The Elizabeths Elemental Historians

For the most part, working professional historians bring to their sources a fundamentally forensic sensibility: they tend to treat their archival scraps like so many clues, which, rightly read, permit the reconstruction of events and persons. There is much to be said for this program, which works pretty well. But it does have its limits. For instance, certain old tidbits afford a queer intimacy with the past that seems to exceed their evidentiary utility. A death mask may display, trapped in white plaster, a single hair once belonging to the human whose visage we contemplate. The hair is of severely limited utility to a practicing historian, yet it rather seethes with an urgent presencing of the past — and that clearly has something to do with the work of history. So what’s to be done? In this excerpt from a larger project, the imaginative historian of Chinese science Carla Nappi permits a dreamscape to rise from four archival fragments — four oblique references to women named “Elizabeth” who lived on the watershed of the sixteenth-to-seventeenth century, and whose entire existence survives only in four fleeting references within a vast archive of “consultation notes” kept by a pair of London-based astrologer-healers of the Elizabethan period (see more here). There is very little to go on, but the women’s names, and the passing evocations of their bodily ailments, has piqued in Nappi an archival reverie. They went to a conjurer to be healed, and that fact is all that is left of them, really. But Nappi conjures them back, as homeopathic wise-women, empowered to enact their own resurrections.
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

April 27, 2017

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Elizabeth Sanders, Historian of Liquids

Elizabeth Sanders got ready for dinner. She walked into her kitchen, opened the fridge, and took things off shelves. Half a loaf of salty bread. A tupperware of leftover cheesecake. Cooked rice. A marshmallow. She mixed up the soft things and spooned them over the rice and chopped the marshmallow and sprinkled that on top and brought the bowl to the table with a hunk of the bread and sat down and started eating.

Elizabeth ate only white things, and she ate them only very much alone and very late at night. Her cupboards were full of sugar and crackers and cauliflower and peeled potatoes and garlic and parsnips and feta and powdered doughnuts and beans and meringue.

She was a historian of liquids. There were no solid objects in her stories: hers was instead a fluid archive and her craft was a form of digestion. She ate slowly and silently, her white supper creating a kind of internal canvas while she arranged the documents she would need for the following day’s work into plump little piles. While she chewed, she chose texts from among those piles and dried some in the oven until they were brittle enough to crumble easily, and soaked others in bowls of milk and spirits until they turned pulpy and began to fall apart. She munched and swallowed and ground up the dried texts with a mortar and pestle and broke the pulpy bits up with a fork and she tucked or shoveled them into little bags before settling into bed.

Elizabeth woke in the morning, famished and eager to begin the day’s work. She kept a library of waters strewn across the shelves and tables of her house — each in a jar that was carefully marked with its conditions of collection — and she chose one from the windowsill and took it to her cupboard. She poured out some of the water, opened one of the baggies she had prepared the night before, stirred its contents into the cup, and drank it down.

Reading, for Elizabeth, was a consuming of language and all that it carried. She brought history inside of her mouth, her throat and chest, her stomach and intestines. Elizabeth would roll the text across her palate, tonguing the grit of the words against her front teeth to taste ink and script. Was this a printed text? (She tended to sip those thin-flowing documents through a straw.) She might catch the rough edges of a serifed font on her lips or trap a quick “&” or “;” between her teeth. She unknotted the letters of manuscript pages without using her fingers. (It made quite a party trick. Let other girls have their cherry stems.) Sometimes she would skim the gold from an illuminated letter off the surface and brush it against her mouth as a kind of lipstick. Thicker mouthfuls she slurped like soup, stopping to pull the odd bone or bit of skin that might have reconstituted itself in the cup.

Elizabeth had a particular interest in Chinese documents: she liked the aldehyde savor of the ink and the crunch of the words, and she would drink those documents hot, like tea, sometimes first dropping a preserved plum into the bowl. (She didn’t like her stories too sweet.) She had once begun a history of rice wine, dissolving early accounts of the liquor in large bowls of water and drinking them down in large gulps, but the process made her so tipsy she never managed to finish it.

By the time the text reached her gullet, it would resolve itself back into words that took on voices in her throat. If you sat next to Elizabeth while this was happening, she might sound like she was producing birdsong, or speaking in tongues, or chanting – all without opening her mouth. She had no way of putting the words in order after she drank them: they simply flowed from her, rushing turbulent and chaotic scraping pushing past each other to get out out out, and as each pounded or whispered its own name it also echoed, in Elizabeth’s voice, I am here.

