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.

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The Great

06 09 peter the greatToday is the the birthday of Peter the Great, who was born on this day in 1672. I’ve mentioned Peter a few times already when I wrote about about the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Frederic Ruysch and the Alaska Purchase. His official title is so ridiculously long that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. So I’ll just stick with ‘Emperor of all the Russias’. But what would you think if I told you that the Emperor of all the Russias spent eighteen months of his reign travelling around Europe in disguise working in dockyards? Well, I am going to tell you that, in a minute.

Peter inherited the throne from his half brother and, from the age of ten, shared the title of Tsar with another step brother. But the real power behind the throne, literally, was his older step sister. There was a hole cut in the back of their double throne and she used to sit behind it and tell them what to say. She later tried to overthrow both of them and got sent to a convent. Then, in 1696, his brother died and Peter became sole ruler. Like anyone who goes about calling themselves ‘the Great’ he wasn’t an entirely good person. He once personally beheaded two hundred people with an axe. But let’s not focus on that.

He seems to have spent most of his reign either trying to start a war or fighting one. His problem was, that although Russia was a vast country, full of all sorts of resources that people might want to buy, exporting them was difficult. What Peter really wanted were ships, he really liked ships, and the only place he could have ships was the port of Arkhangelsk on the northern coast. That wasn’t ideal, because it was ice bound for a large part of the year. What he needed was either a bit of Sweden or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire so he could have access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. So he thought it might be a good idea to start some wars. But he would need allies.

In 1697, Peter organised his ‘Grand Embassy’ which was an entourage of around two hundred and fifty people, including himself. They set off on an eighteen month journey around Europe looking for support for his plan. The Tsar was travelling incognito, calling himself Peter Mikhailov. But I don’t imagine his disguise fooled many people as Peter was unusually tall at 6′ 7”. They didn’t have much luck. People were far too worried about who was going to be the next King of Spain after the unfortunate Charles II, who wasn’t very well at all.

It wasn’t a wasted journey though, because Peter got to see Europe. Russia was, at that time, still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had passed it by. Peter was the first Russian ruler to leave his country in a hundred years and he was impressed by what he saw. When I try to imagine what that would have been like for him, I think about how I would have felt if someone had given me the internet in 1973. Peter loved two things, well, three things, but we’ll get to that. He loved ships and he loved the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that wealthy people had begun to collect. When he visited the Netherlands, which was a massively important sea-faring nation, he managed to get hands on experience on how ships were built He also recruited skilled workers, who would be able to help him with his plans for a Russian Navy.

06 09 peter and jacobBut it was also in the Netherlands that he got to see how Europeans really lived. In Amsterdam, he met Jacob de Wilde who had a huge collection of books, statues and scientific instruments. Peter was fascinated. Jacob’s daughter made this engraving in commemoration of their meeting. There, he met Jan van der Heyden, who invented the fire hose. That might not sound very significant, but Peter’s capital, Moscow, was a wooden city and fires were quite a problem. He also met one of my favourite Dutch anatomists, Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to catch butterflies and how to pull teeth. On a second, later, visit, he bought up Ruysch’s entire, extremely odd, collection and shipped it back to Russia.

After that, Peter went to London, where he also studied shipbuilding, in the dockyards of Deptford. This brings us to Peter’s third favourite thing. Drinking. Peter and his men were lodged in a house that belonged to John Evelyn. If you want a historical handle on him, he’s the other man, apart from Samuel Pepys, who wrote a diary that tells us about the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn loved his home, and had spent many years creating its beautiful garden. Peter and his entourage, which I now realise I’ve neglected to mention, included six trumpeters, four dwarves and a monkey, managed to drunkenly wreck the entire place during their short stay. They broke the windows and doors. They tore and burnt the tapestries and ripped up the mattresses. They blew up the kitchen floor. After they left, every single one of the fifty chairs in the house had gone missing. In the garden, they tore up Evelyn’s bowling green and they destroyed his pride and joy, a holly hedge, which they wrecked by pushing each other through it in wheelbarrows. Evelyn was paid £305 9s 6d in compensation, including £3 for “wheelbarrows broke by the Czar”

During his stay in London, he also met with Edmund Halley, of comet fame, who probably helped a bit with the wrecking of Evelyn’s house, so there’s a side of him we haven’t seen. While in England, Peter also visited Manchester. I couldn’t find out what he did there, other than learn how proper cities were built. Despite his behaviour, Peter left England with the gift of a ship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, in Law, of all things.

