Thomas Browne


Pseudodoxia Epidemica, vol. 3, ch. 23Edit

English originalEdit

Of Unicorns horn.

Great account and much profit is made of Unicorns horn, at least of that which beareth the name thereof; wherein notwithstanding, many I perceive suspect an Imposture, and some conceive there is no such Animal extant. Herein therefore to draw up our determinations; beside the several places of Scripture mentioning this Animal (which some may well contend to be only meant of the Rhinoceros) we are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirme there are many kinds thereof. In the number of Quadrupedes, we will concede no less then five; that is, the Indian Oxe, the Indian Ass, Rhinoceros, the Oryx, and that which is more eminently termed Monoceros, or Unicornis. Some in the list of fishes, as that described by Olaus, Albertus and others: and some Unicorns we will allow even among Insects; as those four kinds of nascornous Beetles described by Muffetus.

Secondly, Although we concede there be many Unicorns, yet are we still to seek; for whereunto to affix this horn in question, or to determine from which thereof we receive this magnified medicine, we have no assurance, or any satisfactory decision. For although we single out one, and eminently thereto assign the name of the Unicorn; yet can we can be secure what creature is meant thereby; what constant shape it holdeth, or in what number to be received. For as far as our endeavours discover, this Animal is not uniformly described, but differently set forth by those that undertake it. Pliny affirmeth it is a fierce and terrible creature; Vartomannus a tame and mansuete Animal: those which Garcias ab Horto describeth about the cape of good hope, were beheld with heads like horses; those which Vartomannus beheld, he described with the head of a Deer; Pliny, Ælian, Solinus, and after these from ocular assurance, Paulus Venetus affirmeth the feet of the Unicorn are undivided, and like the Elephants: But those two which Vartomannus beheld at Mecha, were as he describeth, footed like a Goat. As Ælian describeth, it is in the bigness of an horse, as Vartomannus, of a Colt; that which Thevet speaketh of was not so big as an Heifer; but Paulus Venetus affirmeth, they are but little less then Elephants. Which are discriminations very material, and plainly declare, that under the same name Authors describe not the same Animal; so that the Unicorns horn of one, is not that of another, although we proclaim an equal vertue in all.

Thirdly, Although we were agreed what Animal this was, or differed not in its description, yet would this also afford but little satisfaction; for the horn we commonly extol, is not the same with that of the Ancients. For that in the description of Ælian and Pliny was black: this which is shewed amongst us is commonly white, none black; and of those five which Scaliger beheld, though one spadiceous, or of a light red, and two enclining to red, yet was there not any of this complexion among them.

Fourthly, What horns foever they be which pass amongst us, they are not surely the horns of any one kind of Animal, but must proceed from several sorts of Unicorns. For some are wreathed, some not: That famous one which is preserved at St. Dennis near Paris, hath wreathy spires, and chocleary turnings about it, which agreeth with the description of the Unicorns horn in Ælian; Those two in the Treasure of St. Mark. are plain, and best accord with those of the Indian Asse, or the descriptions of other Vnicorns; Albertus Magnus describeth one ten foot long, and at the base about thirteen inches compass: And that of Antwerp which Goropius Becanus describeth, is not much inferiour unto it; which best agree unto the descriptions of the Sea-Vnicorns; for these, as Olaus affirmeth, are of that strength and bigness, as able to penetrate the ribs of ships. The same is more probable, in that it was brought from Island, from, whence, as Becanus affirmeth, three other were brought in his dayes: And we have heard of some which have been found by the Sea-side, and brought unto us from America. So that while we commend the Vnicorns horne, and conceive it peculiar but unto one Animal; under apprehension of the same vertue, we use very many; and commend that effect from all, which every one confineth unto some one he hath either seen or described.

Fifthly, although there be many Vnicorns, and consequently many horns, yet many there are which bear that name, and currently passe among us, which are no hornes at all. Such are those fragments and pieces of Lapis ceratites, commonly termed Cornu fossile, whereof Bœtius had no less then twenty several sorts presented him for Vnicorns horn. Hereof in subterraneous cavities, and under the earth there are many to be found in several parts of Germany; which are but the Lapidescencies and petrifactive mutations of hard bodies; sometime of horne, of teeth, of bones, and branches of trees, whereof there are some so imperfectly converted, as to retain the odor and qualities of their originals; as he relateth of pieces of Ash and Walnut. Again, in most, if not all which passe amongst us, and are extolled for precious hornes, we discover not an affection common unto other horns; that is, they mollifie not with fire, they soften not upon decoction or infusion, nor will they afford a gelly, or mucilaginous concretion in either; which notwithstanding we may effect in Goats horns, Sheeps, Cows and Harts-horn, in the horn of the Rhinoceros, the horn of the Pristis or Sword-fish. Nor do they become friable or easily powderable by Philosophical calcination, that is, from the vapour of steam of water, but split and rift contrary to other horns. Briefly, that which is commonly received, and whereof there be so many fragments preserved in England; is not only no horn, but a substance harder then a bone, that is, the tooth of a Morse or Sea-horse? in the midst of the solider part containing a curdled grain, which is not to be found in ivory. This in Northern Regions is of frequent use for hafts of knives, or hilts of swords, and being burnt becomes a good remedy for fluxes: but Antidotally used, and exposed for Vnicorns horn, it is an insufferable delusion; and with more veniable deceit, it might have been practised in Harts-horn.

