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Roger Bacon- His Nationality—The Philosopher's Stone—His relation to the Church - English Sweating Sickness—Jerome Cardan-Philosopher and Quack
- His Algebra and Astrology-Visits Scotland and England - Rise of a Middle Class in Italy-Milan-Salerno—General Turbulence—Robber-knights—The Christian Lady—The Chase—The King—His Sacred Majesty—Touching for the King's Evil.
It was in the year of Our Lord, 1162, at a council held at Montpellier, as has been already mentioned, that a decree was passed forbidding the practice of medicine to the monks. This may be looked upon as the first step in the process of the divorce of medicine and the church; which it took many years to consummate ; for, till the middle of the fourteenth century, all physicians were ecclesiastics in so far, at least, that both had the same education, habits of thought, and social position. Indeed, the former had no title to the appellation of physicians or investigators of nature ;
they ought rather to have been called the medical clergy, for they cultivated the study of medicine in exactly the same spirit as the ecclesiastics studied theology; and Galen's works were their Scriptures. To the superficial observer from the date of the Montpellier council, till the period of Luther and Paracelsus, the despotism of opinion and tradition must have seemed absolute.
“The noon-day of Papal dominion extends through the thirteenth century. Rome inspired during this age all the terror of her ancient name. She was once more the mistress of the world, and kings were her. vassals.
It was now that the canon law was promulgated, which was nothing more than all the acts of Papal usurpation thrown into a systematic form. This code, of course, required canon lawyers, “who, though many of them laymen, would, with the usual bigotry of lawyers, defend every pretension or abuse to which their received standard of authority gave sanction.” 2
These are the words of Hallam, and are not quoted for the sake of a sneer at the profession of law, but to show that at this period there existed apparently no freedom in any corporation. Freedom took refuge in individual minds -in the impregnable human soul. We find the surface of these dark ages dotted over by men of gigantic growth, towering, like palm trees in the desert, alone and unsupported; in their solitary grandeur testifying to the unexhausted richness of the soil, and predicting the general fertility-of which they were the first-fruits—that should cover Europe after the despotism of opinion, already sapped at its foundation by a multitude of unseen forces, had fallen before the sledge-hammer of Luther and the axe of Calvin.
The most remarkable of these solitaries of this period was Roger Bacon. His history may be taken as in every
1 Hallam's Middle Ages, Vol. II., p. 1.
? Ibid., Vol. II., p. 4.
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 La 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. 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.
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 ob
In chemistry, or alchemy as it was then called, his dincovorios wore still more wonderful. He describes a mixcuro of olunrooul, nitre, and sulphur, which, when ignited, O Magnum
9 Letter to Pope Clement IV.
A.D. 1200-1500.] GUNPOWDER.—THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE.
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 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 Opus Magnum, p. 472.