Science and Magic

07 13 john deeOver the last year, I’ve mentioned so many people who occupy a rather grey area between belief in magic and the beginnings of modern science, that I cannot let today go by without telling you that it is John Dee’s birthday. Dee was born in 1527, in the Tower Ward of the City of London. Both his parents were Welsh and his surname derives from the Welsh word for black, ‘du’. John Dee is black by name and black by reputation. For hundreds of years, he has been mainly remembered as a magician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare probably modelled his character of Prospero on John Dee. While it’s true that he did spend a lot of the last thirty years of his life trying to speak with angels, this opinion is rather unfair. Dee was an incredibly clever man.

John Dee went to study at Cambridge at fifteen, passed his bachelor degree at eighteen and was made an original fellow of Trinity College when it was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Whilst he was at Cambridge, we know that he was stage manager for a production of Aristophanes’ play ‘Peace’. We know this because he built a huge mechanical flying beetle for the play, which caused quite a sensation. This was probably the beginning of his reputation as a magician.

In the late 1540s and early 1550s, Dee travelled Europe. He studied at Louvain, where he became friends with the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator and he went to Paris where he lectured on Euclid. Back in London, in 1552, he met an Italian called Gerolamo Cardano, and together they investigated the plausibility a perpetual motion machine and also a gem that was reputed to have magical properties. I couldn’t find out what conclusions they drew, but I know Cardano decided it was impossible except when it came to celestial bodies.

Dee was an extremely skilled mathematician and learned a lot about navigation whilst he was abroad. He brought back with him, several navigational instrument including a couple of globes built by Mercator. But alongside this, he also studied astrology and the occult. This was not unusual. In the sixteenth century, the mysteries of the occult were every bit as real and useful as the secrets of geometry. But one had to be careful not to be seen to be straying into the realms of Black Magic. When Mary was made Queen, after the death of her brother, Edward VI, Dee cast her horoscope. He did the same for the future Queen Elizabeth I. Mary and Elizabeth, as you might know, did not have an easy relationship. Dee was accused, by a man called George Ferrers of plotting the death of Mary and also of bewitching his children, blinding one and killing another. Dee’s lodgings were searched and sealed up and he was arrested, but he was cleared of all charges. Following his exoneration, he proposed to Queen Mary, the foundation of a national library and requested funds. He was turned down, but began to build his own personal library of rare books and manuscripts, using his own money. His library eventually comprised around three thousand books and a thousand manuscripts. When James Burbage built the first theatre in London, he turned to Dee and his library for advice about what an ancient Greek theatre might have been like.

When Elizabeth was eventually made Queen in 1558, Dee became her personal advisor on matters astrological and scientific. He chose the date of her coronation. Skilled in the art of navigation as a result of his studies with Mercator, he was advisor to many of the English voyages of discovery, including that of Martin Frobisher. He also advocated the country expanding its territories into the New World. He supported this idea with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s assertion that King Arthur had once conquered Ireland and that it was a Welshman called Madoc who had first sailed to North America in the twelfth century. England had a noble history of expansion and a prior claim to the new lands that had been discovered to the west. In 1583, he was asked to advise the Queen on the new Gregorian Calendar that had been introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. Dee thought it was a great idea, and also proposed that the we should adopt January 1st as New Years Day in both the civil and liturgical year. Both were sensible ideas, both were rejected on the grounds that they were a little bit too Catholic for a Protestant country. When the Spanish Armada attacked in 1588, Dee predicted a storm. It was partly down to extremely poor weather conditions that the Armada was destroyed and some credited Dee with conjuring up the storm rather than just forecasting it.

07 13 spanish armada

Dee often corresponded with the Queen on secret matters. He spent several years abroad during Elizabeth’s reign, between 1583 and 1589, and it is entirely possible that he was spying for her. You might like to know that he signed his letters to her ‘007’. The two zeros indicated that they were for the Queen’s eyes only and the seven was a number of magical significance. And, yes, this is where Ian Fleming got it from.

