Lives of the Necromancers, by William Godwin

Communication of Europe and the Saracens

It appears to have been about the close of the tenth century that the more curious and inquisitive spirits of Europe first had recourse to the East as a source of such information and art, as they found most glaringly deficient among their countrymen. We have seen that in Persia there was an uninterrupted succession of professors in the art of magic: and, when the followers of Mahomet by their prowess had gained the superiority over the greater part of Asia, over all that was known of Africa, and a considerable tract of Europe, they gradually became awake to the desire of cultivating the sciences, and in particular of making themselves masters of whatever was most liberal and eminent among the disciples of Zoroaster. To this they added a curiosity respecting Greek learning, especially as it related to medicine and the investigation of the powers of physical nature. Bagdad became an eminent seat of learning; and perhaps, next to Bagdad, Spain under the Saracens, or Moors, was a principal abode for the professors of ingenuity and literature.

Gerbert, Pope Silvester Ii.

As a consequence of this state of things the more curious men of Europe by degrees adopted the practice of resorting to Spain for the purpose of enlarging their sphere of observation and knowledge. Among others Gerbert is reported to have been the first of the Christian clergy, who strung themselves up to the resolution of mixing with the followers of Mahomet, that they might learn from thence things, the knowledge of which it was impossible for them to obtain at home. This generous adventurer, prompted by an insatiable thirst for information, is said to have secretly withdrawn himself from his monastery of Fleury in Burgundy, and to have spent several years among the Saracens of Cordova. Here he acquired a knowledge of the language and learning of the Arabians, particularly of their astronomy, geometry and arithmetic; and he is understood to have been the first that imparted to the north and west of Europe a knowledge of the Arabic numerals, a science, which at first sight might be despised for its simplicity, but which in its consequences is no inconsiderable instrument in subtilising the powers of human intellect. He likewise introduced the use of clocks. He is also represented to have made an extraordinary proficiency in the art of magic; and among other things is said to have constructed a brazen head, which would answer when it was spoken to, and oracularly resolve many difficult questions. 151 The same historian assures us that Gerbert by the art of necromancy made various discoveries of hidden treasures, and relates in all its circumstances the spectacle of a magic palace he visited underground, with the multiplied splendours of an Arabian tale, but distinguished by this feature, that, though its magnificence was dazzling to the sight, it would not abide the test of feeling, but vanished into air, the moment it was attempted to be touched.

It happened with Gerbert, as with St. Dunstan, that he united an aspiring mind and a boundless spirit of ambition, with the intellectual curiosity which has already been described. The first step that he made into public life and the career for which he panted, consisted in his being named preceptor, first to Robert, king of France, the son of Hugh Capet, and next to Otho the Third, emperor of Germany. Hugh Capet appointed him archbishop of Rheims; but, that dignity being disputed with him, he retired into Germany, and, becoming eminently a favourite with Otho the Third, he was by the influence of that prince raised, first to be archbishop of Ravenna, and afterwards to the papacy by the name of Silvester the Second. 152

Cardinal Benno, who was an adherent of the anti-popes, and for that reason is supposed to have calumniated Gerbert and several of his successors, affirms that he was habitually waited on by demons, that by their aid he obtained the papal crown, and that the devil to whom he had sold himself, faithfully promised him that he should live, till he had celebrated high mass at Jerusalem. This however was merely a juggle of the evil spirit; and Gerbert actually died, shortly after having officially dispensed the sacrament at the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which is one of the seven districts of the city of Rome. This event occurred in the year 1008. 153

151 William of Malmesbury, Lib. II, c. 10.

152 William of Malmesbury, Lib. II, c. 10.

153 Naudé, Apologie des Grands Hommes Accusés de Magie. Malmesbury, ubi supra.

Benedict the Ninth.

According to the same authority sorcery was at this time extensively practised by some of the highest dignitaries of the church, and five or six popes in succession were notorious for these sacrilegious practices. About the same period the papal chair was at its lowest state of degradation; this dignity was repeatedly exposed for sale; and the reign of Gerbert, a man of consummate abilities and attainments, is almost the only redeeming feature in the century in which he lived. At length the tiara became the purchase of an ambitious family, which had already furnished two popes, in behalf of a boy of twelve years of age, who reigned by the name of Benedict the Ninth. This youth, as he grew up, contaminated his rule with every kind of profligacy and debauchery. But even he, according to Benno, was a pupil in the school of Silvester, and became no mean proficient in the arts of sorcery. Among other things he caused the matrons of Rome by his incantations to follow him in troops among woods and mountains, being bewitched and their souls subdued by the irresistible charms of his magic. 154

154 Naudé, Apologie des Grands Hommes Accusés de Magie, chap. 19.

Gregory the Seventh.

Benno presents us with a regular catalogue of the ecclesiastical sorcerers of this period: Benedict the Ninth, and Laurence, archbishop of Melfi, (each of whom, he says, learned the art of Silvester), John XX and Gregory VI. But his most vehement accusations are directed against Gregory VII, who, he affirms, was in the early part of his career, the constant companion and assistant of these dignitaries in unlawful practices of this sort.

Gregory VII, whose original name was Hildebrand, is one of the great champions of the Romish church, and did more than any other man to establish the law of the celibacy of the clergy, and to take the patronage of ecclesiastical dignities out of the hands of the laity. He was eminently qualified for this undertaking by the severity of his manners, and the inflexibility of his resolution to accomplish whatever he undertook.

His great adversary was Henry the Fourth, emperor of Germany, a young prince of high spirit, and at that time (1075) twenty-four years of age. Gregory sent to summon him to Rome, to answer an accusation, that he, as all his predecessors had done, being a layman, had conferred ecclesiastical dignities. Henry refused submission, and was immediately declared excommunicated. In retaliation for this offence, the emperor, it is said, gave his orders to a chief of brigands, who, watching his opportunity, seized the pope in the act of saying mass in one of the churches of Rome, and carried him prisoner to a tower in the city which was in the possession of this adventurer. But no sooner was this known, than the citizens of Rome, rose en masse, and rescued their spiritual father. Meanwhile Henry, to follow up his blow, assembled a synod at Worms, who pronounced on the pope, that for manifold crimes he was fallen from his supreme dignity, and accordingly fulminated a decree of deposition against him. But Henry had no forces to carry this decree into execution; and Gregory on his side emitted a sentence of degradation against the emperor, commanding the Germans to elect a new emperor in his place. It then became evident that, in this age of ignorance and religious subjugation, the spiritual arm, at least in Germany, was more powerful than the temporal; and Henry, having maturely considered the perils that surrounded him, took the resolution to pass the Alps with a few domestics only, and, repairing to the presence of the pope, submit himself to such penance as the pontiff should impose. Gregory was at this time at Canosa, a fortress beyond Naples, which was surrounded with three walls. Henry, without any attendant, was admitted within the first wall. Here he was required to cast off all the symbols of royalty, to put on a hair-shirt, and to wait barefoot his holiness’s pleasure. He stood accordingly, fasting from morn to eve, without receiving the smallest notice from the pontiff. It was in the month of January. He passed through the same trial the second day, and the third. On the fourth day in the morning he was admitted to the presence of the holy father. They parted however more irreconcileable in heart than ever, though each preserved the appearance of good will. The pope insisted that Henry should abide the issue of the congress in Germany, of which he constituted himself president; and the emperor, exasperated at the treatment he had received, resolved to keep no terms with Gregory. Henry proceeded to the election of an anti-pope, Clement the Third, and Gregory patronised a new emperor, Rodolph, duke of Suabia. Henry had however generally been successful in his military enterprises; and he defeated Rodolph in two battles, in the last of which his opponent was slain. In the synod of Brixen, in which Clement the Third was elected, Gregory was sentenced as a magician and a necromancer. The emperor, puffed up with his victories, marched against Rome, and took it, with the exception of the castle of St. Angelo, in which the pope shut himself up; and in the mean time Henry caused the anti-pope, his creature, to be solemnly inaugurated in the church of the Lateran. Gregory however, never dismayed, and never at an end of his expedients, called in the Normans, who had recently distinguished themselves by their victories in Naples and Sicily. Robert Guiscard, a Norman chieftain, drove the Germans out of Rome; but, some altercations ensuing between the pontiff and his deliverer, the city was given up to pillage, and Gregory was glad to take refuge in Salerno, the capital of his Norman ally, where he shortly after expired, an exile and a fugitive.

