She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.

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.

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.

There’s A World Going On Underground

03 29 terracotta warriorsToday I am celebrating the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China in 1974. Some farmers were digging a well not far from the site where Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was laid to rest in 210 BC. Bits of terracotta had been turning up there for centuries. At first they thought they had found a kiln, but when they unearthed an entire life-sized figure, they knew they had something more important. They notified the authorities and government archaeologists were sent to begin excavations. Work at the site still continues and so far around 8,000 figures have been unearthed.

The first pit to be excavated was found to contain 6,000 warriors. The detail on the figures is incredible, from the rivets in their armour to the tread on the soles of their shoes. They vary in height according to rank. Although the heads of the warriors seem to have been made from eight 03 29 terracotta warriorbasic moulds, features have been added to make each one unique. Originally, the figures were painted in bright colours, but any remaining paint tends to flake of within minutes of its being exposed to the dry air. The soldiers also once carried real weapons including spears, swords and crossbows. Some rusted away long ago, some were looted shortly after they were buried, but some have been recovered. Swords have been found that were rust free and still sharp after more than two thousand years. They were found the be coated with chromium dioxide which has protected the blades. No one knows if the ancient Chinese knew how to do this on purpose or if it is just a happy accident.

The warriors were placed there to guard the burial chamber of the Emperor. I have no idea whether it was a normal thing, in ancient China, to have yourself buried with thousands of clay warriors, but I’m going to put Emperor Qin Shi Huang in my category of brilliant eccentrics. He came to the throne at the age of only thirteen and managed to unite a collection of warring states into a single nation. He introduced a single currency and a single written language and also built a good network of roads and canals. All these are fine things for a powerful ruler to do. But there are a few other things I want to mention.

03 29 qin shi huangDuring his reign he survived several assassination attempts including being attacked with a lute packed with lead and having a strongman throw a massive metal cone at him. In later life he became afraid of death and he had tunnels and passageways built between his palaces because he believed that being underground would protect him from evil spirits, and probably from assassins too. In 211 BC a meteor fell in his realm that was said to prophecy his death He had the object found, burned and crushed. He also became obsessed with finding the Elixir of Life which would give him immortality. Needless to say that left him prey to all sorts of charlatans. He once met a thousand year old magician called Anqi Sheng who could sometimes make himself invisible. In 219 BC he sent an expedition led by a man called Xu Fu to find Anqi Sheng and get from him the secret of his longevity. Xu Fu and his fellow adventurers did not find the magician and, probably sensibly, did not return. Legend has it that they sailed to Japan and colonised the islands there. The Emperor’s alchemists made him tablets that were supposed to make him live for ever. They didn’t. It was probably the mercury in the tablets that killed him.

 The warriors were not the only figures that Qin Shi Huang had buried with him. Life-sized chariots and horses have also been found, along with acrobats and water birds. As I said, excavations are ongoing. In fact since I first wrote about the terracotta warriors a year ago, archaeologists believe they have located another 1,400 figures and possibly 89 war chariots. Then there is his burial chamber. It is estimated to be 690 meters long and 250 meters wide. It has never been excavated for two reasons. Firstly, no one is confident that they could safely preserve for posterity what might be inside. Secondly because no one knows how to protect the archaeologists from what might be inside.

There is a huge history of ancient China which was completed around 94 BC. It does not mention the buried army at all but it contains a description of the tomb. It tells us the 700,000 men were needed to build it. It is filled with rare artefacts and wonderful treasures. There are also crossbows primed and ready to fire at anyone who enters. But that is not the main concern. Inside his tomb there is a microcosm of his realm. The ceiling is set with jewels to represent the heavens It is lit by candles made from the fat of the man-fish. And no, before you ask, I don’t know what a man-fish is. There are also said to be a hundred rivers all set to flow mechanically and a vast sea. This is where the problem lies. They are all made from mercury. This could, of course, all be legendary nonsense, but soil tests in the area do reveal a very high mercury content.