Once they were all out, Elizabeth would take a deep breath and drink them all back in. Now they moved into her lungs, they coated the tiny little walls of the tiny little sacs there, and there in their intimacies they found their mates and formed themselves back into sentences, slowly seeping, single-file, into Elizabeth’s blood.

She sweated and oozed out her histories. And so she used special paper that would render them in saliva or tears or blood. Once finished, she gathered up the pages and took them outside and fed them to the river, where they floated downstream as the water drank them in and they muddled with the others she had offered to it before.

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Elizabeth Woodfall, Historian of Wind

Elizabeth Woodfall was a historian of wind. Her histories were constantly in motion, and she created a home that facilitated her work. She kept the doors and windows open, she carved holes in the walls, she ripped apart her roofing. She hung gauze curtains in each room, and sank pinwheels into the floorboards, and scattered crumbs around to lure local birds — she didn’t like to keep anything caged — and she would disappear for hours, on blustery days, with kites she had made from silk and straw.

When working on a project, Elizabeth also read the wind in powders and particles. After crumbling a document into dust, she would cup it in her hands and take it outside. When the wind caught the dust, it quickly powdered Elizabeth’s skin, dulled her long hair, filled her lungs. Sometimes it would storm into her ears so that all she could hear was a rushing, or maybe a murmuring. In these moments, breathing was a kind of reading: though the particles of letters of fragments of words of sentences of documents were constantly scattered and continually in flux, Elizabeth had an uncanny sense of smell that could link them into chords and patterns, distinguishing the cold, white scents of tomb inscriptions from the sharp greens of birth records and the ambery musks of love letters. Elizabeth read her documents in scent, and she often composed her historical narratives that way as well. She kept an incense library of powders and dried saps, crushed leaves and ground seeds and bone.

Elizabeth specialized in local history. Townswomen would come to Elizabeth and ask her to tell their stories. They brought certificates of family births and marriages, genealogies and diaries. (Elizabeth would crumble these in her hands and rub and rub until her palms were slick with dust and then open her fingers and purse her lips and blow them away.) They brought the death masks of their uncles and grandmothers. (Elizabeth would walk these up long flights of stairs and stop at the top and hurl them from banisters and landings, quietly watching them shatter. She would collect as many of the shards as she could find and tie them up in a little sac and then go up the stairs once again and drop it again, over and over and over, until the bag was full of powder.) The women brought her paintings and bonnets and tiny spoons and feathered jewelry. (These Elizabeth kept in her study, sometimes licking or sniffing them for hours.) When she had covered herself in the grit and breathed in the powder and licked the cutlery and smelled the fabric until she was satisfied, Elizabeth went to her library and pinched and sifted and mixed and folded and when she was done she sealed it all up very, very carefully in a box made just for that purpose, and she waited on the weather. When the breeze was right (and sometimes it took days or weeks for that to happen), she called for her client. When that woman arrived, Elizabeth tied a scarf around the woman’s eyes and sat her down in a quiet spot behind the house and stood slightly upwind of her and opened the box and shook out its contents. After the woman had taken in her history — and sometimes there were tears, and sometimes there was giggling — she went home, and she lived her life.

On rare occasions, a woman would ask that Elizabeth sing her history instead. For this, she needed research assistants. In these cases, she paid local children to canvas the woman’s living relatives — her lovers, the baker she bought bread from, her pastor — and to return to Elizabeth with each one’s song. Sometimes they were just a few notes, but occasionally a child would sing for hours. Elizabeth listened, and wove, and shaped, and when she was ready she waited for the weather and when that was right she called the woman to her home. When that woman arrived, Elizabeth tied a scarf around the woman’s eyes and sat her down in a quiet spot behind the house and stood slightly upwind of her and opened her mouth and sang until she was finished. After the woman had taken in her history — and sometimes there was moaning, and sometimes just silence — she went home, and she lived her life.

