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Monday, September 26, 2005

Sir Kenelm Digby- love, science and wounded dogs

It was whilst listening to the second episode of Radio 4's History of Folly that I heard about the beliefs of Sir Kenelm Digby. Born in Buckinghamshire on 11th July 1603 he was the oldest son of Sir Everard Digby, who was executed for his involvement in the Gunpowder plot of 1605. His childhood playmate was also his future wife, the celebrated beauty Lady Venetia Digby. In 1619 his mother sent him on a Grand Tour of Europe in the hope of keeping him away from Venetia. He had fallen in love with her and although she was of noble birth her lack of money meant that she was considered to be an unsuitable match.

According to his memoirs Digby had all kinds of adventures on the continent. In France he attended a party where he caught the eye of the middle-aged queen mother Marie de' Medici. The next day a messenger escorted him to the queen's home where she tried to seduce him. After making his politest excuses Digby escaped and had it spread about that he was dead. He then went to Florence in Italy where he stayed for two years. In 1623 he went to Spain where he helped in the attempts to negotiate a marriage between the future Charles I and the daughter of the King of Spain. (This marriage never happened and Charles I married a French princess.)

In London Venetia thought that Digby was dead and threw herself into a life of wild parties. She became the lover of several men and had at least one illegitimate child. What she did not know was that Digby's letters to her had been suppressed by his mother. When she finally found out that he was alive she thought the lack of letters meant he did not love her anymore. However after Digby returned to England in 1624 they married in secret, probably in January 1625. They had a very happy marriage, although like many of his aristocratic contemporaries he had several affairs. During the years of his marriage Digby continued to travel, sailing extensively in the Mediterranean in the service of Charles I. All that changed on 1st May 1633 when she was found dead in her bed from a cerebral haemorrhage. Digby was grief stricken and never remarried.

Digby retreated into scholarship and began to conduct scientific experiments. Perhaps motivated by grief he researched ways to revive the dead and became convinced that he had succeeded with stinging nettles and crayfish. You can hear more about that in the radio programme I've linked to above. In 1635 he went to live in Paris where he continued to experiment and converted to Roman Catholicism. At that time England was officially a Protestant country and Catholics were often suspected as enemies of the state. For the rest of his life he petitioned for toleration for Roman Catholics in England.* A brief summary of the final years of his life can be found here.

The radio programme also mentions Digby's belief in the powder of sympathy. Nobody had yet calculated how to measure the earth's longitude. This meant that sailors often got lost and thousands died in shipwrecks. If they could accurately keep track of the time in their home port this would enable them to use the sun's position to work out where they were. Digby brought the following solution back from France:
To apply the Powder to the longitude problem, a wounded dog was to be put
aboard a departing ship, and a trusted individual was left ashore to dip a bit
of the dog's discarded bandage into Sympathy solution every day at a prearranged
hour. The dog could be counted upon to yelp in pain at that instant, thereby
announcing the crucial home-port time to the crew. source
The powder of sympathy was also used on sword wounds. It was thought that if it was sprinkled on the sword sympathetic rays would then beam to the wound and heal it. (You can hear a better explanation on that radio programme.)

*Information for this post condensed from Michael Foster's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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