Masters of forbidden arts

Part I

For an outsider, the odds of finding a particular volume within the chambers of the Oxford scholar Roger Bacon would have been close to those related to the retrieval of a needle from a stack of hay. Books were everywhere, spread on sturdy oak chests, packed in solid ranks on window seats, piled in pillars on the floor.

They were not, of course, printed books. Gutenberg would not construct his press for another 200 years. These were massive works of art, lovingly lettered on crips parchment or thick vellum, gleaming with gold leaf, bound in satiny leather and annotated in Bacon's own monkish hand, arched and pointed as a Gothic church.

The rare ones were chained in place. There were codices of Aristotele's philosophies and commentaries on them by the Roman scholar Boethius. The Picatrix, a curious compilation of Arabic magical theories, was there, as well as the Canon of Medicine by the Persian physician Avicenna, parts of which dealt with secret arts. Nearby lay The Key of Solomon, Bacon's manuscript copy of the Hebrew King's formulas and spells (preserved for centuries by the Arabs, these had passed through Moorish Spain and thence to the wizards of northern Europe).

Bacon's own works, in various stage of completion - his Greek and Hebrew grammars, his General Principles of Natural Philosophy - were scattered about, too, along with the materials for writing them. He had quires of ivory vellum, the leaves already neatly folded to make the book divisions called quaternions. He had a knife for scraping the surface of the sheets and pumice for smoothing them, boxwood rulers for marking margins and a little pot of hot coals for drying the ink on the page. And he had feathery goose and crow quills and jars of oak bark steeped in water for the making of ink.

Besides the paraphernailia of reading and writing - not to mention such articles of living as candles and oil lamps and hourglasses - there was a litter of other objects, the gear and tackle and trim of dozens of trades that signified Bacon's insatiable and wide-ranging curiousity. Scattered among the books were various lenses and prisms for examining the refractions of light and the colors of the rainbow; a camera obscura for watching eclipses; a beaded abacus; gleaming brass compasses, alidades, quadrants and astrolabes for the observation of the heavens; white skeletons of birds for studying the mechanisms of flight; and the flasks, bell jars, crucibles and retorts of the practicing alchemist.

The general effect on Bacon's visitors was one of bookish chaos. They were therefore amazed at the speed with which he located any volume he wanted amidst his coverlet of opened tomes. If he sought a fact of confirmation of a theory, he knew which line, which page, which book, which pile or shelf and which zone of his study to find it in. He did so with such deftness that it looked like sleight of hand and added weight to the whispers about Bacon's practices and powers - whispers that had spread beyond the dreaming spires of Oxford to Paris and Bologna, where other scholars worked. Even though he was a Franciscan and supposedly unlikely to traffic with any but holy powers, tales of wizardry gathered about his name.

Bacon's skill with magic, it was said, were known at the royal court - indeed, had been witnessed by the King himself. Chroniclers told how this was so.One day, as the friar worked in his chambers, a knock sounded at the door. At Bacon's command, it creaked open, admitting a dignified young man whose surcoat bore the badge of the Plantagenet kings and whose shoes displayed the grotesquely exaggerated toes that marked the man of fashion.

The young man regarded the friar's cluttered, musty rooms with distaste and gave his message curtly. King Edward, he announced, was at the Oxfordshire house of a nobleman. Being nearby, he wished to see a demonstration of Bacon's powers.

The friar assented. As the royal messenger turned to go, however, Bacon remarked, "I shall depart here after you but arrive two hours before you." Since the distance was just five miles and the messenger's horse a spinted steed compared with the friar's mule, the young man only shrugged.
"And another thing," Bacon added with a wicked smile. "I could name the wench you lay with last night. Indeed, I shall, later in the day." The messenger merely replied that all scholars were liars, and he took himself off. Bacon smiled again, recited a spell and in very short order presented himself at the castle where the King presided. The King welcomed the friar graciously to the castle's great hall, complimented him on his learning and asked for a show of his magic.

Bacon at first demurred with becoming modesty, saying that there were many greater than he. Still, in his service of his monarch he was prepared to use what poor powers he possessed.

He produced the wizard's wand of hazelwood from the folds of his voluminous habit. The King and Queen and the lords and ladies of the court formed a chattering ring around the friar to watch him work. Bacon raised the wand. From the stones of the walls and floor, from the fabric of the tapestries, from the beams of the ceiling, there swelled a wonderful sound, a distillation of plain song and canticle, of aubade and serenade, a braided ribbon of harmonies so delicately sweet that it enchanted the ear, and so perfectly thoughtful that it gave the heart ease. It was an echo of the music of the spheres, the song the planets sang as they whirled in their unerring courses. It filled the air. The courtiers ceased to chatter.

