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The bezoar stone: a natural wonder in the new world.

My interest in learning about the bezoar stone comes from my experience as a reader of chronicles of the New World. I cannot remember when I read the first mention of the bezoar stone, but I do remember that once it caught my attention, it seemed to pop up in every book that devoted any space to natural history in the New World. Bezoars are concretions made of hair and other materials found in the stomach or intestines of animals, especially ruminants. They are not appealing objects, which made me even more curious about their recurrence in colonial texts. Bezoars were famous during the Early Modern period because they had the reputation of being a wonderful medicine, a true "panacea," which was particularly effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons, and quite beneficial against "melancholia" or even the plague. (1)

Mentions of the bezoars take up from a few lines to entire chapters in Early Modern texts and I developed the conviction that, in the past, bezoar stones must have played a part in many people's lives. I was also struck that each of these passages on the bezoars, be they short or long, seemed to be contributing to a larger debate on key aspects of the stones. Sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the authors were arguing about the origins and qualities or, lack thereof, of the bezoars, as if anyone who was writing on natural history of the Americas had to offer a point of view on the subject. As expected, opinions on the bezoar stones varied widely. In what follows I trace the bezoar stone through a number of texts over a period of fifty years so that we can understand its recurrence as a topic in New World historiography. (2)

There are numerous references to the bezoars in Medieval Arabic and Jewish texts such as Al Biruni's "Book of Stones" from the eleventh century, Moses Maimonides's "Treatise on Poison and Their Antidotes" from the beginning of the twelve century, and Ahmad ibn Yusuf Al Tifaschi's "Best Thoughts on the Best of Stones" from the mid thirteenth century. (3) But the story I would like to tell takes place between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was the heyday of bezoar stones. It is the story of how the bezoar found its way from the mountains of Persia to the European markets, then to the highlands of Peru and back to Europe, and what happened to the bezoar during this trip. From the perspective of Colonial studies, the bezoar is an interesting case study of the circulation and production of knowledge about a product of the natural world.

It is not a surprise that we find mentions of the bezoar stone in the commentaries on Dioscorides's De materia medica written by Andrea Mattioli in 1544, and by Andres Laguna in 1555. Mattioli and Laguna were two very influential humanists who linked the classical tradition to Early Modern medical knowledge. However, in both cases their treatment of the bezoar gets lost amid the large body of knowledge they presented. The bezoar also caught the attention of arguably the two best known European naturalists of the sixteenth century, Conrad Gessner and Ulisse Aldrovandi, when they wrote on goats in their encyclopedic works. (4) But I believe this story truly begins with Garcia da Orta, a Sephardic Jew from Elvas, who published the Coloquios dos simples e drogas da India (Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India) in 1563. It was only the third book ever printed in India, and it was written in Portuguese, in the form of a classical dialogue between a student character, Ruano, and the physician character Orta. Dialogue forty-five discusses the bezoar stone. Unlike scholars of the stature of Mattioli, Laguna, Gessner and Aldrovandi, who develop their work in Europe, Garcia da Orta claimed to have first hand knowledge acquired during travels throughout India which allowed him access to materia medica, natural remedies and medicines, from faraway lands. In fact, on the subject of the bezoar, Garcia da Orta feels confident enough to correct and elaborate on what Mattioli had written.

In Garcia da Orta's imaginary dialogue, Ruano asks Orta about the origin and virtues of the bezoar. What we learn is that bezoars originated in the stomach of hegoats from Khorasan and Persia. These goats were called "Pazam" in Persian language and the stones' original name was Pahzar, a word that Europeans corrupted to Bezar. (5) Garcia da Orta also carefully explains how bezoars are formed:
   This stone is engendered in the paunch of these he-goats on a very
   fine straw which is in the middle, and so it goes twisting and
   forming a rind like that of an onion. Thus it is formed into a
   round column, but not always the same shape. That straw is often
   found in the stone, as I have seen it, and at other times it is not
   found there. For the most part is loose and the color of brinjal. (6)
   There are large and small ones. They esteem them according to their
   size, for it is thought that the greater the size the greater the
   virtue. (363)

Garcia da Orta confirmed that the main use of the bezoars was to counteract all kinds of poisons. He further explains the uses he knows about the stone in the region of Goa and what his sources from Ormuz have told him. Garcia da Orta's report on the bezoar includes topics which reappear over and over in the writing about these stones: the linguistic explanation of its name, which animals produce it and how, the stone's different shapes and colors, how to identify an authentic bezoar, and a description of its virtues. In passing, Garcia da Orta also lets us know that bezoars were not yet a highly valued commodity in Portugal at that time; traders had to push them on buyers for less than he believed they were worth. But this picture would soon change when bezoars became a sought after commodity in Asian-Portuguese commerce. (7)

As far as production of knowledge is concerned, it is important to remember that humanists such as Mattioli and Laguna relied on texts from the classical tradition whose authority was well established. In fact, Dioscorides, Aristotle and Pliny were almost exclusively the authors consulted on all matters related to natural history by Humanist scholars. By contrast, Garcia da Orta backs up his knowledge with his own experience.

A couple of years later, in 1565, Nicolas Monardes wrote the first part of a book that would end up years later with the general title of Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en medicina (Medicinal History of the Things that Are Brought from our Occidental Indies and Are Useful In Medicine). Monardes, a key figure in this story, was a physician and entrepreneur based in Seville, the city that had the monopoly on trade with the New World. The first part of the book, Primera parte del libro que trata de las cosas que se traen de las Indias Occidentales y que sirven al uso de la medicina (First Part of the Book of Things that Are Brought from our Occidental Indies and Are Useful in Medicine) (8) was a pioneering book for the introduction of New World materia medica to European readers, and Monardes, building on its success, went on to publish a second, and later, a third part of the book over the years.

