05 October, 2006

Cohn's New House

The image below has been all round the internet and back—no surprise there, it's a sockdolager. But nobody, it seems, has bothered to find out anything much about it. Well, except me. Following, then, is a contextual discussion, and after that a translation, courtesy of Simon Holloway.

The image is an engraving from the Ma'aseh Tovviyah, a 1707 encyclopaedia first printed in Venice. The book was compiled by one Tobias Cohn—whose name, due to the vagaries of Hebrew translation and transliteration, is variously rendered Tobias Moses Kohen, Toby ha-Cohen, Tovviyah Katz, Tuvviyah or Tuviyah Kats, or any combination thereof. There's a Wikipedia article about him. According to David Ruderman, the world authority on Early Modern Jewish science, there have been many editions of the Ma'aseh since 1707: in fact, the work was allegedly reprinted in Cracow (1908), in Jerusalem (1967, 1978) and even in Brooklyn (1974). However, I have not been able to find any reference on the internet to these modern editions. Even the Library of Congress has only a first edition. Readers will be interested to discover that they can purchase a copy on Abebooks, should they wish, for a mere $7,000—or $12,500 for a first edition.

The Ma'aseh, written 'in a rich Hebrew style rather than in Yiddish', contains material on all the sciences of Cohn's day—theology, astronomy, hygiene, botany, cosmography, and medicine. It is notable for containing a staunch 'refutation' of Copernicus, damning him as the 'first born of Satan' for contradicting the Tanakh. Despite this, much of it is forward-thinking: its chapter on medicine, which is by far the most significant part, is quite modern in two of its endorsements: the circulation of the blood propounded by William Harvey (see N. Allan's article here), and the secular iatrochemistry which had grown out of Paracelsus. This latter science, practiced in Cohn's day by Sylvius de la Boe and Thomas Willis, was strongly empirical, eschewing the mysticism of other Paracelsians like Robert Fludd. (The Ma'aseh, apparently, does not mention by name the outspokenly anti-semitic Paracelsus.) Cohn also advocates treatment based on similarity between illness and remedy—think vaccine, or homeopathy—rather than on contraries of Galenic humours, as previous writers had done. Ruderman concludes his chapter on Cohn from Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe:
By aspiring to train Jewish minds to identify knowledge with the layout of words on the printed page, rather than the divine hieroglyphics of the mysterious natural world, Cohen fully identified himself with an emerging field of study, a chemistry to be studied, methodized, and employed for purely utilitarian purposes rather than one to be experienced or religiously celebrated.
But while he advances towards empiricism, Cohn retains traces of the symbolical. For instance, like all good early modern physicians, he accepts physiognomy, basing his treatment on Giambattista Della Porta, as would many bright sparks well into the 19th century. And the illustration above demonstrates a rather poetical turn of thought, comparing the different parts of a man's body to the chambers of a house. The engraving is, in fact, titled 'Dr. Cohn's New House'. According to Allan, the conceit was taken from period sources—Harvey makes some limited reference to it, and Donne mutters, 'When I looke into the larders and cellars and vaults into the vessels of our body for drink, for blood, for urine, they are pottles and gallons'. The Donne connection is that of a modern literary scholar, and should not be taken seriously, as Cohn had no English. The association of man and architecture, at least on a very general scale, was ancient; Vitruvius invokes the architecture of temples—
Hence no building can be said to be well-designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure.
I am not familiar with the post-Biblical Jewish sources, although we might compare Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) on a man's old age and death (12.3 ff.), which is at least as close as Donne:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened. . . Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Adam Clarke provides the classic exegesis of these lines, reading the keepers as hands, the strong men as legs, the grinders as teeth, the windows as eyes, the silver cord as the medulla oblongata or spinal marrow, the golden bowl as the skull, the pitcher as the vena cava, and the wheel as the great aorta. Clarke notes, fantastically: 'It has been often remarked that the circulation of the blood, which has been deemed a modern discovery by our countryman Dr. Harvey, in 1616, was known to Solomon, or whoever was the author of this book: the fountains, cisterns, pitcher, and wheel, giving sufficient countenance to the conclusion'. Simon Holloway, who should know about such things, warns me however that this passage is not necessarily microcosmic, despite the apparent obviousness of that interpretation.