Gregory was no doubt a man of extraordinary resources and invincible courage. He did not live to witness the triumph of his policy; but his projects for the exaltation of the church finally met with every success his most sanguine wishes could have aspired to. In addition to all the rest it happened, that the countess Matilda, a princess who in her own right possessed extensive sovereignties in Italy, nearly commensurate with what has since been styled the ecclesiastical state, transferred to the pope in her life-time, and confirmed by her testament, all these territories, thus mainly contributing to render him and his successors so considerable as temporal princes, as since that time they have appeared.

It is, however, as a sorcerer, that Gregory VII (Hildebrand) finds a place in this volume. Benno relates that, coming one day from his Alban villa, he found, just as he was entering the church of the Lateran, that he had left behind him his magical book, which he was ascustomed to carry about his person. He immediately sent two trusty servants to fetch it, at the same time threatening them most fearfully if they should attempt to look into the volume. Curiosity however got the better of their fear. They opened the book, and began to read; when presently a number of devils appeared, saying, “We are come to obey your commands, but, if we find ourselves trifled with, we shall certainly fall upon and destroy you.” The servants, exceedingly terrified, replied, “Our will is that you should immediately throw down so much of the wall of the city as is now before us.” The devils obeyed; and the servants escaped the danger that hung over them. 155 It is further said, that Gregory was so expert in the arts of magic, that he would throw out lightning by shaking his arm, and dart thunder from his sleeve. 156

But the most conspicuous circumstance in the life of Gregory that has been made the foundation of a charge of necromancy against him, is that, when Rodolph marched against Henry IV, the pope was so confident of his success, as to venture publicly to prophesy, both in speech and in writing, that his adversary should be conquered and perish in this campaign. “Nay,” he added, “this prophecy shall be accomplished before St. Peter’s day; nor do I desire any longer to be acknowledged for pope, than on the condition that this comes to pass.” It is added, that Rodolph, relying on the prediction, six times renewed the battle, in which finally he perished instead of his competitor. But this does not go far enough to substantiate a charge of necromancy. It is further remarked, that Gregory was deep in the pretended science of judicial astrology; and this, without its being necessary to have recourse to the solution of diabolical aid, may sufficiently account for the undoubting certainty with which he counted on the event.

In the mean time this statement is of great importance, as illustrative of the spirit of the times in general, and the character of Gregory in particular. Rodolph, the competitor for the empire, has his mind wrought up to such a pitch by this prophetic assurance, that, five times repulsed, he yet led on his forces a sixth time, and perished the victim of his faith. Nor were his followers less animated than he, and from the same cause. We see also from the same story, that Gregory was not an artful and crafty impostor, but a man spurred on by a genuine enthusiasm. And this indeed is necessary to account for the whole of his conduct. The audacity with which he opposed the claims of Henry, and the unheard-of severity with which he treated him at the fortress of Canosa, are to be referred to the same feature of character. Invincible perseverance, when united with great resources of intellect and a lofty spirit, will enable a man thoroughly to effect, what a person of inferior endowments would not have dared so much as to dream of. And Gregory, like St. Dunstan, achieved incredible things, by skilfully adapting himself to circumstances, and taking advantage of the temper and weakness of his contemporaries.

155 Mornay, Mysterium Iniquitalis, p. 258. Coeffeteau, Reponse à ditto, p. 274.

156 Ibid.

Duff, King of Scotland.

It is not to be wondered at, when such things occurred in Italy, the principal seat of all the learning and refinement then existing in Europe, that the extreme northerly and western districts should have been given up to the blindest superstition. Among other instances we have the following account in relation to Duff, king of Scotland, who came to the crown about the year 968. He found his kingdom in the greatest disorder from numerous bands of robbers, many of whom were persons of high descent, but of no competent means of subsistence. Duff resolved to put an end to their depredations, and to secure those who sought a quiet support from cultivating the fruits of the earth from forcible invasion. He executed the law against these disturbers without respect of persons, and hence made himself many and powerful enemies. In the midst of his activity however he suddenly fell sick, and became confined to his bed. His physicians could no way account for his distemper. They found no excess of any humour in his body to which they could attribute his illness; his colour was fresh, and his eyes lively; and he had a moderate and healthful appetite. But with all this he was a total stranger to sleep; he burst out into immoderate perspirations; and there was scarcely any thing that remained of him, but skin and bone. In the meantime secret information was brought that all this evil was the result of witchcraft. And, the house being pointed out in which the sorcerers held their sabbath, a band of soldiers was sent to surprise them. The doors being burst open, they found one woman roasting upon a spit by the fire a waxen image of the king, so like in every feature, that no doubt was entertained that it was modelled by the art of the devil, while another sat by, busily engaged in reciting certain verses of enchantment, by which means, as the wax melted, the king was consumed with perspiration, and, as soon as it was utterly dissolved, his death should immediately follow. The witches were seized, and from their own confession burned alive. The image was broken to pieces, and every fragment of it destroyed. And no sooner was this effected, than Duff had all that night the most refreshing and healthful sleep, and the next day rose without any remains of his infirmity. 157

This reprieve however availed him but for a short time. He was no sooner recovered, than he occupied himself as before with pursuing the outlaws, whom he brought indiscriminately to condign punishment. Among these there chanced to be two young men, near relations of the governor of the castle of Fores, who had hitherto been the king’s most faithful adherents. These young men had been deluded by ill company: and the governor most earnestly sued to Duff for their pardon. But the king was inexorable. Meanwhile, as he had always placed the most entire trust in their father, he continued to do so without the smallest suspicion. The night after the execution, the king slept in the castle of Fores, as he had often done before; but the governor, conceiving the utmost rancour at the repulse he had sustained, and moreover instigated by his wife, in the middle of the night murdered Duff in his bed, as he slept. His reign lasted only four years. 158

157 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 206, 207.