What is relevant for this story is that this first part of Monardes's "Medicinal History" included a distinct book in which the author and physician from Seville discusses at length two remedies against poisons. One of them is the Oriental bezoar stone, which had not yet been discovered in the Americas by Europeans. (9) Monardes starts by presenting a general explanation about poisons and how they affect people. He then summarizes all the information he was able to find about bezoars from Arabic sources, including theories on how they originated, descriptions of the animals that carried the bezoars, as well as sizes, colors and shapes of bezoars. Next he refers to contemporary sources, such as Gessner's books on animals, and Mattioli and Laguna's commentaries on Dioscorides. At some point Monardes confides that he had first heard of the bezoars fourteen years earlier when he was consulted by the Duchess of Bejar to help alleviate her son's fainting fits. Monardes arranged to have a bezoar brought to him from Lisbon and after his success with the Duchess of Bejar's son, he started using bezoars with other patients. He recalls a few other cases for his readers and endorses bezoars as an effective treatment for poisons and a variety of other illnesses. (125r-48v). There were several ways of using bezoars as treatment during this time: ingesting small amounts grated from a single stone; powdered and mixed with a liquid such as wine; dipping a stone in a beverage or food for a few seconds before drinking or eating; keeping a stone close to one's heart (for instance, wearing it around the neck hanging from a string).

Citing his Arabic sources, Monardes explains that in the summertime the animals that produce the bezoars, (he sometimes calls them deer, sometimes goats, and believes they really are a mix of both) have the habit of entering caves in search of snakes to eat. (10) Once in the caves, the deer-goats use their breath to force poisonous snakes out of their hiding places, then stomp them to death. After eating the snakes, the deer-goats look for a pond or river in which they submerge themselves up to their necks. The coldness of the water then interacts with the heat inside of their stomachs caused by the poison. After a while, the tears formed in their eyes harden and produce bezoars. Even though this elaborate explanation came from the respected twelve century Arab physician from Seville, Avenzoar, Monardes preferred, and also cited, another version that was supported by his sources and had a crucial variation with respect to the first theory.

According to the second theory, the deer-goat, after having spent some time in the cold water, comes out and is guided by his instincts to feed on special plants which have healing virtues. The bezoars are formed by the interaction of the plants and the poison in the guts of the animals, and are created by what Monardes calls a "marvelous" effect. The theories about how the bezoars formed in the deer-goats, and Monardes' preference of one theory over the other, allow us to see how the Spanish physician operates with regard to the different information he has gathered about the bezoar. What Monardes is doing is sorting the scholarship and producing knowledge, using what he believes is a more rational explanation from the point of view of a European Galenic physician. Nevertheless, how the bezoar ends up having so many virtues he cannot explain and simply mentions its "marvelous" effect. (134v-35v).

Up until this moment bezoars were a product from Asia that had made its way to Europe thanks to Portuguese and Spanish physicians. But in 1571 a new version of Monardes's book came out with the title Segunda parte del libro de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias occidentales que sirven al uso de medicina (Second Part of the Medicinal History Of The Things That Are Brought From Our Occidental Indies And Are Useful In Medicine). This time Monardes took the unusual step of incorporating the full text of a letter he had received from Peru several years earlier. The letter, sent by a conquistador named Pedro de Osma, is a wonderful example of the search for products of value in the New World besides gold and silver. Osma, as it turns out, was inspired by reading Monardes' book and took it upon himself to explore whether he could find bezoars stones in the New World. In his letter, proudly quoted by Monardes, Osma reports having learned about the Asian bezoars from Monardes' essay and discovered bezoar stones in Andean animals, samples of which he sent along to the well-known physician so that he could examine and test them in his practice of medicine. Monardes included his first impressions of these New World bezoars in this work although he reserves a more exhaustive evaluation for the future part three of his book. (11) Pedro de Osma's letter announces that the bezoar has reached a third continent in its westward journey, and it reveals that the New World could perhaps provide Spain with at least one precious product from the natural world from the East, the reason Columbus had embarked in the first place.

The final version of Monardes' book was a compilation of all his work related to New World materia medica plus several other short essays, including his original essay on the Asian bezoar. This book, titled Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en medicina (First, Second and Third Part of the Things that Are Brought from Our Occidental Indies and Are Useful in Medicine), came out in 1574 and earned Monardes long lasting fame as a promoter of New World materia medica in Europe. The chapter devoted to the bezoar in the final part of this work updates its readers on Monardes' assessment of the Andean bezoars, including a simple engraving depicting bezoars lined up inside a receptacle that describes how they are supposedly found in the animals. Monardes also compares information about the Oriental bezoar to his observations of the Occidental bezoar--a logical move to give the Peruvian bezoars important expert validation among the learned people of his time. He does not mention his source for the information on the Oriental bezoar, but a careful reading shows that Monardes is using chapter forty-five of the Colloquies by Garcia da Orta for his comparison.

By this time debates on the relative merits of Oriental and Occidental bezoars were regular part of discussions about the stones. It is important to highlight Monardes' solution to this matter. Taking a cue from Garcia da Orta's description of the difference in quality between bezoars found in the mountains of Persia and those in the "Ilha das Vacas" or Malacca, (12) Monardes states that the key to the "true bezoar" was not its Eastern or Western origin, but rather whether it had belonged to an animal from the mountain regions where it could find and feed on the plants that produce the healing virtues of the stones. This was a clever solution that relied to some degree on a medicinal reasoning and gave the Andean bezoar the same status as the bezoar with a longer tradition (even though no specific plants were identified as the source of the healing virtues). He concluded that bezoars from animals in lowlands, whether in the East or the West, could not compete with those from higher territories (111r-14r).

Reading Monardes' publications in sequence allows us not only to witness the introduction of New World materia medica into Europe, but also to see how his ideas and knowledge about certain products evolved and changed over the course of just nine years. The case of the bezoar stone is illustrative. What began as a study of a non-American antidote in a few years becomes, backed up by evidence from his own medical practice, a clear endorsement of the Andean bezoars as a special commodity of the Spanish dominions. Monardes concluded that bezoars were "the best remedy that we know of for all kind of poisons.. .".13 The bezoar turns out to be one of many biological imports Monardes perceived early on to have great economic potential.
      How many trees and plants with great medicinal virtues are there
   in our Indies ... leaving no need for the spices from Moluccas, and
   the medicines from Arabia and Persia, given that our Indies yield
   them spontaneously in the untilled fields and in the mountains. It
   is our fault not to investigate them, not to look for them, not to
   be as diligent as we should be in order to profit from their
   marvelous effects. And I hope that time, which is the discoverer of
   all things, and diligence and experience will demonstrate them to
   us, to our great profit. (14)

In Monardes' view, the Andean bezoar could successfully replace the Oriental bezoar. And, in fact that seems to have been exactly what occurred in the Spanish territories.

