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Lynn Thorndike

Mediaeval Magic and Science in the

Seventeenth Century*


Volume 28, Issue 4

Oct. 1953, 692-704.

ARISTOTLE had accepted four inferior elements below the sphere of the moon: namely, earth, water, air, and fire, but had distinguished the heavenly spheres from these as a fifth essence which was incorruptible.  This view prevailed generally through the mediaeval period.  In the middle of the fourteenth century, however, John of Rupescissa composed a work called ‘The Consideration of the Fifth Essence.’  In it he suggested that, as the heavens were an incorruptible fifth essence, so the corruption of the human body might be staved off by a quintessence extracted from each of the elements or from the mixed bodies of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms.  He waxed especially enthusiastic over the fifth essence from antimony.

In the seventeenth century many still accepted the doctrine of four elements, while others reduced them to three or two, and Van Helmont went back to the hypothesis of Thales that everything was composed of water.  Descartes, of course did not recognize any of the old four elements, his three being differentiated only in figure and motion.  The doctrine that the heavens were incorruptible was more generally abandoned, and some identified them with fire, while others held that air also filled the heavens and was continuous with the sky.  On the other hand, Caspar Bartholinus as late as 1697 estimated the height of the earth’s atmosphere as hardly one mile, although he knew that its weight raises water thirty-two feet, and held that the precipitation from it was sufficient to supply all springs and rivers.  He also still spoke of three regions of air, as had been customary through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although in the thirteenth Michael Scot and Thomas of Cantimpré had listed seven.  Five years before Bartholinus’s book, Etienne Chauvin in his Rational Lexicon of 1692, had reduced the three regions of air to two, variously estimated as extending eight, forty or fifty miles above sea level.  But he was sure that the loftiest mountains surpassed this height by many parasangs and reached the purest ether - a vague appellation which many applied to the substance of the heavens.  For Chauvin, too, it was still an open question whether springs of water originated from precipitation or from the sea - a question much debated throughout the seventeenth century.

While the substance which fills the heavens came to be called ether rather than fifth essence, the conception of quintessences extractable from things about us, which John of Rupescissa had developed in the fourteenth century, was widespread among the alchemists and chemists of the seventeenth century, although they usually incorrectly ascribed it to Paracelsus or to Raymond Lull, under whose name one version of Rupescissa’s treatise was current.  His stress on antimony also marked the chemical manuals of the seventeenth century, and was

* Read at the annual dinner of the Mediaeval Academy of America

held at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York on 17 April 1953.

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long a bone of contention between the dogmatic school of medicine and the spagyrics, or advocates of the employment of chemical remedies.  At Paris, where in 1566 a decree of the faculty of medicine was passed against the use of antimony, and where Gui Patin, who lived from 1601 to 1672, cursed it all through his correspondence and career, sixty-one members of the faculty signed in favor of antimony in 1653, and 92 out of 102 voted for it in 1666.

Incidentally, Patin was an ardent advocate of the practice of blood-letting which had continued through the mediaeval period, although he felt that it had been somewhat neglected in favor of polypharmacy and Arabic medicine.  In 1633 a royal physician who had rheumatism was bled sixty-four times in eight months, and Patin had another patient bled thirty-two times for a continuous fever, and he was ‘entirely cured, for which I praise God.’  When Patin was summoned to attend Hobbes, the English philosopher was in such pain that he wanted to kill himself but refused to be bled on the ground that he was sixty-four and too old.  But next morning he assented and was, according to Patin, much better in consequence, and after that Patin said - they became great pals.  But Patin was accused of responsibility for the death of Gassendi, who died at the age of sixty-three, by excessive phlebotomy in his last illness.  On the other hand, Patin recounted with great satisfaction the death of La Brosse, head of the Jardin du Roy, who had contracted dysentery from eating too many melons and drinking too much wine - ‘as usual,’ adds Patin.  He had his entire body rubbed with oil of yellow amber for four days, and then swallowed on an empty stomach a large glass of brandy with a little astringent oil.  When this did no good, he took an emetic, but died as it was working.  ‘So vomited forth his impure soul that impure wretch, most expert in killing men!’  He had refused to be bled, calling it the remedy of sanguinary pedants, and said that be would rather die.  Patin added: ‘The devil will bleed him in the other world, as one deserves who was a knave, an atheist, an impostor, a homicide, and a public executioner.’

