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ODD TRUTHS: THE SECRET ARTS OF EARLY MODERN TREASURE-HUNTERS

“It is well known that until the nineteenth century, treasure seeking was steeped in magic.”

-Professor Johannes Dillinger

“A very deep meaning lies in that notion, that a man in search of buried treasure must work in utter silence ; must speak not a word, whatever appearance, either terrific or delightful, may present itself.”

from Characteristics of Goethe, vol. II, by Sarah Austin (1833)

The treasure-hunters of early modern Europe were a wild bunch of interloping rogues, antiquaries (crudely speaking), and scholars. They probably had more in common with adventurers in pulp fiction serials than with modern-day archaeologists. Some had criminal backgrounds and honed their skills as grave-robbers and fraudsters. Others were essentially middle class “everyman-types”, burghers such as notaries and merchants who saw prospecting as a profitable hobby. One thing brought these thrill-seekers together, whatever their vocation: the desire for fortune and glory.

The Discoverers of Antiquities (detail) by Hubert Robert. © Musée de Valence, Art et Archéologie.

Illustrations for Walter Scott’s novel, The Antiquary. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpt on divining rods from Isaac D’israeli’s Amenities of Literature, vol. II (1842).

Equipped with trowels, dowsing or “Mosaical” rods, and (sometimes) a treasure-hunting licence, they plundered necropolises, abbeys, and caves hoping to find some rare artefact. To keep evil spirits at bay, the excavators usually had certain spells on hand that could be recited on the fly. These, and other secret arts and rituals were solemnly performed on an ad hoc basis. The spirits were not easily appeased, and this reality, in addition to the dangerous working conditions (loose stones, decrepit ceilings, etc.) meant that every precaution needed to be taken to avoid casualties.

Description of the scholastici vagantes in Viktor Rydberg’s The Magic of the Middle Ages (1879).

  While it is tempting to assume that treasure-hunters only wanted a chest of coins or gems, this was not always the case. Indeed, some prospectors, such as the infamous scholastici vagantes (wandering scholars)  were said to hunt for magical objects. For example, one popular legend from the Middle Ages features a “learned Englishman” who obtains permission from Roger II of Sicily to dig on Virgil’s gravesiteHe ultimately recovers Virgil’s magic book on the ars notoria and spirits it away, angering local Neapolitans in the process:

Excerpt from the essay Virgil in the Middle Ages, which appeared in volume 139 of The London Quarterly Review (1875).

  Another fascinating thing about the treasure-hunters was that sometimes women took part in their expeditions. One such woman was Mary Middlemore (or Midlemore) a maid of honour to Queen Anne, the royal consort of King James I of England. In a special patent granted in 1617, King James himself gives Mary exclusive licence to hunt for treasure troves in various abbeys and monasteries within “the Realme of England”. Unfortunately however, Mary died before she could start her quest.

Excerpt from Foedera, Conventiones et Cujuscunque generis Acta Publica, edited by Thomas Rymer and Robert Sanderson, vol. VII (1727).

English history is full of stories about these kinds of sponsored excursions and misadventures. Continental Europe however, had its own treasure-hunting cultures which were just as quixotic. In fact, the literary romanticisation of treasure-hunting likely owes its origin to a farrago of German folktales and anecdotes. At the time, “Germany” as we know it today was non-existent. The region was composed of loose-knit principalities headed by burgomasters, princes, and councillors. It was however, for various geographical and political reasons, a land of buried mysteries.

To get a better grasp of this history, we spoke to Professor Johannes Dillinger of Oxford Brookes University. Dillinger has written extensively on magic and witchcraft in early modern Europe and (in addition to being the descendant of suspected witches) is the author of a book that has been described as the “first comprehensive history of magical treasure hunting from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century”.

 The Custodian: Can you tell us more about the average treasure hunter’s skills and social background? What were his or her tools? What magical rituals or incantations could this person be expected to perform or have on hand?

Professor Johannes Dillinger: Early modern treasure hunts were magical ventures. In every group of treasure hunters there was an expert magician. He used magic to locate the treasure and to communicate with the spirits that supposedly guarded the treasure—mostly ghosts, at time demons or fairies. Treasure magicians used a variety of tools that could be combined in various ways: An extreme example would be a treasure hunt that took place in Swabia in 1679. The treasure magician discovered the treasure site with a divining rod over which he had said a secret spell. He drew a magical circle with some symbols in it on the ground with a ceremonial sword. He put birch twigs on the edge of the circle. After that he said a lengthy conjuration. Only after this ceremony the other treasure hunters were allowed to start digging in strictest ritual silence.