What I like thinking about with the terracotta warriors is all the time they’ve been hidden underground. I think about all the hundreds of years of history I’ve covered, all the people I’ve read about who never knew anything about them, and I wonder how people ever managed to forget that they had once buried 6,000 life-size clay warriors. I like that they were discovered completely by accident by people who were just digging a well and it makes me wonder what other treasures might lie hidden. Sadly, the initial discoverers of the army seem to have profited little from their find. In fact, they have been turfed off their land to make way for a museum. So, it seemed the least I could do was to try to dig them out of the internet, dust them off and tell you their names. They were: Yang Zhifa, Yang Quanyi, Yang Peiyan, Yang Xinman, Yang Wenhai, Yang Yanxin and Wang Puzhi.

The Madness of Crowds

03 27 charles mackayToday is the birthday of Charles Mackay who was born in 1814 in Perth, Scotland. He was a poet, journalist, novelist and songwriter, but what I really want to tell you about today is the book that he published in 1841. It is called: ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, which is an excellent title. It is about the odd things that people suddenly become obsessed with in their thousands. From get rich quick schemes to miracle cures. From the hunting down of witches to the admiration of audacious criminals. Even the peculiar little sayings that come from nowhere and are suddenly on everyone’s lips.

I was also pretty excited to find out about Charles because, in his massive two volume work, he has covered so many of the topics that I have come across, and found fascinating, whilst writing this blog. He has a great deal to say about alchemy and the people who practised it. People, he says, are generally troubled by three things: their mortality, a lack of wealth and worrying what the future holds. Alchemists have at least two of these covered with their Elixir of Life and their Philosopher’s Stone which will turn base metals into gold. They believed that in Antediluvian times (before the Flood) people possessed the knowledge to extend their lives for hundreds of years. They also believed that all metals were made from metallic earth and a red inflammable material they called sulphur. Gold, they thought was made from just these two things, but other metals contained impurities. Find out how to remove the impurities, and you have gold.

There are some great potted biographies of alchemists, including Edward Kelley, who I mentioned elsewhere and a man called Artephius. He was born some time in the twelfth century but managed to convince everyone that he was over a thousand years old. He claimed to possess the Philosopher’s Stone. In his search for it, he had descended into hell 03 27 albertus magnusand seen the Devil sitting on a golden throne. Then there was Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas. Both were later made saints and both were keen alchemists. They didn’t succeed in finding either the Philosopher’s Stone or the Elixir of Life, but they did manage to bring to life a bronze statue which they also gave the gift of speech. Apparently it used to act as their servant. Unfortunately it wouldn’t shut up and Thomas wound up smashing it to bits with a massive hammer. So, there you are. Be careful what you wish for.

In his section on predictions, he mentions the Prophetic Hen of Leeds, who I wrote about last week. There is also a section on cures which speaks at length about the Weapon Salve which I came across whilst writing about Jan Baptist van Helmont back in December. It was a rather peculiar belief that wounds could be cured at a distance by applying an ointment to the weapon that caused it. After that, people started to believe they could cure a wound by magnetising the weapon. This led to another strange idea, that people would be able to communicate with each other over vast distances in the following way: Cut a piece of skin from the arm of each person and ‘mutually transplant them while still warm and bleeding’. When the patch of skin grew into its new arm, it would still remember the body it came from. It would sense if any harm was done to that body. Therefore, if you tattooed, on each piece of skin, the letters of the alphabet, you could use a magnetised needle to prick out your message. Even if its original body was thousands of miles away, it’s new owner would be able to sense the pricks and read out the message on his own tattoo.

Actually, Charles Mackay has a lot to say about magnetic cures. It has a long history and hasn’t really gone away, even today. He has a great deal say about Mesmer, who I will, no doubt, get round to mentioning in May. There is also a lovely story about an American called Benjamin Perkins who, in 1798, brought to England a magnetic cure that he claimed would relieve gout and rheumatism. It consisted of two heavily magnetised metal plates which he moved over the afflicted area. He called them ‘metal tractors’. His patients experienced much relief and Perkins became a wealthy man. But then a physician at Bath, a Dr Haygarth, began to wonder about the cure. He tried the same thing with blocks of wood, painted to look like metal. He found the results were the same. This led him to write a book which also has a wonderful title, it is called: ‘Of the Imagination, of the Cause and Cure of Disorders, exemplified by Fictitious Tractors.’

