Lore of the Unicorn, by Odell Shepard, , at sacred-texts.com
FOR somewhat more than a century unicorn lore was a toy of scholarship with which the "leviathans of learning" loved to play. They played awkwardly, as leviathans are likely to do, the sport consisting in a half-jocose and half-ostentatious lavishing of erudition upon a topic which, with all its charm, had even in their eyes little practical importance. They played according to the rules of the scholarly game as they understood them, rallying "authorities" from all past ages, pitting book against book, regurgitating and chewing over again their own enormous reading, seldom subjecting what they read to the simplest tests of sense experience. It was a good time for the literary scholar, this period between the middle of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth--a time when a man of great vitality and determination might still hope to read nearly everything that mattered and to write his foot-note in the world's huge Book of Letters. And the men were worthy of their opportunities, for there were giants in those days. Perhaps it is a little hazardous to assert that they played with the unicorn, for certainly they preserve at all times a profound sobriety of manner and style. The herd of whales lashing the surface of the sea in the distance may be engaged on serious business, however much they may seem to be gambolling, but when such mighty men as Thomas Bartholinus and Samuel Bochart unbend their strength upon our topic one can hardly avoid the suspicion that they are merely amusing themselves by riding a favourite hobby-horse. (And if they were, the author of the present book should be the last person in the world to condemn them.)
They attacked what we should regard as a scientific problem largely by literary methods, yet they had something of the modern scientist's faith that no investigation, however remote from any apparent utility, can be valueless if faithfully performed. To some of these writers, however, the unicorn topic was not interesting primarily as "pure scholarship": one of them, at least, sold his learning and dialectic skill to an Italian tyrant who felt that belief in the alicorn on the part of his subjects would be good for his own health; another had an alicorn of his own, worth a large fortune if properly marketed, for sale; several others set themselves to combat a superstition which they thought too expensive and even dangerous; another group felt that if belief in the unicorn should be abandoned all belief in the Word of God would eventually go with it, and therefore they defended the animal with all that fury of religious conviction which their worthy successors now display in defending the first chapter of Genesis. But when all these controversialists are accounted for there remain a select few who approached the topic disinterestedly, concerned only to know the facts. Even these few, however, do not attempt to go behind the facts; not one of them asks himself how and why the human mind ever came to accept so curious a set of beliefs as those concerning the unicorn; not even in the rich and shadowy mind of Sir Thomas Browne did unicorn lore reveal significance reaching beyond itself. The facts had yet to be determined, and scholarship had not yet consciously turned to the tracing of human thought. For these reasons even the best writers on the unicorn missed entirely that aspect of their topic which is to us of primary concern--the only aspect, indeed, which justifies a survey of that topic in the twentieth century.
Between 1550 and 1700 there were published about twenty-five extended discussions of the unicorn, ranging from long chapters or separate tracts to whole books. Nearly all of this writing is derivative, each successive author feeling it necessary to cite, with or without credit given, every major assertion of his predecessors. One who is intensely interested in unicorn lore, or even one who is interested in the literary and scholarly ideals of the later Renaissance, may take a definite pleasure in an exhaustive study of this literature--in discovering the relationship between Bacci and Marini for example, the dependence of Ambroise Pare upon both of these, and in running down the many sources of Aidrovandus and of Thomas Bartholinus--but he can scarcely hope to convey this pleasure to a reader, and he has no right to inflict his minute discoveries upon others. My review of the modern classics of unicorn lore must be as brief as possible.
Sebastian Munster, whose Universal Cosmography appeared in 1550, knew nothing about the unicorn except what he got from the account by Lewis Vartoman, but his illustrator was able to draw from Vartoman's specifications a sightly and credible picture of the animal. Hieronymus Cardan knew a great deal about the unicorn, as about most other things, and his description of the animal, which appeared in the same year as MŸnster's, was frequently quoted by later writers and had an authority almost equal to that of the ancients. In other places, as we have seen, Cardan described the alicorn most exactly and speculated with unusual acumen about the sources of its magic powers. The Zoology of Conrad Gesner, published in 1551, exerted an influence quite out of proportion to its merits. Gesner's account of the unicorn was a mere compendium of what had been previously written on the subject and gave little evidence of original thinking. He suggested, whether for the first time I do not know, that the unicorn may have been destroyed in Noah's flood, and he quoted a letter from one of his many correspondents and collaborators in which a species of unicorn theretofore unknown to science, a native of the Carpathians, was reported and vaguely described. Gesner's book remained the standard work on its topic for almost ninety years, until it was superseded by Aldrovandus, and during that period few readers, even among the learned, would think of doubting what it said about the unicorn.
Pierre Belon, who discussed the unicorn problem at length in 1553, was a man of different stamp--not a compiler of other men's opinions but an observer, an independent thinker, a daring traveller, a zoologist in advance of his times. He was undaunted by authorities and majorities when convinced that they were wrong, using books intelligently, and seldom allowing them to abuse him. The great alicorns of St. Denis and St. Mark's and of royal treasuries puzzled him and won his admiration, but he would not believe in the powers attributed to them, and he was convinced that most of the smaller horns on the market and in the hands of individuals were of marine origin. For shrewdness, clear thinking, and independence of judgment, Belon's account is the equal of anything in unicorn literature with the exception of the book by Andrea Marini.
Of this admirable writer I know nothing except what may be deduced from his book itself, but this is really a good deal. He had a mind that would find itself at home in a few places in the twentieth century, but he must have been very lonely in the sixteenth, even in Venice. His thought is strong, clear, incisive; there is something thrilling in the manly vigour with which he cuts and crashes his way through thickets of superstition; his prose marches forward, every sentence and word an advance, with something like the irresistible tread of John Dryden. There is not one paragraph break from end to end of his book, and there does not need to be, so perfect is the linking of his thought. One sees that he is angry at heart, although his head is clear. He has the mind of a modern scientist and he loves clarity and precision, but he has no tools to work with, he is more hampered by surrounding bigotry and ignorance and lassitude than the scientist of our time, he has not even the support of his own profession. One may surmise that he chooses the unicorn legend for his attack not because of any special animosity toward it, but merely because it seems to him representative of the innumerable follies about him and of a general human tendency to prefer lies to the truth.
Marini begins by deploring that untrustworthiness of the senses which renders the discovery of natural truth so extremely difficult. The mind is acquainted for the most part, he says, not with the essences of things but only with their external "accidents"; and thence arises the variety of sects in all professions, for ambition or presumption leads men to pronounce as certain the conjectures of a moment or to lead others astray by deliberate deceit. Harmful everywhere, this has worked most harm in medicine, in which that opinion is most popular which most allures and deceives the public. Although the whole profession is guilty here, the Arabian physicians have been boldest in their promises, hoping to prop their failing fortunes by adopting and elaborating popular superstitions. The Arabs have introduced strange drugs, and among them the bezoar-stone and the alicorn, giving it out that these are antidotes for every poison and cures for every incurable disease, notwithstanding that no one knows where these things come from, what they really are, or by whom they were first tried. Things have come to such a pass that no royal treasury is thought complete without its alicorn, and princes are everywhere determined to have one at any price. Clever merchants have not been slow to take the opportunity for deception, seeing that there is no way of making sure what is the true horn. Marini has decided to expose these deceptions partly because he has been asked for his opinion about the unicorn and partly because he dislikes to see men spending great sums for things of no value, and putting trust in drugs that can do them no good.
He proposes, first, to show that we have no certain knowledge of the unicorn, and second, that, even if we had, the animal's horn could not have the powers attributed to it. The first part of his argument is concerned with the wide discrepancies in the unicorn tradition, which convince him that those who have written about the animal have never seen a specimen. The doubt thus cast upon the tradition is increased when one observes the differences in the reputed alicorns of Europe and England. These horns, he believes, have come from different animals, some of them marine, and he suspects that all the alicorns of England have come from the sea, for there is not even a record of a one-horned beast in that country. With a touch of that wonder at the wealth and variety of Nature which was common in his time, he reminds us that the sea is very prolific of animal life and that many of its forms are still unknown. He thinks it likely that the ocean has cast up many objects with the shape and substance of horns.
