Myth, Science and Music at the Early Royal Society

When it was founded in 1660, the  Royal Society was the first institution in England dedicated to the study of natural philosophy (what we’d today call ‘science’). In its early years, the society showed considerable interest in investigating the properties of sound and music. There were acoustical experiments, mathematical and theoretical discussion of the nature of consonance, and even occasional musical performances.


While the Royal Society was at the forefront of new trends in using observation and experiment to find out about the world, they had not yet left behind older traditions of knowledge. One of these traditions was the idea of the powers of music, founded on miraculous tales from classical mythology (e.g. Orpheus), the Bible (e.g. David driving out Saul’s demons), as well as contemporary wonders such as music’s supposed ability to cure tarantula bites (see my previous post on this subject). I’ve been interested in looking at what happens to these myths of music’s powerful effects in the context of the Royal Society’s promotion of new methods of experiment and observation.

Royal Society members did set out to try to test out the truth of some of these stories. One of these concerned music’s ability to break glass. While today we know this to be possible, to the Royal Society this tale would have been every bit as wondrous as stories of music’s ability to cure disease, move stones or tame wild beasts. They received a report from Daniel Morhof (Professor of History at the University of Kiel) who had come across a boy who claimed to be able break a glass by singing. Morhof first asked to witness the phenomenon, then to be taught how to do it. Finally he started to experiment with other ways of making glass vibrate and either shatter or produce sound.  On hearing the report the Royal Society commissioned Robert Hooke to begin experimenting, with mixed results. He had success in causing the glass to ring, though failed to make it break. Nevertheless the attempts inspired a whole series of experiments concerning sound and vibrational patterns.

Tarantella_(Athanasius_Kircher)The Royal Society was also fascinated with tales of music’s ability to cure the bite of tarantulas from the region of Apulia in Italy. At first they believed in the phenomenon without question: it was, after all, attested to by several intelligent and credible witnesses and authors. Then they received a report from Dr Thomas Cornelio. a physician and natural philosopher from Naples claiming that these musical effects were merely ‘the fancies of the credulous vulgar’. The Royal Society would have loved to get their hands on a live Apulian tarantula with which they could have conducted experiments and tested these claims, but despite Cornelio’s promises, none was received. This left the Society arguing over the accounts of competing authorities and wondering how, if even even these authorities could not agree on the truth of the matter, a natural philosopher’s report of observations was to be distinguished from mere anecdote and storytelling.

Perhaps most surprising was the Royal Society’s involvement in contemporary debates as to how modern music measured up the standard of the music of the ancient world, and the wondrous effects described in classical mythology. Experimental Robert Hooke 13_Portrait_of_Robert_Hookesuggested that ancient myths might point to truths about the natural world. He drew parallels between the myth of Amphion moving stones with music and vibrational phenomena in which  when two strings are tuned to the same pitch and one is struck, the second sounds too. In both cases music moves an otherwise inanimate object. Another fellow, John Wallis (Savilian Professor Geometry at Oxford)  explained the myths as hyperbolic stories rooted in the quite ordinary phenomena of rustic people flocking to pipers and fiddlers, and argued that modern music’s contrapuntal complexities made it superior to ancient music, which he believed had relied on a single voice or instrument.

In the early years of the Royal Society myth and science were not yet antagonistic opposites. Royal Society members had a surprisingly firm commitment to the traditional effects of music; if anything the properties of sound they discovered seemed to confirm the underlying truth of these tales. Indeed when contemporary stories came under threat from new evidence, the reluctance of many members to abandon them as false tales indicates an underlying belief in the power of music that was not entirely founded on experiment and reason. While classical myths were no longer the authoritative proof they had been in earlier times, this did not stop such stories forming the basis of lively discussion at the Royal Society or providing inspiration for experiment. Ultimately the Royal Society’s musical discussions would begin to produce new attitudes to music, valuing not for so much for its wondrous effects on the human body and the natural world (increasingly attributed to simpler musics and unskillful audiences), but for the intellectual pleasures sophisticate multi-part music could bring to sophisticated listeners.

If you want to find out more about the Royal Society’s discussions and investigations of tales of music’s powers, you can read my newly published article: Katherine Butler, ‘Myth, Science and the Power of Music in the Early Decades of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 76 (2015), 47-68 (sadly no open-access version is permitted yet, but I will post one once the embargo period is over).

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Study Day on 14th May: Crisis, Creativity and the Self, 1550-1700

The seventeenth century is often presented as a time of crisis and profound change across Europe. These include political crises such as the Civil War and Restoration; economic crises; continued religious tensions between Protestants, Catholics and other dissenting groups; profound intellectual changes such as the new experimental philosophy, the re-evaluation of the status of Classical knowledge, and a new awareness of individual subjectivity. These social and cultural developments also had an impact on the arts.

On 15th May an interdisciplinary study day is being convened in London by Stephen Rose to explore this idea of crisis in relation to notions of creativity and self. There’s a key-note by John Butt, as well as papers (including my own) placing music alongside drama, literature, science and religion. Issues for discussion include:

  • how  notions of creativity and the self were reshaped by the changing religious, political and intellectual climate
  • how subjectivity was performed in music, on the stage, and in the church
  • how notions of innovation and creative adaptation changed

A full timetable and details of how to book are included below.

