A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Repost: The Voynich Manuscript

From 2/15/11:

The strange Voynich manuscript boinks cerebral scholars.

The University of Arizona has recently redated a puzzling manuscript known as the Voynich Manuscript.  Most scholars, who have been unable to decipher its script or make sense of its drawings, had thought it was created in the 16th century.  But modern radiocarbon dating reveals that the pages hark back to the early 15th century, making it a century older than previously thought.

U of A researchers first performed C14 dating in 2009, and they then concluded the parchment was created between 1404 and 1438.  The McCrone Research Institute in Chicago was also able to determine that the ink was added soon afterward.  Experts think the manuscript most likely comes from Northern Italy. One significance of the accurate dating is that it places it in a time when coded texts were in fashion, and thus allows scholars to discard encoding techniques that were used later than the date of the manuscript and concentrate on contemporary ones.

The manuscript is composed of approximately 240 vellum pages, most of which are illustrated.  The unknown script in an unknown language by an unknown author has caused it to be considered the world's most mysterious manuscript.  It has been studied by professionals and amateurs alike, including codebreakers from both WWs, to no avail.  From the gaps in numbering it seems the manuscript once had at least 272 pages, and they are thought to have been reordered, maybe even several times, from the original sequence.  A quill pen was used for both text and drawings, and the figures were roughly painted, possibly at a later date.

Stars or flowers seem to serve as bullets.

Experts believe the text was written left to right with no punctuation, although there are flower or star bullets in some places in the left margin.  Some of the words occur only in certain sections, for instance in the herbal section the first word on each page only occurs in that place, hence is logically the name of the plant being discussed.  While the lettering resembles European alphabets of the time, these words do not make sense in any of the European languages.  Ten of the months (March to December) are written in Latin in the diagrams of the astronomy section, but may have been added later.

Text sample.

The illustrations are not helpful in decoding the text, but seem to suggest that the book was arranged in six sections:  herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical, and recipes.  Except for the recipes section which is all text, the other sections have at least one illustration on almost every page.  The manuscript seems to be a pharmacopoeia or early medical book.  However, none of the plants in the herbal section are readily identifiable.  Since the text is undecipherable, the illustrations are the only clues for this manuscript.  The human figures wear dress and hairstyles that are European, and the castles are European as well.

Possibly nymphs from the Biology section.

The earliest mention of the book  is in a 1639 letter from then owner George Baresch, a 17th century Czech alchemist, to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit Scholar at the Collegio Romano who had published a Coptic dictionary.  Kircher tried to acquire it, and finally did after Baresch left it to a mutual friend, rector Jan Marek Marci, when he died.  Marci sent it to Kircher.  The next 200 years of the manuscript's history are unknown.  It is accepted that it was in the Collegio Romano with the rest of Kircher's papers.  In 1870 the Papal States were annexed, and books from the library were furtively transferred to the personal libraries of the staff to avoid confiscation.

Plant illustration.

The Voynich manuscript still has the mark of ex libris of Petrus Beckx, who was the head of the Jesuit order.  Beckx's library was moved to the new headquarters of the Jesuit Ghislieri College in 1866.  By 1912, the Collegio Romano was short of funds and quietly sold some of their effects.  Voynich is said to have found it while sifting through a chest of books for sale.  He spent the next 18 years trying to make sense of the manuscript but made no headway before he died.

Many scholars have and do consider the manuscript to be a hoax, however it is very sophisticated.  There have been many attempts to identify the author but all are inconclusive.  In Marci's cover letter to Kircher upon sending him the book, he claimed that book had been bought by Holy Roman Emperor and Bavarian King Rudolf II (1552-1612) for a sum that would now be about $80,000, and suggested the author may have been Roger Bacon, a fact which Voynich tried to confirm.  John Dee, a mathematician/astrologer in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, has also been suggested as author.  Dee's scrier, or crystal gazer, Edward Kelley claimed to invoke angels and have long conversations with them, which Dee wrote down.  The angel's language he called Enochian, after Enoch, the father of Methuselah, and some scholars also think that Kelly may have fabricated the Voynich manuscript.