If the animal is unknown, how can we find and verify the horn? It will be replied that the learned have found certain infallible tests, but Marini asserts that most of these tests are childish and that all are worthless. He admits that powdered alicorn will delay the death of a poisoned pigeon, but says that any other horn will do the same thing by retarding assimilation.
Even if the animal and the horn were both well known, it would be easy to prove that the assertions made concerning the alicorn's properties are come una favola di Romanzi. To say that it is good against all poisons is obviously ridiculous, and an affront to intelligence, for poisons differ so widely in their elements that one substance can be in sympathy or antipathy with only one or two kinds. Poisons operate upon different organs and in various ways, so that no one antidote can counteract them all. The assertion that the alicorn sweats in the presence of poison may be proved a lie by simple experiment, supposing that one can get an alicorn to experiment upon; but we do not need experiment, for reason alone tells us that sweat is an effect of "vegetative vertue", which no horn can have. Marini allows that marble, glass mirrors, and other such objects, collect moisture under certain circumstances, but this is not sweat; it does not come from the intrinsic nature of those objects but from the surrounding humidity.
Coming to the use of powdered alicorn as a medicine prescribed for poisoning, pestilential fever, bites of mad dogs, stings of scorpions, falling sickness, and the like, he admits that it may have some value, though no more than stag's horn. Like all horn, it is "cold and dry" by nature, so that it corrects the putrefactions that are by nature wet and hot. His professional indignation is aroused, however, by the far greater claims of the "Arabistes" that the alicorn can cure all other diseases and even raise the dead to life.
Approaching his close, Marini has of course to face the argument from authority and common consent. It will be objected, he says, that so enduring a fame as that of the alicorn cannot be without foundation, and that it could not last so long unless it contained truth. He points out that the superstitions concerning the Harpies, the Sirens, and the Golden Ass of Apuleius also lasted for a long time. A very slight occasion may give rise, he says, to a lasting belief when no person of intelligence and prestige reveals its emptiness. He cannot be sure how the belief in the alicorn arose, but he conjectures most shrewdly that it must be traced back to the custom of the kings in ancient times who drank their wine from vessels of horn. Some person with a speculative turn of mind may have spread abroad the notion that they did this to escape the danger of poisoning; and it may well be, he says, that these kings connived at the spreading of this report, thinking that it would have a discouraging effect upon poisoners. And this is true, he remarks, "even to-day, when those Princes who live in constant fear keep on their table pieces of alicorn or the tongues of serpents or other such things, pretending--or perhaps really believing without any evidence--that they will sweat when poison is brought near". Marini ends his book with the hope that he has crushed this superstition and that men of sense will in future leave the alicorn in the hands of charlatans and make use of some more trustworthy means of protection.
Marini was answered at once by a man of greater reputation; he was called a confirmed sceptic and a sworn foe of all believers in horns; the whole tendency of thought in his time and what may be called the "vested interests" were against him. Nevertheless, his book left an indelible mark upon the literature of the unicorn, he found followers almost immediately, and the ruck of writers whose mental habit was a pious echolalia were put to strange shifts because this one man had broken the rules of the game by doing some independent thinking. The Diseorso seems to have been translated into Latin by Aldrovandus, who certainly extended its influence by his careful outline of Marini's argument in a book of his own.
Of Marini's chief antagonist, Andrea Bacci, a good deal is known. He was a professional student of botany and a physician to the Pope, very erudite but not successful in medical practice, so that he seems to have lived in poverty until the Cardinal Azzolino Colonna took him into his household. His numerous treatises show a penchant for recondite topics on the border between magic and science. He had far more learning than Marini and a more poetical mind; the total impression that he makes upon one who reads several of his works together is that of an Italian and somewhat less humorous Sir Thomas Browne; his thought, however, was not active and trenchant, but absorbent, and he loved mystery more than he did the truth.
Bacci's book on the unicorn appeared at Venice in 1566--in the same year and place, that is, as Marini's, and this fact is one of the most curious things about it. Neither of the two writers mentions the other by name or directly alludes to the other's book, yet it is obvious almost at a glance that the two treatises are intimately related. Both begin with an exordium on the inability of reason to discover the essences of natural objects. Bacci presents, and answers, all of the doubts concerning the unicorn named by Marini, and in the same order. Ostensibly, at least, the two writers reach diametrically opposed results: Marini is a sceptic and Bacci would have his readers think that he is a firm believer. I can find no external evidence concerning the relationship between these two books, but internal evidence--most of it too minute to present here--has convinced me that Bacci wrote with the definite purpose of answering and confuting Marini. It seems to me almost certain that he was commissioned to do this by one of his patrons, probably Don Francesco Medici, who feared the weakening of popular belief in the unicorn. For all his grace and skill and learning, Bacci gives everywhere the impression that his pen is hired, his thought dictated, and that he is one of those literary slaves whose miseries were described by Lucian and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. He wrote deliberately, I believe, to "keep the Past upon its throne". Did he write dishonestly? Perhaps he could not have answered that question even to his own conscience. He may have felt that a little prevarication, or rather let us say a little stifling of his better thought, would be for the general good. He may have been one of those who honestly believe that multi-millionaires ought not to be poisoned.
If this was indeed his view and if he wrote his book to discourage those who thought otherwise, then it is interesting to observe that he probably failed. The Discorso is dedicated Al Serenissimo Don Francesco Medici, Gran Principe di Toscana; it may have been written in his house and at his instance; it was certainly written with special reference to an alicorn in his possession. Deeply humiliated Bacci must have been, therefore, when this most serene Don Francesco died according to the belief of the time by poison administered by his brother, the Cardinal Ferdinand, who succeeded him. Fifteen hours later died his wife, the famous Bianca Capello, with whom he had carried on amours for years during the lifetime of his first wife, Jean of Austria. The famous alicorn of the Medici and the brilliant Discorso written to corroborate its influence--Bacci says in his Introductory Address that Francesco was almost the author--had failed most dismally.
Bacci's book is clear and orderly in arrangement. "In the first part", says he, "I consider the prime question whether there is such a creature as the unicorn, in regard to which I adduce from one source and another many curious reasonings and finally prove that the animal undoubtedly exists. In the second part we shall decide what sort of animal the unicorn is, and here will be heard the testimony of the ancients and that of all the moderns who have written on the subject so that we may determine what is to be accepted as true. Coming at last, in the third part, to the How and the Why, we shall decide whether the alicorn has any power against poison and how it may be proved that it possesses such power."
Each of the reasons for doubting the existence of the unicorn developed by Marini is considered in a separate chapter with much dialectic skill and adequate learning. Commending those who have expressed doubt not in mere obstinacy but in sincere desire for truth, Bacci points out that the unicorn legend is different from most superstitions in that it has lasted longer and has been shared by the most enlightened minds of all nations. Superstition, he says, lives on the popular tongue alone, but this belief has been maintained by the greatest writers, sacred and profane; furthermore, this belief, instead of growing more monstrous, as superstitions do, has become clearer and simpler and more credible with each succeeding age. The fact that the unicorn is almost unknown does not argue its non-existence but only its rarity. Until recent years the aromatic spices of the East were unknown in Europe; rhubarb and aloes and amber were unfamiliar to the ancients, yet these things existed. We need not wonder that the unicorn is still strange to us when we consider that he cannot be taken alive, that his habit is solitary, that he dwells in remotest mountain fastnesses, and that there are probably very few specimens alive at any one time. The tradition of the unicorn has come down to us precisely as other traditions of actual things have come: first we hear its name from unknown sources and it is confusedly described, but little by little the accounts increase in precision and frequency until we find them everywhere. Notices of the unicorn continue to be confused merely because the beast is very wild and is not found in Europe.
