Early Modern Times – goosemeat & breadfruit

Early Modern Times - goosemeat & breadfruit

Dear readers,

In the 1620 Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon famously listed three ‘conspicuous’ inventions ‘which were unknown to the ancients’ but ‘have changed the appearance and state of the whole world’: printing, gunpowder, and the compass. Bacon may have been unaware that all three were known to the Chinese for centuries preceding the early modern period in Europe, but it is doubtless the case that these inventions made a particular impact in the western context. This article by Madhvi Ramani on on Johannes Gutenberg’s hometown of Mainz highlights its importance as a medieval cathedral town to the religious uses of printing: ‘Gutenberg, as an educated and entrepreneurial patrician, would have recognised the Church’s need to update the method of replicating manuscripts, which were hand-copied by monks.’ These ‘press-ing’ demands led to Gutenberg’s mechanical printing of the Bible in 1455; according to one estimate, his printing press was the equivalent of 200 monks. If only Gutenberg could have had the monks handle the movable type, this would have been ‘monk-key’ business indeed.

While the Catholic Church made use of this new technology in Europe to disseminate Indulgences (the ‘get-out-of-Purgatory-for-a-while’ cards in the game of Catholic Monopoly), print technology enabled, of course, the rapid production and circulation of the works of Martin Luther, including his 95 Theses against Indulgences (legendarily–but not actually–nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg, as depicted above). The church, then, was hoisted on its own printing petard, as the advances in printing technology contributed to the spread of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, this town’s most famous resident inadvertently made ‘Mainz-meat’ out of Papal dominance in European Christendom. Ramani provocatively contrasts the relative permanence of print in the wake of the Gutenberg revolution with the ephemeral quality of social media and the problem of ‘fake news’, though one might suppose that Catholics would accuse them of abusing the printing press to make ‘fake pews’.

Interestingly, Ramani remarks, ‘Gutenberg’ was not his birth-name, but in fact Johannes ‘Gensfleisch’, i.e., ‘goose meat’. But unknown to all but Early Modern Times’s Department of Germanic Obscurities is the fact that his twin-sister was an innovative and lucrative baker who created a Holy Roman waffle press a decade before her brother’s famous invention. She made such a ‘mountain of dough’ that she renamed herself ‘Johanna Gluten-berg’; but the Papacy was outraged by the excess consumption of her waffles, accusing her invention of inciting the deadly sin of ‘gluten-ny’.

As for gunpowder and the compass, one of the many effects of those inventions on early modern history was in facilitating the rise of overseas European expansion and colonialism. By the late eighteenth century, the British had established a global empire of commerce; and one of the products encountered by the explorer Captain James Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks in 1768 was breadfruit on the Pacific island of Tahiti. As this recent piece of journalistic fruit by Laura Kiniry (from the Kiniry Islands?) notes, ‘both men were quickly taken by breadfruit’s potential for feeding slaves in the British West Indies, seeing that the trees were fast-growing, required little care and produced ample amounts of carb-heavy fruits.’ The naturalist, always out to make a buck (and deposit it safely in one of Banks’s accounts), ‘offered a reward to anyone successful in transporting 1,000 breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies’.

Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty certainly sought to pluck such low-hanging breadfruit, embarking in 1787 on a nearly disastrous sea-voyage to Tahiti and arriving almost two years later. After a five-month sojourn in Tahiti, Bligh set sail for the Caribbean; but mutiny broke out a month into the return voyage. Bligh and other loyal officers were placed in a longboat, while the mutineers under the command of Master’s mate Fletcher Christian sought to return and reside in Tahiti–but the Tahitians forced them to flee elsewhere (those who stayed were later captured by the British), and eventually ended up, with their Tahitian wives, on remote and uninhabited Pitcairn’s Island. Bligh was a poor commander of men but a brilliant navigator and managed to sail ‘3,618 nautical miles (6,701km) over 48 days to Timor’ in modern-day Indonesia without a single death; he went to London, was acquitted of any misconduct (albeit with a Bligh-t on his reputation), and set out on a successful return voyage to Tahiti (but Kiniry doesn’t mention the rebellion against Bligh in 1808 as an incompetent Governor of New South Wales). The Pitcairn Islanders fell out (presumably ‘pitted’ against each other, fighting over cairns) in a bloody massacre, and some of their descendants were convicted of child sexual abuse in 2004 and 2006; and as recently as 2016, a former island mayor was found guilty of downloading child pornography. The island has suffered a ‘Pit-ter’ past. But what of the original breadfruit? The mutineers tossed all the plants overboard; as my friend and former colleague Erik Liddell has quipped, in 1789, the Bounty was not a ‘quicker-picker-upper’.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Goosemeat & Breadfruit Studies Program

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