Belief in marvelous virtues of gems, herbs, and animals had ever been a doughty ally, indeed one might well say, an integral part, of magic.  Since no rational explanation of them could be offered in terms of the accepted science of the time, with its four elements and four primary qualities of hot and cold, moist and dry, they were accounted for in the Middle Ages either by the influence of the celestial bodies and their mysterious and incorruptible fifth essence upon terrestrial substances, or simply attributed to occult qualities and virtues, specific form, and the action of the whole substance.  This conception of action by some occult quality was by no means universally abandoned in the seventeenth century.  But revivers of the atomistic theory of Epicurus and Lucretius like Gassendi, advocates of a new method like Descartes, and adherents of the corpuscular philosophy of Boyle felt that it was a confession of weakness to resort to occult qualities in the explanation of natural phenomena, and that they could explain these marvelous virtues mechanically by the action of particles which were so subtle and tiny as to be intangible and invisible.  Thrown off as effluvia, these infinitesimal particles entered the pores of such substances as exactly fitted them and thus effected by contact what had seemed to be action at a distance, as in the case of the mag-


net’s attracting iron, the torpedo fish numbing one’s arm, although touched only with the tip of a spear or ten-foot pole held in the hand, and the healing virtue of amulets worn about the neck or otherwise attached externally.

Resort was also had to spirits, not, however, in the sense of immaterial separate substances such as angels and demons, but of very subtle material fluids in the human and other bodies.  Besides the four humors - blood, phlegm, choler, and bile - Galen had distinguished animal spirits connected with the brain, vital with the heart, and natural with the liver.  Mediaeval alchemists further applied the term, spirits, to such substances as arsenic, quicksilver, sulphur and sal ammoniac.  In the sixteenth century Telesio, in attacking the natural philosophy of Aristotle, not only relied on such spirits to explain bodily functions, but even accounted for intellectual and moral qualities by the difference between the spirits in heat, tenuousness and purity.  In the seventeenth century Francis Bacon, although asserting that his method was ‘at least new, even in its very nature,’ continued this emphasis upon spirits.  His favorite explanation of natural phenomena was that in all tangible bodies there are very fine, rarefied, subtle and invisible spirits, which are neither heat nor vacuum, air or fire, but differ from one another as much as tangible bodies do.  They are almost never at rest and are easily dissipated, evaporate, infuse and boil away.  They govern nature principally.  Gems have in them fine spirits, as their splendor shows, and they may work upon the spirits of men to comfort and exhilarate them.  The leaf of the herb burrage has ‘an excellent spirit to repress the fuliginous vapor of dusky melancholy and so to cure madness.’  Cats and owls could not see by night, were there not a little light, sufficient for their visual spirits.  The reason why blows and bruises induce swellings is that the spirits rush to relieve that part of the body and draw the humors with them.

For William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, the spirits were never separated from the blood, but most authors of the century thought of the animal spirits as circulating through the motor and sensory nerves.  On the other hand, Steno, during his stay in Paris in 1664-1665, in a discourse on the brain before Thévenot’s circle, called the very existence of animal spirits into question.  But in the main such spirits were accepted, along with effluvia, by even the advocates of an atomistic and mechanistic interpretation of nature, and were employed as a useful substitute for the conception of occult qualities and virtues.

It is true that there was an increasing tendency on the part of sceptical Epicureans like Gassendi to reject outright some of these reported marvelous virtues as false.  Yet he did not question that shellfish fatten and that the marrow in the bones of animals increases with the waxing of the moon.  He attributed it, however, not to an occult influence of the moon but to particles of moisture on the moon which are excited by sunlight and then borne by the sun’s reflected rays to earth in greater number than at the time of the new moon.  Similarly that sheep shun a wolf which they have never seen before is because the wolf sheds corpuscles which are offensive to the sheep.  Or Gassendi repeats the statement of Lucretius that the reason why a lion is scared by the crowing of a cock is that the corpuscles emitted by the cock hurt the lion’s eyes.

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With all due respect to Lucretius and Gassendi, it must be said that more than one objection may be raised against this explanation.  In the first place, what proof is there that the cock emits corpuscles?  And if so, why should they be any more injurious than those emitted by the hen, especially when we think of fascination by witches, of the presence of a menstruating woman clouding a mirror, and that the female of the species is more deadly than the male?  In the third place, why is it that these injurious effluvia are emitted only when the cock crows?  In the fourth place, how and why do they injure the lion’s eyes rather than his nose or ears or paws or mane?  In the fifth place, why do Lucretius and Gassendi dodge the obvious explanation that the sound of the crowing startles the king of beasts, and adopt the extremely far-fetched theory that the effect of a noise is felt by an organ of vision?  Anyone could readily think up a dozen more plausible explanations.  But just so long as it is atomistic and corpuscular, it is good enough for Gassendi.

Aristotle and Pliny had told of the little fish called echeneis (HHC: Greek not displayed) of which a single specimen could bring a ship in full sail to a sudden halt by attaching itself to the keel.  Pliny indeed had waxed eloquent on the subject as follows:

We have now arrived at the culminating point of the wonders manifested to us by the operations of Nature.  And even at the very outset, we find spontaneously presented to us an incomparable illustration of her mysterious powers....

