Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fragments of my research - VII

By 1697 Witsen's book was slowly making its way through European intellectual circles, but had yet to make a mark on English thinkers. Avril's book, though translated into English four years earlier, had rendered mammoth into a familiar Biblical term that didn't excite attention. The English learned the word mammoth from a book on Russian grammar published in Latin the previous year. Robert Hooke, the brilliant but argumentative curator of experiments for the Royal Society, introduce the Society to a form of the word mammoth in lecture: "We have lately had several Accounts of Animal Substances of various kinds, that have been found buried in the superficial Parts of the Earth..., [such as] the Bones of the Mammatovoykost, or of a strange Subterraneous Animals, as the Siberians fancy, which is commonly dug up in Siberia, which Mr. Ludolphus judges to be the Teeth and Bones of an elephant."*

Mr. Ludolphus was Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, the nephew of a famous German orientalist and diplomat, Hiob Ludolf. Hiob adopted his nephew after the death of the latter's parents and saw to his advancement. He took the younger Ludolf on his diplomatic missions to London and introduced him to influential Englishmen and other diplomats. The young Ludolf appeared destined for a brilliant career. He secured a position as secretary to the Danish ambassador and, through those connections, became the personal secretary to Prince George of Denmark.

Then the wheels came off of his career. After five years with Prince George, Ludolf suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. One of his friends wrote that he lost his reason after reading books by Rosicrucians. Whether or not the Rosicrucians were to blame, his unstable condition and increasing mystical obsessions made him an unsuitable secretary for a royal. But he wasn't thrown out into the street. Prince George, who had become quite fond of his secretary, provided him with a generous pension and used his influence to smooth the way for Ludolf to follow his interests. In a way, he was living the dream of every underpaid academic.

Ludolf's first major project was to study the Russians language, for which he spent for eighteen months in Moscow in 1693-94. He was well received by the Russian intelligentsia, and became friends with Peter the Great, who enjoyed the company of anyone with something new to teach him. After returning from Moscow he met Nicolaas Witsen (remember him?) who, in the course of interrogating Ludolf, advised him to publish his language study. The result was Grammatica Russica, the first systematic study of common spoken Russian published in any language. Ludolf wrote the work fairly quickly, but there was a delay in publishing it because none of the printers he contacted in England had a Cyrillic type set. Following the main grammar and a list of common phrases useful to the traveler, Ludolf added appendix of natural science terms. Mammoth appears in the section on minerals.
The mammoutovoi is a thing of great curiosity, which is dug out of the ground in Siberia. The vulgar tell wonderful stories about it; for they say that the bones be those of an animal which burrows in the ground, and in size surpasses ill the creatures living on earth's surface. They administer them medicinally for the same purposes as they do that which is called the horn of the unicorn. A piece given to me by a friend, who said he had received it from a certain Russian prince returned from Siberia, appears to me to be genuine ivory; and the more skillful tell me that these mammoutovoi are elephants' teeth. So that it appears necessary that they were brought thither by the universal deluge, and in the lapse of time have been more and more covered with earth.

Unlike Avril's description, there is no doubt that what Ludolf's informants were describing was fossil mammoth ivory. The enormous size of the remains, the ivory that looks similar to that of an elephant, and the fact that the ivory was mined from the Earth (which, by the way, is why Ludolf put it in the Mineral section of his appendix) all indicate that his informants were using the word "mammoth" to describe the same fossils that we denote by that name. The description of it as a giant animal that burrows in the ground matches the Chinese description of the ki shu, as the Chinese envoy Tulishen would recognize in the next century. The one element of his description that should make a modern reader sit up and say "huh?" is his matter of fact statement that mammoth ivory has the same medicinal use as unicorn horn.

The first mention of the unicorn in the West was in a history written by Ctesias, a Greek of the fifth century BC who had served as the personal physician to Artaxerxes II of Persia. His Persian hosts told him that there lived in India a wild ass with a single multicolored horn growing from its forehead. The horns were carved into cups that had the power to neutralize all poisons and immunize the drinker from various diseases. This story was repeated several Roman writers with the horn growing in length in each retelling. The most important of these accounts was Pliny's Natural History, the authority of which was unquestioned in the Middle Ages. Julius Ceasar calmly reported unicorns in the Hercynian Forest, which stretched eastward from Germany and was the edge of the known world for Romans. Seven hundred years after Ctesias, a second unicorn tradition emerged. This is the more familiar chivalric legend of the pure beast that could only be captured by a virgin. Although the two traditions sometimes became muddled together, it is the earlier tradition of the poison-proof horn that indirectly became connected to mammoths.

Poison, as a tool to get rid of political opponents, rich relatives, and generally inconvenient people, is as old as politics and wills. Essays on poison and antidotes to poison have been found among the earliest documents of all of the civilizations of the Old World. Whole industries have grown up around manufacturing poisons, poisoning, preventing poisoning, and curing the poisoned. Throughout history, some people (the rich and powerful) have had very good reasons to fear being poisoned. However, there have been times when poison fears have gripped societies; fears that far overestimated the abilities of poisoners and the desirability of many who imagined themselves to be targets. Given the state of the medical practice, disease theory, and forensics in most premodern societies, it was easy for people see poisoning in every unexplained or sudden death. One of the greatest poison panics, and the one most familiar to Western audiences, began in the late Middle Ages and peaked during the Renaissance.

