Rembrandt’s hand – in praise of God or Man?

Monday, June 25th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Terence Doyle writes…

‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaas Tulp’ is an enigmatic painting. Firstly, Tulp was not the praelector’s real name and secondly, whatever else this is, it is not a usual anatomy lesson. Many interpretations of it have been given but none, as far as I know, have suggested the one which I am about to offer.

At the age of 26, Rembrandt was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to paint the picture in 1632. It shows Dr Tulp lifting the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle of the cadaver forearm and at the same time flexing the fingers of his left hand to demonstrate the effect of contracting this muscle. The flexor digitorum profundus muscle can be seen deep to Tulp’s forceps and importantly the insertion arrangement of the two tendons at the fingers is shown in superb detail. Inspection shows how the superficialis tendon inserts on the middle phalanx after splitting and passing on either side of the profundus tendon, which carries on to insert into the distal phalanx. But why is the painting paradoxical?

Nicholaas Tulp was born in 1593 Claes Pieter or Nicholaus Petrus, son of Pieter Dirks, a prosperous Amsterdam merchant. As part of a successful medical career, Tulp became Praelector in anatomy in 1628 to the Surgeons Guild in Amsterdam. He seems to have adopted the name Tulp (tulip in Dutch) early on for reasons that are not clear. The individuals in the painting, including the cadaver, are all known. The spectators are Amsterdam surgeons – none medically qualified – who are named on the list held by the one to Tulp’s right. The surgeon standing upright at the back originally wore a hat, the outline of which can just be made out, and the figure to the far left of the group was added later by a hand inferior to that of Rembrandt (note the different skin tones). The inner three are looking at Tulp’s hand but the outer four are not.

Members of the Surgeon’s Guild, in England as well as in Holland, were required to attend anatomy demonstrations as part of their continuing education. However, this is not a usual anatomy demonstration for several reasons. Dissection always followed a set pattern of the abdomen being examined first since its organs putrefied rapidly, then the chest and brain for the same reason, and finally the limbs. In the painting, only the forearm has been dissected – with the fingers shown in great detail and the flexor muscles in just enough detail to show their function. The dissected hand is noticeably larger, and the left arm longer, than the right. Finally, the only spectators are surgeons (and only half of them are watching the ‘lesson’), whereas there would commonly be other prominent persons who came to witness the spectacle for a fee. We might therefore suppose that this painting is largely to do with surgeons and the hand.

The idea of Man as microcosm was common in the Early Modern Period and thus the study of anatomy was a study of the works of the Almighty – cogitio sui and cogitio Dei. Moreover, the hand was emblematic of such miraculous works. This was a view of Aristotle who considers the hand the physical counterpart of the human psyche, being an instrument for using other instruments. Galen, in book XVII of On the use of the parts, says of the tendons: ‘their insertions in the bones and their relations with each other are amazing and indescribable.’

The anatomist John Banester says of the hand: ‘no member more declareth the unspeakable power of almighty God in the creating of man.’ (John Banester. The historie of man, sucked from the sappe of the most approued anathomistes, London, 1578, p. 61).

Helkiah Crooke, in his ‘μικροκοσμογραφία [mikrokosmographia]: a description of the body of man . . . collected and translated out of all the best authors of anatomy especially out of Gasper Bauhinus and Andreas Laurentius’, London, 1615, considers that the hand ‘may justly be compared to the soule . . . By the helpe of the hand laws are written, temples built for the seruice of the Maker’ (p. 729). The hand is ‘the most Noble and prefect organ of the body;’ and Laurentius, whom he refers to as ‘one of the outstanding Doctors and teachers of divine wisdom’ noted the wonderful artistry ‘with which nature perforated the tendons of flexor superficialis in order to provide the passage for the profundus tendons’ (p. 730). This encomium on the hand comes from the chapter de praestantia manus in Laurentius’s Historia anatomica humani corporis, Frankfurt, 1599, pp. 61-3.

I think the painting is an allegory on the word ‘surgeon’. In this period, the word was often written (even in Dutch) something like ‘cheirurgeon’ which derives from the Greek χείρ (hand) ἔργον (work). Since the painting is so clearly about surgeons and hand function (as Tulp is demonstrating), the connection seems to me compelling. Perhaps it also suggests that those individuals are metaphorically closer to God by association – they did pay for the painting after all. An interesting area for future research might be the use of the hand as emblem of the Divine in Early Modern period.

What killed Charles II?

