Recipes in the archives of the early Royal Society

[This blog post is a slightly adapted version of a blog posted at the Recipe Project]

By Sietske Fransen

‘What is a recipe?’ was the simple opening question asked by the organizers of the virtual conversation hosted by the Recipe Project. This month-long online discussion has made me look for different things in the archives of the Royal Society.

During my weekly visits to the Royal Society Archives in London I am usually searching for anything visual from the period 1660-1710. Once found, the particular page of archival material with something visual on it is added to the Making Visible database.  However, while my colleagues and I are looking for images, we also come across many other interesting documents that are currently part of the early archives. Like recipes!

Those of you who have followed the twitter storm during the #recipesconf might have seen that I have tweeted about recipes in the last few weeks. Recipes for the making of pigments and varnish; food recipes (for bread, butter, and bacon); and medical recipes. The discussions on twitter made me come up with several questions. And even though there are too many questions to answer in one blog post, I will try and discuss them briefly, and hope to continue this wonderful conversation with so many colleagues around the globe.

A receipt to cure mad dogs and men. Cl.P/14i/33. Image @ Royal Society

First of all, why did all these recipes make their way into the archives of the Royal Society? When I started working on the Royal Society materials two years ago, I did not expect to find so many recipes for making food and drinks, nor was I expecting the Fellows’ interest in the making of pigments and varnishes. However, it turns out that the Fellows of the Royal Society were very interested in the history of trades, which made them collect recipes from artisans, including many recipes and treatises on things related the making of images, book printing, and engraving techniques.[1] The food recipes might need to be seen from the perspective of making products in the house, with which men and women can show off their skills to their friends. During my tweeting storm I showed a set of recipes brought to the Royal Society by John Evelyn about how to make the best French bread. But also bacon, butter, cheese, and cider recipes are part of the collections in the archives.


In the case of the bread recipe we have the name of John Evelyn stuck to it. And it is indeed interesting to know who provided the Fellows of the Royal Society with the information now in the archives. Who were the sources for the recipes? Were they named? Relatively often we find a name on the recipe. Many of the recipes related to the art of picture making have male names on the recipes, such as Jonathan Goddard in the recipes for colours. Amongst the recipes I found several that had a female name on them, such as the butter recipe from Mrs Elizabeth Papworth, and the recipe for a remedy for scurvy by Mrs Bancroft. Is this surprising? Not at all, as regular readers of the Recipe blog know very well, recipes were very often collected by women in early modern English households. However, from the perspective of the early history of the Royal Society, it is definitely interesting how recipes from women are still part of the archives. Much more research needs to be done on the women around the Royal Society.

A receipt to cure mad dogs and men. RBO/7/8. Image @ Royal Society

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not the description of a tool needed for the performance of the recipe (such as an oven for bread baking) should be treated as a recipe? Or is it even an ingredient? The description of the oven in John Evelyn’s bread recipe almost looked like a recipe inside a recipe, as it was so clearly describing the various things needed to make the oven and made sure it would actually work correctly. And a good working oven was a prerequisite for making the best bread in itself. Also here I am looking forward to a continuing discussion about tools in recipes!

Finally, I would like to quickly answer a question Elaine Leong raised about the many underlinings and crossing-out in a recipe for curing rabies. As I suspected the crossings were done in the original document that was brought in to the Royal Society. The recipe was thought important enough to make it into the Royal Society’s Register Book, where we find it again in volume 7. All the crossed out sections that you can see in the image to the above, are omitted from the neat version of the recipe in the Register book. Also the information about the effective curing of the His Majesties’ dogs is left out. But instead we do find a short Note Bene, explaining that the plant named in the recipe as “Starr of the Earth”, has several Latin and vernacular namens “known among Botanists”, which will make it easier to find this ingredient.


Thanks to the organisers of the #recipesconf for giving me a great excuse to look at some recipes in the Royal Society Archives and for all the stimulating conversations online!

[1] See for the history of trades and especially the Royal Society’s interest in the making of images Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligene (Chicago, 2013), esp. chapter 1.

Micrography in Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection

by Frances Hughes


Fig 1: Micrographic text reproduced to form a diagrammatic projection of the Globe, c.1702. Pasted into Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection, Volume III, p.326. Size of vellum: 55x45mm. Image Credit: By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Towards the end of his life, Samuel Pepys began collecting samples of medieval manuscripts, calligraphy copy-books, and other miscellaneous textual fragments, which were then pasted into three albums to form his calligraphy collection [Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, 2981-3]. Within Pepys’ social and intellectual context there was a deep and multifaceted interest in the visual and material history of script. This blog post will briefly explore one manifestation of Pepys and his contemporaries’ interest in letter-forms: micrography. 

Volume III of Pepys’ collection features two pages dedicated to the art of ‘micrography’ or miniature writing. The content of some of these tiny sentences are invisible to the naked eye and instead appear as faint lines, made legible only when viewed through a microscope. Each of the samples are accompanied by labels, which explain their textual content in normal handwriting. The art of writing in miniature held a mythologised status as the ultimate demonstration of a writing master’s dexterity and was associated with extreme powers of vision. This tradition was rooted in the classical account of a parchment copy of The Iliad in miniature, which was so small that it could fit inside a nutshell. Part of the appeal of this legend was the fact that The Iliad was known for its epic length. Rather than The Iliad, sixteenth and seventeenth-century micrographic performances usually consisted of authoritative biblical and liturgical passages (The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments) rendered within the circumference of a particular coin. By using such familiar texts and the standardised diameters of coins, writing masters could more tangibly convey the magnitude – or, more appropriately, minuteness – of their achievement. Early users of the microscope devised various means for measuring the magnified features of natural specimens accurately, such as using grains of sand or the diameter of human hairs to understand the relative scale of magnification. Authoritative blocks of text and individual letters arguably provided similarly familiar notational markers through which comparative looking could be conducted down a microscope.