Peter had to cut his visit short because of a threatened uprising back in Russia. On his way, he managed to forge an alliance against Sweden with the King of Poland, who was called Augustus the Strong. The rebellion was over by the time he got back, but he set about modernising his country. He outlawed arranged marriages amongst the nobility. He made them wear wigs and European clothes. If he caught them wearing coats with long sleeves, he cut them off with a pair of scissors. He also tried to make them shave off their long beards. Anyone who wanted to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’ and keep a token with them to prove that they’d paid it. On one side it said ‘the beard tax has been taken’, on the other, ‘the beard is a superfluous burden’.

He also changed the calender in 1699. The Russians had an odd calender, based on the Byzantine one. They reckoned the year from the supposed date of creation. So for them, it was the year 7207. He also changed the date of New Year from September 1st to January 1st, something we didn’t do in England until 1752. So December 31st 7207 was followed by January 1st 1700. It was a big change for everyone. Peter had taken up the practice of smoking and when people saw him with smoke coming out of his mouth, some thought their Tsar had been captured and replaced by the Devil.

Maybe, we’ll leave Peter there. Just before he picks up that axe and starts swinging it. And before he starts forcing everyone to build him a big city in the middle of nowhere. Except, I have one more wild story to tell you. In 1701, while visiting his friend Augustus the Strong, they went on a three day drinking binge which ended with a cannon-shooting competition. Augustus won.

Bearing a Grudge

02 10 saint scholasticaToday is Saint Scholastica’s Day. She was a nun who was born in Umbria towards the end of the fifth century. But I don’t want to tell you about her today. Today I am writing about something truly awful that happened in the fourteenth century, in Oxford. Normally, I try to avoid mentioning events where people die, but this is so spectacularly dreadful that I can’t leave it alone. By the end of this post, almost a hundred people will be dead and you probably won’t be very happy with the outcome either. Today is the anniversary of the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355.

Oxford is, as you probably know, a university town. It has been a centre of learning for around eight or nine hundred years. Relationships between the students and the general population have historically been somewhat strained. In 1209, either one or two students were hanged for the crime of murder; which the student responsible claimed was an accident. The ensuing bitterness surrounding the event led to all the students fleeing the town. They did not return until 1214. Many of them went to Cambridge and that may have been when the university was founded there. When they returned, the Pope ordered that the town must pay a fine of fifty-two shillings to the university each year to provide a dinner for poor students as compensation. The students of Oxford must have all seemed, and mostly were, terribly rich in comparison to the townsfolk and this probably did not help everyone get along.

On February 10th 1355, two students named Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield were drinking in the Swindlestock Tavern in the centre of the town. They didn’t like the wine they had been sold. An argument broke out between the two students and the taverner, John Croidon, which ended with them throwing the wine in his face and hitting him over the head with the jug. Croidon called on friends and family and the disturbance grew. The town bailiffs asked the students to make amends, but they would not. The Mayor could do nothing himself because the students were members of the clergy and outside his jurisdiction. So he asked the Chancellor of the university to arrest them, but he refused. Instead, two hundred other students rallied around Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield and beat up the Mayor. The day ended with the students having the upper hand.

The next day, the Mayor went to see the King, Edward III, who happened to be nearby at Woodstock. The King seems to have been no help at all. Meanwhile the Chancellor ordered his scholars to keep the peace. But, according to the town records, the students locked the gates of the town, set fire to stuff and robbed peoples’ houses, killing and wounding many. According to the university records, the students were out exercising in the fields when they were attacked by eighty townspeople with bows and arrows who had been hiding in a church. While this was happening the Mayor had managed to rally two thousand people from the surrounding countryside and they all arrived at the town and joined in the fray. The students fought, they said, until they ran out of weapons and then retreated to the university. Their assailants followed them and wrecked some of the scholars’ halls.

The day after that was probably the worst day. The people of the town destroyed another fourteen of the students halls. Many were killed and some of the students were scalped and thrown into jail. Some monks tried to calm everyone down by carrying a communion wafer through the middle of the riot, but it didn’t really work. The townspeople just took it off them and threw it on the ground. By the time the riot had subsided, sixty-three scholars were dead and about thirty locals. I couldn’t find out how the rioting came to a halt, but I do know what happened subsequently.

Many of the leading townsmen wound up in the Tower of London and the students, again, left the town. The King, who sat in judgement, found in favour of the students. When they returned to Oxford, they and their servants were granted immunity from prosecution for any felonies, robberies, arson or trespass that they had committed. Furthermore, they were afterwards allowed to regulate the drinks trade. Worst of all, on every subsequent February 10th, sixty-three leading members of the community, including the Mayor, were required to march through the town bareheaded, in an act of penance, to attend a church service at the university. They also each had to pay a a penny, a total fine of 5s 3d, to university funds. This penance continued for the next four hundred and seventy years. In 1825, the Mayor of Oxford refused to take part in the annual humiliation. All was not really forgiven until 1955, when the Mayor was granted an honorary degree and the Vice-Chancellor was made an Honorary Freeman of the city. It only took six hundred years, but I think things might be mostly okay now.

