritage, nor does it make reading their contents any less empowering or infuriating or educational. Which brings us to the archives of scientists, and an excellent conference that was held on 2 June at the Royal Society: “Archival Afterlives: Life, Death, and Knowledge-Making in Early Modern British Scientific and Medical Archives.”

One of the most important remarks made in the conference was by Victoria Sloyan, an archivist at the Wellcome Library. When asked about the contents of the Collecting Genomics Project, which brings together born-digital contents from a number of different scientists from different institutions who were part of the Human Genome Project, Sloyan stressed that different people have different ideas of what an archive should contain, and act accordingly. Some scientists hand everything over; some preserve only evidence enough to trace the the progress of “successful” ideas. In practice, individual archives fall somewhere between these extremities, but such decisions haunt the work of anyone accessing their material.

Theoretically, not much has changed between Sloyan’s very contemporary moment of archival collection, highly transparent in its obstacles (including born-digital material and a whole lot of floppy disks), and those of scientists past. The multiplication of media platforms has multiplied the kinds of things that can be found in the archive, and the trouble it takes to get them there, but human emotions around the preservation of knowledge only have so many expressions. It was useful then, as the conference did, to ask: “How did disorderly collections of paper come to be the archives of the Scientific Revolution?” Presentations sought to examine the many factors baked into the survival of archives: for instance, Elizabeth Yale looked at the “entanglement of emotion and paper” that is the naturalist John Ray’s archive. Its survival depended on his wife and daughters and the relationship his publishers maintained with them, but also the significance of his biographer Samuel Dale’s role in establishing a legacy for Ray. That legacy also happened to include rewriting and recasting Ray’s lifelong religious beliefs from nonconformist to Church of England.

This is easier to stomach within the libraries and archives of the humanities: we have long sought to make silences speak, fill the gaps between shortcomings, question received truths and their canonical authors. For decades, the dialectic of the humanities archive has been between preservation and loss, histories from above and histories from below. By contrast the dialectic of the scientific archive tends to formulate itself as objectively observed rather than subjectively felt. Conferences like “Archival Afterlives” implicitly fire the opening shots in a bigger battle to knock the sciences down a peg, to reframe the argument as one familiar to humanities classrooms, as something we’ve known all along. The information of scientific archives is more likely to be medical, natural, or celestial, symptoms of disease, fossils, planetary angles—but that makes it no less subject to the inherent distortion of human intervention.

petiver herbarium
A page from James Petiver’s herbarium (c. 1718), featuring specimens of the Carolina Laurel Cherry (Prunus caroliniana Aiton) and the Virginia Willow (Itea virginica L.). (East Carolina University Digital Collections)

In his presentation, Arnold Hunt completely recovered the reputation of James Petiver, dragging him out from the shadow of Hans Sloane and piecing together his dispersed archive and natural history collection to show a methodical, self-taught collector of high quality: only his humble beginnings had caused him to be dismissed as a serious naturalist thinker. In other words, religion, politics, and class have always mediated admittance to the pantheon of thinkers we exalt. And if contemporary circumstances were not enough of a minefield for the archival process, Leigh Penman’s presentation created fresh dangers. His work on Samuel Hartlib’s papers highlighted the formative role of loss: “all his best papers” had “suffered… embezzlement” in Hartlib’s lifetime, including his universal bibliography, meaning that what survives is a collection of “loose papers” of little value to Hartlib himself.

Overall, “Archival Afterlives” subjected scientific knowledge to the more elemental truth: that every archive is an afterlife. Despite the many uses and transmissions of archival information, we cannot forget that there was a first purpose, an initial passion, and a strategy for survival that saw the production and persistence of an archive, and that sets a path for possible uses afterward. The archive begins as the residue of some encounter or event, and only later does it accrue layers of meaning through varieties of use. Maybe this is one of the greatest paradoxes of endurance: renewed interest in mining the archives ensures their survival, both as cited sources and as bodies of material that require funding to remain intact, but at the same time, new agendas have a tendency to obscure old ones, and it’s the old ones that archives have a difficult time preserving. Nevertheless, it is crucial to work to understand their occult influences over the shape of the historical record as much as the scientific record. The first step in doing so is in making the archival agenda visible. Otherwise, we risk misidentifying invisibility as infallibility.