Sunday, June 17th, 2012 | Peter Anstey | No Comments

Terence Doyle writes…

Charles II, at the age of 54, laid down his earthly crown for an immortal one at noon on Friday February 6th 1685. His last illness is surely the best documented case history in the seventeenth century. There were multiple eyewitness accounts. The official version was penned by the Chief Royal Physician Sir Charles Scarburgh and later transcribed in The Last Days of Charles II by Raymond Crawfurd, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909). It makes disturbing reading.

Charles was an apparently healthy man, reputed to have had thirteen mistresses and fifteen illegitimate children. On Monday morning, February 2nd 1685, while at his ablutions, he suffered a seizure with convulsions and temporary slurring of speech. Two physicians were on hand and one, Edmund King, withdrew 16 ounces of blood (450ml) from the king’s right arm, apparently with immediate relief. Six more physicians soon arrived and removed another 8 ounces with cupping glasses applied to deep scarifications in the shoulders. He was then given both an emetic and a purgative to empty his stomach and bowels. This was followed by two enemas and further purgatives. Then, according to the official account, Praeterea ut nullum lapidem immotum reliquerent (to leave no stone unturned) blistering agents were applied all over his head, after his hair had been shaved.

It was then decided to relieve the pressure of the humours on the brain by inducing sneezing, with a powder of white hellebore roots and later Sal Ammoniac applied to the nostrils. So as to keep his bowels active at night, more laxatives were given two hourly. At the same time, to counteract the scalding of his urine, from the Cantharides in the blistering drugs, a soothing emulsion of barley with liquorice was given. Et ne quid intentum relinqueretur (so as to leave nothing untried), plasters containing Spurge and Burgundy Pitch were applied to the soles of his feet.

On Tuesday he was bled ten ounces from the jugular veins. On Wednesday he was given further laxatives but that night he became so ill that his doctors prescribed Spirit of Human Skull (40 drops). This was commonly used in convulsive disorders and thought to act through the power of suggestion, since the skull had to be from someone who had died violently. On Thursday the King’s ministers were asking just what was wrong with him – a piece of intelligence the doctors themselves would have been happy to have. It was then suggested that he was suffering from intermittent fever and so was given syrup of Chinchona (Jesuit’s) bark three hourly, according to a prescription signed by 14 doctors.

On the morning of Friday 6th he was bled again and given an extract of a very large number of herbs, powdered oyster shells and Goa stone. This latter was a concretion (bezoar) formed in the stomach of an East Indian goat and was believed to have mystical ability to counteract poisons and strengthen the vital powers.  By mid-morning he was severely short of breath compelling him to sit upright. By ten he was comatose, and at noon he died.

On Saturday 7th an autopsy was performed, presumably because the illness was unexplained. The results of the autopsy are well documented.

 In Cerebri Cortice Venae et Arteriae supra modum repletae. (The veins and arteries on the brain surface were abnormally full).

Cerebri tum ventriculi omnes serosa quadam materia inundati, tum ipsa substantia consimili humore haud leviter imbuta. (The cerebral ventricles were filled with a kind of bloody material and the brain substance contained a similar humour).

The lungs were Sanguine referta (congested with blood). The heart and abdominal organs were unremarkable.

Crawfurd confidently sums this up with: ‘From these accounts one may assert with considerable confidence that his death was due to chronic granular kidney (a form of Bright’s disease) with uraemic convulsions, ‘He was a large eater and mainly of albuminous food. Alcohol he had taken freely, at times to gross excess: he had been the slave of sexual passion’ (p. 16).

This is manifestly incorrect. At autopsy the kidneys were normal and so Bright’s disease (chronic glomerulonephritis) is most unlikely. Overindulgence in eating, alcohol and sex, although lamentable, rarely results in death. The clinical history sounds like cerebral bleeding, probably subarachnoid. This is due to leakage from an arterial aneurysm, minor at first but irritating to the coverings of the brain. Charles remained conscious and there was no limb weakness. The first subarachnoid haemorrhage has an increased likelihood of a second more catastrophic bleed after a few days, this time into the brain substance. This pattern fits Charles’ clinical course. Just before he died he became severely short of breath. This is likely to have been caused by neurogenic pulmonary oedema, sometimes associated with intracerebral events. Finally, the autopsy findings state that the cerebral ventricles were filled with bloody fluid and a similar kind of material in the brain substance. This is just what would be expected in subarachnoid and secondary intracerebral bleeding.

