On “The dream of Saint John Damascene: the Virgin attaches his severed right hand” (artist unknown)

While sifting through the Wellcome Library Collection of early modern visual media, one might come across a rather curious 17th century sketch depicting the Virgin Mary leaning tenderly over Saint John Damascene while he gazes upward in gratitude. The archived image has been tagged with the usual array of keywords, including “dream,” “Virgin Mary,” “vision,” and “John Damascene.” However, the inclusion of a sixth word— “amputation”— hints at the drawing’s remarkability in terms of its subject matter. Upon closer inspection, the Virgin Mary is shown grasping the severed hand of the saint; the unknown artist chose to capture the precise moment before the notably unbloody appendage was reattached to the limb’s stump.

L0041636 The dream of Saint John Damascene

The Dream of Saint John Damascene: The Virgin Attaches His severed Right Hand. Drawing, 16–, 1600. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0041636.html

The illustration captures multiple aspects of the early modern medical imaginary, layering conceptions of embodiment, physicality, and the “sanctioned touch” of the healer. “The Dream” essentially depicts an allegory of reunion; the saint is reunited with the maternal beacon of divinity (i.e. the Virgin Mary) while his hand is reunited with his arm’s stump. The sterile bloodlessness of the limb’s reattachment is somewhat characteristic of depictions from the late 16th to the early 18th century— as Nancy Siraisi remarks in Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, medical illustrations were often comical in their refusal to engage with the painful violence of surgery, especially regarding amputation. And yet, the absence of overt pain signifiers— the wincing of patients, bystanders to restrain patients— does not preclude these texts’ ability to engage with the wounds themselves. “The Dream,” for example, treats the viewer to a frontal view of the stump, figuring the site of reattachment at the visual center of the drawing. In short, this text demands that one look closer instead of shying away.

Indeed, 17th century European depictions of surgery complicate conventional definitions of “the study” as the product of any one discipline. Such texts often provided representational “case studies” for early modern medical practitioners, but they often served an allegorical and/or aesthetic purpose— i.e. studies in form. The somewhat ambiguous nature such texts accurately reflects the similarly murky distinction between medicine as a rather abstract and theory-driven field and medicine as an empirically based practice during this period; indeed, the word “medicine” as applied to early modern healing represents, to an extent, a misnomer in that it supposes a unified body committed to standardized practices. In reality, the disciplinary landscape was complex in its social, practical, and political stratification.

Some more notes on Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

  1. I. Insultus Morbi primus; The first alteration, The first grudging of the sicknesse.

 “I stand in the way of tentations, (naturally, necessarily, all men doe so: for there is a Snake in every path, tentations in every vocation) but I go, I run, I flie into the ways of tentation, which I might shun; nay, I breake into houses, wher the plague is; I presse into places of tentation, and tempt the devil himself, and solicite & importune them, who had rather be left unsolicited by me. I fall sick of Sin, and am bedded and bedrid, buried and putrified in the practice of Sin, and all this while have no presage, no pulse, no sense of my sicknesse…” (I. Expostulation)

Donne’s first Devotion emphasizes his sense of haplessness in the face of disease– not necessarily in his inability to cure it, but in his inability to have seen it coming. Rather than shrink from life altogether, Donne instead describes himself as running directly “into the ways of tentation,” thus exposing himself directly to the contagion of sin. His description of the plague-ridden house initially reads as a simple metaphor for the sinful body, corrupt through and through. And yet, Donne’s words should be considered within the context of the contemporary belief that that plague was a symptom of or punishment for one’s sinful behavior. What appears to be a simple binary equivalency is, in reality, a complex semiotic construction that conflates causes with symptoms and origins with vectors. In Donne’s Devotions, plague is almost never entirely figurative because the author was dealing with a very real affliction racking his body; his soul, on the other hand, receives “no presage, no pulse” of its status, leading Donne to cast about desperately for a sign of corruption within.


John Donne’s funerary monument, which depicts him in his funeral shroud. Donne posed for the piece while still alive.


Donne’s continued reference to houses in part recalls the strict measures outlined in England’s Plague Orders, first issued in 1578 (Slack 209). Among other things, the Orders imposed quarantine regulations upon houses which were “visited” (or suspected to have been) by the plague for up to forty days. Inhabitants were not allowed to leave, and the said houses were constantly monitored by “plague-wardens” patrolling the streets of London. The act of breaking into a plague-ridden house, as Donne describes himself doing, would not only be counter-intuitive but criminal. Mercutio’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet, “A plague o’ both your houses,” (III.i.1593), is most commonly interpreted as a supremely vitriolic curse; a tempting reinterpretation would take into account the armistice forced by the quarantine, effectively staying the violence between the two sides.