The like deceit may be practised in the teeth of other Sea-animals; in the teeth also of the Hippopotamus, or great animal which frequenteth the River Nilus: For we reade that the same was anciently used in stead of Ivory or Elephants tooth. Nor is it to be omitted what hath been formerly suspected, but now confirmed by Olaus Wormius, and Thomas Bartholinus, that those long horns preserved as precious rarities in many places, are but the teeth of Narh whales, to be found about Island, Greenland, and other Northern regions; of many feet long, commonly wreathed, very deeply fastened in the upper jaw, and standing directly forward, graphically described in Bartholinus, according unto one sent from a Bishop of Island, not separated from the crany. Hereof Mercator hath taken notice in his description of Island: some relations hereof there seem to be in Purchæ, who also delivereth that the horn at Windsor, was in his second voyage brought hither by Frobisher. These before the Northern discoveries, as unknown rarities, were carried by merchants into all parts of Europe, and though found on the Seashore, were sold at very high rates; but are now become more common, and probably in time will prove of little esteem; and the bargain of Julius the third, be accounted a very hard one, who stuck not to give many thousand crowns for one.

Nor it it great wonder we may be so deceived in this, being daily gulled in the brother Antidote Bezoar: whereof though many be false, yet one there passeth amongst us of more intolerable delusion; somewhat paler then the true stone, and given by women in the extremity great diseases, which notwithstanding is no stone, but seems to be the stony seed of some Lithospermum or greater Grumwel; or the Lobus Echinatus of Clusius, called also the Bezoar Nut; for being broken, it discovereth a kernel of a leguminous smell and taste, bitter like a Lupine, and will swell and sprout if set in the ground, and therefore more serviceable for issues, then dangerous and virulent diseases.

Sixthly, although we were satisfied we had the Vnicorns horne, yet were it no injury unto reason to question the efficacy thereof or whether those vertues pretended do properly belong unto it. For what we observe, (and it escaped not the observation of Paulus Jovius many years past) non of the Ancients ascribed any medicinal or antidotal vertue unto the Vnicorns horn; and that which Ælian extolleth who was the first and only man of the Ancients who space of the medical vertue of any Vnicorn, was the horn of the Indian Asse; whereof, saith he, the Princes of those parts make bowls and drink therein, as preservatives against Poison, Convulsions, and the falling sicknesse. Now the description of that horn is not agreeable unto that we commend; for that (saith he) is red above, white below, and black in the middle; which is very different from ours, or any to be seen amongst us. And thus, though the description of the Vnicorn be very ancient, yet was there of old no vertue ascribed unto it, and although this amongst us receive the opinion of the same vertue, yet is it not the same horn whereunto the Ancients ascribed it.

Lastly, although we allow it an antidotal efficacy, and such as the Ancients commended, yet are there some vertues ascribed thereto by Moderns not easily to be received; and it hath surely faln out in this, as other magnified medicines, whose operation effectual in some diseases, are presently extended unto all. That some Antidotal quality is may have, we have no reason to deny; for since Elks hoofs and horns are magnified for Epilepsies, since not only the bone in the heart, but the horn of a Deer is Alexipharmacal, and ingredient into the confection of Hyacinth, and the Electuary of Maximilian; we cannot without prejudice except against the efficacy of this. But when we affirm it is onot only Antidotal to proper venoms, and substances destructive by qualities we cannot express; but that it resisteth also Sublimate, Arsenick, and poysons which kill by second qualities, that is, by corrosive bodyes, then precious and cordial medicines which operate by secret and disputable properties, or whether he that swallowed Lime, and drank down Mercury water, did not more reasonably place his cure in milk, butter or oyl, then if he had recurred unto Perl and Bezoar, common reason at all times, and necessity in the like case would easily determine.

Since therefore there be many Unicorns; since that whereto we appropriate a horn is so variously described, that it seemeth either never to have been seen by two persons, or not to have been one animal; Since thought they agreed in the description of the animal, yet is not the horn we extol the same with that of the Ancients; since what horns foever they be that pass among us, they are not the horns of one, but several animals: Since many in common use and high esteem are no horns at all: Since if they were true horns, yet might their vertues be questioned: Since though we allowed some vertues, yet were no others to be received; with what security a man may rely on this remedy, the mistress of fools hath already instructed some, and to wisdome (which is never too wise to learn) it is not too late to consider.

Pseudodoxia Epidemica, vol. 5, ch. 19Edit

English originalEdit

We are unwilling to question the Royal Supporters of England, that is, the approved descriptions of the Lion and the Unicorn. [...] As for the Unicorn, if it have the head of a Deer, and the tail of a Boar, as Vartomannus describeth it, how agreeable it is to this picture every eye may discern. If it be made bisulcous or cloven footed, it agreeth unto the description of Vartommanus, but scarce of any other; and Aristotle supposeth that such as divide the hoof, do also double the horn; they being both of the same nature, and admitting division together. And lastly if the horn have this situation and be so forwardly affixed, as is described, it will not be easily conceived, how it can feed from the ground; and therefore we observe, that Nature in other cornigerous animals, hath placed the horns higher and reclining, as in Bucks; in some inverted upwards, as in the Rhinoceros, the Indian Ass, and Unicornous Beetles; and thus have some affirmed it is seated in this animal.

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