Thursday 26 June 2014


Do you have books you've read so long ago you can’t remember a thing about them? I just reread a few and am amazed at the historical detail I’ve forgotten.
  • New York 1985: Hotels charged 50 cents for a bag of ice (Frank Moorhouse, Room Service)
  • Canadian summer 1959: Italian immigrants played soccer and made “disgusting spectacles of themselves in their tight woollen bathing suits” (Susan Swan, The Last of the Golden Girls)
  • London 1982: Swiss watches were “utterly reliable… without going digital…Digitals have got no class” (Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing)
  • Montreal 1981: You could buy a house “for half its real value when, at the time of the Quebec referendum, the real estate prices collapsed” (Eva Stachniak, Necessary Lies)
  • London 1985: On the desk was a “portable typewriter, a piece of crisp white paper wound about its roller” (James Lasdun, Besieged)
But some things never change.
  • New York 1925: A woman in her forties was invisible “in a society where youth so undisputedly rules” (Edith Wharton, Mother’s Recompense)

Sunday 22 June 2014


This is how girls are brought up at court:
Fun and games.
In the morning, they get busy with curlers and make-up, then off to mass to see and be seen, then breakfast followed by gossip. After lunch, mindless chatter. They drop into a seat here and there, and the men rush to put their heads into their laps. The girl who never refuses anyone is highly praised for her good manners. Then it’s time for some silly games, most of them rather coarse.

Greasy servants.
The sons and daughters of the gentry spend their days in the company of greasy, idle servants, who are often slovenly and immoral into the bargain.

Secrets of the marriage bed.
Some modern fathers boast to their daughters of their own youthful indiscretions. Even worse, they blurt out the secrets of the marriage bed. Are you surprised that your children do not respect you?

Some people use obscene language so often that the words sometimes slip out inadvertently – as in the case of a lady in church, who slipped on the wet floor and uttered a loud cry, naming the male member. Why do people get into such bad habits? Could they not learn, just as easily, to name Jesus or Mary when something unexpected happens? But some people can hardly utter four words without swearing.
(Source: Erasmus, The Institution of Marriage)

Thursday 19 June 2014

EARLY MODERN GENDER WARS. Why women are superior to men.

W: So you think men are naturally better than women?

M: I believe so.

W: Do they live longer? Are they immune from disease?

M: No, but they are generally stronger.

W: They share that quality with camels.

M: Yes, but men were created first.

W: True, Adam was created first, but artists usually surpass themselves in later works… And when God created human beings in his image, did he express this image in bodily form or in mental gifts?

M: In mental gifts.

W: But in that respect what superiority, pray, have men over us? In which sex is there more drunkenness, more brawls, fights, killings, wars, robberies, and adulteries?

(Source: Erasmus, Colloquies)


Sunday 15 June 2014


Xanthippe’s marriage is in bad shape. Let’s listen in on a consultation.
  • He is a brute and threatened to beat me. What can I do? 
Remember that the church doesn’t allow divorce. There’s no exchanging your husband for another. He is yours whether you like it or not.
  • How can I improve our relationship.
Try sex to rekindle his love and drive any annoyance or boredom out of his mind.
  • He wastes my dowry on drink, whores, and gambling.
You have eyes only for his failings. Mark the good in him. The time to weigh his faults was before you married him. Now is the time to improve, not to blame him.
  • How can I improve him?
What sort of men husbands are depends not a little on their wives. Usually it’s our fault that husbands are bad. Obtain his good will by submissiveness and courtesy. Whenever he is upset, soothe him with pleasant conversation or defer to his anger in silence until he cools off.
  • And if that doesn’t work?
Present your husband with a child. That will help.
  • I’m pregnant already. In fact, that’s why I married him. And I wish I could leave him again.
Think what a paltry thing a woman is if separated from her husband. A woman's highest praise is to be obedient. It’s the order of nature and the will of God that woman be entirely dependent on man.

(Source: Erasmus, Colloquies)

Thursday 12 June 2014

EARLY MODERN MEDICINE: The good surgeon.

According to Paracelsus, the good surgeon has
  • a clear conscience
  • a desire to learn and to gather experience
  • a greater regard for his honour than for money.
  • a good wife: He must not be married to a bigot.
  • He should not be a runaway monk.
  • He should not practice self-abuse.
  • He must not have a red beard.
  • He should get 8 hours of sleep, be awake from about four in the morning until about eight in the evening. He must learn not just from university profs, but also consult old women, gypsies, magicians, wayfarer, and all manner of peasant folk and random people.

The good physician should be aware that
  • It is not God’s design that the remedies should exist for us ready-made, boiled, and salted, but that we should boil them ourselves.
  • There are thousands of stomachs, consequently, if you gather a thousand persons, each of them will have a different kind of digestion.
  • Crash diets don’t work. Don’t fill your belly all week long, and abstain from all food except bread and water on Fridays and Saturdays. Don’t take your fill of meat throughout the year, and  touch nothing during Lent. This puts unequal weights on the scales of nature.

(Source: Paracelsus, Selected Writings, trans. Norbert Guterman)

Sunday 8 June 2014

EARLY MODERN MEDICINE: Paracelsus on the art of the physician.

Physician vs. Nature

  • The physician is only the servant of nature, not her master.
  • No disease comes from the physician, nor any cure. He can only aggravate the course of the disease, but he can also improve it.

Book knowledge vs. Experience

  • The patient should be the physician’s book.
  • A man cannot draw the theory of medicine from his head, but from what his eyes see and his fingers touch.
  • The art of medicine cannot be inherited, nor can it be copied from books.
  • It must be digested many time and many times spat out. One must always re-chew it and knead it thoroughly, and one must be alert while learning it not doze like peasants turning over pears in the sun.
  • The longer the book, the shorter the insight to be gained; the longer the prescription, the smaller its effect.

(Source: Paracelsus, Selected Writings, trans. Norbert Guterman)

Thursday 5 June 2014

EARLY MODERN ETIQUETTE. Bathroom and table manners.

When invited to dinner
  • Try to please others, but not too much, or you will appear more like a buffoon or a jester or perhaps a flatterer rather than a well-mannered gentleman.
  • Dirty, foul, repulsive or disgusting things are not to be done in the presence of others.
  • Therefore relieve your needs in private, and when you return, don’t rearrange your clothing. Don’t even wash your hands in decent company, because it implies something disgusting to their imagination.
  • Don’t grind your teeth or shriek, and avoid singing -- especially solo-- if your voice is out of tune.
  • Don’t yawn, cough, sneeze loudly, or bray like an ass.
  • When you have blown your nose, you should not open your handkerchief and look inside, as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain.
  • Don’t offer anyone your glass of wine after you have tasted it, or offer fruit into which you have bitten.
  • Don’t smell anyone’s food or even your own, for fear that some things that men find disgusting may drop from your nose.
  • Don’t act like a pig with its snout in the swill, never raising your eyes from the food in front of you.
  • Don’t use your napkin to wipe off sweat or blow your nose.
(Source, Galateo by Giovanni Della Casa, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Kenneth Bartlett. Image: