Skin before Colour in Early Modern Europe

When did skin colour matter in early modern Europe?

The early modern era witnessed a startling transformation in the history of skin. Starting with the Dutch physician Antony van Leeuwenhoek, and featuring Robert Boyle, and Nehemiah Grew and the Italian Marcello Malphigi, a generation of microscopists trained their attention on the question of the layers of skin, anatomizing samples from animals, as well as humans. In doing so, they singled out different features of skin. Notable examples include the 1685 Anatomia Humani Corporis, by Govard Bidloo, whose illustrations by Gerald Lareisse featured the first known representation of a fingerprint (Fig. 1). The Micrographia by Robert Hooke concentrated mainly on pores, comparing porosity in surfaces from corks to fish scales (Fig. 2). The work of Nehemiah Grew brought these together, providing new insight into the pores and ridges on the hand and the foot (Fig. 3).

Click or tap images to enlarge.

As Cristina Malcolmson has shown in great detail, one feature that united microscopists across this great variety of work was an interest in skin colour. Many of these figures produced investigations or microscopic dissections of what they termed “negro” or “Ethiopian” skin, including Malphigi, Bidloo, and the German Johann Pechlin. Perhaps best known among these is the Dutch anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus whose 1737 essay on ‘The origin and causes of the colour of Africans’ was accompanied by coloured plates (see Fig. 4). These illustrations, produced by Jan L’Admiral show the thumb and two pieces of skin from a ‘foeminae Aethiopis’ (an African woman). One piece of skin, shown in the top left of the plate, has been dissected to show the position of the dark pigmented layer within it. As learned conceptions of human difference began to shift from Hippocratic geo-humoral or climatological theories to a pseudo-biological concept of “race”, it appears that anatomical and medical thinkers enshrined skin colour as a marker of human difference.

Fig. 4: From Bernard Siegfried Albinus, Dissertatio secunda de sede et caussa coloris Aethiopum et caeterorum hominum (1737). Wellcome Collection.

This might appear a very traditional history, by a conservative group of men — hardly “radical history”. But there is a twist. While it is often assumed that such work stemmed from older traditions of anatomical interest — part of the same trajectory of knowledge from Vesalius on — I would suggest that this is wholly untrue. In the longer scientific trajectory in which observation, empirical evidence, institutions and correspondence all play important roles, the emergence of skin colour appears as a disruption. This is not because it presented “new” knowledge per se, but because it re-presented “old” knowledge, co-opting and silencing the commonplace, and creating conservative expert authority where none had existed before.

Early modern anatomical thinkers were, on the whole, not interested in skin. While historians such as Claudia Benthien and Steven Connor have tended to equate the striking visual images of skin in anatomical illustrations with an anatomical interest in skin, in fact early anatomists paid relatively little attention to the skin of the body, often reverting to metaphor in its description. Indeed, as écorchés, frontispieces and fugitive sheets all attest, skin was almost never the object of anatomical investigation: instead, it was a barrier. Getting through the skin, while leaving it intact was the highest mark of anatomical skill (see Fig. 5); cutting it up and looking at it constituted something entirely different. This is not to say that such writers were entirely inattentive to or ignorant about skin. Vesalius, Valverde, and later Jean Riolan all distinguished between cutis and cuticle (dermis and epidermis), and mentioned a fatty membrane (panniculus) situated further inside the body. But they said nothing at all to connect this to colour, nor did skin signify anything of note about the body within.

Fig. 5: Écorché in Juan Valverde de Amusco, Historia de la composicion del cuerpo humano (1568). Wellcome Collection.

Skin was more important to writers with an interest in disease. Between 1572 and 1714, five important texts were published on the topic of skin disease. Although they ruminate on its anatomy, its physiology, its texture, its capacity to feel touch (and mostly how it was attached to the body elsewhere but could wrinkle on the forehead), these early “dermatological” treatises contain nary a mention of colour as an attribute of skin.

This tells us something important: when skin colour became a subject of scholarly interest in the later seventeenth century, it was not because of an organic development within the medical or scientific community. When we examine the actual knowledge presented, this is even more obvious. Despite the claims of authors like Albinus or Pechlin, their texts about skin presented little new information. Over three years of collective work on the Renaissance Skin project, it has become very clear to me and my colleagues that the questions natural historians, physicians and microscopists started to ask about skin in the seventeenth century which were not limited to colour, but which did include questions about colour — e.g. what made black skin black? Could black skin change to white skin? — were questions to which the answers were already well known.

It is crucial to recognize that while the texts such as these presented knowledge about skin colour in a new way, the ontology of skin colour was already established. It was not a medical subject, however, but the preserve of craft knowledge. Throughout the early modern period a whole variety of craft identities possessed special knowledge of specific aspects of skin, from slaughterers and executioners to butchers, tanners, fell-mongers, leather-workers, cobblers, and parchment-makers. It can be presumed that all such “artisans of the body”, as Sandra Cavallo has termed them, might have had specialized knowledge of some properties of skin. In terms of skin colour, however, one particular craft dealt specifically in its removal or preservation: those who worked with parchment.

