Points on Blogs: Res Obscura

Let’s begin with an admission of failure.  When the Points blog first rolled out in January, a couple of our first comments were posted by early modern historians of alcohol and drugs.  One of my cheery replies (with exclamation): “One of the great challenges with having a lot of modernists running this blog is to make sure we don’t lose sight of what’s happening in the early modern world!”  Alas, our Points-sight is no better now than then.  The only good news today is the continued existence of Res Obscura, a blog published by one of those early commenters, Ben Breen.  Ben’s a graduate student at UT-Austin, studying the early modern trade in medicinal drugs, specifically in the worlds of the Portuguese and British empires.  I don’t know if he’s published any of this work yet, but Res Obscura is a compelling blog, well worth the time and attention of our readers.  Here’s why:

Yes, that’s one image, captioned thusly: “A family enjoying a feast day with a number of spiritous liquors. The corked bottle on the left may well be gin, which was invented by the Dutch in the 17th century. From: Jan Steen, ‘The way you hear it, is the way you sing it’.  (detail). ca. 1665 Oil on canvas. 134 × 163 cm (52.76 × 64.17 in). The Hague, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis.”

Breen makes clear that Res Obscura is NOT just about “decontexualized grab-bags of images”–and it clearly isn’t–but let’s be honest, this is a gorgeous site. And I don’t simply mean the images, though the experience of working through them makes me wonder why we modernists don’t pay comparable attention to visual culture at this blog.  The Res Obscura design itself is masterful, visually integrated and remarkably easy to navigate.  The tags are super detailed, and allow browsers interested in “alchemy” (or anything else) to quickly arrive at images like this (a 17th century painting of an alchemist filling wet drug jars; from the Chemical Heritage Foundation):

Aesthetics aside, what makes Res Obscura a notable scholarly contribution is the extent to which Breen offers readers a consistently useful guide to the subjects the blog so beautifully illustrates.  Consider this entry on alchemists, which concludes with a very brief but helpful guide to the literature.   Similarly, take a look at this recent post on networks of knowledge and representation in the globalizing Atlantic world of the seventeenth century.  Other blogs get attention as well–here’s a nice review of several other early modern blogs that Breen posted in April.

I hope you’ll check out Ben’s good work.  In our next installment (two weeks from now), “Points on Blogs” will go drinking…

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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