Of course this does not mean the Oriental bezoars did not have their own champions. Cristobal Acosta, a Portuguese who had met Garcia da Orta in India and traveled widely in the East as far as China, published a book titled Tractado delas drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales, con sus plantas debuxadas al bivo (A Treatise on Drugs and Medicines from the East Indies, with Its Plants Drawn from Life) in 1578 in Burgos. In his book, written in Spanish, Cristobal Acosta devoted a full chapter to the bezoar stone, based mostly on Garcia da Orta--whose Colloquies served as a guide to his book--and, of course, on Monardes. He also got, but did not acknowledge, some of his information from the book Discurso de las cosas aromaticas, arboles y frutales y de otras muchas medicinas simples que se traen de la India Oriental y sirven al uso de la medicina (1572) (Discourse about aromatic things, trees, fruit trees, and of other many medicines that are brought from the Oriental Indies and are useful in medicine) by Juan Fragoso who was a physician at the Spanish court. (15) Cristobal Acosta confirmed the basic information about the bezoar provided by his three sources and added new facts based on his own experience, such as the variety of shapes and colors of bezoars he knew and details such as the exact quantities of bezoars used by the local population for a specific affliction. According to Cristobal Acosta, bezoar stones were commonly used in India, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and China, and he reported that those who went hunting for the bezoar were able to identify which animals were carrying a bezoar inside by their behavior. When it comes to passing judgment on the quality of the stones, he omits any comment on Monardes' theory of highlands versus lowlands--which had been duly albeit briefly included in Fragosos's account--and squarely states that stones from the Kingdom of Peru are less virtuous than any from the East.

Opinions on why and how bezoars were formed inside the animals of the New World followed their American appearance and were part of many narratives. Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, a Spanish captain who knew about Monardes' ideas was dubious about a unique healing plant because he thought that by then they would have known of such a plant. His explanation puts more emphasis on the solidification of the poison inside the animal--he speaks mostly about deer--from the effect of the cold water. In his Milicia y descripcion de las Indias (1599) Vargas Machuca proposes that, by natural instinct, deer fought the heat of the poison by looking for the coldest water they could find and submerging themselves in it. The coldness would cause the poison to not reach their brain or heart and stay in their stomach, where it formed the bezoars by adhering itself to whatever plant they had been eaten to feel better (151r-52r). (16)

A more sophisticated view on how bezoars were formed was put forward by physician Juan de Cardenas in Book Two, Chapter Sixteen, of his Primera parte de los problemas y secretos maravillosos deste occidental y Nuevo Mundo de las Indias (First Part about the Problems and Marvelous Secrets from this Occidental and New World of the Indies) published in Mexico in 1591. The author prides himself on revealing natural phenomena in the New World and uses careful reasoning to dismiss the theories recorded by Monardes. He rejects either extreme heat or cold as the source of bezoars forming inside of animals in response to poison. According to Cardenas, bezoars were a common phenomena in many animals, even some who were not related to deer or vicunas, such as birds or even fish, and could form in several parts of the body of these animals. With regard to bezoars in deer or deer-goats he stated that they took a very long time to form because they consisted of layers upon layers of thin scales created by dry phlegm sticking to things like dirt, hairs, and plant remains that the animals had been eating. (17) Cardenas admitted that some of the plants that formed bezoars could be plants with healing virtues, but he considered it to be a rare coincidence, one in millions perhaps, which explained why--according to him--bezoars were effective only on rare occasions (181-89). (18)

There were also those who were more than skeptical about bezoars in general, as was the case of Ambroise Pare, one of the most famous surgeons of the sixteenth century, who worked for four French kings. In his writings on surgery, Pare tells a now famous anecdote about a gentleman who brought a bezoar from Spain to King Charles IX, claiming it was effective against all poisons. When the king asked Pare his opinion, he disputed the claim and argued that no antidote could act against all poisons because they have different qualities. He proposed that the king try the bezoar on a cook who had been condemned to hang for having stolen two silver plates from his master. The cook was promised he would go free if he survived the poison, but the powder scratched from the bezoar did nothing to spare him seven hours of terrible pain before his death. Pare concludes his account by telling his readers how the king had the Spanish bezoar thrown into the fire (Pare 199-200).

Reading Cristobal Acosta and Pare, one realizes how there were competing goals for the knowledge produced in different countries relative to the bezoar. Knowledge served interests that could range from product exports to professional services. Even though Spain and Portugal were under the same king during almost sixty years in the Early Modern period, tensions did not disappear. Most likely just the opposite occurred, a strong desire to accentuate differences would emerge in more than one area, including the search for knowledge from the natural world. As for the French, criticizing an old enemy was always worthwhile. It is also important to pay attention to Cristobal Acosta's new information on bezoars. The fact that hunters could positively identify the animals carrying the bezoars by their behavior was a key piece of information--not provided by Monardes--that points to a sustainable collection of bezoars. But also implies the need to access specialized local knowledge. Pare's implicit point against Monardes's depiction of the bezoar as panacea was based on the medical principle that, in order to have a counter effect, the remedy must have the opposite properties of a sickness. In Pare's view it was impossible to have all properties at the same time. This meant, of course, that Pare could not accept the idea of a "marvelous" effect as valid knowledge.

Although Monardes's "Medicinal History" may sound like an obscure reference today, it enjoyed best-seller status by Early Modern standards. Over thirty editions were printed at the time in all major European languages (the first English one in 1577), half of them when Monardes was still alive. Summaries, quotes and references to its content may be found in multiple publications (many without acknowledgment, of course), which is further proof of the book's success. There is also no doubt that the interest of the great Flemish naturalist Charles L'Ecluse (1526-1609) or Carolus Clusius, as he was better known, was a primary factor contributing to Monardes's fame. Clusius translated Monardes's "Medicinal History" into Latin and introduced his work to a wide network of naturalists all over Europe and beyond. It is Clusius who, in this story, brings back the bezoar to Europe, this time beyond the Iberian Peninsula to the entire learned community of the continent. (19)

Clusius was an important figure in the innovation of Early Modern botanical science. He is particularly remembered because he went beyond the study of local or regional plants, as was customary at the time, to embrace a new kind of research which took a worldwide view of the subject of study. His interest in the relationship between plants and other species in their habitat (what we now call ecology), his abandonment of emblematic contexts, his publications, botanical gardens, field trips, his correspondence with naturalists everywhere, and his study of plants primarily for their own sake and not for their utility to medicine made Clusius a cornerstone of the emergence of botany as an independent discipline (Egmond et al. 1-5).