The sound diminished, and Bacon said quietly, "That was to please Your Grace's sense of hearing. The rest is for your other senses." He raised his wand again. The music grew and changed in character, taking on the measured merriment of earthly dances. And five dancers appeared in the hall, first faint as shadows, then firm and real.

Once fully materialized, they seemed a coarse contrast to the music. A court fool and a laundress danced a jig, while a bent figure in the skullcap and black robe of the usurer hovered near them, importuning. A footman appeared, a sneer on his lips and a wrinkled hose upon his wiry shanks. He waved the moneylender away, toward a dandified chevalier, plump and mustachioed.

As they danced, however, the dancers altered. Scorn, greed and vanity left them, and they seemed, in the patterns of the dance, to transcend the meanness of their pursuits. Their bodies grew lithe and agile, and they reeled, somersaulted and pirouetted, sprang like dolphins from the water, flew like birds that ride the winds. At last, still dancing, they rose like a column of smoke into the air and vanished from view.

The dancers had risen, it seemed, to the realm of stars, far above the soul's sublunary prison, but the music of the masque continued, the only sound in the now-silent hall. The courtiers stood entranced, motionless as rows of statues; the King's hunting hounds lay still and quiet; his hawks drooped on their perches. At a window rested a butterfly, wings clapsed, fast asleep.

Bacon raised his wand again and there grew from the floor of the hall a long trestle table, laden with peaches and pomegranates, strawberries, apricots and raspberries, gift of the earth to please the king's taste. The friar flourished the wand once more and conjured from the air a nosegay of scents, the fragrances entwined with the music to make arpeggios of geranium and chords of roses and violets. Then into the eddying currents of sound, smell and taste, the wizard introduced a pleasure for the sense of touch: Weaving their way through the throng of spellbound courtiers came a troop of merchants, dressed in the bulky coats of Muscovy and Cathay, and bearing piles of silken furs, a ransom's worth of ermine and sable and fox.

At last, tucking his wand away, Bacon folded his arms into the sleeves of his habit and waited. The furriers wound their way out of the hall, the fruits trembled and dissoved into invisibility, the scents faded to a lingering memory of fragrance and the music to a single note, hovering in the air like the last frail echo of a silver bell. King and courtiers slowly came to life, blinking and murmuring. The hounds lolloped whining to their feet. The hawks shuffled sideways on their perches so that the small bells attached to their jesses tinkled dully. The butterfly at the window quivered, then took flight.

At that moment, the King's messenger stumbled into the hall in a pitiful state indeed. As chroniclers relate, he was "all bedirted," his fine surcoat torn and soaking and his pretty pointed shoes crusted with mud. His horse, unaccountably heedless of the rein, had taken him on a demented gallop through every ditch, quagmire and stream in the country, and he was very angry. The ladies twitched their skirts out of harm's way as he passed.

He confronted Bacon furiously, sputtering about devils, but the friar said only, "I am here before you, as I promised. And, of course, I also promised to help you to your sweetheart, did I not?" He strode to an archway and pulled aside the curtain that covered it. Framed in the arch stood a kitchen maid, bulb-cheeked, grease-flecked, buxom and blushing. She clutched a basting ladle.
"Take care next time how you call scholars liars", said the friar. He bowed to the King and left a scene of dawning hilarity, the King and courtiers laughing, the poor kitchen maid clumsily curtseying and the messenger stammering an explanation of the presence of his latest, lowly conquest.

Although more frivolous in purpose, Bacon's illusion was no different in kind from the fleets of warships Gwydion conjured to frighten Arianrod, or the shape-shifting Merlin practiced to join Uther and Igraine. But the times - and with them garnering of magic power - had changed since Merlin's days. Even the face of the countryside had changed.

Bacon was born in the west of England, in Somerset, a green and pleasant land quilted with fields where black-faced sheep grazed placidly, and embraced by rangers of rolling hills. In Merlin's time, Somerset, like most of Britain, had been wild country, and many of those hills had been islands, rising from a tremulous sea of fen water. Later generations drained the fens to make rich pastures, thus tarning the land to comfortable domesticity.

In Merlin's time, the greatest of the mountainous islands had been Glastonbury Tor, known then as Ynys Avallon - the Isle of Apples - because of the orchards that adorned it. By Bacon's day, the Tor was simply a grassy hill looming 500 feet above the surrounding marshy plain. Curving up the hill's flanks were the stone walls and sky-ward reaching towers of an immense and wealthy abbey, where hundreds of monks daily raised their voiced in the praising plain song of the Christian Church.

