Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Dreams at the Dawn of Philosophy.

Modern philosophy, theoretical or experimental, only amuses while the action of discovery is suspended or advances; the interest ceases with the inquirer when the catastrophe is ascertained, as in the romance whose dénouement turns on a mysterious incident, which, once unfolded, all future agitation ceases. But in the true infancy of science, philosophers were as imaginative a race as poets: marvels and portents, undemonstrable and undefinable, with occult fancies, perpetually beginning and never ending, were delightful as the shifting cantos of Ariosto. Then science entranced the eye by its thaumaturgy; when they looked through an optic tube, they believed they were looking into futurity; or, starting at some shadow darkening the glassy globe, beheld the absent person; while the mechanical inventions of art were toys and tricks, with sometimes an automaton, which frightened them with life.

The earlier votaries of modern philosophy only witnessed, as Gaffarel calls his collection, “Unheard-of Curiosities.” This state of the marvellous, of which we are now for ever deprived, prevailed among the philosophers and the virtuosi in Europe, and with ourselves, long after the establishment of the Royal Society. Philosophy then depended mainly on authority — a single one, however, was sufficient: so that when this had been repeated by fifty others, they had the authority of fifty honest men — whoever the first man might have been! They were then a blissful race of children, rambling here and there in a golden age of innocence and ignorance, where at every step each gifted discoverer whispered to the few, some half-concealed secret of nature, or played with some toy of art; some invention which with great difficulty performed what, without it, might have been done with great ease. The cabinets of the lovers of mechanical arts formed enchanted apartments, where the admirers feared to stir or look about them; while the philosophers themselves half imagined they were the very thaumaturgi, for which the world gave them too much credit, at least for their quiet! Would we run after the shadows in this gleaming land of moonshine, or sport with these children in the fresh morning of science, ere Aurora had scarcely peeped on the hills, we must enter into their feelings, view with their eyes, and believe all they confide to us; and out of these bundles of dreams sometimes pick out one or two for our own dreaming. They are the fairy tales and the Arabian Nights’ entertainments of science. But if the reader is stubbornly mathematical and logical, he will only be holding up a great torch against the muslin curtain, upon which the fantastic shadows playing upon it must vanish at the instant. It is an amusement which can only take place by carefully keeping himself in the dark.1

What a subject, were I to enter on it, would be the narratives of magical writers! These precious volumes have been so constantly wasted by the profane, that now a book of real magic requires some to find it, as well as a great magician to use it. Albertus Magnus, or Albert the Great, as he is erroneously styled — for this sage only derived this enviable epithet from his surname De Groot, as did Hugo Grotius — this sage, in his “Admirable Secrets,” delivers his opinion that these books of magic should be most preciously preserved; for, he prophetically added, the time is arriving when they would be understood! It seems they were not intelligible in the thirteenth century; but if Albertus has not miscalculated, in the present day they may be! Magical terms with talismanic figures may yet conceal many a secret; gunpowder came down to us in a sort of anagram, and the kaleidoscope, with all its interminable multiplications of forms, lay at hand for two centuries in Baptista Porta’s “Natural Magic.” The abbot Trithemius, in a confidential letter, happened to call himself a magician, perhaps at the moment he thought himself one, and sent three or four leaves stuffed with the names of devils and with their evocations. At the death of his friend these leaves fell into the unworthy hands of the prior, who was so frightened on the first glance at the diabolical nomenclature, that he raised the country against the abbot, and Trithemius was nearly a lost man! Yet, after all, this evocation of devils has reached us in his “Steganographia,” and proves to be only one of this ingenious abbot’s polygraphic attempts at secret writing; for he had flattered himself that he had invented a mode of concealing his thoughts from all the world, while he communicated them to a friend. Roger Bacon promised to raise thunder and lightning, and disperse clouds by dissolving them into rain. The first magical process has been obtained by Franklin; and the other, of far more use to our agriculturists, may perchance be found lurking in some corner which has been overlooked in the “Opus majus” of our “Doctor mirabilis.” Do we laugh at their magical works of art? Are we ourselves such indifferent artists? Cornelius Agrippa, before he wrote his “Vanity of the Arts and Sciences,” intended to reduce into a system and method the secret of communicating with spirits and demons.2 On good authority, that of Porphyrius, Psellus, Plotinus, Jamblichus — and on better, were it necessary to allege it — he was well assured that the upper regions of the air swarmed with what the Greeks called dæmones, just as our lower atmosphere is full of birds, our waters of fish, and our earth of insects. Yet this occult philosopher, who knew perfectly eight languages, and married two wives, with whom he had never exchanged a harsh word in any of them, was everywhere avoided as having by his side, for his companion, a personage no less than a demon! This was a great black dog, whom he suffered to stretch himself out among his magical manuscripts, or lie on his bed, often kissing and patting him, and feeding him on choice morsels. Yet for this would Paulus Jovius and all the world have had him put to the ordeal of fire and fagot! The truth was afterwards boldly asserted by Wierus, his learned domestic, who believed that his master’s dog was really nothing more than what he appeared! “I believe,” says he, “that he was a real natural dog; he was indeed black, but of a moderate size, and I have often led him by a string, and called him by the French name Agrippa had given him, Monsieur! and he had a female who was called Mademoiselle! I wonder how authors of such great character should write so absurdly on his vanishing at his death, nobody knows how!” But as it is probable that Monsieur and Mademoiselle must have generated some puppy demons, Wierus ought to have been more circumstantial.