Micrographic texts provided legible artefacts through which the growing gentlemanly fashion for microscopic observation could be practiced. Pepys’ collection indicates that writing masters responded to new technologies of magnification by producing witty calligrams that were only visible using a microscope. The micrographic sample pictured above appears to the naked eye as a diagrammatic drawing of the globe upon the meridian, featuring navigational lines and markers such as the equator and the poles. The miniature text forming these lines is an English translation of Herman Hugo’s description of God’s creation of the world. The poem describes God copying his creation “o’er again in Miniature” to create Adam, “with all the Art of Heav’n design’d,/ The mortal Image of th’Immortal Mind.” Adam’s mind is described as a miniature microcosmic version of the entire world, a bridge between the creator and creation. The human artifice required to create this feat of micrography can therefore be seen, in turn, to mimic God’s creative act. Moreover, the relationship between mankind’s capacity for deciphering God’s creation and the process of reading miniature lettering recalls the famous reference to Adam in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, where he describes the patterns of nature under the microscope as a form of divine language: “[W]ho knows, but the Creator may, in those characters, have written and engraven many of his most mysterious designs and counsels, and given man a capacity, which, assisted with diligence and industry, may be able to read and understand them.”

We know that Pepys read Robert Hooke’s Micrographia avidly and purchased his own microscope. Intellectually inclined gentlemen like Pepys could utilise their new optical aids by training them on the products of human artifice, practising their observational skills on texts that were more immediately ‘legible’ than biological specimens. These tiny samples evidence the diffusion of broader intellectual concerns on topics such as microscopy, natural philosophy and theology within the scribal arts, centred on interactions between intellectually-engaged clients such as Pepys and the writing masters that they patronised.

An Image Interview with Frances Willmoth

John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis (1729): plate 13 of 25

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

I am Dr Frances Willmoth. I have recently retired as Archivist at Jesus College, Cambridge, but retain an affiliation to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge. A large part of my academic life has been involved with the careers of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and his patron Sir Jonas Moore (1618-1679).

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

I have chosen a plate from Flamsteed’s posthumously published Atlas Coelestis (1729). It shows the constellation Monoceros – that is, the Unicorn – with Canis Major and Canis Minor.

Why have you chosen this image?

I’ve chosen something from the star atlas because the struggle to get it published had such a profound influence on the course of the last decade and a half of the astronomer’s life. This particular plate seems to me especially characterful, and artistically satisfying. The drafting of the artwork is credited to the well-known painter Sir James Thornhill.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

The chequered history of Flamsteed’s publications reflects the huge difficulty of publishing anything involving such enormous costs and technical challenges. The astronomer started a search for external funding for the publishing of his observations, star catalogue and atlas in the summer of 1703, by talking to one of the royal physicians and to Dr Martin Lister (FRS). His campaign eventually led to his securing a grant from Prince George of Denmark (Queen Anne’s consort). The subsequent unhappy history is well known, as the committee set up to supervise the expenditure disagreed with Flamsteed over how the project should be approached. The first edition of the Historia Coelestis (1712) was largely produced without the astronomer’s oversight and he rejected it as “spurious”. An extended second edition was not completed until 1725, some years after his death, and the star atlas even later.

Do you know anything about the making process of the image? 

Once the star positions had been established, the drafting of images for the plates was begun by one of Flamsteed’s observatory assistants, Thomas Weston. But he suffered from ill health and moved on in 1706 (becoming a schoolmaster in Greenwich). The connection of the finished plates with Thornhill dates from much later on, as a letter written by former Observatory assistant Crosthwait on 19 November 1720 reveals: “As to drawing the images … the famous Sir James Thornhill has undertaken this part, purely out of gratitude for favours formerly received from Mr Flamsteed”. In the previous decade Thornhill had spent a long time in Greenwich producing a spectacular decorative scheme for the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College. Flamsteed himself appears in one of those paintings, with an assistant and his most famous astronomical instrument, the mural arc.

                  We don’t know what sources Thornhill looked to when it came to drawing the images for the Atlas, though he undoubtedly already had a large stock of suitable models. We know more about the lengthy process of getting the plates engraved. This was funded by Mrs Flamsteed, and is described in a series of letters written by Crosthwait to Abraham Sharp (another former Observatory assistant, who prepared the northern and southern planispheres). In 1722 Crosthwait travelled to the Netherlands to see if he could get plates engraved there more cheaply than in London. Consequently four of them were engraved in Amsterdam (Aquarius, Gemini, Cetus and one other), though the quality of the work proved disappointing and the rest were produced in London; all were printed in London.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

It shows up how inadequate it might be to simply describe such an image as a source of knowledge. At one level it was intended to have that role, accurately reflecting the positions of stars as laid down in Flamsteed’s star catalogue (1712 and 1725). But the Thornhill connection places the plates squarely in the domain of fine art, reflecting the fact that the volume was aimed at noblemen’s or gentlemen’s libraries, as much as a being a working tool for future astronomers.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

One point that comes across clearly here is that (as is not uncommon in the history of science) an achievement notionally credited to a single person in fact relied on the substantial contributions made by a number of collaborators. Here one must credit not only Flamsteed himself, for having produced the data, but also: the persistence of his widow Margaret and his former assistant (and niece’s husband) James Hodgson, who appear as editors of the volumes; the assistance given gratis by two more former Observatory assistants, Sharp and Crosthwait; Weston and Thornhill; and several engravers and at least one printer.

