As part of my research into magic in the Middle Ages I have been reading Lives of the Necromancers by William Godwin (published in 1834). It is not the most thoroughly researched of academic texts on the subjects, but it is fine for getting an overview of legends related about a number of medieval thinkers who were also thought of as being magicians. The most curious trend that I noticed was for thinkers of the Thirteenth century to be consistently linked with the creation of either brass heads, people or horses. It seems that there was a fascination with all things mechanical and that to give life to something mechanical was reckoned to be akin to magic. No doubt in some theoretical way these men were interested in mechanics, but I very much doubt they actually tried to get a machine to foretell the future. Here are some relevant excerpts from the book.
It is related of Albertus, that he made an entire man of brass, putting together its limbs under various constellations, and occupying no less than thirty years in its formation. This man would answer all sorts of questions, and was even employed by its maker as a domestic. But what is more extraordinary, this machine is said to have become at length so garrulous, that Thomas Aquinas, being a pupil of Albertus. and finding himself perpetually disturbed in his abstrusest speculations by its uncontrollable loquacity, in a rage caught up a hammer, and beat it to pieces. According to other accounts the man of’ Albertus Magnus was composed, not of metal, but of flesh and bones like other men but this being afterwards judged to be impossible, and the virtue of images, rings, and planetary sigils being in great vogue, it was conceived that this figure was formed of brass, and indebted for its virtue to certain conjunctions and aspects of the planets.
He put statues in motion, and drew articulate sounds from a brazen head, not however by magic, but by an artificial application of the principles of natural philosophy.
It was to be expected that a man, who thus immersed himself in the depths of thought, should be an inexorable enemy to noise and interruption. We have seen that he dashed to pieces the artificial man of brass, that Albertus Magnus, who was his tutor, had spent thirty years in bringing to perfection, being impelled to this violence by its perpetual and unceasing garrulity. It is further said, that his study being placed in a great thoroughfare, where the grooms were all day long exercising their horses, he found it necessary to apply a remedy to this nuisance. He made by the laws of magic a small horse of brass, which he buried two or three feet under ground in the midst of this highway; and, having done so, no horse would any longer pass along the road. It was in vain that the grooms with whip and spur sought to conquer their repugnance. They were finally compelled to give up the attempt, and to choose another place for their daily exercise.
Among the other accomplishments of bishop Grossetete he is said to have been profoundly skilled in the art of magic and the old poet Gower relates of him that he made a head of brass, expressly constructed in such a manner as to be able to answer such questions as were propounded to it, and to foretell future events.
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