158 Ibid. p. 207, 208.


The seventh king of Scotland after Duff, with an interval of sixty-eight years, was Macbeth. The historian begins his tale of witchcraft, towards the end of the reign of Duncan, his predecessor, with observing, “Shortly after happened a strange and uncouth wonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realm of Scotland. It fortuned, as Macbeth and Banquo journeyed towards Fores, where the king as then lay, they went sporting by the way together, without other company save only themselves, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenly, in the midst of a laund, there met them three women in strange and ferly apparel, resembling creatures of an elder world, whom when they attentively beheld, wondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said, All hail, Macbeth, thane of Glamis (for he had lately entered into that dignity and office by the death of his father Synel). The second of them said, Hail, Macbeth, thane of Cawdor. But the third said, All hail, Macbeth, that hereafter shall be king of Scotland. Then Banquo, What sort of women, said he, are you, that seem so little favourable unto me, whereas to my fellow here, besides high offices, ye assign also the kingdom, appointing forth nothing for me at all? Yes, saith the first of them, we promise greater benefits unto thee than unto him, for he shall reign indeed, but with an unlucky end, neither shall he leave any issue behind him to succeed in his place; where contrarily thou indeed shall not reign at all, but of thee those shall be born, which shall govern the Scottish kingdom by long order of continual descent. Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediately out of their sight.

“This was reputed at the first but some vain fantastical illusion by Macbeth and Banquo, insomuch that Banquo would call Macbeth in jest king of Scotland, and Macbeth again would call him in sport likewise the father of many kings. But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as you would say) the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or fairies, endued with knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science, because every thing came to pass as they had spoken.

“For shortly after, the thane of Cawdor, being condemned at Fores of treason against the king committed, his lands, livings and offices were given of the king’s liberality unto Macbeth.” 159

Malcolm, the preceding king of Scotland, had two daughters, one of them the mother of Duncan, and the other of Macbeth; and in virtue of this descent Duncan succeeded to the crown. The accession of Macbeth therefore was not very remote, if he survived the present king. Of consequence Macbeth, though he thought much of the prediction of the weird sisters, yet resolved to wait his time, thinking that, as had happened in his former preferment, this might come to pass without his aid. But Duncan had two sons, Malcolm Cammore and Donald Bane. The law of succession in Scotland was, that, if at the death of the reigning sovereign he that should succeed were not of sufficient age to take on him the government, he that was next of blood to him should be admitted. Duncan however at this juncture created his eldest son Malcolm prince of Cumberland, a title which was considered as designating him heir to the throne. Macbeth was greatly troubled at this, as cutting off the expectation he thought he had a right to entertain: and, the words of the weird sisters still ringing in his ears, and his wife with ambitious speeches urging him to the deed, he, in conjunction with some trusty friends, among whom was Banquo, came to a resolution to kill the king at Inverness. The deed being perpetrated, Malcolm, the eldest son of Duncan, fled for safety into Cumberland, and Donald, the second, into Ireland. 160

Macbeth, who became king of Scotland in the year 1010, reigned for ten years with great popularity and applause, but at the end of that time changed his manner of government, and became a tyrant. His first action in this character was against Banquo. He remembered that the weird sisters had promised to Banquo that he should be father to a line of kings. Haunted with this recollection, Macbeth invited Banquo and his son Fleance to a supper, and appointed assassins to murder them both on their return. Banquo was slain accordingly; but Fleance, under favour of the darkness of the night, escaped. 161

This murder brought Macbeth into great odium, since every man began to doubt of the security of his life, and Macbeth at the same time to fear the ill will of his subjects. He therefore proceeded to destroy all against whom he entertained any suspicion, and every day more and more to steep his hands in blood. Further to secure himself, he built a castle on the top of a high hill, called Dunsinnan, which was placed on such an elevation, that it seemed impossible to approach it in a hostile manner. This work he carried on by means of requiring the thanes of the kingdom, each one in turn, to come with a set of workmen to help forward the edifice. When it came to the turn of Macduff, thane of Fife, he sent workmen, but did not come himself, as the others had done. Macbeth from that time regarded Macduff with an eye of perpetual suspicion. 162

Meanwhile Macbeth, remembering that the origin of his present greatness consisted in the prophecy of the weird sisters, addicted himself continually to the consulting of wizards. Those he consulted gave him a pointed warning to take heed of Macduff, who in time to come would seek to destroy him. This warning would unquestionably have proved fatal to Macduff; had not on the other hand Macbeth been buoyed up in security, by the prediction of a certain witch in whom he had great trust, that he should never be vanquished till the wood of Bernane came to the castle of Dunsinnan, and that he should not be slain by any man that was born of a woman; both which he judged to be impossibilities. 163

This vain confidence however urged him to do many outrageous things; at the same time that such was his perpetual uneasiness of mind, that in every nobleman’s house he had one servant or another in fee, that he might be acquainted with every thing that was said or meditated against him. About this time Macduff fled to Malcolm, who had now taken refuge in the court of Edward the Confessor; and Macbeth came with a strong party into Fife with the purpose of surprising him. The master being safe, those within Macduff’s castle threw open the gates, thinking that no mischief would result from receiving the king. But Macbeth, irritated that he missed of his prey, caused Macduff’s wife and children, and all persons who were found within the castle, to be slain. 164

Shortly after, Malcolm and Macduff, reinforced by ten thousand English under the command of Seyward, earl of Northumberland, marched into Scotland. The subjects of Macbeth stole away daily from him to join the invaders; but he had such confidence in the predictions that had been delivered to him, that he still believed he should never be vanquished. Malcolm meanwhile, as he approached to the castle of Dunsinnan, commanded his men to cut down, each of them, a bough from the wood of Bernane, as large as he could bear, that they might take the tyrant the more by surprise. Macbeth saw, and thought the wood approached him; but he remembered the prophecy, and led forth and marshalled his men. When however the enemy threw down their boughs, and their formidable numbers stood revealed, Macbeth and his forces immediately betook themselves to flight. Macduff pursued him, and was hard at his heels, when the tyrant turned his horse, and exclaimed, “Why dost thou follow me? Know, that it is ordained that no creature born of a woman can ever overcome me.” Macduff instantly retorted, “I am the man appointed to slay thee. I was not born of a woman, but was untimely ripped from my mother’s womb.” And, saying this, he killed him on the spot. Macbeth reigned in the whole seventeen years. 165

159 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 243, 244.

160 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 244, 245.

161 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 246.

162 Ibid, p. 248, 249.

163 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 249.

164 Ibid.

165 Hollinshed, History of Scotland, p. 251.


One of the most curious particulars, and which cannot be omitted in a history of sorcery, is the various achievements in the art of magic which have been related of the poet Virgil. I bring them in here, because they cannot be traced further back than the eleventh or twelfth century. The burial-place of this illustrious man was at Pausilippo, near Naples; the Neapolitans had for many centuries cherished a peculiar reverence for his memory; and it has been supposed that the old ballads, and songs of the minstrels of the north of Italy, first originated this idea respecting him. 166 The vulgar of this city, full of imagination and poetry, conceived the idea of treating him as the guardian genius of the place; and, in bodying forth this conception, they represented him in his life-time as gifted with supernatural powers, which he employed in various ways for the advantage of a city that he so dearly loved. Be this as it will, it appears that Gervais of Tilbury, chancellor to Otho the Fourth, emperor of Germany, Helinandus, a Cisterian monk, and Alexander Neckam, all of whom lived about this time, first recorded these particulars in their works.

