A Scientist Adventurer

07 11 kenelm digbyToday is the birthday of Sir Kenelm Digby, who was born in 1603 at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire. Digby was from a wealthy family, but he had a poor start in life. His father was one of the men executed for the Gunpowder Plot. I’ve not mentioned him before, but I’ve come across Digby often in my research. He turns up in all sorts of odd places, I’ve found him fighting duels, practising sympathetic magic, being a founder member of the Royal Society, authoring a cookery book and tragically mourning the death of his wife in quite weird way. So I thought we could have a proper look at him today.

In his early teens, Digby was tutored by a preacher called Robert Napier, who taught him about medicine, astronomy and alchemy. Robert had been a student of Simon Forman, who I mentioned back in December. He later studied at Oxford under the tutelage of a mathematician and astrologer called Thomas Allen.

Kenelm Digby was also in love, with a woman called Venetia Stanley, but his mother didn’t want them to marry. In fact, she sent him to Europe in 1620 so they couldn’t see each other. He spent some time in France, at the court of the mother of the King Louis XIII, Marie de Medici. According to his own account, she was deeply attracted to him, but he had to turn her down because of his love for Venetia. But she was so insistent that he could only get away from her by pretending that he had been killed. After that, he went to Florence where he wrote to Venetia to tell her he was well. But his mother intercepted his letter and it never reached her. Meanwhile, Venetia had heard and believed the rumours of his death and almost married someone else.

Digby also visited Madrid in 1623 at a time when the Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, was visiting the city in secret. Whilst there, Digby became involved in a huge street fight. It all started with a woman singing on a balcony. One of his friends was in love with the woman and stopped to listen. But he had a rival for her affections who had set a trap for him. They were suddenly attacked by a group of strangers. Again, we only have Digby’s, probably inflated, account to go on. But they were set upon by about fifteen men, it was dark, the men were wearing lanterns on their heads, which stopped him from being able to see them well. Everyone’s swords broke but Kenelm’s. They ran away and left him to fight. But he got away and killed two of them.

Digby returned to England later that year, and married Venetia in 1625. In 1627, he became a privateer, which means he had permission from the king to sail around the Mediterranean capturing Spanish and French vessels. So he was basically a legal pirate. Quite early on, his crew fell sick and he had to find a port. He chose Algiers, which was rather a daring choice. Most English captains tried to avoid Algiers, because it was full of pirates. He had a great time there. He made friends with the Algerian pirates and feasted with them. He bought Arabic manuscripts, he visited the steam baths. He met and talked with Muslim women, which was highly unusual, if not unique, for the time. He also managed to persuade the governors of the city to release fifty English slaves. After that he went on to defeat a very large fleet of Venetian ships and then went to Greece and plundered quite a lot of classical statues, which he thought would make impressive gifts when he returned home.

venetia_stanley_on_her_death_bed_by_anthony_van_dyck2c_16332c_dulwich_picture_gallery
photo credit: stephencdickson licensed under creative commons

Sadly, Venetia died in her sleep in 1633. Digby was distraught. He took plaster casts of her hands, feet and face. He asked his friend, Anthony van Dyke, to paint a picture of her on her deathbed. He commissioned poets to compose verses in her praise. He summoned the poet Ben Johnson to come and look at her body, so that he might be inspired by the sight. He insisted on attending the dissection of her body, which was carried out to try to find the cause of her death. The only conclusion was that she “had very little brain”. He built a huge black mausoleum for her body with a gold bust of her on the top. He never married again.

He became less of a gregarious adventurer and more of a solitary scientist. I first came across him in connection with the ‘weapon salve‘, an ointment which could cure a wound by applying it, not to the body, but to the weapon that caused it. Digby claimed to have the secret of the ‘powder of sympathy’ which he used to cure the wound of a friend named James Howell. His hand had been cut when he tried to intervene in a duel and was in danger of developing gangrene. Digby asked for something with his blood on it and was given a garter. Then, he took a bowl of water, put a handful of powder in it and dipped the garter in the bowl. Howell, though he was unaware of what was happening, immediately felt relief. When later, Digby put the garter to dry before a fire, Howell sent word that his wound was burning worse than ever. When Digby put it back in the water, his wound was cooled again.

Kenelm Digby left England during the Commonwealth period and returned at the same time as Charles II. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society. In fact, one of his papers, ‘Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants’ was the first to be published by the society. In it, he claimed that it was possible to burn the bodies of crayfish and resurrect them from their ashes, which, in 2016, seems a bit of a wild claim. But his paper was the first to suggest that plants might draw some of their sustenance from the air.

But Digby had another surprise. After his death, his lab assistant published a book of his recipes. Kenelm Digby was a cook. During his travels, he had collected all sorts of recipes. He has an oriental recipe for ‘tea with eggs’, which is the first Chinese recipe ever published in English. Some of his recipes are European, but many of them are English. It’s a great source of information for what people were eating in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, some of them don’t sound that great. ‘Hart’s horn jelly’ and ‘barley pap’ both sound pretty awful, but his book also contains his recipe for the powder of sympathy, which I’m sure you could seek out if you were interested.

Kenelm Digby died in 1665, and was buried alongside Venetia. Sadly their tomb was lost in the Great Fire of London the following year. The gold bust was looted. Someone once caught sight of it on a market stall but, when he went back for it, it had gone. Digby’s reputation was also largely forgotten. He struggled hard against the legacy of his father’s treachery. He became a learned man, he freed slaves, he brought home plundered wealth. He was an important figure at the courts of both Charles I and Charles II. Yet he was mostly remembered as a bit of a quack, who thought you could get rid of warts by washing your hands in a bowl of moonshine. He did think that, but he also invented the wine bottle.

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