On the 500th anniversary of his death, our series Leonardo da Vinci Revisited brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine his work, legacy and myth.
The artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci was once famously named a “Master of Water” in the records of the Florentine government.
In this role, he explored diverting the river Arno away from Pisa so as to cut access to the city, then Florence’s enemy, from the sea. It was one of a number of jobs he held that were dedicated to controlling water as a way of wielding power.
But his notebooks reveal Leonardo’s wider preoccupations with the power of water. He wanted to understand the ebb and flow of tides, the origins of rivers and oceans and the water cycle, as well as the fearsome effects of water in erosion, floods, rain and storms. Water was a force to be reckoned with — as an idea and as a reality.
If humans could not control water, Leonardo argued, they could nonetheless work with it. Over his lifetime, he was commissioned for a range of projects to manipulate water, most often in canals, as a form of warfare.
When Leonardo wrote down his thoughts about how to depict a biblical deluge, central to his thinking was the destructive force of water: “The swollen waters will sweep round the pool which contains them striking in eddying whirlpools against the different obstacles, and leaping into the air in muddy foam; then, falling back, the beaten water will again be dashed into the air.”
His mindset was biblical but he shared with modern scientists an interest in great destructive forces such as tsunamis.
The beauty of water
For Leonardo, water could also be exquisitely beautiful in its flows, eddies and swirls. His illustrations of moving water were not really observations of a single moment in time though; they captured his thought process.
In the illustration below, of water passing obstacles, he depicted movement in time and space, as well as his conceptualisation of how fluids flow, in a single diagram.
Leonardo was depicting the inherently three-dimensional nature of flowing water, and the idea that turbulent flows consist of a range of co-existing eddies, varying in scale from large to small. This concept was mathematically formalised in 1941 by A.N. Kolmogorov, and is known as the “cascade model of turbulence”.
Visualisation of flowing water remains a powerful and essential tool in modern research today. For instance, recent laboratory studies of the three-dimensional flow around islands in coastal ocean regions, have used tiny plastic spheres to observe the fluid motion (known as particle tracking) of the evolving wake downstream of an island.
Describing the complex nature of these wakes, and the vertical up-welling of water in them, is key to understanding how the ecological productivity of these marine systems is maintained.
For Leonardo, flowing water formed parallels with curling hair:
Observe the motion of the surface of the water which resembles that of hair, and has two motions, of which one goes on with the flow of the surface, the other forms the lines of the eddies; thus the water forms eddying whirlpools one part of which are due to the impetus of the principal current and the other to the incidental motion and return flow.
Recently, scientists who study fluid mechanics have employed innovative ways to communicate the results of their experiments through creating a musical representation of the frequency content of the flow. These modern methods share with Leonardo a fascination with the beauty of flowing water.
He may once have held the title “Master of Water” but Leonardo realised that this was one element of the natural world over which he (like others) could only ever exercise limited control, except perhaps, in his art.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, our series Leonardo da Vinci Revisited brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine his work, legacy and myth.
Leonardo worked for some of the top military and political leaders in the Italian Wars, a major conflict fought on the Italian peninsula that embroiled most of Western Europe. His patrons read like a roll-call of Europe’s leading familes: Sforza and Borgia dukes and French Valois kings.
Like many other artists and technicians, he negotiated the professional and financial opportunities (as well as dangers) that war presented.
As a brilliant designer, technician and artist, he knew how to appeal to the leaders of his day. A well-known 1482 letter to Ludovico Il Moro Sforza, Duke of Milan, one of Italy’s most powerful military leaders, was in essence a job application.
In it, Leonardo promised a raft of new technological possibilities in warfare, boasting he could create an infinite variety of machines for attack or defence:
I have methods for making very light and strong bridges, easily portable, and useful whether pursuing or evading the enemy; and others more solid, which cannot be destroyed by fire or assault …
If the place under siege cannot be reduced by bombardment, because of the height of its banks or the strength of its position, I have methods for destroying any fortress or redoubt even if it is founded upon solid rock …
I will make armoured cars, totally unassailable, which will penetrate the ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and there is no company of soldiers so great that it can withstand them…
His claims spoke powerfully of a dream of invincibility for the Duke. At times, Leonardo followed the armies of his leaders as they waged war across Italy, but he did not fight on the frontline as a soldier himself. His value to his patrons was not his body, but his mind.
Alongside his weapons of war, Leonardo also created magnificent spectacles of his patrons’ military achievements in festivities with advanced dramatic technologies. For instance, the festival Leonardo curated in France in May 1518 for his patron François I celebrated the king’s military achievement. He staged an elaborate, multi-sensory, re-enactment of the Battle of Marignano complete with siege and capture of a castle. The watching crowd were overwhelmed with emotion, as falconets fired missiles of paper and mortars shot out balloons.
Through these displays and performances, — textual, ceremonial, multimedia — Leonardo helped to curate an elite masculine identity for a man at war, shaped and defined by new technological advancements.
Shock and awe
While Leonardo explored the power of the senses to channel emotional responses in ceremonial contexts, so too was much of his commentary on his weapons and design about shock and awe. His designs explicitly aimed to make men and horses afraid, causing maximum damage.
These interests in exploiting men’s emotional frailties in war are revealed in his 1482 letter to Ludovico:
I have certain types of cannons, extremely easy to carry, which fire out small stones, almost as if it were a hailstorm, and the smoke from these will cause great terror to the enemy, and they will bring great loss and confusion …
Of his design for a steam-powered cannon made of copper, he wrote that “the sight of its fury and the sound of its roar will seem like a miracle”.
Leonardo’s weapons were thus not just about physical damage to men, animals and buildings, but exploited the emotional experiences of those fighting at the frontline. They offer the prospect of destroying the fortitude and morale of the men facing them, emphasising warfare’s psychological element.
A turbulent mind
But Leonardo was also frustrated. In one manuscript, he discloses what seem to be ambitions as an author on war: “In order to preserve the main gift of nature, that is liberty, I will find a way to attack and defend, when being besieged by tyrannical ambition. And firstly I will speak of the positioning of walls and then how the people can maintain their good and just lords.”
This book project, if that is what it was, seems less about warfare and more a critique of the men he found himself working for. It seems to suggest his ambition to contribute to, or at least comment on, current events and ideas of good and bad government, which he witnessed at close range as the client of some of Europe’s most influential leaders.
While Leonardo’s textual record attests to his ambitions, it also documents grievances that surrounded his experiences as a participant in war. Above a picture of a scattershot cannon, an unfinished half-sentence reads: “If the men of Milan would for once do something out of the ordinary …” Perhaps this was a throwaway comment meant only for himself, but it suggests some of his frustrations.
In thinking about Leonardo now, we recognise that among his many talents, he was someone who not only made a living from, but was perhaps uniquely gifted at creating, new forms of killing machines.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, this series brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine the work, legacy and myth of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with illustrations of nature, both plants and animals, their interactions with humans and in local ecosystems. Did his deep engagement with the natural world make him an environmentalist ahead of his time?
Leonardo was a child of the Tuscan countryside, raised in the tiny village of Anchiano, although he spent most of his adult life at the courts of dukes, kings and princes.
Some of his work for these patrons involved planning interventions into nature, most often managing waterways, but his sketches suggest his attention roamed further than the projects he was commissioned to undertake.
He spent time with friends in a villa outside of Milan observing the country nearby and sketching plans for gardens there, and ended his life on a little country estate that was then on the outskirts of Amboise in France.
One of his first biographers, Giorgio Vasari, tells us that Leonardo
delighted much in horses and also in all other animals, and often when passing by the places where they sold birds he would take them out of their cages, and paying the price that was asked for them, would let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.
Leonardo was also reportedly a vegetarian. This supposition comes from the explorer Andrea Corsali’s description of the non-meat-eating Gujarati people (from modern India) as like “our Leonardo da Vinci”.
The many notebooks and loose sheets Leonardo filled with jottings and illustrations across his lifetime reveal his close observation of nature — from cats and crabs to flowers and copses of trees – and the spirit of enquiry from which he drew many lessons.
One jotting simply states: “Ask the wife of Biagio Crivelli how the capon nurtures and hatches the eggs of the hen”.
His understandings of the habits of animals informed a series of fables and proverbs bearing witness to various emotional traits he attributed to them: gratitude, rage, cruelty and generosity among them. He suggested, for instance, that “we see the most striking example of humility” in the lamb.
The random cruelty of nature
But Leonardo was also struck by the violence of natural processes. Nature appears to have been “rather a cruel stepmother”, he wrote. “Why did nature not ordain that one animal should not live by the death of another?”
He reflected on the random cruelty of nature in a series of riddles, created across his notebooks. For instance, in the entry on walnut trees, he writes in emotional terms of the violence wrought upon these trees as humans enjoyed their seeds: “beaten, and their offspring taken and flayed or peeled, and their bones broken or crushed.”
Still, Leonardo does not seem to have been particularly concerned about the role of humans in enacting violence against other species. His own quest for knowledge and artistic creativity demanded it.
Vasari tells a story of the young Leonardo seeking to depict a frightening creature on a shield he had “brought for this purpose to his room, which no one entered but himself, lizards, grasshoppers, serpents, butterflies, locusts, bats, and other strange animals of the kind …” “The smell in the room of these dead animals was very bad, though Leonardo did not feel it from the love he bore to art.”
Vasari talks of how Leonardo “suffered much in doing it” – but not as much as the other species whose lives were sacrificed for his art.
In other tales, Vasari tells us how Leonardo, while he was working for Giuliano de’ Medici in Rome, discovered an unusual lizard and promptly
made some wings of the scales of other lizards and fastened them on its back with a mixture of quicksilver, so that they trembled when it walked; and having made for it eyes, horns, and a beard, he tamed it and kept it in a box.
For Vasari, these stories show Leonardo’s “marvelous and divine” mind, but they could also be interpreted as showing the instrumental way in which Leonardo thought about nature, as a resource to expand human knowledge and control the environment.
His contemporaries clearly thought there was something different about Leonardo and his interest in nature. Does this make him a kind of pre-modern environmentalist?
Western environmentalism (and before it, preservationism) is often understood to have become possible when nature had been subdued by technology. With urbanisation and development of a middle class, more people could feel sentimental about nature.
Although he was raised in the countryside, Leonardo spent most of his everyday adult life in major European towns in the company of princes and kings. He was no longer concerned directly with the need to cut down wood for warmth or kill animals for food. We could say, then, that he could afford to be more sentimental about nature.
Certainly his exquisite drawings suggest a particular depth of feeling, attunement and sensitivity to the natural world. And yet it seems that preservation of nature was not on Leonardo’s mind.
He had not witnessed the speed and scale of devastation of the natural world wrought by humanity with the onset of industrialisation. Instead, he understood destruction as part of the cycle of nature. If, as he wrote, nature “seeks to lose its life, desiring only continual reproduction”, there was nothing to be protected, for annihilation and creation went hand in hand.
On the 500th anniversary of his death, this series brings together scholars from different disciplines to re-examine the work, legacy and myth of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the human body. His disdain for painters who did not bother to learn anatomy was barely concealed in his criticisms of those who “draw their nude figures looking like wood, devoid of grace; so that you would think you were looking at a sack of walnuts rather than the human form”.
His bodies envisioned something very different – living mechanics – combining ideas that he explored across many fields of investigation, including animal and human dissections.
In doing so, he anticipated many questions that now preoccupy modern scientists, from the mechanics of the human body to the possibility of a mechanical body for humans.
Leonardo was born the illegitimate son of a notary and a peasant woman. He did not attend a university and had a rather haphazard and informal education. His knowledge of the human body was self-taught and largely experiential.
Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with an explosion of ideas, in treatises, sketches and jottings. One note mentioned the following:
Have Avicenna’s work on useful inventions translated; spectacles with the case, steel and fork and…., charcoal, boards, and paper, and chalk and white, and wax;…. …. for glass, a saw for bones with fine teeth, a chisel, inkstand …….. three herbs, and Agnolo Benedetto. Get a skull, nut,— mustard.
In this jumble of thoughts, we see Leonardo’s interest in the body, one he would explore through dissection. Perhaps his most famous dissection was that of a man who claimed to be over 100 years old, at the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence in 1506.
Leonardo had chatted to this man on the night he passed away: “And this old man told me, a few hours before his death, that he was over a hundred years old and he was conscious of no bodily failure, apart from weakness.” After he had died, Leonardo proceeded to probe the man’s corpse.
Leonardo’s anatomical drawings show exploded and multiple views, unusual for his time but similar to modern mechanical drawings and descriptive geometry.
As he wrote: “If you wish thoroughly to know the parts of man, anatomically, you – or your eye – require to see it from different aspects, considering it from below and from above and from its sides, turning it about and seeking the origin of each member.”
Leonardo was thinking outside the box. His approach connects anatomy to engineering.
His interest in machinery linked to his fascination with motion. His drawings vividly illustrate how components of machines, animals and humans are designed to move, and how motion and forces are transferred from one component to another.
Strong analogies are formed between mechanical and biological parts, such as the role of ropes and cords, and sinews and tendons.
Leonardo was fascinated by the change of form over time, whether in the processes of nature or the gradual disintegration of the human body. He found the 100 year-old man’s artery, for instance: “to be dry, shrunk and withered.”
Alongside this autopsy, he recorded another dissection: “of a child two years old, in which I found everything the opposite that of the old man”.
Leonardo also had a lifelong interest in depicting decrepitude and the grotesque in human form. In his work, we see the contrast between robust mechanical forms and ageing bodies.
With his designs for various forms of automata – machines that operate alone by following predetermined instructions for movement – some of which witnesses suggest he brought to life, Leonardo moves from the human body, which is subject to weakness and ageing, to the wholly mechanical body.
The mechanical knight, for example, that he sketched in the Forster notebooks appears to have been designed from clockwork and geared mechanisms. It could move its arms, hands and legs, and turn its head.
Leonardo’s interest in automata in a human form and replicating human bodily movement foreshadow ideas present in modern robotics.
Through Leonardo’s exploration of the human body, we see his fascination with engineering, motion, anatomy and ageing, topics that still preoccupy us scientifically today.
After World War II, evidence was given at the Nuremberg Trials of reprehensible research carried out on humans. This includes subjects being frozen, infected with tuberculosis, or having limbs amputated.
At the beginning of World War II, Nazi leadership saw medical and pharmaceutical research as a front-line tool to contribute to the war effort and reduce the impact of injury, disease and epidemics on troops.
Nazi leaders believed concentration camps were a source of “inferior beings” and “degenerates” who could (and should) be used as research subjects.
At first, the crimes were carried out via carbon monoxide poisoning.
In 1941, a second phase was launched: so-called “discrete euthanasia” via a lethal injection of drugs such as opiates and scopolamine (anti-neausea medication), or the use of low-doses of barbiturates to cause terminal pneumonia.
These techniques were combined with food rations and turning off the hospital heating during winter.
These euthanasia programmes led to what amounted to psychiatric genocide, with the murder of more than 250,000 patients. This is possibly the most heinous criminal act in the history of medicine.
Experimenting with healthy subjects
Medical experimentation became another tool of political power and social control, over both sick people from the T4 Program, as well as healthy people.
Those in good health were recruited in the concentration camps of ostracised ethnic or social groups such as Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and homosexuals.
A number of experiments were undertaken, including the study of:
the effect of sulfonamides (antibiotics) on induced gas gangrene (Ravensbrück)
the use of the toxic chemical formalin for female sterilisation (Auschwitz-Birkenau)
the use of vaccines and other drugs to prevent or treat people intentionally infected with malaria (Dachau)
the effects of methamphetamine in extreme exercise (Sachsenhausen)
the anaesthetic properties of hexobarbital (a barbiturate derivative) and chloral hydrate (a sedative) in amputations (Buchenwald)
the use of barbiturates and high doses of mescaline (a hallucinogenic drug) in “brainwashing” studies (Auschwitz and Dachau).
Faced with all this evidence, how it is possible that up to 45% of German doctors joined the Nazi party? No other profession reached these figures of political affiliation.
What were the reasons and circumstances that led to these perverse abuses?
The banality of evil in medicine
The answer is difficult. Many doctors argued that regulations were designed for the benefit of the nation and not the patient. They invoked such misleading concepts as “force majeure” or “sacred mission”.
Some believed everything was justified by science, even the inhumane experiments carried out in the camps, while others considered themselves patriots and their actions were justified by the needs of wartime.
Some were followers of the perverse Nazi ethos and others, the more ambitious, became involved in these activities as a means of promoting their professional and academic careers.
Lastly, avoiding association with the Nazi apparatus may have been difficult in a health sector where fear had become a system of social pressure and control.
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, in his book Purity of Blood, defines this type of motivation very well:
… although all men are capable of good and evil, the worst are always those who, when they administer evil, do so on the authority of others or on the pretext of carrying out orders.
However, as has happened in many moments of history, sometimes tragedies bring positive posthumous effects.
After the trial of the Nazi doctors, the first international code of ethics for research with human beings was enacted, the Nuremberg Code, under the Hippocratic precept “primun non nocere”. This code has had immense influence on human rights and bioethics.
Today’s it’s tin, a chemical that has little use by itself, but mix it with other elements and it takes on a whole new life.
Mention tin and most people would think of the typical tin can, used to preserve foods you store in your cupboards. Tin is used here to help protect the can against corrosion (although not all cans today contain tin).
Tin – chemical symbol Sn with an atomic number 50 on the periodic table – is soft and silvery in colour, with a melting point of only 232℃. At first sight it doesn’t seem to be a promising prospect for making anything.
Somehow, humans discovered that adding controlled amounts of tin to copper produced a splendid, golden-yellow alloy we call bronze.
I first became interested in bronze during my final year undergraduate research project in 1978. That interest continues today – I’m working with colleagues in Thailand to reverse-engineer the technologies used to make ancient Thai bronze bangles.
The first known tin bronzes seem to have appeared in the Caucasus region of Eurasia in about 5800 to 4600 BCE. That these very scarce early examples of tin bronze may have been accidentally made from rather rare ores that naturally contained both copper and tin simultaneously.
There is abundant evidence that by about 3000 BCE, tin bronzes were being made in the Aegean and Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran) by deliberately alloying tin and copper, with the ores being obtained from separate sources.
Clearly, a series of somewhat unlikely events had to occur before this could be the norm.
An accidental melt would have to have been made from suitable minerals containing oxides of tin and copper. The resulting metal would have to be recognised to have desirable properties, such as hardness, colour and toughness, such that superior weapons or ornaments could be produced.
Craftspeople would then have had to be organised enough to be able to work out how to repeat this smelting process to create artefacts such as swords, axe heads, bowls and bangles.
Trading networks then had to be established to bring the comparatively rare tin from faraway places, such as Afghanistan or Cornwall in Britain’s southwest, to any foundry. The metallurgical craft would have to be passed on to other practitioners, probably by oral means.
The spread of bronze
The trick of deliberately adding tin to copper then spread throughout the Old World, reaching Western Europe by about 2800 BCE, Egypt by 2200 BCE, the populous North China Plain by 2200 BCE, China’s Yunnan province by about 1400 BCE, Thailand by about 1100 BCE, and southern India by 1000 BC (if not a century or two earlier).
This has led to some robust discussion among archaeometallurgists on whether the special knowledge of tin’s useful attributes spread from a single founding location in the Middle East, or whether it had been repeatedly independently developed by indigenous craftspeople.
In the case of Thailand and Cambodia, arguments have been raised for several scenarios: that the technology was independently developed, that it was brought south from China (or maybe the reverse, exported from northeast Thailand to China), or that it was imported from Bengal.
With China, some local scholars have favoured the view for independent local discovery of tin bronze, although it the balance of evidence suggests that the knowledge was transmitted by horseriding visitors from West Asia.
Tin was also mined in precolonial times in Southern Africa, and some bronze artefacts – such as pieces of metal sheet or ingots – have been recovered at old metalworking sites there.
The available evidence for this region suggests the technology for producing and working iron, copper and bronze appeared contemporaneously at locations in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning about 500 BCE in the north and reaching South Africa in about 300 CE.
How did the metallurgical knowledge get to Southern Africa? Was it an indigenous discovery of the Bantu of East Africa that was then carried with them on their migrations, or was the skill transmitted southwards from the Middle East, and if so by who and how?
As in the case of Asia, interpretation of these issues can be coloured by modern political sensibilities. The question of the source of the metalworking skills that produced the beautiful copper and gold ornaments of the ancient city of Mapungubwe in South Africa, for example, has still not been settled.
Bronze in the Americas
The ancient cultures of the Americas also developed sophisticated skills for processing precious metals, copper and tin.
They were able to manufacture bronze artefacts such as rings, pendants, body ornaments, ornamental tweezers, sheet metal breastplates, large discs, ornamental shields and especially bells, by casting, albeit only from about 1000 CE in South America and then soon afterwards in western Mexico.
In the case of Mesoamerica, the knowledge of bronze was believed to have been carried north from Peru and Ecuador to Mexico by maritime traders.
Clearly, the ancient world, both Old and New, was well connected by lengthy trade routes along which ideas (and in many cases tin) flowed.
The mix of tin
The transmission of the technology can also be followed by paying attention to specific aspects of the physical metallurgy involved.
When more than about 15% tin by mass is added to the copper, the resulting alloy becomes rather brittle in its cast form, even if it still has a wonderfully warm golden yellow colour.
Somebody, somewhere, made the remarkable discovery that if such a casting is rapidly quenched from red heat into water (or better, brine), it becomes softer and relatively more ductile and workable.
The quenching heat treatment leaves a very characteristic needle-like microstructure (known as martensite) in the artefact that can be detected by a microscope. This tells an archaeologist that the part has been manufactured by a comparatively complex process, rather than merely cast.
When the tin content is less than about 15%, no martensite forms and nothing remarkable happens on quenching.
The result obtained when heat-treating a high-tin bronze is counterintuitive because, when iron is treated this way, it becomes hard and brittle. The trick to make the bronze tough is so specific that it is most likely this knowledge was transmitted from person to person.
Its transfer across the Old World would have required knowledgeable individuals travelling significant distance to foreign climes. The appearance of these artefacts at far-flung locations across Eurasia and Africa is another sign of ancient globalisation.
An extra element
There is one more trick that appears in the ancient bronzes, although this one might have been independently discovered at more than one location.
Some time in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age (around 500 BCE), craftspeople began to add lead to their tin bronze castings. This gives the molten metal extra fluidity, allowing it to flow into fine detail in a mould so that castings with fine details and embossed figures can be made.
As an element, lead is not as shiny or attractive as tin; it is much denser and is found in quite different ores such as galena (lead sulfide). The earliest known cast bronzes with significant controlled additions of lead appear to be from China (500 BCE to 200 CE). Once again, it was clearly a deliberate innovation, and once again it spread rapidly all over Eurasia.
As more sites such as the ones in eastern Thailand are excavated, and as the database of alloy compositions and dates increases, it will become possible to cast more light on ancient routes of trade, migration and tech transfer.
The presence and usage of tin at these sites will act as a kind of metallurgical DNA, an indicator for ancient cultural and human exchanges.
If you’re an academic researcher working with a particular element from the periodic table and have an interesting story to tell then why not get in touch.
By now, most of us would know that 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage along the East Coast of Australia. The federal government has allocated $48.7 million to commemorate the occasion, with a replica of Cook’s HMB Endeavour to circumnavigate the country.
