Tag Archives: magic

Much Ado About Doodles

One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.

Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.

No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

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The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”

Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>

The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.

That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?

I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.

Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)

It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.

Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?

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In the Image of Dog He Created Them…

We’ve all heard the theory that people look like their pets (or is it vice versa?), and we’ve all seen the uncanny photos, like these featured in the popular listicle website, Buzzfeed (oh dear, number 23…)

(As an aside: I joke that it’s because of this resemblance theory that I adopted a greyhound—it was a weight-loss strategy.  And no, it didn’t work.)

hound

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

This fascination with resemblances between people and animals is nothing new, as we can see in Giambattista della Porta’s De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586)

owl

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta (also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta and John Baptist Porta) (1535-1615) was a scholar and philosopher from Naples, most famous for his work in magic, mathematics, and natural philosophy (among many other things—he was quite the polymath).

Della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segretti (Academy of Secrets), one of the first of the early secret societies devoted to studying natural philosophy and discovering “the secrets of Nature.” These natural secrets were often thought to be perilously close to occult secrets, and della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V to answer for rumors that the Academy had too keen an interest in magic. He was found to be innocent, but the Academy was shut down by the Inquisition.

Della Porta would later go on to co-found the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academy of the Lynxes (or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed: the lynx, thought to have extraordinary vision, symbolized the critical importance of observation in the “new science.”)  A similar institution in England, the Invisible College, would eventually morph into the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Della Porta’s text was influential in the ancient pseudoscience of physiognomy, the study of determining a person’s inner character by her or his outward appearance. For della Porta, this analogous thinking was a product of the doctrine of signatures, the theory that medicinal plants would look like the part of the body they could cure (hence roots like the phallic-looking mandrake were thought to help impotence and fertility). While it may seem strange to modern thinking, terms from physiognomy are common in our daily lexicon. It is from physiognomy, for example, that we get the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.”

The impulse to judge a person’s inner qualities by their outward appearances is ancient, but the categorization and codification of these aesthetic judgments is relatively modern. In the 18th and 19th century, together with its cousin phrenology, physiognomy enabled pernicious forms of scientific racism.

Strangely enough, physiognomy is making a bit of a comeback, albeit in a modified form. Scientists have taken to studying people’s reaction to different kinds of faces, as profiled in this Economist article . Whether this kind of study is helpful or not is debatable: do these studies counter or reinforce stereotypes when they assert, for example, that men with angular faces are perceived as criminal? That attractive men have an evolutionary advantage because their faces cause women to orgasm more frequently?  When a generalized theory is applied to the individual, does it simply slip into stereotype?

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Completely gratuitous additional note about the greyhound thing: if you were to judge my character (and not my body habitus), the greyhound would actually be an appropriate choice for analogy, as it comes in at #8 on this list of “Top 10 Dogs for Lazy Owners”!)

 

More information on Giambattista della Porta and/or physiognomy:

From the National Library of Medicine, “Historical Anatomies on the Web,” a full version of De humana physiognomonia libri IIII http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/porta_home.html

An article on Giambattista della Porta and “natural magic” from the Folger Shakespeare Library: http://www.folger.edu/html/folger_institute/experience/textures_grabner_porta.htm

More on della Porta (including text, articles, etc.) from Prof. Gary Zabel at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Natural_Magic/jportat3.html

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Welcome to Rivendell, Frodo Baggins

I recently returned from a trip to the UK, and between cathedrals and castles and museums, I worried my jaw would freeze from all of the gawping.

And I wondered: do most Americans feel a bit “Hee-Haw” when traveling?

Exacerbating this feeling is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool American West Coaster.  I grew up in the wilds of Northern California (think redwood trees and Bigfoot, not San Francisco and cabernet) and now live in the wilds of Southern Oregon (think Crater Lake and blue collar, not Portland and Blue Moon beer).

My husband and I lived in Philadelphia for five years, and even though I had been to Europe before, I still remember the reverence with which I trod the cobblestone streets, stood at the epicenter of William Penn’s “greene country towne,” and threw a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave (sidestepping the three singing Benjamin Franklin impersonators to do so). When my husband and I accidentally stumbled on the building housing the Liberty Bell (much easier to do in the 90s before its new digs were built), we stared at each other in awe. “Do you suppose that’s the LIBERTY BELL bell? Like, the real one?” I whispered.

One year when my parents were visiting, we took them on a tour of Independence Hall. The eager young tour guide (think Kenneth from 30 Rock about ten years younger) marveled at the cumulative history of the place. “This building is over TWO HUNDRED years old! How many of you have been in a building that’s over TWO HUNDRED years old?”

A good three-quarters of the room raised their hands. The tour guide blushed

I remembered this episode while walking through Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Christ Church College, the Bodleian, Cardiff Castle, and Trinity College Dublin.

It came back with special force when visiting the Bodleian’s exhibit “Magical Books.” I knew I was going to see a First Folio Macbeth. John Dee’s Holy Table. C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia. I was prepared for all these, but even so there was an element of unreality to it all. “Is that the FIRST FOLIO MACBETH Macbeth? Like, the real one?” I whispered in my best Beverly Hillbillies drawl.

Then there were the surprises.  I had no idea that the exhibition would prominently display one of the Ripley Scrolls. I walked into the smallish room housing these treasures and one of the first things I saw was the splashy toad of the Ripley Scroll prominently splayed out, the reds and greens and golds of the scroll still brilliant after all these centuries.

Then I saw the frontispiece to Mathew Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches.

Then I marveled at the 12th-century herbal instructions on how to harvest a screeching mandrake.

We walked out quietly. My daughter looked at me and said, sotto voce, “Mom, was that a page from HARRY POTTER Harry Potter?”

