ROBERT BOYLE & THE INVISIBLE COLLEGE
BOB RICKARD explores the connected world of Britain’s 17th century proto-forteans in the era before the Royal Society turned its back on the study of strange phenomena.
BOB RICKARD explores the connected world of Britain’s 17th century proto-forteans in the era before the Royal Society turned its back on the study of strange phenomena.
As I began researching a number of British cases from the 16th and 17th century suggestive of levitations and teleportations (for an upcoming FT article), I became increasingly aware that they shared something. They were connected, not necessarily through the manifested phenomena, but through the network of people that reported and commented upon them.
The group of people that concerns us here centred upon, primarily, Robert Boyle, Lord Orrery, Henry More, Joseph Glanvill, John Aubrey, and Richard Baxter – but also included Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, John Evelyn, Christopher Wren, John Locke, Robert Plot, Sir Kenelm Digby, Samuel Pepys and others – all of them involved (one way or another) in the establishment of the Royal Society in the early 1660s, or as contributing members. 1
When the Royal Society was eventually established with two charters, in 1662 and 1663 2 – many of its members were also earnest Puritans who saw themselves as a bulwark against a growing atheism. While Boyle was ready to believe with Glanvill that there were such entities as “witches and apparitions”, he advised caution, acknowledging in his essay Reason and
Religion (1675) that most accounts were “false and occasioned by the credulity or imposture of men”.
The principal members of the Invisible College, indeed, shared an interest in accounts of anomalous phenomena as they manifested in the context of contemporary myth, local superstition, folk medicine, apparitions and poltergeists, witches and fairies. This did not mean they all believed uncritically in every fantastic account – they represented a range of opinions – but they did agree that some evidence of a truth or fact should be sought if, indeed, it existed. For example, Glanvill argued that the legal proceedings against witches provided sufficient reason to accept the existence of spirits and the machinations of the Devil; and Boyle, a keen alchemist, reasoned from scriptural grounds, that angels were attracted to the Philosophers’ Stone, and if provable it “would be an instance of the incorporeal being affected by the corporeal”. This search for demonstrable evidence was at the heart of the establishment of the English school of Natural Philosophy.
Robert Boyle and his brother Roger (Lord Orrery) were Anglo-Irish nobility; Robert was a physicist and founder of modern chemistry, while Roger was described as having a serious and contemplative disposition. Hooke was an architect and prodigious inventor of physical and optical devices who, after the Great Fire of 1666, made surveys of damaged London for Sir Christopher Wren. He was one of the powers behind the scenes at the Royal Society and became the second editor of Philosophical
Transactions, the world’s first truly scientific journal.
Evelyn, Pepys and Aubrey were diarists and collectors of cultural ephemera (Pepys’s diary, for example, includes a passage on rains of amphibians). Henry More was one of England’s leading Platonist philosophers at Cambridge University; ‘natural philosophy’ being the ancestor of modern science. Baxter and Glanvill were Protestant ‘divines’ who had (at different times) been chaplain to the King, and both wrote historically important books: Baxter’s The Certainty of the World of Spirits (1691), and Glanvill’s famous Sadducismus
Triumphatus (the 1681 edition of which was edited by Henry More). But it was Robert Boyle who was the main hub of ‘progress’ in those early days, having used his wealth and resources to employ Hooke (to make equipment for his experiments) and, at the other extreme, funding the first translation of the Bible into Gaelic, made by the illfated minister Robert Kirk, author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691), whose later disappearance was blamed upon the fairies (see FT61:29).
NULLIUS IN VERBA
An example of their proto-fortean interests concerned the legendary ‘weapon salve’ of Arthurian romance. The idea was that treating the weapon that caused the injury could heal the wound, no matter the distance between them. This salve – sometimes said to be an ointment or a powder – also occupied the intellects of Paracelsus, Della Porta, Bacon, Fludd, and, later, Van Helmont. Sir Kenelm Digby – a naval commander and diplomat who, like many notables at that time, experimented with alchemy, and was a tutor to Boyle at some point – claimed to have discovered the ‘sympathetic powder’ version of it. Boyle and colleagues were keenly interested in this substance as a practical example of sympathetic ‘action at a distance’ and thought it eminently suitable to testing and experimentation.