At this point Bacci indulges himself--and at least one of his readers--in an eloquent passage on due gran segreti della natura. The first of these is that she contents herself with producing only a few individuals of those species which are especially distinguished by their beauty, and this she does in order that God Almighty may have the greater glory in His works. We acknowledge His glory when we contemplate the frame of this vast machine the earth, when we consider the ranks of the heavens and the concourse of the stars, the composition of the elements, and how He keeps the earth balanced in the air and sets a limit to the sea. In every created thing there is some marvel, more or less. In some things God and Nature have shown their power by the manner of their production--as in gems, which are found in the hidden chambers of the hills and yet are composed of the same substance as the stars. Other things are wonderful for the length of time required to make them, such as gold and precious marbles and many kinds of stones. With respect to animals, those necessary to the maintenance of human life are produced in abundance; others, not necessary or even harmful, are produced sparingly, and to these Nature gives the instinct to flee from the sight of men, as we see in lions, dragons, tigers, and basilisks. And then, too, even the rudest mind must be amazed at the divine beauty of some creations, for not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like the lilies of the field and the fowls of the air. The emerald itself is vanquished by the marvellous green of certain beetles; no jewel and no work of man's hands can compare with the natural gems, green and gold and red, to be found in certain humble worms and grubs. Other animals are wonderful for their size, such as the elephant and the whale, huge as the hugest ship; others, again, astonish by their smallness, among which Virgil thought the most wonderful was the zenzala, an animal barely visible but which looks like a hippogriff, at once horse and rider and trumpet, both Perseus and Pegasus. Finally, God and Nature have shown their power by making some things, such as the phoenix and the balsam, exceedingly rare, and thus, apparently, it has pleased the wonder-working Architect and mighty God that the unicorn should be among the rarest works of Nature.
Arguing circularly, Bacci derives from this another "secret". As Nature produces few individuals of the most wonderful kinds and the highest value--witness the phoenix and precious stones--it follows that the unicorn, being so rare, must have great value, and that its horn must have some miraculous virtue (prerogativa). As a manifest proof of this, the animal has a strong instinct for solitude, living in deserts so remote that it seems almost a miracle whenever its horn is found. This horn must be washed down from the desert by great rivers in flood, long after the animal's death; naturally, therefore, it is expensive.
The translation of this passage, which has decided beauty in the original, is justified by the brilliant illustration it gives of a habit of thought common in the Renaissance which made belief in the unicorn easy. Men of Bacci's stamp did not draw back from this or that belief about Nature because it was wonderful; they were too well informed, too cultivated and intellectual, one may as well say too scientifically minded, for that. Wonderful things were precisely what they expected of Nature, just as marvels have been expected, and therefore found, by those minds of our own time that have conceived the answering universes of the atom and of outer space. Those who would condemn Bacci and his fellow-believers on the ground that their assertions about the unicorn were too wonderful for belief are less scientific than they suppose.
Like most of his fellows and like the vast majority of educated people of the present day, Bacci is unscientific rather in his method than in his general mental attitude. He lavishes learning and acute thought upon the problem of the alicorn's alleged properties but says hardly a word about definite experiment, which would have settled his question in one tenth of the time he gives to it. Here we have a most vivid example of the tyranny of mental habit. A scholar, a physician, a trained observer, a man of fine culture and powerful mind, is sitting in a library with an alicorn before him, and he wants to find out whether it responds in any way to the presence of poison. What does he do? He goes to the shelves and pulls down Ctesias, Aristotle, Aeian, Pliny, Solinus, Dioscorides, Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, and twenty or thirty other "authorities", and then sets to work. In the terms of what he finds in these books he thinks with an acuteness of which only a few of the men we now call scientists would be capable; but to think in any other terms, to bring a bit of poison out of Don Francesco's "laboratory" and to set it beside the alicorn to see what would happen--that is quite beyond him. Or perhaps we may say, that would not be "pure scholarship". Perhaps, also, Bacci did not greatly desire to have the truth about the alicorn demonstrated beyond a doubt. He had seen experiments performed upon this alicorn by Don Francesco himself, who, as an amateur chemist, doubtless knew how to get satisfactory results. Bacci was not being paid to test the alicorn but to write a book about it.
I shall not summarize Bacci's rather profound but wholly Aristotelean chapter on the Fondamenti di Tutte le virtu delle cose upon which he bases his conclusion that the operation of the alicorn is due not to its "elementary qualities" nor to its "external accidents" but to its "intrinsic and formal nature or essence" which the mind cannot grasp or understand. This Aristotelian doctrine of "form" or "essential nature"--to which we owe, ultimately, the basic and most obviously false conception of democracy--had lain heavy upon the world of thought for many centuries, as it does upon society to-day. As the intrinsic form of a thing is unknowable, one may say of it almost anything that suits his purpose. Bacci derived from the intrinsic form of the alicorn its alleged powers of detecting poison, just as the philosophers of eighteenth-century France derived from the intrinsic form or essential nature of humanity the equally ludicrous proposition that all men are created free and equal. The very rarity of the alicorn, says he, is proof presumptive that it has extraordinary intrinsic virtue. This virtue may be judged from its substance: like gems, it has much forma in proportion to its materia, and its matter, as in the case of gems, is so pure and splendid and starry that none can deny it a heavenly origin. Its virtue may be seen in the excellence of its external accidents, such as its polished density, its odour and taste and colour. The alicorn is the densest of all horns; it is white, pure, uniform, and single for each animal; it works by its own nature and not by assistance of art; it causes heat yet is not hot; it causes cold, yet it is not cold itself. All this means that it must operate by its intrinsic or hidden virtue.
Marini had rendered it impossible for any intelligent man who read his book to explain the operation of the alicorn in terms of "sympathy" and "antipathy", making clear that no single substance could stand in either of these relations to all poisons whatsoever. Bacci therefore abandons the old explanation but not the belief that the alicorn is good against all poisons. He explains its virtue by invoking an assertion which he says he finds in Avicenna's Treatise on the Heart that alicorn "comforts the heart" and is a powerful cordial. One sees how this might account for the alleged action of the alicorn as a drug, but it does not seem to explain how it could detect and reveal the presence of poison on a rich man's table.
Bacci ends his book with this strange and significant passage: "Whether the alicorn sweats or does not sweat, whether it makes water boil or does not make it boil, the belief that it does so will do no injury to truth and will be for the good of the state. No man of sound mind should seek to disprove these things by rigour of reasoning, but should allow and discreetly admit them--for the sake, at least, of the Princes whom they will please by such favourable opinion. Thus the common good obliges us to write and to persuade the ignorant that what is said of the Alicorn is true, because such a belief discourages wicked men from evil doing by making them think that the virtue of this horn will easily discover their iniquity and bring about their utter ruin."
Thus Andrea Bacci takes his place among the well-intentioned weaklings who throttle their thought for what they make themselves think the social advantage. Did he, after all, believe in the unicorn and its properties, as he often asserts in the body of his book? After one has read his last paragraph it does not seem to matter what he believed. His patron died, according to contemporary belief, just the death from which Bacci had tried to save him--an apt commentary upon the final value of such endeavours. His book had five editions in twenty-one years, but its influence was far less than that exerted by Marini's Discorso, which has never had more than two. It may seem strange that one who is thankful for every legitimate influence that prolonged the life of the unicorn should be sorry for Bacci's advocacy and regard it as a defection from a higher cause, but almost all the writing ever done about the unicorn has been honest, and that of Andrea Bacci apparently was not. One cannot forget that he was a man of first-rate powers, and that, if it had not been "just for a handful of silver", he might have done better work.
He might have done work equal to that of Ambroise Pare who, with less ability but far more courage and character, left a lasting mark upon scientific thought and won for himself the title "Father of French Surgery". Pare knew the temptations to which his Italian contemporary succumbed, for he was first physician to the Court of France during the period of Catharine de' Medici's regime and apparently a friend to Catharine herself. At a dozen different points we find him standing out against hoary abuses, intrenched superstitions, and ancient ignorances, never failing to act upon and to speak the best he knew through fear that his innovation might be unsafe or untimely. The kings he served used alicorns and bezoar-stones. He did his best to prove to them that such things were useless. In his book on poisons he tells a story which is as well known as anything about him and which illustrates vividly his scientific temper. The king Charles IX, his master, had been given a bezoar in which he had full confidence, but Pare assured him that its reputation was undeserved, suggesting that it be tried on a criminal sentenced to death. The king found that one of his cooks was to be hanged the next day for stealing two silver plates, and this cook gladly agreed to drink poison when he was told by the king that the bezoar would be given him immediately after. The cook died in torment after seven hours, and Pare found by autopsy that the cause of death had been gastroenteritis induced by corrosive sublimate.