What is there more unruly than the sea, with its winds, its tornadoes, and its tempests?  And yet in what department of her works has Nature been more seconded by human ingenuity, than in this by the invention of sails and oars?  We are further impressed by the ineffable power of ocean tides, as they constantly ebb and flow, and regulate the currents of the sea as though these were the waters of one vast river.

Yet a single fish, and that of very diminutive size - the fish known as the echeneis - can counteract all these forces, though acting in unison and impelling in the same direction.  Winds may blow and storms may rage, yet the echeneis controls their fury, restrains their mighty force, and bids ships halt in their course; a result which no cables, no anchors… could ever have produced.  A fish bridles the impetuous violence of the deep and subdues the frantic rage of the universe - and all this by no effort of its own, no act of resistance on its part, no act at all, in fact, except attaching itself to the keel.

Pliny goes on to tell how the flagship of Antony was thus halted at the battle of Actium, and more recently the five-banked galley of the Emperor Caligula.

With such specific confirmation of the authority of Aristotle, few ventured to question the truth of the statement.  The church father Basil and Isidore of Seville quoted Pliny; William of Auvergne accepted it in the thirteenth century.  Thomas of Cantimpré said that it had seemed incredible to many, but since Ambrose, Jacques, Aristotle, Isidore, and Basil all affirmed it, he did not see how there was any room left for doubt.  Giovanni da Fontana continued credulous concerning it in the early fifteenth century.  Giannini very much doubted it in the sixteenth century, despite the authority of Aristotle, Pliny, and Aelian, but the sceptic Sanchez accepted it without question, as did Gesner, Freige, and others.  Pomponazzi suggested that the echeneis operated by occult virtue like the magnet; Fracastoro thought that it was merely a sign of the proximity of magnetic mountains which were the immediate cause of the ship’s stopping; Cardan held that the echeneis attached itself to the rudder rather than the keel and wobbled it so

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that the ship could not proceed.  If true, Giannini could attribute the effect only to occult virtue.  In the seventeenth century, of more than twenty authors whom I have examined, only three or four denied it.  For Valerio Martini, it was still an example of occult virtue.  For Francisco Torrelbanca of Cordova, it and the torpedo fish were unmistakable examples of magic, along with the magnet, asbestos, and ever-burning lamps found in ancient sepulchers.  Campenella suggested that the echeneis stupefied the vessel and rendered it repugnant to its natural motion, as the bite of a mad dog makes its victim inhuman and canine.  Gassendi discussed it for a full folio column and attributed the ship’s stopping to an adverse current rather than the remora.  Horst in 1682 wrote that the faculty by which the echeneis stopped ships was the contrary of that by which the magnet attracted iron.  Henckel in 1690 could do no better than repeat the reasoning of the great Spanish schoolman Suarez in the previous century.

Some say that, as the hand of the thrower gives an impetus to the missile which keeps it going after it has left his hand, so the remora or echeneis imprints a non-impetus upon the ship which keeps it standing still.  Others say that it detains the vessel by innate virtue, as a man holds a stone in his hand so that it cannot fall.  Yet others say that it so attaches itself to the ship that it cannot be moved, nor can the ship.  Suarez’s own conclusion is that, however, it happens, there is no doubt that it comes from some marvelous and occult virtue, aided very likely by some special and connatural celestial influence.

Besides such occult virtue and celestial influence, sympathy and antipathy were an explanation of apparent magic and action at a distance to which resort was made as often in the seventeenth as in the mediaeval centuries, as the twenty-six treatises in the Theatrum sympatheticum of 1662 bear witness and repeated reference to the conception by many other writers.  Weapon ointment now commanded more attention and support than it had in the sixteenth century.  Much discussed was the question whether the corpse of the victim would bleed at the approach of the murderer and only at his approach, a question ventilated by Nicole Oresme and Henny of Hesse in the fourteenth century and by Galeotto Marzio in the fifteenth.  Indeed, Peter of Abano, the famous Conciliator, at the end of the thirteenth century in a passage of his Commentary upon the Problems of Aristotle, had given an explanation of the phenomenon which was repeated by Lazarus Gutierez of the University of Valladolid in 1653 and which was perhaps both as ingenious and as probable as any that was offered.  The slayer, by virtue of his fury and strong imagination, had impressed on his victim spirits of hostility aroused at the time of the crime and emitted from his - the slayer’s - body.  When the murderer reappears, these material spirits tend to return to his body where they belong.  In doing so, they stir the corpse and draw blood from the wound with or after them.  Others attempted to explain the bleeding corpse in terms of sympathy and antipathy.

The force of sympathy was also involved in the Biolychnium of Johann Ernst Burggrav.  This Lamp of Life and Death was fed with a liquid made from human blood which burned as long as the blood-giver lived, went out when be died, and presumably flickered when he fell ill.

