Friday, July 15, 2011

Voici venir les temps . . .

It's my last full day in the reading room at my favorite library, and I'm trying desperately to see all the rare books I need to see, and to consult all the sources at my fingertips before I have to go home, put the final touches on my manuscript and send it out. Oh, and I start teaching again in a month, so there's that grad course syllabus to prepare (Note to colleagues: Do NOT open an email from a student in the summer if the subject line is "Reading List." It will make you very unhappy).

I've just returned a wonderful, very rare manuscript bound in vellum and created by the Goldsmith's Company. It's in two books, the first dealing with weights and measures, assaying gold and silver and the mint. The second, which is more along my lines of research, lists precious stones, and describes where they are found and how they are valued. This was very helpful for a few references in my chapter on pearls, but also for the piece I hope to write on Jessica's turquoise ring in The Merchant of Venice.

The book ends with descriptions of some hard substances that are decidedly not precious stones, but were also of great value in the East and were traded as currency: lack and indigo (red and blue pigments), ambergris, musk, and civet (animal excretions used in perfumes and aphrodisiacs). These things interested me the most, in part because what are dyes, perfumes and aphrodisiacs doing in a book whose title is ye knowledge of all sortes of Gemmes or Praetious Stones, describing the Places wheare they growe, their Names, Coullors, Vertues & Valewes, According as they are bought from Marchant to Marchant worthy their Studie, which profess themselues Iuellers or are desirous to be made acquainted with those Secrets of Nature? In other words, how is indigo a precious stone? Yet from an early modern sensibility, the inclusion of pigments and perfuming materials with gems makes perfect sense, as all of these objects were traded, along with spices, "from Marchant to Marchant" in the East Indies, Persia and the Ottoman empire, and all of these items were employed together with sugar and spices and mummia (mummy) by apothecaries in the early modern pharmaceutical industry (if you can call it that).

I learned a lot from this manuscript, and because it's my last day at this beloved archive, was sorry to have to say goodbye to it, just as I'm sorry to have to say goodbye to my new friends.

I'm feeling melancholy and out of sorts today in general, as when anything stimulating and inspiring--not to mention frequently frustrating--comes to an end. We had our last seminar yesterday, and I am very grateful for the new colleagues and friends I've made, but oddly sad that it's over.

Despite all of the work I have to do today, I'm finding it rather challenging to concentrate, feeling a little distracted. I move around as if I were under a spell, or as if I had taken some powerful drug, my heart beating a little faster than usual. (It doesn't help that I've been reading about early modern aphrodisiacs and Sonnet 119 is thrumming through my head). I will be relieved to return to the regularity of daily life at home. But today everything is triste et beau comme une grande reposoir.