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Elizabeth Turvey, Historian of Flame

Elizabeth Turvey was a historian of flame. She studied the history of burning and of things that burned. Elizabeth’s craft depended on the art of the scatter. As flames propagated, so did her work. She felt that her history needed to be given to, and understood by, the communities she was writing about. And so each time she finished an essay she burned up the pages, collected the char, took it to the place she had written about, mixed it with the local soil and used it to plant flowers, rosemary, grasses, or very small trees. She would return periodically to visit, and as the plants grew from the ash she glimpsed bits of her stories within them: the tracing of a vein in a leaf might map a street she studied, the shades of color in an iris bloom reflected the emotional turning of one of the women she wrote about. Sometimes she brushed the soil from the roots of a rosebush and read words there, scrawled in a cursive rhizomatic hand. (She once planted a grove of trees this way. After weeks and months and years of coming back to tend to the young seedlings, to read the pattern in their bark and branching, she came one night and she burned the grove down and never returned.)

She had been a feverish child — shivering and hot-headed — and as she grew into a woman she also grew into the heat. She began reading books about bonfires and charcoal. She burned her toast. She sometimes sat and slowly singed her own hair off. At night she had nightmares about stakes and burning and woke up screaming, or dreamed of soft flames licking her calves as she stood, tied to a post, and on those mornings she woke up panting and out of breath. (On those mornings, if you looked closely, you might see very faint smoke rising from Elizabeth’s pillow.) She didn’t make friends easily.

Hers was a slash-and-burn history, an art of conversion. She collected her sources like kindling, and remembered the wooden past of the papers she collected. She paid special attention to the grain of a page, imagining how it might catch and hold a flame. She knew which inks burned in which colors, how a lick of fire might trace a particular pattern through the particular swirls of a letter. She carefully arranged these local records according to the flammability of the pigments that languaged them, the plants that bodied them, the ground grain or bone that bound them. She could spend hours or days placing the documents just so — until at some sudden moment she set each pile alight and read its contents in smokey fingers and the play of a blaze.

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Elizabeth Rively, Historian of Buried Things

Elizabeth Rively was a historian of buried things. She was very beautiful, and very disturbed, and she was not forthcoming and she was not often invited to come forth. She collected wigs made of doghair or horsehair or wool or paper and she wore them whenever she left the house. She had a daughter once, and she kept the old baptismal gown and Easter dresses and cut them into long, thin strips and sewed them to a bonnet, and when she went out wearing that one, people knew enough to leave Elizabeth alone to her memories and her madness.

She spent many nights sneaking into the rooms of men who lived in town — mostly older men who might have been particularly unkind to their wives in her presence — and she whispered to them about silver and gold. She left scraps of notes on the floors of places she knew they frequented — places to drink or to pray — just legible enough to hint at possible treasure secreted away in hollow places in the homes of their peers. And she hid and watched and fiddled with her wig and smiled when she saw her whisper-men pick up the notes and try to decipher them. She kept a sketchpad and charcoal with her, and as she watched she drew the shapes of their mouths as they read. (She kept careful track of these, and referred to them as her “oral histories.”)

She was more comfortable with worms than people. She filled her bathtub up with soil — the bathroom sink, the pillowcases, the duvets — and she kept the creatures there, visiting them often to run her hands through great piles of their bodies. (Once she tried to fashion a wig out of them. It got messy.) These were Elizabeth’s collaborators. When she came home from her outings sprinkling the town with rumors of buried treasure and marking the results, she took her sheaves of scribbled mouths and she dug holes in her yard and she pressed the mouths into the holes and left them to decompose. (This was her archive, and she was fastidious about keeping it organized. Elizabeth had mapped the soil behind her home and knew its surfaces and depths as intimately as she knew those of her own body.) When they were ready — and she paid attention to the planets to discern this, and she listened to the whispers of her wormy assistants — she dug up her documents and fed them to the little bodies in her bath and bed. And then she crawled inside with them. And sometimes they crawled inside of her. And as she read these decaying voices through their decaying mouths through the membranes of her slowly decaying body, she came to understand what moved the men who made them, what they desired, why they were tempted by her whispers, and what that might mean for them, and for their families, and for Elizabeth. Sometimes she fell asleep, reading in this way. And when she woke up, she toweled off, and she chose a wig, and she went out and did it all over again.

She never wrote down her histories. Instead, her worms read her stories on her body as they writhed across it, and since she felt her work belonged to them she never had it translated.

Carla Nappi is Associate Professor of History and Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Studies at the University of British Columbia. She works on the histories of bodies and their translations in early modern China, lately focusing on the use of Manchu as a medium of translation across early modern Eurasia. She is the author of The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard, 2009) and a bunch of other things that you can find by browsing around her website. She also hosts two podcasts and writes short fiction.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.