The above passage in particular is characterized by palpable tension between the volition of the body versus that of the soul. The author’s sin is not a passive sin, but one to which he is drawn like a moth to flame. Furthermore, the fact that the plague represents both sin and its consequence further heightens the sense of fatalism in these lines. Indeed, the evocation of Exodus 12 seems most plausible in this Expostulation, where Donne refuses to be “passed over” or exempt from the wrath of the plague. Early modern descriptions of contagious sites as being “visited” reminds one that the visitor was God in addition to the pestilence. By breaking into such houses, Donne reaffirms his commitment to finding God not only despite his sin but through it, and his forced entry is a means of violent introspection that invites infection rather than avoiding it.

Ultimately, Donne’s words seem to provide little consolation, either for the reader or for their author. Everyone, it would seem, inhabits a plague-ridden house, and he is far more guilty than most. Before despairing entirely, however, he pauses to remind himself to trust in his house/body’s keeper, considering, “we are all prodigall sonnes, and not disinherited [. . .] we are God’s tenants here, and yet here, he, our Land-Lord, payes us Rents.” (Expostulation I). Despite his sense of claustrophobic isolation, the sickly Donne has not been disinherited by God. Indeed, he reasons that all bodies are merely rented dwellings to be exchanged someday for the chance to reside in God’s temple. The idea of God as the omnipresent landlord might have been reassuring for the victim who was otherwise dispossessed of everything, including his/her own body. And yet, it might also have stood as a dark reminder of the subjective upheaval disease was capable of producing, especially in regards to property and privacy. In short, Donne’s seemingly desperate vision of himself charging into a quarantine zone captures much of the existential and spiritual anxiety of disease survivors in seventeenth century London–in which utter isolation and violations of privacy and subjectivity often coincided. The house, which normally afforded the opportunity for privacy, was now subject to inspections and surveillance. The seeming lack of privacy seems contradicted, however, by the constant sense of abandonment and the fear of contagion, as Donne later observes in Devotion V: “As Sicknesse is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sicknes is solitude; when the infectiousnes of the disease deterrs them who should assist, from comming; Even the Phisician dares scarse come” (Meditation V).

The plague epidemic often collapsed the distinction between event and locus; Donne’s choice of a devotional writing style perhaps seems most appropriate for this reason, given that he explores the microcosmic world within himself even as he reflects upon its fragility. In many ways Donne’s first entry in the Devotions Upon Emergent  Occasions is most reflective of the body in flux, observing not only the body as physically susceptible to change when afflicted, but the mind and the spirit as well. Donne finds reassurance in his writings, but he also finds confusion, consternation, and wonder.

Donne’s Poem to Dr. Andrews: Some Thoughts

This is an excerpt from a page in progress on John Donne from my dissertation. Any thoughts on the Latin version would be appreciated; let me know if you want the original posted.

At one point in his life Donne lent a book to a friend of his, “Dr. Andrews,” whose children proceeded to tear it to pieces. It was afterwards “returned in manuscript,” implying that the doctor had taken the time to copy the printed book by hand as an apology for the mishap. The poem, which is both poignant and rich in its insights pertaining to the soulfulness of the manuscript versus the soullessness of the book, is worth quoting in full:

Damp from the press is born the current book,

But manuscripts wear a more reverent look.

To the Seine Mœnus passed, to Louis’ home,

From thence to Frankfort, in thy hands to roam.

The book which, dyed with printer’s ink, is thrust

On shelves abandoned to the moths and dust,

If writ with pen it reach us, is respected,

And straight in ancient father’s chests protected.

Apollo must explain how boys can pour

On a new book long years and aspect hoar.

No wonder that a doctor’s sons we see

Able to give new book new destiny.

If boys make old the recent, their sire’s art

To me an old man may new youth impart.

Ah, poor old men! harsh age turns us, forsooth,

To thy second childhood all, ne’er one to youth.

Tis Thy prerogative, Ancient of Days,

With life and youth to crown who on Thee gaze.

The weariness of this frail life meanwhile

With books and love heaven-during we beguile;

Mid which that little book thou dost restore

Ne’er was so dear, so much my own, before.[1]

[1]   The original poem is in Latin; here I refer to the translation by Alexander Grosart in The Complete Poems of John Donne, printed for private circulation by Robson and Sons, 1873.