Charles Mackay seems to be largely remembered now for his analysis of financial disasters, economic bubbles and the way that humans, no matter how intelligent they are, fail to see the inevitable consequence of investing in something that has no intrinsic value. He mentions tulipomania, which I have also covered elsewhere. Really, you just have to look at the dot com boom, property investment and the selling of debts that will never be repaid to see that we have learned nothing, and probably never will.

But there is a lot more to Charles than that. There’s a whole other volume that I haven’t touched on which talks about the religious fervour and hope of economic and political gain that fuelled the Crusades. He also talks about the obsession people once had with witches. 03 27 matthew hopkinsWitch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins, liked to tie his victim, generally an old lady, to a chair and then wait. If any insects came and settled on her, he declared them her familiars. One poor lady was declared a witch after being visited by four flies called Ilemezar, Peck-in-the-Crown, Grizel-Greedigut and Pye-Wacket. I can’t help thinking this says more about Matthew Hopkins than it does about his poor victim. Matthew himself died as a result of being accused of witchcraft. Someone got a bit fed up of it all and declared that he had got his list of witches from the Devil.

There is also a chapter about the way people have come to love daring criminals like Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. Perhaps, he says, it is because people love an adventurer. Or perhaps it is that they love a story where the undeservedly rich are cheated of their wealth. Clearly I have fallen victim to this particular madness myself, as my post about Jack Sheppard is probably the longest I’ve ever written. If you want to know more about what he has to say about ghosts, about fortune tellers, about holy relics, seek out his work at internet archive. It’s a little ponderous but quite readable.

I’ll finish up for today by telling you about a couple of popular phrases that have captured peoples imaginations and then disappeared into obscurity. He calls them ‘the harmless follies and whimsies of the poor’. In London, there was once a time when you could answer any question or finish any argument with the simple word ‘Quoz’, and everyone thought it was hilarious. Why did this happen? ‘Quoz’. Why did I suddenly decide to start writing a huge essay every day on a subject I previously knew nothing about? ‘Quoz’. See? It still works. This was replaced by: ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ Anyone wearing a hat that was just a little bit worn would face a chorus of ‘What a shocking bad hat!’ as they passed by. It became easier to buy a new hat, even if you couldn’t really afford one. If you appeared annoyed by the taunt, people would remove your hat, drop it in the mud, lift it out with a stick and pronounce again ‘What a shocking bad hat!’. Probably my favourite though, was addressed to adolescent boys who hang around on street corners imagining themselves all grown up and alpha-male. It is: ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ It made them absolutely furious and also rather humiliated.

Bury Me

03 17 james iv of scotlandToday is the birthday of King James IV of Scotland. I like James IV, he dabbled in surgery and employed a flying alchemist who he made Bishop of Tongland. He was also killed in battle and, like Richard III, his body was subsequently lost. Unlike Richard, it will probably never be found.

James was born, possibly at Stirling Castle, in 1473. His father, James III, wasn’t a great king and people didn’t like him very much. There were two rebellions during his reign. He was killed in battle during the last one in 1488. James, who was then just fifteen, had been set up as leader of the second rebellion. He was afterwards crowned King. When he realised the part he had unwittingly played in his father’s death, he chose to wear an iron chain around his waist, as an act of penance during Lent, for the rest of his life. Every year he had the chain made a few ounces heavier.

James, was a Renaissance Man. He was a keen patron of both science and the arts. His interest in medicine seems particularly unusual for a king. We know he tried his hand at blood letting and knew how to treat and dress ulcers. He was also interested in dentistry. There are least two occasions when he actually pulled teeth for his subjects. He took out two teeth for one of his own barber-surgeons. Records show that the King paid the man fourteen shillings for the privilege: “To Kynnard the barbour for twa teith drawn furth of his hed by the king, 14s”. His enthusiasm was such that he granted the Incorporation of the Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh which would later become the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world.

