Article Summary: Harold Cook, “Time’s Bodies: Crafting the Preparation and Preservation of Naturalia.”

Harold Cook, “Time’s Bodies: Crafting the Preparation and Preservation of Naturalia,” in Merchants and  Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge 2002).

Harold Cook’s (Brown University) article takes place in sixteenth and seventeenth Netherlands, and ties together the market economy and its capital investments, with an increase in naturalia. The financial world of society, dependent on economy and commerce, included methods of accumulation, preservation, and calculation of future value that was necessary for the merchant’s benefits. Investments, as well, not only reflected the stability of market economy and society, but also spilled over to intellectual culture, as an increase in wealth led to an increase in travel, voyages, and collection of “curiosities.”

As a steady trade in naturalia developed, so did notions of preservation of inventory, as collectors and merchants strived to preserve time to maintain the shape of their collected specimens. Drying only went so far, as collectors were only able to see the shapes and forms, and not so much the inner structures of their collections. A need for new methods of preservation was required, especially for those who were interested in investigating the inner structures of the (human) body, and those interested in the prolongation of life for forestalling time’s natural processes for further study. Since seventeenth century methods of preservation were viewed as miraculous, Cook describes the motivations and processes developed in the Netherlands for preserving a lifelike body. Louis de Bils, one of the first to figure the secret of “balsamising,” preserved dead human bodies to maintain their lifelike form, by looking at examples from mummified Egyptian bodies. While the Egyptians only preserved the external form of the body, de Bils developed methods of preservation that held the whole body in a lifelike manner, through a long and complicated process. Yet although he received initial support, de Bils eventually faced hostility from others, including Van Horne, who raised the fraudulent possibility of de Bils’ work. As de Bils’ method of preservation was valuable, he closely guarded his secret, eventually selling it to Van Gutsochoven. Nevertheless, de Bils died before his methods could be fully explained, and others had to either guess or experiment with the means themselves.

Jan Swammerdam, for one, experimented with different preservatives and injections, and Dr. Hubertus of Leiden experimented with oil of turpentine. These experiments and the work of de Bils spread through Europe, even reaching and exciting Robert Boyle and other members of the Royal Society of London. The key importance of methods of preservation was its ability to allow development of other techniques of anatomical investigations, even to inspect and study individual organs before they decayed. The need for preservation then, represented not only a cultural need to preserve trinkets and collections from voyages of discoveries, but to also preserve knowledge itself; for the sake of future generation, knowledge, through curiosities and investments, through bodies and organs, was captured and maintained in its form, a method that reflects the process of capturing time.

Latest Comments

  1. sbej says:

    That suggests an answer as to why this odd substance turns up in a range of documents of the period that have a very close relationship with Boyle. It also rigs bells with youre comment on the need to preserve knowledge, from a slightly diffrent perspective.

    I had been wondering where the interest stemmed from.

    “My Lord As to the Salt beeff I have eat salt beefe in the Castle of Borthwick (which is within eight mylls of Edinburgh And I presume that it is reladeall (?) that you have heird of which both the house keeper and others told me to be above 200 year old and still keeped in that place, And I doupt not ther is of it as yet there, All the Gentlemen about that place concoure in the testimonie, for those liveing have heard it related by thyr Grandfathers as never to be doubted of its being so old a date. It would not appear to the eye to be other than soft wood, But when boylled It is evidently deserned to be flesh…..”

    Lord Reay responding to a series of questions by Samual Pepys.


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