Illuminating the weird

Heidi Herr and Elizabeth Archibald showcase some of the strangest items in the George Peabody Library

Heidi Herr walks through the stacks on the sixth floor of the George Peabody Library, occasionally stopping to run her fingertips over the spine of a book. When she reaches a shelf containing volumes on the occult, she gets a gleeful look in her eye. "This is a great place to find things for Wunderkammer," she says.

Herr, the Sheridan Libraries' outreach librarian for special collections, curates Welcome to George Peabody Library's Wunderkammer! The blog, hosted on Tumblr, began in 2012 as a way to open the library's cabinet of curiosities to those outside a small scholarly niche. "I may be wandering around the stacks and a book just speaks to me and I open it and explore inside," Herr explains. "Other times it is a way to showcase new materials." For example, Herr recently used the site to display a newly acquired "cornfield game" produced in England in the 1820s. Riffing off the 1984 horror film Children of the Corn, she photographed the game's figurines in homicidal poses and accompanied the post with a hypothetical narrative about a plot to commit "murder most foul."

The site has featured posts on odd words (one can only hope that "znees" comes back into fashion instead of "frost"), book covers like the scintillatingly titled economics volume Age Before Booty, and one-liners from burlesque joke books. "You don't want to be didactic on Tumblr—it's not the place for it," Herr says. "This is meant to bring forth levity, and I believe there is a place for humor in academic discourse."

Wunderkammer ranges from the goofy to the strange, a tone Herr admits is informed by her own sense of humor, honed in childhood. "It started early when my mom introduced me to Richard Simmons and Liberace, and then [grew from] reading tabloids at my grandmother's house. I learned at a young age to take delight in the absurd and find humor in the everyday."

Herr is not alone in her desire to illuminate the weird among Peabody's collections in the name of scholarship and a good laugh. Elizabeth Archibald is a visiting teaching professor in Humanities at the Peabody Institute. She became so enthralled by the humorous things she encountered while researching materials for her course How-to: A History of Instruction, she began her blog Ask the Past in 2013 to share them with colleagues and friends.

As its name suggests, the blog uses centuries-old how-to manuals to proffer wisdom and advice on topics as varied as how to change a diaper, how to treat baldness, and how to fart (this last one courtesy of a manual from 1530 by Erasmus, the revered Renaissance humanist and theologian.) The blog was so popular it became a book, Ask the Past: Pertinent and Impertinent Advice from Yesteryear (Hachette, 2015), and international editions launch this year.

"I spent a lot of time sifting through the collections and turning up these fascinating how-to manuals, everything from a 16th-century swimming manual to 19th-century palmistry manuals," she says. "The blog is directed by my curiosity and the curiosity of my students, and once I started the blog, the curiosity of readers, who send questions and requests from time to time."

Archibald explains that there is a long tradition of advice manuals, particularly beginning with the dissemination of print in the 16th and 17th centuries. The sheer volume of material indicates that manuals accounted for a significant amount of business for early scribes and publishers.

The books fall loosely into two categories: books of secrets that demonstrate how to overcome the laws of nature and manuals of conduct. Both offer a similar promise: buy this book and change your life. Archibald thinks that this democratic quality may have appealed to a reading public that was expanding as printing made books more accessible.

"Another interesting facet is these texts sometimes offer advice in the form of poetry or dialogue or ambitious literary formats," she says. "That, along with other features of the texts, suggests that they were a reading genre as well as a useful genre, that in some cases people were looking at these texts not exclusively for their practical value but for entertainment or delight."

She concedes that it is hard to know how seriously contemporary readers of these books would have taken the advice. When she found a late 16th-century entry explaining how to walk on water by attaching timbrels (similar to tambourines) to one's feet, she also found a note in the margin from an early reader expressing a healthy dose of skepticism. Some­times the advice is unintentionally funny. For example, in the event one finds a snake in the garden, A Necessary Family-Book from 1688 suggests dispatching the adder with a swift blow from a radish. And here is some 12th-century birth control advice, from the book version of the blog: "In another fashion, take a male weasel and let its testicles be removed and let it be released alive. Let the woman carry these testicles with her in her bosom and let her tie them in goose skin or in another skin, and she will not conceive." Some advice feels modern. A statute from Leipzig University in 1495 states that freshmen are not to be "tormented, harassed or molested in any way," proof that hazing has long been deemed unacceptable campus behavior.

There's little that's taboo on Archibald's and Herr's sites. Sex, drunkenness, eccentric views on child rearing? All fair game. By capitalizing on the widespread use of social media, Herr and Archibald bring unique materials to readers who may not have other means to access the library's vast collections. "So many people are interested in the history and collections of the library, but they don't necessarily have the opportunity to come and explore on their own," says Herr.

"It's really important to me to bring these materials to the table and let them speak for themselves in all their ridiculous, funny glory, and students really respond to that, as do we all," Archibald adds. "People think of history as serious and difficult at best, a string of dates at worst." She believes it's important to offer a lighter side—such as illustrations of buff men with heads like slugs, or the secret to avoiding what befell an Italian who suffered "a Scorpion bred in his braine" [sic]. (Hint: Do not sniff basil the next time you're at the farmer's market.)

Christianna McCausland is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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