*Frances Willmoth is also the author of the children’s book Astronomouse. Copies can be purchased in person at the Whipple Library in Cambridge.

A Demonstration by Scribe Paul Antonio

On the 16 of November 2016, the Genius Before Romanticism project, and our own Making Visible team joined forces in organising a day-long workshop around “Scribal Ingenuity“. Since the art of writing was such an important part of early modern culture, and it involves skill, and expertise, our workshop was divided between a theoretical and a practical part. The morning consisted of papers about early modern scribes and their ingenious and beautiful ways of writing, as well as the way in which writing was used to organise knowledge, and to engage with information. In the afternoon we visited the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, looking especially at Pepys’s collections of samples of hand-writings and pen-drawings. And in between papers and library visit we had the pleasure of welcoming professional scribe Paul Antonio, who gave a demonstration of the art of scribal practices. You can watch the full demonstration on our event page, and below I will highlight several moments from the study session.

Let’s start with learning how to cut a quill. Always thought that part of scribal practice was straightforward…? 

Paul showed us how logical early modern letter forms are. Once you understand the maths, you might be able to try it yourself. To make it easier for his audience to see what he is doing, Paul showed us the formation of letters on a big piece of paper attached to the wall. And to demonstrate the effect of a pointed flexible nib, the nib commonly found on quills and modern-day fountain pens, Paul used a device invented by Bill Hildebrandt, which imitates this pointed flexible nib. 

In preparation to of the study session, Paul was asked by the organisers how a book like Richard Gething’s Calligraphotechnica (London 1619)  was produced. Richard Gething (1585?–1652?) was a writing-master from Herefordshire, who lived in London most of his adult live. His Calligraphotechnia, a copybook with examples of handwritings and letter flourishes, was first published in 1616 as A Coppie Book of the Usuall Hands Written.  The first thing we have to realise with looking at the published versions of this writing manuals, is that they were printed from engravings, and therefore the handwriting had been cut into copperplates. In the case of Gething, we do not know who was the engraver, who had prepared the publication by transmitting a written manuscript onto copper plates. You can leave through the full book here. In the full version of the video you can hear how Paul explains the clear remnant of the use of a quill in the printed version (see the video at 1:06:48).

Subsequently Paul demonstrated how a letterform could have been made by Richard Gething taking the following image as his model.

A sample page from Richard Gething, Galligraphotechnia (London 1642).

Paul Antonio will be travelling to Texas, USA in May, to give several workshops and demonstrations. If you happen to be in that part of the world, don’t hesitate to sign up for some of his workshops here

And again, for the full recording of the 80 minute demonstration, see our event page, or click here

An Image Interview with Louisiane Ferlier

Plate from first volume of the Philosophical Transactions, 1665

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Louisiane Ferlier, Digitisation Project Manager at the Royal Society, in charge of the Royal Society Journal Collections: Science in the making. I have come to the project as an historian of ideas, my research investigates the role of religious institutions in the circulation of knowledge in the 17th century.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show? 

I have chosen the engraved plate inserted with issue 5 of the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions. It is composed of four figures corresponding to three articles from the issue published by Henry Oldenburg on July 3rd 1665.

Figure 1 relates to an article by Robert Moray entitled ‘An Account, how Adits & Mines are wrought at Liege without Air-shafts’. It shows a brick chimney and details how air, ash and minerals circulate within it.

Figure 2 and 3 are connected to the previous article as they show the promising invention by a Monsieur Du Son of a tool to ‘break easily and speedily the hardest Rocks’ which was communicated to Oldenburg by Moray. Resembling a stake, the tool was to be used as a chisel to drill through hard rocks when constructing mineshafts.

Figure 4 is the best known of the group and illustrates a two-part article communicating Robert Boyle’s description of a monstrous calf. The calf was born with a monstrous head described in the article as having ‘no sign of any Nose (…) the two Eyes were united into one Double Eye […] Lastly, that just above the Eyes, as it were in the midst of the Forehead, was a very deep depression, and out of that grew a kind of double Purse or Bagg.’ Alerted by the farmer of the monstrous birth, Boyle ordered for the head to be cut and preserved in alcohol.

Why have you chosen this image? 

This image frames powerfully the variety of topics discussed during the early meetings of the Royal Society and the wide range of scientific illustrations that can be found within the Philosophical Transactions. The juxtaposition of figures representing engineering tools next to the sketch of a zoological wonder captures the origins of the two strands of science which were separated into the A and B sides of the Philosophical Transactions in 1887 (A = mathematical, physical and engineering sciences and B = biological sciences).

I find that this juxtaposition creates a particularly interesting tableau reflecting the complexity of disciplinary boundaries in the early modern period. Considered as a single plate within a single publication, the plate unites scientific illustrations vastly different in their aims, executions as well as subjects. And, taken separately, each of the figures would lead us to discover a different network of correspondents, witnesses and collaborators, all supporting science in the making in a different way.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

The aim of the project I manage at the Royal Society is to create a new digital archive of its original journal collections. Illustrations such as this one are what motivated me to join the project in the first place. The archive will contain this image, its related articles and several thousands of others in high definition. It will allow researchers, curious visitors and future scholars to wonder about this strange creature, and wander from its representation to its fascinating description by Boyle. Or, to discover that mines are discussed throughout the history of the Royal Society and that a fascinating history of mining could be retraced from this illustration to the twentieth century through the pages of the Philosophical Transactions.

