Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"That Jews stink," on early modern rational inquiry.

One of more interesting books in the development of, well, human thought, is Sir Thomas Browne's "Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths," first published in 1646. The book attemps to dispel many myths through making sense out of empirical observation, reason and what is written in books.

The book touches on topics such as
  • That crystal is nothing else but ice strongly congealed
  • That porcellane of China dishes lie under the earth an hundred years in preparation
  • That the root of Mandrakes resembles the shape of a man
  • That an elephant hath no joints
  • That a beaver, to escape the hunter, bites off his testicles or stones
  • Of the pissing of Toads
  • Of the basilisk
  • That a salamander lives in the fire
  • That men weigh heavier dead han alive, and before meat than after
  • On saluting upon sneezing
  • Of the picture of Adam and Eve with navels
  • Of the picture of our Saviour with long hair
  • Of the picture of Moses with horns
and many more besides, on magnets, electricity, all sorts of animals, real or imagined.

Below is his treatment of the belief That Jews stink:

In the 1835 reprint, in the Collected Works, some notes by other authors are included. Here is the note on the Jews stink question:
4 That Jews stink.] The Jews anxiously observing the prohibited eating of blood keepe their flesh covered with onyons and garleek till itt putrifie,[1] and contracte as bad a smell as that of rottenes from those strong sawoes ; and soe by continual use thereof emit a loathsom savour, as Mr. Fulham experimented in Italye at a Jewish meeting, with the hazard of life, till he removed into the fresh air. Teste ipso fide dignissimo.— Wr.

Howell, in a letter written to Lord Clifford, in reply to his enquiries respecting the Jews, does not hesitate to adopt the common opinion as one so well known as to need no proof. "As they are," says he, " the most contemptible people, and have a kind of fulsome scent, no better than a stink, that distinguisheth them from others, so they are the most timorous people on earth, &c"—Familiar Letters, book i. § 6, letter xv. p. 252.
Here's Sir Thomas resting in peace:

[1] See Maria Diemling, “'As the Jews Like to Eat Garlick': Garlic in Christian- Jewish Polemical Discourse in Early Modern Germany,” in ed. Greenspoon, Food and Judaism, 215–34.


  1. Browne references a comment on the Jews' "sluttish course of life". Where else have we heard that recently? :)

  2. All right, someone read it!

  3. So easy to grasp the wrong end of the stick on this one. Browne is of course refuting such a 'vulgar' (common) error and prejudice , himself being no inconsiderable scholar of Hebrew.

  4. LOL Of course he's refuting it.

  5. I used to make fun of people who intended to say the word "tenet" but said "tenent" instead. Because of this article, I can't do that anymore. -- Phil

  6. Sure you can.

    English is a lot more stable and formalized than it was 400 years ago. Right or wrong, it was mostly an oral language back then, and people didn't have dictionaries or lexicons to tell them how words had to be spelled. The point was to convey meaning or, often, pronunciation. We can see such experiments in later developments when people would often drop an unpronounced e and replace it with an apostrophe.

    "Silas rightly dropp'd his unus'd ees." "Sarah vvayted betwixt consumpmtion of mutton& milch as goode Jewesses are supposed."

  7. "I used to make fun of people who intended to say the word "tenet" but said "tenent" instead. Because of this article, I can't do that anymore. -- Phil"

    How about checking the OED first... or (nebach) the Webster.



Related Posts with Thumbnails