Who performed the autopsy is not recorded. However, since Richard Lower had much the most experience of intracranial examination after working with Thomas Willis, he must have been involved.

Despite theoretical advances in medical science at this time, practical treatment as shown in the King’s management was still rooted in humoural theory. Towards the end of his illness Charles made his famous remark about being an unconscionable time a-dying, which sounds more like a prayer for deliverance than an apology.


An Untold History of Heresy

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012 | TAKASHI SHOGIMEN | No Comments

Takashi Shogimen writes …

At the heart of the idea of heresy lies a paradox: Church authority may declare that certain individuals are heretical, while those who were identified as “heretics” do not consider themselves as such. Heresy is, by definition, a false belief; however, no one can believe what he or she knows is false. Hence, there emerges a cognitive gap between Church officials, who detect and judge “heretics,” and alleged “heretics,” who considered themselves orthodox. From this gap stems the tragedies of Cathars, Waldensians, Spiritual Franciscans, and Hussites: they all believed that their faith was true and orthodox and yet were condemned as heretics. “Heresy … can only arise in the context of the assertion of authority.” Thus wrote R. I. Moore – and rightly.

Medieval heresy is a research field, which has expanded dramatically over the last few decades. But generally scholars have focused on heresies as popular, rather than intellectual, movements. Moreover, experts who study academic heresy examined censures and the intellectual doctrines that were deemed heretical by Church authority. What has been scarcely studied is how medieval intellectuals conceptualized heresy. In this untold story the Franciscan theologian and philosopher William of Ockham (c.1285-1347) should loom very large. Although the mainstream conception of heresy was underpinned by the authoritative viewpoint as Moore pointed out, Ockham de-institutionalized the idea of heresy. Ockham did not regard doctrinal decision-making as an “authoritative” process, which is initiated by church officials, but as a “cognitive” one, which anyone who could read the Bible and other doctrinal texts, may participate in. According to Ockham, a papal doctrinal decision is binding not because it is papal but because it is theologically true. Thus the epistemological status of orthodox faith and heretical error became central to Ockham’s enquiry. It was a volte-face in the medieval discourse on heresy.

I have a growing interest in the history of the academic idea of heresy in the Late Middle Ages and beyond, and especially Ockham’s place therein. Recently I wrote on the early sixteenth-century Parisian theologian Jacques Almain’s indebtedness to Ockham’s idea of heresy: this piece forms a book chapter which will be published next year. It is striking how widely Ockham’s idea of heresy was assimilated by theologians and canon lawyers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For example, both Jean Gerson and Juan de Torquemada based their discussions of heresy on Ockham’s twenty modes of heretical pertinacity. We can also discern an echo of Ockham’s idea of heresy in such theologians of the sixteenth century as Franciscus de Vitoria and Cardinal Cajetan. The history of the academic conceptions of heresy is yet to unfold.

Astronomy and Astrology

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 | Greg Dawes | No Comments

Greg Dawes writes …

One often reads, at least in popular works, that pre-modern European thinkers made no distinction between astronomy and astrology. A Wikipedia article, for example, begins by claiming that “astronomy and astrology were archaically one and the same discipline (Latin: astrologia), and were only gradually recognized as separate in Western 17th century philosophy.” Another website claims that “astronomy and astrology cannot be separated in the Middle Ages and the early modern period,” while a third asserts that in the early university faculties, “astronomy and astrology were not separate,” but were “indivisible sciences.”

Galileo Galilei in 1636 (Portrait by Justus Sustermans)

But is this correct? It is true that in medieval and early modern thought astronomy and astrology were closely associated. Furthermore, many authors of this time regarded both as reliable sources of knowledge.  Indeed astrology continued to be taken seriously well into the seventeenth century.  As H. Darrel Rutkin has noted (Galilaeana (2 [2005]: 107–142), early seventeenth century mathematicians, even those employed by universities, were often called on to cast horoscopes. No less a figure than Galileo seems to have taken astrology seriously, casting horoscopes not only when he was requested to do so, but also, for example, to predict the characters of his two daughters.

Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that pre-modern European thinkers made no distinction between astronomy and astrology. There was, first of all, a long tradition of scepticism regarding what is known as “judicial” astronomy, with its claims to be able to predict the course of an individual’s life. This tradition dates from Cicero’s De divinatione and continues with the work of St Augustine. It finds a late medieval expression in the criticisms of Nicole Oresme (1320–82) and reaches its high point in the work of Pico della Mirandola (1463–94). These writers rejected judicial astrology, but there is no reason to think they were rejecting astronomy. They offered no arguments against a mathematical treatment of heavenly movements, the science which had found its fullest expression in Ptolemy’s Almagest.

A sixteenth-century edition of a thirteenth-century work on Ptolemaic astronomy. (Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber)

Even among those who approved of astrology, a distinction was made between astronomy and astrology. It can be found, for instance, at the very beginning of the work known as the Speculum astronomiae, the “mirror of astronomy,” generally attributed to Albert the Great (ca, 1200–80). While using the same word (astronomia) for both astronomy and astrology, it begins by making a clear distinction between them. “There are two great wisdoms,” it begins, which go by this name: the first has to do with the configuration and movements of the heavens, while the second has to do with “the judgements of the stars.”

Still more interesting is a second work, the De fato, which dates from the same period. This not only makes the distinction, but spells it out in terms of the differing kinds of knowledge that are involved. The passage in question is responding to the objection that astrological prediction is not a science: what demonstrable connection is there, the objector asks, between (for example) the position of the moon in Leo and the type of clothing one should wear? The author’s response is to note that

as Ptolemy says, in astronomy we must distinguish two parts: the first concerns the positions of the superior bodies, their measures and their passions; this part of astronomy can be reached through demonstration. The other part concerns the effects of the stars in inferior things, effects which are received differently in these mutable objects [qui in rebus mutabilibus mutabiliter recipiuntur]. Thus, the second part can only be reached through conjecture. … From conjectures, which derive from mutable data [cum sit ex signis mutabilibus], comes a mental attitude endowed with less certainty than science or opinion. (De fato 4.7, translation by Paola Zambelli)

As the reference to Ptolemy suggests, the author considers that he is doing nothing new in making distinctions of this kind. They are already ancient, going back to the work of the great second-century astronomer, who wrote one work, the Almagest, on what we would call “astronomy,” and another, the Tetrabiblos, on astrology. The latter begins by making just the same point.

Of the means of prediction through astronomy, … two are the most important and valid. One, which is first both in order and in effectiveness, is that whereby we apprehend the aspects of the movements of sun, moon, and stars in relation to each other and to the earth, as they occur from time to time; the second is that in which by means of the natural character of these aspects themselves we investigate the changes which they bring about in that which they surround. (Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos I.1, Loeb translation)

What about the early modern period? Was the same distinction made then? It seems that it was, at least by some thinkers. I have already noted that Galileo does not deny the possibility of astral and planetary influences on human affairs. Indeed, his practice of astrology assumes it. But he does deny that it can produce the kind of certain knowledge that he, like his predecessors, regarded as essential for a science. Again, H. Darrel Rutkin provides evidence of this, drawing our attention to a letter of 1633 in which Galileo comments on the views of Jean-Baptiste Morin (1583–1656). Galileo criticises Morin, not for believing in astrology itself, but for believing that astrology could attain to certainty and for placing it at the head of the sciences.

So do premodern European thinkers make a distinction between astronomy and astrology? Yes, they do. Is their distinction identical with ours? No, for the most part it is not. But it would be wrong to overlook the way in which late medieval and early modern thinkers distinguished between what they considered differing forms of knowledge and the degree of certainty to which each could aspire.

Notes and Announcements

Monday, June 4th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments


The Shakespeare Institute, the University of Warwick, and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have launched Year of Shakespeare, a “digital project that will include reviews of each of the productions [from the World Shakespeare Festival]; special features from academics, artists, and educators involved in the festivities.”


Saturday, 15 September 2012 at Queen Mary, University of London there will an interdisciplinary conference “Text and Trade: Book History Perspectives on Eighteenth Century Literature.”  Keynote Speakers will be Professor James McLaverty (English Department, Keele University) and Dr. John Hinks (Chair of the Printing Historical Society and Honorary Fellow at the Centre of Urban History, University of Leicester).  To submit proposals (deadline: 15 June) or to make informal inquiries please contact the conference organizers, Dr. Jenn Chenkin and Dr. Tessa Whitehouse at


On 8 September 2012 Leeds Trinity University College will have the Northern Renaissance Seminar, ‘Disability and the Renaissance.’  Proposals for 20-minute papers are invited on the ways in which disability can be conceptualised in/through/by the Renaissance (deadline: 30 June).  Please send your proposals or any queries to Susan Anderson: