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Popular Superstitions - Science Of The Middle Age Attributed To Magic

( Originally Published 1884 )

Arts and sciences, philosophy and civilization, are well known, generally speaking, to have had their origin in the East. The frequent journeys of the inhabitants of Europe during the latter end of the twelfth, and in the thirteenth centuries, into those distant climes, in the Crusades, gave birth to several species of knowledge then scarcely known. Ignorance is the enemy of improvement. While men have no desire to emancipate themselves from her slavery, they despise and oppose all that tends to enlighten the mind.

The celebrated Gerbert, however, about this period, or somewhat prior, founded a mathematical school at Rheims, in which he himself taught the elements of that science. He received his knowledge of mathematics from the Arabians. After his death he was treated as a sorcerer : he was said to have made a compact with the devil, from whose clutches he had much difficulty to extricate himself. The exalted station of life to which he arose, the extent of his knowledge in astronomy ; the instruments which he invented for the improvement of that science, were quite sufficient in these dark ages to make him be thought a necromancer.

Notwithstanding the ignorance which then prevailed, England produced a Roger Bacon, commonly denominated Friar Bacon; a man superior to his age ; a man acquainted with mechanics, optics, astronomy, and chemistry; who is said to have been the inventor of burning glasses, of the telescope, and gunpowder. He, too, was accused of magic, because his genius enabled him to soar above the ignorance of his time.

About the same time flourished Albertus Magnus, a man of inquisitive mind, and deeply skilled in the more abstruse sciences, at that period termed " occult ;" he was deemed, on this account, a magician, and with difficulty escaped the most barbarous tortures. Such accusations are a strong proof how greatly superior those astonishing men were to the age in which they lived. Magic originally consisted in the study of wisdom. Afterwards the magi applied their minds to astrology, divination and sorcery ; consequently, in time, men or women who excelled their rude neighbours in civilization and knowledge were branded with the name of magician, an odious character used to signify a diabolical kind of science, depending on the assistance of the infernal host, and the souls of the de-parted.

Few instances of these necromantic exhibitions occur in our own country, previous to the discovery of the art of printing. After that time our annals are full of them.

About the middle of the fifteenth century, John Fust or Faust, a goldsmith of Mentz, carried a number of Bibles to Paris, which he had caused to be printed, and disposed of them as manuscripts. The uniformity of the copies raised general wonder, being considered as a task beyond human invention. The red ink, with which they were embellished, was said to be his blood, and hence he was accused of being in league with the Devil. From this circumstance arose the story of the Devil and 'Dr. Faustus, which continues even to the present day.

A little prior to this period flourished Joan of Arc, better known as the Maid of Orleans, who attributed the impulses which she felt to the influence of heaven ; but upon her downfall, those who before had regarded her as a saint, considered her as a sorceress, forsaken by the demon who had granted her a fallacious and temporary assistance.

Still later, in the reign of Henry VIII., lived Mother Shipton, whose fame spread through the whole kingdom ; and multitudes of all ranks resorted to her for the removal of their doubts, and the knowledge of future contingencies.

This premised, give me leave, Mr. Urban, to venture a conjecture on the figures engraved at page 401 of your last number, on what I conceive to have been an ivory commemorative medal [see note, p. 43]. The story of Friar Bacon's celebrated brazen head is well known. It is said by tradition, that this head was framed by the philosopher for the most beneficent purposes. Had its utterance been properly attended to, the most happy results were to have been the consequence ; nothing less than the fortification of this kingdom by an irrefragable surrounding barrier of brass. The mystic figure, according to its original designation, in due time solemnly spoke ; and distinctly, at three several intervals of time, uttered, in the most impressive tones, "Time is " (which was the opportunity appointed for making the request), "Time was," and "Time is past." These preternatural voices being heedlessly neglected by a servant in waiting, at the last terrible words the enchanted symbol fell to the ground, the intended beneficial project failed, and the head was instantly shivered into a thousand fragments. The middle figure in the drawing, and which indeed seems composed of inanimate materials, I conceive represents this mysterious head. The person immediately in front is Friar Bacon. The personage on his right, I conjecture, may be Albertus Magnus, rather than Dr. Faustus, as your correspondent supposes ; be being more a contemporary, as appears from the adjoined memorials, with the English philosopher. The three necromantic worthies seemed deeply engaged in the construction and design of the brazen head. Whom the female figure on the left denotes, I am at a loss to conjecture. Anachronism forbids us to suppose it to represent Mother Shipton or even the Maid of Orleans. Some of your correspondents, more deeply versed in " legendary lore," may, perhaps, deign further to elucidate in your pages this popular and youth-interesting incident of the "olden time."

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