They tell us, that Virgil placed a fly of brass over one of the gates of the city, which, as long as it continued there, that is, for a space of eight years, had the virtue of keeping Naples clear from moskitoes and all noxious insects: that he built a set of shambles, the meat in which was at all times free from putrefaction: that he placed two images over the gates of the city, one of which was named Joyful, and the other Sad, one of resplendent beauty, and the other hideous and deformed, and that whoever entered the town under the former image would succeed in all his undertakings, and under the latter would as certainly miscarry: that he caused a brazen statue to be erected on a mountain near Naples, with a trumpet in his mouth, which when the north wind blew, sounded so shrill as to drive to the sea the fire and smoke which issued from the neighbouring forges of Vulcan: that he built different baths at Naples, specifically prepared for the cure of every disease, which were afterwards demolished by the malice of the physicians: and that he lighted a perpetual fire for the refreshment of all travellers, close to which he placed an archer of brass, with his bow bent, and this inscription, “Whoever strikes me, I will let fly my arrow:” that a fool-hardy fellow notwithstanding struck the statue, when the arrow was immediately shot into the fire, and the fire was extinguished. It is added, that, Naples being infested with a vast multitude of contagious leeches, Virgil made a leech of gold, which he threw into a pit, and so delivered the city from the infection: that he surrounded his garden with a wall of air, within which the rain never fell: that he built a bridge of brass that would transport him wherever he pleased: that he made a set of statues, which were named the salvation of Rome, which had the property that, if any one of the subject nations prepared to revolt, the statue, which bore the name of, and was adored by that nation, rung a bell, and pointed with its finger in the direction of the danger: that he made a head, which had the virtue of predicting things future: and lastly, amidst a world of other wonders, that he cut a subterranean passage through mount Pausilippo, that travellers might pass with perfect safety, the mountain having before been so infested with serpents and dragons, that no one could venture to cross it.

166 Naudé.

Robert of Lincoln.

The most eminent person next, after popes Silvester II and Gregory VII, who labours under the imputation of magic, is Robert Grossetête, or Robert of Lincoln, appointed bishop of that see in the year 1235. He was, like those that have previously been mentioned, a man of the most transcendant powers of mind, and extraordinary acquirements. His parents are said to have been so poor, that he was compelled, when a boy, to engage in the meanest offices for bread, and even to beg on the highway. At length the mayor of Lincoln, struck with his appearance, and the quickness of his answers to such questions as were proposed to him, took him into his family, and put him to school. Here his ardent love of learning, and admirable capacity for acquiring it, soon procured him many patrons, by whose assistance he was enabled to prosecute his studies, first at Cambridge, afterwards at Oxford, and finally at Paris. He was master of the Greek and Hebrew languages, then very rare accomplishments; and is pronounced by Roger Bacon, a very competent judge, of whom we shall presently have occasion to speak, to have spent much of his time, for nearly forty years, in the study of geometry, astronomy, optics, and other branches of mathematical learning, in all of which he much excelled. So that, as we are informed from the same authority, this same Robert of Lincoln, and his friend, Friar Adam de Marisco, were the two most learned men in the world, and excelled the rest of mankind in both human and divine knowledge.

This great man especially distinguished himself by his firm and undaunted opposition to the corruptions of the court of Rome. Pope Innocent IV, who filled the papal chair upwards of eleven years, from 1243 to 1254, appears to have exceeded all his predecessors in the shamelessness of his abuses. We are told, that the hierarchy of the church of England was overwhelmed like a flood with an inundation of foreign dignitaries, of whom not a few were mere boys, for the most part without learning, ignorant of the language of the island, and incapable of benefiting the people nominally under their care, the more especially as they continued to dwell in their own countries, and scarcely once in their lives visited the sees to which they had been appointed. 167 Grossetête lifted up his voice against these scandals. He said that it was impossible the genuine apostolic see, which received its authority from the Lord Jesus for edification, and not for destruction, could be guilty of such a crime, for that would forfeit all its glory, and plunge it into the pains of hell. He did not scruple therefore among his most intimate friends to pronounce the reigning pope to be the true Antichrist; and he addressed the pontiff himself in scarcely more measured terms.

Among the other accomplishments of bishop Grossetête he is said to have been profoundly skilled in the art of magic: and the old poet Gower relates of him that he made a head of brass, expressly constructed in such a manner as to be able to answer such questions as were propounded to it, and to foretel future events.

167 Godwin, Praesulibus, art. Gronthead.

Michael Scot.

Michael Scot of Balwirie in the county of Fife, was nearly contemporary with bishop Grossetête. He was eminent for his knowledge of the Greek and Arabic languages. He was patronised by the emperor Frederic II, who encouraged him to undertake a translation of the works of Aristotle into Latin. He addicted himself to astrology, chemistry, and the still more frivolous sciences of chiromancy and physiognomy. It does not appear that he made any pretences to magic; but the vulgar, we are told, generally regarded him as a sorcerer, and are said to have carried their superstition so far as to have conceived a terror of so much as touching his works.

The Dean of Badajoz.

There is a story related by this accomplished scholar, in a collection of aphorisms and anecdotes entitled Mensa Philosophica, which deserves to be cited as illustrating the ideas then current on the subject of sorcery. A certain great necromancer, or nigromancer, had once a pupil of considerable rank, who professed himself extremely desirous for once to have the gratification of believing himself an emperor. The necromancer, tired with his importunities, at length assented to his prayer. He took measures accordingly, and by his potent art caused his scholar to believe that one province and dignity fell to him after another, till at length his utmost desires became satisfied. The magician however appeared to be still at his elbow; and one day, when the scholar was in the highest exultation at his good fortune, the master humbly requested him to bestow upon him some landed possession, as a reward for the extraordinary benefit he had conferred. The imaginary emperor cast upon the necromancer a glance of the utmost disdain and contempt. “Who are you?” said he, “I really have not the smallest acquaintance with you.” “I am he,” replied the magician, with withering severity of countenance and tone, “that gave you all these things, and will take them away.” And, saying this, the illusion with which the poor scholar had been inebriated, immediately vanished; and he became what he had before been, and no more.

The story thus briefly told by Michael Scot, afterwards passed through many hands, and was greatly dilated. In its last form by the abbé Blanchet, it constituted the well known and agreeable tale of the dean of Badajoz. This reverend divine comes to a sorcerer, and intreats a specimen of his art. The magician replies that he had met with so many specimens of ingratitude, that he was resolved to be deluded no more. The dean persists, and at length overcomes the reluctance of the master. He invites his guest into the parlour, and orders his cook to put two partridges to the fire, for that the dean of Badajoz will sup with him. Presently he begins his incantations; and the dean becomes in imagination by turns a bishop, a cardinal, and a pope. The magician then claims his reward. Meanwhile the dean, inflated with his supposed elevation, turns to his benefactor, and says, “I have learned with grief that, under pretence of secret science, you correspond with the prince of darkness. I command you to repent and abjure; and in the mean time I order you to quit the territory of the church in three days, under pain of being delivered to the secular arm, and the rigour of the flames.” The sorcerer, having been thus treated, presently dissolves the incantation, and calls aloud to his cook, “Put down but one partridge, the dean of Badajoz does not sup with me to-night.”

