Billeder på siden

respect representative, and is well worthy of our attentive consideration. Roger Bacon, called the wonderful doctor -Doctor Mirabilis-was born in the year 1214 in the neighbourhood of Ilchester. His family must have had considerable wealth, for he expended vast sums, equal to £8000 or £10,000 of modern money, upon his experiments, and part at least of his finances was derived from home. He went at a very early age to Oxford, where he soon achieved a great reputation by his acquirements in languages and the learning of the ancients. He made himself familiar with the writings of Aristotle in the original -a most rare feat in those days, when the works of this pioneer of physical philosophy were generally known only through the gross misinterpretations of the Arabian writers. After spending some time at Oxford, he went to the University of Paris, which was then the metropolis of learning. It was here probably that he composed his great works, and made his wonderful discoveries.1 The learned V. Cousin, with a display of nationality somewhat amusing, labours to show that Bacon was almost a Frenchman. But it is plain that in the thirteenth century the learned class was a nation of itself; its members spoke a common language, were actuated by common sentiments, had common privileges, and kept altogether apart from the rest of the community. What connection, for example, had John Scotus Erigena, John the Irishman, with the barbarians who then inhabited Ireland? or what resemblance is there between John Duns Scotus and the marauding savages of the Scottish marches? These two Scots would both be infinitely more at home in Paris, than in their native bogs and moors. And so it was with Roger Bacon. His nation was the learned; the consanguinity of thought was then far more of a tie than the accident of the place of birth.

Roger Bacon was the earliest inductive philosopher.

1 Roger Bacon, Journal des Savants, V. Cousin, 1848, p. 129.


Wonderful as his discoveries are, they are not so remarkable as the independence of mind which enabled him to make them. He opens his Great Work' thus:-"There are four impediments to knowledge; first, too great dependence upon authority; second, allowing too great weight to custom; third, the fear of offending the vulgar; fourth, the affectation of concealing ignorance by the display of a specious appearance of knowledge." Such phrases are truisms now: then they were tremendous protests against an authority which had set its foot on the neck of kings. Even the saints and fathers, he adds, are subject to the common infirmities of human nature. In his boldness, he anticipates some of the recent forms of rationalism; for after describing a kind of bitumen called malta, which burned through armour, he suggests that possibly Gideon had this substance in his pitchers when he defeated the Midianites in so miraculous a manner. Nor is this said out of any disrespect to revelation, for he wrote a large book in order to explain his philosophy to the pope (Clement IV.). His words are:-" If it were not for the reverence which I have for the vicar of Jesus Christ, I would not have undertaken what I do."2

Such was the spirit in which Roger Bacon worked—one of reverence for the church, and of free inquiry in all directions. His achievements are almost incredible, both in number and importance. He was the first astronomer of his age he detected the error of the Julian Calendar, and recommended a more complete rectification than that three centuries afterwards effected under Gregory. He describes the spherical form of the earth. He investigated the phenomenon of the tides. In optics he discovered the use of magnifying glasses and of the camera obseura. In chemistry, or alchemy as it was then called, his discoveries were still more wonderful. He describes a mixture of charcoal, nitre, and sulphur, which, when ignited,

1 Opus Magnum.

2 Letter to Pope Clement IV.

explodes with fiery coruscations, and a noise like thunder. This, no doubt, was a species of gunpowder; that it was a contrivance for propelling projectiles is an error. There are many explosive compounds, but few, or only one, which can be used for this purpose.

It would be folly to expect that his discoveries in chemistry should not be mingled with superstition. He gravely relates how a ploughman in Sicily found a jar full of yellow water, upon drinking which his whole nature was so entirely changed, that from a clown he became a courtier, handsome and clever, and lived eighty years in the service of the court. This was the effect of potable gold, which, he says, does wonders when well prepared and thoroughly drawn out (triturated).