From the Astronomy section.
There are those who think Voynich may have manufactured it himself.  As an antiquarian book dealer, he had the knowledge and the means to acquire the materials.  The correspondence concerning it may not refer to the manuscript that currently exists, and may have led Voynich to fabricate the manuscript and push for the Bacon authorship, which would drive the price up.  But this is only one of many theories, and none currently are satisfying.  Some scholars even think it may be the work of multiple authors.

Wilfrid Michael Voynich in 1885.

There are so many interesting aspects to this manuscript, way too many to go into here.  Real or hoax, and regardless who wrote it, it is a fascinating puzzle.  But another puzzling aspect about it is how Voynich came upon it.   Michał Wojnicz (later known as Wilfrid Michael Voynich) was a Polish revolutionary who went to London in 1890 and worked for anarchist and nihilist organizations until at least 1896.  Suddenly he morphed into an internationally known antiquarian book dealer by 1898, but little is known of this transformation.  An even more interesting question is where he got the funds to purchase the hundreds of rare books that he displayed in his London shop.  In 1914 he moved to New York, and opened another book shop.  He died in 1930.  His wife Ethel Lilian Boole (daughter of mathematician George Boole) inherited the book.  When she died it passed to her friend and her husband's former secretary, Anne Nill, who eventually sold it to rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus.  When Kraus couldn't get his asking price of $160,000, he donated to Yale University, where it is kept in the Beinecke Library as MS 408.

Ethel Lilian Voynich, from the frontispiece of
Book News, Vol. 20, No. 229, published by
The National Book League, Great Britain

Much has been written about the Voynich manuscript - books, articles for both popular magazines and scholarly journals, and online.  It is continually being analyzed and theorized.  A facsimile of it was published in 2005.  Hopefully, with all the attention it is receiving, its mysteries will be revealed and the puzzle finally solved.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.
To see all the images page-by-page, go to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
If you would like to contribute to the discussion or keep abreast of the current
research on the Voynich manuscript, you may want
 to subscribe to the Voynich Manuscript Mailing List HQ.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Repost: Acey, Deucey, One-Eyed Jack

From 12/13/10:

I, like most people, enjoy playing cards.  Unfortunately I don't play often enough, and it takes me a while to get my card chops back.  Except for poker.  I have the worst poker face ever.  I'm guessing my pout and displeased expression must give away a bad hand.  But if I have a good hand (and I always play with a little sheet my husband made me to remember what's what and what's higher) I'm like a dog being told that it's time for a walk.  Tongue hanging out, tail wagging, I can barely contain myself.  If I were a playing card, I'd be the joker.
Playing cards, like chess, are believed to have been invented in India.  The oldest Indian cards were divided into ten suits representing the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu.  They were round in shape and hand painted, and some even had thirty-two suits.  Ganjifa is a card game from Persia that was popular with the Mughals in 15th century India, but it’s not clear which influenced which, ganjifa or Indian cards.

Cards from a Dashavatara (Ten Avatars) Ganjifa set.  From top left across:
6 white horses with parasols  of the Kalki suit; four tigers  of the
Narasimha suit; seven tortoises  of the Kurma suit; 3 axes of the Parashurama
suit; minister on horseback of the Vamana suit; 3 ewers of the Vamana suit;
10 quivers of the Lakshmana suit; boar incarnation of the Varaha suit; 5 lotuses
of the Buddha suit; 6 peacock feather crown of the Taj (Crown) suit.
Rajasthan, India, 19th century,  LACMA.

Chinese playing card
found near Turfan,
c. 1400 CE
Museum fur Volkerkunde
Cards were found in China as early as the 9th century, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).  Ancient Chinese cards have four suits, and feature ideograms.  There is a suggestion that these early cards may have been a form of currency.  Modern Mahjong tiles possibly evolved from these.

How playing cards got to Europe is debatable.  Some say Marco Polo brought them back from China, but he seems to be the go-to guy for anything in Europe derived from Asia.  Most references state the Saracens introduced them.  They are mentioned in documents from the late 13th century in Europe.  Charles VI of France bought three decks of cards we know from a receipt from 1392.  (Mother always told me to save all receipts.)  They became very popular, were taxed, and had import restrictions on them.  There are some historians who claim that playing cards came from tarot cards, but the two types of cards developed independently.  (The use of the tarot deck exclusively for divination is in the U.S.  Other countries use the deck, usually with modifications, to play card games.)