Dee’s political opinions were not as influential as he would have liked and, in the 1580s, he began to turn his attentions more towards the occult. That was when he began to try to converse with angels. This is a subject that I covered when I mentioned his rather questionable assistant Edward Kelley. But I feel I ought to mention that what Dee was seeking to learn was the original language of mankind. The language that Adam used when speaking to God. He felt that these experiments were every bit as important as his mathematical work in understanding the divine forms that he believed to underlie the visible world. He thought if he could understand that, he could heal the divisions between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches and generally unify mankind. Dee knew he wasn’t able to speak directly to the angels himself. He needed a scryer. Someone who could tell him what the angels said while he wrote in all down. This was how he came to meet Kelley. So it was with Kelly that he went abroad with in 1583. If you need any encouragement to read about Edward Kelly, I’ll tell you that they parted company after the angels apparently suggested that Dee and Kelley should share their wives.

John Dee returned to England to find that his home had been vandalised and many of his scientific instruments and the books from his splendid library stolen. The rest of his life is rather sad. He had hoped, when he returned to England, to help the country’s prosperity through the use of alchemy. Instead, in 1595, he was appointed Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester. He didn’t have much control over the Fellows there. They despised and cheated him. Also, his wife died there, of plague, in 1604. In 1605, he returned to London, but Queen Elizabeth was dead and the new ruler, James I, had little time for magic. He spent the last years of his life living in obscurity with his daughter Katherine in Mortlake, which is at Richmond upon Thames. He was forced to sell off his possessions and make his living as a simple fortune teller. We don’t even know for certain when he died. Either in 1608 or 1609 at the age of 82. Even his grave is lost. It was a sorry end for a once great man.

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.

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.

Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.

Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.

07 02 burning glass

In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.

So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.

07 02 robert's balloonHe left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.

When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:

“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”

Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…

07 02 robert's tomb


06 14 unforbiddenToday, I want to tell you a bit about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This is a book that was first produced by the Catholic Church in 1557. It was a list of prohibited books which were considered heretical, anti-clerical or lascivious. The concern was, that these books could damage the morals or beliefs of the faithful. One might question the wisdom of gathering all the titles of books you didn’t want anyone to read, making a big list and then publishing it. But the Catholic Church was pretty powerful. The list grew and changed over more than four hundred years, but on this day in 1966 it was finally, officially abandoned.

Before the invention of printing, a book had been a rare and precious object, as everything had to be written out by hand. Scribes were few and far between and mainly worked in monasteries. In any case, a single manuscript rarely caused much of a problem. So censorship wasn’t really necessary. Then, around 1440, Johannes Gutenburg had his idea for a printing press with moveable type. Suddenly books could be mass produced and widely disseminated. The Church wasn’t keen on that idea. There were even certain translations of the Bible that they didn’t want people to have. But a book might have anything in it, and they didn’t like that at all. Ideas and information could be spread quickly using this new, revolutionary technology and they needed some sort of control to prevent the spread of heresies.

On the list of prohibited books we find Galileo Galilei and John Milton alongside Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. It’s an odd list but it reflects the concerns of the Church. One of the things they really didn’t like was the idea that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. Galileo and Nicolaus Copernicus were forgiven in 1718, long after they were both dead. Poor Galileo had spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest for his work. It is likely that printing restrictions acted as a barrier to progress in many fields of study.

The list could prohibit individual titles, or it could ban the author’s complete work, referred to as ‘opera omnia’. It is a huge list that, by the time it was abandoned, contained over four thousand titles, so I couldn’t look at all of them. But I did find one author whose opera omnia was banned in 1600 and still banned in 1966. Even the Marquis de Sade only got a couple of titles on the list, so I wondered what was wrong with him. His name was Giordano Bruno and, in 1600, he was burned at the stake.

Bruno, like Copernicus and Galileo, did not believe that the sun orbited the earth. But he went further than that. He was certain that every star in the sky was another sun, with other planets orbiting them. And that those planets could support life in, just as ours does. In 1584, during a stay in England, he wrote a book about it called: ‘De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi’, On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds, This did not sit at all well with the Catholic faith. They didn’t like the idea that God might have an infinite number of other worlds to look after.

06 14 giordano brunoGiordano Bruno doesn’t have a birthday. I do know what day he died, but as I don’t want to celebrate that, I thought I’d tell you about him today. He was once ordained as a priest, and spent eleven years in the monastic system before he went rogue. Then someone found a banned book, a work by Erasmus, in a toilet with his writing in it and he had to leave. He then spent the next sixteen years travelling Europe, causing trouble pretty much everywhere he went with his radical ideas. He couldn’t help himself from telling people that he didn’t think that Mary, the mother of Jesus was really a virgin, that Jesus was not the Son of God, but just a top class conjurer and that God would one day forgive the Devil. He was also terribly interested in magic, which didn’t help his case much.

Bruno delivered a series of lectures in Paris in the early 1580s, but what people found really interesting about them was his amazing memory. This drew the interest of the King Henry III and he was summoned to court, The king needed to know if he was using some kind of sorcery but he explained that he was using organised knowledge, a kind of mnemonic. Whilst in Paris he was able to publish several books on the art of memory. One of them: ‘The Shadow of Ideas’ was dedicated to the king. He also wrote a play: ‘The Torchbearer’ which was pretty scathing about monastic life.

He was arrested when he recklessly returned to Italy and was eventually taken to Rome, where he languished in a tower for six years. Bruno was sentenced to death because he refused to renounce his convictions. As well as his belief in other worlds and all the upsetting stuff he had to say about Jesus, he believed that God was everywhere all the time, so people didn’t need to shut themselves up in monasteries. So that’s why all of his work remained on the ‘banned’ list for three hundred and sixty-six years. The church were still defending their decision to burn him in the year 2000.

So I thought I’d finish up today with a quote from one of his, now unforbidden, works:

“There is one simple Divinity found in all things, one fecund Nature, preserving mother of the universe insofar as she diversely communicates herself, casts her light into diverse subjects, and assumes various names.”

He’s a Legend

06 11 roger bacon 1Today, I want to to tell you about Roger Bacon. I don’t know exactly when he was born. Best guess, it was somewhere between 1210 and 1220. I don’t know exactly when he died either, but one of my favourite sources, Robert Chambers, thinks it might have been on June 11th in 1292. Bacon became both a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University and a Franciscan friar. Bacon was one of the earliest people to argue that science, which was then called ‘natural philosophy’, should be taught in universities. He found that people were mostly learning from badly translated copies of works by Aristotle and Plato and were really not understanding them properly.

In 1267, he wrote an enormous book called ‘Opus Majus’, which means Great Work. It begins by outlining ‘The Four General Causes of Human Ignorance’: following a weak or unreliable authority, custom, the ignorance of others and concealing his own ignorance by pretending knowledge. In the light of this wisdom, I won’t even try to tell you about the religious and political climate he was working in, or the medieval university curriculum because I don’t really understand them. But I will tell you that his approach to the problem of ignorance: getting as close as possible to the original source and that “theories supplied by reason should be verified by sensory data, aided by instruments, and corroborated by trustworthy witnesses”, led to him being considered the father of the scientific method. So, by the nineteenth century, he was considered a genius born before his time. A sixteenth or seventeenth century philosopher who had somehow appeared three or four hundred years too early. His contemporaries hadn’t really rated his work much at all.

06 11 brazen head 1It’s really the bit in between people not thinking a lot of him and his being hailed as a scientific genius that I’m interested in today. There is also a legendary Roger Bacon, same man, just a different take on his life, who appeared some time in the sixteenth century. This Roger Bacon was a magician who cheated the devil, burned a French city and built a brazen head. His legend, called ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon’, was recorded by an unknown author. He gives the Friar a sidekick called Friar Bungey, an idiot servant called Miles and a sort of nemesis, a German Magician called Vandermast, who I don’t think I’m going to get round to telling you about today.