Only a few decades before Bacon's birth, the histories recorded, a remarkable discovery had been made by monks digging in Glastonbury's churchyard. Buried sixteen feet down in a hollowed-out oak bole were the bones of a huge man, and the smaller bones of a woman, along with a tress of her golden hair, "plaited and coiled with consummate skill," according to that indefatigable 12th Century gossip, Gerald of Wales. The skull of the man, he added, had ten wounds in it, the bracelet of bright hair disintegrated to dust when an over-excited young monk leaped into the grave and snatched it up.

The grave had been covered with a stone slab, a lead cross fixed it its underside. "I have seen this cross myself," wrote Gerald, "and I have traced the lettering, which was cut into it on the side turned toward the ground, instead of being on the outer side and immediately visible. The inscription reads as follows 'Here in the Isle of Avalon lies buried the renowned King Arthur and Guinevere, his second wife.'"

The legends had said of Arthur only that he had sailed after his final battle to the Isle of Avalon - a place undiscovered until the grave was found - and that he still lived there now, waiting for a moment when the British would need him again. It appeared, however, that he had died. Amid speculation about this - and about what wife Arthur might have had besides Guinevere - the abbot of Glastonbury had the bones ceremoniously reinterred.

Almost seven centuries had passed since Merlin and Arthur and all that brave company had disappeared. The world had grown more ordered, a place of bustling cities and busy trade routes that snaked across Europe into Asia and Arabia. As the wilderness receded and commerce extended its reach, the earth became more predictable, more tied to dailiness. The feats of Merlin and his kind were not forgotten, but the new orderliness of the world served as a barrier to the instinctive magic of the elder wizards. Roger Bacon and his fellows had to find other ways to alter the fabric of nature.

As the long years had passed, a civilizing network of cathedrals and monasteries had spread over the countryside. The Church was rich in lands and monies. Throughout fertile Somerset, for instance, the hills were crowned with monastic watchtowers for clerical overseers careful of their acres. And it was rich in learning: While centuries rolled by, while kings rose and fell, while battles were won or lost, while ordinary people followed the changing seasons with plows, seeds and scythes, monks gathered and preserved the wisdom of the ages.

Churchmen were the guardians of the word. In the gray northern light of monastic scriptoria, countless monks patiently copied out the works of Plato and Aristotle and Pythagoras, of Boethius and Avicenna, of their own historians and philosphers. In the same elegant calligraphies found in Roger Bacon's books - with illuminations in gold and important letters in red - the monks defined the architecture of the universe.

The picture was one of wonderful plenitude and majestic logic. Just as human hands had groomed the wild fens of Somerset into a seemly and decorous farm- and pasture-land, human minds had named and fitted everything in creation into a vast and harmonious pattern.

The order of things was described in terms of a chain, descending from the base of God's throne, high in the clear empyrean, to the solid earth far below. At the top of the chain were the three orders of angels, beings of pure thought, who - according to some scholars - directed the motions of the heavens, singing as they did so.

The order of things was described in terms of a chain, descending from the base of God's throne, high in the clear empyrean, to the solid earth far below. At the top of the chain were the three orders of angels, beings of pure thought, who - according to some scholars - directed the motions of the heavens, singing as they did so.

Below the angels starry spheres, all things of the natural world observed degree, priority and place. Nearest the angels was man, the paragon of animals, who possessed the angels' faculty of thought, but also summed up in himself all of the earthy phenomena beneath him. Below man came higher animals, such as horses. After these came animate creatures that lacked some senses - oysters, for instance. Then came vegetables, living and growing but immobile and insensate. Lowest of all were inanimate objects, such as stones.

The comforting aspect of this arrangement was that everything fitted and nothing was left out. Everything in nature, no matter how humble, had some special attribute peculiar to itself. A stone, for example, might not be living, but it possessed a durability lacking in a plant, higher on the chain. All the creatures within each class was ranked, too, and every class had a leader: the dolphin among fish; the osprey among birds; the king among men; the seraph among angels; the sun among the heavenly bodies.

But inherent in that cosmic order was great danger, particularly for wizards. No matter what the class, all elements in creation were laced together by mirrored lines and patterns of correspondence. If any part of the delicate balance was disrupted, if any of the strings that made the harmony was untuned, the whole might be affected. Chaos - a real and universal chaos, of dying sun and boiling seas, of famine, plague and fire - could be let loose upon the world.