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For such diseases as dropsy, jaundice, and leprosy, Burggrav gave the following prescription.  Empty an egg and fill the shell with some of the patient’s blood, then close the aperture with fish-glue.  Place the egg under a setting hen for a fortnight, then feed it to a pig or a dog, and the disease will be transferred to the animal.  Such transplantation or magic transfer of disease to plants and animals was much practiced in the seventeenth century, and many examples of it might be given.

Another example of the belief in sympathy then is had in the oft repeated tale of the grafted nose, which, when the original owner of the skin employed in the grafting died, rotted and fell off.  Caspar Schott in 1665, however, cast doubt upon this story.  He furthermore declared impossible the supposed sympathetic action of two compasses at a great distance from each other, or that friends after having mingled a little of their blood, could communicate from afar.  If one of them pricked his skin, similar punctures were said to appear upon the body of the other.

In the fourteenth century William de Marra of Padua, in a work on poisons addressed to Pope Urban V (1362-1370), suggested as an explanation for hydrophobia that the patient shunned water because vapors from his eyes, infected with rabies, were reflected in the water and made him imagine that he saw there the dog which bad bit him.  William further referred to the belief that bits of flesh or fat resembling puppies appear in the patient’s urine, and it was repeated by Christopher de Honestis and John Martin later in the same century.  This latter notion persisted in the seventeenth century and is found as late as 1709 in Garmann’s De miraculis mortuorum, although S. A. Fabricius had published a medical disquisition against it at Padua in 1665 and Meibomius and Gaspar à Reies had questioned it earlier.  But Daniel Sennert (1572-1637), who for many was a great medical authority, had rung further changes and variations upon it, such as discussing whether and why images of dogs sometimes appear in the urine of mad dogs - rather than in that of the sufferer from hydrophobia, or repeating, as Frommann reminds us in 1675, upon the solemn assurances of trustworthy persons, that animals similar to small puppies are generated from the foam of mad dogs which has adhered to one’s clothing.

William de Marra further remarked that the bite of the spider called tarantula was relieved by music, because its poison induced melancholy, for which the best antidote is rejoicing.  The vulgar and ignorant say that the insect itself sings when it bites, and that, when the patient hears similar cadences, it is a great relief to him.  William was unwilling to entertain this explanation, but he thought that it might be possible that the pleasure derived from the music attracted the spirits from within the body to its periphery and so prevented the poison from penetrating to the vitals.  From a score of seventeenth century discussions of the bite of the tarantula, let us take for comparison that by Walter Charleton, an Oxford M.D. and Fellow of the Royal Society, who in 1654 published a résumé in English of the Epicurean or atomic natural science of Gassendi, whose discussion of the same matter it resembles but is longer and more detailed.

The bite of the tarantula makes a man ‘dance most violently at the same time every year’ as when he was bit, ‘till he be perfectly cured thereby, being invincible


by any other antidote but Musick,’ which affects the animal spirits in the brain and so the whole body and attenuates the poison ‘by a way very like that of fermentation,’ setting the patient to dancing until the venom is expelled by a profuse sweat.  Different victims require different tunes and musical instruments to dance to, according to the type of tarantula that has bitten them and also according to their own temperaments.  The melancholy needs drums, trumpets and sackbuts; the choleric and sanguine are cured by stringed instruments.  The musicians of Taranto seek out a tarantula like the one which bit the patient, find out what tunes the spider will dance to, and then employ them with success upon the patient.  But a French writer, Meyssonnier, added the caution that music availed not in the case of those who had drunk wine in which a tarantula had drowned.

The possibility of prolonging life to 120 years, or of renewing one’s youth like the snake and the eagle, of discovering an alchemical elixir of life, or a fountain of youth in the New World, still occupied men’s minds in the seventeenth century.

Francis Bacon seems to have been more interested in the prolongation of life and health than in the cure of disease.  He thought that purges were more conducive to a long life than exercise and sweats were, arguing that perspiration drove out not only noxious humors but also good juices and spirits.  On the other hand, frequent blood-letting might be beneficial by renewing the fluids of the body.  He held that persons with long legs were likely to live longer than those with long trunks.  He knew a great man who attained a long life and whose custom it was to have a fresh sod of earth brought to him every morning while he was still in bed, and he would hold his head over it for some time.  Unicorn horn was rather out of favor when Bacon wrote, but the bezoar stone, gold and powdered pearls, emeralds or jacinths, were still highly regarded as promoting longevity.  Among his own favorites were ‘Grains of Youth’ and ‘Methusalem water.’  The former comprised four parts of nitre, three of ambergris, two of orris-powder, one-quarter of white poppy seed, one-half of saffron, with water of orange blossoms and a little tragacanth.  These ingredients were to be made into four small grains which were to be taken at four o’clock or upon retiring for the night.  Methusalem water was the product of repeated washing, steeping, drying and pulverizing of shells, tops of rosemary, pearl, ginger, white poppy seed, saffron, nitre, ambergris, cucumbers sliced in milk and stewed in wine, vinegar, spirits of wine, and so forth.  Bacon tells us that Frederick ‘Barbarossa in his extreme old age’ - he was not yet seventy when he died on the third crusade - by the advice of his Jewish physician applied young boys to his abdomen to warm and comfort it, and other old men ‘lay wheips (creatures of the hottest kind) close to their stomachs every night.’  Despite such nostrums, Bacon died at sixty-five.

