Lives of the Necromancers, Part IX: Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and the Alchemy Cult
Learned late medieval Europeans “divided [into] Dominicans and Franciscans. And all that was most illustrious in intellect at this period belonged” to them.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In Europe’s High Middle Ages, knowledge of and participation in the occult broadened well beyond the realm of highly‐educated popes, secluded monks and traveling hucksters. As Godwin details in our current selection, a seemingly endless array of friars, philosophers, scientists, alchemists, and educators joined the magical fray to advance their own power, influence, and visions.
Unlike their cloistered cousins in the monasteries, friars lived and preached among the people. The friars “were distinguished by a fervor of devotion,” essentially independent of the church hierarchy, and they possessed a distinctly ferocious commitment to charity and science which made them both rare and indispensable to their world. The friars largely divided over time into sects of Dominicans and Franciscans, “And all that was most illustrious in intellect at this period belonged either to the one or the other.” These new men of learning who proliferated across a more and more commercially prosperous Europe constructed grand machines like Albertus Magnus’ automatons; they discovered powerful and mysterious new substances like Roger Bacon’s gunpowder; they supposedly communicated with the Devil, receiving the inspiration for inventions like artificial intelligence; they performed incredible feats of transfiguration on themselves, the bodies of others, and all sorts of physical material; and generations of alchemists tinkered away, either hopelessly attempting to turn lesser metals into gold, struggling to create the elixir of life, or cleverly devising ways to fool royals into giving them more money.
Godwin concludes the section by introducing the reader to the light of Renaissance humanism. With figures like Petrarch, “the energies of the human mind were to loosen its shackles, and its independence was ultimately to extinguish those delusions and that superstition which had so long enslaved it.” Through an ironic twist of history, the enlightened and educated no longer practiced witchcraft, but they would have defended to the death your right to do so.
By William Godwin. London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.
Lives of the Necromancers: Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)
Communication of Europe and the Saracens.
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, 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…
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…
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…
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‐in‐law 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 [delicacies] 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. But, as has already been said, the first unquestionable mention of the subject is to be referred to the time of Dioclesian. 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.
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. 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. He wrote a book on the philosopher’s stone, which was published in Latin and French at Paris in the year 1612.
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.
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.—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.
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…
Revival of Letters.
While these things were going on in Europe, the period was gradually approaching, when the energies of the human mind were to loosen its shackles, and its independence was ultimately to extinguish those delusions and that superstition which had so long enslaved it. Petrarch, born in the year 1304, was deeply impregnated with a passion for classical lore, was smitten with the love of republican institutions, and especially distinguished himself for an adoration of Homer. Dante, a more sublime and original genius than Petrarch, was his contemporary. About the same time Boccaccio in his Decamerone gave at once to Italian prose that purity and grace, which none of his successors in the career of literature have ever been able to excel. And in our own island Chaucer with a daring hand redeemed his native tongue from the disuse and ignominy into which it had fallen, and poured out the immortal strains that the genuine lovers of the English tongue have ever since perused with delight, while those who are discouraged by its apparent crabbedness, have yet grown familiar with his thoughts in the smoother and more modern versification of Dryden and Pope. From that time the principles of true taste have been more or less cultivated, while with equal career independence of thought and an ardent spirit of discovery have continually proceeded, and made a rapid advance towards the perfect day.
But the dawn of literature and intellectual freedom were still a long time ere they produced their full effect. The remnant of the old woman clung to the heart with a tenacious embrace. Three or four centuries elapsed, while yet the belief in sorcery and witchcraft was alive in certain classes of society. And then, as is apt to occur in such cases, the expiring folly occasionally gave tokens of its existence with a convulsive vehemence, and became only the more picturesque and impressive through the strong contrast of lights and shadows that attended its manifestations.