Miracle of the Tub of Water.

This story affords an additional example of the affinity between the ancient Asiatic and European legends, so as to convince us that it is nearly impossible that the one should not be in some way borrowed from the other. There is, in a compilation called the Turkish Tales, a story of an infidel sultan of Egypt, who took the liberty before a learned Mahometan doctor, of ridiculing some of the miracles ascribed to the prophet, as for example his transportation into the seventh heaven, and having ninety thousand conferences with God, while in the mean time a pitcher of water, which had been thrown down in the first step of his ascent, was found with the water not all spilled at his return.

The doctor, who had the gift of working miracles, told the sultan that, with his consent, he would give him a practical proof of the possibility of the circumstance related of Mahomet. The sultan agreed. The doctor therefore directed that a huge tub of water should be brought in, and, while the prince stood before it with his courtiers around, the holy man bade him plunge his head into the water, and draw it out again. The sultan immersed his head, and had no sooner done so, than he found himself alone at the foot of a mountain on a desert shore. The prince first began to rave against the doctor for this piece of treachery and witchcraft. Perceiving however that all his rage was vain, and submitting himself to the imperiousness of his situation, he began to seek for some habitable tract. By and by he discovered people cutting down wood in a forest, and, having no remedy, he was glad to have recourse to the same employment. In process of time he was brought to a town; and there by great good fortune, after other adventures, he married a woman of beauty and wealth, and lived long enough with her, for her to bear him seven sons and seven daughters. He was afterwards reduced to want, so as to be obliged to ply in the streets as a porter for his livelihood. One day, as he walked alone on the sea-shore, ruminating on his hard fate, he was seized with a fit of devotion, and threw off his clothes, that he might wash himself, agreeably to the Mahometan custom, previously to saying his prayers. He had no sooner however plunged into the sea, and raised his head again above water, than he found himself standing by the side of the tub that had been brought in, with all the great persons of his court round him, and the holy man close at his side. He found that the long series of imaginary adventures he had passed through, had in reality occupied but one minute of time.

Institution of Friars.

About this time a great revolution took place in the state of literature in Europe. The monks, who at one period considerably contributed to preserve the monuments of ancient learning, memorably fell off in reputation and industry. Their communities by the donations of the pious grew wealthy; and the monks themselves inhabited splendid palaces, and became luxurious, dissipated and idle. Upon the ruins of their good fame rose a very extraordinary race of men, called Friars. The monks professed celibacy, and to have no individual property; but the friars abjured all property, both private and in common. They had no place where to lay their heads, and subsisted as mendicants upon the alms of their contemporaries. They did not hide themselves in refectories and dormitories, but lived perpetually before the public. In the sequel indeed they built Friaries for their residence; but these were no less distinguished for the simplicity and humbleness of their appearance, than the monasteries were for their grandeur and almost regal magnificence. The Friars were incessant in preaching and praying, voluntarily exposed themselves to the severest hardships, and were distinguished by a fervour of devotion and charitable activity that knew no bounds. We might figure them to ourselves as swallowed up in these duties. But they added to their merits an incessant earnestness in learning and science. A new era in intellect and subtlety of mind began with them; and a set of the most wonderful men in depth of application, logical acuteness, and discoveries in science distinguished this period. They were few indeed, in comparison of the world of ignorance that every where surrounded them; but they were for that reason only the more conspicuous. They divided themselves principally into two orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans. And all that was most illustrious in intellect at this period belonged either to the one or the other.

Albertus Magnus.

Albertus Magnus, a Dominican, was one of the most famous of these. He was born according to some accounts in the year 1193, and according to others in 1205. It is reported of him, that he was naturally very dull, and so incapable of instruction, that he was on the point of quitting the cloister from despair of learning what his vocation required, when the blessed virgin appeared to him in a vision, and enquired of him in which he desired to excel, philosophy or divinity. He chose philosophy; and the virgin assured him that he should become incomparable in that, but, as a punishment for not having chosen divinity, he should sink, before he died, into his former stupidity. It is added that, after this apparition, he had an infinite deal of wit, and advanced in science with so rapid a progress as utterly to astonish the masters. He afterwards became bishop of Ratisbon.

It is related of Albertus, that he made an entire man of brass, putting together its limbs under various constellations, and occupying no less than thirty years in its formation. This man would answer all sorts of questions, and was even employed by its maker as a domestic. But what is more extraordinary, this machine is said to have become at length so garrulous, that Thomas Aquinas, being a pupil of Albertus, and finding himself perpetually disturbed in his abstrusest speculations by its uncontrolable loquacity, in a rage caught up a hammer, and beat it to pieces. According to other accounts the man of Albertus Magnus was composed, not of metal, but of flesh and bones like other men; but this being afterwards judged to be impossible, and the virtue of images, rings, and planetary sigils being in great vogue, it was conceived that this figure was formed of brass, and indebted for its virtue to certain conjunctions and aspects of the planets. 168

A further extraordinary story is told of Albertus Magnus, well calculated to exemplify the ideas of magic with which these ages abounded. William, earl of Holland, and king of the Romans, was expected at a certain time to pass through Cologne. Albertus had set his heart upon obtaining from this prince the cession of a certain tract of land upon which to erect a convent. The better to succeed in his application he conceived the following scheme. He invited the prince on his journey to partake of a magnificent entertainment. To the surprise of every body, when the prince arrived, he found the preparations for the banquet spread in the open air. It was in the depth of winter, when the earth was bound up in frost, and the whole face of things was covered with snow. The attendants of the court were mortified, and began to express their discontent in loud murmurs. No sooner however was the king with Albertus and his courtiers seated at table, than the snow instantly disappeared, the temperature of summer shewed itself, and the sun burst forth with a dazzling splendour. The ground became covered with the richest verdure; the trees were clothed at once with foliage, flowers and fruits: and a vintage of the richest grapes, accompanied with a ravishing odour, invited the spectators to partake. A thousand birds sang on every branch. A train of pages shewed themselves, fresh and graceful in person and attire, and were ready diligently to supply the wants of all, while every one was struck with astonishment as to who they were and from whence they came. The guests were obliged to throw off their upper garments the better to cool themselves. The whole assembly was delighted with their entertainment, and Albertus easily gained his suit of the king. Presently after, the banquet disappeared; all was wintry and solitary as before; the snow lay thick upon the ground; and the guests in all haste snatched up the garments they had laid aside, and hurried into the apartments, that by numerous fires on the blazing hearth they might counteract the dangerous chill which threatened to seize on their limbs. 169

168 Naudé c. 18.

169 Johannes de Becka, apud Trithemii Chronica, ann. 1254.

Roger Bacon.