Despite their somewhat different backgrounds, they shared a delight in, and a sincere curiosity about, the secrets of nature and how they can be rendered accessible to pragmatic investigation (according to Baconian science). From this they advocated a rational, natural philosophical science that did not rely upon religion for its authority. It was Robert Hooke who coined the Royal Society’s motto Nullius In
Verba (“Take nobody’s word for it”, surely a watchword for us forteans). The engine of this progressive approach was the group’s lively correspondence network. Each was aware of his colleagues’ interests and they forwarded to each other transcripts of interesting cases and supporting references. Also, each of them had his own private networks of ‘intelligence’ gatherers. It was, truly, the Internet of its day.
In his correspondence (around 1646 or 1647), Boyle refers to this network of “intelligencers” as “our invisible college”, the purpose of which was to “profit from science”. The context of this latter phrase was not one of irresponsible gain, but referred to the spirit of Baconian inquiry: that knowledge should be applied to the wellbeing of mankind. In a letter, Boyle referred to the members as “the corner stone of the invisible, or the philosophical college,” adding that they “honour me with their company – men of so capacious and searching spirits, that school-philosophy is but the lowest region of their knowledge.”
Some of you may recognise the phrase ‘Invisible College’ from the title of Jacques Vallée’s 1975 commentary upon the UFO phenomenon and its history (see Jenny Randles’s UFO Files column on p25). Sadly, Vallée’s tip of the hat to Boyle and colleagues – on behalf of the pre-Internet network of corresponding ufologists and scientists working beyond the ken of orthodox scientists – is missing from the wiki entry for ‘The Invisible College’. Vallée is a bit more expansive in his The
Heart of the Internet: “… it should be possible to build electronic communities of experts, invisible colleges of kindred spirits…”; and “I like the idea of using groupware to facilitate new types of ‘grapevines’ forcing old organisations to evolve. Informal networks and ‘invisible colleges’ have always been the real harbour of trust and the spring of action for societies”. 3 Vallée again pays tribute in Wonders in the Sky (with Chris Aubeck), in describing the background to 17th century interest in aerial anomalies:
“Spurred on by strategic and scientific interest in navigation, astronomy underwent unprecedented growth during the 17th century. Experimental
and theoretical publications flourished under the pens of Galileo, Huygens, Cassini, and numerous observers of the Moon and planets using the newlyinvented telescopes. Similar progress revolutionised physics, mathematics and medicine, often in spite of the dictates of the Church… This movement towards better understanding of nature and man’s relationship to it, long repressed by religious ideology, found its expression in the ‘Invisible College’ and culminated in the creation of the Royal Society in London in 1660, while Harvard College in the colony of Massachusetts was awarded its charter in 1650... News of extraordinary phenomena was greeted with keen interest, either for their ‘philosophical’ value or as omens of mystical importance. Antiquarians and Chroniclers collected such reports and compiled information from various countries, including North and South America. We even begin to find reports of unusual aerial sightings in the pages of the early scientific journals, like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, often in terms that seem surprisingly open and free compared to the staid, self-censored, dogmatic, and often arrogant scientific literature of today.” 4
However, it is not quite true, as some have it, that the Invisible College itself transformed into the Institution of the Royal Society. There were several other groups of progressive proto-scientists interested in ‘inductive proofs’ that were based in Gresham College, London, where the birth of the Royal Society provided a common focus; these included Samuel Hartlib’s Agency and the Philosophical Society of Oxford (Oxford Philosophical Club). Also, there were similar networks of correspondents on continental Europe and in the USA, sometimes referred to as the ‘Republic of Letters’ 5 – and there is no doubt that the British, Scottish and Irish pioneers were aware of them, in touch with them, and inspired by them.
Given the gravity with which the Royal Society is regarded today as a ‘gatekeeper’ for scientific excellence, it is rather ironic that its early members were inspired by the thought of escaping religious authoritarianism, only to create a vehicle for its successor, the scientific establishment. Charles Fort commented upon this particular passing of the ‘dominant’ baton. But what if their development had gone another way? What kind of science would we have today if the Royal Society had decided to take anomalous phenomena seriously as, at one point, it was poised to do? Would it have been the “more inclusive” science that Fort championed?
The question has been approached in a different way: why did the Royal Society, after such “a promising start with an illustrious set of forebears”, abandon the investigation of the paranormal and lurch in the direction of “a godless scientific materialism”? In his fascinating paper on the Royal Society and the decline of magic, 6 Michael Hunter (Boyle’s biographer) provides a number of detailed explanations. Certainly, under the pragmatic editorship of first Henry Oldenburg and then Robert Hooke, Philosophical Transactions steadily became the public showcase of triumphant scientific successes, as well as demonstrating how science should be done. In this, it was clear that astronomy, physics, chemistry and
medicine provided advances that could be replicated; where the same could not be said of the more vague, variable and intransigent subjects that attracted the more mystical members of the Invisible College.
