Wednesday, April 04, 2012

BEWARE: fireflies and corpse-candles

Upper Rhine, end of 15th c., St George vs. the Dragon, detail
by KARL STEEL

As Jeffrey knows, medieval treatises on magic, science, and various nonhuman lively objects offer a world of resources to the new materialists. With that in mind, and also because I just like weird stuff, here are a few passages from pseudo-Albert the Great's De secretis mulierum, a work already very popular by 1500. It's worth knowing, then, for a grab-bag of reasons.

BEWARE: I suspect I'm not using the best edition, and I'm ignoring a modern translation because I don't have access to it here, in my apartment. BEWARE my Latin, as it's possibly less able than my French.

BEWARE, especially, the following: in De secretis mulierum, opposite the page with instructions on how to make a man seem to have an ass's head, or three heads, or on how to concoct something to let one understand the speech of birds, we have "ut homo semper eunuchus fit, accipe ex vermiculo qui in aestate lucet, & da ei bibere" [in order to make a man always impotent {or even a eunuch!}, take a firefly {right?} and give it to him to drink].

BEWARE the following, too:
Dicunt Philosophi, quod sinciput est prima pars capitis: ex sincipite hominis parum post mortem generantur vermes, cumque praetereunt ei dies septem, vermes illi fiunt muscae, & post quatuordecim dies, fiunt dracones magni, quorum unus si momorderit hominem, morietur statim, quod si tu acceperis ex eo & coxeris [oops! I had 'coexeris' yesterday] illud cum oleo, & feceris ex eo candalam in lucernam aeris cum lichinio panno exequiarum, videbis ex eo rem magnam, & formam, quae narrari potest cum timore forti.

corrected translation (following suggestions from the great and wise Chris Piuma) from The philosophers say that the brain [or forehead] is the chief part of the head: worms are born from a man's brain [forehead?] shortly after death, and when the seventh day goes by, these worms become flies, and after fourteen days, they become great serpents, and if one of these bites a man, it [or he!] will die immediately; but if you take it from him [presumably meaning if you take worm out of the guy, and not the other way around] and cook it with oil and make from this a candle in a brass lamp with a wick made from funeral cloths [a shroud?], you will see from this a great thing, and a shape, which can be related only with great fear.
Feel encouraged to dig around a bit in pseudo-Albert's secrets. No doubt there's more (DANGEROUS) fun to be had.

For useful commentary on De secretis mulierum, see, of course, Lynn Thorndike: here and also "Further Consideration of the Experimenta, Speculum Astronomiae, and De Secretis Mulierum," Speculum 30.3 (1955):413-443, and, more recently, David J. Collins, "Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages," Renaissance Quarterly 63.1 (2010): 1-44.

Image from here. And thanks to Florilector on Twitter for a fun conversation last night about dragons and Albert. (and for continued interventions today: see here for a link to various editions of the Albert)


UPDATE, a couple hours later.

I was so deep in the skinweeds that I didn't have a chance to read Jeffrey's post on elemental relations until just now. Wow.

If you want more disanthropocentric narrative, if you want more "composition rather than imposition," then by all means try to make a corpse candle. I'm about as far from having made an exhaustive study of De Secretis Mulierum as one can be, but my initial forays suggest that its techniques are largely about achieving a certain result by following the instructions. It's a recipe book, in essence, although rather than tarts we get men turned off wine for a month by being slipped a beverage made from the slime around a tired donkey's balls ["Similiter spuma quae invenitur circa testiculos cervi vel equi, vel asini fatigati, admisceatur cum vino: & illud vinum detur alicui potatione, abhorrebit vinum per mensem"]. What's the opposite of an ├ętoile Michelin? That's what this is.

The corpse candle, on the other hand, doesn't lead to anything useful. The philosopher will be overwhelmed by his materials. We have here a combination of agents--worm, brain [from the sleep of reason, indeed!], wick, brass lamp, death, a human either killed or killing--resulting in a great thing, a great shape, terrifying and (nearly) impossible to relate, something sounding not a little like the cosmic horror so many of us have grooved on these days. The trick for the fun-loving scholar would be to dig through this pseudo-Albert to find what other recipes get away from us (and doesn't this notion of "getting away" strike you as a potentially highly productive concept?). Isn't this desire to be surprised and horrified by the mystery of materials disanthropocentric?

2 comments:

Jeb said...

I hope in the interests of science you will be conducting this experiment for real. I will suggest a follow up.

I understand that if you locate the corpse to a cave (preferable on a mysterious Scottish Island) place the winding sheet over the entrance and wave the lamp about, strange things will fly out of its stomach into the sheet. I suspect the would make a yummy treat for Lent or fish days. But then I am a bit 17th cen. with my species concepts.

Anyway after swearing in frustration at my lack of French after the last post I have discovered strange and arcane powers that will allow me to read "The Traite de l'origine des Macreuses" So I am a happy bunny and the secrets of the French barnacle will soon be mine!

Jeb said...

"doesn't lead to anything useful."

"The philosopher"

I am not exactly sure if studying elite texts in isolation is a means of escaping anything.

My example is not drawn from a text or from philosophers. English lit, history its reference points are drawn from a very narrow section of society and they have traditionally viewed society in a some what odd way.

Problematic subjects I would prefer to escape from as they refer in the end to a particular object that has always imposed itself far to much on things with it's words and it's theories.