A Bitter-Sweet Cure

[n.d.]. Citron x sour orange, Citrus medica L. x Citrus aurantium L.: whole and half-fruits. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003813548.
Chalk and Watercolor of a Citrus Fruit

Depicted is a watercolor painting of a citrus fruit, most likely a citron or sour orange, painted in the 17th century by the Italian artist, Cassiano Dal Pozzo. The image itself is nothing special, consisting of watercolors over black chalk and depicting a simple, anatomical diagram of a citrus fruit. Great detail is shown, with seed, pulp texture, coloration pattern, and irregularities all being paid careful attention. What is extraordinary about the drawing is not the image itself, but the socioeconomic and historical importance of its subject.

Citrus fruit was a crucial but often forgotten element of the transatlantic travel which made possible the discovery of the New World and the spread of colonialism. The events which occurred on account of citrus were an enormous step in the direction of modernity, eventually catalyzing major movements for social and political change such as the Enlightenment period and the rise of several great empires. The reason for citrus’ importance in oceanic travel is that it provided the most accessible and, at the time, most medically advanced cure for Scurvy, the disease which ravaged sea-faring crews in the 15th to 18th centuries, accounting for massive percentages of deaths at sea.

Scurvy itself was a disease which arose from a lack of vitamin C in the diet, a discovery which Europeans did not make until much later when the research of James Lind confirmed what was already known: that oranges and lemons prevent and remedy scurvy. Even without the scientific reasoning for the method, the effects of citrus became widely known by the end of the 15th century among European explorers. Records from the voyages of Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama, indicate not only an awareness of the disease, but a chaotic and ongoing struggle to cure it. This consisted of some ridiculous attempts such as the drinking of one’s own urine and bloodletting. Other famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus also directly reference scurvy in their reports, some reporting death rates greater than 80%.

When it was discovered that the cure for such a disparaging illness was so availably at hand, the implementation of citrus in the diets of sailors was immediate. Governments ensured the distribution of rations of oranges and lemons across naval crews in an effort to prevent the tragic and financially catastrophic loss of nearly entire crews. Before the death rate dropped and stabilized, governments of nations involved in the race for transatlantic exploration had become desperate enough to forcibly employ the residents of mental hospitals as naval crews. The discovery of the fruit was a relief to all. It is important, however, to note that citrus fruit back then was not what it is today. Citrons and lemons were the main source of citrus, both of which were bitter and unpleasant to consume. Sweet oranges were not introduced until later when citrus fruits became genetically modified to taste better. Thus the citrus which sailors were made to eat was little better than a spoonful of medicine would be today.


[n.d.]. Citron x sour orange, Citrus medica L. x Citrus aurantium L.: whole and half-fruits. https://library.artstor.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003813548.

Mayberry, Jason A. “Scurvy and Vitamin C.” Food and Drug Law, (2004): whole article.

Tiesler, Vera. “Scurvy‐related Morbidity and Death among Christopher Columbus’ Crew at La Isabela, the First     European Town in the New World (1494–1498): An Assessment of the Skeletal and Historical Information.” (2014): whole article. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1LQkh6gRc3kL-PQhXGIu4skhDuBNS6VKQiS9X8iv1N0M/edit.

Earle, Rebecca. The Body of The Conquistador., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pg 54.

Lind, James. “A Treatise of the Scurvy, in Three Parts.” 1753. Accessed October 8, 2018. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=02d66b2-8b8c-4746-8130-8c77e1c6da1f@sessionmgr4009&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU=#AN=ford.1080465&db=cat00989a.

Unveiling the Enlightenment

Peter Paul Rubens. 1610-15. Four figures in Oriental dress, a Moorish warrior, two members of the Greek clergy, a lady with a facial veil. drawing. Place: British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/. https://library.artstor.org/asset/AGERNSHEIMIG_10313163248.
Sketch of Four Figures in Oriental Dress

Depicted here is a sketch from 1610-1615 of four figures in oriental dress made in Belgium by the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. The figure on the farthest right is the figure of interest, as it is the artist’s rendition of a woman wearing an Islamic veil. The significance of this image and this figure in particular is its representation of the detached and misinformed orientalist view which Europeans held of Eastern cultures in the 16thand 17thcenturies. The veil in the drawing does not remotely reflect the actual appearance of veils as staple articles of female apparel in the Ottoman empire that were observed and analyzed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Montagu was a female letter writer in the 17thand 18thcenturies who traveled in Turkey and came to be known as an Enlightenment thinker because of her revolutionary descriptions of foreign culture. Montagu covered subjects such as the veil, introducing new perspectives on objects and ideas that were traditionally looked down upon until that point.

Before Montagu, Europeans generally considered the veil as a perfect symbol of female oppression, an interpretation which, although less common, is still prevalent today. Although the veil as a centerpiece of Islamic culture is clearly an imperfect and controversial item, Lady Montagu began to consider its redeeming qualities for the first time. She went so far as to describe it as a feminist symbol that made Turkish women the only free people in the empire. In her eyes, this freedom stemmed from the anonymity that came with wearing a veil, a power which allowed women to escape their gender role in society and engage in less tolerated activities. One of these activities in which Montagu appeared to have a particular interest was adultery, something which the veil would allow Turkish women to participate in without fear of repercussion. This opened the door to a new interpretation of other elements of sexuality, contributing to one of the major changes of the Enlightenment period which was a review of what was sexually appropriate.

Montagu’s descriptions of the veil also granted it importance as a purely cultural symbol and contributed to the Enlightenment movement away from the orientalist perception of the East. The mere existence of a positive defense and counterargument in favor of the veil introduced a new form of thought to Europe, placing an emphasis on tolerance and appreciation rather than disrespect and aggression when it came to foreign cultures. The first step towards acceptance of foreign culture provided a strong contrast to the approaches of earlier explorers such as Christopher Columbus who immediately resorted to reform and enslavement when encountered with a new culture. The effort to understand the cultures of the “Orient” through items such as the veil eventually evolved into the view of tolerance and validation which we hold today.



Behiery, Valerie. “A Short History of the (Muslim) Veil.” Implicit Religion16, no. 4 (2014). Accessed November 11, 2018. doi:10.1558/imre.v16i4.387.

Grenda, C. S. “Thinking Historically about Diversity: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Construction of Civic Culture in Early America.” Journal of Church and State 48, no. 3 (2006): 567-600. Accessed November 28, 2018. doi:10.1093/jcs/48.3.567.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. “The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.” The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,Vol. 1: 1708-1720, 1965, All Pages. doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00053479.

Murray, James C., Oliver Dunn, and James E. Kelley. “The Diario of Christopher Columbus’ First Voyage to America, 1492-1493.” Hispania74, no. 1 (1991): 72. doi:10.2307/344539.

Peter Paul Rubens. 1610-15. Four figures in Oriental dress, a Moorish warrior, two members of the Greek clergy, a lady with a facial veil. drawing. Place: British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/.

Taylor, Barbara. “Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850.” History Workshop Journal 47, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 261-72. Accessed November 28, 2018. doi:10.1093/hwj/1999.47.261.