Intellectual history

Out of chaos, some sort of order: The International Congress on Medieval Studies at 50, May 14-17, 2015

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

The International Congress on Medieval Studies held in Kalamazoo last week was immensely diverse, given its 3,000 attendees, but a good reflection of medievalists generally. It didn’t take itself particularly seriously, the alcohol flowed generously, and a good book or argument was warmly welcomed. It was the fiftieth birthday of the conference, as well as other major anniversaries such as 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt and 750 years since the first acknowledged Parliament.Agincourt Everyone was there to have a good time, hear excellent papers and meet old and new friends. Every evening ended with multiple wine receptions, often with an open bar, sponsored by publishers, universities or learned societies. The book exhibit was equally generous, with huge numbers of publishers, secondhand book dealers, and manuscript dealers swarmed by eager delegates. Perhaps the most popular session of all was that of the Pseudo Society on Saturday evening, when a lecture hall was filled to bursting with medievalists there to hear about how IKEA is a secret society where Viking survivors are hiding, among other papers that toyed with academic norms for laughs as well as making a serious point about the absurdities of being an academic.

Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.
Some speculations about the true nature of IKEA.

Medieval history has certainly changed and grown in the last fifty years. The dizzying array of topics in medieval studies that were included in the thick program ranged from experimental archaeology using ballistics gel to gauge the effects of different arrows on different types of armor, to digital humanities efforts to edit texts online and the England’s Immigrants project database. None of these topics would have been conceivable at the first major conference at Kalamazoo in 1964, when the cost was just $5, and there were five parallel sessions in a two-day event rather than the current just under fifty parallel sessions across three and a half days. Even then, the conference was already self-consciously interdisciplinary. It featured theology, liturgy, philosophy, history, and English literature, although in separate disciplinary sessions. All of those themes were still present this year, even if they are now often couched in different language. Liturgy is as likely to be discussed in terms of space and ritual as in terms of the books used by nuns. The study of how other periods conceptualized the idea of the “medieval” has hearteningly become popular, and illuminates both our understanding of the term “medieval” and the later periods under consideration. Kalamazoo now also is doing useful work in thinking about the changing state of the profession in the age of adjunct teaching. There were sessions on being a medievalist in a small college where no one else does what you do, on the possibilities of alt-ac careers of all types, and on how best to teach medieval topics in diverse settings. All of this was an important reminder that being a scholar is wider than research, and that teaching and working outside the ivory tower are vital parts of medievalists’ experiences.

The sessions I ultimately chose to go to were all fascinating and made me think in new ways about the work I’m doing. The sheer size of the conference meant that I created, in effect, a mini-conference of late-medieval English history, with a side jaunt to medicine and canon law, to pick up some of the ways in which scholars are thinking about these issues. I went to a session on Magic and Medicine in which Kristen Geaman looked at a court case that I’ve been trying to write about for my own thesis, the 1441 treason and witchcraft trial of Eleanor Cobham, through the lens of medieval infertility treatments.

Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.
Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham.

She argued that we should take Eleanor at her word that she wanted a child, and so she might well have commissioned magical activity. I’d never thought before that Eleanor might actually have done more than play around with horoscopes, and have always read the court records as politically motivated, given that Eleanor’s husband was the heir presumptive to the young Henry VI and his enemies were circling. I’m glad to be able to rethink those assumptions! Even very old forms of scholarship, such as prosopography, gained new life. Caroline Barron on the glovers of London or John McEwan’s work on the distribution of wealth in the city used older methods to assess new questions in social and economic history that often reflect the experiences of modern society: experiences of inequality, how to survive in a rapidly changing world, and how best to create supportive institutions that protected members’ careers and incomes.

The reason I could be there at all was thanks to a travel bursary from the Society of the White Hart, as I was speaking in their session on political power. I think they found my interdisciplinary paper—with its architectural study alongside chronicle evidence of politics in Richard II’s reign—different, but the comments and questions were unfailingly generous and helpful.

The restored St. Stephen's Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard's repair work at the Palace.
The restored St. Stephen’s Cloisters, looking west to Westminster Hall, also part of Richard’s repair work at the Palace.

They left me heartened about the work that I do, looking outwards from an institution to the cultural and political world around it, rather than the general inward-looking run of institutional history. It is amazing how much it helps to know that I’m doing work that people from a range of fields think is interesting. Kalamazoo reminded me of the range of work medievalists do and the range of settings they do it in, from research universities to public engagement, to teaching colleges. It reminded me that my day job may well turn out to be outside academia entirely, but that I can still be a small part of a huge, sprawling conversation. I’ll hopefully be back next year, to drink more wine, meet more people, and continue to reflect on what it means to identify oneself as a medieval historian, whether teaching inside or outside a university.