Early modern British treasure hunters spent considerable sums of money on magical equipment like lead tablets with mysterious characters and spellbooks. There was clearly a market for magical texts and objects.

In contrast to the victims of the witch trials, apart from a very few exceptions, treasure magicians were male. Catholic clergymen and monks were said to be the best treasure magicians, but we also find a great number of vagabonds among them. There were professional frauds who made their living posing as experts for treasure magic.

Dragon image via Internet Archive.

C: You’ve written some fascinating things about the treasure-finding Drache, a household “domesticated” dragon. How did one become a Drache owner? What other things were Drachen supposed to be capable of doing?

J: The connection between dragons and treasures seems to be obvious. The dragons we know best, the dragon in Beowulf or the dragon Fafnir in the Sigur/Siegfried tales possess huge treasures—Tolkien’s Smaug is a parody of that kind of dragon. In early modern sources, especially in witch trials, we find dragons that are quite unlike the medieval monsters. These dragons (called “Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish) are household spirits. This kind of dragon was said to look like a fiery snake or just like a ball of fire with a long tail that throws sparks. These dragons served witches: They brought them money, grain, milk or other readily usable or saleable goods. The owner of such a dragon became rich very quickly and effortlessly. The dragon was said to steal everything it brought to its master or mistress from somebody else. In a way, the dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic.

A wizard and his dragon. Image via Internet Archive.

This might sound like a quaint story. However, in the early modern period, persons who were economically more successful than their neighbours could be said to have a dragon. As only witches had dragons, such rumours could turn into very serious accusations of witchcraft. In the witch trials, the dragon is clearly a demonic figure. It was sometimes said to have sex with witches. You became a dragon owner simply because the dragon or rather the demon had approached you in the first place. Folktales tell a somewhat different story: Here, the dragon might first come to its owner’s house in the form of a little dirty chicken that eventually turns into a monster. Dragons as household spirits seem to occur only in the magical culture of the Baltics, the West Slavic countries and Eastern Germany.

C: To what extent did politics play into the “application process” for obtaining permission to dig in the German principalities? How much leeway did treasure hunters have in negotiating the terms of their excavations?

J: The laws concerning treasure trove are rather complicated. There was a heated and unending debate among early modern jurists about them. In practice, governments were open to negotiations. Treasure hunters enjoyed some considerable leeway. Some governments issued official permits for treasure hunts without demanding a fixed share of the find. Obviously, they did not believe in the existence of the treasure—and their scepticism proved to be justified.

There was—in theory at least—one basic rule: Treasure hunters were not allowed to use magic. Of course, this rule was ignored all the time. If a government or a prince believed in the existence of the treasure, as a rule it or he looked the other way when the treasure hunters used magic. Some treasure hunters said very clearly that a ghost had alerted them to the treasure when they applied officially for a permit to search for treasure trove. Even though this rather smacked of magic—especially in Protestant countries because Protestantism officially maintained that all ghosts were really demons—the authorities would as a rule still issue the permit.

C: Elsewhere you’ve stated that “witch-hunting” institutions in early modern German provinces contributed to state-building and diplomacy. Would you say that treasure-hunting had a comparable role as an organising or revenue-generating force?

J: There was never a full-fledged treasure hunt administration that I am aware of even though some people—Goethe for example—seem to have toyed with the idea. Still, we have to thank the financial interest in treasure trove for the very first steps some rulers took toward what we would call monument protection.

We should see state-sponsored treasure hunts or at least treasure hunts that had officially been permitted by the authorities as rough equivalents to mining or alchemy. My favourite example is duke Friedrich of Württemberg (1557-1608) who tried to improve the economic situation of his impoverished country: He was very interested in mining, he permitted treasure hunts and he invested huge sums of money in alchemical experiments. From our point of view, the money spent on treasure hunts and alchemy was wasted. However, Friedrich and his contemporaries could not yet know that for sure. Princes eagerly competed for the services of the most talented treasure seekers and alchemists. This caused some serious diplomatic frictions from time to time. Again, Friedrich is a good example: At times, the somewhat quick-tempered duke caused considerable irritation when he demanded rather harshly that other princes should extradited alchemists who had not yet fulfilled their contract with him. At one point, Friedrich was accused of kidnapping the favourite alchemist of the king of Poland—a major scandal and a diplomatic disaster.

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