Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Arachnophagic Antics of the Learned Lady

                Of all the remarkable women who lived in the seventeenth century, the most remarkable of them all must surely be Anna Maria van Schurman, who was born in Cologne on November 5th 1607.  Fleeing from religious persecution, the van Schurman family moved to Utrecht, in the Netherlands, when Anna Maria was only three years old. Her father, Frederik, taught his children at home, as was normal for the elite of that time, and one day in 1618, he was tutoring his sons Hendrck and Johan in their Latin grammar when he asked them a question which they were unable to answer. However, young Anna Maria was in the same room and was supposed to be learning French but she was able to answer her father’s question. Frederik decided at that moment that his daughter would also learn Latin, which was an almost unprecedented subject for a girl at the time. 

Anna Maria van Schurman

Latin was the language of male power in Europe and an essential part of the education of learned gentlemen, but girls were excluded from a classical education – why on earth would girls need one, after all? However, Anna Maria excelled at languages (she was fluent in fourteen, including Latin, Greek, German, French, Arabic and Ethiopian), and by learning Latin she was able to become the first European woman to obtain a university education and to be awarded a degree, and although she attended lectures and took part in debates and disputations, she was still obliged to sit behind a curtain, out of the view of the male students. She went on to become one of the foremost intellectuals of her age, she was an artist, poet, theologian and author, and no library in Europe was complete without a least one copy of her works. 

Anna Maria van Schurman

There was also something else that was different about Anna Maria – she liked to eat spiders. She ate them like nuts, saying that that was how they tasted to her and excused her propensity by saying she had been born under the sign of Scorpio. The great German entomologist August Johann Rösel described a German philosopher who was also fond of the odd spider or two, although he preferred to spread them on bread like butter, and Pierre André Latreille, ‘The Prince of Entomologists’, noted that the renowned French astronomer, Jérôme Lalande, was equally fond of spider-eating. 

A snack, anyone? Maybe just a leg, perhaps?

Most people will, I feel confident in saying, find even the notion of eating spiders disgusting, let alone the act itself, as spiders are one of those creepy-crawlies that reduce many people to the screaming heebie-jeebies. In the west, we don’t tend to include insects on our list of food groups, which is strange when you think about as we unreservedly esteem such arthropods as lobster, prawns, shrimps and crabs, which are, when it comes down to it, simply marine insects.
In literature, the most famous example of insect eating occurs in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), where Dr Seward records Renfield’s descent into madness, as he starts by collecting spiders in his room, then collecting flies on which to feed them, before starting to eat them himself, moving on to birds and then fixing his eyes on a kitten. His zoophagous mania is a sure sign that he has hopelessly lost his mind, it is so obviously a mad thing to do - we just don’t eat spiders or flies. 

Odilon Redon - The Spider

Of course, the other great zoophage in popular culture is that insatiable old lady who consumes a host of increasing larger creatures in the song by Alan Mills and Rose Bonne I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, although why she swallows a horse after swallowing a cow I’ve never worked out to my own satisfaction – I see that a spider would eat the fly, the bird would eat the spider and so on, but why the cow to eat a goat and why a horse (surely not much bigger than your average cow, and a vegetarian to boot)? This is what happens when you start analysing nonsense songs. 

Anyway, flies are better suited to be monkey food, as seen in Ben Jonson’s play The Staple of News, where the character Almanac says of Pennyboy that he, 
Sweeps down no cobwebs here, 
But sells them for cut fingers; and the spiders, 
As creatures rear'd of dust, and cost him nothing, 
To fat old ladies monkeys.” 

August Johann Rosel - Spiders Webs

The use of cobwebs, or spiders webs, as an antiseptic for cut fingers and so on, has a long history in folk medicine; Shakespeare mentions it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom says to the character Cobweb, 

I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you.” 

S F Gray - Supplement to the Pharmocopoeia - 1836

Even as late as 1836, cobwebs are listed as a styptic if used externally in the Supplement to the Pharmocopoeia by Samuel Gray, and as a cure for the ague if taken internally; cobweb pills were in common use for ague (fever, pyrexia), well into Victorian times. Spiders’ web is rich in vitamin K, which assists in the clotting of blood. 

Cobweb - entry in Gray's Supplement - 1836

Cob’ and ‘cop’ are old words for a spider, found in such formations as the Anglo-Saxon áttorcoppa – the word for a poisonous spider, which remains in use in the dialect words for a spider addercop and attercop, and spincoppe; in Welsh it is adyrgop and in Danish it is eddergop.

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