Scientific Knowledge


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Session Chair: Peter Davidson

Tassanee Alleau (Université François Rabelais, Tours) 

‘At the root’ of practices and knowledges: natural histories of the underground plant-object in a visual iconographic database

During my research I came across a variety of sources to explore specific material uses of the plants, how they are drawn and broadcasted, with “Roots” as a primary source : mainly texts, treatises, books of recipes, of secrets, and dictionaries. But what emerges from this research is the importance of a visual iconographic database of my Ph.D. subject: "'At the root' of practices and knowledges: natural histories of the underground plant in early modern times (1530-1735)". Studying the invisible part of the plant, the "root part of the plant" (tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, roots of trees, root vegetables) in different ways (history, history of sciences and epistemology, horticulture, agriculture, cultural history, history of medicine, histoire des mentalités, environmental history, food history, etc.) can be delicate. Finding images of this underground vegetal world is often full of symbolic meanings, difficult to decipher, reflecting the thoughts and beliefs of the early modern society in Europe and the New World. Visual material of the “souterrain” reveals the underground network of roots, nourishing the world, inspired by biblical meanings and ancient medicinal values, and can help to visualize and investigate a wide range of skills, practices and gestures around the “feet of the plants” used as amulets, material for furniture, remedies, food, etc. This Ph.D. research questions the methodology of how a historian might interrogate images as historical proofs, in the social and historical contexts of medical and botanical knowledge, of trade, consumerism and exchanges, of colonial cultural transfers, and domestic uses as well.

Wendy McGlashan (Independent) 

War Elephants and Weaponised Walruses: John Kay’s The Craft in Danger (1817) and the Anatomy of Knowledge Formation in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh

In the early nineteenth-century, the pre-eminence of the Edinburgh Medical School faced challenge from flourishing extra-mural schools, like that of Dr John Barclay. In 1816, wishing to maintain the University’s reputation for excellence, the town council proposed the institution of a new Chair in Comparative Anatomy and Veterinary Surgery: a proposal which the University rejected. These events provide the subject to John Kay’s The Craft in Danger: a satirical print which accuses Drs Thomas Hope and Alexander Monro (Tertius) and Professor Robert Jameson of attempting to hold back the progress of knowledge in the interest of personal profit.

Kay stages a mock-battle in which Barclay charges the entrance of the Old College mounted upon an elephant skeleton; Hope attempts to topple him using an insecurely anchored rope; Monro tries to fend him off with a human bone, while Jameson, seated astride a walrus, brandishes a narwhal tusk. More than humorous motifs, the animal specimens here depicted represent identifiable objects, then in the Museums of Barclay and Jameson.

This paper will consider the role of these Museum specimens in this intellectual battle, demonstrating that Kay’s mode of representation reflects the animals’ relationship to the colonial and expansionist networks that brought them to the city. New analysis will show that Kay’s intermedial satire works in dialogue with the visual, material, and intellectual culture of Anatomy and Natural History in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, being facilitated to do so by periodicals like the Scots Magazine, through which scientific knowledge was actively transferred.