In his Microcosmographia, Helkiah Crooke, drawing upon and adapting Placentinus, takes issue with the traditional hierarchy of the external senses in the opening gambit of book eight’s “Dilucidation or Exposition of the Controuersies belonging to the Senses.” Whereas it was common practice in early modern anatomy and natural philosophy to account vision the “noblest sense,” Crooke reverses the standard hierarchy and declare the superiority of touch. I will have more to say about Crooke’s rearrangement of the hierarchy and of his description of the external and internal senses later, but wanted to share an unusual passage from the description of the sense of smell. While the position of the sense of smell does not change in Crooke’s reversed hierarchy, it is the only sense which is provided with extended examples or histories to explain its position within the hierarchy.

The nose and eye in Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia. (539).

The nose and eye in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia.

In a passage marginally noted as “The nose doth much beautifie the face,” Crooke includes the following odd anecdote:

The beauty that is added to the face of man by this organ of smelling (wee meane the Nose) is very great, I will giue you a pregnant instance therof in an example or two worth our remembrance. First, of a yong man who being adiudged to be hanged and the executioner at hand, a certaine maide suborned by his friends and quaintly dressed and set out, goes vnto the Iudges and makes supplication for his life, requiring him for her husband, well; she ouercame the Iudges: This done, the guilty yong man being set at liberty and coming from the gallowes vnto the maide attired and dressed in such costly ornaments, he presently cast his eye vppon her Nose which indeed was very deformed, and instantly cries out that he had rather haue beene hanged then freed vppon condition of vndergoing so deformed a choyce in his Matrimony. (650).

The joke hinges upon the fact that death is superior to marriage to a woman with a deformed nose, no matter how costly her attire, but one wonders (from within the logic of the joke) whether the judges released the man not because of the maid’s supplication, but rather for the fact that marriage to one with such a deformed nose proved a punishment. The attention to both the dress and to the shape of the maid’s nose genders the importance Crooke grants to the olfactory organ.

The gendered implications become more apparent with Crooke’s second extended example. While the section briefly mentions other examples found in Horace and Virgil, Crooke’s second extended “history” reads:

It also a very memorable example, (for we may mingle things thus holy with prophane) which we reade in our English Chronicles concerning one Ebba an Abbesse in a certaine Nunry, who cut of her own Nose & the Noses of her Nuns, that being so deformed they might auoyd the hateful lust of the Danes; taking it for granted that the Nose was the chief ornament of the face.

As with the previous example, the nose gains significance in a gendered way since female beauty and desirability depends upon a well shaped or, at the very least, existing nose. Through Crooke’s emphasis, the “chief ornament of the face” appears chiefly important to the ornamentation of the female face.

Crooke additionally notes that

hence it was that in antient time, when they would put any man to great disgrace and ignominy, or disappoint them of all hope of attaining to any degree of honour, or the gouernement of a State; they cut off their Eares and Noses. Yea those which had such deformed Noses were neither admitted to any Priestly function nor Imperiall office.

While he does turn towards the importance of a man’s nose, his specific extended examples focus their attention on the beauty of women and the offices held by men. Women’s bodies are used to describe the importance of the nose a chief ornament of beauty, whereas, for men, the loss of a nose signifies and displays a loss of honor.

Two things stand out in Crooke’s description of the nose’s importance. The first is that, in this section at least, only the nose’s position within the hierarchy requires support through extended examples, and, second, that those extended examples and histories are gendered. Needless to say, something is rotten in Crooke’s gendered representation of the olfactory organ.

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia a Description of the Body of Man. [London]: Printed by William Iaggard. 1615. Early English Books Online.