Albertus Magnus, for thirty years, had never ceased working at a man of brass, and had cast together the qualities of his materials under certain constellations, which threw such a spirit into his man of brass, that it was reported his growth was visible; his feet, legs, thighs, shoulders, neck, and head, expanded, and made the city of Cologne uneasy at possessing one citizen too mighty for them all. This man of brass, when he reached his maturity, was so loquacious, that Albert’s master, the great scholastic Thomas Aquinas, one day, tired of his babble, and declaring it was a devil, or devilish, with his staff knocked the head off; and, what was extraordinary, this brazen man, like any human being thus effectually silenced, “word never spake more.” This incident is equally historical and authentic; though whether heads of brass can speak, and even prophesy, was indeed a subject of profound inquiry even at a later period.3 Naudé, who never questioned their vocal powers, and yet was puzzled concerning the nature of this new species of animal, has no doubt most judiciously stated the question, Whether these speaking brazen heads had a sensitive and reasoning nature, or whether demons spoke in them? But brass has not the faculty of providing its own nourishment, as we see in plants, and therefore they were not sensitive; and as for the act of reasoning, these brazen heads presumed to know nothing but the future: with the past and the present they seemed totally unacquainted, so that their memory and their observation were very limited; and as for the future, that is always doubtful and obscure — even to heads of brass! This learned man then infers that “These brazen heads could have no reasoning faculties, for nothing altered their nature; they said what they had to say, which no one could contradict; and having said their say, you might have broken the head for anything more that you could have got out of it. Had they had any life in them, would they not have moved as well as spoken? Life itself is but motion, but they had no lungs, no spleen; and, in fact, though they spoke, they had no tongue. Was a devil in them? I think not. Yet why should men have taken all this trouble to make, not a man, but a trumpet?”

Our profound philosopher was right not to agitate the question whether these brazen heads had ever spoken. Why should not a man of brass speak, since a doll can whisper, a statue play chess,4 and brass ducks have performed the whole process of digestion?5 Another magical invention has been ridiculed with equal reason. A magician was annoyed, as philosophers still are, by passengers in the street; and he, particularly so, by having horses led to drink under his window. He made a magical horse of wood, according to one of the books of Hermes, which perfectly answered its purpose, by frightening away the horses, or rather the grooms! the wooden horse, no doubt, gave some palpable kick. The same magical story might have been told of Dr. Franklin, who finding that under his window the passengers had discovered a spot which they made too convenient for themselves, he charged it with his newly-discovered electrical fire. After a few remarkable incidents had occurred, which at a former period would have lodged the great discoverer of electricity in the Inquisition, the modern magician succeeded just as well as the ancient, who had the advantage of conning over the books of Hermes. Instead of ridiculing these works of magic, let us rather become magicians ourselves!

The works of the ancient alchemists have afforded numberless discoveries to modern chemists: nor is even their grand operation despaired of. If they have of late not been so renowned, this has arisen from a want of what Ashmole calls “apertness;” a qualification early inculcated among these illuminated sages. We find authentic accounts of some who have lived three centuries, with tolerable complexions, possessed of nothing but a crucible and a bellows! but they were so unnecessarily mysterious, that whenever such a person was discovered, he was sure in an instant to disappear, and was never afterwards heard of.

