Hard words from Thomas Willis

Monday, April 30th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Terry Doyle writes …

In Book I of his Novum organum, Francis Bacon discussed four Idols, or false images of the mind, which he viewed as impediments to scientific reasoning. Of these he considered Idols of the Marketplace, by which he meant the confusion between scientific and common usage of words, to be the most troublesome (see Aphorisms LIX, LX, XLIII).

An attempt to overcome this Idol can be seen in an appendix to the 1681 English language edition of Thomas Willis’s The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves (as well as in two other 1681 editions of Willis’s work printed for T. Dring et al., Five Treatises and Dr Willis’s Practice of Physick). They were all translated from the Latin by ‘S P Esq’, who styles himself ‘student of physick’. This is Samuel Pordage (1633–1691) a literary figure with a poetical bent who was lampooned in Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel as ‘Lame Mephibosheth’.

The appendix is entitled ‘A table . . . for the benefit of meer English Readers . . . of words derived from the Latin and Greek , usual among Scholars, yet not frequently known of the vulgar’.

The content is interesting on several counts. Firstly, it shows medical words familiar and unfamiliar to an educated mid-seventeenth-century non specialist.  Secondly, it demonstrates the difficulty inherent in translating medical concepts from the Latin and Greek into an English language which was still rapidly adding new technical words to its stock. Thirdly it shows many words of a semi-technical nature, which the seventeenth-century reader would probably recognize but which have lapsed into desuetude.

It is questionable whether Willis actually read the appendix (at least he did not proof read it carefully) for there are several obvious errors; such as ‘sternothyroeidal muscle – reaches from the sternon to the Os Pubis’ [the muscle is actually in the neck]. Some are mysterious; as ‘tabes dorsalis’ [modern day syphilitic myelopathy] is described as ‘mourning of the Chine.’ We can recognize the beginnings of the modern word ‘alkali’ in ‘Sal-alcali – salt of ashes made of the herb Kali, but used also for the salt of other herbs burnt to ashes and so extracted’. This was the standard way of making alkalis at the time.

It is a shame that some of the words have disappeared like; ‘Lethiferous – deadly’; ‘Torrified- parched’; ‘Farciments – stuffings’; ‘Fungitive – prickling’; or ‘Aculeation – made sharp’. Others words are perhaps better forgotten like; ‘Demersed – drowned’; ‘Depauperated – made poor or wasted’; ‘Depuration – a cleansing or making pure’.

Some definitions were clearly difficult for Pordage – like; ‘Mediastinum – the thin membrane that divides the middle belly or the Breast, from the Throat to the Midriff, into two bosoms or hollows’ and ‘Conarium – A Kernel sticking to the outside of the Brain in the form of a Pine-apple’ [probably referring to the pineal gland]. Others are quite straight forward; ‘anus’- fundament or Arse-hole [with a capital A]. ‘Archeus – the chief operator’ is there, indicating the influence of van Helmont, while ‘Trachea – the Weasand or Wind pipe, the sharp artery’ encompasses the then current Old English name Weasand, while ‘the sharp artery’ echoes the Greek αερ τηρεω (air, I carry) and τραχυς (rough).

My ongoing project is to identify more precisely which words in Willis’s Latin text gave difficulty in translation and the provenance of the archaic English words in OED. If you can help I would be keen to hear from you.

Dr Stephen Clucas Confirmed as 2012 EMTRT Visitor

Thursday, April 26th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Stephen Clucas has been confirmed as our Early Modern Thought Research Theme Visitor for 2012.   He will be at Otago for much of August, will be an Instructor at our  ANZAMEMS Postgraduate Advanced Training Seminar on the theme “Interdisciplinarity in Medieval and Early Modern Reseach” (29-30 August) and will participate in our conference.

At present, Dr. Clucas is Reader in Early-Modern Intellectual History at Birkbeck College, London.  He is editor of Intellectual History Review and is preparing Thomas Hobbes’s De corpore for the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes. He has recently edited the book Laus Platonici Philosophi: Marsilio Ficino and his Influence with Peter J. Forshaw and Valery Rees and published Magic, Memory and Natural Philosophy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ashgate Press: 2011).

If you would like more information about the Postgraduate Advanced Training Seminar, please click on the poster to right and complete the PATS Application Form 2012.


Happy birthday, William Shakespeare!

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 | EVELYN TRIBBLE | 1 Comment

I’ve been celebrating William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday this week by reading Lois Potter’s new book: The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography, just out from Blackwell’s. This book was flying off the publisher’s table at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Boston over Easter, and with good reason: it is compelling account of Shakespeare as a writer and a man of the theatre.

The figure of Shakespeare that emerges from Potter’s biography is above all of a craftsman. Her Shakespeare is meticulous, hard-working, with a good ear, a capacious memory, and keen alertness to potential material, both through the books available to him and through the thriving theatrical scene in which he worked. Potter emphasizes his developing skill in poetic language, pacing, plotting, and creating opportunities for his actors.

Two examples of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship stood out for me: Potter discusses Shakespeare’s apparent revision to Romeo’s death speech, as preserved, probably accidentally, in the second Quarto of the play. That text prints two versions of the speech: one the relatively short version of Quarto 1, the other a much more prolonged scene that shows “Shakespeare’s developing awareness of the importance of taking time over certain passages” (196), providing the “audience an agonizing prolongation of the hope that Juliet will wake in time to prevent him from drinking the poison” (197).

The other is the more speculative but extremely intriguing suggestion that Shakespeare may have reworked an old version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, to provide Richard Burbage with an acting vehicle that would stand up against the revival of The Spanish Tragedy performed by Edward Alleyn upon his return to the stage in 1600. Here Potter shows insight into one of the secrets of Shakespeare’s success: his ability to write plays that showcased actors’ talents: “Above all, perhaps, Hamlet is a composite of everything that Burbage did best, which is why he is everything that an actor wants to play, and everything than an audience wants an actor to be” (281).

The final chapter – “Myth and ‘Genius'”– discusses the tendency of discussions of Shakespeare to polarize around inflated claims of Shakespeare’s greatness and iconoclastic debunkings of such myths. Shakespeare’s much-lauded enormous vocabulary turns out to be a result primarily of his longevity as a writer and the number of different subjects upon which he wrote (Holger Syme’s blog has a good summary of the issue).  Yet in an era in which many of his contemporaries died young of violence, illness, and penury or otherwise sank into oblivion, this productivity over many years is itself extraordinary. Potter concludes by suggesting that in the end it is  Shakespeare’s “theatrical instinct”  that distinguishes him: his plays show his expertise in “how to use suspense and surprise, how to orchestrate vivid characterizations and styles of speech, how to give the actors their opportunities” (439).

Skill, then, becomes the mediating term between “myth”and “genius.” This is not to underestimate the skill of other dramatists;  Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is perhaps the most brilliantly plotted and executed play in the period, and Gary Taylor has been lobbying hard for Thomas Middleton. And as Potter points out, placing Shakespeare more firmly within the context of such other writers effectively deflates many of the spurious claims that Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him.

What are you doing to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday?


Welcome to Our Blog

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments


Welcome to Early Modern at Otago! This interdisciplinary blog is about all aspects of early modern thought, that is, thought from the early 16th century to the end of the 18th century.

Our particular focus over the next few years will be on a crucial division of knowledge that pervaded almost all aspects of early modern intellectual life, the distinction between speculative and practical knowledge.


Among our team of researchers and contributors we have historians, philosophers, scholars of literature, politics, theology, medicine, and language. We range from postgraduate students to professors, and all of us are committed to exploring and understanding the writings and intellectual culture at the origins of modernity.


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