In many ways this image symbolizes the richness of the Philosophical Transactions as an archive of science.

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

I also picked this image precisely because I know very little about the original draughtsman of each figure as they could have been drawn by various people. The digging tool for instance could have been drawn by Monsieur du Son, its inventor, or equally, by Moray who communicated it to Oldenburg. The calf’s head, although it is described by Boyle, could have been drawn by another observer after it was preserved in alcohol (which would explain why the observer did not include the rest of the body, which Boyle did see before he had the head removed). The many hands through which each sketch must have travelled before that of the engraver are unknown, and even the engraver did not sign this specific plate.

This is an ideal example of a puzzle to offer to the ‘Making visible project’ where each piece is, in itself, another puzzle. Knowing about the specific of the making-process would reveal much about the circulation of knowledge in the early modern period.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

The composite nature of the plate displays side by side two technical drawings and a natural history drawing. Much of the scholarship which discusses early image-making focuses on natural history but technical drawings used fascinating techniques to ‘truly’ and ‘faithfully’ represent science in the making. The engraving also encapsulates the complexity of scientific illustrations: without a scale or measures dedicated to each figure, the tool is of the same proportions to the shaft and the calf’s head with its dark lines attracts any viewer’s eye away from the technical drawings. The composition of the plate therefore transforms the experience of each figure. Moreover, each figure depends very heavily on its description included in the related articles to make any sense, yet, there is no explicit reference on the plate to the article.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

I always thought that representing the calf’s head in profile was a strange choice: if the calf has no nose and a single eye, a front-facing view would be an easier perspective to depict the monstrosity. Accentuating the twisted tongue and the protuberance on the forehead, I find that the profile view makes him look nearly mischievous: as if he was pulling its tongue and winking at the reader.

An Image Interview with Alice Marples

Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan in Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1686.
Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan from Nehemiah Grew, Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1681

Tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Alice Marples, historian of science and medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries, broadly interested in the social and cultural history of knowledge collection and exchange. My recently completed thesis explored diverse collecting and correspondence practices within medical and natural historical communities in Britain in the early eighteenth century, and examined how the physician and naturalist Hans Sloane influenced the institutionalisation and popularisation of science in Britain. Currently a postdoctoral research associate at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester, working on medical education in Manchester between 1750-1850.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

This is an illustration entitled ‘Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan.’ It is a table from the 1686 edition of Musaeum Regalis Societatis, which was the catalogue of the contents of the Royal Society Repository (or Museum) written by its Keeper, Nehemiah Grew, and first published in 1681. It is a three foot, fold-out picture of one of the prize objects of the collection, a fifteen-foot crocodile.

Why have you chosen this image?

Crocodiles might be said to be symbolic of the Renaissance practice of natural history collecting. They were the jewel in most virtuoso’s collections and regularly feature in the visual representations of Cabinets of Curiosity or Kunstkammer, such as in Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (1599), which showed the crocodile suspended from the ceiling in his collection displayed at the Palazzo Gravina in Naples. Their ferocious appearance and exotic qualities helped to inspire wonder in the glory of God, his natural world, and those who were able to possess extraordinary pieces of it.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

For me, this image represents the ways in which the Society argued for a new, modern kind of science through the tropes and traditions of earlier forms of inquiry. Grew’s inclusion of the crocodile directly invokes the spectacle of the early modern scholarly Cabinet while simultaneously situating the Society’s Repository as its rational successor, bringing the crocodile down from the ceiling, dissecting, measuring and displaying its interior skeleton for all to see. Grew’s catalogue was a lavishly illustrated folio, one of the first scientific works produced entirely by subscription. It was a luxury commodity designed to popularise the work of the Society within polite circles, and invoke wonder not only in God but in the instruments and methods of ‘the New Science’ in bringing it under control and revealing its inner mysteries. I think that it is particularly pertinent that Grew explicitly includes a reference to the creature as the Leviathan in the Book of Job – a monstrous creature which no man can harness… Except, perhaps, in a company of natural philosophers.

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

Though it is not clear who made the drawing, the text accompanying it states that the specimen itself was ‘Given to Sir Robert Southwell; to whom it was sent from the East-Indies.’ Objects, drawings and scraps of knowledge were being sent from all over the world to private collectors and scientific societies via extensive and overlapping scholarly and commercial correspondence networks, all of which depended on multiple forms of authority. In the Catalogue, this picture is accompanied by an extensive description, the longest in the work, which includes information from many different accounts of the crocodile from ancient times to the present. It therefore places the Catalogue, and the Royal Society, fully in contemporary context of information exchange and, particularly, the increasing number of natural historical works attempting to compile, compare and systematise this in-flood of information about the world. Representing the skeleton of the crocodile according to scale alongside this text linked these efforts, the material with the historical, and implied that the Royal Society was an integral part of this process of knowledge production. Further, that it represented the sole means of epistemological arbitration.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

Also on this page are drawings of ‘An Elephant’s Tusk’, ‘A Rattle Snak’s tail’ and ‘The Wessan’ (the windpipe of the crocodile) – all chosen, perhaps, for their similar aesthetic qualities. This helps to remind us that the comparative acts of looking in the physical space of the collection were also mirrored on paper and engineered through texts, and that the material boundaries between objects were liminal. Catalogues reflected, disseminated and imagined physical stocks of knowledge, interacting with published tracts, tacit knowledge and correspondence networks, allowing individuals to work with collections from a distance. The arrangement of similar but diverse objects together was designed, in part, to draw links between them: Grew’s Catalogue extended this comparative reach out from the Repository, to readers in the comfort of their own homes, with their own libraries, collections, reports and borrowed objects.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

Grew’s catalogue was so successful at creating an image of power and intellectual authority for the Royal Society – an image which was retained through the Philosophical Transactions and the personal correspondence networks of Fellows – that visitors in the eighteenth century were often appalled by the relatively humble nature of the institution when they went to visit. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, for example, wrote in 1710 of his shock that ‘the finest instruments and other articles (which Grew describes), [lie] not only in no sort of order or tidiness but covered with dust, filth and coal-smoke, and many of them broken and utterly ruined.’ I think this should serve to remind us that the physical possession of objects or knowledge was not necessarily as important as historians have sometimes deemed it, and that there was always a distance between the image and reality of the Royal Society.

Fish Stories: Enlightened Fish Books

By Didi van Trijp

Fig. 1: Paper cut-out of herring caught in 1663, Royal Society, Classified Papers 13/1 @ Royal Society
Fig. 1: Paper cut-out of herring caught in 1663, Royal Society, Classified Papers 13/1 @ Royal Society

As the saying goes, fishermen are prone to tell ‘fish stories’; exaggerations of the size of the fish which they nearly caught but that only just got away. The paper cut-out of this herring (Figure 1) belies that idea: it is the paper proof of an exceptionally large herring specimen which was caught off the coast of Turso, Scotland in May 1663. This tracing was communicated to the Royal Society by Robert Moray FRS, who handled Scottish affairs for the Crown at the time and thus visited Scotland frequently. The accompanying letter does not say much with regard to this particular image, except that the fish totaled 19½ inches in length, and in width (without the fins) 5 inches. Such mathematical precision, according to Matthew Hunter, was much needed to get some grip on “those slippery denizens of the inky depths”.

In this blog post I explore how this cut-out herring may have contributed to the study of the watery part of creation in late seventeenth-century England. The existence of this piece of paper in the archives of the Royal Society offers, to me, a compelling case. From a fisherman’s net, this specimen was traced on paper, before finding its way into the room where fellows of the Royal Society convened in London on July 1, 1663 and discussed the case, as Thomas Birch described. The exact trajectory remains somewhat unclear; which intermediaries (other than Moray) made it possible for this fish’s contours to end up in the archives of the Royal Society? Why did the actors engaged in this circulation consider it pertinent to formalize the size of the fish on paper – was it bragging, a sense of wonder, or a way to advance natural knowledge, or all three?

The Fellows of the Royal Society were certainly interested in fish, as their extensive financial support for publishing the Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686) demonstrates. This groundbreaking book was written by the Cambridge naturalists Francis Willughby (1635–1672, FRS 1663) and John Ray (1627–1705, FRS 1667), and constituted a novel approach to the study of fish. Sachiko Kusukawa has shown that this approach entailed a focus on the description of external features of fish, rather than the compilation of a pandect that included mythical and fantastic descriptions, as sixteenth-century authors were prone to do. The case of the Scottish herring would have been quite interesting for Conrad Gesner, for example, who in his volume on fishes only mentioned the size of a fish when he could report a spectacular sighting.

Fig. 2: Depiction of the herring in Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686). Courtesy of Special Collections at Leiden University Library [667 A 17]
Fig. 2: Depiction of the herring in Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia piscium (Oxford, 1686). Courtesy of Special Collections at Leiden University Library [667 A 17]

Despite being safely stored in the Royal Society’s archive, the impressive Scottish herring did not make an appearance in the Historia piscium. In their description of the harengus species, Willughby and Ray merely state that the size of this very well-known fish is 9 to 12 inches in length, and 2 or 3 inches in width. They do not explicitly state on which particular specimen they have based their indications, but by using the adjective ‘very well-known’, or ‘notissimus’, the authors seem to appeal to previous observations of the reader. Furthermore, they give intricate descriptions of the fish’s inner parts, whereas the visual depiction of the herring renders the fish’s external parts in detail (Figure 2). Both inside and out, fishes’ features offered veritable clues to their place in the large, ordered system that God had created; Ray dubbed these ‘characteristic marks’. Such a mark could be the body shape of a fish of its fins. As a result of this quest for characteristic marks, Ray discarded those cases that did not exemplify average specimens and were ‘monstrous’ varieties.

Even though they often drew on earlier authors, Willughby and Ray attached great value to seeing things with their own eyes, too. During their ‘field trip’ through Europe from 1662 to 1666, they visited fisheries and fish markets to observe specimens, as Sachiko Kusukawa relates. In the Historia piscium, their own observations are marked with a ‘vidi’, ‘vidimus’, meaning ‘I have seen’ or ‘we have seen’. Altogether, the book is an amalgam of existing descriptions that are corrected according to freshly made observations. Specimens that seemed abnormal, however – even when subjected to mathematical precision – were not included. Nonetheless, the paper cut-out attests that those geared to gather and record knowledge of the underwater world formed a varied crowd. Thus, it offers insight into the people and practices involved in the process of knowledge production, but also allows us to reflect on what kind of knowledge was deemed pertinent to whom and why.


Further reading

For an interesting insight into the topics discussed at the meetings of the Royal Society, see Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London (London, 1756).

The epitomic fish book that this blog post discusses is that by Francis Willughby and John Ray, Historia Piscium (Oxford, 1686).