Clusius published Monardes' "Medical History" not once, but several times over the years. First parts One and Two, then Part Three, and then all Three Parts together. As Paula Findley has written "The most systematic effort to integrate descriptions of non-European nature into natural history occurred at the hands of Clusius" (453). In Exoticorum libri decem (1605) (Ten Books of Exotic Things), the book that represented all that Clusius had read, seen and discussed beyond Europe, he incorporated the works of Garcia da Orta, Monardes, Cristobal Acosta, and Pierre Belon alongside his own research work. This time all that Monardes had published under the title of "Medicinal History" was there, including all he wrote on the bezoar stone. Even if all Clusius had done had been to translate the work, it would have been a great addition to the information on the bezoar available in Europe, but bezoars were among the New World products that particularly captured Clusius' imagination. Not only did he add his own commentaries to the translation, he also produced several engravings to illustrate the subject. Mentions of the bezoar in his correspondence further corroborate his interest in the matter (Pardo Tomas 88).

Clusius' contributions on the bezoar were important to European naturalists. But the pinnacle of the bezoar's presence in European naturalist literature came some years later at the hand of another great naturalist, Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624). Bauhin was a Swiss physician and naturalist better known for his Pinax theatri botanica (Illustrated Exposition of Plants) published in 1623, a work famous for developing the first really sophisticated classification method for plants. The "Illustrated Exposition of Plants" was also an attempt to describe and catalogue all known plants which, to give an idea of its magnitude, resulted in six thousand unique descriptions in the book. In 1613, Bauhin published a book entirely devoted to the bezoar stone: De lapidis Bezaar orient? et Occident cervini item et Germanici ortv, natvra, differentiis, veroque vsu ex veterum & recentiorum placitis liber hactenus non editus (The Bezoar Stone from the East And West, Similar to those from Deer in Germany. Its Origin, Nature, Differences and True Uses. With the Ancients and the Moderns' Opinions).

In this work Bauhin reviewed all of the literature he could find about the bezoar, guided by Clusius and the works included in the "Ten Books of Exotic Things" and offers a comprehensive study of the stones. The more than one hundred eighty-five authorities neatly noted in references to the fifty-two chapters demonstrate the extent of the study. In this book, Bauhin comments on all possible aspects of the stone: how it originates, in what kind of animals it is found, where it is formed inside the animals, the shape, color, size, weight, smell, taste, and temperature of the bezoars, their price, against what diseases it ought to be employed, in what dosage must be used, etc. He also narrates cases in which bezoars were successfully employed and others in which they failed to perform as expected. He speculates about other diseases for which a bezoar could be used and how the stone might do its work against poisons. He dedicates specific chapters to the animals from the Andes, and even from New Spain, where some people also reported finding bezoars in deer. (20) Several chapters deal with fake bezoars, how the forgeries were made and what marks or signs could be used to identify real stones. Whereas Clusius introduced the bezoar to the wider European scientific community, Bauhin scrutinized every possible piece of knowledge about it, presenting arguments both in favor and against the effectiveness of the bezoar. In his conclusion, Bauhin advocated for physicians proceeding with caution when using bezoars, and for creating a system in which bezoars could be certified, so there would be supervision of a product that was very difficult to understand and which was the subject of many abuses both in the marketplace and in medical practice. (21)

I would argue that with Bauhin's book we reach the culmination of knowledge on the bezoar in the Early Modern period. From then on Bauhin's treatise was a mandatory reference for anyone who wrote on the subject. In the fifty years that separate the Coloquios dos simples e drogas da India of Garcia da Orta from Bauhin's De lapidis bezaar, the cult of the exotic bezoar traveled from the mountains of Persia and the highlands of Peru to city-ports that linked the colonies to the cities and courts in Europe and to pharmacies and physicians all over. In the process, the stones became a highly valued commodity that circulated among all those whose could manage to obtain them through connections or money. Over the following half century the European medical community produced a number of short dissertations--no doubt driven by the bezoar's popularity--which discussed the bezoar in the scientific ways of the time and sought to provide authoritative opinions. Among them were Werner Rolfinck's De lapide bezoar (1665); Konrad Viktor Schneider and Gottlieb Becker's Lapidem bezoar (1673); George Langermann's Dissertatio medica inauguralis de fraudibus, & erroribus circa lapidem bezoar (1696); Johann Slevogt's De lapide bezoar (1698) and Just Vesti's De lapide bezoardico orientali (1707). The Italian physician Francesco Pona, who had literary inclinations, chose to create an updated version of Garcia da Orta's dialogue and wrote L'Amalthea; overo, della pietra belzoar (sic) orientale (1626) in which two doctors, Silvio and Lupi, discuss at length the possible shortcomings of bezoars, their virtues, the opinions of authorities on the subject, and treatments which involved bezoars (.22)

Alongside the intellectual inquiries of all kinds we have historical records to confirm that bezoars were immensely popular during the second half of the sixteenth century and most of the seventeenth century. The highly prized bezoars were particularly coveted by nobility and elite classes in Europe and the New World, and were a "must have" in the cabinets of curiosities and museums of naturalists. Bezoars circulated widely. Records of shipments destined for royalty always included a few bezoars, the same with lists of belongings made when nobility were moving to a different place, or at their time of death. (23) Some examples of well-kept bezoars have survived, showing us they were valuable enough that their owners created fancy ways to display, protect, and use them. Both Queen Elizabeth I of England and King Eric XIV of Sweden wore bezoars set in silver rings. Francesco I de Medici owned a "bezoar stone the size of an egg with gold decoration around it" (Stark 74). In 1591, Benito Arias Montano, one of the most prominent Spanish humanists and a big believer in the medicinal virtues of the bezoars, sent his friend the Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius what he thought were the two best things from the New World, namely: "silver nuggets and bezoar stones" (24) (Navarro Antolin 116). The Royal Museum in Copenhagen lists a collection of bezoars from as late as 1696. High demand also meant that rich people had several bezoars for personal use and an extra one for their friends to use. Bezoars were also precious gifts, they were loaned for short periods, rented for a single use, or sold, tiny pieces at a time. Fear of being poisoned, a common practice for disposing of enemies in Early Modern Europe, was certainly one factor that contributed to the bezoar's attractiveness, as was its reputation for improving heart conditions and melancholy. (25)