Grosart’s translation, while witty in its rhyme scheme, nevertheless lacks the visceral charge of Donne’s original Latin verse. Although it was not unusual for Donne to write in Latin, his choice of languages seems more appropriate for a poem written from a man of the church to a man of medicine. Latin would have carried a special relevance in terms of their vocations, and either person would have appreciated the layered, etymological resonance behind Donne’s words which were inextricably tied to the hermeneutics of the body. Naturally, then, the poem begins with a birth.

The newborn book arrives “damp from the press, “comparing the wet ink of the printing press stickiness of the infant.[1] Grosart’s periodic syntax places less emphasis on the birth itself, instead drawing attention to the book’s emergent, unformed state. Donne’s Latin “Parturiunt,” on the other hand, evokes the act of labor, with “madido” emphasizing the soaking or saturated quality of the paper. The description would almost seem to validate the effort of the press as a labor of love, except that the printed book is quickly relegated to the shelves soon after its arrival in the world, “abandoned to the moths and dust.”[2] By omitting the narrative of the manuscript’s birth, the latter’s creation has the sense of being immaculate– holy in its effortlessness.

As is befitting a sacred text, it also wears a “more reverent look,” destined for travel and circulation from the Seine to Frankfurt. H.W. Garrod lends an intriguing reading of Donne’s references to the river, translating them as: “The Maine has become tributary to the Seine; brought back the captive of your triumph, even Frankfurt passes to the halls of its conquerer” (40). The reference to Frankfurt, according to his interpretation, is a reference to Gutenberg’s home and thus to the birth of the printed book: “When Dr. Andrews replaced a printed book by a manuscript worthy to stand with the manuscripts of the Fathers of the church, he undid (Donne would have him believe) the work of Gutenberg, he beat the printers, he won victory confessed over all sellers of printed books” (41). Although a consensus on the meaning of these lines will likely remain elusive, even the lay-reader can intuit the sense of liberated mobility afforded to the handwritten book compared to its static counterpart.

At this point Donne throws in a little bit of comic relief, joking that boys have seemingly rewritten the book’s “new destiny” by having torn it apart. It stands to reason that their father was a physician. Unfortunately for Donne the boys have little power to transform his own destiny, unlike that of the book. The irony, in fact, is that books themselves represent a temporary “stay” against the confusion of old age― “with books and love” we distract ourselves from our “frail life.” As the single earthly artifact capable of being restored/corrected, Donne cherishes it: “Ne’er was so dear, so much my own, before.” Thus, it is only through the painstakingly personal labor of handwriting which restores the book to its owner in an even more beloved state.

Overall, the poem is a lighthearted one– meant to reassure a friend who was guilt-ridden enough by his children’s actions to complete re-write a desecrated volume by hand. On the other hand, it also sheds light on the complex, triadic relationship between the textual body as a circulating, translated, and evolving entity. In this case the book experiences the restoration of its youth and even a form of resurrection– opportunities which are not readily afforded to its mortal reader. As Garrod observes, Donne was feeling poorly during his time in Paris, which is likely when this poem was written (41). Perhaps the presence of this stubborn illness kept him grounded, unable to experience the transitory freedom of his book. If this were the case, it offers a more sentimental reading of the final lines, in which Donne’s book is restored to him, more dear than before; his Latin “redditus” denotes the act of renting, reciprocation, or return. Although Grosart’s translation properly conveys the restorative quality of the doctor’s rewrite, the original poem perhaps possesses a tinge of gladness for the book’s voluntary return after its extensive circulation.

[1] The word “præla” ostensibly refers to a printing press, although it could arguably mean a press of any type (such as a wine press or olive press). The press served as an important metaphor for Augustine, who described the “olive press of the Lord our God” as a means of separating under pressure the “oil of believers” from the “murmuring and blasphemy” of unbelievers (“Letter 111.2”). In Expostulation V from his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Donne compares his solitude to that of Christ, quoting Isaiah LXIII.3: It was for thy blessed, thy powerful Son alone, to tread the wine-press alone, and none of the people with him.”

[2] The Latin mentions “blattis,” meaning cockroach, in lieu of “moths,” implying that the book is decaying in death rather than simply disintegrating out of neglect.

Between the Covers: Unlikely Matches on the Bookshelves

I have a deadline this week and, as such, I haven’t had much time to devote to blogging. Nevertheless I didn’t want my blog entries to get stale, so I thought I would include a more humorous post for a change.

Anyone who has spent more than five years on a university campus knows the pain of having to pack, ship, transport, unpack, and rearrange one’s books. We moved back to Boston a couple months ago and had to send everything across the country via Amtrak, as it was the cheapest method for sending heavy things.

Grad student libraries are very heavy things.