Of course, he believed in the Philosopher's Stone, which he describes as "that medicine which taketh away all the impurities and corruption of a

[ocr errors]

baser metal, so as to make

it into purest silver and gold; and is thought by wise men to be able wholly to remove the corruptions of the human. body, so as to prolong life for many ages. This is the 'corpus ex elementis temperatum.' This passage deserves our attention. It implies not only the notion, expressed more at length in his other works, that the diminished longevity of man, which he assumes from Scripture to have been at one time many hundred years, arises from the corruption of the race, but also that the consequences of the fall can only be overcome by the progressive improvement of successive generations of men. So that, in his eyes, evidently, the philosopher's stone was no vulgar, wonder-working charm, but a substance which improved the constitution-made the generation which partook of it more healthy—to be the progenitors of more healthy children. Thus, instead of a degradation, there should be a gradual elevation of the race. It is altogether out of the question to go over all Roger Bacon's sugestions and discoveries; those we have adduced 1 Opus Magnum, p. 472.

are enough to show the originality and boldness of his mind, and his fate shows that this great man was born out of his due time. He was cited to Rome, judged, condemned, and imprisoned for many years. He died in 1292.

Roger Bacon may be compared to Aristotle. It is rather startling when one makes this comparison of the men, to contrast the consideration in which they were held when alive. We are inclined to ask, What is to be made of human advancement, if this is the result of 1600 years of progress? The answer which suggests itself in favour of the Middle Ages is this: the culture of Greece was an exceptional phenomenon; it was like an experiment carried on upon a small scale, with all the conditions under the command of the operator, to ascertain to what perfection an individual plant could be reared. What we may call the Rose of Pericles, was a specimen of unsurpassed, and possibly unsurpassable, perfection of culture; but after this effort, there was no other, and the plant decayed; while, on the other hand, men like Roger Bacon were the premature efforts of a nascent civilization, confined to no particular place or time, but embracing the whole of Europe, and extending onward to the present day. The Church may be said to have done right in condemning Bacon, because the great function which that institution was then performing, was the aggregation of individuals into communities. It claimed dominion over the king, as over the serf; it proclaimed the brotherhood of all mankind; and if any individuals opposed this claim, by promulgating some new opinion, it was necessary there should be a conflict-the Church must either take the light to hang in its own temple, or extinguish it. In the case of Roger Bacon, the lamp turned out to be too big for the church, and so it had to be broken. The breaking of such lamps scattered the sparks, and increased the conflict between independent thinking and submission to authority, which ended-or, at least, halted-at the Reformation. The

great fact, however, remained, that men were no longer to form schools, and think merely for themselves—they were to think for the masses. These masses were to be drawn up, even at the sacrifice of the centres of illumination, and the lesson was imperceptibly communicated, that now isolated progress was impossible; and that, before the great thinkers of the age could assume their proper place, the grand social problem must be solved, of reconciling individual freedom with submission to law.

It may be asked, What has all this to do with the history of medicine? Much, every way. Medicine, as a science, was concerned in it; still more, medicine as a practical art. Medicine moved along the lines of civilization as the electric wire accompanies the railroad. As the civilization of Italy and the South of France differed from that of the North, so did the development of medicine in these respective regions. This we must examine more closely ; but before doing so, let us observe that, as members of the University, as a medical clergy, physicians departed to a hopeless distance from the true idea of medical or healing men. They occupied themselves with the questions of the schoolmen, and neglected entirely the practical duties of their profession. We cannot have a more pointed proof of this, than that afforded by Dr. Thomas Linacre (born 1460), the founder of the College of Physicians of London—that depository, or dormitory, of the medical clergy. "In the prime of his youth," says Hecker, "he had been an eyewitness of the events at Oxford, and survived even the second and third eruption of the sweating sickness (an epidemic of which we shall speak more afterwards, but which, we may here observe, spread more consternation, and committed more havoc than any former plague in England); but in none of his writings do we find a single word of this disease, which is of such permanent importance." How 1 Hecker, p. 185.

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsæt »