A Bridge to the Underworld: Digging up Plant Roots in Renaissance Vernacular Medical “Fictions” for RSA Virtual 2021 – 13 AVRIL 2021 20h30


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To fully understand the making and meaning of Early Modern botanical or medical theory concerning roots and plants, the historian must grasp their symbolic and folkloric stories. This cultural dimension of the underground plant serves as a comprehensive tool for writing a “natural history” of plants such as Mandrake or Deadly Nightshade. The description of their harvest is often a narrative “topos” used in herbals to foster devotion, faith, and morality, as remedies of the Renaissance pharmacopeia for some specific illnesses, particularly those related to sexuality, fertility, melancholy and social behaviors. Thus, the “underground” plant is linked to the “underworld”, through the axis mundi imagery, the root being the bridge with the mundus subterraneus, a reversed world. The act of digging in the soil is structured with magical rituals and gestures around the roots, rhizomes, or tubers which are dedicated to warding off threats related to death or evil spirits.

* RSA Virtual Registration Grant awarded by the RSA board committee

RSA Virtual 2021 : Panel Session “Subterranean Fictions: Early Modern Underworlds and Otherworlds”

Session Monitors
Lexie McNabb Cook
Columbia University
Miguel Ibáñez Aristondo
Villanova University

The early modern period writ large is often characterized as a moment of horizontal exploration of the earth’s surface: the intensification of long-distance trade, conquest of the high seas, imperial expansion, a transformation in cartography and the representation of territory, and most of all, global interconnectivity. Studies of early modern worlds only occasionally consider downwardly-oriented histories, narratives, and imaginaries. Hardly a match for the fantasies of omnipotence that aerial views provide, the underground is a realm of darkness, occlusion, and embeddedness as well as inversion, accumulation, and intensification. This panel will primarily concern itself with digging downwards, that is, the history of imagining, speculating about, and even divining worlds below our feet.

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