Communication of Europe and the Saracens (2/3)

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. 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.

Robert of Lincoln
The most eminent person next, after popes Silvester II and Gregory VII, who labours under the imputation of magic, is Robert Grossetete, 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. Grossetete 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 Grossetete 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.

Michael Scot
Michael Scot of Balwirie in the county of Fife, was nearly contemporary with bishop Grossetete. 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 abbe 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.

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.

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.

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. 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, 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.


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