In 1726, British newspapers published accounts of one Mary Tofts, who gave birth to seventeen rabbits, three legs of a cat, and portions of the backbone of an eel. Nathaniel St. André, physician to the royal family, was sent to verify this story. He concluded that the rabbits were bred inside Mary’s Fallopian tubes. This seemingly miraculous event was explained by the wide-spread belief in “maternal impressions”— that any strong stimulus received by the mother during pregnancy might in some way mark the child, particularly the sight or fear of an animal. By the time the story was revealed as a hoax, several prominent doctors had been taken in.
Research can be tedious, but then sometimes you find resources that make you feel like you’ve walked into a candy shop, there’s such a delicious selection of details you can use to make your story more real— and more fantastical at the same time. The past is much stranger than any fantasy world and it was populated by people who viewed that world in ways that were sometimes, genuinely, stranger than anything the mind of a fantasy writer could create. And when you can get these delightful glimpses into the way they thought and the things they did, then you can just jump off from there and let your imagination fly where it will.
Let us take a brief trip around our metaphorical candy shop. In one glass case, for instance, we find the story of Robert Fludd, medical man and Hermetic philosopher, who early in the seventeenth century, while distilling blood, reportedly pulled from the vessel a screaming human head, complete with hair and all the requisite facial features.
On the shelf below: the rural practitioners who prescribed a meal of mouse on toast (fur and all) as the cure for such various ailments as stammering and bed-wetting, also lice, the sexual organs and excreta of animals, human perspiration, saliva of a fasting man, cuttlefish, and scorpions regularly used in medicines. Next to them, the country folk who kept bottles of urine, in order to monitor the health of distant loved ones by observing the appearance of their piddle.
Here is something meant to satisfy your sweet-tooth: Theriacs— antidotes for poisons or the bites of poisonous creatures, viz. apes, snakes, dogs, and human beings— were in use from the time of the Roman Empire through the nineteenth century. An antidote originated by Nero’s physician contained sixty-four ingredients, including cinnamon, viper’s flesh, honey, and opium. These sugar-based antidotes, which came to be known as Venice treacle eventually became, in a debased form, the common syrup we know today. This in turn led to the brimstone and treacle (or in the United States sulphur and molasses) prescribed as a tonic by our own grandmothers and great-grandmothers. As for viper’s flesh, it too remained in use into the nineteenth century.
And another confection: In the sixteenth century, the renowned physician Paracelsus (a.k.a. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) not only claimed to create a homunculus, or miniature human being, he also published the formula. Other formulas, by lesser-known philosophers, cited such ingredients as wax, soil, human sperm, and egg white. Mandrakes pulled from the earth beneath a gibbet were also popular, nourished as they were by a hanged man’s tears. (We might bottle them for our own use.)
A century later, natural philosophers occupied themselves with the resurrection of plants, most particularly the “spectre of the rose” in all its glory of petals, leaves, and stem. Many notable scientist of the era experimented and some, according to their own writings, were successful at calling up this apparition, reviving the “vegetable phoenix” by heating the ashes, which had previously been burned, then treated with a salt reduced to a fine blue powder. Continuing to extend our metaphor, we might characterize this historical snippet in the nature of a bonbon.
Here at the back of the shop, almost hidden, is a grotesque little story, the kind of thing not to be taken in excess, unless you are writing horror. It is said that a certain physician obtained the body of an executed criminal, for the purpose of dissection. Completing his work, he ordered his assistant to pulverize the brain case, a popular remedy. Afterwards, the student went to bed, leaving the powder in a paper on a table. At midnight, he was awakened by a noise, the source of which he could not immediately ascertain. At last, going to the table he was horrified to discover a small head staring at him from the paper with the powder. Two arms sprouted, and then the hands. A ribcage developed next and the musculature. After growing legs and feet, the tiny figure stood up, wearing the very same clothes the hanged man had worn to his execution. One can scarcely imagine the assistants terror— but perhaps a certain scientific satisfaction at achieving such a remarkable result?
If the clockwork figures beloved of steampunk readers and writers stimulate your appetite: long before the Victorian era and as early as the ancient Greeks, people were fascinated by mechanical figures and automatons. According to the poet Pindar, on the island of Rhodes automatons were so common that:
“The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.”
During the Renaissance, in Augsburg, Hans Schlottheim built a mechanical galleon made to sail up the dinner table during a banquet, cannons firing and trumpets blowing. By the eighteenth century, spectators were charmed by clockwork flying pigeons and digesting ducks, a rooster powered by means of a bellows, a mechanical chess-playing Turk, and dolls that wrote or played musical instruments. Personally, I find the duck a little daunting.
And these are just a few of the treats available to the fantasy author with a strong stomach, a taste for whimsy, and a craving for the grotesque.
Many thanks to Teresa for these insights into her writing life. I’m currently reading her Goblin Moon novel, just out from Tickety Boo Press, and it’s really good (review to follow soon).
I am currently preparing a guest blog on my own research for Teresa.
Teresa Edgerton – Goblin Moon