I mentioned in a recent post my buying mineral specimens at a ‘Rock, Gem and Mineral Fair’. One thing I have noticed about these fairs is that dealers tend to set off with a stall that reflects their own interests, but after a season or so, they end up making compromise with ‘crystal healing’, ‘mood rings’, and various Tolkienesque notions of particular powers in stones. Better chance of a sale and a better price if the stone has magic in it.
I’ve been reading Thomas Nicols’ A lapidary, or, The history of pretious stones with cautions for the undeceiving of all those that deal with pretious stones (1652). It is amusing to imagine some of his more traditional magical powers of gems being pitched to the modern customer: ‘You should buy this, madam, for if your husband places this gemstone on your head while you are asleep, he will be able to see by your reaction whether you are faithful to him or not’ (reference, p. 51).
Nicols is not a very original thinker: he generally compiles from his authorities (‘Langius’ and others), but this causes a series of little crises, for he is reluctant to admit some of the more grandiose claims made for gemstones and their secret powers. Rather, he takes the line that it is not the gems, but demons inhabiting them, that might exert these powers. Again, a genuinely time-honoured belief that could serve as an interesting pitch for the new age rock dealer to try on the 21st century customer:
“Some do impute such vires [powers] to produce such effects to them, as these creatures cannot possibly be capable of … But such have been the errours of the great searchers out of the secrets of nature, as that they have attributed to inanimate creatures which are of the lowest orders of all natures productions, powers supernaturall, and vires which their natures are not capable of producing” (p. 19 – he cites Albertus Magnus claiming that the Opthalmius allows you to be invisible, and many others).
Though gems as being materiall mixt bodies, cannot by their own proper power and faculties produce such admirable and supernaturall things … yet they may be said to be continent causes of such effects, if we grant them what some affirm, namely, that oft-times they are the habitacles of daemons and intelligences” (p.31).
An interesting thing about the book is the way Nicols gropes towards (or rather, away from) a systematic understanding: all he has is a prose style founded on an extensive vocabulary (which imparts a certain shaky authority to what he says), and an unshakeable basic neo-Platonism, in which everything is somehow alive. Gems grow underground, and so they are a bit like plants:
“They (as the opinion of some is) have vegetative souls, or lapidisick spirits infused into them from above, by which they live and draw the likenesse of their substance, their lapidisick juice, their proper nourishment, for their sustentation, for the preservation of their being, and for their further growth and increase of their own proper substantiall moles, masse, or lump. Herbs draw their fructifying juyce from the circumjacent earth by thready roots, thereby to sap their bodies and their branches…” (p.2)
Many of Nicols’ stories about gemstones deal with them in connection to heat. These precious stones come from the tropics, for they need the tropical sun to come into being (p.9), and they can induce all kinds of temperature-related effects, either to heat or to cool. By the story he tells, a jewel-loving and credulous outdoors type (if such a combination is possible) might nowadays make a perfect customer for a ‘heliotrope’, on the basis that, being a gem of the sun, it will make a pan or water into which it is placed boil rapidly (p.142). Or, conversely, a chrysolite will so rapidly cool down scalding hot water that you can drop one into boiling water, and then plunge your hand “without any hurt or danger into that water which even now with the fervency of heat boiled up” (pp. 105-6). This discourse extends into more metaphorical forms of heat: gemstones can rouse or soothe the passions, and have major roles in matters sexual. The sapphire “if it be worn by an adulterer, by loosing its splendour it will discover his adultery: and that the wearing of it, doth hinder the erections that are caused by Venus.” (Nicols reports these beliefs, but thinks that the demon Asmodeus must have more to do with untoward erections – pp. 84-5).
Here he is at his best, enthused by the ‘emerald or smaragde’:
The Emerauld is a precious stone or gemme of so excellent a viridity, or spring-colour, as that if a man shall look upon an Emerauld by a pleasant green meadow, it will be more amiable then the meadow, and overcome the meadows glorie, by the glorie of that spring of viriditie which it hath in its self: the largeness of the meadow it will overcome with the amplitude of its glory, wherewith farre above its greatnesse it doth feed the eie: and the virescencie of the meadow it will overcome with the brightnesse of its glory, which in it self seemeth to embrace the glorious viridity of many springs. This stone is known by its apparent coldnesse in the mouth, by its gravity being weighed: and in this, that being cast into a fire, it will not burn, nor send forth any flame; and that in the brightnesse of the Sunne, it will keep its excellent viridity and greennesse (p. 91).
My image is his fold-out chart classifying all rocks: which starts, wonderfully, from ‘Stones are either small, [or] great’. I must show this to my geological society and see what they think.