Indeed, the world was always threatened. To name something is not only to call it into being but also to suggest its opposite. Things are defined in terms of what they are not. Calling into existence an ordered world of light and harmony meant summoning its contrary as well. Hovering at the end of the great chain opposite God was Satan - the Great Adversary - with his hierarchies of demons. He was the implacable enemy of order, the embodiment of discord, destruction and darkness.

Everyone knew the dangers of altering order. Yet being human and informed by human intellect and curiosity - and not averse to the pleasures of power - wizards continued to tamper with the shape of things. They commanded the winds and waves, changed their own forms and those of natural objects, created illusions, summoned up the dead and looked into the future.

All of them had some traffic with Satan or with his legions of demons: The Adversary was an ever-interested ally of anyone disposed to alter - and perhaps the damage - the structure of Creation. Some wizards, like Bacon or the Icelandic wizard Scemundur the Wise or the Scotsman Michael Scot, trod their perilous path warily and ended their lives more or less unscathed. Others, like Bacon's sometime companion Friar Bungay or Wittenberg's vice-ridden Faustus, paid for their power with blood.

Wizards of this era were scholars. Magic now was like a science, its poetry forgotten, and the powers of the wizards came in some part from years of diligent study. The price of living in a finely ordered world was the loss of the intuitive union with nature that the early wizards had possessed.

If these later magicmakers were to master nature, they had first to comprehend its patterns and understand the network of correspondences and analogies that bound the universe into a single entity, a macrocosm of which man himself was the miniature reflection.

Central to their studies was their mastery of astrology, the examination of the paths that the planets took through the belt of constellations that girdled the earth. The figures of that great cosmic dance were everywhere mirrored in the world - even in the faces and bodies of humanity - and an understanding of the movements was a very powerful weapon indeed. The progressions of the planets were a map of the future.

The wizards studied terrestrial things, as well, and in particular the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - that they belived were present in varying proportions in all matter. This study found its most ambitious expression in šalchemy, which, in the simplest terms, was an investigation of the proportions of the elements in metals, having as its aim the creation of gold. In gold, the king of metals, it was thought that the elements were exactly balanced, as they were in any perfect earthy thing, included the healthy human body.

The discovery of that balance would have given a scholar powers far beyond the mere creation of wealth, because it would mean that he would have the key to perfection.

The subject was so profound that it usually was investigated in secrecy, and the cryptic records that survive, replete with mystical symbols, are largely unreadable. The secrecy helped give rise to wonder-working rumors about all scholars - and not all scholars were wizards. The German sage and alchemist Albertus Magnus, for instance, was credited with the creation of a homunculus, a dwarfish servant with a human shape that walked, thought and obeyed. Unfortunately for itself and its creator, it talked, too - or so the story goes. It prattled incessantly. Nothing could stop it, and the matter of its chatter was ineffably tedious. At last Albertus' pupil Thomas Aquinas became so incensed with the creature that he smashed it into little pieces.

No tale could be more unlikely. Albertus and Thomas were men of towering intellect and irreproachable piety (both were eventually canonized), and neither man would have risked courting the creatures the wizards dealt with.

The schooling of many wizards extended far beyond the conventional arts and sciences of the day. Most of them disappeared for long periods at some point in their careers. When they returned to their own lands, they were haggard, grim-faced and, it was said, accompanied by intermittently visible and long-clawed assistans, who obeyed their every command. People who had dealings with these wizards spoke of a Black School, where magic arts were taught. No one knew quite where it was, but most speculations placed it in Moorish Spain, usually at Toledo or Salamanca.

The sources were agreed about certain details concerning the school. It was in a cavern underground, windowless and lightless, but its books of instruction - whose spells allowed wizards to witness events far away, or to travel great distances in the blink of an eye or to summon up demons - were written in fiery letters that provided their own light for reading. During the term of their schooling - five or seven years - the would be wizards never ventured outside and never saw their master. All knew who he was, however, for all had been required to make certain agreements with him before entering.

The master was Satan himself, and the scholars agreed that at the end of their schooling, one of each class - the last to the door - would be the devil's prize. This was obviously playing with eternal fire, although the devil sometimes missed his mark. The Icelandic wizard Saemundur the Wise, for instance, was the last of his class to leave the cavern, yet he lived to tell the tale because Satan snatched at his shadow instead of at his body. Saemundur walked solitary afterward, shadowless for the rest of his life. He possessed wizardly power in plenty: It was said of him that he had a demon servant who carried him across the sea at his command and who managed his house and lands. But the devil was merely biding his time, for it also was said that storms of demons swarmed like flies around Saemundur's deathbed, waiting for his soul to leave his body.

See also
Wizards and Enchanters - Content | Myths and Legends
Masters of Forbidden Arts - Part II | Myths and Legends