I put my arm around her shoulder. For that day, we weren’t the Clampetts in Beverley Hills, we were hobbits who’d left the Shire for Rivendell.

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The Perils of Wisdom: Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month, March

A Renaissance poesy ring inscribed with "In love abide till Death devide," a sentiment Henry, Lord Neville, might have done well to remember.  (This ring from medieval-rings.com can be yours for a mere $6,500)

A Renaissance poesy ring inscribed with the verse, “In love abide till Death devide,” a sentiment Henry, Lord Neville, might have done well to remember. (This ring, from medieval-rings.com, can be yours for a mere $6,500)

Have you ever met one of those peckerheads who’s almost too pathetic for so robust an insult?  The kind of guy who doesn’t want to do bad things, but would be okay with it if bad things happened to people he didn’t like?*

Our Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead for March** is that guy. His name was Henry, Lord Neville, the earl of Westmorland, and he conspired to murder his wife and father.  Kind of.

I learned about Henry in this great book called The Sorcerer’s Tale by Alec Ryrie that I bought at the Wellcome Collection bookstore (not where you’d expect to find a book about a sorcerer). I bought it because I’m fascinated by the intersections of magic and science in 16th- and 17th-century England, and this book didn’t disappoint: Ryrie meticulously recreates the life of Gregory Wisdom (yes, that seems to have been his real name), who managed to craft a life as (in unequal parts) con-man, magician, and surgeon in 16th-century London.

Ryrie’s book is about Wisdom, but this blog post is about Henry, Lord Neville. As Ryrie describes it, Lord Henry was easy pickings for a charlatan like Wisdom.  He was rich, dumb, greedy, and unhappy in his marriage.

Wisdom was introduced to Lord Henry by one of Henry’s servants, the euphonically named Ninian Menville (who was also a massive peckerhead, but maybe we should leave that for another month).

Wisdom offered to make a magic ring for Lord Henry, a talisman that would help him win at cards and dice.  Not that Wisdom was in the habit of making such rings for just anybody, mind you . . . only his “dear friends.”  He assured Lord Henry that the ring would net £2000 or £3000 in only a few months, and for this amazing trinket he required only a pension of £20 for life (enough, says Ryrie, to comfortably retire on). Lord Henry took the bait.

The ring didn’t work. Wisdom blamed Lord Henry, accusing him of laying with a woman not his wife, an act that would void the ring of any magic it contained.  (This was a pretty astute guess on Wisdom’s part, as Lord Henry was known to have an unhappy marriage and to frequent the brothels as well as the gambling houses.)

You’d think Lord Henry would have nothing more to do with Wisdom, but ignorance and greed are powerful forces.  To distract Lord Henry from the ring debacle, Wisdom revealed that another magician of his acquaintance had told him of a vast buried treasure on the Nevilles’ own estate, a cache of gold worth well over £2000.  Of course, somebody would have to go retrieve it, and that somebody would need traveling expenses…

Lord Henry was out another £6.

Up till now, Lord Henry had proved to be an idiot, but he wasn’t yet a peckerhead.  That was about to change.

After allowing time for Menville to soothe Lord Henry’s ruffled feathers, Wisdom again showed up, this time tempting Lord Henry with a different kind of bait: “My lord, I know you love not your wife” said Wisdom (according to Lord Henry’s own account), “whereby you lead an abominable life in whoredom, which will be your destruction both of body and soul. If your wife were dead, then might you choose one, which you might find in your heart to love, and by that means lead an honest and a godly life. And here I have a book, wherewith I can dispatch her, and not known but that she died of God’s hand.”

Lord Henry wrote that he was shocked—gasp, just shocked!—by Wisdom’s proposal to use magic and spells to murder his wife, but somehow he overcame his revulsion in order to meet Wisdom and Menville again three weeks later. This time, though, they informed him that they had placed a spell on his father as well.  This double murder would make Lord Henry not just a bachelor, but a *rich* bachelor.

The spell on the father was a bit of a surprise, it seems, and seems to have caused Lord Henry some guilt–though not enough guilt to do anything about the situation for several weeks. However it came about, Lord Henry had Wisdom captured and claims to have gone, with Menville, to the duke of Suffolk’s house to confess his sins.  Unfortunately, claimed Lord Henry, the duke was too ill to see him (a clear fabrication, as the duke, who did get sick later in the year, was perfectly capable of receiving visitors during the time in question).

Oh well.  He tried. Shrug.

He let Wisdom go, perhaps finally realizing that he, too, would be implicated in any charge brought against the sorcerer.

Lord Henry’s wife, Anne, lived.  The earl lived.  Everything went on as normal until a year later, when the story finally broke.  Lord Henry was imprisoned, and there was the requisite scandal.

And then, here’s the crazy thing—after a little cooling-off period, Lord Henry was free to go.  He went back to his wife and father and resumed his gambling and whoring and all-around-jerkiness.  He outlived his wife and lived to assume the earldom from his father.

What gets me about Lord Henry is his bullshit passiveness in the proposed murder of his wife and father.  One can imagine him throwing up his hands, feigning helplessness:  “Oh well, what could I do?  I mean, the spell was already cast!  And, I mean, my wife was going to get to go to heaven, after all…”

So, for behavior befitting a peckerhead (albeit a weak, limp, flaccid peckerhead), I nominate Henry, Lord Neville, for March’s Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month.

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*Kind of like George Costanza from Seinfeld, maybe? I still haven’t recovered from the episode in which George called up Marisa Tomei for a date mere hours after Susan died from licking too many of the wedding invitation envelopes . . . but that’s fodder for an altogether different kind of blog.

**I know, I know, I skipped February.  I was too busy celebrating Valentine’s Day and the birthday of my decidedly non-vile-hearted husband.

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March 7, 2013 · 11:22 am