JF Ptak Science Books Post 1820
For many centuries people have been trying to control the future, seeing into future’s past, using tea leaves, foreheads, palm prints, brain bumps, nose angles, the position of the stars, rolled animal bones and printed interpretations of the creator of the universe. Some of these have faded into embarrassed obscurity, but only some; some methods are present today, stronger than ever.
The rolled bones part of this makes the prettiest pictures, I think: for example, this image from Paul Pambst1 (published in 1546) shows some of the dice combinations and what they would correspond to in the revolving paper disks and columns of interpretations in the body of the book, a simple throwing of shaped animal residue somehow laying claim to predictive power. Not that it is much different from any of the other divination methods.
One such method that had been in strong and continued use for thousands of years and is now mostly relegated to dust is the heated up and swirling inspection of urine. It was thought for millenia that pee held secrets to what was going on inside the body, and that was mostly true, except that given the state of medical knowledge the only thing that the practioner could do with the sample was hold it up to the light and make good solid guesses on how color/consistency corresponded to the patient. A reddish tint (as we see here in this painting by Gerrit Dou (1613-1675, and who made an appearance in yesterday’s post) might suggest that the (female) subject was suffering from morbens virginus (uterine hysteria, “a signifying of too much concoction in the body”), which, when the imaginary disease/unease was diagnosed would’ve led to lead consumption and a good bleeding.
Moving slightly up the alpha from Pambst is Udalr Pinder, whose Epiphanie Medicorum…2 (published in Nurnberg in 1506) is a state-of-the-art disposition on urine inspection, complete with this pee color wheel. This idea is as interesting as it is entertaining, because at its base is a scientific aspect of trying to establish a common (color) base for discussion of specimens. The color descriptions (taken in translation from Kirsten Jungersen’s (MA, classical philologist, visiting scholar, Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen) “The relation between text and colours in medieval urine wheels” (here) are poetic, lyrical. They are also a small insight into common things of the 15th century, the author selecting colors from things that were ubiquitous and known to everyone, and so in this way could be used as a basis for the common understanding of a given color.
And so here are the glorious colors (complete in “extended reading” below with the Latin above), most of which I’ve never heard as descriptors…and would love to see as an adopted sub-there by Crayola (“Crayola Urine Wheel Colors”):
“Bluish-grey as camel skin; White as wellwater; Light blue/green/grey as lucid horn; Milky as whey of milk; Slightly pale as a not reduced juice of Meat; Pale yellow as of a not reduced lemon; Wine-red as of animal liver; Black as very dark horn; Ruddy as pure intense gold; Green as green cabbage.” And of course:
“Slightly red as a lowered flame of fire”
“Red as a flame of fire not lowered”
But of course none of this was actually going to help anyone very much, especially when you moved from uroscopy into urinomancy (not a word one gets to use very often), where instead of trying to diagnose dis-ease the urinomancer would try to diagnose the future. Often heat was applied to the jar (matula) of urine, which would do, well, I don’t know what. It certainly looks dramatic, and makes for some excellent opportunities for artists to discern candle-lit color and wonderful reflections (as in Dou). Actually, it was in this way that the golden color of urine was determined (poor alchemists!) not to come from gold at all—urine was finally boiled away until its component urea was discovered (in 1773)3. So heat did have a real and important function, but it took hundreds of years to get there properly.
And so it goes that predicting the future with urine was swept into histories dark places, though somehow bone throwers and astrologers managed to escape this fate.
1. Paul Pambst. Loozbuch zu ehren der Roemischen…published in Strassburg in 1546. The Robert Sabuda website for popup books ahs a very good short essay on this book, here.
2. Epiphanie Medicorum. Speculum videndi urinas hominum. Clavis aperiendi portas pulsuum. Berillus discernendi causas & differentias febrium.
3. H.M. Rouelle first discovered and isolated 1773, and then synthesized by Friedrich Woehler in 1828. This was big and important stuff.
Color Wheel Colors, continued below:
The colour captions include textual definitions:
Albus color ut aqua fontis
White as wellwater, i.e. clear
Glaucus color ut cornu lucidum
Light blue/green/grey as lucid horn
Lacteus color ut serum lactis
Milky as whey of milk
Caropos color ut vellus cameli
Bluish-grey as camel skin
Subpallidus color ut succus carnis semicoctus non remisse
Slightly pale as a not reduced juice of Meat
Remissus pallidus ut succus carnis semicoctus remissi
Reduced pale as reduced juice of Meat
Subcitrinus ut pomi subcitrini non remissus
Pale yellow as of a not reduced lemon
Citrinus color ut pomi citrini remissi
Yellow as of a reduced lemon
Subruffus color ut aurum remissum
Slightly ruddy as an alloy of gold
Ruffus ut aurum purum intensum
Ruddy as pure intense gold
Subrubicundus color ut crocus occidentalis
Slightly red as occidental saffron
Rubeus ut crocus orientalis
Red as oriental saffron
Subrubicundus ut flamma ignis remissa
Slightly red as a lowered flame of fire
Rubicundus ut flamma ignis non remissa
Red as a flame of fire not lowered
Inops color ut epatis animalis
Wine-red as of animal liver
Kyanos color ut vinum bene nigrum
Deep blue as very dark wine
Viridis color ut caulis viridis
Green as green cabbage
Lividus color ut plumbum
Livid as lead
Niger ut incaustum
Black as ink
Niger ut cornu bene nigrum
Black as very dark horn