03 17 holyrood palaceJames had Great Halls built his castles in Stirling and Edinburgh and filled his palaces with tapestries. In 1503, he married Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VII of England and built for her, a new palace at Holyrood. He employed poets, one of whom was the first to translate Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ anywhere in northern Europe. James spoke many languages. As well as Latin, French, Flemish, German, Spanish and Italian he also spoke Scottish Gaelic and is the last Scottish King known to have done so. When he heard of a pair of conjoined twins who were born in the Scottish Borders, he had them brought to his court, where they were raised and educated. They also learned to speak many languages and were particularly good at music. They played instruments and sang songs in two parts, treble and tenor.

King James also had some, by modern standards, other peculiar interests which reflect his general curiosity. In 1493 he conducted a language experiment. He wanted to know what was the natural language of mankind. He sent two children to be raised by a mute woman on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth. He imagined that if they heard no other language, the words they would use when they became old enough to speak would be the original language. The language of God. We don’t really know what happened, but common sense suggests they did not speak at all. Some insisted though, that the children spoke perfect Hebrew. Probably those people did not know what Hebrew sounded like.

03 17 an alchemists laboratoryFrom about 1501, James employed an alchemist called John Damian who had come from France but was possibly originally from Italy. He had alchemical laboratories at Stirling Castle and at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Damian was hoping to produce quinta essentia, the fifth element, from which he could make the Elixir of Life. James was pretty excited about it, but not everyone was. One of the poets at court, William Dunbar, didn’t like him at all. He referred to him as ‘the French Leech’. I’m not sure if this was because he was some kind of doctor or because his projects drained so much of the King’s money.

03 17 stirling castleIn 1507, John Damian came up with a new project. He would build himself some wings and fly. On September 27th he strapped on his wings and launched himself from the top of Stirling Castle, hoping to fly to France. He didn’t of course. He plummeted straight to the ground and landed in a dung heap. Surprisingly, he lived. Although he did break his thigh bone. Damian blamed his lack of success on the feathers he had been sent. He had asked for eagle feathers, but some of them had been the feathers of a hen. Whilst he would have been able to soar with eagle feathers, the hen feathers were naturally attracted to the ground and had propelled him straight to the dung heap.

The poet, William Dunbar must have been delighted by the incident because he wrote a rude poem about it called ‘The Fenyeit Freir of Tungland’ (The False Friar of Tongland). It has the flying alchemist attacked by birds and buried up to his eyes in filth. I don’t know how true this story is, because the people who wrote about it didn’t like him very much, but there is a seventeenth century carpenter’s bill from Stirling Castle which refers to the place where ‘the Devil flew out.’ If John Damian really did put on wings and jump from the top of the castle, it may be the first recorded attempt at human powered flight. James was not put off by his alchemist’s lack of success, he was still employed at the court when the King died in 1513.

James was killed in a battle against the English at Flodden. England was, at the time, at war with France and James was in a difficult position as he was an ally of both sides. He was excommunicated for his decision. His body was taken to England and given to King Henry VIII. As he had been excommunicated by the Pope, there was no question of burying him in consecrated ground. So he was left embalmed but uninterred in a shed at Sheen Priory at Richmond upon Thames. Even when the King did receive permission from the Pope to bury his enemy, somehow he didn’t bother. The body was lost when the Priory was dissolved in 1539. It seems, in the intervening time, his head may have become detatched and then used as a football. It may then have been stolen by Queen Elizabeth I’s master glazier and eventually thrown away in a charnel pit at a church in Cripplegate in the City of London.

