Doctor Mirabilis

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Mirabilis by James Blish.

James Blish Doctor Mirabilis

Although first issued and mostly reprinted under science fiction imprints, Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis is a quite conscientiously historical piece of fiction set in the thirteenth century. Although it’s written in modern English, there are enough Middle Englishisms in it that it might seem like a chore to those who have no prior familiarity with the language of the period, and there are a few short passages of untranslated Latin. It was a fast, enjoyable read for me, but I can’t second-guess how it might read to someone who hadn’t formally studied medieval history. The book stands as part of an alleged “trilogy” (with one of the three parts most often published as two volumes) joined only by theme, rather than plot, character, or even style. This one is probably the strongest, though least-read, book of the set.

The chapters are episodic, and the plot has the nature of a biography, covering the whole of Roger Bacon’s adult life. Other characters are filled out credibly, particularly Adam Marsh, but it’s mostly just Roger’s story. Many 21st-century magicians might be satisfied to read only the chapter about Roger’s alchemical investigations in Paris, if they want to maximize entertainment for time spent.

Blish’s picture of his central character is decidedly that of a scientist–not an inventor/technologist, but a researcher trying to understand the world, and to empirically verify or disprove the ideas about it that have been supplied to him in the hard-to-obtain “commmon” knowledge of his medieval university world. Even without the mass of clinical notions developed since the writing of this book in the 1960s, Blish also effectively presents Roger as a very high-functioning inhabitant of the “autism spectrum.” He’s passionate about knowledge, good with words and numbers, and terrible with people. The upshot of this condition is something nobler than an idot-savant: a tragic hero.

My previous reading on Roger Bacon had never suggested any connection to the Spiritual Franciscans and Joachimism, but Blish is certainly within his rights to imagine one, inasmuch as the conflict within the Ordo Fratrum Minorum could not have been invisible to Roger. The attraction of apocalyptic thinking for pioneering English men of science is well attested in such other cases as John Dee and Isaac Newton, and Blish doesn’t go so far as to make Roger into a Fraticello, but simply one who staunchly credits the possible validity of Joachimist prophecy.

Another feature of Blish’s Roger Bacon is his lifelong dialog with his personal genius, or “demonic self.” This aspect, along with the attention to historical context and the emphasis on the spiritual value of knowledge about the world, makes the book an admirable piece of creative hagiography, especially for adherents of the Gnostic Catholic Church whose canon of saints includes the Doctor Mirabilis. [via]