But at the time of the voyage, Indigenous Australians often travelled great distances too, with most of those journeys being unrecorded. One that was, however, was the journey of Weitchymumble, a man of the Wati Wati (Wadi Wadi) from the Murray River around Swan Hill who travelled by foot across the dry regions of northwest Victoria around 200 kilometres to Lake Hindmarsh and back. He endured extreme heat, food shortages and exhaustion during this trek.
Back in 1877, Peter Beveridge, a squatter on the Murray River, published an article detailing Weitchymumble’s journey in the Ballarat Star. It had been told to him by Turrangin, a senior elder of the Wati Wati, who was Weitchymumble’s great-grandson.
We don’t know exactly when this happened, but Turrangin did tell us a little about the timing (Beveridge included words in the Wati Wati language in brackets):
When my cokernew (grandfather) was but a very small boy, long before the turrawil ngurtangies (white devils) came with their numberless stock to overrun the country, and drive away the teeming game, from whence the Woortongies (aborigines) drew their food supply […] his father, then quite a young man, was deputed by the tribe to accompany the Ngalloo Watow to the far Wimmera on tribal business.
The Ngalloo Watow was described by Beveridge as a “postman”, who carried news and conducted barters, able to travel “with impunity”.
At the time of the journey Turrangin’s grandfather was perhaps aged 10. Since Turrangin was a senior elder when he told the story to Beveridge in the 1850s, he might have been born around 1810. His grandfather might then have been a boy around 1770, the same time as Cook’s journey.
A journey through a land of plenty
Weitchymumble’s name means “welcome swallow”. The late Luise Hercus, a linguist who recorded many Indigenous languages, heard this word 50 years ago spoken by Mrs Jackson Stuart, one of the last to speak the Werkaya (Wimmera) language as a mother tongue. Hercus spelled it “wity-wity-mambel”.
We don’t know what the business of Weitchymumble’s trip with the Ngalloo Watow was, but it started in the spring, “the season of peetchen-peetchen (flowers), when the whole country was glowing with bloom”. They reached Lake Hindmarsh after “a long weary tramp of many days”.
After a bath and meal of wallup (sleeping lizard), they were spotted by scouts of the Wimmera tribe, who:
fraternised after the fashion of the Aborigines prior to the advent of European customs; […] they walked up to the fire, squatted down by its side without saying one word, until the time (which was considerable) had expired which Australian savage etiquette demands on these occasions. After that, however, they talked fast enough […]
Returning from Lake Hindmarsh in heat described as having “the fervency of a wean chirrick (a reed bed on fire)”, soon they had run short of water and food when they came upon the nest of a lowan, or Mallee Fowl. Lowan is one of the few words from an Indigenous Victorian language borrowed into English.
In the Lowan’s nest, they found “politulu murnangin mirk” (eggs to the number of the fingers on both hands). The Ngalloo Watow made fire “by rubbing a narrow lath-like piece of saltbush across a sun crack in a pine log” then set the eggs on the sand until they simmered, stirring them with a thin twig, through an opening at the top end. When cooked there was a rich yellow paste of yolk and white mixed, the taste was “talko” (good).
But, within a few days, they were again short of food when they saw a sleeping “little old man” threatened by a mindi (large snake). Weitchymumble immediately dashed, grabbed the snake, rescued the old man from it, cut off the snake’s head and then collapsed from exhaustion.
Seeing Weitchymumble lying, the old man exclaimed “”Niniwoor wortongie birra. Yetty tumla coorrongendoo. Ka ki nginma. Boorm.” (Ah, the young man is dead. I shall cry very much. Come here you. Quickly.) These words are the longest single piece of continuous written text in this language.
Weitchymumble was carried into a large conical stone, where the old man gave him a special drink and he revived. The old man turned out to be the Ngowdenout, the “spirit of the Mallee”. As Beveridge wrote: “He is both good and bad by turns […] all-seeing, all-powerful, and unvulnerable to everything earthly.”
Because Weitchymumble had acted to save the old man, the Ngowdenout was good to both the travellers, providing them with food and then when they were sleeping, disappearing. When they woke, the stone was nowhere to be seen but a clear path for them to return home had been marked out.
Beveridge concludes the story by noting that “the story of the Ngowdenout and his coorongandoo muckie loondhal (big stone house) is as fresh in the memory of the Watty Watty tribe as it was the day after Weitchymumble and his companion had related it”.
While the Ngowdenout is perhaps a mythical entity, at the core of this story is a real journey. It tells of a land of plenty, of Indigenous tribes meeting and interacting in their own customs’ manners, and of ways of life, like the method of cooking eggs. Such journeys would have happened regularly, but this is the only one from Victoria recorded in such detail.
Along with the Cook voyage, then, in 2020 let’s honour Weitchymumble’s journey and the people of the inland.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In an archive in regional France, the story of a Canadian First Nations woman emerges from an old manuscript written by nuns documenting the history of their convent.
Antoinette de Saint-Étienne was of the Mi’kmaw people, whose land spanned northeastern areas of what is now Canada and the US. In the early 17th century, the fates of this First Nations woman and the nuns in a provincial French convent became unexpectedly intertwined.
Antoinette was born in Acadia, a fledgling French settlement in Canada, but she would one day sing for a queen in Paris and become a source of pride for the nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Beaumont-lès-Tours, as an unusual convert to the Catholic faith.
An ‘exotic child’
Antoinette was born in the 1620s, a time when the French sought to explore the rich resources of fur in the region and Christianise the local people.
Her parents were a Mi’kmaw woman, who is not named in the nuns’ chronicle, and a French Protestant man, Charles de Saint-Étienne de la Tour. He had arrived in Acadia as an adolescent and quickly learned to live among the local people. In 1631, he was appointed governor.
The Mi’kmaw traditionally moved seasonally across their lands, their lifestyle strongly oriented around the maritime coasts. Their territories were among the first with which Europeans made contact in the region. Although Antoinette had been baptised by Capuchin missionaries in Acadia, the nuns’ chronicle referred to the young girl as a “little savage”.
By 1632, it seems Antoinette’s mother had died, for Saint-Étienne travelled to France with two of their three daughters. The girls were left in the care of nobleman Charles de Razilly, whose brother Saint-Étienne knew from Acadia.
Antoinette, then about five or six, was initially given to a Protestant woman named Madame de Saint-Hilaire, but Razilly had written about his young charges to his sister Louise, a nun at Beaumont. The nuns noted that Antoinette’s carer was “very zealous about her religion”.
This mattered. Protestants and Catholics were no longer at war by the 17th century, but the spiritual affiliation of children had become a new battleground between Christian denominations. The nuns wanted this exotic child to be raised a Catholic.
Louise de Razilly’s campaign to have the child moved to the convent’s care succeeded. In 1636, Antoinette was placed at Beaumont, “to render her capable of religious life, if it were possible”.
Having Antoinette at Beaumont was a double victory for the nuns. Her sister had been taken into the Ursulines convent in Tours, a relatively new order established in 1622.
At about the same time, so too was a novice who is best known today as Saint Marie de l’Incarnation, who went on to lead other Ursuline sisters to teach among the Indigenous people of Quebec. The Ursulines looked like the dynamic face of a Catholic Church in renewal, attracting novices from many sectors of society.
By contrast, the long-established Benedictine Abbey of Beaumont had been taking in women from the region’s most elite families since the 11th century. Having Antoinette gave traditional Beaumont a claim to the remarkable.
At the age of about 16, Antoinette asked to be formally admitted to Beaumont as a novice. The community voted its approval, and from this point on, she was no longer referred to as a “savage”. Instead, Antoinette became the “Canadian novice”.
Some years later, a passing father of the Cordeliers order attended a service at Beaumont and heard Antoinette sing. As the chronicle tells it, he found this girl’s voice “flawlessly good”, returning several more times to confirm his discovery. Upon his return to Paris, he went to inform the French queen and regent, Anne of Austria.
The queen announced that she wished to hear the voice for herself, and Antoinette was duly brought up to Paris. There, she was installed in the Benedictine Royal Abbey of Val-de-Grâce, then being built by the queen. In June 1644, Anne attended a service in order to hear Antoinette sing.
The queen declared that Antoinette’s voice was indeed beautiful “but without training” and arranged for a tutor. Antoinette was expected to remain in Val-de-Grâce and take vows as a professed nun there.
However, after eight months, she requested a transfer. According to the chronicle, she found the austerity of Val-de-Grâce too much to bear and received the queen’s consent to return to the more moderate regime of Beaumont in February 1645.
This represents one of few moments of autonomy for Antoinette in the chronicle’s account — one that reflected well on the abbey. The severity of Val-de-Grâce’s lifestyle was renowned and attracted many women. Here, though, Beaumont’s adoption of a less extreme path attracted Antoinette back to them, and in 1646, she took her vows there.
The journey of a First Nations woman
Antoinette de Saint-Étienne went on a number of journeys in her lifetime – geographical and spiritual as well as textual.
She featured in the chronicle’s narrative because it was a story of triumph for the community. In their eyes, they had saved her from a life of savagery, from Protestantism, and from the fashionable but excessive religious regime at Val-de-Grâce.
Antoinette only appears in one other place in the chronicle, in a list of nuns participating in a procession. But this makes sense from the community’s perspective. As she became a fully professed member of the community, Antoinette slips away from view.
She had become one of them, and as such, was no longer a point of exception to be documented in the chronicle. Alongside her enclosed sisters, the Mi’kmaw woman with the remarkable voice faded into the silences of history.