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Tarantulas, Tunes and Temperaments

The Meanings of an Italian Musical Marvel in Early Modern England

As an arachnophobe the last thing I thought I’d end up writing about was spiders. Yet, having had to get over my reluctance to even pick up a book with a spider on the cover, that is exactly where my current project exploring musical myths has taken me.

Tarantella_(Athanasius_Kircher)In late-sixteenth century England a tale began to circulate concerning music’s ability to cure the bite of the tarantula, a particular type of spider found in the Apulia region of Italy. The tarantula’s poison might cause various effects in the victim – including laughing, weeping, silence, sleeping, raving and calling out, delusions, melancholy, fearfulness and numbness – according to the temperament of either the patient or the spider. No cure was to be found, except music. Musicians had to find the right tune to match the temperament or the patient and/or the temperament of the spider (which was also believed to dance to a specific tune) and once the correct tune was identified the patient would begin to dance until the poison was expelled. The patient would be cured, but the illness would recur each year, requiring the same musical cure until, it was often said, the tarantula that had caused the bite died. Numerous books catalogued the tales of individual victims, including Athanasius Kircher’s Magnes siue de arte magnetica (Rome, 1641), which famously transcribed some of the curative tunes (see above).

But why was this story about an Italian spider significant in England? Here’s a little taster of what I’ve been finding out.

Book_of_the_Courtier-smallThe myth was probably brought into England via Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) and began to circulate widely following Thomas Hoby’s English translation (1561). As it concerned a remote corner of Italy few Englishmen were likely to visit it was as exotic and marvellous as tales from Classical mythology and it especially captured the imagination of courtly writers at a time when all things Italian were in fashion at the Elizabethan court. Sir Philip Sidney, for example, uses the tarantula as a metaphor for falling in love in The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590): the word ‘lover’ pierces Pyrocles just as music touches the victim of the tarantula, so that his body and heart ‘seemed to dance to the sound of that word’. The sting of Cupid’s arrow causes lovesickness just as the tarantula bite causes the victim to lose control of mind and body.

Although Sidney provides no musical cure for his character, the tarantula myth was most obviously an example of music’s healing powers, a particular fascination for physicians and natural philosphers in seventeenth-century England. In the early modern world, the most common explanation for illness was an imbalance of the four humours (black bile/melancholy, yellow bile/choler, phlegm and blood). As wellbeing required keeping the humours in balance, musical metaphors were common, with health regarded as ‘but a harmony of temperament and sicknesse a dissonancie’ (Virgilio Malvezzi, David Persecuted, 1650). Furthermore music was widely recognised as a cure for madness, melancholy (including lovesickness) and as able toCharleton_1619-1707 drive out demons (another potential cause of illness). For the tarantula bite, music’s curative powers depended on the effects of its vibration of the air when transferred to the body via the ear. Physician Walter Charleton described the venom as conveyed by a ‘thin, acrimonious and pricking Humor’. The harmonious movement of air caused by the music was received by ears, transported by the spirits until it agitated the humour carrying the venom. This made parts of the body itch, causing the victim to dance and the ‘pricking Humour’ to be sweated out (Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, or, A Fabrick of Science Natural, 1654).

Not only did this story about physical disease (a tarantula bite) serve as a metaphor for a mental affliction (lovesickness), but it also become a favourite of religious writers concerned with music’s ability to cure diseases of the soul. The anonymous ‘University Pen’ who wrote The Spiritual Bee (1662) interpreted dancing as an immoral symptom of the bite rather than the cure. This was typical of how the tarantula became a symbol for various kinds of earthly transgressions, including drunkenness and frivolity. Furthermore the author considered the case of the tarantula victims who die laughing if not cured by music to be ‘much the same who are bitten by that Infernal Serpent; All whose years are spent in mirth, and their days in laughter, but in a moment they goe down unto the grave’. This comparison of tarantulas with Satan was helped along by a certain amount of confusion in England over precisely what kind of a creature the tarantula actually was. As well as a spider it was variously described as a lizard, a fly, an eft (a small lizard-like creature), and a serpent. The last of these offered obvious comparisons with the serpent of the Garden of Eden and by extension with the Devil himself. The musical cure was paralleled in The Spiritual Bee with the harmonious voice of God (‘that wise Charmer’) who can cure the ‘exorbitances and profusenesse of our spirits in wordly delights’, in effect rebalancing the temperament of the soul.

The story of the tarantula bite and its musical cure was received unquestioningly in England until the investigations of the Royal Society in the 1670s. Their confidence in the phenomenon was shaken when they heard the opinion of the Neapolitan physician Dr Thomas Cornelio that tarantism had nothing to do with the bite of a tarantula but was simply the result of the hot, dry climate. Yet despite the evidence of a fellow intellectual who had visited the region and studied the phenomenon, many scientists (including Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle) continued to believe the story. Interestingly, however, neither Cornelio’s demythologising nor Boyle and Hooke’s commitment to its veracity tell the full story. Modern studies of Tarantism have shown it to have been neither a legendary phenomenon, nor the effect of a spider bite, nor even a metal disorder, but rather a ‘culturally conditioned symbolic order’ in which a particular life crisis is symbolically remodelled as the bite of a tarantula and ritually controlled and exorcised through rituals of music and dance (De Martino, The Land of Remorse). Such a medical disorder with its musical cure fits uncomfortably within modern perceptions of health and disease, let alone those of the early modern England. Yet the tarantula myth nevertheless served as a emblem of music’s beneficial properties for mind, body and soul.

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