Alternatively, it may not have been James’ body that was taken from the battlefield in the first place. There are many legendary resting places of James IV. Some claimed that the king had taken off his distinctive surcoat before the battle, so that he could fight with his army as an equal. They also said that the body that was taken to London had no iron chain about the waist. In the eighteenth century a well was being cleared at Hume Castle in Berwickshire. They found a body in it that did have a chain around the waist. Unfortunately they lost that too. The same story is told of Roxburgh Castle in the Borders, about a body found in the seventeenth century. In 1570, a convicted criminal offered to show the Duke of Albany where the King was really buried, but he declined.

Nullus in Verba

01 25 robert boyleToday is the birthday of Robert Boyle, a famous chemist and founder member of the Royal Society. He was born on this day in 1627 in County Waterford, Ireland. He was the fourteenth child, and seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. So he was born in a huge castle, Lismore Castle, which his father had bought from Sir Walter Raleigh. But Robert, like his brothers before him, was fostered out to a local Irish family so that he could learn the language. The idea was that the boys would be able to act as translators for their English-speaking father.

He spent three years at Eton before taking off, along with a tutor and an elder brother, on a six year Grand Tour of Europe. He visited France, Switzerland and Italy. He visited Florence shortly before Galileo died. He became a firm believer in Christianity when, in December 1640, he was awakened by such a tremendous thunderstorm that he believed the Day of Judgement was at hand. He remained devout for the rest of his life and his later experiments in no way compromised his religion. He firmly believed that God wanted us to properly understand the way the world worked. Why else would he have made it so complicated? Whilst Robert was away his father died, leaving him a large country house in Dorset and estates in Ireland. So he never really needed to worry about money. But when he arrived in England in 1644, the country was in the middle of a Civil War. Boyle did a pretty good job of steering clear and was careful not to appear to be on either one side or the other.

Some time in 1646/7 he became passionately interested in science and built himself a laboratory. Like many scientifically-minded people of his day, he was hoping to find the Philosophers Stone. A substance which would transmute lead into gold and hopefully confer on its creator, the gift of eternal life. He failed at this, which is no surprise, but he does seem to have been a little disappointed. But he was undeterred and began to visit London to meet with other like-minded people. Around 1655 he moved to Oxford. Although he was never officially part of the university, he met plenty of people who were, including Robert Hooke who would help him build some of his most important experiments.

01 25 boyle air pumpIn 1657, they began to experiment with vacuums, using the equipment pictured above. It looks terrifically complex, but what it is, is a large glass container that they could put things inside and then pump all the air out to see what happened to them. They put a bell inside and used a magnet from the outside to move the bell and make it ring. As they pumped out the air, they observed that the sound of the bell became more and more faint. They had discovered that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, yet magnetic forces can, or else they would not have been able to make the bell move. Also, the experiment showed them that light could travel through a vacuum, because they could still see the bell inside. They found that a lit candle went out when they removed the air, proving that a vacuum will not support combustion. Boyle made a further guess that it was only a small part of the air that allowed the flame to burn. No one was yet able to separate the different gases in the air but, over a hundred years later he would be proved right.

In 1660, following the Restoration of the Monarchy, he was one of a group of individuals who formed the nucleus of the Royal Society with the support of King Charles II. They dedicated themselves to revealing nature’s secrets through experiment and their motto was, and still is, ‘Nullus in Verba’ which means: ‘take nobody’s word for it’. If they couldn’t prove something for themselves, they couldn’t believe it was true. Boyle was instrumental in detaching science from alchemy. Alchemists were notoriously secretive about their methods, whereas Boyle insisted that his experiments must be shared so that anyone could repeat them. He published all the methods of his experiments and the results. He also realised that experiments and their results must be repeatable, just to make sure what they concluded was really right. This is the absolute bedrock of modern scientific investigations and we have Boyle to thank for it. He also realised that there was as much to be learned from a failed experiment as a successful one.