The most important of Pare's several passages on the unicorn was written when he was seventy years of age at the request of one of his patients. In 1580 he had successfully treated the Chevalier Christofle des Ursins for an imposthume caused by a fall from a horse, and during his convalescence this patient took great interest in the methods used in his cure, asking particularly why he had not been given mummy to drink. Pare answered this question on both medical and aesthetic grounds, pointing out among other things that it was shameful and infra dignitatem for good Christians to eat and drink the dead bodies of pagans. He was then asked why he had made no use of alicorn, and his reply, which brought in by the way certain remarks about poisons and the pest, was so satisfactory that Christofle begged him to write it all out for the good of humanity. The resulting Discours rests heavily for both matter and method upon Marini, who is nowhere mentioned. It is moderate, sensible, untechnical in vocabulary, obviously addressed to the general public. Although inferior to the books of Bacci and Marini in almost every important respect, it seems to have had almost as much influence as they.
Pare begins as Marini had done by showing that the existence of the unicorn is doubtful, at least on grounds of ordinary evidence. He admits that an acquaintance of his, a physician of Paris named Louys Paradis, has recently given a minute description of a unicorn which he thought he saw at Alexandria, but even this, and all other human testimony put together, does not shake his scepticism. "If it were not for the witness of Holy Scripture, to which we are obliged to adjust all our beliefs", says he, "I should not think that such a creature as the unicorn had ever existed." He then quotes several of the Biblical references and concludes, almost with a sigh: "Il faut donc croire qu'il est des Licornes."
But the Bible says nothing about the medicinal values of the alicorn, so that Pare is left free to deal with that topic in the way of a scientific man. He sets to work to destroy the superstition by appeal to experience, to authority, and to reason. By "experience" he means experiment. He has drawn circles on a table with water in which the alicorn has been soaked for hours, and he finds that scorpions and toads and spiders have no idea of lying down to die inside of such circles but cross and recross the line of alicorn-water at will. Not content with this, he has put a toad to soak for three days in alicorn-water, and at the end of that time he found the toad--regarded in his day, of course, as a highly venomous creature--"aussi gaillard que lors que je l'y mis". He makes short work of the bubble test for "true horn", asserting that the same bubbles are sent up by the horns of cows, goats, sheep, and other beasts, by the tusks of elephants, by the covers of pots, by tiles, and even by wood. He has tried giving alicorn to pigeons poisoned with arsenic, and the pigeons have always died. The assertion that alicorn sweats in the presence of poison is met, as by Marini, with the observation that glass and marble and other substances with smooth surfaces act in the same way--that is, that they condense the surrounding vapours.
Pare attempts to turn the argument from "authority" against his antagonists by showing that Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates never mention the medicinal properties of the alicorn, the strength of this contention being that anything ignored by these three supreme authorities in the field of medicine was not worth mentioning. He cites the testimony of eminent physicians of his own day against the alicorn, and says that physicians of repute continue to use it only because their patients demand it. "C'est que le monde veult estre trompe."
Coming to the argument by "reason", Pare accepts Marini's criticism of the alicorn's action by "sympathy" and "antipathy". He goes beyond this and attacks the Arabic theory advanced by Bacci that the alicorn is "cordial" and works by strengthening the heart. Only good blood and good air, says Pare, can do this. Now the alicorn is neither of these, nor is it convertible into either; it is earth, and therefore, according to the old theory of the elements, at the opposite extreme from air; it is dry, while air is moist; it cannot be turned into blood because it contains no flesh or sap. Therefore it cannot affect the heart. Pare believes that the best "alexitery" is to flee from all poisoners as from the plague--"et les chasser du Royaume de France, et les envoyer avec les Turcs et les autres infideles, ou aux deserts inaccessibles avec les Licornes". He did not consider, perhaps, that this drastic policy would have involved the banishment of his royal mistress.
At the end of his Discours Pare expresses a hope that those who do not agree with him will bring forward their reasons, for the public good. The wish was gratified. An anonymous champion of the unicorn appeared, reiterated the old superstitions, tried to overwhelm Pare by the weight of authority and tradition and numbers, and--in the way of his kind--treated his antagonist with personal abuse. Pare's reply is a masterpiece of French urbanity. "I say nothing", he writes, "of his apparent animosity, which I suppose must be due rather to his zeal for the truth than to any opinion that he can hold of me"; and at the end of his response he begs his adversary, if he has anything further to advance, "qu'il quitte les animositez, et qu'il traicte plus doucement le bon vieillard."
The adversary had taken his stand upon the mediaeval trust in tradition; the fact that unicorns had been believed in for a long time and were still accepted by the vast majority of men was enough for him. All the wise men of the world, he asserted, have believed in the virtues of the alicorn, and, aside from the fact that we are obliged to accept authority, it is better to err with the wise than to think rightly in opposition to them. To the first of these remarks Pare answers that by no means all the wise men of the world have believed in the alleged properties of the alicorn. To the second highly interesting and representative assertion he makes the equally interesting reply: "I say, on the contrary, that I should prefer to be right entirely alone than to be wrong not merely in company with the wise but even with all the rest of the world." (Quant a la seconde partie, je dy tout au contraire, que j'aimerois mieux faire bien tout seul que de faillir non seulement avec les sages mais mesmes avec tout le reste du monde.) Clearly, a change is coming over the Western world--a change not yet completed.
The adversary's second point, not easily distinguishable from the first, was that the mere length of time during which the alicorn had been used showed that it must be valuable. Although we do not know this adversary's name, we see and know him quite well enough. His true name is Legion, and he has millions of fellows in every age who think that the antiquity of an error converts it into a truth.
Ambroise Pare did not belong to this school; he was accustomed to being in a minority of one and to advancing those "minority reports" which eventually rule the world. "I reply", he says, "that mere duration of time is not sufficient to prove the value of the alicorn. Its vogue is founded upon opinion, but the truth depends upon fact. Therefore it is nothing to the purpose to cite against me the popes and emperors and kings and other potentates who have kept the ailcorn in their treasuries, for such men are not competent judges of the properties of natural things."
A pope not a competent judge of everything in the universe? One is reminded of the contemporary suspicion, certainly well founded, that Pare was a Protestant, and of the probability that he escaped the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew because he was too good a physician for the Court of France to lose. As a Protestant, however, he does accept the authority of the Bible, and when his adversary quotes against him the references to the unicorn in the Old Testament he almost forgets his urbanity. "Any man who tries to bring this argument against me", he says, "merely shows that he wants to quarrel, for there is no one who accepts the teachings of the Bible more faithfully than I do." Thus the champion of personal liberty was imprisoned by authority after all. He accepted the Septuagint's word as the "word of God".
Creditable as Pare's discussions of the unicorn were in method and spirit, they contained little original matter. He depended chiefly upon Marini, but also upon his contemporary and countryman, the famous traveller, André Thevet. This writer's Cosmographie Universelle, an admirable work, very influential and still highly interesting, contained a chapter of first-rate importance about the unicorn. Thevet bases his account upon things he has seen and heard on an island in the Red Sea which was a port of call for many ships trading between East and West, and which swarmed with petty traders of all nations. Here he once met a Turkish ambassador to Abyssinia who showed him a horn, probably that of an oryx, which was thought to grow single upon the animal's brow, but which was decidedly unlike the alicorns of Europe. In the same place and on the mainland near at hand he has seen the tusks of elephants and of walruses artificially straightened by charlatans and tricksters and sold as true alicorns. These and similar observations have made him doubt almost everything that is asserted about the unicorn. The story of the virgin-capture reminds him of the chattering of aged gossips about the winter fire "avec leurs discours du Melusine". He is not to be intimidated by the authority of Pliny, Minster, Solinus, Strabo, and all other such men put together, for, wise and learned as these men were, this tale of the unicorn is not the first not the hundredth of their errors and lies. He says with justifiable pride that if these "authorities" had enjoyed the same knowledge of the world that he himself possesses and had seen the countries that he has traversed they would scarcely have forgotten their duty to such an extent as to hand on to posterity their idle and untested imaginings. It is unlikely, he thinks, that foreigners can know more about the fauna of a country than that country's inhabitants know. He has ranged over the whole territory that the unicorn is said to inhabit and has heard no rumour of its existence. One-horned animals may exist, he thinks, like that one described by his Turkish ambassador, but scarcely any such as the unicorn fabled in Europe. The alicorns of European cathedrals and treasuries are probably, he thinks, the products of such deceitful arts as he saw practised near the Red Sea. He does not doubt that they have medicinal value, but this they share with all other horns whatsoever. The confidence, not to say the swagger, of Thevet is evident in his concluding words: "Voyla donc ce que j'avois de long temps envie d'advertir le Lecteur, pour oster l'opinion mal fondee de plusieurs hommes doctes, tant Grecs que Latins, mesmes des Rois, Princes et Monarques, pour le faict de la Licorne."