One story tells of a man who inherited a lot of money and then spent it all. When he was so poor that he thought he would starve, the Devil appeared in disguise and offered him money to buy back his lands, get him everything he needed and pay off his debts. The catch was that, when he had everything he wanted and had paid everything he owed, he would give himself over to his mysterious benefactor. When all that was done, he realised, too late, the true identity of his saviour. Friar Bacon offered to help the man escape his pact with the Devil. He offered to judge the case. The Devil showed him their contract and told the friar that the man had paid all his debts and that it was time for him to give himself up. But the Friar pointed out that the man had not paid all his debts, because he hadn’t paid the Devil back a single penny of the money that he had been lent. The Devil vanished in a fury and the man went home.

06 11 burning cityA second story tells us about a time that the King of England, I’m afraid I don’t know which king but logic suggests Henry III, was besieging a city in France, again, I don’t know which city. Friar Bacon offered his assistance but the king said, although that was very thoughtful, what he really needed were soldiers. Bacon replied that learned men could be useful too. He told the king that one day they would discover, among other things, how to build ships that could move without rowers, carriages that needed no animals to pull them and machines that could make men fly. He had the soldiers build a huge mound of earth then took the king to the top and showed him the city ‘as plainely as if hee had beene in it’, which suggests some sort of telescope. Then, he told the king to have all his soldiers ready to attack at noon the next day. Bacon then used an arrangement of glasses to set fire to the State House and other houses in the city. No one knew how the fire had started and the whole place was in uproar. That’s when the King attacked and won.

The third story I want to tell you about is the time Friar Bacon decided he could protect the whole of England from invasion by building a ‘brazen head’, (I love a brazen head, they come up quite a lot in alchemy). The head would speak and tell him how he could make a wall of brass appear that would protect out shores forever. Friar Bacon enlisted the help of his friend, Friar Bungey, who was nearly-but-not-quite as good as Bacon. Together, they built a head of brass that was exactly the same as a human head. It had all the right things inside it and everything. But it wouldn’t work. They conjured up the Devil and forced him to help them. The Devil told them that they needed “a continuall fume of the six hotest Simples”, which as far as I can make out, are herbs or something. He told them that the head would speak within a month, but he couldn’t say when. After three weeks of fuming their head and watching it day and night, Bacon and Bungey were exhausted. They left Bacon’s servant, Miles in charge to watch the head, with orders to wake them if it spoke. Miles kept himself awake by singing little songs to himself and presently the statue spoke. It said “Time is.” Miles didn’t think it was anything significant and failed to wake the pair. He carried on singing and, after about half an hour, it spoke again. It said “Time was.”. Again he thought it was nonsense, anyone with half a brain knew that time is and time was, that’s time for you. After another half hour of singing the head announced “Time is Past”. Then it fell down and exploded. That woke the two friars and they realised they had missed their chance.

06 11 brazen head 2

The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon was, you might like to know, used as the basis of a play called ‘The Honourable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay’ in 1589. Its author was a man called Robert Greene. He was the man who attacked William Shakespeare in print early in his career and called him ‘upstart crow’.

The real Roger Bacon actually did mention the possibility of telescopes, flying machines and steamships in the last part of his Opus Majus. He also made the first mention in Western literature of gunpowder. So maybe he really did make exploding heads. I’m quite glad we’re not all trapped here, inside an enormous brass wall though.

Water of Life

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday, I get to mention James IV of Scotland again, which is lovely because he’s one of my favourite kings. Amongst his revenues and expenses is a small entry for June 1st 1495. It is written in Latin, but translates as:

“To brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bols of malt.”

This might not sound very significant, but it is cited as the first ever historical mention of Scotch Whisky. ‘Aqua vitae’ is a Latin translation of the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ and both mean water of life. It is easy to see how the word ‘uisge’ has become ‘whisky’.

There is relatively little to know about Friar John. He was a monk at a monastery in Fife called Lindores Abbey. We know that in 1488 the king had given him fourteen shillings on Christmas day and that at Christmas in 1495, he was given black cloth to make livery clothes as he was a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary.

06 01When I tried to find out how much a boll weighed, the answer seemed rather vague. A boll was a dry weight measure. You could measure in chalders, bolls, firlots, pecks and lippies. How much it was depended on what you were measuring, but most reckon a boll of malt was around 140 lbs. So that’s quite a lot. The amount of whisky today’s distillers could make from eight bolls of malt is anything up to 1500 bottles. So we can conclude firstly that, to use such a large quantity, the monks knew what they were about and had already been making it for quite some time. Secondly, we can conclude that James IV really needed a lot of it.