Despite the zealous tones of several modern accounts of the history of the Royal Society, which claim that the Society actively challenged and destroyed superstitions and errors, “this was precisely what did not happen” according to Hunter. Nor was there a corporate policy of sidelining or downplaying witchcraft and similar subjects. These topics, Hunter notes, were nearly always the private interests of individuals, not of the Society itself. Nevertheless, there was a generally unstated restraint or silence on these matters. After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the religious milieu gave way to the Industrial Revolution, and the philosophy behind the attack on atheism lost its wind. Where Glanvill’s quest for proof against the enemies of Christianity fizzled out, it was Boyle’s brand of scientific adventuring that proved the more durable.
In fact, the Royal Society found far more traction in keeping religion (and the phenomena habitually associated with it) at arm’s length. Articles on ‘anomalous’ topics in the Transactions – although few to begin with – were quietly marginalised or turned down; books by members on witchcraft and other forms of supernaturalism were denied an imprimatur; and correspondence on such subjects frequently went unanswered. In time, science was the dominant; subscriptions from the likes of Cotton Mather dropped away and Baxter’s accusation that the Royal Society was now an atheist organisation fell on deaf ears.
Commenting upon all this in connection with a well-observed case of levitation – one that was told to Lord Orrery, Henry More and some others, which I will detail another time – the folklorist Andrew Lang, in his
Cock Lane and Common-Sense, 7 thought that the significant new attitude that followed the Civil War and Restoration of the English monarchy was “to scoff at witchcraft, to deny its existence”. The ‘last stand’ of the English intellectuals “against the drollery of Sadducism” 8 (as Glanvill had it), failed in the arena of science but took root on the fringes of religion and philosophy. Lang sees “the psychical researchers within the English Church, like Glanvill and Henry More,” or beyond its pale, “like Richard Baxter and many Scotch divines”, as laying the groundwork for the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). By defending witchcraft and apparitions “as outworks of faith”, they removed them from the miraculous to the sphere of abnormal phenomena where, here too, discovery and theorising no longer required a belief in the Devil. Where “the old inquirers saw witchcraft and demoniacal possession… the moderns see hysterics and hypnotic conditions”.
One of the consequences of the ‘dumbing down’ of the powers of evil, Lang thought, “was to remove from stories, like the ones… of interest to us, any mention of the more ancient (yet still thriving) common belief in the powers of fairies and witches”. This point brings me back to the wonder that was Robert Boyle, the 14th child of Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork. The youngest member of the Invisible College’, his inquiring intellect ranged freely over an impressive spectrum of interests, scientific, anomalous and religious (he was said to have read the Koran in both French and Latin translations). By all accounts, he was a 17th century fortean indeed. 9
Perhaps it helped, that, in his day, there was no orthodox science against which his inquiries could be judged as unorthodox. Or perhaps – as Peter Costello recently reminded me – it was the way he was brought up; a way that fell out of fashion in its own time too. Peter quoted from Anthony Powell’s edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives: “[Boyle] was nursed by an Irish nurse, after the Irish manner, where they putt the child into a pendulous satchell (instead of a cradle), with a slitt for the child’s head to peep out.”
“There is a hint here,” wrote Peter, “that he was fostered out in the old Gaelic custom,
which meant that from his earliest years he was exposed to the Celtic thought patterns of the local people.”
That upbringing – in which a consideration of the ‘supernatural’ preceded (and therefore outranked) its outright rejection as nonsense – also shaped his brother Roger, the second Earl of Orrery, to be more receptive to the ‘invisible world’. 10 According to Baxter, Orrery – who was instrumental in bringing the Irish healer Greatrakes to England – had, for many years, employed as his chamber servant the son of a French pastor whose house in the Burgundy town of Macon, in 1612, was the epicentre of a much-publicised talking poltergeist haunting. Both Boyle and Orrery knew Monsieur Perreaud and his son for a long time and discussed the case with these eyewitnesses. They remained steadfast in their belief in the case; so much so that Boyle himself paid for the French account to be translated into English as The Devill of
Mascon in 1658. 11
1 For most of my citations and facts about the Royal Society and Robert Boyle, I have used Wiki articles on specific topics; Richard Evans’s blog ‘The Invisible College (1645-1658)’ at : https:// technicaleducationmatters.org/2010/12/12/theinvisible-college-1645-1658/; and Michael Hunter’s numerous articles and volumes on Boyle’s life, work and publications, particularly Boyle: Between God and Science (2010), and his anthology Robert Boyle Reconsidered (1994).