The Vikings are more popular than ever. TV shows such as Last Kingdom and Vikings have added dramatic license to particular historical accounts, while new archaeological finds are guaranteed to make headlines. Recent coverage includes the discovery of a new Viking ship burial, and the possibility of Viking women participating in warfare. But when we talk about the Vikings we often repeat familiar narratives of warriors, ships and battles. Certain activities and spaces – often those traditionally associated with men — are seen as shaping the course of history. The home – traditionally associated with women – is seen as mundane and politically insignificant.
But the Viking house was not an apolitical, neutral space. It was a primary stage for legitimising hierarchies in which some people were enslaved and left to dwell with cattle in the byre, while others presided in a high seat. It was a foreign world – we have rare, but repeated evidence for infants being buried by hearths, magical artefacts placed by doorways, and women lifted over thresholds so they could speak with the dead.
I want to radically shift our approach to this pivotal period of European history. What happens if we see the Viking Age from the point of view of the house?
Houses as political spaces
For all their visibility in pop culture, everyday life for the Vikings is rarely seen, and settlements are often approached as familiar, harmonious — and perhaps a bit trivial. Now a wave of research is raising new questions about the everyday social and ritual lives of the Vikings.
The Viking household, while varied, did not conform to the idealised nuclear family of Western modernity. The largest households could be composed of a couple, concubines, subordinates, farmhands and warriors, animals, itinerant workers, guests, and a range of “mine, yours, and our” children. Although they lived under one roof, everyday tasks and the architecture itself created thresholds between groups and made people different from each other.
“Slavery” is a complex institution, and a universal definition is difficult. But there was an unfree population among the Viking household (“thralls”) who had no legal rights, whose children were owned by the household leaders, who it was not a crime to kill, and who could be sexually exploited by their owners.
Scholars have argued that the thralls dwelled in an extra room with a hearth in the byre (cowshed) end of the longhouse, spatially and socially belonging with the animals. Indeed, one of the known thrall names is Fjosnir, “of the byre”.
In these ways and more, Viking houses generated contrasts between owners, free people and thralls – and such differences formed Viking society.
Dwelling with the dead
The Viking house was not exclusively the domain of the living. In the sagas of the Icelanders, we encounter the malicious man Hrapp. On his deathbed, Hrapp demands to be buried in the doorway to the fire hall: “Have me placed in the ground upright, so I’ll be able to keep a watchful eye over my home.” The agency of the dead did not necessarily dissipate at death and the sagas are full of tales of people receiving prophecy from the dead, the dead singing in burial mounds, or haunting their old houses.
Archaeological material supports the idea that the dead had a presence in Iron and Viking Age houses. Throughout the first millennium, human bones were sometimes embedded within the house, including infants buried in hearths and postholes. It must have been meaningful for people to place body parts of their dead under the threshold or in the postholes of the longhouse, or to inter the dead in the house when they abandoned the settlement.
There is a clear ambiguity to dwelling with the dead. On the one hand, people sometimes kept the dead close, embedding them in the living space. Infants and ancestors may have helped protect the house, anchor it in local histories or empower its residents. On the other hand, Hrapp’s story and other sources suggest that the dead could be objects of anxiety. If they became malevolent, they could threaten the household – and so the threshold to their world needed to be controlled.
Portals to the otherworld
Different parts of the house likely served as points of contact between living and dead, perhaps also among the past, present and future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the foremost was the actual threshold to the house.
Two written sources tell the narrative of a woman being lifted over a door to see into a different realm. One is an eyewitness account of a ship burial on the Volga River, where a slave woman is lifted above a freestanding portal (much like a doorframe). This allows her to speak with the dead chieftain. The other is an obscure text about a ritual gone wrong, where the lady of the house asks to be lifted “over hinges and door-beams, to see if she can save the sacrifice” — perhaps to see into another realm or into the future. The door could thus be a portal to other powers and beings. Perhaps for this reason, freestanding portals were sometimes erected at Viking burial grounds.
Archaeologists also find things – such as pots, knives, and iron rings – buried in or near doorways. Perhaps these objects guarded the house from powers and beings from outside. And the depositing of artefacts simultaneously forged and embedded a link between people’s daily lives and their houses. It is even possible that artefacts would come with new inhabitants from older houses, for example when they were married. These would be placed in doorways or postholes to empower the house and tie people and houses together across time and space.
Viewing the Viking Age from the house
Taking everyday life seriously opens up new possibilities to understand how and where history happens: it is not only on the battlefield. Architecture and the house mirror, as well as shape, social and spatial order. In Viking Age Norway, people were made to be different – owners and thralls, men and women, with different kinds of power and different things to fear or hope – through byres and high seats, feasts and rituals, doorways and deposited items.
Viking houses were spaces of politics, and also social worlds that were very different from our own. When the Vikings engaged with the wider world through raids, trade, and settlement, their understanding of the world was anchored in their everyday experience in the home from childhood onwards. The time is ripe to broaden the topics we associate with the Viking Age, and to discuss the unfamiliarity and strangeness, as well as the role of inequality, in this pivotal period of European history.