When packing it becomes clear very quickly that your meticulous, well-thought out book groupings go to hell when the books themselves go into boxes. Gone is your alphabetized collection. Demolished is the quarantine separating your theory from your sci-fi. In go the cookbooks with the graphic novels. Somewhere in between, your Dover thrift editions and your secondhand paperbacks serve as improvised padding.

For the first time in many years, I lacked the energy to put all my books back into their familiar and functional sequences. This post is an homage to some of the more interesting marriages between titles, authors, and genres which have taken place on my shelves since.

Some of them delight in the palate of possibilities:

Isaac Asimov’s Saké Handbook
Korean Cooking and the Practice of Everyday Life
Julia Child’s Scandal of the Speaking Body
The Pyromancer’s Cookbook by Henry James

Other beg “If only…”
Sergei Eisenstein’s The Virgin Suicides (filmed and edited accordingly)
The Complete Poems of Stanley Cavell
Writing for Academic Journals by John Donne

Others seem strangely appropriate

Confessions of Haruki Murakami
The Bartender’s Black Book by Christopher Marlowe
Homer’s Mythologies

Still others seem like something you’ve already read:

Jurassic Park: Simulacra and Simulation
Disease Representation, and Dracula
The Dancing Plague and Radical Alterity

(Or something I wish I had written:)

Digital Literacy and the Black Plague

Yet for each of these marriages, however implausible in reality…

Tourbook of the Long Earth
Yasunari Kawabata’s Tom Jones
Calvin and Hobbes: the Narrative Reader
Zen and the Art of French Grammar

There will almost always be a happy ending:

Zadie Smith’s Complete Guide to Massage

To Cull and to Coggle

“Coggle” is an interesting Google creation I was exploring earlier following the advice of Professor Irr at Brandeis. This tool seems to be especially useful for linking up word etymologies, although I’m sure it has a fairly limitless number of uses. I tinkered with Coggle for a few minutes to see if it would help to organize some of my thoughts on the verb “to cull,” a word which suffers multiple definitions. In the following passage,  the senators of Athens plead for Alcibiades to spare their city as a whole, conceding that they should “Let die the spotted” (17.34):

FIRST SENATOR All have not offended;
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges: crimes, like lands, 2600
Are not inherited. Then, dear countryman,
Bring in thy ranks, but leave without thy rage:
Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin
Which in the bluster of thy wrath must fall
With those that have offended: like a shepherd, 2605
Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,
But kill not all together.

Interestingly the editor of the Oxford World Edition of Timon of Athens glosses “to cull” as “select out the infected”; he then adds the caveat that the OED’s closest definition, “To select and kill (wild animals or birds), usu. in order to improve the stock or reduce the population”, is an implausible one, given that it came from 1934.

coggleAnd yet, the meaning of the Senator’s words seem anything but equivocal here. By the 21st century, the word “cull” has come to mean everything from selective data arrangement to selection for quarantine. The OED is an unparalleled source for tracing linguistic origins; however, I do feel as if this particular verb deserves a bit more consideration than it has thus far been given.

EEBO boasts more than one early modern text in which the verb “to cull” occurs; furthermore, these are instances in which the objective of the culling is not to separate the healthy and the strong from the weak to improve the stock, but to separate the sick or the wicked to diminish their influence. In a peculiar, potentially apocryphal text, “The Ploughman’s Tale,” the author writes:

As byrde flyeth vp into the ayre
And lyueth by byrdes that ben meke
So these ben flowe vp into dyspayre
And shended sely soules eke
The soules that ben in synnes seke
He culleth hem, knele therfore alas
For brybry goddes forbode breke
God amende it for hys grace (1309-1324)

A sermon published in 1573 (ascribed to Thomas Cooper, Bishop of London) invokes “cull” as it paraphrases parts of Numbers from the Old Testament:

In this sort of iudgement God here Protesteth that he will deale with the wicked Israelites, and by such meanes, as it were, cull out and purge away the obstinate and rebellious transgressours from the other, so that they shall neuer enioy the lande of Israel agayne wyth comfort and quietnesse.

In the King  James translation of the OT, two of the said “wicked Israelites” are punished for their transgressions by Phinehas, who thrusts a javelin through “the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). As a result, “the plague was stayed from the children of Israel” (25:8). To an extent, one could argue that is this crude, often violent process of “culling” which ultimately stays the hand of the pestilence for the Israelites in this chapter. In Timon, the senator refers to Alcibiades as a “shepherd” approaching his fold, but nevertheless the scenario he envisions is one of a blood-debt being paid– for those who have offended: “revenge” (37).