The Historia piscium has been extensively researched by Sachiko Kusukawa, most recently in ‘Historia Piscium (1686) and its Sources’ in: Tim Birkhead (ed.) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672) (Leiden, 2016). Earlier work was done for her article ‘The Historia Piscium, (1686)’ in: Notes and Records of the Royal Society 54 (2000). DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2000.0106

To learn more about how early modern people worked with, on, and against paper, see Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Johannes Swammerdam’s Scientific Images (I)

By Eric Jorink

Fig. 1: Drawing by Johannes Swammerdam, Royal Society Archives LBO/6/58 © Royal Society

On 4 March 1673, Johannes Swammerdam sent a letter to Henry Oldenburg, including these images (fig. 1). Only an abstract of the letter appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (19 May 1673, page 6041), without including what was basically the point of the message: a visual report of observations of the pulmonary arteries of a frog, and of the genital system of the horn-noosed beetle. As a biographer of Swammerdam, I find these images fascinating, both for their intrinsic quality, as for the fact that they are a nice point of departure for some thoughts on the role of the visual in early modern scientific culture.

Like Robert Hooke, Swammerdam was a skilled draftsman. During his years as a student in Leiden (1661-1667) he did pioneering research on insects, toads and other forms of low life. Swammerdam maintained that all creatures, great and small, obeyed the same laws of nature. He rejected the theory of spontaneous generation, according to which insects were devoid of an internal anatomy and had their origin in decaying flesh or plants.

Fig 2: The water gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). © Royal Society
Fig 2: The water-gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). © Royal Society
Fig. 3: the water gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665) and Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Swammerdam depicts the creature in its context, both life sized and enlarged (ca. 15 times).
Fig. 3: the water-gnat, as depicted Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Swammerdam depicts the creature in its context, both life sized and enlarged (ca. 15 times). © University Library Leiden

Swammerdam considered it his duty to point to the marvels of God’s creation. Swammerdam was very much aware of his talent as an anatomist and draftsman. He applauded the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), Redi’s Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl’insetti (1668) and Malpighi’s De Bombyce (published by the Royal Society in 1669) and considered them as allies in his campaign against spontaneous generation.

In his Historia insectorum generalis (1669) Swammerdam demonstrated that all insects come from eggs, and all go through a stage-like development. Occasionally, he also went into a visual dialogue with Hooke (figs 2 and 3). Whereas the latter famously had represented the alien micro-world with no visual clues of the absolute size and context of the objects portrayed, Swammerdam employed a technique in which each creature was represented both life-size, and magnified. The microscope was only used occasionally. Graphically, he showed the uniformity of nature, pointing at similarities between the development of an insect, frog and carnation (figs 4 and 5).

Figs 4 and 5; the stage-like development of the louse; and the frog and carnation as depicted in Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Visually, the uniformity of nature is demonstrated. Each creature is depicted life sized, and enlarged in various stages of development.
Figs 4 and 5: The stage-like development of the louse; and the frog and carnation as depicted in Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Visually, the uniformity of nature is demonstrated. Each creature is depicted life sized, and enlarged in various stages of development. © University Library Leiden
Fig. 5. © University Library Leiden

In Historia insectorum Swammerdam concentrated on the outward appearance of insects. Inspired by the work of Malpighi from 1670 he now focused on anatomizing and using the microscope more intensively. Studying and representing the inner parts of these tiny creatures required new visual techniques. Since Swammerdam observed what no one before him had seen, he had to train his eye with regard to the observations, and invent ways to represent them. Without external aid, showing the strange and previously unseen forms of isolated organs of a creature would make no sense.

The images Swammerdam sent to Oldenburg could be seen as experiments in form. Compared to the visual strategy he previously used, Swammerdam was now both zooming in and zooming out. To make an easy start: the creature depicted in figure V in the right lower corner marked A (see fig. 1 above) is easily recognizable as a nose-horned beetle (depicted at life size). The drawing is deceptively simple, but shows Swammerdam’s talent to represent the creature with just a few well-chosen lines and brushes of ink. Swammerdam deeply admired the work of artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), who at the end of the sixteenth century had made pioneering watercolors of all kinds of insects. We could read Swammerdam’s sketch as a self-aware introduction to the beholder – see how easily I can draw things familiar to you; you can also trust me when I show you places and things unknown to you. Later drawings by Swammerdam of the nose-horned beetle (fig. 5) are much more elaborated, and can be seen as explicit references not only to Hoefnagel but also to the works of art by Jacques de Gheyn (1565-1629) and even Albrecht Dürer.

Fig. 6: Some beetles; the male genitals system of the nose-horned beetle (fig. viii). Swammerdam drew this in 1678 for his Biblia Naturae; the manuscript, now kept in Leiden university Library, was only published in 1737. Leiden, UB, BPL 126B, fol. 31r. © University Library Leiden

By now, we should refer to the letter. By focusing on the creature’s inner parts, Swammerdam uses the strategy of both mapmakers and earlier anatomists: the legend. He writes: ‘Figure V expresses to the life (‘ad vivum exprimit’) the genitalia of the horn-nosed beetle. A the beetle, B the horny part of the penis, C the place from which the penis protrudes when erect….’ Etcetera. What we see are interior details: strangely shaped organs, curled lines, flower-shaped structures. Using a legend is a successful strategy here, and perhaps the only workable way in representing the previously unknown. Moreover, as Swammerdam occasionally stressed to his readers, the slightly stylized drawings also helped the observer who for the first time would enter this unknown territory to discern and identify the organs in there. Swammerdam also employs this strategy in the Figures I-IV (fig. 1), where he illustrates the passage in which he explains in painstaking detail the pulmonary artery system of the frog. These drawings are the few by Swammerdam I know of in which color is used. This had a practical reason: the drawings represent, as Swammerdam put it, ‘graphically’ (‘graphice exprimit’) how the structure within the lungs had been made visible by injecting colored wax. Hence, what we see is a representation of a preparation interacting with a text.