From this "vulgar sort of Infidel people", as Edward Topsell called the writers we have just considered, we may now return to the faithful, for it is a curious fact that all the chief sixteenth-century authorities on our topic were sceptical to say the least, and that nearly all those of the seventeenth century were believers. The Reverend Edward Topsell is positively devout, and like a few others of his kind he bolsters his own belief by the conviction that those who do not agree with him must be bad people. All that he requires to prove the existence of the unicorn and the truth of everything ever said of it is the authority of the ninety-second Psalm and of "all the Divines that ever wrote". With these witnesses on his side he feels dispensed from further argument and expatiates in the meadows of unicorn lore at length, thoroughly enjoying himself. There is little in Topsell's account of the unicorn, however, that is not to be found in Conrad Gesner, and he is interesting chiefly for the quaint vigour of his language.
Laurens Catelan's book on the unicorn was of much greater importance. He was an apothecary of note in Montpellier, a city which in his time (1568-1647) was teaching medicine and pharmacy to all of Europe. Besides succeeding as an apothecary, he collected a rather famous small museum of curiosities which contained an alicorn as its greatest treasure, and it is probable, as I have said, that he wrote his Histoire de la Licorne not so much as a service to science as with the hope of attracting a purchaser. Catelan is seen at his best in his carefully written Disours et demonstration des ingrédients de la thériaque, a valuable book upon a topic of which he was a master. A man of considerable ability and reading, he was both credulous and vain. The chief value of his book on the unicorn is due to the fact that it is the only one of importance written by a practising apothecary.
Catelan divides his book into four parts. In the first he discusses the various names of the unicorn. In the second he treats its appearance, habitat, general characteristics and "virtues" in medicine, giving directions for its chase and capture. The third part is devoted to a fair statement of eighteen objections made by those who think the beast fabulous or the report of its virtues false, and in the fourth division he answers all these objections triumphantly, concluding "que l'animal Iycorne est, et que grandes et merveilleuses sont les venus de sa come, pourveu qu'elle soit de la vraye et legitime." It is certain that Catelan had read both Marini and Pare, for he quotes them both as objectors, but they seem to have disturbed his own beliefs not at all.
A year or two after publishing his book on the unicorn Catelan had the pleasure of showing his little museum to a distinguished physician and scholar from Denmark, one Caspar Bartholinus, who was much interested in the apothecary's specimens of one-horned birds and insects. Horns, and particularly single horns, may be said to have "run in the family" of Bartholinus somewhat as music did in the family of Bach and money in that of Rothschild. Nothing one-horned was alien to Caspar. or to Thomas his son or to Caspar his grandson. They were fascinated all three by the monocerine idea as it had been exemplified by Nature in various species. If Laurens Catelan gave the elder Caspar the first hint for this strange hobby, then that is the best contribution he made to the lore of the unicorn. It seems probable that he did give that hint and that it was partly due to Caspar's visit to the apothecary's museum in Montpellier that unicorn scholarship passed from the south of Europe to the north.
In 1628 Caspar Bartholinus published his little book about the unicorn and related topics. It is a remarkably clear, sensible, and well-arranged little book, as "scientific" as almost any one living at the time could have made it. In forty-eight compact pages it covers every important aspect of unicorn lore, including several never before discussed. The first chapter is concerned with the question whether unicorns exist, and here Caspar sensibly deplores the tendency of some men to deny the existence of things for no better reason than that they have not seen them; they would do better, he thinks, to trust authority until a thorough ransacking of the planet has shown conclusively what it does and does not contain. For his part, he has no such difficulties, and he recognizes the existence of unicorned insects, birds, snakes, and even men. Among the larger animals he finds eight different unicorns: the oryx, Garcias ab Horto's African amphibian, the sea-unicorn of the north, the Indian bull, the Indian ass, the Indian horse, the rhinoceros, and the monoceros or unicorn proper. The usual argument from the Biblical references is then made and the correctness of the Septuagint translation upheld.
The next four chapters are devoted to discussion of the sea-unicorn, the horn of the rhinoceros, the alicorns of Europe, and the general characteristics of the true unicorn. The sixth chapter denies without qualification all the magical properties attributed to the horn, chiefly because they do not stand the test of experiment. In a covert reference to Bacci, Caspar says that we ought not to allow our opinion in such matters to be swayed by the authority of princes, which is always less important than the truth--"quae veritati semper est posthabenda". It is evident that the alicorn has moved into a different political atmosphere. Caspar discusses in his concluding chapters the various substances that were sold as "true horn" in his time and ends with a valuable passage on the nature and use of "fossil alicorn".
But the most interesting of the productions of Caspar Bartholinus was his son Thomas Bartholinus the Elder, Professor of Anatomy at Copenhagen and a man of encyclopaedic learning. The De Unicornu Observationes Novae by this son is the most extensive and impressive work ever devoted to the unicorn, and it might have been the best if the author had devoted to it his best powers instead of regarding it as a toy of scholarship. One who knows nothing of Thomas's other books, which are numerous and sound, is likely to think when he glances through the chapter headings of this one that the author was horn-mad. Some of the topics of his thirty-seven chapters are: horned men, the horns of Moses, the causes of horns, horned insects, horned birds and beetles and reptiles and fish, unicorned bulls and asses, the horn of the Holy Cross, the use of horns for beakers, horns as ornaments, horns in medicine, fossil horns. In the second edition of the book this effect of multiplicity is accentuated by a brilliantly executed frontispiece in which a dozen different sorts of unicorns are pictured or represented. The Index Auctorum shows that Bartholinus quotes, in his three hundred and eighty pages from at least six hundred different writers, many of whom are cited many times, and from ten or twelve different languages. This book, the author tells us in his vivacious preface, was written in his youth partly as an act of filial piety--to extend and amplify the work of his father--and partly to while away a tedious interval of time. As I have said, there were giants in those days, and Thomas Bartholinus was one of them. This is the book on the unicorn, more than any other, in which one is convinced that the author is engaged in some sort of erudite play for which we have lost the art and the feeling. The tone of the preface is unmistakably gay and occasionally jocose, and on nearly every later page there is some observation so droll or so almost incredibly erudite as to rouse the suspicion, at least, although we cannot be quite sure, that the unwieldy elephant is wreathing his lithe proboscis to make us sport. The whole work has the look of a giant's jest, and one cannot believe that any sane man could have written it unless he thoroughly enjoyed the task, saw it in relation to serious concerns, and carried it through somewhat in the spirit of play.
I shall not attempt to make even a brief outline of this extraordinary book, which is really a sort of compact encyclopaedia of unicorn lore. It is enough to say that Thomas expanded in all directions the topics discussed by his father, adding illustration and corroboration from his immense hoard of learning, but extending the thought very little if at all. In regard to thought, in fact, the book is disappointing. Thomas presents the opinions of Caspar without change--holding, that is, that the unicorn exists but refusing to believe in the magical horn, trying to mediate between what he considers the credulity of Bacci and the unwarranted scepticism of Marini. His own son, Caspar, in preparing the considerably amplified second edition, left the matter of the first edition almost unaltered but added passages of his own.