The first cards were very expensive because they were made by hand.  In the 15th century woodcuts were used to create printed decks.  Most of these woodcut printed cards were hand colored.  Soon engraved cards appeared, which was an even more expensive process.  These are very collectable, as are playing cards in general, should you have too much money and wish to spend it on something.  (I have other ideas in this regard - just email me.)

The seven of hearts,
1803, from Metastasis, the first
complete set of transformed cards
published by John Nixon.
3 of cups, c. 1520
Topkapi Seray Museum,
It wasn’t until 1832 that Thomas de la Rue invented a typographic process that was used in making cards, and the “double-headed” cards became the standard.  These featured images that were duplicated in reverse, so they could be viewed from either end.  This was an important feature since prior to that astute players would be able to figure out how many court cards a rival had when s/he turned them right side up.

There are currently various types of playing cards within the many countries that use them.  The number of cards and suits differ; the English adopted the French deck.  The French deck originated circa 1480 CE, with four suits:  the trèfle, or club, mostly liked derived from an acorn; the pique, or spade, from the leaf used in German decks; hearts and diamonds, which are self-explanatory.

The court cards developed in the 15th century, representing European royalty.  Thus there were kings, queens, and knaves.  The knaves were changed to Jacks in the 17th century.  Primarily this change occurred when indices were printed on the corners of cards, so the player could fan his/her holdings in one hand and know what cards were there.  Since “K” (for king) and “Kn” (for knave) looked too closely alike, the change to “J” was thought to facilitate a quicker reading of the cards by the players.

In the earliest games the king was always the highest card, but in the 14th century the ace, then the lowest card, gained significance.  It is believed that by the 18th century, the French Revolution cemented that ace high concept as a symbol of the lower class rising above royalty.  The word ace was ultimately derived from the ancient Roman aes, the smallest unit of coinage.

A vehicle for a political statement, this card of
the French Revolution symbolizes brotherhood.
During this time Kings, Queens, and Jacks became
Liberties, Equalities, and Fraternities, as a good
revolutionary wouldn't associate with royalty.
This concept was reversed with Napoleon.

The U.S. introduced the joker into the deck, whose identity was similar to the fool in the tarot deck.  It was devised for the game of Eucre, which was very popular in the 19th century.  The name of the character is believed to have derived from juker, a different pronunciation of the game.  The standard deck of 52 cards includes 13 cards of each of the four suits, plus two jokers, which are removed for most games.  Although English or American decks differ from what is used in France, they are still considered French decks.

Image of the 3 of clubs from a deck called
The Key to the Kingdom  commissioned by
Childhood, created by Tony Meeuwissen.
Set was published in 1992 and featured
nursery rhymes and poems.

Even though some of the design elements of the cards are rarely used in games they are notable.  The jack of spades, jack of hearts, and king of diamonds are featured in profile, and referred to as “one-eyed”.  “Acey, deucey, one-eyed jack” means that aces, twos, and one-eyed jacks are wild cards.  Since the king of hearts originally was the only king without a moustache and had a sword behind his head, it lead to his moniker of “suicide king”, or “false king”.  On some decks a closer look reveals that there are four hands, and the sleeves of the arm holding the sword don’t match his, meaning he is being murdered.  It turns out it is the arm of the queen of spades.  The explanation for this card seems to be lost.  There are many theories about just who these royal cards represent, but today’s cards have been distorted and carry no significance.  The following are some of the traditional references to the royal cards:

King of Spades            David
King of Hearts             Charles (possibly Charlemagne, or Charles VII)
King of Diamonds       Julius Caesar
King of Clubs              Alexander the Great
Queen of Spades          Pallas
Queen of Hearts           Judith
Queen of Diamonds     Rachel
Queen of Clubs            Argine (possibly an anagram of regina, which is Latin for queen,
Knave of Spades          Ogier the Dane/Holger Danske (a knight of Charlemagne)
Knave of Hearts           La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc/member of Charles VII's court)
Knave of Diamonds     Hector
Knave of Clubs            Judas Maccabeus, or Lancelot

Again, there are many other decks.  A 32-card deck is known as a piquet deck and used in Europe for games including Belote, the most popular card game in France.  Skat, the national card game of Germany, uses a similar deck.  A 48-card deck is popular in Japan.  But the most popular card game worldwide is bridge, although poker is probably catching up if it hasn't already.

