Lives of the Necromancers, Part XII: Quacks and Hucksters
In the dwindling years of widespread belief in the occult, there appeared an ever starker difference between true believers and mere hucksters.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our next set of selections from Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers, our author continues to shift his main theme from earlier examples of occultists dominating the affairs of men through exploitative trickery to the transformation of witches into a persecuted class of troubled individuals. Joan of Arc was executed for fear of her communications with demons and witch trials proliferated throughout Europe during the late medieval period, but Godwin takes great care to steadily remind us that these people were not actually necromancers. They were mere quacks–cold-blooded quacks with ill‐will in many cases but mere quacks nonetheless. Many of them, like Joan and our earlier papal sorcerers, were genuine enthusiasts who truly believed in mystical power. Others simply sought to get a piece of the church and state’s action by exploiting public ignorance for personal gain.
As two case studies in the latter form of mere hucksterism, Godwin offers Benvenuto Cellini’s story of a priest and his “magic lantern” followed by a short biography of John Dee. Cellini’s Sicilian priest seems to have filled the same niche that modern New Orleans tourist Voodoo shops occupy–he essentially offered an elaborate and ceremonial show which seemed sufficiently authentic and complex to convince Cellini that the causes were mystical rather than technological. John Dee was a mathematician and Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer before he was a degenerating travelling salesman of useless philosopher’s stones. His rise to the heights of power and influence and consequent decline to the depths of failure and despair is in many ways emblematic of the Faustian bargain’s usual outcome: those who grasp endlessly after power place themselves in the positions most vulnerable to the avarice of other powerful people. In John Dee’s case, his entire career was built on astrological and alchemical promises which he constantly failed to deliver, leaving him entirely at the mercy of those still more powerful than he. By placing their entire ethics, their senses of personal identity, and the bulk of their natural lives under the command of power’s dictates, they condemned themselves to be the victims of power’s demands. Joan of Arc and John Dee may both have been quacks, but who can deny that there is greater dignity and respect in Joan’s genuine enthusiasm than in John’s mere hucksterism?
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)
Sanguinary Proceedings against Witchcraft.
Quacks, Who in Cool Blood Undertook to Overreach Mankind.
Hitherto we have principally passed such persons in review, as seem to have been in part at least the victims of their own delusions. But beside these there has always been a numerous class of men, who, with minds perfectly disengaged and free, have applied themselves to concert the means of overreaching the simplicity, or baffling the penetration, of those who were merely spectators, and uninitiated in the mystery of the arts that were practised upon them. Such was no doubt the case with the speaking heads and statues, which were sometimes exhibited in the ancient oracles. Such was the case with certain optical delusions, which were practised on the unsuspecting, and were contrived to produce on them the effect of supernatural revelations. Such is the story of Bel and the Dragon in the book of Apocrypha, where the priests daily placed before the idol twelve measures of flour, and forty sheep, and six vessels of wine, pretending that the idol consumed all these provisions, when in fact they entered the temple by night, by a door under the altar, and removed them.
We have a story minutely related by Benvenuto Cellini in his Life, which it is now known was produced by optical delusion, but which was imposed upon the artist and his companions as altogether supernatural. It occurred a very short time before the death of pope Clement the Seventh in 1534, and is thus detailed. It took place in the Coliseum at Rome.
“It came to pass through a variety of odd accidents, that I made acquaintance with a Sicilian priest, who was a man of genius, and well versed in the Greek and Latin languages. Happening one day to have some conversation with him, where the subject turned upon the art of necromancy, I, who had a great desire to know something of the matter, told him, that I had all my life had a curiosity to be acquainted with the mysteries of this art. The priest made answer, that the man must be of a resolute and steady temper, who entered on that study. I replied, that I had fortitude and resolution enough to desire to be initiated in it. The priest subjoined, ‘If you think you have the heart to venture, I will give you all the satisfaction you can desire.’ Thus we agreed to enter upon a scheme of necromancy.
“The priest one evening prepared to satisfy me…We repaired to the Coliseum; and the priest, according to the custom of conjurors, began to draw circles on the ground, with the most impressive ceremonies imaginable. He likewise brought with him all sorts of precious perfumes and fire, with some compositions which diffused noisome and bad odours. As soon as he was in readiness, he made an opening to the circle, and took us by the hand, and ordered the other necromancer, his partner, to throw perfumes into the fire at a proper time, intrusting the care of the fire and the perfumes to the rest; and then he began his incantations.
“This ceremony lasted above an hour and a half, when there appeared several legions of devils, so that the amphitheatre was quite filled with them. I was busy about the perfumes, when the priest, who knew that there was a sufficient number of infernal spirits, turned about to me, and said, ‘Benvenuto, ask them something.’ I answered, ‘Let them bring me into company with my Sicilian mistress, Angelica.’ That night we obtained no answer of any sort; but I received great satisfaction in having my curiosity so far indulged.
“The necromancer told me that it was requisite we should go a second time, assuring me that I should be satisfied in whatever I asked; but that I must bring with me a boy that had never known woman. I took with me my apprentice, who was about twelve years of age…When we came to the place appointed, the priest, having made his preparations as before with the same and even more striking ceremonies, placed us within the circle, which he had drawn with a more wonderful art and in a more solemn manner, than at our former meeting. Thus having committed the care of the perfumes and the fire to my friend Vincenzio, who was assisted by Gaddi, he put into my hands a pintacolo, or magical chart, and bid me turn it towards the places to which he should direct me; and under the pintacolo I held my apprentice. The necromancer, having begun to make his most tremendous invocations, called by their names a multitude of demons who were the leaders of the several legions, and questioned them, by the virtue and power of the eternal, uncreated God, who lives for ever, in the Hebrew language, as also in Latin and Greek; insomuch that the amphitheatre was filled, almost in an instant, with demons a hundred times more numerous than at the former conjuration. Vincenzio meanwhile was busied in making a fire with the assistance of Gaddi, and burning a great quantity of precious perfumes. I, by the direction of the necromancer, again desired to be in company with my Angelica. He then turning upon me said, ‘Know, they have declared that in the space of a month you shall be in her company.’
“He then requested me to stand by him resolutely, because the legions were now above a thousand more in number than he had designed; and besides these were the most dangerous; so that, after they had answered my question, it behoved him to be civil to them, and dismiss them quietly. At the same time the boy under the pintacolo was in a terrible fright, saying, that there were in the place a million of fierce men who threatened to destroy us; and that, besides, there were four armed giants of enormous stature, who endeavoured to break into our circle. During this time, while the necromancer, trembling with fear, endeavoured by mild means to dismiss them in the best way he could, Vincenzio, who quivered like an aspen leaf, took care of the perfumes. Though I was as much afraid as any of them, I did my utmost to conceal it; so that I greatly contributed to inspire the rest with resolution; but the truth is, I gave myself over for a dead man, seeing the horrid fright the necromancer was in.
“The boy had placed his head between his knees; and said, ‘In this attitude will I die; for we shall all surely perish.’ I told him that those demons were under us, and what he saw was smoke and shadow; so bid him hold up his head and take courage. No sooner did he look up, than he cried out, ‘The whole amphitheatre is burning, and the fire is just falling on us.’ So, covering his eyes with his hands, he again exclaimed, that destruction was inevitable, and he desired to see no more. The necromancer intreated me to have a good heart, and to take care to burn proper perfumes; upon which I turned to Vincenzio, and bade him burn all the most precious perfumes he had. At the same time I cast my eyes upon Gaddi, who was terrified to such a degree, that he could scarcely distinguish objects, and seemed to be half dead. Seeing him in this condition, I said to him, ‘Gaddi, upon these occasions a man should not yield to fear, but stir about to give some assistance; so come directly, and put on more of these perfumes.’ Gaddi accordingly attempted to move; but the effect was annoying both to our sense of hearing and smell, and overcame the perfumes.
“The boy perceiving this, once more ventured to raise his head, and, seeing me laugh, began to take courage, and said, ‘The devils are flying away with a vengeance.’ In this condition we staid, till the bell rang for morning prayers. The boy again told us, that there remained but few devils, and those were at a great distance. When the magician had performed the rest of his ceremonies, he stripped off his gown, and took up a wallet full of books, which he had brought with him. We all went out of the circle together, keeping as close to each other as we possibly could, especially the boy, who placed himself in the middle, holding the necromancer by the coat, and me by the cloak…Two of the demons whom we had seen at the amphitheatre, went on before us leaping and skipping, sometimes running upon the roofs of the houses, and sometimes on the ground. The priest declared that, as often as he had entered magic circles, nothing so extraordinary had ever happened to him. As we went along, he would fain have persuaded me to assist at the consecrating a book, from which he said we should derive immense riches. We should then ask the demons to discover to us the various treasures with which the earth abounds, which would raise us to opulence and power; but that those love‐affairs were mere follies from which no good could be expected. I made answer, that I would readily have accepted his proposal if I had understood Latin…Immediately subsequent to this scene, Cellini got into one of those scrapes, in which he was so frequently involved by his own violence and ferocity; and the connection was never again renewed.
The first remark that arises out of this narrative is, that nothing is actually done by the supernatural personages which are exhibited. The magician reports certain answers as given by the demons; but these answers do not appear to have been heard from any lips but those of him who was the creator or cause of the scene. The whole of the demons therefore were merely figures, produced by the magic lantern (which is said to have been invented by Roger Bacon), or by something of that nature. The burning of the perfumes served to produce a dense atmosphere, that was calculated to exaggerate, and render more formidable and terrific, the figures which were exhibited. The magic lantern, which is now the amusement only of servant‐maids, and boys at school in their holidays, served at this remote period, and when the power of optical delusions was unknown, to terrify men of wisdom and penetration, and make them believe that legions of devils from the infernal regions were come among them, to produce the most horrible effects, and suspend and invert the laws of nature. It is probable, that the magician, who carried home with him a “wallet full of books,” also carried at the same time the magic lantern or mirror, with its lights, which had served him for his exhibition, and that this was the cause of the phenomenon, that they observed two of the demons which they had seen at the amphitheatre, going before them on their return, “leaping and skipping, sometimes running on the roofs of the houses, and sometimes on the ground…”
Dr. John Dee was a man who made a conspicuous figure in the sixteenth century. He was born at London in the year 1527. He was an eminent mathematician, and an indefatigable scholar. He says of himself, that, having been sent to Cambridge when he was fifteen, he persisted for several years in allowing himself only four hours for sleep in the twenty‐four, and two for food and refreshment, and that he constantly occupied the remaining eighteen (the time for divine service only excepted) in study. At Cambridge he superintended the exhibition of a Greek play of Aristophanes, among the machinery of which he introduced an artificial scarabaeus, or beetle, which flew up to the palace of Jupiter, with a man on his back, and a basket of provisions. The ignorant and astonished spectators ascribed this feat to the arts of the magician…
The principal study of Dee however at this time lay in astrology; and accordingly, upon the accession of Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, her chief favourite, was sent to consult the doctor as to the aspect of the stars, that they might fix on an auspicious day for celebrating her coronation. Some years after we find him again on the continent; and in 1571, being taken ill at Louvaine, we are told the queen sent over two physicians to accomplish his cure. Elizabeth afterwards visited him at his house at Mortlake, that she might view his magazine of mathematical instruments and curiosities; and about this time employed him to defend her title to countries discovered in different parts of the globe. He says of himself, that he received the most advantageous offers from Charles V, Ferdinand, Maximilian II, and Rodolph II, emperors of Germany, and from the czar of Muscovy an offer of L.2000 sterling per annum, upon condition that he would reside in his dominions…
Had Dee gone no further than this, he would undoubtedly have ranked among the profoundest scholars and most eminent geniuses that adorned the reign of the maiden queen. But he was unfortunately cursed with an ambition that nothing could satisfy; and, having accustomed his mind to the wildest reveries, and wrought himself up to an extravagant pitch of enthusiasm, he pursued a course that involved him in much calamity, and clouded all his latter days with misery and ruin. He dreamed perpetually of the philosopher’s stone, and was haunted with the belief of intercourse of a supramundane character. It is almost impossible to decide among these things, how much was illusion, and how much was forgery. Both were inextricably mixed in his proceedings; and this extraordinary victim probably could not in his most dispassionate moments precisely distinguish what belonged to the one, and what to the other.
As Dee was an enthusiast, so he perpetually interposed in his meditations prayers of the greatest emphasis and fervour. As he was one day in November 1582, engaged in these devout exercises, he says that there appeared to him the angel Uriel at the west window of his Museum, who gave him a translucent stone, or chrystal, of a convex form, that had the quality, when intently surveyed, of presenting apparitions, and even emitting sounds, in consequence of which the observer could hold conversations, ask questions and receive answers from the figures he saw in the mirror. It was often necessary that the stone should be turned one way and another in different positions, before the person who consulted it gained the right focus; and then the objects to be observed would sometimes shew themselves on the surface of the stone, and sometime in different parts of the room by virtue of the action of the stone. It had also this peculiarity, that only one person, having been named as seer, could see the figures exhibited, and hear the voices that spoke, though there might be various persons in the room. It appears that the person who discerned these visions must have his eyes and his ears uninterruptedly engaged in the affair, so that, as Dee experienced, to render the communication effectual, there must be two human beings concerned in the scene, one of them to describe what he saw, and to recite the dialogue that took place, and the other immediately to commit to paper all that his partner dictated. Dee for some reason chose for himself the part of the amanuensis, and had to seek for a companion, who was to watch the stone, and repeat to him whatever he saw and heard.
It happened opportunely that, a short time before Dee received this gift from on high, he contracted a familiar intercourse with one Edward Kelly of Worcestershire, whom he found specially qualified to perform the part which it was necessary to Dee to have adequately filled. Kelly was an extraordinary character, and in some respects exactly such a person as Dee wanted. He was just twenty‐eight years younger than the memorable personage, who now received him as an inmate, and was engaged in his service at a stipulated salary of fifty pounds a year…
The first record of their consultations with the supramundane spirits, was of the date of December 2, 1581, at Lexden Heath in the county of Essex; and from this time they went on in a regular series of consultations with and enquiries from these miraculous visitors, a great part of which will appear to the uninitiated extremely puerile and ludicrous, but which were committed to writing with the most scrupulous exactness by Dee…
Kelly and Dee had not long been engaged in these supernatural colloquies, before an event occurred which gave an entirely new turn to their proceedings. Albert Alaski, a Polish nobleman, lord palatine of the principality of Siradia, came over at this time into England, urged, as he said, by a desire personally to acquaint himself with the glories of the reign of Elizabeth, and the evidences of her unrivalled talents.…
Alaski was extremely desirous to look into the womb of time; and Dee, it is likely, suggested repeated hints of his extraordinary power from his possession of the philosopher’s stone. After two or three interviews, and much seeming importunity on the part of the Pole, Dee and Kelly graciously condescended to admit Alaski as a third party to their secret meetings with their supernatural visitors, from which the rest of the world were carefully excluded. Here the two Englishmen made use of the vulgar artifice, of promising extraordinary good fortune to the person of whom they purposed to make use. By the intervention of the miraculous stone they told the wondering traveller, that he should shortly become king of Poland, with the accession of several other kingdoms, that he should overcome many armies of Saracens and Paynims, and prove a mighty conqueror. Dee at the same time complained of the disagreeable condition in which he was at home, and that Burleigh and Walsingham were his malicious enemies. At length they concerted among themselves, that they, Alaski, and Dee and Kelly with their wives and families, should clandestinely withdraw out of England, and proceed with all practicable rapidity to Alaski’s territory in the kingdom of Poland. They embarked on this voyage 21 September, and arrived at Siradia the third of February following.
At this place however the strangers remained little more than a month. Alaski found his finances in such disorder, that it was scarcely possible for him to feed the numerous guests he had brought along with him. The promises of splendid conquests which Dee and Kelly profusely heaped upon him, were of no avail to supply the deficiency of his present income. And the elixir they brought from Glastonbury was, as they said, so incredibly rich in virtue, that they were compelled to lose much time in making projection by way of trial, before they could hope to arrive at the proper temperament for producing the effect they desired.
In the following month Alaski with his visitors passed to Cracow, the residence of the kings of Poland. Here they remained five months, Dee and Kelly perpetually amusing the Pole with the extraordinary virtue of the stone, which had been brought from heaven by an angel, and busied in a thousand experiments with the elixir, and many tedious preparations which they pronounced to be necessary, before the compound could have the proper effect. The prophecies were uttered with extreme confidence; but no external indications were afforded, to shew that in any way they were likely to be realised. The experiments and exertions of the laboratory were incessant; but no transmutation was produced…Finally the zeal of Alaski diminished; he had no longer the same faith in the projectors that had deluded him; and he devised a way of sending them forward with letters of recommendation to Rodolph II, emperor of Germany, at his imperial seat of Prague…
…The final result was that Rodolph declined any further intercourse with Dee. He turned a deaf ear to his prophecies, and professed to be altogether void of faith as to his promises respecting the philosopher’s stone. Dee however was led on perpetually with hopes of better things from the emperor, till the spring of the year 1585. At length he was obliged to fly from Prague, the bishop of Placentia, the pope’s nuncio, having it in command from his holiness to represent to Rodolph how discreditable it was for him to harbour English magicians, heretics, at his court.
From Prague Dee and his followers proceeded to Cracow. Here he found means of introduction to Stephen, king of Poland, to whom immediately he insinuated as intelligence from heaven, that Rodolph, the emperor, would speedily be assassinated, and that Stephen would succeed him in the throne of Germany. Stephen appears to have received Dee with more condescension than Rodolph had done, and was once present at his incantation and interview with the invisible spirits. Dee also lured him on with promises respecting the philosopher’s stone. Meanwhile the magician was himself reduced to the strangest expedients for subsistence. He appears to have daily expected great riches from the transmutation of metals, and was unwilling to confess that he and his family were in the mean time almost starving.
When king Stephen at length became wearied with fruitless expectation, Dee was fortunate enough to meet with another and more patient dupe in Rosenburg, a nobleman of considerable wealth at Trebona in the kingdom of Bohemia. Here Dee appears to have remained till 1589, when he was sent for home by Elizabeth. In what manner he proceeded during this interval, and from whence he drew his supplies, we are only left to conjecture. He lured on his victim with the usual temptation, promising him that he should be king of Poland. In the mean time it is recorded by him, that, on the ninth of December, 1586, he arrived at the point of projection, having cut a piece of metal out of a brass warming‐pan; and merely heating it by the fire, and pouring on it a portion of the elixir, it was presently converted into pure silver. We are told that he sent the warming‐pan and the piece of silver to queen Elizabeth, that she might be convinced by her own eyes how exactly they tallied, and that the one had unquestionably been a portion of the other. About the same time it is said, that Dee and his associate became more free in their expenditure; and in one instance it is stated as an example, that Kelly gave away to the value of four thousand pounds sterling in gold rings on occasion of the celebration of the marriage of one of his maid‐servants. On the twenty‐seventh and thirtieth of July, 1587, Dee has recorded in his journal his gratitude to God for his unspeakable mercies on those days imparted, which has been interpreted to mean further acquisitions of wealth by means of the elixir…
It is not easy to imagine a state of greater degradation than that into which this person had now fallen. During all the prime and vigour of his intellect, he had sustained an eminent part among the learned and the great, distinguished and honoured by Elizabeth and her favourite. But his unbounded arrogance and self‐opinion could never be satisfied. And seduced, partly by his own weakness, and partly by the insinuations of a crafty adventurer, he became a mystic of the most dishonourable sort. He was induced to believe in a series of miraculous communications without common sense, engaged in the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and no doubt imagined that he was possessed of the great secret. Stirred up by these conceptions, he left his native country, and became a wanderer, preying upon the credulity of one prince and eminent man after another, and no sooner was he discarded by one victim of credulity, than he sought another, a vagabond on the earth, reduced from time to time to the greatest distress, persecuted, dishonoured and despised by every party in their turn. At length by incessant degrees he became dead to all moral distinctions, and all sense of honour and self‐respect…
Led on as Dee at this time was by the ascendancy and consummate art of Kelly, there was far from existing any genuine harmony between them; and, after many squabbles and heart‐burnings, they appear finally to have parted in January 1589, Dee having, according to his own account, at that time delivered up to Kelly, the elixir and the different implements by which the transmutation of metals was to be effected.
Various overtures appear to have passed now for some years between Dee and queen Elizabeth, intended to lead to his restoration to his native country. Dee had upon different occasions expressed a wish to that effect; and Elizabeth in the spring of 1589 sent him a message, that removed from him all further thought of hesitation and delay…She gave special orders, that he should do what he would in chemistry and philosophy, and that no one should on any account molest him.
But here end the prosperity and greatness of this extraordinary man. If he possessed the power of turning all baser metals into gold, he certainly acted unadvisedly in surrendering this power to his confederate, immediately before his return to his native country. He parted at the same time with his gift of prophecy, since, though he brought away with him his miraculous stone, and at one time appointed one Bartholomew, and another one Hickman, his interpreters to look into the stone, to see the marvellous sights it was expected to disclose, and to hear the voices and report the words that issued from it, the experiments proved in both instances abortive. They wanted the finer sense, or the unparalleled effrontery and inexhaustible invention, which Kelly alone possessed.
The remainder of the voyage of the life of Dee was “bound in shallows and in miseries.” Queen Elizabeth we may suppose soon found that her dreams of immense wealth to be obtained through his intervention were nugatory. Yet would she not desert the favourite of her former years. He presently began to complain of poverty and difficulties. He represented that the revenue of two livings he held in the church had been withheld from him from the time of his going abroad. He stated that, shortly after that period, his house had been broken into and spoiled by a lawless mob, instigated by his ill fame as a dealer in prohibited and unlawful arts. They destroyed or dispersed his library, consisting of four thousand volumes, seven hundred of which were manuscripts, and of inestimable rarity. They ravaged his collection of curious implements and machines. He enumerated the expences of his journey home by Elizabeth’s command, for which he seemed to consider the queen as his debtor. Elizabeth in consequence ordered him at several times two or three small sums. But this being insufficient, she was prevailed upon in 1592 to appoint two members of her privy council to repair to his house at Mortlake to enquire into particulars, to whom he made a Compendious Rehearsal of half a hundred years of his life, accompanied with documents and vouchers.
It is remarkable that in this Rehearsal no mention occurs of the miraculous stone brought down to him by an angel, or of his pretensions respecting the transmutation of metals. He merely rests, his claims to public support upon his literary labours, and the acknowledged eminence of his intellectual faculties. He passes over the years he had lately spent in foreign countries, in entire silence, unless we except his account of the particulars of his journey home…At length he receded altogether from public life, and retired to his ancient domicile at Mortlake. He made one attempt to propitiate the favour of king James; but it was ineffectual…
The history of Dee is exceedingly interesting, not only on its own account; not only for the eminence of his talents and attainments, and the incredible sottishness and blindness of understanding which marked his maturer years; but as strikingly illustrative of the credulity and superstitious faith of the time in which he lived. At a later period his miraculous stone which displayed such wonders, and was attended with so long a series of supernatural vocal communications would have deceived nobody: it was scarcely more ingenious than the idle tricks of the most ordinary conjurer. But at this period the crust of long ages of darkness had not yet been fully worn away. Men did not trust to the powers of human understanding, and were not familiarised with the main canons of evidence and belief. Dee passed six years on the continent, proceeding from the court of one prince or potent nobleman to another, listened to for a time by each, each regarding his oracular communications with astonishment and alarm, and at length irresolutely casting him off, when he found little or no difficulty in running a like career with another…