The work of the Bartholini was professional scholarship. In France during the seventeenth century scholarship was almost never professional, and no more vivid contrast can be imagined than that between the exhaustive treatment of unicorn lore by Thomas Bartholinus and the contemporary discussion of the same topic recorded in a work, long since forgotten but worthy of remembrance, called the Recueil General. This consists of two hundred and eighty-seven conferences or public debates on the widest variety of topics, politics and religion alone excluded. One purpose steadily held is to avoid the acrimony, the pedantry and over-emphasis, the excessive citation of authority and dependence upon it, that still and for long after marked and marred academic discussion. Every speaker strives to show himself at once a scholar and a gentleman--one of the most difficult mediations between extremes--and the result, in its moderation and deference and urbane mingling of scholarship with humour, makes an admirable example of what the learned world owes to the French mind. As compared with the records of the English Royal Society, these papers are literature, and indeed I am not sure that the "Bureau" of debaters was not a fictitious device or "frame" of a single author. The two hundred and fortieth conference is De la Licorne.
We have heard the opinions about the unicorn held by the "hirsute scholars in 'us'"; here we learn what was thought on that subject by the educated public, by men who spent their lives in salons rather than in libraries. The two speakers in this debate have read the more important documents of the case. The first, who holds a brief against the unicorn, depends largely upon Pare's Discours, though he may have read Marini also, and he concludes: "ce conte de la Licorne est une fiction". The second speaker, more representative of the popular views, has certainly read Andrea Bacci. He argues shrewdly that the variety of opinions about the unicorn is no proof that the animal does not exist, for we find the same conflicting views about many indubitable beasts and even about God. He chooses the dog as an example and says tellingly that one who knew only the lap-dog could hardly be persuaded that it belongs to the same species as the mastiff. The argument that the Romans never saw the unicorn at their spectacles does not impress him, partly because it is the "argument from silence", and partly because the animal is, almost "by definition", uncapturable. He believes, with Thevet, that all horns are medicinal, and that the virtue ordinarily distributed through two horns is greatly increased when "united and locked in a single canal, as in the case of the unicorn". In conclusion, he says that occult properties ought not to be denied hastily. We should remember that our knowledge is limited and our reason infirm. Authority, reason, and experiment combine in demonstrating the magical powers of the alicorn.
Ulysses Aldrovandus was the Conrad Gesner of the seventeenth century. His account of the unicorn fills thirty-one folio pages and reviews all the more obvious literature of his time, but he does not commit himself. "Some are doubtful", he says, "whether the unicorn exists; some deny its existence and others affirm it. For my own part, I shall merely report their opinions faithfully, leaving to each of my readers his own freedom of judgment."
We come next to Sir Thomas Browne--always a delightful thing to do, but in this instance somewhat disappointing. His treatment of the unicorn is badly confused; it is based upon Goropius Becanus, but he reads Goropius carelessly. We feel that the topic was almost made for Browne, and we miss, as frequently in the "Vulgar Errors", the full charm and power of his mystery-loving mind. It is disheartening to see this man who thought, quite rightly, that there are not miracles enough, going about to question and discredit one of the best of the few there were left. He has read his Bartholinus, however, to such purpose that he is by no means to be classed among the "vulgar sort of Infidel people". "Wee are so farre from denying there is any Unicorne at all", says he, "that wee affirme there are many kinds thereof. In the number of Quadrupedes wee will concede no lesse then five." But this hopeful beginning is not maintained, for Browne continues: "Although we concede there be many Unicornes, yet are we still to seeke; for whereunto to affixe this home in question, or to determine from which thereof we receive this magnified medicine, we have no assurance . . . for although we single but one and Antonomastically thereto assigne the name of the Unicorne, yet can we not be secure what creature is meant thereby, what constant shape it holdeth, or in what number to be received." Further difficulties are that "this animall is not uniformely described", that the "horne we commonly extoll is not the same with that of the Ancients", that "what hornes soever they be which passe amongst us, they are not surely the hornes of one kind of animall", and that "many which beare that name and currantly passe among us are no hornes at all". Even though we were "satisfied we had the Unicornes horne, yet were it no injury unto Reason to question the efficacy thereof . . . . That some Antidotall quality it may have wee have no reason to deny; for since Elkes hoofs and hornes are magnified for Epilepsies, since not onely the bone in the heart but the horne of a Deere is Alexiphammacall . . . we cannot without prejudice except against the efficacy of this. But when we affirme it is not onely Antidotall to proper venomes . . . but that it resisteth also Sublimate, Arsenick, and poysons which kill by second qualities, that is by corrosion of parts, I doubt we exceed the properties of its Nature, and the promises of experiment will not secure the adventure . . . . With what security, therefore, a man may rely on this remedy, the mistresse of fooles hath already instructed some, and to wisedome (which is never too wise to learne) it is not too late to consider".
One sees, in short, that Sir Thomas Browne the poetic scholar, pondering irresponsibly over the contents of Roman urns which no one had thought of converting into merchandise as "mummy", and Sir Thomas Browne the highly responsible physician of Norwich, estimating the practical worth of a "magnified medicine", were two distinct persons. He had to consider his patients as well as his readers.
In the year after that of the "Vulgar Errors" there appeared a book which one wishes that Browne had written. The History of Stones and Gems by Bo‘thius de Boodt is one of the more learned productions of a learned age, and all that its author lacked of a complete equipment for his task was imagination. Bo‘thius adopts the general position of the Bartholini, holding that the unicorn exists--or, at any rate, that its existence should not be denied until the exploration of the planet has been completed--but that the allegations made about its horn are unfounded.
This position, due to the effort of Caspar Bartholinus to mediate between Marini and Bacci, had become orthodox by the time of Bo‘thius. John Johnston advocated it in his important Natural Histoy, and the academic debaters of the second half of the century tended to accept it as axiomatic.
As a usual thing we are safe in assuming, when a given topic is treated in an academic dissertation, that it has lost all the living interest it may once have had, for the learned gentlemen who control the choice of such topics soon develop a sense of smell resembling that of the vulture and the hyena. Intelligent lovers of the unicorn are not delighted, therefore, to find the animal attracting the attention of the universities. In 1660 a Latin dissertation on the unicorn was pronounced at Wittenberg by Johann Frederick Hubrigk, George Caspar Kirchmayer acting as Praeses. Like most successful dissertation writers, Hubrigk avoids, apparently without effort, any suggestion of independent thinking, but his work shows patience, piety, and respect for authorities, so that one feels confident that he secured his degree. His most vigorous utterance refers to a remark of Olaus Magnus in which the unicorn is called a "monster", and to which he responds: "I should have preferred to have Olaus abstain from the use of this word, which seems to cast a slur upon Nature." For the rest, although he does not believe that the horn of the unicorn is a panacea or a universal antidote, he is firmly convinced that the animal exists because the Bible tells him so.
A slightly more important production is the dissertation De Monoceroi'e spoken at Leipzig in 1667 by Johann Homilius. This little work strikes a curiously contemporary note, and indeed, except for the tolerable Latin in which it is composed, it might almost have been written by some university student in Tennesse or Oklahoma who had somehow managed to hear of the doubts cast upon the Bible by modern science and had rushed to the defence of Genesis. Homilius has heard of the infidels who doubt the unicorn, and he wishes them to know that "if this animal were really fabulous it would not be mentioned in so many places of the Holy Scripture". In his belief, the translation of the Septuagint is itself inspired, and he asserts, wrongly, that all the Rabbins and Church Fathers accepted it. Like a true Fundamentalist, he will not allow that the unicorn or any other animal or thing mentioned in the Bible was intended as a symbol. He divides the enemies of the unicorn, and therefore of the Bible, into two groups: those who say explicitly that there has never been such an animal and those who deny it implicitly by leaving it out of their descriptions of the earth's fauna. In the first group he places Saint Ambrose, Apollonius of Tyana, Andrea Marini, and Ambroise Paré--a strange collocation. Those of the second group he does not name. A third division is composed of the writers who admit that the unicorn existed once, but say that he perished in the flood, and upon these last Homilius is very severe. Like Hubrigk, he objects to having the unicorn called a monster, although it is Solinus rather than Olaus Magnus whom he takes to task for the epithet. He treats the question of the alicorn's properties with great caution, neither denying nor affirming them, but quoting authority on either side.