Today, decks are inexpensive and available all over in the United States.  Cards have held on to their popularity since their introduction, and with the advent of children’s games, like Old Maid, most people grow up playing some kind of card game.  Of course, the most memorable one is the one you learned to play immediately the first time – 52 Pickup.  Even I remember how to play that, no crib sheet necessary.
All images except as noted from Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Repost: Still Rude, Lewd, and Crude...

From 11/26/10:

There once was a lady named Cager,
Who as the result of a wager,
Consented to fart,
The entire oboe part
Of Mozart's quartet in F-major.

Recognize this poetry form?  Let's see...vulgar humor (check), impolite wordplay (check), AABBA rhyme scheme (check), why it must be a limerick!

Limericks appear throughout the broad span of the English language, from pubs to Shakespeare.  Don Marquis, the humorist and playwright, stated that there are three types of limericks:  limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent but clergymen are present; and LIMERICKS!  This comment well illustrates the bawdy and lewd notoriety limericks have.

Although its history is obscure, some say the limerick originated in France during the Middle Ages, then crossed the English Channel.  An alternative origin is said to be the pubs of the Irish town of Limerick, but most likely that's where the name originated, but not the concept.  Other sources claim a 14th century origin from pubs.  Wherever they began, the limerick is here to stay.

Mother Goose rhymes associated the limerick forever with children's literature:

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating of curds and whey;
There came a great spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

In 1846, over a century after the Mother Goose rhymes were published, Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense was published, somewhat of a benchmark for the form.  Lear preferred the word "nonsense" to "limerick" no doubt because of the limerick's reputation.  One of his famous ones was:

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several times with her chin.

Composed of five lines, the limerick has a strict rhyme scheme and a catchy rhythm.  The first two lines rhyme, the third and fourth lines rhyme, and the fifth either rhymes with the first two, or repeats the first line.  Simply put (or "dumly" put) it follows an AABBA rhyme pattern like this:
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM
da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

(Note:  one of my favorite jokes is a limerick, but I will not publish it here.  It is only for pubs.)

Punch magazine in the 1860s, inspired by Lear's book, ran limerick contests and for a while limericks became a big craze.  Although the fad died out, the limerick still lived on.  A remarkable roster of  authors have engaged in limerick writing:  Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain were among them.  But perhaps most surprising is Isaac Asimov's book, Lecherous Limericks, published in 1975.   It contains 100 limericks he wrote, of which the following was the first:

There was a sweet girl of Decatur,
Who went to sea on a freighter.
She was screwed by the master,
- An utter disaster -
But the crew made up for it later.

That limericks have been constructed by a wide sweep of people, from pub crawlers to formal poets, makes them folk literature.  They are also truly an English poetry and literary form, since the rhyme scheme and rhythm make them difficult to write in other languages.

I like this modern limerick by Sheila Anne Barry:

There was an old puzzler, Ben Ross,
Who died - doing crosswords, of course,
He was buried, poor Ben,
With eraser and pen,
In a box six feet down, three across.

My favorite limerick story is my own.  One holiday season when I was able and did work a lot of overtime, I had a night off which I needed to do some gift shopping.  My 13-year-old cousin cajoled me into taking him out to dinner (truth be told, I loved hanging out with him!), and I acquiesced with the caveat that we would be going to a bookstore first.  Once in the store he headed to a bargain display, and I walked around to the other side.  All of a sudden I heard his very loud voice call out:  "Hey, Linda.  What's a bl*w j*b?"  He had found a book of limericks.  In total panic I quickly thought, "Nobody knows I'm Linda.  Simply walk out of the store."  Just as I had this realization, the good-looking man standing next to me said, "Judging from how red you are turning, you must be Linda."  I spent the rest of the evening refusing to discuss the words I told him never to say in public, and referring him to his father for the answer, thus losing my coolest adult in the world status.

I will end with a limerick from the Bard himself (Othello, Act II, Scene III), just to balance the above with a loftier tone, even though as limericks go it's kind of a washout.  (BTW, a canakin is a small can used as a drinking vessel, from a Dutch word):

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then let a soldier drink.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Repost: The Poem That Takes 200,000,000 Years to Read...