In the “Liber Patris Sapientiæ” this selfish cautiousness is all along impressed on the student for the accomplishment of the great mystery. In the commentary on this precious work of the alchemist Norton, who counsels,

Be thou in a place secret, by thyself alone,

That no man see or hear what thou shalt say or done.

Trust not thy friend too much wheresoe’er thou go,

For he thou trustest best, sometyme may be thy foe;

Ashmole observes, that “Norton gives exceeding good advice to the student in this science where he bids him be secret in the carrying on of his studies and operations, and not to let any one know of his undertakings but his good angel and himself:” and such a close and retired breast had Norton’s master, who,

When men disputed of colours of the rose,

He would not speak, but kept himself full close!

We regret that by each leaving all his knowledge to “his good angel and himself,” it has happened that “the good angels” have kept it all to themselves!

It cannot, however, be denied, that if they could not always extract gold out of lead, they sometimes succeeded in washing away the pimples on ladies’ faces, notwithstanding that Sir Kenelm Digby poisoned his most beautiful lady, because, as Sancho would have said, he was one of those who would “have his bread whiter than the finest wheaten.” Van Helmont, who could not succeed in discovering the true elixir of life, however hit on the spirit of hartshorn, which for a good while he considered was the wonderful elixir itself, restoring to life persons who seemed to have lost it. And though this delightful enthusiast could not raise a ghost, yet he thought he had; for he raised something aerial from spa-water, which mistaking for a ghost, he gave it that very name; a name which we still retain in gas, from the German geist, or ghost! Paracelsus carried the tiny spirits about him in the hilt of his great sword! Having first discovered the qualities of laudanum, this illustrious quack made use of it as an universal remedy, and distributed it in the form of pills, which he carried in the basket-hilt of his sword; the operations he performed were as rapid as they seemed magical. Doubtless we have lost some inconceivable secrets by some unexpected occurrences, which the secret itself it would seem ought to have prevented taking place. When a philosopher had discovered the art of prolonging life to an indefinite period, it is most provoking to find that he should have allowed himself to die at an early age! We have a very authentic history from Sir Kenelm Digby himself, that when he went in disguise to visit Descartes at his retirement at Egmond, lamenting the brevity of life, which hindered philosophers getting on in their studies, the French philosopher assured him that “he had considered that matter; to render a man immortal was what he could not promise, but that he was very sure it was possible to lengthen out his life to the period of the patriarchs.” And when his death was announced to the world, the Abbé Picot, an ardent disciple, for a long time would not believe it possible; and at length insisted, that if it had occurred, it must have been owing to some mistake of the philosopher’s.

The late Holcroft, Loutherbourg, and Cosway, imagined that they should escape the vulgar era of scriptural life by reorganizing their old bones, and moistening their dry marrow; their new principles of vitality were supposed by them to be found in the powers of the mind; this seemed more reasonable, but proved to be as little efficacious as those other philosophers, who imagine they have detected the hidden principle of life in the eels frisking in vinegar, and allude to “the bookbinder who creates the book-worm!”

Paracelsus has revealed to us one of the grandest secrets of nature. When the world began to dispute on the very existence of the elementary folk, it was then that he boldly offered to give birth to a fairy, and has sent down to posterity the recipe. He describes the impurity which is to be transmuted into such purity, the gross elements of a delicate fairy, which, fixed in a phial, placed in fuming dung, will in due time settle into a full-grown fairy, bursting through its vitreous prison — on the vivifying principle by which the ancient Egyptians hatched their eggs in ovens. I recollect, at Dr. Farmer’s sale, the leaf which preserved this recipe for making a fairy, forcibly folded down by the learned commentator; from which we must infer the credit he gave to the experiment. There was a greatness of mind in Paracelsus, who, having furnished a recipe to make a fairy, had the delicacy to refrain from its formation. Even Baptista Porta, one of the most enlightened philosophers, does not deny the possibility of engendering creatures which, “at their full growth, shall not exceed the size of a mouse;” but he adds, “they are only pretty little dogs to play with.” Were these akin to the fairies of Paracelsus?6

They were well convinced of the existence of such elemental beings; frequent accidents in mines showed the potency of the metallic spirits, which so tormented the workmen in some of the German mines by blindness, giddiness, and sudden sickness, that they have been obliged to abandon mines well known to be rich in silver. A metallic spirit at one sweep annihilated twelve miners, who were all found dead together. The fact was unquestionable; and the safety-lamp was undiscovered.

