On May 21 2015, I participated in a gathering at Princeton devoted to an experiment in “conjectural historiography”: imagining and memorializing historians who never existed, but should have. My contribution to this collective performance took the form of a memorial to four women, all named Elizabeth, all inspired by medical cases from The Casebooks Project, and all devoted to histories of and with basic material stuff. Here’s the text of that performance. This will morph into something other – I’m not yet sure what, though I am sure that I’m not yet done with these women – but in the meantime here’s “The Elizabeths.”
The Elizabeths: Elemental Historians
We talk about the importance of embodied history. We talk about the turn from discourse to practice, the renewed attention that historians have been paying to things and to stuff. We talk about books as material objects. We think about sound and image and other sensations in history. We write about bodies of the past.
But not like this.
This is the story of four women who lived in England early in the seventeenth century. Each of them was inspired by a very fragmentary trace of a patient from a Cambridge collection of medical casebooks. (Sometimes it’s just a name and a malady.) Each of them was named Elizabeth. For each Elizabeth, history was a craft to be committed to with the body entire.
The Elizabeths were elemental historians: they studied liquids, wind, fire, and buried things.
Elizabeth Sanders, Historian of Liquids
Elizabeth Sanders was a historian of liquids. There were no solid objects in her stories: hers was instead a fluid archive.
For Elizabeth, history was a form of digestion, and it was important that she worked on an empty stomach. At night, she readied her canvas. She would prepare a meal of plain white things – rice, salty bread, cream, marshmallows – and ate slowly and silently while arranging 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 them in the oven until they were brittle enough to crumble easily, or she soaked them in bowls of milk or wine until they turned pulpy and began to fall apart. She munched and swallowed and ground up the dried texts with a mortar and pestle or broke the pulpy bits up with a fork and she tucked or shoveled them into little bags before settling into bed. (Elizabeth never dreamed – it was important, for her, to keep clear of the sorts of phantoms that might muddy or bleed into the stories of her waking hours.)
She would wake in the morning, famished after fasting overnight and ready to work. She chose a jar of water from the archive she kept strewn across shelves and tables throughout her house, each carefully labeled with the time, date, place, and kind of tool with which it was collected. For her breakfast, Elizabeth opened one of the baggies she had prepared the night before, stirred its contents into a cup of water from her library, and drank the seventeenth-century equivalent of a documentary smoothie.
Reading, for her, was a consuming of language and all that it carried. She brought history inside of her, her teeth and tongue, her mouth, her throat and chest, her stomach and intestines. Elizabeth would roll the text in her mouth, tonguing the grit of the words against her front teeth to taste ink and script. Was this a printed text? (She tended to sip up those thin-flowing documents through a straw.) She might catch the rough edges of a serifed font on her lips or trap quick &’s and ;’s between her teeth. She unknotted the letters of manuscript pages without having to use 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 mouthsful she slurped like soup, stopping to pull the odd bone or bit of skin that might have reconstituted itself in the cup.
Elizabeth specialized 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 history too sweet.)
By the time the text reached her gullet, it would resolve itself back into words that her throat voiced on its own. (This could get messy if she hadn’t, at this point, finished drinking.) If you sat next to Elizabeth while this was happening, she might sound like she was producing birdsong, or speaking in tongues, or chanting… At this point, for Elizabeth, they were just sounds: they didn’t take on meaning until later in her alimentary canal. She had no way of putting the words in order as she drank them, and so her throat would simply utter them, and by doing do would bring them into being. Words 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.
And 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 bled out her histories. And so she used special paper that would render her stories 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 rest of the histories she had previously offered to it. In this way, Elizabeth was in the final stages of completing a history of dew. It was a history in early mornings and late evenings.
When she died, Elizabeth Sanders had been in the midst of collaborating, with Elizabeth Woodfall on a history of fog.
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 sunk 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 covered Elizabeth’s skin, knotted up 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, she 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. As Elizabeth read her documents in scent, 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. (She was kind of a public historian.) Townswomen would come to Elizabeth and ask her to tell their stories. They brought certificates of family births and marriages, genealogies and diaries. (She would dry these out in her oven and grind them up and keep them carefully sealed in little bottles and jars.)
They brought the death masks made 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 her eyes and sat her 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 her eyes and sat her 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.
When she died, Elizabeth Woodfall had been in the midst of collaborating, with Elizabeth Turvey on a history of explosion.
Elizabeth Turvey, Historian of Flame
Elizabeth Turvey was a historian of flame. She studied the history of burning and of things that burned.
Though she was by nature and training a local historian, 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, 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 her historical protagonists. 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 she never returned. Elizabeth could be temperamental.)
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 inks, and plants, and grains, and flammability. 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.
At the time of her death in London in 1666, she had been collaborating on a history of salamanders with Elizabeth Rively.
Elizabeth Rively, Historian of Buried Things
Elizabeth Rively was a historian of buried things, and she had a thing for worms.
This Elizabeth was a trickster. For her, history was made of gossip and rumor was her playground. 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, men who were particularly unkind to their wives – and she whispered to them about silver and gold. She left scraps of notes on the dusty floors of chapels, just legible enough to hint at possible treasure secreted away in hollow places in the homes of local gentlemen. And she hid and watched and fiddled with her wig and smiled when she saw acquaintances – some of them her whisper-men – pick up the notes and try to read 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.”)
Elizabeth was very beautiful, and very disturbed, and she was not forthcoming and she was not often invited to come forth. And Elizabeth had a thing for worms. 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 and caress them, in her way. (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 buried them and left them to decay. (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 treasure, 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 them translated.
It’s unclear when Elizabeth Rively died. Her body was never found.
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