The point is, of course, that without the accompanying letter, the images become meaningless, and vice versa. Some of Swammerdam’s letters and images are still at the archives of the Royal Society (now separated, to be sure). They remind us that in the scientific culture of the 1670s the boundaries between words and images, and between science and art, were still rather fluent ones.

A Visit to the Making & Knowing Lab

By Sietske Fransen & Katie Reinhart

As the start of the respective second and third years of our research projects, the Making Visible post-docs and the Genius before Romanticism team visited the Making and Knowing project last week at Columbia University in New York. The Making and Knowing project, led by Professor Pamela Smith, has the aim to reconstruct the sixteenth-century artisanal workshop as to understand more about the practice of making and knowing in the early modern period.

Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab
Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab

Based around an anonymous manuscript (BNF Ms. Fr. 640) the project transcribes and translates the manuscript and then reproduces the recipes and experiments as described by the author-compiler. The final outcome of the project will be a fully annotated and translated online edition of the manuscript. To do all this, the project’s director, the project manager, and three post-docs work closely together with a large group of experts (from the digital humanities to expert makers), while the reproducing of recipes mainly happens in a learning environment. The latter means that the research group offers graduate courses to students at Columbia University in which the students work with the manuscript, and re-create the described recipes.

A drawer of imitation coral
A drawer full of imitation coral

Since the theme of our current (second) year of the project is ‘expertise’, especially how expertise could be gained by the fellows of the Royal Society, and how expertise would help and influence their visual practices, a visit to the laboratory of the Making and Knowing project has been very insightful.

Every semester, the Making and Knowing project runs a graduate seminar where students from different fields can learn about early modern artisanal practices through hands-on participation in the lab. But, like any craft process it is hard to fully grasp without doing it yourself, so we donned our lab coats and joined the class for a day. The day we were observers, the subject under investigation was making and casting from bread moulds.

Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?
Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?

The day began with a seminar-style discussion of assigned readings; then the students discussed the various trials and tribulations of their attempts to bake bread from early modern recipes, which they completed ahead of time at home. Students followed various recipes, but unlike modern instructions, most did not include specific amounts, times, or temperatures leaving students to follow their best judgement (or guess) on how to proceed. A few students experienced with bread baking followed their instincts, but the rest had to wrestle with recipes that assumed a high degree of tacit knowledge. After baking, the students made moulds from the bread by impressing small objects (a key, a toy, a magnet) into the warm bread. As the bread dried out, they formed the the hardened mold which will later be filled.

Bread moulds ready for casting


After lunch we headed to the lab, where, after safety instructions and donning the appropriate gear, we were ready to get casting. The Making and Knowing lab uses the early modern materials described in BNF Ms Fr. 640 (bread, beeswax, cuttlefish bone), but modern equipment (hot plates for heating; fume hoods for safety). Over the next few hours, students slowly melted down the beeswax and sulfur (in the fume hood), and created a steady surface by cutting a flat surface into their bread or securing them with clamps or sand.

Melting the beeswax
Melting the beeswax

Once ready, they poured the molten sulfur or beeswax into their moulds. The pouring needed to happen quickly enough that the substance did not begin to harden, but slow enough that it did not splash out (as happened to Katie).

Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould
Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould

After filling, the moulds were left to set and harden. After fully setting, the bread was removed to reveal the finished cast object. The finished objects revealed that, as promised in the manuscript, bread was a surprisingly good medium to take an impression. In our excitement, we realised that we failed to take a picture of a final object from the bread moulding experiment, but the entire process was probably more interesting and important than the final product!


The second day of our visit to the Making and Knowing team consisted of an afternoon seminar in which all present participants of the three projects, presented on their work and experiences as researchers on these collaborative and interdisciplinary projects. The discussion was wide ranging, but over the course of the afternoon several themes and key questions arose. We talked about the knowledge that could be gained only be doing – knowledge of materials and processes that the Making and Knowing team learned over the course of their recreations.

However, how do we, as historians, study and communicate our ideas about what Pamela Smith calls ‘experiential knowledge’, if words are insufficient to explain or encompass this type of knowledge? It was interesting to hear from one of the new Making and Knowing postdocs, Tianna Uchacz, that she also found gaps or tacit knowledge in the descriptions of recipes by students. She experienced this by following their essays on the making of bread to bake her own bread for the bread moulding experiment. Would there be other ways to communicate and report our experiences? Not just verbally, but also through videos, drawings, and informal forms of writing? It is clear that these new forms of historical investigation might also call for new or alternative ways of communication.

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A busy day in the Making & Knowing lab

One of the other major points discussed was the importance of failure. The importance of failure to learn and understand a process but also the reporting about failure to be able to understand and keep open the possibility of re-tracing one’s steps. Unfortunately many mistakes and failures are not written down and are therefore forgotten as essential steps in the process of knowledge creation.

Another part of the discussion centred on the value, and problems, with historical recreation. The Making and Knowing lab has gone to impressive lengths to obtain early modern materials, but they use modern heating, lighting, and laboratory equipment. Thus, how faithful can we consider the outcomes of their experiments to what might have happened in the past? This discussion resonated with us in relation to the slow start of our own intaglio project. We are using early modern engraving tools, but we are undertaking the project and learning to engrave in a very modern context. If we can’t devote the time and resources to truly becoming early modern engravers (which we can’t, we’re already historians) then is the whole endeavour pointless or can learning this skill, even in a modern way, still inform how we look on and understand the printed images we study?