Here's one from 10/29/10:

Raymond Queneau’s poem Cent mille milliards de poemes (One hundred million million poems), written in 1961, would take 200,000,000 years to read, even if you read twenty-four hours a day.  A set of ten sonnets printed on a cut page with each line on a separate strip, any line of one sonnet can be combined with any line from the other nine sonnets, making possible 100,000,000,000,000 distinct poems.  The idea came from children’s books that are cut into strips so one can combine different heads with different bodies, etc.  The sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and the same rhyme sounds.  He was aided by mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and together the two created interest in a new form of literature, and the seeds of Oulipo were planted.

Ouipo is the acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “body of potential literature”  (known in the U.S. as “The Workshop of Potential Literature”).  It was founded in 1960 as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique.  (“’Pataphysics” is a pseudophilosophy, a word coined by Alfred Jarry, a French writer.  It has been described as “resting on the truth of contradictions and exceptions” by Queneau, the study of what is beyond metaphysics.)  Although the group involved was active since their inception, it was with the publication of a collection of their pieces, La Littérature Potentielle, in 1973 that they gained international notice.  The work of this Paris-based writer’s group has become better known in the U.S. now that English translations are available.

The group was devoted to searching for new structures and patterns for literature and used constraints to inspire ideas.  Many of these techniques relied on mathematical problems, using the precision and structure of math.  The constraints used push writers to play with language and construct writing that is “outside the box”.  Some of the constraints are listed below.

S+7, also known as N+7:  Replace every noun in a work with the noun found seven entries after it in a dictionary.  Different dictionaries produce different results.  One can also use verbs or other parts of speech instead.  What a great way to encode messages if all parties use the same dictionary!

Palindromes:  The entire work is a palindrome.  (Palindromes don’t offer their authors fame – who can remember the authors of any of them, much less my favorite - “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas”?)

No Repeats:  Writing a piece that is as lengthy as possible without repeating any words.

Anagrams:  Each paragraph of a work is an anagram of an outside source.  Just to make things more interesting, try a triple anagram, where one rewrites a selected piece three ways – rearranging the sentences, then the words, and finally the letters.

Lipogram:  Omitting the use of one or more letters in a piece, the more the merrier, albeit harder.

Macao or Prisoner’s Restraint:  This is a type of lipogram where letters with ascenders and descenders (i.e., b, d, f, g, h, j, k, p, q, t, & y) are excluded.

Univocalism:  A poem that uses only one selected vowel.

The Knight’s Tour:  Ostensibly a mathematical problem involving a knight on a chessboard who, moving in accord with chess rules, must visit each square once.  Used as a literary constraint since the ninth century, and notably by Georges Perec.

One of the quirkiest works is Georges Perec's  La Vie mode d'emploi  (Life:  A User’s Manual).  This is a collection of interwoven stories based on a fictitious apartment block in Paris.  Using multiple writing constraints, each story adds a new layer of complexity.  Perec created a system which generates for each chapter a list of items, references, or objects that the chapter would contain.  There are forty-two lists of ten objects each, grouped in ten units of four.  The last two are lists of special couples (i.e. Tom and Jerry, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.)  These lists apply to each chapter in an array of a Graeco-Latin square.  There are many further complications and complexities to the book, which can be read from cover to cover or by chapters out of order.  Thus it utilizes the Knight’s Tour model.

Queaneau wrote another piece in the Oulipo repetoire in 1947 - 99 Ways to Tell a Story:  Exercises in Style.  It is the retelling of the same story 99 times, each by a different style.  The basic story is of someone who gets on a bus, witnesses an interaction between a zazou (sort of the French equivalent to a zoot suiter – they dressed in a particular fashion and were into bebop and swing jazz) and another person, then spots the same person two hours later getting fashion advice.  This was turned into a graphic novel by Matt Madden, which includes parodies of horror comics, comix, manga, and fantasy, and from unusual perspectives, including the refrigerator.

I can’t help thinking how much Charles Dodgson would have loved Oulipo.  As a master of puzzles and a mathematician, I think he would have been a major player.  If you are a logophile you may be interested in subscribing to this quarterly journal, Word Ways.

Want to entertain both your right and left brains simultaneously?  Try some Oulipo.  Make sure you are well-rested and/or stoned.  These writers are truly cerebral boinkfesters.


Monday, October 3, 2011

It's Vacation Time!

