Taking too much latitude

I mentioned in a post long ago that I am interested in how longitude and latitude get used in eighteenth century literature to discuss social boundaries. Back in 2010, I thought I had found the perfect subject for a blog post when I came across the statement in A Satyr on Women of the Town by Thomas Browne from 1708, that ‘You might as easily fix the Longitude, as a Woman’s mind’ [1]. From a humorous blog post this has now become a whole chapter of my PhD, about longitude, women and the boundaries of scientific and sexual knowledge in the eighteenth century, so I don’t want to give the game away too much.

However, one of the interests that I’ve also posted here before is the frequency with which cucumbers seem to crop up in satires on the history of science. One day I will do some proper research into this. But, in the meantime, I couldn’t resist sharing this satirical blending of female sexuality, longitude/latitude and garden vegetables from The Schemer. Or, Universal Satirist published by Charles Morell in 1763. Within a discussion of the variability of concepts of virtue in different societies, Morell commented thus:

‘nothing, upon the whole face of the earth, alters so much as the ladies notions of modesty, except it be the gentlemans notion of honour … the growth of modesty is always contrary, but yet always in proportion to the growth of vegetables … it increases in proportion to the decrease of space in the degrees of longitude, and if this is the truth, how anxious should our philosophers and divines be to establish the system of Cassini in contradiction to Sir Isaac’ [2].

The astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini had argued that the earth’s shape was elongated at the poles, in comparison to Sir Isaac Newton, such that for Morell, Cassini’s world would present narrowing degrees of longitude towards the poles and therefore a greater abundance of women with dubious morality, although also fewer opportunities for growing cucumbers. Earlier in the century, Cassini’s accurate determinations of longitude at the Paris observatory as astronomer to the French crown had allowed the accurate mapping of France for the first time. As his kingdom turned out to be considerably smaller than thought, Louis XIV is said to have quipped that Cassini had taken more land from him than he had won in all of his battles.

In this case Cassini was taking longitude, but in Morell’s satirical extension of his science, it was the ladies taking latitude that counted.

[1] The third volume of the works of Mr. Thomas Brown, containing, Amusements serious & comical, calculated for the meridian of London (London, 1708) pp.79-80
[2] The schemer. Or, universal satirist. By that great philosopher Helter van Scelter. Illustrated with Notes Critical and Explanatory, by some of … Morell, Charles, Sir. (London, 1763), p.20

(Both sources available on ECCO)

3 thoughts on “Taking too much latitude

  1. Alexi Baker

    Fun! I used to find occasional uses of scientific instruments in satirizing female changeability, as when a thermometer was invented to reveal the changing passions of a female wearer – but it appears that the longitude was employed in satires and in metaphors far more often than were instruments.

    Reply
  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    I look forward to the cucumber research! It’s interesting that they have inherent humour, even at the period that Pepys was writing about people having died from eating them (I presume a danger of using unclean water?).

    Reply
  3. Alexi Baker

    Perhaps there were simply so many things which could kill you then (unless cucumber humour had a dark underbelly)?

    Reply

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