A Magickal End to the Week

Claremont McKenna College




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This week was more reading than I ever thought I was capable of.
 I requested 11 new materials last week and, somehow, I actually was able
to go through all of them.  The most challenging were definitely those in Latin and German; but I was able to get the gist of their contents by
translating chapter headings and some of the prefaces.  The range on these
materials was pretty broad, but this gave me a diverse record of experiments
and proper research as well as some accounts that definitely sound more like
fiction than fact.

 Before I jump into this week’s findings, I have to share that I
did find a 1628 edition of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy last week.  It’s
a fascinating collection that is more literary than scientific in many ways.
 Burton focuses on the science of the humors, which leads to discussion on
what causes changes in the different humors, from physical ailments to more
spiritual/emotional factors.  I will definitely have more to tell about
this work, as I intend to spend more time with this material, possibly for
thesis purposes.


Cover plate from The Anatomy

One material that was really interesting to me was A New Theory of the Earth by William Whiston.  I had a later edition that was printed in 1696.  By this time, Whiston had already established himself as another voice trying to reconcile science and Revelation.  As a science work written by a chaplain, this reminded me of Primitive Physick.  It included theories surrounding creation and “the deluge” (Noah’s flood), both concerned with comets and other heavenly bodies.  Whiston also included plenty of scripture references scattered throughout his explanations.


Cover plate of A New Theory with illustration of the solar system

Something that was quite new to me this week was translating some of these materials.  Well, I can’t say it was completely new because I did take multiple years of Latin way back when.  But still, I had expected all my materials to be in English.  One inevitable product of translating was the surprise of realizing what the book was actually about.  An example: Opera Omnia Medico-Practica Et Anatomica by Georgio Baglivi seemed at first to be mainly about practical medicine.  That’s what its first book was concerning, and the title itself translates to “The Complete Works of Medical Practice of Anatomy.”  What a surprise to find that the whole second section was devoted to “The Anatomy, Bite, and Effects of the Tarantula.”  Apparently, “tarantism” was a thing back in the early modern era and it was a disease thought to be caused by the bite of tarantulas, which were believed to be the most poisonous spider mostly because of their size.  There’s a phenomenon I will definitely be reading up on in my free time!

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Who doesn’t love stumbling upon spider illustrations while innocently perusing through medical literature? Illustration from a 1719 edition.

Another interesting pattern I noticed throughout many of these materials were pull-out illustrations and diagrams.  Many of these were for explanations of tools and methods for distillation or larger diagrams of cosmic orbits.  I thought it was interesting to have these tangible additions to the textual information, and it adds to the narrative of the binding and printing of the book itself.

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The cover pages of a 1664 edition of The Opticke of Humors, including its own pull out with a more elaborate title page and diagram of the planets.

And now for my most favorite material of the week: Natural Magick.  I don’t know what it was, but this was the most amusing thing I’ve read so far during this project.  John Baptista del Porta covers a huge range of topics, from scientific to ridiculously obscure, including the proper cooking of peacocks and how to beautify women (from dying hair to clearing blemishes).  My favorite was a chapter in his (literally) “random experiments” section that described how one might alter his appearance so his friends won’t recognize him.  I looked through a facsimile of a London edition from 1658; although he published his first edition in the late 1500s, this one still shows traces of the strong mythical influence of earlier science.  One section of hunting and gathering animals included advice on capturing the unicorn, of course.  

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The above mentioned passage.  But I had to also include the part about how to “make Wheezles come together,” because how could I not?

Phoenixes and Unicorn Horns and Primitive Physick

Research has been going well.  More and more materials are finding their way into my already large horde of 17th century science literature.  Navigating the search engine is not as straightforward as it seems, which means I’m still learning to use the right terms to get me what I want.  Nonetheless, I am finding more and more every time I sit down to search through special collections.

Some of the most amusing things I’ve found in going through these materials is the blatant intermixing of myth and science.  Early on, I noticed some notions of travel literature and scientific reports being less-than-accurate concerning zoology and even metallurgy.

Here, from a collection of The Works of Sir Thomas Brown, is a description of the Unicorn.  I particularly enjoyed this encyclopedic section of different animals, plants, minerals, etc. because it gave all the names of the subject in different languages and described their significance in different parts of the world.
From that same work is a description of the Phoenix.  Sir Thomas Brown also included the literary significance of some of these creatures, when applicable.
One book that piqued my interest was Primitive Physick by John Wesley.  For such a medically-inclined book to be written by this well-known theologian and philosopher was surprising to me and I quickly starting finding secondary sources to help me learn more about it.  It’s fascinating what Wesley was doing, because in this early modern era when the spiritual and the physical were bingeing to diverge, he argued that they were still very related.  Half of the work served as a space for this sort of argument, and the rest followed the tradition of medical receipts.
Within this edition, there also existed some marginalia from an unknown source.  The notes were mostly additions to the prescriptions and medical instructions.
As I continue on, it is very clear that this period was one of ambiguity when it came to where to draw the line between the medieval and the modern.  In my next blog, I will share more about my work with The Anatomy of Melancholy.  But this illustration from A Concordance of Years shows that the heavenly and the physical were definitely seen as intertwined, or at least that man’s body was governed by elements outside of himself.