Of course he probably didn’t drink it all himself. It could have been used to disinfect wounds. James had an interesting sideline as an amateur dentist, so perhaps he gave his patients a swig before he pulled out their teeth for them. It may even have been used as embalming fluid. But another thing we know about James IV was that he was very keen on alchemy. Alchemists were extremely fond of distilling. In their quest to get at the essence of things, they distilled pretty much everything they could get their hands on. Aside from turning lead into gold, one of the their most important goals was the secret of prolonging life, perhaps indefinitely. Distilled alcohol was great for preserving herbs, fruit and meat, so maybe it could do the same thing for the living tissue of the human body. It was a magical fluid. A cold substance that made you warm. It seemed to combine the two elements of fire and water and it definitely had a seemingly magical effect on both the body and the mind.

We don’t know what happened to Friar John, but in 1505 King James granted the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh a monopoly on the production of Whisky. As a drink for humans it was thought to be medicinal and useful against all sorts of things from colic to smallpox.

Incidentally, the first mention of whiskey in Ireland is earlier, in 1405. It involves a chieftain named Richard Magrannell who died one Christmas after he drank too much of it. So clearly, the water of life wasn’t for everyone. Aqua Vitae turns up in some alchemical recipes as one of the main ingredients for making a ‘quintessence’, the fifth element that would cure all ills and make us immortal. And we definitely know that King James and his unusual friend John Damien were working on that between 1501 and 1508. The other key addition seems to have been horse dung, so I think maybe I won’t bother.

Looking Up

05 28 thalesOn this day in 585 BC a Greek philosopher named Thales successfully predicted a solar eclipse. The Greek historian, Herodotus, who was one of his contemporaries, tells us that the eclipse happened during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. According to him, it began when someone cooked up someone else’s son and served him to the king for dinner. It was a war that had raged for six years without either side gaining any particular advantage. On this day, just as the battle was in full swing it suddenly grew dark. In Ancient Greece, a solar eclipse was taken as a sign that the gods were angry, so both sides put down their weapons and were eager to agree a peace.

Herodotus tells us that Thales had predicted only the year of the eclipse, but it seems impossible to predict the year of a solar eclipse without also knowing the day. In truth, we don’t really know how he did it, history doesn’t tell us. Aristotle regarded Thales as the first Greek philosopher to try to explain the world about him without falling back on mythology. None of his writing survives so we only know what other people said about him. We know that Thales thought the earth floated on water, in the same way that ships do. His theory was supported by the fact that people believed in, and had definitely seen, floating islands. He thought that earthquakes were caused by waves in the water that was holding us all up. He may not have been quite right, but it was a better guess than the ‘angry gods’ explanation that was the ‘go to’ answer for anything bad that happened. He managed to work out that the Earth was round though. He knew it must be spherical, because he had observed ships disappearing over the horizon.

There is a tale that he once fell into a well, because he was so busy looking up at the stars and wasn’t looking where he was going. The moral of the story being, that people should be a bit more practical and not have their head in the clouds. However, it is just possible that Thales got into the well on purpose. The Ancient Greeks knew that the stars were still in the sky during the day, but they were just not visible. Unless there was a solar eclipse of course. But they also knew that if you looked into a very deep well, you could sometimes see the stars reflected in the water. So if you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself at the bottom of a very deep well, look up and you will see that the sky looks dark and full of stars, even in the day time.

Maybe after this incident, he was keen to prove that philosophy had its practical advantages. Thales had managed to pinpoint the dates of the Summer and Winter solstices, and therefore, the length of the solar year. He also noticed the changing of the seasons. He must have kept an eye on the changing weather patterns too, because there was a year in which he managed to predict a particularly good olive harvest. He was so confident that he bought up all the olive presses in his home city of Miletus. These he either used himself or rented them out at a high price when everyone suddenly had loads of olives that needed pressing. Aristotle insists that he did this, not for his own gain, but to prove to people that philosophy was not as useless as they thought.