The process of making parchment remained largely unchanged over the centuries of the medieval and early modern era. In outline, making parchment consisted of several recognizable and repeatable steps, first soaking the skin in acid (or urine) to remove the hair (this step was shared with the process of tanning, and may in some occasions have been carried out for parchment makers by tanners or fellmongers). The skin was then stretched across a frame, which varied in shape depending on the country. Stretching the skin involved a complex process of tacit knowledge about the grain and flexibility of skin, which dictated where to tie the skin and how to stretch it (see Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: The Parchment Maker, from Hans Sachs and Jost Amman, Das Ständebuch (1568). British Museum, 0206.103.100.

For the question of skin colour, the most significant step came next. This consisted of shaving or ‘scudding’ the skin, a process by which the original pigmentation was removed, along with the exterior layers of skin which might contain superficial markings. The skin was then left on the frame to dry out. Assiduous parchment makers tightened the skin daily to assist its eventual shape, before it was eventually taken down, cut to size and treated to tint it, shave it further or otherwise finalize its aesthetic appeal. While the skin’s colour was easy to remove, even after scudding, stretching, drying and further shaving, exterior and interior markings of the body remained. The process of parchment-making clearly demonstrated the same aspect of skin to which a thinker like Pechlin reluctantly returned: the superficiality, instability and mutability of skin colour, even while it reinforced the permanence and identifying function of skin-marking.

Nor was such knowledge limited to those who made parchment; even a cursory perusal of popular literature shows that the processes of parchment making were well-known outside the pliers of the trade. Some of this is evident from the prevalence of recipes for parchment, which repeat in sources from the eighth to the nineteenth century. They suggest not only a widespread interest in the making of parchment, but a broad understanding the anatomical features of skin involved. For example, a recipe from Ashmole MS 1491 comments that abortive calf-skin, used for vellum, was so fine it contained no pores)

The popularity of parchment as a material, which continued right through the early modern period, transmitted its features widely. They appear in Shakespeare (Hamlet: Is not parchment made of sheepskins?/Horatio: Ay, my Lord, and of calfskins too), in advertisements (see Fig. 7) and in tradescards, catalogues and descriptions of parchment objects. The province of parchment was widespread. In his unfinished treatise on manuscripts, the English naturalist and antiquary John Evelyn (1620-1706) described searching for lost Parchments among “Trades & other Crafts (besides the Leafe Gold beaters, Book-binders, past-board & the makers of Musical Instruments, who use it about the ribs of Lutes, and other occasions)… from Upholsterers and Brokers, & from Countray and Illiterate people & servants”.

Fig. 7: Martin Engelbrecht, Parchementiere (c.1730). British Museum, 1996,1103.85.

Writers of micrography texts were themselves directly aware of such findings. The Royal Society was well known to be fascinated with craft knowledge. It can be seen that it was specifically acquainted with the manual procedures of parchment making. In 1663 the clergyman and writer John Beale appeared before the Royal Society to discuss the making of parchment, and was subsequently invited to submit a series of reports on the subject. These included illustrations of the frame on which the clean skin was hung to dry, and detailed description of the techniques involved in scudding and shaving the skin, as in this image from the Royal Society.

The relative superficiality of skin colour, as well as the widespread diversity of pigmentation, unconnected to differences in either physiognomy or anatomy, was well-known to early modern Europeans across diverse occupations and social standings. It would be easy to characterize this turn as a story of learned appropriation of artisanal knowledge, but I do not believe this to be the case. In thinking about the significance of skin colour in the seventeenth century, it is crucial to also consider the significance of its absence from learned discourse in the centuries prior. Skin colour was neither a medical nor an anatomical subject. In recent years scholars including Cristina Malcomson, James Delbourgo and Roxanne Wheeler have pointed to the colonial interests of institutions such as the Royal Society in shaping new knowledge. But the politics of knowledge were not always about creation. By posing a question where none existed, writers from Malpighi to Pechlin contributed not to making skin colour known, but to making it strange.

Further Reading:
Sandra Cavallo, Artisans of the Body in Early Modern Italy: Identities, Families and Masculinities (Manchester University Press, 2007).
Sujata Iyegar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Colour in Early Modern England (University of Pennyslvania Press, 2004).
Craig Koslofsky, “Superficial Blackness? Johann Nicolas Pechlin’s De Habitu et Colore Aethiopum Qui Vulgo Nigritae (1677)”, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 18 (2018): 140-158.
Cristina Malcolmson, Studies of Skin Colour in the Early Royal Society, Ashgate, 2013.
Cristina Malcolmson & Sujata Iyegar (eds.), “Race and Skin Marking in the Early Modern Period”, Special Issue, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 18 (2018): 134-212.
Roxanne Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

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