Daily News (Perth) – 11 July 1923
Many people declare that the belief in magic has been reviving in the last few years. They even tell us that M. Coue’s quite commonsense formula for auto-suggestion is a return to the age of superstition. It would be nearer the truth to say that it is to auto-suggestion that we must look for an explanation of most of the cures wrought by so-called magic in olden times.
Professor Thorndike has written a fascinatingly full account of magical beliefs and practices during the first 13 centuries of the Christian era (“A History of Magic and Experimental Science.” Macmillan), and shows how modern experimental science sprang from seeds apparently so unpromising. He traces superstitions that we are accustomed to describe as “mediaeval” to classical times, and shows how Christian and pagan alike admitted the reasonableness of cures that seem to us merely funny. He quotes some delightful remedies and prophylactics from an Anglo-Saxon “Leech-book” :—
“Sometimes a powdered earthworm is recommended, or a man stung by an adder is to drink holy water in which a black snail has been washed, or the bite of a viper is to be smeared with ear-wax while thrice repeating ‘the prayer of St. John.’ And a man about to engage in combat is advised to eat swallow nestlings, boiled in wine. Herbs are as useful against a woman’s tongue as birds against a foe-man’s steel, for we are told: ‘Against a woman’s chatter; taste at night fasting a root of radish; that day the chatter can not harm thee.’ ”
Constantinus Afrieanus in the eleventh century offered no cure against the chatter of women, but some of his prescriptions are equally remarkable :—
“It is against epilepsy and phantasy that it is recommended to give a child to swallow before it has been weaned, the brains of a goat drawn through a golden ring. And it is for epilepsy that we find such suspensions as hairs from an entirely white dog or the small red stones in swallows’ gizzards, from which they must have been removed at midday.”
Nor were these magical means used merely in order to ward off dangers and heal diseases. They were also good for helping craftsmen to do their work well, as we see in the directions given to glass engravers in the works of Heraclius :—
“Oh, all you artists who wish to engrave glass correctly, now I will show you just as I myself have proven. I sought the fat worms which the plough turns up from the earth and the useful art in such matters bade me at the same time seek vinegar and the hot blood of a huge he-goat, which I had taken pains to tie up under cover and to feed on strong ivy for a while. Next I mixed the worms and vinegar with the warm blood and anointed all the bright shining phial. This done, I tried to engrave the glass. with the hard stone called pyrites.”
It is interesting to follow, with Professor Thorndike for guide, the experiments made by great men in the Middle Ages to test the popular beliefs, and the questions that they were constantly putting to themselves on all things under the sun :—
“Aquinas discusses the problem of the star of Bethlehem both in his ‘Commentary on Matthew,’ and in the ‘Summa’ and the interest which such subjects had for his contemporaries is further shown by these questions which were put to him. ‘Did the little hands of the infant Jesus create stars?’ and ‘did the star which appeared to the Magi have the shape of a cross or human form?’ ”
Professor Thorndike has written a remarkable digest of opinion and belief on dreams, divination, charms, astrology, witches and demons, and his book will be a lasting treasure to those who are interested in the interplay of human fancy and human experience. He is also agreeably controversial, as we see when we come to the chapter in which he protests against what he regards as the extravagant modern estimate of the genius of Roger Bacon.