Francisco Torreblanca of Cordova believed that old men might renew their youth, and that the phoenix lives to be five hundred years old, because it never indulges in sexual intercourse.  He further assures us that the devil can enable a man to fast for a long time, for the chameleon, according to Pliny, has such a large lung that it can live on air alone, while about the year 1288 a girl had subsisted for thirty years on the eucharist alone.  Similarly Athanasius Kircher in his Mundus subterraneus tells of a diver who spent so much time under water that a

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web grew between his fingers like that on the foot of a duck, while his lungs became so distended that they contained a supply of air sufficient for an entire day.

Speaking of water of orange blossoms, it may be noted that Sir Isaac Newton breakfasted regularly on ‘orange peel boiled in water which he drank’ instead of tea, ‘sweetened with sugar and with bread and butter. He thinks this dissolves phlegm,’ we are told.

Such favorite phrases of late mediaeval scholasticism and of the pseudo-Lullian alchemical corpus as calidum innatum (innate heat) and humidum radicale (fundamental moisture) were abandoned by Caspar Bartholinus in the last decade of the seventeenth century.  But the former phrase had been employed by Caimus in 1616, by Marcus Marci in 1635, Zaccagnini in 1644, Conring in 1647, and Hoffman in 1667; while humidum radicale was used by Bartoletti in 1619, William Harvey in 1651, and J. J. Becher, who at Munich had the finest chemical laboratory in Europe, in 1669.  Earlier Jean d’Espagnet had described it as ‘something immortal, which neither disappears with death nor is consumed by… the most violent fire, but remains unconquered in corpses and ashes.’  In 1648 the French Jesuit, Etienne Natalis, said that the spirits contained in humidum radicale divided into material and formal parts, one elementary, the other, celestial.

It may seem a long cry from the seventeenth century back to the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century.  Yet, when Caspar Bauhin, noted primarily as a botanist, published two books on the nature of hermaphrodites and monstrous births from the opinions of theologians, jurisconsults, medical men, philosophers and rabbis, they were further described in the long Latin title as plane philologici.  In a work on the salamander by Wurffbain in 1683, the opening chapter on whether such an animal existed was followed by other chapters upon its etymology, homonyms, and synonyms, before a word was said of its natural history and reputed living in fire, for which he listed fifty favoring authors and ten against this based upon experiment.

Wurffbain had first submitted his work to the German Academy of the Curious concerning Nature.  This lead was promptly followed in a big way and petty manner by Christian Franz Paullini.  His Cynographia curiosa or Description of the Dog was ‘according to the method and laws of the illustrious Academy of the Curious as to Nature,’ and was prefaced by letters of congratulation and recommendation by no fewer than thirty-six members of that society and twenty-five others.  The work was in four sections: the first was philological-physical-anatomical; the second was about the sacred, political, economic, and satanic use of the dog; the third, chemical-medical; and the fourth, physico-medical.  Paullini followed it up the very next year by a treatise on the toad which was also according to the method and laws of the aforesaid academy and which he dedicated to Wurffbain.  It was in two sections: philological-historical-physical, and medical-practical.  In it Thomas of Cantimpré’s thirteenth-century story of the ungrateful son, goose, and toad is spun out at great length, Paullini recounts the spontaneous generation of the toad, its antipathy with the spider, tells of the toadstone (Bufonites), that Norwegian pitch poisons toads, and questions whether the basilisk is produced by a toad sitting on the egg laid by a cock. The answer is:


Not ordinarily.  From dog and toad Paullini proceeded to volumes on the sacred herb, salvia, mole, eel, hare, wolf, and ass.  Judging from the three of these that I have examined, all follow a similar plan of presentation and profess to be according to the norm of the Academy.  In that on the wolf there is a chapter upon its use in prodigies and portents.  That on the ass includes chapters on asinine prodigies and omens, asinine dreams, asinine miracles and forecasts, pretended and superstitious ass-worship, superstitious use of the ass, and magical use of it.

After long hesitation, Athanasius Kircher felt obliged to admit the existence of flying dragons, as Roger Bacon had done in his day.  Kircher tells of one with two feet and wings seen in Switzerland in 1619 and of another slain by a Roman hunter in 1660.  Its head was brought to Kircher’s museum, and it had had two feet like those of a goose, but, when found, it had already putrefied, while the hunter had died that night from its poison.  Kircher further tells of a mediaeval winged dragon on the island of Rhodes with a poisonous breath, which had proved to be so invincible that the local king finally forbade anyone henceforth to attack it.  Nevertheless a certain Deodatus de Gozano from Italy decided to make the attempt.  In 1345 be constructed an artificial dragon and trained his horse and dogs to attack it, while his servants were provided with drugs to resuscitate him from the venom of the dragon’s breath.  Thus prepared, he returned to Rhodes to encounter the dragon.  After the dogs had gallantly fulfilled their function, and the dragon, distracted by pain and chagrin, had reared up on its hind legs, thus exposing the vulnerable side of its body, the doughtly Deodatus, putting spurs to his steed, charged in and delivered the coup de grace.  The king nevertheless imprisoned him for having disobeyed the ordinance, but the people murmured so that he was soon released and ultimately became the king’s successor.

The statements of the Bible concerning natural phenomena and occult arts carried as much weight and created as great difficulties in the seventeenth century as they had through the mediaeval period.  The account of creation in the Book of Genesis, the waters above the firmament, the sun standing still, the asp closing its ear to the incantations of snake charmers, how the carnivorous animals in Noah’s ark were fed, the witch of Endor and apparition of Samuel, the feats of Pharaoh’s magicians, the star of the Magi, the eclipse during the Passion, Behemoth and Leviathan, Jacob and the ewes, and Rachel and the mandrakes, were but some of the passages of Scripture that raised problems which were rehearsed once more in the seventeenth century.  John Betts, royal physician in ordinary, Fellow of the London Medical College, and associated with Harvey, in a book of 1669 on the origin and nature of the blood, explained the ‘cloven tongues like as of fire,’ which appeared above the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost, as animal spirits or the fiery part of the blood which sometimes burst forth into flame.  A book that was reviewed in Philosophical Transactions in 1665 held that Solomon had already been acquainted with the circulation of the blood.  Becher, who was famous for his industrial inventions as well as for his chemical laboratory, assigned a large share in the process of creation to angels.  He affirmed that they had produced both macrocosm and microcosm by arranging particles into ‘the ideas of various species and bodies,’ to which the remaining particles of matter were then attracted.

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Paracelsus was much cited by the alchemists and chemists of the seventeenth century, but they also went back to mediaeval authorities such as Arnald of Villanova and Raymond Lull.  Indeed, Duchesne or Quercetanus early in the century protested that he had never abandoned the dogmatic school of Hippocrates, and that be condemned the Paracelsists but had imitated such good old authors as Raymond Lull, Roger Bacon, Ripley, Rupescissa, and Christopher of Paris - all dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

A treatise on the elixir for white and for red (silver and gold) and on the great philosophic stone is represented in the edition of 1664 as having been composed in 1632.  We read, ‘By my hope of heaven I have declared to you what my eyes have seen, my hands have operated, my fingers have extracted.  And I have written this booklet with my own hand, and signed it with my name, when I was in the last agony, the year 1632, May seventh.’  Really the date should be 7 May, 1482, as manuscripts of the work at Cassel and Orleans show.

On the other hand, no manuscripts of The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony by Basil Valentine, which was so much cited in the course of the seventeenth century, are earlier than the middle of that century, while the work was first printed in German in the early years of the century, and did not appear in Latin translation until the decade of the ‘forties.  Basil Valentine was supposed to have been a monk in the fifteenth century and a precursor of Paracelsus, but his name first appears in 1599.

For many men in the seventeenth century Roger Bacon was a kindred spirit.  Robert Fludd agreed with Gabriel Naudé that Roger had been wrongly accused of evil magic and had cherished only the good variety.  Jacques Gaffarel cited Bacon in his Unheard of Curiosities of 1629. Campanella during his long imprisonment made extravagant promises of the marvels which he would work, if released from captivity, which remind one of Roger’s program for education and experimental science.  He assured Cardinal Odoardo Farnese that, if set free, he would teach natural and moral philosophy, logic, rhetoric, poetic, politics, astrology, and medicine - all within a year’s time and in admirable fashion, accomplishing more than ten years of ordinary study in the schools would.  He would reform astronomy and the calendar.  He would prove against Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus - in favor of the Evangel - that the end of the world would be by fire.  Under pain of losing all credit as a scholar, if he failed, he would fabricate a marvelous city and ships that move without oars or sails.  He would open the whole world like a book from his mouth in two months, and, ‘when you hear me, your books will seem to you mere tricks of jugglers.’  If he but open his mouth at Rome, ‘you will see a new heaven and a new earth, and from north and south a great rush to the Catholic Faith.’  Gassendi might sneer at Bacon for representing Artephius as living for a thousand years by using a universal medicine or elixir of life, but failing to reach one hundred years himself.  Marcus Marci cited him on the rainbow through Combach’s edition of his section on Optics in Specula mathematica (Frankfurt, 1614), as well as Kepler’s commentary on Bacon’s contemporary, Witelo.  Borrichius in 1649 and Webster in 1671 made use of the ‘Epistle on the Secret Works of Art and Nature and Nullity of Magic.’  And when Robert Boyle writes: ‘I shall not scruple to confess to you that I disdain not to take notice