Such great demand for bezoars led to a thriving business in fakes even early on. Every author mentioned ways to distinguish "true" bezoars from imitations: blowing on them, rubbing them against a white surface, submerging them in water, tasting them, breaking off a little piece, and so forth. One of the arguments used by Monardes in favor of the Andean bezoars was that fewer than ten out of one hundred stones coming from the East were true bezoars. In 1603 a goldsmith in England sold a stone claiming that it was a bezoar, then was taken to court by a disgruntled buyer claiming that the seller had falsely represented the value of the stone. The court decision established for the first time the legal doctrine known as "caveat emptor" or "let the buyer beware" (a legal landmark that later also became part of the American legal system) in which the buyer is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying. According to the court, no claim could be made against the seller unless he either had known that what he was selling was not a bezoar stone or warranted it to be one. (26) A simple calculation of the bezoars available in the marketplace and the number of stones normally found among animals showed that it would have been impossible to have that many deer or goats killed and not have endangered the species.

Another measure of the success of the bezoars in the Early Modern marketplace is that they caught the attention of the Jesuit Order. Jesuits were avid students of the natural world surrounding their Missions and developed a successful system of transferring drugs so they could provide their pharmacies with products from far away. Bezoars were shipped to their European centers from the Jesuit network throughout the New World. For instance, Luis Martin, in his study of the Jesuit School "San Pablo" in Lima, has shown that Jesuits there were involved in shipping large quantities of bezoars to Rome to be distributed among friends, benefactors, and Jesuit pharmacies (100-101). Jesuits were the ones who came up with the idea of creating so called "artificial bezoars" by adding a number of products with wellknown virtues, such as crushed pearls and emeralds, rosewater or musk, to a small bezoar. These enhanced bezoars were formed in all kinds of shapes, presumably to please customers. A surviving document from the eighteenth-century shows a recipe for producing an artificial bezoar from a Jesuit infirmary in Asia.

Let me now turn to the last stop of this story, the commentaries on bezoars by Jose de Acosta and Bernabe Cobo, two Spanish Jesuits who spent most of their life in the New World. Jose de Acosta's Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Natural and Moral History of the Indies), published in 1590, was one of the most influential books about the New World. Based on his own life experience, Jose de Acosta famously expressed his goal of explaining the "causes and reasons" of the "new things and natural wonders" of the New World. From Acosta we learn that bezoars occur in the four species of camelids of the Andes (vicunas, guanacos, llamas, and alpacas) as well as in two other animals he refers to by their Quechua names. They are, I believe, two kinds of Andean deer: the taruca (Hippocamelus antisensis) and the Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles), the latter is the smallest kind of deer in the world and is easily mistaken for a wild goat. According to Jose de Acosta, one can find bezoars in either wild or domesticated male and female animals, but the best ones come from the taruca. With regard to the bezoar's effectiveness, Jose de Acosta acknowledges that some think it's all "superstition," while others "recount miracles of it". Interestingly enough, he writes that in the case of more than one illness, the bezoars "performed well in Spain and Italy ... but not so well in Peru". Because a significant number of positive cases were already part of the literature and "some extremely interesting cures have been witnessed," Acosta seems to endorse the bezoar's value. But he does so cautiously stating that "Certainly [the bezoar stone] is very useful if applied at the proper time and in the proper way, like other herbs and natural agents; for there is no medicine so efficacious that it invariably cures". Jose de Acosta seems to consider the bezoar as one of those natural phenomena which cannot yet be completely explained and helps us "understand how the Universal Lord and Omnipotent Author distributed his gifts and secrets and marvels through the globe that he created, for which he must be adored and glorified forever and ever" (246-49).

But even if Jose de Acosta could not understand the bezoar sufficiently to satisfy his inquisitive mind, it was not for lack of trying. In one aspect, namely the inquiry into native knowledge, both Jose de Acosta and Bernabe Cobo were way ahead of Monardes, Clusius, Bauhin, who never left Europe, or even Garcia da Orta and Cristobal Acosta, whose interaction with the native cultures of the East does not match the two Jesuits' immersion in the New World. Not only did the Jesuits spend longer in the field, they were also well versed in the language and culture of the natives because they believe they were useful skills for their goal of converting the native population to Christianity. Their firsthand experience also allowed them to comment on what the enormous demand meant for the population of animals carrying bezoars. Bernabe Cobo, for instance, commented that although sometimes it was possible to find more than one bezoar in one animal, it was common to find only one, and that sometimes from each hundred animals killed, only one or two bezoars were found (274-75).

In 1653, Father Bernabe Cobo finished the manuscript of his monumental Historia del Nuevo Mundo (History of the New World) that includes a first part devoted to natural history. According to Cobo, the best bezoars did not come from the tarucas but rather from vicunas and, overwhelmed by the different opinions on how bezoars were formed, he decides to present his own views, backing them up with his experience and research among the native people. According to Cobo, the true bezoars came from the combination of a specific medicinal plant, called "tola" in Quechua and "sopo" in Aymara, and the unique qualities of the vicunas. (27) Cobo does not give a definitive endorsement of his indigenous sources' identification of the plant that produces the bezoar, but he does assert that the fact that bezoars were found where the plant was found, and not where it was not, was a strong evidence of a positive relationship between the tola plant and the bezoar's virtue as an antidote. The identification of the plant that gives the bezoar its virtues is the last missing piece of knowledge in the puzzle of the Andean bezoar. It was an element of information that could certainly open new scientific and commercial opportunities (274-75).