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

Book Review: Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy

by guest contributor Elisabeth Brander

Alchemy, and its association with the quest for the always-elusive philosopher’s stone, is one of the most fascinating aspects of early modern science. It was not only a tool to effect the transmutation of metals and create medical remedies, but also a philosophical and theological pursuit. Its most famous practitioners include John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus. The alchemical work of Paracelsus in particular has attracted considerable academic interest: from Walter Pagel’s analysis of his medical philosophy, published in the mid-twentieth century, to Charles Webster’s more recent studies of Paracelsus’ social and theological mission.

doaThese men might be well-known, but they were not the only alchemical practitioners. Tara Nummedal has shed light on the career of Anna Maria Zieglerin, a sixteenth-century German alchemist in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whose work focused on childbearing and fertility. This is complemented by the work of Alisha Rankin, who has brought attention to what she terms “noble empirics”: German noblewomen who created medical remedies using their empirically gained knowledge. Meredith Ray’s new study Daughters of Alchemy continues this discussion of female practitioners. Her analysis of Caterina Sforza, the noblewoman from whom the Medici grand dukes were descended, provides an Italian counterpart to Rankin’s empirics. Sforza was actively engaged in the scientific empiricism of the age, and was a collector of “experiments”: personal recipes based on alchemical principles that could fulfill a variety of useful functions. Some were used to make cosmetics or medicinal remedies, and others were used for the traditional alchemical pursuits of creating—or mimicking—gold. These recipes reveal the ways in which alchemy was a practical pursuit for noblewomen, whether as a means to preserve health and beauty, or maintain control of their finances.

Sforza wrote her recipes in a private manuscript—a true “book of secrets”—but in the sixteenth century these compilations of recipes were also published, forming a popular literary genre. While these books contained knowledge that appealed to both sexes, many of their recipes offered advice tailored specifically to females, such as how to make breasts small and firm. This indicates that women were an intended audience for these texts. Yet only one book of secrets, the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, is attributed to a female author, and even the Secrets’ female authorship is dubious. Ray ties this male authorship of books of secrets to the wider early modern desire to uncover the so-called “secrets of women.” This special knowledge of the female body, which was believed to be possessed only by women, was a topic of great interest for early modern medical practitioners; and Ray argues this is echoed in the male authorship of books of secrets. But even though these works were most often written by men, their distinctly feminine content is an indication of women’s continuing interest in practical alchemy.

Although her monograph is titled Daughters of Alchemy, Ray’s focus extends beyond alchemical practice. The second half of the work shifts away from alchemy and towards natural philosophy, particularly how women deployed it in literature. The Venetian authors Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella used their understanding of scientific discourse and natural philosophy as weapons in the querelle des femmes, the ongoing literary debate about the proper role and status of women. Both Fonte and Marinella incorporated scientific learning into their narrative works to make keen observations regarding the inherent intelligence of women and their equality with men. While these two authors did not engage with the empirical practice of Sforza and Cortese, their literary output shows that women could engage with scientific knowledge outside the confines of a university. In that sense they are similar to the seventeenth-century English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, another early feminist author and natural philosopher whose scientific contributions have attracted academic attention in recent years.

Ray’s final two case studies are the most directly engaged with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Camilla Erculiani, an apothecary from Padua, published her Letters, a scientific treatise in epistolary format, in 1584. This work combined her knowledge of Galenic and Aristotelian thought with her understanding of alchemical processes to describe the causes of the great flood. Margherita Sarrochi, who was famous for her learning and hosted a salon that attracted many leading scientific figures, did not publish any scientific works of her own. This did not, however, prevent her from participating in scientific culture. She corresponded with no less a figure than Galileo: not only about her own epic poem Scanderbeide, but also about his astronomic discoveries. The letters of others corroborate that a high value was placed on her opinions, and emphasize the prominent role she played within her scientific network.

None of the women Ray describes held formal positions at the great European universities, and the vast majority of published scientific treatises were written by men. But as the work of Ray and others are making increasingly apparent, early modern scientific culture was not limited to male academic circles. Women practiced alchemy within their households, incorporated scientific learning into their literary pursuits, and offered their opinions on scientific treatises. As Ray states in her introduction, “It is not women who are missing from the picture: it is our lens that must be adjusted to perceive them” (4). Daughters of Alchemy certainly does this.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Her academic interests include anatomical illustration in the early modern period, the history of obstetrics, and the connections between magic and medicine.