even of ludicrous experiments, and think that the “plays of boys” may sometimes deserve to be the study of philosophers,’ he reminds us of Roger’s ideal experimentalist who ‘blushed if some layman or old-wife or soldier or rustic knew what he ignored’ and who ‘examined even the experiments of old-wives and considered their divinations and incantations and those of all the magicians, and likewise the tricks and illusions of all the jugglers, in order that nothing which he ought to know might escape him.’  Sebastian Wirdig, in his New Medicine (Hamburg, 1673), quoted the ‘Secret Works of Art and Nature’ for a full page, and later quoted Bacon on talismans for nearly a page.

Albertus Magnus, too, was not forgotten in the seventeenth century.  In the catalogue of the Museo Calceolario at Verona, which contained specimens from all three kingdoms: animal, vegetable and mineral, he was frequently cited along with Pliny and Dioscorides.  Valerio Martini used him in his treatise on colors.  Works of doubtful authenticity and magical content ascribed to him, such as the Secreta and De mirabilibus mundi, were perhaps those which were read most.  Mersenne and Boyle questioned the genuineness of such works, but were probably unaware that in some cases similar statements may be found in Albert’s writings of undisputed authenticity.  Thus astrological images, for which I have found him cited by four authors in the seventeenth century, are supported in his De mineralibus.  At any rate, we find him cited by Sennert and Castiglione for an amulet; Martius in 1700 recalls his speaking head.  But J. J. Becher, writing to the Royal Society in 1680, had dismissed as a fable the story that Albertus Magnus had constructed a walking automaton which saluted and spoke to Thomas Aquinas, when it met him.  When Aquinas smashed it, Albertus complained that he had destroyed the labor of twenty years.  Guibelet in 1603 cites Albertus for a woman bearing twenty-two children at one birth; Besard in 1617, on ways to win love; Combach in 1620, for arguing that the stars might generate a human being from a cow.  Alexander de Vicentinis in 1634 denied the contention of astrologers that dreams were caused by the stars, and the opinion of Albertus Magnus - and Dante - that a continuous effiuvium from a celestial form affected the imagination of the dreamer.  Alvaro Alonso Barba still cited Albertus in his book on metallurgy of 1640.  But Marten Schoock, in his Celestial Physics published at Amsterdam in 1663, refused to listen to Albertus Magnus and others who attributed outbreaks of the plague to planetary conjunctions.  From De mirabilibus mundi were repeated such prescriptions as rubbing one’s eyes with the blood of a bat in order to be able to see in the dark.

Indeed, in general we find the books of secrets and of so-called experiments of thirteenth-century manuscripts closely paralleled, in seventeenth-century publications.  Much was said of secrets and arcana of nature, and in favor of a mystic and cryptic style of writing, particularly in alchemy.  Medical cases and prescriptions were still spoken of as experiments.  A single secret prescription, powder, or pill might make a physician rich, and the secret was as carefully guarded as the prize trick of a magician.  George Wilson whose Complete Course of Chymistry was first published in 1691, tells us that ‘Mr. Lockyer got a good estate’ by the composition of his pill.  He adds the composition of a pill which he had from ‘Dr. Starkey’s own mouth, in the year 1665, a little before his death; who then told me,

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he gave Matthews the former (pill) for a little money; but this is that which he successfully made use of himself.’  A few pages later Wilson remarks concerning Starkey’s and Matthews’ pill, ‘Those gentlemen who have not the conveniency to prepare it may for twenty shillings the pound have it of me.’  Sometimes such remedies bore fancy names, as ‘Mitigated Dragon’ or ‘Magnanimous Conception.’  Abbé Bourdelot wrote in 1675 that, since he began to practice medicine, he had known forty or fifty physicians, each of whom had his particular secret.  He called them kings for a few days, and deemed it more advisable to beware of a man with a single secret than of a man of one book.