Our visit to the Making and Knowing lab allowed us to reflect on and discuss these issues, and we thank Pamela Smith and all of her team for the invitation and for allowing us to join the lab for a day!

Ready for some history

An image interview with Noah Moxham

Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London
Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background? 

Noah Moxham; historian of science/book historian (the proportion varies according to what precisely I happen to be working on). I’m a postdoc on Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: The social, cultural and economic history of a learned journal 1665-2015, an AHRC-funded project at the University of St Andrews, and I’m interested in the construction, communication and afterlife of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

These are the drawings – strictly speaking in an unknown hand, although we know for a virtual certainty that there are only four possible candidates including Tyson himself – accompanying Edward Tyson’s dissection and anatomical description of a rattlesnake from Virginia. They were made in February 1683 and shown to a meeting of the Royal Society that month, and subsequently published in the Philosophical Transactions (below is the engraving made for that purpose by Michael Burghers in Oxford).

Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).
Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).

Why have you chosen this image?

I like it partly for what it represents – an attempt to treat a creature with all kinds of mythic associations and which had been historically represented in fantastical ways as an anatomical subject. But at the same time the drawing isn’t purely schematic: the upside-down head with the jaws wedged open, the fangs on display, the forked tongue extended, combine – I think deliberately – into a posture of threat. I think it’s meant to open up the subject to the possibility of objective examination but to retain a hint of the dangerous and the exotic.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

It crops up at an important time in the history of the Royal Society, and of scientific publishing. It’s part of a series of anatomical dissections prepared by Tyson under the terms of his new appointment as Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. He and a colleague, the chemist Frederick Slare, were to make sure between them that the Society was to be entertained with at least one chemical or anatomical demonstration per week. The Society’s reputation depended on the interest of the meetings and on the new discoveries it broadcast, or rebroadcast, to the learned world in print, and it was in a sad way on both fronts in late 1682 (largely the fault of the overworked Robert Hooke, who was doubling up as Secretary and curator of experiments, responsible for publishing a periodical, for keeping the Fellows entertained at meetings, for the Society’s record-keeping and correspondence, and still needing to earn a living on the side). But it also signals what I think is a broader effort on the part of the Society and its Fellows to promote serial or systematic work in natural history over the next several years; during that time the Society was directly involved in the production of numerous taxonomic and descriptive works on birds, fishes, British plants, insects, and ‘animals’ (mostly quadrupeds, with the odd fish, bird or cetacean thrown in).

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

We don’t know who drew these, but we know from Tyson’s list of the people who assisted at the dissection, all of whom were known as draughtsmen and illustrators, who the candidates are. They were Henry Hunt, Robert Hooke’s former apprentice and the Society’s Operator (in effect an all-purpose technical assistant); Richard Waller, a friend of Tyson’s and Hooke’s, the son of a painter and subsequently Secretary of the Society; and William Faithorne, a London draughtsman and engraver. In fact we know that they were all involved in producing the drawings of the snake, just not which particular drawings they were responsible for. It’s useful and important to know that this was a collaborative effort; to note Tyson’s determination to thank, and thus make public, the technical skills and assistance that were a necessary part of the process of making scientific knowledge in the early modern period; and to realise that this represents the beginning of a fairly long and productive research collaboration between Tyson and Waller in particular, working together over the next several years to produce a series of illustrated dissections – some published and some not. They worked together on the anatomies of small reptiles, insects and annelids – a green lizard, a caterpillar, and a tapeworm, among others. Their collaboration focussed especially on small creatures, some of which had only been opened up to detailed anatomical study by the advent of the microscope and which called for skilled, fiddly work in dissecting and examining.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

Some of that significance is fairly specific – it comes from the fact that this was intended to be the beginning of a new, sustained and systematic research effort on the part of the Royal Society, one that it attempted to maintain by building it into the Society’s organisational structure. It’s part of a networked process; these drawings (and the anatomical preparations resulting from the dissection) were shown and discussed in meetings before being sent on to Oxford, where they were also examined by the emergent Oxford Philosophical Society. (This is why the drawing was engraved there and not in London). The relationship and the regular exchanges of drawings, objects and ideas between Oxford and London became an important part of the process of making natural knowledge in England during the 1680s.

It’s also worth noting that the engraving, in particular, marks the beginning of a significant upturn in both the frequency with which contributions to the Philosophical Transactions featured engraved illustrations and in their quality. The introduction of more, and better, illustrations is an important step in the development of scientific periodicals, from what were editorially compiled newssheets gathering letter-extracts, scraps of information and new discoveries into a credible site for researchers to advance fully-developed, self-sufficient claims to knowledge.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

The object – in this case the animal – behind the drawing has a history, and one that we can trace to some extent. It was brought from North America for a Virginia Merchant (it was reported to have made the Transatlantic voyage in a basket, and gone four months without eating); it was exhibited to the Royal Society alive, and then dissected once dead. It’s not only a good example of the complexity and reach of the networks that brought objects and information to the attention of the Royal Society and organisations like it, but of the sheer haphazardness of that process. Tyson had previously dissected a porpoise brought ashore by Thames fishermen; and the Royal Society negotiated the purchase of a sick ostrich for Tyson to dissect in January 1683 (possibly one of twenty in the royal menagerie, a gift from the Moroccan ambassador to Charles II).