Quarantine barricade around houses in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Queensland, 1900 (outbreak of bubonic plague).

Quarantine barricade around houses in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Queensland, 1900 (outbreak of bubonic plague).

As always, Foucault comes to mind. For that matter, it is all to often useful to bear in mind moments from Discipline and Punish which highlight the fundamentally utopian aims of a quarantined society. Foucault muses:

“The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies– this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power” (199).

Although Alcibiades is ostensibly invited to “take control” of Athens, it is the very act of deputizing him as a governor-disciplinarian which negates any potentially positive/cleansing effects, figurative or literal, which a plague might have had in Timon. Alcibiades has become complicit with the instrumentation of plague, sustaining its mythological status even as he hopes to liberate the populace of Athens. By “culling” the city of its corrupted, infected stock, Alcibiades presumes to work in pestilence’s stead; in reality, it is possible he has only given rise to a new strain in mankind.

On Bad Blood and Blocked Fleas

(In which I explore the significance of exchange as a (potentially debilitating) instinct within the play)

In addition to “bribing” Alcibiades and the courtesans to obey their natures, Timon also gives gold to the thieves who find him at his cave. The gold is handed over with one condition: that these rascal thieves:

Go suck the subtle blood o’th’grape

Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth

And so scape hanging. Trust not the physician;

His antidotes are poison, and he slays

More than you rob. (428-433)

The analogy of the thief as a parasite is certainly nothing new; in this instance, the thieves find themselves sucking the blood of infected city, thus getting perhaps more than they bargained for. The initial image is perversely sweet; the “blood o’ th’ grape” evokes the extravagance of a city in which wine flows freely among the lords and senators (and formerly for Timon). The Eucharistic element is unmistakable as well, tempting the reader to think of Athens as a martyred body politic. It is important to recall that the image of the “sucking parasite”– specifically the leech– was also associated with cure in early modern Europe. Serving to balance poorly distributed humors, the leech would have been attached to patients as a means of drawing out the bad fluids and leaving the good– though the cure understandably exacerbated symptoms in many cases. The leech best embodies the disturbingly ambiguous concept of healing through harm, inflicting collateral trauma upon the body as a means of winning the war against disease.

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

As was previously stated, this particular “patient” is a city rife with corruption; as a result, the leeching thieves will inevitably develop a “high fever” which will “seethe your blood to froth.” The death would be a merciful one according to Timon; by succumbing to the infection brought on by the bad blood, they would escape the hanging that otherwise awaits them as thieves. Timon’s imagined scenario produces a cycle of parasitism, transmission, the subsequent killing of the host, and the eventual demise of the infected population: the thieves figuratively gorge themselves on the city spoils (“You must eat men” (425)) and, true to Flaminus’ curse, the poisoned meat turns in their stomachs.

Although neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries were likely aware of theories of transmission involving the plague bacterium and its preferred flea host, the image of the infected thieves feeding upon the body of Athens is striking in its similarity to modern understandings of epidemiology associated with Y. pestis (the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague). Conventional theory states that the rat fleas living in early modern England (purportedly X. cheopis, although this is now the subject of debate) would come into contact with the strain, which would produce a blood blockage in their digestive tract. The blockage would then cause the fleas to regurgitate, as the  blood was unable to be digested fully; the backwashed blood (carrying the bacteria) would then be transmitted through flea bites to a new host, thus perpetuating the cycle. The blocked fleas would become ravenous, as the digestive plug prevented them from fully feeding on their hosts; as a result, they may have discriminated less between potential food sources and bitten more often.


A blocked flea (X. cheopis).

Flaminus’ curse in many ways was more prophetic than even the fictional servant would have realized. All of these elements, ranging from the image of the corrupted Eucharist, to the seething leech, and even the malicious physician testify to the ways in which the early modern body was understood to be both delicate and absolutely permeable. Moments in which the play seemingly reminds us of Athens’ solidarity also invoke the horrifying reality of interconnectedness, proximity, and exchange. All of this naturally echoes the same citywide claustrophobia experienced by Londoners during plague-time; those who had the means to flee often did so at the expense of familial bonds and social obligations. The instinct to perpetuate exchange is not necessarily the result of kinship or even compassion; in this case the thieves are described as vectors of contagion whose motives for “transmitting” gold/plague are instinctive, even survivalist. Ultimately, what is most illuminating and terrifyingly realistic about these lines is its characterization of humanity as a species which cannot help but infect– be the contagion pathological, behavioral, or even informational.

The impulse is as natural as the instinct to feed.