Cerebral Boinfest is a year old tomorrow, and this blogger needs a rest.  This week take a look at some oldies you may have missed, starting with my very first post....

Am I Blue?  From 10/4/10

During a time when only men could attend colleges and universities, while women were taught skills such as knitting and needlework, a group of educated women emerged who flaunted their interests in literature and the arts by holding their own parties that were inspired by the established salons of Paris.  Beginning in London in the early 1750s, by the 1780s they developed into more broader networks that celebrated female education.  These women, the “Bluestockings”, attained such a high profile they are considered by some historians to have founded modern civilized society.  Egalitarian as well as educated, the women gathered to converse (politics was prohibited), and men were invited to participate and encourage discussion. 

Elizabeth Vesey held the first party in Bath.  Some of the other women who first convened were Elizabeth MontaguHannah MoreElizabeth Carter, and Hester Chapone.  It included both men and women of prominent society, including Sir Joshua ReynoldsHorace WalpoleSamuel JohnsonThomas and Henrietta Bowdler, and Catherine Talbot, among many others.

Interestingly enough, the first “Bluestocking” was a man.  Benjamin Stillingfleet was a learned botanist, writer (of opera and poems), and publisher.  When asked to attend one of the evening events he declined, as he could not afford the de rigueur formal dress then required of soirees, which included black silk stockings.  Upon learning the reason for not attending, he was asked to come in his informal, daytime clothes, including his blue worsted stockings, which started a trend.  James Boswell wrote in his Life of Johnson that, “Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said, ‘We can do nothing without the blue stockings,’ and thus by degrees the title was established”.  Fanny Burney, a diarist and novelist, who was also associated with the Bluestockings, also told this story anecdotally.

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the 
Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel includes 
Elizabeth CarterAngelica KauffmanAnna Letitia 
BarbauldCatharine MacaulayElizabeth Montagu
Elizabeth GriffithHannah More
Elizabeth Ann Sheridan and Charlotte Lennox.

How exactly the name arose is the subject of conjecture.  Some historians have traced the name back to the 1400s, when the Della Calza (“of the stockings”), a Venetian group who wore blue stockings met.  Another claim is that it came from the contemporaneous French “Bas Bleu” circle of similar orientation, although some historians state that the names “Bas Bleu” and “Bluestockings” were interchangeable within England.  Stockings seemingly had an influence on status, as another group, the Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, wore unbleached woolen ones in an era where wealthy people wore dyed socks.
 The name came to have pejorative meaning.  An old saying goes, “Women don’t become bluestockings until men have tired of looking at their legs.”  Even today it is a derisive word for a woman who affects literary aspirations.  Women still are encouraged to concentrate on dressing fashionably rather than  intellectual pursuits, often judged for their looks rather than their intelligence by many.

However the name came about, it referred to an informal gathering with an emphasis on intellectual topics rather than fashion.  The women who are credited with starting it were privileged women, generally with no or few children, and some kind of formal education.  Thus the average woman was not a part of them, due to a lack of literacy rather than economic circumstances.  There was never a formal society, and these social events served to replace the dull evenings these women were formerly allowed to play cards.  Since playing cards was associated with gambling, some factions considered the Bluestocking Society to be anti-gambling, which may have helped make it more acceptable.  In fact, The New York Times on April 17, 1881 published an article stating that the Blue Stockings Society was a women’s movement making a stand against gambling.  

Richard Samuel (1779); Barbauld is standing 
behind the painter Angelica Kauffmann
gesturing with her hand.
Popular sentiments at the time were that women did not want, nor need, colleges.  Even Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a prominent Romantic author and poet, stated that it was considered unbecoming for women to know Greek or Latin, almost immodest for them to be authors, and certainly indiscreet for them to own the fact if they did.  She advised, “The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, brother, or friend.”  Of another, and to my mind much better, opinion was Mr. Sydney Smith, who thought it absurd that a woman of 49 should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve.

Although I knit and have done needlework, I have also studied Latin, and to a lesser extent Greek.  I thank these women for their part in my opportunity to attend a university; even if my own mother only encouraged me in the hopes I would meet and marry a Jewish doctor.  My own rebellion, though not an intentional one, was to marry a Scots/Irish/English/French/Norwegian and Native American agnostic bookman.  Here’s to rebellious women and my sister Bluestockings!