Curious

07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

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.

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.

A Spurious Wizard

08 01 edward kelleyToday I want to tell you about Edward Kelley who was born on this day in 1555 in Worcester, England. He was born at 4pm. We know this because the famous mathematician and occult philosopher, John Dee wrote out a horoscope for him and because Edward Kelley said so.

We don’t know much about his early life. He may have studied at Oxford under an assumed name. He may have had both of his ears cut off as a punishment for counterfeiting. Maybe both of those things happened. However in 1582 he met with John Dee. What followed was an extremely tortuous seven year working relationship in which it is not clear which of them was the bigger victim.

In the sixteenth century the study of science and the belief in magic were not mutually exclusive. Dee was advisor to Queen Elizabeth I on astrological and scientific matters as well as being a skilled mathematician. He was also very keen to speak to angels which he thought he could do with the aid of a scryer (a crystal ball gazer). Kelly presented himself as a man with just such a skill and Dee was terribly impressed.

The following year Kelley approached Dee with an alchemical book called the Book of St Dunstan. Kelley claimed that he had been led by a spirit creature to Northwick Hill where he had found the book along with a box containing a red powder. The book explained how to use the powder to turn base metals into gold. He seems to have used the powder to produce small quantities of gold over the years, but Dee was still mainly interested in talking with angels. He believed they could grant him god-like wisdom and eternal life. Dee and Kelley along with their families spent six years travelling around central Europe, moving from one court to another, Dee wanting to talk to the angels, Kelley wanting to pursue alchemy.

Kelley could see the angels in either a crystal ball or a mirror and they spoke to him in an angelic language that Dee describes as the language that Adam used to speak to God, the original, lost language of Man. It is entirely possible that it is a language made up by Kelley but, if so it is not clear whether Dee was complicit in the deceit. The angels tapped out letters on something that sounds a bit like a ouija board. They delivered the first third of their message backwards and the rest forwards. They also provided Kelley with a translation into English in the form little strips of paper coming out of their mouths. It all sounds like nonsense, but the style of the angels messages is very different from Kelley’s own. He may have been plagiarising another source but none has ever been found. Kelley genuinely didn’t like doing it. He was afraid of the beings he saw and didn’t trust them. The fact that Dee insisted on long scrying sessions almost every day almost drove him to the brink of madness.

Among the messages that the angels provided were that Jesus was not God and that there was no sin. This sort of talk got them into a lot of trouble with the Catholic Church. It led to a hearing with the papal nuncio in Prague and Kelley almost being thrown out of a window for mentioning the awful behaviour of Catholic priests. Throwing people out of windows was quite popular in Prague at the time, so he probably had a lucky escape.

The angels also told Kelley that he and Dee should share everything, including their wives. Dee was reluctant but had to do what the angels said. Nine months later Dee’s wife gave birth to a child that was probably Kelley’s. Dee returned to England shortly after that and the two did not see each other again.

07 18 voynich manuscriptIt has been speculated that either Kelley, or Dee and Kelley together were responsible for concocting the Voynich Manuscript and selling it to Emperor Rudolf II for 600 gold ducats. It is an unusual document which is written in an unknown language. It does sound like their sort of thing.

It’s hard to know whether Kelley really believed in what he was doing or not. He is generally thought of as a charlatan. Historian A. N. Wilson calls him a ‘spurious wizard’ but it also looks to us as though Dee was a bit of a slave driver. He ended his life imprisoned by Emperor Rudolph II in a castle not far from Prague. In a series of events that sound like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but without the happy ending, he had convinced the emperor of his ability to turn base metals into gold. Having failed to do so, he had been locked up. He died as a result of a broken leg following a fall. The injury is said to have happened whilst he was trying to escape. But did he jump or was he pushed?