Friday, March 28, 2008

Mount Etna moralised, 1670

My illustrations are from Heneage Finch, Earl of Winchilsea’s A true and exact relation of the late prodigious earthquake & eruption of Mount AEtna, or, Monte-Gibello (1669) and from a ballad, Mount AEtna's flames, or, The Sicilian wonder (also 1669) written to tell the same marvels to a less polite audience, where I believe that we can see the woodcut engraver doing a down-market version of the Earl’s woodcut (just as the ballad itself is entirely indebted to the illustrated pamphlet). Finch had gone to some trouble to get the original drawing done, as his pamphlet explains: “As Your Majesty will see by the draught that I take the boldness to send herewith; it was the best I could get, but hath nothing of the Progress into the Sea [he means, the sight of the lava flowing into the sea itself]; the confusion was so great in the City, which is almost surrounded with Mountains of Fire, that I could not get any to draw one…”

Heneage Finch was Ambassador to Constantinople (where he got on terrifically well), his poor wife bore him 27 children, and, as the ODNB life says, “his correspondence breathes trenchant common sense”. About the eruption Finch, who was actually in Catania, gathered all the information he could, and his account sticks to the facts. Altogether he writes to Charles II in the spirit of the Royal Society.

I was therefore interested to find Thomas Vincent’s Fire and brimstone from heaven, from earth, in hell, or, Three discourses I. Concerning the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah formerly, II. Concerning the burning of AEetna, or Mount Gibel more lately, III. Concerning the burning of the wicked eternally, with fire and brimstone (1670). Vincent was a compulsive publisher of his own sermons and moral discourses (here’s a pot calling the kettle black, eh?). He takes Finch’s pamphlet, with its forward-looking discourse, and exploits it for hell-fire and brimstone. He says he was actually prompted by what Finch didn’t say: “The occasion of my Writting these few Sheets concerning these three great Burnings, was the breaking forth of such Flames and Streams of Fire the last Year at the Mouth and sides of Aetna, or Mount Gibel; being willing to take hold of any occasion, especially so sutable as this, to awaken Sinners, that they might endeavour their escape from the future and everlasting burnings of Hell; and this I thought the rather to do, because in the Relation given us of those stupendous burnings of Aetna, the hand of the Lord was not in the least minded, his Name not once mentioned, and no improvement thereof at all attempted by him, or them that drew up the Narrative; which to me seemed a shame, and quickned me (when others who might have done it better were silent) in my endeavours to make some advantage of this Providence for the good of Souls.”

A section like this one following is mainly directly lifted from Finch, with a few biblical references (which might remind us of Milton’s conspicuously volcanic hell): “But that which was most notable in these eruptions, was the stream and flood of fire, which in liqued melted matter, gushed forth at the breaches. We read Isa. 30. 33. Of a stream of Brimstone kindled by the breath of God, which runneth in burning Tophet: Such was the stream of Fire and Brimstone which came forth of this burning Mountain, the flames of it were blew like burning brimstone, the coulour of it fiery red, like melted brasse, the motion of it like Quick-silver; this stream (wherein great stones were seem to swim of the bigness of an ordinary Table) coming forth at the sides of the Mountain, ran down like a mighty torrent, and meeting with a Hill devided it self into two currents, which spread themselves, one of them in some places at least six miles in breadth, and was judged to be fifteen yards in depth. In its progresse this stream ran in, upon a Lake of four fathem Water, and four miles in compass, which it both filled up, and raised a Hill of ragged Stones and Rocks upon it. The composition of this fiery stream was judged to be Sulphur, Nitre, Sal Armoniac, Lead, Iron, Brass, and other Metals, melted with the vehement heat of the fire.”

Where Heneage made no comment, Thomas makes propaganda: “Yea, the Image of the blessed Lady of the Annunciata, (so highly reverenced by the Superstitious Papists, unto which many resorted in Pilgrimage from remote parts) was not spared, whatever power the Intercession of that Virgin Lady hath with her Son in Heaven, for persons here upon the Earth, (as the Papists ridiculously fancy) yet nothing could now avail to secure her Image from being swallowed up by this devouring fiery stream; whereby all may see that there was no difference between the stones of that Image, and those of the other buildings in that place which equally felt the force of the fire.”