Boyle has a scientific law named after him which states that the volume of a gas will decrease, in a predictable way, in inverse proportion to the amount of pressure put upon it. This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t at the time. If you couldn’t compress a gas, the size of the propane bottles I use to run my gas cooker would be unfeasibly large. He also rejected Aristotle’s idea that everything was made up of earth, air, fire and water. He believed that some substances were elements, while others were compounds, made up from those elements. This was, for him, just a theory as there were no experiments to identify which was which. He also believed that everything was made up of tiny particles suspended in a void. What we would call atoms. His alchemical roots meant that he firmly believed that one element could be transmuted into another, such as lead into gold, he just didn’t know how to do it. This is not entirely untrue as, in 1919, Ernest Rutherford successfully transformed nitrogen into oxygen.

Robert Boyle was able to spend his whole life pursuing his scientific curiosities because, being wealthy, he had no need to earn a living or to find a patron. But he still thought of plenty of things that he hoped science would be able to give us in the future. In fact, he wrote a list. It reveals just how widely his thoughts ranged. Many of his hopes have now become reality. It’s a great list:

1. The Prolongation of Life.
2. The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
3. The Art of Flying.
4. The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
5. The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
6. The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
7. The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
8. The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
9. The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
10. The Transmutation of Metalls.
11. The makeing of Glass Malleable.
12. The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
13. The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
14. The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
15. The making Armor light and extremely hard.
16. The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
17. The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
18. Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
19. A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
20. Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
21. Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
22. Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
23. A perpetuall Light.
24. Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.


12 31 simon formanI have an astrological physician for you today. Simon Forman was born near Salisbury in Wiltshire on this day in 1552. Simon Forman was the son of a farmer, he was not rich and didn’t make any world changing discoveries. So how come we know anything about him at all? It’s because his life is extremely well documented. By Simon Forman. He wrote an autobiography. He kept diaries and also, as an astrologer, he made extensive notes about his consultations. There are a lot of them. 10,000 between the years 1596 and 1602. In each he records the name and age of the client, the question asked and the exact time. From this he constructed an astrological chart that told him what the answer was. So his case notes give quite intimate personal details of Londoners from all walks of life. As around 90% of the questions are about health and disease, they are a rich and rare source of medical records for the period. His astrological nonsense didn’t go down too well with the Company of Barber Surgeons. Yes, I know they sound a bit disreputable too, but they’re still around today, only they’re called the Royal College of Surgeons now. So he was in trouble with them and in trouble for other things too. Perhaps for his occult studies and possessing books about magic. Perhaps for his numerous sexual dalliances with his patients. He actually spent quite a lot of time in prison. Despite his troubles his good reputation began to spread after he survived a nasty dose of plague and claimed to have cured himself.

He wrote extensively about astrology, alchemy, gardening and the history of giants. They’re all descendants of Noah, in case you’re wondering. Also, as we mentioned, he also wrote about himself. We know that his father loved him but his mother did not. We know that he had wild dreams as a child about mountains falling on him, but that he always managed to clamber over. He saw these dreams as prophetic of his difficult life to come. He tells us that when he was at school he used to visit a canon of the church called Mr. Mintorne. The canon rarely kept a fire in the house but he did keep faggots, which in this case means a bundle of dried sticks used to light a fire. When he was cold he would carry them up to the attic until he was warm. When they were all upstairs he carried them down again. He made Simon do the same, because he thought it was better to heat yourself than sit by a fire.

Thanks to his diaries, we know about the time he almost chopped his finger off because he had hung his sword from the bedpost. We know exactly how many times he fell downstairs and on what date. We also know about the time he dreamed about the Queen, Elizabeth I. The Queen was out in the street wearing just a petticoat. Forman rescued her from a weaver with a red beard who was over familiar and kissed her. As he was leading her away, her petticoat dragged in the mud and he suggested to her that he could make her pregnant, then her belly would be bigger and her petticoats would be higher and not get muddy. He was pretty sure it went well. Dreams are weird things and it’s lovely to have one from so long ago recorded.

Forman is also credited with having written the only eyewitness account of the plays of William Shakespeare that date from the life of the playwright. He went to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre and also Cymbeline. He wrote short impressions of them, which oddly include a description of Macbeth and Banquo riding in the opening scene.

Although he seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, a charlatan, he did manage to predict his own death. One Sunday afternoon, he announced to his wife that he would die the following Thursday. On Monday, everything was fine. On Tuesday, he was not sick. On Wednesday he was still well. By Thursday his wife was teasing him about it. Then after dinner, he took a boat out on the Thames to go and look at some buildings he had an investment in. In the middle of the river he collapsed and died.

Water, Water Everywhere

12 30 jan baptist van helmontToday I want to tell you about Jan Baptist van Helmont, a chemist, alchemist, physiologist and physician who was born in Brussels in 1580 and died on this day in 1644. He studied the classics and was taught magic and mystical philosophy by the Jesuits before settling on a study of medicine. He practised medicine until he married money, then he devoted himself to a study of chemical philosophy. Van Helmont was both a man of science and a man of God and I’m always rather impressed by people who manage to make advances in scientific knowledge despite their belief in a divine creation.

Van Helmont refuted the idea that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He believed that there were only two. Fire, he said, was definitely not and element and neither was earth as he felt it could be reduced to water. In his universe, there was air and everything else was made of water in some form. His theory was, he thought, supported by the creation story found in the book of Genesis. He carried out an experiment which would prove that a tree is made of water. People generally believed that a tree grew by eating soil, which is a delightfully quaint idea. Van Helmont got himself a small tree and weighed it. It weighed 5 lb. Then he weighed out 200lb of dry soil, put it in a pot, planted the tree and watered it. He kept the tree and continued to water it for five years. At the end of that time, he took the tree out of the soil and weighed it again. It weighed 169 lb. When he dried out the soil and weighed that, he found that it was only 2oz lighter than when he started. The tree had eaten hardly any of the soil. As he had given it only water, the tree must be made of water. Of course, he didn’t understand anything about photosynthesis and didn’t know that the tree had also taken carbon from the air. But then he thought air was an element and wasn’t made of anything except itself.

This is odd as he did know about gas. In fact he invented the word. Gas was, of course, another form of water which was liberated by heating. In another experiment, he burned 62 lb of charcoal and found he was left with only 1 lb of ash. The rest had escaped during the burning in the form of some kind of wild spirit he called ‘gas sylvestre’ but what we would call carbon dioxide. No one is sure where he got the word ‘gas’ from. It may be derived from the Greek word ‘chaos’ or from the word ‘gahst’ which means ghost or spirit. He believed the same gas sylvestre was produced by fermenting alcohol and that it was what rendered the air in some caves unbreathable.

Among his other discoveries was the fact that chemicals were involved in the digestion of food. People had thought that digestion was caused by heat, but van Helmont realised if that were true, cold blooded animals like snakes would not be able to digest their meals. Unfortunately he thought that the fluids involved in digestion were governed by spirits that needed to be kept in balance, but that’s alchemists for you. But it did lead him to successfully treat stomach complaints caused by and excess of acid with an alkaline remedy.

Not much of the work of van Helmont was published during his lifetime. Early on he waded into a massive controversy that landed him in trouble with the Inquisition and that probably put him off. There was quite a heated debate going on between the Jesuits and followers of a physician called Paraclesus, of whom van Helmont was one. It was over a cure known as the ‘weapon salve’. A wound could be cured by applying a special ointment to the weapon that had caused the injury. If you read the ingredients, there’s no way you would want to put it on an actual wound. It requires ‘man’s grease’ and some moss which has grown on the skull of a person who has met a violent death. Surprisingly, the debate was not about whether it worked at all, but why it worked. The Jesuits felt that it was all the devil’s work and should be left well alone. Van Helmont believed that it worked because there was a magnetic attraction between the blood on the weapon and the blood coursing through the veins of the patient. This kind of sympathetic magic was very real to people in seventeenth century Europe. He further went on to explain that it probably worked in the same way that sacred relics produced miracles. This was a mistake. He was suspected of heresy and it earned him two years of house arrest. He was not fully absolved until after his death. A lot of his work was published posthumously by his son who, by our standards, was even more odd and esoteric that his father. Which is probably why not many people have heard of him.