As in any irrational panic, a few quick-witted people were ready to exploit public fears to their advantage. Some used mysterious deaths as an excuse to incite mob action against their personal enemies or against outsider groups. Occasionally this led to pogroms against Jews and gypsies as the poisoners. Historians, being no more rational, usually point their fingers at uppity women like Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine de Medici. The less murderously inclined of those days saw in the fears a way to turn a fast buck. Some sold manuals and tools for poisoners. Others sold antidotes and protective amulets, like unicorn horn.

Considering that Pliny and other reputable ancient sources had written about the anti-poison power of alicorns (unicorn horns), it's a marvel that the horns hadn't shown up earlier in Europe. The first alicorns to move out of ancient texts and tapestries and into the real world appeared in the thirteenth century. Soon Kings, Popes, Dukes, and the wealthiest members of society began to acquire "genuine" alicorns. Those who couldn't afford, or find, complete horns made do with fragments of horn or even alicorn powder.

It's probably not a coincidence that alicorns began showing up not long after the Norse reached Greenland with its rich hunting grounds for walrus and narwhal. Despite a steady flow of ivory of approximately the right shape coming out of the North, the demand for alicorn far outstripped the supply. By the peak of the poison panic, tiny fragments labeled as alicorn were selling for ten times the price of gold. A complete horn could command twice that or even more. A complete and well-shaped narwhal tusk was something that only kings and cardinals could afford. To meet the demand, bits of bone were sold as alicorn. Paranoid buyers snapped up white stalactites. Finally, fossils, plain white rocks, and vials of water that once been touched by an alicorn could be sold for ridiculous prices. It's almost certain that some bits of mammoth ivory were drafted into service as alicorns.

At the same time that the demand and price of alicorn were inflating, so were its reputed medical properties. By the time the panic peaked, alicorn provided "effectuall cure these diseases: Scurvy, Old Ulcers, Dropsie, Running Gout, consumptions, Distillations, Coughs, Palpitation of the Heart, Fainting Fits, Convulsions, Kings Evil, Rickets in Children, Melancholly or Sadness, The Green Sickness, Obstructions, and all Distempers proceeding from a Cold Cause." Reports even surfaced that the horn could raise the dead. Well meaning rulers ordered tests to protect buyers from fake alicorn (a Renaissance version of the FDA). These usually involved waving the purported alicorn at something like a poisonous snake to see if it was repelled (or killed) or poisoning pigeons** and seeing if it could revive them. A surprising number of products passed the tests.

Since the time of Ctesian (4th cen. BC), the size of the alicorn had grown from one cubit (eighteen inches), to three feet according to Pliny (1st cen. AD), to four feet according to Isidore of Seville (7th cen.), to a whopping ten feet according to Albertus Magnus (13th cen.). Although some skeptics pointed out that a unicorn would have to be as big as a ship to support such a big horn, most people had no problem believing that even the biggest piece of ivory had once rested on the brow of a horse (or goat, or ass, or some hybrid of the three). At least two mammoth tusks were passed off as coming from unicorns. The first was dug up at Quedlinberg, Germany in 1663. The tusk, along with several other bones, were recovered in pieces and assembled to form a unicorn. The second was recovered intact and, despite its size and shape, prominently displayed at the Halle cathedral, also in Germany.

Both of the German tusks came to light as skepticism about unicorns was creeping into European thought. For over a hundred years, English, French, and Portuguese sailors had been exploring the coasts of North America, had become familiar with walruses and narwhals, and had shared their knowledge with the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, explorers also brought back rumors of sightings of unicorns on every continent. Ludolf's Uncle Hiob wrote that there were unicorns in Ethiopia, although he never saw one when he was there.

As the slow moving scientific revolution gained momentum, more and more intellectuals questioned conventional wisdom and sought knowledge through observation and test rather than blindly accepting the authority of ancient authors. Pierre Belon and Andrea Marini, writing in the mid sixteenth century, were solidly convinced that nothing could have all of the medical properties attributed to the alicorn. Sir Thomas Browne in the next century pointed out that it was impossible for all of the descriptions of unicorns that had popped up over the centuries to be referring to the same animal. Thomas Bartholin, one of a family important Danish scientists, examined several alicorns and wrote an entire book pronouncing them to be narwhals' teeth. Gottfried Leibniz, the co-inventor of calculus, referred to Bartholin's book in order to question the Quedlinberg unicorn.

When Ludolf wrote his Russian grammar, the individual elements of the unicorn/alicorn belief were in decline, but most people still believed that some part of it must be true. The enormous prices that "true" alicorn commanded on the previous century proved to be a bubble and, by Ludolf's time, the price was approaching that of elephant ivory. The new consensus that was emerging was, that although most unicorn sightings were of more mundane animals, real unicorns might exist somewhere and, while most alicorns were bogus, they might still have some medicinal properties. Though both ideas sound absurd to us, they were perfectly reasonable conclusions at the time. European thinkers admitted that, while they didn't have enough evidence to prove that unicorns were real, they also didn't have enough to prove that they were not. In a way, this recognition was a triumph for the scientific method.

* Hooke can't have read Mr. Ludolphus' book very closely, since "Bones of the Mammatovoykost" translates as "bones of the mammoutovoi bone."

* No doubt Tom Lehrer was testing his alicorns when he wrote "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

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