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  1. colleen e kennedy says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I have a lot of notes on Crooke’s ideas concerning the sense of smell, but didn’t focus as much (at that time) on the gendered nose. But it is something I am currently working on…

    Let me share a little poem I found in a BL Add MS 10309, Margaret Bellasy’s dirty little ditty about a nose:

    A Gallant lasse from out her window saw
    A Gentleman whose nose in length exceeded
    Her burned less will, but not limited by Law
    Imagined he had yet what she most needed;
    To speake with him she kindly doth intreat
    And him desir’s to solve her darke suppose.
    She deeming every thing was made compleat
    Find correspondent equall to his nose,
    But finding short where she expected long,
    She sigh’d and sayd, “O nose thou’st done me wrong”

  2. Jillian Linster says:

    So happy to see you blogging about Crooke! The section on the senses is the content I’ve spent the most time with, and where I first started with him. The preface to the Book Eight controversies is particularly interesting as well as frustrating. One thing I noticed is that Crooke refers specifically to this section near the end of his “Praeface to the Chyrurgeons” where he writes, “One thing I crave pardon for above all the rest and that is Placentinus his Praeface before the Controversies of the eight booke, which indeede was not done by me, & the matter it selfe, to say truth, I do not so well like.” One of the things Crooke gets denigrated for, of course, is a lack of original medical/scientific contribution. His crucial role, in my opinion, is as translator and editor, and he himself is quite straightforward about this, as this sentence (and the rest of the Praeface) demonstrates. He seems here to be explaining that someone else has done the translation of Placentinus, and he’s neither happy with the job or the content itself, apparently – I wish he were more explicit. Anyway, I haven’t yet quite sorted out what to make of this, but it certainly complicates things!

    • senseshaper says:

      I struggled with what to call the author of these passages in this post. I didn’t know there might have been a second translator, and haven’t found the original to compare how it is shaped in Crooke’s Microcosmographia. This does make matters even worse. I opted for calling the author “Crooke” since, as with many of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century compendiums and chronicles the amount of borrowing/ adopting/ adapting makes author attribution incredibly difficult. I should have made this textual confusion more clear, and thanks for the feedback.

      When I worked on Crooke several years ago I mainly attended to his book on generation. Until I saw your post on the censorship issue, I could never get my head around why his images were considered as obscene as Aretine’s postures. I had assumed that his original images had been replaced by the ones that actually appear other than the image you address in your excellent post. His image of the infant in the womb, in particular, is quite tame when compared to similar series in obstetrics books and anatomies.

      • Jillian Linster says:

        I think you’re right to identify Crooke as the author of this text; that is how he positions himself. As a whole, the book is a combination of passages he has translated, his own thoughts and opinions, and, apparently, at least in this one case, some contribution from another translator. I don’t think we can label him an “editor” in the sense we’d use it today. And, obviously, even the most original works of literature show clear influence from others. I think the instance of the preface to the Book Eight controversies has to be an exception in regard to the rest of the text, since he specifically mentions it. There have been critics who’ve tried to label Crooke a plagiarist, but he’s pretty clear and straightforward about his sources, at least in the sections I’m familiar with.

        His images, like much of his text, also originate in other sources. Many of the woodcuts, including the one I’m currently working on, are imitations from Vesalius. Part of the frustration with working with this text is the fact that no one has cataloged exactly what comes from where, or examined the extent of the text that is Crooke’s own original writing. But even as a translator, he’s strongly influencing the content, just as he shapes the book by his editorial choices.

        • senseshaper says:

          That’s a wonderful project!!! Are you planning a digital edition?

          It also makes me curious about Edward Topsell. He is clear that much of his text is a translation of Gesner, but I’m always conflicted when referring to Topsell as the author. Would love a similar project on his book as well.

  3. Jillian Linster says:

    I’m working on the book bits at a time, but currently I’ve been focusing more on the textual studies aspect of it, so the content has been getting less attention. But someday… probably after the PhD, unfortunately.

    That’s a good point about Topsell – and these certainly aren’t the only two early modern “authors” eliciting these sorts of questions. I haven’t come across any significant work yet that addresses this issue, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet to spend much time on this angle – I’ll keep you posted when I do.

    • senseshaper says:

      Please do! And good luck!

      Now you have me thinking about the borrowing practices in early modern chronicles too. While there are sites to compare the various editions of Holinshed, they don’t mention compare some passages that are lifted/ adapted from other chronicles like Hall and Lanquet.

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