Whereas native knowledge of how the bezoars formed was helpful to the Jesuits, some of the uses of the stone observed among the natives were more problematic for the members of this religious order. As special occurrences in nature, bezoars were part of the ceremonial religious world of the native societies and were used in what the Spaniards defined as idolatrous practices. Because bezoars came from animals central to the life of Andean pastoral communities, it is no surprise that they were embedded in indigenous cultural practices and linked to rituals. To the European mind, these rituals were idolatry, something that needed to be destroyed in the process of Christianization. Cristobal de Albornoz, a priest famous for his zeal in combating idolatry in the Andes, recounts that he found many bezoars from llamas that were "worshiped with great reverence" because it was believed by the natives that they protected and helped fertility among their cattle. Albornoz, who was keenly aware of the value of bezoars back in Spain, then recalls how he burned many bezoars in the main squares of numerous provinces to publicly fight idolatry. (28) Albornoz's public burning of the costly bezoars may well have been designed to reach not only the indigenous population, but also to get the attention of Spaniards who may have forgotten the primacy of their mission to convert new Christians in the New World. (29)

Carefull reading of European texts about the bezoar during the Early Modern period provides another example of how native knowledge was sought after only in practical matters. When it came to interpretation, it was European medical concepts what counted; there was no particular interest in understanding a native "natural philosophy" or knowledge. It was seldom the goal to understand native knowledge on its own terms, nor as a way of understanding native culture in general. Even in cases like those of the Jesuits, where there was significant access to native knowledge, what really counts is what can be translated into European scientific language. In fact, native knowledge also had a dangerous side: idolatry could be linked to actions by the devil. With the Jesuits, as expected, any aspect of the bezoar that doesn't get explained, its magical or "marvelous effect" as Monardes had put it, belonged to secrets of the book of nature and was simply a reminder of its Author.

Although there were always skeptics and those who were suspicious about the virtues and uses of the bezoar stone, its popularity among the public and in medical practice lasted quite a while. Perhaps, as was the case for all remedies from animals, "the more difficult conditions attaching to the obtaining of a drug inspired the more abundant faith in it as a panacea for some sickness or other" (Kirkby 801). The first Pharcopoeia Londinensis (1618) had made the bezoar an official medicine--offering several ways of preparation--and it continued to appear in this publication until the 1746 edition. But over time, as happened to a number of Medieval "magic" objects, the bezoar would lose its charm. (30) During the eighteenth century naturalists and scholars, with an even more demanding scientific and empirical spirit, redoubled their scrutiny of the virtues of the stone and eventually sent the bezoar to oblivion. One can read quick dismissals of the bezoar in the writings of Enlightenment figures such as the Spaniard Benito Jeronimo Feijoo y Montenegro (1676-1764) and the Peruvian Jose Eusebio Llano Zapata (1721-1780). Already by 1715 Frederick Slare, a Fellow of the Royal Society in London, had published the conclusions of his research on the bezoar in which he had invested significant amounts of time and money: Experiments and Observations upon Oriental and Other Bezoar-Stones Which Prove Them to Be of No Use in Physick. After the first half of the eighteenth-century the bezoar had either disappeared from publications altogether or served as an example of fantasies of the past. Authors who wrote about natural history in the New World could not avoid commenting on bezoars. Even though there were many American natural products that excited the European public and its medical community, the perception of the bezoars as a wonder of nature seem to have particularly captured the imagination of anyone who sought a remedy or feared sickness.

By presenting the story of the bezoar revealed in the literature of the Early Modern period, I have shown how knowledge about the bezoar was produced and circulated from Asian origins, throughout Europe and the New World. Bezoars generated many expectations, and much curiosity, debate, and skepticism because, unlike other natural products, its provenance, how it was formed, and the nature of its virtues were subject to a variety of medical conjectures, competing commercial interests, and interpretations of how nature works. But there is no doubt that bezoars became a valued commodity and that demand from all echelons of Early Modern society in Europe and the New World created a vibrant market that was even responsible for the creation of an entire industry of fake bezoars.

Although there are surely many more mentions of the bezoar in the literature of the Colonial period, the story traced here allows us to assess the allure of this topic in the natural histories and medical writings of the time, and explains the prevalence of commentaries on bezoars in the chronicles of the New World, and of the Andean region in particular. This story may also shed light on why, in the early twenty-first century, the English auction house Christie's was able to auction a good size bezoar for a world record price of 33,600 [euro]. The stone--which had been pierced so that it could be worn on a string and showed traces of having been grated to obtain tiny pieces and powder--was said to have come from a private collection in South America and dated back to between the sixteenth and seventeenth-century. Perhaps the affluent new owner of the stone had read about the bezoars's virtues and, like so many before him, could not resist snapping up a unique wonder of nature.


Acosta, Cristobal. Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias Orientales. Facsimile Edition (1578). Ed. Jesus Paniagua Perez. Leon: Universidad de Leon, 2008.

Acosta, Jose de. Historia natural y moral de las Indias. Ed. Fermin del Pino Diaz. Madrid: CSIC, 2008.

--. Natural and Moral History of the Indies. Ed. Jane E. Mangan. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Barker, Sheila. "The Art of Poison." Web.

Bartra, Roger. Melancholy And Culture. Essays On The Diseases Of The Soul in Golden Age Spain. Cardiff: U of Wales, 2008.

Bauhin, Caspar. Caspari Bavhini Basil. De lapidis Bezaar orienh et occident cervini item et Germanici ortv, natvra, differentiis, veroque vsu ex veterum & recentiorum placitis liber hactenus non editus. Basiled: Apud Conr. Waldkirch, 1613.

Cardenas, Juan de. Problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias. Ed. Angeles Dyran. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1988.

Cobo, Bernabe. Historia del Nuevo Mundo. Tomo I. Ed. Marcos Jimenez de la Espada. Sevilla: E. Rasco, 1890.

Curiel, Gustavo. "El efimero caudal de una joven noble. Inventario y aprecio de los bienes de la marquesa Dona Teresa Francisca Maria de Guadalupe Retes Paz Vera (Ciudad de Mexico, 1695)." Anales del Museo de America 8 (2000): 65-101.

Davalos y Figueroa, Diego. Primera parte de la miscelanea austral. Lima: Antonio Ricardo, 1602.

Duviols, Pierre. "Un inedit de Cristobal de Albornoz: 'La instruccion para descubrir todas las guacas del Piru y sus camayos y haziendas.'" Journal de la Societe des Americanistes 56.1 (1967): 7-39.

Eggleston, Edward. "Some Curious Colonial Remedies." The American Historical Review, 5.2 (1899): 199-206.

Egmond, Florike, et al. "Preface." Carolus Clusius. Towards a Cultural History of a Renaissance Naturalist. Ed. Florike Egmond, Paul Hoftijzer, and Robert Visser. Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wteneschappen, 2007. 1-5.

Findley, Paula. "Natural History." The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 3: Early Modern Science. Ed. Katherine Parks and Lorraine Daston. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 435-68.

Fragoso, Juan, and Jose Luis Fresquet Febrer. Discurso de las cosas aromaticas, arboles y frutales, y de otras muchas medicinas simples que se traen de la India Oriental, y sirven al uso de medicina. [Valencia]: Fundacion Marcelino Botin, 2002.

Gowland, Angus. "The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy," Past and Present 191.1 (2006): 77-120.

Kirkby, William. "Bezoar." Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association XII.9 (1923): 798-805.

Martin, Luis. The Intellectual Conquest of Peru. The Jesuit College of San Pablo, 15681767. New York: Fordham UP, 1968.

Monardes, Nicolas. Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestra Indias Occidentales que sirven en medicina... Facsimile Edition (1574). Sevilla: Padilla Libros, 1988.

Navarro Antolin, Fernando, Luis Gomez Canseco, and Baldomero Macias Rosendo. "Fronteras del Humanismo: Arias Montano y el Nuevo Mundo." Orbis Incognitus. Avisos y Legajos del Nuevo Mundo, vol. 1, Homenaje al profesor Luis Navarro Garcia. Ed. Fernando Navarro Antolin. Huelva (Spain): Universidad de Huelva, 2007. 101-36.

Orta, Garcia da, and Francisco Manuel de Melo Ficalho. Coloquios dos simples e drogas da India. Lisboa: Impr. Nacional, 1891.

--. Colloquies on the Simples & Drugs of India. Trans. Sir Clements Markham. London: Henry Sotheran, 1913.

Pardo Tomas, Jose. "Two glimpses of America from a distance: Carolus Clusius and Nicolas Monardes." Carolus Clusius. Towards a Cultural History of a Renaissance Naturalist. Ed. Florike Egmond, Paul Hoftijzer, and Robert Visser. Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wteneschappen, 2007. 173-93.

Pare, Ambroise. The Apologie and Treatise. Containing the Voyages Made into Diverse Places With Many of His Writings Upon Surgery. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. London: Falcon Educational Books, 1951.

Perez de Tudela, Almudena, and Annemarie Jordan Gschwend. "Luxury Goods for Royal Collectors: Exotica, Princely Gifts and Rare Animals Exchanged Between the Iberian Courts and Central Europe in the Renaissance (1560-1612)." Exotica: Portugals Entdeckungenim Spiegel furstlicher Kunst-und Wunderkammern der Renaissance. Ed. Helmut Trnek and Sabine Haag. Mainz (Germany): Von Zabern, 2001. 1-127.

Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPre. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

Santos Alves, Jorge M. dos. "A pedra-bezoar--realidade e mito em torno de um antidoto (seculos XVI e XVII)." Mirabilia Asiatica: produtos raros no comercio maritimo: produits rares dans le commerce maritime, vol. 1. Ed. Jorge M. dos Santos Alves, Claude Guillot, and Roderich Ptak. Lisboa: Fundacao Oriente, 2003. 121-34.

Slare, Frederick, and Thomas Willis. Experiments and Observations Upon Oriental and Other Bezoar-Stones: Which Prove Them to Be of No Use in Physick: Gascoin's Powder, Distinctly Examin'd in Its Seven Ingredients, Censur'd and Found Imperfect: Dedicated to the Royal Society: to Which Is Annex'd A Vindication of Sugars against the Charge of Dr. Willis, Other Physicians and Common Prejudices: Dedicated to the Ladies Together with Further Discoveries and Remarks. London: Printed for Tim. Goodwin, 1715.

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--. Donald Ferguson, and William F. Sinclair. The Travels of Pedro Teixeira with His 'Kings of Harmuz' and Extracts from His 'Kings of Persia'. London: Hakluyt Soc, 1902.

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--. The Indian Militia and Description of the Indies. Trans. Timothy Johnson. Ed. Kris Lane. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

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Colby College


(1) Melancholia, in the old meaning of the word, was a mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears. For a successful report of bezoars protecting from the plague see Diego Davalos y Figueroa (Miscelanea austral 128v). In this case, powder of a bezoar in the amount equivalent to a real's weight and dissolved in wine was to be ingested daily.

(2) The powerful attributes of the bezoar stone against poison have had a recent appearance in contemporary fiction in several passages of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga (most notably in the last book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which Harry saves his friend Ron's life by giving him a bezoar).

(3) In Chinese medical tradition "porcupine bezoars" also have a long tradition.

(4) Aldrovandi was, among these famous scholars, the one who was most interested in the bezoar stone and by 1577 he wrote a small treatise on it.

(5) This goat is the Capra aegagrus. The Portuguese Pedro Teixeira, who traveled to Persia towards the end of the sixteenth-century, provides the following linguistic explanation of the bezoar: "The Persians call any stone sangh, and the Arabs ager. But the Persians distinguish the bezar stone as pa zahar, meaning "an antidote against poison," from zahar, poison, and pa, a cure. In Arabic there is no letter P, but B or F takes its place, so pazahar becomes bazahar, which we corrupt a little more into bezar. This is the real meaning, and not that the stones are sold, in the bazar or market, because they never are sold there." (230) El original es: "y a lo que nos por nombre comun y generico dezimos piedra, dize el Parsio Sangh, y el Arabe Ager, pero a la piedra Bezar, llama el Parfio por excelencia Pazahar, que quiere decir tanto como antidoto, y propia mente reparo de ponzona o veneno, de Zahar que es nombre general de qualquier veneno, y pa, reparo: y como el Arabigo careca de la letra P. y pone por ella B. o F. por decir Pazahar, dice Bazahar, y nos con un poco vicio mas, Bezar, aqueste es su verdadero significado, y no por venderse en el Bazar o plaga, pues jamas en ella se vendieron estas piedras." (157).

(6) Eggplant.

(7) For the interest in and commerce of bezoars by Portuguese in Asia see Jorge M. dos Santos Alves "A pedra-bezoar--realidade e mito em torno de um antidoto (seculos XVI e XVII)."

(8) The inclusion of the words "Medicinal History" in the title starts with the publication of the second part.

(9) The title is: "Libro que trata de dos medicinas excelentissimas contra todo veneno: que son la piedra bezaar, y la yerba escuergonera" (A book about two most excellent medicines against all poisons: the bezoar stone and the "escuergonera" herb).

(10) Other sources say that when the goats feel old and close to death seek the snakes because their poison somehow brings their strength back.

(11) It reads as an early version of a teaser.

(12) Neduntheevo (Sri Lanka) also known by its Dutch name Isle Delft.

(13) "En todo genero de veneno es el mas principal remedio que agora sabemos y que mejor efecto haga porque a muchos venenados que la han tomado, assi de venenos tomados por la boca, como en mordeduras de animales ponzonosos, haze cierto, maravillosa y manifiesta obra" (112v).

(14) "Por do considero, quantos arboles plantas ay en las Indias nuestras, que tien muy grandes virtudes medicinales . . . sin buscar la Especeria de Maluco, y las medicinas de Arabia, y las de Persia. Pues en los campos incultos, y en las montanas expontaneamente nos las dan nuestras Indias. La falta es nuestra, que no las investigamos, ni buscamos, ni hazemos la diligencia que conviene, para aprovecharnos de sus maravillosos efectos. Lo qual espero que el tiempo que es descubridor de todas las cosas, y la diligencia y experiencia nos las demostraran, con mucho provecho nuestro." (39v).

(15) The chapter on the bezoars is on pages 186v-92v. Fragoso, as expected, uses Garcia de Orta and Monardes as sources for this chapter but without mention.

(16) For an English translation and edition see The Indian Militia and Description of the Indies. Trans. Timothy Johnson. Ed. Kris Lane. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

(17) Phlegm was the name given to one of the four bodily humors in Early Modern medicine.

(18) Cardenas mentions "ditamo" as such a plant. Ditamo or dictamno was a plant with a healing reputation going back to Ancient mythology. According to some, ditamo was supposed to grow only in a region of Crete, but others say it can be found in other places. Pliny and Teophrastus, among other Ancient sources, explain that when wounded by hunters, deer (also goats) find and eat ditamo, which heals them and somehow expels the arrow from their body. This suggests a relationship to the idea of the bezoar being capable of expelling poison.

(19) For a detailed study about how the work of Monardes was incorporated by Clusius see Pardo Tomas.

(20) In time bezoars seem to have been found or used in many parts of the New World. To learn about bezoars in the River Plate region see Augustin Zapata Gollan's "El ciervo y la piedra bezoar en la epoca colonial de Santa Fe." For a report on of its use in Colonial New England see Edward Eggleston's "Some Curious Colonial Remedies."

(21) I would like to thank Domingo Ledezma for his help understanding the Latin of this text.

(22) Pona divided this publication in two: L'Amalthea overo della pietra belzoar (sic) orientale. Dialogo primo. And Il Lince, overo della pietra bezoar orientale. Dialogo secondo. Both published in Venetia by Lorenzo Griffo in 1626.

(23) For instance, in the "Inventario y aprecio de los bienes de la marquesa Dona teresa Francisca Maria de Guadalupe Retes Paz Vera" upon her death in 1695, several bezoars were among jewelry and other objects of value (see Curiel). With regard to the circulation of bezoars among the European nobility, there are a number of examples of records of inventories and shipments of bezoars or including bezoars in Perez de Tudela et al. For instance: "Afoxas 658 del dicho ynventario esta una partida de una piedra vejar grande guarnecida con unas varillas de oro con remate en lo alto y baxo y en lo alto con assa y reassa de oro que pesa con un cordoncillo de plata cinco onzas y tres ochavas y un tomin y tres granos de las que entrego el capitan pacheco del piru [Peru] que las embio el virrey don francisco de toledo que esta comencada numero uno tassada en veinte ducados con el oro [...] se entrego a la reina nra. senora [Margarita of Austria] para embiar a la serenissima princessa su madre [maria of Bavaria] en alemania [Graz] por cedula de su magestad de 30 de mayo de 1604" (120).

(24) "pepitas de plata americana y piedras bezoar."

(25) For a brief note on fear of poisoning among nobility, see Barker. On the relevance on melancholy in the Early Modern period, see Gowland and Bartra.

(26) A summary of the legal history can be found at Pages/Andrews-Krejci-Caveat-Emptor.aspx

(27) Tola may refer to the species Bacchardis incarum.

(28) "Y ansimismo en los ganados de la tierra que llaman llamas, se hallan unas piedras que nosotros llamamos besares, que en alguna(s) dellas hay piedras de grandor y pesso; a estas las han guardado y guardan donde hay ganados de la tierra y las mochan // con mucha reverencia llamandolas illas llamas. He halladolas en muchas provincias donde tienen ganados y hecholas quemar, porque usan de muchas supersticiones con ellas y crehen que, mochando a esta piedra, ninguna oveja abortara, ni subgedera mal a ninguno de sus ganados ni le dara carache, que es un genero de sarna que le da al ganado de la tierra. Y despues que nosotros hazemos caso dellas, las guardan, mas las grandes que las pequenas, que las pe(que)nas que hallan con facilidad las dan, no saviendo la virtud que tenian. Queme muchas petacas dellas que descubri publicamente en plagas de muchas provincias deste obispado" (Cited in Duviols 18).

(29) For more on the role of bezoars among the Andean native people and the perceptions of idolatry held by the Spaniards, see Stephenson 21-39.

(30) To get an idea of the wide range of Medieval magic ideas circulating in the seventeenth century, see Thorndike.
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