Despite making some allusions to the dismay and panic in London at the 1666 great fire, Thomas feels a Protestant population would have coped better: “Had the Christian religion taken place there in the purity and power thereof, it might have born up the spirits of the sincere, and established Christians against overwhelming fear and amazement in all those storms and danger; no wonder if the blind Superstitious Papists, whose worship is mingled with such vanity and Indolatry, be filled with such dread and horrour, especially the more notorious Sinners amongst them.”

Soon he is ranting away (I suspect a certain disappointment with God for making all this smoke without carbonizing a suitable number of sinners): Sicily hath drunk deep of the Cup of Fornication, which is in the hand of the Romish Whore, and God made some of them drink something of the Cup of his Wrath and Indignation: yea, Sodomy it self is of frequent practice in those parts, and God brings ruine like unto that of Sodom upon their houses by Streams of Fire and Brimstone, though through infinite patience their persons were preserved.”

Thomas Vincent does half know that Athanasius Kirchner and Nicholas Steno are establishing what would become geology, but he is having none of it: “Some are of the opinion that there are Fountains of Fire under ground as well as of Water; and that in the bosom and bowels of the Earth, God hath layd up Treasures of this Element, enclosing it in vast Caverns, as in so many Store-houses; which Subterranean Fire they assign to be the cause of hot Bathes, and that Mount Aetna, as also Vesuvius with other flaming Mountains, which Geographers and Travellers tell us are to be seen in all the parts of the World, are the breathing holes of this Fire: but the Scripture is wholly silent of any such work of God there; we read of the Earth, and the gathering together of the waters, and the Fountains of the great deep, but nothing of any Fountains of Fire mingled with either of these Elements; and the laying up of this Element in store, in a place so low, when naturally it tendeth upwards, is not easie to conceive; besides who ever hath descended into the depths of the Earth, to search and find out these depths of Fire?”

Vincent’s main purpose was to expound the Christian message of the eruption. His whole book develops a religious pyromania. The Great Fire of London is strongly on his mind; and for him, the Western world seems to be going up in flames: “These late dreadful Eruptions of Fire and Brimstone from Mount Aetna, should carry our eyes upward unto God the Author hereof. The Lord hath been lately upon the Earth, he hath shown himself in great Majesty; a Fire hath devoured before him, and it hath been very tempestuous round about; a smoke hath gone out of his mouth and Coals have been under his feet; he hath clothed himself with flames, and of late appeared very terribly in these Europaean parts; he hath not only kindled fires in houses and Cities, turning them into ashes and ruinous heaps, but he hath also kindled a fire in a great Mountain, which hath broken forth with a great flame.”

His eagerness to seize on the eruption, and other parts of his book about whether the flames of hell are metaphorical or not, suggest that he is concerned by questioning or outright denial of the existence of hell. Samuel Richardson’s A discourse of the torments of hell: The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end (anonymous in 1658, over Richardson’s own name in 1660) may have come his way. Etna, thoroughly supernatural in Vincent’s account, helps him reinforce belief in the other supernatural flames: his 3rd chapter explains ‘That Hell is a place of Fire and Brimstone’, then follow the categorical pronouncements of chapter 4:

Concerning the properties of Hell-fire.

There are seven properties of Hell-fire.

  • First, It will be a great Fire.
  • Secondly, It will be a dark fire.
  • Thirdly, It will be a feirce fire.
  • Fourthly, It will be an irresistible fire.
  • Fifthly, It will be a continual fire.
  • Sixthly, It will be an unquenchable fire.
  • Seventhly, It will be an everlasting fire.”

This website has other contemporary engravings, at least as vivid as that in Finch, of the 1669 eruption:


Adam Roberts said...

Some of those properties of eternal fire seem to be variations of one another. Or am I missing something? Hellbound, doubtless.

DrRoy said...

Yes, but making the same points over and over does keep you out of the difficulties for theodicy which present themselves when you start making distinctions. As soon as you start mitigating, or doling out the fires of hell differently, the whole beastly notion starts to display its pointless sadism. It is one of those ideas that does not bear thinking about, in more than one sense.