A third dissertation that may be noticed here is that of Christian Vater, pronounced at Wittenberg in 1679. Vater disarms criticism by saying that he is not old enough to add anything of his own to a subject which has perplexed some of the best minds of the time. Like Homilius and Hubrigk, he considers the Bible a more than sufficient proof of the unicorn's existence, though he deigns to quote some secular authority. The only original part of his remarks is that in which he argues that the alicorn is not dead matter, as most of his predecessors had thought, but a living part of the animal.
As one had feared, the appearance of the unicorn in academic circles was an indication that his best days had gone by. Possibly because the second edition of Thomas Bartholinus's De Unicornu, published in 1678, seemed to preclude the possibility of saying anything new on the subject, but more probably because the world had ceased to care about the unicorn, there is no further writing of importance on the topic for a hundred and fifty years. The eighteenth century ignored the unicorn almost entirely feeling, no doubt, that he was a "Gothick" beast, and yet he lingered on at least in the nursery. English children learned their zoology in the eighteenth century from a curious little work by a bookbinder named Thomas Boreman, A Description of Three Hundred Animals, viz. Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, and Insects, With a Particular Account of the Whale-Fishery, a book which appeared in 1730, and had at least seven editions in the next forty years. The author has some difficulty in making up his three hundred, even with the assistance of the Lamia, the Manticora, the Allocamelus, and several varieties of Dragons. In the first edition the unicorn is the eighth beast, and of him we read: "The Unicorn, a Beast which though doubted of by many writers yet is by others thus described: He has but one Horn, and that an exceeding rich one, growing out of his Forehead. His Head resembles an Hart's, his Feet an Elephant's, his Tail a Boar's, and the rest of his Body an Horse's. His voice is like the lowing of an Ox. His Horn is as hard as Iron, and as rough as any File, twisted and curled, like a flaming sword; very straight, sharp, and everywhere black, excepting the Point. Great Virtues are attributed to it, in expelling of Poison, and curing of several Diseases. He is not a Beast of prey."
One generalization to be made upon this series of monographs is that the last items in it, the academic dissertations, are greatly inferior in acumen and independence to the first. Even allowing for the fact that the academic dissertation is one of the most degraded and degrading forms of written discourse, they are feebler than one would expect. A main reason for this is that they were not written, like Marini's book, freely and with the whole mind. The Ages of Faith in which one believed what one was told had gone by; the brief period of the Renaissance in which a few minds for a few years followed the light of knowledge and reason was gone too. These young scholars were all Protestants, so that they felt obliged to maintain the authority of the Bible; but they belonged also to the seventeenth century, they lived well on the hither side of the great watershed of time raised by the beginnings of modern science, they were aware of certain recently discovered facts that did not seem to square with God's word concerning unicorns. Facts, moreover, were no longer so malleable as they had seemed to the makers of Physiologus; they had taken on a validity of their own quite independent of human desires. The times, in short, were more difficult for a thinking man than those that had gone before. Isidore could accept the unicorn without hesitation because no inconvenient knowledge of facts impeded him; Marini could reject the unicorn almost as freely because he was a physician living in Venice at the end of the Renaissance, and so, for all practical purposes, a pagan; but what could be said on this cardinal topic by young men of the seventeenth century before an audience of Lutherans--by young men seeking academic advancement in a community very literate and very "fundamentalist"? Only such tame and jejune things as Hubrigk and Romulus and Vater did say. The situation was new to them. It is painfully familiar to us.
Nothing if not well read, these young men knew how the unicorn got into their Bibles, and they felt obliged to accept not only the plenary inspiration of the original Biblical text but that of the successive translations as well. If Martin Luther, for example, wrote the word Einhorn in translating Deuteronomy xxxiii. 17, that was equivalent to divine assurance that the unicorn exists, and any doubt on that point might open the way to infidelity as the crevice in a Dutch dike may let in all the sea. If the people who believed this had been considerably cruder and more bigoted than they were, and if they had had the power, they might have enacted "unicorn laws" controlling public education like the so-called "monkey laws" of certain American states, for the controversy was in fact a tiny model of the great quarrel over Darwinian theory. However trifling the issue may seem in comparison, a real conflict was involved between Biblical authority and experience or observation, and this is precisely the conflict that has been going on since the appearance of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.
An example of the stress and strain that could be caused by this conflict in earnest minds is found in the writings of Ambroise Pare about the unicorn. When his adversary attempts to overwhelm him with authority and tradition and mere numbers, Pare returns the thrilling reply that he would rather think rightly quite alone than think wrongly with all the rest of the world. One unbroken road runs between that remark and Emerson's Self-Reliance two hundred and fifty years in the future, but it was and is a narrow road, full of obstacles, and few there be that find it. Pare's words sound like a final declaration of intellectual independence, but as such they were premature. As a student of nature and as a thinking man Pare had accumulated several reasons for disbelieving in the unicorn. In one place he wrote explicitly: "The so great variety of dissenting opinions easily induceth me to believe that this word Unicorne is not the proper name of any beast in the world, and that it is a thing onely feigned by painters and writers." Somewhat later, however, in the Discours, he is obliged to consider the Biblical references to the animal, and these wrench from him the reluctant admission: "Il faut donc croire qu'il est des Licornes." There is a conflict here, and it is being waged inside of one mind. Pare's intellectual condition is that of millions of men who have been drawn one way by know ledge and reason and the whole current of their times and drawn another way by authority, tradition, vested interests, and fear of public opinion. Like them, Pare strove to believe two contradictory things at the same time and not to let the left lobe of his brain know what the right lobe was thinking. We may say that since nothing but unicorns were involved this did not much matter, but Pare and his time were right in feeling that when one begins to doubt the Biblical unicorn there is no convenient place to stop doubting. One might almost say that the cause of Fundamentalism was lost when the unicorn, vouched for by Scripture, was abandoned--for if we cannot trust the translations of the Bible as equally authentic with the original Hebrew, which few Fundamentalists take the trouble to learn, then the door is thrown open to Lower and Higher Criticism, to allegorical interpretations, to scholarship, to facts, to thinking, and, in short, to "infidelity".
The Septuagint's translation of the Hebrew Re'em by the word xxxxxxxxx kept the faith in the unicorn alive somewhat longer than it would otherwise have endured, and that bit of translation may have had an effect even upon trade and commerce and medical theory; but the most interesting of its effects is seen in its production of a minor conflict between the old faith in Biblical authority and the new faith in reason and experiment. One cannot say that the problem thus presented was ever definitely solved. Such problems seldom are. They are forgotten.
"To any ordinary reader", says an author of our own time, "the appearance in the sacred writings of creatures which are nowadays known to have had no real existence is bewildering, and probably not a little unsettling . . . . It is much to be regretted that several monstrosities have been permitted to enter the pages of Holy Scripture." This writer gives it as his "earnest advice" that one whose religious faith is endangered by the Biblical unicorn and basilisk and cockatrice should study some good Natural History--"and his difficulties will be swept away". Thus, for example, a close study of whales, with particular attention to the size of the whale's gullet and its powers of digestion, may be recommended for those who are having "difficulties" with the story of Jonah; and others who are shocked by Jacob's trick with the ringstraked cattle--not by the morality of the tale, of course, but by the notions of heredity involved--may be confidently referred to the Mendelian Law. In Pare's time our notions about Nature were tested by the Bible; in our own time it is still asserted that the Bible will stand the test of our notions about Nature. The sooner we admit that it will not stand any such test the sooner we shall be free to put it to higher uses. "When half-gods go, the gods arrive."
Confronted by such a dilemma as that caused by the conflict between authority and experience, the mind seeks avenues of escape, and one such was found for those who wished to believe both the Biblical unicorn and "science": the suggestion was thrown out that although there had once been unicorns they had all been drowned in the Flood. I have been unable to discover who first made this suggestion, but there would be no difficulty in naming many who answered him, for he had the usual fate of the peace-maker and was howled down for his pains. "Is it not wrong", says Hubrigk of Wittenberg, "to think that a single species perished and became extinct when such a great God took in hand the charge of all? Over the whole earth it is a common saying that the unicorn perished and became extinct at the time of the Flood, and that not a single individual of the monocerine species survived. We shall correct this iniquity, and with God's help we shall find a means of putting a stop to this universal blasphemy."