Cohn's image soon achieved popular currency, and would be copied again and again; here is a version from the 1721 edition—

And below is a later Ottoman version, taken from an old Wellcome Library catalogue of new acquisitions. According to a personal email from Dr. Nikolaj Serikoff at the Wellcome Library, who offers his first opinion of the still-uncatalogued manuscript, this is a modern imitation of the 'Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye written by Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu'. I have not been able to find any pictures from that work.

Recyclings and copies of pedagogical medical images were common in the 17th century: the famous prints of Vesalius would be pirated all over Europe, in medical texts by Helkiah Crooke, Juan de Valverde and others, even cropping up as late as the Encyclopédie (1751-65) of Diderot and D'Alembert. William Cowper was embroiled in a public spat with Govard Bidloo after he copied the latter's fine plates without acknowledgement. Often this practice was accepted, and even admired—Valverde openly admitted his use of Vesalius:
Although it seemed to some of my friends that I should make new illustrations without using those of Vesalius, I did not do so, in order to avoid the confusion that could follow. . . and because his illustrations are so well done that it would like envy or malignity not to take advantage of them.
Diderot, likewise, explains that his use of Vesalius is purely pragmatic: 'M. Tarin, chargé de l'Anatomie, s'éstoit appliqué à chercher dans chaque auteur les figures reconnues pour les meilleures'. It's not a bad defence.


I leave the reader with this, a translation that I commissioned from the Hebrew scholar Simon Holloway. He produced this piece very efficiently, and if it is anything to go by then the linguistic work he's doing on the Tanakh for his masters thesis will no doubt be greatly enlightening. Simon offered many fascinating notes, which I have edited for readability, at the risk of over-simplification; those interested can see his own post for a full commentary.

A New House

1a א The roof of the house and the citadel of
1b wisdom, is the head.

This line and line 10a are the only ones to employ a single letter at the start rather than two. I assumed at first that he was only putting in two letters for paired items, but this turns out not to be the case. On an off chance, I considered that this may be for religious reasons. א is often used in kabbalistic literature to refer to the singularity of the divine, and י is often employed as an abbreviation of God's name (יהוה). According to Wikipedia, Tobias Cohn was a fierce antagonist of the kabbalistic tradition. If that is true, that would rule out any possibility of the letters א and י being singular for any spiritual reason.

2a בב The horns [or, protrusions] of the house
2b and the ears.
3a גג The windows of the house
3b and the eyes.
4a דד Sealed windows
4b and the nostrils.
5a הה The upper opening
5b and the mouth and lips.
6a וו The roof of the house
6b and the shoulders.
7a זז The lattice windows of the house
7b and the lungs.

The etymological root of the word for "lungs" is רוה which means to be moist, reflecting the Talmudic belief that the lungs were designed to absorb liquid.

8a חח An oven and stoves.
8b And that is the liver, and the container of
8c the bile.
9a טט The cookery
9b and the stomach.
10 י The storage room and the spleen.
11 לל Transporters of the waste-product.
12 ממ -?- of the urine.

I have thus far been unable to work out what the verb might be.

13 ננ The storage room of the water.
14a סס The pool and the tank
14b or the container of the urine.
15a עע The root of agony
15b or the stronghouse,
15c and the heart and all of its openings.
16a פפ The foundations of the house
16b and the legs.

Under the two images, the following is written:

17 פפ The foundations of the house—under the image of the house
Man is from dust, his foundation is פפ—under the image of the man.


Varo Borja said...

Your erudition is quite compelling. Shame about the atheist bit. You'd make quite the Dominican. Mad props for an outstanding essay.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Varo. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Hi there.
I came across your blog whilst doing a spot of research into this image. I thought you may be interested in an article, written by a former Wellcome Library curator, on Tobias Cohn. You can find it here:
Hope it may be of interest.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Ruth; in fact I had already linked to this article in my post.