Think Piece

Science, Mysticism, and Dreams in Alice᾽s Adventures in Wonderland

by guest contributor Stephanie L. Schatz

There can be something naïvely reductive and crassly materialistic about empirical analysis—especially if it relates to phenomena also commonly described as mystical, supernatural, transcendental, or sublime. Like the experimenters in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who identify the secret of life as “protein,” materialist investigations sometimes seem to miss the point. This is why it may seem surprising that Lewis Carroll, the famous author of the mind-bending children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), was an avid reader of the cutting-edge scientific literature of his day—including scientific investigations of dreams—and that these studies influenced his formulation of Wonderland. Dreams in general and Wonderland in particular seem to invoke the mystical or marvelous more than the materialistic. But in fact, many Victorians (including Carroll) were keenly interested in exploring the boundaries between these categories, including ways in which they might overlap. As Shane McCorristine notes in his recent, excellent study on ghost-seeing, there were “thousands of ordinary, sane and unimaginative people who saw ghosts and hallucinations in nineteenth-century Britain”—reflecting a prominent Victorian interest in the mystical and supernatural “in an age dominated by skepticism and a loss of faith” (2-3). Indeed, Lewis Carroll himself was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization devoted to investigating psychic or paranormal phenomena. So while nineteenth-century Britain is often marked by an increased medical interest in sleep and dreams, as scholars like Andrew McCann have demonstrated, it witnessed a surge in popular interest in mystical or paranormal accounts of dreams as well.

I want to highlight one particular book that Carroll owned in order to demonstrate the ease with which “mystical” and scientific accounts of dreams criss-crossed in popular literature. Carroll had a fondness for the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1859), an eclectic medley of essays and stories woven into a dialogue of sorts that one might have at a breakfast table (Lovett 154).  Although Holmes is popular today for his poem “Old Ironsides” (1830), he was also a well-known physician and anatomy teacher and a distant relative of Anne Bradstreet, the famous poet. In one particularly thought-provoking excerpt from The Breakfast Table, the reader is asked to consider the following “curiously recurring” remark: “All at once a conviction flashed through us that we have been in the same precise circumstances as at the present instant, once or many times before” (81). As the breakfast companions proceed to discuss this strange episode of déjà vu, we are presented with a range of perspectives. The schoolmistress finds such feelings disconcerting, explaining that they “made her think she was a ghost,” possibly the result of memories from a past life (81). The main protagonist notes that such feelings recur “in my dreams,” and he is inclined to think that they are indicative of the “partial resemblance” of sensible objects, or the mistaken perception that what we see now is identical to something we have seen in the past (83). Still others refer to Dr. Wigan’s “doctrine of the brain being a double organ” (wherein each hemisphere might function as a distinct organ) and argue that if one hemisphere is more “nimble” than the other, then the second half might perceive sensory input more slowly than the first, causing it to conceive a second, later, identical cognition, resulting in déjà vu. These diverse perspectives are all representative of Victorian theories of déjà vu, which Anne Harrington notes was often literally referred to as “the dreamy state” (232). Double brains, ghosts, reincarnation, dreams, and unreliable perceptions: how many impossible things is that before breakfast? (Six, if it’s a double brain!) Victorian ideas about dream-states were complex and diverse, and scientific explanations were often accompanied by or interwoven with “mystical” ones in popular literature. A brief survey of Carroll’s library offers good evidence that Carroll held equally expansive, multifaceted views about dreams and the dreaming mind.

It is a testament to the enduring fascination of Wonderland that there is still so much to be said about the man and his works. In particular, Carroll’s interest in mystical phenomena, especially relating to representations of different kinds of dream-states, has not been thoroughly examined. In my recent article on Victorian child psychology and Alice, I outline some of the ways that Alice is both influenced by and responds to prominent Victorian scientific theories of dreams. But a single essay can hardly exhaust the complex and diverse formulations of dream-related phenomena that permeated Victorian Britain and influenced Carroll (and other prominent writers). As Charlie Lovett points out in Lewis Carroll Among His Books—an invaluable catalog of Charles Dodgson’s library—books related to “homœopathic medicine, spiritualism, magic, and astrology all find a place on [Carroll’s] shelves” (10). Indeed, Lovett emphasizes that Carroll’s “collection of works on spiritualism and supernatural phenomena was significant, and his interest in this area is certainly ripe for future investigation” (11). Despite the substantial scholarship on Carroll and his Alice stories over the past century and a half, there remains a great deal left to be explored in Wonderland—and that is a very encouraging thought.

Stephanie L. Schatz is a Ph.D. candidate and fellow at Purdue University, studying sleep and dream-states in nineteenth-century British literature, science, and medicine. Her article “Lewis Carroll’s Dream-child and Victorian Child Psychopathology” appears in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.