Roger Bacon, of whom extraordinary stories of magic have been told, and who was about twenty years younger than Albertus, was one of the rarest geniuses that have existed on earth. He was a Franciscan friar. He wrote grammars of the Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages. He was profound in the science of optics. He explained the nature of burning-glasses, and of glasses which magnify and diminish, the microscope and the telescope. He discovered the composition of gunpowder. He ascertained the true length of the solar year; and his theory was afterwards brought into general use, but upon a narrow scale, by Pope Gregory XIII, nearly three hundred years after his death. 170

But for all these discoveries he underwent a series of the most bitter persecutions. It was imputed to him by the superiors of his order that the improvements he suggested in natural philosophy were the effects of magic, and were suggested to him through an intercourse with infernal spirits. They forbade him to communicate any of his speculations. They wasted his frame with rigorous fasting, often restricting him to a diet of bread and water, and prohibited all strangers to have access to him. Yet he went on indefatigably in pursuit of the secrets of nature. 171 At length Clement IV, to whom he appealed, procured him a considerable degree of liberty. But, after the death of that pontiff, he was again put under confinement, and continued in that state for a further period of ten years. He was liberated but a short time before his death.

Freind says, 172 that, among other ingenious contrivances, he put statues in motion, and drew articulate sounds from a brazen head, not however by magic, but by an artificial application of the principles of natural philosophy. This probably furnished a foundation for the tale of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungy, which was one of the earliest productions to which the art of printing was applied in England. These two persons are said to have entertained the project of inclosing England with a wall, so as to render it inaccessible to any invader. They accordingly raised the devil, as the person best able to inform them how this was to be done. The devil advised them to make a brazen head, with all the internal structure and organs of a human head. The construction would cost them much time; and they must then wait with patience till the faculty of speech descended upon it. It would finally however become an oracle, and, if the question were propounded to it, would teach them the solution of their problem. The friars spent seven years in bringing the structure to perfection, and then waited day after day, in expectation that it would utter articulate sounds. At length nature became exhausted in them, and they lay down to sleep, having first given it strictly in charge to a servant of theirs, clownish in nature, but of strict fidelity, that he should awaken them the moment the image began to speak. That period arrived. The head uttered sounds, but such as the clown judged unworthy of notice. “Time is!” it said. No notice was taken; and a long pause ensued. “Time was!” A similar pause, and no notice. “Time is passed!” And the moment these words were uttered, a tremendous storm ensued, with thunder and lightning, and the head was shivered into a thousand pieces. Thus the experiment of friar Bacon and friar Bungy came to nothing.

170 Freind, History of Physick, Vol. II, p. 234 to 239.

171 Bacon, Epist. ad Clement. IV.

172 Ubi supra.

Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas, who has likewise been brought under the imputation of magic, was one of the profoundest scholars and subtlest logicians of his day. He also furnishes a remarkable instance of the ascendant which the friars at that time obtained over the minds of ingenuous young men smitten with the thirst of knowledge. He was a youth of illustrious birth, and received the rudiments of his education under the monks of Monte Cassino, and in the university of Naples. But, not contented with these advantages, he secretly entered himself into the society of Preaching Friars, or Dominicans, at seventeen years of age. His mother, being indignant that he should thus take the vow of poverty, and sequester himself from the world for life, employed every means in her power to induce him to alter his purpose, but in vain. The friars, to deliver him from her importunities, removed him from Naples to Terracina, from Terracina to Anagnia, and from Anagnia to Rome. His mother followed him in all these changes of residence, but was not permitted so much as to see him. At length she spirited up his two elder brothers to seize him by force. They waylaid him in his road to Paris, whither he was sent to complete his course of instruction, and carried him off to the castle of Aquino where he had been born. Here he was confined for two years; but he found a way to correspond with the superiors of his order, and finally escaped from a window in the castle. St. Thomas Aquinas (for he was canonised after his death) exceeded perhaps all men that ever existed in the severity and strictness of his metaphysical disquisitions, and thus acquired the name of the Seraphic Doctor.

It was to be expected that a man, who thus immersed himself in the depths of thought, should be an inexorable enemy to noise and interruption. We have seen that he dashed to pieces the artificial man of brass, that Albertus Magnus, who was his tutor, had spent thirty years in bringing to perfection, being impelled to this violence by its perpetual and unceasing garrulity. 173 It is further said, that his study being placed in a great thoroughfare, where the grooms were all day long exercising their horses, he found it necessary to apply a remedy to this nuisance. He made by the laws of magic a small horse of brass, which he buried two or three feet under ground in the midst of this highway; and, having done so, no horse would any longer pass along the road. It was in vain that the grooms with whip and spur sought to conquer their repugnance. They were finally compelled to give up the attempt, and to choose another place for their daily exercise. 174

It has further been sought to fix the imputation of magic upon Thomas Aquinas by imputing to him certain books written on that science; but these are now acknowledged to be spurious. 175

173 See page 261.

174 Naudé, Cap. 17.

175 Ibid.

Peter of Apono.

Peter of Apono, so called from a village of that name in the vicinity of Padua, where he was born in the year 1250, was an eminent philosopher, mathematician and astrologer, but especially excelled in physic. Finding that science at a low ebb in his native country, he resorted to Paris, where it especially flourished; and after a time returning home, exercised his art with extraordinary success, and by this means accumulated great wealth.

But all his fame and attainments were poisoned to him by the accusation of magic. Among other things he was said to possess seven spirits, each of them inclosed in a crystal vessel, from whom he received every information he desired in the seven liberal arts. He was further reported to have had the extraordinary faculty of causing the money he expended in his disbursements, immediately to come back into his own purse. He was besides of a hasty and revengeful temper. In consequence of this it happened to him, that, having a neighbour, who had an admirable spring of water in his garden, and who was accustomed to suffer the physician to send for a daily supply, but who for some displeasure or inconvenience withdrew his permission, Peter d’Apono, by the aid of the devil, removed the spring from the garden in which it had flowed, and turned it to waste in the public street. For some of these accusations he was called to account by the tribunal of the inquisition. While he was upon his trial however, the unfortunate man died. But so unfavourable was the judgment of the inquisitors respecting him, that they decreed that his bones should be dug up, and publicly burned. Some of his friends got intimation of this, and saved him from the impending disgrace by removing his remains. Disappointed in this, the inquisitors proceeded to burn him in effigy.

English Law of High Treason.

It may seem strange that in a treatise concerning necromancy we should have occasion to speak of the English law of high treason. But on reflection perhaps it may appear not altogether alien to the subject. This crime is ordinarily considered by our lawyers as limited and defined by the statute of 25 Edward III. As Blackstone has observed, “By the ancient common law there was a great latitude left in the breast of the judges, to determine what was treason, or not so: whereby the creatures of tyrannical power had opportunity to create abundance of constructive treasons; that is, to raise, by forced and arbitrary constructions, offences into the crime and punishment of treason, which were never suspected to be such. To prevent these inconveniences, the statute of 25 Edward III was made.” 176 This statute divides treason into seven distinct branches; and the first and chief of these is, “when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the king.”