2 The main candidate for who got the ball rolling is Benjamin Worsley. “Eight years Boyle’s senior, [Worsley] was evidently the initiator of the ‘Invisible College’”. He is described as “the friend and colleague [who] introduced Boyle to the pleasures and usefulness of natural philosophy.” John Henry, ‘Boyle and Cosmical Qualities’ in Hunter, Robert Boyle Reconsidered, p127.
3 Jacques Vallée, The Heart of the Internet (2003), pp43, 118.
4 Chris Aubeck and Jacques Vallée, Wonders in the Sky (2016), pp177-178.
5 Republic of Letters: www.wikiwand.com/en/ Republic_of_Letters.
6 Michael Hunter, ‘The Royal Society and the Decline of Magic’ in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 65, no. 2 (20 June 2011), pp103-119.
7 Andrew Lang, Cock Lane and Common-Sense (1912), ch.3. ‘Comparative Psychical Research’.
8 “Sadducees” – Against the background of the English Civil War, the Non-Conformists (Protestants and Dissenters) rejected the usages of the older Church of England, in which the Puritan faction was then dominant. Among the elite of Puritan intellectuals, atheists were cast as Sadducees, after the ruling Jewish sect at the time of the Crucifixion who did not believe in the possibility of “the resurrection of the dead, the existence of spirits and the obligation of oral tradition” but emphasised the superiority of the written Laws. The term was used rhetorically to taunt all who doubted that subjective experiences (like seeing ghosts) had any reality.
9 However, I have not yet determined (to my own satisfaction) the interesting claim by Tracy Twyman that Robert Boyle served as the “Grand Master of the Priory of Sion between 1654 and 1691”; see her blog ‘Robert Boyle and the Invisible College’ at http://quintessentialpublications.com/ twyman/?page_id=64.
10 Richard Baxter, The Certainty of the World of Spirits… (1834), pp6-8. This was originally published by Baxter himself just a few months before he died in 1691, and republished in 1834 together with Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World (orig. 1702).
11 An interesting paper on the case – ‘The Devil Does His Mischief: An Interesting Glimpse into the Huguenot World of Demonology during the Scientific Age’ – and Boyle’s role in publicising it is by Kristine Wirts, in The Proceedings of the Western Society for French History, vol. 39 (2011). Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/ spo.0642292.0039.005. Wirts, in declaring that the original French account shows “how French Protestant elites made sense of the supernatural during the Scientific Revolution”, invites an interesting comparison with the influence of Glanvill’s Sadducismus upon the English Protestant elites. Curiously, in researching this, I found an old Twitter posting (April 2016) from FT regular Theo Paijmans, noting that a first edition of L’Antidemon de Mascon had been saved from the fire that razed the Bavarian State Library in 1943.
LEFT: Robert Boyle. FACING PAGE: The famous frontispiece of Joseph Glanvill’s book on witchcraft and apparitions, Sadducismus Triumphatus, published posthumously in 1681 and edited by Henry More.
ABOVE LEFT: A 17th century alchemist’s laboratory such as Boyle might have used. ABOVE RIGHT: The ‘Fairy Hill’ in Aberfoyle where Robert Kirk’s body was found in 1692. BELOW: The title page of Glanvill’s Sadducismus Triumphatus, concerning the existence of, and evidence for, “witches and apparitions”.
ABOVE: Telephus, the son of Hercules, is cured of a potentially fatal wound with some rust from Achilles’s spear, with which he had originally been wounded. The search for such a ‘weapon salve’ was of great interest to Boyle and his associates.
BELOW: Lord Orrery, Henry More and others were given an account of a well-observed case of apparent levitation.
TOP: The frontispiece to Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society of London, 1667, by Wenceslaus Hollar. ABOVE: A view across the courtyard at Gresham College, circa 1700. This was the meeting place of the Royal Society until 1710.
LEFT: An illustration of the Macon poltergeist episode of 1612, in which Monsieur Perreaud and his family were plagued by a talking poltergeist.