Bladder stones and harpsichords

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Every so often, a particularly colourful story or fact that you knew and thought to be true turns out to be without much foundation, or even to be an urban legend.

About thirty years ago, I heard a strange piece of music from the early eighteenth century called ‘Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille’. It was by Marin Marais, a musician at the French royal court in Versailles, and was a depiction in music of an operation for the removal of a bladder stone. These stones were quite frequent among the better off of the period, since they ate a lot of salted meat. The operation, known as a lithotomy, was a risky one – no anaesthetic, the patient starved for a few days beforehand, the surgical cut and removal of the stone done as fast as possible and the sealing of the wound with a hot iron. Many did not survive. In the 1690s, however, a new way of performing the operation was developed where the cut was much smaller and on the side of the body rather than at the front. This operation, a lateral lithotomy, was developed by a monk called Jacques Beaulieu and became very fashionable in French aristocratic circles around 1700. Marais himself is said to have undergone the operation successfully in his 60s.

According to the sleevenote of the album containing the Marais piece, Beaulieu was the original ‘Frere Jacques’ of nursery rhyme fame. I repeated this story for years, in the mode of ‘not many people know that’. More recently, alas, I discovered an article in the Journal of Urology (bedtime reading, naturally) which shows that there is not much foundation for this association, and that Beaulieu wasn’t even a real monk. What a shame!

Lots more information in an article by Dr. James L Franklin, written from a doctor’s point of view. The image of the score above is from this article.

The music is still there though, and here is a wonderfully melodramatic version of it.

– Niall Ó Ciosáin

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Cumann Staire

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At the heart of every vibrant university history community is an active history society. I should know. One of the best years of my undergrad life at Trinity (and no, it’s not that long ago) was spent as correspondence secretary of the DU History Society. To say it was like Fantasy Football would be an understatement: that year my letters and email invites just seemed to hit the right note, and we were treated to lectures from (and some great after-event chats with) a range of speakers, from Nicholas Canny to Roy Foster, via Bill Naphy and Avner Offer.

But that’s enough of my nostalgia for the days when the stress was less and the hair was fuller. Here at NUI Galway we have a very committed and highly active group of students involved in Cumann Staire, who organise an impressive range of talks, activities, and more (last year’s history month, for example) throughout the academic year. Check out their website, have a look at their Facebook page, admire the two excellent posters attached to this post, and get involved!

– Kevin O’Sullivan

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From the mouth of the whale

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I’m not really into historical novels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I don’t particularly love them or ever really let them into my reading life.

The first time I realised this I was in England, sitting amongst a group of academic colleagues, shooting the breeze in the aftermath of a reading group whose topic I can’t remember. When the talk turned to historical fiction, we slowly moved around the room (the conversation, that this – we, being historians, were perfectly happy sitting right where we were), discussing the merits of a whole raft of novels, most of which I’d never heard of, and many of which I can’t remember. (In my defence, the group included at least one historian of West Africa, a historian of the Middle East, and others working on a range of equally unusual topics, with equally exotic choices.) So I began to panic. What will I say when my turn comes? That I don’t have a favourite? That I don’t find them particularly inspiring? I couldn’t lie because my mind had drawn a blank and I couldn’t even think of a suitable answer. But could I tell the truth in the face of such admirable enthusiasm and risk bursting the bubble of a perfectly pleasant evening?

It never came to that. But neither did I ever come any closer to a favourite. And for nearly two years I lived a happy reading life, bouncing through everything from H. G. Wells to The Flame Alphabet. And then I found one. Or at least one that I love: Sjón’s brilliant novel, From the Mouth of the Whale. I came across it in the best way possible: completely by accident. I have a bit of an annual ritual, you see; buy a few new books, bring them on holidays, and make sure they’re to do with anything but history. Which, of course, only causes more stress, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll have failed to bring the list of ‘novels to read’ that you’ve collected over the year at just the time when you could do with it, because you’ve invariably left yourself too little time to decide and, well, the plane leaves tomorrow and you’re going to need something to read.

So there I was, browsing through the fiction section of Hodges Figgis, beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed by the gravity of my task. And there it sat, in the middle of one of those ‘best books of…’ displays that screams ‘we can’t think of a more obscure way to highlight some books we love, but damn it, we’ll try’. What did I know, except that I was (a) fascinated by whales; (b) enamoured by the cover; (c) on my way to Scandinavia on what the Dubs call ‘me holliers’ and could do with a book that fitted that vibe; and (d) running out of time because I had a train to catch and had – as usual – spent too long browsing and too little time making my way home?

Of course, this book is not really about whales. It has little to do with Scandinavia – Iceland is Nordic, you see. And, well, you should never judge a book by its fancy cover. But what a book! Set in seventeenth century Iceland, it follows the life of Jónas Palmason the Elder, his tribulations in exile, and his incredibly complex (and slightly odd) worldview. Along the way poltergeists are banished, Basque fishermen are murdered (brutally), and myths are demolished. But it’s the writing (and, obviously, the translation) that makes it. Not only has Sjón done his research, he manages to make us feel the history by dispensing with the rigidity of narrative and embracing the fascination with the fantastical that was at the heart of Icelandic society.

After studying this vision for a while, Jónas blinked, at which the man lowered his arm and pointed to the surface of the sea. In an instant the sea became as clear as a cool autumn evening and the boat appeared to be hanging in thin air rather than floating on water, for the ocean had grown so translucent that its bed could be seen far and wide, even to the horizon. Jónas saw now that the island was like a tapering peak; he sat not on a rock on the beach but on the edge of a precipice. Then the glassy sea began to boil, the deeps churned and now the fish came swimming with rapid flaps of their tails, from south and east, from the shallows to the shore and the trenches beyond (118-119).

A. S. Byatt makes a wonderful observation about Sjón’s work in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books:

Iceland is a place of fierce contrasts, fire and ice. It is a land where real people believe in a matter-of-fact way that our visible world is interwoven with magic–a country in which the places are known where elves live and work. I have seen marked boulders where the doors to the other world are known to be. Sjón’s great variety of figures, simultaneously very sold and shape-changing and vanishing, are Icelandic, and beyond that European. He has changed the way I see things.

Her words hit me like a tonne of bricks. Maybe that is what I’ve been missing all along. Note to self: when it comes to historical fiction, the more fantastical, the less historical, and the more about feeling, about empathy, the better? Ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far. But at least the next time I’m in a room full of historians chatting about historical fiction – one of life’s regular occurrences, you’ll agree – I’ll have something to say.

– Kevin O’Sullivan