Walter Harris, royal physician, issued his Anti-Empirical Pharmacology in 1683.  Although in times past the world had been involved in dark and dismal ignorance, he believed that it was now so enlightened that all occult arts had vanished, ‘and nothing but superstition, a deluge of gross superstition, can revive them again.  For, although the world is as naturally inclined to superstition as to any one vice that can be named, yet it is never like to overwhelm Europe as it has done.’  Chemical remedies, however, were so the rage, having the charm of novelty and mystery, that the preparations of nature or of old medicine were undervalued.  All that potable gold amounted to was a mere solution of gold by corrosive spirits; Harris would rather just boil it.  He was opposed to transmutation and projection, even if possible.  Six great remedies which he thought were too much magnified were mercury, antimony, vitriol, steel, Jesuits’ powder (i.e., quinine), and opium.  Dr Willis’s preparation of steel, nevertheless, was not only ‘hitherto a great secret and sold at a great price,’ but also the ‘masterpiece of that eminent and ever famous man.’

Also, Harris still favored the use of compound medicines.  ‘As diseases are complicated, the medicines must be so likewise.’  Theriac Andromache or Venice Treacle, which had sixty odd ingredients, ‘will claim a preference before most others.’  But both it and Mithridate were now very little used in France.

As for characters, charms and seals, their efficacy depended on deluding the patient’s imagination.  ‘if the disease be merely imaginary and false, the true cure must be likewise false and imaginary.’  Sometimes such cures acquire a widespread reputation.  But as ‘reasoners and doubters try’ one, and it fails to work for them, other men gradually lose faith in it.

In a closing chapter, ‘Of Mountebanks and other sorts of Empirics,’ Harris complained that in other countries they ‘are despised as the very dirt,’ but continue to flourish in England.

The validity of astrology and the reality of witchcraft were repeatedly debated through the course of the seventeenth century.  Morin, whose Astrologia Gallica was an elaborate attempt to rehabilitate that art, had been present at the birth of the infant Louis XIV in order to time exactly the horoscope of the future Grand Monarque, and owed his appointment to a royal professorship in mathematics at the University of Paris to the astrological service which he had rendered Catherine de’ Medici.  Astrological images, however, he rejected as inefficacious, although many lords and ladies offered to pay him handsomely for them.

In 1625 appeared the book of Gabriel Naudé on great personnages in the past who had been falsely accused of magic.  A century and a half later Abbé Claude-


Marie Guyon, in the eighth volume of his Bibliothèque ecclesiastique (Paris, 1771) was much impressed by Naudé’s thesis, agreed with him that judicial astrology was the foundation of other occult arts, and distinguished natural from superstitious and diabolical magic.  Yet, despite the warning by Naudé to writers on witchcraft to be more sceptical, the Abbé Guyon recounts in proof of diabolical magic an utterly absurd and incredible tale of shepherds accused of bewitching animals at Pacy.  They appealed to the Parlement of Paris in 1688, and the last execution for sorcery by the Parlement of Paris was also at Pacy in 1691.

Some think that Pierre Duhem went too far in support of his contention that the dynamics of seventeenth century physics was launched back in the fourteenth century.  At least his was a wholesome reaction which has turned scholars to investigation of the neglected physical science of the earlier century.  I may note another example of that neglect.  There were many writers on the rainbow in the seventeenth century, but few, if any, of them were aware that Dietrich of Frieberg and a writer in Arabic contemporary with him had offered essentially correct explanations of it in the first years of the fourteenth century . More than this, the learned editors of the splendid modern edition of the works of Huygens, who have done so much to correct other misapprehensions in the history of science, were in the year 1932 in their seventeenth volume equally in ignorance of Dietrich’s treatise, although in the interim it had been printed in part in 1814, in whole in 1914, and discussed repeatedly.

Magic was still intermingled with science in the seventeenth century.  There is general agreement that the Principia of Sir Isaac Newton was the outstanding and most epoch-making book of the century.  In his other scientific published works, too, Newton was careful not to include anything that was not firmly supported by experimental proofs and geometrical demonstration, of which he did not feel certain, and which he felt should promptly convince everyone else, although it did not always succeed immediately in doing so.  But he left more than a million words in manuscript which, we are assured, are ‘of no substantial value.’  Yet they ‘were nearly all composed during the same twenty-five years of his mathematical studies,’ and ‘are just as sane as the Principia, if their whole matter and purpose were not magical.’  ‘The scope and character of these papers have been hushed up,’ continues Lord Keynes, whose brilliant contribution to the Newton Tercentenary Celebrations of 1947 I have been quoting, ‘or at least minimized, by nearly all those who have inspected them.’  Speaking especially of the alchemical section, Lord Keynes said: ‘I have glanced through a great quantity of this - at least 100,000 words, I should say.  It is utterly impossible to deny that it is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it.’  And so Lord Keynes has not so much taken the words out of my mouth - for I would not have ventured to utter them, as he has brought grist to my mill, the History of Magic and Experimental Science, by representing the supreme figure of seventeenth century science as ‘The Last of the Magicians,’ and ‘the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.’

Columbia University


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The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

June 2002

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