In the Middle Ages, scientific inventions and instruments were regarded as magical. Following is an excerpt from the 1887 introduction to Marlowe, Tragical history of Doctor Faustus. Greene, Honourable history of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay:
“In the Middle Ages, two branches of study, the votaries of which were necessarily to a large extent groping in the dark or unsteadily moving in the twilight, were specially adapted to attract enquiring minds, and to excite the suspicions of the ignorant. These were astrology, which in the terminology of the Middle Ages included what we call astronomy, but which also occupied itself with speculations on the supposed influences of the heavenly bodies upon the inhabitants of the earth and their destinies, as well as with their actual or supposed influences upon the earth itself; and alchemy or chemistry, the speculative part of which treated of the production of all things out of the elements, while the practical part sought to rival or outdo nature in the production of colours and of many other things, but more especially of precious metals.
The connexion which both these sciences thus assumed with common life, with its chief events and most cherished objects, could not fail to impress and excite the wild imagination of common men; and the isolation in which these studies have to be carried on, the loneliness of the observatory and the laboratory, added a peculiar element of mystery. In these and in other sciences the instruments used or invented by their professors seemed a machinery of a more than human character and origin.
All these studies and their appliances were regarded as magic and as appliances of magic by the vulgar, who could not, like philosophic minds, distinguish the mighty powers of nature and the still mightier powers of art which uses nature as its instrument, from that which passes beyond the powers of nature and art, and is therefore either superhuman, or fiction and imposture.
‘For there are persons,’ writes the thinker and student already quoted, ‘who by a swift movement of their limbs or by changing their voice or by fine instruments or darkness or the cooperation of others produce apparitions, and thus place before mortals marvels which have not the truth of actual existence. Of these the world is full …. but in all these things neither is philosophic study concerned, nor does the power of nature consist’.’ Thus true though imperfect science and honest though often misdirected research, were rudely elbowed and discredited by the competition of imposture, and in the mind of the people confounded with their counterfeits.
Wherever, then, in the Middle Ages, scientific pursuits, especially of the kinds referred to, sought to assert themselves by the side of the scholastic philosophy and theology which were the ordinary mental pabulum of students, there the popular suspicion of magic found an opportunity for introducing itself. One out of many instances of this familiar phenomenon is that of the group or school of enquirers to which belonged Roger Bacon, the hero of the legend on which one of our plays is founded. In the pages of a narrative of English history unsurpassed as a vivid picture of such episodes in the progress of our national civilization, may be read a summary of Bacon’s attempt to give a freer and wider range of culture to the University of Oxford where he resided, and of its failure. The suspicion of magical practices was not indeed the main cause of his persecution, but appears to have contributed to it; and we have his own complaint that to speak to the people of astronomy, was to cause oneself to be immediately clamoured against as a magician, and that not only laymen, but most clerks regarded as wonderful things for which philosophy had a simple explanation. With Roger Bacon the studies he had pursued passed away from his University, and his own name, as will be seen, was long enveloped in the haze of a popular myth.”
Marlowe, Tragical history of Doctor Faustus. Greene, Honourable history of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Edited by Adolphus William Ward. Clarendon Press series. Edition 2. Clarendon Press, 1887.
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