Never was a philosophical imagination more beautiful than that exquisite Palingenesis, as it has been termed from the Greek, or a regeneration: or rather the apparitions of animals and plants. Schott, Kircher, Gaffarel, Borelli, Digby, and the whole of that admirable school, discovered in the ashes of plants their primitive forms, which were again raised up by the force of heat. Nothing, they say, perishes in nature; all is but a continuation, or a revival. The semina of resurrection are concealed in extinct bodies, as in the blood of man; the ashes of roses will again revive into roses, though smaller and paler than if they had been planted; unsubstantial and unodoriferous, they are not roses which grow on rose-trees, but their delicate apparitions; and, like apparitions, they are seen but for a moment! The process of the Palingenesis, this picture of immortality, is described. These philosophers having burnt a flower, by calcination disengaged the salts from its ashes, and deposited them in a glass phial; a chemical mixture acted on it, till in the fermentation they assumed a bluish and a spectral hue. This dust, thus excited by heat, shoots upwards into its primitive forms; by sympathy the parts unite, and while each is returning to its destined place, we see distinctly the stalk, the leaves, and the flower arise; it is the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its ashes. The heat passes away, the magical scene declines, till the whole matter again precipitates itself into the chaos at the bottom. This vegetable phoenix lies thus concealed in its cold ashes till the presence of heat produces this resurrection — in its absence it returns to its death. Thus the dead naturally revive; and a corpse may give out its shadowy re-animation when not too deeply buried in the earth. Bodies corrupted in their graves have risen, particularly the murdered; for murderers are apt to bury their victims in a slight and hasty manner. Their salts, exhaled in vapour by means of their fermentation, have arranged themselves on the surface of the earth, and formed those phantoms, which at night have often terrified the passing spectator, as authentic history witnesses. They have opened the graves of the phantom, and discovered the bleeding corpse beneath; hence it is astonishing how many ghosts may be seen at night, after a recent battle, standing over their corpses! On the same principle, my old philosopher Gaffarel conjectures on the raining of frogs; but these frogs, we must conceive, can only be the ghosts of frogs; and Gaffarel himself has modestly opened this fact by a “peradventure.” A more satisfactory origin of ghosts modern philosophy has not afforded.

And who does not believe in the existence of ghosts? for, as Dr. More forcibly says —“That there should be so universal a fame and fear of that which never was, nor is, nor can be ever in the world, is to me the greatest miracle of all. If there had not been, at some time or other, true miracles, it had not been so easy to impose on the people by false. The alchemist would never go about to sophisticate metals to pass them off for true gold and silver, unless that such a thing was acknowledged as true gold and silver in the world.”

The pharmacopœia of those times combined more of morals with medicine than our own. They discovered that the agate rendered a man eloquent and even witty; a laurel leaf placed on the centre of the skull fortified the memory; the brains of fowls and birds of swift wing wonderfully helped the imagination. All such specifics have now disappeared, and have greatly reduced the chances of an invalid recovering that which perhaps he never possessed. Lentils and rape-seed were a certain cure for the small-pox, and very obviously — their grains resembling the spots of this disease. They discovered that those who lived on “fair” plants became fair, those on fruitful ones were never barren: on the principle that Hercules acquired his mighty strength by feeding on the marrow of lions. But their talismans, provided they were genuine, seem to have been wonderfully operative; and had we the same confidence, and melted down the guineas we give physicians, engraving on them talismanic figures, I would answer for the good effects of the experiment. Naudé, indeed, has utterly ridiculed the occult virtues of talismans, in his defence of Virgil, accused of being a magician: the poet, it seems, cast into a well a talisman of a horse-leech, graven on a plate of gold, to drive away the great number of horse-leeches which infested Naples. Naudé positively denies that talismans ever possessed any such occult virtues: Gaffarel regrets that so judicious a man as Naudé should have gone this length, giving the lie to so many authentic authors; and Naudé’s paradox is indeed as strange as his denial; he suspects the thing is not true because it is so generally told! “It leads one to suspect,” says he, “as animals are said to have been driven away from so many places by these talismans, whether they were ever driven from any one place.” Gaffarel, suppressing by his good temper his indignant feelings at such reasoning, turns the paradox on its maker:—“As if, because of the great number of battles that Hannibal is reported to have fought with the Romans, we might not, by the same reason, doubt whether he fought any one with them.” The reader must be aware that the strength of the argument lies entirely with the firm believer in talismans. Gaffarel, indeed, who passed his days in collecting “Curiosités inouïes,” is a most authentic historian of unparalleled events, even in his own times! Such as that heavy rain in Poitou, which showered down “petites bestioles,” little creatures like bishops with their mitres, and monks with their capuchins over their heads; it is true, afterwards they all turned into butterflies!

The museums, the cabinets, and the inventions of our early virtuosi were the baby-houses of philosophers. Baptista Porta, Bishop Wilkins, and old Ashmole, were they now living, had been enrolled among the quiet members of “The Society of Arts,” instead of flying in the air, collecting “a wing of the phœnix, as tradition goes;” or catching the disjointed syllables of an old doting astrologer. But these early dilettanti had not derived the same pleasure from the useful inventions of the aforesaid “Society of Arts” as they received from what Cornelius Agrippa, in a fit of spleen, calls “things vain and superfluous, invented to no other end but for pomp and idle pleasure.” Baptista Porta was more skilful in the mysteries of art and nature than any man in his day. Having founded the Academy degli Oziosi, he held an inferior association in his own house, called di Secreti, where none was admitted but those elect who had communicated some secret; for, in the early period of modern art and science, the slightest novelty became a secret, not to be confided to the uninitiated. Porta was unquestionably a fine genius, as his works still show; but it was his misfortune that he attributed his own penetrating sagacity to his skill in the art of divination. He considered himself a prognosticator; and, what was more unfortunate, some eminent persons really thought he was. Predictions and secrets are harmless, provided they are not believed: but his Holiness finding Porta’s were, warned him that magical sciences were great hindrances to the study of the Bible, and paid him the compliment to forbid his prophesying. Porta’s genius was now limited to astonish, and sometimes to terrify, the more ingenious part of I Secreti. On entering his cabinet, some phantom of an attendant was sure to be hovering in the air, moving as he who entered moved; or he observed in some mirror that his face was twisted on the wrong side of his shoulders, and did not quite think that all was right when he clapped his hand on it; or passing through a darkened apartment a magical landscape burst on him, with human beings in motion, the boughs of trees bending, and the very clouds passing over the sun; or sometimes banquets, battles, and hunting-parties were in the same apartment. “All these spectacles my friends have witnessed!” exclaims the self-delighted Baptista Porta. When his friends drank wine out of the same cup which he had used, they were mortified with wonder; for he drank wine, and they only water! or on a summer’s day, when all complained of the sirocco, he would freeze his guests with cold air in the room; or, on a sudden, let off a flying dragon to sail along with a cracker in its tail, and a cat tied on his back; shrill was the sound, and awful was the concussion; so that it required strong nerves, in an age of apparitions and devils, to meet this great philosopher when in his best humour. Albertus Magnus entertained the Earl of Holland, as that earl passed through Cologne, in a severe winter, with a warm summer scene, luxuriant in fruits and flowers. The fact is related by Trithemius — and this magical scene connected with his vocal head, and his books De Secretis Mulierum, and De Mirabilibus, confirmed the accusations they raised against the great Albert for being a magician. His apologist, Theophilus Raynaud, is driven so hard to defend Albertus, that he at once asserts the winter changed to summer and the speaking head to be two infamous flams! He will not believe these authenticated facts, although he credits a miracle which proves the sanctity of Albertus — after three centuries, the body of Albert the Great remained as sweet as ever!

“Whether such enchauntments,” as old Mandeville cautiously observeth, two centuries preceding the days of Porta, were “by craft or by nygromancye, I wot nere.” But that they were not unknown to Chaucer, appears in his “Frankelein’s Tale,” where, minutely describing them, he communicates the same pleasure he must himself have received from the ocular illusions of “the Tregetoure,” or “Jogelour.” Chaucer ascribes the miracle to a “naturall magique!” in which, however, it was as unsettled whether the “Prince of Darkness” was a party concerned.

For I am siker that there be sciences

By which men maken divers apparences

Swiche as thise subtil tregetoures play.

For oft at festes have I wel herd say

That tregetoures, within an halle large,

Have made come in a water and a barge,

And in the halle rowen up and doun.

Sometime hath semed come a grim leoun,

And sometime floures spring as in a mede,

Sometime a vine and grapes white and rede,

Sometime a castel al of lime and ston,

And whan hem liketh voideth it anon:

Thus semeth it to every mannes sight.

Bishop Wilkins’s museum was visited by Evelyn, who describes the sort of curiosities which occupied and amused the children of science. “Here, too, there was a hollow statue, which gave a voice, and uttered words by a long concealed pipe that went to its mouth, whilst one speaks through it at a good distance:” a circumstance which, perhaps, they were not then aware revealed the whole mystery of the ancient oracles, which they attributed to demons rather than to tubes, pulleys, and wheels. The learned Charles Patin, in his scientific travels, records, among other valuable productions of art, a cherry-stone, on which were engraven about a dozen and a half of portraits! Even the greatest of human geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci, to attract the royal patronage, created a lion which ran before the French monarch, dropping fleurs de lis from its shaggy breast. And another philosopher who had a spinnet which played and stopped at command, might have made a revolution in the arts and sciences, had the half-stifled child that was concealed in it not been forced, unluckily, to crawl into daylight, and thus it was proved that a philosopher might be an impostor!

The arts, as well as the sciences, at the first institution of the Royal Society, were of the most amusing class. The famous Sir Samuel Moreland had turned his house into an enchanted palace. Everything was full of devices, which showed art and mechanism in perfection: his coach carried a travelling kitchen; for it had a fire-place and grate, with which he could make a soup, broil cutlets, and roast an egg; and he dressed his meat by clock-work. Another of these virtuosi, who is described as “a gentleman of superior order, and whose house was a knickknackatory,” valued himself on his multifarious inventions, but most in “sowing salads in the morning, to be cut for dinner.” The house of Winstanley, who afterwards raised the first Eddystone lighthouse, must have been the wonder of the age. If you kicked aside an old slipper, purposely lying in your way, up started a ghost before you; or if you sat down in a certain chair, a couple of gigantic arms would immediately clasp you in. There was an arbour in the garden, by the side of a canal; you had scarcely seated yourself when you were sent out afloat to the middle of the canal — from whence you could not escape till this man of art and science wound you up to the arbour. What was passing at the “Royal Society” was also occurring at the “Académie des Sciences” at Paris. A great and gouty member of that philosophical body, on the departure of a stranger, would point to his legs, to show the impossibility of conducting him to the door; yet the astonished visitor never failed finding the virtuoso waiting for him on the outside, to make his final bow! While the visitor was going down stairs, this inventive genius was descending with great velocity in a machine from the window: so that he proved, that if a man of science cannot force nature to walk down stairs, he may drive her out at the window!

If they travelled at home, they set off to note down prodigies. Dr. Plott, in a magnificent project of journeying through England, for the advantage of “Learning and Trade,” and the discovery of “Antiquities and other Curiosities,” for which he solicited the royal aid which Leland enjoyed, among other notable designs, discriminates a class thus: “Next I shall inquire of animals; and first of strange people.”—“Strange accidents that attend corporations or families, as that the deans of Rochester ever since the foundation by turns have died deans and bishops; the bird with a white breast that haunts the family of Oxenham near Exeter just before the death of any of that family; the bodies of trees that are seen to swim in a pool near Brereton in Cheshire, a certain warning to the heir of that honourable family to prepare for the next world.” And such remarkables as “Number of children, such as the Lady Temple, who before she died saw seven hundred descended from her.”7 This fellow of the Royal Society, who lived nearly to 1700, was requested to give an edition of Pliny: we have lost the benefit of a most copious commentary! Bishop Hall went to “the Spa.” The wood about that place was haunted not only by “freebooters, but by wolves and witches; although these last are ofttimes but one.” They were called loups-garoux; and the Greeks, it seems, knew them by the name of λυκάνθρωποι, men-wolves: witches that have put on the shapes of those cruel beasts. “We sawe a boy there, whose half-face was devoured by one of them near the village; yet so, as that the eare was rather cut than bitten off.” Rumour had spread that the boy had had half his face devoured; when it was examined, it turned out that his ear had only been scratched! However, there can be no doubt of the existence of “witch-wolves;” for Hall saw at Limburgh “one of those miscreants executed, who confessed on the wheel to have devoured two-and-forty children in that form.” They would probably have found it difficult to have summoned the mothers who had lost the children. But observe our philosopher’s reasoning: “It would aske a large volume to scan this problem of lycanthropy.” He had laboriously collected all the evidence, and had added his arguments: the result offers a curious instance of acute reasoning on a wrong principle.8

Men of science and art then passed their days in a bustle of the marvellous. I will furnish a specimen of philosophical correspondence in a letter to old John Aubrey. The writer betrays the versatility of his curiosity by very opposite discoveries. “My hands are so full of work that I have no time to transcribe for Dr. Henry More an account of the Barnstable apparition — Lord Keeper North would take it kindly from you — give a sight of this letter from Barnstable to Dr. Whitchcot.” He had lately heard of a Scotchman who had been carried by fairies into France; but the purpose of his present letter is to communicate other sort of apparitions than the ghost of Barnstable. He had gone to Glastonbury, “to pick up a few berries from the holy thorn which flowered every Christmas day.”9 The original thorn had been cut down by a military saint in the civil wars; but the trade of the place was not damaged, for they had contrived not to have a single holy thorn, but several, “by grafting and inoculation.”10 He promises to send these “berries;” but requests Aubrey to inform “that person of quality who had rather have a bush, that it was impossible to get one for him. I am told,” he adds, “that there is a person about Glastonbury who hath a nursery of them, which he sells for a crown a piece,” but they are supposed not to be “of the right kind.”

The main object of this letter is the writer’s “suspicion of gold in this country;” for which he offers three reasons. Tacitus says there was gold in England, and that Agrippa came to a spot where he had a prospect of Ireland — from which place he writes; secondly, that “an honest man” had in this spot found stones from which he had extracted good gold, and that he himself “had seen in the broken stones a clear appearance of gold;” and thirdly, “there is a story which goes by tradition in that part of the country, that in the hill alluded to there was a door into a hole, that when any wanted money they used to go and knock there, that a woman used to appear, and give to such as came.11 At a time one by greediness or otherwise gave her offence, she flung to the door, and delivered this old saying, still remembered in the country:

‘When all the Daws be gone and dead,

Then. . . . Hill shall shine gold red.’

My fancy is, that this relates to an ancient family of this name, of which there is now but one man left, and he not likely to have any issue.” These are his three reasons; and some mines have perhaps been opened with no better ones! But let us not imagine that this great naturalist was credulous; for he tells Aubrey that “he thought it was but a monkish tale forged in the abbey so famous in former time; but as I have learned not to despise our forefathers, I question whether this may not refer to some rich mine in the hill, formerly in use, but now lost. I shall shortly request you to discourse with my lord about it, to have advice, &c. In the mean time it will be best to keep all private for his majesty’s service, his lordship’s, and perhaps some private person’s benefit.” But he has also positive evidence: “A mason not long ago coming to the renter of the abbey for a freestone, and sawing it, out came divers pieces of gold of £3 10s. value apiece, of ancient coins. The stone belonged to some chimney-work; the gold was hidden in it, perhaps, when the Dissolution was near.” This last incident of finding coins in a chimney-piece, which he had accounted for very rationally, serves only to confirm his dream, that they were coined out of the gold of the mine in the hill; and he becomes more urgent for “a private search into these mines, which I have, I think, a way to.” In the postscript he adds an account of a well, which by washing, wrought a cure on a person deep in the king’s evil. “I hope you don’t forget your promise to communicate whatever thing you have relating to your Idea.”

This promised Idea of Aubrey may be found in his MSS., under the title of “The Idea of Universal Education.” However whimsical, one would like to see it. Aubrey’s life might furnish a volume of these philosophical dreams: he was a person who from his incessant bustle and insatiable curiosity was called “The Carrier of Conceptions of the Royal Society.” Many pleasant nights were “privately” enjoyed by Aubrey and his correspondent about the “Mine in the Hill;” Ashmole’s manuscripts at Oxford contain a collection of many secrets of the Rosicrucians; one of the completest inventions is “a Recipe how to walk invisible.” Such were the fancies which rocked the children of science in their cradles! and so feeble were the steps of our curious infancy! — But I start in my dreams! dreading the reader may also have fallen asleep!

“Measure is most excellent,” says one of the oracles; “to which also we being in like manner persuaded, O most friendly and pious Asclepiades, here finish”— the dreams at the dawn of philosophy!

1 Godwin’s amusing Lives of the Necromancers abound in marvellous stories of the supernatural feats of these old students.

2 Agrippa was the most fortunate and honoured of occult philosophers. He was lodged at courts, and favoured by all his contemporaries. Scholars like Erasmus spoke of him with admiration; and royalty constantly sought his powers of divination. But in advanced life he was accused of sorcery, and died poor in 1534.

3 One of the most popular of our old English prose romances, “The Historie of Fryer Bacon,” narrates how he had intended to “wall England about with brass,” by means of such a brazen head, had not the stupidity of a servant prevented him. The tale may be read in Thoms’ “Collection of Early English Prose Romances.”

4 The allusion here is to the automaton chess-player, first exhibited by Kempelen (its inventor) in England about 1785. The figure was habited as a Turk, and placed behind a chest, this was opened by the exhibitor to display the machinery, which seemed to give the figure motion, while playing intricate games of chess with any of the spectators. But it has been fully demonstrated that this chest could conceal a full-grown man, who could place his arm down that of the figure, and direct its movements in the game; the machinery being really constructed to hide him, and disarm suspicion. As the whole trick has been demonstrated by diagrams, the marvellous nature of the machinery is exploded.

5 This brass duck was the work of a very ingenious mechanist, M. Vaucanson; it is reported to have uttered its natural voice, moved its wings, drank water, and ate corn. In 1738, he delighted the Parisians by a figure of a shepherd which played on a pipe and beat a tabor; and a flute-player who performed twelve tunes.

6 This great charlatan, after many successful impositions, ended his life in poverty in the hospital at Saltzbourg, in 1541.

7 Similar popular fallacies may be seen carefully noted in R. Burton’s “Admirable Curiosities, Rarities, and Wonders in England, Scotland, and Ireland,” 1684. It is one of those curious volumes of “folk-lore” sent out by Nat. Crouch the bookseller, under a fictitious name.

8 Hall’s postulate is, that God’s work could not admit of any substantial change, which is above the reach of all infernal powers; but “Herein the divell plays the double sophister; the sorcerer with sorcerers. Hee both deludes the witch’s conceit and the beholder’s eyes.” In a word, Hall believes in what he cannot understand! Yet Hall will not believe one of the Catholic miracles of “the Virgin of Louvain,” though Lipsius had written a book to commemorate “the goddess,” as Hall sarcastically calls her. Hall was told, with great indignation, in the shop of the bookseller of Lipsius, that when James the First had just looked over this work, he flung it down, vociferating “Damnation to him that made it, and to him that believes it!”

9 Thousands flocked to see this “miracle” in the middle ages, and their presence brought great wealth to the abbey. It was believed to have grown miraculously from the staff used by St. Joseph. It appears to have been brought from Palestine, and merely to have flowered in accordance with its natural season, though differing with ours.

10 Taylor, the water poet, in his “Wonders of the West,” 1649, says that a slip was preserved by a vintner dwelling at Glastonbury, when the soldiers cut down the tree; that he set it in his garden, “and he with others did tell me that the same doth likewise bloom on the 25th day of December, yearly.”

11 Many of these tales of treasures in hills, are now reduced to the simple facts of discoveries being made of coins and personal ornaments, in tumuli of Roman and Saxon settlers in England. In the British Museum is a gold breastplate found in a grave at Mold, in Flintshire. The grave-hills of Bohemia have furnished the museum at Vienna with a large number of gold objects of great size and value. In Russia the dead have been found placed between large plates of pure gold in the centre of such tumuli; and in Ireland very large and valuable gold personal ornaments have been frequently found in grave-hills.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53