Now the first circumstance that strikes us in this affair is, why the crime was not expressed in more perspicuous and appropriate language? Why, for example, was it not said, that the first and chief branch of treason was to “kill the king?” Or, if that limitation was not held to be sufficiently ample, could it not have been added, it is treason to “attempt, intend, or contrive to kill the king?” We are apt to make much too large an allowance for what is considered as the vague and obsolete language of our ancestors. Logic was the element in which the scholars of what are called the dark ages were especially at home. It was at that period that the description of human geniuses, called the Schoolmen, principally flourished. The writers who preceded the Christian era, possessed in an extraordinary degree the gift of imagination and invention. But they had little to boast on the score of arrangement, and discovered little skill in the strictness of an accurate deduction. Meanwhile the Schoolmen had a surprising subtlety in weaving the web of an argument, and arriving by a close deduction, through a multitude of steps, to a sound and irresistible conclusion. Our lawyers to a certain degree formed themselves on the discipline of the Schoolmen. Nothing can be more forcibly contrasted, than the mode of pleading among the ancients, and that which has characterised the processes of the moderns. The pleadings of the ancients were praxises of the art of oratorical persuasion; the pleadings of the moderns sometimes, though rarely, deviate into oratory, but principally consist in dextrous subtleties upon words, or a nice series of deductions, the whole contexture of which is endeavoured to be woven into one indissoluble substance. Several striking examples have been preserved of the mode of pleading in the reign of Edward II, in which the exceptions taken for the defendant, and the replies supporting the mode of proceeding on behalf of the plaintiff, in no respect fall short of the most admired shifts, quirks and subtleties of the great lawyers of later times. 177

It would be certainly wrong therefore to consider the legal phrase, to “compass or imagine the death of the king,” as meaning the same thing as to “kill, or intend to kill” him. At all events we may take it for granted, that to “compass” does not mean to accomplish; but rather to “take in hand, to go about to effect.” There is therefore no form of words here forbidding to “kill the king.” The phrase, to “imagine,” does not appear less startling. What is, to a proverb, more lawless than imagination?

Evil into the mind of God or man
May come and go, so unapproved, and leave
No spot or blame behind.

176 Commentaries, Book IV. chap. vi.

177 Life of Chaucer, c. xviii.

What can be more tyrannical, than an inquisition into the sports and freaks of fancy? What more unsusceptible of detection or evidence? How many imperceptible shades of distinction between the guilt and innocence that characterise them! — Meanwhile the force and propriety of these terms will strikingly appear, if we refer them to the popular ideas of witchcraft. Witches were understood to have the power of destroying life, without the necessity of approaching the person whose life was to be destroyed, or producing any consciousness in him of the crime about to be perpetrated. One method was by exposing an image of wax to the action of fire; while, in proportion as the image wasted away, the life of the individual who was the object contrived against, was undermined and destroyed. Another was by incantations and spells. Either of these might fitly be called the “compassing or imagining the death.” Imagination is, beside this, the peculiar province of witchcraft. And in these pretended hags the faculty is no longer desultory and erratic. Conscious of their power, they are supposed to have subjected it to system and discipline. They apply its secret and trackless energy with an intentness and a vigour, which ordinary mortals may in vain attempt to emulate in an application of the force of inert matter, or of the different physical powers by means of which such stupendous effects have often been produced. — How universal and familiar then must we consider the ideas of witchcraft to have been before language which properly describes the secret practices of such persons, and is not appropriate to any other, could have been found to insinuate itself into the structure of the most solemn act of our legislature, that act which beyond all others was intended to narrow or shut out the subtle and dangerous inroads of arbitrary power!


Very extraordinary things are related of Ziito, a sorcerer, in the court of Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia and afterwards emperor of Germany, in the latter part of the fourteenth century. This is perhaps, all things considered, the most wonderful specimen of magical power any where to be found. It is gravely recorded by Dubravius, bishop of Olmutz, in his History of Bohemia. It was publicly exhibited on occasion of the marriage of Wenceslaus with Sophia, daughter of the elector Palatine of Bavaria, before a vast assembled multitude.

The father-inlaw of the king, well aware of the bridegroom’s known predilection for theatrical exhibitions and magical illusions, brought with him to Prague, the capital of Wenceslaus, a whole waggon-load of morrice-dancers and jugglers, who made their appearance among the royal retinue. Meanwhile Ziito, the favourite magician of the king, took his place obscurely among the ordinary spectators. He however immediately arrested the attention of the strangers, being remarked for his extraordinary deformity, and a mouth that stretched completely from ear to ear. Ziito was for some time engaged in quietly observing the tricks and sleights that were exhibited. At length, while the chief magician of the elector Palatine was still busily employed in shewing some of the most admired specimens of his art, the Bohemian, indignant at what appeared to him the bungling exhibitions of his brother-artist, came forward, and reproached him with the unskilfulness of his performances. The two professors presently fell into warm debate. Ziito, provoked at the insolence of his rival, made no more ado but swallowed him whole before the multitude, attired as he was, all but his shoes, which he objected to because they were dirty. He then retired for a short while to a closet, and presently returned, leading the magician along with him.

Having thus disposed of his rival, Ziito proceeded to exhibit the wonders of his art. He shewed himself first in his proper shape, and then in those of different persons successively, with countenances and a stature totally dissimilar to his own; at one time splendidly attired in robes of purple and silk, and then in the twinkling of an eye in coarse linen and a clownish coat of frieze. He would proceed along the field with a smooth and undulating motion without changing the posture of a limb, for all the world as if he were carried along in a ship. He would keep pace with the king’s chariot, in a car drawn by barn-door fowls. He also amused the king’s guests as they sat at table, by causing, when they stretched out their hands to the different dishes, sometimes their hands to turn into the cloven feet of an ox, and at other times into the hoofs of a horse. He would clap on them the antlers of a deer, so that, when they put their heads out at window to see some sight that was going by, they could by no means draw them back again; while he in the mean time feasted on the savoury cates that had been spread before them, at his leisure.

At one time he pretended to be in want of money, and to task his wits to devise the means to procure it. On such an occasion he took up a handful of grains of corn, and presently gave them the form and appearance of thirty hogs well fatted for the market. He drove these hogs to the residence of one Michael, a rich dealer, but who was remarked for being penurious and thrifty in his bargains. He offered them to Michael for whatever price he should judge reasonable. The bargain was presently struck, Ziito at the same time warning the purchaser, that he should on no account drive them to the river to drink. Michael however paid no attention to this advice; and the hogs no sooner arrived at the river, than they turned into grains of corn as before. The dealer, greatly enraged at this trick, sought high and low for the seller that he might be revenged on him. At length he found him in a vintner’s shop seemingly in a gloomy and absent frame of mind, reposing himself, with his legs stretched out on a form. The dealer called out to him, but he seemed not to hear. Finally he seized Ziito by one foot, plucking at it with all his might. The foot came away with the leg and thigh; and Ziito screamed out, apparently in great agony. He seized Michael by the nape of the neck, and dragged him before a judge. Here the two set up their separate complaints, Michael for the fraud that had been committed on him, and Ziito for the irreparable injury he had suffered in his person. From this adventure came the proverb, frequent in the days of the historian, speaking of a person who had made an improvident bargain, “He has made just such a purchase as Michael did with his hogs.”

Transmutation of Metals.

