Handling the sources: fabulous stories in Sylva Sylvarum

Like all its competitors, Francis Bacon’s natural history begins with books. Its first stage is a process of reading, excerpting and selecting stories, recipes and “facts” from other natural histories (as well as from books of secrets and works of natural magic). The second stage is one of construction. The excerpted items are investigated in terms of their credibility (sometimes they are experimentally “tried”) and fruitfulness (i.e., ability to produce experiments of light, or experiments of fruit) and are subsequently classified within the structure of topics proposed by the new natural history, to fulfill their new scope.

What about the fabulous stories of the traditional natural histories? Bacon does not discard them altogether. Here are two examples of such fabulous stories featuring in Sylva Sylvarum.

Agnus scythicus or the tartar lamb

There is a fabulous narration, that in the northern countries there should be an herb that groweth in the likeness of a lamb, and feedeth upon the grass, in such sort as it will bear the grass round about. But I suppose that the figure maketh the fable; for so we see there be bee-flowers, etc. And as for the grass, it seemeth the plant, having a great stalk and top, doth prey upon the grass a good way about, by drawing the juice of earth from it. (experiment 609).

The tartar lamb is one of the most widespread fabulous stories of the traditional natural histories. It features in sixteenth century travel literature and it is repeated (with growing amount of details) by Girolamo Cardano, Julius Cesar Scaliger and Athanasius Kircher.agnus-scythicus Below is one of the sixteenth century illustrations representing the various stages in the growth and development of the tartar lamb (more here). Most of the picturesque details of this fabulous story are missing from Bacon’s description of the tartar lamb. As it is clear from the quote above, Bacon has a critical attitude towards the fabulous story. He offers a naturalized explanation of some of the “strange” characteristics of this plant. However, he does include the tartar lamb among his examples of participles (intermediate creatures situated somehow between plants and animals). The fabulous story is naturalized and tamed, but nevertheless included into the new natural history, because it gives a good example in Bacon’s own taxonomy.

The fly in the furnace

A second, even more fabulous story can be found in experiment 696. It is the story of a fly that lives in a burning furnace.

It is affirmed both by ancient and modern observation, that in furnaces of copper and brass where chalcites (which is vitriol) is often cast in to mend the working, there riseth suddenly a fly, which sometimes moveth as if it took hold on the walls of the furnace, sometimes is seen moving in the fire below; and dieth presently as soon as it is out of the furnace: which is a noble instance […] for it sheweth, that as well violent heat of fire as the gentle heat of living creatures will vivify, if it have matter proportionable.

This is the story of pyrausta, mentioned by Aristotle in the History of animals as an example of animal living in very extreme conditions. Again, it is a fabulous story which have captivated the imagination of many naturalists. The “modern observations” to which Bacon refers above can be found in Girolamo Cardano and Giovan Battista della Porta. The moderns use this example to discuss spontaneous generation, and the main question behind it is what exactly does putrefy in the furnace? One theory is that the watery moisture of which copper is made putrefies in the extreme heat (but this does not sound very credible to anyone, not even its proponents). Another theory, embraced by Bacon, is that the living spirit comes from the ‘putrefaction’ of the chalcites (chalcitis is a copper pyrite described already by Pliny) which, exposed to moisture “sprouts” vitriol (copper sulfate, has a nice green color and small crystals resembling a vegetal ‘growth’ on the surface). This time, Bacon takes the full fabulous story and even enhances it, by claiming that in the furnace the flamy spirit “congeals”, and borrows some of the vital spirit of the vitriol, producing, thus, a living creature. This is one of the instances in which it becomes clear why Bacon claims that his Sylva is not natural history proper, but a “high kind of natural magic.” (here is more on this story, and the Romanian translation of it).

By way of conclusion

In both of my examples above, we can see Bacon handling a well-known fabulous story of the traditional natural history. The story is inspected, given a (partial) naturalized explanation, and inserted into the new natural history. In the first case, the fabulous story (slightly tamed) serves the purpose of giving examples of a new taxonomy of the living beings. In the second case, the fabulous story gives a recipe for natural magic (how to produce a full blown living creature using the instruments of the alchemists).


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