02 10 oxford 1730

Schwoppinge Mallarde

01 14 mallardToday I want to tell you about Mallard Day. It is celebrated once every hundred years by the Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford. Okay, it won’t be happening this year, the next Mallard day will be in the year 2101, but let’s look at it anyway. On Mallard day, the chosen ‘Lord of the Mallard’ will be carried around the grounds of the college at shoulder height in a sedan chair. He will also be carried over the roof of the library. There will be someone walking in front of him, carrying a wooden mallard, on a pole. There will be lots of people taking part in this procession. Some will be carrying long white staffs, others, torches. It is a night time event. All the while, the Lord of the Mallard will be loudly singing the Mallard Song. That’s an odd thing isn’t it? It won’t really seem any less strange when I explain what it’s about.

What they are celebrating, is the finding of an overgrown mallard in a drain whilst the foundations of the college were being dug in 1437. There is a document detailing the event which appeared in 1750. Supposedly it is based on an original fifteenth century manuscript, but it is a work of fiction. According to the legend, the college’s founder, Henry Clichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, was trying to decide where to put his new building. He had a dream that a: “righte godelye personage” told him that, if he built it in the High Street, next to the church, as he dug the foundations he would find: “…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele yfattened and almost ybosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college.” So he started to dig, and presently heard: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes”. He said a few prayers, reached into the hole and pulled out a duck the size of: “a bustarde or an ostridge.” The bird flew away and the Fellows of All Souls have been looking for it ever since.

Originally it seems to have been more of an annual event. The first surviving mention we have of Mallard Day was in 1632, when three young ‘Mallardyzers’ were disciplined for bringing strangers into the college and causing a disturbance and damage during the night. Then, in 1658, there were complaints about people singing the Mallard Song in a rude manner at two or three in the morning. This was during the period of the of the Commonwealth and it did not go down very well at all with the troops of Oliver Cromwell, who were stationed nearby. Cromwell and his military junta did not stand for this sort of nonsense. They could fine you for swearing, have you whipped for playing games on a Sunday, they would even take your Christmas dinner away. There are a couple of reports of Mallard Day from later in the seventeenth century, where it seems to have been some kind of initiation ceremony.

By the eighteenth century they’d rather given up the procession part of the event in favour of an evening of drinking and singing the Mallard Song. It was revived again in 1801 as a one-off event to celebrate the new century. This was described as a much more solemn and dignified event than those of the previous century, although obviously someone was still carried over the roof, accompanied by flaming torches, at four in the morning, while he loudly sang a song about a duck. On this occasion the ceremony involved a real duck. The Mallard ceremony was repeated in 1901, when the Lord of the Mallard was future Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. There are two descriptions of the ceremony, one from the college warden and one from the daughter of a fellow, who was watching through the gate. Both mention the Mallard Song and the procession across the roof of the library and also tell us that a bonfire was made of the torches at the end. The 1901 ceremony seems also to have included an actual duck, as the warden tells us that its wings and head were cut off and thrown into the flames. It may have been a stuffed duck though. There was much dancing around the bonfire and the lady watching from a distance thought she caught a glimpse of a gaitered leg. The warden tells us that afterwards, drops of Madeira were sprinkled into everyone’s glass of port from a silver salt-cellar shaped like a mallard. This represented the blood of the bird and was considered a less barbaric alternative to previous occasions when the actual blood of an actual mallard had been used. If, by now, you’re starting to feel a bit sorry for mallards, it might be worth looking at this, from Stewart Lee.

The ceremony was repeated in 2001 with 117 participants who were all fellows or ex-fellows of the college. A wooden duck was used instead of a real one, women were allowed to join in for the first time and the evening ended with a firework display. I feel I should point out that the people who attend this ceremony are not a bunch of rowdy young students. All Souls has no undergraduates. These are all serious academics. The song they sing is very silly, here’s my favourite verse:

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to Thigh;
His swapping tool of Generation
oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

All you need to know is that the word ‘swapping’ or, as it appears in the bogus manuscript, ‘schwoppinge’ means extremely large and impressive. This verse, with its reference to the bird’s huge genitalia was removed in the nineteenth century on grounds of decency, though I believe it was restored in the millennium. Incidentally, the largest bird penis, does indeed belong to a duck. But not the mallard. That honour belongs to the Argentinian Lake Duck which has a penis anything up to 42.5 cm long, the same length as it’s entire body.