Among the different pursuits, which engaged the curiosity of active minds in these unenlightened ages, was that of the transmutation of the more ordinary metals into gold and silver. This art, though not properly of necromantic nature, was however elevated by its professors, by means of an imaginary connection between it and astrology, and even between it and an intercourse with invisible spirits. They believed, that their investigations could not be successfully prosecuted but under favourable aspects of the planets, and that it was even indispensible to them to obtain supernatural aid.

In proportion as the pursuit of transmutation, and the search after the elixir of immortality grew into vogue, the adepts became desirous of investing them with the venerable garb of antiquity. They endeavoured to carry up the study to the time of Solomon; and there were not wanting some who imputed it to the first father of mankind. They were desirous to track its footsteps in Ancient Egypt; and they found a mythological representation of it in the expedition of Jason after the golden fleece, and in the cauldron by which Medea restored the father of Jason to his original youth. 178 But, as has already been said, the first unquestionable mention of the subject is to be referred to the time of Dioclesian. 179 From that period traces of the studies of the alchemists from time to time regularly discover themselves.

The study of chemistry and its supposed invaluable results was assiduously cultivated by Geber and the Arabians.

178 Wotton, Reflections on Learning, Chap. X.

179 See above, p. 29.


Artephius is one of the earliest names that occur among the students who sought the philosopher’s stone. Of him extraordinary things are told. He lived about the year 1130, and wrote a book of the Art of Prolonging Human Life, in which he professes to have already attained the age of one thousand and twenty-five years. 180 He must by this account have been born about one hundred years after our Saviour. He professed to have visited the infernal regions, and there to have seen Tantalus seated on a throne of gold. He is also said by some to be the same person, whose life has been written by Philostratus under the name of Apollonius of Tyana. 181 He wrote a book on the philosopher’s stone, which was published in Latin and French at Paris in the year 1612.

180 Biographic Universelle.

181 Naudé.

Raymond Lulli.

Among the European students of these interesting secrets a foremost place is to be assigned to Raymond Lulli and Arnold of Villeneuve.

Lulli was undoubtedly a man endowed in a very eminent degree with the powers of intellect. He was a native of the island of Majorca, and was born in the year 1234. He is said to have passed his early years in profligacy and dissipation, but to have been reclaimed by the accident of falling in love with a young woman afflicted with a cancer. This circumstance induced him to apply himself intently to the study of chemistry and medicine, with a view to discover a cure for her complaint, in which he succeeded. He afterwards entered into the community of Franciscan friars.

Edward the First was one of the most extraordinary princes that ever sat on a throne. He revived the study of the Roman civil law with such success as to have merited the title of the English Justinian. He was no less distinguished as the patron of arts and letters. He invited to England Guido dalla Colonna, the author of the Troy Book, and Raymond Lulli. This latter was believed in his time to have prosecuted his studies with such success as to have discovered the elixir vitae, by means of which he could keep off the assaults of old age, at least for centuries, and the philosopher’s stone. He is affirmed by these means to have supplied to Edward the First six millions of money, to enable him to carry on war against the Turks.

But he was not only indefatigable in the pursuit of natural science. He was also seized with an invincible desire to convert the Mahometans to the Christian faith. For this purpose he entered earnestly upon the study of the Oriental languages. He endeavoured to prevail on different princes of Europe to concur in his plan, and to erect colleges for the purpose, but without success. He at length set out alone upon his enterprise, but met with small encouragement. He penetrated into Africa and Asia. He made few converts, and was with difficulty suffered to depart, under a solemn injunction that he should not return. But Lulli chose to obey God rather than man, and ventured a second time. The Mahometans became exasperated with his obstinacy, and are said to have stoned him to death at the age of eighty years. His body was however transported to his native place; and miracles are reported to have been worked at his tomb. 182

Raymond Lulli is beside famous for what he was pleased to style his Great Art. The ordinary accounts however that are given of this art assume a style of burlesque, rather than of philosophy. He is said to have boasted that by means of it he could enable any one to argue logically on any subject for a whole day together, independently of any previous study of the subject in debate. To the details of the process Swift seems to have been indebted for one of the humorous projects described by him in his voyage to Laputa. Lulli recommended that certain general terms of logic, metaphysics, ethics or theology should first be collected. These were to be inscribed separately upon square pieces of parchment. They were then to be placed on a frame so constructed that by turning a handle they might revolve freely, and form endless combinations. One term would stand for a subject, and another for a predicate. The student was then diligently to inspect the different combinations that fortuitously arose, and exercising the subtlety of his faculties to select such as he should find best calculated for his purposes. He would thus carry on the process of his debate; and an extraordinary felicity would occasionally arise, suggesting the most ingenious hints, and leading on to the most important discoveries. 183 — If a man with the eminent faculties which Lulli otherwise appeared to have possessed really laid down the rules of such an art, all he intended by it must have been to satirize the gravity with which the learned doctors of his time carried on their grave disputations in mood and figure, having regard only to the severity of the rule by which they debated, and holding themselves totally indifferent whether they made any real advances in the discovery of truth.

182 Moreri.

183 Enfield, History of Philosophy, Book VIII, chapter i.

Arnold of Villeneuve.

Arnold of Villeneuve, who lived about the same time, was a man of eminent attainments. He made a great proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. He devoted himself in a high degree to astrology, and was so confident in his art, as to venture to predict that the end of the world would occur in a few years; but he lived to witness the fallaciousness of his prophecy. He had much reputation as a physician. He appears to have been a bold thinker. He maintained that deeds of charity were of more avail than the sacrifice of the mass, and that no one would be damned hereafter, but such as were proved to afford an example of immoral conduct. Like all the men of these times who were distinguished by the profoundness of their studies, he was accused of magic. For this, or upon a charge of heresy, he was brought under the prosecution of the inquisition. But he was alarmed by the fate of Peter of Apono, and by recantation or some other mode of prudent contrivance was fortunate enough to escape. He is one of the persons to whom the writing of the book, De Tribus Impostoribus, Of the Three Impostors (Moses, Jesus Christ and Mahomet) was imputed! 184

184 Moreri.

English Laws Respecting Transmutation.

So great an alarm was conceived about this time respecting the art of transmutation, that an act of parliament was passed in the fifth year of Henry IV, 1404, which lord Coke states as the shortest of our statutes, determining that the making of gold or silver shall be deemed felony. This law is said to have resulted from the fear at that time entertained by the houses of lords and commons, lest the executive power, finding itself by these means enabled to increase the revenue of the crown to any degree it pleased, should disdain to ask aid from the legislature; and in consequence should degenerate into tyranny and arbitrary power. 185

George Ripley, of Ripley in the county of York, is mentioned, towards the latter part of the fifteenth century, as having discovered the philosopher’s stone, and by its means contributed one hundred thousand pounds to the knights of Rhodes, the better to enable them to carry on their war against the Turks. 186

About this time however the tide appears to have turned, and the alarm respecting the multiplication of the precious metals so greatly to have abated, that patents were issued in the thirty-fifth year of Henry VI, for the encouragement of such as were disposed to seek the universal medicine, and to endeavour the transmutation of inferior metals into gold. 187

185 Watson, Chemical Essays, Vol. I.

186 Fuller, Worthies of England.

187 Watson, ubi supra.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11