The philosophic answer was made by Julius Caesar Scaliger, a man able to bear down almost any opinion by the sheer weight of his prestige. We have God's word, says he, to prove that the unicorn existed at one time, and God cannot lie. If it existed once, then it exists still, for otherwise a vacuum would have been made in nature, which is absurd, for every one knows that nature abhors a vacuum. Therefore unicorns exist. Later writers extended this argument by quoting the Biblical assertion that Noah took with him into the ark representatives of every existing species, and that God then closed the door so that none could get out. They argued also that God's creation was, to begin with, necessarily perfect--meaning by this, apparently, that it contained every possible species of animal--and that He would not allow it to decline into imperfection. This cheerful faith in the conservation of species was undisturbed by the discovery of the fossil bones of animals such as the mammoth that were being made at the time throughout Europe.
A possible excuse for the original blasphemer was that a beast with a horn ten feet in length, such as that reported by Albertus Magnus, seemed too large to accommodate in the ark. This difficulty did not occur to the makers of the window in the Church of St. Etienne du Mont in Paris, where the animal is shown snugly housed, nor to the monks who painted cross-sections of the ark in miniature, showing unicorns comfortably munching in their stalls. Nevertheless the difficulty was felt, and the question regarding the room available in the ark exercised several acute minds. Sir Walter Raleigh spent some of his leisure in the Tower making a mathematical calculation that set his own doubts at rest; he shows that the ark contained forty-five thousand cubic feet of space, that there were only eighty-nine non-aquatic species to be got into it, that the total number of individual beasts it carried--including many very small ones--was only two hundred and eighty, so that there was room and to spare both for them and for their provender. He would have seen no justification for the statement of the Talmud that the Re'em had to be towed behind by a rope tied to its horn.
The idea that the unicorn may have perished in the Flood was probably suggested by the discoveries of fossil remains which began to puzzle Europe in the sixteenth century. What the ignorant thought of these we do not hear; some of the learned thought them the bones of Ajax or of Orestes, but the most widely accepted opinion was that they were the skeletons of Hannibal's elephants. The teeth of the mammoth were attributed to Saint Christopher; but Governor Dudley of Massachusetts, when a mastodon's tooth was found near Albany in 1705, could not be so precise as this because the giants of America had no names. He could only assert that this tooth would "agree only to a human body, for whom the Flood alone could prepare a funeral; and without doubt he would as long as he could keep his head above the clouds, but must at length be confounded with other creatures". The great size and unfamiliar shapes of these remains laid a severe strain upon the faith of some investigators, but the faithful insisted that whatever else they might be they were certainly not the bones of animals that had perished from the earth. "Exactly so many species as were originally created from the protoplasm will endure to the end of the world", says one of these orthodox writers. This was generally considered axiomatic.
In the middle of the sixteenth century Conrad Gesner suggested that the "bones" recently discovered in Germany were the horns of unicorns washed together there during Noah's Flood. This opinion was often ridiculed, but it gained many adherents and had a lasting effect upon materia medica. The belief in fossil unicorn's horn, coming at just the time when such corroboration was most needed, helped greatly to sustain the animal's claims to existence, and this belief lasted well into the nineteenth century. In one of the thousands of books written during that century to combat religious doubt I find these words: "At Castle Rising, near to Lynn Regis in Norfolk, where the sea is making rapid encroachments on the land, in sinking for water there were found at a depth of six hundred feet horns perfectly straight, supposed to be those of the unicorn. These were two feet long, an inch in circumference, and hollow."
The modern reader finds it difficult to make out just what the substances studied and sold and prescribed by physicians under the general name of "fossil unicorn" really were. In some instances they were certainly fossil bones, as in the rather famous find at Quedlinberg Cave in 1663, but the "Hercynian fossil unicorn" mentioned by Gesner and scores of others was probably carbonate of lime in stalactite and stalagmite formations. Others were petrified wood. The distinction between animal, vegetable, and mineral subterranean forms was not dearly made by most writers, although a few had known the truth before the sixteenth century. All kinds were called "fossil unicorn", it was assumed that all had the medicinal values ascribed to the alicorn--for no better reason than that they resembled it--and accordingly we find the lapis ceratites or horn-stone everywhere advanced to an important place in the pharmacopceia. Bo‘thius de Boodt, to be sure, ridicules this confusion of substances, saying that he has had more than twenty pieces of the lapis ceratites given him as true alicorn and that most of them were merely petrified wood. He knows how such objects are formed as well as we do, and yet at the end of his account of them he says that all kinds of fossil unicorn have medicinal value against poison, fever, and pest. Caspar Bartholinus tells us that he has used the horn-stone successfully in his practice as a sudorific, for bites of snakes and venomous animals, for fevers and plague, and to "comfort the heart"--in short, for all the purposes for which true alicorn was used. Ole Wurm, a scholar of high attainments, could say precisely the same thing thirty years later.
The seventeenth century did not possess three men better fitted to pronounce upon this topic than Bo‘thius de Boodt, Caspar Bartholinus, and Ole Wurm, and all three asserted that the horn-stone had precisely the same medical properties as alicorn. They asserted this, so far as I can see, for no better reason than that the horn-stone vaguely resembled the alicorn, so that they seem to have thought somewhat in the way of the primitive medicine man collecting his magical simples. But Ole Wurm, at any rate, did not believe in the alleged properties of the alicorn itself, and he had done more than any other man to discredit the whole unicorn legend. In other words, he rejected the substance and accepted the shadow. The deeper one delves into unicorn lore the more clearly one sees that its chief interest lies in the revelations it makes of the human mind.
Citation of the praises of "fossil unicorn" might be extended to great length. Daniel Sennert gave it a qualified commendation. Fallopius and Francis Jo‘les considered it a sovereign cure for the plague. John Bausch wrote a whole book about its medical properties, and Paul Sachs asserted that "nothing is better than Hercynian unicorn, taken in drink, as a sudorific and for expelling poison, as I know from personal experience". All of these writers, indeed, base their remarks upon actual experience with the drug, and one soon concludes that they cannot all be lying. By a route extending through thousands of years of superstition men had come upon a substance of real medical value. "Fossil unicorn" is not by any means the only example of this. The substance sometimes vaguely called "ossifrage", hollow tubes of carbonate of lime usually found fractured--it was perhaps identical with lapis ceratites--was considered good for broken bones because it resembled them, and it really was so because it contained lime.
In adding "fossil unicorn" to her pharmacopceia Europe was merely trailing once more behind China. For a great length of time one of the most valued medicines of China has been "dragons' bones", the fossilized remains of mastodon and elephant, hippotherium and rhinoceros. When Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn was excavating for fossils in China in 1923 he heard himself and his company described as "the American men of the dragon bones". The beliefs underlying this ancient superstition may have been similar to those we have found supporting the use of the alicorn, for there seems to have been an opinion that some parts of the dragon, in spite of its general beneficence, are poisonous.
In the year 1663 there was discovered in a limestone quarry near Quedlinberg in Germany the "skeleton of a unicorn". We are told that it was crouched upon its hind-quarters with its head thrown back, and that it had on its brow a horn as thick as a human shinbone and seven feet and a half in length. The workmen broke it up and extracted it piece-meal, but the head and horn together with some of the ribs and the spine were handed over to a responsible person and were later accurately described. Somewhat before the middle of the eighteenth century a similar skeleton was found in the so-called Einhornloch at Scharzfeld in the Harz Mountains, and this one was seen and described by no less a person than the philosopher Leibniz. Admitting that recent treatises and discoveries have caused him some doubts in the past concerning the real existence of the unicorn, Leibniz says that the Quedlinberg skeleton and this of Scharzfeld have converted him entirely. He publishes a drawing, intended to represent his reconstruction of the animal, which does not "carry conviction". It is interesting enough, however, to find one of the most brilliant minds of the eighteenth century convinced of the unicorn's existence.